|The early nineteenth century was
a period of messianic expectations in many lands. Deeply disturbed by the implications of
scientific inquiry and industrialization, earnest believers from many religious
backgrounds turned to the scriptures of their faiths for an understanding of the
accelerating processes of change.
and America groups like the Templers and the Millerites believed they had found in the
Christian scriptures evidence supporting their conviction that history had ended and the
return of Jesus Christ was at hand. A markedly similar ferment developed in the Middle
East around the belief that the fulfillment of various prophecies in the Qur'an and
Islamic Traditions was imminent.
By far the most dramatic of these millennialist movements
emerged in Iran. It focused on the person and teachings of a young merchant from the city
of Shiraz, known to history as the Báb. From 1844 to 1863, Persians of all classes were
caught up in a storm of hope and excitement, aroused by the Báb's announcement that the
Day of God was at hand and that He was Himself the One promised in Islamic scripture.
Humanity stood, He said, on the threshold of an era that would witness the restructuring
of all aspects of life.
In some respects, the Báb's role can be compared to John the
Baptist in the founding of Christianity. The Báb was Bahá'u'lláh's herald: His primary
mission was to prepare the way for Bahá'u'lláh's coming. Accordingly, the founding of
the Bábí Faith is viewed by Bahá'ís as synonymous with the founding of the Bahá'í
Faith--and its purpose was fulfilled when Bahá'u'lláh announced in 1863 that He was the
Promised One foretold by the Báb.
At the same time, however, the Báb founded a distinctive,
independent religion of His own. Known as the Bábí Faith, that religious dispensation
spawned its own vigorous community, own scriptures, and left its own indelible mark on
The Bábí Faith was founded on 23 May 1844 when a
25-year-old merchant in the Iranian city of Shiraz announced that He was Islam's promised
Qa'im, "He Who Will Arise." Although the young merchant's given name was Siyyid
'Ali-Muhammed, He took the name "Báb," a title that means "Gate" or
"Door" in Arabic. His coming, the Báb explained, represented the portal through
which the universal Messenger of God expected by all humanity would soon appear.
Accounts agree that the Báb was an extraordinary child. Born
on 20 October 1819, He possessed a surprising wisdom and nobility, reminiscent of the
young Jesus, Upon reaching manhood, the Báb joined his uncle in the family business, a
trading house. His integrity and piety won the esteem of the other merchants with whom He
came in contact. He was also known for His generosity to the poor.
After His announcement, the Báb attracted followers rapidly,
and the new religious movement spread through Iran like wildfire.
This growth stirred opposition and persecution--especially
among the religious establishment, who saw a threat to their power and prestige. In the
course of this persecution, the Báb was imprisoned several times.
His major work, the Bayan, abrogated certain Muslim laws and
replaced them with new ones. The Bayan stressed a high moral standard, with an emphasis on
purity of heart and motive. It also upheld the station of women and the poor, and it
promoted education and useful sciences.
The central theme of the Bayan was the imminence of a second
Messenger from God, one Who would be far greater than the Báb, and Whose mission would be
to usher in the age of peace and plenty that had for so long been promised in Islam, as
well as in Judaism, Christianity, and all the other world religions.
The hearts and minds of those who heard the message of the
Báb were locked in a mental world that had changed little from medieval times. Thus, by
proclaiming an entirely new religion, the Báb was able to help His followers break free
entirely from the Islamic frame of reference and to mobilize them in preparation for the
coming of Bahá'u'lláh.
The boldness of this proclamation--which put forth the vision
of an entirely new society--stirred intense fear within the religious and secular
establishments. Accordingly, persecution of the Bábís quickly developed. Those opposed
to the Báb ultimately argued that He was not only a heretic, but a dangerous rebel. The
authorities decided to have Him executed.
On 9 July 1850, this sentence was carried out, in the
courtyard of the Tabriz army barracks. Some 1O,OOO people crowded the rooftops of the
barracks and houses that overlooked the square. The Báb and a young follower were
suspended by two ropes against a wall. A regiment of 750 Armenian soldiers, arranged in
three files of 250 each, opened fire in three successive volleys. So dense was the smoke
raised by the gunpowder and dust that the sky was darkened and the entire yard obscured.
As recorded in an account filed with the British Foreign
Office, the Báb was not to be seen when the smoke cleared. His companion stood uninjured
and untouched by the bullets. The ropes by which he and the Báb had been suspended were
rent into pieces.
The Báb was found back in His cell, giving final
instructions to one of His followers. Earlier in the day, when the guards had come to take
Him to the execution ground, the Báb had warned that no "earthly power" could
silence Him until He had finished all that He had to say. Now, when the guards arrived a
second time, the Báb calmly announced: "Now you may proceed to fulfill your
For the second time, the Báb and His young companion were
brought out for execution. The Armenian troops refused to fire again, and a Muslim firing
squad was assembled and ordered to shoot. This time the bodies of the pair were shattered,
their bones and flesh mingled into one mass. Surprisingly, their faces were untouched.