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Religious and cultural meanings of martyrdom/witnessing, and their role in Shí'í and Bábí history.
Thesis submitted for Master of Arts for the Dept. of Religious Studies (University of Toronto), 1997. Advisor Willard Oxtoby.

All diacritics have been removed. Remarks made on transliteration and examples given in the preface will thus make little sense. Where the original thesis contained Arabic, Persian, or Greek script, I have had to remove these. The resulting lacunae are indicated by "[non-ascii script]."

See also my coverage of Jihad in Sunni and contemporary Islam Martyrdom in Jihad and MacEoin's The Bábí Concept of Holy War.

Dying for God:
Martyrdom in the Shii and Babi Religions

by Jonah Winters

Master of Arts thesis, University of Toronto, 1997
start page

All chapters




Chapter One: Background To Shiism: Martyrdom and Suffering in Islam.....11
   Martyrdom In Jihad...................................................11
   Jihad In Sufism, The "Greater Striving"..............................19

Chapter Two: Martyrdom And Suffering In Shiism..........................23
   Background: Muhammad and the Succession..............................23
   Martyrdom In Shiism..................................................26
     The Martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali....................................27
     Later developments: the Twelfth Imam...............................31
     Vicarious suffering in the path of God: Muharram...................34
   Meanings of Suffering in Shiism......................................37
     Sufferings of the community........................................38
        Persian historical suffering....................................39
        Persian cultural suffering......................................40
     Identification with Husayn to vitalize personal religiosity........43
     Intercession through redemptive suffering and martyrdom............48

Chapter Three: Background to Babism: A Brief Epitome of Babi History....55
   From Shiism to Babism................................................55
   Overview of Babi History.............................................59

Chapter Four: Meanings of Martyrdom in Babi Thought.....................77
   Parallels with Other Historical Martyrdoms...........................79
     Imam Husayn........................................................83
        Imam Husayn in the thought of the Bab...........................83
        Imam Husayn in the thought of the Babis.........................88
   Martyrdom as Kerygma: For Conversion and as Proof....................92
     Witnessing as Proselytization......................................93
     Witnessing as Proof...............................................101
   The Intoxicated Martyr..............................................108
   Babi Jihad: Martyrdom in the Path of the Mahdi......................114
     The Bab as Mahdi and Leader of Jihad..............................114
     Martyrdom in the Cause of the Mahdi...............................118

   Historical Evolution and Continuum Of Themes........................123
   Summation of the Meanings of Martyrdom..............................125


Companion study: Martyrdom in Jihad: Jihad in Sunni and contemporary Islam
   (written before and not addressing 9/11)



(note: this section uses a number of special characters which I couldn't reproduce
with 1997 fonts for this online version; in footnote 7, for example, the words are indeed different.)

      While Bahais refer to their religion as the "Bahai Faith," this is perhaps not the most felicitous term for academic use. Other terms one encounters are Bahai community, Bahaism, Bahai (used as a generic noun), and Bahai religion. "Bahai community" focuses on the members, individually or collectively, and de-emphasizes the doctrinal and leadership aspects of the tradition. "Bahai Faith" is the traditional term that Bahais use for their religion and therefore conveys overtones of piety or sympathetic appreciation for the tradition. "Bahaism" is considered inappropriate by Bahais, for reasons that are not easy to determine; it is best avoided by scholars, just as "Mohammedanism" is now avoided in favor of the term "Islam" and "Musselman" or "Moslem" are avoided in favor of "Muslim." "Bahai" used as a generic noun, as in "Bahai teaches that...," is simply incorrect, for the word Bahai is an adjective. "Bahai religion," as a neutral term which carries the overtones of impartial scholarly study, has therefore been selected here.

      The terms Shiah and Shii are, in common English usage, to a certain extent interchangeable and sometimes seem to be chosen arbitrarily. In Arabic, Shiah is the (uninflected) noun and Shii is the (nisba) adjective. Here they will be used accordingly. "Shiah Islam" and "Shiism" are the two English terms used here to refer to this branch of Islam in toto.


      Certain circumstances in early and contemporary Bahai scholarship necessitate an unusually lengthy note on the diacritics and the system of transliteration used in this work.[1]

      Adopting a system for transliteration of Arabic and Persian words is singularly difficult. A preface to the Encyclopaedia Iranica summarizes the issue eloquently:

...The major problem in Iranian studies results from the difficulty of coordinating the representation of Persian and Arabic words. The system which has found fairly wide acceptance [i.e. that used by the Library of Congress[2] ]...does not entirely suit the rendering of Persian. On the other hand, a scheme designed for Persian does not fit Arabic. Yet so many Arabic words, titles, and phrases are intimately involved in Persian usage that the employment of two systems would lead only to chaos. Unfortunately, no amount of ingenuity can devise a system ideal for rendering both Persian and Arabic..."[3]

      In Bahai scholarship the problem is further compounded by other issues, including:

      1) While most systems of transcription portray only a word's spelling (transliteration), the Bahai system, under a strong Persian historical and cultural influence, has been used to portray pronunciation as well. For example, on the one hand Bahai texts use the correct transliteration Baghdad and not Bagdad, as it is actually pronounced by anglophones. On the other hand, these same texts use the common Persian pronunciation Kitab-i-Aqdas in place of its correct Arabic title al-Kitab al-Aqdas.

      2) Certain words that are pronounced with an "a" sound are written with an "i." Thus "sayyed," which is pronounced "sigh-ed," is written "siyyid." One likely explanation, confirmed by many who knew Shoghi Effendi--the great-grandson of Baha'ullah and systematizer of Bahai transliteration--is that he spoke Persian with an Isfahani accent, passed down from Shoghi Effendi's Isfahani grandmother Munirih Khanum.[4]

      3) The Bahai system of transliteration seems to contain some inconsistencies. Examples include: (1) when a word ending in hamza is more commonly associated with the Persian, as in bahá, the hamza is dropped. However, when the word is more commonly associated with the Arabic, as in asmá', the hamza is retained; (2) the nominative case-ending of Arabic, u, has become frozen in the Bahai system, as in the Arabic name 'Abdu'l-Bahá. In Arabic, though, the name would be 'Abdi'l-Bahá when used as genitive and 'Abda'l-Bahá when accusative. Hence the Library of Congress transliteration system, which would write 'Abd al-Bahá, indicates no case ending; (3) the apostrophe has been pressed into signifying different elements. It is used both for ayn, as in 'Alí, for hamza, as in asmá', and elision, as in ...u'l-Bahá. Other systems utilize different characters, for example c for ayn and ’ for hamza, and ' for elision. Further, the apostrophe as elision marker indicates the removal of different letters--in 'Abdu'l-Bahá it indicates the dropping of the 'a' iná, but in Bahá'u'lláh, which in full would be Bahá'u al-lláh, it indicates the dropping of both the 'a' of al- and one 'l' of '-lláh' ( (in Arabic/Persian script the extra 'l' is indicated by a shadda, a "doubler," over the second 'l' of Alláh).

      4) Perhaps most compellingly, the Bahai system has become merely prescriptive, not descriptive. Accents and diacritics are completely ignored by anglophone Bahais. While North American believers write "khánum," they say "khanúm"; while they write "Bahá’í," they say "Ba-high." Indeed, most anglophone Bahais would not be able to pronounce these words as pronounced in Arabic, and perhaps not even as in Persian. For example, prefacing Abdul Baha with an ayn and ending it with a hamza, as in the full transliteration cAbdu'l-Bahá’, thus becomes superfluous and confusing.

      5) Despite the above difficulties, most Bahai books and especially those produced by official Bahai publishing houses use the standard transliteration scheme, which was standardized for Bahai-published texts in the late 1920's and has remained constant to this day. Thus, while Bahais may not know why they are writing accents and apostrophes, what Arabic letters they denote, and how properly to pronounce them, they are used to writing these diacritics. The style of English chosen by Shoghi Effendi (quasi-Jacobean) and its system of diacritics have, for the Bahai community, come to be an expected quality of the sacred writings--these indicate that the text is a sacred Bahai work, and it can appear sacrilegious to write Baha' Allah or Baha'ullah when one has learned that the sacred name is Bahá'u'lláh.

      The use of the transliteration system adopted by Shoghi Effendi works well for the average book for Bahais and on Bahai subjects. Almost any word or name one will use has its own unique--if occasionally inconsistent--orthography, and one can always consult Marzieh Gail's A Bahá'í Glossary[5] to find this correct orthography. An academic work, though, will often use names and terms not mentioned in Bahai writings and may also need to transliterate Arabic and Persian sentences. Here some scholars find it more simple, and easier for the non-Bahai reader (and perhaps the Bahai as well), to adopt one of the systems that have become standard in the current academic community.

      For the purpose of this study we are concerned with religious behaviour and belief--it is not a heavily textual or philological work. It would thus be unnecessarily cumbersome and distracting to include full diacritics where not absolutely necessary. For example, since the average reader is not going to care what kind of "h" Husayn is spelled with, is not going to mentally pronounce an ayn, and does not know the appropriate amount to lengthen a ya over a kesra, writing Husayn Ali as Husayn cAlí would be of interest only to those familiar with Arabic or Persian--and such a reader would know how properly to pronounce the names whether or not diacritics are supplied.[6] This study will use almost no diacritics in the body of the text, save where deemed absolutely necessary to prevent confusion. All diacritics have also been stripped from names and quotations; while this does a certain injustice to the originals, the great variety of transliteration schemes encountered in using works from a variety of Western languages, periods, and house styles would prove quite distracting were all quotations to be cited exactly as given in the original.[7] Similarly the spelling of names has been standardized; for example "Hussain," "Hossein," "Huseyn," and other such variations are all given as "Husayn." The only exception is names whose transliteration has been set into English by the authors themselves, as for example "Shoghi Effendi" instead of "Shoqi Effendi," "Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani" instead of Mirza Abu al-Fazl Golpaygani.

      Words will be written more or less as commonly pronounced in English or Persian, save where their technical meaning may be of interest, in which case the Library of Congress system of transliteration will be supplied in parenthesis or footnotes. Both Bahai and non-Bahai terms will be treated in this fashion: e.g. ulama for culama’, rauza for rawdah, etc. For the sake of legibility hamzas and ayns will also be dropped, even though these are consonants proper and not diacritics. They will be retained only where needed to demonstrate dieresis, as in "Baha'ullah" and "Qa'im."

The alteration of the most common Bahai terms as used in this work is as follows:

Abdul Baha: Abbas Effendi, 1844-1921. Eldest son of Baha'ullah. (Spelled here as commonly pronounced.)
Bahai: A believer in this faith. (Spelled here as commonly pronounced.)
Baha'ullah: Mirza Husayn Ali, 1817-1892, founder of the Bahai Faith. (Spelled here as commonly pronounced; apostrophe indicates dieresis--vowels are pronounced separately, not as a diphthong.)

Notes to this chapter

[1] Issues of transliteration have been discussed extensively in the academic Bahai community. Discussions in print include Moojan Momen, "The Bahá'í System of Transliteration," Bahá'í Studies Bulletin 5:1-2 (January 1991): 13-69, and Frank Lewis, "Review of Symbol and Secret," Bahá'í Studies Review 6 (1996): 76-92.

[2] Outlined in the Library of Congress Cataloguing Service Bulletin 49 (November 1958). Other major publications using this standard include the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the Encyclopaedia Iranica, and the Encyclopedia of Islam.

[3] Encyclopaedia Iranica, volume 1, ed. Ehsan Yarshater (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985).

[4] Related by Dhikru'llah Khadem and confirmed by Abu'l-Qasim Afnan and Ali Nakhjavani. Moojan Momen, "The Bahá'í System of Transliteration," 16.

[5] Marzieh Gail, Bahá'í Glossary: A Glossary of Persian and Arabic Words Appearing in the Bahá'í Writings (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1965).

[6] A similar trend is witnessed within Persian itself, as Arabic spellings are more and more frequently substituted for simpler, Persianized ones. For example, [non-ascii script], Tehran, is now more commonly written as  [non-ascii script], Tehran.

[7] E.g. one encounters Bahá'í, Bahai, Bahá'í, Bahá'í, Behai, Beha'i, Bahäi, Bahâ'i, and others.
(Note: the diacritics on these words in the hardcopy of my thesis didn't all translate into html)


      No religion is founded in a vacuum. The Bahai concept of "progressive revelation" teaches that there is only one God who has communicated with humanity through a variety of Prophets. Each of the world's major religions, the Bahai Faith explains, has been founded by one of God's prophets who, appearing at different times and in different cultures, delivered divine teachings specifically tailored for that time and culture. Each prophet communicates with his followers using language that they understand and employs cultural themes and theological symbols familiar to that audience.[8]

      The Bab and Baha'ullah each began their missions in nineteenth-century Iran, a distinctly Shii society. Each delivered his teachings in the languages native to the regions--Persian and Arabic--and employed symbols, metaphors, and historical allusions familiar to an Islamic audience to communicate his teachings. Largely because of this continuity, Bahais often speak of Islam being the parent religion of the Bahai Faith in the same way that Judaism is the parent of Christianity. This analogy is largely apt. More specifically, though, while the religion of Islam taken as a whole may color the background of Bahai theology and much of Iranian Bahai culture, it is uniquely Shii Islam which informs and in places even defines the Bahai religion.

      Though the Bahai Faith as commonly encountered and presented in the West may reflect little of its Islamic Shii origins, they are quite evident in Babi and Bahai history and thought, from the earliest days of the religions--e.g. the founder of the former titling himself a "Bab"--to diverse contemporary aspects which the religions share in common--e.g. the Covenant, pilgrimage to the houses of the founders,[9] and models of leadership.[10] One evident tie between Shii, Babi, and Bahai belief is the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. This particular episode has proven so powerful a theme that it has served as the single most dominant shaper of Shii identity and has been commemorated, celebrated, and emulated for 1,300 years and by all three distinct religions.

      By the third century A.H. the events at Karbala--the history of the death Muhammad's grandson, Husayn--(see chapter three, below) had become elaborated upon and systematized to the point that a variety of historical details and theological propositions had become fused into one coherent, distinct, and powerfully meaningful symbological set, a set which we might simply denominate Karbala (the place of Husayn's death), or Ashura (the date of Husayn's death). The Bab and Baha'ullah both made extensive use of this set of symbolism as a dominant motif, a vehicle for transmitting aspects of their own theological, ethical, and social teachings; for motivating their followers to action where necessary; and for explaining certain theological concepts such as the meaning of resurrection, proper types of social interaction and service, and the nature of theodicy. However, each figure, while retaining the broad connotations of Karbala, molded its nuances to transmit his own unique set of teachings and to inform his unique mission.

      There is a number of such coherent sets of symbols, one might say aggregated motifs, which inform the Shii, Babi, and Bahai religions and which can be traced through the history of the three traditions. Examples could include mysticism, martyrdom, resurrection, prayer, war, revelation, Satan: each one of these thematic concepts and others similar can be followed through the history of all three. On the one hand the continuity of such themes can be traced in clear lines through the three religions, lending a certain familial relationship to all three. On the other hand there are clear discontinuities, by which one can better understand how the cultures and theologies of all three religions shift and evolve.

      Karbala, the most prominent of all such aggregated motifs for Shiism, provides one of the best themes by which to trace continuities and discontinuities from Iranian Shiism, through Babism, and culminating in the Bahai Faith. By following such developments the relationships and interactions between the traditions and, as a Bahai would say, the evolution of religion can better be understood.

      This study will use the event of Karbala--the set of the themes of suffering and martyrdom, the person of Husayn, the functions of "witnessing" and redemption--as one possible vehicle by which to trace continuities and discontinuities through the Shii, Babi, and Bahai religions. This will help demonstrate how the three traditions share a common history and set of symbolical motifs to form a better understanding of how the three both share a family relation but at the same time are distinct religions using common symbols in distinct ways.

      First the general history and meaning of martyrdom in Islam will be presented, followed in the next chapter by a discussion of its configurations more specific to Iranian Shiism. It is necessary to present this background in a fair bit of detail, for the topic of martyrdom in Islam is far more than a simple one-third of an examination of martyrdom in the three religions of Shiism, Babism, and the Bahai Faith: the Islamic background will be seen to be key for understanding the Babi and Bahai traditions. A discussion of the theme of suffering in the writings of the Bab and the ways in which his followers regarded martyrdom will follow. These will all provide sufficient background to begin analyzing the meanings of the symbols of suffering and martyrdom in the Bahai religion, which will be undertaken in a future study.

Notes to this chapter

[8] See Robert H. Stockman, "progressive revelation," in A Short Encyclopedia for the Bahá'í Faith (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, forthcoming).

[9] Though pilgrimage to the houses of the Bab and Baha'ullah are enjoined for those with means (K32, Q25, Q29, Note 54), it is commonly substituted for by a visit to the "Arc," the Bahai world centre and tomb of the Bab in Haifa, Israel.

[10] See Linda Walbridge, "Reforming the Marja` at-Taqlid: the Bahá'í Example," unpublished paper, 1996. Accessed from the internet: Linkname "Reforming the Marja Taqlid"; URL

Chapter 1


      Though most conspicuous in Persian Shii Islam, much of the significance of suffering and martyrdom is not limited to this local form but extends across the spectrum of Islamic history, practice, and belief. For the divisions of Islam other than the Shii, the import of martyrdom must be traced to influences other than the death of Husayn.

      Besides the arena of Shiism, the themes of suffering, pain, asceticism, sacrifice, and martyrdom find two other primary loci in Islam: martyrdom in war and the spiritual martyrdom of asceticism. First is the most obvious meaning of martyrdom: someone who dies for his religion. In Islamic history this aspect of martyrdom has played out the most in conjunction with jihad, usually translated as "holy war." During the first centuries following the ministry of Muhammad the Muslim community actively sought territorial expansion for the new Islamic empire. In these years the martial aspect of jihad was strongly emphasized, for, as it lent a spiritual justification and even exhortation to war, it proved to be an effective motivator of conquest. Gradually the spiritual aspects of jihad came to outweigh the military, and martyrdom, concomitant with an increasing emphasis on asceticism by certain subgroups of the community, grew into a more abstracted ethical concept.


      The Quran declares that "those who are slain in Allah's way" are not dead, but alive (3:169),[11] and this has often been interpreted to mean that any fighter who is killed in a jihad attains automatic salvation. Though most Muslims came to renounce holy war as an honorable pursuit, a characteristic of the early community and among extremists today is a zeal for fighting "in Allah's way" and attaining martyrdom.[12]

      While much of the Islamic theology of jihad predates Islam--Islam was born in a harsh, demanding environment where fighting was common--the theology of martyrdom and suffering as encapsulated in the Quran was a wholly new concept for the Arabs. Three distinct Quranic and hadith themes proved a powerful and volatile combination: the call to war, the call to martyrdom, and the martyr's reward. Some branches of Islam, such as the Khariji, declared participation in jihad to be one of the key requirements for all able-bodied male Muslims. Passages in the Quran explain that martyrdom in the cause of God is a means to enter paradise:

"Think not of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance from their Lord. They rejoice in the Bounty provided by Allah...the (Martyrs) glory in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they (cause to) grieve. They rejoice in the Grace and the Bounty from Allah, and in the fact that Allah suffereth not the reward of the Faithful to be lost (in the least)." (3:169-71)[13]

Such passages as these provide much of the rationale for a further theological position: not only does a martyr in the cause of God enter paradise, but he does so automatically--his admission is guaranteed.[14] Many hadith elaborate on this theme, such as this from Sahih Bukhari:

Allah's Apostle said, "Someone came to me from my Lord and gave me the news that if any of my followers dies worshipping none along with Allah, he will enter Paradise." I asked, "Even if he committed adultery and theft?" He replied, "Even if he committed adultery and theft." (Volume 2, Book 23, Number 329)[15]

Further rewards, as reported by hadith, are that the fighter in God's cause will, if killed in the struggle, receive privileges otherwise unattainable: he escapes the examination in the grave by the "interrogating angels"; he does not need to pass through barzakh, the purgatory limbo; he receives the highest of ranks in paradise, sitting near the throne of God--Muhammad described the "house of martyrs," dar al-shuhada', as the most beautiful abode of paradise; on the Day of Judgment any wounds the martyr received in battle will shine and smell like musk; his death as a martyr frees him of all sin such that he does not require the intercession of the Prophet; he is purified by his act and so he alone is not washed before burial.[16] The popular understanding of the Quranic descriptions of this paradise for the believer (martyr or not) could not but be of the greatest appeal to the desert-dwelling nomad: awaiting him is a garden of cool breezes, beautiful companions, couches, fruit and drink, and nearness to God. Particularly deserving martyrs are even eligible for double the standard reward, some hadith report.[17] This is an incentive so great that the Prophet is reported to have said that no one who dies and enters paradise "would wish to come back to this world," even if he were to be given ownership of "the whole world and whatever is in it," except the martyr who, "on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again."[18] Finally, the martyr enacts the greatest act of worship possible for a human, for only he, the shahid, witnesses to, shahida, God Himself.

      These three distinct themes, one emphasizing the importance of jihad in its variety of meanings and the other two shedding glory on martyrdom, proved to be a powerful combination for both early and contemporary Islam. The battles the community fought became greater and greater--first against opposing tribes within Mecca, then against another city, and finally against almost all countries in the area. Concomitant with this, the host of rewards awaiting the martyr became more extensive. While it is not provable that Muhammad intentionally created the dialectic between jihad and the martyr's reward in paradise for the sake of encouraging his followers to battle on his behalf, there is no doubt that the dialectic was employed to that end in the early community. The rewards awaiting the martyr were so wondrous, it was widely related, that he alone among men would wish to return to this world and be killed again and again.[19] When, in the early years A.H., the world was officially divided between the "House of Islam" and the "House of War," the theology of martyrdom was strong enough to provide a highly motivated and zealous fighting force. This religiously motivated zeal proved sufficient to allow a full century of Muslim conquests--conquests which, history shows, mere political enthusiasm tends not inspire.[20]

      This proclamatory aspect of martyrdom is usually expressed as the core meaning of the martyrdom event. In an etymological coincidence, the words for "witness" and "martyr" are almost identical in Greek and Arabic. In Greek, a "witness" is martus, and "to witness" as well as "to be or became a martyr" is marturein. In Arabic, the root SH-H-D, provides the meanings of both shahid, "witness" or "testimony" as well as shahid, "martyr," and, by the definition given in Hans Wehr's Arabic-English Dictionary, "one killed in battle with the infidels."[21] While shahid can have a passive sense, i.e. "witnessed,"[22] it is usually taken to mean that the martyr is one who witnesses to the sincerity of his faith or political conviction through the ultimate proof--his own life. This ultimate testimony has been seen as the most powerful tool for winning converts to one's side, be it religious or political. A young village merchant speaking to a European sociologist defined well this most common justification for religious martyrdom in saying "the blood shed by the Iranian martyrs is like the water of an irrigation canal which gives life to the crops. From it the religion will grow."[23] Similarly, refrains chanted, published, and scrawled in graffiti in war-stricken regions of the Middle East express this sentiment as a political justification. A graffito written on a home in Lebanon reads "Victory or Death...Kill us, then our nation will realize the truth more and more!"[24]

      In the political sphere the application of the sense of martyr as "witness," i.e. one who demonstrates the truth of one's conviction, adds another dimension to the modern phenomenon of jihad: as well as the martyr being a most effective fighter in prosecuting God's cause, she also testifies to its legitimacy by her willingness to die. History affords many examples of the use of martyrdom as a propaganda and inspirational tool, a use seen in all periods of Islam.[25] This phenomenon can be seen as the converse of the above: for the individual believer, martyrdom becomes her private, religiously internalized goal, and then, through her sacrificial act, she makes public and advertises the goal to her fellow believers. The public aspect of martyrdom both serves to intimidate the enemy by demonstrating the fervor and commitment of the martyr, and to inspire and vitalize his follow fighters by serving as a role model. Whether the martyr is demonstrating zeal and commitment, as by being willing to fight to the death, or endurance and steadfastness in his faith, as by submitting to torture rather than recant his political or religious allegiance, his act of dying for his beliefs elevates them to the capstone of his life, the crowning event of his participation in the group's struggle. Such a radicalizing of his belief serves, he would believe, to further unite those still living and consolidate their group identity and purpose. When used as proclamatory media, suffering and martyrdom must necessarily be conspicuous, and thus the more extreme they are, the greater the efficacy of the proclamation. In explaining the need for bloody self-flagellation, a Shii worshipper explained to anthropologist David Pinault that "only" through public mortifications "can one cause such huge crowds of people to gather voluntarily."[26]

      It is this aspect of martyrdom which best helps interpret an apparent contradiction. The modern extremist form of jihad often features, and is notorious for, a new willingness to embrace suicide in the prosecution of the struggle and a new fervor in seeking martyrdom. Indeed, while these suicide operations can be called "freelance," they are not rogue--many of the political extremist groups operating in the Middle East officially sanction these actions and provide both logistical planning and materials[27] and as well aid and provide for the martyr's bereaved family and descendants.[28] Yet, the Quran expressly forbids suicide. The Quran's statement "make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction" (2:195) and the hadith teaching that anyone who dies by suicide will eternally reenact in hell the means by which he died (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 23, Number 446) have been interpreted as clear prohibitions of suicide.

      Scholarly apologia, leaders of resistance movements, and the testaments of their believing followers respond with a single refrain: dying in the course of fighting for God, even if it is a willed and voluntary death, is not suicide. When the fighter uses suicide as a military tactic, it is not a simple throwing away of life but rather a purposeful sacrifice. If a terrorist bombing kills an enemy, even if the terrorist is himself killed in the process, a valid military objective has been attained and hence the terrorist's death is not suicide. Br. Abu Ruqaiyah, in his article "The Islamic Legitimacy of The 'Martyrdom Operations,'" quotes a hadith in support of this position: "It is said that, Abu Isaac once asked al-Bara'a Bin Azeb 'A man fights a thousand of enemies, then he is killed. Is he one of those whom Allah says about: "and do not cast yourselves into destruction?"' al-Bara'a said: 'No, let him fight to death.'"[29] Finally, twenty-seven year old Hizbollah fighter Abou Mahdi explained the place of suicide in this jihad from the standpoint of the fighter himself. "In the middle of the battlefield we don't think about death, but just to hurt and damage the enemy," he said, and "if it is our destiny to get killed, we accept the fact with pleasure, because we're looking for it."[30]

      A psychological component further helps explain the justification for martyrdom in light of the prohibitions of suicide. One who is martyred is guaranteed victory. Since the jihad is a religious as well as a political struggle, two levels of success can be recognized. On the political level only the complete conquest of one's side over the enemy's, e.g. the final downfall of the state of Israel, can be considered a victory--partial victory, such as capture of one region, might strengthen one's position but can not be considered a fulfillment of the objectives. On the religious level, however, victories are personal. One's judgment in the afterlife will not take into account such things as which state owns which cities, but rather will weigh one's individual actions in the cause of God. Therefore, the mujahid (one who practices jihad) who dies in the struggle against God's enemies has achieved his personal victory and will receive his reward in the afterlife regardless of the logistical state of the battle. All manner of participants in the struggle agree that martyrdom is not to be regarded as the goal of the struggle, but merely a possible and at times unavoidable side-effect of the fight. The fighter who is killed both achieves a personal victory as well as furthers the group's political position. Martyrdom is therefore justified as an Islamically legitimate sacrifice, not an illegitimate suicide.

      The above discussion allows us to clarify now the reasons why martyrdom, even more than aspects such as spiritual striving (jahada), is the most uniquely religious aspect of jihad. First, Muhammad limited the proper sphere of war solely to fighting in the path of God: purely political conflicts, especially if internecine, did not constitute a just war--a bellum justum--in the Prophet's philosophy.[31] Any war sanctioned by Muhammad thus had to have more than purely political dimensions. These wars had a spiritual justification, and thus anyone killed while fighting in one of them was not merely a dead soldier but was a witness to God. Another dimension which makes death in jihad wholly unlike death in a secular conflict is that the soldier in a political war would seek to defeat his adversary while preserving his own life. A death thereby incurred would be no more than an unfortunate accident. The soldier who dies in the path of God, however, accepts and embraces his death, for the religious backdrop to the jihad sacralizes his fate.[32] Third, the martyr in Islam is guaranteed a unique reward--automatic admittance to heaven. Of the host of specific honors promised the martyr (see above), not one is other than religious, which implies that religion, not secular factors like political gain or strategic advantage, was at least nominally the chief justification for participating in a jihad.

      In presenting the meanings and practice of jihad in the foundational period and in modern Islam, we have seen that martyrdom has a few functions. Of these, two stand out as central: martyrdom is in many ways an unstated goal of the mujahid, especially as practiced in the early period, and the martyrdom is heroically exemplary, especially as practiced in the contemporary period.

      Philosophers from Aristotle to Hobbes have declared that the tendency to make war is inherent to the human species, and the famed medieval historian Ibn Khaldun went so far as to trace its impetus back to creation itself.[33] The Bedouins of Muhammad's time were no less warfaring than other early cultures, and likely were even more so. Muhammad both canalized and fortified this militant spirit, the first by channeling the practice of war to that conducive to God's cause only and the second by emphasizing and encouraging this practice as a duty of every male Muslim. Since he and the Quran declared such a bellum justum to be a religious obligation, and since the enemy was defined as the "Abode of War" antithetical to Islam and hence implicitly satanic, it followed that death in the prosecution of this sacred conflict was a religious honor and that the one dead deserved a unique station. The dead thus is a martyr and his martyrdom grants him a station higher than that otherwise achievable, as indicated by the abundance of rewards he alone is entitled to. As the pious Muslim would of course wish to attain the highest possible station, martyrdom inevitably became seen as an ultimate achievement. Thus, whether intended by the Prophet and acknowledged by the community or not, death in the prosecution of jihad was a supreme and enviable achievement. The haste with which Muslim apologists deny that martyrdom is suicide and quote official prohibitions of suicide further betrays a not-uncommon and perhaps even prevalent belief that martyrdom was indeed seen by some as a noble and commendable expression of one's religious faith.


      By the third century A.H. the wars of conquest were mostly over, and the concepts of both jihad and martyrdom began undergoing a subtle shift. Since the opportunity to die in the prosecution of God's cause was all but gone, alternate forms of martyrdom were sought, as shown by a hadith which depicts a girl seeking advice from the Prophet. She laments that her father, dying of an illness, will not be able to be a martyr in a war of conquest. Muhammad said to her "Allah Most High gave him a reward according to his intentions. What do you consider martyrdom?" "Being killed in the cause of Allah," she replied. Muhammad explained that there are other types of martyrdom "in addition to being killed in Allah's cause." He listed various forms of death by illness and accident as constituting martyrdom, as well as death while on pilgrimage, during pregnancy, or even the death of anyone who expires while in the process of fighting against his own temptations.[34]

      Jihad came to be seen as more an internal, spiritual struggle than a political one, and other types of sacrificial moral duties such as fasting and alms-giving came to be a preferred substitute for martyrdom.[35] Ramadan, the month of fasting, was sometimes portrayed as a period of voluntary suffering enjoined upon the community as a sort of communal sacrifice.[36] The most evident of these new meanings of martyrdom was the new Sufi redefinition of jihad as comprising a greater and a lesser struggle. Sufism is not entirely peaceful and not-militant--one of its founding hero-figures, Hasan al-Basri, lived an active life largely devoted to participating in the early jihads of political conquest, and many later Sufi leaders were also militant, teaching that a true messiah must lead jihad against unbelievers.[37] Notwithstanding, the generality of Sufis accept a modified doctrine of jihad. An oft-quoted (but weak) hadith reports that Muhammad, on returning from a military struggle, exclaimed "we have come back from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad." When asked what he meant by the "greater jihad," he answered "the jihad against oneself."[38] This and similar sentiments led the Sufis to more clearly formulate a distinction between the jihad al-nafs, the struggle against one's lower natures, the nafs (what the Bible would call "the flesh"), and the jihad bi al-sayf, "struggle by means of the sword," which is restricted to actual fighting.[39] One early Sufi, Sufyan ibn Uyayna, expressed how much greater the jihad al-nafs is than the jihad bi al-sayf by declaring jihad to have a total of ten aspects, nine of which are varieties of struggle against one's self and only one of which is a struggle against an enemy.[40]

      Thus many Sufis, like their mystically-leaning counterparts in all religions, elevated voluntary suffering to a spiritual practice. The demographics of what we could term "mystical martyrdom" are minimal, in that the number of mystics who have actually died through their practices, either by being executed as heretics or through harmful ascetic practices, is small. However, the cultural impact of mystical martyrdom is immense. It will be seen Shiism, while occasionally and especially since the beginning of the twentieth century manifesting a revolutionary spirit, clearly leans toward this interiorized, non-literal practice of martyrdom. Since this spiritualized form of martyrdom informs Shiism and the Bahai religions more than do martyrdom's literal practice in jihad, these aspects will be presented in further depth in the relevant chapters, below.

