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Bábism

Bábism () is a religious movement that flourished in Persia from 1844 to 1852, then lingered on in exile in the Ottoman Empire (especially Cyprus) as well as underground. Its founder was Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad of Shiraz, who took the title Báb – meaning "Gate" – from a Shi'a theological term. The implication was that Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad was an avenue through which continuing divine revelation could flow — a controversial and in fact dangerous position, as his execution shows.

For Bahá'ís, the religion brought by the Báb is a predecessor to their own religion, the Bahá'í Faith, which is now considerably larger than the Azali Bábís. The two divided from one another in 1866. For more information see Bahá'í/Bábí split.

Antecedents

Within Shi'a Islam exists a large group known as the Twelvers who regard the twelfth Imam as the last of the Imams. They contend that the twelfth Imám went into concealment or occultation in 874 AD, at which communication between the Hidden Imam and the people could only be performed through mediators called Bábs (gates) or Na'ibs (representatives). In 940 AD, the fourth of the representatives claimed that the Hidden Imam had gone into an indefinite "Grand Occulation", and that he would cease to communicate with the people. According to Twelver belief, the Hidden Imam is alive in the world, but in concealment from his enemies, and that he would only emerge shortly before the Day of Judgement. At that time, acting as the Qá'im (He would will arise), also known as the Mahdi (He who is rightly guided), the Hidden Imam would start a holy war against evil, would defeat the unbelievers, and would start a reign of justice.

In 1830s in Persia, Sayyid Kazim Rashti was the leader of the Shaykhís, a sect of Shi'a Islam. The Shayhkis were a group expecting the imminent appearance of the Qá'im. At Siyyid Kázim's death in 1843, he had counseled his followers to leave their homes to seek the Lord of the Age whose advent would soon break on the world.

Origin

On May 23, 1844 Mullá Husayn of Boshruyeh in Khorasan, a prominent disciple of Siyyid Kázim entered Shiraz on the search for the Qa'im that Siyyid Kázim had set him on. He encountered Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad, who invited him to his home, and showed him hospitality. Mullá Husayn had been given a test to apply to any claiming the station of Báb, that the one he found would reveal, without prompting, a commentary on the Surah of Joseph from the Qur'an. That night Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad fulfilled the prophecy to Mullá Husayn, and ordered him to wait until 17 others had independently recognized the station of the Báb before they could begin teaching others about the new revelation. The Báb's first eighteen followers were called the "Letters of the Living", and were charged with spreading the movement.

After his revelation then, Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad soon assumed the title of the Báb. Within a few years the movement spread all over Iran, causing controversy. His claim was at first understood by some of the public at the time to be merely a reference to the Gate of the Hidden Imám of Muhammad, but this understanding he publicly disclaimed. He later proclaimed himself, in the presence of the Heir to the Throne of Persia and other notables, to be the Promised One or Qá'im to Shí'a Muslims.

Uprisings and massacres

The history of the Bábís, though covering a comparatively short period, is so full of incident and the particulars now available are so numerous, that the following account purports to be only the briefest sketch. The Báb himself was in captivity first at Shiraz, then at Maku, and lastly at Chihriq, during the greater part of the six years (May 1844 until July 1850) of his brief ministry, but an active propaganda was carried on by his disciples, which resulted in several serious revolts which brought government suppression, especially after the death of Mohammad Shah Qajar in September 1848.

All of these resulted in Bábí massacres; Bahá'í authors give an estimate of 20,000 Bábís killed from 1844 to present, with most of the deaths occurring during the first 20 years. Former Professor of Islamic Studies Denis MacEoin studied documented deaths, both for individuals and for round figures, from Bábí, Bahá'í, European, and Iranian sources, and confirmed at most two to three thousand. Supporters of the Bábís paint their struggle as basically defensive in nature; Shi'i writers on the other hand point to this period as proof of the subversive nature of Bábísm. MacEoin has pointed out that the Bábís did arm themselves, upon the Báb's instructions, and originally intended an uprising, but that their eventual clashes with state forces were defensive, and not considered an offensive jihad.

