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In defining the three ages of Bábí-Bahá’í history, Shoghi Effendi named the first the Heroic Age, thus aligning the virtue of heroism and the Bahá’í Faith’s metaphor of historical time, with The Bab as the tragic hero.

Babi Heroism and the Recovery of the Heroic

by Jack McLean

“His life is one of the most magnificent examples of courage
which it has been the privilege of mankind to behold.”

— French Orientalist and diplomat, A.L.M. Nicholas

The Báb as “Master Hero”

In his 1841 collection of typological essays, On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Scottish essayist, satirist and historian, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), devoted one essay to the Prophet Muhammad. While his judgment of the Arabian Prophet and the Qur’án was mixed, and would be decidedly problematic for Muslims, “The Hero as Prophet” vigorously abolished some of the deed-seated prejudices held then about the Prophet and Islam, and showed a progressive spirit by praising both the Holy Book and its Author[1]. Although his descriptor of the prophet as hero has by no means proved unique[2], Carlyle’s was an early and instructive treatment of a major prophet as hero.

Almost a century later, Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith (1922-1957), an admirer of Carlyle’s style, which served him as prose model along with Gibbon[3], intensified Carlyle’s epithet by naming the Báb (Ar. Gate) (1819-1850), one of the twin founders of the Bábí-Bahá’í Faith, a “Master Hero”[4]. Shoghi Effendi’s eulogy of the Báb, while precise, was not explicit. However, it was made within a larger context that envisions Bábí-Bahá’í history as a divine drama in which the polar opposites of triumph and tragedy converge in the heroic.

This essay has the following two main purposes: (1) It sets out some plausible meanings of Shoghi Effendi’s reference to the Báb as a Master Hero. The description of the Báb refers to an ideal type[5] or archetype of divine hero, the Hero-Prophet which is, in the Báb’s case, synonymous with the Martyr-Prophet. The Hero-Prophet/Martyr-Prophet archetype corresponds to a certain typology[6] of the prophetic figure of which the Báb constitutes the sublime paradigm. Inter alia, the vibrant qualities of heroism, self-sacrifice, spiritual passion, saintliness, nobility, purity of heart, meekness, undaunted courage and supernatural power constellate the paradigm. (2) It invites further reflection on the heroic conduct of His slain warriors at the siege of Fort Shaykh Tabarsí (1848-49) near Bárfurúsh (now Babol), northern Iran.

These purposes are achieved through a selective analysis of literary, mythical and religious motifs. This essay validates the Master Hero typology/archetype through a comparison and contrast with the nineteenth century romantic hero, and the tragic hero of the Greek and Shakespearean theaters. The Báb’s martyred warriors, which included some of the “apostolic order”[7] of His Letters of the Living and their companions, collectively called the “dawn-breakers” by Shoghi Effendi[8], are considered in light of one of their properly mythological functions as actors in a sacred story of divine heroes.

The overall effect of the following considerations is to validate the claim that the Báb and His followers, who suffered barbaric cruelty in nineteenth century Shiah Iran, justifiably deserve the title of master heroes. While their story leaves in its wake the mixed impressions of tragedy and triumph, I propose that their lives and deaths have given new rise to the perennial forces of inspiration, awe and wonder that have the potential for a re-enchantment of the world.

The Disappearing Hero and the Disenchantment of the World

The adulation of the hero has virtually disappeared. Postmodernism favours the anti-hero. According to British historian, J.H. Plumb, in his skeptical, anti-heroic essay, “Disappearing Heroes,” heroes are created out of an outmoded mythological mind-set, popular demand and the necessity of historical circumstance. Accordingly, the adulation of the hero corresponds to an adolescent mentality that is on the wane in an age dominated by scientific rationalism, one that has lost touch with the magical view of earlier societies in which heroes emerged as lesser divinities[9]. The hero of the present day and former ages was (is) most often a political/military leader who was (is), as Carlyle wrote in Heroes and Hero-Worship, “The Commander over men; he to whose will our wills are to subordinated...”[10]. With declining nationalism, the mythology of former heroes on which nation-building and nationalism has been staked, has been largely eclipsed.

Historian of the American church, David Hein, made the same point in The Christian Century: “But the current devaluing of heroes may be more than just a passing phase. We may be witnessing the end of a downward spiral: the death of the hero as a feature of Western culture”[11]. Be that as it may, it cannot be said that the Bábí heroes have all but disappeared for the simple reason that they have not, as yet, come fully into view–at least for the generality of mankind. The real question remains: is Bábí heroism worthy of name?