Notes to this chapter

[11] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from the Quran will taken from the revised translation of Yusuf Ali.

[12] A fuller presentation of these themes can be found in Jonah Winters, "Martyrdom in Jihad" (unpublished paper; University of Toronto, 1997). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "Martyrdom in Jihad"; URL

[13] Also "And if ye die or are slain in the way of Allah, forgiveness and mercy from Allah are far better than all they could amass: and if ye die, or are slain, Lo! it is unto Allah that ye are brought together," (3:157-8 [Cf. 2:153]) and "Those who leave their homes in the cause of Allah, and are then slain or die;--on them will Allah bestow verily a goodly Provision. Verily He will admit them to a place with which they shall be well pleased." (22:58-9).

[14] To minimize gender exclusivity, both genders of impersonal pronouns will be alternated. While in early Islam it was almost exclusively men who fought and submitted to martyrdom, women played a significant part and often were martyred in Babism and even more clearly in the later Bahai religion.

[15] Quotations from Sahih Bukhari taken from the internet: Linkname "Hadith Bukhari (English Translation)"; URL Hadith, reports about the Prophet's statements and actions which have been preserved from original oral transmissions, exist in a variety of degrees of reliability. While most doubtless reflect the statements of Muhammad accurately, even if perhaps not verbatim, some may have been fabricated, whether due to sincere misunderstandings or by devious intent. Since this project examines the religious thought of believers and not historical events, the veracity of hadith will not be an issue: a hadith reflects belief whether transmitted by a careful historian or consciously manufactured to promote an agenda.

[16] H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers, eds. Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam (Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 1965); s.v. Shahid, 516. Cf. the hadith:

The Apostle of Allah...said: If anyone fights in Allah's path...Paradise will be assured for him. If anyone sincerely asks Allah for being killed and then dies or is killed, there will be a reward of a martyr for him....If anyone is wounded in Allah's path, or suffers a misfortune, it will come on the Day of resurrection as copious as possible, its colour saffron, and its odour musk; and if anyone suffers from ulcers while in Allah's path, he will have on him the stamp of the martyrs. Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 14, Number 2535
(Taken from the internet: Linkname "Sunan Abu Dawud"; URL

[17] Michael Bonner, "Ja'a'il and Holy War in Early Islam," in Der Islam (68, 1991), 56.

[18] Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 53.

[19] S. Abdullah Schleifer, "Jihad and Traditional Islamic Consciousness," The Islamic Quarterly XXVII:3-4 (1983), 124.

[20] Cf. Fred M. Donner, "Sources of Islamic Conceptions of War," in John Kelsey and James Turner Johnson, eds., Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), 49.

[21] Hans Wehr, J. M. Cowan, ed., Arabic-English Dictionary (New York: Spoken Language Services, 1976), s.v. [non-ascii script].

[22] G. W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 19.

[23] Quoted in Reinhold Loeffler, Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village (New York: State University of New York Press, 1988), 230.

[24] Rima Termos, "Lebanon: Martyrs Line Up for Honor of Dying for God" (Beirut: Inter Press Service [IPS], Dec. 13, 1995). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "[none given]"; URL

[25] Examples of this public, motivational aspect of martyrdom are so numerous in Islam that selecting only a few to cite would be misleading.

[26] Quoted in David Pinault, The Shiites: Ritual and Popular Piety in a Muslim Community (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 108.

[27] See Jean-François Legrain, "Palestinian Islamisms: Patriotism as a Condition of their Expansion,"in Marty and Appleby, eds., The Fundamentalism Project, volume IV: Accounting for Fundamentalisms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). 413-27.

[28] Termos, "Lebanon: Martyrs Line Up," and E.F. Porter, "History soaked in blood; hatred, savage fighting have marked Moscow's involvement in Chechnya for close to 400 years," in St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 29, 1995). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "Current Chechyna Qital News"; URL /jihad/chechen_news.html.

[29] Br. Abu Ruqaiyah, trans. Hussein El-Chamy, "The Islamic Legitimacy of The 'Martyrdom Operations,'" Nida'ul Islam magazine vol. 16 (Dec.-Jan. 1996-97). Accessed from the internet: Linkname none; URL

[30] Quoted in Termos, "Lebanon: Martyrs Line Up."

[31] Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1955) 62.

[32] Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. "martyrdom."

[33] Khadduri, War and Peace, 70.

[34] Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 20, Number 3105, and Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. Shahid, 516.

[35] Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. Shahid, 516.

[36] Harun Saddiqi, "The Meaning of Suffering in Islam," in a lecture delivered at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, on Tuesday, February 11, 1997.

[37] Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 110, 284-5.

[38] Rudolph Peters, Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History. (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979), 118.

[39] Peters, Islam and Colonialism, 120.

[40] W. Montgomery Watt, "Islamic Conceptions of the Holy War," in Thomas Patrick Murphy, ed., The Holy War (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, 1976), 155.

Chapter 2



      The key event shaping all subsequent Shii history and, according to Shii theology, all history preceding the event, is the rebellion of Muhammad's grandson Husayn against the Umayyad dynasty at the end of the decade of 670 C.E. and his subsequent martyrdom at Karbala in 680.

      The root causes of Husayn's murder go back to the time of Muhammad. Shiis believe there are many historical clues indicating that Ali, the cousin of Muhammad and the eventual founder of Shiism, was the rightful leader of the community following the Prophet's death.[41] Ali was only nine or eleven years old when he recognized the prophetic station of Muhammad. This places him, after Muhammad's wife Khadija, as being the first believer.[42] The historian Tabari records an early intimation of Ali's station: one time three years after the beginning of Muhammad's prophetic mission the Prophet called forty eminent guests to dinner and, in front of all, ordered the community to listen to and obey the boy Ali. Later during Muhammad's lifetime, Ali undertook a great many unique tasks, such as acting as his secretary in Medina, leading the battles of Badr and Khaybar as standard-bearer, and caring for Muhammad's family while he was on campaign. Most importantly, on the way back from Mecca to Medina following Muhammad's final pilgrimage in 632, Muhammad stopped the caravan at a pool called Ghadir Khumm. He called everyone's attention, stood up with Ali and raised Ali's hand, and clearly stated "Of whomsoever I am Lord (mawla), then Ali is also his Lord." While the exact meaning of mawla in this context is unclear, the event at least is recognized by both Shiis and Sunnis to signify a unique importance of Ali in Muhammad's eyes.

      Muhammad does not seem to have left his community with clear directions as to how to choose a successor. Shii hadiths recount that, lying on his deathbed, Muhammad asked for pen and paper with which to write his will and, supposedly, name Ali as successor. His request was refused, and he died without leaving any formal record of his wishes. The community was thus left with the responsibility of trying to figure out how to choose a leader, and there was no precedent for them to follow. Some thought that the successor should be chosen in the manner of the earlier tribal custom; this would entail that the members of the community vote to select one of their own class, a person renowned for his qualities of strength and virtue. Others felt that only a member of Muhammad's immediate family, one who enjoyed blood-ties to the holy Prophet, could have the necessary divinely-appointed authority to rule. It is possible that some may have agitated for the installation of Ali, though it is not known how strong his support was at this time.[43] Still others pointed out that, since the society inaugurated by Muhammad could not be bound by any earlier traditions, there was no way of knowing how a successor should be chosen. In the end it was partly political maneuverings and largely contextual happenstance that proved to be the deciding factors. Key figures of the Muslim community met shortly after the Prophet's death at the hall of the Banu Saida clan and chose Abu Bakr, one of the earliest converts, to be the first caliph. Those siding with Ali quietly accepted the decision, but remained disposed to regard Ali as the legitimate heir to leadership. These were the shiah Ali, the "party of Ali"--the Shiis.

      Two years later, in 634 C.E., Abu Bakr nominated Umar to succeed him, and Ali gave Umar his pledge of fidelity. Umar, as he lay dying from an assassin's wound ten years hence, appointed a six-member council to choose a successor. Ali was offered the caliphate on the condition that he continue the policies of his predecessors, which he refused to do, since what he was in effect being asked to do was to keep the Qurayshi tribe in power at the expense of other tribes.[44] Uthman, the alternate choice, accepted the caliphate. Though Ali expressed a certain hesitation in offering Uthman his support,[45] he made no vocal objections to Uthman's appointment. When Uthman was murdered in 656 C.E., Ali was urged to take the caliphate and, while expressing reluctance, he now accepted. Though discontent with his caliphate was not long in coming, it is possible that he was initially supported by all sides.[46]

      Ali's accession to the caliphate came to be regarded by the later Shiah as a long-overdue fulfillment of the Prophet's own wishes.[47] For them he was the imam, the first divinely elected and inspired leader of the Muslim community. Ali was assassinated by a Khariji in 661 and his son Hasan became the second imam. Hasan declined to press his claims for the caliphate and take temporal rule. Instead, he ceded power to the Qurayshi aristocrat Mu'awiya, and thus the Umayyad period began, marking the end of the period of the "rightly-guided Caliphs" in the eyes of the community. From this point, the Sunnis and the Shiis recognized different leaders--the Sunnis continued to follow the Caliphs, but the Shiis instead regarded the imams, the offspring of Ali, as the true leaders, even though these imams had no temporal power. Hasan was poisoned in 669, and was succeeded by his brother Husayn, the third imam.

      When Mu'awiya died in 680 partisans of Ali urged Husayn to travel to Iraq to lead a revolt against Mu'awiya's successor Yazid and seek the political power, the caliphate. Husayn set out with about seventy of his supporters, including his wives and children, but they were met by a contingent of Yazid's forces and surrounded at a place called Karbala. The men were killed and the women and children taken as slaves to Damascus. This event, though of a type relatively commonplace in Middle Eastern history, proved to have great ramifications. Julius Wellhausen, in commenting that Husayn's murder "opened up a new era for the Shia," expressed the meaning of this episode well. "There are such things as events which have a tremendous effect, not so much through themselves and their inevitable consequences as through the memories they leave in the minds and hearts of men," he wrote.[48] There were more imams following Husayn--four for the Isma'ili "Seveners" and nine for the majority Ithna Ashari "Twelvers"--but none had the same impact on Shia history as did the imamates of Ali, Hasan, and Husayn.[49]


      From the time of the usurpation of power by Abu Bakr from Ali, the Shiis began adopting a distinct identity: they were a persecuted minority who knew that rule of the Muslim community rightfully rested with them, but who were resigned to watching helplessly as power was wrested from them by illegitimate megalomaniacs. To the Shiis, not only were those who assumed leadership legally unjustified in doing so, for Muhammad officially bequeath rulership to Ali, but worse, those who took power--the Umayyads--were, as the Prophet's original enemies, spiritually unqualified. Helpless in the face of manifest injustice and yet confident of their legitimacy, the Shii ethos became politically quietist, religiously introspective, and eschatologically oriented.

      These themes have taken expression in what is perhaps the most unique aspect of Shiism: its ethos of suffering and martyrdom. Themes of pain and suffering are of course found in many religious traditions. Most notably, Buddhism teaches that suffering (duhkha) is, along with soul-lessness (anatman) and impermanence (anityam), one of the three fundamental qualities of existent entities. Christianity, with its highly-developed theology of incarnation, the divisions between the soul and the spirit, and the martyrdom and physical resurrection of Christ, has many strong themes of the reality of pain, and many Christian mystics have taken the practice of bodily mortification to an extreme.[50] In contrast Shiism, though also concentrating to a certain extent on the philosophical explanations of suffering or the redeeming value of pain, has emphasized most strongly the emotional commitment to mourning. One observer, 1981 Nobel Laureate in literature Elias Canetti, was not employing hyperbole in saying that Shiah Islam is "a religion of lament more concentrated and more extreme than any to be found elsewhere.[51]

      Two distinct events have contributed in shaping the themes of suffering and martyrdom in Shiism: the murder of Husayn and the "occultation" of the twelfth imam. With the death of Husayn the extent of the spiritual debasement of the opponents of the Prophet's family was made clear and the Shiis entirely gave up hopes for establishing a legitimate government; and with the occultation of the twelfth imam the Shiis became wholly politically quietist, keeping alive the cadre of Muslims loyal to Muhammad's family while waiting for the twelfth imam to return and lead the Shiis to victory.

The Martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali

      The principal events surrounding the death of Imam Husayn, the Prince of Martyrs (sayyed al-shuhada') are clear and fairly well documented, though their interpretation may not always be [see for example A. Q. Faizi, The Prince of Martyrs]. However, this event soon became the event of central significance to the entire Shii history--indeed, it became seen as a central event in the entire history of humankind, one towards which previous history was teleologically drawn and from which subsequent history charted its course[52] --and its details became highly elaborated upon and surrounded with numerous non-historical embellishments. While any academic history of Shiism will present the details of this history, it is only the event as seen through the eye of the believer that concerns this project.[53] As this event is foundational for Shiism and Babism and its details and characters will be referred to and cited frequently in this study, a summary of the incident is necessary here. The following account, which is representative of what has become a distinct genre of narrations of Husayn's death, will be telescoped from an apologetic (and, incidentally, Bahai) source: Abu'l-Qasim Faizi's The Prince of Martyrs: a brief account of the Imam Husayn.[54]

      Muhammad had many times announced that the house of Ali was to lead the community after his death.[55] At his deathbed Muhammad requested pen and paper with which to officialize his appointment, but his request was denied by those who were already hatching their plans to usurp power. The first two rulers following Muhammad, Abu Bakr and Umar, conspired to keep Ali powerless but the third, Uthman, was forced by popular opinion to designate Ali his successor. Ali ruled for a brief five years before a power-hungry member of a rival clan, Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, managed to have him assassinated. Mu'awiya quickly captured the caliphate and thereby the rule of the Muslim world. Though nominally a pious Muslim, he took every opportunity to vilify Ali and his followers, the Shiah, and keep Ali's son Hasan from practicing his rightful rule. Hasan, too, was soon killed at command, and it fell to another of Ali's sons, Husayn, to seek his just place as Caliph. Mu'awiya, anticipating Husayn's attempt at the caliphate, labored hard to have his own son, Yazid, accepted as successor.

      Yazid repeatedly sought to secure an oath of allegiance from Husayn in advance, but was unsuccessful--Husayn was staunch in his commitment to honor the line of the Prophet. To compound matters, Yazid was every bit as debased as Husayn was pious: his greed, ignorance, and libertinism were legendary, and his addiction to alcohol so great that he even made the pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's most sacred spot, while drunk. Husayn's spiritual magnitude was equally legendary. At one point the Muslims of the city of Kufa, in Iraq, invited Husayn to visit them, whereupon they would publicly acclaim him as the caliph and sole legitimate ruler of the Muslim world. So many thousands of Kufans wrote to Husayn that, though advised not to by wise friends, he decided to honor the request. Husayn recognized well in advance that the Kufans, ambivalent and lacking steadfastness, might prove unfaithful. Were he to decline the invitation, though, it would signal his willingness to abide by the manifestly unjust and amoral rule of Yazid and thereby precipitate a complete fall of his grandfather's religion. Yazid, for his part, recognized that, were the Kufans to honor their pledge and proclaim support for Husayn, his own hold on power would become very tenuous. He had to stop Husayn.

      Yazid commissioned Ibn Ziyad, an appointee of Mu'awiya, as governor of Iraq. Ibn Ziyad, upon arriving at his post, threatened all who might support Husayn with torture and death, and thereby convinced all of Husayn's declared supporters to abandon their oaths to Husayn and turn against him. By this time, though, Husayn followers had already departed for Kufa with about seventy of his and was not aware of his supporters' change of heart. Husayn did have the foresight to send an advance envoy to Kufa to reassess his support there, but this scout was captured and beheaded before being able to warn Husayn of the changed situation. Husayn continued on his way, not knowing that Ibn Ziyad had despatched an army of thousands to meet and stop him. By the second night of the month of Muharram in the year 61 A.H. (2 October C.E. 680), Husayn had reached an area known as the plains of Karbala, a few dozen miles from Kufa. They were camping here when the army of Ibn Ziyad came upon them. The two groups stood in a standoff for a few days, the army waiting to secure Husayn's oath of allegiance for Yazid and Husayn and his group of followers negotiating for their freedom.

      By the ninth day of Muharram neither Husayn nor the opposing army had yielded, and Ibn Ziyad sent word that the army was to wait no longer. That night Husayn addressed his followers, saying that the army wanted no one's blood but his own and that all were free to make use of the cover of darkness and escape. Morning dawned, but none had left.

      This, the tenth day of Muharram, or ashura ('ashura', "tenth"), was to be the day of their deaths. Seeking a peaceful settlement, a path he believed Muhammad would have chosen, Husayn approached his adversaries with offers of reconciliation. Though unsuccessful, he did convince a few among the enemy to join his side. The rest then began their slaughter. They surrounded Husayn's small band, preventing them from reaching the nearby Euphrates to get much-needed water and killing any who tried. Husayn even tried carrying forward his dehydrated infant son and pleading for a drop of water to keep him from dying of thirst. The child was shot in the throat. With the death of his infant child Husayn sunk down at the door of his tent to pray and grieve for all those who had been killed that morning.

      By noon not one of the fighting men among Husayn's followers was left alive. Husayn appealed once again to Ibn Ziyad's army. He reminded them with loving and respectful words that they and their fellow Kufans had pledged to support him, the grandson of the Prophet, and tried to convince them to end the slaughter. This proved to be but an invitation for the battle's most inglorious episode: Husayn himself was shot. He asked for a brief respite to say the noonday prayer and say good-bye to his family, which was granted. But no sooner had he finished praying than the final assault began in earnest. The enemy swooped upon him like birds of prey, landing so many arrows and blows of the sword upon him that he fell from his horse. They continued to attack his helpless body, but still he clung to the last strands of life. This tenacity inspired such awe that none would deal him the coup de grâce. A man named Shemr, sent by Ibn Ziyad to accompany the army specifically for his quality of unadulterated immorality and brutality, stepped forward and struck off Husayn's head.

      The army of four thousand, now having completed its victory over a band of seventy men dying of thirst, raised the heads of the dead on spears and, leading the roped women and children still alive, returned to Kufa.

      Though accounts may differ in a few details and some add considerable detail and embellishment, the above is a fairly representative story of the death of Husayn and its surrounding circumstances.[56] A few characteristics stand out in all standard tellings: the sincerity of Husayn and his followers; the perfidy of his sworn supporters in Kufa; the willingness of Husayn to give them the benefit of the doubt and act as if he believed in their support though he knew it to be a fatal choice; the respect and love Husayn showed his enemy and the immoral brutality they returned; the defenselessness and peacefulness Husayn's band showed in the face of the unprovoked offensiveness of Ibn Ziyad's forces; the evident piety of Husayn; and, most importantly, Husayn's foreknowledge that by acting with sincerity and piety, even if in accordance with the behaviour of the Prophet, he was embracing a certain death. These characteristics, which have been abstracted, amplified, and cherished by Shiis since 680 C.E. have given Shiism its distinct personality.

Later developments: the Twelfth Imam

      With Husayn's martyrdom the party of Ali found itself politically leaderless, yet unified in its recognition of the series of spiritual leaders--the imams. Husayn's son Zayn al-Abidin, who escaped death in the massacre at Karbala, became considered the fourth imam and the line was thus kept alive. Al-Abidin was succeeded by another seven hereditary leaders, imams five through eleven. The eleventh, Hasan al-Askari, died in January 874,[57] leaving a state of confusion behind him. Some Shiis claimed that he died without leaving male progeny, but others believed that he left a young son and hence twelfth imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan. The last reported public appearance of Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan was at the time of Hasan al-Askari's death, after which the twelfth imam went into "occultation," or a state of concealment. For the next sixty-seven years Imam Muhammad, still in occultation, communicated with the community through the intermediary of a series of agents known as babs, or "gates" to the imam. When the last of these intermediaries died in 941 C.E. all communication with the twelfth imam ceased.

      Though no tangible proof for the twelfth imam's existence was available, the thought of his death was unthinkable for the Twelver Shiis. By now he would only be sixty-six years old, and though the last intermediary had died and the imam was fully out of contact with the community, there was no reason to assume that he would cease to remain its leader. Thus began the period known as the "greater occultation." From 941 to the present day Imam Muhammad has not let his physical presence be known, though he occasionally manifests himself to the pious after sincere prayers or in dreams and mystic visions.

      Soon after the death of the fourth Bab and the beginning of the twelfth imam's greater occultation, it became apparent to the believers that his inevitable return would be a momentous event. He became known as the Mahdi, "the (divinely) guided one."[58] The key decisions made shortly after the Prophet's death--by the Sunnis to adopt elective rule and by the Shiis to follow an appointed series of leaders--continued to shape the community's political structure: the imam, the appointed and hereditary heir to Muhammad was gone and in the meantime only his delegates, the collective priesthood of the "learned," 'ulama', could guide the Shii community. When the imam emerges from his occulted state, though, then God's appointed representative will once again exercise authority on the earth. Two crucial motifs followed this realization. First, any individual or body assuming power in the twelfth imam's absence is at best a surrogate ruler and at worst an ungodly impostor. All forms of earthly rule other than the body of the ulama are either provisional or unjust. Second, the return of the Mahdi will herald the return of justice and righteousness and the culmination of whatever mysterious plan of God's occulted the imam in the first place.[59]

      The doctrine of the Mahdi was no doubt initially a simple expectation that a powerful figure would soon lead the Shiis back into power, but it gradually accrued a whole constellation of related beliefs: his return will elevate the Shiis to the state of righteous rule granted by Muhammad but usurped from the day of his death; it will herald the Day of Judgment and the eschatological end of time; in the final apocalyptic battle led by the Mahdi the pious will be brought back to life;[60] the enemies of the Shiis will be vanquished once and for all; true justice will finally be established over the earth.[61] While such religious symbology may sound quaint or even medieval to a contemporary educated Western reader, the vitality of the doctrine of the Mahdi must not be underestimated. Even a seemingly least-likely adherent to this belief as the self-proclaimed modernist intellectual Al-e Ahmad wrote in the 1960s that

"...all of us are waiting for the Imam of the Age [the Mahdi]. I mean we are all waiting, and rightly so, because no ephemeral government has come through on the least of its promises and undertakings, and because oppression is everywhere, along with injustice, suffocation and discrimination...God Almighty hasten his advent!"[62]

      An overview of the doctrine of the Mahdi is indispensable for understanding many aspects of the three religions under consideration here. The meanings of suffering and martyrdom are especially informed by two of its multifarious influences. First, the politically quietistic attitude Shiism developed in the imam's absence tended to elevate suffering in the path of the imam to a worthy attitude and guaranteed sufferers a reward commensurate with the degree of their righteous suffering. Inspired by the fact that each and every imam was reported to have been martyred, and by the fact that the injustice of the world was so pervasive and, without God's delegate visible on earth, so incapable of being challenged, the Shiis became somewhat passive in their acceptance of suffering and injustice and content to wait for the imam to lead them. Enduring suffering in his path came to be expected. Second, the eschatological fervor that came to be expected with the "advent" of the Mahdi encouraged the development of an at-times militant rhetoric. When the imam manifests himself once again, he will lead his followers in a magnificent battle: the final battle will be the first unified effort of the Shiis, led by God's representative, against all the world's injustice and all of those who have tormented the pious through all their years of long-suffering, and further it will be the final battle, the cleansing of all evil from the face of the earth.[63] For such a glorious event extreme measures might be called for--the possibility of martyrdom was to be expected.

Vicarious suffering in the path of God: Muharram

      As the above summary of Shii history shows, Shiis have found themselves to have suffered severe injustices in the first three centuries of Muslim history. First they were excluded from taking the positions of leadership which clearly were theirs; when Ali, the proper heir to power, finally did gain the seat of the caliph he was granted only a short period of rule before being assassinated; when Ali's son Husayn made another try at the caliphate he too is assassinated, and this under most heinous conditions; and finally, the line of Ali seemed to die altogether when the twelfth imam disappeared.

      Shiism reconciled these injustices with the clear directives of the Prophet, who, they felt, had explicitly designated them the true Muslims, by adopting the explanation that God's inscrutable plan underlay it all and that all these events were foreordained for specific reasons. Since these maligned Shii heroes were doubtless destined to receive the favor of God, it was not a long jump to the conclusion that accepting all the sufferings was in some way the key to God's good pleasure. For the mass of the Shiis, who were not privy to the core events of Shii history, the key to God's favor and even the intercession of the imams was to commemorate and sincerely lament over these events and thereby partake vicariously in the sufferings of God's chosen ones.

      All of God's prophets, Muslim belief holds, have suffered in His path, and likewise have all of the imams.[64] Each and every one, according to Shii belief, found his life ended by martyrdom. Shiis commemorate the sufferings of these martyrs frequently, both in a variety of public holidays scattered throughout the year and also in private, often weekly, ceremonies. The most important of these ceremonies are those held in Muharram, the month in which Husayn was killed. This month, and especially its first ten days, is the central focus of Shii piety. Worshippers attend special commemorative meetings in which the story of Karbala is told and retold and the sufferings of the house of Ali, the imams, and especially Husayn are recounted, processions are held, and passion plays, taziya, are enacted.[65] These three rituals--the tellings of the story of Husayn (rauza-khani), the passion plays (ta'ziya), and the processions (dasta-yi azadari)--are the three main elements of activity and devotions during Muharram.[66]

      The commemorative meetings known as rauza-khanis, or "Rauza readings," are named after an early book on the sufferings of Husayn called Rauza al-Shuhada', "Garden of Martyrs."[67] These are held in many venues, both public and private. Special narrators, called rauza-khans, "Rauza readers," are hired to recite the events surrounding the day of Ashura, the day of Husayn's martyrdom. The more successful of these narrators are highly skilled in poetic storytelling, dramatic techniques, and chanting of elegies, as well as perfect pronunciation of classical Arabic and skilled use of symbolism, all serving to convey the events of Karbala with an intense passion and maximize the audience's emotional involvement. The rauza-khan portrays the events with great detail, and dwells especially on the sufferings of Husayn and his party: their long march, the heat and their thirst, the gradual killing of the fighting men and the agonies of each individual death, and the brutality Husayn is subjected to. As the narration proceeds and continually heightens in intensity, the audience repeatedly will burst into sobbing and moaning and will slap their foreheads and beat their chests in anguish.

      The taziya, the passion play in which the events of Husayn's death are actually reenacted by the participants, is another important event. These plays began to be enacted in a simple form shortly after the event of Karbala but only became widespread during the Safavid period,[68] reaching their peak in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Qajar Iran. In the twentieth century Iran's various secular governments have occasionally outlawed their practice,[69] but the taziyas nonetheless still exist as a key religious event in Iranian Islam. They are enacted in every major city in Iran, and semi-professional traveling troupes--whose pay is often provided by a wealthy sponsor as a public service bringing its own religious rewards--sometimes bring the play even to remote and small villages. As with the rauza-khans, the taziyas do not simply portray the known historical events but provide a great amount of imaginative detail to flesh out the story. A Turkish traveler to Iran in 1640 provides a vivid description of one such public passion play for Husayn, to which came "the nobles and notables and all the people of the city, great and small":

When the reader of the book [on the martyrdom of Husayn] reaches the part describing the manner in which the accursed Shemr killed the oppressed Husayn, at that very moment, they bring out to the field...mock representations of the bodies of the dead children of the Imam. Upon seeing this spectacle shouts and screams and wailings of "Alas, Husayn" mount from the people to the heavens and all spectators weep and wail. Hundreds of Husayn's devotees beat and wound their heads, faces and bodies with swords and knives. For the love of Imam Husayn they make their blood flow. The green grassy field becomes bloodied and looks like a field of poppies. Then the mock dead are carried from the field and the reading of the story of Imam Husayn's martyrdom is completed.[70]
      The processions are perhaps the most public of the Muharram ceremonies and, with their conspicuous self-flagellation, are perhaps the most immediately noticeable to foreign observers. These range from simple marches to elaborate pageants, complete with characters from the taziya, groups singing dirges and laments, banners and flags representing the standard of Husayn at Karbala (the alam), and floats, all interspersed with often shirtless men wailing and beating their chests.[71] The self-beatings take a variety of forms, from light chest-slapping practiced chiefly by the observers to strenuous self-flagellation, often with chains, daggers, razor blades, or other "implements"--these occurring in their most vigorous forms during processions and other outdoor events--practiced most conspicuously by young men. Indeed, many of the forms of self-beating are complex and evolved enough that the activity has become even part art and part sport, with vendors selling a variety of instruments and enthusiasts discussing fine points of technique.[72]


      The various ceremonies commemorating the sacrifice of Husayn--Muharram, taziyas, rauza-khans--can have many purposes and intended effects, such as keeping alive and vibrant the religion's history and legends,[73] unifying and consolidating the community through group participation ceremonies,[74] providing a means for personal spirituality, or even for inciting the audience to political action.[75]

      The most common and noticeable purpose for such events is simply to inspire weeping. Many hadith affirm the spiritual value of weeping,[76] and Shii tradition has long upheld the redemptive value of heartfelt weeping in memory of the suffering of the Prophet and especially the martyred imams.[77] Iranian Shiis weep during these ceremonies, while visiting the shrines of the imams or their four babs (and especially to Karbala), during prayers, while listening to Quran recitations, and any number of other occasions where devotions and personal piety are expressed. Seeing this phenomenon as a simple act of catharsis for personal misfortunes; for the agonies undergone by Shiism's spiritual heroes; and as an expression of both the broad motif of the suffering of the community at the hands of political and religious injustices and the narrower motif of the contemporary unpleasantries of life, often caused by the impoverished peasant conditions characteristic of many Iranian communities in history, are all valid and no doubt accurate explanations for the pervasiveness and magnitude of the Shii culture's obsession with weeping.

      All these explanations, however, would seem to belittle the significance of sorrow and suffering for Shiis, and at minimum do not fully account for the heartfelt sincerity with which Shiis mourn. More transcendent spiritual explanations seem to be needed. Why are the events of Karbala seen as of cosmic import, why are Shiis so committed to commemorating and vicariously experiencing the event every year, and why do these commemorations focus on suffering and martyrdom?

      There seem to be a few answers to these questions, some obvious and simple, others highly theological and abstruse. We will explore here three: (1) suffering as simply that--a natural outburst of expression by a community that has been subjected to injustices and painful events; (2) suffering as a vehicle for worship and religious growth, using Husayn and his followers as a model; (3) the theology of redemption.

Sufferings of the community

      To a certain extent since 945 C.E. with the founding of the Buyid Dynasty and to a great extent since 1501 with the establishment of Safavid rule, Iran has been affiliated with Shiism. Persian culture and Shii thought proved to be an agreeable couple, and each half of the couple brought with it an awareness of having suffered in the past and an acute familiarity with pain.[78]

Persian historical suffering

      The twentieth century has introduced the world to an Iran notable for its willingness to rise to political action and seize power from the civil rulers, sometimes to redirect this power into the hands of the religious authorities. Indeed, Jahangir Amuzegar delineates seven such revolutions since 1906 alone, in many of which members of the religious establishment played a key role.[79] This is, however, a recent phenomenon. Both in its earliest years of millennia ago and its recent years of the twentieth century Persia was a strong, self-confident nation, but in the intervening two thousand years it fell to a continuous series of political subjugations and, especially with the coming of the Muslim Arabs, a strong foreign cultural imperialism. The first few centuries of Shiism's history can especially be and have been read as a tragedy of continual persecution. In these years Persian religion, arts, and philosophy came to reconcile Persia with its suffering and, eventually, to embrace it.

