by Juan Colepublished in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 3
New York: Columbia University, 1989
BAHĀʾ-ALLĀH MĪRZĀ ḤOSAYN-ʿALĪ NŪRĪ (1233-1309/1817-92). Iranian notable and founder of the Bahai religion or Bahaism. He was born 2 Moḥarram 1233/12 November 1817 in Tehran into the household of a notable family from Māzandarān. His father, Mīrzā ʿAbbās Nūrī (d. 1839), known as Mīrzā Bozorg, served the court of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah Qājār (1797-1834) in several capacities. He was appointed vizier to the shah’s twelfth son, the il-khan of the Qajar tribe. He grew close to First Minister Mīrzā Abu’l-Qāsem Qāʾemmaqām, and in 1834 he was appointed governor and tax-farmer of Borūjerd and Luristan (Lorestān). But in 1835 the new monarch Moḥammad Shah (1834-48) had Qāʾemmaqām executed, and the new first minister, Ḥājī Mīrzā Āqāsī, removed Mīrzā Bozorg from his posts and stopped his salary (Bāmdād, Rejāl VI, pp. 126-29). The family retained lands around its ancestral village of Takor in the Nūr district of Māzandarān.
In his youth Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī demonstrated pacifist tendencies, and was disturbed when he read an account of the early Muslim execution of the Banū Qorayẓa in Medina (Bahāʾ-Allāh, in Ešrāq Ḵāvarī, ed., Māʾeda-ye āsmānī VII, p. 136). At the wedding of one of his brothers he received a lesson about the world’s ephemerality when he saw that, after a puppet show about a royal court, all the pomp was packed into trunks at the end (Bahāʾ-Allāh, “Lawḥ-e raʾīs,” in Majmūʿa-ye maṭbūʿa, pp. 107-10). Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī, the future Bahāʾ-Allāh, was just reaching adulthood when his father fell from power and the experience may have further disillusioned him with worldly politics and predisposed him to a meditative spirituality, and, later, the adoption of the radical religion of Babism. Bahāʾ-Allāh wrote, late in his life, that Moḥammad Shah committed two “heinous deeds,” the banishment of the Bāb to Azerbaijan and the murder of Qāʾemmaqām, and this consideration appears to have partially underpinned his advocacy from the 1870s of constitutional constraints on the monarchy (“Kalemāt-e ferdowsīya,” in Majmūʿa-ī az alwāḥ, pp. 35-36; tr. Taherzadeh, p. 65). Indeed, many of Mīrzā Bozorg’s children reacted against the orthodoxies of Qajar Shiʿism. Of Mīrzā Bozorg’s thirteen children by four wives and three concubines, al least one adopted Shaikhism and at least six others Babism.
The new first minister, Āqāsī, offered Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī his patronage, despite his being the son of an enemy, but the young Nūrī proved uninterested, and the two later fell out when Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī refused to sell some land and villages to the rapacious Āqāsī. (Moḥammad “Nabīl-e Aʿẓam” Zarandī, Maṭāleʿ al-anwār, MS. International Baháʾí Archives, Haifa; partial Eng. tr. Shoghi [Šawqī] Effendi Rabbani, The Dawn-Breakers, New York, 1932; repr. Wilmette, 1974, pp. 120-22.) Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī was in contact with Shaikhis from Nūr and from Tehran, a natural development given the popularity of esoteric Shaikhism with Qajar-era notables and his own speculative bent. When Mollā Ḥosayn Bošrūʾī came to Tehran in 1844 to spread the new beliefs of Babism, centered on Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī the Bāb, he met with local Shaikhis. One of them, Mollā Moḥammad Moʿallem Nūrī, became a Babi and consented to contact Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī for Bošrūʾī. Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī in this manner accepted the Bāb’s claims to religious authority as the gate of the Twelfth Imam. Soon thereafter, late in 1844 or in 1845, Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī returned to his village of Takor, where he endeavored to spread Babism in Nūr and in Māzandarān. His prestige as a local notable gave him many openings, and this missionary journey met with some success, even among some members of the religious class. Through him, as well, his brothers Mīrzā Yaḥyā (whom Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī raised, aged 14 in 1844) and Mīrzā Mūsā became Babis (Ketāb-e noqṭat al-kāf, ed. E. G. Browne, E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Series 15, 1910, pp. 239-40; Zarandī, Maṭāleʿ, tr. pp. 102-20; ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, Maqāla-ye šaḵṣ-ī sayyāḥ, E. G. Browne, ed. and tr. as A Traveller’s Narrative, Cambridge, 1891, pp. 72-78, tr. pp. 56-62).
Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī used his position and his contacts in Tehran, not only to spread Babism, but to protect his coreligionists. He did so at some risk, however, since the aid he gave the poet Qorrat-al-ʿAyn and other Babis after they were accused in the slaying (actually by a Shaikhi) of Mollā Taqī Baraḡānī caused him to suffer temporary imprisonment in Tehran. In 1847 the government exiled the Bāb to imprisonment in Azerbaijan. In the summer of 1848 eighty-one prominent Babis gathered for twenty-two days in Khorasan in the village of Badašt. Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī and his young brother Mīrzā Yaḥyā both attended. Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī played a low-key role, renting gardens for Qorrat-al-ʿAyn and others, and suggesting theophanic names for some of the Babis, whom the Bāb had encouraged to glorify God by adopting divine names. From this point Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī adopted the name Bahāʾ (the glory, [of God]). Mīrzā Yaḥyā became Ṣobḥ-e Azal (The morn of eternity). In the conflict at the conference between those who wanted to retain the Islamic law (Šarīʿa) and those who knew of the Bāb’s recent announcement that he was the messianic Mahdī or Qāʾem, empowered to begin another dispensation, Bahāʾ-Allāh took the side of the pro-change group, who won out (Noqṭat al-kāf, pp. 145-54, 240-41; for Bahāʾ-Allāh’s role see Zarandī, Maṭāleʿ, tr. pp. 278-300, 459-61, 584-85).
