BAST (sanctuary, asylum), the designation of certain sanctuaries in Iran that are considered inviolable and were often used by people seeking refuge (bast nešastan, bast-nešīnī)from prosecution (even common criminals), called bastīs.The word is probably derived from OIr. (OPers., Av.) upastā-“help, assistance,” cf. Mid. Pers. apastām “reliance,” Arm. lw. apastan “refuge, shelter” (see AirWb., col. 396; Nyberg, Manual II,p. 24; Hübschmann, Armenische Grammatik, p.104). Arabic taḥaṣṣon,asylum in a fortified place, is sometimes used in Iran.
Concepts of asylum and sanctuary are linked with widely spread beliefs and customs. Religious asylum was practiced by Jews, Greeks, and Romans. The Roman Catholic church made it a universal institution. In Islam, the customary right of asylum derives from the notions of “safeguard” or “protection” (see “ʿAhd,” “Amān,” “Dhimma,” “Ḥimāya,” in EI2 and “ʿĀr,” ibid., suppl.; see also L. Gardet, La cité musulmane,Paris, 1961, pp. 75ff.). From “honoring the guest” (ekrām al-żayf)derived the Bedouin concept of the right of asylum (eqrāʾ; ibid., pp. 78, 280; see also “Dakhīl” and “Djiwār,” in EI2),which usually prevailed over “the duty of just war” (L. Massignon, Opera minora,Beirut, 1969, III, pp. 539ff.). Religious asylum is provided in a holy precinct (ḥaram), the prototype of which is the Kaʿba, where human beings as well as animals and plants find sanctuary (see “Kaʿba,” in EI2, with reference to Jewish precedents; cf. Koran 3:96). The notion of ḥaram space was extended to holy places such as the “shrines” of the imams (see “ʿAtabāt,” in EI2, suppl., and EIr.; Pers. āstān/āstāna is used in Iran) and the tombs (mazārāt)of holy persons such as emāmzādas,Sufi saints, or learned men (ḵānaqāh, takīa, rebāṭ, zāwīa)visited by pilgrims.
Although this custom is of great antiquity, its beginnings in Iran remain unclear. The existence in Sasanian times of an official “protector of the poor” (drigōšān yātagōv)does not imply a right of asylum or an institution (see J. de Menasce, “Le protecteur des pauvres dans l’Iran sassanide,” in Mélanges Massé,Tehran, 1963, pp. 1-6). Territorial asylum (which appeared with the creation of modern states in sixteenth-century Europe) seems to have been used early in Islamic Iran, along with religious asylum, whereas extraterritorial asylum appeared gradually with the development of diplomatic missions.
The vizier Šams-al-Dīn Moḥammad Ṣāḥeb-e Dīvān’s retreat for a few days into the sanctuary of Fāṭema Maʿṣūma at Qom (Rašīd-al-Dīn, Jāmeʿ al-tawārīḵ,Baku, III, p. 200) must be interpreted as taking bast.Claimants to the throne, tribal chiefs, generals, and nobles who had fallen out with their overlords often found political-territorial asylum under a rival king or ruler (e.g., Safavid princes seeking refuge under the Ottomans).