Hein explains further that there are good reasons to be wary of today’s heroes, many of whom have been discredited by the scandal scenario. He offers few solutions for “the recovery of the heroic,” except to express a certain nostalgia found below. The observations of Plumb and Hein have authenticated Max Weber’s reference to the creeping “disenchantment of the world”[12], brought on, in Weber’s view, by an increasingly rationalistic, intellectualized, mechanistic, dehumanized society, while religion and the sense of the magical simultaneously decline, a development the great sociologist had already foreseen early on in the twentieth century. Hein writes:

The hero’s decline is part of the larger process of the disenchantment of the world and the flattening-out of our experience. The landscape of the ancient hero was the rich terrain of myth and legend: east of the sun and west of the moon. Our own realm seems more barren and impoverished without the adventurers and their marvelous deeds[13].
The Heroic Age and the Prophetic Title

It bears on the thesis of this paper that in his periodization of the Three Ages of Bábí-Bahá’í history, Shoghi Effendi named the first age of the religion the Heroic Age (1844-1921)[14], thus creating a close association between the virtue of heroism and the Bahá’í Faith’s first division of historical time. This designation of the Bahá’í Era’s first seventy-seven years is based upon his assessment of “the holocaust which baptized its birth”[15], a reference to the some 20,000 martyrs[16] who gave their lives for the faith proclaimed in 1844 by Mirzá Alí Muhammad Shirází, the Báb. Using the analogy of the theatre play to describe the birth of the new revelation, Shoghi Effendi wrote: “We behold, as we survey the episodes of this first act of a sublime drama, the figure of its Master Hero, the Báb, arise meteor-like above the horizon of Shiráz, traverse the sombre sky of Persia from south to north, decline with tragic swiftness, and perish in a blaze of glory”[17]. The Báb, the preeminent victim of that same holocaust, became the Martyr-Prophet of the new faith.

Other direct references affirm the Báb’s heroism. In The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh, for example, a short but definitive theological treatise that authoritatively established the stations (cf. Persian maqám) of the Three Central Figures of the Bahá’í Faith, and their relationships to one another, Shoghi Effendi alludes to “the youthful glory of the Báb, infinite in His tenderness, irresistible in His charm, unsurpassed in His heroism, matchless in the dramatic circumstances of His short yet eventful life”[18]. Reviewing the momentous beginnings of the Báb’s revelation, he calls the reader’s attention to the “dramatic power ”and “tragedy and heroism” that inspired the remarkable events portrayed by the poet-historian, Muhammad-i-Zarandí, better known as Nabíl–i-A’zam, in his moving chronicle, The Dawn-Breakers:

Little wonder that the immortal chronicler of the events associated with the birth and rise of the Bahá’í Revelation has seen fit to devote no less than half of his moving narrative to the description of those happenings that have during such a brief space of time so greatly enriched, through their tragedy and heroism, the religious annals of mankind. In sheer dramatic power, in the rapidity with which events of momentous importance succeeded each other, in the holocaust which baptized its birth, in the miraculous circumstances attending the martyrdom of the One Who had ushered it in, in the potentialities with which it had been from the outset so thoroughly impregnated, in the forces to which it eventually gave birth, this nine-year period may well rank as unique in the whole range of man’s religious experience[19].
The thoughts and sentiments expressed in the above passages reveal that Shoghi Effendi’s concept of Bábí-Bahá’í history corresponds to a modern definition of intellectual writing that anthropologist Clifford Geertz has dubbed “blurred genres”[20]. In Shoghi Effendi’s view, place must be given in the “objective” record of historical events for strong literary, dramatic and theological elements. In addition to the metaphor of Bábí-Bahá’í history as the “sublime drama,” the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith has elsewhere referred to the world’s rejection of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, and the resultant catastrophic disintegration and simultaneous rise of the old and new world orders, as “the greatest drama in the world’s spiritual history”[21].

I have implied at the head of this section that the epithet Master Hero qualifies as a true prophetic title. In His preeminent doctrinal work, the Kitáb-i-Iqán (The Book of Certitude), Bahá’u’lláh, in resolving the seeming incongruity of the hierarchical names and “excellent titles”[22] by which the Prophets are known, has revealed that these various names express a wide spectrum of divine states shared by them all, ranging from the lowliest of earthly conditions (man/slave/servant) to the sublimest heights of divinity (Godhead), while not withstanding the oneness of the prophets[23]. In light of Shoghi Effendi’s descriptor, the name Hero deserves mention in the sacred litany of prophetic titles. The distinction of the title, Master Hero, lies not only in what it implies, but just as importantly, in the giving of the name itself. While this designation of the Báb has not entirely erased all of the characteristics associated with former heroes, the Master Hero identification rejects any former meanings that are inapplicable to a Manifestation of God, while investing them with higher significances appropriate to the Báb’s unique station.

Priestly Reformers and Mystics Endowed With Divine Strength

The Bábí myth, i.e. sacred story, is no legend and the ‘marvelous deeds’ referred to by Hein above, were born into the full light of modern history, as attested by credible eye-witness, both proponents and adversaries, who participated in the singular contest between the Shah’s troops and the followers of the Báb. Their remarkable deeds are grounded in concrete historical events; the spiritual heroic is reinforced by a historical veracity and realism which lifts the narrative out of the realm of pure mythology. Those Bábís who fought defensive battles in mid-nineteenth century Mázindarán, Nayríz and Zanján in Iran, fit, not only the ancient motif of the warrior-hero, but they also match some salient features mentioned by Carlyle in his essay “The Hero as Priest”: “He presides over the worship of the people,” Carlyle writes. “He is the spiritual Captain of the people...He is the Prophet shorn of his more awful splendour”[24]. Among the Letters of the Living (Hurúf-i-Hayy), one priestly reformer and a singular mystic capture our attention.

