Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Personal pages Theses
> add tags

Dying for God:
Martyrdom in the Shii and Babi Religions

by Jonah Winters

previous chapter chapter 3 start page single page chapter 5 next chapter

Chapter 4


      Ideal here would be an analysis of what persecution and martyrdom meant for the Babis. One wonders how much they were influenced by the broader teachings of early Islam: How directly were they enacting the age-old Muslim calls to jihad? How much were they seeking the martyr's recompense promised by Muhammad and now by the Bab? One further wonders how much they were influenced by the more specific form of Islam--Iranian Shiism--which formed their heritage: When on the defensive, how much were they emulating the paradigm set by Husayn and all of the other legendary martyred imams? Though now calling themselves Babis instead of Shiis, were they inspired by the same theologies of redemption through suffering so characteristic of Shiism? When on the offensive, how much were they fighting to pave the way for the Mahdi, seeking, as aptly put in a novel, to immanentize the eschaton?[174] Or indeed, how much were they fighting in his very army? Short of primary source documents, which are almost entirely inaccessible, these questions cannot be fully explored. However, sufficient documents and numerous historical accounts are available to glean a few clues, from which at least a small window into the thought of Babism can be constructed.

      This examination of Babi martyrdom will focus on four themes, in no particular order: (1) parallels invoked with other historical sacrifices; (2) martyrdom as a public declaration of sincerity and its use as a tool for proclamation and--indirectly--conversion; (3) willingness to die due to a state of mystical intoxication; (4) Babi jihad and martyrdom in the prosecution of the Mahdi's cause.

      It must not be thought that, in practice, these distinctions can necessarily be drawn. In any one incident of martyrdom, the protagonist may manifest all possible aspects diachronically, for example first testing her own faith by making an initial decision to proclaim in the face of certain danger, then wishing to convert her audience and undergoing martyrdom to this end, and finally, once her fate is cemented and she has accepted it, radicalizing her suffering and seeking to augment it in a cycle of increasing torment bringing her ever closer to mystical communion to God. Or, of course, many possible aspects of martyrdom may occur synchronically. The endeavor here, in delineating typologies, is simply to seek to understand the various components of belief underlying the phenomenon. While the distinctions may not always be valid in practice, they are nonetheless useful windows into the mentality of the martyr.

      A caveat must introduce this chapter. A study of this scope requires a certain broad and generalized approach to Babism. However, it must be remembered that, for the entire history of the movement, there was never a fully consolidated community following a systematized set of teachings: there never was a Babism to the same degree that there is a Bahai Faith. First, the movement only flourished from 1844 to 1853. Following the death of the Bab, the frightening cruelty of the persecutions of 1852, and the failure of all four major uprisings, the Babi community was demoralized and enervated. These nine years, only six of which enjoyed the presence of the prophet, were barely enough to create and consolidate a new religion. Second, there was effectively no central leadership. Before his death, the Bab was for almost the entirety of his ministry either on pilgrimage, under house arrest, or in prison. By 1853, almost all of the movements major leaders had been killed and the nominal leader, Subh Azal, proved to be a vacillating, ineffective leader who remained in hiding. Not only did the Babis not know to whom to turn for leadership, they did not even know what type of leadership they should be expecting. The extent of confusion is indicated by the fact that by 1856 no less than twenty-five Babis had declared themselves to be the prophetic figure "He whom God shall make manifest" (man yuzhiruhu Allah), a status also later claimed by Baha'ullah. Third, the nature of the Bab's teachings evolved--progressively unfolded--so continuously that no Babis save those in immediate contact with him could have known exactly what his claims were from one year to the next.[175] Indeed, even with the benefit of hindsight and the collection of many histories written then and later, it still cannot be determined with any certainty what the Bab's station was at any specific time. Fourth, the bulk of the Babis were quite uninformed as to his teachings. Though some Babis traveled extensively proclaiming the religion and educating the Babis, most of the Bab's nominal followers would have heard of his teachings at second- or third-hand at most, and then often from a very small number of teachers. Manuscripts of the Bab were hard to come by, partly because of the short time span of the religion and the great distances that had to be crossed, often on foot, by those delivering them, and largely because Muslims tended to destroy them when found.[176]

      In short, the Babi movement was chaotic, its partisans often poorly-educated about the religion and certainly somewhat confused as to its exact teachings, its leadership fragmented, and its prophet inaccessible, and the belief structures of its participants may often reflect the teachings of their immediate leader as much as of the Bab.[177] This caveat does not significantly undermine attempts to approach Babism as a unified entity, for the movement does display sufficient cohesion of thought and unique patterns of behavior to allow for general observations; it merely cautions that some generalizations drawn by a study of the Babi religion in toto will at times be simplistic.


      Before examining Babi martyrdom, a foundational issue must be addressed: should those Babis who died be regarded religiously as martyrs, or were they simply soldiers who fell in the prosecution of their leaders' agendas and in self-defense against a regime prone to settle disputes with violent suppression?

      There are two main reasons why the slayings of Babis were far more than simple civil executions or military deaths. First, the Babis saw themselves as fighting in the army of God and on the side of the Qa'im. Thus factionalized, the Babi struggle became wholly religious and justified--an obvious and unsurprising definition of the struggle for those operating in the Shii continuum of God's party struggling against satanic usurpers. This will be further examined below. The second factor making the Babis martyrs is simply self-definition: in prospect they saw themselves as potential martyrs before the conflicts began, and in retrospect they eulogized their fallen comrades as martyrs.

      The clearest proof of this self-definition can be found in parallels the Babis drew repeatedly between their struggles and other historical ones, between themselves and previous fallen martyrs. All three of the primary martyrdom motifs of the Western religious tradition are invoked: Isaac/Ismael,[178] Jesus, and Husayn. The available translated histories give many examples of each motif. As the point here is just to show themes, not to explore the full depth of their use, only a few examples of each will be cited, with others appearing in footnotes.


      The principle appearance in the available documents of the motif of Ismael occurs in a statement of one of the Seven Martyrs of Tehran. Haji Mulla Ismael was offered freedom if he would renounce affiliation with Babism, it being pointed out "to save your life what harm is there in saying merely 'I am not a Babi'?" The New History gives the story: "To this, however, Haji Mulla Ismael would by no means consent; and, when greatly importuned, he drew himself up to his full height amidst the crowd, and exclaimed, so that all might hear,--

'O zephyr! Say from me to Ismael destined for sacrifice,
'To return alive from the street of the Friend is not the condition of love.'

Then he took off his turban and said to the executioner, 'Go on with thy work;' and the latter, filled with amazement, struck the fatal blow."[179] Mulla Ismael's intent on drawing a parallel with his namesake is obvious. In the story of Isaac/Ismael, the victim is wholly unaware of Abraham's intent on making the long journey to the mountain where he is to kill his son. Given that Abraham himself, who is praised for the unusual depth of his faith, is sometimes portrayed as having serious doubts, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Isaac/Ismael would be seen by the story's audience as being quite taken aback and perhaps even unwilling to be killed.[180] Mulla Ismael, however, has the following message for Ismael: those who are destined for sacrifice readily accept, for to do otherwise is to betray and prove false one's love for God (the Friend).[181]


      The parallel of Jesus is, like that of Ismael, drawn occasionally by the Babis, but is found with much greater frequency by later Bahai and Western writers who, seeking culturally familiar parallels largely with the aim of eliciting sympathy for the Bahai religion, extensively applied Christian historical and theological motifs to Babi and Bahai events and themes.[182] Some were broadly comparative, such as Shoghi Effendi writing that the Bab's address to the Letters of the Living upon his sending them across the country to proclaim the new religion "recalled the words addressed by Jesus to his disciples."[183] These latter won't be addressed here.[184]

      The obvious parallel between Christ and the Bab is in their executions. For example, they each were perceived as breaking existing religious codes of law, their teachings were seen as threatening to the civil order, and each refused the offer of amnesty conditional upon a cessation of their agenda, and they were therefore killed. Babis did not hesitate to point out this correspondence: the New History referred to the Bab, at the time of his execution, as "that Jesus of the age on the cross."[185] Nicolas, citing reports of a certain Ethezad al-Saltaneh, describes Babis as declaring a whole range of parallels:

...les chretiens sont en effet convaincus que si Jesus-Christ avait voulu descendre vivant de la croix, il l'eut fait sans difficulte: il est mort volontairement, parcequ'il [sic] devait mourir et pour accomplir les propheties. Il en est de meme pour le Bab, disent les babi [sic], qui voulut donner anssi [sic] une sanction evidente à ses paroles. Lui aussi mourut volontairement, parceque [sic] sa mort devait sauver l'humanite.[186]

Finally, just as the Bab is equated with Christ, so are the Babis equated with the disciples of Christ. For example, after telling the story of the first uprising at Nayriz, Hamadani brings to bear multiple parallels:

They [the enemies of the faith] acted as they had done of yore in the time of God's Apostle [Muhammad], dealing with these sorely afflicted people as they dealt with the Chief of Martyrs [Imam Husayn] and his followers on the plain of Karbala, and as they had erst dealt with the Holy Spirit of God [ruh Allah, Christ] and his disciples.[187]
Imam Husayn

      The primary historical parallel is of course that of Imam Husayn and Karbala, and it comes as no surprise to find Husayn's life, his struggles, his enemies, his death, its redemptive power, and all of his death's theological significances cited repeatedly throughout the whole of Babi history. Examples are so numerous that just a few will be given here, broken up into two categories: the meaning of Husayn for Bab, and then as applied more broadly to the Babis and the movement in general.

Imam Husayn in the thought of the Bab

      Like any devout Persian Shii of the Safavid or Qajar periods, the Bab mourned Imam Husayn and identified with his sufferings. This cultural predilection for passionate empathy was compounded in the Bab by an unusually emotional personality and devotional attitude. Both apologetic and antagonistic sources agree in portraying the Bab is a young man much taken with long devotions, asceticism, excessive supererogatory prayers, and an exceptionally pious disposition. This disposition was marked enough for critics of the Bab to make an objection of it, claiming that the Bab's lengthy devotions on the roof of his house in the sun addled his brain, a mental disturbance which later caused him to believe himself a prophet.[188]

      Cultivating strong emotional responses to the stories of Imam Husayn were encouraged by Perian culture, as discussed above. The Bab experienced the normative sympathetic suffering with Husayn, as for example attested by Nabil:

He would invariably, after the termination of each prayer, summon [his secretary] to His presence and would request him to read aloud to Him a passage from [a work]...which...extols the virtues, laments the death, and narrates the circumstances of the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn. The recital of those sufferings would provoke intense emotion in the heart of the Bab. His tears would keep flowing as He listened to the tale of the unutterable indignities heaped upon him, and of the agonising pain which he was made to suffer at the hands of a perfidious enemy.
      Further, this sympathetic suffering, normative for the Persian Shii, took on an added dimension for the Bab. In the same paragraph, Nabil continues:

As the circumstances of that tragic life were unfolded before Him, the Bab was continually reminded of that still greater tragedy which was destined to signalise the advent of the promised Husayn. To Him those past atrocities were but a symbol which foreshadowed the bitter afflictions which His own beloved Husayn was soon to suffer at the hands of His countrymen. He wept as He pictured in His mind those calamities which He who was to be made manifest was predestined to suffer, calamities such as the Imam Husayn, even in the midst of his agonies, was never made to endure.[189]

The Bab thus was not merely cultivating an emotional connection with and sympathy for Husayn, as do other Shiis mourning his memory. Rather, the Bab felt an explicit historico-theological identification with Husayn and his experiences, and his mourning thereby was compounded to include the sufferings of each of them.

