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Biography of Bahá'u'lláh, the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith.
Written for possible inclusion in The Bahá'í Encyclopedia. Posted with permission of both the author and of the editor of the Encyclopedia project.


by Juan Cole

Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892) was the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, considered by adherents to be the Universal Manifestation of God who has ushered in a new age of world unity. His given name was Husayn-`Ali Nuri, and he was born in Tihran on 12 November 1817 into the household of a prominent Iranian government dignitary, Mirza Abbas Nuri, known as Mirza Buzurg. served at first as minister to one of the sons of Fath-`Ali Shah (r.. 1797-1834), and then, late in the same shah's reign, he was appointed governor of Burujird and Luristan. Mirza Buzurg was in the circle of the then vizier, Mirza Abu'l-Qasim, the Qa'im-Maqam. The old shah died in 1834 and his son, Muhammad Shah (r. 1834-1848) came to power. The young monarch wished to establish his independence, and he had the vizier, Qa'im-Maqam, disgraced and killed. Bahá'u'lláh's father, Mirza Buzurg, was stripped of his governorship and of his government salary, though he retained the Nuri family's ancestral estates around the village of Takur in the Nur district of Mazandaran (Bamdad, Rijal, VI, pp. 126-129).

Bahá'u'lláh in his youth showed himself a sensitive and spiritual young man. He was deeply affected, for instance, when he read about the execution of a group of traitorous and rebellious tribesmen (the Banu Qurayza) by early Muslims. He also related how, at the wedding of one of his brothers, he witnessed a traditional Middle Eastern puppet show. The show was set at a royal court, and when it ended, the puppeteers packed all the finely clothed figures into a trunk. Young Bahá'u'lláh was struck at how illusory and ephemeral were the trappings of earthly glory (Q.V. Tablets to the Rulers).

Although Mirza Buzurg was out of favor at court, the new vizier, Hajji Mirza Aqasi, offered the young Bahá'u'lláh a government post, which the latter declined. Later, the vizier sought to acquire some of Nuri lands, and was furious when Bahá'u'lláh refused to sell. Bahá'u'lláh, who had contemplative leanings, came into contact with believers in the mystical, esoteric school of Shaykhis (q.v.) in Nur. In 1844, Mulla Husayn Bushru'i arrived in Tihran in his attempt to spread the Babi faith among the Shaykhi communities, and he found a willing convert in Mulla Muhammad Mu`allim of Nur. The latter in turn agreed to convey the Bab's message to Bahá'u'lláh, then in the capital. The young noble accepted the new religion eagerly (NN, 120-122).

Late in 1844 or in 1845, Bahá'u'lláh returned to Takur from Tihran, and expended great efforts in spreading the Babi faith in Nur and Mazandaran. Because of the prominence of his family, and his own charismatic personality, Bahá'u'lláh's first teaching efforts yielded some new believers, including some members of the Shi`ite clergy. Bahá'u'lláh also taught the faith to his brothers, including Mirza Musa and Mirza Yahya (only 13 in 1844). Bahá'u'lláh also attempted to employ his prominence as a noble to protect other Babis, and he succoured Tahirih Qurratu'l-`Ayn and some other Babis when she was falsely accused of complicity in the slaying of her uncle, Mulla Taqi Baraghani. As a consequence of his coming out into the open, however, Bahá'u'lláh was briefly imprisoned in Tihran (TN, pp. 72-78, tr. pp. 56-62).