Mullá Husayn, the Báb’ul-Báb, and Mullá Muhammad-Ali, titled Quddús, the highest ranking Letters of the Living who fought at Fort Shaykh Tabarsí, enjoy quasi-prophetic status[25]. Here the categories, like the genres chosen by Nabíl and Shoghi Effendi to preserve their histories, become blurred. The hero-warriors who so skilfully wielded the sword were as accomplished with the pen, figured among the learned, preached stirringly, and composed erudite theological treatises, like Quddús’s lengthy quaranic commentary on the Sád of Samad. They chant prayers during the respite from battle[26].

Quddús, while he was theologically trained, does not fit the priestly model. He is rather the ‘árif, the mystic, solitary, self-effacing, independently-minded. While he attended a Shaykhi school in Mashad, like other Bábís, and afterward studied with Siyyid Kázim in Karbila, he wrote little while there, and left the school before the siyyid’s death to attend to the family business. To avoid drawing attention to himself, he arrived late to lectures and left early. He preferred Sufi dress and practice[27].

The high regard echoed by Shoghi Effendi, and the poet-historian, Nabíl, for the Letters of the Living and their companions is found in some of the Báb’s later writings. Scholar of Babism, Denis MacEoin, wrote that “ his later works the Báb describes the Letters of the Living explicitly as the return of the Prophet, the twelve Imáms the four gates (abwáb) who succeeded the Twelfth Imám (later rejected in Bahá’í theory)and Fatimá.”and in the Kitáb-i-Panj Sh’an (The Book of the Five Stations), Mullá Husayn is identified as the “throne of the point of the Qur’án,”” i. e, Muhammad[28]. Similar remarkable statements are made about Quddús in the Báb’s writings[29]. The theological implications of such statements are profound and need to be worked out in light of the pervasively theophanic universe which surrounded the Báb. In any case, Emerson’s skeptical remark in his Uses of Great Men that “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”does not apply here[30]. The Bábís were anything but boring.

The Master Hero and the Romantic Hero

“Sublime drama....meteor-like...tragic swiftness...perish in a blaze of glory.” These phrases of Shoghi Effendi are characteristic of nineteenth century romantic diction. However, the Báb is no romantic hero whose best-known prototype is the Byronic, antithetically mixed villain-hero. Seen positively, Frederick R. Karl’s interpretation of the romantic hero emphasized “...simple purity, natural goodness of heart and action, and basically Christian morality, a hero who was an aristocratic Christian knight in modern dress”[31]. Again, some of the descriptors apply. Bahá’u’lláh has said of the Báb that “He was afraid of no one; He was regardless of consequences”[32]. His brief but telling statement underscores the Báb’s indomitable courage with its utter disregard for His own safety. This complete abandon and total commitment to a cause is one of the traits associated with the romantic and heroic soul.

With His aristocratic bearing, prophetic lineage, purity of heart, beauty of character and unflinching courage, Bahá’u’lláh’s Herald is a larger-than-life charismatic figure, possessed of extraordinary eloquence, who displays supernatural powers, such as the ability to reveal copious divine verses and to perform miraculous healings. With such a rare combination of attributes, the Báb represents the perfected prototype of eloquence, charisma and divine might, one that, unlike the Olympian gods and heroes, does not stoop to share in their sins and foibles. Such flaws caused literary figures, such as the great tragedian, Euripides, to subject them to a life-long barrage of ridicule and hostility.

In contrast to the Master Hero, the romantic hero presents some attractive but also disturbing features, such as the Byronic excesses and the sickly “...sense of corrupt failure”[33]. Peter L. Thorslev’s instructive study of the Byronic hero details well the history and development of the eighteenth and nineteenth century hero types, and their heightened intellectual and emotional traits. Byron’s prototype is Childe Harold, the romantic rebel, “...the first important Byronic Hero, and the prototype of all the rest”[34]. But this heightened sensibility, emotional volatility, and extreme self-absorption, create a figure who is repulsive as well as fascinating. Daring and non-conformism may be admirable in the person of sensibility, but not at the cost of emotional, moral and spiritual anarchy. Philosopher Bertrand Russell made the following critique of the romantic movement’s standard of values which he arguably distinguished from romantic psychology:

It is not the psychology of the romantics that is at fault: it is their standard of values. They admire strong passions, of no matter what kind, and whatever may be their social consequences. Romantic love, especially when unfortunate, is strong enough to win their approval, but most of the strongest passions are destructive–hate and resentment and jealousy, remorse and despair, outraged pride and the fury of the unjustly oppressed, martial ardour and contempt for slaves and cowards. Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism, especially of the Byronic variety, is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant[35].
Needless to say, these features grossly belie the Báb’s nobility, meekness and moral perfection.