      Under Cyrus the Great and his immediate successors in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Persia enjoyed the distinction of ruling over a domain that, stretching from Europe to India, was the world's first true world empire. Including as this area did, if only for a time, the regions of Mesopotamia and Anatolia, Persia was also able to consider itself the possessor of what are likely the world's oldest civilizations. Since at least the time of Cyrus, Persian culture has been strongly autonomous, defensive of its history, and proud of its culture. "The Iranians as a whole feel their cultural roots with a sensitivity shared by few other people on earth," writes Sandra Mackey. All ethnic and religious groups within Iran, she writes, "with the possible exception of the Kurds," share "an intense pride" in the Persia's history and its unique society, arts, literature, and philosophy, combined to give Iran "an intense nationalism."[80] Yet Persia became a vanquished land. Though once enjoying glory as the pinnacle of human empire and culture, she was defeated by one foreign power after another: first the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Arab Muslims, then the Turks, then the Mongols, then Russia, and most recently the British all either captured major parts of or completely conquered Persia.[81] Persia's determined pride for its unique culture and its strong sense of nationalism remained strong during, and perhaps were even further strengthened by, its political subservience, but in its subordinate state this self-confidence and pride turned inward. Cultural resistance movements such as the Shubiya of the late eighth century C.E.--a culture war bordering on insurrectionism--demonstrated the vitality of Iran's self-identity as well as possibly a certain insecurity.[82]

Persian cultural suffering

      This uniquely Persian mix of nationalistic pride blended with pervasive mourning is perhaps most clearly evidenced by Persia's three most emblematic pieces of literature: Ferdausi's epic "Book of Kings," the Shahnameh, written in the early eleventh century; the divan (the corpus of poetry) of the fourteenth-century Hafez, and Omar Khayyam's classic "Quatrains," the Rubayyat, written in the twelfth century.

      The Shahnameh, a book-length paean of courts, heroes, and battles, is regarded by Persians as their national literary epic, its style and themes seen as the ultimate expression of Persian cultural identity.[83] The Iranian identity of mourning can clearly be seen by contrasting the Shahnameh with other epics which have been adopted as emblematic by their respective cultures. Where the national epics of other cultures tend to celebrate victories and sovereignty,[84] the Shahnameh is in many ways a celebration of defeat. After recounting the histories and glories of Persia's ancient kings, the epic culminates with the defeat of the Iranian armies by the conquest of the Muslim Arabs. Almost any educated Iranian, writes Mackey, can "passionately quote" Ferdausi's famous lament "Damn on this World, Damn on this Time, Damn on Fate / That uncivilized Arabs have come to force me to be a Muslim."[85] In the Shahnameh, Muharram-like rituals are portrayed as historically preceding Karbala: the deaths of two of its heroes at the hands of treachery are bitterly lamented, lamentations which soon became emulated in practice by the advent of public mourning for these heroes as well as Husayn.[86]

      The most memorized and revered poet of Persia is Hafez, whose poems to this day are quoted at every opportunity. Hafez, with his emphasis on the love of God and his frequent, seemingly deliberate mystical blasphemies ("Stain your prayer rug with wine if the Zoroastrian Elder tells you to"[87] ), expresses to a great degree the religious sentiments of much of Persian thought. Hafez writes of mystical union with God as inherently supreme over religious law, of love as flirtatious and easily lost, and of the reality of earthly suffering: "Not all the sum of earthly happiness / Is worth the bowed head of a moment's pain."[88] While the poetry of Hafez can prima facie seem to be predominantly a celebration of the joy of life, a careful reading can reveal that, underlying this celebration, themes of death and loss of love and faith run as ubiquitous undercurrents.

      Similarly, Omar Khayyam's Rubayyat, while permeated with an almost Epicurean sense of enjoying life, is more than anything a meditation on the fickleness of life and the evanescence of its pleasures. In some one-hundred verses[89] Khayyam expresses a mood of regretful nostalgia, bittersweet pleasures, happinesses tempered by deep, world-weary sorrow, occasional heresy, and a relentless pessimism about the futility of action in whose mirror many Persians recognize their own life attitudes.[90] Reflecting on his one-time lovers who have since died, Khayyam writes:

And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend--ourselves to make a Couch--for whom?[91]

      Though Shiism has enjoyed the status of being a state religion to a large extent since the Buyids and explicitly so since the Safavids, it seems never to have lost its self-identity as a persecuted community. The Shii community has been shaped by and defined itself around a series of traumatic events: the loss of rightful rule and the scorning of the Prophet's family and chosen heirs; the failed caliphate and martyrdom of Ali; the failed uprising and massacre of Husayn; the (supposed) assassination of every imam; and finally the total disappearance of worldly leadership with the occultation of the twelfth imam. These themes have welded themselves smoothly with the theme of the unjust oppression of one of the world's pre-eminent cultures. "The masses of Iran," writes Mackey, have "suffered for centuries at the hands of unjust and venal rulers they...have had no power to resist." She postulates that "perhaps this is why Iranian culture bears a palpable if not quite definable burden of grief." This history of persecution and suffering has, she concludes, "preconditioned them to always perceive the negative, the sad, and the tragic."[92]

      It can now be seen that the suffering and martyrdom of Husayn is far more than that of a single person. For the normative Iranian, the passion and suffering of Husayn encapsulates both his Persian cultural mourning as well as his Shii spiritual lamentation. His agony, as Mackey expresses it, "is the symbol of oppression from which they [the Iranians] have suffered individually and collectively at the hands of tyranny wielded by powerful aliens and their own social-political systems."[93] Just as Husayn died a martyr at the hand of evil forces which he was not able to defeat, so have the masses of Iranian also long suffered at the hands of unjust political and religious authorities they were not able successfully to resist. Save for a century of Buyid rule (946-1055 C.E.), for all of Shiism's history before the rise of the Safavids in 1501 the Shiis found the authority of their imams spurned, the rule of their political leaders rejected, their collections of hadith rejected, and often their followers executed. The Shiis thus felt themselves to be masters of suffering, as evidenced by their greatly-regarded literature of Ferdausi, Hafez, and Omar Khayyam, but they did not grieve merely for themselves. Their unique status of being the heirs to the only legitimate spiritual authority following Muhammad, combined with their collective grief as an oppressed culture, gave them what they believed to be a unique insight into the reality of human suffering. They mourned not just for themselves but for the entire human condition.[94]

Identification with Husayn to vitalize personal religiosity

      Many religions, such as Buddhism, Judaism, and Christian liberation theology, teach that suffering, though an inescapable fact of life, is not a condition to which the individual should be reconciled. The individual must strive to transcend suffering and the community to ameliorate it. Shiism, however, akin to strains in Greek asceticism and medieval Christianity, emphasizes suffering as a necessary vehicle for personal betterment and religious transformation.

      Imam Husayn is the model Shii. First, his status as grandson of the Prophet immediately lends him an exalted heritage, a bloodline direct from God's messenger on Earth. As imam, he has a spiritual authority which not only allows him to legislate but, equally important, invests him with the qualities of the perfect Muslim. Many stories are preserved, in both Shii and Sunni writings, of Husayn's generosity, wisdom, and, above all, his deep piety.[95] However, the most outstanding meritorious event of Husayn's life, the one most deserving of emulation by the Shii, is his martyrdom and the image of Husayn as the hero. The figure of Husayn possesses an unusual degree of what Max Weber called "charisma"--the strength of an individual, especially a religious one, to inspire devotion and emulation in his followers. He is, of course, a hero of a rare sort, for he is the paragon not of worldly victory but instead of defeat and sacrifice. No strong and stoic warrior, he is often depicted as crying out pitifully for help and begging for mercy in his last moments.[96] Husayn's goals being otherworldly, his heroism was strictly emotional and spiritual.

      It must be pointed out that Husayn, upon departing for Kufa, quite likely did not believe himself to be facing certain death. His journey to the city was at the request of the Muslims of Kufa, who were clearly dissatisfied with the rule of Yazid and were seeking a replacement. This invitation was, even by a conservative estimate, overwhelming: most sources report that the letters of appeal sent to Husayn numbered in the thousands. Husayn was not simply embarking on a pious quest, but had clearly been promised a strong showing of military support, both from the Kufans and from the band of followers who accompanied him. Further, Husayn was likely following a cautious military strategy, as indicated by his sending a scout ahead of his force. Finally, he and his party made it clear that they had not come simply to surrender, for he and his party opposed the forces of Yazid in a standoff for a full nine days. Some reports tell that the night before the battle he had his little army fortify their camp against attack, digging a trench behind the camp and filling it full of burning wood and then pitching the tents in a tight circle to afford the fullest protection.[97]

      These details, though, are not necessarily of interest to the Shiis, because for them Husayn's journey was a heroic, not a military, quest. For them the key is that Husayn knew beforehand that his opposition would be futile. He is almost always depicted as having been fully aware before departing Medina that his struggle was doomed to failure, and if for any reason he let himself forget that, his half-brother Muhammad ibn al-Hanifiyyah foretold with clear warnings the fate that would lie at the end of the journey. If Husayn's foreknowledge is postulated, the entire meaning of the event changes. Instead of being a failed military coup inspired by a desire to seize power and rectify political wrongs, the event becomes a moral play whose chief intent is to demonstrate a higher truth. By advancing to certain defeat, Husayn was testifying to his followers that their cause was one so important and vital as to merit their dying for it and to his opponents that his party held the strongest possible belief in the righteousness of their agenda and hence would never rest until either they were dead or their enemies ended their unwelcome rule.[98]

      Finally, Husayn's voluntary death was not simply a demonstration for the benefit of his contemporaries, but further was proof for all future generations of what exactly the Prophet Muhammad's teachings meant for Muslims: piety is more important than temporal power, and only a just ruler is a Muslim one. Thus, if Husayn marched to Kufa with a foreknowledge of his fate, then his heroic journey transcends all political and socio-cultural implications and becomes a worldly manifestation of the cosmic battle of good against evil. It is a spiritual statement and quest par excellence. The Shii commemorates the suffering and death of Husayn not just to immortalize his opposition to unjust usurpations of power but more to take his own place in the eternal stand against the ungodly. Shii culture, as demonstrated above, defines itself largely in contradistinction to a state of impious injustice reigning in the world at large, and the sufferings of Husayn must be continuously actualized in the present to retain his spirit of pious opposition to them.

      The Shii author Ali Shariati, writing in the twentieth century, expresses this true significance of the death of Husayn for Shiah Islam in a brief statement that summarizes well all of these key themes:

Choose mourning for continuing the constant historical struggle of the Shiites against usurpation, treachery, cruelty...Remember Ashura [the day of Husayn's death] to humiliate the ruling group who call themselves the inheritors of the traditions of the Prophet, for the remembrance of it will prove that they are the inheritors of the killers and murderers of the Prophet's family...Ashura recalls the teaching of this continuing fact that the present Islam is a criminal Islam in the dress of "tradition" and that the real Islam is the hidden Islam, hidden in the red cloak of martyrdom.[99]

      Islam never seems to have developed the Muslim equivalent of the Imitatio Christi, the Christian path of living one's life in imitation of Jesus. Shiism, however, has strong elements of an "Imitatio Husayn," and it is here that the heroic aspects of Husayn emerge most strongly. The Shii can participate in the sufferings of Husayn by a form of intentional transference, so to speak: through devotional practices the worshipper can shift the experiences and emotions associated with Husayn to him- or herself, thus allowing for a form of identification with Husayn and vicarious suffering. Besides keeping alive the memory of Husayn, as Shariati writes, this transference has a powerful effect on one's personal spirituality. Legend relates that, during the battle of Uhud (625 C.E.), Muhammad was sharply wounded on the mouth by a flying rock. In grief for the Prophet's injury, one of his companions grabbed a stone and smashed it against his own teeth, to feel the same pain as Muhammad and to emulate his experiences. Shiis often explain their own mourning in the same way: "Beating one's chest is a natural thing, a natural response when one hears about Karbala," David Pinault was told in conversation with a group of Shiite men. "We want to feel Husayn's sorrow."[100]

      Emulating Husayn and subjecting oneself to experiences like his is more than a simple wish to identify with a hero's actions. What it demonstrates is that the inner convictions are the same--just as Husayn was willing to die to testify to the strength of his ideals and the sincerity of his convictions, so is the self-flagellating Shii testifying to the depth of his own commitment to and willingness to die for the Shiah agenda. "We do matam [mortifications] not just to commemorate [Husayn] but as a way of saying we are Shiites," said one of Pinault's interviewees. "[B]y hurting myself, I show I am willing to protect my religion."[101] One need not actually be a martyr (shahid) to testify (shahida) to one's piety, but can testify by enacting and reenacting the key events.

      It must not be believed that the participants in mourning and mortification ceremonies as described here regard them as theatre, or as play-acting, though the taziya and other Muharram ceremonies have occasionally been portrayed as such by Orientalist scholarship. For the worshipper--who is demonstrating that, had he been with Husayn on the fields of Karbala, he would have laid down his life for the imam--these role-playing events are in serious, one might say deadly, earnest. Pinault writes that, in observing the Muharram ceremonies, he noted "again and again" the "desire to break down the barriers of time, between the twentieth century and the seventh."[102] The act of intense mourning can provide a means to participate in the battle of Karbala itself, regardless of the fact that it is historically distant. Matthew Arnold, in his 1871 essay "A Persian Passion Play," noted that "the power of the actors is in their genuine sense of the seriousness of the business they are engaged in."[103] Though the actors are supposed to identify not with the characters but with the roles they represent--good versus evil, the family of the Prophet versus impiety--it is not unheard of for an unlucky actor playing the part of a villain to be attacked or even killed by the impassioned audience.[104]

      Though the ceremonial events recalling the events of Karbala culminate in the annual month of Muharram, this is not the only time that Shiis revive the memory of Husayn. Rauza-khanis, especially, are held much more frequently on smaller, more local scales. The fact that the Shii continually recalls the behavior of his religion's spiritual and historical hero indicates that the significance of Husayn exceeds what might be seen as a once-per-year spiritual catharsis. The scars a young and exuberant Shii might incur during Muharram remind him throughout the year of the potential for bravery and courage residing deep in his heart. Even for the majority of mourners who do not go so far as to inflict wounds upon themselves, the memories of their passions waiting to well up from within in the right setting inspire a sense of deep identification with the family of Husayn. This can act as a constant reminder to the Persian Muslim of the reality of his belief and his commitment to his religion. Even as a memory in daily life, when the Shii is not mourning, it provides a constant reminder of what is perhaps most important: a passionate sense of love for and devotion to the Prophet and his family.

      The "imitatio Husayn," the greatest performance of which is weeping and experiencing suffering, can be seen as the most vibrant and vital aspect of the Shii identity. One might not be called to witness--to martyrdom--oneself, but one can and must keep alive the memory of Husayn's sacrifice to keep alive the commitment to Islam, piety, and opposition to the world's manifold injustices. Husayn's journey and sacrifice testify to his rejection of such worldly considerations as wealth, safety, and political power in favor of a commitment to true Islamic ideals,[105] and emulating him as a hero strengthens one's own spiritual commitment to the religion.

Intercession through redemptive suffering and martyrdom

      The Shii veneration for Husayn, with its accompanying depth of sorrow and, in its extreme forms, self-mutilation, may appear to an outsider as unfathomable, bizarre, or even horrific. The realism of the taziya's portrayal--which sometimes went so far as to close with the decapitated head of Husayn delivering the narrative--could strike an observer as, in the words of one scholar, "simply [a] reveling in the pain and cruelty of the spectacle."[106] And yet this is the same episode which one Shii scholar describes as "a cosmic event around which revolves the entire history of the world, prior as well as subsequent."[107]

      As described above, the significance of Husayn's martyrdom can be explained partly as a symbol whose reenactment is a catharsis for a persecuted community's shared suffering, and partly as an episode whose heroic figures can inspire individual piety and religiosity. However, a much more transcendent and compelling reason behind honoring Husayn and glorifying his martyrdom overarches obvious explanations such as these. Like Jesus for Christianity, Husayn's sacrifice allows for personal salvation. His martyrdom was a salvific act, and commemoration of it through reenacting his suffering is the most direct gate to redemption.

      The Quran provides a root explanation for the function of suffering in the Muslim religious tradition: "Whenever We sent a prophet to a town, We took up its people in suffering and adversity, in order that they might learn humility." (6:42 and 7:94) This teaching is greatly expanded upon in hadith. As shown in chapter two, above, the Quran and hadiths state that the martyr in the path of God will receive wondrous rewards in the next life. Further, in other hadiths Muhammad states that, not only will rewards be forthcoming for the one who dies for the cause of God, but the one who suffers in life will also be rewarded:

Our afflictions are multiplied in order that our rewards may also be multiplied.


The greatness of the reward [of the man of faith] is proportionate with the greatness of his afflictions. For, if God loves a people, He visits them with afflictions.[108]

      In examining the concept of redemption in Islam, one is immediately tempted to think of the religion in which notions of redemption are most evident--Christianity. This is misleading, largely because in Islam there is much less stress on sin, the state from which humanity needs redeeming. In Christian thought, most notably in Augustine and in later Protestantism, awareness of original sin is elevated to an all-encompassing preoccupation with the fall of Adam. Here humanity demonstrated its ego by disobeying God's clear command in the primeval time when humanity was created. In the thought of Augustine, humanity's arrogance in disobeying God can be read as a vaunting of the individual's will over God's, or of the individual's body over his will. Both constitute a primordial rebellion, because of which a rebellious nature inheres in all of Adam's future offspring. It is from this original sin in the form of a revolt of the individual will that humanity needs to be saved.[109]      

      Islamic thought differs in that much less emphasis is laid on original sin, and redemption has a fundamentally different function. Sin is essentially traced back to the pride of Iblis, Satan, not to a primal disobedience of Adam and Eve or a rebelliousness inherent in human nature. Satan's story is told in numerous places throughout the Quran, always with the same basic plot: God commanded all the angels to bow down before the newly-created race of humanity. All did save Satan, who objected that Adam, a being created from mere clay, was not worthy of the devotions of Satan, a being created from fire.[110] The Quran does retell the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, but it has much less an emphasis than it does in Genesis; their disobedience comes across as being merely incidental.[111] A final difference between Christian and Islamic portrayals of the fall is that God's omnipotence in the Quran is stressed so strongly that in places all human will seems to be rendered impotent: "God leaves to stray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills." (35:9)

      That sin in Islamic thought is a result of pride more than of rebellion or evil is evidenced by the Quran's statement that prophets were sent to towns, "[taking] up its people in suffering and adversity, in order that they might learn humility." Muhammad clarifies in a hadith that these afflictions are indeed intended to absolve sin: "Afflictions continue to oppress the worshipful servant until they leave him walking on the face of the earth without any sin cleaving to him," he said.[112] Sin in the Quran thus seems to be a much simpler and more minor affair than in Augustinian Christian thought,[113] and other explanations must be sought in understanding redemption.

      The martyrdom of Jesus, especially for Protestant Christianity, is redemptive if the believer wholeheartedly believes that he has died for the sins of the believer--salvation is conditioned upon belief, as in Luther's maxim sole fides. In contrast, the martyrdom of Husayn is redemptive if the believer feels the suffering of Husayn and mourns for him--salvation is conditioned upon pious emotion. In the afterlife, Husayn will intercede on behalf of those who have accepted and interiorized his sacrifice. In a hadith, the Prophet on the day of Resurrection will turn to Husayn and say "Go thou and deliver from the flames everyone who has in his life-time shed but a single tear for thee,...everyone who has performed a pilgrimage to thy Shrine, or mourned for thee and everyone who has written a tragic verse for thee. Bear [them] with thee to paradise."[114]

      The omnipresent suffering of the Shiah community described above interacts with the notions of redemption in a way that strengthens the vitality of each of these two themes. While it could be suspected that public lamentations would act as catharses that function to alleviate the community's suffering, what is actually seen is that the public lamentations instead serve to heighten the sense of pain and persecution, and indeed are only considered successful if they do. The theme of redemption enters here as a sort of transmutation of opposites: suffering will lead to future happiness, and the greater the suffering the greater the happiness. Those who feel most intensely the pain of Husayn's sacrifice will find their pain transmuted into delight in the afterlife, and conversely those who do not participate in the pain of Karbala will receive no compensatory joy. To the eighth imam is attributed an explanation of this process:

He for whom the day of Ashura would be his day of calamity, sorrow, and weeping, for him God will make the day of resurrection a day of joy and happiness, and, delighted, he will be sitting with [the imams] in heaven. But he who marks the day of Ashura as a day of blessing...will, on the day of resurrection, share the hottest flames of hell with Yazid [Husayn's enemy]...[115]

On the one hand, this concept of redemption begs the believer to evoke the greatest possible pain, ultimately to achieve a sort of sympathetic martyrdom. On the other hand, such a concept also serves to explain and justify sufferings imposed from external forces. A hadith relates that, when Muhammad was asked "who among men are those afflicted with the greatest calamity?" he replied:

The prophets, then the pious, everyone according to the degree of his piety. A man is afflicted according to his faith; if his faith is durable, his affliction is accordingly increased, and if his faith is weak, his affliction is made lighter.[116]

As it is through the mechanism of tribulations that the believer refines his piety, and ultimately that redemption is achieved, Muhammad emphasizes that sufferings are not to be seen as having been visited upon humanity by a cruel God, but rather that they are a token of God's love. "The greatness of [one's] reward is proportionate with the greatness of his afflictions," he said, explaining that "if God loves a people, He visits them with afflictions" to increase their faith and give them the maximal opportunity to submit to God's will.[117]

      This type of testing lends itself naturally to a reassurance that if the suffering is descended upon the believer at God's bidding then God will surely recompense these tribulations with worthy reward in the afterlife. Of all of God's creatures, said Muhammad, it is his prophets who suffer the most, a verity which Shiah Islam has incorporated in its teaching that, supreme among the community, it was the imams who suffered most greatly, all of whom save the twelfth succumbing to martyrdom. It can therefore be expected that the imams are destined to receive the greatest of rewards. In this dialectic can be found another key to the meaning of redemption. As described above, the Shii who fervently associates himself with Husayn through commemorative lamentation achieves a virtual identification with him. Indeed, the sixth imam went so far as to draw an ontological identification, claiming that "God created the spirits of our followers from our own clay"--the imams and the faithful rank and file of the community were created from the same divine substance.[118] Because of this identification, the believer who associates himself with the sufferings of Husayn can also expect to partake of Husayn's rewards, and these rewards will be the greatest of all possible since Husayn's suffering was the greatest possible.

      The redemptive aspects of Husayn's sacrifice take simple, worldly forms as well as abstruse theological ones. His physical body, his blood, and even the dirt of the ground of Karbala all have magical properties reflecting the power of redemption in the spiritual plane. The almost fetishistic power of Husayn's physical body is usually manifest in legends or in dreams and visions. For example, a story attributed to one of the members of Husayn's family tells of a blind and crippled Jewish girl whose father brought her to a garden outside Medina. She remained until night, when a bird approached her covered with of Husayn's blood. One drop of this blood fell on her eyes, thereby curing her blindness, and another on her feet, curing her lameness.[119] Donaldson relates that enterprising merchants living at the town of Karbala would sell tablets made from the clay of the site of Husayn's death (which by this time was enshrined in the middle of the town that had sprung up around the location of his death). Among other uses, the clay from these tablets could be mixed in with food to provide a miraculous cure for a various ailments.[120]

      Though the believing Shii may not analyze the process in the following terms, it appears that the process of redemption through Husayn can be explained clearly. Husayn gave his life to express his commitment to what he believed to be the true Islamic ideals, demonstrating his opposition to the impious Umayyads through what could fairly be considered the ultimate protest vote. In doing so he further testified to the importance of religious ideals over political ones; there is an ultimate code of morality higher than those operating in the impious world, and a greater life beyond this one. His willingness to sacrifice his life testifies to the existence and the superiority of this moral code and this future life. The Muslim who also believes in the truth of these two ultimate realities demonstrates his belief by participating in an equivalent rejection of lesser realities. Voluntary suffering testifies to one's willingness to make the ultimate statement of belief--death in the path of God. This testimony will be rewarded in the next life, and the greater the statement of belief, i.e. the greater the self-imposed suffering, the greater the reward. It is thus not necessarily the person of Husayn who acts as intercessor, but that which he represents. He is the ultimate symbol of religious affirmation.

      The vehicle of Husayn is a means by which to conduct a very clear and real transaction. When asked if the great amount of energy expended lamenting for Husayn might not be better expended in some "more productive" activity, a Shiite mourner explained that lamentation was indeed the most constructive of religious activities. "We convert this energy into spiritual energy which becomes available to us only when we shed our blood," he said. "By losing physical energy we gain spiritual energy."[121] None can fully appreciate the righteousness of being a true Muslim or participate in the joys of the afterlife without intensely mourning for Husayn or even undergoing martyrdom oneself.

Notes to this chapter

[41] These are presented and analyzed in Jonah Winters, "The Origins of Shi'ism: A Consensus of Western Scholarship" (unpublished paper: University of Toronto, 1996). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "The Origins of Shi'ism"; URL

[42] Some sources name both Ali and Abu Bakr as being first; Momen reconciles the discrepancy by pointing out that what is likely meant is that, while Ali was first believer, Abu Bakr was the first adult to follow Muhammad. Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam (Oxford: George Ronald, 1985), 325, note 2.

[43] Donaldson claims that it appears that Ali seriously considered pressing his claims even at this early stage, (Dwight M. Donaldson, The Shiite Religion [London: Luzac & Co., 1933], 12) but Momen counters that, though Ali was urged to do so, he refused. (Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 18).

[44] Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates (Longman, London, 1986), p. 70.

[45] Donaldson, Shiite Religion, p. 21.

[46] Momen, Shi'i Islam, p. 22. It must be pointed out that some scholars disagree with this statement. Cf. Heinz Halm, Shiism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), 8: "Ali's Caliphate was disputed from the very beginning."

[47] Halm, Shiism, p. 8.

[48] Quoted in Halm, Shiism, p. 15.

[49] Unless otherwise noted, "Shiism" and "Shiis" as used in this essay will refer to the Ithna Ashari "Twelvers."

[50] On duhkha, see Jonah [Siegel] Winters, Thinking in Buddhism: Nagarjuna's Middle Way (B.A. thesis, Reed College, 1994). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "Thinking in Buddhism: Nagarjuna's Middle Way"; URL On Christian ascetic mortifications, see Maureen Flynn, "The Spiritual Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism," in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64:2 (Summer 1996), 257-278, and William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (numerous editions) lectures six and seven, "The Sick Soul."

[51] Quoted in Peter Chelkowski, in Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., Shi'ism: Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 263.

[52] Shii scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes "The Shiis regard the martyrdom of Husayn as a cosmic event around which revolves the entire history of the world, prior as well as subsequent." (Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 260, footnote) Interestingly, he appears to have unconsciously been quoting Ayoub, who ten years earlier wrote "The martyrdom of Imam Husayn has been regarded by the Shi'i community as a cosmic event around which the entire history of the world, prior as well as subsequent to it, revolves." (Mahmoud Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of 'Ashura' in Twelver Shi'ism [The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1978], 141. Cf. ibid., 93 and 136.)

[53] The believer and the secular historian will often present slightly different accounts of an event and its meaning. On Shiism, see for example Winters, "The Origins of Shi'ism." On the Babi and Bahai religions, see Stephen Lambden, "An Episode in the Childhood of the Bab," in Peter Smith, ed., In Iran: Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History volume three (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1986), 19-22.

[54] The Prince of Martyrs: a brief account of the Imam Husayn, by Abu'l-Qasim Faizi, (Oxford: George Ronald, 1977). These comments aside, it must be stressed that clear lines of demarcation between critical history and hagiographic representation are not always possible. The events at Karbala were so widely reported, and sufficiently contemporaneously, that legend versus reportage are in places indistinguishable. Ayoub discusses some of these primary sources in Redemptive Suffering, 137-9.

[55] The following presentation of the circumstances surrounding the episode of Husayn will differ little from an objective scholarly history, for the general facts are for the most part historically fairly reliable. The interpretations of these circumstances, though, are to be taken as wholly biased.

[56] Ayoub, in Redemptive Suffering, provides one of the fullest scholarly accounts of Husayn's martyrdom and its historical background (ibid, pages 93-120), as well as an examination of later embellishments to and pietistic interpretations of the story (ibid, pages 120-39).

[57] Sources give as his death date either A.H. 1 or 8 Rabi al-Awwal 260, or December 25 873 or January 1 874 C.E. See Momen, Shi'i Islam, page 44.

[58] Mahdi, the passive participle of the Arabic verb hada, to guide," means "the one guided." Since all guidance is from God, mahdi carries the connotation of "the divinely-guided one."

[59] While the commonly-advanced explanation is that he went into hiding simply to avoid being assassinated, the fate of his eleven predecessors, a more comprehensive and mysterious divine plan eventually came to be suspected.

[60] Abdulaziz Abdulhussein Sachedina, Islamic Messianism: The Idea of the Mahdi in Twelver Shi'ism Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981), 165.

[61] An oft-quoted hadith cited in defense of the institution of the imamate and the person and the function of the Mahdi reads "If there were to remain in the life of the world but one day, God would prolong that day until He sends in it a man from my community and my household. His name will be the same as my name. He will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny." ('Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i, trans. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Shiite Islam, [Albany: State University of New York, 1977] 210.) This and other hadith on the Mahdi can be found in the section on "Mahdi," in A. J. Wensinck, A Handbook of Early Muhammadan Traditions (Leiden, 1927).

[62] Quoted in Roy Mottahedeh, Mantle of the Prophet (New York, Pantheon Books: 1985) 300-301.

[63] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 164-166.

[64] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 25-26. Their suffering is consistently emphasized by Babi and Bahai texts, as well. See for example Baha'ullah, Kitab-i-Iqan: The Book of Certitude, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983), 73.

[65] "Passion" derives from the Latin passus, past participle of pati, "to suffer," hence phrases such as the "passion of Christ."

[66] These Shii ceremonies are described in many places. The fullest accounts of these are: Gustav Thaiss' "Religious Symbolism and Social Change: The Drama of Husayn," in Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions in the Middle East since 1500 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), where he presents his first-hand experience participating in a taziya; Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, chapter 5; J. Robson, "The Muharram Ceremonies," The Hibbert Journal 54 (Oct. 1955-July 1956): 267-274; Thaiss, "Religious Symbolism and Social Change"; Mottahedeh, Mantle, 173-9; and Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 258-70. Pinault includes a series of photographs of Muharram ceremonies at the beginning of The Shiites and devotes a few chapters to the practices of Muharram ceremonies in one village in India. Yitzhak Nakash delineates five major rituals revolving around the battle of Karbala and discusses their practice in "An Attempt to Trace the Origin of the Rituals of '/shura'," in Die Welt des Islams, 33:2 (Nov. 1993), 161-181.

[67] E. G. Browne, quoted in Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 261

[68] Taba+aba'i, Shiite Islam, 232-233.

[69] See J. Robson, in "The Muharram Ceremonies," in The Hibbert Journal, 54 (Oct. 1955-July 1956), 273.

[70] Quoted in Mottahedeh, Mantle, 174-5.

[71] As described in Peter Chelkowski in Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 264.

[72] Pinault, The Shiites, 113-114. The different types of flagellation are described in ibid., 109-114, and Nakash, "Origin of 'Ashura'," 175-179.

[73] Pinault, The Shiites, 169.

