Gobineau's Account of the Beginnings of the Bahá'í RevelationHoward B. Garey
published in World Order, 31:4, pages 19-23
Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, French Orientalist, diplomat, and man of letters, served as his country’s envoy to Iran in 1855-58 and 1861-1863. No foreign diplomat stationed in Tehran in those years could have missed the turmoil occasioned by the rise and suppression of the Bábi Faith or failed to report on it to his government. Unlike most of his colleagues, however, Gobineau was proficient in both Persian and Arabic, was familiar with Islam, and had a genuine interest in philosophy and religion. A keen observer and indefatigable researcher, he collected Bábi manuscripts, interviewed a few survivors of the massacres of 1853, read the writings of Qajar court historians, and sought information from Iranian officials who had taken part in the events of the preceding decade. The result of his labors was a book, an extract from which appears below.
Les religions et les philosophies dans l’Asie Centrale, published in 1865, was the first serious work to deal with the origins of the Bahá'í Faith. The elegant and often inspiring language of the book and the social prominence of its author guaranteed it a wide audience that came to include a number of prominent French intellectuals and, in time, the renowned English scholar Edward G. Browne.
Gobineau’s access to the Bahá'ís was limited. Inevitably he received much of his information from sources hostile to the Bahá'ís. Thus his narrative is largely based on the Nasikhu’t-Tavarikh by Mirza Taqi Khan Sipihr, court historian of Nasiri’d-Din Shah and bearer of the grandiloquent title, Lisanu’l-Mulk, The Tongue of the Kingdom. While rejecting Sipihr’s interpretations, Gobineau repeats many of his errors and adds a number of his own. Thus, for example, the extract offered below gives the age of the Bab in 1843 as nineteen whereas He was twenty-four. Gobineau’s claim that “everything points to Mirza ‘Ali Muhammad’s having received a distinguished education” is his unsubstantiated opinion, and his claim that it was “at the base of the Kaaba” during His pilgrimage to Mecca that the Bab “first acquired the commitment” to His mission is a bit of romantic fantasizing since the Bab had proclaimed that mission some five months earlier in Shiraz. Nor is there substance to the assertion that in Mecca the Bab “detached himself, absolutely and definitively, from the faith of the Prophet and that he conceived the idea of ruining that faith The corpus of the Bab’s works and the history of His religion testify to the contrary. His mission was not to destroy but to fulfill.
The contemporary reader, of course, should not expect from Gobineau what he could not possibly have delivered. Yet his book itself remains a document of primary significance, not so much for what it tells us about the Bab as for its insight into the view of a highly educated and intelligent member of the European elite concerning the birth of a new religion he so imperfectly perceived and so eloquently described.
IN Shiraz, about 1843, there was a young man by the name of ‘Ali Muhammad, who was barely nineteen, if that. Much importance has been attached, on the one hand, to the claim that he was a descendant of the Prophet [Muhammad] through the Imam Husayn and was thus entitled to the rank and prerogatives of a Siyyid — and, on the other, just as much to denying him that eminence. It is inarguable that, if he was a Siyyid, he was so in the obscure way that more than casts doubt on the pretensions of a great many Persian families that presume to that honor. Serious scholars have shown that all the genealogical documents capable of establishing the sacred lineage were destroyed or lost during the long period of persecution suffered by the descendants of [the Imam] ‘Ali under the Umayyad Caliphs and especially under the Abbasids. Outlawed, a great number of these Siyyids fell under the sabers of their enemies, while the rest went underground as best they could. Even granting that the blood of the Imams might have been passed on, no one can prove that in his veins flows this precious blood.
No more than four families are considered to have more right to call themselves Siyyids — and no European genealogist would consider worthy of credence the reasons that even they allege. These families are ancient and reputable, and they have enjoyed the respect of the general public. However, to reach back to the Imams, a two-century gap remains that they cannot fill, while the revered documents that they offer as having reached them from their glorious ancestors, whether seals, or prayers written by the hands of the very saints in question, or other articles of that ilk, would barely pass muster among our scholars as mere presumptions. However that may be, Mirza ‘Ali Muhammad did not belong to any of these four families, and if his forebears — whatever ill-disposed persons may say — have borne or claimed the station of Siyyid, it was on very unreliable evidence. In any case, while his family was not exactly of the people, it did possess some property, and as a result everything points to Mirza ‘Ali Muhammad’s having received a distinguished education.