Violence broke out between the Babis and the Qajar government in the second half of 1848, and Bahāʾ-Allāh and several companions, including his half-brother Yaḥyā (then aged 17 or 18), set out from Nūr to help the besieged Babis at Šayḵ Ṭabarsī near Bābol, Māzandarān, in early December, 1848, but they were arrested and imprisoned in Āmol (Noqṭat al-kāf, pp. 242-43; Zarandī, Maṭāleʿ, tr. pp. 368-77, 461-62, 583-84; Mīrzā Ḥosayn Hamadānī, Tārīḵ-ejadīd, ms., Cambridge University Library, Browne Or. F. 55/9, tr. E. G. Browne, The New History of Mīrzā ʿAlī Muḥammed, the Bāb, Cambridge, 1893; repr. Amsterdam, 1975, pp. 64-65). The following three years witnessed a series of disasters for the Babis, whom government troops besieged and then massacred in Māzandarān, Nayrīz, and Zanjān. On 9 July 1850 the government had the Bāb executed, but only after he had declared himself an independent manifestation of God (maẓhar-e elāhī) and had written a book of laws, the Bayān-e fārsī for the new religion he founded.
The Bāb had been in correspondence with the Nūrī brothers from his prison, and after the death of many prominent disciples in 1848-50, they emerged as the most likely leaders. Bahāʾ-Allāh, then aged thirty-three and a well-known notable, might have been expected to become the leading Babi. But surprisingly, the Bāb appears to have indicated for Mīrzā Yaḥyā Ṣobḥ-e Azal (then around nineteen) a high station or leadership position, at least nominally, in Babism. The young Azal, however, seems to have possessed little widespread authority or legitimacy, and the 1850s saw the Babi community splinter into a number a regional sects headed by various claimants to theophanic status. The Bāb’s works emphasized that another messianic figure, “He whom God shall make manifest (man yoẓheroh Allāh)” would appear. More important, the disheartened Babis seem to have been looking for charismatic leaders to replace the Bāb. Azal at first refused to denounce these rivals outright, rather incorporating them into a “theophanic field” with himself at the apex. Later in the 1850s Azal became more intolerant of rivals. Bahāʾ-Allāh, on the other hand, attempted to deflate Babi “manifestations” (ẓohūrāt) even in early 1851, asserting his own high station. He snubbed the Babi disciple Sayyed Baṣīr-e Hendī of Multan when he came to visit Nūr, because the Indian made grandiose claims. Finally, Bahāʾ-Allāh “took pity on him and manifested upon that temple of servitude, [Sayyed Baṣīr] the effulgences of divinity, [tajallīyāt-e robūbīyat] from that glory of paradise (Bahāʾ al-reżwān, [i.e., Bahāʾ-Allāh]).” (Noqṭat al-kāf, p. 258; see also pp. 238-61 ).
In June, 1851, Bahāʾ-Allāh left Tehran for Karbalāʾ in Iraq at the suggestion of First Minister Amīr Neẓām Taqī Khan (later Amīr[-e] Kabīr), who attempted to co-opt him by offering him a government post whenever he should return. Bahāʾ-Allāh refused the post, but took the hint that he should leave Iran for a while. Bahāʾ-Allāh found Babis in Karbalāʾ following a Sayyed ʿOloww, who claimed to be a divine incarnation until Bahāʾ-Allāh’s greater prestige caused him to renounce his pretensions. While in Karbalāʾ in 1851, according to his companion Shaikh Ḥasan Zonūzī, Bahāʾ-Allāh said he was himself the return of Imam Ḥosayn (whom many expected to appear after the Mahdī, whom Babis identified with the Bāb), though he kept this “messianic secret” from most of his associates. In public, Bahāʾ-Allāh supported Azal, in the interests of unity, and worked to spread Babism in Karbalāʾ (Zarandī, Maṭāleʿ, tr. pp. 32, 587, 593-94).
The fall of Amīr Kabīr and the rise of Mīrzā Āqā Khan Nūrī Eʿtemād-al-Dawla as first minister under Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah had the potential for changing Bahāʾ-Allāh’s political fortunes. The first minister wanted a rapprochement with Bahāʾ-Allāh, a relative from his region of the country, and with the Babis. He wrote Bahāʾ-Allāh asking him to return to Tehran, and the latter complied. The first minister’s brother lavished hospitality on Bahāʾ-Allāh in Tehran for a month, after which the Babi notable retired to a summer house in Šemrān. On the way, he met briefly with Shaikh ʿAlī ʿAẓīm, learning that ʿAẓīm and other radical Babi leaders in the capital had planned the assassination of the shah in retaliation for the execution of the Bāb. Bahāʾ-Allāh condemned the plan. On August 15, 1852, Babis did attempt to assassinate the shah, but failed (Zarandī, Maṭāleʿ, tr. pp. 595-602; Ḥasan Fasāʾī, Fārs-nāma-ye nāṣerī, tr. H. Busse, History of Persia under Qajar Rule, New York, 1972, pp. 302-04; Sheil to Malmsbury, correspondence August 1852, FO 60/171 in M. Momen, The Bābī and Bahāʾī Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts, Oxford, 1981, pp. 128-46).
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