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Bābism

By:
Denis MacEoin
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Bābism

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, several important revivalist movements appeared throughout the Islamic world. Only one of these—but by no means the least important—emerged within the confines of Twelver Shiism. This was a militant messianic movement centered around the person of a young Iranian merchant, Sayyid ʿAlī Muḥammad Shīrāzī (1819–1850), the Bāb, which was at its height during the late 1840s.

Nowadays, it is possible to consider Bābism from two distinct perspectives. For historians of Iran and modern Shiism, it represents a doomed attempt to effect radical social and religious change within an essentially medieval worldview that was itself about to give way before more powerful external forces. To members of the modernizing Bahāʿī religion, it begins a new era of religious aspiration, providing the matrix from which their own faith emerged in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

In 1844, a dispute occurred over the question of leadership in an esoteric school of Shīʿī thought known as Shaykhīyah, which had adherents in both Iran and Iraq. Among the various claimants, the most unlikely was the above-mentioned Shīrāzī (then twenty-five), who lacked formal training in the religious sciences. He and the group of mostly younger clerics who formed the core of his movement emphasized the priority of “innate” knowledge over that available in the Shīʿī seminaries. This eventually produced a mass movement which, although clerically led, had much of its support from merchants, government officials, and other social groups normally passive in religious matters.

The Bāb originally advanced only limited claims for himself. His function was, he maintained, to provide an esoteric interpretation of the Qurʿān, to intensify observance of Islamic religious law, and to prepare men for the imminent appearance of the Hidden Imam, the Mahdī or Shīʿī messiah (hence his own title of Bāb [“Gate”], a traditional term for an individual acting on behalf of an imam). To this latter end, the first Bābīs made and purchased arms in readiness for the Holy War that would inevitably follow the Imamʾs earthly reappearance, expected in 1845 or 1846.

Things did not go smoothly. Clerical opposition to the new teachings was encountered in several places, and the Bāb decided to postpone the day of the Parousia (the second coming) and to play down his public claims. He himself was placed under house arrest in his hometown of Shīrāz and later (from 1847) imprisoned in the northwestern province of Azerbaijan. In spite of this, the activities of several provincial clerics won large numbers to the Bāb's cause, and pressure for military action grew.

In early 1848, the Bāb announced that he was himself the Hidden Imam and that he had initiated a new religious era. This radical departure was formalized at a meeting of Bābī activists in July, when the laws of the Qurʿān were declared abrogated. The Resurrection had come, and throughout Iran Bābīs anticipated the coming of a new heaven and earth. In the next two years, a series of bloody clashes between bands of armed Bābīs and state troops convulsed the country. Grossly outnumbered, in spite of stiff resistance, the Bābīs succumbed. Much of the leadership was wiped out, and the movement's central promise of a new order was torn to shreds.

The Bāb was executed in Tabriz in July 1850, leaving behind a substantial body of writing deemed by his surviving followers to be divine revelation. To many, the execution proved the final blow to Bābism; to a remnant of diehard believers, some form of reassessment and restructuring became inevitable. Following a slapdash attempt in 1852 on the life of Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh, the Shah of Iraq (r. 1848–96), a group of Bābi survivors was expelled from Iran and chose to take up residence in Baghdad.

Here, two strands of what can be termed “Middle Bābism” emerged under the leadership of two brothers, Mīrzā Ḥusayn ʿAlī Nūrī (Bahāʿ Allāh) and Mīrzā Yaḥyā (Ṣubḥ-i Azal). The latter was the designated successor of the Bāb and the original focus for what life remained in the sect. He emphasized an obscurantist approach, basing his own teaching firmly on the later, post-Islamic doctrines of the Bāb. Curiously enough, the rather introspective group centered on Yaḥyā (and known later as Azalīs) produced several important figures in the democratic and social reform movement in Iran around the turn of the century.

