Siyyid `Alí Muḥammad (October 20, 1819 – July 9, 1850) was the founder of Bábism, and one of three central figures of the Bahá'í Faith. He was a merchant from Shíráz, Persia, who at the age of twenty-four (in May 23, 1844) claimed to be the promised Qá'im (or Mahdi). After his declaration he took the title of Báb meaning "Gate". He composed hundreds of letters and books (often termed tablets) in which he stated his messianic claims and defined his teachings, which constituted a new sharí'ah or religious law. His movement eventually acquired tens of thousands of supporters, was virulently opposed by Iran's Shi'a clergy, and was suppressed by the Iranian government leading to thousands of his followers, termed Bábís, being persecuted and killed. In 1850 the Báb was shot by a firing squad in Tabríz.
Bahá'ís claim that the Báb was also the return of Elijah and John the Baptist, that he was the "Ushídar-Máh" referred to in the Zoroastrian scriptures, and that he was the forerunner of their own religion. Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, was a follower of the Báb and claimed to be the fulfilment of his promise that God would send another messenger.
Around 1839-40 the Báb went on pilgrimage to Iraq, and stayed mostly in and around Karbala. There he is believed to have met the leader of the Shaykhis, Sayyid Kázim, who showed a high regard for him. He is believed to have attended some of Siyyid Kazim's lectures; however, this period is almost entirely undocumented.
As of his death in December, 1843, Sayyid Kázim had counselled his followers to leave their homes to seek the Mahdi, who according to his prophecies would soon appear. One of these followers, named Mullá Husayn, after keeping vigil for forty days in a mosque, travelled to Shiraz, where he met the Báb.
After some consideration, Mullá Husayn became the first to accept the Báb's claims as the gateway to Truth and the initiator of a new prophetic cycle; the Báb had replied in a satisfactory way to all of Mullá Husayn's questions and had written in his presence, with extreme rapidity, a long commentary of Surih of Joseph, which has come to be known as the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' and is considered the Báb's first revealed work.
In the Báb's early writings, the exalted identity he was claiming was unmistakable, but due to the reception of the people, his writings appear to convey the impression that he is only the gate to the Hidden Twelfth Imam. To his circle of early believers, the Báb was equivocal about his exact status, gradually confiding in them that he was not merely a gate to the Hidden Imam, but the Manifestation of the Hidden Imam and the Qa'im himself. During his early meetings with Mullá Husayn, the Báb described himself as the Master and the Promised One; he did not consider himself just Siyyid Kazim's successor, but claimed a prophetic status, with a sense of deputyship delegated to him not just from the Hidden Imam, but from Divine authority; His early texts, such as the Commentary on the Surih of Joseph, used Quranic language that implied divine authority and identified himself effectively with the Imam. When Mullá `Alí Basṭámí, the second Letter of the Living, was put on trial in Baghdad for preaching about the Báb, the clerics studied the Commentary on the Surih of Joseph, recognized in it a claim to divine revelation, and quoted from it extensively to prove that the author had made a messianic claim.
However in his early phase of his declaration to the public, the title báb was emphasized as that of that of the gate leading to the Hidden Imam, as the Báb had told his early believers not to fully disclose his claims and reveal his name. The approach of laying claim to a lower position was intended to create a sense of anticipation for the appearance of the Hidden Imam as well as avoiding persecution and imprisonment because a public proclamation of mahdihood could have swiftly brought a condemnation of death upon the Báb. After a couple months, as the Báb observed a further acceptance and readiness among his believers and the public, he gradually moved his public claim to that of the Hidden Imam. Then in his final years he publicly announced his station as a Manifestation of God; in his trial, he boldly proclaimed himself, in the presence of the Heir to the Throne of Persia and other notables, to be the Promised One. The adoption of a cautious policy had managed to attract much attention with as little possible controversy in the early months of his public declarations.