The Báb and the Tragic Hero

The phrase Master Hero is perhaps an intentional and careful avoidance of the more familiar phrase “tragic hero.” The tragic hero is, of course, associated with the Greek and Shakespearean theaters best exemplified by Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and MacBeth. The word “Master” invalidates a fully tragic reading to Shoghi Effendi’s theatrical analogy. Yet the martyrdom of the Báb remains forever synonymous with high tragedy: “It can, moreover, be regarded in other light except as the most dramatic, the most tragic event transpiring within the entire range of the first Bahá’í century”[36]. But for all this, Shoghi Effendi presents the martyrdom of the Báb as a divine event that ultimately triumphs over the seemingly overwhelming circumstances into which Providence had placed Him. Like Jesus, He suffered a martyr’s death; but like Jesus, his religion grew to fruition in spite of it. Although the Báb and His followers became innocent victims in a horrendous campaign of civil and ecclesiastical persecution, both He and the faith that He proclaimed rose from the dust into which they had been crushed.

His miraculous but momentary escape from execution in the late morning of July 9, 1850 by a regiment of 750 rifles in Tabriz was the last demonstration of that invincible power[37]. Affirming His inviolability to the farrásh-báshí (attendant) who had come to escort Him to the place of execution in the barracks square, thereby interrupting the final conversation with His secretary, Siyyid Husayn, the Báb affirmed: “Not until I have said to him all those things that I wish to say can any earthly power silence Me. Though all the world be armed against Me, yet shall it be powerless to deter Me from fulfilling, to the last word, My intention”[38]. Despite this solemn declaration of omnipotence, the Báb was hung from the barracks wall with His companion Anís. Once the order to fire had been given, and the thick smoke from the regimental rifles had lifted, Anis was seen standing alive and unhurt in front of the barracks wall, and the Báb and His secretary were subsequently found back in their cell, engaged in finishing the conversation that had been forcibly interrupted. With His conversation finally ended, and His earthly mission nearly complete, the Báb consented to the order of execution.

As if anticipating the sceptic’s doubt, Shoghi Effendi penned these words describing the miraculous event that took place that day in Tabriz:

So strange, so inexplicable a phenomenon, attested by eye-witnesses, corroborated by men of recognized standing, and acknowledged by government as well as unofficial historians among the people who had sworn undying hostility to the Bábí Faith, may be truly regarded as the most marvelous manifestation of the unique potentialities with which a Dispensation promised by all the Dispensations of the past had been endowed[39].
In the end, the Báb willingly submitted to the divine decree which, as He Himself had attested, was His greatest longing. In the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá (The Self-Subsisting of All Names), which Bahá’u’lláh described as “the first, the greatest, and mightiest of all books”[40], and addressing His successor, He wrote: “O Thou Remnant of God_ (baqíyyatu’lláh). I have sacrificed myself wholly for Thee; I have accepted curses for Thy sake, and have yearned for naught but martyrdom in the path of Thy love”[41]. Bahá’u’lláh was no less emphatic about the triumph of the Báb’s cause despite “the avalanche of calamities which swept down upon the Faith and the people among whom it was born”[42]. His comment was unusually pointed: “The whole world rose to hinder Him, yet it utterly failed”[43].

According to Aristotle’s Poetics, the sense of the tragic should inspire the emotions of fear (awe) and pity (compassion): “We feel pity for a man who does not deserve his misfortune; we fear for someone like ourselves”[44]. However, if “good men” suffer a change from prosperity to misfortune, this produces shock. The tragic character is “ between the other two; a man who is neither outstanding in virtue and righteousness , nor is it through wickedness and vice that he falls into misfortune, but through some error of judgment (harmatia),”often translated as “tragic flaw”[45]. Downfall could also occur through hubris (exaggerated pride), a common theme in the Greek tragedies and mythologies.

Unlike the tragic hero who brings about her own downfall and/or demise, the Báb remains sinless, fully serene, confident and self-possessed, even in the face of oncoming death. Again, like Jesus, He addressed the “gazing multitude” as He hung suspended with His devoted companion[46]. His words came, not as a balm of mercy and forgiveness from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”(Luke 23:34). This time they were measured according to the stricter standard of divine justice:

O wayward generation! Had you believed in Me every one of you would have followed the example of this youth, who stood in rank above most of you, and would have willingly sacrificed himself in My path. The day will come when you will have recognized Me; that day I shall have ceased to be with you[47].
Because of harmatia, one of Aristotle’s requirements for tragedy, it would have been wrong for Shoghi Effendi to have referred to the Báb as a tragic hero. As was noted above, the Poetics stated that the fall or demise of a virtuous person does not constitute tragedy. Since the Báb’s virtue is perfect, it would not, consequently, meet Aristotle’s criterion for the tragic hero. His death remains, nonetheless, fully tragic in the following sense: were they accepted, the Báb’s life and teachings offered to humanity the key to salvation, but this shining path was rejected: “Content with a transitory dominion, they have deprived themselves of an everlasting sovereignty”[48]. This pervasive sense of loss corresponds in the Greek or Shakespearean tragedy to what A.C. Bradley described as “...the impression of waste”[49].