[74] See Syed Mohammed Ameed, The Importance of Weeping and Wailing (Karachi: Peermahomed Ebrahim Trust, 1973), 75-6, and Pinault, The Shiites, 121-124. For example, an Indian businessman explains to anthropologist David Pinault that Muharram is the only time of the year when the community strongly pulls together, so much so that "a millionaire" will invite to his house "even a rickshaw-puller, someone he won't even look at the rest of the year." Pinault, The Shiites, 87.

[75] For cases of the latter, see for example David Busby Edwards, "The Evolution of Shi'i Political Dissent in Afghanistan," in Juan R. I. Cole and Nikki R. Keddie, eds., Shi'ism and Social Protest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 214 and 228.

[76] Wensinck, in Handbook of Early Muhammadan Traditions, has noted more than forty of these.

[77] Hamid Enayat, Alserat, Imam Husayn Conference Number, Vol. XII, No 1 (Spring 1986), page 197. See also Ameed, The Importance of Weeping, and Nakash, "Origin of 'Ashura'," 165. Mottahedeh portrays the commonality and the significance of the act of weeping in some powerful episodes in Mantle of the Prophet, including pp. 23, 114, and 174-5.

[78] General descriptions of Persia's unique culture and psyche can be found Sandra Mackey, The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), in toto, Michael C. Hillman's Iranian Culture: A Persianist View (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1990), in toto, and Jahangir Amuzegar, The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution: The Pahlavis' Triumph and Tragedy. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 99-114.

[79] I.e. the Constitutional Revolution in 1906; a coup d'etat in 1921; the forced abdication of Reza Shah in 1941; the claim for sovereignty by Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in 1946; a brief challenge to the throne by Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953; revolts against Westernization in 1962-3; and the Iranian evolution in 1979. Amuzegar, Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution.

[80] Mackey, The Iranians, 4-5. Mottahedeh adds, "unlike the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, who lost virtually all identity with the four millennia of their history that preceded the Islamic conquest,...Iranians retained their language and a fierce pride in their continuity with their pagan pre-Islamic ancestors." Mottahedeh, Mantle, 164

[81] Persia was never conquered without a fight. Nowhere else, for example, did the Muslim expansion of the seventh century C.E. encounter such strong resistance from the inhabitants. See Kennedy, Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 69.

[82] A Shubiya poet retorted to the Arab conquerors: "Retreat to the Hijaz and resume eating lizards and herd your cattle / While I seat myself on the throne of kings supported by the sharpness of my blade and the point of my pen." Quoted in Mackey, The Iranians, 59.

[83] Hillman, Iranian Culture, 15.

[84] For example, the Iliad and the Odyssey can be seen as odes of triumph and adventure, the Epic of Gilgamesh a tale of heroic victory over destructive gods, the Bhagavad-Gita a call to glorying in and defending the caste and kingdom into which one has been born, Beowulf an allegory of idealism, and Don Quixote a portrayal of idealistic nobility.

[85] Quoted in Mackey, The Iranians, 63.

[86] Mottahedeh, Mantle, 174.

[87] Quoted in Mottahedeh, Mantle, 140. To stain one's prayer rug with wine at the command of a Zoroastrian would be to pollute one's sacred physical religious symbol with a forbidden substance at the bidding of a pagan.

[88] Trans. Gertrude Bell. A. J. Arberry, ed., Fifty Poems of Hafiz (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1993), 100.

[89] Manuscripts of the Rubayyat vary greatly. Edward Fitzgerald's translations of the nineteenth century, still the most famous, vary from 75 verses in the first, 1859 edition to 101 verses in the fifth, 1889 edition. (Omar Khayyam, trans. Edward Fitzgerald [London: Bernard Quaritch], first edition 1859; fifth edition 1889.)

[90] See Hillman, Iranian Culture, 42-63.

[91] Omar Khayyam, verse 23, fifth edition.

[92] Mackey, The Iranians, 105.

[93] Mackey, The Iranians, 104.

[94] Mackey, The Iranians, 108, and Pinault, The Shiites, 170.

[95] See, for example, Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 87-90

[96] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 118-119.

[97] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 114.

[98] Cf. St. Anselm on the martyrdom of Christ: "God did not compel Christ to die,...but Christ himself freely underwent death, not by yielding up his life as an act of obedience, but on account of his obedience in maintaining justice, because he so steadfastly persevered in it that he brought death on himself." Eugene R. Fairweather, ed. and trans. A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970), 113.

[99] Quoted in Pinault, The Shiites, 172.

[100] Related in Pinault, The Shiites, 101-102.

[101] Quoted in Pinault, The Shiites, 103.

[102] Pinault, The Shiites, 106. An interviewee told Pinault: "What thought does a matamdar [flagellant] have in mind when he does matam? Just this: If I had been there at Karbala, I would have fought for Imam Husayn and died for him." Quoted in Pinault, ibid., 106.

[103] Quoted in Mottahedeh, Mantle, 177.

[104] Mottahedeh, Mantle, 142.

[105] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 93.

[106] G. Yver, s.v. "Ta'ziya," in E. J. Brill's First Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993).

[107] Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 260, footnote. See also note 52, above.

[108] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 25-26.

[109] See Jonah [Siegel] Winters, "SIN: Or, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People." Unpublished paper, 1994.

[110] Quran 2:34, 7:11-18, 15: 31-44, 17:61-65, 18:50, 20:116-123, and 38:71-85.

[111] In one of the Quran's two tellings of the fall, Adam and "his wife" simply "slip from the Garden" and "out of the state of felicity in which they had been." (2:35-36), and immediately after leaving the garden Adam is consoled by God with "words of inspiration." (2:37) Here the fall from grace is gradual and not emphatic. In the other telling (7:19-28), Adam and his wife do oppose God more directly, for God's commands to them are here much more explicit. However, the blame for their disobedience is laid solely at the feet of Satan.

[112] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 25.

[113] See the discussion by Edward Sell under "Sin (Muslim)," in James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920), volume 11.

[114] Quoted in Nasr, Shi'ism: Doctrines, 260, note.

[115] Quoted in Nakash, "Origins of 'Ashura'," 166.

[116] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 25.

[117] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 26.

[118] Quoted in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 51.

[119] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 132. Stories of the power of Husayn's corpse, especially his decapitated head, can be found in ibid., 133-134.

[120] Donaldson, Shiite Religion.

[121] Quoted in Pinault, The Shiites, 108.

Chapter 3



      Since the occultation of the Mahdi and, more importantly, the development of the belief that he would return, the Shii community has been in what Seyyed Hossein Nasr has called "a state of perpetual expectation."[122] This anticipation of his immanent return, combined with the acute awareness of the injustices which withheld the original rightful rulership from the Shii community and which forced the imam to occult in the first place, both came to affect every aspect of Shii belief and culture.

      These two themes in combination lent Shiism a unique dynamic that characterizes much of Shiism's history. The Shii communities have on the one hand tended to be politically quietistic, postponing much political activity until the Mahdi comes to lead them.[123] The various Muharram rituals, in which the audience engages in a high level of emotional expression, can been seen as catharses by means of which potentially rebellious sentiments can be released through channels other than actual revolution.[124] At the same time, the Shii religio-cultural ethos expressed in these rituals, and the powerful emotional undercurrents they betray, are kept vital and ever-ready to boil over into action. In the occasional times when Shii communities have been roused to take political action, the strength of the internalized religiosity characteristic of Shiism has tended to erupt powerfully--Shii communities rarely rise to action, but when they do, they can rise to near-revolution. Moojan Momen calls this dialectic "a strange paradox" which has lent Shiism "an extraordinary political versatility." He explains:

Those who wish to lead the Shii masses can, if the opposition seems overwhelmingly superior or it is expedient to do so, enjoin upon the Shiis the patient endurance (mazlumiyyat) of the imams. And yet when the opportunity seems right, the Shii masses can be whipped up to the frenzy of revolution by appeal to the spirit of the uprising (qiyam) of Husayn.[125]

      The relevance of these themes to martyrdom revolves around two differing approaches to suffering. On the one hand, the course of action epitomized by the behavior of the imams is patiently and quietly to endure suffering, for only the Mahdi will be able to rectify the community's abasement. On the other hand, the course of action epitomized by Husayn is unwillingness to submit to tyranny, but instead intractably to refuse to be oppressed and even revolt to the point of sacrificing one's own life.

      This dynamic between an acute sensitivity to the need to correct injustices tempered by the necessity of waiting for the true leader to appear, all resting on a readiness to rise to revolution, has created a unique messianic environment in Shiism. Claimants to Mahdi-ship have not been infrequent, and their claims often were taken quite seriously, both by their followers and their opposers. Such claims began to be propounded even before the occultation of the twelfth imam, most significantly Muhammad al-Hanafiyya in "Mukhtar's revolt" of 685 C.E. and Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (the "pure soul") in the eighth century. During the imamate of Jafar al-Sadiq (ca. 700-765), the sixth imam and the most significant systematizer of Shii thought and identity, the doctrine of the messianic Mahdi became a more universalized and distinctive feature of Shiism.[126] A few notable movements initiated by self-proclaimed Mahdis as well as many ineffectual ones have been launched in the millennium since the sixth imamate. Most significant are those of Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abd Allah and his Mahdiyah movement, which helped found the nation-state of the Sudan, and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani whose Ahmadiyah movement is, besides the Babi and Bahai religions, the only religion claiming new Prophethood since Muhammad to have achieved significant socio-religious success.[127] In 1844 a young merchant from Shiraz inaugurated what came to be the most influential and successful of all new religious movements arising out of the Shii milieu: the short-lived but highly eventful Babi movement.

      An examination of the meanings of martyrdom in this religion presents some unique challenges. First, the thought of the Bab cannot be addressed directly, for very little of his writing has been translated or is even available in the primary source languages.[128] (The case of the Bahai Faith is quite different. Numerous publications and manuscripts--indeed, perhaps a hundred volumes--of Baha'ullah's writings can be found by the diligent researcher, as well as a few studies by contemporary Western scholars and historians.) Second, there is very little historical scholarship available to use as a starting point: only two dedicated histories of the Babi movement have been published: H.M. Balyuzi's The Bab and Abbas Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal. Third, a great deal of primary source material has been destroyed throughout a century and a half of systematic persecution and opposition by the Iranian government. Finally, the bulk of the primary source material which is extant--letters, memoirs, and court documents--is in Iranian governmental archives, or hidden in the homes of Bahais in Iran, or is in safekeeping in the international Bahai archives in Haifa. All of these collections are currently inaccessible.

      Lacking these sources, the researcher is confined to a large extent to examining the little historical material of the Babi religion available and extrapolating belief and behavior therefrom. This project will examine three incidents in Babi history to determine the practice of martyrdom in and the meanings of suffering for the Babism: (1) the uprisings of Tabarsi (1848), Zanjan (1850), and the two at Nayriz (1850 and 1853); (2) the martyrdom of the Bab (1850); (3) some isolated instances of martyrdom. Along with a historical analysis, examining these events as reflected in the statements, writings, and attitudes of the Babis will provide further clues into their meanings for Babism.

      There is no history of the Babi movement of appropriate depth and neutrality to use as a starting point here. Balyuzi's The Bab and Nabil's The Dawnbreakers are each detailed, but partisan and almost wholly devoid of dates. On the other extreme, Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal is lengthy and exhaustive, and provides far too much detail and analysis to be allow the casual reader to determine a summary of the period. All of the general histories of the Babi and Bahá'í religions devote only a page or two to the period. Moojan Momen has analyzed the available sources to produce a chronology of the Babi movement and especially persecutions of Babis, but with no descriptive details. Only Mangol Bayat's Mysticism and Dissent provides a summary of Babi history of appropriate length and depth, but the relevant sections of this work are interspersed with commentary extraneous to a period summary, and the book is not familiar to or accessible by many readers. As well, not one of the above works, save Momen's chronology, is without subtle or evident bias either for or against the Babi movement. Thus, a highly telescoped and comparatively neutral summary of the history of the Babi movement shall be provided here; this will provide the necessary background for the subsequent examinations of the Babi attitudes about martyrdom.[129]


      A Shii religious teacher from Saudi Arabia named Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (1725-1826) developed a fair following beginning around the end of the eighteenth century. Al-Ahsa'i lived during the beginnings of the Usuli-Akhbari dispute, in which the Usulis (from usul al-fiqh, legalism) emphasized the importance of following the rulings of the priestly caste--the uluma--in all matters of faith and practice and the Akhbaris (from akhbar, traditional teachings) avowed that only the imams had the authority to dictate doctrine. Al-Ahsa'i offered a third option, teaching that one could not rely uncritically on either the authority of the ulama nor of hadith. Religious knowledge must be received directly from divine sources. However, since for al-Ahsa'i God is wholly unknowable, it is through the prophets and the imams that knowledge of God's will and attributes can be achieved. Following this is the notion, central to al-Ahsa'i's teachings, that prophecy would not end. He explained this concept by analogy to the shape of the letter waw, or vav. As written, the letter consists of two consonants with a long 'A' between them: [non-ascii script],. The first consonant stands for Muhammad, the final prophet in the Adamic cycle. The letter 'A,' standing in the middle, represents the Mahdi, or Qa'im (qa'im literally means "standing). The final consonant signifies the return of Husayn as a new prophet.[130] As al-Ahsa'i and his successor, Siyyid Kasim Rashti, were careful not to make explicit predictions about the Return, their exact teachings on the matter can not be determined exactly.[131] They did, however, offer many allusive hints to the imminence of the Return.[132] Nabil, regarded as the official historian of the Babi period, reports that "no less than ten persons" related to him that, shortly before his death on December 31 1843 or January 1 1844,[133] Rashti told his followers "Soon...shall He who is the Truth be made manifest...Would you not wish me to die, that the promised One may be revealed?"[134]

      Rashti refrained from appointing a successor, leaving the Shaykhis to seek a new leader. One of his followers, Mulla Husayn of Bushruyih, was wandering the streets of Shiraz on May 22 1844 when he came across a twenty-four year old sayyed (descendent of Muhammad) who invited him home for dinner.[135] This young man, Sayyed Ali Muhammad, later announced to Mulla Husayn that he was the one foretold by Rashti. "I am the Bab, the Gate of God," he proclaimed.[136] While the full extent of his claims was not made fully clear until 1848, there was little doubt that he was at minimum assuming the role of vicegerent of the hidden imam (this being the evident implication of the term bab) and was likely claiming far more. The Bab declared that he would wait until seventeen more disciples came to him and then would make pilgrimage to Mecca and there publicly announce his station. By the end of that summer all eighteen disciples had come, and he sent them off on a variety of proclamation missions.[137] He chose one disciple, Quddus, to make the pilgrimage with him, and directed Mulla Husayn to deliver a letter ("tablet") to "a secret" residing in Tehran. This "secret" proved to be Mirza Husayn Ali, later Baha'ullah, who upon receiving the letter from the Bab declared his acceptance of it as of "Divine origin."[138] Mulla Husayn rushed this news back to the Bab, who upon receiving word of Baha'ullah's support immediately departed for Mecca.[139]

      Another disciple, Mulla Ali Bastami, was directed to proclaim the new bab to the Shaykhis and at the Shii shrines of the imams in Iraq, where he arrived and began preaching in August-September 1844. Rather than quietly announce the Bab to the potentially receptive Shaykhi community, Bastami spoke openly and boldly, almost as if he were seeking confrontation.[140] He was soon arrested on grounds of blasphemy and sent to Baghdad where, after being held in prison for three months, he was placed on trial in January 1845. The trial focused on the Qayyum al-Asma (Qayyum al-Asma') the Bab's first major work which Bastami had brought with him as proof of the advent of the Bab. This was, as reported by British diplomat Major Henry Rawlinson, "unanimously condemned as a blasphemous production, and parties avowing a belief in [it]...were declared to be liable to the punishment of death."[141] The presiding ad hoc judges disagreed on a sentence, the Sunnis calling for death and the Shiis calling for imprisonment or banishment.[142] He was returned to jail, and in April was deported to Istanbul on the orders of the Turkish government, where he was submitted to forced labor and died in late 1846.[143] The assessment of this event as passionately expressed by Nabil is often found echoed in other Babi and Bahá'í works: Bastami "earned the immortal distinction of having been the first sufferer in the path of this new Faith of God, the first to have laid down his life as an offering on the Altar of Sacrifice."[144]

      In December 1844 the Bab and Quddus arrived at Mecca, where the Bab performed the customary rites of pilgrimage. After completing these rites, one account records that the Bab stood against the Kaaba, the most sacred spot of Islam which Muslims believe was erected by Abraham as perhaps the earliest place of worship, and loudly declared "I am the Qa'im whose advent you have been awaiting."[145] While this particular report is problematic,[146] there is little doubt that the Bab did at least proclaim his mission to other public figures, such as the governor of Mecca, and Mirza Muhammad Husayn Muhit Kirmani, one of the contenders for leadership of the Shaykhi party. After an uneventful sojourn in Medina, the Bab returned to his one-time home of Bushihr in the spring of 1845. Remaining in Bushihr, he sent Quddus back to Shiraz with, among other instructions, the injunction to have the name of the Bab included in the formula call to prayer. In June a Babi named Mulla Sadiq Muqaddas did so, arousing thereby a great civil disturbance and consequently the ire of the authorities of Shiraz. Quddus, Muqaddas, and one or two other Babis were promptly arrested, tortured, and expelled from the city. The governor ordered the arrest of the Bab, who at this point was already on his way back to Shiraz.

      The Bab was ordered to appear at a mosque and publicly clarify his station, at which time he forswore any claim to be either "a representative of the imam or the gate thereof."[147] For the next year the Bab was confined to a relaxed house arrest under the care of his uncle, who signed as his bondsman. Here, in relative peace, he was able to consolidate the Babi community and direct the movements of his disciples around Iraq and Iran on their tours of proclamation. In September 1846 the governor of Shiraz, alarmed by the growing presence of the Babi community, ordered his arrest. However, that very night the sons of the arresting officer were stricken with cholera and, in exchange for miraculously healing them, the Bab was allowed to avoid arrest if he promised to leave the city.

      The Bab left Shiraz and headed north to Isfahan, where he sought shelter at the house of the governor, Manuchehr Khan. Here he spent a very uneventful six months, but on the death of Manuchehr Khan in February-March 1847 his source of shelter was removed. Many of the leading divines of Isfahan, similar to those in Shiraz, had signed a death warrant against the Bab and his heresies. As in Shiraz, a lack of unanimity amongst the ulama stayed this ruling, but the Bab was nonetheless not fully safe here.

      Partly for his safety and partly with the aim of seeking a meeting, the Shah ordered an escort to bring the Bab north, to Tehran. However, the Shah's Grand Vizier and spiritual consultant, Haji Mirza Aqasi, was determined to prevent such a meeting, perhaps because he feared that a favorable reception of the Bab by the Shah would threaten Aqasi's prominent position, and perhaps also because Aqasi knew of the civil disturbances the Bab's appearances tended to cause. When the Bab had neared Tehran, Aqasi sent word countermanding the Shah's order summoning him. The Bab and his escort camped at Kulayn, about thirty miles south of the city, where they remained some weeks. In April official word came from the Shah that the Bab's invitation had been revoked, and the Bab was ordered instead to the castle prison at Mah-Ku, a remote town in the extreme far north-western corner of the country. After a forty day stopover in Tabriz, where the Bab was received with great public excitement, he and his escort arrived at Mah-Ku in July 1847.

      The Bab was to remain in this prison for the next nine months, during which time he produced some of his major writings. The warden of the prison was said to be strict and rigid for the first few weeks, not only disallowing the Bab any visitors but even preventing any of his followers from staying in the nearby town. However, after witnessing a miraculous vision of the Bab,[148] the warden unexpectedly relented and began allowing the Bab to communicate freely with his followers, including Mulla Husayn who arrived in March 1848, after journeying on foot the 1,200 miles from Khurasan to visit him. The warden became so taken with the Bab that he even pleaded with him the following year to marry his daughter. Haji Mirza Aqasi, hearing of the Bab's relative freedom and the extent of his activity, and partly at the request of a Russian minister who was alarmed at the possibility of disturbances so close to the Russian border, ordered the Bab moved again. Around April 10 1848, he was transferred to Chihriq, another prison one hundred miles south, farther from the Russian border.

      While the Bab was in prison at Mah-Ku, other noteworthy events were happening elsewhere. During the year of 1847 the Bab's disciple Tahirih had been busy openly preaching the new religion. She lived and preached in Baghdad and Karbala during 1846, in Hamadan in mid-1847, and in Qazvin, where she arrived around August or September.[149] In all of these places the unheard-of uniqueness of a woman preaching and the added embarrassment of her spreading heretical doctrines earned Tahirih large audiences and an even larger reputation. Due partly to long-time family disputes and largely inspired by Tahirih's Babi prominence and her alleged anti-Islamic immoralities, Tahirih's eighty year-old uncle Mulla Muhammad Taqi--who for a time had been strongly opposed to Shaykhism and Babism and had been denouncing them from his prominent position as mujtahid of Qazvin--now began criticizing the two movements even more vehemently. One dawn in October[150] a Babi sympathizer killed Muhammad Taqi for his relentless verbal attacks on the Shaykhis and Babis. Though the murderer confessed and openly denied any Babi involvement, a wave of anti-Babi persecutions in Qazvin and Tehran quickly followed. About forty of the more active Babis, including Baha'ullah, were soon arrested, and three of them put to gruesome and public deaths--the first Babi martyrs in Iran. The actual murderer survived and was able to remain in hiding for a time. Tahirih escaped Qazvin and hid in Tehran for a time before leaving for Khurasan and Badasht.

      As at Mah-Ku, the warden was initially very strict with managing the Bab's imprisonment, but within a few months began to feel well-disposed towards the Bab and grant him a certain leniency in meeting with his followers. In July 1848, after the Bab had been at Chihriq for three months, Haji Mirza Aqasi once again became alarmed at the Bab's ability to turn wardens to his side and hold open communion with the Babis. Aqasi summoned the Bab to Tabriz to clarify his claims before a jury of religious leaders. Amanat calculates that the trial at Tabriz was intended to have two effects: to expose the Bab to some of his more vocal critics and thereby impress upon him the unwisdom of continuing to forward his claims, and to solidify Aqasi's own authority with the ulamas by allowing them the opportunity publicly to discredit the Bab.[151] The trial dissolved into a farce, with the Bab using it as a means to proclaim his new movement and his status as Qa'im even more explicitly than before.[152] As before, a warrant for his death was issued but did not receive unanimous support. The Bab was physically punished and returned to Chihriq in August, where he remained until shortly before his execution in July 1850.

      During the two years of the Bab's imprisonment in Chihriq, his followers were very active in their travelling and public proclamation. In the spring and early summer of 1848 the Bab began directing his followers towards Khurasan. Partly because of this and largely at the direction of Baha'ullah, many of the Babis gathered at a garden near the town of Badasht, in north-eastern Iran at the end of June. This conference is regarded as the chief consolidating event of the Babi movement, for during its three weeks the participants discussed the issues of attempting a rescue of the Bab and the significance of the Bab's revelation and the specific nature of his claims, and adopted a number of principles and actions which effected a decisive break with Islam. Shortly after the conference ended, the Babis, upon being attacked and dispersed by a nearby group of villagers, departed and went separate ways.

      Many of the scattered Babis traveled east to Mashhad to meet with Mulla Husayn. Here, at the instructions of the Bab, they raised a Black Standard--signifying the advent of the Mahdi--and began a long march back west to free Quddus, who at this time was in custody in Sari, west of Badasht. The number of Babis who joined this march grew to the point that their presence was regarded with fear or even hostility by the villages they passed. By the time they reached the area of Barfurush, near the city in which Quddus was being held, opposition reached such a point that they felt required to stay their journey there and defend themselves. On October 12 1848 they began constructing a fortress around the shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi. Other Babis gradually joined the crowd in the small fortress, until by the end of the year their number had risen to 313. In retaliation to the now clear challenge to civil authority, as symbolized by the Black Standard, imperial forces began a siege of Tabarsi in December. The next five months witnessed a prolonged battle between the Babis and the many troops sent to subjugate them. On May 10 1849 the 202 Babis still alive finally surrendered, most of whom were then killed on the spot, tortured leisurely, or sold into slavery.

      Starting around mid 1847--coincident with the beginning of the Bab's officially-enforced imprisonments--alarm over the increasing prominence of the Babi movement and extremism of its message and the concurrent increasing boldness of the Babi evangelists led to frequent clashes between Babis and both the populace and government authorities. Of the many clashes, two besides the siege of Tabarsi stand out: the siege of Zanjan and the first uprising of Nayriz.

      In Zanjan, just northwest of Qazvin, a leading cleric named Mulla Muhammad Ali, known as Hujjat Zanjani (the Proof of Zanjan), a convert from mid-1845, began more openly to publicize the religion. By the middle of 1850 Hujjat had converted so many that the city became fragmented along partisan lines. When government troops were sent to control the situation on May 19 1850, Hujjat and perhaps as many as 3,000 companions took shelter in a nearby fort, where they held off wave after wave of besieging troops and their five sets of reinforcements before surrendering on January 2 1851. At the same time as the Zanjan upheaval was beginning to take shape, a similar though much shorter-lived incident was brewing in Nayriz, far to the south. Sayyed Yahya Darabi, known as Vahid (Unique), was another early and prominent convert. On May 27 1850 he entered the city of Nayriz and delivered from the mosque a rousing proclamation. He quickly received promises of support from numerous followers and new converts. When the inevitable opposition arose, this time in the form of one thousand mercenaries under the command of the governor, Vahid and seventy-two followers retreated to an old and ruined fortress nearby and held off their opponents. Reinforcements were sent, this time from the governor-general of the province, and both sides engaged in heavy fighting through the first two weeks of June. Finding little military success, the besiegers offered a truce and invited Vahid out to settle a truce. He agreed, and was persuaded to write a letter to the defenders still inside the fort assuring them that a settlement had been reached. When they emerged on June 21 they were captured and many were executed. Vahid was publicly tortured and executed eight days later.

      A fourth event, relatively minor in scale but momentous for Babi thought, occurred during this time. At the beginning of 1850 it was reported to Prime Minister Taqi Khan--fallaciously according to Hamadani, accurately according to Haji Mirza Jani[153] --that Babis in Tehran were planning a fresh rebellion. In February fourteen or thirty-eight Babis were arrested and imprisoned (some sources say that orders were given to arrest thirty-eight, but only fourteen were caught; others give that all were arrested), and informed that all who renounced Babism or repudiated any connection with the movement would be allowed to go free. All but seven of these recanted, or, in Nabil's words, "were compelled to yield to the pressure that was brought to bear on them."[154] On February 19 or 20 all seven were executed one at a time. These are known as the "Seven Martyrs of Tehran," and will be discussed in further detail below.[155]

      By the end of the 1840s events were coming to a head: Muhammad Shah died on September 4 1848, and the state of the nation began undergoing the transitional chaos typical of changes of authority in Iran; the Babis were preaching more openly and boldly and with ever-increasing success; the Babi example was feared to be encouraging opposition by other malcontents against the existing spheres of religious and civil authority, previously held in check; and the Bab was no longer hedging his claims but was advocating his new religion with increasing bluntness. In one of his last letters, written in late 1849, he wrote an open call to the ulama: "it is incumbent upon you to either accept this course or to default your own religion and reject the authority of the Qur'an," he wrote.[156] Nasir al-Din and Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir (the "Great Amir"), the new Shah and his new prime minister, needed to reduce political unrest to a minimum, and neither the suppressions of Tabarsi, Zanjan, and Nayriz nor the sporadic executions of prominent Babi leaders had proved sufficient to quiet the Babi movement, the main source of political unrest. It thus came as a surprise to no one, and especially not the Bab, when his execution was ordered.

      The Bab's execution was a pivotal event for Babi and Bahai history and especially for later Bahai theology. Though still poorly appreciated by Bahai thought, it is almost as crucial to an understanding of the Babi and Bahai religions as the crucifixion of Jesus is for Christianity and the death of Husayn for Shiism. The martyrdom of the Bab is rarely given a comprehensive portrayal: Muslim sources are anxious to explain away and downplay the events observed at his martyrdom, while Babis and Bahais emphasize the miraculous nature of the events as proof of the divinity of the Bab's mission--indeed, an unusual incident at his martyrdom is the only miracle in all of Bahai history consistently emphasized. Since Amanat provides a full recounting of the event, even though he is the only one to have done so, the need for a full examination here is thereby obviated.[157]

      When Muhammad Shah died, Nasir al-Din Shah was but seventeen years old and wholly inexperienced. Mirza Taqi Khan was, for all intents and purposes, the ruler of the country. To remove the Babi threat, in June 1850 Taqi Khan ordered the Bab moved from Chihriq to Tabriz, eighty miles to the east, and began attempting to secure an order for his execution. Though not all those in power agreed with this ruling, Taqi Khan eventually succeeded in getting the ulama to ratify the death penalty. The Bab was given a last chance to retract his claims, and refused. The mujtahid Mamaqani, one of three clerics whose signature on the death warrant was sought, showed how intolerable the Bab's claims were in saying "There is no need for my fatwa [ruling], these heretical claims that you make are themselves standing as your fatwa."[158]

      The Bab instructed his immediate companions at this time to keep themselves safe--even if dissimulation was necessary to do so--and thereby be able to report the events which were to follow.[159] All complied save a young Babi mulla, Mirza Muhammad Ali Zunuzi, a devotee since 1848. The day preceding his execution Zunuzi begged of the Bab not to permit them to be separated, so the Bab agreed to allow Zunuzi to suffer martyrdom with him. Taqi Khan, intending by the Bab's execution to dissolve the Babi insurrection once and for all, ordered the execution to be held in full public view. A public execution would also prevent the Babis from following the Shii precedent of the twelfth imam and claiming that the Bab was not dead but in occultation. At noon on July 9, the Bab and Zunuzi were brought into a semi-public square at an army barracks and suspended, tied together, from a column along one wall.

      Many seem to have had hesitations about executing the Bab. First, Taqi Khan had considerable difficulty securing the order for the Bab's death, no doubt partly because many of the civil and religious authorities feared Babi reprisals, fears which later events proved justified. Further, there was a marked reluctance to kill a descendent of the Prophet, as attested by numerous civil leaders who refused to authorize the various edicts for his execution from the ulama. A clear example is the response of the provincial governor of Chihriq who, when ordered to deliver the Bab to Tabriz, equated this order with the order given to murder Imam Husayn twelve hundred years before: "I am neither Ibn Ziyad nor Ibn Saad that [Taqi Khan] should call upon me to slay an innocent descendant of the Prophet of God."[160] Finally, a regiment of 750 Armenian Christian soldiers under command of Sam (or Samsam) Khan Urus recruited for the execution seems to have expressed a certain unwillingness to follow the orders of Taqi Khan. Sources tend to portray Sam Khan as a Christian who entertained "no ill will" against the Bab and was "unwilling" to kill him, saying "If your Cause be the Cause of Truth, enable me to free myself from the obligation to shed your blood."[161] One source, however, the unpublished history of the turn-of-the-century Bahai writer Haji Muhammad Mu'in al-Saltana, says that he was a convert to Islam,[162] which if true could lend weight to the account of his hesitancy for the same reasons voiced by the provincial governor.

      Finally the ruling was ratified, the firing squad was ready, and the Bab and Zunuzi were tied to the wall. Almost all sources agree on the next event: on Sam Khan's order the 750 soldiers fired; the heavy smoke of these now old-fashioned guns filled the air; when the smoke finally cleared Zunuzi was standing on the ground, unharmed, and the Bab had disappeared.[163] The shots had had no more effect than to sever the ropes from which they hung. A common speculation is that Sam Khan, who had already expressed serious misgivings about his orders, instructed his regiment to miss on purpose. There is no evidence either to support or contradict this. However, it must be remembered that these muskets, pre-modern as they were, were notoriously inaccurate.[164] Even were they instructed to miss, a miracle could still be claimed in that, of 750 shots fired from across a square, none accidentally hit the Bab or Zunuzi. Even had the soldiers been ordered to fire at the ropes just above the heads of their target, and if only one percent of the soldiers accidentally hit or their muskets been sufficiently inaccurate, the Bab and Zunuzi would still have received enough bullets in the head to kill them. Further speculation (many points of consideration could be raised here) would be fruitless.

