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Dying for God:
Martyrdom in the Shii and Babi Religions

by Jonah Winters

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Chapter 5


Religions, like any social or cultural phenomena, reflect the circumstances in which they are born. Even religions with a strong theology of divine inspiration tend to reconcile revelation from above with the undeniable reality of external influence, as for example Judaism and Christianity teach that God works through, not above, history, and Islam that every teaching sent down from God is evoked by its own circumstance--the sabab al-nazul, "circumstance of revelation."

Any number of the major "aggregated motifs"--sets of cultural and religious symbols and allusions--familiar to Islam, Shiism, and Babism could be traced through the three religious traditions to follow the evolution of symbology and better understand the mechanisms by which each new religion was born. Martyrdom provides one of the most fruitful themes, for it is prominent in the former two religions and, as circumstances came to require, became central in Babi thought and history. It can be seen that this symbolic set was not static in the Shii and Babi religions, but underwent clear transformations as the contexts changed.

The above study has utilized two approaches. One is historical: studying the evolution of symbolism and religious belief, which can be teased out with a diachronic analysis of texts and events. The other is comparative: analyzing themes and religious meanings which characterize and in places even define the two religions. These two approaches have not been separated above and used independently, for each was necessary and their purviews usually overlapped.

Historical Continuum and Evolution of Themes

In summation, both normative Islam and Shiism, starting out with a strong drive to seek authority and recognition, each initially honored the martyr's quest and taught the need for self-sacrifice. Born from belief in an appointed rule and the need to defend it, crescive Shiism found its foundational symbols in the assassination of Ali and the struggles and supposed voluntary death of Husayn and his followers. Under the later imams it evolved into a broad theme invested with a variety of spiritual significances relating to theodicy, redemption, and eschatology. Once Shiism began to lose its civil authority, and especially after it became, at least in Iran, melded with a Persian cultural ethos, it shifted its focus to an interiorized awareness of mourning. It became a state religion under the Safavids in the sixteenth century, and by the Qajar period the rule of the ulama had come to be treated as a semi-permanent substitute for the rule of the Mahdi. The Iranian Shii community was thus enjoying at least a nominally Shii civil state and a Shii religious rule, and the theme of struggling against an unjust state was therefore somewhat inapplicable. The need for actual martyrdom decreased dramatically, and the motifs of sacrifice became further abstracted and somewhat transcendentalized. During the Qajar period the Iranian Shii community focused on mourning the martyred Husayn more intensely than at any previous time. It developed evocative ceremonies, occasionally featuring various forms of self-flagellation, to mourn Husayn and other legendary Shii martyrs. From then to the present, Shii martyrdom has been preserved in these elegiac rituals.

The Babi movement was born in a Shii state, grew out of a predominantly Shii culture, and the overwhelming majority of its converts were previously Shiis.[312] It thus naturally operated within the Shii paradigms of religious symbolism and historical and cultural allusions. Some of the most dominant characteristics of Iranian Shiism, such as a sense of loss of divinely- granted rule, a profound lingering sorrow over the deaths of God's appointed religious authorities, and an acute sensitivity to the reality of suffering and the testimonial value of martyrdom, shaped much of early Babi thought. At the same time, Babism claimed to represent the return of the Qa'im, the Lord of Time and harbinger of the Day of Judgment,[313] and hence created for itself a wholly new and revolutionary context. The Bab claimed that the world was experiencing the fitna, the period of tribulation foretold by Shii prophecy. This message was fully accepted by the Babis, for whom, to paraphrase Nabil, "all laws were abrogated and long-established traditions repudiated."[314]

In this time of struggle the Babis were defending themselves as a small and proscribed group against much larger, better-equipped forces believing them heretics. Martyrdom was a very real possibility, and the theme once again flourished in all its related phenomena. The motivation to extreme and radicalized action, the drive for conversion, the theological explanations of redemption, the assurances of rewards, and the mystical ecstasy of the self- sacrificing lover of God all became such prominent motifs for Babis that they could quite easily be seen as frenzied and fanatical, and at minimum as zealous.

As a further complication, the Bab was expected to launch the final jihad, the capstone of Shii eschatological prophecy. The Babis were fully ready to follow him in the crusade: they were emotionally steeled, had made and collected weapons, and had met at least once, in Karbala, and perhaps a second time, at Badasht, for the express purpose of inaugurating the final battle. However, the Bab consistently refrained from calling them to arms, and his appointed representatives who could also have called the jihad, such as Mulla Husayn, Quddus, and Hujjat, followed his example and refused to launch major offensives. The Babis were thus left with no option but to fight the defensive jihad enjoined upon them by Shii religious law.[315] In such an operation they would be called to defend their religion and their community, but could foresee and came to accept the likelihood of their martyrdom in the process.