In contrast to Ṣubḥ-i Azal, Bahāʿ Allāh was a worldly, wise leader who in time attracted to himself the majority of living Bābīs and, later, a growing following from outside the sect. During the 1850s and 1860s, Bahāʿī Bābism had succeeded in playing down the more militant and occult side of the Bāb's teachings. In the late 1860s Bahāʿ Allāh began to advance claims of a quasidivine nature, claiming to be the author of a new revelation, with the Bāb his forerunner. In association with these claims, he developed a much simpler and more accessible theological system, bringing the movement directly within reach of lay persons. In consequence, Bahāʿī Bābism and the larger Bahāʿī religion that emerged from it ceased to be clerically dominated and attracted large numbers of the new educated classes in the Iranian cities.

Although its direct impact on the Islamic world and on Iran has been small, Bābism is important for a number of reasons. To use rather loose terminology, it was the last of the “medieval” Islamic movements, with values drawn from a world already threatened by the penetration of the West. Unlike later reformist movements, it was not a response to the challenges of modernism. But, whereas earlier extremist Shīʿī movements of its type had vanished or continued on the margins of orthodox Islam, Bābism hung on just long enough to refashion its teachings and to move, in its Bahāʿī form, entirely beyond Islam. It was the first and only Islamic sect to do so, and the implications have not been lost on the large numbers of Muslim writers who have portrayed Bābism and Bahāʿīism as ideal types of modern heresy.

See also BāB; BAHāʿ ALLāH; BAHāʿī; IMAM; and MAHDī.

Bibliography

  • Amanat, Abbas. Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Bābī Movement in Iran, 1844–1850. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1989. Authoritative and detailed history of the sect up to the execution of the Bāb. Excellent analysis of the social and political background. Some carelessness in the use of sources.
  • Browne, Edward G.“The Bābīs of Persia. I. Sketch of Their History, and Personal Experiences amongst Them. II. Their Literature and Doctrines.”Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society21 (1889): 485–526, 881–1009. Reprinted with annotations in Selections from the Writings of E. G. Browne on the Bābī and Bahāʿī Religions, ed. Moojan Momen, Oxford, U.K., pp. 145–315. Early accounts by the first serious Western scholar to study the subject. Still of great value for Browne's observations, based on contact with survivors of the earliest period.
  • MacEoin, Denis. “Bābism: i. The Bābī Movement,” In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 3, fasc. 3, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, pp. 309–317. London and New York, 1982–. The most comprehensive encyclopedia entry currently available on this topic.
  • MacEoin, Denis. The Sources for Early Bābī Doctrine and History: A Survey. Leiden, 1992. Specialized study that provides the broadest overview of the literature of Bābism as well as a full discussion of the many controversies over historical sources.
  • Momen, Moojan. “The Social Basis of the Bābī Upheavals in Iran, 1848–53.”International Journal of Middle East Studies15 (1943): 157–183. One of a number of intelligent studies locating Bābism in its social context.
  • Momen, Moojan. The Bābī and Bahāʿī Religions, 1844–1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts. Oxford, 1981. The first part of this book contains numerous documents on Bābism, taken mainly from European diplomatic archives. The editor's summaries of Bābī history are helpful, if biased in favor of a modern Bahāʿī interpretation.
  • Momen, Moojan, and Peter Smith. “The Bābī Movement: A Resource Mobilization Perspective.” In In Iran: Studies in Bābī and Bahāʿī History, vol. 3, edited by Peter Smith, pp. 33–93. Los Angeles, 1986. Comprehensive overview of the movement, representing a fruitful collaboration between two Bahāʿīs, one a historian, the other a sociologist.
  • Paine, Mabel Hyde, and Anne Marie Scheffer, eds.The Divine Art of Living: Selections from the Writings of Baháʿuʿllāh, the Bāb, and ʿAbduʿl-Baḥáʿ. Wilmette, Ill.: Baháʿí Publishing, 2006.
  • Saiedi, Nader. Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Bab. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010.
  • Zarandī, Muḥammad Nabīl. The Dawn-Breakers: Nabīl's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahāʿī Revelation. Translated and edited by Shoghi Effendi. New York, 1932. Standard Bahāʿī account of the period to 1852, written by a contemporary of the Bāb's. This is the most detailed source for Bābī history, although the author's religious bias must be taken into account constantly.
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