a 19th-century messianic movement in Iran and Iraq under the overall charismatic leadership of Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī, the Bāb (1819-1850). Babism was the only significant millenarian movement in Shiʿite Islam during the 19th century.



i. The Babi movement.

ii. Babi executions and uprisings.


i. The Babi Movement

Babism was a 13/19th-century messianic movement in Iran and Iraq under the overall charismatic leadership of Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī, the Bāb (1235/1819-1266/1850). Babism was the only significant millenarian movement in Shiʿite Islam during the 13th/19th century and is of particular interest in that, unlike other Islamic messianic movements of approximately the same period, it involved, in its later stages, a wholesale break with Islam and an attempt to establish a new religious system. Although the Babi movement as such was rapidly crushed and rendered politically and religiously insignificant, the impetus towards the proclamation of a post-Islamic revelation was continued in Bahaism which began as a Babi sect in competition with that of the Azalī Babism during the 1860s. The relative success of Bahaism inside Iran (where it constitutes the largest religious minority) and in numerous other countries, where it claims the status of an independent religion, gives renewed significance to its Babi origins; indeed, Babi history and doctrine live on, albeit in a much revised form, in the literature and self-image of the modern Bahais.

The present article concerns itself with Babism up to about 1853, when the leadership of the sect moved from Iran to Iraq and internal developments began which led to the Bahai/Azalī split. For our purposes, Babism may be divided into two main periods: 1) from 1250/1844 to 1264/1848, when the Bāb claimed to be the gate preparing the way for the return of the Hidden Imam and the movement around him was characterized by intense Islamic piety and observance of the Šarīʿa or Islamic law; and 2) from 1264/1848 to 1269/1853, beginning with the Bāb’s claim to be the Imam in person and the abrogation of the Islamic Šarīʿa, through his assumption of the role of an independent theophany and his promulgation of a new religious law, to his execution in Tabrīz, the collapse of the leadership of the movement, the proliferation of authority claims, and the dispersal of a hard core of the sect to Baghdad. This second period also witnessed the outbreak of clashes between Babis and state in several parts of Iran and the physical defeat of the movement as a challenge to the religio-political system.

1. 1260-64/1844-48. At its inception, Babism was an intense expression of certain radical tendencies in the Shaikhi school of Shiʿism which had come to the fore during the leadership of Sayyed Kāẓem Raštī. During the seventeen years (1242-59/1826-44) that he acted as head of the school from its center in Karbalāʾ, Raštī stressed the essential orthodoxy of Shaikhi belief as originally expounded by the founder, Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī (d. 1753/1826), while teaching an elitist doctrine of the Shaikh as the morawwej or promoter of Islam in a new cycle of inward truth (bāṭen) following 1200 years of outward teaching (ẓāher). Raštī’s death on 11 Ḏu’l-ḥejja 1259/1 January 1854 precipitated a serious internal crisis in the movement, bringing to the surface many concealed tensions, disagreements, rivalries, and ambitions within the Shaikhi community. His failure to appoint a clear successor and the absence of an agreed system for the selection of one led, inevitably, to much fragmentation, out of which two major schools emerged: that around Ḥājj Mollā Moḥammad-Karīm Khan Kermānī (1225/1810-1288/1871; q.v.) and another around Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī. These two factions expressed diametrically opposed tendencies within the Shaikhism of the period, the first wishing to preserve the name and identity of the school, emphasizing the continuing role of the Prophet and the imams and seeking accommodation with the Shiʿite majority by stressing its total adherence to Twelver Shiʿite orthodoxy and playing down the more unorthodox aspects of Shaikhi teaching; the second also regarding itself as wholly orthodox but adopting the name Bābīya and moving away from the outward practice of Islam towards a concentration on the expression of its inner realities and, ultimately, a new revelation of divine truth. It was some time, however, before this divergence of tendencies became quite clear and, in the earliest period, emphasis must be placed less on specific doctrinal views and more on claims to charismatic authority within the wider context of Shiʿism as a whole. (For a detailed study of the role of charisma in early Shaikhism and Babism see MacEoin, From Shaykhism to Babism.)

There is evidence that a section of the Shaikhi community at this period regarded Aḥsāʾī and Raštī as “gates” (bābān) of the imam, presumably fulfilling functions similar to those of the four abwāb (plur. of bāb “gate”) traditionally regarded as channels of communication with the Hidden Imam during his “lesser occultation” (see Bāb) and possibly presaging the return of the imam himself. The development of a Bābīya school within Shaikhism may be regarded as having begun even before the announcement by Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad of his own claim to be the bāb. Various statements attributed to Raštī in the period just before his death suggest that chiliastic motifs were present in his teaching, and there is evidence that some of his followers expected the imminent appearance of an “affair” or “cause” (amr) somehow linked to the advent of the imam. It seems to have been a group of those Shaikhis most animated by messianic expectations who chose, in early Ṣafar, 1260/late February, 1844, to engage in prayerful withdrawal (eʿtekāf) in the main mosque of Kūfa, and it was from this group that the majority of the Bāb’s earliest disciples emerged.

The first to enter eʿtekāf was Mollā Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Bošrūʾī, a young Shaikhi ʿālem or mulla who had only recently returned to Iraq from a lengthy period in Iran and who was himself regarded by a section of the school as a potential successor to Raštī. Leaving Kūfa with a brother and cousin on or just after 12 Rabīʿ I 1260/1 April 1844, Bošrūʾī set out for Kermān, where he planned to consult with Moḥammad Karīm Khan (for references see MacEoin, “From Shaykhism,” p. 144). En route he passed through Shiraz where he renewed an earlier acquaintance with Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī, a young merchant who had studied briefly with Raštī in Karbalāʾ a few years before and who had attracted some attention from a number of Shaikhis at the ʿatabāt (the Shiʿite holy shrines and cities in Iraq) at that time. In recent months, Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad had undergone a religious crisis culminating in at least two visions indicating a high spiritual station for himself. He had also begun the composition of works of a religious nature, including a commentary of sorts on the Koranic chapter (sūra) al-Baqara. After some weeks, during which Bošrūʾī seems to have read at least a part of these writings, on 5 Jomādā I/22 May, Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad announced to him that he was the successor to Raštī and the bāb of the Hidden Imam. Some time after this, a second group of Shaikhis arrived in Shiraz from Karbalāʾ. Thirteen of these (according to one version, the entire group numbered thirteen) met the Bāb through Bošrūʾī and were converted, together with Bošrūʾī’s brother and cousin (Zarandi, Dawn-Breakers, pp. 69-70, 80-81). Among this second group was a brother-in-law of Fāṭema Ḵānom Baraḡānī Qazvīnī (better known as Qorrat-al-ʿAyn and Janāb-e Ṭāhera; q.v.), a woman who had already won a reputation as an outstanding and radical Shaikhi cleric while herself resident in Karbalāʾ. Although then in Qazvīn, she was enrolled by the Bāb in the group of his first disciples, whose number was brought to eighteen by the late arrival of Mollā Moḥammad-ʿAlī Bārforūšī, a young Shaikhi who was en route to Būšehr on a ḥajj or pilgrimage journey.