The tragic hero is unable to refrain from those character flaws and actions that bring about his or her downfall. The Master Hero suffers and dies through the faults of others. This innocence does not make His case any less tragic. It invites, rather, a revised understanding of tragedy. While the martyrdom of such a precious being is tragic enough, still more tragic is the loss of potential that comes with His rejection. Both the individual and humanity remain trapped in the self-destructive patterns of the past; the opportunities for personal and collective transformation are lost. Here is another meaning of the waste which Bradley mentions.

With the Báb, and later with Bahá’u’lláh, the cause of the rejection of the Divine Manifestation shifts to the Muslim clerics, their followers and state officials who misunderstood the symbols and allusions of the holy books, and thereby caused the death of the promised Qá’ím. Their guilt is not nearly so ambiguous as the tragic hero’s. The locus of blame falls primarily on the Muslim clergy, who have been stigmatized in a number of harsh condemnations in the Kitáb-i-Iqán[50], although the kings and rulers addressed by Bahá’u’lláh’s have not been exempted either. The hubris that brings about the fall of the hero/heroine in Greek mythology has its direct parallel in the history of religion. The rejection and persecution of the Prophets, Bahá’u’lláh tells us, is motivated by a deleterious nexus of social and spiritual factors, including appalling ignorance, the lust for power, and galling pride on the part of the clerics: “In leadership they have recognized the ultimate object of their endeavour, and account pride and haughtiness as the highest attainments of their heart’s desire”[51]. The people are likewise accounted as being foolish for their blind imitation (taqíya) of their clerical leaders.

The Siege of Fort Shaykh Tabarsí: Mythological Elements of Heroism

Any discussion of the mythological elements in The Dawn-Breakers or God Passes By excludes, of course, stereotypical, reductive, definitions of myth as pre-scientific, naive explanations of natural phenomena. Scholars, like the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, have identified two basic types of myths: (1) the cosmogonic, referring to the origin of the universe (2) the hero/savior myth. In this last category, Campbell included various prophets, without fully endorsing the theological doctrines justifying religious savior figures[52]. Shoghi Effendi’s and Nabil’s presentation of the Bábí struggles, which are epitomized by the combat at the shrine of Shaykh Tabarsí in Mázindarán (1848-49)[53], clearly exhibit features of the second type. One further refinement of the “species of myths” identified by the respected Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye, is a “myth of redemption” which is closely allied to type (2)[54].

The mythological element in Shoghi Effendi’s and Nabíl ’s depiction of the dawn-breakers corresponds to two of seven functions of myth identified by professor of modern religious thought, Russell T. McCutcheon, i.e. “tales of heroes” and “myths as truths”[55]. “Tales of heroes” is, of course, synonymous with Joseph Campbell’s category of the hero/savior myth. McCutcheon’s article takes a position now widely-held that invalidates Plato’s neat but overly simplistic opposition of logos and mythos in the Republic (398a, 568a-c) which he bifurcated into the truth and the lie respectively. Shoghi Effendi’s and Nabíl’s portrayal of the dawn-breakers is mythical in the sense of “...a story that is sacred to and shared by a group of people who find their most important meanings in it”[56]. In the military actions of the Bábís, who greatly distinguished themselves in their resistance to the army of the Shah, a basic parallel may be drawn with the heroes of classical antiquity. The classical hero was respected for displaying great courage in the face of danger or threat to life. The Greek hero was honoured at a shrine (herÇon) and was promoted after death to semi-divine status[57].

The same applies to the 313 Bábís who, from within their fortified shrine fourteen miles south-east of Bárfurúsh (Babol), fought against two regiments of infantry and cavalry that were encamped beyond seven barricades[58]. The army was led by Prince Mihdí-Qulí Mírzá, commander of the army of Mázindarán, and a brother of Muhammad Shah. The length of the contest itself indicates the remarkable resistance shown by the defenders; the government forces seriously underestimated their capability. Hájí Mustafá Khán-i-Turkamán, a military advisor to the young seventeen year old Shah, Násiri’d-Dín, estimated that the Bábís would be defeated “within the space of two days,” whereas the siege actually lasted eleven months[59]. The same advisor reported that the army the Shah had intended to despatch to Mázindarán was not required since only “a small detachment of that army will be sufficient to wipe them out”[60]. The lightly armed defenders on horseback, commanded by Quddús, and led by Mullá Husayn, while they were pinned down, had the advantage of mobility and surprise attack. The encamped government troops and their commanders were at times completely unnerved by the fiery zeal and indomitable courage that steeled their opponents.