      The Bab's equation of himself with Imam Husayn has many other facets. First, of course, he is--as Qa'im--the actual return of an imam himself, and a great deal of the Bab's teachings and activities can only be understood in this light. Chief among other equations between the Bab and Husayn are dreams he had in which intimations of his station and authority was conveyed to him.[190] The first example is a dream the Bab had in 1843, which was so formative to him that he described it in detail in two separate places. These are significant enough to quote in full. He first described it in a writing from the year of his declaration:

"The spirit of prayer which animates My soul is the direct consequence of a dream which I had in the year before the declaration of My Mission. In My vision I saw the head of the Imam Husayn, the Sayyed al-Shuhada, which was hanging upon a tree. Drops of blood dripped profusely from His lacerated throat. With feelings of unsurpassed delight, I approached that tree and, stretching forth My hands, gathered a few drops of that sacred blood, and drank them devoutly. When I awoke, I felt that the Spirit of God had permeated and taken possession of My soul. My heart was thrilled with the joy of His Divine presence, and the mysteries of His Revelation were unfolded before My eyes in all their glory."[191]

Elsewhere, he wrote:

Remember! The emanation of all these verses and prayers and all these unlearned sciences is because of a dream which I once had of the holy head of the Lord of Martyrs, upon him be peace, detached from his holy body, together with the heads of other companions. I drank seven handfuls of his holy blood with greatest joy, and it is now the blessing of that blood which illumined my heart with such verses and prayers.[192]

      The significances of this dream may not be immediately evident to the reader. Indeed, it would appear that most Bahai writers have disregarded it, for this dream is discussed in no English-language Bahai histories of the Babi movement nor in biographies of the Bab.[193]

      Husayn and his blood are for Shiis portentous motifs both in dreams and intuitive experiences. During the occultation of the twelfth imam one of the chief ways he communicates with his faithful is through the medium of dreams, and visions of the other imams are not infrequent. Such dreams were of paramount import for the Bab, who related that in childhood he had an influential dream vision of the sixth imam, Jafar Sadiq. (The sixth imam represents, both historically and symbolically, esoteric wisdom, intuition, and religious knowledge.[194] ) In later life, especially just before 1844 and in the early years of his mission, he experienced a number of these portentous dreams. They signified a transmission of authority from the imams to the Bab: both the fact that he was having these visions was such a clue, and then in some of them the investment of authority was clearly stated by the figures in the dreams.[195]

      The significance and the fetishistic power of the blood of Imam Husayn was addressed above, first in the story of the girl cured of her blindness by the imam's blood delivered to her by a bird, and second in the importance attached to shedding of one's own blood by the self-flagellants to identify with Husayn's shedding of his blood--for the more determined of the mourners at Muharram, the identification is incomplete if blood is not shed. In dreams, too, the blood of Husayn had magical powers. Some of the men who murdered Imam Husayn dreamt of the Prophet rubbing their eyes with his blood; they woke up blind.[196] For the Bab the significance of the blood goes beyond simple healing or punishment. He consumed some of the blood, either "a few drops" or "seven handfuls," following which "the Spirit of God had permeated and taken possession of [His] soul." Later he explained that this blood was the cause for the "emanation of all these verses and prayers and all these unlearned sciences." That is, it is not simply that the imams invested him with his status as Mahdi in his dreams, not simply that they approved and authorized this status, and not even simply that a certain degree of spiritual knowledge derives from them; rather, in at least one place he attributes the very effective cause of his revelation, the illumination of his heart, to them and specifically to the blood of the martyred, beheaded Husayn.

      Further interpretation of the meaning of these dreams for the Bab, based on such few examples, would be mere speculation. It suffices here to point out that they were of monumental import for him, that their theological significance vast, and their primary theme a certain converse with the martyred Husayn.

      The remainder of the first theme of the parallel with Husayn, the Bab's self-definition, simply consists of him comparing or at times identifying himself with Husayn. Most of these are passing comments which just serve to draw an identification or a parallel and do not necessarily have any significance beyond this. Examples include: "O peoples of the earth! Inflict not upon the Most Great Remembrance [The Bab] what the Umayyads cruelly inflicted upon Husayn in the Holy Land";[197] or "It is as though I heard one crying within my soul, 'The most pleasing of all things is that thou shouldst become a ransom in the way of God even as Husayn (upon whom be peace) became a ransom in my way.'"[198] As is expected, the Bab's followers were also consistent in equating the Bab with Husayn and his mission, his goals, his sufferings, and his martyrdom with those of Husayn.[199]

Imam Husayn in the thought of the Babis

      As well as the Bab's equating himself with Imam Husayn, the Babis saw themselves as reenacting the same events and themes of Karbala.[200] Two of the leading Babis also were equated with Husayn himself: Mulla Husayn, the "Bab al-Bab," and Quddus. This, however, is somewhat incidental. The station of these two is difficult to determine. They were both Letters of the Living; when the Bab advanced his station from simple babiyya (babiyya, the station of being a Bab) to qa'imiyya (qa'imiyya, the station of being the Qa'im). Mulla Husayn likewise advanced from being the bab al-bab to the Qa'im, a station which, after his death, fell to Quddus;[201] and at various times all three were seen variously as babs, as the Qa'im, or as the return of Jesus, Muhammad, Imam Husayn, or the twelfth imam.[202]

      The equation with Imam Husayn is therefore but one of many, and the belief that Mulla Husayn and Quddus are the "return" of the imam--even though the full range of martyr symbology is utilized--becomes somewhat tangential, so only one example will be given. Nabil tells that the group of Babis marching under Mulla Husayn with the Black Standard rested one night in the middle of the province of Mazandaran. Mulla Husayn awoke them the next morning and, apparently with precognition, told them:

"We are approaching our Karbala, our ultimate destination." ...The night preceding their arrival, the guardian of the [nearby] shrine [of Shaykh Tabarsi] dreamed that the Sayyed al-Shuhada, the Imam Husayn, had arrived...accompanied by no less than seventy-two warriors and a large number of his companions. He dreamed that they tarried in that spot, engaged in the most heroic of battles, triumphing in every encounter over the forces of the enemy...When Mulla Husayn arrived on the following day, the guardian immediately recognized him as the hero he had seen in his vision, threw himself at his feet, and kissed them devoutly. Mulla Husayn invited him to be seated by his side, and heard him relate his story. "All that you have witnessed," he assured the keeper of the shrine, "will come to pass. Those glorious scenes will again be enacted before your eyes."[203]

In this episode one can see that, not only was Mulla Husayn equated with Imam Husayn by himself and his followers, but even magically, by those who had never met nor heard of him. Also of note in the above selection is: (1) the reference to the as-yet future struggle of Tabarsi as "our" Karbala;[204] (2) parallels of the two events including the fighting of a small band of heroes far from home against the forces of a corrupt government; (3) the recurring theme of divinatory dreams; (4) the statement that the struggle of Tabarsi will "re-enact" that of Karbala.

      More relevant and meaningful were parallels the Babis drew between their struggles and those of the imam. Every major conflict in which they engaged was replete with the invocations of such symbolism. The chief characters in each event, especially the hero Husayn and the villain Shemr, and their actions at Karbala were cited: When Hujjat, after being wounded, gave his dying instructions to his followers, he ordered that, when he was buried, no Babi must remove the diamond ring he wore. When asked why, he replied "they must cut off my finger as they did that of Husayn ibn Ali for the ring."[205] When the next day one of the enemy did just that, his commanding general also cited the parallel: "Why did you cut off the finger of this corpse?" he demanded of his officer. "For people will say that even this detail is like what befall Imam Husayn."[206] The Babi heroes were linked with the heroes of Karbala--"When [Mulla Husayn] witnessed this catastrophe [the injuring of Quddus] he began to fight even as Husayn fought at Karbala"[207] --and the enemies with the villains of Karbala-- "We are fearful and anxious,...for this host is more faithless than the men of Kufa."[208]

      Besides such specifics, general associations of Karbala with Babi struggles were also drawn. For example, when the just-defeated Babis were being marched from the scene of their resistance in the second Nayriz upheaval, in October 1853, a spectator was moved by the extensive abuse of the prisoners he saw to call out to the leader of the attacking forces "Na'im! Have you sought to recreate Karbala? Even the field of Karbala did not witness such misery!"[209] Interestingly, the forces opposing the Babis also paralleled the struggle with that of Husayn, though, as they become the villains, it would seem to imperil the justification of their orders. The New History quotes Mirza Jani as recounting a conversation he overheard:

About two years after the disaster of Shaykh Tabarsi, I heard one, who, though not a believer, was honest, truthful, and worthy of credit, relate as follows: "We were sitting together when some allusion was made to the war waged by some of those present against Hazrat Quddus and Jinab Bab al-Bab. Prince Ahmad Mirza and Abbas-Quli Khan were amongst the company. The prince questioned Abbas-Quli Khan about the matter, and he replied thus: 'The truth of the matter is that anyone who had not seen Karbala would, if he had seen Tabarsi, not only have comprehended what there took place, but would have ceased to consider it and had he seen Mulla Husayn of Bushruyih he would have been convinced that the Chief of Martyrs had returned to earth; and had he witnessed my deeds he would assuredly have said: "This is Shemr come back with sword and Lance."'"[210]

An even stronger self-incriminating statement was made by the governor of Nayriz, Zayn al-Abidin Khan. At Karbala, the act of the imam's enemies which became seen as the most heinous offense of the battle, and for which the Shiis commemorating the event most stridently castigate them, was the refusal of a drink of water. The besieged party of Husayn, withering in the desert sun, was cut off from reaching the nearby Euphrates. When most of Husayn's fighting men were killed, he held an infant boy in his arms and pleaded for water for him. In response, the child was shot in the neck.[211] Similarly, at one point in the first battle of Nayriz, the besiegers cut off the water flowing into the fort where the Babis had taken refuge. Vahid threatened the governor, saying "...should you immediately relinquish control [over the flow], then all is well. Otherwise, be warned, that this very night I will see to it that water should flow freely. "In reply, the Khan sent a message saying "If you are the Prince of the Martyrs, then I am Shemr. I will not allow you or your companions a drop of water."[212] With this most explicit quote, so unequivocally judgmental of its speaker, it can be seen that neither the Babis nor their opponents felt there to be any doubt that the Babis were historically and theologically the clear heirs of Imam Husayn, their struggles identical with those of Karbala, and their enemies the embodiment of the ungodly.

      Finally, some Babis thoroughly abstracted the theme of Husayn and Karbala. Mirza Jani, the author of the early history Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf, broadly relates all major events, places, and personages of the Babi history prior to 1852 to those of Karbala, summarizing with an abstraction effectively broad enough to explode these themes beyond even the equations to which he is applying them. In a quote apposite enough to serve as the final example, Browne describes and quotes Mirza Jani's thought [the interpolated definitions are mine]:

...Haji Mirza Jani, in describing the events of this cycle, speaks of Tehran as "Damascus" [the seat of the Umayyad rule whence came the order to kill Imam Husayn], the Qajar rulers as "the family of Abu Sufyan" [the father of Mu'awiya, Husayn's political enemy who ordered his death], Barfurush as "Kufa," Mulla Husayn as "the Chief of Martyrs," and Tabarsi as "Karbala"; "for," says he, "wherever the banner of the Truth is set up, summoning men to defend it, and the people of Truth are gathered together, and the word of Love and Emancipation (fana') is spoken, there is the land of Karbala."[213]

      A fourth category, Husayn as cited by later Bahai writers, is too vast to present here. It must suffice to point out that, just as later European and North American Bahai writers have applied the figure of Christ to the Bab, so do later Bahai writers, especially those of Middle Eastern background, invoke Imam Husayn repeatedly and derive many significances from the parallels thus distilled. Of note here is that whereas Christ, a prophet of God, was usually paralleled only with the Bab,[214] there was no apparently no such stricture with the figure of Husayn: not just the Bab but a great many Babis, be they revered leaders or rank-and-file followers, were and still are frequently said to exemplify the attributes of Husayn, to mirror his tribulations and sufferings, or even to manifest his very spirit in a sort of parousia.