In the summer of 1848, eighty-one prominent Babis gathered at the village of Badasht in northwestern Iran to discuss ways of freeing the Bab from his imprisonment in Azerbaijan. Bahá'u'lláh attended with his brothers, and rented gardens for some of the Babis, such as Tahirih, but largely stayed in the background. He suggested divine names for some of the Babis, in accordance with the Bab's instructions that his followers glorify God in this manner, and it was at this point that he adopted for himself the name Baha', or the divine glory. His young brother and ward, Mirza Yahya, then 17, became Subh-i Azal or the Morn of Eternity. A conflict broke out at Badasht among Babis who wished to proclaim the abrogation of Islamic law and the inception of the Bab's independent revelation, and those who saw the Babi religion as still compatible with retention of Shi`ite legal codes. Bahá'u'lláh, like Tahirih, supported the adoption of the new revealed law of the Bab, and this position won out. Bahá'u'lláh later visited Fort Shaykh Tabarsi and advised the Babis besieged there by government troops and local Shi`ite clericalists. He left, and attempted to return, but he and his brother Mirza Yahya were arrested in Amul (NN, 278- 300, 368-77, 459-62, 583-85).

Toward the end of his young life, the Bab had lost many of his major disciples in the upheavals and persecutions of the late 1840s. He began increasingly corresponding with and depending another cohort of followers, including Bahá'u'lláh, and also Mulla `Ali "`Azim" Turshizi and Azal. In the winter of 1850, Bahá'u'lláh was corresponding with the Bab, dictating his letters to Mirza Yahya; for the purposes of secrecy, these letters were sent in Mirza Yahya's name. Some of the letters the Bab wrote to Mirza Yahya in this period actually appear therefore to have been addressed through him to Bahá'u'lláh. Abdu'l-Bahá has explained that by the spring of 1850 the vizier, Amir Kabir, was putting great pressure on the Babis, and the religion needed a secret head whose identity remained unknown to the authorities. Bahá'u'lláh and Mulla `Abdu'l-Karim decided to give it out that Mirza Yahya Azal was the chief of the new religion, in order to protect Bahá'u'lláh, now the real mover and shaker among the underground Babis. Azal was acknowledged by many prominent Babis as a "Mirror" and a first among equals. There is no evidence that the Bab appointed him as a legatee or vicar, and there were many Mirrors (a rank below that of the Letters of the Living) among the Bab's major followers (NN 32, 587, 593-94).

In July of 1850 the Bab was executed by the Iranian government. Thereafter a number of important Babis put forth extravagant claims, including, in 1851, Sayyid Basir-i Hindi of Multan. Bahá'u'lláh challenged Sayyid Basir, and asserted his own divinity instead (many Babi leaders of the time represented themselves as participating in a pleroma of divine manifestation, similar in some ways to that claimed by Sufis or mystics). In June, 1851, the vizier put pressure on Bahá'u'lláh to leave the country, which suggests that the government had by that time infiltrated the Babis and discovered who the community's real leader was. Bahá'u'lláh went to the shrine city of Karbala in Iraq, the site of the tomb of the Imam Husayn, where a small but active Babi group existed. He found that it was led by a Sayyid `Uluvv, who had made claims to being God incarnate. Bahá'u'lláh faced the man down and convinced him to retract those claims. On the other hand, during his stay in Karbala between August 1851 and March 1852, Bahá'u'lláh told some of his close companions that he was himself the return of the Imam Husayn, whose return Shi`ites expected after the advent of the Qa'im or Mahdi. During Bahá'u'lláh's absence, the more radical leaders of the Babi community in Tihran, such as Azim and Azal, plotted the assassination of Nasiru'd-Din Shah in retaliation for his execution of the Bab. In the meantime, a new vizier had come to power, Mirza Aqa Khan of Nur, a cousin of Bahá'u'lláh, and he called Bahá'u'lláh back to the capital. There was some expectation of better relations between the government and the Babis.

