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Dying for God:
Martyrdom in the Shii and Babi Religions

by Jonah Winters

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Chapter 3



      Since the occultation of the Mahdi and, more importantly, the development of the belief that he would return, the Shii community has been in what Seyyed Hossein Nasr has called "a state of perpetual expectation."[122] This anticipation of his immanent return, combined with the acute awareness of the injustices which withheld the original rightful rulership from the Shii community and which forced the imam to occult in the first place, both came to affect every aspect of Shii belief and culture.

      These two themes in combination lent Shiism a unique dynamic that characterizes much of Shiism's history. The Shii communities have on the one hand tended to be politically quietistic, postponing much political activity until the Mahdi comes to lead them.[123] The various Muharram rituals, in which the audience engages in a high level of emotional expression, can been seen as catharses by means of which potentially rebellious sentiments can be released through channels other than actual revolution.[124] At the same time, the Shii religio-cultural ethos expressed in these rituals, and the powerful emotional undercurrents they betray, are kept vital and ever-ready to boil over into action. In the occasional times when Shii communities have been roused to take political action, the strength of the internalized religiosity characteristic of Shiism has tended to erupt powerfully--Shii communities rarely rise to action, but when they do, they can rise to near-revolution. Moojan Momen calls this dialectic "a strange paradox" which has lent Shiism "an extraordinary political versatility." He explains:

Those who wish to lead the Shii masses can, if the opposition seems overwhelmingly superior or it is expedient to do so, enjoin upon the Shiis the patient endurance (mazlumiyyat) of the imams. And yet when the opportunity seems right, the Shii masses can be whipped up to the frenzy of revolution by appeal to the spirit of the uprising (qiyam) of Husayn.[125]

      The relevance of these themes to martyrdom revolves around two differing approaches to suffering. On the one hand, the course of action epitomized by the behavior of the imams is patiently and quietly to endure suffering, for only the Mahdi will be able to rectify the community's abasement. On the other hand, the course of action epitomized by Husayn is unwillingness to submit to tyranny, but instead intractably to refuse to be oppressed and even revolt to the point of sacrificing one's own life.

      This dynamic between an acute sensitivity to the need to correct injustices tempered by the necessity of waiting for the true leader to appear, all resting on a readiness to rise to revolution, has created a unique messianic environment in Shiism. Claimants to Mahdi-ship have not been infrequent, and their claims often were taken quite seriously, both by their followers and their opposers. Such claims began to be propounded even before the occultation of the twelfth imam, most significantly Muhammad al-Hanafiyya in "Mukhtar's revolt" of 685 C.E. and Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (the "pure soul") in the eighth century. During the imamate of Jafar al-Sadiq (ca. 700-765), the sixth imam and the most significant systematizer of Shii thought and identity, the doctrine of the messianic Mahdi became a more universalized and distinctive feature of Shiism.[126] A few notable movements initiated by self-proclaimed Mahdis as well as many ineffectual ones have been launched in the millennium since the sixth imamate. Most significant are those of Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abd Allah and his Mahdiyah movement, which helped found the nation-state of the Sudan, and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani whose Ahmadiyah movement is, besides the Babi and Bahai religions, the only religion claiming new Prophethood since Muhammad to have achieved significant socio-religious success.[127] In 1844 a young merchant from Shiraz inaugurated what came to be the most influential and successful of all new religious movements arising out of the Shii milieu: the short-lived but highly eventful Babi movement.

      An examination of the meanings of martyrdom in this religion presents some unique challenges. First, the thought of the Bab cannot be addressed directly, for very little of his writing has been translated or is even available in the primary source languages.[128] (The case of the Bahai Faith is quite different. Numerous publications and manuscripts--indeed, perhaps a hundred volumes--of Baha'ullah's writings can be found by the diligent researcher, as well as a few studies by contemporary Western scholars and historians.) Second, there is very little historical scholarship available to use as a starting point: only two dedicated histories of the Babi movement have been published: H.M. Balyuzi's The Bab and Abbas Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal. Third, a great deal of primary source material has been destroyed throughout a century and a half of systematic persecution and opposition by the Iranian government. Finally, the bulk of the primary source material which is extant--letters, memoirs, and court documents--is in Iranian governmental archives, or hidden in the homes of Bahais in Iran, or is in safekeeping in the international Bahai archives in Haifa. All of these collections are currently inaccessible.

      Lacking these sources, the researcher is confined to a large extent to examining the little historical material of the Babi religion available and extrapolating belief and behavior therefrom. This project will examine three incidents in Babi history to determine the practice of martyrdom in and the meanings of suffering for the Babism: (1) the uprisings of Tabarsi (1848), Zanjan (1850), and the two at Nayriz (1850 and 1853); (2) the martyrdom of the Bab (1850); (3) some isolated instances of martyrdom. Along with a historical analysis, examining these events as reflected in the statements, writings, and attitudes of the Babis will provide further clues into their meanings for Babism.

      There is no history of the Babi movement of appropriate depth and neutrality to use as a starting point here. Balyuzi's The Bab and Nabil's The Dawnbreakers are each detailed, but partisan and almost wholly devoid of dates. On the other extreme, Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal is lengthy and exhaustive, and provides far too much detail and analysis to be allow the casual reader to determine a summary of the period. All of the general histories of the Babi and Bahá'í religions devote only a page or two to the period. Moojan Momen has analyzed the available sources to produce a chronology of the Babi movement and especially persecutions of Babis, but with no descriptive details. Only Mangol Bayat's Mysticism and Dissent provides a summary of Babi history of appropriate length and depth, but the relevant sections of this work are interspersed with commentary extraneous to a period summary, and the book is not familiar to or accessible by many readers. As well, not one of the above works, save Momen's chronology, is without subtle or evident bias either for or against the Babi movement. Thus, a highly telescoped and comparatively neutral summary of the history of the Babi movement shall be provided here; this will provide the necessary background for the subsequent examinations of the Babi attitudes about martyrdom.[129]


