The Bahai faith was adopted by tens of thousands of people in late 19th-century Persia. These conversions probably began on a small scale some time between 1280/1864 and 1283/1866. In 1279/1863 the prominent Babi Bahāʾ-Allāh, while in exile in Baghdad, had declared himself to a very small group of close disciples and relatives as the messianic figure (man yoẓheroho ʾllāh
) whose advent had been predicted by Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī, the Bāb. Bahāʾ-Allāh subsequently encountered opposition from his younger half-brother Ṣobḥ-e Azal (see azali babism), whom many Babis had accepted as the leader of the community. In many of his writings, issued from exile in Edirne in the late 1860s, Bahāʾ-Allāh used Babi texts to prove his own claims, and the first major audience he addressed in his new role of prophet appears to have consisted of Babis in Persia who were dissatisfied with Ṣobḥ-e Azal’s rather secretive leadership. Typical of Bahāʾ-Allāh’s works in these years is the letter Sūrat al-aṣḥāb
(Surah of the companions), which contains mystical imagery, ethical exhortations, and instructions on how to proselytize and evokes symbols concerning the end of time. Many such letters were disseminated throughout Persia by couriers drawn from the ranks of Bahāʾ-Allāh’s close friends and followers, like Moḥammad “Nabīl” Zarandī and Najaf-ʿAlī Zanjānī, who was executed by Persian authorities around 1284/1867 (for Bahāʾ-Allāh’s works from his Edirne period, see 1348 Š./1969, IV, esp. “Sūrat al-aṣḥāb,” pp. 205-39).
Examination of developments in the community in Shiraz, the home of the Bāb, affords a glimpse of the shift among Babis to Bahāʾ-Allāh. The Bāb’s own relatives, except for one nephew who converted under the influence of the Bāb’s widow, Ḵadīja Begom, in the 1850s, had remained Shiʿite Muslims. In 1278/1862 a maternal uncle, Sayyed Moḥammad Šīrāzī, visited Bahāʾ-Allāh during a trip to the Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbalāʾ. In answer to his questions about Babism Bahāʾ-Allāh wrote Ketāb-e īqān (Book of certitude), which prompted Sayyed Moḥammad to convert to Babism. Gradually other members of the Bāb’s family in Shiraz became Babis. As they constituted a prominent merchant clan, operating a trading empire that eventually extended from the interior of Persia throughout the Persian Gulf and as far as India and China, these relatives, the Afnān, played an influential role in spreading the new religion.
Not long after Bahāʾ-Allāh moved to Edirne he sent Nabīl to Persia on a missionary journey. Nabīl stopped at Shiraz, where he convened a meeting of the Babis, including the Afnān, and publicly burned Ṣobḥ-e Azal’s writings, declaring those of the Bāb and Bahāʾ-Allāh alone to have the status of scripture. Prominent members of the Afnān were for a time troubled by this development but finally decided in favor of Bahāʾ-Allāh, who had been responsible for their conversion and with whom they had stronger ties. Nabīl went to Isfahan and then traveled to Khorasan, where he repeated his performance. The Afnān who adopted the Bahai faith were supported by a preacher from Yazd, Moḥammad-Ebrāhīm Yazdī, who also converted fifty or sixty members of a clan of Kāzerūnī tailors in Shiraz. Their presence added a certain boisterousness to Bahai meetings, to which the Afnān were unaccustomed (Afnān, pp. 168-83).
From early Bahai manuscripts it appears that sayyed (claiming descent from the Prophet Moḥammad) merchants played an extremely important leadership role in bringing the Babis into the Bahai faith. Aside from the Afnān, the Nahrī family of Isfahan, wealthy merchants of sayyed background who had adopted Babism in the 1840s, emerged in the 1870s as mainstays of the Bahai community in Isfahan. Two Nahrī merchants were martyred on the orders of a leading mojtahed in 1297/1880 (Samandar, pp. 179-80; Ešrāq-e Ḵāvarī). Another important family was the Bāqerāf (Baqerov) of the Sādāt-e Ḵamsa clan of Rašt, merchants with large property holdings and sayyed lineage who enjoyed international trading contacts (ʿAmīd-al-Aṭebbāʾ, passim). The Afnān and the Nahrīs probably originally adopted Babism out of genuine conviction, but later membership in Babi and subsequently in cosmopolitan Bahai society became an ideological expression of their elite status as sayyeds and of their independence from the government and the Shiʿite clerical establishment. Most Babis and Bahais were not themselves sayyeds or merchants but came from families of urban artisans and shopkeepers, yet it was the sayyed merchants who most often emerged as community leaders, having ties of patronage with the petty-bourgeois and working-class Bahais, in addition to the common religion.
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