On his arrival, however, Bahá'u'lláh discovered the assassination plot, and denounced it. The plot was carried out on August 15, 1852, by some young fanatics, but failed when the pistol misfired. Bahá'u'lláh was staying with his brother-in-law, a secretary to the Russian ambassador. The shah demanded that the Russian legation allow Bahá'u'lláh to be surrendered to the government, but the Russians handed him over to the vizier, Aqa Khan Nuri, who was sympathetic to him. The vizier found it impossible to protect Bahá'u'lláh when anti-Babi riots broke out in Tihran, and Bahá'u'lláh was arrested and made to walk in chains to the Siyah-Chal, the Black Pit dungeon. The vizier, furious, offered his resignation over Bahá'u'lláh's false arrest. During his imprisonment in the filthy, disease- ridden dungeon Bahá'u'lláh saw several Babi friends executed and suffered horribly. He underwent mystical experiences, feeling energy wash over his body from the crown of his head, and saw a visions that encouraged him to arise to reform the Babi community (NN, 595-650).

Bahá'u'lláh was found innocent of complicity in the assassination plot, but it was clear that he was not now welcome in Iran. The government gave him permission to go to Baghdad, in neighboring Ottoman Iraq, where he arrived on 12 January 1853. Azal followed him there a few months later. Bahá'u'lláh was according to sources close to him unhappy about Azal coming to Baghdad as a recluse, apparently because Azal was not under any formal exile order and therefore could have remained in Iran to organize and give heart to the Babi community there. Factions of Babis formed in Baghdad who were loyal to either Bahá'u'lláh or to Azal, and the ensuing jealousies and rancor so disgusted Bahá'u'lláh that in 1854 he secretly departed from Baghdad, taking with him only one companion, a merchant, and went to Kurdistan in the north where he lived the life of a mystic. After some time, his friend was killed by thieves. The Kurds practiced the mystical form of Islam known as Sufism, and a branch of the Naqshbandi Sufis in Sulaymaniyyah heard of Bahá'u'lláh's piety, inviting him to their center. They could tell from his superb calligraphy that he was no illiterate holy man. While in Kurdistan Bahá'u'lláh wrote his "Ode of the Nightingale," an Arabic poem in classical Sufi style that mentions his "mission" for the first time. Bahá'u'lláh subsequently kept up good contacts with the Kurds, who most often knew Persian, and may in fact have been attempting to widen the base of the Babi movement away from Iranian Shi`ites by attracting the Sunni, Sufi, Kurds into the faith. Bahá'u'lláh was on good terms with the influential Baban family of Kurdistan (Dahaji, p. 48; Qazvini, tr., pp. 7-9; Bahá'u'lláh, "Al-Qasidah al- Warqa'iyyah," in Athar III, pp. 196-215).

Back in Baghdad, the Babi community lacked firm, public leadership, given Azal's penchant for secluding himself, and it fell into disarray. Azal also appears to have alienated many in the Baghdad community by briefly taking a widow of the Bab's as a temporary wife, in contradiction of the laws of the Bayan. The Babis searched for and found Bahá'u'lláh and pleaded with him to return, which he did in 1856. In the late 1850s Bahá'u'lláh wrote important works such as The Hidden Words and Seven Valleys, which by their crisp Arabic and Persian style and their mystical intensity encouraged some Babis back in Iran to become especially attracted to his personality. The form of The Hidden Words, in which God speaks directly but cryptically to the believer, much resembles that of the `Holy Sayings' (hadith qudsi) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, and this literary form provided a clue to his own claims. Still, Bahá'u'lláh publicly and in his correspondence pointed to Azal as the leader of the community in this period. Since Azal most often remained in hiding, however, Bahá'u'lláh had to take on much of the daily administration of Babi affairs, including the management of the funds donated by believers. Privately, to a handful of believers such as Nabil-i Akbar Qa'ini, Bahá'u'lláh in the late 1850s talked of himself as a Logos-figure, brought into being before the creation. Increasingly, the Babis divided into those who thought Azal was the sun and Bahá'u'lláh the mirror, and those who thought Bahá'u'lláh the sun and Azal the mirror. The Babi community risked persecution from the Shi`ite clerics throughout this period, and at one point an Iranian consul and some major clergymen attempted to begin a movement against Bahá'u'lláh. This anti-Babi move failed because the leading Shi`ite cleric in Iraq, the just and cautious Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari, refused to go along with it (TN, pp. 107-18, tr. pp. 82-88; Dahaji, 81-82; Salmani, tr., 15-20, Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, Letters and Essays, pp. 65-76).