      A Shii religious teacher from Saudi Arabia named Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (1725-1826) developed a fair following beginning around the end of the eighteenth century. Al-Ahsa'i lived during the beginnings of the Usuli-Akhbari dispute, in which the Usulis (from usul al-fiqh, legalism) emphasized the importance of following the rulings of the priestly caste--the uluma--in all matters of faith and practice and the Akhbaris (from akhbar, traditional teachings) avowed that only the imams had the authority to dictate doctrine. Al-Ahsa'i offered a third option, teaching that one could not rely uncritically on either the authority of the ulama nor of hadith. Religious knowledge must be received directly from divine sources. However, since for al-Ahsa'i God is wholly unknowable, it is through the prophets and the imams that knowledge of God's will and attributes can be achieved. Following this is the notion, central to al-Ahsa'i's teachings, that prophecy would not end. He explained this concept by analogy to the shape of the letter waw, or vav. As written, the letter consists of two consonants with a long 'A' between them: [non-ascii script],. The first consonant stands for Muhammad, the final prophet in the Adamic cycle. The letter 'A,' standing in the middle, represents the Mahdi, or Qa'im (qa'im literally means "standing). The final consonant signifies the return of Husayn as a new prophet.[130] As al-Ahsa'i and his successor, Siyyid Kasim Rashti, were careful not to make explicit predictions about the Return, their exact teachings on the matter can not be determined exactly.[131] They did, however, offer many allusive hints to the imminence of the Return.[132] Nabil, regarded as the official historian of the Babi period, reports that "no less than ten persons" related to him that, shortly before his death on December 31 1843 or January 1 1844,[133] Rashti told his followers "Soon...shall He who is the Truth be made manifest...Would you not wish me to die, that the promised One may be revealed?"[134]

      Rashti refrained from appointing a successor, leaving the Shaykhis to seek a new leader. One of his followers, Mulla Husayn of Bushruyih, was wandering the streets of Shiraz on May 22 1844 when he came across a twenty-four year old sayyed (descendent of Muhammad) who invited him home for dinner.[135] This young man, Sayyed Ali Muhammad, later announced to Mulla Husayn that he was the one foretold by Rashti. "I am the Bab, the Gate of God," he proclaimed.[136] While the full extent of his claims was not made fully clear until 1848, there was little doubt that he was at minimum assuming the role of vicegerent of the hidden imam (this being the evident implication of the term bab) and was likely claiming far more. The Bab declared that he would wait until seventeen more disciples came to him and then would make pilgrimage to Mecca and there publicly announce his station. By the end of that summer all eighteen disciples had come, and he sent them off on a variety of proclamation missions.[137] He chose one disciple, Quddus, to make the pilgrimage with him, and directed Mulla Husayn to deliver a letter ("tablet") to "a secret" residing in Tehran. This "secret" proved to be Mirza Husayn Ali, later Baha'ullah, who upon receiving the letter from the Bab declared his acceptance of it as of "Divine origin."[138] Mulla Husayn rushed this news back to the Bab, who upon receiving word of Baha'ullah's support immediately departed for Mecca.[139]

      Another disciple, Mulla Ali Bastami, was directed to proclaim the new bab to the Shaykhis and at the Shii shrines of the imams in Iraq, where he arrived and began preaching in August-September 1844. Rather than quietly announce the Bab to the potentially receptive Shaykhi community, Bastami spoke openly and boldly, almost as if he were seeking confrontation.[140] He was soon arrested on grounds of blasphemy and sent to Baghdad where, after being held in prison for three months, he was placed on trial in January 1845. The trial focused on the Qayyum al-Asma (Qayyum al-Asma') the Bab's first major work which Bastami had brought with him as proof of the advent of the Bab. This was, as reported by British diplomat Major Henry Rawlinson, "unanimously condemned as a blasphemous production, and parties avowing a belief in [it]...were declared to be liable to the punishment of death."[141] The presiding ad hoc judges disagreed on a sentence, the Sunnis calling for death and the Shiis calling for imprisonment or banishment.[142] He was returned to jail, and in April was deported to Istanbul on the orders of the Turkish government, where he was submitted to forced labor and died in late 1846.[143] The assessment of this event as passionately expressed by Nabil is often found echoed in other Babi and Bahá'í works: Bastami "earned the immortal distinction of having been the first sufferer in the path of this new Faith of God, the first to have laid down his life as an offering on the Altar of Sacrifice."[144]

      In December 1844 the Bab and Quddus arrived at Mecca, where the Bab performed the customary rites of pilgrimage. After completing these rites, one account records that the Bab stood against the Kaaba, the most sacred spot of Islam which Muslims believe was erected by Abraham as perhaps the earliest place of worship, and loudly declared "I am the Qa'im whose advent you have been awaiting."[145] While this particular report is problematic,[146] there is little doubt that the Bab did at least proclaim his mission to other public figures, such as the governor of Mecca, and Mirza Muhammad Husayn Muhit Kirmani, one of the contenders for leadership of the Shaykhi party. After an uneventful sojourn in Medina, the Bab returned to his one-time home of Bushihr in the spring of 1845. Remaining in Bushihr, he sent Quddus back to Shiraz with, among other instructions, the injunction to have the name of the Bab included in the formula call to prayer. In June a Babi named Mulla Sadiq Muqaddas did so, arousing thereby a great civil disturbance and consequently the ire of the authorities of Shiraz. Quddus, Muqaddas, and one or two other Babis were promptly arrested, tortured, and expelled from the city. The governor ordered the arrest of the Bab, who at this point was already on his way back to Shiraz.

      The Bab was ordered to appear at a mosque and publicly clarify his station, at which time he forswore any claim to be either "a representative of the imam or the gate thereof."[147] For the next year the Bab was confined to a relaxed house arrest under the care of his uncle, who signed as his bondsman. Here, in relative peace, he was able to consolidate the Babi community and direct the movements of his disciples around Iraq and Iran on their tours of proclamation. In September 1846 the governor of Shiraz, alarmed by the growing presence of the Babi community, ordered his arrest. However, that very night the sons of the arresting officer were stricken with cholera and, in exchange for miraculously healing them, the Bab was allowed to avoid arrest if he promised to leave the city.