Like most — perhaps all — Asiatics, he evinced early in life a lively fascination with religious ideas. Neither the practice of religious duties nor the profession of orthodox teachings satisfied him. He threw himself passionately into the pursuit and scrutiny of novel opinions. There is every reason to believe that from the beginning he had an open and daring mind. It is certain that he read the Gospels as translated by Protestant missionaries. He often conversed with the Jews of Shiraz, sought correspondence with Parsi [Zoroastrian] scholars, and had a particular predilection for unusual books that were somewhat suspect, much honored, and even feared, treating of the occult sciences and the philosophical theory of numbers. This is the passion of the most brilliant minds of Muslim Asia, and it soon became his. By the same token, he plunged with all his might into the remaining vestiges of ancient Aramaic philosophy. There are various indications that he quite possibly had in his possession certain rare books of inestimable value, most likely themselves ancient or copied on the basis of ancient texts relative to this body of doctrines.
He was very young when he made the pilgrimage to Mecca. But, instead of being brought back by the sight of the Kaaba to strictly Muslim tenets, he was pulled by everything he saw, heard, or experienced further and further from conventional paths. It is entirely possible that it was in this city itself that he detached himself, absolutely and definitively, from the faith of the Prophet and that he conceived the idea of ruining that faith in order to put in its place something completely different. Highly introspective, ever occupied with religious practices, extremely simple in his way of life, attractive in his gentle demeanor, and enhancing these gifts with his extreme youth and the marvelous charm of his appearance, he gathered about him a number of awakened minds. People were beginning to talk about his knowledge and the penetrating eloquence of his talks. Men who have known him aver that he could not open his mouth without stirring his hearers to the depths of their being. Moreover, he expressed profound veneration for the Prophet [Muhammad], the Imams, and their holy companions, thus charming the severest orthodox at the same time that ardent and restless spirits rejoiced in intimate meetings with him, in the absence of that narrowness in the expression of consecrated opinions that would have weighed upon them.
On the contrary, his conversation opened up infinite horizons — varied, motley, mysterious, shadowed, and sown here and there with a blinding light, which delighted the imaginations of his countrymen. It was at the base of the Kaaba, of the house of Abraham and Ishmael, that ‘Ali Muhammad first acquired the commitment that very shortly after came to assume a wholly different character to surpass by far the power of the usual passing attachments of the world.
So it was that ‘Ali Muhammad returned from Mecca even more irrevocably dissident than when he had arrived there. Once in Baghdad, he was bent on completing his impressions by going to Kufa to visit the ruins of its mosque, without arch, without pillars, and today practically without walls, where [the Imám] ‘Ali was assassinated and within which tradition locates the exact site of the murder. He spent several days there in meditation. It seems that this place made a deep impression on him and that, at the moment of entering a path that could, would — even must — end in some drama that would repeat the one that had taken place at that spot upon which his eyes were fixed, he had to sustain a painful battle with himself. One of his most devoted sup-porters said to me — availing himself of kitman (dissimulation) because of those within earshot — ”It was in the mosque of Kufa that the devil tempted him and made him leave the straight path.” But I could guess by looking at his face that, on the contrary, he considered the moral anguish that ‘Ali Muhammad felt — at that place where in his mind’s eye he saw the Imám ‘Ali lying at his feet, his body broken, drenched in blood — as the end of human hesitations and the triumph of his master’s prophetic spirit. It is clear that when ‘Ali Muhammad reached Shiraz he was entirely changed from what he had been at his departure. He was no longer tormented by doubt. He was permeated, completed, persuaded; his decision was made; and he only needed inflammable materials within reach to resolve to set them on fire. And such materials he did find.
