The Báb:1 The Forerunner
Persia, the birthplace of the Bahá’í Revelation, has occupied a unique place in the history of the world. In the days of her early greatness she was a veritable queen among nations, unrivaled in civilization, in power and in splendor. She gave to the world great kings and statesmen, prophets and poets, philosophers and artists. Zoroaster, Cyrus and Darius, Ḥáfiz and Firdawsí, Sa‘dí and ‘Umar Khayyám are but a few of her many famous sons. Her craftsmen were unsurpassed in skill; her carpets were matchless, her steel blades unequaled, her pottery world famous. In all parts of the Near and Middle East she has left traces of her former greatness.
Yet, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries she had sunk to a condition of deplorable degradation. Her ancient glory seemed irretrievably lost. Her government was corrupt and in desperate financial straits; some of her rulers were feeble, and others monsters of cruelty. Her priests were bigoted and intolerant, her people ignorant and superstitious. Most of them belonged to the Shí‘ih sect,2 of Muḥammadans, but there were also considerable numbers of Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, of diverse and antagonistic sects. All professed to follow sublime teachers who exhorted them to worship the one God and to live in love and unity, yet they shunned, detested and despised each other, each sect regarding the others as unclean, as dogs or heathens. Cursing and execration were indulged in to a fearful extent. It was dangerous for a Jew or a Zoroastrian to walk in the street on a rainy day, for if his wet garment should touch a Muḥammadan, the Muslim was defiled, and the other might have to atone for the offense with his life. If a Muḥammadan took money from a Jew, Zoroastrian or Christian he had to wash it before he could put it in his pocket. If a Jew found his child giving a glass of water to a poor Muḥammadan beggar he would dash the glass from the child’s hand, for curses rather than kindness should be the portion of infidels! The Muslims themselves were divided into numerous sects, among whom strife was often bitter and fierce. The Zoroastrians did not join much in these mutual recriminations, but lived in communities apart, refusing to associate with their fellow countrymen of other faiths.
Social as well as religious affairs were in a state of hopeless decadence. Education was neglected. Western science and art were looked upon as unclean and contrary to religion. Justice was travestied. Pillage and robbery were of common occurrence. Roads were bad and unsafe for travel. Sanitary arrangements were shockingly defective.
Yet, notwithstanding all this, the light of spiritual life was not extinct in Persia. Here and there, amid the prevailing worldliness and superstition, could still be found some saintly souls, and in many a heart the longing for God was cherished, as in the hearts of Anna and Simeon before the appearance of Jesus. Many were eagerly awaiting the coming of a promised Messenger of God, and confident that the time of His advent was at hand. Such was the state of affairs in Persia when the Báb, the Herald of a new era, set all the country in commotion with His message.
Mírzá ‘Alí-Muḥammad, Who afterwards assumed the title of Báb (i.e., Gate), was born at Shíráz, in the south of Persia, on the 20th of October, 1819 A.D.3 He was a Siyyid, that is, a descendant of the Prophet Muḥammad. His father, a well-known merchant, died soon after His birth, and He was then placed under the care of a maternal uncle, a merchant of Shíráz, who brought Him up. In childhood He learned to read, and received the elementary education customary for children.4 At the age of fifteen He went into business, at first with His guardian, and afterwards with another uncle who lived at Búshihr, on the shore of the Gulf of Persia.
As a youth He was noted for great personal beauty and charm of manner, and also for exceptional piety, and nobility of character. He was unfailing in His observance of the prayers, fasts and other ordinances of the Muḥammadan religion, and not only obeyed the letter, but lived in the spirit of the Prophet’s teachings. He married when about twenty-two years of age. Of this marriage one son was born, who died while still an infant, in the first year of the Báb’s public ministry.
On reaching His twenty-fifth year, in response to divine command, He declared that “God the Exalted had elected Him to the station of Bábhood.” In “A Traveler’s Narrative”5 we read that:—“What he intended by the term Báb was this, that he was the channel of grace from some great Person still behind the veil of glory, who was the possessor of countless and boundless perfections, by whose will he moved, and to the bond of whose love he clung.”—A Traveler’s Narrative (Episode of the Báb).
