Bahā’īism Takes Form Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Persian religious leader Bahā՚ullāh publicly shared his vision that he had been divinely appointed to bring justice and revelation to the world, thereby founding the Bahā՚ī faith. Although Bahā՚ullāh was exiled from Persia, Bahā՚ī would become a world religion and continue into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Summary of Event

The Bahā՚ī faith formally started when Bahā՚ullāh proclaimed he was a divinely appointed messenger of God, but the faith’s deepest and earliest spiritual roots were in Shiism, a form of Islam. Islam;and Bahā՚īism[Bahaism] The Shia believe in the divine authority of the Imams, twelve descendants of the Prophet Muḥammad. Muḥammad, Prophet According to Persian Shia traditions, the last Imam (the Imams were being martyred by those with competing interests) went into hiding and would some day rise again to bring justice to the world. Bahā՚īism[Bahaiism] Persia;Bahā՚īism[Bahaiism] Bahā՚ullāh Bāb, the [kw]Bahā՚īism Takes Form (1863)[Bahaiism Takes Form] [kw]Takes Form, Bahā՚īism (1863) [kw]Form, Bahā՚īism Takes (1863) Bahā՚īism[Bahaiism] Persia;Bahā՚īism[Bahaiism] Bahā՚ullāh Bāb, the [g]Iraq;1863: Bahā՚īism Takes Form[3590] [g]Middle East;1863: Bahā՚īism Takes Form[3590] [g]Ottoman Empire;1863: Bahā՚īism Takes Form[3590] [c]Religion and theology;1863: Bahā՚īism Takes Form[3590] [c]Organizations and institutions;1863: Bahā՚īism Takes Form[3590] Bābism[Babism] Táhirih Nasir al-Din Shah

The only way one could communicate with the hidden Imam was through a special intermediary known as the Bāb (gate). Almost one thousand years had passed since the death of the last Imam, but believers retained their faith in the eventual appearance of a new bāb, who, they hoped, would herald the long-awaited return of the Imam.

During the early nineteenth century, a belief arose among some of the faithful that this return would happen soon: On May 23, 1844, Persian religious leader Sayyid ՙAlī Muḥammad Shīrāzi, a descendant of the Prophet, declared himself both a new Bāb and, most significantly, a messenger of God. Because of his skill in discussing theology and his charming personality, he attracted many believers, who became known as Bābis. He also advocated changes in interpreting religion, which, because of the close connections between religion and social order, also meant advocating social change.

The Bāb’s claims and beliefs were viewed as heresy by many of the religious leaders, who exercised a great deal of temporal authority, constituting a kind of parallel government that coexisted with that of the monarchy (the shah), and which could take independent action, especially in enforcing religious law. In the orthodox view, all of the divine revelations were complete, and the return of the Imam would signal the final judgment.

Most of the Bābis had come from the middle and lower classes, including some of the clergy as well as merchants and peasants. The new Bāb did not come from an elite background, in spite of his spiritual lineage. Two notable exceptions to this tradition were women’s rights advocate Fatima Baraghani, who came from a family of scholars and theologians, and Mīrzā Ḥoseyn ՙAlī Nūrī (whose family owned estates in Mazandaran province). The two corresponded with the Bāb and became spiritual leaders in the community.

For a time, the two new leaders’ high social status made them less vulnerable to physical danger at the hands of mobs and paramilitary forces under the command of conservative clerics. However, other Bābis began to suffer from violence, including massacres. Many people expected the Bāb to defend his revelation by declaring a holy war on the forces who were killing his followers and by replacing the secular government. He did not declare war, though, and instead affirmed a policy of nonviolence. The Bāb was imprisoned in 1848, and the deaths continued. Some of the Bābis began to defend themselves, and the situation grew worse.

In the summer of this year of crisis, Mīrzā organized a meeting of Bābis, including Fatima Baraghani, to discuss the future of their faith. They converged in the village of Badasht in northern Persia. Although still in prison, the Bāb encouraged Mīrzā, who would gradually assume a leadership role, to continue with the discussions. Mīrzā soon revealed special names for himself (Bahā՚ullāh, meaning glory of God) and for Fatima Baraghani (Táhirih, meaning the pure) and other leaders.

Táhirih Táhirih startled attendees at the meeting in Badasht when she appeared without the veil required by religious law and declared that the old restrictions against women were no longer valid. The Badasht conference was a turning point for the future direction of Bābism and what would become the Bahā՚ī faith.

Initially the secular government had been relatively neutral concerning this religious controversy. The rulers had other problems to worry about. Although they were interested in European technological innovations, they still were threatened by rampant European imperialism, which had overcome the Mughal Empire in nearby Hindustan. They also were highly suspicious of the democratic ideologies that were threatening the monarchies of Europe.