These eighteen disciples known as the “Letters of the Living” (ḥorūf al-ḥayy) constituted, together with the Bāb, the first “unity” (waḥed = 19) of a series of nineteen unities which would make up a body of three hundred and sixty-one individuals—a kollo šayʾ (= 361 )—the first believers in the imam through the bāb. These ḥorūf al-ḥayy are regarded as identical with the “precursors” (sābeqūn) referred to in early works of the Bāb and his followers, both literally in preceding others in recognition of the Bāb and esoterically in being identified with the first group of mankind to respond to God’s pre-eternal covenant, a group itself identified in Shiʿite belief with Moḥammad and the imams. It is, in fact, clear that the Bāb came to regard the ḥorūf al-ḥayy as incarnations of the Prophet, the twelve imams, the original four abwāb and Fāṭema, an identification which led to serious controversy in the early Babi community of Karbalāʾ (see MacEoin, “Hierarchy,” pp. 104-09).

After a short period of instruction ending in early July, 1844, the Bāb instructed sixteen of the ḥorūf al-ḥayy to disperse in various directions, carrying transcriptions of parts of his early writings, notably his commentary on the Koranic chapter Yūsof, the Qayyūm al-asmāʾ. They were not to reveal his name or identity but merely to announce that the gate or agent (nāʾeb) of the Hidden Imam had appeared. Through these disciples and the men they met and converted—almost all, like themselves, ʿolamāʾ or Muslim divines—the claims of the Bāb were rapidly disseminated, principally to the Shaikhi communities in the areas they visited. In this way, a growing section of the Shaikhi school followed the Bāb in the period of his earliest claims. The unity of Shaikhism was irretrievably shattered and a core of convinced Babis brought into existence, eager to put into practice the radical changes implicit in the Bāb’s claims.

The most immediate impact made by the dissemination of Babi propaganda on the Shiʿite world occurred at its heart in Karbalāʾ. The Bāb’s message was brought to the region of the shrines in Iraq in the first instance by Mollā ʿAlī Besṭāmī, whose preaching there precipitated a major uproar among both Shaikhis and non-Shaikhis, leading to his arrest, trial and eventual dispatch to Istanbul. During his stay in Iraq, however, as is attested by contemporary diplomatic reports, Besṭāmī and other Babis awakened a widespread chiliastic fervor among the Shaikhis of the area (see Momen, Babi and Baha’i Religions, pp. 83-89). The Qayyūm al-asmāʾ, portions of which now began to circulate there, indicated that the Bāb had appeared on earth to prepare men for the imminent arrival of the imam and the waging of the final jehād or holy war against unbelief (which was widely interpreted to include not only Sunnism but non-Babi Shiʿism as well). News also arrived from Shiraz that the Bāb had left the town in September in order to perform the ḥajj and that, on his departure, he had said that he would reveal his cause in Mecca, after which he would enter Kūfa and Karbalāʾ and fulfill the prophecies. In various letters of this period, he called on his growing body of followers to assemble in Karbalāʾ in order to aid the imam on his appearance. A number of Babis appear to have traveled to Karbalāʾ with this hope and, following instructions in the Qayyūm al-asmāʾ, to have purchased arms in readiness for the jehād that would follow the Bāb’s appearance and the advent of the imam. In the end, the Bāb failed to reach Karbalāʾ as promised, returning instead to Shiraz via Būšehr in the summer of 1261/1845. His arrest en route to his home town by agents of the governor of Shiraz considerably restricted his freedom of action and prevented even a late arrival in Iraq. As a result, a number of the newly-converted abandoned their allegiance, leaving only a small core of believers, who were forced to begin the work of proselytization once more (al-Qatīl b. al-Karbalāʾī, letter in Māzandarānī, Ẓohūr al-ḥaqq III, p. 503).

Although the Bāb remained at the heart of the movement, his personal activities were now restricted. He remained under house arrest in Shiraz until September, 1262/1846, when he escaped to Isfahan following an outbreak of cholera. There, with the support of the governor, Manūčehr Khan Moʿtamad-al-Dawla, he had greater freedom to write and meet disciples, but this interlude ended abruptly with the governor’s death in February, 1847. The Bāb was summoned by Moḥammad Shah to Tehran but en route diverted to Mākū in Azerbaijan, where he remained in confinement until his transfer in May, 1848 to the fortress of Čahrīq, his place of imprisonment until shortly before his execution in 1266/1850. Although communications between him and his followers were never entirely severed, they were, at times, difficult, and it was, in any case, impossible to refer to him all questions for elucidation or arbitration.