      The Bab left Shiraz and headed north to Isfahan, where he sought shelter at the house of the governor, Manuchehr Khan. Here he spent a very uneventful six months, but on the death of Manuchehr Khan in February-March 1847 his source of shelter was removed. Many of the leading divines of Isfahan, similar to those in Shiraz, had signed a death warrant against the Bab and his heresies. As in Shiraz, a lack of unanimity amongst the ulama stayed this ruling, but the Bab was nonetheless not fully safe here.

      Partly for his safety and partly with the aim of seeking a meeting, the Shah ordered an escort to bring the Bab north, to Tehran. However, the Shah's Grand Vizier and spiritual consultant, Haji Mirza Aqasi, was determined to prevent such a meeting, perhaps because he feared that a favorable reception of the Bab by the Shah would threaten Aqasi's prominent position, and perhaps also because Aqasi knew of the civil disturbances the Bab's appearances tended to cause. When the Bab had neared Tehran, Aqasi sent word countermanding the Shah's order summoning him. The Bab and his escort camped at Kulayn, about thirty miles south of the city, where they remained some weeks. In April official word came from the Shah that the Bab's invitation had been revoked, and the Bab was ordered instead to the castle prison at Mah-Ku, a remote town in the extreme far north-western corner of the country. After a forty day stopover in Tabriz, where the Bab was received with great public excitement, he and his escort arrived at Mah-Ku in July 1847.

      The Bab was to remain in this prison for the next nine months, during which time he produced some of his major writings. The warden of the prison was said to be strict and rigid for the first few weeks, not only disallowing the Bab any visitors but even preventing any of his followers from staying in the nearby town. However, after witnessing a miraculous vision of the Bab,[148] the warden unexpectedly relented and began allowing the Bab to communicate freely with his followers, including Mulla Husayn who arrived in March 1848, after journeying on foot the 1,200 miles from Khurasan to visit him. The warden became so taken with the Bab that he even pleaded with him the following year to marry his daughter. Haji Mirza Aqasi, hearing of the Bab's relative freedom and the extent of his activity, and partly at the request of a Russian minister who was alarmed at the possibility of disturbances so close to the Russian border, ordered the Bab moved again. Around April 10 1848, he was transferred to Chihriq, another prison one hundred miles south, farther from the Russian border.

      While the Bab was in prison at Mah-Ku, other noteworthy events were happening elsewhere. During the year of 1847 the Bab's disciple Tahirih had been busy openly preaching the new religion. She lived and preached in Baghdad and Karbala during 1846, in Hamadan in mid-1847, and in Qazvin, where she arrived around August or September.[149] In all of these places the unheard-of uniqueness of a woman preaching and the added embarrassment of her spreading heretical doctrines earned Tahirih large audiences and an even larger reputation. Due partly to long-time family disputes and largely inspired by Tahirih's Babi prominence and her alleged anti-Islamic immoralities, Tahirih's eighty year-old uncle Mulla Muhammad Taqi--who for a time had been strongly opposed to Shaykhism and Babism and had been denouncing them from his prominent position as mujtahid of Qazvin--now began criticizing the two movements even more vehemently. One dawn in October[150] a Babi sympathizer killed Muhammad Taqi for his relentless verbal attacks on the Shaykhis and Babis. Though the murderer confessed and openly denied any Babi involvement, a wave of anti-Babi persecutions in Qazvin and Tehran quickly followed. About forty of the more active Babis, including Baha'ullah, were soon arrested, and three of them put to gruesome and public deaths--the first Babi martyrs in Iran. The actual murderer survived and was able to remain in hiding for a time. Tahirih escaped Qazvin and hid in Tehran for a time before leaving for Khurasan and Badasht.

      As at Mah-Ku, the warden was initially very strict with managing the Bab's imprisonment, but within a few months began to feel well-disposed towards the Bab and grant him a certain leniency in meeting with his followers. In July 1848, after the Bab had been at Chihriq for three months, Haji Mirza Aqasi once again became alarmed at the Bab's ability to turn wardens to his side and hold open communion with the Babis. Aqasi summoned the Bab to Tabriz to clarify his claims before a jury of religious leaders. Amanat calculates that the trial at Tabriz was intended to have two effects: to expose the Bab to some of his more vocal critics and thereby impress upon him the unwisdom of continuing to forward his claims, and to solidify Aqasi's own authority with the ulamas by allowing them the opportunity publicly to discredit the Bab.[151] The trial dissolved into a farce, with the Bab using it as a means to proclaim his new movement and his status as Qa'im even more explicitly than before.[152] As before, a warrant for his death was issued but did not receive unanimous support. The Bab was physically punished and returned to Chihriq in August, where he remained until shortly before his execution in July 1850.

      During the two years of the Bab's imprisonment in Chihriq, his followers were very active in their travelling and public proclamation. In the spring and early summer of 1848 the Bab began directing his followers towards Khurasan. Partly because of this and largely at the direction of Baha'ullah, many of the Babis gathered at a garden near the town of Badasht, in north-eastern Iran at the end of June. This conference is regarded as the chief consolidating event of the Babi movement, for during its three weeks the participants discussed the issues of attempting a rescue of the Bab and the significance of the Bab's revelation and the specific nature of his claims, and adopted a number of principles and actions which effected a decisive break with Islam. Shortly after the conference ended, the Babis, upon being attacked and dispersed by a nearby group of villagers, departed and went separate ways.

