In order to adequately understand Babism, it is importany to realize the circumstances of the historical and geographical context
in which it emerged. Iran
during the nineteenth century was suffering from a rapid decline similar to many other Middle and Far Eastern
nations in the face of rising European colonialism
. Military incursions by Russian
forces into Iranian territory led many to believe that the Islamic world in general and Shi’a
Iran in particular were heading for a collapse
the coming of the End Times
This concept held special significance for Shi’a Islam, which believed that the hidden Twelfth Iman would emerge from occultation as the Mahdi just before the Day of Resurection to bring perfect, everlasting justice. One of the primary religious leaders of the time who believed that the appearance of the Mahdi was immenent was a man by the name of Shaik Ahmad al-Ahsa’i, who taught that there existed at all times a “Perfect Shi’i” who was constantly in contact with the hidden Imam. Al-Ahsa’i charged his followers with finding the Pefect Shi’i after his death, a tradition that was carried on and codified by his student, Sayyed Kazem, who developed al-Ahasa’i’s teaching into the Shaiki school and sent his followers off to various parts of Iran in a quest to find the Perfect Shi’i.
One of these followers, a Shaikhi known as Molla Hosain, believed he had found what the group was looking for in Shariz in south Iran. Arriving on May 23, 1844, he encounted young merchant named Sayyed ‘Ali Mohammad. Mohammad claimed to be the person Hosain was looking for, though he clarified his claim by stating that the Mahdi did not communicate through one, but four intermediaries called gates, or bab in Persian. Hosain believed his claim to be true and became the first of the Bab’s disciples. The Bab attracted seventeen other disciples and sent them throughout Iran to announce his arrival, while he himself went on a pilgrimage to Mecca to announce the coming of the Mahdi.
Suffice it to say, the religious and secular authorities within Iran did not take to these claims very kindly. Religious authorities viewed the Bab’s claim as the worst kind of heresy, as the Bab ascribed to himself a level of divine communion nearly on par with that of the Prophet Mohammad himself, while the secular authorities were greatly troubled by any claims made regarding the Mahdi, whom many believed would usher in his age by overthrowing existing governments. The Bab and his followers were arrested immediately upon his return to Shiraz.
It is important to understand that at this point, Babism remain ed extremely Islamic and Shi’ite in its nature. Babis advocated a strict adherence to Islamic law, and its obsession with motifs of the End Days and the return of the Mahdi were still fairly in line with other radical elements within Shi’ism. This close adherance to traditional Shi’a ideology won the Bab numerous converts among prominent Iranian merchants and even members of the clergy who were disillusioned by the rapid decline of both religion and the government within Iran. The movement also had some appeal to certain religious minorities, particularly a number of Jews, Sufis, and even a few Zoroastrians, though the movement was unsuccessful in gaining Christian or Sunnis. For the most part, however, the movement consisted of converts from a wide range of Shi’a sects. Unsurprising, since initially, the Babi movement was still very much a Shi’a movement in nature. The only truly unique claim of the Bab was his supposedly divinely granted authority , which proved to be sufficient grounds for his imprisonment.
With their leader confined, however, the Bab’s followers began a rapid slide towards radicalism, adopting and openly claiming highlyheterodox beliefs, and even engaging in openly violent resistence against the Iranian government. This was further spurred on by the Bab’s call for a jihad, urging his followers to shed their blood in their mission to covert the entire world to his cause. There is still some debate among scholars as to whether or not the Bab ever authorized any specific acts of violence; the majority of Bahá'i scholars dismiss such a possibility, insisting that the Bab did everything in his power to curb the growing incidents of violence. This may very well be a biased interpretation of events, however, as the Bahá'is’ recognition of the Bab as one of the divine manifestations of God make any insinuation of violent tendencies on his part clash with Bahá'i pacifism.
Whether or not the Bab actively promoted jihad, however, it is undeniable that many of the Babis themselves carried out the idea to its fullest extent. Many Babis began wearing weapons openly in public, particularly swords, which helped turn otherwise trivial incidents into violent confrontations. This played well with traditional Shi’a reverence for the idea of martyrdom of the just in the face of overwhelming odds, which accomplished little beyond furthering crackdown and repression on the Babis by both government and religious authorities.
The situation escalated when the Bab, writing from his prison cell, announced that he was not the “gate” to the Mahdi but was in fact the Mahdi himself, and morever, he had arrived to completely abrogate the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad and replace Islam with his own religion. He also announced that another divine manifestation after himself would occur, possibly within the immediate future, an idea of vital importance to the eventual emergence of the Baha’i.
The Babi religion itself, however, was doomed to destruction. The Bab was executed in 1850, as well as all of his leading lieutenants. The Babis had previously accomplished the very difficult task of creating an organized movement that spread across much of an otherwise decentralized and balkanized Iran, but this organization crumbled with the death of its leaders. At least 3,000 Babis were executed during the period between 1848 and 1852, and the remainder were forced to either recant their religious beliefs or go into exile. Despite the crippling of the movement, the Iranian government continued to obsess over the possibility of another Babi uprising, or the possible presence of occulted Babis biding their time and secretly plotting against the government.