An Introduction to Bab'i faith

Edited from
Encyclopedia of Religion
Second Edition
by Lindsay Jones (Editor)

BABIS. Babis are the followers of the teaching of Sayyid Ali Muhammad, known as the “Bab.” Immediately after the Bab’s demise, the name Babis was applied to these people for some years; since the 1860s those Babis who followed Baha Allah, became known as the “people of Baha” or as Bahai. A minority group that follows Subh-i Azal as a successor of the Bab is known as Azalis.

SAYYID ALI MUHAMMAD, THE BAB. Born in Shiraz on October 20, 1819, Ali Muhammad was orphaned as a young boy and subsequently raised by a maternal uncle who, as is indicated by the title Sayyid, is believed to have been a descendant of Muhammad. Ali Muhammad earned his early living as a merchant, traveling in Iran and Iraq for his business. In 1840–1841 he visited the famous Shiah shrines at Karbala, Iraq, where he came in contact with Sayyid Kazim Rasti, the leader of the Shaykhi movement. This movement originated with Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (d. 1826), whose mystical and philosophical interpretation of Islam was based on the theosophical philosophy of Mulla Sadra Shirazi and other Muslim Gnostics, but which was also a dissent from the orthodoxy of the 'ulama'. After studying Shaykhi doctrines for about eight months, Ali Muhammad returned to Shiraz. In 1842 he married, and he had one son who died as an infant. Ali Muhammad’s relationship with the Shaykhis during the next two years is not entirely clear, but he was inclined to some of the Shaykhi teachings and also to chiliastic expectations in connection with the hidden (twelfth) imam of Shii Islam.

After Sayyid Kazim Rasti’s death in December 1843, some of the Shaykh’s disciples were looking for the expected Mahdi, whose appearance had been predicted for the near future. One of these disciples, Mulla Husayn of Bushruyah, met with Sayyid Ali Muhammad in Shiraz on May 22, 1844. In this encounter Sayyid Ali Muhammad presented himself as the Bab, the “gate” to the hidden imam. Mulla Husayn accepted this claim and thus was the first to recognize the Bab as his new spiritual leader. That same night the Bab started composing his first major literary work, a long commentary in Arabic language on the surah of Yusuf in the Qur'an (Surah 12), the Qayyum al-asma. Both Babis and Bahais consider this commentary the first revealed work of the Bab, making it the starting point of a new era. Some of the Shaykhis and Shii Muslims soon made up an increasing number of disciples of the Bab, and he designated the foremost eighteen of them as Suruf al Sayy (letter of the living), among them Mulla Husayn and Qurrat al-Ayn.

In September 1844 the Bab began a pilgrimage to Mecca, and he returned to Shiraz in late spring of the following year. During his pilgrimage journey he maintained the conviction that other Muslims might join his “reforming” view of Shii Islam, a conviction reflected both in some khutbah read during his pilgrimage journey and also in letters to Muhammad Shah. Judging from references in the Bayan, the Bab’s central book, the pilgrimage was not a positive experience because he learned that the majority of Muslims did not agree with his views. Back in Shiraz, he was imprisoned for four months. After his release he moved to Esfahan, but in early 1847 he again was put in jail, first at the fortress of Makhu in Azerbaijan, from where he was transferred to the castle of Chiriq in April 1848. Shortly before this move to Chiriq, the Bab sent a letter to Mulla Shaykh Ali Turshizi, presenting himself as the long-awaited twelfth Shii imam. For Bab’s followers, foremost among them the Huruf al-Hayy, this letter marked the clear decision to dissent from the shariah.

The leading Babis met in July in Badasht, close to the Caspian Sea. The meeting was intended to discuss the consequences of the Bab’s declaration to be the returned imam and to make plans to free him from prison. Qurrat al-Ayn, well versed in Shii and Shaykhi thinking and a leader of the meeting, fostered a radical position regarding a total and social break with Islam. In addition to unveiling her own position, she also motivated her fellow believers to separate from Muslims, if necessary by force. After the death of Muhammad Shah in September 1848, some radical Babis hoped for the opportunity to establish a “sacred Babi state,” leading to Babi uprisings and a “Babi jihad” for the next five years. The Bab remained in prison, and in 1850 he was given a death sentence. He was executed on July 9, 1850.

FROM THE BABIS TO THE BAHAIS. The first years after the Bab’s death can be seen as a period of persecution. The Babis were responsible for some revolts against the Qajar government that led to an attempt to assassinate Nasir al-Din Shah in 1852. As a consequence severe persecution of the Babis was renewed, and all the Huruf al-Hayy were put to death, including Qurrat al-Ayn in 1853. The main centers of these Babi revolts and Muslim persecutions were Mazandaran, Nayriz, and Zanjan. Based on the Bab’s interpretation of jihad, Babis displayed great heroism, but they were forced to surrender to the Qajar troops.