The exposition of Babi doctrine (to the extent that we can speak of this in a period of considerable confusion) in a number of provincial centers fell increasingly to the leading followers of the Bāb, both ḥorūf al-ḥayy and other ʿolamāʾ in those areas: in Mašhad, Mollā Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Bošrūʾī, who was expressly appointed by the Bāb to answer questions on his behalf for the community as a whole; in Borūjerd, Kurdistan, Tehran, Qazvīn, Isfahan, Qom, and elsewhere, the peripatetic Sayyed Yaḥyā Dārābī (Waḥīd); in Tehran and, later, Zanjān, Mollā Moḥammad-ʿAlī Zanjānī (Ḥojjat) (q.v.); in Qazvīn, Mollā Jalīl Orūmī; and, perhaps the most important, in Karbalāʾ and, for a time, Baghdad, Qorrat-al-ʿAyn. The role of these and a few other individuals must be stressed. Bošrūʾī, Dārābī, and Zanjānī were to lead the Babi insurrections in Māzandarān, Neyrīz, and Zanjān, while Qorrat-al-ʿAyn was perhaps the guiding spirit behind the events at the enclave of Badašt in 1848, when a group of Babis proclaimed the abrogation of the Islamic Šarīʿa. More importantly, the main figures of the Babi hierarchy formed what Berger calls a “charismatic field,” playing roles of messianic significance (“From Sect to Church,” pp. 161-62). Thus Bošrūʾī and Mollā Moḥammad-ʿAlī Bārforūšī Qoddūs were regarded by their followers at Ṭabarsī shrine as the “Qāʾem-e Ḵorāsānī” and “Qāʾem-e Jīlānī” respectively, while quasi-divine honors were paid to the latter (such as the circumambulation of his house and the direction of prayers towards him as the qebla). While in Karbalāʾ, Qorrat-al-ʿAyn claimed to be an incarnation of Fāṭema, whereas some regarded her as “the point of divine knowledge” after Raštī. Unfortunately, with the exception of some interesting treatises by Qorrat-al-ʿAyn and a few fragments by Qoddūs, works penned by these individuals have been lost, and it is almost impossible to reconstruct the details of Babi doctrine as actually taught by them or to determine how far this may have coincided with or differed from the doctrine taught by the Bāb and carefully preserved in his writings.

The role played by Qorrat-al-ʿAyn in Karbalāʾ was, as we have noted above, particularly significant. Residing in Raštī’s home there, she assumed supreme control of the Shaikhi-Babi community of the region, stressing her authority as one of the ḥorūf al-ḥayy and the incarnation of Fāṭema. This led to the first serious crisis of authority in the movement, when her position was challenged by Mollā Aḥmad Ḵorāsānī and his followers who were particularly opposed to the leadership role of the ḥorūf al-ḥayy. The rift produced in the Babi community of Iraq by this conflict was further deepened by Qorrat-al-ʿAyn’s increasingly radical and unconventional behavior. In his early writings, the Bāb stressed the necessity for his followers to observe the laws of Islam and, indeed, to perform acts of supererogatory piety, and there is some evidence that the Babis of this period were as noted for the zeal of their adherence to tradition as they were later to be known for their rejection of it (for details see MacEoin, “From Shaykhism,” pp. 208-10). There were, however, elements inherent in the claim of the Bāb to an authority direct from God which threatened to conflict with this more conservative position. Qorrat-al-ʿAyn seems to have been particularly conscious of this and to have linked the concept of the Bāb’s overriding authority in religious matters with ideas originating in Shaikhism, to which we have referred earlier—the advent of an age of inner truth succeeding that of outer observance. She seems to have made this link before the Bāb himself and by 1262/1846 had begun to stress the importance of inner realities at the expense of outward practice. In her classes attended by Babi men, she appeared unveiled, and on one occasion chose to celebrate the birth of the Bāb during the early days of Moḥarram. Mīrzā Moḥammad-ʿAlī Zonūzī states that, with the Bāb’s permission, Qorrat-al-ʿAyn “rendered all the previous laws and observances null and void” (letter in Māzandarānī, Ẓohūr al-ḥaqq III, p. 35). In a statement written after Rajab, 1262/June-July, 1846, she herself records that she began to call on her followers to “enter the gate of innovation” following the receipt of a letter from the Bāb in that month, which she interpreted to mean that Islam was to be abrogated (letter ibid., p. 349; for details, see MacEoin, “From Shaykhism,” pp. 210-16).

Controversy ensued within the Babi community. Many were scandalized by Qorrat-al-ʿAyn’s behavior, particularly that of appearing before men without a veil, and wrote to the Bāb seeking support (which he would not give). Others, however, began to follow her example, and the controversy soon spread beyond the confines of the Babi community proper. In the end, Qorrat-al-ʾAyn was arrested in Karbalāʾ, forced to leave the city for Baghdad in 1263/1847, kept there for several months in the home of the Mufti, Shaikh Maḥmūd al-Ālūsī, and finally expelled from Iraq on orders sent from Istanbul. Traveling through Hamadān and Kermānšāh, where she carried on an extensive campaign of proselytization, she returned in Qazvīn in the late summer of 1263/1847.

The controversy surrounding Qorrat-al-ʿAyn and the growing challenge presented by Babi missionaries in all the major provinces of Iran, where the number of converts was growing rapidly, led to a hardening of attitudes towards the sect. In Kermān, Moḥammad Karīm Khan Kermānī, who had been acquainted with the Bāb’s claims from an early date, was engaged in laying claim to the leadership of the Shaikhi school for himself. Among his activities in this respect was the composition of several works refuting the Bāb and his claims. Not only was the Bāb a threat to Kermānī’s position within the school itself, but the obvious heterodoxy of his doctrines and the activities of his followers threatened, because of their close association with the school he purported to represent, to further damage Shaikhism in the eyes of the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ at large. Kermānī’s efforts, reinforced by the Bāb’s own rejection of “orthodox” Shaikhism, led to a growing sense of an absolute split between the two movements and a greater sense of independent identity for Babism, together with a hardening of attitudes on both sides. An analysis of later Babi membership indicates that the original Shaikhi dominance within the sect began to decline and that Babism came to have a much wider appeal among the general Shiʿite public. The motives for conversion seem to have become less doctrinal and more social or economic as fewer ʿolamāʾ and greater numbers of the public at large entered the movement. This in itself, however, led to a growing attack on the sect from non-Shaikhi clergy confronted by the challenge of the Babi missionary enterprise.