      The second theme, martyrdom as a proclamatory tool, as presented here has two components: steadfastness in the face of persecution attests to the sincerity of the sufferer, and publicity about the event of persecution can serve to arouse public sympathy and functions as a powerful proclamatory tool for conversion. These two components are closely intertwined. Indeed, the act of witnessing is identical for each, the difference lying only in apparent intent: in the former the martyr is testifying to the truth of his faith for its own sake, while in the latter conversion of the observer is directly desired. The former witnesses to God, the latter witnesses to the unbelieving world.

Witnessing as Proselytization

      Seeking publicity--the latter of these two aspects of martyrdom-as-proclamation--first stands out in Babi history in its apparent absence. Capitalizing on persecution as a publicity tool can be found in many histories of religions, and is especially noticeable in later Bahai history. The Bahai community has long turned the unfortunate incidences of persecution to whatever advantage possible, conspicuously--and, per accusations sometimes levied by outsider observers, even shamelessly--using persecution as a signally noteworthy news item.[215] In contrast the use of martyrdom as a kerygmatic tool seems relatively absent in Babism.

      One primary reason for this absence can be deduced. Capitalizing on martyrdom for the sake of publicity and indirect conversion would be most effective where the dialectic between good and evil, between the innocent, God-intoxicated martyr and the corrupt, power-hungry offender fearful for his privileged socio-religious status, is most clear: when the persecuted is wholly innocent and submits to, or even encourages, that her persecution be taken to its furthest limit and that she be killed, the dialectic is thereby so radicalized that the persecutor cannot avoid becoming the embodiment of the very antithesis of goodness. As Hamadani explains it, God

ordain[s]...martyrdom and affliction for His saints and for such as manifest His Spirit, to prove the hard-heartedness, sinfulness, obduracy, and rebelliousness of the wicked, or the patience and the meekness of just and saintly men, and their resignation to whatsoever the Pen of destiny may award.[216]
This is an extremely powerful tool for conversion, for such a radicalized dialectic prohibits an observer from remaining impartial. However, such a dialectic was not always possible with the Babis. While their sufferings were almost always unjust and their punishments excessive, they were clearly not sufficiently innocent to create such a dialectic. As revolutionaries they invited suppression and thus, even if the suppression when it came was harsh and exaggerated, it was often not wholly unjustified and was rarely unexpected.[217]

      Other reasons for the seeming absence of kerygma turn out to be merely circumstantial. For example, there were far fewer neutral observers of the Babi movement than of the Bahai; the oligarchical and socially primitive nature of Persia at this time tended not to foster an environment of participatory observation and critical reflection among those who were witness to these events (the populace trained to be somewhat submissive and uncritical); and as a very new and barely organized religion Babism lacked the kind of functioning publicity machine enjoyed by established movements. When the circumstantiality of these factors is realized, it becomes clear that proclamatory uses of martyrdom might not be intrinsically lacking in Babism, but just that opportunities for implementing the kerygma may have been missing.

      It is also possible that the relative absence of the theme of martyrdom as kerygma may be due to nothing more than a lack of sources; that when the narratives detailing how the Babis did think and act are made available, this theme may then be found to be as prevalent there as it is in later Bahai thought. A close examination of the few principle primary source documents of the period existing in English, notably Nabil's Dawnbreakers, Hamadani's New History, and the "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi,"[218] does in fact reveal a recurrent theme of kerygmatic martyrdom, but it is not emphasized. Where this theme is found in these texts it often has the strong flavor of post-Babi sentiment, and likely may have been added by the later Bahai or Azali redactors, a fate suffered by every Babi text available.[219]

      Haji Sulayman Khan's martyrdom in the suppressions of August 1852 is without doubt the most famous single instance of Babi martyrdom after that of the Bab himself. It was unusually gruesome, the protagonist exceptionally charismatic, and most important it was witnessed by an Austrian captain, Alfred von Gumoens. Gumoens wrote a detailed two- or three-page account of this and other incidents of the time which was published in a German newspaper on October 12 1852 and in translation in The Times of London the following day. Nabil tells the story:

[Sulayman Khan] was asked the manner in which he wished to die. "Pierce holes in my flesh," was the instant reply, "and in each wound place a candle. Let nine candles be lighted all over my body, and in this state conduct me through the streets of Tehran. Summon the multitude to witness the glory of my martyrdom, so that the memory of my death may remain imprinted in their hearts and help them, as they recall the intensity of my tribulation, to recognize the Light I have embraced. After I have reached the foot of the gallows and have uttered the last prayer of my earthly life, cleave my body in twain and suspend my limbs on either side of the gate of Tehran, that the multitude passing beneath it may witness to the love which the Faith of the Bab has kindled in the hearts of His disciples, and may look upon the proofs of their devotion."[220]

Here it is made absolutely clear that Sulayman Khan wished that both his execution and his executed body be both maximally gruesome and as public as possible, the clear reason being that thereby his death may remain "imprinted" in the hearts of the audience, thus allowing them to "recognize" the religion he has adopted and see in his death the "proofs" of his devotion.

      Hamadani also claimed that the martyrs submitted to death for the sake of converting others. Of the fallen defenders at Tabarsi, he writes "they had no other object in placing their lives in jeopardy than to publish the news of the that all such as were open to perceive the truth at that time or in after ages might...become enquirers or believers."[221] Later speaking in general of the martyrs of the Babi movement, he said "more than four hundred divines," none of whom were irrational or lacking better judgement, bore "witness to the truth" of the Bab and, "for the awakening of their fellow-men, sever[ed] all worldly ties, and willingly quaff[ed] the draught of martyrdom."[222]

      Apart from these quotes, other connections between martyrdom and conversion are more tenuous, but sufficient to show that the connection between martyrdom and conversion was not unknown. It is not clear, though, to what extent these sentiments reflected the thought of the Babis or to what extent they were later interpretations. Statements like Hamadani's--that, in reference to a Babi facing torture with alacrity, "one who can be cheerful in such a plight must needs have great faith and fortitude"[223] --or Nabil's--that "by their...unexampled fortitude, they were able to demonstrate to many of their countrymen the ennobling influence of the faith they had sought to champion"[224] --are clearly later explanations of the events. They are expressed with the benefit of between two to four decades of hindsight, during which the Babi movement split in two, the Azali faction withering in numbers and influence and the followers of Baha'ullah effectively following a wholly new religion. The Bahai redactors were working from within a movement that, while still small and persecuted, was no longer simply crescive.[225]

      Though its prophet was in exile and in prison, the leadership of the new "Bahai Faith"[226] was strongly centralized and comparatively safe, its numbers increasing, and its followers had spread far beyond the boundaries of the Iranian provinces where Babism had operated. The Babis, with no assurance other than faithful conviction that their religion would succeed and more often than not fighting for their very lives, were operating in a tightly focussed and circumscribed worldview where often the only real contribution they could make to their religion was to give their lives for its defense. The Bahais were operating in a worldview where the Babis had succeeded, and the Babi religion, now emerged from its chrysalis as the new world Bahai Faith, was established and safe. The Babis, who of course had never heard of nor envisioned a "Bahai Faith," became seen as forefathers of the new religion and their deaths as proclamatory.[227] It can thus be hypothesized with a fair degree of justification that where the sentiments of martyrdom-as-public-kerygma are expressed in these texts they are often not Babi, but later Bahai accretions or European sentiments.[228] Rather, where the Babis spoke of using their sufferings and death as proclamatory, they seem much more clearly to be using their deaths as proofs of personal piety and conviction, which will be addressed below.

      It must be added here that, even though these texts do not emphasize the intent to cause publicity and conversion by martyrdoms, there are many recorded instances of this being its effect. That is, the Babis seem not to have sought publicity through their sufferings, but nonetheless much publicity was accorded to them, with subsequent conversions, because of it. The miracle attending the Bab's execution served to convert many who witnessed it or even heard of it second-hand.[229] A witness to the tortures of 1852 and future convert declared "this very ill-usage and public humiliation is a proof of truth and the very best of arguments. Had it not been thus it might have been that a thousand years would have elapsed ere one like me became informed."[230] European observers often spoke approvingly, even rhapsodically, of the Babis' character and their fortitude in tribulations. Comte de Gobineau, describing the persecutions of August 1852, wrote "Cette journe donna au Bâb plus de partisans secrets que bien des predications n'auraient pu faire...J'ai souvent entendu raconter les scenes de cette journee par des temoins oculaires, par des hommes tenant de pres au gouvernement, quelques-uns occupant des fonctions eminentes. A les entendre, on eut pu croire aisement que tous etaient babis, tant ils se montraient penetres d'admiration pour les souvenirs où l'Islam ne jouait pas le plus beau role..."[231] Sir Francis Younghusband, writing (seventy years later) in his book The Gleam, exclaimed "who can fail to be attracted by the gentle spirit of the Bab? His sorrowful and persecuted life;...his courage and uncomplaining patience under misfortune...but most of all his tragic death, all serve to enlist our sympathies on behalf of the young Prophet of Shiraz."[232]

      European observers afford further evidence of Babi kerygmatic thought not necessarily to be found in the available primary source texts. Lady Sheil, a resident in Persia at the time, wrote of the "Seven Martyrs of Tehran" that "these visionaries died steadfast in their faith. The Persian minister [Mirza Muhammad Taqi Khan, who issued the orders for their arrest and execution] was ignorant of the maxim that persecution was proselytism."[233] General Sir Thomas Edward Gordon is more explicit about the source of this maxim, though he likely is confusing the Babis with the Bahais: "...the time has come to cease from persecuting these sectarians...the Government has probably discovered the truth of the Babi saying, that one martyr makes many proselytes."[234]

      The above few examples demonstrate that capitalizing on martyrdom for the sake of publicity and hence conversion was known in Babi thought, but was overshadowed by other, more dominant motifs of martyrdom. A fair amount of searching was required to find these examples, for they are rarely quoted in Babi works. A likely explanation could simply be that, while the motif is, upon examination, seen to exist as strongly in Babism as in other crescive religious movements, the limited direct exposure of the community to neutral observers and the primitive and tightly regulated media resources existing in Persia at the time did not allow for a full capitalization on public proclamation.

      While distilling further reasons for the lack of focus on the proselytic value of martyrdom is beyond the scope of this study, two obvious points can be mentioned. First, the Babis were not sufficiently innocent of rebelliousness to play the role of unjustly persecuted victim, a prerequisite for martyrdom to elicit the depth of sympathy that leads to conversion.

      Second, there were comparatively few opportunities for public displays of martyrdom to an interested and potentially sympathetic audience. Almost without exception the European writers who were so profoundly impressed by the Babi heroism were not eyewitnesses to the events, and the immediate Muslim audience was on average convinced that the tortures and executions of the Babis were justified. Further, the main uprisings--Tabarsi, Zanjan, the two at Nayriz, and Yazd--all occurred in rural or small-town settings where the Babis, the local villagers, and the imperial troops were the only witnesses. The villagers, fearful of the Babis, often exploited by them for provisions, and occasionally caught in crossfire or otherwise falling victim to misdirected violence, were not a likely audience for conversion. The troops, convinced by their superiors that they were fighting a just cause[235] and more often than not at the receiving end of Babi swords and gunfire, were most unlikely to be converted. In the large cities, where both necessary factors for conversion were present--there were sufficient neutral, uninvolved witnesses, and the persecutions of Babis were often horrific and excessive and the Babis innocent of wrongdoing--the numbers of Babis martyred were quite small. Whereas between 1,000 and 1,800 Babis died in a single conflict at the medium-sized city of Zanjan,[236] only 62 Babis were killed in the capital Tehran throughout both decades of Babism.[237] It might be objected that the "holocaust" in the "reign of terror" which drew significant European attention--the public tortures of Babis in August 1852--occurred mostly in the capital city, but in truth this "holocaust" claimed only about forty lives.[238]

      The most likely explanation for the lack of emphasis on the proselytic function of martyrdom is that the Babis were focusing more on the second component of martyrdom as proclamation: witnessing sincerity and fortitude to oneself and to God. Though conversions--a secondary, indirect effect of martyrdom--would be welcome, the chief motivation for submitting to persecution was to attest to the depth of personal faith--a primary and immediate motivation.