      Some sources claim that the Bab then ran in panic to the nearest available room or even, in his confusion, to the guardhouse. Nabil, however, says that he was found in a nearby room in the barracks, finishing a dialogue with his secretary, Sayyed Husayn Yazdi, which had earlier been interrupted. Husayn Yazdi later explained that he was explicitly instructed by the Bab to hide his affiliation with the Bab and thereby remain safe for the sake of reporting the events. It is thus most probable that some or most of the eyewitness information on which Nabil relied in constructing his account was based on Husayn Yazdi's information, which thereby lends strong support to Nabil's version. The Bab was brought back out--either willingly or unwillingly, depending on the account--and suspended again. Babi sources are unanimous in that the Christian regiment, convinced by this miracle to refuse to repeat the episode, left and was replaced by a willing Muslim one.[165] No other sources mention a change of regiment, however.[166] The Bab now addressed the crowd, admonishing them for not having accepted his Cause, but few could hear and understand what he said.[167] The soldiers fired again, this time successfully.

      The execution of the Bab did not have its desired effect, for the ensuing years were full of turmoil. Whether due to the personal grudges and insatiable zeal of the authorities, as depicted by Babi and Bahai sources, or to the fanatical and heretical insurrectionism of the Babis, as depicted by Muslim sources, all agree in their depiction of an atmosphere of mutual distrust where clashes broke out frequently and Babis would be, in the words of Abdul Baha, "on the slightest suspicion arising, put to the sword" and "more than four thousand souls were slain."[168]

      The final and key event which marks a certain capstone of the period was exactly the kind of incident the authorities most feared and hoped to avoid by executing the Bab. Two years after the martyrdom of the Bab a small group of Babis, motivated to action by the continuing sporadic persecutions of the Babis, undertook to assassinate the Shah.[169] E. G. Browne, summarizing the account told to him "by the nephew of one of the three Babis actually engaged in the plot," writes that the "conspirators were originally seven in number," but four withdrew at the last minute.[170] On August 15 1852, these three approached the Shah who, possibly supposing them to be advancing with some business in mind, allowed their approach. A certain Sadiq Tabrizi fired shot (i.e. a projectile of small pellets) at him, but this proved to be an ineffectual weapon and he was only knocked from his horse, mildly harmed. Tabrizi then rushed to him with sword drawn, intending to finish the assassination, when the Shah's guard stopped and killed him.[171] Reprisals against the Babis followed quickly. Within the month numerous Babis were arrested and tortured to death. While the actual numbers of Babis killed was rather low, perhaps less than a hundred, the killings were, in the eyes of the victims and Western observers, sufficiently random, cruel, and unjustified that this period is marked in Bahai thought with a profound stigma.[172] Shoghi Effendi expresses the Bahai summation of the ensuing persecutions in terming the period an "unimaginable tumult," a "reign of terror" which "was revolting beyond description," and even a "holocaust."[173]

      The next two months witnessed sporadic killings of Babis, culminating the following year with a second uprising at Nayriz which ended in November 1853, with the deaths of another two hundred Babis. After this the persecutions dwindled. The Babi community was splintered and demoralized; its effective head Baha'ullah exiled to Baghdad in 1853; its titular head Subh Azal (Mirza Yahya, Baha'ullah's half-brother) in hiding, and as of July 1853 also in Baghdad; and most of the letters of the living, the Bab's original eighteen disciples, dead. For the remainder of the decade Babi activities in Iran remained considerably subdued, with Baha'ullah quietly consolidating the Babi community in exile in Baghdad and unobtrusively laying the theological and social foundation for the future Bahai religion.

Notes to this chapter

[122] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Expectation of the Millennium (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), x.

[123] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 150.

[124] Said Amir Arjmand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order, and Societal Change in Shi'ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 241.

[125] Momen, Shi'i Islam, 236. Ayoub argues that it was exactly because of this readiness to rise in revolt that the imams abstracted the doctrine of the Return to the point that it was forbidden to speculate on the time, place, and manner of his parousia. Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 218.

[126] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 14.

[127] Most of the world's ten million Ahmadis agree that, though Ghulam Ahmad was both the Mahdi and as well a new prophet, the Ahmadiya movement should nonetheless be considered a non-heretical branch of Islam and not a new religion. See also Yohanan Friedmann, Prophecy Continuous: Aspects of Ahmadi Religious Thought and Its Medieval Background (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). More Mahdi movements are detailed by Douglas S. Crow, s.v. "Messianism, Islamic," in Encyclopedia of Religion. Sikhism, the only other major post-Muhammadan religion, does not claim new prophethood as starkly as does the Bab.

[128] The only significant writing of the Bab translated into English is Habib Taherzadeh, trans., Selections from the Writings of the Bab (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1976). A. L. M. Nicolas translated three of the Bab's major works into French: Le Livre des Sept Preuves, translated in 1902; Le Beyan Arabe, trans. in 1905; and Le Beyan Persan, trans. in four volumes between 1911 and 1914. The Qayyum al-Asma, the Bab's earliest major work and one of his most significant, is unavailable in a Western language. Further, very few of the Bab's works have been published in their original languages. Apart from the source language collection of the English Selections from the Writings of the Bab, published as Muntakhabat ayat az athar hadrat avvali (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1978) and an edition of The Persian Bayan, the Bab's works can only be found in rare and often wholly inaccessible manuscript collections.

[129] H.M. Balyuzi, The Bab: The Herald of the Day of Days (Oxford: George Ronald, 1973)--commendable as the first comprehensive history of the movement--makes no attempt to disguise its approach as uncritical and inspirational. Nabil's The Dawnbreakers (Muhammad Zarandi Nabil, trans. and ed. Shoghi Effendi, The Dawnbreakers: Nabil's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá'í Revelation [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970]) is an admirable historical accounting of the period, but it and Abdul Baha's short compendium A Traveler's Narrative (written in the 1880s, translated and published by E. G. Browne in 1891, reprinted by the Bahá'í Publishing Trust in Wilmette in full in 1930 and in abridgment in 1980) are primary sources with no analytical intent. Abbas Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989) is an impressively comprehensive critical history, but in seeking unbiased and wholly secular objectivity the author occasionally does a disservice to Babi interpretations of events. Moojan Momen's "A Chronology of Some of the Persecutions of the Babis and Bahá'ís in Iran, 1844-1978" (in The Bahá'í World: An International Record; volume 18 [Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1986)], 380-392) carries no bias, but it is only a simple, non-descriptive chronology. Bayat's Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran (New York: Syracuse University, 1982) for the most part succeeds in being neutral and fair, but the author occasionally betrays partisan interpretations (for example, she refers to the Bab as a "pathetic 'prophet,'" expressing minor contempt with the first term and denying him sincerity by putting the second in quotation marks [page 126]). Finally, Shoghi Effendi's broad history God Passes By (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1944), chapters 1-5--the first comprehensive history of the Babi and Bahai religions--is fairly analytical but its broad scope makes it necessarily cursory. It is also seen as the model of apologetic history for Bahai writers.

[130] Vahid Rafati, The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi'i Islam (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1979), 169 and "The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi'i Islam," in Heshmat Moayyad, ed., The Bahá'í Faith and Islam (Ottawa: Bahá'í Studies Publications, 1990). Here a distinction is drawn between the return of the twelfth imam as the Qa'im and the return of Husayn.

[131] Peter Smith, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions: From messianic Shi'ism to a world religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 12.

[132] See Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal, 57-61, 104.

[133] As the Muslim lunar calendar does not mesh with the Gregorian solar calendar, a general date given in the former can fall into two different months or years in the latter.

[134] Nabil, The Dawnbreakers, 44-45. (Shoghi Effendi's translation includes many extended footnotes and appendices of his writing. Where the narrative is being cited in this thesis, it will be given as "Nabil, Dawnbreakers, x." Where a note of Shoghi Effendi's is being cited, it will be given as "Shoghi Effendi, Dawnbreakers, x."

[135] The New History records a third-hand account (Mulla Husayn told Mirza Abdul Wahhab who told Haji Mirza Jani who told the author of the New History) that Mulla Husayn and Sayyed Ali Muhammad had been friends during an earlier pilgrimage, and perhaps had expected Mulla Husayn's coming. See Mirza Husayn Hamadani, Edward G. Browne, ed., The New History (Tarikh-i-Jadid) of Mirza 'Ali Muhammed, the Bab (Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1975), 34-35, and Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal, 167. (Browne's translation includes many extended footnotes and appendices of his writing. Where the narrative is being cited in this thesis, it will be given as "Hamadani, New History, x." Where a note of Browne's is being cited, it will be given as "Browne, New History, x.")

      The frequency with which Hamadani's New History will be cited here requires a further brief note. Bahai sources tend to distrust this text, based in part as it is on the somewhat militant Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf of Haji Mirza Jani (possibly with additions by Shaykh Muhammad Qazvini). The reasons usually given for the mistrust of the Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf is that its real author was other than the purported author (see for example Muhammad Afnan and William S. Hatcher, "Note on MacEoin's 'Bahá'í Fundamentalism,' in Religion 16 [April 1986], 191.) This is actually an irrelevant objection because, whether the author is solely Haji Mirza Jani or is, in Afnan and Hatcher's words, "a forgery" because anonymously edited and expanded by Muhammad Qazvini, the manuscript is nonetheless an early and accurate account of Babi history. Besides the fact that it is based on the Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf, the strongest reason Bahai apologists can find to condemn the New History is Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani's statement that "ignorant scribes and illiterate writers have, in accordance with their own fancies, so altered the New History that at the present every copy of it appears like a defaced portrait or a restored temple, to such a degree that one cannot obtain a correct copy of it, unless it were the author's own transcript." (Quoted in Browne, New History, xl-xli.) This seemingly damning condemnation is mitigated by the fact that, while manuscripts do differ slightly in exact wordings and some add or delete certain sentences, in the main there is little substantial divergence between them. Juan Cole maintains that the New History, the Nuqtat al-Kaf, and even Nabil's original Dawnbreakers are all worked and reworked from a variety of source documents, such that discussion of "original texts" is misleading and the concepts of "forgery" and "corruption" are quite alien to these histories. (Juan R. I. Cole, posting to the listserv H-Bahai, September 18 1997.) These texts are further discussed by Denis MacEoin, The Sources for Early Babi Doctrine and History (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992), 134-160, H. M. Balyuzi, Edward Granville Browne and the Bahá'í Faith (London: George Ronald, 1970), 62-88, and Amanat, Resurrection, 423-424. Of interest is that the original manuscript of the New History has recently been found, in the personal library of the Indian litterateur Maneckji who commissioned it, by historian Susan Maneck.

[136] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 63. Bahais date the proclamation at May 23 1844, because in Persian reckoning the new day begins at sunset.

[137] These eighteen original disciples were termed "Letters of the Living" (huruf al-hayy). They were nineteen in total, the Bab declaring himself the nineteenth.

[138] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 107.

[139] R. Mehrabkhani calculates the dates of these events in Mulla Husayn: Disciple at Dawn (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1987), 121-122.

[140] See Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 90, and Amanat, Resurrection, 219.

[141] Quoted in Balyuzi, The Bab, 64.

[142] Amanat, Resurrection, 233.

[143] Denis MacEoin, "The Fate of Mulla 'Ali Bastami," in Bahá'í Studies Bulletin, 2:1 (June 1983), 77.

[144] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 92.

[145] Related by Haji Abul Hasan, quoted in Balyuzi, The Bab, 72.

[146] While Haji Abul Hasan was an eyewitness to the Bab's pilgrimage, he is the only one to relate this particular incident. Most evident is Nabil's lack of reference to the event. The Bab himself appears to downplay his reception at the Kaaba, saying in the Persian Bayan (as translated by A.L.M. Nicolas): "Mille deux cent soixante et dix ans ont passe depuis que Mohammed a ete suscite et chaque annee des foules innombrables ont tourne autour de la maison (Qaaba). Dans la derniere annee, le Createur (le Bab) de la maison est alle lui-meme en pelerinage. Gloire a Dieu! il vit que de chaque secte, des troupes nombreuses etaient venues. Personne ne le connut, mais lui les connut tous..." (emphasis added). The Bab, trans. A.L.M. Nicolas, Le Beyan Persan (Paris: Librairie Paul Geuthner, 1913), tome deuxieme, 163-164.

[147] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 154.

[148] Nabil reports that, after the second week of the Bab's imprisonment, the warden, Ali Khan, was riding by the river near the town one dawn when he chanced upon the sight of the Bab standing by the river, engaged in passionate devotions. Ali Khan was about to approach him and rebuke him for having escaped from the castle, but was so impressed by the depth of the Bab's reverie that he decided to leave him be and return to the castle to castigate the guards instead. To his astonishment he found the gates to the castle all closed and, upon entering, discovered the Bab seated in his room. His animosity towards the Bab was cured instantly, and to atone for his previous harshness his first act was to allow a pilgrim who had been waiting in town to come and see the Bab. Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 247.

[149] Amanat writes that Tahirih was in Qazvin July-September 1847. Amanat, Resurrection, 316.

[150] Amanat gives the date of his murder as Ramadan, or August-September. Resurrection, 322.

[151] Amanat, Resurrection, 387.

[152] Denis MacEoin has prepared the most complete examination of the trial of Tabriz: "The Trial of the Bab: Shi'ite Orthodoxy Confronts its Mirror Image." Accessed from the internet: Linkname "The Trial of the Bab: article"; URL

[153] Respectively Hamadani, New History, 251, and Haji Mirza Jani, Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf, quoted in Browne, New History, appendix II, 327.

[154] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 446.

[155] This was not the only time that seven Babis or Bahais were martyred on one occasion in Tehran (cf. events of June 23 1981 or January 4 1982), but this is the event referred to by the phrase "Seven Martyrs of Tehran."

[156] Translated by and quoted in Amanat, Resurrection, 394. His point, as intended here and expressed in many other places, is that all of the proofs by which Muslims accept the truth of Muhammad's mission were evident in his mission as well, such that not to accept Babism would be kufr, heresy. "My proof is none other than that proof whereby the truth of the Prophet Muhammad was established," he said. (Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 134).

[157] Unlike for the majority of Babi history, the relevant sections of the sources which mention the martyrdom of the Bab have almost all been translated into English. As well as the primary sources of Nabil's The Dawnbreakers and Hamadani's New History, see Moojan Momen, ed., The Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford: George Ronald, 1981), 69-82; Firuz Kazemzadeh, ed., "The Bab: Accounts of His Martyrdom," in World Order 8:1 (Fall, 1973), 6-34; and [Anthony Lee] et al., eds., The Martyrdom of the Bab: A Compilation (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1992).

[158] Trans. by and quoted in Amanat, Resurrection, 400.

[159] Amanat, Resurrection, 401, and Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 508.

[160] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 506. Cf. his words upon receiving the order as given by the Bahai scholar and historian Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani: "I am disillusioned and disappointed. I had hoped that the Iranian government would command me to make war against one of the great Powers. I never thought it would order me to kill one of the pious children of the Prophet, who never misses saying his supererogatory prayers and lacks no noble moral human characteristic." (trans. Juan R. I. Cole, Letters and Essays, 1886-1913 [Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1985], 101) One source gives that, in order to prevent exactly this hesitancy to kill a descendent of the Prophet, the Bab's green turban--the symbol of his ancestry--was removed before he was brought out into public view that morning. Haji Ali Yazdi to Lady Blomfield (Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1967], 29. Also available on the internet: Linkname "The Chosen Highway"; URL In contrast to the above, however, one manuscript of the New History holds that, far from there being a Muslim unwillingness to kill a sayyed, the Muslims thought this execution to be so pious a deed that by committing it they were thereby cleansed for Ramadan. (Hamadani, New History, 307).

[161] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 512.

[162] Amanat, Resurrection, 402, note 117.

[163] Though all extant accounts are unanimous in presenting the Bab as unharmed by the first volley, there is uncertainty about the death of Zunuzi. The account of court historian Sipihr (Lisan al-Mulk, "Tongue of Power") claims that Zunuzi was killed in the first round, but this is contradicted not only by the rest of the eyewitness but by Sipihr himself, who states first that the regiment intentionally missed them, then that Zunuzi was hit and killed, and then that Zunuzi, now only wounded, turned and spoke to the Bab. (Kazemzadeh, "Martyrdom of the Bab," 14) Gobineau claims that the first volley killed Zunuzi "instantly," but his presentation is rendered suspect by other descriptions that run counter to other accounts. (Kazemzadeh, "Martyrdom of the Bab," 22) It is possible that Gobineau was relying on Sipihr's history for his information, for among all reports these two are unique in certain points of interpretation. While it thus appears unlikely that Zunuzi was killed now, it is possible that he was at least wounded in the first volley, for this is stated by more than one source and does not negate the claim of his dying only in the second volley.

[164] See Abdul Baha's criticism of the "old-time" rifles used by Persia's army, in Secret of Divine Civilization, trans. Marzieh Gail (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970), 32.

[165] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 514, Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative (trans. E. G. Browne, A Traveller's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Bab [New York: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1930]) 44; Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 53; and Balyuzi, The Bab, 157-158. All citations of Traveller's Narrative will refer to the expanded Browne edition of 1930. (Browne's translation includes many extended foonotes and appendices of his writing. Where the narrative is being cited in this thesis, it will be given as "Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative, x." Where a note of Browne's is being cited, it will be given as "Browne, Traveller's Narrative, x.")

[166] As a further complication, the New History completely reverses the above: first, a regiment of Muslim slodiers fired and, after witnessing the miracle of the Bab's survival, refused to fire again and was replaced by a more willing regiment of Christian soldiers. (Hamadani, New History, 306).

[167] Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative, 44.

[168] Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative, 47. This and other figures of the number of Babis killed in the period have been disputed. (See for example Denis MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm: Problems of Militancy, Quietism, and Conflation in the Construction of a Religion," in Religion 13 [July 1983]: 219-255, 235-237.) Bahai sources consistently refer to the round number of 20,000 martyrs, but none of the available sources support even half this number. However, even the most conservative estimates place the number of Babis killed by the mid-1850s at over 2,000, which is certainly a sizable figure given the relative fewness of the Babi numbers at the time.

[169] The motive usually given for the attempted assassination is that they sought to avenge the murder of the Bab. For example, Abdul Baha writes that they were so "bereft of thought and reason" because of their "utmost affection to the Bab" that they "fell into thoughts of seeking blood-revenge." (Abdul Baha, Traveller's Narrative, 49-50 [see also Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 62]). Nabil, though, explains that their act was "to avenge the blood of their slaughtered brethren." (Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 599) The fact that the attempted assassination was over two years after the Bab's execution inclines one to the latter explanation.

[170] Bahai sources tend to downplay the extent of any conspiracy behind this attack, Abdul Baha for example attributing it solely to "a certain Babi." (Traveller's Narrative, 49) In truth the number of Babis involved in planning the attack is not known for certain, as even apologist H. M. Balyuzi writes in Bahá'u'lláh: King of Glory [Oxford: George Ronald, 1991], page 74. It may have been as few as seven, as Browne writes, or it may have included as many as the seventy affiliated with Mulla Shaykh Ali Turshizi's circle (see, for example, Peter Smith, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 30.) Among those reporting the attackers to be three are the official court historians and Kaani, a panegyrist for the Shah. As these chroniclers tended to be quick to exaggerate the offensiveness and the numbers of the Babis, the fact that they agree with Browne's Babi source on the number three lends much weight to this figure. The number of conspirators aside--even were as many as seventy to have planned the attack--there is no ambiguity behind the fact that such an attack was wholly contrary to the Bab's later teachings. (See for example Muhammad Afnan and William Hatcher, "Western Islamic Scholarship and Bahá'í Origins," in Religion 15 [January 1985], 29-51.)

[171] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 609. Though usually downplayed as an ineffectual attempt by deranged youth doomed to fail, it is clear from Nabil's account that Sadiq was very close to succeeding.

[172] Only thirty or forty deaths in this period have been documented (Browne lists 28, Nabil lists 38), but in the widespread chaos which ensued it is likely that others were put to death by the fearful and angry vigilante mobs.

[173] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 62, 63, and 3, respectively; Nabil xv. In Citadel of Faith: Messages to America, 1947-1957 (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1965), 100, Shoghi Effendi further describes it as "a blood-bath of unprecedented severity."

Chapter 4


      Ideal here would be an analysis of what persecution and martyrdom meant for the Babis. One wonders how much they were influenced by the broader teachings of early Islam: How directly were they enacting the age-old Muslim calls to jihad? How much were they seeking the martyr's recompense promised by Muhammad and now by the Bab? One further wonders how much they were influenced by the more specific form of Islam--Iranian Shiism--which formed their heritage: When on the defensive, how much were they emulating the paradigm set by Husayn and all of the other legendary martyred imams? Though now calling themselves Babis instead of Shiis, were they inspired by the same theologies of redemption through suffering so characteristic of Shiism? When on the offensive, how much were they fighting to pave the way for the Mahdi, seeking, as aptly put in a novel, to immanentize the eschaton?[174] Or indeed, how much were they fighting in his very army? Short of primary source documents, which are almost entirely inaccessible, these questions cannot be fully explored. However, sufficient documents and numerous historical accounts are available to glean a few clues, from which at least a small window into the thought of Babism can be constructed.

      This examination of Babi martyrdom will focus on four themes, in no particular order: (1) parallels invoked with other historical sacrifices; (2) martyrdom as a public declaration of sincerity and its use as a tool for proclamation and--indirectly--conversion; (3) willingness to die due to a state of mystical intoxication; (4) Babi jihad and martyrdom in the prosecution of the Mahdi's cause.

      It must not be thought that, in practice, these distinctions can necessarily be drawn. In any one incident of martyrdom, the protagonist may manifest all possible aspects diachronically, for example first testing her own faith by making an initial decision to proclaim in the face of certain danger, then wishing to convert her audience and undergoing martyrdom to this end, and finally, once her fate is cemented and she has accepted it, radicalizing her suffering and seeking to augment it in a cycle of increasing torment bringing her ever closer to mystical communion to God. Or, of course, many possible aspects of martyrdom may occur synchronically. The endeavor here, in delineating typologies, is simply to seek to understand the various components of belief underlying the phenomenon. While the distinctions may not always be valid in practice, they are nonetheless useful windows into the mentality of the martyr.

      A caveat must introduce this chapter. A study of this scope requires a certain broad and generalized approach to Babism. However, it must be remembered that, for the entire history of the movement, there was never a fully consolidated community following a systematized set of teachings: there never was a Babism to the same degree that there is a Bahai Faith. First, the movement only flourished from 1844 to 1853. Following the death of the Bab, the frightening cruelty of the persecutions of 1852, and the failure of all four major uprisings, the Babi community was demoralized and enervated. These nine years, only six of which enjoyed the presence of the prophet, were barely enough to create and consolidate a new religion. Second, there was effectively no central leadership. Before his death, the Bab was for almost the entirety of his ministry either on pilgrimage, under house arrest, or in prison. By 1853, almost all of the movements major leaders had been killed and the nominal leader, Subh Azal, proved to be a vacillating, ineffective leader who remained in hiding. Not only did the Babis not know to whom to turn for leadership, they did not even know what type of leadership they should be expecting. The extent of confusion is indicated by the fact that by 1856 no less than twenty-five Babis had declared themselves to be the prophetic figure "He whom God shall make manifest" (man yuzhiruhu Allah), a status also later claimed by Baha'ullah. Third, the nature of the Bab's teachings evolved--progressively unfolded--so continuously that no Babis save those in immediate contact with him could have known exactly what his claims were from one year to the next.[175] Indeed, even with the benefit of hindsight and the collection of many histories written then and later, it still cannot be determined with any certainty what the Bab's station was at any specific time. Fourth, the bulk of the Babis were quite uninformed as to his teachings. Though some Babis traveled extensively proclaiming the religion and educating the Babis, most of the Bab's nominal followers would have heard of his teachings at second- or third-hand at most, and then often from a very small number of teachers. Manuscripts of the Bab were hard to come by, partly because of the short time span of the religion and the great distances that had to be crossed, often on foot, by those delivering them, and largely because Muslims tended to destroy them when found.[176]

      In short, the Babi movement was chaotic, its partisans often poorly-educated about the religion and certainly somewhat confused as to its exact teachings, its leadership fragmented, and its prophet inaccessible, and the belief structures of its participants may often reflect the teachings of their immediate leader as much as of the Bab.[177] This caveat does not significantly undermine attempts to approach Babism as a unified entity, for the movement does display sufficient cohesion of thought and unique patterns of behavior to allow for general observations; it merely cautions that some generalizations drawn by a study of the Babi religion in toto will at times be simplistic.


      Before examining Babi martyrdom, a foundational issue must be addressed: should those Babis who died be regarded religiously as martyrs, or were they simply soldiers who fell in the prosecution of their leaders' agendas and in self-defense against a regime prone to settle disputes with violent suppression?

      There are two main reasons why the slayings of Babis were far more than simple civil executions or military deaths. First, the Babis saw themselves as fighting in the army of God and on the side of the Qa'im. Thus factionalized, the Babi struggle became wholly religious and justified--an obvious and unsurprising definition of the struggle for those operating in the Shii continuum of God's party struggling against satanic usurpers. This will be further examined below. The second factor making the Babis martyrs is simply self-definition: in prospect they saw themselves as potential martyrs before the conflicts began, and in retrospect they eulogized their fallen comrades as martyrs.

      The clearest proof of this self-definition can be found in parallels the Babis drew repeatedly between their struggles and other historical ones, between themselves and previous fallen martyrs. All three of the primary martyrdom motifs of the Western religious tradition are invoked: Isaac/Ismael,[178] Jesus, and Husayn. The available translated histories give many examples of each motif. As the point here is just to show themes, not to explore the full depth of their use, only a few examples of each will be cited, with others appearing in footnotes.


      The principle appearance in the available documents of the motif of Ismael occurs in a statement of one of the Seven Martyrs of Tehran. Haji Mulla Ismael was offered freedom if he would renounce affiliation with Babism, it being pointed out "to save your life what harm is there in saying merely 'I am not a Babi'?" The New History gives the story: "To this, however, Haji Mulla Ismael would by no means consent; and, when greatly importuned, he drew himself up to his full height amidst the crowd, and exclaimed, so that all might hear,--

'O zephyr! Say from me to Ismael destined for sacrifice,
'To return alive from the street of the Friend is not the condition of love.'

Then he took off his turban and said to the executioner, 'Go on with thy work;' and the latter, filled with amazement, struck the fatal blow."[179] Mulla Ismael's intent on drawing a parallel with his namesake is obvious. In the story of Isaac/Ismael, the victim is wholly unaware of Abraham's intent on making the long journey to the mountain where he is to kill his son. Given that Abraham himself, who is praised for the unusual depth of his faith, is sometimes portrayed as having serious doubts, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Isaac/Ismael would be seen by the story's audience as being quite taken aback and perhaps even unwilling to be killed.[180] Mulla Ismael, however, has the following message for Ismael: those who are destined for sacrifice readily accept, for to do otherwise is to betray and prove false one's love for God (the Friend).[181]


      The parallel of Jesus is, like that of Ismael, drawn occasionally by the Babis, but is found with much greater frequency by later Bahai and Western writers who, seeking culturally familiar parallels largely with the aim of eliciting sympathy for the Bahai religion, extensively applied Christian historical and theological motifs to Babi and Bahai events and themes.[182] Some were broadly comparative, such as Shoghi Effendi writing that the Bab's address to the Letters of the Living upon his sending them across the country to proclaim the new religion "recalled the words addressed by Jesus to his disciples."[183] These latter won't be addressed here.[184]

      The obvious parallel between Christ and the Bab is in their executions. For example, they each were perceived as breaking existing religious codes of law, their teachings were seen as threatening to the civil order, and each refused the offer of amnesty conditional upon a cessation of their agenda, and they were therefore killed. Babis did not hesitate to point out this correspondence: the New History referred to the Bab, at the time of his execution, as "that Jesus of the age on the cross."[185] Nicolas, citing reports of a certain Ethezad al-Saltaneh, describes Babis as declaring a whole range of parallels:

...les chretiens sont en effet convaincus que si Jesus-Christ avait voulu descendre vivant de la croix, il l'eut fait sans difficulte: il est mort volontairement, parcequ'il [sic] devait mourir et pour accomplir les propheties. Il en est de meme pour le Bab, disent les babi [sic], qui voulut donner anssi [sic] une sanction evidente à ses paroles. Lui aussi mourut volontairement, parceque [sic] sa mort devait sauver l'humanite.[186]

Finally, just as the Bab is equated with Christ, so are the Babis equated with the disciples of Christ. For example, after telling the story of the first uprising at Nayriz, Hamadani brings to bear multiple parallels:

They [the enemies of the faith] acted as they had done of yore in the time of God's Apostle [Muhammad], dealing with these sorely afflicted people as they dealt with the Chief of Martyrs [Imam Husayn] and his followers on the plain of Karbala, and as they had erst dealt with the Holy Spirit of God [ruh Allah, Christ] and his disciples.[187]
Imam Husayn

      The primary historical parallel is of course that of Imam Husayn and Karbala, and it comes as no surprise to find Husayn's life, his struggles, his enemies, his death, its redemptive power, and all of his death's theological significances cited repeatedly throughout the whole of Babi history. Examples are so numerous that just a few will be given here, broken up into two categories: the meaning of Husayn for Bab, and then as applied more broadly to the Babis and the movement in general.

Imam Husayn in the thought of the Bab

      Like any devout Persian Shii of the Safavid or Qajar periods, the Bab mourned Imam Husayn and identified with his sufferings. This cultural predilection for passionate empathy was compounded in the Bab by an unusually emotional personality and devotional attitude. Both apologetic and antagonistic sources agree in portraying the Bab is a young man much taken with long devotions, asceticism, excessive supererogatory prayers, and an exceptionally pious disposition. This disposition was marked enough for critics of the Bab to make an objection of it, claiming that the Bab's lengthy devotions on the roof of his house in the sun addled his brain, a mental disturbance which later caused him to believe himself a prophet.[188]

      Cultivating strong emotional responses to the stories of Imam Husayn were encouraged by Perian culture, as discussed above. The Bab experienced the normative sympathetic suffering with Husayn, as for example attested by Nabil:

He would invariably, after the termination of each prayer, summon [his secretary] to His presence and would request him to read aloud to Him a passage from [a work]...which...extols the virtues, laments the death, and narrates the circumstances of the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn. The recital of those sufferings would provoke intense emotion in the heart of the Bab. His tears would keep flowing as He listened to the tale of the unutterable indignities heaped upon him, and of the agonising pain which he was made to suffer at the hands of a perfidious enemy.
      Further, this sympathetic suffering, normative for the Persian Shii, took on an added dimension for the Bab. In the same paragraph, Nabil continues:

As the circumstances of that tragic life were unfolded before Him, the Bab was continually reminded of that still greater tragedy which was destined to signalise the advent of the promised Husayn. To Him those past atrocities were but a symbol which foreshadowed the bitter afflictions which His own beloved Husayn was soon to suffer at the hands of His countrymen. He wept as He pictured in His mind those calamities which He who was to be made manifest was predestined to suffer, calamities such as the Imam Husayn, even in the midst of his agonies, was never made to endure.[189]

The Bab thus was not merely cultivating an emotional connection with and sympathy for Husayn, as do other Shiis mourning his memory. Rather, the Bab felt an explicit historico-theological identification with Husayn and his experiences, and his mourning thereby was compounded to include the sufferings of each of them.