The year 1848 saw the death of the reigning Persian king, Muḥammad Shāh, and the ascension to the throne of his young son Nasir al-Din. Nasir al-Din Shah Mīrzā Taqi Khān Taqi Khān , an adviser to Nasir al-Din, became prime minister. Nasir al-Din had been enthusiastic about certain aspects of Western-style education, and he was not ideologically in agreement with the conservative clerics. However, he needed their support, and so he cooperated with them in suppressing the revolutionary Bābi movement, which he viewed as a source of civil unrest. In 1850, he ordered the Bāb’s execution. The prime minister soon fell out of favor with the shah and was executed in 1852; the violence continued.

In 1853, after two Bābis attempted to assassinate the shah, the government threw its full weight behind the repression. What ensued was a bloodbath of reprisals against the Bābis. Bahā՚ullāh and many of his fellow Bābis were arrested and thrown into the so-called black pit, a notorious prison in Tehran. The new prime minister, however, was a relative of Bahā՚ullāh. Later that year, though, Bahā՚ullāh, who had survived torture and prison, would be exiled.

Bahā՚ullāh left Persia with some of his followers to Iraq, which had been under Ottoman rule at the time. While in prison, Bahā՚ullāh had undergone a profound transformation and came to believe that he was the messenger from God predicted by the Bāb. He did not reveal this to his followers immediately, however. Bahā՚ullāh left Baghdad and spent two years living as a hermit in the mountains of Kurdistan to reflect on his personal revelation; he later rejoined his community. He continued writing and completed the Kitáb-i-Íqán (1862; book of certitude; English translation, 1950), which outlined his key teachings. His reputation grew, as did the numbers of his followers.

Because of Bahā՚ullāh’s popularity, the shah became worried about Bahā՚ullāh’s close proximity to Persia; the shah worried that troubles would rekindle. He pressured the Ottoman authorities to move Bahā՚ullāh much farther away. In 1863, Bahā՚ullāh was told that he would be sent to Constantinople. Before departing, he gathered his followers in a garden on the banks of the Tigris River and told them that he was the messenger predicted by the Bāb, the moment considered the birth of the Bahā՚ī faith.

Significance

Bahā՚ullāh, who lived the rest of his life in exile, sometimes under very harsh conditions, continued to write. Gradually his situation improved, and his spiritual community continued to grow. While grounded in the Islamic Islam;and Bahā՚īism[Bahaiism] intellectual traditions of his homeland, he was very aware of international political events. His writings addressed the French Revolution (1789), Marxism, and other European ideologies from the perspective of his own blend of liberal social activism and moral conservatism. He also wrote what is considered the faith’s central text, Kitáb-i-Aqdas (c. 1873; most holy book; English translation, 1973), which outlines Bahā՚ī administration and principles.

Although other religions were embraced as reflective of God’s truth, the Bahā՚ī were able to preserve their own identity by emphasizing the teachings of Bahā՚ullāh. During the twentieth century, the faith had spread around the world, with believers from various racial, social, and cultural backgrounds. Adherents also became active in humanitarian and educational concerns.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buck, Christopher. “The Kitab-i-Iqan: An Introduction to Baháulláh’s Book of Certitude with Two Digital Reprints of Early Lithographs.” Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Bábi, and Baha’i Studies 2, no. 5 (June, 1998). A detailed introduction to the Bahā’ī text. Also available at http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/. Accessed February 21, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols in Persian Christianity and the Baha’i Faith. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. A comparative analysis of the concepts of heaven and paradise, and related doctrines within Christianity and the Bahā՚ī faith in early Persia. Includes a “historical profile” of the Bahā՚īs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cole, Juan Ricardo. Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha’i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. A comprehensive historical study, including the social and economic contexts of the nineteenth century in the Middle East. Ideological comparisons to other nineteenth century philosophical trends and political movements. Illustrated, with an index and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hatcher, John, and Amrollah Hemmat. The Poetry of Tahirih. Oxford, England: George Roland, 2002. English translation of the works of this renowned Persian poet. Includes the original Persian text, biographical information, commentary, and appendices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Peter. A Short History of the Baha’i Faith. 1996. Reprint. Rockport, Mass.: Oneworld, 1999. Includes chapters on the emergence of the Bābi movement and early Bahā՚ī communities. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zarandi, Nabil, and Shogi Effendi, trans. and ed. The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Baha’i Revelation. Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publications Trust, 1970. Translation from Persian of a key historical document, with many eyewitness accounts, written from a believer’s perspective and covering the time up to Bahā՚ullāh’s exile (1853). Meticulously documented and illustrated with drawings, photographs, and tables.

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