The Roots of the Baha’i Faith: The Bab and Baha’u’llah
Bahá’í History is often traced through a sequence of leaders, beginning with the Báb‘s May 23, 1844 declaration in Shiraz, and ultimately resting on an administrative order established by the central figures of the religion. The religion had its background in two earlier movements in the nineteenth century, Shaykhism and Babism. Shaykhism centred on theosophical doctrines and many Shaykhis expected the return of the hidden Twelfth Imam. Many Shaykhis joined the messianic Babi movement in the 1840s where the Báb proclaimed himself to be the return of the hidden Imam. As the Babi movement spread in Iran, violence broke out between the ruling Shi’a Muslim government and the Babis, and ended when government troops massacred the Babis, and executed the Bab in 1850.
The Bab had spoken of another messianic figure, He whom God shall make manifest. One of the followers of the Bab, Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned by the Iranian government after the Bab’s execution and then exiled to Iraq, and then to Constantinople and Adrianople in the Ottoman Empire. In 1863 in Baghdad, Bahá’u’lláh claimed to be the messianic figure expected by the Bab’s writings. Bahá’ís consider the Baha’i religion to start from Bahá’u’lláh’s statements in 1863.
At the time of Bahá’u’lláh’s death the tradition was mostly confined to the Persian and Ottoman empires, at which time he had followers in thirteen countries of Asia and Africa. Leadership of the religion then passed on to `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s son, who was appointed by Bahá’u’lláh, and was accepted by almost all Bahá’ís. Under the leadership of `Abdu’l-Bahá, the religion gained a footing in Europe and America, and was consolidated in Iran, where it still suffers intense persecution.
After the death of `Abdu’l-Bahá in 1921, the leadership of the Bahá’í community was passed on to his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who was appointed in `Abdu’l-Bahá’s will. The document appointed Shoghi Effendi as the first Guardian, and called for the election of the Universal House of Justice once the Bahá’í Faith had spread sufficiently for such elections to be meaningful. During Shoghi Effendi’s time as leader of the religion there was a great increase in the number of Baha’is, and he presided over the election of many National Spiritual Assemblies.
Shoghi Effendi died in 1957, and because he was childless he had found it impossible to appoint another Guardian after himself to succeed him. In 1963 the Universal House of Justice was elected. Since 1963 the Universal House of Justice has been elected every five years and remains the successor and leading institution of the religion. See Bahá’í Faith by country for further information per country.
Shaykhi Movement – Shaykhism
In Islam, the Mahdi is a messianic figure who is believed to be a descendant of Muhammad who will return near the end of time to restore the world and the religion of God. While both Sunni and Shi’a groups believe in the Mahdi, the largest Shi’a group, the Twelvers, believe that the Mahdi is the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is believed to have gone into occultation since 874 CE.
In the Twelver view the Twelfth Imam first went into a “Minor Occultation” between 874 and 941 CE where the Hidden Imam still communicated with the community through four official intermediaries. The “Greater Occultation” is then defined from the time when the Hidden Imam ceased to communicate regularly until the time when he returns to restore the world.
Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsá’í – Shaykh Ahmad
The Shaykhi movement was a school of theology within Twelver Shi’a Islam that was started through the teaching of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsá’í. Shaykh Ahmad’s teachings included that the Imams were spiritual beings and thus, in contrast to the widespread Shi’a belief, that the Imams existed within spiritual bodies, and not material bodies. He also taught that there must always exist the “Perfect Shi’a” who serves as an intermediary between the Imams and the believers, and is the one who can visualize the consciousness of the Hidden Imam.
In 1822 he left Iran and went to Iraq due to the controversy that his teachings had brought. There he also found himself at the centre of debate, thus deciding to move to Mecca, he died in 1826 on his way there.
Siyyid Kázim-i-Rashtí – Siyyid Kázim
Before the death of Shaykh Ahmad, he appointed Siyyid Kázim of Rasht to lead the Shaykhí movement, which he did until his death in 1843. Siyyid Kázim formulated many of the thoughts that were ambiguously expressed by Shaykh Ahmad including the doctrine of salvation history and the cycles of revelation. His teaching brought a sense of millenarian hope among the Shaykhis that the Hidden Imam may return. Siyyid Kazim did not leave a successor, but before his death in December, 1843, he had counselled his followers to leave their homes to seek the Mahdi, who according to his prophecies would soon appear.
Shrine of the Báb in Haifa, Israel
Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad, who later took on the title the Báb, was born on October 20, 1819, in Shiraz to a merchant of the city; his father died while he was quite young and the boy was raised by his maternal uncle Ḥájí Mírzá Siyyid `Alí, who was also a merchant.
In May 1844 the Báb proclaimed to Mulla Husayn, one of the Shaykhis, to be the one whose coming was prophesized by Shaykh Ahmad and Siyyid Kázim and the bearer of divine knowledge. Within five months, seventeen other disciples of Siyyid Káẓim had recognized the Báb as a Manifestation of God. These eighteen disciples were later to be known as the Letters of the Living and were given the task of spreading the new faith across Iran and Iraq. The Báb initially attracted most of the followers of the Shaykhí movement, but soon his teachings went far beyond those roots and attracted prominent followers across Iran. His followers were known as Bábís.
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. After being house arrest in Shiraz from June 1845 to September 1846, the Báb spent several months in Isfahan debating clergy, many who became sympathetic. He was then ordered by the Shah to Tehran in January 1847; after spending several months in a camp outside Tehran, the Prime Minister sent the Báb to Tabriz in the northwestern corner of the country, where he was confined.
He 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. He was then transferred 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. Bábism was also spreading across the country, and the Islamic government saw it as a threat to state religion and several military confrontations took place between government and Bábí forces. Communities of Bábís established themselves in Iran and Iráq, and in 1850 reached several cities of Azarbaijan.
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. 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. The Báb and a companion were suspended on a wall and a large firing squad prepared to shoot. After the order was given to shoot and the smoke 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. The soldiers subsequently found the Báb in another part of the barracks, completely unharmed. He was tied up for execution a second time, a second firing squad was ranged in front of them, and a second order to fire was given. This time, the Báb and his companion were killed. Their remains were dumped outside the gates of the town to be eaten by animals.
The remains, however, were rescued by a handful of Bábis and were hidden. Over time the remains were secretly transported by way of Isfahan, Kirmansháh, Baghdad and Damascus, to Beirut and thence by sea to Acre, Israel 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 the Bahá’í Holy Land in Haifa and remains an important place of pilgrimage for Bahá’ís.
While the Báb claimed a station of revelation, he also claimed no finality for his revelation. A constant theme in his works, especially the Persian Bayan was that of the great Promised One, the next embodiment of the Primal Will, 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.
Before his death, the Báb had been in correspondence with two brothers, Bahá’u’lláh and Subh-i-Azal who, after the death of many prominent disciples, emerged as the mostly likely leaders. In a letter sent to Subh-i-Azal, then aged around nineteen, the Báb appears to have indicated a high station or leadership position. The letter also orders Subh-i-Azal to obey the Promised One when he appears; in practise, Subh-i-Azal, however, seems to have had little widespread legitimacy and authority. Bahá’u’lláh in the meantime, while in private hinted at his own high station, in public kept his messianic secret from most and supported Subh-i-Azal in the interest of unity. In 1863 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” and his followers began calling themselves Bahá’ís.