views updated May 23 2018


BĀBĪS . Bābīs are the followers of the teaching of Sayyid ʿAlī Muammad, known as the "Bāb." Immediately after the Bāb's demise, the name Bābīs was applied to these people for some years; since the 1860s those Bābīs who followed Bahāʾ Allāh, became known as the "people of Bahā" or as Bahāʾī. A minority group that follows ub-i Azal as a successor of the Bāb is known as Azalīs.

Sayyid ʿAlĪ Muammad, the BĀb

Born in Shiraz on October 20, 1819, ʿAlī Muammad 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 Muammad. ʿAlī Muammad earned his early living as a merchant, traveling in Iran and Iraq for his business. In 18401841 he visited the famous Shīʿah shrines at Karbala, Iraq, where he came in contact with Sayyid Kāim Rastī, the leader of the Shaykhī movement. This movement originated with Shaykh Amad al-Ahsāʾī (d. 1826), whose mystical and philosophical interpretation of Islam was based on the theosophical philosophy of Mullā adrā Shīrāzī and other Muslim Gnostics, but which was also a dissent from the orthodoxy of the ʿulamāʾ. After studying Shaykhī doctrines for about eight months, ʿAlī Muammad returned to Shiraz. In 1842 he married, and he had one son who died as an infant. ʿAlī Muammad's relationship with the Shaykhīs during the next two years is not entirely clear, but he was inclined to some of the Shaykhī teachings and also to chiliastic expectations in connection with the hidden (twelfth) imām of Shīʿī Islam.

After Sayyid Kāim Rastī'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, Mullā usayn of Bushrūyah, met with Sayyid ʿAlī Muammad in Shiraz on May 22, 1844. In this encounter Sayyid ʿAlī Muammad presented himself as the Bāb, the "gate" to the hidden imām. Mullā usayn accepted this claim and thus was the first to recognize the Bāb as his new spiritual leader. That same night the Bāb started composing his first major literary work, a long commentary in Arabic language on the sūrah of Yūsuf in the Qurʾān (Sūrah 12), the Qayyūm al-asmaʿ. Both Bābīs and Bahāʾīs consider this commentary the first revealed work of the Bāb, making it the starting point of a new era. Some of the Shaykhīs and Shīʿī Muslims soon made up an increasing number of disciples of the Bāb, and he designated the foremost eighteen of them as urūf al ayy (letter of the living), among them Mullā usayn and Qurrat al-ʿAyn.

In September 1844 the Bāb 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 Shīʿī Islam, a conviction reflected both in some khubah read during his pilgrimage journey and also in letters to Muammad Shāh. Judging from references in the Bayān, the Bāb'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 Mākhū in Azerbaijan, from where he was transferred to the castle of Chirīq in April 1848. Shortly before this move to Chirīq, the Bāb sent a letter to Mullā Shaykh ʿAlī Turshīzī, presenting himself as the long-awaited twelfth Shīʿī imām. For Bāb's followers, foremost among them the urūf al-ayy, this letter marked the clear decision to dissent from the sharīʿah.

The leading Bābīs met in July in Badasht, close to the Caspian Sea. The meeting was intended to discuss the consequences of the Bāb's declaration to be the returned imām and to make plans to free him from prison. Qurrat al-ʿAyn, well versed in Shīʿī and Shaykhī 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 Muammad Shāh in September 1848, some radical Bābīs hoped for the opportunity to establish a "sacred Bābī state," leading to Bābī uprisings and a "Bābī jihād" for the next five years. The Bāb remained in prison, and in 1850 he was given a death sentence. He was executed on July 9, 1850.

From the BĀbĪs to the BahĀʾĪs

The first years after the Bāb's death can be seen as a period of persecution. The Bābīs were responsible for some revolts against the Qajār government that led to an attempt to assassinate Nāir al-Dīn Shāh in 1852. As a consequence severe persecution of the Bābīs was renewed, and all the urūf al-ayy were put to death, including Qurrat al-ʿAyn in 1853. The main centers of these Bābī revolts and Muslim persecutions were Mazandaran, Nayriz, and Zanjan. Based on the Bāb's interpretation of jihād, Bābīs displayed great heroism, but they were forced to surrender to the Qajār troops.

