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BABISM. 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 `Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850), the Bab, which was at its height during the late 1840s.

Nowadays, it is possible to consider Babism 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 Baha’i religion, it begins a new era of religious aspiration, providing the matrix from which their own faith emerged in the last decades of the century.

In 1844, a dispute occurred over the question of leadership in an esoteric school of Shi`i thought known as Shaykhiyah, which had adherents in both Iran and Iraq. Among the various claimants, the most unlikely was the above-mentioned Shiraz! (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 Shi`i 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 Bab originally advanced only limited claims for himself. His function was, he maintained, to provide an esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an, to intensify observance of Islamic religious law, and to prepare men for the imminent appearance of the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi or ShIN messiah (hence his own title of Bab [“Gate”], a traditional term for an individual acting on behalf of an imam). To this latter end, the first Babis made and purchased arms in readiness for the Holy War that would inevitably follow the imam’s 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 Bab decided to postpone the day of the Parousia and to play down his public claims. He himself was placed under house arrest in his hometown of Shiraz 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 Bab’s cause, and pressure for military action grew.

In early 1848, the Bab 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 Babi activists in July, when the laws of the Qur’an were declared abrogated. The Resurrection had come, and throughout Iran Babis anticipated the coming of a new heaven and earth. In the next two years, a series of bloody clashes between bands of armed Babis and state troops convulsed the country. Grossly outnumbered, in spite of stiff resistance, the Babis succumbed. Much of the leadership was wiped out, and the movement’s central promise of a new order was torn to shreds.

The Bab 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, this proved the final blow; to a remnant of diehard believers, some form of reassessment and restructuring became inevitable. Following a slapdash attempt on the life of Nasir al-Din Shah in 1852, a group of survivors was expelled from Iran and chose to take up residence in Baghdad.

Here, two strands of what can be termed “Middle Babism” emerged under the leadership of two brothers, Mirza Husayn ‘Ali Nuri (Baha’ Allah) and Mirza Yahya (Subh-i Azal). The latter was the designated successor of the Bab 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 Bab. Curiously enough, the rather introspective group centered on Yahya (and known later as Azalls) produced several important figures in the democratic and social reform movement in Iran around the turn of the century.

In contrast to Subh-i Azal, Baha’ Allah was a worldly wise leader who in time attracted to himself the majority of living Babis and, later, a growing following from outside the sect. During the 1850s and 1860s, Baha’! Babism had succeeded in playing down the more militant and occult side of the Bab’s teachings. In the late 1860s Baha’ Allah began to advance claims of a quasi-divine nature, claiming to be the author of a new revelation, with the Bab 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, Baha’i Babism and the larger Baha’! religion which 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 or on Iran was small, Babism 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 Shi`i movements of its type had vanished or continued in the marginalia of orthodox Islam, Babism hung on just long enough to refashion its teachings and to move, in its Baha’i 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 Babism and Baha’ism as ideal types of modern heresy.

[See also Baha’i; Imam; Mahdi; and the biographies of the Bab and Baha’ Allah.]


Amanat, Abbas. Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1989. Authoritative and detailed history of the sect up to the execution of the Bab. Excellent analysis of the social and political background. Some carelessness in the use of sources.

Browne, Edward G. “The Babis of Persia. I. Sketch of Their History, and Personal Experiences amongst Them. II. Their Literature and Doctrines.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 21 (1889): 485-526, 881-1009. Reprinted with annotations in Selections from the Writings of E. G. Browne on the Babi and Baha’! Religions, edited by Moojan Momen, pp. 145-315. Oxford, 1987. 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. “Babism: i. The Babi Movement,” and “Babism: ii. Babi Executions and Uprisings.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 3, fasc. 3, pp. 309-317. London and New York, 1982-. The most comprehensive encyclopaedia entry currently available.

MacEoin, Denis. The Sources for Early Bdbi Doctrine and History: A Survey. Leiden, 1992. Specialized study that provides the broadest overview of the literature of Babism as well as a full discussion of the many controversies over historical sources.

Momen, Moojan. “The Social Basis of the Babi Upheavals in Iran, 1848-53.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 15 (1943) 157-183. One of a number of intelligent studies locating Babism in its social context.

Momen, Moojan. The Babi and Baha’t Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts. Oxford, 1981. The first part of this book contains numerous documents on Babism, taken mainly from European diplomatic archives. The editor’s summaries of Babi history are helpful, if biased in favor of a modern Baha’! interpretation.

Momen, Moojan, and Peter Smith. “The Bab! Movement: A Resource Mobilization Perspective.” In In Iran, edited by Peter Smith, pp. 33-93. Studies in Babi and Baha’! History, vol. 3. Los Angeles, 1986. Comprehensive overview of the movement, representing a fruitful collaboration between two Baha’is, one a historian, the other a sociologist. Zarandi, Muhammad Nabil. The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahd’i Revelation. Translated and edited by Shoghi Effendi. New York, 1932. Standard Baha’! account of the period to 1852, written by a contemporary of the Bab’s. This is the most detailed source for Bab! history, although the author’s religious bias must be taken into account constantly.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/babism/

  • writerPosted On: October 14, 2012
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