An ultra-Shī’ite sect founded in Shiraz, Persia, in 1844 by a dissenting theologian, Muḥammad‘Alī (1819–50), who assumed the title of al-Bāb (Ar., short for Bāb-al-Dīn, "the gateway to religion"). Al-Bāb built on foundations laid in Persia by a native of eastern Arabia, al-Shaykh Aḥmad Aḥsa’i (d. 1828), whose followers (Shaykhis) held the 12 imĀm descendants of ‘ali in excessive veneration and emphasized the cult of al-Mahdī [the (divinely) guided one]. The mahdĪ, according to the major body of the shĪ’ites, is the 12th hidden imām who, in the fullness of time, will reappear and, messiah-like, lead his followers to a new era of justice and prosperity. When on a pilgrimage to Kerbela (Karbalā), Iraq, al-Bāb made the acquaintance of a Shaykhi missionary from whom he received instruction, and when he was on another pilgrimage to mecca, he developed the doctrine that he was the door to esoteric knowledge and the inner veiled meaning of the scriptures.
His ideas were formulated in a "revealed" book al-Bayān (the manifestation), where Qur’ānic laws were abrogated and an allegorical interpretation (ta’wīl ) was so applied to the qur’Ān and ḥadīth (islamic tradi tions) as to be viewed as a threat to Shī’ism, the state religion, as well as to the state itself. The new teaching abolished the veil, circumcision, and ritual ablution. The law on usury was likewise repealed, but not that against drinking. Furthermore, the innovator proclaimed himself the mirror in which God was reflected and in which his adherents could see Him. Following neo-Pythagorean precedent, he gave the number 19 a mystical meaning. The year was divided into 19 months and the month into 19 days; the daily reading of 19 verses from al-Bayān, written in the style of the Qur’ān, was enjoined on all believers. The name of God was to be prayerfully repeated 361 times a day.
As al-Bāb went from place to place preaching his new gospel, he was jailed, and his followers were persecuted. Among his disciples was a beautiful, intelligent poetess, Qurrat al-‘Ayn (the satisfaction of the eye), whose missionary activity was especially successful. Despite civil and governmental opposition, adherents increased. The movement became a rallying center for political, economic, and spiritual malcontents. At the accession of Shah Nāṣir-al-Dīn (1848), the Bābis, fearing intensified persecution, took up arms. Disturbances spread in Mashhad, Zanjān, Tabriz, and other towns of Persia. In the capital, Teheran, the insurgents routed the first contingents sent against them, but were later surrounded, starved, and destroyed. In July 1850 al-Bāb was executed in the public square of Tabriz, and his body was thrown into a ditch. Two years later Bābis were charged with conspiring to murder the Shah. Another persecution followed in which Qurrat-al-‘Ayn was strangled. In all about 20,000 lost their lives at the hands of the mob, religious leaders, or soldiers.
A disciple of al-Bāb was accepted as the manifestation of the Diety for whom the Bāb had prepared the way. He assumed the title of Bahā’-Allāh (splendor of God). The cycle of 19 years (1844–63), was completed. Shaykhism led to Babism, and Babism ended in baha’ism. All three movements represented spiritual ferment and political turbulence in 19th-century Persia; but while Shaykhism remained within the fold of Islam, its outgrowths moved to the periphery.
Bibliography: c. huart, La Religion de Bāb (Paris 1889). alĪ muhammad, shĪrĀzĪ, A Traveller's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Bāb, tr. and ed. e.g. browne (Cambridge, Eng.1891). e. g. browne, comp., Materials for the Study of the Bābī Religion (Cambridge, Eng. 1918). nabÍl-i-a’zam, The Dawn Breakers, tr. shoghi effendi (2d ed. Wilmette, Ill. 1953).
[p. k. hitti]