Fort Tabarsi

Of these conflicts the first and best known took place in Mázandarán, at the remote shrine of Shaykh Tabarsí, about 22 kilometers southeast of Bárfarúsh (Babol). From October 1848 until May 1849, 313 Bábís, led by Mullá Muhammad ‘Alí of Bárfarúsh, surnamed Quddús, and Mullá Husayn-i-Bushru'i, defended themselves against the attacks of local villagers and 12000 members of the shah's army under the command of Prince Mihdí Qulí Mirzá. They were finally subdued through false promises of safety, and put to death or sold into slavery. Bahá'u'lláh himself visited the defenders at the onset of the event. He promised to return at a later time, but was captured enroute, imprisoned, and tortured with the bastinado.

The Zanjan Upheaval

The revolt at the fortress of 'Ali Mardan Khan in Zanjan in the north-west of Persia, was by far the most violent of all the conflicts. It was headed by Mulla Muhammad-‘Aliy-i-Zanjani, surnamed Hujjat, and also lasted seven or eight months (May 1850–December 1850).

It was preceded by years of growing tension between the leading Islamic clergy and the new rising Bábí leadership. The enemies of Hujjat petitioned the government and claimed that he was "an advocate of heresy and a repudiator of all that is sacred and cherished in Islam." In the village of Zanjan, nearly two thousand followers of the Báb, including Hujjat, gave up their lives.

The governor of Zanjan, after personally killing one of the Bábís, sent a crier through the streets saying, “All who throw in their lot with Hujjat will be destroyed, and their wives and children exposed to misery and shame!” This warning divided the city into two camps. There were sights of families being separated by their belief or disbelief in the Báb. Fathers turned away from their sons, women from their husbands, children from their mothers. Zanjan became a city of panic, with men running around, frantically trying to collect their wives and children and to persuade them to stand with them. Families divided their belongings and their children. Whole houses were deserted. When a man, a woman, or a child would tear itself from its family or friends and rush to the support of Hujjat, a cry of joy would go up from one camp, and a moan of despair from the other.

Fierce battles followed for months on end, with government forces sieging the Bábís' fort. The Persian forces would frequently send a crier to the fort saying that anyone wishing to escape and renounce his religion would be forgiven and lavished with gifts. The siege was also famous for a female Bábí named Zaynab, who cut her hair and disguised herself as a man, in order that she could fight. She fought for 5 of the 7 months, and became known by her the enemy as the most fierce and able in battle.

After being humiliated by Hujjat's forces in battle, the sieging general, Amir-Tuman, gave the impression that the Shah had ordered an end to the siege. He was in fact, ordered to put an end to the life of every last person in the fort. Amir-Tuman sent Hujjat a signed and sealed copy of the Qur'an, which said:

“My sovereign, has forgiven you. You, as well as your followers, I hereby solemnly declare to be under the protection of his Imperial Majesty. This Book of God is my witness that if any of you decide to come out of the fort, you will be safe from any danger.”
(The Dawn-Breakers, p. 564)

The few old men and children that left the fort had their beards torn out and were put to death. This was followed by a month-long non-stop siege, which was supported by a stream of local supporters and national troops. At the end of the month, a stray bullet struck Hujjat in the arm, which caused some of his supporters to leave their posts. The enemy took advantage of their absence and broke through the main gate.

Shortly before his death, Hujjat's wife and child were slain before his eyes.

The Nayriz Upheaval

Meanwhile a serious but less protracted struggle was waged against the government at Nayriz in Fars by Aga Siyyid Yahyá, surnamed Vahid, of Nayriz.