In the early 1860s Bahá'u'lláh gradually made explicit some of the claims latent in his mystical works of the previous decade. Although his Book of Certitude, revealed circa 1861-1862, makes no open assertion of his status as the promised one of the Bab, at the end Bahá'u'lláh says it was "revealed" (munzal). He appears to have been waiting for the year 1280 of the Islamic calendar (1863-64) to make a more open declaration, since some Muslims expected that a messiah would arise in that year. In the spring of 1863 Bahá'u'lláh was informed that Ottoman Sultan `Abdu'l-`Aziz wanted him brought to the capital, Istanbul (Constantinople). Before he left, Bahá'u'lláh set up tents in the garden of Najib Pasha at Baghdad, where, during the period 21 April to 2 May, he informed a select handful of close followers and relatives that he was the promised one of the Bab, "He whom God shall make manifest." He also from this point urged a pacifist approach, condemning holy war or jihad. He arrived in Istanbul in August, but refused to seek out prominent statesmen or to play politics. The Iranian ambassador put considerable pressure on the Ottoman government to have him exiled from the capital, from which he could have gained influence. Sultan `Abdu'l-`Aziz bowed to the Iranian entreaties, and ordered that Bahá'u'lláh be exiled to Edirne (Adrianople), 240 km from the Bosphorus on its European side. Bahá'u'lláh wished to contest the sultan's decision, suggesting that the Babis in his household refuse to obey it. This refusal would result, he reasoned, either in a glorious martyrdom, or in the order being rescinded. Azal, however, was unwilling to go along with the plan, and since it required unanimity to succeed, it could not be carried through (Dahaji, pp. 65-70, 153-54; Salmani, tr., pp. 22, 39-41; Qazvini, "Risalah," tr., pp. 16-19).

Bahá'u'lláh dwelt in Edirne from 12 December 1863 to 12 August 1868, along with a small number of other Babis, including Azal. They received a stipend from the Ottoman government for their support. In the period 1865-1866 he gradually began sending letters to close friends back in Iran in which he said he was the spiritual return of the Bab. These claims vitally threatened the position of Azal, then widely recognized in Iran as the titular head of the religion, since it would mean little to be vicar of the Babi religion were "He whom God shall make manifest" to appear and initiate a new dispensation. In March, 1866, Bahá'u'lláh moved to a separate house from that of Azal, who, he said, had plotted his death. In September, 1867, Bahá'u'lláh sent a letter to Azal in which he delineated his station and demanded obedience from his younger half-brother. Azal responded by challenging Bahá'u'lláh to a test of the divine will in a local mosque, such that God would strike down the impostor. Bahá'u'lláh agreed, and went to the Sultan Selim mosque at the appointed time, but Azal lost face when he neglected to show up. In 1866-1868 Bahá'u'lláh began writing his Epistles to the Rulers, addressing Sultan `Abdu'l-`Aziz, Nasiru'd-Din Shah of Iran, and Napoleon III of France (Bahá'u'lláh, Lawh-i Nasir, Majmu`ih-yi Matbu`ih, pp. 166-202; Dahaji, pp. 35-38, 283-85; Salmani, tr., pp. 42-48, 93-105; Qazvini, tr., pp. 19-27).

