by Denis MacEoinpublished in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 3
New York: Columbia University, 1989
1. The Babi movement
Babism was a 13/19th-century messianic movement in Iran and Iraq under the overall charismatic leadership of Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī, the Bāb (1235/1819-1266/1850). Babism was the only significant millenarian movement in Shiʿite Islam during the 13th/19th century and is of particular interest in that, unlike other Islamic messianic movements of approximately the same period, it involved, in its later stages, a wholesale break with Islam and an attempt to establish a new religious system. Although the Babi movement as such was rapidly crushed and rendered politically and religiously insignificant, the impetus towards the proclamation of a post-Islamic revelation was continued in Bahaism which began as a Babi sect in competition with that of the Azalī Babism during the 1860s. The relative success of Bahaism inside Iran (where it constitutes the largest religious minority) and in numerous other countries, where it claims the status of an independent religion, gives renewed significance to its Babi origins; indeed, Babi history and doctrine live on, albeit in a much revised form, in the literature and self-image of the modern Bahais.
The present article concerns itself with Babism up to about 1853, when the leadership of the sect moved from Iran to Iraq and internal developments began which led to the Bahai/Azalī split. For our purposes, Babism may be divided into two main periods: 1) from 1250/1844 to 1264/1848, when the Bāb claimed to be the gate preparing the way for the return of the Hidden Imam and the movement around him was characterized by intense Islamic piety and observance of the Šarīʿa or Islamic law; and 2) from 1264/1848 to 1269/1853, beginning with the Bāb’s claim to be the Imam in person and the abrogation of the Islamic Šarīʿa, through his assumption of the role of an independent theophany and his promulgation of a new religious law, to his execution in Tabrīz, the collapse of the leadership of the movement, the proliferation of authority claims, and the dispersal of a hard core of the sect to Baghdad. This second period also witnessed the outbreak of clashes between Babis and state in several parts of Iran and the physical defeat of the movement as a challenge to the religio-political system.
1. 1260-64/1844-48. At its inception, Babism was an intense expression of certain radical tendencies in the Shaikhi school of Shiʿism which had come to the fore during the leadership of Sayyed Kāẓem Raštī. During the seventeen years (1242-59/1826-44) that he acted as head of the school from its center in Karbalāʾ, Raštī stressed the essential orthodoxy of Shaikhi belief as originally expounded by the founder, Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī (d. 1753/1826), while teaching an elitist doctrine of the Shaikh as the morawwej or promoter of Islam in a new cycle of inward truth (bāṭen) following 1200 years of outward teaching (ẓāher). Raštī’s death on 11 Ḏu’l-ḥejja 1259/1 January 1854 precipitated a serious internal crisis in the movement, bringing to the surface many concealed tensions, disagreements, rivalries, and ambitions within the Shaikhi community. His failure to appoint a clear successor and the absence of an agreed system for the selection of one led, inevitably, to much fragmentation, out of which two major schools emerged: that around Ḥājj Mollā Moḥammad-Karīm Khan Kermānī (1225/1810-1288/1871) and another around Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī. These two factions expressed diametrically opposed tendencies within the Shaikhism of the period, the first wishing to preserve the name and identity of the school, emphasizing the continuing role of the Prophet and the imams and seeking accommodation with the Shiʿite majority by stressing its total adherence to Twelver Shiʿite orthodoxy and playing down the more unorthodox aspects of Shaikhi teaching; the second also regarding itself as wholly orthodox but adopting the name Bābīya and moving away from the outward practice of Islam towards a concentration on the expression of its inner realities and, ultimately, a new revelation of divine truth. It was some time, however, before this divergence of tendencies became quite clear and, in the earliest period, emphasis must be placed less on specific doctrinal views and more on claims to charismatic authority within the wider context of Shiʿism as a whole. (For a detailed study of the role of charisma in early Shaikhism and Babism see MacEoin, From Shaykhism to Babism.)
There is evidence that a section of the Shaikhi community at this period regarded Aḥsāʾī and Raštī as “gates” (bābān) of the imam, presumably fulfilling functions similar to those of the four abwāb (plur. of bāb “gate”) traditionally regarded as channels of communication with the Hidden Imam during his “lesser occultation” (see Bāb) and possibly presaging the return of the imam himself. The development of a Bābīya school within Shaikhism may be regarded as having begun even before the announcement by Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad of his own claim to be the bāb. Various statements attributed to Raštī in the period just before his death suggest that chiliastic motifs were present in his teaching, and there is evidence that some of his followers expected the imminent appearance of an “affair” or “cause” (amr) somehow linked to the advent of the imam. It seems to have been a group of those Shaikhis most animated by messianic expectations who chose, in early Ṣafar, 1260/late February, 1844, to engage in prayerful withdrawal (eʿtekāf) in the main mosque of Kūfa, and it was from this group that the majority of the Bāb’s earliest disciples emerged.
Read the rest of this article, including "2: Babi executions and uprisings," online at www.iranicaonline.org/articles/babism-index.