The Bābī community was then led by Mīrzā Yayā Nūrī, called ub-i Azal (Morning of Eternity), the half brother of Mīrzā usayn ʿAlī Nūrī, called Bahāʾ Allāh (Baháʾuʾlláh according to Bahāʾī orthography). Because ub-i Azal had stayed at Nur at the time of the attack on Nāir al-Dīn Shāh, he escaped imprisonment, whereas his half brother Bahāʾ Allāh was jailed in Tehran in the summer of 1852. After some months Bahāʾ Allāh was exiled to Baghdad, at that time part of the Ottoman Empire, rather than Qajār, arriving there on April 8, 1853. Some months earlier ub-i Azal had also settled there. During the early period in Baghdad, in the vicinity of Shīʿī and Shaykhī centers like Nadjaf and Karbala, the Bābīs looked to ub-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. ub-i Azal seemed only partly aware of the needs of his community to survive, whereas Bahāʾ Allāh reorganized the community and strengthened it in the late 1860s. From a sociological point of view, therefore, ub-i Azal lost his influence on the Bābīs more and more, whereas Bahāʾ Allāh gained importance as a community leader. Since 1861 the Ottoman government had pressured the Bābī movement, which ended with the exiles of Bahāʾ Allāh and ub-i Azal via Istanbul to Edirne. Before leaving Baghdad, Bahāʾ Allāh, in the presence of some close followers, proclaimed himself a new prophet made manifest by God, thus theologically ending, according to the Bahāʾī interpretation, the Bābī movement as an independent religion. Even though ub-i Azal might have known about this, he was only informed about Bahāʾ Allāh's claim to be "the one whom God shall manifest" in the so-called surāt al-amr sent by Bahāʾ Allāh to his half brother on March 10, 1866. This date marks the definitive break between the Bābī and Bahāʾī groups.

While the majority sided with Bahāʾī Allāh, a minority followed ub-i Azal, joining him at his exile in Cyprus, where he had been since 1868. On April 20, 1912, ub-i Azal died on the island, and he was buried in Famagusta, according to Muslim practice. Thus it is safe to conclude that the Bābī community on Cyprus could not prosper any longer, whereas some followers of the Bāb still live in Iran as so-called Bābī-Azalīs. During the twentieth century they showed neither further theological development nor large-scale organization, but instead turned into a more static community, preserving the writings of the Bāb and ub-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 Bābī-Azalīs residing in Iran.

BĀbĪ Doctrines

The main source for Bābī doctrine is the Bayān (Declaration), the holy book of this religion, written by the Bāb 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 Bābī teaching, no precise date is given for this eschatological event, whereas Bahāʾīs take it for granted that the Bāb indicated that this would happen in the near future after his demise. On the other hand, Bābī doctrines maintain their traditional bond to Shīʿī Islam, as is the case with taqīya, the possibility of hiding one's religious thoughts or convictions in times of crisis or danger. The idea of martyrdom and warlike jihād as a means to reach salvation also remain central in Bābī thought.

The Bayān also is the foundation of Bābī religious law, thus abrogating Islamic sharīʿah. Some of the famous religious laws concern the new direction of the qiblah, no longer the Kaʿbah in Mecca but the Bāb'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 Bābī year also begins at the spring solstice. Within the new calendar, the month of fasting became fixed at the last month of the Bābī year in March.

Generally speaking, these doctrines and practices have been fixed in the various writings of the Bāb and, to a minor degree, also in the writings of ub-i Azal, whose "Muʾtammim-i Bayān" features as the conclusion of the Bayān, thus focusing on ub-i Azal's claim (against Bahāʾ Allāh) that he is the real successor of the Bāb. Further writings by ub-i Azal can be seen as interpretations and elaborations of the Bāb's teachings, mainly written after the split between the Bābīs and the Bahāʾīs to uphold Bābī doctrine as a religious system of its own, thus focusing on eschatology and the question of the future divine prophet.