      The Bab's equation of himself with Imam Husayn has many other facets. First, of course, he is--as Qa'im--the actual return of an imam himself, and a great deal of the Bab's teachings and activities can only be understood in this light. Chief among other equations between the Bab and Husayn are dreams he had in which intimations of his station and authority was conveyed to him.[190] The first example is a dream the Bab had in 1843, which was so formative to him that he described it in detail in two separate places. These are significant enough to quote in full. He first described it in a writing from the year of his declaration:

"The spirit of prayer which animates My soul is the direct consequence of a dream which I had in the year before the declaration of My Mission. In My vision I saw the head of the Imam Husayn, the Sayyed al-Shuhada, which was hanging upon a tree. Drops of blood dripped profusely from His lacerated throat. With feelings of unsurpassed delight, I approached that tree and, stretching forth My hands, gathered a few drops of that sacred blood, and drank them devoutly. When I awoke, I felt that the Spirit of God had permeated and taken possession of My soul. My heart was thrilled with the joy of His Divine presence, and the mysteries of His Revelation were unfolded before My eyes in all their glory."[191]

Elsewhere, he wrote:

Remember! The emanation of all these verses and prayers and all these unlearned sciences is because of a dream which I once had of the holy head of the Lord of Martyrs, upon him be peace, detached from his holy body, together with the heads of other companions. I drank seven handfuls of his holy blood with greatest joy, and it is now the blessing of that blood which illumined my heart with such verses and prayers.[192]

      The significances of this dream may not be immediately evident to the reader. Indeed, it would appear that most Bahai writers have disregarded it, for this dream is discussed in no English-language Bahai histories of the Babi movement nor in biographies of the Bab.[193]

      Husayn and his blood are for Shiis portentous motifs both in dreams and intuitive experiences. During the occultation of the twelfth imam one of the chief ways he communicates with his faithful is through the medium of dreams, and visions of the other imams are not infrequent. Such dreams were of paramount import for the Bab, who related that in childhood he had an influential dream vision of the sixth imam, Jafar Sadiq. (The sixth imam represents, both historically and symbolically, esoteric wisdom, intuition, and religious knowledge.[194] ) In later life, especially just before 1844 and in the early years of his mission, he experienced a number of these portentous dreams. They signified a transmission of authority from the imams to the Bab: both the fact that he was having these visions was such a clue, and then in some of them the investment of authority was clearly stated by the figures in the dreams.[195]

      The significance and the fetishistic power of the blood of Imam Husayn was addressed above, first in the story of the girl cured of her blindness by the imam's blood delivered to her by a bird, and second in the importance attached to shedding of one's own blood by the self-flagellants to identify with Husayn's shedding of his blood--for the more determined of the mourners at Muharram, the identification is incomplete if blood is not shed. In dreams, too, the blood of Husayn had magical powers. Some of the men who murdered Imam Husayn dreamt of the Prophet rubbing their eyes with his blood; they woke up blind.[196] For the Bab the significance of the blood goes beyond simple healing or punishment. He consumed some of the blood, either "a few drops" or "seven handfuls," following which "the Spirit of God had permeated and taken possession of [His] soul." Later he explained that this blood was the cause for the "emanation of all these verses and prayers and all these unlearned sciences." That is, it is not simply that the imams invested him with his status as Mahdi in his dreams, not simply that they approved and authorized this status, and not even simply that a certain degree of spiritual knowledge derives from them; rather, in at least one place he attributes the very effective cause of his revelation, the illumination of his heart, to them and specifically to the blood of the martyred, beheaded Husayn.

      Further interpretation of the meaning of these dreams for the Bab, based on such few examples, would be mere speculation. It suffices here to point out that they were of monumental import for him, that their theological significance vast, and their primary theme a certain converse with the martyred Husayn.

      The remainder of the first theme of the parallel with Husayn, the Bab's self-definition, simply consists of him comparing or at times identifying himself with Husayn. Most of these are passing comments which just serve to draw an identification or a parallel and do not necessarily have any significance beyond this. Examples include: "O peoples of the earth! Inflict not upon the Most Great Remembrance [The Bab] what the Umayyads cruelly inflicted upon Husayn in the Holy Land";[197] or "It is as though I heard one crying within my soul, 'The most pleasing of all things is that thou shouldst become a ransom in the way of God even as Husayn (upon whom be peace) became a ransom in my way.'"[198] As is expected, the Bab's followers were also consistent in equating the Bab with Husayn and his mission, his goals, his sufferings, and his martyrdom with those of Husayn.[199]

Imam Husayn in the thought of the Babis

      As well as the Bab's equating himself with Imam Husayn, the Babis saw themselves as reenacting the same events and themes of Karbala.[200] Two of the leading Babis also were equated with Husayn himself: Mulla Husayn, the "Bab al-Bab," and Quddus. This, however, is somewhat incidental. The station of these two is difficult to determine. They were both Letters of the Living; when the Bab advanced his station from simple babiyya (babiyya, the station of being a Bab) to qa'imiyya (qa'imiyya, the station of being the Qa'im). Mulla Husayn likewise advanced from being the bab al-bab to the Qa'im, a station which, after his death, fell to Quddus;[201] and at various times all three were seen variously as babs, as the Qa'im, or as the return of Jesus, Muhammad, Imam Husayn, or the twelfth imam.[202]

      The equation with Imam Husayn is therefore but one of many, and the belief that Mulla Husayn and Quddus are the "return" of the imam--even though the full range of martyr symbology is utilized--becomes somewhat tangential, so only one example will be given. Nabil tells that the group of Babis marching under Mulla Husayn with the Black Standard rested one night in the middle of the province of Mazandaran. Mulla Husayn awoke them the next morning and, apparently with precognition, told them:

"We are approaching our Karbala, our ultimate destination." ...The night preceding their arrival, the guardian of the [nearby] shrine [of Shaykh Tabarsi] dreamed that the Sayyed al-Shuhada, the Imam Husayn, had arrived...accompanied by no less than seventy-two warriors and a large number of his companions. He dreamed that they tarried in that spot, engaged in the most heroic of battles, triumphing in every encounter over the forces of the enemy...When Mulla Husayn arrived on the following day, the guardian immediately recognized him as the hero he had seen in his vision, threw himself at his feet, and kissed them devoutly. Mulla Husayn invited him to be seated by his side, and heard him relate his story. "All that you have witnessed," he assured the keeper of the shrine, "will come to pass. Those glorious scenes will again be enacted before your eyes."[203]

In this episode one can see that, not only was Mulla Husayn equated with Imam Husayn by himself and his followers, but even magically, by those who had never met nor heard of him. Also of note in the above selection is: (1) the reference to the as-yet future struggle of Tabarsi as "our" Karbala;[204] (2) parallels of the two events including the fighting of a small band of heroes far from home against the forces of a corrupt government; (3) the recurring theme of divinatory dreams; (4) the statement that the struggle of Tabarsi will "re-enact" that of Karbala.

      More relevant and meaningful were parallels the Babis drew between their struggles and those of the imam. Every major conflict in which they engaged was replete with the invocations of such symbolism. The chief characters in each event, especially the hero Husayn and the villain Shemr, and their actions at Karbala were cited: When Hujjat, after being wounded, gave his dying instructions to his followers, he ordered that, when he was buried, no Babi must remove the diamond ring he wore. When asked why, he replied "they must cut off my finger as they did that of Husayn ibn Ali for the ring."[205] When the next day one of the enemy did just that, his commanding general also cited the parallel: "Why did you cut off the finger of this corpse?" he demanded of his officer. "For people will say that even this detail is like what befall Imam Husayn."[206] The Babi heroes were linked with the heroes of Karbala--"When [Mulla Husayn] witnessed this catastrophe [the injuring of Quddus] he began to fight even as Husayn fought at Karbala"[207] --and the enemies with the villains of Karbala-- "We are fearful and anxious,...for this host is more faithless than the men of Kufa."[208]

      Besides such specifics, general associations of Karbala with Babi struggles were also drawn. For example, when the just-defeated Babis were being marched from the scene of their resistance in the second Nayriz upheaval, in October 1853, a spectator was moved by the extensive abuse of the prisoners he saw to call out to the leader of the attacking forces "Na'im! Have you sought to recreate Karbala? Even the field of Karbala did not witness such misery!"[209] Interestingly, the forces opposing the Babis also paralleled the struggle with that of Husayn, though, as they become the villains, it would seem to imperil the justification of their orders. The New History quotes Mirza Jani as recounting a conversation he overheard:

About two years after the disaster of Shaykh Tabarsi, I heard one, who, though not a believer, was honest, truthful, and worthy of credit, relate as follows: "We were sitting together when some allusion was made to the war waged by some of those present against Hazrat Quddus and Jinab Bab al-Bab. Prince Ahmad Mirza and Abbas-Quli Khan were amongst the company. The prince questioned Abbas-Quli Khan about the matter, and he replied thus: 'The truth of the matter is that anyone who had not seen Karbala would, if he had seen Tabarsi, not only have comprehended what there took place, but would have ceased to consider it and had he seen Mulla Husayn of Bushruyih he would have been convinced that the Chief of Martyrs had returned to earth; and had he witnessed my deeds he would assuredly have said: "This is Shemr come back with sword and Lance."'"[210]

An even stronger self-incriminating statement was made by the governor of Nayriz, Zayn al-Abidin Khan. At Karbala, the act of the imam's enemies which became seen as the most heinous offense of the battle, and for which the Shiis commemorating the event most stridently castigate them, was the refusal of a drink of water. The besieged party of Husayn, withering in the desert sun, was cut off from reaching the nearby Euphrates. When most of Husayn's fighting men were killed, he held an infant boy in his arms and pleaded for water for him. In response, the child was shot in the neck.[211] Similarly, at one point in the first battle of Nayriz, the besiegers cut off the water flowing into the fort where the Babis had taken refuge. Vahid threatened the governor, saying "...should you immediately relinquish control [over the flow], then all is well. Otherwise, be warned, that this very night I will see to it that water should flow freely. "In reply, the Khan sent a message saying "If you are the Prince of the Martyrs, then I am Shemr. I will not allow you or your companions a drop of water."[212] With this most explicit quote, so unequivocally judgmental of its speaker, it can be seen that neither the Babis nor their opponents felt there to be any doubt that the Babis were historically and theologically the clear heirs of Imam Husayn, their struggles identical with those of Karbala, and their enemies the embodiment of the ungodly.

      Finally, some Babis thoroughly abstracted the theme of Husayn and Karbala. Mirza Jani, the author of the early history Kitab al-Nuqtat al-Kaf, broadly relates all major events, places, and personages of the Babi history prior to 1852 to those of Karbala, summarizing with an abstraction effectively broad enough to explode these themes beyond even the equations to which he is applying them. In a quote apposite enough to serve as the final example, Browne describes and quotes Mirza Jani's thought [the interpolated definitions are mine]:

...Haji Mirza Jani, in describing the events of this cycle, speaks of Tehran as "Damascus" [the seat of the Umayyad rule whence came the order to kill Imam Husayn], the Qajar rulers as "the family of Abu Sufyan" [the father of Mu'awiya, Husayn's political enemy who ordered his death], Barfurush as "Kufa," Mulla Husayn as "the Chief of Martyrs," and Tabarsi as "Karbala"; "for," says he, "wherever the banner of the Truth is set up, summoning men to defend it, and the people of Truth are gathered together, and the word of Love and Emancipation (fana') is spoken, there is the land of Karbala."[213]

      A fourth category, Husayn as cited by later Bahai writers, is too vast to present here. It must suffice to point out that, just as later European and North American Bahai writers have applied the figure of Christ to the Bab, so do later Bahai writers, especially those of Middle Eastern background, invoke Imam Husayn repeatedly and derive many significances from the parallels thus distilled. Of note here is that whereas Christ, a prophet of God, was usually paralleled only with the Bab,[214] there was no apparently no such stricture with the figure of Husayn: not just the Bab but a great many Babis, be they revered leaders or rank-and-file followers, were and still are frequently said to exemplify the attributes of Husayn, to mirror his tribulations and sufferings, or even to manifest his very spirit in a sort of parousia.


      The second theme, martyrdom as a proclamatory tool, as presented here has two components: steadfastness in the face of persecution attests to the sincerity of the sufferer, and publicity about the event of persecution can serve to arouse public sympathy and functions as a powerful proclamatory tool for conversion. These two components are closely intertwined. Indeed, the act of witnessing is identical for each, the difference lying only in apparent intent: in the former the martyr is testifying to the truth of his faith for its own sake, while in the latter conversion of the observer is directly desired. The former witnesses to God, the latter witnesses to the unbelieving world.

Witnessing as Proselytization

      Seeking publicity--the latter of these two aspects of martyrdom-as-proclamation--first stands out in Babi history in its apparent absence. Capitalizing on persecution as a publicity tool can be found in many histories of religions, and is especially noticeable in later Bahai history. The Bahai community has long turned the unfortunate incidences of persecution to whatever advantage possible, conspicuously--and, per accusations sometimes levied by outsider observers, even shamelessly--using persecution as a signally noteworthy news item.[215] In contrast the use of martyrdom as a kerygmatic tool seems relatively absent in Babism.

      One primary reason for this absence can be deduced. Capitalizing on martyrdom for the sake of publicity and indirect conversion would be most effective where the dialectic between good and evil, between the innocent, God-intoxicated martyr and the corrupt, power-hungry offender fearful for his privileged socio-religious status, is most clear: when the persecuted is wholly innocent and submits to, or even encourages, that her persecution be taken to its furthest limit and that she be killed, the dialectic is thereby so radicalized that the persecutor cannot avoid becoming the embodiment of the very antithesis of goodness. As Hamadani explains it, God

ordain[s]...martyrdom and affliction for His saints and for such as manifest His Spirit, to prove the hard-heartedness, sinfulness, obduracy, and rebelliousness of the wicked, or the patience and the meekness of just and saintly men, and their resignation to whatsoever the Pen of destiny may award.[216]
This is an extremely powerful tool for conversion, for such a radicalized dialectic prohibits an observer from remaining impartial. However, such a dialectic was not always possible with the Babis. While their sufferings were almost always unjust and their punishments excessive, they were clearly not sufficiently innocent to create such a dialectic. As revolutionaries they invited suppression and thus, even if the suppression when it came was harsh and exaggerated, it was often not wholly unjustified and was rarely unexpected.[217]

      Other reasons for the seeming absence of kerygma turn out to be merely circumstantial. For example, there were far fewer neutral observers of the Babi movement than of the Bahai; the oligarchical and socially primitive nature of Persia at this time tended not to foster an environment of participatory observation and critical reflection among those who were witness to these events (the populace trained to be somewhat submissive and uncritical); and as a very new and barely organized religion Babism lacked the kind of functioning publicity machine enjoyed by established movements. When the circumstantiality of these factors is realized, it becomes clear that proclamatory uses of martyrdom might not be intrinsically lacking in Babism, but just that opportunities for implementing the kerygma may have been missing.

      It is also possible that the relative absence of the theme of martyrdom as kerygma may be due to nothing more than a lack of sources; that when the narratives detailing how the Babis did think and act are made available, this theme may then be found to be as prevalent there as it is in later Bahai thought. A close examination of the few principle primary source documents of the period existing in English, notably Nabil's Dawnbreakers, Hamadani's New History, and the "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi,"[218] does in fact reveal a recurrent theme of kerygmatic martyrdom, but it is not emphasized. Where this theme is found in these texts it often has the strong flavor of post-Babi sentiment, and likely may have been added by the later Bahai or Azali redactors, a fate suffered by every Babi text available.[219]

      Haji Sulayman Khan's martyrdom in the suppressions of August 1852 is without doubt the most famous single instance of Babi martyrdom after that of the Bab himself. It was unusually gruesome, the protagonist exceptionally charismatic, and most important it was witnessed by an Austrian captain, Alfred von Gumoens. Gumoens wrote a detailed two- or three-page account of this and other incidents of the time which was published in a German newspaper on October 12 1852 and in translation in The Times of London the following day. Nabil tells the story:

[Sulayman Khan] was asked the manner in which he wished to die. "Pierce holes in my flesh," was the instant reply, "and in each wound place a candle. Let nine candles be lighted all over my body, and in this state conduct me through the streets of Tehran. Summon the multitude to witness the glory of my martyrdom, so that the memory of my death may remain imprinted in their hearts and help them, as they recall the intensity of my tribulation, to recognize the Light I have embraced. After I have reached the foot of the gallows and have uttered the last prayer of my earthly life, cleave my body in twain and suspend my limbs on either side of the gate of Tehran, that the multitude passing beneath it may witness to the love which the Faith of the Bab has kindled in the hearts of His disciples, and may look upon the proofs of their devotion."[220]

Here it is made absolutely clear that Sulayman Khan wished that both his execution and his executed body be both maximally gruesome and as public as possible, the clear reason being that thereby his death may remain "imprinted" in the hearts of the audience, thus allowing them to "recognize" the religion he has adopted and see in his death the "proofs" of his devotion.

      Hamadani also claimed that the martyrs submitted to death for the sake of converting others. Of the fallen defenders at Tabarsi, he writes "they had no other object in placing their lives in jeopardy than to publish the news of the that all such as were open to perceive the truth at that time or in after ages might...become enquirers or believers."[221] Later speaking in general of the martyrs of the Babi movement, he said "more than four hundred divines," none of whom were irrational or lacking better judgement, bore "witness to the truth" of the Bab and, "for the awakening of their fellow-men, sever[ed] all worldly ties, and willingly quaff[ed] the draught of martyrdom."[222]

      Apart from these quotes, other connections between martyrdom and conversion are more tenuous, but sufficient to show that the connection between martyrdom and conversion was not unknown. It is not clear, though, to what extent these sentiments reflected the thought of the Babis or to what extent they were later interpretations. Statements like Hamadani's--that, in reference to a Babi facing torture with alacrity, "one who can be cheerful in such a plight must needs have great faith and fortitude"[223] --or Nabil's--that "by their...unexampled fortitude, they were able to demonstrate to many of their countrymen the ennobling influence of the faith they had sought to champion"[224] --are clearly later explanations of the events. They are expressed with the benefit of between two to four decades of hindsight, during which the Babi movement split in two, the Azali faction withering in numbers and influence and the followers of Baha'ullah effectively following a wholly new religion. The Bahai redactors were working from within a movement that, while still small and persecuted, was no longer simply crescive.[225]

      Though its prophet was in exile and in prison, the leadership of the new "Bahai Faith"[226] was strongly centralized and comparatively safe, its numbers increasing, and its followers had spread far beyond the boundaries of the Iranian provinces where Babism had operated. The Babis, with no assurance other than faithful conviction that their religion would succeed and more often than not fighting for their very lives, were operating in a tightly focussed and circumscribed worldview where often the only real contribution they could make to their religion was to give their lives for its defense. The Bahais were operating in a worldview where the Babis had succeeded, and the Babi religion, now emerged from its chrysalis as the new world Bahai Faith, was established and safe. The Babis, who of course had never heard of nor envisioned a "Bahai Faith," became seen as forefathers of the new religion and their deaths as proclamatory.[227] It can thus be hypothesized with a fair degree of justification that where the sentiments of martyrdom-as-public-kerygma are expressed in these texts they are often not Babi, but later Bahai accretions or European sentiments.[228] Rather, where the Babis spoke of using their sufferings and death as proclamatory, they seem much more clearly to be using their deaths as proofs of personal piety and conviction, which will be addressed below.

      It must be added here that, even though these texts do not emphasize the intent to cause publicity and conversion by martyrdoms, there are many recorded instances of this being its effect. That is, the Babis seem not to have sought publicity through their sufferings, but nonetheless much publicity was accorded to them, with subsequent conversions, because of it. The miracle attending the Bab's execution served to convert many who witnessed it or even heard of it second-hand.[229] A witness to the tortures of 1852 and future convert declared "this very ill-usage and public humiliation is a proof of truth and the very best of arguments. Had it not been thus it might have been that a thousand years would have elapsed ere one like me became informed."[230] European observers often spoke approvingly, even rhapsodically, of the Babis' character and their fortitude in tribulations. Comte de Gobineau, describing the persecutions of August 1852, wrote "Cette journe donna au Bâb plus de partisans secrets que bien des predications n'auraient pu faire...J'ai souvent entendu raconter les scenes de cette journee par des temoins oculaires, par des hommes tenant de pres au gouvernement, quelques-uns occupant des fonctions eminentes. A les entendre, on eut pu croire aisement que tous etaient babis, tant ils se montraient penetres d'admiration pour les souvenirs où l'Islam ne jouait pas le plus beau role..."[231] Sir Francis Younghusband, writing (seventy years later) in his book The Gleam, exclaimed "who can fail to be attracted by the gentle spirit of the Bab? His sorrowful and persecuted life;...his courage and uncomplaining patience under misfortune...but most of all his tragic death, all serve to enlist our sympathies on behalf of the young Prophet of Shiraz."[232]

      European observers afford further evidence of Babi kerygmatic thought not necessarily to be found in the available primary source texts. Lady Sheil, a resident in Persia at the time, wrote of the "Seven Martyrs of Tehran" that "these visionaries died steadfast in their faith. The Persian minister [Mirza Muhammad Taqi Khan, who issued the orders for their arrest and execution] was ignorant of the maxim that persecution was proselytism."[233] General Sir Thomas Edward Gordon is more explicit about the source of this maxim, though he likely is confusing the Babis with the Bahais: "...the time has come to cease from persecuting these sectarians...the Government has probably discovered the truth of the Babi saying, that one martyr makes many proselytes."[234]

      The above few examples demonstrate that capitalizing on martyrdom for the sake of publicity and hence conversion was known in Babi thought, but was overshadowed by other, more dominant motifs of martyrdom. A fair amount of searching was required to find these examples, for they are rarely quoted in Babi works. A likely explanation could simply be that, while the motif is, upon examination, seen to exist as strongly in Babism as in other crescive religious movements, the limited direct exposure of the community to neutral observers and the primitive and tightly regulated media resources existing in Persia at the time did not allow for a full capitalization on public proclamation.

      While distilling further reasons for the lack of focus on the proselytic value of martyrdom is beyond the scope of this study, two obvious points can be mentioned. First, the Babis were not sufficiently innocent of rebelliousness to play the role of unjustly persecuted victim, a prerequisite for martyrdom to elicit the depth of sympathy that leads to conversion.

      Second, there were comparatively few opportunities for public displays of martyrdom to an interested and potentially sympathetic audience. Almost without exception the European writers who were so profoundly impressed by the Babi heroism were not eyewitnesses to the events, and the immediate Muslim audience was on average convinced that the tortures and executions of the Babis were justified. Further, the main uprisings--Tabarsi, Zanjan, the two at Nayriz, and Yazd--all occurred in rural or small-town settings where the Babis, the local villagers, and the imperial troops were the only witnesses. The villagers, fearful of the Babis, often exploited by them for provisions, and occasionally caught in crossfire or otherwise falling victim to misdirected violence, were not a likely audience for conversion. The troops, convinced by their superiors that they were fighting a just cause[235] and more often than not at the receiving end of Babi swords and gunfire, were most unlikely to be converted. In the large cities, where both necessary factors for conversion were present--there were sufficient neutral, uninvolved witnesses, and the persecutions of Babis were often horrific and excessive and the Babis innocent of wrongdoing--the numbers of Babis martyred were quite small. Whereas between 1,000 and 1,800 Babis died in a single conflict at the medium-sized city of Zanjan,[236] only 62 Babis were killed in the capital Tehran throughout both decades of Babism.[237] It might be objected that the "holocaust" in the "reign of terror" which drew significant European attention--the public tortures of Babis in August 1852--occurred mostly in the capital city, but in truth this "holocaust" claimed only about forty lives.[238]

      The most likely explanation for the lack of emphasis on the proselytic function of martyrdom is that the Babis were focusing more on the second component of martyrdom as proclamation: witnessing sincerity and fortitude to oneself and to God. Though conversions--a secondary, indirect effect of martyrdom--would be welcome, the chief motivation for submitting to persecution was to attest to the depth of personal faith--a primary and immediate motivation.

Witnessing as Proof

      The second aspect of martyrdom as kerygma is the individual's personal spirituality, his relationship with God. The depth of personal piety can only be fully attested, the martyr believes, by manifesting steadfastness in the face of religious persecution or even, in extremis, dying as a result of one's faith. The martyr, the shahid, uses his voluntary death to testify, shahida, to the truth of his religion. This, one of the most basic elements of martyrdom, is quite prominent in Babi thought, numerous testimonials of which can be found in the primary histories.

      First the will of the martyr must be addressed. One killed unwillingly in the path of his religion might elicit sympathy, and could certainly be called a martyr, but unless his death were fully voluntary it could not be said to be truly a testimonial: the sufferings of a victim of oppression may testify to the cruelty of the oppressor, but would not testify to the sincerity of the oppressed unless he had the opportunity to escape the oppression and chose to submit.

      The Babis demonstrated their full willingness to die for their cause in word and in deed. First, the Bab clearly accepted his fate. At least twice he is recorded as willingly surrendering himself to his captors when he could have escaped.[239] At his trials at Shiraz in 1845 and at Tabriz in 1848 he was given the option of recanting and thereby avoiding imprisonment and possible execution, offers he unequivocally declined. At his death, as Nicolas was quoted as saying, above, "...les chretiens sont...convaincus que si Jesus-Christ avait voulu descendre vivant de la croix, il l'eut fait sans difficulte: il est mort volontairement...Il en est de meme pour le Bab, disent les Babi [sic]."[240]

      The Bab's followers lived and died by this same code. Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi recounts a sufficient example of the Babi willingness to die. At the beginning of the first Nayriz conflict, before the siege began, Vahid forewarned his followers:

"If I were to remain here, your governor, out of enmity with you, will seek assistance from Shiraz, and bearing decisive force, guns and soldiers, will exert every effort to eliminate you. You will be killed, your properties plundered and taken as spoil, your wives taken captive, your houses burnt, and your heads taken from town to town..." In response to these stern words, the crowd [as a mark of willingness to sacrifice] spontaneously placed burial garbs over their shoulders, unsheathed their swords and readied the guns. The womenfolk, moved to hysteria, circled him crying: "We are eager to sacrifice our homes, properties, children, honor and all in the path of Truth."[241]

Vahid then appointed Babis to various specific tasks. The task assigned to Haji Muhammad-Taqi was as registrar. It was his duty to secure a written testimony of those "wishing to join the defenders of their willingness to forfeit life, property and family [in the path of God] and joining the fort was conditioned upon signing this statement."[242]

      The Babis signified their willingness to die in deed by an apparent lack of concern for self-preservation. Many faced potential death with full acceptance and even eagerness. As the Babi histories tend to preserve accounts of heroism far more than temerity, it might be objected that only the few and the fanatical among the Babis manifested this zeal for martyrdom, accounts of the more moderate Babis being left out of the history books. However, enough documents by their opponents and by neutral observers support the Babi sources for it to be confidently stated that the Babi histories were not merely being selective. Incidents of recantation, as for example the dissimulation of seven of the fourteen Babis arrested in Tehran in February 1850 (or of thirty-one of the thirty-eight, as Hamadani reports it),[243] are significantly fewer than incidents of voluntarily embracing death.

      At times this willingness to die was so strong that the Babis could even be said to have been foolhardy. During the siege at Zanjan, the Babis were encamped in a few houses and a "chateau," as Gobineau terms it, at the center of town. Underneath these they had constructed a series of subterranean passages, in which they were able to reside safely for many months.[244] Disregarding this safe position, a Babi named Muhsin regularly stood on a turret of the castle, in full view, to sound the azan, the call to prayer. Since included in this was a mention of the Bab's new religion, Muhsin would have been fully aware that he was committing blasphemy, as were the disgruntled Muslims in the rest of the village who were, Nabil reports, indignant at being forced to hear the corruption of the sacred call to prayer. A number of sharpshooters amongst the besiegers were ordered to shoot Muhsin as he sounded the heretical azan. As soon as Muhsin had been shot and killed, another Babi climbed to the roof and continued the prayer from where Muhsin had left off.[245] In this and hundreds of other instances Babis showed no apparent hesitancy to expose themselves to danger, even when it was not necessarily strategic.

      A motif underlying the function of martyrdom as a witness to piety has roots in the Quran. The Bab was fond of quoting the verse "Do men think that they will be left alone on saying 'We believe,' and that they will not be tested?"[246] and there is precedent for him testing his followers. Many Babis followed his instructions to meet him in Karbala in early 1845, at which time he would announce his qa'imiyya and perhaps launch jihad. Instead of appearing there, however, he waited quietly at Muscat, a port within easy travelling distance of Karbala. When he failed to appear all but a small number of Babis became disillusioned and abandoned their faith in him.[247] This event is often treated in Babi texts exactly as such a proof test.[248]

      The importance of "proof" resounds throughout Islam and the Babi and Bahai traditions. All three religions are strongly conversion-oriented and, in their search for acceptance, they advance numerous evidences by which the truth of their new revelation can be demonstrated.[249] This emphasis on proof is reflected in one of the names by which the imams are known: they are each "Hujja Allah," the "Proof of God."[250] The term is also applied to certain eminent religious leaders, as the Bab bestowed the term upon one of his leaders (Hujjat, mentioned above in his role as leader of the Zanjan incident). As a title, Hujja Allah refers specifically to the twelfth imam in his station as Mahdi, and Babi texts speak frequently of the Bab as the hujja.

      That the Babis were acutely sensitive to the probative power of martyrdom is attested by an explicit phrase: martyrdom "perfects [or 'completes'] the proof."[251] Describing the Babis at Shaykh Tabarsi, Hamadani writes that "they had no other object in placing their lives in jeopardy than to publish the news of the Manifestation, proclaim the word of God, [and] complete the proof..."[252] This intent was also attested by some of the participants themselves: one eyewitness records seeing Mulla Husayn "unsheath his sword, raise his face towards heaven, and exclaim 'O God, I have completed the proof to this host...'"[253]

      The greatest proof of faith is willingness to sacrifice one's very life for one's beliefs--this is the supreme meaning of martyrdom as "witnessing." The first Babi to draw attention to such witnessing is the Bab himself. In the Qayyum al-Asma, the first text he revealed after declaring his mission, he prophesied his own martyrdom and included the following passage:

O Thou Remnant of God! [baqiyyat Allah, the twelfth imam as Mahdi; in Bahai exegesis, Baha'ullah] I have sacrificed myself wholly for Thee; I have accepted curses for Thy sake; and have yearned for naught but martyrdom in the path of Thy love. Sufficient Witness unto me is God, the Exalted, the Protector, the Ancient of Days![254]

This passage clearly indicates that martyrdom is the proof of the Bab's love for God. However, its import extends beyond this: the passage was apparently taken as a model, for it is cited both by Nabil in The Dawnbreakers (14), by Baha'ullah in the Kitab Iqan (231)[255] and by Shoghi Effendi in his introduction to his translation of The Dawnbreakers (xlix). Baha'ullah makes clear that one meaning of martyrdom for the Bab was the offering up of life as proof, for his very next sentences are a quote from another work of the Bab. Baha'ullah writes:

Likewise, in His [the Bab's] interpretation of the letter "Ha," He craved martyrdom, saying: "Methinks I heard a Voice calling in my inmost being: 'Do thou sacrifice the thing which Thou lovest most in the path of God, even as Husayn, peace be upon him, hath offered up his life for My sake...'"[256]

      The Bab's intent of using his martyrdom as a proof to the truth of his mission and the depth of his sincerity was not lost on those outside the Babi fold, either. Younghusband, a later but unbiased and non-Babi writer, exclaimed of the Bab "Of the sincerity of his conviction that he was God-appointed, the manner of his death is the amplest possible proof. In the belief that he would thereby save others from the error of their present beliefs he willingly sacrificed his life."[257]

      Examples of the Babi intent to use martyrdom as proof of sincerity are numerous, usually taking a form such as Hamadani's claim that Haji Sayyed Ali, an uncle of the Bab and one of the Seven Martyrs of Tehran "sacrificed life and wealth" that

"his act might serve as a witness to all merchants, and that they might know that he...had beheld in [the Bab] virtues and powers never before seen in man, whereby he was led to devote himself to his service, and lay down his life for his sake, else would he never have courted death with such readiness, or met it with such fortitude."[258]

Martyrdom is, to the martyr, not merely one of many equal proofs, but is the supreme proof of belief and sincerity. Hamadani writes that, in spite of such witnessing cited above, the unbelievers still ask "'By what evidence can you shew that this man was the promised Proof?'" In response, he writes that no further evidence beyond martyrdom is needed.