The partisans of Azal, having lost ground locally and disturbed at the eagerness with which Babis in Iran were embracing Bahá'u'lláh's message, began approaching the Ottoman state with complaints. Additionally, the Iranian ambassador in Istanbul, Mirza Husayn Khan, had continued to press for harsher restrictions on the Babis in the Ottoman empire. In response, the Ottoman government launched an investigation of the Babis at Edirne in the spring of 1868. The commission concluded that Bahá'u'lláh had a right to complain about the actions of Azal and his partisans, but that Bahá'u'lláh, in making a new claim and promulgating it from Ottoman soil, posed a possible source of turmoil. The sultan therefore ordered that Bahá'u'lláh and some of his companions be exiled to the disease-ridden fortress-prison of Akka or St. Jean d'Acre on the Syrian coast. Azal and his followers were sent to Cyprus. The Ottomans also sent some Azalis to Akka, and some Bahá'ís to Cyprus, presumably in hopes they would spy on their enemies for the state (Dahaji, pp. 154-56; Qazvini, tr., pp. 27-52).

Bahá'u'lláh expressed fury at being sent arbitrarily into solitary confinement at the fortress of the pestilential, remote little declining port city of Akka, and he predicted that political turmoil would consequently beset Istanbul and that God would "take hold" of Sultan `Abdu'l-`Aziz. He continued his proclamation to the rulers of the major powers, writing Queen Victoria, Tsar Alexander II, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and Pope Pius IX. In these letters he proclaimed himself the promised one of all religions, and therefore in a symbolic sense the return of Christ for Christians. (For Jews, he was the messiah, for Shi`ite Muslims the return of Imam Husayn, for Zoroastrians the Shah-Bahram Varjavand.) He denounced the international arms race, saying that military budgets should instead be diverted to caring for the poor, and advocated collective security, wherein all nations would bind themselves to join in a defense of any country attacked by an aggressor. One of the great issues facing the autocratic governments of the Middle East in the late 1860s and early 1870s was whether to allow governmental reforms such as cabinet government, a written constitution, and parliamentary democracy. In 1866 the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt had set up a relatively powerless Chamber of Deputies. Political groups such as the Young Ottomans began agitating for parliamentary government in Istanbul itself in 1867, and they continued their campaign for the subsequent decade. Indeed, in 1873 two prominent Young Ottoman thinkers were exiled to Akka where they enjoyed cordial relations with the Bahá'ís. Bahá'u'lláh had clearly, however, been in prior contact with some of these Young Ottomans, and, indeed, sent a letter to Rhodes reporting to their colleagues the arrival of the two at Akka. His eldest son, `Abdu'l-Bahá, also corresponded with the Young Ottoman constitutionalist, Namik Kemal. Bahá'u'lláh, disappointed that he had been treated unjustly by the sultan and his ministers, joined in the call for parliamentary government on his arrival in Akka. In his Tablet to Queen Victoria (1868 or 1869) he praised the system of British parliamentary democracy, the franchise in which had been widened when she signed the Reform Act of 1867 only the year before. In 1873, in his Most Holy Book (al-Kitab al-Aqdas), Bahá'u'lláh predicted that a democracy of the people would rule one day in Iran itself. In later tablets he advocated that a world-wide consultative body be convoked. In 1876, in a vindication for Bahá'u'lláh's earlier predictions, Sultan `Abdu'l-`Aziz committed suicide in Istanbul and political forces favoring elected government came to power, authoring a constitution and holding empire-wide elections. The young Sultan `Abdu'l-Hamid, however, eventually proved hostile to this budding democracy, and he prorogued the Ottoman parliament in 1878 and instituted strict censorship. Bahá'u'lláh, undeterred, continued to call from Ottoman soil for constitutional monarchy and elective government in the Middle East, a call that was officially forbidden in the despotic regimes of the sultan and the Iranian shah It was not until the Young Turk revolution of 1908 that the Ottoman ban on democracy was revoked. (Cole, "Iranian Millenarianism," pp. 1-26 and sources cited therein).