See Also



Primary Sources

ʿAbduʾl-Bahā. A Traveller's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Bāb. Translated by Edward G. Browne. Cambridge, U.K., 1891; reprint, Amsterdam, 1975.

Bāb, ʿAlī Muammad Shīrāzī. Le Béyân Arabe. Translated by Alphonse L. M. Nicolas. Paris, 1905.

Bāb, ʿAlī Muammad Shīrāzī. Le Béyân Persan. Translated by Alphonse L. M. Nicolas. 4 vols. Paris, 19111914.

Bāb, ʿAlī Muammad. Selections from the Writings of the Bāb. Translated by Habib Taherzadeh. Haifa, Israel, 1976.

Husain, Hamadānī. The Tārihk-i-Jadīd; or, New History of Mīrza ʿAli Muhammad, the Bāb. Translated by Edward G. Browne. Cambridge, U.K., 1893; reprint, Amsterdam, 1975.

Nabīl-i-Aʿzam. The Dawn-Breakers: Nabīl's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahāʾī Revelation. Edited and translated by Effendi Shoghi. Wilmette, Ill., 1999.


Amanat, Abbas. Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 18441850. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1989. Study of the historical and sociological background of the early Bābī period.

Balyuzi, Hasan M. The Bāb. Oxford, 1973. Comprehensive biography of the Bāb.

Hutter, Manfred. "Prozesse der Identitätsfindung in der Frühgeschichte der Bahāʾī-Religion: Zwischen kontinuierlichem Bewahren und deutlicher Abgrenzung." In Kontinuität und Brüche in der Religionsgeschichte, edited by Michael Stausberg, pp. 424435. Berlin, 2001. Study of the split between the Bābī and the Muslim communities in 1848 and between the Bābī and the Bahāʾī communities in 18631866 from the pattern of "identity."

MacEoin, Denis. "The Babi Concept of Holy War." Religion 12 (1982): 93129.

MacEoin, Denis. The Sources for Early Bābi Doctrine and History: A Survey. Leiden, Netherlands, 1992. Important study of partly unpublished manuscripts for Bābī history.

Stümpel, Isabel. "āhira Qurrat al-ʿAin." In Iran im 19. Jahrhundert und die Entstehung der Bahāʾī Religion, edited by Johann Christoph Bürgel and Isabel Schayani, pp. 127143. Hildesheim, Germany, 1998. Study of the history and personality of Qurrat al-ʿAyn, focusing on her role in the shaping of the Bābī community.

Manfred Hutter (2005)


views updated May 11 2018


A millenarian religious movement developing out of Iranian Shiʿite Islam, begun by the Bab, Sayyid Ali Mohammad Shirazi, in 1844.

By 1849 there may have been 100,000 Babis in Iran and Iraq. The movement spread chiefly to cities, towns, and large villages, attracting the middle and lower-middle classes. Middle-ranking clerics, seminary students, urban artisans, laborers, and small landowners appear to have been its principal constituents, along with some influential merchants and retailers. The movement spread throughout Persia (Iran), with an especially strong showing in Khorasan to the northeast, as well as in Mazandaran, Fars, and Iraqi Ajam.

Between the beginning of the Bab's mission in 1844 and his execution in 1850, most Babis probably knew relatively little about his doctrines, and were attracted to him for charismatic and millenarian reasons. The Bab's works, many in Arabic, are abstruse and inaccessible except to the highly literate among his followers. The main emphases of mature Babi belief were that the Bab was the returned Mahdi (messiah), the hidden Twelfth Imam, and that the judgment day had symbolically occurred; that the Bab had the authority to reveal a new divine law; that he and his disciples possessed esoteric knowledge; that martyrdom was noble and that holy war could be declared by the Bab; and that a future messianic figure, "He whom God shall make manifest," would appear. The Bab allowed the taking of interest on loans and was favorable toward middle-class property; slightly improved the position of women by limiting polygamy; and admired what he had heard of Western science.