He had come from Kufa as far as Bushire in an Arab boat called a bungalow, and from there came to his native city by joining a caravan that was about to cross the mountains. No sooner had he arrived than he gathered about him some of his traveling companions already under his spell, as well as a number of his previous followers. He vouchsafed his first writings to this first group of the faithful. These writings consisted of a journal of his pilgrimage and a commentary on the Koranic Sura of Joseph. In the first of these books he was mostly pious and mystical; in the second, polemic and dialectic were emphasized. His hearers were amazed to note that he discovered new meanings in the chapter of God’s book he had chosen, meanings that had never been disclosed until then, from which he drew completely unexpected doctrines and teachings. His followers never tired of praising the elegance and beauty of the Arabic in which these compositions were couched. In fact, his elated admirers never feared to prefer them to the most beautiful passages of the Koran. I must confess that I do not share this opinion. ‘Ali Muhammad’s style is flat, without brilliance, tiresome in its stiffness, of doubtful richness, while its [grammatical] correctness is questionable. Not all of its numerous obscurities were intended by him; rather, many owe their existence to his ineptitude. The Koran is far from having to fear its competition. If a day should arrive when the works of this new prophet will have replaced this ancient Book, they can only find admirers endowed with a new esthetic. Since we are still subject to the laws and habits of the older standards, for us the Koran is incontestably, to speak only of its literary qualities, the work of a great genius, while the Sura of Joseph — or rather, its commentary — is very much like the labors of a schoolboy.
Be that as it may, it produced an enormous impression at Shiraz, and the whole lettered and religious world clustered around ‘Ali Muhammad. Immediately upon his appearance in the mosque they would surround him. His public discourses never attacked the basic tenets of Islam and manifested respect for all its forms. In short, they were dominated by the kitman. And yet they were daring statements; far from indulgent to the clergy, they, in fact, cruelly exposed its vices. The sad, painful destiny of humankind was generally their theme. Here and there certain allusions (whose obscurity aroused the curiosity of some, while flattering the self-esteem of others already partially or wholly initiated) gave to these sermons such saltiness and bite that the crowds increased day after day, and all over Persia people began to talk about ‘Ali Muhammad.
The mullahs of Shiraz did not wait for all this ado to rally against their detractor. Beginning with his first public appearances they sent him the cleverest of their envoys, to argue with him and confound him, and these public debates (which were held in the mosques, in the seminaries in the presence of the governors or of the military chiefs or the clergy, or the general populace — in fact, everybody) contributed in no small measure to spread and heighten the renown of the enthusiast, and this at the expense of those who were sent against him. There is no doubt that he bested his antagonists; Koran in hand, he condemned them. It was child’s play for him, who knew the mullahs well, to show, facing the multitude, to what degree their conduct, to what point their precepts and their very dogmas were in flagrant contradiction with the Book, which they could not dispute. With extraordinary fervor and temerity he flayed, without regard for the usual conventions, the vices of his antagonists, and, after proving to them how faithless they were to doctrine, he condemned their way of life and threw them on the mercy of the crowd’s indignation or contempt. These performances at Shiraz, these first ventures at preaching, were so deeply moving that those Muslims who remained orthodox kept an indelible memory of them and did not speak of them except with a sort of terror. To a man they acknowledged that ‘Ali Muhammad’s eloquence was incomparable, such that anyone who had not witnessed it could not imagine it.
The young theologian no longer appeared in public except surrounded by a huge throng of followers. His home was always crowded with them. He not only taught in the mosques and seminaries, but it was at home, especially in the evening, withdrawn to a chamber with his choice admirers, that he lifted for them the veils of a doctrine which he himself had not fully developed. It would seem that in the early moments [of his ministry] polemic occupied him more than dogma — and nothing is more natural. During those secret conferences, his candor, much more daring than in public, increased every day, and they tended so obviously to a complete overturning of Islam that they actually served as an introduction to a new profession of faith. The little church was ardent, daring, ready for anything, zealous in the true sense, the high sense of the word — that is, each of its members counted himself for nothing and had a burning desire to sacrifice blood and money in the cause of faith. It was then that ‘Ali Muhammad assumed his first religious title. He announced that he was the Bab, the Gate through which one could attain the knowledge of God. At Shiraz they no longer called him by any other name, there and everywhere where mention of him was made. Even his enemies gave him, and still give him, that title.