      Many of the scattered Babis traveled east to Mashhad to meet with Mulla Husayn. Here, at the instructions of the Bab, they raised a Black Standard--signifying the advent of the Mahdi--and began a long march back west to free Quddus, who at this time was in custody in Sari, west of Badasht. The number of Babis who joined this march grew to the point that their presence was regarded with fear or even hostility by the villages they passed. By the time they reached the area of Barfurush, near the city in which Quddus was being held, opposition reached such a point that they felt required to stay their journey there and defend themselves. On October 12 1848 they began constructing a fortress around the shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi. Other Babis gradually joined the crowd in the small fortress, until by the end of the year their number had risen to 313. In retaliation to the now clear challenge to civil authority, as symbolized by the Black Standard, imperial forces began a siege of Tabarsi in December. The next five months witnessed a prolonged battle between the Babis and the many troops sent to subjugate them. On May 10 1849 the 202 Babis still alive finally surrendered, most of whom were then killed on the spot, tortured leisurely, or sold into slavery.

      Starting around mid 1847--coincident with the beginning of the Bab's officially-enforced imprisonments--alarm over the increasing prominence of the Babi movement and extremism of its message and the concurrent increasing boldness of the Babi evangelists led to frequent clashes between Babis and both the populace and government authorities. Of the many clashes, two besides the siege of Tabarsi stand out: the siege of Zanjan and the first uprising of Nayriz.

      In Zanjan, just northwest of Qazvin, a leading cleric named Mulla Muhammad Ali, known as Hujjat Zanjani (the Proof of Zanjan), a convert from mid-1845, began more openly to publicize the religion. By the middle of 1850 Hujjat had converted so many that the city became fragmented along partisan lines. When government troops were sent to control the situation on May 19 1850, Hujjat and perhaps as many as 3,000 companions took shelter in a nearby fort, where they held off wave after wave of besieging troops and their five sets of reinforcements before surrendering on January 2 1851. At the same time as the Zanjan upheaval was beginning to take shape, a similar though much shorter-lived incident was brewing in Nayriz, far to the south. Sayyed Yahya Darabi, known as Vahid (Unique), was another early and prominent convert. On May 27 1850 he entered the city of Nayriz and delivered from the mosque a rousing proclamation. He quickly received promises of support from numerous followers and new converts. When the inevitable opposition arose, this time in the form of one thousand mercenaries under the command of the governor, Vahid and seventy-two followers retreated to an old and ruined fortress nearby and held off their opponents. Reinforcements were sent, this time from the governor-general of the province, and both sides engaged in heavy fighting through the first two weeks of June. Finding little military success, the besiegers offered a truce and invited Vahid out to settle a truce. He agreed, and was persuaded to write a letter to the defenders still inside the fort assuring them that a settlement had been reached. When they emerged on June 21 they were captured and many were executed. Vahid was publicly tortured and executed eight days later.

      A fourth event, relatively minor in scale but momentous for Babi thought, occurred during this time. At the beginning of 1850 it was reported to Prime Minister Taqi Khan--fallaciously according to Hamadani, accurately according to Haji Mirza Jani[153] --that Babis in Tehran were planning a fresh rebellion. In February fourteen or thirty-eight Babis were arrested and imprisoned (some sources say that orders were given to arrest thirty-eight, but only fourteen were caught; others give that all were arrested), and informed that all who renounced Babism or repudiated any connection with the movement would be allowed to go free. All but seven of these recanted, or, in Nabil's words, "were compelled to yield to the pressure that was brought to bear on them."[154] On February 19 or 20 all seven were executed one at a time. These are known as the "Seven Martyrs of Tehran," and will be discussed in further detail below.[155]

      By the end of the 1840s events were coming to a head: Muhammad Shah died on September 4 1848, and the state of the nation began undergoing the transitional chaos typical of changes of authority in Iran; the Babis were preaching more openly and boldly and with ever-increasing success; the Babi example was feared to be encouraging opposition by other malcontents against the existing spheres of religious and civil authority, previously held in check; and the Bab was no longer hedging his claims but was advocating his new religion with increasing bluntness. In one of his last letters, written in late 1849, he wrote an open call to the ulama: "it is incumbent upon you to either accept this course or to default your own religion and reject the authority of the Qur'an," he wrote.[156] Nasir al-Din and Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir (the "Great Amir"), the new Shah and his new prime minister, needed to reduce political unrest to a minimum, and neither the suppressions of Tabarsi, Zanjan, and Nayriz nor the sporadic executions of prominent Babi leaders had proved sufficient to quiet the Babi movement, the main source of political unrest. It thus came as a surprise to no one, and especially not the Bab, when his execution was ordered.

      The Bab's execution was a pivotal event for Babi and Bahai history and especially for later Bahai theology. Though still poorly appreciated by Bahai thought, it is almost as crucial to an understanding of the Babi and Bahai religions as the crucifixion of Jesus is for Christianity and the death of Husayn for Shiism. The martyrdom of the Bab is rarely given a comprehensive portrayal: Muslim sources are anxious to explain away and downplay the events observed at his martyrdom, while Babis and Bahais emphasize the miraculous nature of the events as proof of the divinity of the Bab's mission--indeed, an unusual incident at his martyrdom is the only miracle in all of Bahai history consistently emphasized. Since Amanat provides a full recounting of the event, even though he is the only one to have done so, the need for a full examination here is thereby obviated.[157]

      When Muhammad Shah died, Nasir al-Din Shah was but seventeen years old and wholly inexperienced. Mirza Taqi Khan was, for all intents and purposes, the ruler of the country. To remove the Babi threat, in June 1850 Taqi Khan ordered the Bab moved from Chihriq to Tabriz, eighty miles to the east, and began attempting to secure an order for his execution. Though not all those in power agreed with this ruling, Taqi Khan eventually succeeded in getting the ulama to ratify the death penalty. The Bab was given a last chance to retract his claims, and refused. The mujtahid Mamaqani, one of three clerics whose signature on the death warrant was sought, showed how intolerable the Bab's claims were in saying "There is no need for my fatwa [ruling], these heretical claims that you make are themselves standing as your fatwa."[158]

      The Bab instructed his immediate companions at this time to keep themselves safe--even if dissimulation was necessary to do so--and thereby be able to report the events which were to follow.[159] All complied save a young Babi mulla, Mirza Muhammad Ali Zunuzi, a devotee since 1848. The day preceding his execution Zunuzi begged of the Bab not to permit them to be separated, so the Bab agreed to allow Zunuzi to suffer martyrdom with him. Taqi Khan, intending by the Bab's execution to dissolve the Babi insurrection once and for all, ordered the execution to be held in full public view. A public execution would also prevent the Babis from following the Shii precedent of the twelfth imam and claiming that the Bab was not dead but in occultation. At noon on July 9, the Bab and Zunuzi were brought into a semi-public square at an army barracks and suspended, tied together, from a column along one wall.