After the execution of the Báb

The revolts in Zanjan and Nayriz were in progress when in 1850 the Báb, with one of his devoted disciples, was brought from his prison at Chihriq to Tabriz and publicly shot in front of the citadel. The body, after being exposed for some days, was recovered by the Bábís and conveyed to a shrine near Tehran, whence it was ultimately removed to Haifa, where it is now enshrined.

For the next two years comparatively little was heard of the Bábís, but on August 15, 1852 three of them, acting on their own initiative, attempted to assassinate Nasser-al-Din Shah as he was returning from the chase to his palace at Niyávarfin. The attempt failed, but was the cause of a fresh persecution, and on the August 31 1852 some thirty Bábís, including the beautiful and talented poetess Qurratu'l-Ayn, were put to death in Tehran with atrocious cruelty.

Another of the victims of that day was Hâji Mirza Jâni Kashani, the author of the oldest history of the movement from the Bábí point of view. Only one complete manuscript of his work (obtained by Count Gobineau in Persia) exists in any public library: the Bibliothèque nationale at Paris. There are other copies elsewhere (see MacEoin Early Bábí Doctrine and History: A Survey of Source Materials, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1992). The so-called "New History" (of which an English translation was published at Cambridge in 1893 by E. G. Browne) is based on Mirza Jani's work.

Background to opposition by clergy and state

A brief chronology provides a background to the opposition of the Shi'a clergy and the Qajar authorities:

1844: Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad declares his mission to Mullá Husayn; he claims to be the Báb of the Imam; the first disciples (Letters of the Living) start missionary work throughout Persia.

1845: Messianic expectations are high at the start of AH 1261 (10 January); crowds gather in Karbala in response to the Báb's call; the Báb's emissary in Karbala is convicted and the Báb cancels his visit to the city; he is later arrested in Shiraz.

1846: The Báb escapes to Isfahan where he is protected by its sympathetic governor.

1847: The Báb is offered an audience with Muhammad Shah in Teheran but at the last moment was transferred to Maku fortress as a prisoner.

1848: The Báb in Maku informs his disciples of his higher claims; he is transferred to Chihriq fortress; he announced his higher claims (as Mahdi) to followers at Badasht and later publicly at the Tabriz tribunal of ulama, presided over by crown prince Nasiri'd-Din, who was to become Shah three months later at the age of seventeen; the Báb was publicly ridiculed and bastinadoed; Mullá Husayn and companions set off to free the Báb, have a conflict with a mob outside Barfurush and fortify the nearby shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi;

1849: Bábís at Tabarsi are massacred after a long conflict with government troops.

1850: Fighting and massacre of Bábís in Nayriz; conflict in Zanjan; the Báb is executed in Tabriz.

1851: Bábí fighters massacred in Zanjan.

1852: Attempted assassination of Nasiri'd-Din Shah followed by a general persecution of Bábís; most Bábí leaders are killed.

Despite his early arrests, the Báb was hopeful of enlisting the support of Muhammad Shah, but he was opposed by the Shah's chief minister, Hajji Mirza Aqazi. While in captivity at Maku and Chihriq, the Báb continued to write to the Shah, but the letters were increasingly condemnatory.

While the Qayyumu'l-Asma called on Bábís to prepare to "conquer the countries and their people for the pure faith of God" and prepare for the "day of slaughter", this jihad was never called. Furthermore, the Báb wrote that he avoided travelling to Karbala in 1845 to prevent conflict and sedition. Nonetheless, missionary activity and challenges of opponents to divine judgement (mubahala) provoked opposition from ulama and their followers. Some Bábís expected a final jihad and carried weapons openly.

A turning point for Bábís in Persia was the murder of Muhammad Taqi Baraghani in Qazvin. He had earlier instigated the arrest and bastinado of leading Bábís in the town. Bábís denied involvement in the murder, but the incident led to Bábís being labelled as violent opponents of the ulama and heightened clerical opposition to the movement.