In those days belief in the imminent appearance of a Divine Messenger was especially prevalent among a sect known as the Shaykhís, and it was to a distinguished divine belonging to this sect, called Mullá Ḥusayn Bushrú’i, that the Báb first announced His mission. The exact date of this announcement is given in the Bayán, one of the Báb’s Writings, as two hours and eleven minutes after sunset on the eve preceding the fifth day of the month of Jamádíyu’l-Avval 1260 A.H.6 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was born in the course of the same night, but the exact hour of His birth has not been ascertained. After some days of anxious investigation and study, Mullá Ḥusayn became firmly convinced that the Messenger long expected by the Shí‘ihs had indeed appeared. His eager enthusiasm over this discovery was soon shared by several of his friends. Before long the majority of the Shaykhís accepted the Báb, becoming known as Bábís; and soon the fame of the young Prophet began to spread like wildfire throughout the land.
The first eighteen disciples of the Báb (with Himself as nineteenth) became known as “Letters of the Living.” These disciples He sent to different parts of Persia and Turkistán to spread the news of His advent. Meantime He Himself set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca, where He arrived in December 1844, and there openly declared His mission. On His return to Búshihr great excitement was caused by the announcement of His Bábhood. The fire of His eloquence, the wonder of His rapid and inspired writings, His extraordinary wisdom and knowledge, His courage and zeal as a reformer, aroused the greatest enthusiasm among His followers, but excited a corresponding degree of alarm and enmity among the orthodox Muslims. The Shí‘ih doctors vehemently denounced Him, and persuaded the Governor of Fárs, namely Ḥusayn Khán, a fanatical and tyrannical ruler, to undertake the suppression of the new heresy. Then commenced for the Báb a long series of imprisonments, deportations, examinations before tribunals, scourgings and indignities, which ended only with His martyrdom in 1850.
The hostility aroused by the claim of Bábhood was redoubled when the young reformer proceeded to declare that He was Himself the Mihdí (Mahdi) Whose coming Muḥammad had foretold. The Shí‘ihs identified this Mihdí with the 12th Imám7 who, according to their beliefs, had mysteriously disappeared from the sight of men about a thousand years previously. They believed that he was still alive and would reappear in the same body as before, and they interpreted in a material sense the prophecies regarding his dominion, his glory, his conquests and the “signs” of his advent, just as the Jews in the time of Christ interpreted similar prophecies regarding the Messiah. They expected that he would appear with earthly sovereignty and an innumerable army and declare his revelation, that he would raise dead bodies and restore them to life, and so on. As these signs did not appear, the Shí‘ihs rejected the Báb with the same fierce scorn which the Jews displayed towards Jesus. The Bábís, on the other hand, interpreted many of the prophecies figuratively. They regarded the sovereignty of the Promised One, like that of the Galilean “Man of Sorrows,” as a mystical sovereignty; His glory as spiritual, not earthly glory; His conquests as conquests over the cities of men’s hearts; and they found abundant proof of the Báb’s claim in His wonderful life and teachings, His unshakable faith, His invincible steadfastness, and His power of raising to newness of spiritual life those who were in the graves of error and ignorance.
But the Báb did not stop even with the claim of Mihdíhood. He adopted the sacred title of “Nuqṭiyiúlá” or “Primal Point.” This was a title applied to Muḥammad Himself by His followers. Even the Imáms were secondary in importance to the “Point,” from Whom they derived their inspiration and authority. In assuming this title, the Báb claimed to rank, like Muḥammad, in the series of great Founders of Religion, and for this reason, in the eyes of the Shí‘ihs, He was regarded as an impostor, just as Moses and Jesus before Him had been regarded as impostors. He even inaugurated a new calendar, restoring the solar year, and dating the commencement of the New Era from the year of His own Declaration.
In consequence of these declarations of the Báb and the alarming rapidity with which people of all classes, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, were eagerly responding to His teaching, attempts at suppression became more and more ruthless and determined. Houses were pillaged and destroyed. Women were seized and carried off. In Ṭihrán, Fárs, Mázindarán, and other places great numbers of the believers were put to death. Many were beheaded, hanged, blown from the mouths of cannon, burnt or chopped to pieces. Despite all attempts at repression, however, the movement progressed. Nay, through this very oppression the assurance of the believers increased, for thereby many of the prophecies concerning the coming of the Mihdí were literally fulfilled. Thus in a tradition recorded by Jábir, which the Shí‘ihs regard as authentic, we read:—
In him shall be the perfection of Moses, the preciousness of Jesus, and the patience of Job; his saints shall be abased in his time, and their heads shall be exchanged as presents, even as the heads of the Turk and the Deylamite are exchanged as presents; they shall be slain and burned, and shall be afraid, fearful and dismayed; the earth shall be dyed with their blood, and lamentation shall prevail amongst their women; these are my saints indeed.—New History of the Báb, translated by Prof. E. G. Browne.