"Why, what evidence could be more conclusive than the mere existence of such witnesses? Whoever shall consider...their earnest strivings, the sublimity of their heroism...and [their sufferings] will be convinced that there could be no testimony more conclusive, no argument more eloquent."[259]

      Sufficient examples have been given to demonstrate that Babis, almost unanimously, wholeheartedly accepted or even zealously sought to prove their faith by sacrificing their lives for it. However, the texts rarely explain the exact mechanism by which this probative exercise functions. The willingness to die for a cause clearly attests to the import of the cause for the believer, but not necessarily to its truth; indeed, to a modern observer in the First World such phenomena would appear as a sign of fanaticism or insanity more than the "sound judgment" Hamadani claims.[260]

      Unlike the use of martyrdom for proselytization, which is somewhat a social claim, the mechanism underlying martyrdom as personal witnessing is almost mystical. The witness testifies that his love for God and his acceptance of his path has become so consuming and all-important that even the deepest instincts for self-preservation are over-ridden. Baha'ullah, writing as a Babi in the mid-1850s, composed a poem which explains succinctly what underlies the phenomenon of martyrdom as proof of religious sincerity:

If thou hast in thine heart one desire for thy life, then come not hither!
But shouldst thou be prepared to sacrifice soul, and heart and life, come and bring others!
Such is the path if thou desire to enter the Kingdom of Light,
If thou art not of those able to walk this path--
Begone, and trouble us not![261]

      To better understand such sentiment, the Babi movement must be set in perspective. In a well-established religion, stable in its membership, with a systematized theology, and not in danger of eradication, a certain latitude can be afforded to differing levels of commitment. In such an established religious community, where persecution on the basis of belief is rare, only the mystic, the ascetic, or the fanatic would ever need to prove his level of belief through actual suffering or death. The Babi movement, in contrast, was far from stable. Those who professed belief were quite likely to face torture as a result. However, for the movement to grow and fulfill its objectives of spiritually conquering the world, or at least the Middle East,[262] its adherents must openly proclaim their faith. In such a crescive and persecuted movement its believers, who felt it their clear obligation to proselytize, could expect martyrdom, and it thereby became an inevitable proof-test of belief. Those who were not "prepared to sacrifice soul, and heart and life" could not be welcomed, for they would prove a serious detriment to God's cause. To those unwilling to give their lives, the true believer must therefore say "Begone, and trouble us not!"


      The one who dies to witness his faith to the unbelievers has a simple, clear objective. The audience must merely observe that the believer has so strong a faith commitment that death becomes irrelevant: the religious standard determining his actions transcends, and takes precedence over, earthly standards such as the need for self-preservation. The objective is satisfied by a simple act--refusal to recant--and whether the result is release, torture, or death, the martyr's responsibility has been satisfied by his steadfastness and whatever may follow is to a certain degree irrelevant and out of his hands to control. However, the one who dies to witness his faith to himself and to God invokes an entirely different set of parameters. The determinant is not the result of a simple response to a clear recant-or-die dialectic, but rather steadfastness in a potentially escalating continuum of suffering. The greater the commitment to endure the suffering, or the greater the tribulations involved in the martyrdom, the greater the proof thereby demonstrated. This aspect of martyrdom operates in the dimension of profound spirituality and even mysticism.

      The paradigm of the god-intoxicated martyr is well developed in Islam, especially in Sufism. This type of model is quite dissimilar from that of Imam Husayn, who is portrayed as facing death rationally, calmly, and even at times with a touch of trepidation. Farid al-Din Attar's Memorial of the Saints, a collection of brief hagiographies of Sufis, includes dozens of stories of mystics reveling in abuse and persecution.[263] The model of the god-intoxicated martyr is relevant enough to warrant two examples from Attar. In his biography of Ebrahim ibn Azam (d. 782), Attar recounts the following. Ebrahim was on board a ship, "wearing ragged clothing" and unknown to the other passengers. He was "in a spiritual ecstasy." A storm arose, and the sailors randomly chose him to throw overboard to lighten the craft and prevent its sinking. "That moment when they took me by the ear to throw me into the water, I felt that I had attained my desire, and was happy," he wrote. Attar continues:

      On another occasion I went to a mosque to sleep there. They would not let me be...So they seized me by the foot and dragged me out. Now the mosque had three steps; my head struck against each step in turn, and the blood flowed forth. I felt that I had attained my desire...I said, "Would that the mosque had more steps, to increase my felicity!"

      On another occasion I was rapt in a state of ecstasy. A joker came and urinated on me. Then too I was happy...[264]

The motive here, and in numerous other tales, is not martyrdom per se but asceticism. The mental and spiritual state are closely analogous, though. This is exemplified by the most famous of Sufi martyrs, Hallaj (d. 913).[265] Hallaj was famous for having exclaimed "I am the Truth!" (ana al-haqq). This was seen as a clear equation of humanity with the highest divine reality, and he was condemned to die for such blasphemy. Though he could have avoided death, he accepted his sentence willingly. Then, though bound in fetters, he went dancing to his place of execution. In Attar's account, before and during the execution Hallaj was in the highest of spirits: he "strode out proudly, along the way waving his arms like a very vagabond"; he laughed when they cut off his hands; he smiled when they cut off his feet; he smiled "even as they were cutting off his head."[266]

      Babi parallels with, or even emulations of, this paradigm are easily discernible and numerous. A first charge laid against those manifesting such behavior is insanity. The early Babi Mulla Ali Akbar, writes Abdul Baha, "became as one frenzied, as a vagrant and one known to be mad. Because of his new Faith, he was mocked at in Tehran by high and low...Whenever trouble broke out, he was the one to be arrested first. He was always ready and waiting for this, since it never failed."[267] The martyrs, though, vehemently deny madness, and their chroniclers are equally quick to affirm that they possessed "sound judgment."[268] At the execution of the Bab, the friends and relatives of Zunuzi cried "Our son is gone mad; his confession is but the outcome of his distemper and the raving of lunacy." He, however, asserted "I am in my right mind...[I] attest my sincerity by courting death, and am enamored of self-sacrifice and martyrdom..."[269] This was also the explanation forwarded by some observers of the Seven Martyrs: "These are Babis and madmen!" it was exclaimed, but Mulla Ismael responded "Yes, we are Babis, but mad we are not."[270]

      The source of the accusation of insanity seems clear: for example, the Seven Martyrs are, as portrayed by Nabil, "ecstatic" with "rapturous delight"; they "quaffed joyously the cup of martyrdom"; were "eager" and "impatient" for the death they "yearned" for; and were full of "gratitude" to their executioners, with "soul[s] brim[ming] over with ecstasy," for having "turned Tehran into a paradise"; and their "fevered excitement" rose, during the event, to the "highest pitch." To some of the onlookers, in contrast, they were "misguided" and "deluded" in their devotions and accepted death with "unswerving obstinacy."[271] Hamadani records one of the martyrs, Mirza Qurban Ali, as spontaneously uttering verses which epitomize the model of the ecstatic Sufi martyr and which, for the audience, could not but have recalled the heretical Hallaj and proven to the audience the lunacy of the Babis. When encouraged to recant, he responded:

To sacrifice the head for the Beloved
In mine eyes appears an easy thing indeed;
Close thy lips, and cease to speak of mediation,
For of mediation lovers have no need.

The executioner's first sword blow failed to sever his head, and only caused his turban to fall off and roll away. "Immediately, as it were with his last breath," writes Hamadani, he recited:

Happy is he whom love's intoxication
So hath overcome that scarce he knows
Whether at the feet of the Beloved
It be head or turban which he throws![272]

      Both Nabil and Abdul Baha record numerous instances of Babis who appeared drunk or even "frenzied" in their love for God and their religion, who actively sought death who lived and died in sheer ecstasy.[273] "To be tortured to death, which would be the Martyr's Crown of Life," explains Bahiyyih Khanum, was the Babis' "aim and great desire."[274]

      To the believer, it may seem an injustice to attempt to analyze the mental state as repeatedly described by sources such as Nabil, Hamadani, Abdul Baha, and Bahiyyih Khanum. However, it is at the same time indisputable that such behavior is quite abnormal and, though no reductionism is thereby intended, an attempt to analyze it is necessary. There are a few possible explanations, chief among them being first ascetic masochism, second radicalization of the struggle, and third capitalizing on a foregone course of events.

      The Shii mourner inflicting bruises and wounds upon himself during Muharram is seeking thereby to achieve an identification with Husayn and a reenactment and trans-historical actualization of his sufferings for the purpose of keeping fresh Husan's memory and the commitment not to submit to injustice. This is not reflected as such in the behavior of the "frenzied" Babi, who seems instead to be operating more under the model of the world-renouncing and pain-seeking Sufi ascetic. Hamadani writes that, during Tabarsi, the Babis "rushed towards immolation with an impetuosity which imagination can scarce conceive...whenever one of their comrades quaffed the draught of martyrdom before their eyes, instead of grieving they rejoiced," he writes. He adds here a very telling observation: "They seemed weary of life and of their bodies, and met the afflictions which continually beset them with the cry of 'Is there more?'"[275] Later, describing the same siege, he continues:

it seemed as if in times of battle a new spirit was breathed into their frames...They used to expose their bodies to the bullets and the cannon-balls not only fearlessly and courageously, but eagerly and joyously, seeming to regard the battle-field as a banquet, and to be bent on casting away their lives.[276]

      Though the Babis regarded Tabarsi, and many other conflicts, as recreating Karbala, it can be seen that other factors were at play here than historical and theological emulation. However, while the model of the renunciant Sufi comes much closer to paralleling this behavior, there are differences here too. The execution of Hallaj, whom other Sufis came to regard as having flaunted unwisely his mystical attainments, had a certain chilling effect on public expressions of Sufi belief. While many Sufis were executed for their heterodox practices, the Sufi direction following Hallaj was to interpret asceticism and martyrdom much more as internalized spiritual struggles--the jihad al-nafs instead of the jihad bi al-sayf. With the consequently more cautious public approach, the Sufi ascetic was much more often subjected to abuse and ridicule than actual martyrdom.

      The case of the ecstatic Babi is unique to what can be termed "crescive" societies, which the Encyclopedia of Religion defines as a society "that is politically powerless but beginning to stir,"[277] a classic example being the early Christian community. Babism in the 1840s and 1850s was not only crescive in the sense of newly-born, but further saw itself, to ever-increasing degrees synchronous with the Bab's ever-escalating claims, as destined to become a world religion, or at least the religion for the local world of Persia and its environs.

      More, the Babis believed that their new religion decisively abrogated all previous religions and civil laws. Nabil reports that, at Badasht, "each day...witnessed the abrogation of a new law and the repudiation of a long-established tradition."[278] This radical break with the past, combined with an intensely focused and dedicated drive for conversion, informed all aspects of Babi activity, especially martyrdom. In the second Nayriz conflict, a certain Akhund Mulla Hasan was asked by a Muslim divine: "Akhund! You are a wise man, so how is it that with a life-time worth of learning and self-discipline [you became a Babi] and consented to the death of your sons and captivity of your wife?" "I am too weak to respond," he said. "I only know: 'All laws are abrogated.'"[279] It must be remembered that, during the occultation of the imam, all governments and codes of law civil enjoy no more than provisional authority, and that immediately upon the appearance of the Mahdi all authority, both civil and religious, reverts to him.

      For the Babis, this combination of factors--knowing themselves to be in possession of the truth destined to encompass the known world, feeling the exigency of promoting the religion, and knowing that it completely abrogates all previous and existing governments and religious institutions--proved a most powerful combination of authority, immediacy, and righteousness. All other concerns become secondary, as in Mulla Ismael's statement that "we have forsaken life, wealth, wife, and child, and have shut our eyes to the world and such as dwell therein."[280]

      Once the individual believers adopted this momentous weltanschauung, they were freed from lesser constraints such as timidity, concern for personal safety, and avoidance of suffering and death. God, his Mahdi, and his Cause became all-consuming. The Babis became, in a phrase frequently used by Shoghi Effendi, "God-intoxicated." The Babi movement, by its very nature, teachings, and historical context encouraged an extraordinarily firm commitment. Death was highly possible and, for those who found themselves called to die, "sacrific[ing] the head for the Beloved" would indeed "appear an easy thing," and the martyr so devoted that "scarce he knows whether at the feet of the Beloved it be head or turban which he throws!" Yet to the outside world not sharing this world-view, the Babis could not but have appeared at minimum incomprehensible and at maximum insane.


      A final aspect of Babi martyrdom to be addressed derives from the Islamic teachings about jihad in conjunction with the Bab's station as Mahdi. The Babis, as fighters in the army of the Mahdi, would be strongly motivated to sacrifice their lives and, for such a just cause, would be guaranteed the greatest of rewards. As the Babis' intense zeal for martyrdom has been clearly demonstrated above, it would seem to follow that the Babi movement featured a clear philosophy of jihad. Such is not the case: the Bab, while speaking of jihad much in the early years of his mission, never actually launched the holy war. The nature of martyrdom in the prosecution of Babi jihad proves to be a fairly complex matter.

The Bab as Mahdi and Leader of Jihad

      Shii tradition foretold that horrific world disturbances and a violent revolution would accompany the return of the Qa'im. He will arise at a time when the world is full of extreme chaos and strife, strife which will initially increase by his leading a great battle against all those who have opposed the Shiis throughout history.[281] When he returns he will inherit and reveal a number of esoteric books which have been waiting in safe-keeping for him, as well as an arsenal of weapons: the Prophet Muhammad's sword, spear, and coat of mail. Upon receiving these weapons, he will be the Master of the Sword (sahib al-sayf).[282] He shall appear first either at Mecca or at Karbala, but shall make both cities centres of his leadership. He will enter Mecca as a youth, unrecognized by anyone present, and will lean against the Kaaba and declare his mission. He then will head to Medina. He will raise and equip an army, some of whom will raise a black standard in Khurasan, a signal that the war is about to begin. They will then wage war against the Mahdi's opponents as well as against the established governments.

      The Bab was careful to fulfill verbatim many of these prophecies. Explicit proofs included that he brought a new book of laws, his Qayyum al-Asma--sometimes called the "Babi Quran"--by which all previous religions were thereby superseded and all civil laws abrogated; he raised an army, even if but a token one; he entered Mecca as a youth and, as he says, "unknown by anyone,"[283] where he circumambulated the Kaaba, announced his advent, and proceeded to Medina; he instructed his followers to assemble at Karbala, where he said he would soon enter and fulfill the prophecies;[284] and later he instructed others to raise the Black Standard in Khurasan--perhaps even sending Mulla Husayn there solely for the sake of the symbolism of the location--and, with a sizable group of armed followers, to march across Iran. He further declared his station with a variety of terms he adopted for himself, all of which explicitly recalled the return of the twelfth imam, such as Qa'im, Mahdi, Hujja Allah, Baqiyya Allah ("remnant of God"), and Sahib al-Zaman ("Lord of the Age"). He also used theological terminology to point to his station, such as styling himself the "Primal Point," i.e. the point from which all knowledge and, in his words, "all created things" emerge.[285]

      The Shii doctrine of jihad agrees in the main with the Sunni doctrines discussed above, save with two differences: the identity of the one who will lead the jihad, and those against whom it will be waged. For Shiism only the appointed descendants of the Prophet, i.e. only the imams or their babs, have the legal sanction and the religious authority to lead holy war.[286] Two items of note fell out from this concept. First, all wars fought during the occultation are unjustified (though the body of the ulama, operating as de facto vicegerents of the imam, could declare a limited war). Second, as an indirect result of the teaching that only the Imam Mahdi could lead a jihad came the notion that, when the Mahdi came, he would lead such a war.

      The other distinguishing feature of Shii jihad results from Shiism's belief that, while most of the Muslim world, in following community rule rather than the Prophet's primogeniture, became unfaithful to true Islam. For the Shii, then, jihad can be waged against, not just the pagans, but against other "people of the book" and even against other Muslims.

      The Shii concepts of jihad, when combined with the advent of the Bab, resulted in a few aspects of jihad unique to Babism. First, and most obviously, the Bab as Mahdi could and was expected to lead jihad: whether he desired to launch a holy war or not, his status as the Bab and then as the Qa'im required him to announce its commencement or suffer a damaging loss of credibility. Second, the definition of enemy now had an added dimension: for the early Muslim the pagan is an unbeliever; for the Shii the Sunni is an unbeliever; for the Babi, the Shii is an unbeliever.

      Accordingly, in the Bab's early works he formulated a clear concept of jihad and called for its prosecution. Two of his earliest works, the Qayyum al-Asma, written early- to mid-1844, and the Risala furu al-Adliyya, written in late 1845 or early 1846, are very clear in their announcement of the coming jihad. The Qayyum al-Asma speaks repeatedly of expelling all unbelievers from the five central provinces of Iran and of slaying those who remain.[287] In the Risala furu al-Adliyya he explicitly raises jihad to the level of a sixth branch of Islam[288] alongside the orthodox five of prayer, pilgrimage, giving alms, fasting, and the profession of faith--an emphasis on jihad witnessed nowhere else in the history of Islam save amongst the early extremist Kharijites. However, he consistently refrained from announcing that jihad had actually begun.

      The early Babis wholly accepted the imminence of the launching of jihad. First, there was no doubt for them that they were following the arisen Qa'im and fighting for him would have been not only sanctioned by religion but even required. One of the duties of the Mahdi is to slay the Dajjal, the "antichrist" of Shii eschatology,[289] and for the Babis the Dajjal was represented by their opponents. Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi, describing one day of the first Nayriz defense, exclaimed: "For nearly eight hours the Army of God was engaged in a battle with the men of Satan,"[290] and more than once the Babis spoke of despatching their enemies "to hell."[291] To this end they manufactured weapons and traveled armed, even in cases where it would have seemed a clear provocation.[292] When they met at Badasht in 1848 many sources agree that their intent may likely have been to organize and launch the jihad.[293] The Babis are consistently depicted as impatient, passionately motivated to prosecute the cause of the Bab.[294] The Bab, though still not launching the jihad, was not shy about encouraging militancy, at one point calling for a battle in a "glorious sea of blood,"[295] and writing to the Shah that "my intention is to take revenge, as it is destined in the Book of God, from those who slew the true martyred Imam [Husayn]; their descendants too will join them in the sufferings of Hell."[296] An eyewitness at Zanjan reports Hujjat as declaring "This is the day on which 'man shall fly from his brother, and his mother and his father, and his wife and his children.' [Quran 80:34] This is the day when man, not content with having abandoned his brother, sacrifices his substance in order to shed the blood of his nearest kinsman."[297]

      Within such a heady atmosphere--opposed by those who, by their unbelief, were the very incarnation of the slayers of Imam Husayn and Satan himself; bound by tradition and belief to support the returned Imam by fighting in his army; justified by the Bab's theologies of jihad from the Qayyum al-Asma and required to fight by its elevation to a "pillar" of faith as revealed in the Risala furu al-Adliyya; inspired to action by their generally impetuous nature; and encouraged to extremism by many statements of the Bab--the Babis were highly motivated to commit themselves to the cause of the Qa'im as fully as possible. There was, however, one complication: the Bab consistently refrained from actually announcing the commencement of the jihad, placing instead the bulk of his emphasis on the religion of "he whom God shall make manifest," man yuzhiruhu Allah. Indeed, he made the entirety of his religion and all of its laws conditioned wholly upon its acceptance or even rejection by this figure.[298]

Martyrdom in the Cause of the Mahdi

      The bulk of the Bab's writings, aside from some early works like the Qayyum al-Asma, are fairly irenic. It does not, for example, seem to be because of unjust selectivity that the compilation Selections from the Writings of the Bab "contains not a single passage referring to...the decree of jihad," featuring rather "passages...of a generalistic moral or theological content," a quality which Denis MacEoin attributes to a willful manipulation of texts chosen to make Babism "palatable to a modern Bahai audience."[299]

      As later Babi and Bahai texts repeat tirelessly and even neutral and hostile sources confirm, the Bab was by nature peaceful and quiet. Many or most observers would agree with the assessment of an English physician who once treated him: "He was a very mild and delicate-looking man...with a melodious soft voice, which struck me very much...In fact his whole look and deportment went far to dispose one in his favour."[300] To a certain extent the Bab is portrayed as being almost aloof from the revolutionary spirit fueling his followers.[301] Though starting out with a strong emphasis on jihad, the Bab gradually ceased to call attention to it, such that the Bayans--the Persian, written in 1848, and the Arabic, written in 1850--contain only two mentions of the term jihad at all, and those merely in passing. In what would seem to be almost a prohibition of jihad, a complete reversal of his earlier teachings, he writes in the former:

Il n'est pas permis de porter des instruments de guerre si ce n'est quand c'est necessaire ou bien quand il faut faire le Djehad dans le route de Dieu. Le port d'armes n'est permis qu'aux fabricants d'armes de guerre...

explaining that

...ce qui est cause que quelqu'un a peur de quelqu'un n'est pas aime par Dieu...C'est ainsi que les instruments qui peuvent etre cause de la terreur de quelqu'un n'entrent pas dans le Paradis.[302]

Elsewhere in the same work he explicitly stated that no one should be slain for unbelief.[303] The Bab did at times speak of war and revenge,[304] but on the whole he seems to have been motivated much more by introspective concerns, as exemplified by the description of his mission as recalled or imagined by Nabil (the quote is attributed to "the Bab's...Spirit"):

"I am come into this world to bear witness to the glory of sacrifice. You are aware of the intensity of My longing; you realise the degree of My renunciation. Nay, beseech the Lord your God to hasten the hour of My martyrdom and to accept My sacrifice. Rejoice, for...I...will be slain on the altar of our devotion to the King of Glory."[305]

      The Babis thus found themselves in an uncomfortable position. They were full of an impassioned zeal to prosecute the cause of the Mahdi and spread his religion across the world, preferably by argument or by means of the sword if necessary. Facing the armies of unbelief at best and of Satan at worst, they had no choice but to carry their struggle to an ultimate conclusion; moderation and compromise would be inconceivable. Further, their leader, the Qa'im, was by religion justified and by tradition expected to launch the final jihad, but he refrained, speaking instead more of the mission of a Prophet-to-come and the latter's prerogative to reveal or repeal as he saw fit. While the Babis could be militant and even cruel against their opponents, they far more often felt themselves constrained merely to fight defensively, citing explanations like that of Hujjat at Zanjan:

He [Hujjat] constantly reminded them that their action was of a purely defensive character, and that their sole purpose was to preserve inviolate the security of their women and children. "We are commanded," he was frequently heard to observe, "not to wage holy war under any circumstances against the unbelievers, whatever be their attitude towards us."[306]

An examination of all the major conflicts reveals a similar attitude: the Babis invited repression with their martial activities and generally aggressive attitudes, but they consistently refrained from launching organized offenses. When attacked they zealously defended themselves, and engaged in semi-combative defensive tactics such as raids upon the besiegers and the theft of provisions from them and at times the surrounding villages,[307] yet they appear not to have initiated any conflicts. "In no instance," MacEoin concludes after his exhaustive study, "do the Babis seem to have declared offensive jihad along the lines suggested in the Qayyum al-Asma,"[308] using instead as a model the category of "defensive jihad."[309]

      Though merely an hypothesis, there is one obvious way to reconcile this shift in the Bab's teachings and at the same time account for the strength of the martyr ethos within Babism. Announcing the imminence of jihad, and making preparations for its advent, communicated clearly to both his followers and the observing world that he was indeed the Mahdi, come with all of the Mahdi's rights, laws, and expected actions, and that he was not hesitating to arrogate to himself the full range of the Mahdi's authority--hence his conspicuous fulfillment of prophecies. However, his mission was at root one of simple conversion and preparation for the future messianic figure "He whom God will make manifest," and to this end he devoted far more energy to seeking audiences with political leaders than in forming and leading an army; indeed, at least twice he willingly submitted to incarceration and a third time offered himself up for execution.

      Other leaders of the movement respected the Bab's agenda and likewise refrained from launching offenses. This fact is also telling for, by tradition, not just the Mahdi, but his representatives as well, are given the authority to declare and lead a jihad. When the Bab's rank ascended to Qa'im and Mulla Husayn's accordingly was elevated from bab al-bab to actual babiyya, Mulla Husayn now legally had the right to declare jihad--yet, despite all the militant zealotry Mulla Husayn displayed at Tabarsi,[310] even he never did so. Similarly, after Mulla Husayn was killed and leadership of the Tabarsi struggle fell to Quddus, he too spoke not of offensive war but of defense and martyrdom. The Bab thus was careful to reserve the right to declare jihad for himself.[311] By allowing himself the prerogative to declare jihad he attested to his station as Qa'im, but by refraining from declaring it he was able to prosecute his true mission: a reform intended to pave the way for the future man yuzhiruhu Allah.

      Suffering martyrdom in the prosecution of a jihad is, in Islam, Shiism, and Babism, a uniquely honorable fate which brings with it a whole host of rewards. However, as the above discussion shows, this was not a sphere of action open to the Babis, for offensive jihad was never declared. A not-unexpected result of this dialectic--the drive to fight to the end and "perfect the proof" combined with a certain obstacle against doing so--was a yet more pronounced emphasis on martyrdom than even offensive jihad would have produced. In short, finding themselves armed both with swords and with God's only true religion, facing a world of intractable unbelievers and even the army of Satan, and yet being prohibited to fight on the offensive, the Babis had no real option but to glorify and seek martyrdom.

Notes to this chapter

[174] Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (New York: Dell Pub. Co., 1975 [1984]).

[175] The Bab later explained that he revealed his mission in gradual increments "so that men might not be disturbed by a new Book and a new Cause." Trans. and quoted by Denis MacEoin, "Early Shaykhi Reactions to the Bab and His Claims," in Moojan Momen, ed., Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History vol. 1 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1982), 18. (Volumes one through four of this series were subtitled Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History, and subsequent volumes subtitled Studies in Babi and Bahá'í Religions.)

[176] For example, Baha'ullah, addressing a partisan of his rival Subh Azal in 1891, writes "O Hadi!...In these days We have heard that thou hast striven to lay hands on and destroy every copy of the Bayan [the core book of Babism]." Two sentences later he writes that he himself has not read the work, by which he may be referring to Hadi's recent success in destroying copies: "God testifieth and beareth Me witness that this Wronged One hath not perused the Bayan, nor been acquainted with its contents." Baha'ullah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988), 164-165.

[177] Each of the principle uprisings was led by or centered around one or two highly prominent, charismatic, determined individuals with formal religious education: Mulla Husayn and Quddus at Tabarsi, Hujjat at Zanjan, and Vahid at Nayriz.

[178] In the Hebrew Bible Isaac is the son Abraham is ordered to sacrifice, but in Muslim belief (though not mentioned in the Quran) it is Isaac's brother Ismael.

[179] I have combined here two translations of the event by Browne from the same manuscript: Note B, from Traveller's Narrative, translated ca. 1890, 213-214, and Browne, New History, trans. ca. 1893, 253-254. The other version of Mulla Ismael's utterance Browne gives is

Zephyr, prythee bear for me a message
To that Ismael who was not slain,
'Living from the street of the Beloved
Love permits not to return again.' (New History, 253)

The original Persian is given in Browne, Traveller's Narrative, 213.

[180] He was, at minimum, surprised. When he and his father arrived at the sacrificial altar, the Bible has Isaac say "Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Gen. 22:7).

[181] Among other examples is the Bab uttering, on the death of his infant son Ahmad in 1843, "O God my God! Would that a thousand Ismaels were given Me, this Abraham of Thine, that I might have offered them, each and all, as a loving sacrifice unto Thee." (Here the Bab continues for another twenty lines, saying that this sacrifice will never be enough "to quench the flame of longing in his [the Bab's] heart"; only the Bab's own death "in the path of Thy [God's] good pleasure" will suffice.") (Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 77).

[182] Later Babi and Bahai paralleling of Christ with the Bab is also addressed in Stephen Lambden, "An Episode in the Childhood of the Bab," 9-18.

[183] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 8. The Bab's full address is given in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 92-94. (As given here the address is far too lengthy and detailed to be considered a historically accurate quote. Nabil makes this clear in ending the quote by writing "with words such as these the Bab quickened the faith of His disciples and launched them upon their mission." [Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 94, emphasis added] Amanat discusses this passage and its Christian motifs in Resurrection, 197-198.

[184] Examples of what MacEoin terms the "Christianization" of the Babi movement (MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm," 230-231) number in the hundreds. Some were neutral interpretations by outside observers (such as Nicolas and Gobineau); some intentionally apologetic parallels by Abdul Baha and Shoghi Effendi (e.g. God Passes By, 56: "The passion of Jesus Christ, and indeed His whole public ministry, alone offer a parallel to the Mission and death of the Bab, a parallel which no student of comparative religion can fail to perceive or ignore"); some simply pious perspectives offered by later Bahais to whom the parallels between the Bab and Christ seemed obvious (e.g. William B. Sears, who, in The Martyr-Prophet of a World Faith [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1950], draws explicit parallels between the two figures and their martyrdoms a dozen times in a mere nineteen pages).

[185] Hamadani, New History, 303.

[186] Nicolas, Seyyèd Ali Mohammed, 376. Also quoted (with errors quietly corrected) by Shoghi Effendi in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 515, footnote.

[187] Hamadani, New History, 134.

[188] Amanat, Resurrection, 133. Cf. Balyuzi, The Bab, 40, and Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 77-78.

[189] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 252. Cf. ibid., 80, where the Bab's behavior prior to 1844 is described: "With what assiduous care He attended those gatherings at which the virtues of the Siyyid al-Shuhada, the Imam Husayn, were being extolled! With what attention He listened to the chanting of the eulogies! What tenderness and devotion He showed at those scenes of lamentation and prayer! Tears rained from His eyes as His trembling lips murmured words of prayer and praise. How compelling was His dignity, how tender the sentiments which His countenance inspired!"

[190] The significance of dreams for the Bab has an added dimension not found in normative Shiism. One of the heretical doctrines of Shaykhism, recalling Sufism, is a strong emphasis on the transmaterial world, the hurqalya. The Hidden Imam lives here, not invisibly on earth as orthodox Shiism holds. It is thus only in the hurqalya, through visions or dreams, that one can commune with the imams. See, for example, Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, 45, and Rafati, Development of Shaykhi Thought (1979), 191 and passim.

[191] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 253.

[192] Trans. by and quoted in Amanat, Resurrection, 131. The decapitated head of Husayn, as well as his blood, is also significant and evokes its own unique set of meanings. See Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 132-134.

[193] Its sole citation in full that I have found is in the Dawnbreakers. Outside this, its only appearance is a brief mention in two academic works, the first little read by the Bahai community and the second read by none but the specialists: Smith partially quotes it in Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 14; MacEoin mentions it in his dissertation From Shaykhism to Babism: A Study of Charismatic Renewal in Shi'i Islam (University of Cambridge, 1979), 141. Amanat cites only the second mention of the dream.

[194] See Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Guide Divin Dans Le Shi'isme Originel. Trans. by David Streight as The Divine Guide in Early Shi'ism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam, trans. David Streight (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), passim.

[195] For example, in 1846 he dreamt of finding a tablet (letter) in the tomb of Imam Husayn, written in red ink, which confirmed the Bab's claim to qa'imiyya, and closed with "I entrusted my cause to God," signed "Mahdi." Amanat, Resurrection, 131.

[196] Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 132.

[197] Selections from the Writings of the Bab, 69.

