Early Western Accounts of the Babi and Baha'i Faiths
by Moojan Momen
Bahá'í (and Bábí) Faith, Early Western Accounts of The Bábí movement created a great deal of turmoil in Iran, thus it soon aroused some interest in the West also. Initially news of the movement reached the West through newspaper accounts and traveler's reports, while the western governments received information from their diplomatic staff.
The first known account of any of the events relating to Bábí and Bahá'í history was the report sent by the British consul in Baghdad, Major Henry Rawlinson, to the British Foreign Office relating to the arrest and imprisonment of Mullá `Alí Bastámí in early 1845. The first published account was that of proclamation by the Báb of his mission in Mecca and the arrest and punishment of four of the Báb's disciples in Shiraz, and the arrest of the Báb. This account appeared in The Times of London on 1 November 1845. Other important early accounts include those of Lady Mary Sheil, the wife of the British Minister in Tehran, in her book, Life and Manners in Modern Persia (London, 1856, pp. 176-81, 273-82); Dr Jakob Polak in Persien. Das Land und seine Bewohner (Leipzig, 1865, p. 350) as well as the reports sent by the foreign diplomatic representatives resident in Iran, Lt-Col. Justin Sheil, the British minister, Prince Dimitri Dolgorukov, the Russian minister, and Joseph Ferrier, the French agent. Most of these early accounts described the Bábís as violent revolutionaries and socialists--which no doubt reflected both the official Iranian government account of the movement and the prejudices of the writers.
It was the appearence of the book Les Religions et les Philosophies dans l'Asie Centrale (Paris, 1865) by Arthur, Comte de Gobineau (q.v.) which more than anything else served to bring the Bábí movement to the attention of the West. This book, together with Mirza Kazem-Beg's book, Bab i Babidui (St Petersburg, 1865), which also came out in French translation in the Journal Asiatique in 1866, gave rise to a large number of articles in many of the well-known magazines of Europe and North America (for a list of these, see BBR 23-26). So great was the coverage given to the new religion that, in 1871, the well-known writer and critic Matthew Arnold was able to say that Babism was a movement "of which most people in England have at least heard the name." (BBR 25)
The interest in Babism remained in literary circles for some time. The French writer Jules Bois says that: "among the littérateurs of my generation, in the Paris of 1890, the martyrdom of the Báb was still as fresh a topic as had been the first news of his death. We wrote poems about him. Sarah Bernhardt entreated Catulle Mendès for a play on the theme of this historic tragedy." (BBR 50) References to the Báb and the Bábís began to appear in some of the literature of the time, such as in the Portuguese novelist Eça de Queirós' A Correspondencia de Fradique Mendes(Lisbon, 1889, pp. 48-54), the French writer A. de Saint-Quentin's Un Amour au Pays des Mages(Paris, 1891), and the poem by the Austrian Marie von Najmajer, Gurret-ül-Eyn: ein Bild aus persiens Neuzeit (1874). This literary interest was continued into the twentieth century in such works as E.S. Stevens' novel The Mountain of God (1911) and the Russian writer Izabella Grinevskaya's dramatic poem entitled Bab (1903).
During the second half of the nineteenth century, a great many travelers to Iran published accounts of their journeys. Several of these contain some interesting information about the Bábís and Bahá'ís. Among the more important of these accounts were by the Italian Michele Lessona, I Babi (Turin, 1881), the Pole Aleksandr Jablonowski in articles published in Blucz in 1871 and Gazeta Polska in 1875, the Spaniard Adolfo Rivadneyra, Viaje al Interior de Persia (Madrid, 1880-81, vol. 1, p. 244), and the French woman Mde Dieulafoy, La Perse, la Chaldee et la Susiane (Paris, 1887, pp. 77-87).
News that the Bábí movement had, for the most part, transformed itself into the Bahá'í Faith was slow to reach the West. There were a number of early reports of Bahá'u'lláh's pre-eminence, most notably that of Dr Thomas Chaplin, published in The Times on 5 October 1871, and of Laurence Oliphant, published in the New York Sun on 10 December 1883. There were also some references to the change that was happening among the Bábís in Iran, the first published reference being probably in Arthur Arnold, Through Persia by Caravan (1877, vol. 2, pp. 34-5); but there does not appear to have been any general appreciation of the full significance of this change until the researches of E.G. Browne (q.v.) and the arrival of the Bahá'í Faith in the West in the 1890s.
After Gobineau's book, interest and coverage of the new religion reached a second peak during the time of `Abdu'l-Bahá's journeys to the West (1911-1913). Newspaper and magazine articles covered his journeys in a great deal of detail.
A more detailed survey of this subject appears in BBR 3-65. Full bibliographic details of the works referred to above can be found there. For newspaper and magazine coverage of `Abdu'l-Bahá's Western journeys, see AB 144-371; and Ward, 239 Days.