Summation of the Meanings of Martyrdom

While few texts exist that portray the thought of the early and proto-Shii community, enough evidence is available to allow for a relatively informed window into early Shiism. The early history of Shii Islam bears many similarities to that of the Babi movement as summarized immediately above. Like the later Babism, Shiism began with a full confidence in its religious authority and legal justification and a pressing desire to convert others to its agenda, but found itself pitted against the consistently hostile and superior cultural, religious, and military forces of the establishment, in this case the Umayyads. In these respects martyrdom had many of the same meanings as for the later Babis. It was a proof of one's convictions and sincerity and, since martyrdom was often a likely outcome of the Shii's struggle against his opponents, it came to be equated with a host of rewards in the afterlife.

However, Shiism was unlike Babism in a few important areas. Instead of being inspired by a key figure and his single-minded, even if complex, agenda, Shiism came to define itself loosely, inspired by the more abstract agenda of seeking to regain rightful rule while preserving "true" Islam.[316] Instead of forming over a short period of time, it grew gradually, finding much of its formulation for the first time under the sixth imam, more than a century after the time of the Prophet, and finding much of its current definition only under the Safavid state, almost a millennium after the Prophet. In these respects martyrdom in later and contemporary Shiism came to have very different meanings. In conjunction with old Persian cultural emphases on suffering, martyrdom came to be abstracted into a sensitivity for empathetic suffering expressed, not through violence, but through worship. Instead of actualizing the events of Karbala with one's own martyrdom, the worshiper participates in communal commemoration and mourning ceremonies, occasionally inflicting pain and injury upon himself, to evoke emotional and physical suffering. This suffering becomes a vicarious martyrdom, through which the Shii can share in the glory of Husayn, motivate himself to heightened spiritual states, and even earn redemption.

The presentation of the themes of martyrdom in Babism given in chapter four, above, revealed that Babism contains to a certain extent two sets of martyrdom symbolism: that of the Bab, who employed martyr themes of the later Shiism unique to Iran, and that of the Babis, who paralleled themselves more with earlier Muslims, Shiis, and even Sufis.

The Bab began expounding his religion at a time when the organized dramatic mourning ceremonies, especially the taziya, were at the height of their development. In his own teachings and writings he made extensive use of the themes current to his time, especially that of introspective suffering and martyrdom. Much of style of his writing, akin in this regard to the melancholic flavor of much Persian literature, also reflected such motifs. He repeatedly made fervent prayers to God to allow him to sacrifice himself--as Nabil quotes him above, "beseech the Lord your God to hasten the hour of My martyrdom and to accept My sacrifice"--which recall the cries Shiis uttered during the mourning ceremonies. Finally, his visions of the Imams and Husayn and his use of the full range of eschatological prophecies utilized the latest and most highly-evolved and complex symbolic sets. The Bab's paradigm for martyrdom, then, can be seen to be largely that of post-Safavid Iranian Shiism.

While the Bab spent most of the years 1844-1850 under house arrest or in prison, his followers were vigorously spreading the news of the new revelation, seeking to convert all whom they could and challenging existing authorities. They thus found themselves at the forefront of conflicts and frequently in mortal danger. For them, the life-or-death struggles of the early Shiis and of Husayn was a much more immediate analogy to their situation than the transcendentalized martyrdom of later Shiism, abstracted as it was into a theology of vicarious suffering. While the Bab did pray for and willingly submit to his arrests and execution, it was the Babis who more frequently spoke of martyrdom as "proof" and of the necessity to witness one's faith by offering one's "life, wealth, wife, and child." They were the ones who, unlike the Bab, so radicalized their physical and spiritual conflicts that they became "frenzied" and "intoxicated," unmistakably emulating the old models of the ecstatic Sufi ascetic and the martyr Hallaj.


