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Azalí Babism

by Denis MacEoin

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 3
New York: Columbia University, 1989
AZALI BABISM, designation of a religious faction which takes its name from Mīrzā Yaḥyā Nūrī Ṣobḥ-e Azal (about 1246-1330/1830-1912), considered by his followers to have been the legitimate successor to the Bāb. A son of Mīrzā Bozorg Nūrī, a court official in the reign of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah, Yaḥyā was converted to Babism around 1260/1844, probably by his older half-brother, Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī, the future Bahāʾallāh, founder of the Bahaʾi religion. From about 1848, Mīrzā Yaḥyā Ṣobḥ-e Azal was in regular contact with the Bāb, who was then in prison in Azerbaijan. His letters were well received by the Bāb, who claimed to find in them evidence of divine inspiration. Numerous references in writings by the Bāb from this period seem to provide strong evidence that Azal (also referred to as al-Waḥīd, Ṭaḷʿat al-Nūr, and al-Ṯamara) was regarded by him as his chief deputy following the deaths of most of the original Babi hierarchy, and as the future head of the movement. Earlier criteria for leadership within the sect had been priority of belief and membership of the ʿolamāʾ class, but Azal appears to have been selected on account of his innate capacity (feṭra) to receive divine knowledge and his ability to reveal verses—as had been the case with the Bāb himself.

After the Bāb’s death in 1266/1850, Ṣobḥ-e Azal came to be regarded as the central authority within the movement, to whom its followers looked for some form of continuing revelation. Recognition of his authority was, however, only one of a number of doctrinal positions adopted by Babis in the 1850s and early 1860s. Numerous other claimants to theophanic status emerged in this period, some of whom were seen by Azal as rivals, while others appear to have been regarded as reflections enhancing the prestige of the original theophany (in accordance with the Bāb’s theories concerning limitless descending emanations or manifestations of the Primal Will). It is particularly significant that, with few exceptions, these claimants were from non clerical backgrounds like the Bāb and Azal—an indication of the new social role now emerging for Babism in its second phase.

Following the attempt by several Babis on the life of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah in 1852 and an abortive uprising organized by Azal in the same year, he and other Babis chose to go into exile in Baghdad. Here he lived as generally-acknowledged head of the community until their removal to Istanbul in 1863. By adopting a policy of seclusion (ḡayba), Ṣobḥ-e Azal gradually alienated himself from a large proportion of the exiles, who began to give their allegiance to other claimants, notably Azal’s half-brother, Bahāʾallāh. During this period, Azal set up a network of agents (termed šohadāʾ “witnesses,” i.e., of the Bayān) in Iraq and Iran. But this attempt to routinize further the charismatic authority of the faith seems to have clashed with the continuing appeal of original charisma within the movement and further weakened Azal’s position.

In Edirne in 1866, Bahāʾallāh made public his claim to be man yoẓherohoʾllāh (he whom God shall manifest), the messianic figure of the Bayān. Ṣobḥ-e Azal responded by asserting his own claims and resisting the wholesale changes in doctrine and practice introduced by his brother. His attempt to preserve traditional Babism proved largely unpopular, however, and his followers were soon in the minority. In 1868, bitter feuding between the two factions, leading to violence on both sides, induced Ottoman authorities to exile the Babis yet further. Bahāʾallāh and his followers (now known as Bahaʾis) were sent to Acre in Palestine, and Azal with his family and some adherents to Famagusta in Cyprus, where he remained until his death on 29 April 1912.

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