Matters began to come to a head in Ḏu’l-qaʿda, 1263/October, 1847. Until then, violence directed against the Babis had been limited and no one had died. The Babis, for their part, despite exhortations to jehād in several works of the Bāb, still awaited the appearance of the Mahdī before commencing the holy war (a possible indication in itself of doctrinal rather than social motivation) and, in the meantime, contented themselves with issuing challenges to mobāhala or mutual cursing (for the development of the themes of mobāhala and jehād in the movement and the escalation of violence against and on behalf of the sect see MacEoin, “Bābī Concept of Holy War,” pp. 109-11). Some months after Qorrat-al-ʿAyn’s return to Qazvīn in the late summer of 1263/1847, a group of three Babis attacked her uncle, Ḥājj Mollā Moḥammad-Taqī Baraḡānī, the leading cleric of the town; he died of his wounds three days later, on 16 Ḏu’l-qaʿda/27 October. There had already been a build-up of tension in Qazvīn, much aggravated by Baraḡānī’s preaching against both Shaikhis and Babis. Now, large numbers of Babis were arrested, houses were broken into and looted, and several individuals were eventually put to death in retaliation for what was held to be a general Babi plot. At about the same time, relations between Babis and the civil authorities in Mašhad became strained, particularly after two incidents in which members of the movement tried to rescue two of their arrested coreligionists by force.

2. 1264-69/1848-53. The situation changed radically when, in the early months of 1848, the Bāb wrote a letter in which he proclaimed himself the promised imam in person and declared the abrogation of the laws of Islam. Announcement of the qīāma or resurrection, interpreted as a spiritual event, spread rapidly among the Babi communities of Iraq and Iran. In July, 1848, a gathering of some eighty Babi activists, including Qorrat-al-ʿAyn and Mollā Moḥammad-ʿAlī Bārforūšī, formally proclaimed the advent of the qīāma. Towards the end of the same month, the Bāb himself was brought from Čahrīq to Tabrīz, where he was interrogated by a council of ʿolamāʾ and state officials presided over by Nāṣer-al-Dīn Mīrzā (shortly to be made king). Conflicting accounts of this examination exist, but all are agreed that the Bāb insisted on his claim to be the Hidden Imam returned—a claim whose political implications would not have been missed.

Also in July, 1848, Bošrūʾī and a large body of followers left Mašhad, possibly headed for Azerbaijan to rescue the Bāb from prison. Swelled along the route by others, this band encountered opposition as they moved into Māzandarān in September. The residents of Bārforūš (Bābol), alarmed by the arrival of a body of armed men immediately after the death of Moḥammad Shah, offered fierce resistance to their entry to the town. Forced to travel on and attacked by a band of local horsemen, the Babis finally reached the shrine of Shaikh Abū ʿAlī Fażl Ṭabarsī, where they constructed a fort and were joined by other Babis from all parts of Iran, including Bārforūšī and seven other ḥorūf al-ḥayy, their numbers eventually reaching to near 500. A series of engagements soon ensued between the Babis and successive contingents of provincial and state troops until May, 1849, in the course of which all but a few of the defenders were killed. Two features of this incident stand out: the messianic overtones of the struggle, emphasized by the roles of Bošrūʾī and Bārforūšī as qāʾem, the carrying of a black standard, the identification of the fort with Karbalāʾ, its defenders with Ḥosayn and his followers, and their enemies with the Omayyad forces; and the related belief in the supreme authority of the Bāb and his lieutenants as against the illegitimacy of Qajar rule. Babism now clearly posed a direct threat to the established political and religious order.

Further outbreaks of mass violence followed after an interval in Neyrīz (Rajab-Šaʿbān, 1266/May-June, 1850) and Zanjān (Rajab, 1266-Rabīʿ I, 1267/May, 1850-January, 1851), although these differed from Shaikh Ṭabarsī in their distinctly urban character and in the relative absence (as far as our sources indicate) of messianic motifs. The character of these struggles in particular has suggested to some commentators that they were more of an expression of social and political discontent than of religious fervor, and there is undoubtedly a measure of truth in this, particularly in the case of Zanjān. Nevertheless, in a recent study (“The Social Basis of the Bābī Upheavals”), Momen has shown that it is difficult to reach clear conclusions as to the social composition of these outbreaks or of the Babi movement as a whole. Our emphasis must at present remain on the outwardly religious character of Babism, while recognizing the value of religious motifs as a means of socio-political expression in a society such as Qajar Iran. It should be stressed that the Babi leadership and much of the membership was drawn from the ranks of the ʿolamāʾ class, particularly its lower strata (for further details see ibid.).