Witnessing as Proof

      The second aspect of martyrdom as kerygma is the individual's personal spirituality, his relationship with God. The depth of personal piety can only be fully attested, the martyr believes, by manifesting steadfastness in the face of religious persecution or even, in extremis, dying as a result of one's faith. The martyr, the shahid, uses his voluntary death to testify, shahida, to the truth of his religion. This, one of the most basic elements of martyrdom, is quite prominent in Babi thought, numerous testimonials of which can be found in the primary histories.

      First the will of the martyr must be addressed. One killed unwillingly in the path of his religion might elicit sympathy, and could certainly be called a martyr, but unless his death were fully voluntary it could not be said to be truly a testimonial: the sufferings of a victim of oppression may testify to the cruelty of the oppressor, but would not testify to the sincerity of the oppressed unless he had the opportunity to escape the oppression and chose to submit.

      The Babis demonstrated their full willingness to die for their cause in word and in deed. First, the Bab clearly accepted his fate. At least twice he is recorded as willingly surrendering himself to his captors when he could have escaped.[239] At his trials at Shiraz in 1845 and at Tabriz in 1848 he was given the option of recanting and thereby avoiding imprisonment and possible execution, offers he unequivocally declined. At his death, as Nicolas was quoted as saying, above, "...les chretiens sont...convaincus que si Jesus-Christ avait voulu descendre vivant de la croix, il l'eut fait sans difficulte: il est mort volontairement...Il en est de meme pour le Bab, disent les Babi [sic]."[240]

      The Bab's followers lived and died by this same code. Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi recounts a sufficient example of the Babi willingness to die. At the beginning of the first Nayriz conflict, before the siege began, Vahid forewarned his followers:

"If I were to remain here, your governor, out of enmity with you, will seek assistance from Shiraz, and bearing decisive force, guns and soldiers, will exert every effort to eliminate you. You will be killed, your properties plundered and taken as spoil, your wives taken captive, your houses burnt, and your heads taken from town to town..." In response to these stern words, the crowd [as a mark of willingness to sacrifice] spontaneously placed burial garbs over their shoulders, unsheathed their swords and readied the guns. The womenfolk, moved to hysteria, circled him crying: "We are eager to sacrifice our homes, properties, children, honor and all in the path of Truth."[241]

Vahid then appointed Babis to various specific tasks. The task assigned to Haji Muhammad-Taqi was as registrar. It was his duty to secure a written testimony of those "wishing to join the defenders of their willingness to forfeit life, property and family [in the path of God] and joining the fort was conditioned upon signing this statement."[242]

      The Babis signified their willingness to die in deed by an apparent lack of concern for self-preservation. Many faced potential death with full acceptance and even eagerness. As the Babi histories tend to preserve accounts of heroism far more than temerity, it might be objected that only the few and the fanatical among the Babis manifested this zeal for martyrdom, accounts of the more moderate Babis being left out of the history books. However, enough documents by their opponents and by neutral observers support the Babi sources for it to be confidently stated that the Babi histories were not merely being selective. Incidents of recantation, as for example the dissimulation of seven of the fourteen Babis arrested in Tehran in February 1850 (or of thirty-one of the thirty-eight, as Hamadani reports it),[243] are significantly fewer than incidents of voluntarily embracing death.

      At times this willingness to die was so strong that the Babis could even be said to have been foolhardy. During the siege at Zanjan, the Babis were encamped in a few houses and a "chateau," as Gobineau terms it, at the center of town. Underneath these they had constructed a series of subterranean passages, in which they were able to reside safely for many months.[244] Disregarding this safe position, a Babi named Muhsin regularly stood on a turret of the castle, in full view, to sound the azan, the call to prayer. Since included in this was a mention of the Bab's new religion, Muhsin would have been fully aware that he was committing blasphemy, as were the disgruntled Muslims in the rest of the village who were, Nabil reports, indignant at being forced to hear the corruption of the sacred call to prayer. A number of sharpshooters amongst the besiegers were ordered to shoot Muhsin as he sounded the heretical azan. As soon as Muhsin had been shot and killed, another Babi climbed to the roof and continued the prayer from where Muhsin had left off.[245] In this and hundreds of other instances Babis showed no apparent hesitancy to expose themselves to danger, even when it was not necessarily strategic.

      A motif underlying the function of martyrdom as a witness to piety has roots in the Quran. The Bab was fond of quoting the verse "Do men think that they will be left alone on saying 'We believe,' and that they will not be tested?"[246] and there is precedent for him testing his followers. Many Babis followed his instructions to meet him in Karbala in early 1845, at which time he would announce his qa'imiyya and perhaps launch jihad. Instead of appearing there, however, he waited quietly at Muscat, a port within easy travelling distance of Karbala. When he failed to appear all but a small number of Babis became disillusioned and abandoned their faith in him.[247] This event is often treated in Babi texts exactly as such a proof test.[248]

      The importance of "proof" resounds throughout Islam and the Babi and Bahai traditions. All three religions are strongly conversion-oriented and, in their search for acceptance, they advance numerous evidences by which the truth of their new revelation can be demonstrated.[249] This emphasis on proof is reflected in one of the names by which the imams are known: they are each "Hujja Allah," the "Proof of God."[250] The term is also applied to certain eminent religious leaders, as the Bab bestowed the term upon one of his leaders (Hujjat, mentioned above in his role as leader of the Zanjan incident). As a title, Hujja Allah refers specifically to the twelfth imam in his station as Mahdi, and Babi texts speak frequently of the Bab as the hujja.

      That the Babis were acutely sensitive to the probative power of martyrdom is attested by an explicit phrase: martyrdom "perfects [or 'completes'] the proof."[251] Describing the Babis at Shaykh Tabarsi, Hamadani writes that "they had no other object in placing their lives in jeopardy than to publish the news of the Manifestation, proclaim the word of God, [and] complete the proof..."[252] This intent was also attested by some of the participants themselves: one eyewitness records seeing Mulla Husayn "unsheath his sword, raise his face towards heaven, and exclaim 'O God, I have completed the proof to this host...'"[253]

      The greatest proof of faith is willingness to sacrifice one's very life for one's beliefs--this is the supreme meaning of martyrdom as "witnessing." The first Babi to draw attention to such witnessing is the Bab himself. In the Qayyum al-Asma, the first text he revealed after declaring his mission, he prophesied his own martyrdom and included the following passage:

O Thou Remnant of God! [baqiyyat Allah, the twelfth imam as Mahdi; in Bahai exegesis, Baha'ullah] 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. Sufficient Witness unto me is God, the Exalted, the Protector, the Ancient of Days![254]

This passage clearly indicates that martyrdom is the proof of the Bab's love for God. However, its import extends beyond this: the passage was apparently taken as a model, for it is cited both by Nabil in The Dawnbreakers (14), by Baha'ullah in the Kitab Iqan (231)[255] and by Shoghi Effendi in his introduction to his translation of The Dawnbreakers (xlix). Baha'ullah makes clear that one meaning of martyrdom for the Bab was the offering up of life as proof, for his very next sentences are a quote from another work of the Bab. Baha'ullah writes:

Likewise, in His [the Bab's] interpretation of the letter "Ha," He craved martyrdom, saying: "Methinks I heard a Voice calling in my inmost being: 'Do thou sacrifice the thing which Thou lovest most in the path of God, even as Husayn, peace be upon him, hath offered up his life for My sake...'"[256]

      The Bab's intent of using his martyrdom as a proof to the truth of his mission and the depth of his sincerity was not lost on those outside the Babi fold, either. Younghusband, a later but unbiased and non-Babi writer, exclaimed of the Bab "Of the sincerity of his conviction that he was God-appointed, the manner of his death is the amplest possible proof. In the belief that he would thereby save others from the error of their present beliefs he willingly sacrificed his life."[257]

      Examples of the Babi intent to use martyrdom as proof of sincerity are numerous, usually taking a form such as Hamadani's claim that Haji Sayyed Ali, an uncle of the Bab and one of the Seven Martyrs of Tehran "sacrificed life and wealth" that

"his act might serve as a witness to all merchants, and that they might know that he...had beheld in [the Bab] virtues and powers never before seen in man, whereby he was led to devote himself to his service, and lay down his life for his sake, else would he never have courted death with such readiness, or met it with such fortitude."[258]

Martyrdom is, to the martyr, not merely one of many equal proofs, but is the supreme proof of belief and sincerity. Hamadani writes that, in spite of such witnessing cited above, the unbelievers still ask "'By what evidence can you shew that this man was the promised Proof?'" In response, he writes that no further evidence beyond martyrdom is needed.

"Why, what evidence could be more conclusive than the mere existence of such witnesses? Whoever shall consider...their earnest strivings, the sublimity of their heroism...and [their sufferings] will be convinced that there could be no testimony more conclusive, no argument more eloquent."[259]

      Sufficient examples have been given to demonstrate that Babis, almost unanimously, wholeheartedly accepted or even zealously sought to prove their faith by sacrificing their lives for it. However, the texts rarely explain the exact mechanism by which this probative exercise functions. The willingness to die for a cause clearly attests to the import of the cause for the believer, but not necessarily to its truth; indeed, to a modern observer in the First World such phenomena would appear as a sign of fanaticism or insanity more than the "sound judgment" Hamadani claims.[260]

      Unlike the use of martyrdom for proselytization, which is somewhat a social claim, the mechanism underlying martyrdom as personal witnessing is almost mystical. The witness testifies that his love for God and his acceptance of his path has become so consuming and all-important that even the deepest instincts for self-preservation are over-ridden. Baha'ullah, writing as a Babi in the mid-1850s, composed a poem which explains succinctly what underlies the phenomenon of martyrdom as proof of religious sincerity:

If thou hast in thine heart one desire for thy life, then come not hither!
But shouldst thou be prepared to sacrifice soul, and heart and life, come and bring others!
Such is the path if thou desire to enter the Kingdom of Light,
If thou art not of those able to walk this path--
Begone, and trouble us not![261]

      To better understand such sentiment, the Babi movement must be set in perspective. In a well-established religion, stable in its membership, with a systematized theology, and not in danger of eradication, a certain latitude can be afforded to differing levels of commitment. In such an established religious community, where persecution on the basis of belief is rare, only the mystic, the ascetic, or the fanatic would ever need to prove his level of belief through actual suffering or death. The Babi movement, in contrast, was far from stable. Those who professed belief were quite likely to face torture as a result. However, for the movement to grow and fulfill its objectives of spiritually conquering the world, or at least the Middle East,[262] its adherents must openly proclaim their faith. In such a crescive and persecuted movement its believers, who felt it their clear obligation to proselytize, could expect martyrdom, and it thereby became an inevitable proof-test of belief. Those who were not "prepared to sacrifice soul, and heart and life" could not be welcomed, for they would prove a serious detriment to God's cause. To those unwilling to give their lives, the true believer must therefore say "Begone, and trouble us not!"


      The one who dies to witness his faith to the unbelievers has a simple, clear objective. The audience must merely observe that the believer has so strong a faith commitment that death becomes irrelevant: the religious standard determining his actions transcends, and takes precedence over, earthly standards such as the need for self-preservation. The objective is satisfied by a simple act--refusal to recant--and whether the result is release, torture, or death, the martyr's responsibility has been satisfied by his steadfastness and whatever may follow is to a certain degree irrelevant and out of his hands to control. However, the one who dies to witness his faith to himself and to God invokes an entirely different set of parameters. The determinant is not the result of a simple response to a clear recant-or-die dialectic, but rather steadfastness in a potentially escalating continuum of suffering. The greater the commitment to endure the suffering, or the greater the tribulations involved in the martyrdom, the greater the proof thereby demonstrated. This aspect of martyrdom operates in the dimension of profound spirituality and even mysticism.