Despite the opposition of the ulama, the civil authorities were initially indifferent and did little to hinder the expansion of the Bábí cause. But the situation was transformed when the Báb announced at his 1848 Tabriz trial that he was the Mahdi. The claim to Mahdihood challenged the entire religious, social, and political order: only the Mahdi has the right to independent authority and no secular government has legitimacy without his permission. The Báb's higher claims to be the Imam Mahdi, the promised Qa'im (He who will arise), the inaugurator of the Resurrection, and the abrogator of Islamic holy law had the effect of radicalizing the Bábí movement and greatly increased Bábí fervour. The Báb's higher claims therefore changed Bábísm from a sect within Shi'a Islam into a revolutionary movement that implicitly challenged the authority of both the state and the ulama. Both government and clergy henceforth jointly opposed Bábísm.

Succession

The Báb appointed on his death Mirza Yahya Nuri, entitled Subh-i Azal, who escaped to Baghdad, and became the leader of the religion. He lived, however, in great seclusion, leaving the direction of affairs almost entirely in the hands of his elder half brother, Bahá'u'lláh.

Mírzá Husayn-'Alí, entitled Bahá'u'lláh, thus gradually became the most conspicuous and most influential member of the Bábís. In 1863, however, Bahá'u'lláh declared himself to be He whom God shall make manifest; a Messianic figure within Bábí tradition of whose advent the works of the Báb are filled, and who Subh-i Azal was directed to follow. Bahá'u'lláh called on all the Bábís to recognize his claim. Most of those living in exile within the Ottoman Empire accepted the claims of Bahá'u'lláh, and accordingly they became known as Bahá'ís. The Bahá'í Faith, sees itself as a separate and independent religion founded by Bahá'u'lláh, however it recognizes the station of the Báb as a messenger of God, equal to that of Bahá'u'lláh; Bahá'ís see the Bábí movement as a part of their own sacred history.

While the majority responded to Bahá'u'lláh's claim, Subh-i Azal and some of his faithful adherents refused. After that date the Bábís divided into two groups – the Azalis and the Bahá'ís – of which the former steadily lost and the latter gained ground, so that in 1908 there were probably from half a million to a million of the latter, and at most only a hundred or two of the former. In 1863 both groups were, at the instance of the Persian government, removed from Baghdad to Constantinople, whence they were shortly afterwards transferred to Adrianople. In 1868 Bahá'u'lláh and his followers were exiled to Acre in Syria (now Acca, Israel), and Subh-i Azal with his few adherents to Famagusta in Cyprus.

Subh-i Azal died in Famagusta, Cyprus in 1912, and his followers are known as Azalis or Azali Bábis and their populations are likely to be quite low.

Writings

The Báb's major writings include the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' (a commentary on the Sura of Joseph), and the Persian Bayán, which the Bábís saw as superseding the Qur'an. The latter has been translated into French; only portions exist in English. A comprehensive study of the writings of the Bab and his leading followers has been published by Dr. Denis MacEoin: "Sources for Babi History and Doctrine". Large parts of the Bab's scriptural output are untranslatable

Much academic research has focused on the Bábís, including Resurrection and Renewal by Abbas Amanat, and Rituals in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions by Denis MacEoin.

Teachings

Hidden Imam

In Twelver Shi'a Islamic belief there were twelve Imams, the last of which, known as Imam Mahdi, who communicated with his followers only through certain representatives. According to the Twelver's belief, after the last of these representatives died, the Imam Mahdi went into a state of Occultation; while still alive, he was no longer accessible to his believers. Shi'a Muslims believe that when the world becomes oppressed, the Imam Mahdi (also termed the Qa'im) will come out of occultation and restore true religion on Earth before the cataclysmic end of the world and judgement day.

In Bábí belief the Báb is the return of the Imam Mahdi, but the doctrine of the Occultation is implicitly denied; instead the Báb stated that his manifestation was a symbolic return of the Imam, and not they physical reappearance of the Imam Mahdi who had died a thousand years earlier. In Bábí belief the statements made from previous revelations regarding the Imam Mahdi were set forth in symbols. The Báb also stated that he was not only the fulfillment of the Shi`i expectations for the Qá'im, but that he also was the beginning of a new prophetic dispensation.

Resurrection, Judgment Day and cyclical revelation

The Báb taught that his revelation was beginning an apocalyptic process that was bringing the Islamic dispensation to its cyclical end, and starting a new dispensation. He taught that the terms "resurrection", "Judgement Day", "paradise" and "hell" used in Shi'a prophecies for the end-times are symbolic. He stated that "Resurrection" means that the appearance of a new revelation, and that "raising of the dead" means the spiritual awakening of those who have stepped away from true religion. He further stated that "Judgement Day" refers to when a new Manifestation of God comes, and the acceptance or rejection of those on the Earth.Thus the Báb taught that with his revelation the end times ended and the age of resurrection had started, and that the end-times were symbolic as the end of the past prophetic cycle.

In the Persian Bayán, the Báb wrote that religious dispensations come in cycles, as the seasons, to renew "pure religion" for humanity. This notion of continuity anticipated future prophetic revelations after the Báb.

He whom God shall make manifest

While the Báb claimed a station of revelation, he also claimed no finality for his revelation.One of the core Bábí teachings is the great Promised One, whom the Báb termed He whom God shall make manifest, promised in the sacred writings of previous religions would soon establish the Kingdom of God on the Earth. In the books written by the Báb he constantly entreats his believers to follow He whom God shall make manifest when he arrives and not behave like the Muslims who have not accepted his own revelation.

Religious law

The Báb abrogated Islamic law and in the Persian Bayán promulgated a system of Bábí law, thus establishing a separate religion distinct from Islam. Some of the new laws included changing the direction of the Qibla to the Báb's house in Shiraz, Iran and changing the calendar to a solar calendar of nineteen months and nineteen days (which became the basis of the Bahá'í calendar) and prescribing the last month as a month of fasting.

The Báb also created a large number of rituals and rites which remained largely unpracticed. Some of these rituals include the carrying of arms only in times of necessity, the obligatory sitting on chairs, the advocating of the cleanliness displayed by Christians, the non-cruel treatment of animals, the prohibition of beating children severely, the recommendation of the printing of books, even scripture and the prohibition on the study of logic or dead languages. While some statements in the Bayan show tolerance, there are other very harsh regulations in regards to relations with non-believers. For example, non-believers are forbidden to live in five central Iranian provinces, the holy places of previous religions are to be demolished, all non-Bábí books should be destroyed, believers are not to marry or sit in the company of non-believers, and the property of non-believers can be taken from them. Some further ritual include elaborate regulations regarding pilgrimage, fasting, the manufacture of rings, the use of perfume, and the washing and disposal of the dead.

Denis MacEoin writes, regarding the Bayán: "One comes away from the Bayan with a strong sense that very little of this is to be taken seriously. It is a form of game, never actually intended to be put into practice." Instead he states that "the Bábí shari'a made an impact... it stated very clearly that the Islamic code could be replaced."

Notes

  • Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal - the Making of the Bábí Movement in Iran 1844-1850; Cornell University Press (1989); ISBN 0-8014-2098-9
  • Esslemont, J. E. (1980). Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, An Introduction to the Bahá'í Faith. 5th edition, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois, USA.. ISBN 0877431604.
  • Denis MacEoin (1994). Rituals in Babism and Baha'ism. UK: British Academic Press and Centre of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. ISBN 1850436541.
  • Peter Smith, the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions - from Messianic Shi'ism to a World Religion; Cambridge University Press (1987); ISBN 0-521-30128-9
  • Nabíl-i-Zarandí (1932). The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl’s Narrative. Hardcover, Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. ISBN 0-900125-22-5.

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