In July, 1850, the Bāb was again brought to Tabrīz, where he was executed by firing squad on the 8th or 9th. Coupled with the debacles of Māzandarān, Neyrīz, and Zanjān, in the course of which some 2,000 to 3,000 Babis, including most of the provincial leadership, perished (on these figures see MacEoin, “From Babism to Baha’ism,” p. 236), the Bāb’s death spelt the end of the movement as a vital political force in Iran. That the “Mahdī” had been executed and his followers everywhere defeated seemed to most people clear evidence of the falsehood of the Bāb’s claims, and the potential following which would certainly have accrued to the movement had even a measure of success attended its struggle with the state was drastically diminished. In a final act of desperation, on 15 August 1852, a small group of Babis attempted to assassinate Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah. A plot led by Shaikh Mollā ʿAlī Toršīzī was uncovered, large numbers of Babis in the capital and elsewhere arrested, and some fifty put to death. Among those arrested was Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Nūrī Bahāʾ-Allāh, a Babi from a wealthy family connected with the Qajar court. Ḥosayn Nūrī’s father, Mīrzā ʿAbbās Nūrī, had held various government posts (see Bāmdād, Rejāl VI, pp. 126-29), and he was distantly related to the prime minister, Mīrzā Āqā Khan Nūrī (Balyuzi, Bahāʾuʾllāh, p. 13). Released on the intervention of the Russian Minister in January, 1853 (Zarandi, Dawn-Breakers, p. 636), he was instructed to leave the country and chose to go to Baghdad, accompanied by members of his family and other Babis. Before long, he was followed by his younger half-brother, Mīrzā Yaḥyā Ṣobḥ-e Azal, appointed by the Bāb his successor and regarded by most of the surviving Babis as their leader. During the next decade, Baghdad became firmly established as the main center of Babism, giving refuge to a small community of Iranian émigrés who sought to perpetuate the movement. There was considerable doctrinal confusion, in part due to the idiosyncratic teachings and legal prescriptions expounded by the Bāb in his later works, notably the Persian Bayān, in which he attempted to codify a religious system destined to supplant Islam, with himself as the latest in a line of divine revelators. The system propounded by the Bāb depended for its implementation on the establishment of a Babi state, which was now only a very remote possibility. There was, moreover, a lack of certainty over the question of leadership. Although the consensus seemed to favor the acceptance of Ṣobḥ-e Azal as head of the faith, he appears to have lacked the qualities of a good leader and to have adopted a retiring mode of life. The concept of theophanies, already apparent in the roles ascribed to Bāb al-Bāb, Qoddūs, and Qorrat-al-ʿAyn, led to a succession of at least twenty-four claimants to supreme authority in the movement, few of whom obtained a substantial following. A growing section of the Baghdad community, however, was willing to grant a measure of authority to Ṣobḥ-e Azal’s elder half-brother, Bahāʾ-Allāh, a more experienced man of much less retiring temperament with a leaning towards Sufism and political quietism. Sometime in the 1860s, he claimed the status of man yoẓherohoʾllāh (he whom God shall make manifest), a messianic figure referred to frequently in the Persian Bayān. The ensuing quarrel between him and Ṣobḥ-e Azal resulted in the splitting of the movement into the Bahai and Azalī factions, with the majority belonging to the former. Azalī Babism has remained essentially conservative, basing its tenets on the works of the Bāb and Ṣobḥ-e Azal, whereas Bahaism represents a radical solution to the problem of continuing the Babi movement (see MacEoin, “From Babism to Baha’ism”). The harsher and less practical teachings of the Bayān are either abolished or toned down, immediate pressure to create a Babi theocracy is transformed into a future Bahai world state to be created through peaceful conversion and indefinitely postponable, and the Babi legal system is extensively modified to suit “modern” conditions.

Babism is of considerable interest for the light it sheds on a number of problems in the sociology of religion, notably that of charismatic breakthrough. We can observe a process whereby an initial development of traditional charismatic roles is rapidly intensified by a more radical breakthrough still expressed in terms of traditional motifs but involving a sharp move away from established religious modes, leading finally to a wholesale charismatic renewal in which the norms of the religious environment are replaced by a fresh set of doctrines and practices deriving their authority wholly from the charismatic authority of the prophet-figure. Within the overall spectrum from Shiʿism through Shaikhism and Babism to Bahaism, Berger (“Motif messianique”) has delineated a process of messianic expectation—fulfillment—renewed expectation, which indicates the importance of Babism as a case study in millenarianism. Within the context of modern Shiʿism, Babism provides valuable evidence of extreme tendencies in the religious establishment of mid-13th/19th-century Iran. To see Babism as an aberration or side issue in Qajar Shiʿism (as does Algar, Religion and State, p. 151) is to ignore its original orthodoxy and the role within it of religious motifs central to the Shiʿite tradition. Careful retrospection will show not only that Babism came close to upsetting the balance of Qajar political life but that it owed its ability to shake the foundations of society so forcefully and in such a short period less to a chance concatenation of events and more to its character as a vital response to deep-rooted expectations and needs of the Iranian people of the time. Far from having been a maverick or aberrant outgrowth of post-Safavid Shiʿism, Babism—especially when its early, semi-orthodox phase is taken fully into consideration—may be regarded not only as a highly typical expression of certain strands of Shiʿite thought, but as particularly relevant to the social and religious circumstances of many Iranians at the time of its inception. It may, indeed, be argued that many later developments within the orthodox establishment (including the wide rejection of reformism) were reactions against Babism and the dangers it showed to be inherent in an extreme insistence on charismatic authority, in a situation where the religious hierarchy was engaged in a process of intensifying such authority (see further MacEoin, “Changes in Charismatic Authority”). Although extremist movements in other parts of the Muslim world in the nineteenth century (Tejānīya, Sudanese Mahdīya, even the Aḥmadīya) represented serious departures from orthodox norms and involved considerable beḍʿa, or innovation, only Babism and its offshoot Bahaism present us with the phenomenon of outright severance from Islam and an attempt to introduce a new religious synthesis.



The bibliography of Babism, both published and unpublished, is vast and uneven. The reader should refer to D. M. MacEoin, “Babism,” in L. P. Elwell-Sutton, ed., Bibliographical Guide to Iran. The most recent studies of early Babism are D. M. MacEoin, From Shaykhism to Babism: A Study in Charismatic Renewal in Shīʿī Islam, Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1979 (University Microfilms 81-70,043); A. Amanat, The Early Years of the Babi Movement: Background and Development, Ph.D. thesis, Oxford University, 1981; idem, Resurrection and the Renewal of the Age: The Emergence of the Babi Movement in Qajar Iran (1844-1852) (forthcoming); P. Smith, A Sociological Study of the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Ph.D. thesis, Lancaster University, 1982; and idem, The Babi and Baha’i Religions, Cambridge, 1986. Of early European studies the best are those of E. G. Browne, notably “The Bábis of Persia. I. Sketch of Their History, and Personal Experiences among Them. II. Their Literature And Doctrines,” JRAS 21, 1889, pp. 485-526, 881-1009; article “Bāb, Bābīs” in J. Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, and his notes to A Traveller’s Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb (by ʿAbbās Effendi), 2 vols., Cambridge, 1891; Táríkh-i-Jadíd or New History of Mirzá ʿAlí Muḥammed the Báb (by Mīrzā Ḥosayn Hamadānī), Cambridge, 1893; and the Kitáb-i-Nuqṭatu’l-Káf (attributed to Ḥājjī Mīrzā Jānī Kāšānī), London, 1910.

