Verily the oppressor hath slain the Beloved of the worlds that he might thereby quench the Light of God amidst His creatures and withhold mankind from the Stream of Celestial Life in the days of his Lord, the Gracious, the Bountiful. – Baha’u’llah , Tablet to Ra’is.
Birthplace of the New Revelation
Persia, the birthplace of the Bahá’í Revelation, has occupied a unique place in the history of the world. In the days of her early greatness she was a veritable queen among nations, unrivaled in civilization, in power and in splendor. She gave to the world great kings and statesmen, prophets and poets, philosophers and artists. Zoroaster, Cyrus and Darius, Hafiz and Firdawsi, Sa’di and `Umar Khayyam are but a few of her many famous sons. Her craftsmen were unsurpassed in skill; her carpets were matchless, her steel blades unequaled, her pottery world famous. In all parts of the Near and Middle East she has left traces of her former greatness.
Yet, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries she had sunk to a condition of deplorable degradation. Her ancient glory seemed irretrievably lost. Her government was corrupt and in desperate financial straits; some of her rulers were feeble, and other monsters of cruelty. Her priests were bigoted and intolerant, her people ignorant and superstitious. Most of them belonged to the Shi’ih sect, of Muhammadans, but there were also considerable numbers of Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, of diverse and antagonistic sects. All professed to follow sublime teachers who exhorted them to worship the one God and to live in love and unity, yet they shunned, detested and despised each other, each sect regarding the others as unclean, as dogs or heathens. Cursing and execration were indulged in to a fearful extent. It was dangerous for a Jew or a Zoroastrian to walk in the street on a rainy day, for if his wet garment should touch a Muhammadan, the Muslim was defiled, and the other might have to atone for the offense with his life. If a Muhammadan took money from a Jew, Zoroastrian or Christian he had to wash it before he could put it in his pocket. If a Jew found his child giving a glass of water to a poor Muhammadan beggar he would dash the glass from the child’s hand, for curses rather than kindness should be the portion of infidels! The Muslims themselves were divided into numerous sects, among whom strife was often bitter and fierce. The Zoroastrians did not join much in these mutual recriminations, but lived in communities apart, refusing to associate with their fellow countrymen of other faiths.
Social as well as religious affairs were in a state of hopeless decadence. Education was neglected. Western science and art were looked upon as unclean and contrary to religion. Justice was travestied. Pillage and robbery were of common occurrence. Roads were bad and unsafe for travel. Sanitary arrangements were shockingly defective.
Yet, notwithstanding all this, the light of spiritual life was not extinct in Persia. Here and there, amid the prevailing worldliness and superstition, could still be found some saintly souls, and in many a heart the longing for God was cherished, as in the hearts of Anna and Simeon before the appearance of Jesus. Many were eagerly awaiting the coming of a promised Messenger of God, and confident that the time of His advent was at hand. Such was the state of affairs in Persia when the Bab, the Herald of a new era, set all the country in commotion with His message.
Mirza Ali Muhammad, Who afterwards assumed the title of Bab (i.e. Gate), was born at Shiraz, in the south of Persia, on the 20th of October 1819 A.D.1 He was a Siyyid, that is, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. His father, a well-known merchant, died soon after His birth, and He was then placed under the care of a maternal uncle, a merchant of Shiraz, who brought Him up. In childhood He learned to read, and received the elementary education customary for children.2 At the age of fifteen He went into business, at first with His guardian, and afterward with another uncle who lived at Bushihr, on the shore of the Gulf of Persia.
As a youth He was noted for great personal beauty and charm of manner, and also for exceptional piety, and nobility of character. He was unfailing in His observance of the prayers, fasts and other ordinances of the Muhammadan religion, and not only obeyed the letter, but lived in the spirit of the Prophet’s teachings. He married when about twenty-two years of age. Of this marriage one son was born, who died while still an infant, in the first year of the Bab’s public ministry.
On reaching His twenty-fifth year, in response to divine command, He declared that “God the Exalted had elected Him to the station of Babhood.” In “A Traveller’s Narrative”1 we read that: — “What he intended by the term Bab was this, that he was the channel of grace from some great Person still behind the veil of glory, who was the possessor of countless and boundless perfections, by whose will he moved, and to the bond of whose love he clung.” — A Traveller’s Narrative (Episode of the Bab), p. 3.