      Many seem to have had hesitations about executing the Bab. First, Taqi Khan had considerable difficulty securing the order for the Bab's death, no doubt partly because many of the civil and religious authorities feared Babi reprisals, fears which later events proved justified. Further, there was a marked reluctance to kill a descendent of the Prophet, as attested by numerous civil leaders who refused to authorize the various edicts for his execution from the ulama. A clear example is the response of the provincial governor of Chihriq who, when ordered to deliver the Bab to Tabriz, equated this order with the order given to murder Imam Husayn twelve hundred years before: "I am neither Ibn Ziyad nor Ibn Saad that [Taqi Khan] should call upon me to slay an innocent descendant of the Prophet of God."[160] Finally, a regiment of 750 Armenian Christian soldiers under command of Sam (or Samsam) Khan Urus recruited for the execution seems to have expressed a certain unwillingness to follow the orders of Taqi Khan. Sources tend to portray Sam Khan as a Christian who entertained "no ill will" against the Bab and was "unwilling" to kill him, saying "If your Cause be the Cause of Truth, enable me to free myself from the obligation to shed your blood."[161] One source, however, the unpublished history of the turn-of-the-century Bahai writer Haji Muhammad Mu'in al-Saltana, says that he was a convert to Islam,[162] which if true could lend weight to the account of his hesitancy for the same reasons voiced by the provincial governor.

      Finally the ruling was ratified, the firing squad was ready, and the Bab and Zunuzi were tied to the wall. Almost all sources agree on the next event: on Sam Khan's order the 750 soldiers fired; the heavy smoke of these now old-fashioned guns filled the air; when the smoke finally cleared Zunuzi was standing on the ground, unharmed, and the Bab had disappeared.[163] The shots had had no more effect than to sever the ropes from which they hung. A common speculation is that Sam Khan, who had already expressed serious misgivings about his orders, instructed his regiment to miss on purpose. There is no evidence either to support or contradict this. However, it must be remembered that these muskets, pre-modern as they were, were notoriously inaccurate.[164] Even were they instructed to miss, a miracle could still be claimed in that, of 750 shots fired from across a square, none accidentally hit the Bab or Zunuzi. Even had the soldiers been ordered to fire at the ropes just above the heads of their target, and if only one percent of the soldiers accidentally hit or their muskets been sufficiently inaccurate, the Bab and Zunuzi would still have received enough bullets in the head to kill them. Further speculation (many points of consideration could be raised here) would be fruitless.

      Some sources claim that the Bab then ran in panic to the nearest available room or even, in his confusion, to the guardhouse. Nabil, however, says that he was found in a nearby room in the barracks, finishing a dialogue with his secretary, Sayyed Husayn Yazdi, which had earlier been interrupted. Husayn Yazdi later explained that he was explicitly instructed by the Bab to hide his affiliation with the Bab and thereby remain safe for the sake of reporting the events. It is thus most probable that some or most of the eyewitness information on which Nabil relied in constructing his account was based on Husayn Yazdi's information, which thereby lends strong support to Nabil's version. The Bab was brought back out--either willingly or unwillingly, depending on the account--and suspended again. Babi sources are unanimous in that the Christian regiment, convinced by this miracle to refuse to repeat the episode, left and was replaced by a willing Muslim one.[165] No other sources mention a change of regiment, however.[166] The Bab now addressed the crowd, admonishing them for not having accepted his Cause, but few could hear and understand what he said.[167] The soldiers fired again, this time successfully.

      The execution of the Bab did not have its desired effect, for the ensuing years were full of turmoil. Whether due to the personal grudges and insatiable zeal of the authorities, as depicted by Babi and Bahai sources, or to the fanatical and heretical insurrectionism of the Babis, as depicted by Muslim sources, all agree in their depiction of an atmosphere of mutual distrust where clashes broke out frequently and Babis would be, in the words of Abdul Baha, "on the slightest suspicion arising, put to the sword" and "more than four thousand souls were slain."[168]

      The final and key event which marks a certain capstone of the period was exactly the kind of incident the authorities most feared and hoped to avoid by executing the Bab. Two years after the martyrdom of the Bab a small group of Babis, motivated to action by the continuing sporadic persecutions of the Babis, undertook to assassinate the Shah.[169] E. G. Browne, summarizing the account told to him "by the nephew of one of the three Babis actually engaged in the plot," writes that the "conspirators were originally seven in number," but four withdrew at the last minute.[170] On August 15 1852, these three approached the Shah who, possibly supposing them to be advancing with some business in mind, allowed their approach. A certain Sadiq Tabrizi fired shot (i.e. a projectile of small pellets) at him, but this proved to be an ineffectual weapon and he was only knocked from his horse, mildly harmed. Tabrizi then rushed to him with sword drawn, intending to finish the assassination, when the Shah's guard stopped and killed him.[171] Reprisals against the Babis followed quickly. Within the month numerous Babis were arrested and tortured to death. While the actual numbers of Babis killed was rather low, perhaps less than a hundred, the killings were, in the eyes of the victims and Western observers, sufficiently random, cruel, and unjustified that this period is marked in Bahai thought with a profound stigma.[172] Shoghi Effendi expresses the Bahai summation of the ensuing persecutions in terming the period an "unimaginable tumult," a "reign of terror" which "was revolting beyond description," and even a "holocaust."[173]

      The next two months witnessed sporadic killings of Babis, culminating the following year with a second uprising at Nayriz which ended in November 1853, with the deaths of another two hundred Babis. After this the persecutions dwindled. The Babi community was splintered and demoralized; its effective head Baha'ullah exiled to Baghdad in 1853; its titular head Subh Azal (Mirza Yahya, Baha'ullah's half-brother) in hiding, and as of July 1853 also in Baghdad; and most of the letters of the living, the Bab's original eighteen disciples, dead. For the remainder of the decade Babi activities in Iran remained considerably subdued, with Baha'ullah quietly consolidating the Babi community in exile in Baghdad and unobtrusively laying the theological and social foundation for the future Bahai religion.

