The Life of
Siyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi
The Bab, born Siyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi (October 20, 1819 – July 9, 1850) was the founder of Babism, and one of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith.
The Bab was a merchant from Shiraz in Qajar Iran who in 1844, at the age of twenty-four, claimed to be a messenger of God. He took on the title of the Bab, meaning “Gate” or “Door”. He faced opposition from the Persian government, which eventually executed him and thousands of his followers, who were known as Babis.
The Bab composed numerous letters and books in which he stated his claims and defined his teachings. He prophesied the idea of He whom God shall make manifest, a messianic figure who would bring a greater message than his own.
The Bab fills a similar role as Elijah or John the Baptist; a predecessor or forerunner who paved the way for their own religion. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, was a follower of the Bab and claimed in 1863 to be the fulfillment of the Bab’s prophecy, 13 years after the former’s death.
Born on October 20, 1819 in Shiraz to a middle-class merchant of the city and given the name Ali Muhammad. His father was Muhammad Rida, and his mother was Fatimih (1800–1881), a daughter of a prominent merchant in Shiraz. She later became a Baha’i. He was orphaned when his father died while he was quite young and his maternal uncle Haji Mirza Siyyid Ali, a merchant, raised him. In Shiraz his uncle sent him to maktab, primary school, and stayed for six or seven years. Sometime between 15 and 20 he joined his uncle in the family business, a trading house, and became a merchant in the city of Bushehr, Iran, near the Persian Gulf. Some of his earlier writings suggest that he did not enjoy the business and instead applied himself to the study of religious literature. One of his contemporary followers described him as “very taciturn, and [he] would never utter a word unless it was absolutely necessary. He did not even answer our questions. He was constantly absorbed in his own thoughts, and was preoccupied with repetition of his prayers and verses. He is described as a handsome man with a thin beard, dressed in clean clothes, wearing a green shawl and a black turban.”
An English physician described the young man by saying: “He was a very mild and delicate-looking man, rather small in stature and very fair for a Persian, with a melodious soft voice, which struck me much”.
In 1842 he married Khadijih-Bagum (1822–1882); he was 23 and she was 20. She was the daughter of a prominent merchant in Shiraz. The marriage proved a happy one, and they had one child, a boy named Ahmad who died the year he was born – 1843. The pregnancy jeopardized Khadijih’s life and she never conceived again. The young couple occupied a modest house in Shiraz along with the Bab’s mother. Later, Khadijih became a Baha’i.
The Shaykhi Movement
In the 1790s in Persia, Shaykh Ahmad (1753–1826) began a religious movement named ‘Shayki Movement’. His followers became known as Shaykhis. After the death of Shaykh Ahmad, leadership was passed on to Kazim Rashti (1793–1843).
In 1841 the Bab went on pilgrimage to Iraq, and for seven months stayed mostly in and around Karbala. There he may have met Kazim Rashti, who showed a high regard for him. He is believed to have attended some of Kazim Rashti’s lectures; however, this period is almost entirely undocumented.
As of his death in December 1843, Kazim Rashti counseled his followers to leave their homes to seek the savior, who, according to his prophecies, would soon appear. One of these followers, Mulla Husayn, after keeping vigil for forty days in a mosque, traveled to Shiraz, where he met the Bab.
Declaration to Mulla Husayn
The room where the Declaration of the Bab took place on the evening of 22 May 1844, in his house in Shiraz.
The Bab’s first religious inspiration experience claimed, and witnessed by his wife, is dated to about the evening of 3 April 1844. The Bab’s first public connection with his sense of a mission came with the arrival of Mulla Husayn in Shiraz. On the night of 22 May Mulla Husayn was invited by the Bab to his home where Mulla Husayn told him of his search for the possible successor to Kazim Rashti, the Promised One. The Bab claimed this, and the bearer of divine knowledge. Mulla Husayn became the first to accept the Bab’s claims to be an inspired figure and a likely successor to Kazim Rashti.
Letters of the Living
Mulla Husayn became the Bab’s first disciple. Within five months, seventeen other disciples of Kazim Rashti recognized the Bab as a Manifestation of God. Among them, one woman, Fatimih Zarrin Taj Baraghani, a poet, who later received the name of Tahirih, the Pure. These 18 disciples later became known as the Letters of the Living (each soul containing one letter of the Spirit of God, which combine to form the Word) and given the task of spreading the new faith across Iran and Iraq. The Bab emphasized the spiritual station of these 18 individuals, who, along with himself, made the first “Unity” of his religion according to the Arabic term wahid, unity, that has a numerical value of 19 using abjad numerals.
Travels and imprisonment
After the eighteen Letters of the Living recognized him, the Bab and the eighteenth Letter of the Living, Quddus, left on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the sacred cities of Islam.
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 Bab’s arrest. The Bab, upon hearing of the arrest order, left Bushehr for Shiraz in June 1845 and presented himself to the authorities and placed under house arrest at the home of his uncle until a cholera epidemic broke out in the city in September 1846. As he was released he departed for Isfahan. After an informal gathering where the Bab debated the local clergy and displayed his speed in producing instantaneous verses, his popularity soared. After the death of the governor of Isfahan, Manouchehr Khan Gorji, his supporter, pressure from the clergy of the province led to Mohammad Shah Qajar ordering the Bab to Tehran in January 1847. After spending several months in a camp outside Tehran, and before the Bab could meet the Shah, the Prime Minister sent the Bab to Tabriz in the northwestern corner of the country, to his confinement.
