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Persia Revisited:
With Remarks on H.I.M. Mozuffer-Ed-Din Shah, and the Present Situation in Persia

by Thomas Edward Gordon

pages 81-92
London: E. Arnold, 1895


with Remarks on H.I.M. Mozuffer-Ed-Din Shah, and the Present Situation in Persia


K.C.I.E., C.B., C.S.I.
Formerly Military Attaché and Oriental Secretary to Her Majesty's Legation at Tehran.

Chapter 4

... [pages omitted] ... The Babi sect of Mohammedans, regarded as seceders from Islam, but who assert their claim to be only the advocates for Mohammedan Church reform, are at last better understood and more leniently treated—certainly at Tehran. They have long been persecuted and punished in the cruellest fashion, even to torture and death, under the belief that they were a dangerous body which aimed at the subversion of the State as well as the Church. But better counsels now prevail, to show that the time has come to cease from persecuting these sectarians, who, at all events in the present day, show no hostility to the Government; and the Government has probably discovered the truth of the Babi saying, that one martyr makes many proselytes.

The Babis aim at attracting to their ranks the intelligent and the learned, in preference to the ignorant and unlearned; and it is believed that now sufficient education whereby to read and write is absolutely necessary for membership. They wish to convince by example, and not by force, and this accounts for the absence of active resistance to the persecutions from which they often suffer most grievously. They say that they desire to return to original Mohammedanism, as it first came from the Arabian desert, pure and simple, and free from the harsh intolerance and arrogance which killed the liberal spirit in which it was conceived. They deplore the evil passions and fierce animosities engendered by religious differences; they tolerate all creeds having a common end for good, and seek to soften the hearts of those who persecute them, by showing that they but wish for peace on earth and goodwill to all men. They have a widespread organization throughout Persia, and many learned Moullas and Syuds have secretly joined them. They have always been firm in their faith, even unto death, rejecting the offer of life in return for a declaration against the Bab, him whom they regard as the messenger of good tidings.

An acknowledged authority on the Bab, the founder of this creed, has written that he 'directed the thoughts and hopes of his disciples to this world, not to an unseen world.' From this it was inferred he did not believe in a future state, nor in anything beyond this life. Of course, among the followers of a new faith, liberal and broad in its views, continued fresh developments of belief must be expected; and with reference to the idea that the Babis think not of a hereafter, I was told that they believe in the re-incarnation of the soul, the good after death returning to life and happiness, the bad to unhappiness. A Babi, in speaking of individual pre-existence, said to me, 'You believe in a future state; why, then, should you not believe in a pre-existent state? Eternity is without beginning and without end,' This idea of re-incarnation, generally affecting all Babis, is, of course, an extension of the original belief regarding the re-incarnation of the Bab, and the eighteen disciple-prophets who compose the sacred college of the sect.

Some time ago signs began to appear of a general feeling that the persecution of the Babis must cease. Many in high places see this, and probably say it, and their sympathy becomes known. At one time a high Mohammedan Church dignitary speaks regarding tolerance and progress in a manner which seems to mean that he sees no great harm in the new sect. Then a soldier, high in power and trust, refers to the massacres of Babis in 1890 and 1891 as not only cruel acts, but as acts of insane folly, 'for,' he said, 'to kill a Babi is like cutting down a chenar-tree, from the root of which many stems spring up, and one becomes many.' Then a Moulla, speaking of the necessity of a more humane treatment of the Babis, and others of adverse creeds, says that he looks for the time when all conditions of men will be equally treated, and all creeds and classes be alike before the law. Omar Khayyam, the astronomer-poet of Persia, who wrote about eight hundred years ago, gave open expression to the same liberal-minded views, urging tolerance and freedom for all religious creeds and classes.

The last murderous mob attack led by Moullas against the Babis occurred at Yezd in April, 1891. It was probably an outcome of the Babi massacre which had taken place at Isfahan the previous year, and which, owing to the fiercely hostile attitude of the priests, was allowed to pass unnoticed by any strong public condemnation. On that occasion a party of the sect, pursued by an excited and blood-thirsty mob, claimed the 'sanctuary' of foreign protection in the office of the Indo-European Telegraph Company, and found asylum there. Negotiations were opened with the Governor of the town, who arranged for a safe conduct to their homes under military escort. Trusting to this, the refugees quitted the telegraph-office, but had not proceeded far before they were beset by a furious crowd, and as the escort offered no effectual resistance, the unfortunates were murdered in an atrociously cruel manner. The Shah's anger was great on hearing of this shameful treachery, but as the Governor pleaded powerlessness from want of troops, and helplessness before the fanaticism of the frenzied mob led by Moullas, the matter was allowed to drop.

Considering the great numbers of Babis all over Persia, and the ease with which membership can be proved, it strikes many observers as strange that murderous outbreaks against them are not more frequent. The explanation is that, besides the accepted Babis, there is a vast number of close sympathizers, between whom and the declared members of the sect there is but one step, and a continued strong persecution would drive them into the ranks of the oppressed. It might then be found that the majority was with the Babis, and this fear is a fact which, irrespective of other arguments, enables the influential and liberal-minded Moullas to control their headstrong and over-zealous brethren.