The Babi community was then led by Mirza Yahya Nuri, called Subh-i Azal (Morning of Eternity), the half brother of Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, called Baha Allah (Baháulláh according to Bahai orthography). Because Subh-i Azal had stayed at Nur at the time of the attack on Nasir al-Din Shah, he escaped imprisonment, whereas his half brother Baha Allah was jailed in Tehran in the summer of 1852. After some months Baha Allah was exiled to Baghdad, at that time part of the Ottoman Empire, rather than Qajar, arriving there on April 8, 1853. Some months earlier Subh-i Azal had also settled there. During the early period in Baghdad, in the vicinity of Shii and Shaykhi centers like Nadjaf and Karbala, the Babis looked to Subh-i Azal as the leader of the community, but tensions between him and his half brother could not be hidden any longer. The main reason for these tensions might have been the quite different characters of the men. Subh-i Azal seemed only partly aware of the needs of his community to survive, whereas Baha Allah reorganized the community and strengthened it in the Late 1860s. From a sociological point of view, therefore, Subh-i Azal lost his influence on the Babis more and more, whereas Baha Allah gained importance as a community leader. Since 1861 the Ottoman government had pressured the Babi movement, which ended with the exiles of Baha allah and Subh-i Azal via Istanbul to Edirne. Before leaving Baghdad, Baha Allah, in the presence of some close followers, proclaimed himself a new prophet made manifest by God, thus theologically ending, according to the Bahai interpretation, the Babi movement as an independent religion. Even though Subh-i Azal might have known about this, he was only informed about Baha Allah’s claim to be “the one whom God shall manifest” in the so-called surat al-amr sent by Baha Allah to his half brother on March 10, 1866. This date marks the definitive break between the Babi and Bahai groups.

While the majority sided with Bahai Allah, a minority followed Subh-i Azal, joining him at his exile in Cyprus, where he had been since 1868. On April 20, 1912, Subh-i Azal died on the island, and he was buried in Famagusta, according to Muslim practice. Thus it is safe to conclude that the Babi community on Cyprus could not prosper any longer, whereas some followers of the Bab still live in Iran as socalled Babi-Azalis. During the twentieth century they showed neither further theological development nor largescale organization, but instead turned into a more static community, preserving the writings of the Bab and Subh-i Azal. Thus they mainly live as a hidden minority, passing on the religious heritage through family lines, often not distinguishable amid their Muslim surroundings. Most probably there are not more than one or two thousand Babi-Azalis residing in Iran.

BABI DOCTRINES. The main source for Babi doctrine is the Bayan (Declaration), the holy book of this religion, written by the Bab in Persian and Arabic during his imprisonment. Though based on monotheism like Islam, the eschatological thought is changed, as “the day to come” is no more a day in the far future. Rather, anyone who lives with God can enjoy the joy of paradise in a spiritual way even in the present. The universal eschatology will start with “the one whom God will manifest.” According to Babi teaching, no precise date is given for this eschatological event, whereas Bahais take it for granted that the Bab indicated that this would happen in the near future after his demise. On the other hand, Babi doctrines maintain their traditional bond to Shii Islam, as is the case with taqiya, the possibility of hiding one’s religious thoughts or convictions in times of crisis or danger. The idea of martyrdom and warlike jihad as a means to reach salvation also remain central in Babi thought.

The Bayan also is the foundation of Babi religious law, thus abrogating Islamic shariah. Some of the famous religious laws concern the new direction of the qiblah, no longer the Kabah in Mecca but the Bab’s house in Shiraz. Another change in religious ritual law is in connection with the cultic calendar, which divides the solar year into nineteen months with nineteen days each, and four additional days. According to the Iranian solar year, the Babi year also begins at the spring solstice. Within the new calendar, the month of fasting became fixed at the last month of the Babi year in March.

Generally speaking, these doctrines and practices have been fixed in the various writings of the Bab and, to a minor degree, also in the writings of Subh-i Azal, whose “Mutammim-i Bayan” features as the conclusion of the Bayan, thus focusing on Subh-i Azal’s claim (against Baha Allah) that he is the real successor of the Bab. Further writings by Subh-i Azal can be seen as interpretations and elaborations of the Bab’s teachings, mainly written after the split between the Babis and the Bahais to uphold Babi doctrine as a religious system of its own, thus focusing on eschatology and the question of the future divine prophet.


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