In those days belief in the imminent appearance of a Divine Messenger was especially prevalent among a sect known as the Shaykhis, and it was to a distinguished divine belonging to this sect, called Mulla Husayn Bushru’i, that the Bab first announced His mission. The exact date of this announcement is given in the Bayan, one of the Bab’s Writings, as two hours and eleven minutes after sunset on the eve preceding the fifth day of the month of Jamadiyu’l-Avval 1260 A.H. Abdu’l-Baha was born in the course of the same night, but the exact hour of His birth has not been ascertained. After some days of anxious investigation and study, Mulla Husayn became firmly convinced that the Messenger long expected by the Shi’ihs had indeed appeared. His eager enthusiasm over this discovery was soon shared by several of his friends. Before long the majority of the Shaykhis accepted the Bab, becoming known as Babis; and soon the fame of the young Prophet began to spread like wildfire throughout the land.
Spread of the Babi Movement
The first eighteen disciples of the Bab (with Himself as nineteenth) became known as “Letters of the Living.” These disciples He sent to different parts of Persia and Turkistan to spread the news of His advent. Meantime He Himself set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca, where He arrived in December 1844, and there openly declared His mission. On His return to Bushihr great excitement was caused by the announcement of His Babhood. The fire of His eloquence, the wonder of His rapid and inspired writings, His extraordinary wisdom and knowledge, His courage and zeal as a reformer, aroused the greatest enthusiasm among His followers, but excited a corresponding degree of alarm and enmity among the orthodox Muslims. The Shi’ih doctors vehemently denounced Him, and persuaded the Governor of Fars, namely Husayn Khan, a fanatical and tyrannical ruler, to undertake the suppression of the new heresy. Then commenced for the Bab a long series of imprisonments, deportations, examinations before tribunals, scourgings and indignities, which ended only with His martyrdom in 1850.
Claims of the Bab
The hostility aroused by the claim of Babhood was redoubled when the young reformer proceeded to declare that He was Himself the Mihdi (Mahdi) Whose coming Muhammad had foretold. The Shi’ihs identified this Mihdi with the 12th Imam who, according to their beliefs, had mysteriously disappeared from the sight of men about a thousand years previously. They believed that he was still alive and would reappear in the same body as before, and they interpreted in a material sense the prophecies regarding his dominion, his glory, his conquests and the “signs” of his advent, just as the Jews in the time of Christ interpreted similar prophecies regarding the Messiah. They expected that he would appear with earthly sovereignty and an innumerable army and declare his revelation, that he would raise dead bodies and restore them to life, and so on. As these signs did not appear, the Shi’ihs rejected the Bab with the same fierce scorn which the Jews displayed towards Jesus. The Babis, on the other hand, interpreted many of the prophecies figuratively. They regarded the sovereignty of the Promised One, like that of the Galilean “Man of Sorrows,” as a mystical sovereignty; His glory as spiritual, not earthly glory; His conquests as conquests over the cities of men’s hearts’ and they found abundant proof of the Bab’s claim in His wonderful life and teachings, His unshakable faith, His invincible steadfastness, and His power of raising to newness of spiritual life those who were in the graves of error and ignorance.
But the Bab did not stop even with the claim of Mihdihood. He adopted the sacred title of “Nuqtiyiula” or “Primal Point.” This was a title applied to Muhammad Himself by His followers. Even the Imams were secondary in importance to the “Point,” from Whom they derived their inspiration and authority. In assuming this title, the Bab claimed to rank, like Muhammad, in the series of great Founders of Religion, and for this reason, in the eyes of the Shi’ihs, He was regarded as an impostor, just as Moses and Jesus before Him had been regarded as impostors. He even inaugurated a new calendar, restoring the solar year, and dating the commencement of the New Era from the year of His own Declaration.
In consequence of these declarations of the Bab and the alarming rapidity with which people of all classes, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, were eagerly responding to His teaching, attempts at suppression became more and more ruthless and determined. Houses were pillaged and destroyed. Women were seized and carried off. In Tihran, Fars, Mazindaran, and other places great numbers of the believers were put to death. Many were beheaded, hanged, blown from the mouths of cannon, burnt or chopped to pieces. Despite all attempts at repression, however, the movement progressed. Nay, through this very oppression the assurance of the believers increased, for thereby many of the prophecies concerning the coming of the Mihdi were literally fulfilled. Thus in a tradition recorded by Jabir, which the Shi’ihs regard as authentic, we read: –
In him shall be the perfection of Moses, the preciousness of Jesus, and the patience of Job; his saints shall be abased in his time, and their heads shall be exchanged as presents, even as the heads of the Turk and the Deylamite are exchanged as presents; they shall be slain and burned, and shall be afraid, fearful and dismayed; the earth shall be dyed with their blood, and lamentation shall prevail amongst their women; these are my saints indeed. — New History of the Bab, translated by Prof. E. G. Browne, p. 132.