On the 9th of July, 1850,8 the Báb Himself, Who was then in His thirty-first year, fell a victim to the fanatical fury of His persecutors. With a devoted young follower named Áqá Muḥammad-‘Alí, who had passionately begged to be allowed to share His martyrdom, He was led to the scaffold in the old barrack square of Tabríz. About two hours before noon the two were suspended by ropes under their armpits in such a way that the head of Muḥammad-‘Alí rested against the breast of his beloved Master. A regiment of Armenian soldiers was drawn up and received the order to fire. Promptly the volleys rang out, but when the smoke cleared, it was found that the Báb and His companion were still alive. The bullets had but severed the ropes by which they were suspended, so that they dropped to the ground unhurt. The Báb proceeded to a room nearby, where He was found talking to one of His friends. About noon they were again suspended. The Armenians, who considered the result of their volleys a miracle, were unwilling to fire again, so another regiment of soldiers had been brought on the scene, who fired when ordered. This time the volleys took effect. The bodies of both victims were riddled by bullets and horribly mutilated, although their faces were almost untouched.
By this foul deed the Barrack Square of Tabríz became a second Calvary. The enemies of the Báb enjoyed a guilty thrill of triumph, thinking that this hated tree of the Bábí faith was now severed at the root, and its complete eradication would be easy! But their triumph was short-lived! They did not realize that the Tree of Truth cannot be felled by any material ax. Had they but known, this very crime of theirs was the means of giving greater vigor to the Cause. The martyrdom of the Báb fulfilled His own cherished wish and inspired His followers with increased zeal. Such was the fire of their spiritual enthusiasm that the bitter winds of persecution but fanned it to a fiercer blaze: The greater the efforts at extinction, the higher mounted the flames.
After the Báb’s martyrdom, His remains, with those of His devoted companion, were thrown on the edge of the moat outside the city wall. On the second night they were rescued at midnight by some of the Bábís, and after being concealed for years in secret depositories in Persia, were ultimately brought, with great danger and difficulty, to the Holy Land. There they are now interred in a tomb beautifully situated on the slope of Mount Carmel, not far from the Cave of Elijah, and only a few miles from the spot where Bahá’u’lláh spent His last years and where His remains now lie. Among the thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the world who come to pay homage at the Holy Tomb of Bahá’u’lláh, none omits to offer a prayer also at the shrine of His devoted lover and forerunner, the Báb.
The Writings of the Báb were voluminous, and the rapidity with which, without study or premeditation, He composed elaborate commentaries, profound expositions or eloquent prayers was regarded as one of the proofs of His divine inspiration.
Some of these [the Báb’s Writings] were commentaries on, and interpretations of the verses of the Qur’án; some were prayers, homilies, and hints of [the true significance of certain] passages; others were exhortations, admonitions, dissertations on the different branches of the doctrine of the Divine Unity … encouragements to amendment of character, severance from worldly states, and dependence on the inspirations of God. But the essence and purport of his compositions were the praises and descriptions of that Reality soon to appear which was his only object and aim, his darling, and his desire. For he regarded his own appearance as that of a harbinger of good tidings, and considered his own real nature merely as a means for the manifestation of the greater perfections of that One. And indeed he ceased not from celebrating Him by night or day for a single instant, but used to signify to all his followers that they should expect His arising: in such wise that he declares in his writings, “I am a letter out of that most mighty book and a dew-drop from that limitless ocean, and, when He shall appear, my true nature, my mysteries, riddles, and intimations will become evident, and the embryo of this religion shall develop through the grades of its being and ascent, attain to the station of ‘the most comely of forms,’ and become adorned with the robe of ‘blessed be God, the Best of Creators.’” … and so inflamed was he with His flame that commemoration of Him was the bright candle of his dark nights in the fortress of Máh-Kú, and remembrance of Him was the best of companions in the straits of the prison of Chihríq. Thereby he obtained spiritual enlargements; with His wine was he inebriated; and at remembrance of Him did he rejoice.—A Traveler’s Narrative (Episode of the Báb).