The above study first presented in broad the motifs of martyrdom and its related phenomena of suffering, jihad, mysticism, and the figure of Imam Husayn in Islam and Shiism. In this respect the study simply contributed to available scholarship by reexamining the themes within the two religions. Then, through an examination of this aggregated motif as formulated by the Bab and a tracing of its application within and practice by the Babi community, it showed some of the various continuities and discontinuities--cultural, historical, and theological--between the three religious traditions. In this respect the study provided a new window and insight into the nature of the teachings of the Bab, the ways in which he was influenced by and innovated upon his environment, and the character of the Babi community. The Babi religion can thus be better understood and located historically and theologically within a context.


Focusing on Islam, Shiism, and Babism, while allowing for a contained study, presents only a partial picture. The entirety of the Bab's theology and mission, especially as weighed in light of his later writings, was wholly and unmistakably centered around the future messianic figure man yuzhiruhu Allah, "Him whom God shall make manifest." Though in the first five years following his execution at least twenty-five Babis claimed to be this figure, by 1866 only two Babis maintained the claim: the half-brothers Subh Azal and Baha'ullah. The vast majority of Babis flocked to Baha'ullah as the leader of the Babi community, and within a few years of his private declaration in 1863 and his public one in 1866 they swore allegience to him. He renamed these followers "Bahais," followers of Baha'ullah.

Baha'ullah formulated his religion in much the same way as the Bab had done. He adopted the sets of themes, terminologies, and symbolism current in his surroundings and familiar to his followers and, largely through a process of investing them with new meanings, created a wholly new and distinct religion.

The evolution of symbolism in the Bahai religion can be observed as clearly as it can within Babism, with martyrdom remaining a prominent motif. However, the shifts of its meaning were even more extreme than those observed within Shiism, from Shiism to Babism, and within Babism Baha'ullah was uneasy with militancy from an early age. He relates that one of his earliest formative experiences was an acute and lengthy depression he experienced upon reading an account of Muhammad's massacre of the Jews of Banu Qurayza (627 C.E.),[317] which, though he acknowledged it was done on the authority of God, he saw as excessive. In Baha'ullah's early works, written within a decade of the periods of Babi persecutions and tortures, he did speak often of the need for self-sacrifice. "To tinge thy hair with thy blood is greater in My sight than the creation of the universe and the light of both worlds," he wrote in 1858. "Strive then to attain this, O servant!"[318] However, at his first opportunity he sought to limit its occurrence. One of his first legal pronouncements, or perhaps even his first, upon announcing his mission in 1863 was to repeal the pillar of jihad,[319] saying later "Know thou that We have annulled the rule of the sword, as an aid to Our Cause, and substituted for it the power born of the utterance of men."[312] He explicitly instructed his followers that it was better to be killed than to kill,[321] explaining that "today 'victory' neither hath been nor will be opposition to any one, nor strife with any person; but rather what is well-pleasing is that the cities of hearts...should be subdued by the sword of the Word, of Wisdom, and of Exhortation."[322]

In place of the martial aspects of martyrdom in jihad, which Baha'ullah explicitly outlawed, and of the literal meaning of sacrificing one's life, which he strongly discouraged, Baha'ullah explained that true martyrdom is devoting oneself to service. "Martyrdom is not limited to self-sacrifice and the shedding of one's blood," he explained, "for a man may be accounted in the book of the King of Names as a martyr, though he be still alive."[323] Abdul Baha, Baha'ullah's son and authorized interpreter of his teachings, further emphasized that the truest and most desirable form of martyrdom is a life- sacrificing service of humanity in the name of God. In the Bahai Faith, then, martyrdom can be seen first to have had the same meanings the Babis gave it, but then it was wholly abstracted and given an entirely new meaning appropriate for the new religion's new context and goals.

Notes to this chapter

[312] Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 71. [313] See above, 32 and 114-115.
[314] See above, note 283.
[315] See above, note 314.
[316] Among other things, for example, many early Shiis believed that they and they alone possessed the accurate, complete Quran. See Jonah Winters, "The Shii Quran: an Examination of Western Scholarship" (unpublished paper; University of Toronto, 1995). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "The Shii Quran"; URL [317] MacEoin, "Babism to Bahá'ísm," 223.
[318] Baha'ullah, trans. Shoghi Effendi, The Hidden Words (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1975), Arabic no. 47.
[319] Smith, Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 79.
[320] Baha'ullah, trans. Shoghi Effendi, Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983), 303.
[321] See, for example, Abdul Baha, Memorials of the Faithful, 199; Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 198; Shoghi Effendi, preface to The Dawn-Breakers, xxxv.
[322] Quoted in Abdul Baha,Traveller's Narrative, 114.
[323] Trans. in and quoted by MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm," 226.


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