      The paradigm of the god-intoxicated martyr is well developed in Islam, especially in Sufism. This type of model is quite dissimilar from that of Imam Husayn, who is portrayed as facing death rationally, calmly, and even at times with a touch of trepidation. Farid al-Din Attar's Memorial of the Saints, a collection of brief hagiographies of Sufis, includes dozens of stories of mystics reveling in abuse and persecution.[263] The model of the god-intoxicated martyr is relevant enough to warrant two examples from Attar. In his biography of Ebrahim ibn Azam (d. 782), Attar recounts the following. Ebrahim was on board a ship, "wearing ragged clothing" and unknown to the other passengers. He was "in a spiritual ecstasy." A storm arose, and the sailors randomly chose him to throw overboard to lighten the craft and prevent its sinking. "That moment when they took me by the ear to throw me into the water, I felt that I had attained my desire, and was happy," he wrote. Attar continues:

      On another occasion I went to a mosque to sleep there. They would not let me be...So they seized me by the foot and dragged me out. Now the mosque had three steps; my head struck against each step in turn, and the blood flowed forth. I felt that I had attained my desire...I said, "Would that the mosque had more steps, to increase my felicity!"

      On another occasion I was rapt in a state of ecstasy. A joker came and urinated on me. Then too I was happy...[264]

The motive here, and in numerous other tales, is not martyrdom per se but asceticism. The mental and spiritual state are closely analogous, though. This is exemplified by the most famous of Sufi martyrs, Hallaj (d. 913).[265] Hallaj was famous for having exclaimed "I am the Truth!" (ana al-haqq). This was seen as a clear equation of humanity with the highest divine reality, and he was condemned to die for such blasphemy. Though he could have avoided death, he accepted his sentence willingly. Then, though bound in fetters, he went dancing to his place of execution. In Attar's account, before and during the execution Hallaj was in the highest of spirits: he "strode out proudly, along the way waving his arms like a very vagabond"; he laughed when they cut off his hands; he smiled when they cut off his feet; he smiled "even as they were cutting off his head."[266]

      Babi parallels with, or even emulations of, this paradigm are easily discernible and numerous. A first charge laid against those manifesting such behavior is insanity. The early Babi Mulla Ali Akbar, writes Abdul Baha, "became as one frenzied, as a vagrant and one known to be mad. Because of his new Faith, he was mocked at in Tehran by high and low...Whenever trouble broke out, he was the one to be arrested first. He was always ready and waiting for this, since it never failed."[267] The martyrs, though, vehemently deny madness, and their chroniclers are equally quick to affirm that they possessed "sound judgment."[268] At the execution of the Bab, the friends and relatives of Zunuzi cried "Our son is gone mad; his confession is but the outcome of his distemper and the raving of lunacy." He, however, asserted "I am in my right mind...[I] attest my sincerity by courting death, and am enamored of self-sacrifice and martyrdom..."[269] This was also the explanation forwarded by some observers of the Seven Martyrs: "These are Babis and madmen!" it was exclaimed, but Mulla Ismael responded "Yes, we are Babis, but mad we are not."[270]

      The source of the accusation of insanity seems clear: for example, the Seven Martyrs are, as portrayed by Nabil, "ecstatic" with "rapturous delight"; they "quaffed joyously the cup of martyrdom"; were "eager" and "impatient" for the death they "yearned" for; and were full of "gratitude" to their executioners, with "soul[s] brim[ming] over with ecstasy," for having "turned Tehran into a paradise"; and their "fevered excitement" rose, during the event, to the "highest pitch." To some of the onlookers, in contrast, they were "misguided" and "deluded" in their devotions and accepted death with "unswerving obstinacy."[271] Hamadani records one of the martyrs, Mirza Qurban Ali, as spontaneously uttering verses which epitomize the model of the ecstatic Sufi martyr and which, for the audience, could not but have recalled the heretical Hallaj and proven to the audience the lunacy of the Babis. When encouraged to recant, he responded:

To sacrifice the head for the Beloved
In mine eyes appears an easy thing indeed;
Close thy lips, and cease to speak of mediation,
For of mediation lovers have no need.

The executioner's first sword blow failed to sever his head, and only caused his turban to fall off and roll away. "Immediately, as it were with his last breath," writes Hamadani, he recited:

Happy is he whom love's intoxication
So hath overcome that scarce he knows
Whether at the feet of the Beloved
It be head or turban which he throws![272]

      Both Nabil and Abdul Baha record numerous instances of Babis who appeared drunk or even "frenzied" in their love for God and their religion, who actively sought death who lived and died in sheer ecstasy.[273] "To be tortured to death, which would be the Martyr's Crown of Life," explains Bahiyyih Khanum, was the Babis' "aim and great desire."[274]

      To the believer, it may seem an injustice to attempt to analyze the mental state as repeatedly described by sources such as Nabil, Hamadani, Abdul Baha, and Bahiyyih Khanum. However, it is at the same time indisputable that such behavior is quite abnormal and, though no reductionism is thereby intended, an attempt to analyze it is necessary. There are a few possible explanations, chief among them being first ascetic masochism, second radicalization of the struggle, and third capitalizing on a foregone course of events.

      The Shii mourner inflicting bruises and wounds upon himself during Muharram is seeking thereby to achieve an identification with Husayn and a reenactment and trans-historical actualization of his sufferings for the purpose of keeping fresh Husan's memory and the commitment not to submit to injustice. This is not reflected as such in the behavior of the "frenzied" Babi, who seems instead to be operating more under the model of the world-renouncing and pain-seeking Sufi ascetic. Hamadani writes that, during Tabarsi, the Babis "rushed towards immolation with an impetuosity which imagination can scarce conceive...whenever one of their comrades quaffed the draught of martyrdom before their eyes, instead of grieving they rejoiced," he writes. He adds here a very telling observation: "They seemed weary of life and of their bodies, and met the afflictions which continually beset them with the cry of 'Is there more?'"[275] Later, describing the same siege, he continues:

it seemed as if in times of battle a new spirit was breathed into their frames...They used to expose their bodies to the bullets and the cannon-balls not only fearlessly and courageously, but eagerly and joyously, seeming to regard the battle-field as a banquet, and to be bent on casting away their lives.[276]

      Though the Babis regarded Tabarsi, and many other conflicts, as recreating Karbala, it can be seen that other factors were at play here than historical and theological emulation. However, while the model of the renunciant Sufi comes much closer to paralleling this behavior, there are differences here too. The execution of Hallaj, whom other Sufis came to regard as having flaunted unwisely his mystical attainments, had a certain chilling effect on public expressions of Sufi belief. While many Sufis were executed for their heterodox practices, the Sufi direction following Hallaj was to interpret asceticism and martyrdom much more as internalized spiritual struggles--the jihad al-nafs instead of the jihad bi al-sayf. With the consequently more cautious public approach, the Sufi ascetic was much more often subjected to abuse and ridicule than actual martyrdom.

      The case of the ecstatic Babi is unique to what can be termed "crescive" societies, which the Encyclopedia of Religion defines as a society "that is politically powerless but beginning to stir,"[277] a classic example being the early Christian community. Babism in the 1840s and 1850s was not only crescive in the sense of newly-born, but further saw itself, to ever-increasing degrees synchronous with the Bab's ever-escalating claims, as destined to become a world religion, or at least the religion for the local world of Persia and its environs.

      More, the Babis believed that their new religion decisively abrogated all previous religions and civil laws. Nabil reports that, at Badasht, "each day...witnessed the abrogation of a new law and the repudiation of a long-established tradition."[278] This radical break with the past, combined with an intensely focused and dedicated drive for conversion, informed all aspects of Babi activity, especially martyrdom. In the second Nayriz conflict, a certain Akhund Mulla Hasan was asked by a Muslim divine: "Akhund! You are a wise man, so how is it that with a life-time worth of learning and self-discipline [you became a Babi] and consented to the death of your sons and captivity of your wife?" "I am too weak to respond," he said. "I only know: 'All laws are abrogated.'"[279] It must be remembered that, during the occultation of the imam, all governments and codes of law civil enjoy no more than provisional authority, and that immediately upon the appearance of the Mahdi all authority, both civil and religious, reverts to him.

      For the Babis, this combination of factors--knowing themselves to be in possession of the truth destined to encompass the known world, feeling the exigency of promoting the religion, and knowing that it completely abrogates all previous and existing governments and religious institutions--proved a most powerful combination of authority, immediacy, and righteousness. All other concerns become secondary, as in Mulla Ismael's statement that "we have forsaken life, wealth, wife, and child, and have shut our eyes to the world and such as dwell therein."[280]

      Once the individual believers adopted this momentous weltanschauung, they were freed from lesser constraints such as timidity, concern for personal safety, and avoidance of suffering and death. God, his Mahdi, and his Cause became all-consuming. The Babis became, in a phrase frequently used by Shoghi Effendi, "God-intoxicated." The Babi movement, by its very nature, teachings, and historical context encouraged an extraordinarily firm commitment. Death was highly possible and, for those who found themselves called to die, "sacrific[ing] the head for the Beloved" would indeed "appear an easy thing," and the martyr so devoted that "scarce he knows whether at the feet of the Beloved it be head or turban which he throws!" Yet to the outside world not sharing this world-view, the Babis could not but have appeared at minimum incomprehensible and at maximum insane.


      A final aspect of Babi martyrdom to be addressed derives from the Islamic teachings about jihad in conjunction with the Bab's station as Mahdi. The Babis, as fighters in the army of the Mahdi, would be strongly motivated to sacrifice their lives and, for such a just cause, would be guaranteed the greatest of rewards. As the Babis' intense zeal for martyrdom has been clearly demonstrated above, it would seem to follow that the Babi movement featured a clear philosophy of jihad. Such is not the case: the Bab, while speaking of jihad much in the early years of his mission, never actually launched the holy war. The nature of martyrdom in the prosecution of Babi jihad proves to be a fairly complex matter.

The Bab as Mahdi and Leader of Jihad

      Shii tradition foretold that horrific world disturbances and a violent revolution would accompany the return of the Qa'im. He will arise at a time when the world is full of extreme chaos and strife, strife which will initially increase by his leading a great battle against all those who have opposed the Shiis throughout history.[281] When he returns he will inherit and reveal a number of esoteric books which have been waiting in safe-keeping for him, as well as an arsenal of weapons: the Prophet Muhammad's sword, spear, and coat of mail. Upon receiving these weapons, he will be the Master of the Sword (sahib al-sayf).[282] He shall appear first either at Mecca or at Karbala, but shall make both cities centres of his leadership. He will enter Mecca as a youth, unrecognized by anyone present, and will lean against the Kaaba and declare his mission. He then will head to Medina. He will raise and equip an army, some of whom will raise a black standard in Khurasan, a signal that the war is about to begin. They will then wage war against the Mahdi's opponents as well as against the established governments.

      The Bab was careful to fulfill verbatim many of these prophecies. Explicit proofs included that he brought a new book of laws, his Qayyum al-Asma--sometimes called the "Babi Quran"--by which all previous religions were thereby superseded and all civil laws abrogated; he raised an army, even if but a token one; he entered Mecca as a youth and, as he says, "unknown by anyone,"[283] where he circumambulated the Kaaba, announced his advent, and proceeded to Medina; he instructed his followers to assemble at Karbala, where he said he would soon enter and fulfill the prophecies;[284] and later he instructed others to raise the Black Standard in Khurasan--perhaps even sending Mulla Husayn there solely for the sake of the symbolism of the location--and, with a sizable group of armed followers, to march across Iran. He further declared his station with a variety of terms he adopted for himself, all of which explicitly recalled the return of the twelfth imam, such as Qa'im, Mahdi, Hujja Allah, Baqiyya Allah ("remnant of God"), and Sahib al-Zaman ("Lord of the Age"). He also used theological terminology to point to his station, such as styling himself the "Primal Point," i.e. the point from which all knowledge and, in his words, "all created things" emerge.[285]

      The Shii doctrine of jihad agrees in the main with the Sunni doctrines discussed above, save with two differences: the identity of the one who will lead the jihad, and those against whom it will be waged. For Shiism only the appointed descendants of the Prophet, i.e. only the imams or their babs, have the legal sanction and the religious authority to lead holy war.[286] Two items of note fell out from this concept. First, all wars fought during the occultation are unjustified (though the body of the ulama, operating as de facto vicegerents of the imam, could declare a limited war). Second, as an indirect result of the teaching that only the Imam Mahdi could lead a jihad came the notion that, when the Mahdi came, he would lead such a war.