Notes to this chapter

[122] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Expectation of the Millennium (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), x.

[123] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 150.

[124] Said Amir Arjmand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order, and Societal Change in Shi'ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 241.

[125] Momen, Shi'i Islam, 236. Ayoub argues that it was exactly because of this readiness to rise in revolt that the imams abstracted the doctrine of the Return to the point that it was forbidden to speculate on the time, place, and manner of his parousia. Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 218.

[126] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 14.

[127] Most of the world's ten million Ahmadis agree that, though Ghulam Ahmad was both the Mahdi and as well a new prophet, the Ahmadiya movement should nonetheless be considered a non-heretical branch of Islam and not a new religion. See also Yohanan Friedmann, Prophecy Continuous: Aspects of Ahmadi Religious Thought and Its Medieval Background (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). More Mahdi movements are detailed by Douglas S. Crow, s.v. "Messianism, Islamic," in Encyclopedia of Religion. Sikhism, the only other major post-Muhammadan religion, does not claim new prophethood as starkly as does the Bab.

[128] The only significant writing of the Bab translated into English is Habib Taherzadeh, trans., Selections from the Writings of the Bab (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1976). A. L. M. Nicolas translated three of the Bab's major works into French: Le Livre des Sept Preuves, translated in 1902; Le Beyan Arabe, trans. in 1905; and Le Beyan Persan, trans. in four volumes between 1911 and 1914. The Qayyum al-Asma, the Bab's earliest major work and one of his most significant, is unavailable in a Western language. Further, very few of the Bab's works have been published in their original languages. Apart from the source language collection of the English Selections from the Writings of the Bab, published as Muntakhabat ayat az athar hadrat avvali (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1978) and an edition of The Persian Bayan, the Bab's works can only be found in rare and often wholly inaccessible manuscript collections.

[129] H.M. Balyuzi, The Bab: The Herald of the Day of Days (Oxford: George Ronald, 1973)--commendable as the first comprehensive history of the movement--makes no attempt to disguise its approach as uncritical and inspirational. Nabil's The Dawnbreakers (Muhammad Zarandi Nabil, trans. and ed. Shoghi Effendi, The Dawnbreakers: Nabil's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá'í Revelation [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970]) is an admirable historical accounting of the period, but it and Abdul Baha's short compendium A Traveler's Narrative (written in the 1880s, translated and published by E. G. Browne in 1891, reprinted by the Bahá'í Publishing Trust in Wilmette in full in 1930 and in abridgment in 1980) are primary sources with no analytical intent. Abbas Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989) is an impressively comprehensive critical history, but in seeking unbiased and wholly secular objectivity the author occasionally does a disservice to Babi interpretations of events. Moojan Momen's "A Chronology of Some of the Persecutions of the Babis and Bahá'ís in Iran, 1844-1978" (in The Bahá'í World: An International Record; volume 18 [Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1986)], 380-392) carries no bias, but it is only a simple, non-descriptive chronology. Bayat's Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran (New York: Syracuse University, 1982) for the most part succeeds in being neutral and fair, but the author occasionally betrays partisan interpretations (for example, she refers to the Bab as a "pathetic 'prophet,'" expressing minor contempt with the first term and denying him sincerity by putting the second in quotation marks [page 126]). Finally, Shoghi Effendi's broad history God Passes By (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1944), chapters 1-5--the first comprehensive history of the Babi and Bahai religions--is fairly analytical but its broad scope makes it necessarily cursory. It is also seen as the model of apologetic history for Bahai writers.

[130] Vahid Rafati, The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi'i Islam (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1979), 169 and "The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi'i Islam," in Heshmat Moayyad, ed., The Bahá'í Faith and Islam (Ottawa: Bahá'í Studies Publications, 1990). Here a distinction is drawn between the return of the twelfth imam as the Qa'im and the return of Husayn.

[131] Peter Smith, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions: From messianic Shi'ism to a world religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 12.

[132] See Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal, 57-61, 104.

[133] As the Muslim lunar calendar does not mesh with the Gregorian solar calendar, a general date given in the former can fall into two different months or years in the latter.

[134] Nabil, The Dawnbreakers, 44-45. (Shoghi Effendi's translation includes many extended footnotes and appendices of his writing. Where the narrative is being cited in this thesis, it will be given as "Nabil, Dawnbreakers, x." Where a note of Shoghi Effendi's is being cited, it will be given as "Shoghi Effendi, Dawnbreakers, x."

[135] The New History records a third-hand account (Mulla Husayn told Mirza Abdul Wahhab who told Haji Mirza Jani who told the author of the New History) that Mulla Husayn and Sayyed Ali Muhammad had been friends during an earlier pilgrimage, and perhaps had expected Mulla Husayn's coming. See Mirza Husayn Hamadani, Edward G. Browne, ed., The New History (Tarikh-i-Jadid) of Mirza 'Ali Muhammed, the Bab (Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1975), 34-35, and Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal, 167. (Browne's translation includes many extended footnotes and appendices of his writing. Where the narrative is being cited in this thesis, it will be given as "Hamadani, New History, x." Where a note of Browne's is being cited, it will be given as "Browne, New History, x.")