The gradual unfoldment of his claims, however, did cause some confusion, both in the public and for some of his believers. A number of his early believers had instantly recognized his station as a messenger from God with divine authority and this resulted in confusion and disagreement within the Bábi community. Also, even when the Báb had intended to convey his message with caution, many of his followers such as Táhirih were openly declaring the coming of the promised Hidden Imam and Mahdi.
After some time, preaching by the Letters of the Living led to opposition by the Islamic clergy, prompting the Governor of Shiraz to order the Báb's arrest. The Báb, upon hearing of the arrest order, left Bushehr for Shiraz in June 1845 and presented himself to the authorities. He was placed under house arrest at the home of his uncle until a cholera epidemic broke out in the city in September 1846. The Báb was released and departed for Isfahan. There, many came to see him at the house of the imám jum'ih, head of the local clergy, who became sympathetic. After an informal gathering where the Báb debated the local clergy and displayed his speed in producing instantaneous verses, his popularity soared. After the death of the Governor of Isfahan, who had become his supporter, pressure from the clergy of the province led to the Shah, Mohammad Shah Qajar, ordering the Báb to Tehran in January, 1847. After spending several months in a camp outside Tehran, and before the Báb could meet the Shah, the Prime Minister sent the Báb to Tabriz in the northwestern corner of the country, where he was confined.
After forty days in Tabriz, the Báb was then transferred to the fortress of Máh-Kú in the province of Azarbaijan close to the Turkish border. During his incarceration there, the Báb began his most important work, the Persian Bayán, which he never finished. Due to the Báb's growing popularity in Máh-Kú and the governor of Máh-Kú converting, the prime minister transferred him to the fortress of Chihríq in April 1848. In that place as well, the Báb's popularity grew and his jailors relaxed restrictions on him. Hence the Prime Minister ordered the Báb back to Tabriz where the government called on religious authorities to put the Báb on trial for blasphemy and apostasy.
The trial did not bring a decisive result. Some clergy called for capital punishment, but the government pressured them to issue a lenient judgement because the Báb was popular. The government asked medical experts to declare the Báb insane so that he could not be executed. It is also likely that the government, to appease the religious clergy, spread rumours that the Báb had recanted.
The Shaykh al-Islam (a very prominent local cleric), the champion of the anti-Bábí campaign, who was not at the Báb's trial, issued a conditional death sentence if the Báb was found to be sane. A fatwa was issued establishing the Báb's apostasy and stated "The repentance of an incorrigible apostate is not accepted, and the only thing which has caused the postponement of thy execution is a doubt as to thy sanity of mind."
The crown prince's physician, William Cormick examined the Báb and complied with the government's request to find grounds for clemency. The physician's opinion saved the Báb from execution for a time, but the clergy insisted that he face corporal punishment instead, so the Báb was bastinadoed (administered twenty lashes to the bottoms of his feet). The official report states that due to his harsh beating, the Báb recanted, apologized, and stated that he would not continue to advance claims of divinity.
While various government sources indicate that the Báb recanted his claim, there is little non-governmental evidence of their validity. Some theorise that the assertions were made to embarrass the Báb and undermine his credibility with the public. There exists an unsigned and undated document that was supposedly written shortly after the Báb's trial in Tabriz where the Báb recants his claims to a divine station. But the language of this document is very different from the Báb's usual style; it could have been prepared by the authorities, but the Báb refused to sign it. The Báb was finally ordered back to the fortress of Chihríq.
In mid 1850 a new prime-minister, Amir Kabir, ordered the execution of the Báb, probably because various Bábí insurrections had been defeated and the movement's popularity appeared to be waning. The Báb was brought back to Tabríz from Chihríq, so that he could be shot by a firing squad. The night before his execution, as he was being conducted to his cell, a young Bábí, Muḥammad-`Alíy-i-Zunúzí, called Anís, threw himself at the feet of the Báb and begged to be killed with him. He was immediately arrested and placed in the same cell as the Báb.