      The other distinguishing feature of Shii jihad results from Shiism's belief that, while most of the Muslim world, in following community rule rather than the Prophet's primogeniture, became unfaithful to true Islam. For the Shii, then, jihad can be waged against, not just the pagans, but against other "people of the book" and even against other Muslims.

      The Shii concepts of jihad, when combined with the advent of the Bab, resulted in a few aspects of jihad unique to Babism. First, and most obviously, the Bab as Mahdi could and was expected to lead jihad: whether he desired to launch a holy war or not, his status as the Bab and then as the Qa'im required him to announce its commencement or suffer a damaging loss of credibility. Second, the definition of enemy now had an added dimension: for the early Muslim the pagan is an unbeliever; for the Shii the Sunni is an unbeliever; for the Babi, the Shii is an unbeliever.

      Accordingly, in the Bab's early works he formulated a clear concept of jihad and called for its prosecution. Two of his earliest works, the Qayyum al-Asma, written early- to mid-1844, and the Risala furu al-Adliyya, written in late 1845 or early 1846, are very clear in their announcement of the coming jihad. The Qayyum al-Asma speaks repeatedly of expelling all unbelievers from the five central provinces of Iran and of slaying those who remain.[287] In the Risala furu al-Adliyya he explicitly raises jihad to the level of a sixth branch of Islam[288] alongside the orthodox five of prayer, pilgrimage, giving alms, fasting, and the profession of faith--an emphasis on jihad witnessed nowhere else in the history of Islam save amongst the early extremist Kharijites. However, he consistently refrained from announcing that jihad had actually begun.

      The early Babis wholly accepted the imminence of the launching of jihad. First, there was no doubt for them that they were following the arisen Qa'im and fighting for him would have been not only sanctioned by religion but even required. One of the duties of the Mahdi is to slay the Dajjal, the "antichrist" of Shii eschatology,[289] and for the Babis the Dajjal was represented by their opponents. Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi, describing one day of the first Nayriz defense, exclaimed: "For nearly eight hours the Army of God was engaged in a battle with the men of Satan,"[290] and more than once the Babis spoke of despatching their enemies "to hell."[291] To this end they manufactured weapons and traveled armed, even in cases where it would have seemed a clear provocation.[292] When they met at Badasht in 1848 many sources agree that their intent may likely have been to organize and launch the jihad.[293] The Babis are consistently depicted as impatient, passionately motivated to prosecute the cause of the Bab.[294] The Bab, though still not launching the jihad, was not shy about encouraging militancy, at one point calling for a battle in a "glorious sea of blood,"[295] and writing to the Shah that "my intention is to take revenge, as it is destined in the Book of God, from those who slew the true martyred Imam [Husayn]; their descendants too will join them in the sufferings of Hell."[296] An eyewitness at Zanjan reports Hujjat as declaring "This is the day on which 'man shall fly from his brother, and his mother and his father, and his wife and his children.' [Quran 80:34] This is the day when man, not content with having abandoned his brother, sacrifices his substance in order to shed the blood of his nearest kinsman."[297]

      Within such a heady atmosphere--opposed by those who, by their unbelief, were the very incarnation of the slayers of Imam Husayn and Satan himself; bound by tradition and belief to support the returned Imam by fighting in his army; justified by the Bab's theologies of jihad from the Qayyum al-Asma and required to fight by its elevation to a "pillar" of faith as revealed in the Risala furu al-Adliyya; inspired to action by their generally impetuous nature; and encouraged to extremism by many statements of the Bab--the Babis were highly motivated to commit themselves to the cause of the Qa'im as fully as possible. There was, however, one complication: the Bab consistently refrained from actually announcing the commencement of the jihad, placing instead the bulk of his emphasis on the religion of "he whom God shall make manifest," man yuzhiruhu Allah. Indeed, he made the entirety of his religion and all of its laws conditioned wholly upon its acceptance or even rejection by this figure.[298]

Martyrdom in the Cause of the Mahdi

      The bulk of the Bab's writings, aside from some early works like the Qayyum al-Asma, are fairly irenic. It does not, for example, seem to be because of unjust selectivity that the compilation Selections from the Writings of the Bab "contains not a single passage referring to...the decree of jihad," featuring rather "passages...of a generalistic moral or theological content," a quality which Denis MacEoin attributes to a willful manipulation of texts chosen to make Babism "palatable to a modern Bahai audience."[299]

      As later Babi and Bahai texts repeat tirelessly and even neutral and hostile sources confirm, the Bab was by nature peaceful and quiet. Many or most observers would agree with the assessment of an English physician who once treated him: "He was a very mild and delicate-looking man...with a melodious soft voice, which struck me very much...In fact his whole look and deportment went far to dispose one in his favour."[300] To a certain extent the Bab is portrayed as being almost aloof from the revolutionary spirit fueling his followers.[301] Though starting out with a strong emphasis on jihad, the Bab gradually ceased to call attention to it, such that the Bayans--the Persian, written in 1848, and the Arabic, written in 1850--contain only two mentions of the term jihad at all, and those merely in passing. In what would seem to be almost a prohibition of jihad, a complete reversal of his earlier teachings, he writes in the former:

Il n'est pas permis de porter des instruments de guerre si ce n'est quand c'est necessaire ou bien quand il faut faire le Djehad dans le route de Dieu. Le port d'armes n'est permis qu'aux fabricants d'armes de guerre...

explaining that

...ce qui est cause que quelqu'un a peur de quelqu'un n'est pas aime par Dieu...C'est ainsi que les instruments qui peuvent etre cause de la terreur de quelqu'un n'entrent pas dans le Paradis.[302]

Elsewhere in the same work he explicitly stated that no one should be slain for unbelief.[303] The Bab did at times speak of war and revenge,[304] but on the whole he seems to have been motivated much more by introspective concerns, as exemplified by the description of his mission as recalled or imagined by Nabil (the quote is attributed to "the Bab's...Spirit"):

"I am come into this world to bear witness to the glory of sacrifice. You are aware of the intensity of My longing; you realise the degree of My renunciation. Nay, beseech the Lord your God to hasten the hour of My martyrdom and to accept My sacrifice. Rejoice, for...I...will be slain on the altar of our devotion to the King of Glory."[305]

      The Babis thus found themselves in an uncomfortable position. They were full of an impassioned zeal to prosecute the cause of the Mahdi and spread his religion across the world, preferably by argument or by means of the sword if necessary. Facing the armies of unbelief at best and of Satan at worst, they had no choice but to carry their struggle to an ultimate conclusion; moderation and compromise would be inconceivable. Further, their leader, the Qa'im, was by religion justified and by tradition expected to launch the final jihad, but he refrained, speaking instead more of the mission of a Prophet-to-come and the latter's prerogative to reveal or repeal as he saw fit. While the Babis could be militant and even cruel against their opponents, they far more often felt themselves constrained merely to fight defensively, citing explanations like that of Hujjat at Zanjan:

He [Hujjat] constantly reminded them that their action was of a purely defensive character, and that their sole purpose was to preserve inviolate the security of their women and children. "We are commanded," he was frequently heard to observe, "not to wage holy war under any circumstances against the unbelievers, whatever be their attitude towards us."[306]

An examination of all the major conflicts reveals a similar attitude: the Babis invited repression with their martial activities and generally aggressive attitudes, but they consistently refrained from launching organized offenses. When attacked they zealously defended themselves, and engaged in semi-combative defensive tactics such as raids upon the besiegers and the theft of provisions from them and at times the surrounding villages,[307] yet they appear not to have initiated any conflicts. "In no instance," MacEoin concludes after his exhaustive study, "do the Babis seem to have declared offensive jihad along the lines suggested in the Qayyum al-Asma,"[308] using instead as a model the category of "defensive jihad."[309]

      Though merely an hypothesis, there is one obvious way to reconcile this shift in the Bab's teachings and at the same time account for the strength of the martyr ethos within Babism. Announcing the imminence of jihad, and making preparations for its advent, communicated clearly to both his followers and the observing world that he was indeed the Mahdi, come with all of the Mahdi's rights, laws, and expected actions, and that he was not hesitating to arrogate to himself the full range of the Mahdi's authority--hence his conspicuous fulfillment of prophecies. However, his mission was at root one of simple conversion and preparation for the future messianic figure "He whom God will make manifest," and to this end he devoted far more energy to seeking audiences with political leaders than in forming and leading an army; indeed, at least twice he willingly submitted to incarceration and a third time offered himself up for execution.

      Other leaders of the movement respected the Bab's agenda and likewise refrained from launching offenses. This fact is also telling for, by tradition, not just the Mahdi, but his representatives as well, are given the authority to declare and lead a jihad. When the Bab's rank ascended to Qa'im and Mulla Husayn's accordingly was elevated from bab al-bab to actual babiyya, Mulla Husayn now legally had the right to declare jihad--yet, despite all the militant zealotry Mulla Husayn displayed at Tabarsi,[310] even he never did so. Similarly, after Mulla Husayn was killed and leadership of the Tabarsi struggle fell to Quddus, he too spoke not of offensive war but of defense and martyrdom. The Bab thus was careful to reserve the right to declare jihad for himself.[311] By allowing himself the prerogative to declare jihad he attested to his station as Qa'im, but by refraining from declaring it he was able to prosecute his true mission: a reform intended to pave the way for the future man yuzhiruhu Allah.

      Suffering martyrdom in the prosecution of a jihad is, in Islam, Shiism, and Babism, a uniquely honorable fate which brings with it a whole host of rewards. However, as the above discussion shows, this was not a sphere of action open to the Babis, for offensive jihad was never declared. A not-unexpected result of this dialectic--the drive to fight to the end and "perfect the proof" combined with a certain obstacle against doing so--was a yet more pronounced emphasis on martyrdom than even offensive jihad would have produced. In short, finding themselves armed both with swords and with God's only true religion, facing a world of intractable unbelievers and even the army of Satan, and yet being prohibited to fight on the offensive, the Babis had no real option but to glorify and seek martyrdom.

Notes to this chapter

[174] Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (New York: Dell Pub. Co., 1975 [1984]).

[175] The Bab later explained that he revealed his mission in gradual increments "so that men might not be disturbed by a new Book and a new Cause." Trans. and quoted by Denis MacEoin, "Early Shaykhi Reactions to the Bab and His Claims," in Moojan Momen, ed., Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History vol. 1 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1982), 18. (Volumes one through four of this series were subtitled Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History, and subsequent volumes subtitled Studies in Babi and Bahá'í Religions.)

[176] For example, Baha'ullah, addressing a partisan of his rival Subh Azal in 1891, writes "O Hadi!...In these days We have heard that thou hast striven to lay hands on and destroy every copy of the Bayan [the core book of Babism]." Two sentences later he writes that he himself has not read the work, by which he may be referring to Hadi's recent success in destroying copies: "God testifieth and beareth Me witness that this Wronged One hath not perused the Bayan, nor been acquainted with its contents." Baha'ullah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988), 164-165.

[177] Each of the principle uprisings was led by or centered around one or two highly prominent, charismatic, determined individuals with formal religious education: Mulla Husayn and Quddus at Tabarsi, Hujjat at Zanjan, and Vahid at Nayriz.

[178] In the Hebrew Bible Isaac is the son Abraham is ordered to sacrifice, but in Muslim belief (though not mentioned in the Quran) it is Isaac's brother Ismael.

[179] I have combined here two translations of the event by Browne from the same manuscript: Note B, from Traveller's Narrative, translated ca. 1890, 213-214, and Browne, New History, trans. ca. 1893, 253-254. The other version of Mulla Ismael's utterance Browne gives is

Zephyr, prythee bear for me a message
To that Ismael who was not slain,
'Living from the street of the Beloved
Love permits not to return again.' (New History, 253)

The original Persian is given in Browne, Traveller's Narrative, 213.

[180] He was, at minimum, surprised. When he and his father arrived at the sacrificial altar, the Bible has Isaac say "Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Gen. 22:7).

[181] Among other examples is the Bab uttering, on the death of his infant son Ahmad in 1843, "O God my God! Would that a thousand Ismaels were given Me, this Abraham of Thine, that I might have offered them, each and all, as a loving sacrifice unto Thee." (Here the Bab continues for another twenty lines, saying that this sacrifice will never be enough "to quench the flame of longing in his [the Bab's] heart"; only the Bab's own death "in the path of Thy [God's] good pleasure" will suffice.") (Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 77).

[182] Later Babi and Bahai paralleling of Christ with the Bab is also addressed in Stephen Lambden, "An Episode in the Childhood of the Bab," 9-18.

[183] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 8. The Bab's full address is given in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 92-94. (As given here the address is far too lengthy and detailed to be considered a historically accurate quote. Nabil makes this clear in ending the quote by writing "with words such as these the Bab quickened the faith of His disciples and launched them upon their mission." [Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 94, emphasis added] Amanat discusses this passage and its Christian motifs in Resurrection, 197-198.

[184] Examples of what MacEoin terms the "Christianization" of the Babi movement (MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm," 230-231) number in the hundreds. Some were neutral interpretations by outside observers (such as Nicolas and Gobineau); some intentionally apologetic parallels by Abdul Baha and Shoghi Effendi (e.g. God Passes By, 56: "The passion of Jesus Christ, and indeed His whole public ministry, alone offer a parallel to the Mission and death of the Bab, a parallel which no student of comparative religion can fail to perceive or ignore"); some simply pious perspectives offered by later Bahais to whom the parallels between the Bab and Christ seemed obvious (e.g. William B. Sears, who, in The Martyr-Prophet of a World Faith [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1950], draws explicit parallels between the two figures and their martyrdoms a dozen times in a mere nineteen pages).

[185] Hamadani, New History, 303.

[186] Nicolas, Seyyèd Ali Mohammed, 376. Also quoted (with errors quietly corrected) by Shoghi Effendi in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 515, footnote.

[187] Hamadani, New History, 134.

[188] Amanat, Resurrection, 133. Cf. Balyuzi, The Bab, 40, and Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 77-78.

[189] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 252. Cf. ibid., 80, where the Bab's behavior prior to 1844 is described: "With what assiduous care He attended those gatherings at which the virtues of the Siyyid al-Shuhada, the Imam Husayn, were being extolled! With what attention He listened to the chanting of the eulogies! What tenderness and devotion He showed at those scenes of lamentation and prayer! Tears rained from His eyes as His trembling lips murmured words of prayer and praise. How compelling was His dignity, how tender the sentiments which His countenance inspired!"

[190] The significance of dreams for the Bab has an added dimension not found in normative Shiism. One of the heretical doctrines of Shaykhism, recalling Sufism, is a strong emphasis on the transmaterial world, the hurqalya. The Hidden Imam lives here, not invisibly on earth as orthodox Shiism holds. It is thus only in the hurqalya, through visions or dreams, that one can commune with the imams. See, for example, Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, 45, and Rafati, Development of Shaykhi Thought (1979), 191 and passim.

[191] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 253.

[192] Trans. by and quoted in Amanat, Resurrection, 131. The decapitated head of Husayn, as well as his blood, is also significant and evokes its own unique set of meanings. See Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 132-134.

[193] Its sole citation in full that I have found is in the Dawnbreakers. Outside this, its only appearance is a brief mention in two academic works, the first little read by the Bahai community and the second read by none but the specialists: Smith partially quotes it in Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 14; MacEoin mentions it in his dissertation From Shaykhism to Babism: A Study of Charismatic Renewal in Shi'i Islam (University of Cambridge, 1979), 141. Amanat cites only the second mention of the dream.

[194] See Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Guide Divin Dans Le Shi'isme Originel. Trans. by David Streight as The Divine Guide in Early Shi'ism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam, trans. David Streight (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), passim.

[195] For example, in 1846 he dreamt of finding a tablet (letter) in the tomb of Imam Husayn, written in red ink, which confirmed the Bab's claim to qa'imiyya, and closed with "I entrusted my cause to God," signed "Mahdi." Amanat, Resurrection, 131.

[196] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 132.

[197] Selections from the Writings of the Bab, 69.

[198] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 235. Baha'ullah quotes this same verse in the Kitab Iqan, where it is translated as: "Likewise, in His interpretation of the letter 'Ha,' He craved martyrdom, saying: 'Methinks I heard a Voice calling in my inmost being: "Do thou sacrifice the thing which Thou lovest most in the path of God, even as Husayn, peace be upon him, hath offered up his life for My sake."'" Baha'ullah, Kitab-i-Iqan, 231-232. (Lacking originals I do not know whether the differences are in the original or occur in translation.)

[199] See Hamadani, New History, 304-305, note, for a typical example.

[200] MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm," 224, and Peter Smith and Moojan Momen, "The Babi Movement: A Resource Mobilization Perspective," in Peter Smith, ed., In Iran: Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History volume three (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1986), 69.

[201] Though Quddus was widely thought to be a Manifestation (Prophet), and indeed was even at one point explicitly termed such by the Bab, it was Mulla Husayn who, as the Bab al-Bab, was generally regarded as possessing a certain leadership status. See Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 58.

[202] See Denis MacEoin: From Shaykhism to Babism, "Hierarchy, Authority and Eschatology in Early Babi Thought" (in In Iran: Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History vol. 2, ed. Peter Smith [Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1986]), 105-111, and "Divisions and Authority Claims in Babism" (in Studia Iranica, tome 18, fascicle 1 [Paris: L'Association pour L'Avancement des Etudes Iraniennes, 1989], 92-129.

[203] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 342-345.

[204] Cf. Mulla Husayn's warning at the commencement of this journey: "This is the way that leads to our Karbala. Whoever is unprepared for the great trials that lie before us, let him now repair to his home and give up the journey." Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 326, emphasis added.

[205] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 162, emphasis added. Only one of Browne's manuscripts has the phrase "as they did that of Husayn ibn Ali," but the meaning would not have been lost on his audience even had he not added this.

[206] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 165.

[207] Hamadani, New History, 68.

[208] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 121.

[209] From "Memories of Haji Muhammad-i Nayrizi," trans. Ahang Rabbani. Accessed from the internet, Linkname: Memories of Haji Muhammad-i Nayrizi; URL:

[210] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 106-107. The account, quoted from this same place--New History, 106-107--is also found in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 413-414, and God Passes By, 81.

[211] See, for example, Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 117.

[212] From "Nayriz: the first century," trans. Ahang Rabbani. Accessed from the internet: Linkname "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi"; URL

[213] Browne, with quotations from Mirza Jani's Nuqtat al-Kaf, New History, appendix II, 337.

[214] There were some exceptions, such as the Nuqtat al-Kaf reporting Quddus as saying "I am the Lord Jesus." Quoted in Browne, New History, appendix II, 366. (Quddus strongly and repeatedly emphasized identification with Jesus, especially with the themes of asceticism, suffering, and martyrdom. See Amanat, Resurrection, 187. However, as addressed above, Quddus and Mulla Husayn were equated with all major Western prophet figures.)

[215] Examples are numerous; two will suffice. In 1955, during the systematic pogrom by the Iranian religious establishment and sanctioned by the government, Shoghi Effendi addressed the American Bahais: "...seldom, if at any time since its inception, has such a widespread publicity been accorded the infant Faith of God...To the intensification of such a publicity...the American Bahá'í Community...must fully and decisively contribute." (from Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, 139-140) In 1982, in the wake of the manifold persecutions and martyrdoms occurring in and after the Iranian revolution, the Universal House of Justice observed that "current persecution has resulted in bringing the name and character of our beloved Faith to the attention of the world as never before in its history," noting a few months later that these persecutions "offer such golden opportunities for teaching and further proclamation as can only lead, if vigorously and enthusiastically seized, to large scale conversion..." (Quoted in MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm," 238, where other examples are also provided.) It must be added that the Bahai community's capitalizing on the events of persecution for the sake of publicity is in no way meant to demean the truly horrific nature of most of these occurrences. The primary purpose of publicity is simply to bring an end to violence; conversion is a distant concern, at best. The point being made here is that, while a secondary concern, spreading awareness of the religion is nonetheless a conspicuous theme.

[216] Hamadani, New History, 304.

[217] The rebellious and at times even militant nature of the Babis is a complex topic. Besides just presenting their thought and behavior, a scholar examining the topic must also address and perhaps even counter a century of Bahai thought and writing which systematically and effectively transformed them in popular consciousness from activist revolutionaries to peace-loving, unjustly persecuted proto-Bahais. While their nature as proto-Bahais can only be addressed by theologians, their often militant character is attested to in all primary histories, whether written by Babis, early Bahais, or their enemies. This is not, however, to lay blame for the violence solely with the Babis, for the cruelty and oppressiveness of the ulama and the government is even more clearly attested in the histories.

[218] Rabbani, trans., "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi." Other primary source, and relatively early, histories include Abdul Baha's A Traveller's Narrative and Haji Mirza Jani Kashani's Kitab al Nuqtat al-Kaf. The Traveller's Narrative can be comfortably excluded because, while the author was an eyewitness to many events about which he writes, the work is short, late (ca. 1886), and seeming based largely on other sources. The Kitab al Nuqtat al-Kaf (ca. 1851) can be excluded because most of the accounts it contains are included in the New History (ca. 1880), which is largely an expanded recension of it. (See footnote 135, above.) The Dawnbreakers is, like the New History, relatively late, completed ca. 1890. However, it is based on eyewitness accounts and on numerous notes taken much earlier, so can be considered an early source. A few other eyewitness accounts of events in Babi history have been translated but for the most part are not published (see internet, Linkname "Random primary source material"; URL /histories/histories.html).

[219] The Azalis were followers of Subh Azal, Baha'ullah's half-brother and rival claimant. Most historical disputes of the first century following the death of the Bab consisted of Bahais and Azalis mutually accusing each other of corrupting texts and altering historical accounts. Every Babi text thus far found likely suffered from at least minor "corrections" by one faction or the other, a fact repeatedly lamented by E. G. Browne.

[220] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 617-618. See also Hamadani, New History, 228-30. Capt von Gumoens' letter, which touches upon Sulayman Khan's martyrdom and portrays many related incidents of the same time, is discussed in Browne, Traveller's Narrative, note T, 332-334, partially quoted in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 65-66, and quoted in full in E. G. Browne, ed., Materials for the Study of the Babi Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1918), 267-271, and Moojan Momen, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford: George Ronald, 1981), 132-134.

[221] Hamadani, New History, 77-78.

[222] Hamadani, New History, 233. See also Mulla Ismael, in ibid., 253: "By Allah, O people, it is to awaken and enlighten you that we have forsaken life, wealth, wife, and child..."

[223] Hamadani, New History, 117.

[224] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 188.

[225] "A crescive" religion is an emergent one with a still-nascent self-definition. See below, page 112.

[226] While "Bahai Faith" is a later term coined by Shoghi Effendi, it was Baha'ullah who in 1866, officially declaring a separation from both Babism and from the Azalis, renamed his Babi followers as "Bahá'ís" (followers of Baha, i.e. Baha'ullah) and, to symbolize the break from Islam and Babism, instructed that the standard invocation "Allahu Akbar," "God is Great[er]," become "Allahu Abha," "God is [more] Glorious."

[227] The Bab did explicitly foretell the coming of another Prophet who would supercede his religion, but the interpretation of the exact dates he foretold for its appearance is disputed, and it was not clearly predicted to what extent the new religion would continue or break from Babism.