His Materials for the Study of the Bábi Religion, Cambridge, 1918, deals mostly with Bahaism in its separate phase of development. The earliest Bābī history is the above-mentioned Noqṭat al-kāf, written in the early 1850s; the Tārīḵ-ejadīd is a Bahai version of this work with numerous omissions and additions. The most detailed history is a hagiographic work written by Mollā Moḥammad Nabīl Zarandī between 1888 and 1890 and published only in an edited English translation by the Bahai leader Shoghi Effendi as The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’i Revelation, Wilmette, Ill., 1932. All subsequent Bahai accounts follow this closely (e.g., H. M. Balyuzi, The Báb, Oxford, 1973, and M.-ʿA. Fayżī, Ḥażrat-e noqṭa-ye ūlā, Tehran, 1354 Š./1975-76). Less systematic but more useful is Mīrzā Asad-Allāh Fāżel Māzandarānī, Ketāb-e ẓohūr al-ḥaqq III, Cairo, n.d. Details of the various upheavals, other than those in the general histories, may be found in M.-ʿA. Malek Ḵosravī, Tārīḵ-ešohadā-ye amr, 3 vols., Tehran, 1352 Š./1973-74, Moḥammad Šafīʿ Rūḥānī Neyrīzī, Lamaʿāt al-anwār, 2 vols., Tehran, 1352-53 Š./1973-74, 1354-55 Š./1975-76, M.-ʿA. Fayżī, Neyrīz-e moškbīz, Tehran, 1351-52 Š./1972-73, ʿAbd-al-Aḥad Zanjānī, “Personal Reminiscences of the Bābī Insurrection at Zanjān in 1850,” tr. E. G. Browne, JRAS 29, 1897, pp. 761-827, Sayyed Moḥammad Ḥosayn Zavāraʾī, Waqāyeʿ-e mīmīya and Majles-e šahādat-e ḥażrat-e awwal man āmana Qāʾem Ḵorāsānī, and Loṭf-ʿAlī Mīrzā Šīrāzī, untitled history of the Māzandarān struggle, Cambridge University Library, ms., Browne Or. F. 28 (items 1, 2, 3).

A study of the uprisings from a Marxist point of view exists by Mikhail Ivanov: Babidskie vosstaniya v Irane, Leningrad, 1939. Sources are dealt with in D. M. MacEoin, Early Babi Doctrine and History: A Survey of the Sources (forthcoming). Important contemporary documents are published in M. Momen, ed., The Bábi and Baháʾi Religions (1844-1944): Some Contemporary Western Accounts, Oxford, 1981. See also P. L. Berger, From Sect to Church: A Sociological Interpretation of the Baha’i Movement, Ph.D. thesis, New School for Social Research, 1954. Specific topics are dealt with in the following articles: MacEoin, “The Bābī Concept of Holy War,” Religion 12, 1982, pp. 93-129; idem “Early Shaykhi Reactions to the Báb and his Claims,” in M. Momen, ed., Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History I, Los Angeles, 1983, pp. 1-47; idem, “From Babism to Baha’ism,” Religion 13, 1983, pp. 219-55; idem, “Changes in Charismatic Authority in Qajar Shiʿism,” in E. Bosworth and C. Hillenbrand, eds., Qajar Iran: Political and Cultural Change, Edinburgh, 1983, pp. 148-76; idem, “Hierarchy, Authority and Eschatology in Early Bábí Thought,” in P. Smith, ed., In Iran: Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History III, Los Angeles, 1986, pp. 95-155; idem, “Baha’i Fundamentalism and the Academic Study of the Babi Religion,” Religion 16, 1986, pp. 57-84; idem, “Ritual and Semi-Ritual Practices in Babism and Baha’ism,” paper read to the Bahāʾī Studies Seminar 1980, University of Lancaster; M. Momen, “The Social Basis of the Bābī Upheavals in Iran (1848-1853),” IJMES 15, 1983, pp. 157-83; idem, “The Trial of Mullā ʿAlī Basṭāmī: A Combined Sunnī-Shīʿī Fatwā against the Bāb,” Iran 20, 1982, pp. 113-43; idem and P. Smith, “The Social Location of the Babi Movement,” in P. Smith, ed., In Iran; S. Lambden, “An Incident in the Childhood of the Bab,” ibid.; P. L. Berger, “Motif messianique et processus social dans le Bahaisme,” Archives de sociologie des religions 4, 1957, pp. 93-107; Mirza Aleksandr Kazem-Beg, “Bab et les Babis,” JA 7, 1866, pp. 329-84, 457-522, 8, 1866, pp. 196-252, 357-400, 473-507; F. Kazemi, “Some Preliminary Observations on the Early Development of Babism,” Muslim World, 1973, pp. 119-31. For a bibliography of scriptural and related materials, see Bayān.

(D. M. MacEoin)

ii. Babi Executions and Uprisings

In the 1840s and 1850s a series of violent incidents involving members of the Babi sect (see babism) and Shiʿites took place in Iran, the most serious of which were four military encounters at Shaikh Ṭabarsī in Māzandarān, Zanjān, and Neyrīz (twice). At the inception of the Babi movement in 1260/1844, an uprising (ḵorūj) against unbelievers was keenly anticipated; it was at first believed that this event would begin in 1261/1845 in Karbalāʾ, when the Hidden Imam would appear to lead the jehād in person. The Bāb’s earliest major work, the Qayyūm al-asmāʾ, contains detailed regulations governing the conduct of jehād (Qayyūm al-asmāʾ, sūras 96-101; see MacEoin, “Holy War,” pp. 101-09). Up to 1264/1848, the sect’s jehād doctrine was essentially that of orthodox Shiʿism, but after that date, with the Bāb’s assumption of the role of Mahdī, a new legal system was promulgated in the Persian Bayān and other works. It appears that the entire Shiʿite population of Iran was now regarded as subject to jehād: non-Babis were to be forbidden to live in any of the five central provinces of Fārs, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Khorasan, and Māzandarān. More broadly, Babi law called for the destruction of the shrines and holy places of previous religions and, as one later Bahai source puts it, “the universal slaughter of all save those who believed and were faithful” (ʿAbbās Effendi, Makātīb ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ II, Cairo, 1330/1912, p. 266).