On the morning of July 9, 1850, the Báb was taken to the courtyard of the barracks in which he was being held, where thousands of people had gathered to watch his execution. The Báb and Anís were suspended on a wall and a large firing squad of Christian soldiers prepared to shoot. Numerous eye-witness reports, including those of Western diplomats, recount the result. The order was given to fire and the barracks square filled with musket smoke. When it cleared the Báb was no longer in the courtyard and his companion stood there unharmed; the bullets apparently had not harmed either man, but had cut the rope suspending them from the wall. There was a great commotion, many in the crowd believing the Báb had ascended to heaven or simply disappeared. But the soldiers subsequently found the Báb in another part of the barracks, completely unharmed, giving his final instructions to his secretary. He and Anís were tied up for execution a second time, a second firing squad of Muslim soldiers was ranged in front of them, and a second order to fire was given. This time, the Báb and his companion were killed. In the Bábí-Bahá'í tradition, the failure of the first firing squad to kill the Báb is believed to have been a miracle. Their remains were dumped outside the gates of the town to be eaten by animals.
The remains, however, were clandestinely rescued by a handful of Bábis and were hidden. Over time the remains were secretly transported by way of Isfahan, Kirmanshah, Baghdad and Damascus, to Beirut and thence by sea to Acre on the plain below Mount Carmel in 1899. In 1909, the remains were then interred in a special tomb, erected for this purpose by `Abdu'l-Bahá, on Mount Carmel in Haifa,Israel. The Bahá'í World Centre is located close to this site and visitors are welcome to tour the gardens.
In most of his prominent writings, The Báb alluded to a Promised One, most commonly referred to as man yazhiruhu'lláh, "He whom God shall make manifest", and that he himself was "but a ring upon the hand of Him Whom God shall make manifest." Within 20 years of the Báb's death, over 25 people claimed to be the Promised One, most significantly Bahá'u'lláh.
Before the Báb's death, he sent a letter to Mírzá Yahyá, titled Subh-i-Azal, which is considered to be his will and testament. The letter is recognized as appointing Subh-i-Azal to be the leader of the Bábí community after the death of the Báb. He is also ordered to obey the Promised One when he appears. At the time Subh-i-Azal was still a teenager, had never demonstrated leadership in the Bábí movement, and was still living in the house of his older brother, Bahá'u'lláh. All of this lends credence to the Bahá'í claim that the Báb appointed Subh-i-Azal the head of the Bábí Faith so as to divert attention away from Bahá'u'lláh, while allowing Bábís to visit Bahá'u'lláh and consult with Him freely, and allowing Bahá'u'lláh to write Bábís easily and freely. Furthermore, there is a long history in Shí`ism of hidden leaders, with their deputies wielding the true power (the four bábs themselves are the first examples of this, as is `Alí-Muhammad's choice of the title "the Báb").
Bahá'u'lláh claimed that in 1853, while a prisoner in Tehran, he was visited by a "Maid of Heaven", which symbolically marked the beginning of his mission as a Messenger of God. Ten years later in Baghdad, he made his first public declaration and eventually was recognized by the vast majority of Bábís as "He whom God shall make manifest". His followers began calling themselves Bahá'ís.
Subh-i-Azal continued to live with or close to Bahá'u'lláh throughout the latter's exiles from Iran to Baghdad and then to Istanbul and Edirne, even though Bahá'u'lláh's claim to be a messenger God in 1863 theoretically rendered moot Subh-i-Azal's authority as the head of the Bábí community. In September 1867, in Edirne, the rival claims to authority came to a head. Subh-i-Azal challenged Bahá'u'lláh to a test of the divine will in a local mosque in Edirne (Adrianople), such that "God would strike down the impostor". Bahá'u'lláh agreed and went to the Sultan Selim mosque at the appointed time, but Mirza Yahya failed to show up.