[228] Much of the history of Babism was preserved by European Christians who saw in the movement a reenactment of the early history of their own church and were quick to interpret and glorify it accordingly. Nabil's text, though containing valuable history, must be regarded largely as a later Bahai interpretation of the religion. He quotes long and elaborate statements by Babis in places where they were unlikely to have been recorded, if even overheard. Further, a large but undetermined portion of the text was added much later by Shoghi Effendi, its editor and translator.

[229] See, for example, the conversion of Mirza Siyyid Muhsin in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 513-514.

[230] Quoted in Traveller's Narrative, 34.

[231] Gobineau, quoted in Browne, Traveller's Narrative, Note B, 216.

[232] Sir Francis Younghusband, quoted in Sears, Martyr-Prophet, 17-18.

[233] Lady Sheil, Life and Manners in Persia, quoted in Browne, Traveller's Narrative, Note B, 212.

[234] Thomas Gordon, Persia Revisited, quoted in Balyuzi, The Bab, 222. Gordon wrote this book in 1895, after serving in Iran in the late 1880s and 1890 (see Moojan Momen, Babi and Bahá'í Religions: Western Accounts, 502); he almost certainly has in mind the peaceful Bahais who, like many Westerners, he mistakenly refers to as Babis.

[235] All aspects of traditional jihad were invoked by certain ulama in justifying their war against the Babis. For example, two Muslims fighting against the Babis at Nayriz later reported the ulama as convincing them that they were taking part in a holy war, sanctioned by religion, and for their participation in it they would receive the expected rewards in paradise. (Browne, Traveller's Narrative, Note H, 259-260.) Cf. Chosen Highway, 240, and Balyuzi, King of Glory, 337-338, where Shaykh Mahmud, a Muslim, reports that he was instructed to kill Bahá'u'lláh and, believing him to be an enemy of Islam, felt that it was his duty to do so.

[236] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 580.

[237] MacEoin, "Babism to Bahá'ísm," 236. Moojan Momen analyzes the rural nature of these principal conflicts in "The Social Basis of the Babi Upheavals in Iran (1848-53): A Preliminary Analysis," in International Journal of Middle East Studies 15 (1983), 157-183. He notes in conclusion that "[i]n most places, only a handful of persons would be converted to the new religion," and that where large scale conversions did occur these were usually due to emulating the conversion of a prominent religious leader. (ibid. 179)

[238] Browne, Traveller's Narrative, Note T, 327. It seems that it was not the numbers but the randomness of these deaths, accompanied by the unusually bizarre sadism of the tortures, which accounted for the observers' reactions.

[239] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 148-149 and 228, respectively. See also Balyuzi, The Bab, 84 and 121.

[240] Some Muslim accounts do record the Bab as withdrawing his claim just before his execution. Gobineau writes "...according to the Bab's enemies, he not only renounced all his teachings, but he wept and asked for mercy." (Quoted in Kazemzadeh, "The Bab: Accounts of His Martyrdom," 21) The Bab's prior pattern of behavior renders this report highly unlikely.

[241] Rabbani, trans., "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi."

[242] Rabbani, trans., "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi."

[243] Hamadani, New History, 250.

[244] Described by Gobineau, in Dawnbreakers, 545, note, and by British diplomat Justin Sheil (husband of Lady Sheil) in Balyuzi, The Bab, 212.

[245] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 560.

[246] Moojan Momen, in a post to the listserv H-Bahai on June 28 1997.

[247] Smith, Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 15-16.

[248] Momen, H-Bahai post of June 28 1997. See for example Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 158-159.

[249] For example, Nabil, describing Mulla Ali Bastami's defense of the Bab at his trial in 1845, quotes him as saying "His proof is His Word; His testimony, none other than the testimony with which Islam seeks to vindicate its truth. From the pen of this unschooled Hashimite Youth of Persia there have streamed, within the space of forty-eight hours, as great a number of verses, of prayers, of homilies, and scientific treatises, as would equal in volume the whole of the Qur'an, which it took Muhammad, the Prophet of God, twenty-three years to reveal!" Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 90.

[250] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 66-68 and 206, note 15.

[251] Denis MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," in Religion 12 (April 1982), 121.

[252] Hamadani, New History, 78.

[253] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 107.

[254] Quoted in Baha'ullah, Kitab Iqan, 231.

[255] Though the Kitab Iqan is now considered a Bahai text, it can be included here because its purported intent, written as it was in 1861 five years before his public declaration, was nominally simply an apologia for Babism. As used here, of course, the Kitab Iqan is chiefly quoted for the statements of the Bab it contains.

[256] Baha'ullah, Kitab Iqan, 231-232. Also quoted by Shoghi Effendi in Dawnbreakers, 515, note.

[257] Quoted in Shoghi Effendi, Dawnbreakers, 517.

[258] Hamadani, New History, 261-262.

[259] Hamadani, New History, 233-234.

[260] Hamadani, New History, 233.

[261] From a talk of Abdul Baha, as quoted by his sister Bahiyyih Khanum. Blomfield, Chosen Highway, 56.

[262] In the Qayyum al-Asma and the two Bayans the Bab repeatedly refers to the conversion or expulsion of all non-Babis in the the five central provinces of Persia: Fars, Iraq, Azarbayjan, Khurasan, and Mazandaran. See, for example, Le Beyan Persan, Unite VI, Porte 4 (tome troisième, 74-76).

[263] Farid al-Din Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics: Episodes from the Tadhkirat al-Auliya' (Memorial of the Saints), trans. A. J. Arberry (London: Arkana, 1966). This book, a classic throughout the Muslim world and especially Persia, was also a model for the Babi and Bahai community: Abdul Baha emulated it both in format and in title with his collection of brief biographies of Babis and early Bahais Memoirs of the Faithful (trans. Marzieh Gail [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1971]). Attar's is entitled Tadhkirat al-Auliya', or "Memorials of the Saints" ("friends," i.e. of God); Abdul Baha's is Tadhkirat al-Wafa' or "Memorial of Faithfulness."

[264] Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics, 73-74.

[265] Annemarie Schimmel, encapsulating in parallel all of the themes of Babi martyrs discussed thus far, writes: "Hallaj is...the martyr of Islam par excellence because he exemplified the deepest possibilities of personal piety to be found in Islam; he demonstrated the consequences of perfect love and the meaning of submission to the unity of the divine beloved--not with the aim of gaining any sort of private sanctity but in order to preach this mystery, to live in it and to die for it." Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 64.

[266] Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics, 266-271.

[267] Abdul Baha, Memoirs of the Faithful, 11.

[268] E.g. Hamadani, New History, 233.

[269] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 300.

[270] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 253.

[271] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 447-458.

[272] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 252-253. See also Browne, Traveller's Narrative, 214.

[273] Other examples, from Abdul Baha's Memoirs of the Faithful, include Pidar-Jan of Qazvin who "spent his days and nights communing with God and chanting prayers; and although he walked the earth, he traveled the heights of Heaven...His awareness of this world was clouded, for he journeyed through another. He dwelt in ecstasy; he was a man drunken, bedazzled" (42); Aqa Muhammad-Ibrahim, who "wrote an elegy to memorialize [the] believer who had fallen on the field of anguish...[he] live[d] out his life...with fervor and love. Then he welcomed death, laughing like a rose suddenly full-blown, and crying, 'Here am I!'" (82); Haji Ali Askar Tabrizi, of whom Abdul Baha writes "The greater the tyranny of the oppressors, the happier he was" (163). Cf. also Mirza Mahdi Kashani (95), and Haji Hasan, Haji Jafar, and Haji Taqi (123-124).

[274] As told to Lady Blomfield. Chosen Highway, 42.

[275] Hamadani, New History, 82.

[276] Hamadani, New History, 109.

[277] Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 9, s.v. "martyrdom," 232-233.

[278] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 293.

[279] Rabbani, trans., "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi."

[280] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 253.

[281] Descriptions of the time of his return are given in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 216-229, and Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 150-179. Prophecies differ, and none present exactly the same set of descriptions about the Mahdi and his rise.

[282] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 21-22 and 159.

[283] Le Beyan Persan, tome deuxieme, 163-164.

[284] MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 105.

[285] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 4. Certain hadith, and Sufi thought, hold that all knowledge in the Quran, and by extension all possible knowledge, derive from the first orthographic marker of the Quran, the dot of its first letter, ba. The Bab, by calling himself the "primal point," nuqt ula or nuqt avval, is thus claiming the station of possessor of all knowledge.

[286] Denis MacEoin discusses the distinctions between Sunni, Shii, and Babi jihad in "The Concept of Jihad in the Babi and Bahá'í Movements" (unpublished paper, presented to the third annual seminar on Bahá'í Studies at the University of Lancaster, April 8 1979), revised as "The Babi Concept of Holy War."

[287] MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 102-103.

[288] MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 106.

[289] Stephen Lambden, "Antichrist-Dajjal: Some notes on the Christian and Islamic Antichrist Traditions and their Bahá'í Interpretation," part I (Bahá'í Studies Bulletin1:2 [September 1982], 14-49) and part II (Bahá'í Studies Bulletin1:3 [December 1982], 3-43), passim.

[290] Rabbani, trans., "Nayriz: the first century."

[291] Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 44, and MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 117.

[292] See MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 111-112 and passim; "The Concept of Jihad in the Babi and Bahá'í Movements," 24 and passim; Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 44; and Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, 91 and 123.

[293] Bayat expresses no hesitancy: "That the Babi leaders at Badasht had planned an armed revolt is absolutely not in doubt." (Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, 118).

[294] Cf. Tahirih interrupting a theological discourse by Babi leader Vahid with her exclamation "O [Vahid]! Let deeds, not words, testify to thy faith...Cease idly repeating the traditions of the past, for the day of service, of steadfast action, is come. Now is the time to show forth the true signs of God, to rend asunder the veils of idle fancy, to promote the Word of God, and to sacrifice ourselves in His path." Related by Abdul Baha, Memoirs of the Faithful, 201.

[295] Paraphrased by Ahang Rabbani, note to "Nayriz: the First Century."

[296] Trans. by and quoted in Amanat, Resurrection, 381. See also ibid., 377-8.

[297] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 567.

[298] Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1991), 123-128, and God Passes By, 28-30.

[299] MacEoin, "The Concept of Jihad in the Babi and Bahá'í Movements," 43-44.

[300] Dr. Cormick, quoted in Momen, Babi and Bahá'í Religions: Western Accounts, 74-75.

[301] Indeed, the dominant characteristic of his personality seems to be emotional mildness, at times even melancholic. For example, upon receiving the news of the end of the seige of Tabarsi and the death of his beloved Quddus, he was so heart-broken and disconsolate that, as his secretary Sayyed Husayn reports, he refused to see anyone and ceased writing for five months (Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 430). Bayat (Mysticism and Dissent, 96-97) and MacEoin have often described the Bab's agenda as largely martial. However, while it is true that he and the Babis were not nearly as pacifist as usually portrayed in later Bahai sources, there is too little evidence to portray them as consistently aggressive.

[302] Le Beyan Persan, Unite VII, Porte 6 (tome quatrieme, 13). See also Afnan and Hatcher, "Western Islamic Scholarship," 41 and note 52.

[303] Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 46.

[304] Amanat, Resurrection, 377.

[305] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 140-141. Even if this quote is fanciful and was never actually uttered, it is a wholly accurate reflection of the Bab's attitude as expressed in his own words numerous times.

[306] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 546.

[307] See, for example, Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, 120.

[308] MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 121, and "The Concept of Jihad in the Babi and Bahá'í Movements," 34.

[309] Denis MacEoin, "Bahá'í Fundamentalism and the Academic Study of the Babi Movement," in Religion 16 (January 1986), 69-70.

[310] See Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 324-429 passim, and Mehrabkhani, Mulla Husayn, passim.

[311] Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 46.

previous chapter chapter 3 start page single page chapter 5 next chapter
Back to:   Personal pages Theses
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
. .