The Báb has been compared to John the Baptist, but the station of the Báb is not merely that of the herald or forerunner. In Himself the Báb was a Manifestation of God, the Founder of an independent religion, even though that religion was limited in time to a brief period of years. The Bahá’ís believe that the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh were Co-Founders of Their Faith, the following words of Bahá’u’lláh testifying to this truth: “That so brief a span should have separated this most mighty and wondrous Revelation from Mine own previous Manifestation, is a secret that no man can unravel and a mystery such as no mind can fathom. Its duration had been foreordained, and no man shall ever discover its reason unless and until he be informed of the contents of My Hidden Book.” In His references to Bahá’u’lláh, however, the Báb revealed an utter selflessness, declaring that, in the day of “Him Whom God shall manifest”:—“If one should hear a single verse from Him and recite it, it is better than that he should recite the Bayán [i.e., the Revelation of the Báb] a thousand times.”—A Traveler’s Narrative (Episode of the Báb).
He counted Himself happy in enduring any affliction, if by so doing He could smooth the path, by ever so little, for “Him Whom God shall make manifest,” Who was, He declared, the sole source of His inspiration as well as the sole object of His love.
An important part of the Báb’s teaching is His explanation of the terms Resurrection, Day of Judgment, Paradise and Hell. By the Resurrection is meant, He said, the appearance of a new Manifestation of the Sun of Truth. The raising of the dead means the spiritual awakening of those who are asleep in the graves of ignorance, heedlessness and lust. The Day of Judgment is the Day of the new Manifestation, by acceptance or rejection of Whose Revelation the sheep are separated from the goats, for the sheep know the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow Him. Paradise is the joy of knowing and loving God, as revealed through His Manifestation, thereby attaining to the utmost perfection of which one is capable, and, after death, obtaining entrance to the Kingdom of God and the life everlasting. Hell is simply deprivation of that knowledge of God with consequent failure to attain divine perfection, and loss of the Eternal Favor. He definitely declared that these terms have no real meaning apart from this; and that the prevalent ideas regarding the resurrection of the material body, a material heaven and hell, and the like, are mere figments of the imagination. He taught that man has a life after death, and that in the afterlife progress towards perfection is limitless.
In His Writings the Báb tells His followers that they must be distinguished by brotherly love and courtesy. Useful arts and crafts must be cultivated. Elementary education should be general. In the new and wondrous Dispensation now commencing, women are to have fuller freedom. The poor are to be provided for out of the common treasury, but begging is strictly forbidden, as is the use of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.
So worship God that if the recompense of thy worship of Him were to be the Fire, no alteration in thy worship of Him would be produced. If you worship from fear, that is unworthy of the threshold of the holiness of God.… So also, if your gaze is on Paradise, and if you worship in hope of that; for then you have made God’s creation a Partner with Him.—Bábís of Persia, II, by Prof. E. G. Browne, J.R.A.S., vol. xxi.
This last quotation reveals the spirit which animated the Báb’s whole life. To know and love God, to mirror forth His attributes and to prepare the way for His coming Manifestation—these were the sole aim and object of His being. For Him life had no terrors and death no sting, for love had cast out fear, and martyrdom itself was but the rapture of casting His all at the feet of His Beloved.
Strange! that this pure and beautiful Soul, this inspired Teacher of Divine Truth, this devoted Lover of God and of His fellowmen should be so hated, and done to death by the professedly religious of His day! Surely nothing but unthinking or willful prejudice could blind men to the fact that here was indeed a Prophet, a Holy Messenger of God. Worldly greatness and glory He had none, but how can spiritual Power and Dominion be proved except by the ability to dispense with all earthly assistance, and to triumph over all earthly opposition, even the most potent and virulent? How can Divine Love be demonstrated to an unbelieving world save by its capacity to endue to the uttermost the blows of calamity and the darts of affliction, the hatred of enemies and the treachery of seeming friends, to rise serene above all these and, undismayed and unembittered, still to forgive and bless?
The Báb has endured and the Báb has triumphed. Thousands have testified to the sincerity of their love for Him by sacrificing their lives and their all in His service. Kings might well envy His power over men’s hearts and lives. Moreover, “He Whom the Lord shall make manifest” has appeared, has confirmed the claims and accepted the devotion of His forerunner, and made Him partaker of His Glory.