Subh-i-Azal's followers became known as Azalis or Azali Bábís. For the Bábís who did not recognize Bahá'u'lláh, Subh-i-Azal remained their leader until his death in 1912. Whether or not he had a successor is disputed. Bahá'í sources report that 11 of the 18 "witnesses" appointed by Subh-i-Azal to oversee the Bábí community became Bahá'ís, as well as his son. The man allegedly appointed by Subh-i-Azal to succeed him, Hadíy-i-Dawlat-Abádí, later publicly recanted his faith in the Báb and Subh-i-Azal.
Ultimately, Bahá'u'llah emerged more successful and nearly all of the Báb's followers abandoned Subh-i-Azal and became Bahá'ís. Today Bahá'ís have several million followers, while estimates of the number of Azalís are generally around one thousand, isolated in Iran.
Unfortunately, most of the writings of the Báb have been lost. The Báb himself stated they exceeded five hundred thousand verses in length; the Qur'án, in contrast, is 6300 verses in length. If one assumes 25 verses per page, that would equal 20,000 pages of text. Nabíl-i-Zarandí, in The Dawn-breakers, mentions nine complete commentaries on the Qur'án, revealed during the Báb's imprisonment at Máh-Kú, which have been lost without a trace. Establishing the true text of the works that are still extant, as already noted, is not always easy, and some texts will require considerable work. Others, however, are in good shape; several of the Báb's major works are available in the handwriting of his trusted secretaries.
Most works were revealed in response to specific questions by Bábís. This is not unusual; the genre of the letter has been a venerable medium for composing authoritative texts as far back as the Apostle Paul. Three quarters of the chapters of the New Testament are letters, were composed to imitate letters, or contain letters within them. Sometimes the Báb revealed works very rapidly by chanting them in the presence of a secretary and eye-witnesses.
The Archives Department at the Bahá'í World Centre currently holds about 190 Tablets of the Báb. Excerpts from several principal works have been published in the only English language compilation of the Báb's writings: Selections from the Writings of the Báb. Denis MacEoin, in his Sources for Early Bābī Doctrine and History, gives a description of many works; much of the following summary is derived from that source. In addition to major works, the Báb revealed numerous letters to his wife and followers, many prayers for various purposes, numerous commentaries on verses or chapters of the Qur'án, and many khutbihs or sermons (most of which were never delivered). Many of these have been lost; others have survived in compilations.
The Báb has been criticized for his inconsistent use of correct and incorrect Arabic grammar. A reason for this inconsistency could be to distinguish those who could not see past the outer form of the words from those that could understand the deeper meaning of his message.
The Báb's writings before his declaration do not demonstrate a prophetic consciousness. Todd Lawson noted this in his doctoral dissertation about the Tafsír-i-súrih-i-baqarih or "Commentary on the Surih of the Cow", a work the Báb wrote on a chapter of the Qur'án. This Qur'án commentary was started by the Báb in November or December 1843, some six months before declaring his mission. The first half was completed by February or March 1844; the second half was revealed after the Báb's declaration. It is the only work of the Báb's revealed before his declaration that has survived intact, and thus it is quite important. It also sheds light on the Báb's attitude toward Shí`í beliefs.
The first chapter of the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' ("Commentary on the Súrih of Joseph") was written by the Báb on the evening of his declaration to Mullá Husayn, May 23 1844. The entire work, which is several hundred pages in length and is considered to be revelation by Bahá'ís, required forty days to write; it is one of the Báb's longer Arabic works. It was widely distributed in the first year of the Bábí movement, functioning as something of a Bible for the Bábís. In the book the Báb states his claim to be a Manifestation of God, though the claim is disguised with other statements that he is the servant of the hidden imám.
During his nine and a half month pilgrimage to Mecca, the Báb composed many works:
The Báb was in Bushehr March through June 1845, then in Shiraz.
The Báb left Isfahán in March 1847, sojourned outside Tehran several months, then was sent to a fortress at Máh-Kú, close to the Russian border. It witnessed the composition of some of the Báb's most important works.
The Báb spent two years in Chihríq, except for his brief visit to Tabriz for his trial. The works he produced there were more esoteric or mystical and less thematically organized. Two major books were produced, in addition to many minor works: