ʿALĪ BESṬĀMĪ, MOLLĀ, early Bābī ʿālem and member of the ḥorūf al-ḥayy or sābeqūn, the first followers of the Bāb. Born (date unknown) near Besṭām in Khorasan, he studied in Mašhad where he embraced the tenets of the Šayḵī school. Later, in Karbalā, he became a close disciple of the head of the school, Sayyed Kāẓem Raštī. Following the latter’s death in 1259/1844, he was one of the first to accept the claims of the Bāb in Shiraz and, in the autumn of that year, headed for Iraq on the Bāb’s orders to urge those claims among the Šayḵīs of the region. In Naǰaf, he presented a letter from the Bāb to Shaikh Moḥammad-Ḥasan Naǰafī, the leading Shiʿite ʿālem of the period; a violent debate ensued in the course of which Besṭāmī was expelled from the city. This marks the first direct clash between orthodox Shiʿism and the emerging Bābī sect. Arriving in Karbalā about October, 1844, Besṭāmī soon aroused fierce opposition among the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ, while winning many converts among the Šayḵī population. The controversies thus engendered and the spread of various early works of the Bāb that Mollā ʿAlī had brought to Karbalā led to his arrest and transfer to prison in Baghdad on the orders of the governor, Naǰīb Pāšā, who summoned the leading Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ from Naǰaf and Karbalā to hold a court of inquiry with the Sunni ʿolamāʾ of Baghdad, apparently the first meeting of its kind. This court met on 13 January 1845 and reached a contradictory verdict, the Sunnis arguing for the death penalty on grounds of heresy, the Shiʿites for imprisonment or banishment. The trial and its outcome threatened to cause serious trouble in the region, already in a state of messianic turmoil as a result of Besṭāmī’s proclamation of the imminent advent of the Imam. The verdict was reported to the British Foreign Secretary in London, while the British and Russian envoys in Istanbul made representations to the Sublime Porte that Besṭāmī’s punishment be commuted. Requests for the transfer of Besṭāmī to Iran were made by Ḥāǰǰī Mīrzā Āqāsī, the grand vizier, and Moḥebb-ʿAlī Khan, governor of Kermānšāh. The interest of these parties indicates the nature of Sunni/Shiʿite, Ottoman/Iranian tensions in Iraq at the period, tensions which Besṭāmī’s preaching had served to acerbate. Naǰīb Pāšā had the matter referred to the Sublime Porte and, at the end of April, following orders received from there, he had Besṭāmī transferred to Istanbul. There, it appears, he was sentenced to labor in the docks, where he died in prison toward the end of 1846. Some secondary sources note that he was banished to Karkūk, but this is based on a misreading of the Turkish word kürek (“forced labor”) in a letter published in Ẓohūr al-ḥaqq (p. 109).
H. M. Balyuzi, The Bāb, Oxford, 1973, pp. 58-68.
M. Momen, “The Trial of Mullā ʿAlī Basṭāmī: A Combined Sunnī-Shīʿī Fatwā against the Bāb,” Iran 20, 1982, pp. 113-43.
Mīrzā Asadallāh Fāżel Māzandarānī, Ẓohūr al-ḥaqq III, Tehran, n.d., pp. 105-06.
D. M. MacEoin, “The Fate of Mullā ʿAlī Besṭāmī,” Bahāʾī Studies Bulletin 1/5, 1983.
A. Amanat, The Early Years of the Bābī Movement, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Oxford, 1981, pp. 219-52.
(D. M. MacEoin)
Originally Published: December 15, 1985
Last Updated: August 1, 2011
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Vol. I, Fasc. 8, p. 860