From 1844 to 1848, tension between Babis and the rest of the population increased rapidly through several key incidents: the arrest and trial in Baghdad of the Bāb’s emissary, Mollā ʿAlī Besṭāmī in 1260/1844-45; the arrest and punishment of three Babis in Shiraz in 1261/1845; the arrest of the Bāb on his return from the ḥajj in the same year; several challenges to mobāhala (mutual imprecation) issued by the Bāb and his followers to ʿolamāʾ in Iraq and Iran in 1262/1846 and 1263/1847; attacks on individual Babis in Hamadān, Qazvīn, Karbalāʾ, and Kermānšāh during the same period; and attacks on Babi merchants and ʿolamāʾ in Qazvīn in 1263/1847, leading to the assassination by three Babis of Mollā Moḥammad-Taqī Baraḡānī in October of that year. (For details of these incidents, see MacEoin, “Holy War,” pp. 109-12).

Several sources indicate that Babis in different centers were collecting and manufacturing arms in readiness for the postponed ḵorūj on the imam’s appearance (ibid., pp. 111-12; Māzandarānī, Ẓohūr al-ḥaqq, p. 374). The first serious incidents occurred in 1264/1848 in Mašhad, where armed members of the large Babi community clashed on two occasions with local soldiery. Expelled from Mašhad in Šaʿbān, 1264/July, 1848, a party of Babis under the leadership of Mollā Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Bošrūʾī headed into Māzandarān and in October of that year established themselves near Bārforūšī at the shrine of Shaikh Abū ʿAlī al-Fażl Ṭabarsī, which they fortified. From an original total of about 300, the number of insurgents rose to between 540 and 600 (Momen, “Social Basis,” pp. 161-65, esp. table 4). Leadership of the fort was in the hands of Bošrūʾī and another of the Bāb’s original disciples, Mollā Moḥammad-ʿAlī Bārforūšī Qoddūs. Between 14 Ḏu’l-qaʿda 1264/13 October 1848 and 16 Jomādā II 1265/9 May 1849, the Babi defenders and state troops under the overall command of Mahdīqolī Mīrzā engaged in sporadic fighting, with heavy losses of life on both sides. The siege was finally ended by a ruse and the surviving Babis either executed or taken prisoner.

Following disturbances in Yazd, a prominent Babi ʿālem (scholar) named Sayyed Yaḥyā Dārābī Waḥīd moved to Neyrīz in Rajab, 1266/May, 1850; on his arrival he preached to large crowds and soon converted (or at least gained the support of) a sizeable part of the population of the Čenārsūḵta quarter. Existing tensions between the populace and the governor, Zayn-al-ʿĀbedīn Khan, seem to have been reformulated and exacerbated by Dārābī, who was regarded by his followers as an independent authority in the town. Fighting soon broke out, whereupon around 1,000 Babis occupied the fort of Ḵᵛāja outside Neyrīz, where they were besieged by troops sent by Fīrūz Mīrzā Noṣrat-al-Dawla, the governor of Fārs. Hostilities continued until the capture of the fort by treachery in Šaʿbān/June; about 500 Babis were killed during the fighting and in the executions that followed.

The Zanjān episode of 1266-67/1850-51 was the most protracted and involved the largest numbers, with the town almost equally divided between the Babis and their opponents. The former, numbering over 2,000, were led by Mollā Moḥammad-ʿAlī Zanjānī Ḥojjat-al-Eslām (q.v.), a former Aḵbārī ʿālem who had already been the center of religious controversy before his conversion and who seems to have advocated radical social changes. In the course of heavy fighting between the Babis and several contingents of state troops, from 1,000 to 1,800 Babis lost their lives and parts of the town were badly damaged.

Following the assassination by Babis of the governor of Neyrīz Ḥājī Zayn-al-ʿĀbedīn Khan, early in 1269/1853, fighting continued for several months in the mountains outside the town, resulting in the deaths of some 350 Babis.

In addition to these outbreaks of large-scale violence, other incidents involving Babis occurred between 1850 and 1853: on 19 or 20 February 1850, seven Babis of relatively high social status were executed in Tehran; on 27 or 28 Šaʿbān 1266/8 or 9 July 1850, the Bāb himself was publicly shot with one companion in Tabrīz; in Ḏu’l-qaʿda, 1268/August-September, 1852, some 37 Babis, including leading figures such as Qorrat-al-ʿAyn Ṭāhera (q.v.), Mollā Shaikh ʿAlī Toršīzī, and Sayyed Ḥosayn Yazdī were executed in reprisal for the Babi attempt on the life of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah on 28, Šawwāl/15, August; at the same period, there were further attacks on Babis in Mīlān near Tabrīz, Tākor in Māzandarān, Yazd, Neyrīz, and possibly elsewhere.

In all, something like 3,000 Babis died in these episodes, or, if we take the lower figure of 1,000 deaths at Zanjān, just over 2,000 in all. Later estimates of 20,000 and more found in some Bahai works do not, in fact, correspond to the more detailed figures given in Bahai historical sources. Similarly, the very high figures for both participants and casualties given in state chronicles like the Nāseḵ al-tawārīḵ are manifestly exaggerated, probably in order to explain away the failure of the government forces to put down the disturbances rapidly.

It is impossible to identify a consistent pattern in these events. Ivanov’s (1939) Marxist analysis shows serious limitations in its treatment of motives and its portrayal of the Babi participants in the struggles as “peasants, artisans, urban poor, and small trades-people.” More recent studies by Momen (1983), Smith (1982), and MacEoin (1982) reveal a more complex interplay of social, political, and religious factors at work. The Shaikh Ṭabarsī siege was the most markedly religious of the larger incidents, while the Zanjān and Neyrīz uprisings were more closely linked to local politics. It is arguable that, whereas those involved in the Shaikh Ṭabarsī struggle and in the smaller pogroms were convinced Babis, many of those who participated in the fighting at Zanjān, Yazd, or Neyrīz may have been vague about or indifferent to the specific religious issues propounded by the Babi leadership. At Shaikh Ṭabarsī, messianic ambitions were linked to a belief that, through martyrdom, the defenders were reenacting the events of Karbalāʾ; the Qajar state and its forces were condemned as illegitimate and a defensive jehād proclaimed against them. At Zanjān, religious millenarianism was less marked, while puritan and egalitarian ideals were clearly in evidence.