The repeated skirmishes eventually took their toll on the companions. From the time of their arrival in Bárfurúsh in October 1848, to the death of Mullá Husayn in February 1849, seventy-two Bábís had died. The Shah’s troops intensified their attack as the defenders watched their own numbers gradually dwindle. One of the army’s commanders, Ja’far-qulí Khán, ordered four towers to be built, one on each corner of the fort, causing cannon fire to rain down on the interior of the stronghold which the defenders attempted to evade by digging underground trenches in the soggy ground[61]. Their clothes rotted off their flesh in the mud and the damp. After the death of Mullá Husayn, and after suffering from months of near starvation, Quddús finally agreed to the offer of a truce after a sworn promise of safe-passage was signed by the Prince in the pages of the Qu’rán. The sacred oath was precipitously violated. Most of the Bábís were massacred, including their leader Quddús, while others were sold as slaves. A verbal report from Abbás Qulí Khán, one of the joint-commanders of government troops, has survived which attests to the remarkable swordsmanship of Mullá Husayn, and the ferocity of the companions when counter-attacking[62].

While the dawn-breakers are fearsome, awe-inspiring, even magical, they are nonetheless real, their divine status notwithstanding. Mullá Husayn’s cutting in two of the tree, the man and his musket, with one stroke of the sword, is not to be taken as intentional hyperbole in order to supplement the Bábí chronicle with an alleged miraculous event that will serve hagiographical purposes[63]. The feat of Mullá Husayn, who was never trained in any of the arts of war, as reported by his enemy and eye-witness, commander Abbás Qulí Khán, is presented as fact[64]. It becomes all the more remarkable in light of Shoghi Effendi’s allusion to the Muslim cleric’s “..fragile frame and trembling hand....”[65]. All this is meant to underscore the supernatural power that inspired the Báb’s earliest believers. Here religion, myth and history all coincide.

Shaykh Tabarsí, already the shrine of a Muslim saint, becomes a de facto Bábí shrine. Mullá Husayn’s arrival at the shrine-fortress, the day after a premonitory dream by its custodian, which foretold the arrival of the Imám Husayn with seventy-two warriors, and a large number of his companions, that included eventually the Prophet of God himself, “...engaged in the most heroic of battles...”, is presented by Nabíl as the arrival of a venerated hero: “When Mullá Husayn arrived on the following day, the guardian immediately recognised him as the hero he had seen in his vision, threw himself at his feet, and kissed them devoutly”[66].

The mythologization of the exploits of the dawn-breakers helps to serve the vital sociological function of the creation and maintenance of an emergent religious community’s identity through the selection and portrayal of the words and deeds of its spiritual ancestors. God Passes By and The Dawn-Breakers have become vast repositories of sacred memories from which generations of future Bahá’ís may continue to derive, not only fresh inspiration, but orientation for further historical research.

Sociologist of religion Thomas F. O’Dea’s observations on the mythical language of religion also apply to Shoghi Effendi and Nabil’s particular brand of Heilsgeschichte (salvation history). Mythological language makes “..a dramatic assertion, not simply a rational statement”[67]. O’Dea refers to an incisive explanation of philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) that throws light on the language of sacred history as myth. Cassirer writes:

The world of myth is a dramatic world--a world of actions, of forces of conflicting powers....Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere--an atmosphere of joy and grief, of anguish, of excitement, or exultation or depression. Here we cannot speak of “things” as dead or indifferent stuff. All objects are benignant , friendly or inimical, familiar or uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening[68].
The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s distinction between “primitive myth” and “permanent myth” is useful here to differentiate pre-scientific from properly mythical expression. The primitive myth is rendered absurd by scientific analysis. The permanent myth determines the human being’s orientation to the Absolute or the Divine Power or powers that determine one’s existence[69]. Shelly scholar, Ross Woodman, has observed that myth, understood this way, is essential to the Bahá’í Faith: “Mythos as a narrative of a god brings us face to face (“the Face of God”) with another order of reality beyond the human...Mythos ultimately requires the spirit of faith that transcends rational knowledge...If mythos disappears, so does Bahá’u’lláh”[70]. The permanent myth of the Master Hero as Prophet is archetypal (arché + typos, Gk. “stamped from the beginning”). Historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, considers the archetype in its Augustinian sense to be an exemplary model or paradigm[71]. If the Báb qualifies in any sense as an archetype, it would have to be as the preeminent model of the Divine Hero; the one who constitutes the ideal paradigm.


Both coherency and incongruity may be found in the martyrdom of the Báb, and the sacrificial deaths of the Bábí warriors, when compared to the ancient mythologies of divine heroes, to dramatic theater, including certain prototypes of the romantic and tragic heroes. The narrative of the Báb, and the remarkable exploits of His warriors, which constitute the last episode of legitimate, defensive jihad, bring to modernity awe-inspiring stories that are firmly grounded in concrete historical events. In the Bábí chronicles, history and myth do not cancel each other out. The various motifs discussed above serve to affirm the triumph of the human spirit over great adversity, and death itself, through an abiding, prophetic, transcendental power.

It seems fitting to conclude these thoughts with the words of the French orientalist and diplomat, A.L.M. Nicholas, who chronicled the episode of the Báb. His tribute reflects, not the mythological language of the divine hero, but rather the biblical language of the “suffering servant” (ebed Yahweh) of Isaiah 53. For Nicholas, the Passion of the Báb cannot be disassociated from that other Messiah who offered Himself up for the salvation of the sinner: “He sacrificed himself for humanity; for it he gave his body and his soul, for it he endured privations, insults, torture and martyrdom. He sealed, with his very lifeblood, the covenant of universal brotherhood. Like Jesus he paid with his life for the proclamation of a reign of concord, equity, and brotherly love”[72].