      The frequency with which Hamadani's New History will be cited here requires a further brief note. Bahai sources tend to distrust this text, based in part as it is on the somewhat militant Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf of Haji Mirza Jani (possibly with additions by Shaykh Muhammad Qazvini). The reasons usually given for the mistrust of the Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf is that its real author was other than the purported author (see for example Muhammad Afnan and William S. Hatcher, "Note on MacEoin's 'Bahá'í Fundamentalism,' in Religion 16 [April 1986], 191.) This is actually an irrelevant objection because, whether the author is solely Haji Mirza Jani or is, in Afnan and Hatcher's words, "a forgery" because anonymously edited and expanded by Muhammad Qazvini, the manuscript is nonetheless an early and accurate account of Babi history. Besides the fact that it is based on the Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf, the strongest reason Bahai apologists can find to condemn the New History is Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani's statement that "ignorant scribes and illiterate writers have, in accordance with their own fancies, so altered the New History that at the present every copy of it appears like a defaced portrait or a restored temple, to such a degree that one cannot obtain a correct copy of it, unless it were the author's own transcript." (Quoted in Browne, New History, xl-xli.) This seemingly damning condemnation is mitigated by the fact that, while manuscripts do differ slightly in exact wordings and some add or delete certain sentences, in the main there is little substantial divergence between them. Juan Cole maintains that the New History, the Nuqtat al-Kaf, and even Nabil's original Dawnbreakers are all worked and reworked from a variety of source documents, such that discussion of "original texts" is misleading and the concepts of "forgery" and "corruption" are quite alien to these histories. (Juan R. I. Cole, posting to the listserv H-Bahai, September 18 1997.) These texts are further discussed by Denis MacEoin, The Sources for Early Babi Doctrine and History (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992), 134-160, H. M. Balyuzi, Edward Granville Browne and the Bahá'í Faith (London: George Ronald, 1970), 62-88, and Amanat, Resurrection, 423-424. Of interest is that the original manuscript of the New History has recently been found, in the personal library of the Indian litterateur Maneckji who commissioned it, by historian Susan Maneck.

[136] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 63. Bahais date the proclamation at May 23 1844, because in Persian reckoning the new day begins at sunset.

[137] These eighteen original disciples were termed "Letters of the Living" (huruf al-hayy). They were nineteen in total, the Bab declaring himself the nineteenth.

[138] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 107.

[139] R. Mehrabkhani calculates the dates of these events in Mulla Husayn: Disciple at Dawn (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1987), 121-122.

[140] See Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 90, and Amanat, Resurrection, 219.

[141] Quoted in Balyuzi, The Bab, 64.

[142] Amanat, Resurrection, 233.

[143] Denis MacEoin, "The Fate of Mulla 'Ali Bastami," in Bahá'í Studies Bulletin, 2:1 (June 1983), 77.

[144] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 92.

[145] Related by Haji Abul Hasan, quoted in Balyuzi, The Bab, 72.

[146] While Haji Abul Hasan was an eyewitness to the Bab's pilgrimage, he is the only one to relate this particular incident. Most evident is Nabil's lack of reference to the event. The Bab himself appears to downplay his reception at the Kaaba, saying in the Persian Bayan (as translated by A.L.M. Nicolas): "Mille deux cent soixante et dix ans ont passe depuis que Mohammed a ete suscite et chaque annee des foules innombrables ont tourne autour de la maison (Qaaba). Dans la derniere annee, le Createur (le Bab) de la maison est alle lui-meme en pelerinage. Gloire a Dieu! il vit que de chaque secte, des troupes nombreuses etaient venues. Personne ne le connut, mais lui les connut tous..." (emphasis added). The Bab, trans. A.L.M. Nicolas, Le Beyan Persan (Paris: Librairie Paul Geuthner, 1913), tome deuxieme, 163-164.

[147] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 154.

[148] Nabil reports that, after the second week of the Bab's imprisonment, the warden, Ali Khan, was riding by the river near the town one dawn when he chanced upon the sight of the Bab standing by the river, engaged in passionate devotions. Ali Khan was about to approach him and rebuke him for having escaped from the castle, but was so impressed by the depth of the Bab's reverie that he decided to leave him be and return to the castle to castigate the guards instead. To his astonishment he found the gates to the castle all closed and, upon entering, discovered the Bab seated in his room. His animosity towards the Bab was cured instantly, and to atone for his previous harshness his first act was to allow a pilgrim who had been waiting in town to come and see the Bab. Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 247.

[149] Amanat writes that Tahirih was in Qazvin July-September 1847. Amanat, Resurrection, 316.

[150] Amanat gives the date of his murder as Ramadan, or August-September. Resurrection, 322.

[151] Amanat, Resurrection, 387.

[152] Denis MacEoin has prepared the most complete examination of the trial of Tabriz: "The Trial of the Bab: Shi'ite Orthodoxy Confronts its Mirror Image." Accessed from the internet: Linkname "The Trial of the Bab: article"; URL

[153] Respectively Hamadani, New History, 251, and Haji Mirza Jani, Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf, quoted in Browne, New History, appendix II, 327.

[154] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 446.

[155] This was not the only time that seven Babis or Bahais were martyred on one occasion in Tehran (cf. events of June 23 1981 or January 4 1982), but this is the event referred to by the phrase "Seven Martyrs of Tehran."

[156] Translated by and quoted in Amanat, Resurrection, 394. His point, as intended here and expressed in many other places, is that all of the proofs by which Muslims accept the truth of Muhammad's mission were evident in his mission as well, such that not to accept Babism would be kufr, heresy. "My proof is none other than that proof whereby the truth of the Prophet Muhammad was established," he said. (Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 134).

[157] Unlike for the majority of Babi history, the relevant sections of the sources which mention the martyrdom of the Bab have almost all been translated into English. As well as the primary sources of Nabil's The Dawnbreakers and Hamadani's New History, see Moojan Momen, ed., The Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford: George Ronald, 1981), 69-82; Firuz Kazemzadeh, ed., "The Bab: Accounts of His Martyrdom," in World Order 8:1 (Fall, 1973), 6-34; and [Anthony Lee] et al., eds., The Martyrdom of the Bab: A Compilation (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1992).