[198] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 235. Baha'ullah quotes this same verse in the Kitab Iqan, where it is translated as: "Likewise, in His interpretation of the letter 'Ha,' He craved martyrdom, saying: 'Methinks I heard a Voice calling in my inmost being: "Do thou sacrifice the thing which Thou lovest most in the path of God, even as Husayn, peace be upon him, hath offered up his life for My sake."'" Baha'ullah, Kitab-i-Iqan, 231-232. (Lacking originals I do not know whether the differences are in the original or occur in translation.)

[199] See Hamadani, New History, 304-305, note, for a typical example.

[200] MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm," 224, and Peter Smith and Moojan Momen, "The Babi Movement: A Resource Mobilization Perspective," in Peter Smith, ed., In Iran: Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History volume three (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1986), 69.

[201] Though Quddus was widely thought to be a Manifestation (Prophet), and indeed was even at one point explicitly termed such by the Bab, it was Mulla Husayn who, as the Bab al-Bab, was generally regarded as possessing a certain leadership status. See Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 58.

[202] See Denis MacEoin: From Shaykhism to Babism, "Hierarchy, Authority and Eschatology in Early Babi Thought" (in In Iran: Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History vol. 2, ed. Peter Smith [Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1986]), 105-111, and "Divisions and Authority Claims in Babism" (in Studia Iranica, tome 18, fascicle 1 [Paris: L'Association pour L'Avancement des Etudes Iraniennes, 1989], 92-129.

[203] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 342-345.

[204] Cf. Mulla Husayn's warning at the commencement of this journey: "This is the way that leads to our Karbala. Whoever is unprepared for the great trials that lie before us, let him now repair to his home and give up the journey." Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 326, emphasis added.

[205] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 162, emphasis added. Only one of Browne's manuscripts has the phrase "as they did that of Husayn ibn Ali," but the meaning would not have been lost on his audience even had he not added this.

[206] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 165.

[207] Hamadani, New History, 68.

[208] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 121.

[209] From "Memories of Haji Muhammad-i Nayrizi," trans. Ahang Rabbani. Accessed from the internet, Linkname: Memories of Haji Muhammad-i Nayrizi; URL:

[210] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 106-107. The account, quoted from this same place--New History, 106-107--is also found in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 413-414, and God Passes By, 81.

[211] See, for example, Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 117.

[212] From "Nayriz: the first century," trans. Ahang Rabbani. Accessed from the internet: Linkname "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi"; URL

[213] Browne, with quotations from Mirza Jani's Nuqtat al-Kaf, New History, appendix II, 337.

[214] There were some exceptions, such as the Nuqtat al-Kaf reporting Quddus as saying "I am the Lord Jesus." Quoted in Browne, New History, appendix II, 366. (Quddus strongly and repeatedly emphasized identification with Jesus, especially with the themes of asceticism, suffering, and martyrdom. See Amanat, Resurrection, 187. However, as addressed above, Quddus and Mulla Husayn were equated with all major Western prophet figures.)

[215] Examples are numerous; two will suffice. In 1955, during the systematic pogrom by the Iranian religious establishment and sanctioned by the government, Shoghi Effendi addressed the American Bahais: "...seldom, if at any time since its inception, has such a widespread publicity been accorded the infant Faith of God...To the intensification of such a publicity...the American Bahá'í Community...must fully and decisively contribute." (from Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, 139-140) In 1982, in the wake of the manifold persecutions and martyrdoms occurring in and after the Iranian revolution, the Universal House of Justice observed that "current persecution has resulted in bringing the name and character of our beloved Faith to the attention of the world as never before in its history," noting a few months later that these persecutions "offer such golden opportunities for teaching and further proclamation as can only lead, if vigorously and enthusiastically seized, to large scale conversion..." (Quoted in MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm," 238, where other examples are also provided.) It must be added that the Bahai community's capitalizing on the events of persecution for the sake of publicity is in no way meant to demean the truly horrific nature of most of these occurrences. The primary purpose of publicity is simply to bring an end to violence; conversion is a distant concern, at best. The point being made here is that, while a secondary concern, spreading awareness of the religion is nonetheless a conspicuous theme.

[216] Hamadani, New History, 304.

[217] The rebellious and at times even militant nature of the Babis is a complex topic. Besides just presenting their thought and behavior, a scholar examining the topic must also address and perhaps even counter a century of Bahai thought and writing which systematically and effectively transformed them in popular consciousness from activist revolutionaries to peace-loving, unjustly persecuted proto-Bahais. While their nature as proto-Bahais can only be addressed by theologians, their often militant character is attested to in all primary histories, whether written by Babis, early Bahais, or their enemies. This is not, however, to lay blame for the violence solely with the Babis, for the cruelty and oppressiveness of the ulama and the government is even more clearly attested in the histories.

[218] Rabbani, trans., "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi." Other primary source, and relatively early, histories include Abdul Baha's A Traveller's Narrative and Haji Mirza Jani Kashani's Kitab al Nuqtat al-Kaf. The Traveller's Narrative can be comfortably excluded because, while the author was an eyewitness to many events about which he writes, the work is short, late (ca. 1886), and seeming based largely on other sources. The Kitab al Nuqtat al-Kaf (ca. 1851) can be excluded because most of the accounts it contains are included in the New History (ca. 1880), which is largely an expanded recension of it. (See footnote 135, above.) The Dawnbreakers is, like the New History, relatively late, completed ca. 1890. However, it is based on eyewitness accounts and on numerous notes taken much earlier, so can be considered an early source. A few other eyewitness accounts of events in Babi history have been translated but for the most part are not published (see internet, Linkname "Random primary source material"; URL /histories/histories.html).

[219] The Azalis were followers of Subh Azal, Baha'ullah's half-brother and rival claimant. Most historical disputes of the first century following the death of the Bab consisted of Bahais and Azalis mutually accusing each other of corrupting texts and altering historical accounts. Every Babi text thus far found likely suffered from at least minor "corrections" by one faction or the other, a fact repeatedly lamented by E. G. Browne.

[220] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 617-618. See also Hamadani, New History, 228-30. Capt von Gumoens' letter, which touches upon Sulayman Khan's martyrdom and portrays many related incidents of the same time, is discussed in Browne, Traveller's Narrative, note T, 332-334, partially quoted in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 65-66, and quoted in full in E. G. Browne, ed., Materials for the Study of the Babi Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1918), 267-271, and Moojan Momen, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford: George Ronald, 1981), 132-134.

[221] Hamadani, New History, 77-78.

[222] Hamadani, New History, 233. See also Mulla Ismael, in ibid., 253: "By Allah, O people, it is to awaken and enlighten you that we have forsaken life, wealth, wife, and child..."

[223] Hamadani, New History, 117.

[224] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 188.

[225] "A crescive" religion is an emergent one with a still-nascent self-definition. See below, page 112.

[226] While "Bahai Faith" is a later term coined by Shoghi Effendi, it was Baha'ullah who in 1866, officially declaring a separation from both Babism and from the Azalis, renamed his Babi followers as "Bahá'ís" (followers of Baha, i.e. Baha'ullah) and, to symbolize the break from Islam and Babism, instructed that the standard invocation "Allahu Akbar," "God is Great[er]," become "Allahu Abha," "God is [more] Glorious."

[227] The Bab did explicitly foretell the coming of another Prophet who would supercede his religion, but the interpretation of the exact dates he foretold for its appearance is disputed, and it was not clearly predicted to what extent the new religion would continue or break from Babism.

[228] Much of the history of Babism was preserved by European Christians who saw in the movement a reenactment of the early history of their own church and were quick to interpret and glorify it accordingly. Nabil's text, though containing valuable history, must be regarded largely as a later Bahai interpretation of the religion. He quotes long and elaborate statements by Babis in places where they were unlikely to have been recorded, if even overheard. Further, a large but undetermined portion of the text was added much later by Shoghi Effendi, its editor and translator.

[229] See, for example, the conversion of Mirza Siyyid Muhsin in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 513-514.

[230] Quoted in Traveller's Narrative, 34.

[231] Gobineau, quoted in Browne, Traveller's Narrative, Note B, 216.

[232] Sir Francis Younghusband, quoted in Sears, Martyr-Prophet, 17-18.

[233] Lady Sheil, Life and Manners in Persia, quoted in Browne, Traveller's Narrative, Note B, 212.

[234] Thomas Gordon, Persia Revisited, quoted in Balyuzi, The Bab, 222. Gordon wrote this book in 1895, after serving in Iran in the late 1880s and 1890 (see Moojan Momen, Babi and Bahá'í Religions: Western Accounts, 502); he almost certainly has in mind the peaceful Bahais who, like many Westerners, he mistakenly refers to as Babis.

[235] All aspects of traditional jihad were invoked by certain ulama in justifying their war against the Babis. For example, two Muslims fighting against the Babis at Nayriz later reported the ulama as convincing them that they were taking part in a holy war, sanctioned by religion, and for their participation in it they would receive the expected rewards in paradise. (Browne, Traveller's Narrative, Note H, 259-260.) Cf. Chosen Highway, 240, and Balyuzi, King of Glory, 337-338, where Shaykh Mahmud, a Muslim, reports that he was instructed to kill Bahá'u'lláh and, believing him to be an enemy of Islam, felt that it was his duty to do so.

[236] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 580.

[237] MacEoin, "Babism to Bahá'ísm," 236. Moojan Momen analyzes the rural nature of these principal conflicts in "The Social Basis of the Babi Upheavals in Iran (1848-53): A Preliminary Analysis," in International Journal of Middle East Studies 15 (1983), 157-183. He notes in conclusion that "[i]n most places, only a handful of persons would be converted to the new religion," and that where large scale conversions did occur these were usually due to emulating the conversion of a prominent religious leader. (ibid. 179)

[238] Browne, Traveller's Narrative, Note T, 327. It seems that it was not the numbers but the randomness of these deaths, accompanied by the unusually bizarre sadism of the tortures, which accounted for the observers' reactions.

[239] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 148-149 and 228, respectively. See also Balyuzi, The Bab, 84 and 121.

[240] Some Muslim accounts do record the Bab as withdrawing his claim just before his execution. Gobineau writes "...according to the Bab's enemies, he not only renounced all his teachings, but he wept and asked for mercy." (Quoted in Kazemzadeh, "The Bab: Accounts of His Martyrdom," 21) The Bab's prior pattern of behavior renders this report highly unlikely.

[241] Rabbani, trans., "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi."

[242] Rabbani, trans., "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi."

[243] Hamadani, New History, 250.

[244] Described by Gobineau, in Dawnbreakers, 545, note, and by British diplomat Justin Sheil (husband of Lady Sheil) in Balyuzi, The Bab, 212.

[245] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 560.

[246] Moojan Momen, in a post to the listserv H-Bahai on June 28 1997.

[247] Smith, Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 15-16.

[248] Momen, H-Bahai post of June 28 1997. See for example Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 158-159.

[249] For example, Nabil, describing Mulla Ali Bastami's defense of the Bab at his trial in 1845, quotes him as saying "His proof is His Word; His testimony, none other than the testimony with which Islam seeks to vindicate its truth. From the pen of this unschooled Hashimite Youth of Persia there have streamed, within the space of forty-eight hours, as great a number of verses, of prayers, of homilies, and scientific treatises, as would equal in volume the whole of the Qur'an, which it took Muhammad, the Prophet of God, twenty-three years to reveal!" Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 90.

[250] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 66-68 and 206, note 15.

[251] Denis MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," in Religion 12 (April 1982), 121.

[252] Hamadani, New History, 78.

[253] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 107.

[254] Quoted in Baha'ullah, Kitab Iqan, 231.

[255] Though the Kitab Iqan is now considered a Bahai text, it can be included here because its purported intent, written as it was in 1861 five years before his public declaration, was nominally simply an apologia for Babism. As used here, of course, the Kitab Iqan is chiefly quoted for the statements of the Bab it contains.

[256] Baha'ullah, Kitab Iqan, 231-232. Also quoted by Shoghi Effendi in Dawnbreakers, 515, note.

[257] Quoted in Shoghi Effendi, Dawnbreakers, 517.

[258] Hamadani, New History, 261-262.

[259] Hamadani, New History, 233-234.

[260] Hamadani, New History, 233.

[261] From a talk of Abdul Baha, as quoted by his sister Bahiyyih Khanum. Blomfield, Chosen Highway, 56.

[262] In the Qayyum al-Asma and the two Bayans the Bab repeatedly refers to the conversion or expulsion of all non-Babis in the the five central provinces of Persia: Fars, Iraq, Azarbayjan, Khurasan, and Mazandaran. See, for example, Le Beyan Persan, Unite VI, Porte 4 (tome troisième, 74-76).

[263] Farid al-Din Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics: Episodes from the Tadhkirat al-Auliya' (Memorial of the Saints), trans. A. J. Arberry (London: Arkana, 1966). This book, a classic throughout the Muslim world and especially Persia, was also a model for the Babi and Bahai community: Abdul Baha emulated it both in format and in title with his collection of brief biographies of Babis and early Bahais Memoirs of the Faithful (trans. Marzieh Gail [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1971]). Attar's is entitled Tadhkirat al-Auliya', or "Memorials of the Saints" ("friends," i.e. of God); Abdul Baha's is Tadhkirat al-Wafa' or "Memorial of Faithfulness."

[264] Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics, 73-74.

[265] Annemarie Schimmel, encapsulating in parallel all of the themes of Babi martyrs discussed thus far, writes: "Hallaj is...the martyr of Islam par excellence because he exemplified the deepest possibilities of personal piety to be found in Islam; he demonstrated the consequences of perfect love and the meaning of submission to the unity of the divine beloved--not with the aim of gaining any sort of private sanctity but in order to preach this mystery, to live in it and to die for it." Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 64.

[266] Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics, 266-271.

[267] Abdul Baha, Memoirs of the Faithful, 11.

[268] E.g. Hamadani, New History, 233.

[269] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 300.

[270] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 253.

[271] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 447-458.

[272] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 252-253. See also Browne, Traveller's Narrative, 214.

[273] Other examples, from Abdul Baha's Memoirs of the Faithful, include Pidar-Jan of Qazvin who "spent his days and nights communing with God and chanting prayers; and although he walked the earth, he traveled the heights of Heaven...His awareness of this world was clouded, for he journeyed through another. He dwelt in ecstasy; he was a man drunken, bedazzled" (42); Aqa Muhammad-Ibrahim, who "wrote an elegy to memorialize [the] believer who had fallen on the field of anguish...[he] live[d] out his life...with fervor and love. Then he welcomed death, laughing like a rose suddenly full-blown, and crying, 'Here am I!'" (82); Haji Ali Askar Tabrizi, of whom Abdul Baha writes "The greater the tyranny of the oppressors, the happier he was" (163). Cf. also Mirza Mahdi Kashani (95), and Haji Hasan, Haji Jafar, and Haji Taqi (123-124).

[274] As told to Lady Blomfield. Chosen Highway, 42.

[275] Hamadani, New History, 82.

[276] Hamadani, New History, 109.

[277] Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 9, s.v. "martyrdom," 232-233.

[278] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 293.

[279] Rabbani, trans., "Narrative of Mulla Muhammad Shafi Nayrizi."

[280] Quoted in Hamadani, New History, 253.

[281] Descriptions of the time of his return are given in Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering, 216-229, and Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 150-179. Prophecies differ, and none present exactly the same set of descriptions about the Mahdi and his rise.

[282] Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, 21-22 and 159.

[283] Le Beyan Persan, tome deuxieme, 163-164.

[284] MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 105.

[285] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 4. Certain hadith, and Sufi thought, hold that all knowledge in the Quran, and by extension all possible knowledge, derive from the first orthographic marker of the Quran, the dot of its first letter, ba. The Bab, by calling himself the "primal point," nuqt ula or nuqt avval, is thus claiming the station of possessor of all knowledge.

[286] Denis MacEoin discusses the distinctions between Sunni, Shii, and Babi jihad in "The Concept of Jihad in the Babi and Bahá'í Movements" (unpublished paper, presented to the third annual seminar on Bahá'í Studies at the University of Lancaster, April 8 1979), revised as "The Babi Concept of Holy War."

[287] MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 102-103.

[288] MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 106.

[289] Stephen Lambden, "Antichrist-Dajjal: Some notes on the Christian and Islamic Antichrist Traditions and their Bahá'í Interpretation," part I (Bahá'í Studies Bulletin1:2 [September 1982], 14-49) and part II (Bahá'í Studies Bulletin1:3 [December 1982], 3-43), passim.

[290] Rabbani, trans., "Nayriz: the first century."

[291] Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 44, and MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 117.

[292] See MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 111-112 and passim; "The Concept of Jihad in the Babi and Bahá'í Movements," 24 and passim; Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 44; and Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, 91 and 123.

[293] Bayat expresses no hesitancy: "That the Babi leaders at Badasht had planned an armed revolt is absolutely not in doubt." (Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, 118).

[294] Cf. Tahirih interrupting a theological discourse by Babi leader Vahid with her exclamation "O [Vahid]! Let deeds, not words, testify to thy faith...Cease idly repeating the traditions of the past, for the day of service, of steadfast action, is come. Now is the time to show forth the true signs of God, to rend asunder the veils of idle fancy, to promote the Word of God, and to sacrifice ourselves in His path." Related by Abdul Baha, Memoirs of the Faithful, 201.

[295] Paraphrased by Ahang Rabbani, note to "Nayriz: the First Century."

[296] Trans. by and quoted in Amanat, Resurrection, 381. See also ibid., 377-8.

[297] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 567.

[298] Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1991), 123-128, and God Passes By, 28-30.

[299] MacEoin, "The Concept of Jihad in the Babi and Bahá'í Movements," 43-44.

[300] Dr. Cormick, quoted in Momen, Babi and Bahá'í Religions: Western Accounts, 74-75.

[301] Indeed, the dominant characteristic of his personality seems to be emotional mildness, at times even melancholic. For example, upon receiving the news of the end of the seige of Tabarsi and the death of his beloved Quddus, he was so heart-broken and disconsolate that, as his secretary Sayyed Husayn reports, he refused to see anyone and ceased writing for five months (Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 430). Bayat (Mysticism and Dissent, 96-97) and MacEoin have often described the Bab's agenda as largely martial. However, while it is true that he and the Babis were not nearly as pacifist as usually portrayed in later Bahai sources, there is too little evidence to portray them as consistently aggressive.

[302] Le Beyan Persan, Unite VII, Porte 6 (tome quatrieme, 13). See also Afnan and Hatcher, "Western Islamic Scholarship," 41 and note 52.

[303] Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 46.

[304] Amanat, Resurrection, 377.

[305] Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 140-141. Even if this quote is fanciful and was never actually uttered, it is a wholly accurate reflection of the Bab's attitude as expressed in his own words numerous times.

[306] Quoted in Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 546.

[307] See, for example, Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, 120.

[308] MacEoin, "The Babi Concept of Holy War," 121, and "The Concept of Jihad in the Babi and Bahá'í Movements," 34.

[309] Denis MacEoin, "Bahá'í Fundamentalism and the Academic Study of the Babi Movement," in Religion 16 (January 1986), 69-70.

[310] See Nabil, Dawnbreakers, 324-429 passim, and Mehrabkhani, Mulla Husayn, passim.

[311] Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 46.

Chapter 5


Religions, like any social or cultural phenomena, reflect the circumstances in which they are born. Even religions with a strong theology of divine inspiration tend to reconcile revelation from above with the undeniable reality of external influence, as for example Judaism and Christianity teach that God works through, not above, history, and Islam that every teaching sent down from God is evoked by its own circumstance--the sabab al-nazul, "circumstance of revelation."

Any number of the major "aggregated motifs"--sets of cultural and religious symbols and allusions--familiar to Islam, Shiism, and Babism could be traced through the three religious traditions to follow the evolution of symbology and better understand the mechanisms by which each new religion was born. Martyrdom provides one of the most fruitful themes, for it is prominent in the former two religions and, as circumstances came to require, became central in Babi thought and history. It can be seen that this symbolic set was not static in the Shii and Babi religions, but underwent clear transformations as the contexts changed.

The above study has utilized two approaches. One is historical: studying the evolution of symbolism and religious belief, which can be teased out with a diachronic analysis of texts and events. The other is comparative: analyzing themes and religious meanings which characterize and in places even define the two religions. These two approaches have not been separated above and used independently, for each was necessary and their purviews usually overlapped.

Historical Continuum and Evolution of Themes

In summation, both normative Islam and Shiism, starting out with a strong drive to seek authority and recognition, each initially honored the martyr's quest and taught the need for self-sacrifice. Born from belief in an appointed rule and the need to defend it, crescive Shiism found its foundational symbols in the assassination of Ali and the struggles and supposed voluntary death of Husayn and his followers. Under the later imams it evolved into a broad theme invested with a variety of spiritual significances relating to theodicy, redemption, and eschatology. Once Shiism began to lose its civil authority, and especially after it became, at least in Iran, melded with a Persian cultural ethos, it shifted its focus to an interiorized awareness of mourning. It became a state religion under the Safavids in the sixteenth century, and by the Qajar period the rule of the ulama had come to be treated as a semi-permanent substitute for the rule of the Mahdi. The Iranian Shii community was thus enjoying at least a nominally Shii civil state and a Shii religious rule, and the theme of struggling against an unjust state was therefore somewhat inapplicable. The need for actual martyrdom decreased dramatically, and the motifs of sacrifice became further abstracted and somewhat transcendentalized. During the Qajar period the Iranian Shii community focused on mourning the martyred Husayn more intensely than at any previous time. It developed evocative ceremonies, occasionally featuring various forms of self-flagellation, to mourn Husayn and other legendary Shii martyrs. From then to the present, Shii martyrdom has been preserved in these elegiac rituals.

The Babi movement was born in a Shii state, grew out of a predominantly Shii culture, and the overwhelming majority of its converts were previously Shiis.[312] It thus naturally operated within the Shii paradigms of religious symbolism and historical and cultural allusions. Some of the most dominant characteristics of Iranian Shiism, such as a sense of loss of divinely- granted rule, a profound lingering sorrow over the deaths of God's appointed religious authorities, and an acute sensitivity to the reality of suffering and the testimonial value of martyrdom, shaped much of early Babi thought. At the same time, Babism claimed to represent the return of the Qa'im, the Lord of Time and harbinger of the Day of Judgment,[313] and hence created for itself a wholly new and revolutionary context. The Bab claimed that the world was experiencing the fitna, the period of tribulation foretold by Shii prophecy. This message was fully accepted by the Babis, for whom, to paraphrase Nabil, "all laws were abrogated and long-established traditions repudiated."[314]

In this time of struggle the Babis were defending themselves as a small and proscribed group against much larger, better-equipped forces believing them heretics. Martyrdom was a very real possibility, and the theme once again flourished in all its related phenomena. The motivation to extreme and radicalized action, the drive for conversion, the theological explanations of redemption, the assurances of rewards, and the mystical ecstasy of the self- sacrificing lover of God all became such prominent motifs for Babis that they could quite easily be seen as frenzied and fanatical, and at minimum as zealous.

As a further complication, the Bab was expected to launch the final jihad, the capstone of Shii eschatological prophecy. The Babis were fully ready to follow him in the crusade: they were emotionally steeled, had made and collected weapons, and had met at least once, in Karbala, and perhaps a second time, at Badasht, for the express purpose of inaugurating the final battle. However, the Bab consistently refrained from calling them to arms, and his appointed representatives who could also have called the jihad, such as Mulla Husayn, Quddus, and Hujjat, followed his example and refused to launch major offensives. The Babis were thus left with no option but to fight the defensive jihad enjoined upon them by Shii religious law.[315] In such an operation they would be called to defend their religion and their community, but could foresee and came to accept the likelihood of their martyrdom in the process.

Summation of the Meanings of Martyrdom

While few texts exist that portray the thought of the early and proto-Shii community, enough evidence is available to allow for a relatively informed window into early Shiism. The early history of Shii Islam bears many similarities to that of the Babi movement as summarized immediately above. Like the later Babism, Shiism began with a full confidence in its religious authority and legal justification and a pressing desire to convert others to its agenda, but found itself pitted against the consistently hostile and superior cultural, religious, and military forces of the establishment, in this case the Umayyads. In these respects martyrdom had many of the same meanings as for the later Babis. It was a proof of one's convictions and sincerity and, since martyrdom was often a likely outcome of the Shii's struggle against his opponents, it came to be equated with a host of rewards in the afterlife.

However, Shiism was unlike Babism in a few important areas. Instead of being inspired by a key figure and his single-minded, even if complex, agenda, Shiism came to define itself loosely, inspired by the more abstract agenda of seeking to regain rightful rule while preserving "true" Islam.[316] Instead of forming over a short period of time, it grew gradually, finding much of its formulation for the first time under the sixth imam, more than a century after the time of the Prophet, and finding much of its current definition only under the Safavid state, almost a millennium after the Prophet. In these respects martyrdom in later and contemporary Shiism came to have very different meanings. In conjunction with old Persian cultural emphases on suffering, martyrdom came to be abstracted into a sensitivity for empathetic suffering expressed, not through violence, but through worship. Instead of actualizing the events of Karbala with one's own martyrdom, the worshiper participates in communal commemoration and mourning ceremonies, occasionally inflicting pain and injury upon himself, to evoke emotional and physical suffering. This suffering becomes a vicarious martyrdom, through which the Shii can share in the glory of Husayn, motivate himself to heightened spiritual states, and even earn redemption.

The presentation of the themes of martyrdom in Babism given in chapter four, above, revealed that Babism contains to a certain extent two sets of martyrdom symbolism: that of the Bab, who employed martyr themes of the later Shiism unique to Iran, and that of the Babis, who paralleled themselves more with earlier Muslims, Shiis, and even Sufis.

The Bab began expounding his religion at a time when the organized dramatic mourning ceremonies, especially the taziya, were at the height of their development. In his own teachings and writings he made extensive use of the themes current to his time, especially that of introspective suffering and martyrdom. Much of style of his writing, akin in this regard to the melancholic flavor of much Persian literature, also reflected such motifs. He repeatedly made fervent prayers to God to allow him to sacrifice himself--as Nabil quotes him above, "beseech the Lord your God to hasten the hour of My martyrdom and to accept My sacrifice"--which recall the cries Shiis uttered during the mourning ceremonies. Finally, his visions of the Imams and Husayn and his use of the full range of eschatological prophecies utilized the latest and most highly-evolved and complex symbolic sets. The Bab's paradigm for martyrdom, then, can be seen to be largely that of post-Safavid Iranian Shiism.

While the Bab spent most of the years 1844-1850 under house arrest or in prison, his followers were vigorously spreading the news of the new revelation, seeking to convert all whom they could and challenging existing authorities. They thus found themselves at the forefront of conflicts and frequently in mortal danger. For them, the life-or-death struggles of the early Shiis and of Husayn was a much more immediate analogy to their situation than the transcendentalized martyrdom of later Shiism, abstracted as it was into a theology of vicarious suffering. While the Bab did pray for and willingly submit to his arrests and execution, it was the Babis who more frequently spoke of martyrdom as "proof" and of the necessity to witness one's faith by offering one's "life, wealth, wife, and child." They were the ones who, unlike the Bab, so radicalized their physical and spiritual conflicts that they became "frenzied" and "intoxicated," unmistakably emulating the old models of the ecstatic Sufi ascetic and the martyr Hallaj.


The above study first presented in broad the motifs of martyrdom and its related phenomena of suffering, jihad, mysticism, and the figure of Imam Husayn in Islam and Shiism. In this respect the study simply contributed to available scholarship by reexamining the themes within the two religions. Then, through an examination of this aggregated motif as formulated by the Bab and a tracing of its application within and practice by the Babi community, it showed some of the various continuities and discontinuities--cultural, historical, and theological--between the three religious traditions. In this respect the study provided a new window and insight into the nature of the teachings of the Bab, the ways in which he was influenced by and innovated upon his environment, and the character of the Babi community. The Babi religion can thus be better understood and located historically and theologically within a context.


Focusing on Islam, Shiism, and Babism, while allowing for a contained study, presents only a partial picture. The entirety of the Bab's theology and mission, especially as weighed in light of his later writings, was wholly and unmistakably centered around the future messianic figure man yuzhiruhu Allah, "Him whom God shall make manifest." Though in the first five years following his execution at least twenty-five Babis claimed to be this figure, by 1866 only two Babis maintained the claim: the half-brothers Subh Azal and Baha'ullah. The vast majority of Babis flocked to Baha'ullah as the leader of the Babi community, and within a few years of his private declaration in 1863 and his public one in 1866 they swore allegience to him. He renamed these followers "Bahais," followers of Baha'ullah.

Baha'ullah formulated his religion in much the same way as the Bab had done. He adopted the sets of themes, terminologies, and symbolism current in his surroundings and familiar to his followers and, largely through a process of investing them with new meanings, created a wholly new and distinct religion.

The evolution of symbolism in the Bahai religion can be observed as clearly as it can within Babism, with martyrdom remaining a prominent motif. However, the shifts of its meaning were even more extreme than those observed within Shiism, from Shiism to Babism, and within Babism Baha'ullah was uneasy with militancy from an early age. He relates that one of his earliest formative experiences was an acute and lengthy depression he experienced upon reading an account of Muhammad's massacre of the Jews of Banu Qurayza (627 C.E.),[317] which, though he acknowledged it was done on the authority of God, he saw as excessive. In Baha'ullah's early works, written within a decade of the periods of Babi persecutions and tortures, he did speak often of the need for self-sacrifice. "To tinge thy hair with thy blood is greater in My sight than the creation of the universe and the light of both worlds," he wrote in 1858. "Strive then to attain this, O servant!"[318] However, at his first opportunity he sought to limit its occurrence. One of his first legal pronouncements, or perhaps even his first, upon announcing his mission in 1863 was to repeal the pillar of jihad,[319] saying later "Know thou that We have annulled the rule of the sword, as an aid to Our Cause, and substituted for it the power born of the utterance of men."[312] He explicitly instructed his followers that it was better to be killed than to kill,[321] explaining that "today 'victory' neither hath been nor will be opposition to any one, nor strife with any person; but rather what is well-pleasing is that the cities of hearts...should be subdued by the sword of the Word, of Wisdom, and of Exhortation."[322]

In place of the martial aspects of martyrdom in jihad, which Baha'ullah explicitly outlawed, and of the literal meaning of sacrificing one's life, which he strongly discouraged, Baha'ullah explained that true martyrdom is devoting oneself to service. "Martyrdom is not limited to self-sacrifice and the shedding of one's blood," he explained, "for a man may be accounted in the book of the King of Names as a martyr, though he be still alive."[323] Abdul Baha, Baha'ullah's son and authorized interpreter of his teachings, further emphasized that the truest and most desirable form of martyrdom is a life- sacrificing service of humanity in the name of God. In the Bahai Faith, then, martyrdom can be seen first to have had the same meanings the Babis gave it, but then it was wholly abstracted and given an entirely new meaning appropriate for the new religion's new context and goals.

Notes to this chapter

[312] Smith and Momen, "A Resource Mobilization Perspective," 71. [313] See above, 32 and 114-115.
[314] See above, note 283.
[315] See above, note 314.
[316] Among other things, for example, many early Shiis believed that they and they alone possessed the accurate, complete Quran. See Jonah Winters, "The Shii Quran: an Examination of Western Scholarship" (unpublished paper; University of Toronto, 1995). Accessed from the internet: Linkname "The Shii Quran"; URL [317] MacEoin, "Babism to Bahá'ísm," 223.
[318] Baha'ullah, trans. Shoghi Effendi, The Hidden Words (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1975), Arabic no. 47.
[319] Smith, Babi and Bahá'í Religions, 79.
[320] Baha'ullah, trans. Shoghi Effendi, Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983), 303.
[321] See, for example, Abdul Baha, Memorials of the Faithful, 199; Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 198; Shoghi Effendi, preface to The Dawn-Breakers, xxxv.
[322] Quoted in Abdul Baha,Traveller's Narrative, 114.
[323] Trans. in and quoted by MacEoin, "From Babism to Bahá'ísm," 226.


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