  • This paper is dedicated to my old friend, Todd Lawson, Associate Professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto, who has accomplished ground-breaking work in the field of Bábí studies. I would also like to thank historian, Ahang Rabbani, who very generously answered all my queries about Bábí-Bahá’í history.
  1. Carlyle both praised and criticized all the heroes that he analyzed. On balance, Carlyle leaves a favourable impression of Muhammad. His judgment of the Qur’án is more severe, forgivable perhaps in a great writer who was reading it in translation, and who saw no coherence in the various surahs which he called “a wearisome confused jumble.” He names the holy book’s primary qualities “genuineness” and “sincerity,” and calls it “fervent” and “earnest.” Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero-Worship. Essays on Goethe (London and Paris: Cassell, 1908) 66, 67-68.
  2. In his seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), mythologist Joseph Campbell includes Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha and Jesus in his rich analysis of the stages of “Departure,” “Initiation,” and “Return” of the mythological hero. Following Campbell, David Adams Leeming in Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero includes Abraham, Moses, David, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Krishna and Muhammad in his eight stage journey in the life of the hero. See The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1949, reprint 1972) and Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero (Philadelphia, New York, Toronto: J.P. Lippincott, 1973).
  3. Rúhíyyih Rabbaní (1910-2000), Shoghi Effendi’s wife and personal secretary, wrote that Shoghi Effendi “greatly admired” the styles of Carlyle and Gibbon, particularly Gibbon whom he read avidly. The Priceless Pearl (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1969) 37-38.
  4. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, intro. George Townshend, rev. ed. (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974, 1999 printing) 3
  5. This does not refer to the Weberian “ideal type” but rather to a state of perfection characterized by a divine, personal self-consciousness or selfhood present in the Báb as the Divine Word.
  6. Typology or typological symbolism has at least two meanings in religion. In Christianity it is closely tied to allegory and refers to a study of “types” and “figures” that were used to interpret the coming of Christ in light of the laws, events, practices and people of the Hebrew Bible. In the academic study of religions, it refers to a method of analysis and classification according to type.
  7. God Passes By 56.
  8. See Muhammad-i-Zarandí (Nabíl–i-A’zam), The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation, trans. from the original Persian and edited by Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1962).
  9. J.H. Plumb, “Disappearing Heroes” in Horizon 16:4 (Autumn 1974) 49-51.
  10. Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero-Worship 181.
  11. David Hein, “The Death of Heroes, the Recovery of the Heroic,” Christian Century, Dec. 22, 1993, n.p.
  12. In “Science as a Vocation” (1918-1919) Weber wrote: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946) 155.
  13. Hein, “The Death of Heroes, the Recovery of the Heroic.”
  14. Shoghi Effendi also called this period the Apostolic Age and the Primitive Age but his most frequent usage was the Heroic Age. For the synonymous use of the all three designations, see God Passes By xiii. The seventy-seven years of the Heroic Age corresponds to the lifespan of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921).
  15. God Passes By 3.
  16. A few scholars have questioned the accuracy of the number of martyrs quoted as being too high. The figure was estimated neither by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá nor Shoghi Effendi. It is based on a figure quoted by the self-aggrandized Mírzá Taqí Khan Siphir, court historian to Nasiri’d-Din Shah, in his Násikhu’t-Taváríkh (The Abrogation of All Histories). It is based on Siphir’s estimate of the number of Bábís killed. It has been speculated that Siphir inflated the number to please the Shah.
  17. God Passes By 3.
  18. See “The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh” in The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters, new ed. (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974) 97.
  19. God Passes By 3.
  20. This key phrase is from Geertz’s famous essay “Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought,” the first essay in the anthropologist’s Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983). One of his key observations was an increasing tendency toward genre-mixing between the social sciences and humanities by which the interpretive text-analogical approaches of literary critics have challenged some of the central assumptions of mainstream social science.
  21. The Promised Day Is Come (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1941; rev. ed. 1980), 12
  22. “Verily no God is there but Him. His are the most excellent titles.” The Báb, Selections From the Writings of the Báb, comp. by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, trans. Habib Taherzadeh and committee (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1976) 160.
  23. Bahá’u’lláh The Kitáb-i-Íqán:The Book of Certitude, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, IL., USA: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2003). See ¶ 31, 32, 106, 110, 161, 162 and especially 191-98.