[158] Trans. by and quoted in Amanat, Resurrection, 400.

[159] Amanat, Resurrection, 401, and Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 508.

[160] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 506. Cf. his words upon receiving the order as given by the Bahai scholar and historian Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani: "I am disillusioned and disappointed. I had hoped that the Iranian government would command me to make war against one of the great Powers. I never thought it would order me to kill one of the pious children of the Prophet, who never misses saying his supererogatory prayers and lacks no noble moral human characteristic." (trans. Juan R. I. Cole, Letters and Essays, 1886-1913 [Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1985], 101) One source gives that, in order to prevent exactly this hesitancy to kill a descendent of the Prophet, the Bab's green turban--the symbol of his ancestry--was removed before he was brought out into public view that morning. Haji Ali Yazdi to Lady Blomfield (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1967], 29. Also available on the internet: Linkname "The Chosen Highway"; URL In contrast to the above, however, one manuscript of the New History holds that, far from there being a Muslim unwillingness to kill a sayyed, the Muslims thought this execution to be so pious a deed that by committing it they were thereby cleansed for Ramadan. (Hamadani, New History, 307).

[161] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 512.

[162] Amanat, Resurrection, 402, note 117.

[163] Though all extant accounts are unanimous in presenting the Bab as unharmed by the first volley, there is uncertainty about the death of Zunuzi. The account of court historian Sipihr (Lisan al-Mulk, "Tongue of Power") claims that Zunuzi was killed in the first round, but this is contradicted not only by the rest of the eyewitness but by Sipihr himself, who states first that the regiment intentionally missed them, then that Zunuzi was hit and killed, and then that Zunuzi, now only wounded, turned and spoke to the Bab. (Kazemzadeh, "Martyrdom of the Bab," 14) Gobineau claims that the first volley killed Zunuzi "instantly," but his presentation is rendered suspect by other descriptions that run counter to other accounts. (Kazemzadeh, "Martyrdom of the Bab," 22) It is possible that Gobineau was relying on Sipihr's history for his information, for among all reports these two are unique in certain points of interpretation. While it thus appears unlikely that Zunuzi was killed now, it is possible that he was at least wounded in the first volley, for this is stated by more than one source and does not negate the claim of his dying only in the second volley.

[164] See Abdul Baha's criticism of the "old-time" rifles used by Persia's army, in Secret of Divine Civilization, trans. Marzieh Gail (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970), 32.

[165] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 514, Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative (trans. E. G. Browne, A Traveller's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Bab [New York: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1930]) 44; Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 53; and Balyuzi, The Bab, 157-158. All citations of Traveller's Narrative will refer to the expanded Browne edition of 1930. (Browne's translation includes many extended foonotes and appendices of his writing. Where the narrative is being cited in this thesis, it will be given as "Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative, x." Where a note of Browne's is being cited, it will be given as "Browne, Traveller's Narrative, x.")

[166] As a further complication, the New History completely reverses the above: first, a regiment of Muslim slodiers fired and, after witnessing the miracle of the Bab's survival, refused to fire again and was replaced by a more willing regiment of Christian soldiers. (Hamadani, New History, 306).

[167] Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative, 44.

[168] Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative, 47. This and other figures of the number of Babis killed in the period have been disputed. (See for example Denis MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm: Problems of Militancy, Quietism, and Conflation in the Construction of a Religion," in Religion 13 [July 1983]: 219-255, 235-237.) Bahai sources consistently refer to the round number of 20,000 martyrs, but none of the available sources support even half this number. However, even the most conservative estimates place the number of Babis killed by the mid-1850s at over 2,000, which is certainly a sizable figure given the relative fewness of the Babi numbers at the time.

[169] The motive usually given for the attempted assassination is that they sought to avenge the murder of the Bab. For example, Abdul Baha writes that they were so "bereft of thought and reason" because of their "utmost affection to the Bab" that they "fell into thoughts of seeking blood-revenge." (Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative, 49-50 [see also Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 62]). Nabil, though, explains that their act was "to avenge the blood of their slaughtered brethren." (Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 599) The fact that the attempted assassination was over two years after the Bab's execution inclines one to the latter explanation.

[170] Bahai sources tend to downplay the extent of any conspiracy behind this attack, Abdul Baha for example attributing it solely to "a certain Babi." (Traveller's Narrative, 49) In truth the number of Babis involved in planning the attack is not known for certain, as even apologist H. M. Balyuzi writes in Bahá'u'lláh: King of Glory [Oxford: George Ronald, 1991], page 74. It may have been as few as seven, as Browne writes, or it may have included as many as the seventy affiliated with Mulla Shaykh Ali Turshizi's circle (see, for example, Peter Smith, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 30.) Among those reporting the attackers to be three are the official court historians and Kaani, a panegyrist for the Shah. As these chroniclers tended to be quick to exaggerate the offensiveness and the numbers of the Babis, the fact that they agree with Browne's Babi source on the number three lends much weight to this figure. The number of conspirators aside--even were as many as seventy to have planned the attack--there is no ambiguity behind the fact that such an attack was wholly contrary to the Bab's later teachings. (See for example Muhammad Afnan and William Hatcher, "Western Islamic Scholarship and Bahá'í Origins," in Religion 15 [January 1985], 29-51.)

[171] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 609. Though usually downplayed as an ineffectual attempt by deranged youth doomed to fail, it is clear from Nabil's account that Sadiq was very close to succeeding.

[172] Only thirty or forty deaths in this period have been documented (Browne lists 28, Nabil lists 38), but in the widespread chaos which ensued it is likely that others were put to death by the fearful and angry vigilante mobs.

[173] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 62, 63, and 3, respectively; Nabil xv. In Citadel of Faith: Messages to America, 1947-1957 (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1965), 100, Shoghi Effendi further describes it as "a blood-bath of unprecedented severity."

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