Smallness of numbers, a limited social base, lack of a centralized or coordinated leadership, the absence of an agreed policy, and conflicts of motive all combined to rob the Babi uprisings of any potential they might otherwise have had of acting as catalysts for a broader movement for social, religious, or political change. Conversely, the military defeat of Babism all but stopped it in its tracks and forced the surviving leaders to reinterpret the religion and restate its goals, leading to the eventual emergence of Azalī Babism and Bahaism. In the latter case, rejection of Babi militancy and the adoption of a pacifist orientation resulted initially in an emphasis on the absolute distinctiveness of the two movements; but as later doctrinal developments demanded increasing conflation of Babism and Bahaism, the Babi uprisings themselves were reinterpreted as defensive reactions to persecution by church and state (see, in particular, MacEoin, “From Babism to Baha’ism”).



Accounts of specific incidents: Mollā Moḥammad Nabīl Zarandī, The Dawn-Breakers, ed. and tr. Shoghi Effendi, New York, 1932, chaps. 19-24, 26.

Mīrzā Moḥammad-Taqī Lesān-al-Molk Sepehr, Nāseḵ al-tawārīḵ: Salāṭīn-e Qājārīya, 4 vols. in 2, Tehran, 1385/1965-66, III, pp. 233-63, 285-97, 302-07, 337-42; IV, pp. 30-42, 72-73.

Reżā Khan Lalabāšī, Rawżat al-ṣafā-ye nāṣerī, vols. 8-10, Tehran, 1274/1857; X, pp. 118, 121-33, 167-70.

Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, Religions et philosophies dans l’Asie centrale, 10th ed., Paris, 1957, chaps. 7-11.

A. L. M. Nicolas, Séyyèd Ali Mohemmed dit le Bâb, Paris, 1905, chaps. 5-7, 9-12.

Moḥammad-ʿAlī Malek Ḵosravī, Tārīḵ-ešohadā-ye amr, 3 vols., Tehran, 130 B. (Badīʿ)/1973-74, I-II; III, pp. 39-334.

ʿAlīqolī Mīrzā Eʿteżād-al-Salṭana, Ketāb al-motanabbīyūn, section published as Fetna-ye Bāb, ed. ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Navāʾī, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1351 Š./1972-73, pp. 33-106.

M. Momen, The Bábí and Baháʾí Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts, Oxford, 1981, chaps. 1-8.

Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, Wilmette, 1944, chaps. 3-5.

Mīrzā Ḥosayn Hamadānī, Tārīḵ-ejadīd, tr. E. G. Browne, The New History of Mīrzá ʿAlí Muḥammed, the Báb, Cambridge, 1893, pp. 44-110, 111-35, 135-68, 250-67, 293-312.

Ḥājī Mīrzā Jānī Kāšānī, Ketāb-e noqṭat al-kāf, ed.

E. G. Browne, London and Leiden, 1910, pp. 154-204, 215-23, 223-29, 230-38, 245-52.

(ʿAbbās Effendi ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ), A Traveller’s Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Bāb, ed. and tr. E. G. Browne, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1891, I, pp. 211-18, 253-61, 306-09, 323-34.

Mirza (Aleksandr) Kazem Beg, “Bab et les Babis,” Journal asiatique, 6th ser., 7, 1866, pp. 457-522, 8, pp. 196-252 (cf. also idem, Bab i Babidy i religiozno-politicheskaya smuta v Persii v 1844-1852 gg., St. Petersburg, 1865).

ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Āvāra, al-Kawākeb al-dorrīya, 2 vols., Cairo, 1342/1924, I, chaps. 2-4.

Moḥammad-Šafīʿ Rūḥānī Neyrīzī, Lamaʿāt al-anwār I, Tehran, 130 B./1973-74.

Moḥammad-ʿAlī Fayżī, Neyrīz-e moškbīz, Tehran, 129 B./1972-73.

ʿAbd-al-Aḥad Zanjānī, “Personal Reminiscences of the Bábí Insurrection at Zanján in 1850,” tr. E. G. Browne, JRAS 29, 1897, pp. 761-827.

Broader analyses: M. S. Ivanov, Babidskie vosstaniya v Irane (1848-1852), Moscow, 1939.

M. Momen, “The Social Basis of the Bābī Upheavals in Iran (1848-53): A Preliminary Analysis,” IJMES 15, 1983, pp. 157-83.

Idem, “Some Problems Connected with the Yazd Episode of 1850,” paper read to 3rd Bahai Studies Seminar, Lancaster University, 1977.

D. M. MacEoin, “The Bābī Concept of Holy War,” Religion 12, 1982, pp. 93-129.

Idem, “From Babism to Baha’ism: Problems of Militancy, Quietism, and Conflation in the Construction of a Religion,” Religion 13, 1983, pp. 219-55 (esp. pp. 236-37).

Idem, “Bahāʾī Fundamentalism and the Academic Study of the Bābī Movement,” Religion 16, 1986, pp. 57-84.

Idem, “A Note on the Numbers of Babi and Baha’i Martyrs in Iran,” Baha’i Studies Bulletin 2/2, 1983, pp. 84-88.

M. Afnan and W. S. Hatcher, “Western Islamic Scholarship and Bahāʾī Origins,” Religion 15, 1985, pp. 29-51.

P. Smith, A Sociological Study of the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Lancaster, 1982, chap. 5.

Idem, “Millenialism in the Babi and Baha’i Religions,” in R. Wallis, ed., Millenialism and Charisma, Belfast, 1982, pp. 231-83.

Mangol Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran, Syracuse, 1982, chap. 4, esp. pp. 118-26.

For details of histories of Shaikh Ṭabarsī found in manuscripts, Neyrīz, Zanjān, and other incidents, see D. M. MacEoin, Early Babi Doctrine and History: A Survey of Source Materials (forthcoming).

(D. M. MacEoin )

Originally Published: December 15, 1988

Last Updated: August 19, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 3, pp. 309-317