  24. Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship 111.
  25. The word “quasi” is an important qualifier. No imputation of prophethood is being made.
  26. The Dawn-Breakers 357. Sad is a letter of the Arabic alphabet. Samad (eternal/everlasting) is a term that appears in the Qur’án, Surah 112, Surah Tawhid, “The Unity,” which is one of the most crucial Islamic scriptures. It is thought to encapsulate the very essence of Islamic monotheism. It consists of only four verses: “Say: He is God alone:/God the eternal_/He begetteth not, and He is not begotten;/And there is none like unto Him.”
  27. The information on Quddús is taken from Ahang Rabbani’s provisional translation of the unpublished biography Kitáb-i-Quddúsiyyíh (Book of Quddús) by Shaykh Ibrahim Kirmání.
  28. Denis MacEoin, “Hierarchy, Authority, and Eschatology in Early Bábí Thought,” in In Iran, Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History, vol. 3, ed. Peter Smith (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1986) 105 and n. 65, 143.
  29. MacEoin, “Hierarchy, Authority, and Eschatology in Early Bábí Thought” 110.
  30. Quoted by J.H. Plumb without page reference in “Disappearing Heroes” 51.
  31. Frederick R. Karl, “Graham Greene’s Demonical Heroes” in The Contemporary English Novel (New York: The Noonday Press, 1962) 85.
  32. Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán ¶ 257, p. 230.
  33. Frederick R. Karl, “Graham Greene’s Demonical Heroes” 86.
  34. Peter Larson Thorslev, The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962) 128.
  35. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945) 681.
  36. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 55.
  37. See 52-55 of God Passes By for the account of the martyrdom of the Báb.
  38. God Passes By 52.
  39. God Passes By 56.
  40. The Kitáb-i-Íqán ¶ 258.
  41. The Báb, Selections From the Writings of the Báb 59.
  42. God Passes By 36.
  43. The Kitáb-i-Íqán ¶ 262.
  44. Aristotle, On Poetry and Style (The Poetics), trans. with an introduction by G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis and New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1958) [1453a], 24.
  45. The Poetics, [1453a], 24.
  46. God Passes By 53.
  47. God Passes By 53.
  48. The Kitáb-i-Íqán ¶ 15.
  49. A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: MacMillan and Company, 1961)16
  50. For the condemnations of Muslim clerics see ¶ 15, 28, 89,90, 91, 96, 144, 203-209, 233, 236-237.
  51. The Kitáb-i-Íqán ¶ 28.
  52. See n. 2.
  53. Shaykh Ahmad ibn-i-Abí-Tálib-i-Tabarsí “...had been one of the transmitters of the traditions ascribed to the imáms of the Faith....” The Dawn-Breakers 343 and n. 3, 343. The shrine was visited by Professor Edward G. Browne of Cambridge University on September 26, 1888 and described in detail in his A Year Among the Persians. The description is reproduced by Shoghi Effendi in n. 3, 343-44 of The Dawn-Breakers.
  54. Frye’s myth of redemption refers to “... some phase of life during or after this one....” See Words With Power: Being a Second Study of The Bible and Literature (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1990) 23.
  55. Russell T. McCutcheon, “Myth” in Guide to the Study of Religion, eds. Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon (London and New York: Cassell, 2000) 194 and 197.
  56. Wendy Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) 2 quoted by McCutheon 199.
  57. W.F. Jackson Knight, Elysion: Ancient Greek and Roman Beliefs Concerning Life After Death (London: Rider and Company, 1970) 59-60.
  58. God Passes By 41. However, The Dawn-Breakers reports that Prince Mihdí-Qulí Mírzá commanded “three regiments of infantry and several regiments of cavalry” 365.
  59. The Dawn-Breakers 360. In view of the king’s youth, the direction of affairs was left to the Amír Nizám, Mírzá Taqí Khán.
  60. The Dawn-Breakers 360.
  61. The Dawn-Breakers 393, n. 2.
  62. The Dawn-Breakers 413-14, n. 2.
  63. Shoghi Effendi writes that Mullá Husayn slew “...a treacherous foe who had taken shelter behind a tree, by cleaving with a single stroke of his sword the tree, the man and his musket in twain.” God Passes By 40. The victim had killed an unnamed siyyid from Yazd who was one of the “staunchest supporters” of Mullá Husayn. The Dawn-Breakers 330.
  64. The Táríkh-i-Jadíd (106-9) reports that Prince Ahmad Mírzá had questioned Abbás Qulí Khán about the incident who vouched for its veracity while he praised the fortitude of the Bábís. The Dawn-Breakers 413-14, n.2.
  65. God Passes By 40.
  66. The Dawn-Breakers 344.
  67. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Sociology of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966) 41.
  68. Quoted by O’Dea in The Sociology of Religion 42. From Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1953) 102-3.
  69. Reinhold Niebuhr “The Truth in Myths,” cited from Eugene G. Bewkes ed., The Nature of Religious Experience (New York: Harper, 1937) 117 ff.
  70. From an e-mail exchange with the author on the nature of myth as it applies to the Bahá’í Faith. July 7 and 8, 2002.
  71. Comsos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, trans. Willard Trask (New York: Harper and Row, 1959) ix.
  72. A.L.M. Nicolas, Siyyid Alí-Muhammad dit le Báb (Paris: Librairie Critique, 1908) 203-4, 376. Quoted in The Dawn-Breakers, 514-15, n. 2.
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