Fortress of Maku, Iran
After forty days in Tabriz, the Bab transferred to the fortress of Maku, Iran in the province of Azerbaijian close to the Turkish border. During his incarceration there, the Bab began his most important work, the Persian Bayan, that he never finished. Because of the Bab’s growing popularity in Maku, even the governor of Maku converting, the prime minister transferred him to the fortress of Chehriq in April 1848. There too the Bab’s popularity grew and his jailors relaxed restrictions on him. It was at this time that AqaBala Big Shishvani Naqshbandi painted the portrait of the Bab. Then the Prime Minister ordered the Bab back to Tabriz, where the government called on religious authorities to put the Bab on trial for blasphemy and apostasy.
The trial, attended by the Crown Prince, occurred in July 1848 and involved numerous local clergy. They questioned the Bab about the nature of his claims, his teachings, and demanded that he produce miracles to prove his divine authority. They admonished him to recant his claims. There are nine extant eyewitness reports of the trial, of which several may originate from an earlier source. Six of the reports are from Muslim accounts, and portray the Bab in an unfavourable light. There are 62 questions found in the nine sources, however eighteen occur in one source, fifteen in two, eight in three, five in four, thirteen in five, and three in six. Not including “yes” and “he did not answer”, only thirty-five answers remain, of which ten occur in one source, eight in two, six in three, three in four, two in five, five in six. Only one answer is found in all nine eyewitness sources, where the Bab states that “I am that person you have been awaiting for one thousand years.”
The trial did not bring a decisive result. Some clergy called for capital punishment, but the government pressured them to issue a lenient judgement because the Bab was popular. The government asked medical experts to declare the Bab insane to order his execution. To appease the religious clergy, the government may have spread rumours that the Bab recanted.
The Shaykh al-Islam, a champion of the anti-Babist campaign, not at the Bab’s trial, issued a conditional death sentence if the Báb was found to be sane. A fatwa was issued establishing the Bab’s apostasy and stated “The repentance of an incorrigible apostate is not accepted, and the only thing which has caused the postponement of thy execution is a doubt as to thy sanity of mind.”
The crown prince’s physician, William Cormick, examined the Bab and complied with the government’s request to find grounds for clemency. The physician’s opinion saved the Bab from execution for a time, but the clergy insisted that he face corporal punishment instead, so the Bab suffered foot whipping – twenty lashes to the bottoms of his feet.
After the trial, the Bab was ordered back to the fortress of Chehriq.
In mid-1850 a new prime-minister, Amir Kabir, ordered the execution of the Bab, probably because various Babi insurrections’ defeats and the movement’s popularity appeared waning. The Bab was brought back to Tabriz from Chehriq for an execution by firing squad. The night before his execution, while being conducted to his cell, a young Babi, Muhammad-Ali “Anis” from Zonuz, threw himself at the feet of the Bab and begged martyrdom with him, then was immediately arrested and placed in the same cell as the Bab.
On the morning of July 9, 1850, taken to the courtyard of the barracks where held, there appeared thousands of people gathered to watch his execution. The Bab and Anis were suspended on a wall and a large firing squad of Christian soldiers prepared to shoot. Numerous eye-witness reports, including those of Western diplomats, recount the result. The order was given to fire and the barracks square filled with musket smoke. When it cleared, the Bab 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. There was a great commotion, many in the crowd believing the Bab had ascended to heaven or simply disappeared. But the soldiers subsequently found the Bab in another part of the barracks, completely unharmed, giving his final instructions to his secretary. He and Anis were tied up for execution a second time, and a second firing squad of Muslim soldiers ranged in front of them. A second order to fire was given. This time the Bab and his companion were killed. In Babi and Baha’i tradition, the failure of the first firing to kill the Bab is believed a miracle. Their remains were dumped outside the gates of the town to be eaten by animals.
However, there remains were clandestinely rescued by a handful of Babis and then hidden. Over time the remains secretly transported according to the instructions of Baha’u’llah and then Abdu’l-Baha by way of Isfahan, Kirmanshah, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and then by sea to Acre on the plain below Mount Carmel in 1899. On March 21, 1909, the remains were interred in a special tomb, the Shrine of the Bab, on Mount Carmel in present-day Haifa, Israel.
In most of his prominent writings, the Bab alluded to a Promised One, most commonly referred to as man yazhiruhu’llah, “Him Whom God shall make manifest”, and that he himself was “but a ring upon the hand of Him Whom God shall make manifest.
Before the Bab’s death, he sent a letter to Mirza Yahya, Subh-i-Azal, that some consider a will and testament. This recognized the appointing of Subh-i-Azal as the leader of the Babi community after the death of the Bab, and ordered to obey the Promised One when he appears. At the time Subh-i-Azal, still a teenager, had never demonstrated leadership in the Babi movement, and was still living in the house of his older brother, Baha’u’llah. All of this lends credence to the Baha’i claim that the Bab appointed Subh-i-Azal the head of the Bábí Faith so as to divert attention away from Baha’u’llah, while allowing Babis to visit Baha’u’llah and consult with him freely, and allowing Baha’u’llah to write to Babis easily and freely.
In 1852 Baha’u’llah, while a prisoner in Tehran, was visited by a “Maid of Heaven”, that symbolically marked the beginning of his mission as a Messenger of God. Eleven years later in Baghdad, he made his first public declaration and eventually was recognized by the vast majority of Babis as “He Whom God shall make manifest”. His followers began calling themselves Baha’is.