The isolated outbreaks that do occur are generally produced by personal animosity and greed of gain. Just as has been known in other countries where a proscribed religion was practised in secret, and protection against persecution and informers secured by means of money, so in many places the Babis have made friends in this manner out of enemies. Individuals sometimes are troubled by the needy and unscrupulous who affect an excess of religious zeal, but these desist on their terms being met. Occasionally in a settlement of bazaar trading-accounts, the debtor, who is a Mohammedan, being pressed by his creditor, whom he knows to be a Babi, threatens to denounce him publicly in order to avoid payment.

I witnessed an instance of 'sanctuary' asylum being claimed in the stable of one of the foreign legations at Tehran by a well-known Persian merchant, a Babi, who fled for his life before the bazaar ruffians to whom his debtor had denounced him, urging them to smite and slay the heretic. It was believed that the practice of black-mailing the Babis was such a well-known successful one at Yezd that some of the low Mohammedans of the town tried to share in the profits and were disappointed. This, it was said, led to the massacre which occurred there in April, 1891.

The Babis, notwithstanding divergence of opinion on many points, yet attend the mosques and the Moulla teachings, and comply with all the outward forms of religion, in order to avert the anger which continued absence from the congregation would draw upon them from hostile and bigoted neighbours. Two of them were suddenly taxed in the Musjid with holding heterodox opinions, and were then accused of being Babis. The discussion was carried outside and into the bazaar, the accusers loudly reviling and threatening them. They were poor, and were thus unable to find protectors at once. When being pressed hard by an excited mob which had collected on the scene, an over-zealous friend came to their aid, and said, 'Well, if they are Babis, what harm have they done to anyone?'

On this the tumult began, and the ferocity of the fanatical crowd rose to blood-heat. The sympathizer was seized, and as the gathering grew, the opportunity to gratify private animosity and satisfy opposing interests was taken advantage of, and three other Babis were added, making six in all who were dragged before the Governor to be condemned as members of an accursed sect. The Moullas urged them to save their lives by cursing the Bab, but they all refused. The wives and children of some of them were sent for so that their feelings might be worked upon to renounce their creed and live, but this had no effect in shaking their resolution. When told that death awaited them, they replied that they would soon live again. When argued with on this point of their belief, they merely said that they could not say how it was to be, but they knew it would be so. They were then given over to the cruel mob, and were hacked to death, firm in their faith to the last.

The temptation to make away with others in a similar manner produced two more victims during the night, but these the Governor tried to save by keeping them in custody. The brutal mob, however, howled for their blood, and made such an uproar that the weak Governor, a youth of eighteen, surrendered them to a cruel death, as he had done the others. These two, like their brethren, refused to curse the Bab and live.

The Moullas have ever been defeated in their efforts to produce recantation from a Babi, and it is this remarkable steadfastness in their faith which has carried conviction into the hearts of many that the sect is bound to triumph in the end. The thoughtful say admiringly of them, as the Romans said of the Christians, whom they in vain doomed to death under every form of terror, 'What manner of men are these, who face a dreadful death fearlessly to hold fast to their faith?' An instance is mentioned of a Babi who did recant in order to escape the martyr's death, but he afterwards returned to his faith, and suffered calmly the death he had feared before.

The Moullas who led the Yezd massacre desired to associate the whole town in the crime, and called for the illumination of the bazaars in token of public joy. The order for this was given, but the Governor was warned in time to issue a countermand. It was found by the state of public feeling, and told to those in authority, who were able to realize the danger, that, as one-half or more of the shopkeepers were Babis, they would not have illuminated, for to have done so would imply approval of the murders and denial of their faith. Their determination to refuse to join in the demonstration of joy would have roused further mob fury, and the whole body of Babis, impelled by the instinct of self-preservation, would have risen to defend themselves.

The late Shah was deeply troubled and pained on hearing of this cruel massacre, and removed the Governor, who was his own grandson (being the eldest son of his Royal Highness the Zil-es-Sultan), notwithstanding the excuses urged in his favour, that the priestly power which roused the mob was too strong for him to act and prevent the murders. It is probable that the Government is assured of the peaceful nature of the Babi movement as it now exists; and with the orders to put an end to persecution, supported in some degree by popular feeling, we may hope to hear no more of such crimes as were committed at Isfahan and Yezd in 1890 and 1891.

The Babi reform manifests an important advance upon all previous modern Oriental systems in its treatment of woman. Polygamy and concubinage are forbidden, the use of the veil is discouraged, and the equality of the sexes is so thoroughly recognised that one, at least, of the nineteen sovereign prophets must always be a female. This is a return to the position of woman in early Persia, of which Malcolm speaks when he says that Quintus Curtius told of Alexander not seating himself in the presence of Sisygambis till told to do so by that matron, because it was not the custom in Persia for sons to sit in presence of their mother. This anecdote is quoted to show the great respect in which the female sex were held in Persia at the time of Alexander’s invasion, and which also was regarded as one of the principal causes of the progress the country had made in civilization. The Parsees to this day conduct themselves on somewhat similar lines, and though we have not the opportunities of judging of maternal respect which were allowed to the Greeks, yet the fact of the same custom being shown in a father’s presence at the present time seems to point to the rule of good manners to mothers being yet observed. And we know, from what happened on the death of Mohamed Shah in 1848, that a capable woman is allowed by public opinion to exercise openly a powerful influence in affairs of State at a critical time when wise counsels are required. The Oueen-mother at that time became the president of the State Council, and cleverly succeeded in conciliating adverse parties and strengthening the Government, till the position of the young Shah, the late Sovereign, was made secure. ...

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