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BAB. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Iranian Shiism underwent radical changes. Among these was a marked improvement in the status and power of the clerical leadership-a development which began in the late eighteenth century and culminated in recent times with the Islamic Revolution, which placed full political authority in the hands of the clergy.

Shi’i Islam has always emphasized the superiority of individual, “inspired” leadership over political power or consensus and has, throughout its history, given rise to numerous messianic movements. Even with the emergence since the sixteenth century of an officially recognized clerical establishment within Twelver Shiism in Iran, the tension between spontaneous leadership empowered from “above” and routine authority elaborated through a consensus with political power has been a constant element in the religious life. This is the context for appreciating the popular support accorded a nonclerical messianic religious leader, Sayyid ‘Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-i850), better known as the Bab.

Neither the parentage nor upbringing of the Bab indicated a religious career. His family was part of a wealthy merchant class which traded from Shiraz and the Persian Gulf port of Bushire, and the Bab’s schooling was designed to prepare him for a mercantile career. After an elementary education, he began work in the family business and was sent to the Bushire offices in 1835. However, natural piety and an inclination toward philosophy, mysticism, and theology led him to engage privately in religious studies and even to compose short works on theological topics.

Around 1840, he spent a year at the Shi’i shrine cities in Iraq, where he came into direct contact with Sayyid Kazim Rashti, the head of the Shaykhi school, a semi orthodox branch of Shiism in which esoteric ideas were emphasized. The Bab’s family already had Shakyhi connections, and it would seem that he found here a potential outlet for frustrated clerical aspirations.

Following Rashti’s death in early 1844, the Bab, now back in Shiraz, was visited by a number of the sayyid’s disciples. Whether encouraged by them or on his own initiative, the young merchant now declared himself Rashti’s successor and the gate (Ar., bab) to the Twelfth Imam, the expected messiah of the Twelver Shi-is. What is significant is that a number of younger Shaykhi clerics from Iraq and parts of Iran readily accepted his claims and began to preach the imminent advent of the imam.Shiraz! was not the only individual to make prophetic claims around this time, but he was by far the most successful, mainly because of the existing structure of the Shaykhi sect, from which his first followers were drawn. [See also Shaykhlyah.]

The Bab was the first individual in Islamic history to make a serious attempt to break away from Islam in order to found a separate religion with distinct books and laws. What is not clear is how he came to adopt such a radical position. In the earliest phase of his preaching, no such development seems to have been envisaged. His earliest writings are concerned with the reinforcement of Islamic law, and, if anything, the early Babis were most noted for the zeal of their adherence to it. Much hinges on the vexed question of whether the Bab saw himself as the recipient of direct divine inspiration from the beginning or whether such ideas only came much later, while in prison in Azerbaijan. Both cases can be argued, with modern Baha’i writers taking the view that the Bab knew his “true station” from an early age. What cannot be denied is that his own writings show a development through several stages, from that of claiming to be a gate to the Hidden Imam and an interpreter of the Qur’an, to that of being the imam in person, to a final stage in which he proclaimed himself the latest manifestation of the Primal Will and the bearer of a new divine revelation.

Most of the Bab’s prophetic career was spent either under house arrest or in prison in northwest Iran, leaving the actual leadership of his sect in the hands of a group of young clerics. His claim in 1848 to be the returned Hidden Imam resulted in violent clashes between some of his followers and government troops and, by 1850, the defeat of the movement. He himself was shot by firing squad in Tabriz in July 1850. His remains were recovered and later removed to Palestine, where they were interred in a mausoleum built by the Baha’is on Mount Carmel. The late nineteenth century saw a brief cult of the Bab in some European literary circles.

During his confinements, the Bab busied himself with the composition of a large body of writing in Persian and Arabic, much of which has survived and some of which has been published (although it has been much overshadowed by the texts of the Baha’i prophet, Baha’ Allah). The central text of this canon is an unfinished Persian book known as the Bayan, which sets out the main laws of the new dispensation. The later works of the Bab in particular are original, often eccentric to the point of obscurity, and frequently prolix. They reflect the concerns of a small religious sect whose members explored the more recondite avenues of Shi’i esotericism. It is by the merest chance that they have come to have any wider significance, on account of the much greater accessibility and relevance of the scriptures of the Baha’i movement which grew out of Babism in the 1860s. The Bab’s vision was very much the product of a subculture within a wider culture itself under threat from rapid change. But in one major respect it was to acquire lasting significance: it challenged the consensus of immutability within Islam and raised the specter of wholesale legal and religious change. [See also Babism; Baha’i; Imam.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Amanat, Abbas. Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850.Ithaca,N.Y., and London, 1989. See chapter 3, “The Merchant-Saint of Shiraz” and later references. Very full account of the Bab’s background and early life.

Balyuzi, H. M. The Bdb: The Herald of the Day of Days.Oxford, 1973. Hagiographical study from the Baha’i perspective.

MacEoin, Denis. “Bab, Sayyed `Ali Mohammad Sirazi.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 3, fasc. 3, pp. 2’78-284.London and New   York, 1982-. Comprehensive article.

DENIS MAcEoIN

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/bab/
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  • writerPosted On: October 12, 2012
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