From Bahá'u'lláh's more open proclamation of his station in 1866/67, his message met with widespread acceptance among the Babis back in Iran, the vast majority of whom now became Bahá'ís. Only a few thousand continued to follow Azal. As noted, in 1873 Bahá'u'lláh authored his most important work, the Most Holy Book, the book of laws for the Bahá'í religion, intended to abrogate for Bahá'ís the canon law of both the Babi faith and of Islam. In subsequent works he urged the adoption of a world language, and of a globally uniform set of weights and measures. He taught the underlying unity of the major world religions, including Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam (his son and vicar, `Abdu'l-Bahá', later recognized Buddha and Krishna as true prophets, as well). Bahá'u'lláh advocated compulsory schooling for children, including girls, and said that in his religion "women are as men." He enjoined his followers against holding any religious or national prejudice, and, in a time when Middle Easterners were discovering nationalism, he insisted that love of all humankind was superior to mere love of one's own country. He advocated the adoption of modern Western technology, and pointed out that Middle Easterners had already accepted much of the philosophical and scientific heritage of the ancient Greeks, upon which modern scientists were only building (these points in Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas).

Bahá'u'lláh had by 1873 already been permitted to move out of the Akka prison, and to rent a dwelling in the town. When they arrived in Syria, the Bahá'ís had been suspected by local authorities of being nothing but anarchists and criminals. Gradually, Bahá'u'lláh's uprightness and high ideals changed the minds of officials, and only once, when some of the rougher Bahá'ís murdered three Azalis who were spying on the Bahá'ís for the Ottoman state, was this rapprochement interrupted. Bahá'u'lláh had attempted to instill a pacifist ethos in the Babi community, and deeply regretted the incident. In 1877, the local Ottoman governor gave him permission to live in a mansion outside Akka, at Mazra`a. In 1879 he moved to another mansion, at Bahji (literally the "small garden," Bagce, in Turkish), where he lived until his passing in 1892. Bahá'u'lláh married three times, first Asiyih "Nuvvab" Khanum in his youth, then his cousin, Mahd-i `Ulya, whose family had been martyred; he had a number of children with each of these co-wives, in accordance with Middle Eastern customs of the time. In Baghdad he married Gawhar Khanum (the latter appears to have been a pro forma temporary marriage [mut`ah] of a sort required of Shi`ite law where a man had a live-in maid, and Gawhar Khanum had been brought into the household in the Shi`ite Karkh district in order to serve Asiyih Khanum). He had only one child, a daughter, with Gawhar Khanum). Bahá'u'lláh's eldest son and vicar, `Abdu'l-Bahá, later interpreted the Most Holy Book to require monogamy. Bahá'u'lláh had altogether fourteen children from his three wives, including four daughters. Five of his sons predeceased him. As noted, he appointed his eldest son, `Abdu'l-Bahá, as his successor and the official interpreter of his religion after his death, and he also provided for the election of local houses of justice and a world- wide Universal House of Justice to govern community affairs. Bahá'u'lláh died of a fever in `Akka on 29 May 1892, at the age of 74 (Qazvini, tr., pp.. 45-65; Dahaji, pp. 285-91; further biographical details in Balyuzi, Bahá'u'lláh King of Glory, passim).


    Muhammad "Nabil-i A`zam" Zarandi, The Dawnbreakers: Nabil's Narrative (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970)
    `Abdu'l-Bahá', A Traveller's Narrative, ed. and tr. E.G. Browne, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891)
    Muhammad `Ali Salmani, My Memories of Bahá'u'lláh, trans. Marzieh Gail (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1982)
    Mirza Jawad Qazvini, "Historical Epitome," trans. in E.G. Browne, ed., Materials for the Study of the Babi Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1919)
    Sayyid Mihdi Dahaji, "Risalih," University Library Cambridge, Browne Collection, Or. F. 57
    Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, God Passes By (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970
    H.M. Balyuzi, Bahá'u'lláh, King of Glory (Oxford: George Ronald, 1980)
    J. Cole, "Baha' Allah," Encyclopedia Iranica (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988), vol. III, pp. 422-29
    J. Cole, "Iranian Millenarianism and Democratic Thought in the Nineteenth Century," International Journal of Middle East Studies 24 (1992): 1-26.

    [NN above = Nabil's Narrative; TN = A Traveller's Narrative]

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