The rise of this new religion was attended by violence, as it was rejected by the Shiʿite clerics and by the state. The Babi movement often became implicated in the quarter-fighting that was typical of Qajar cities. A major clash took place in Mazandaran in 1848 and 1849, at the shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi, where several hundred Babis, including prominent disciples of the Bab, like Molla Hosayn, having raised the black banner of the Mahdi, were besieged by government troops and finally defeated, and killed or captured. In some small cities Babi quarters developed, with their own clerics and notables, and came into conflict with conservative neighborhoods. The Babis defended their quarters, withstanding sieges, until finally government troops intervened to crush them (Zanjan, 1850 and 1851, and Nayriz, 18501853).

In 1850, the Bab was executed in Tabriz; in 1852, a faction of about seventy notable Babis in Tehran plotted to assassinate the monarch, Naser al-Din Shah, in revenge for his execution of the Bab. The attempt failed, and in response the Qajar state ordered a nationwide pogrom against the Babis. By the middle 1850s perhaps five thousand had been killed, and most of the rest had gone underground.

Most Babis recognized Mirza Yahya Sobh-i Azal (18301912) as the successor to the Bab. After the failed attempt on the shah, he followed his elder half-brother, Hosayn Ali Bahaʾullah, into exile in Baghdad in 1853. From 1853 to 1864 he faced a number of regional challenges to his authority, but appears to have retained at least some loyalty among the furtive and much reduced Babi community. In the late 1860s, however, Bahaʾullah asserted that he was the messianic figure foretold by the Bab, and in the space of a decade most Babis had gone over to him, becoming Bahaʾi. The Babis who remained loyal to Azal were called Azalis, and by 1900 they numbered probably only two thousand to four thousand.

The small Babi community remained deter-minedly anti-Qajar and was open to Western ideas and culture. It produced radical intellectuals, such as Aqa Khan Kermani and Shaykh Ahmad Ruhi (both became atheists and were executed in 1896 in connection with Naser al-Din Shah's assassination); and Yahya Dawlatabadi, Mirza Jahangir Khan, Malik al-Mutakallimin, and Sayyid Jamal al-Din Isfahani (all activists on the constitutionalist side in Iran's Constitutional Revolution that began in 1905). In the twentieth century, the Babi community shrank to negligible size and influence.

see also bab, al-; bahaʾi faith; constitutional revolution; naser al-din shah; qajar dynasty.


Amanat, Abbas. Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 18441850. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Juan R. I. Cole


views updated May 17 2018

Bābīs. Followers of Sayyid ʿAlī Muḥammad Shīrāzī (1819–50), a merchant from southern Iran who ultimately claimed to be the bearer of a new religion in succession to Islam. His initial claim, made in the spring of 1844 after a series of revelatory visions, was that he was the Bāb (‘gate’) to the Hidden Imám of Twelver Shiʿism (see ITHNĀ ʿASHARĪYA). Later he claimed to be the Imām himself, returned as al-Mahdī at the end of the age. Finally he claimed to be the Nuqta (‘point’) of a new revelation from God. Teaching a complex combination of esoteric and messianic ideas, the Bāb initially attracted many Shaikhīs to his cause, but the movement soon gained a wider following, becoming well established in many parts of Iran. Orthodox religious leaders sought to stem its growth, and in response to persecution the Bābīs steadily became more militant. After armed struggles followed (1850–1), and on government orders, the Bāb was executed (8/9 July 1850), and the movement was suppressed. The movement then fragmented. Ultimately most of the remaining Bābīs gave their allegiance either to Ṣubḥ-i Azal (Azalī Bābīs), or to Bahā'u'llāh (see also BAHĀ'Ī FAITH).