With the establishment of a strong central government under the Safavids and the concomitant rise in religious fervor, the practice of taking asylum in religious or royal holy places became common. Under bast protection, bastīsfound temporary accommodation and subsistence and could negotiate the terms of immunity with their prosecutors. The concept of the inviolability of a sacred space used for bast is often symbolized by a chain stretched across the gate or threshold of the precincts. Immunity is guaranteed by touching the chain and getting into the first courtyard (Massé, pp. 404ff.; Curzon, I, p. 347). The first Safavid shrine to be recognized as bast was the tomb of Shaikh Ṣafī-al-Dīn at Ardabīl. This was granted as a boon to Solṭān ʿAlī by Tīmūr in 806/1404 (W. Hinz, Irans Aufstieg zum Nationalstaat im fünfzehnten Jahrhundert,Berlin and Leipzig, 1936, p. 15; Taḏkerat al-molūk, pp. 189f.). Some places, such as the Ardabīl mosque and the mausoleum of Fāṭema Maʿṣūma at Qom, seem to have been special refuges for debtors (Massé, pp. 406f., quoting Tavernier; Gemelli Carreri, Giro del mondo,Naples, 1699-1700, II, pp. 75f.). The royal palace of ʿAlī Qāpū at Isfahan, whose threshold was particularly sacred, provided bast to those who took refuge in its cells (Massé, pp. 405f. quoting Tavernier, Della Valle, Bedik, Thévenot, Chardin, Oléarius, etc.). The Čehel Sotūn palace was also a bast (Massé, p. 406, quoting Struys). Other places, objects, and animals associated with royalty provided bast. Among them we find the royal kitchens, stables, and horses (the bastī had to stand near the horse’s head or tail; Malcolm, II, p. 559 n.; see also Curzon, I, p. 155 n.; bast was later extended to horses in diplomatic missions, when the bastīswould take refuge under the horse, Massé, p. 406), the Pearl Cannon (Tūp-e Morvārīd) in Tehran, and thence the royal artillery (Massé, p. 405; Browne, tr., Tarikh-i jadid,p. 152).
Residences of renowned mojtahedswere also considered bast,even after their owners’ deaths (Malcolm, II, pp. 443f.). The whole quarter of Bīdābād in Isfahan was a bast because a leading mojtahed lived there (Massé, p. 405, quoting De Bode). Mosques of emāmzādasand other saints were also used as refuges (e.g., Šāh Čerāḡ in Shiraz, Sayyed Ḥamza in Tabrīz, Ḥājī Mīr Yaʿqūb in Ḵoy; see Massé, p. 407).
Extraterritorial rights granted to Russia and Britain by the Treaty of Torkamāṇčāy (1828) and an additional firman in 1840 enabled British diplomats to extend their protection to an increasing number of Persians or other subjects, which eventually led to the use of the legations, consulates, and embassy residences, and even the Indo-European Telegraph Department’s stations as basts(Wright, pp. 41ff.). Resort to telegraph stations was encouraged by the popular belief that the telegraph wires ended at the foot of the throne in Tehran (Curzon, I, p. 175).
Bast as a form of political protest was used early by social groups. In the reign of Shah ʿAbbās II, in 1066/1657, members of the guilds and craftsmen took bast inside the dawlat-ḵāna at Isfahan. Through the mediation of a mojtahed,they obtained the dismissal of an oppressive watchman (dārūḡa)from the Shah and, later, of the dīvān-begī (M. Keyvani, Artisans and Guild Life in the Later Safavid Period,Berlin, 1982, p. 157, quoting ʿAbbās-nāma and Ḵold-e barīn).Although political bast was extended considerably in the 13th/19th century with the development of diplomatic missions and telegraph stations (see Lambton, pp. 136, 141f.), the biggest baststook place during the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11). In April, 1905, Tehran retailers, bankers, and merchants took refuge at Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm in Ray (see Gilbar, p. 296). In December, 1905, the clergy (ʿolamāʾ),theology students (ṭollāb), and bāzārīsalso took bast at Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm, after being expelled from the Masjed-e Šāh in Tehran (Malekzāda, II, pp. 47ff.; Algar, pp. 246f.). The most celebrated bast took place in the British Legation at Tehran. During three weeks (19 July-10 August 1906), between 12,000 and 16,000 Tehrani demonstrators camped in the gardens while about one thousand ʿolamāʾ migrated to Qom. This led to the granting of a Constitution and a National Assembly (Browne, Revolution, pp. 118ff.; Malekzāda, II, pp. 161ff.; Algar, pp. 250f.; Wright, p. 47; Gilbar, p. 299). There were also important bastsin Tabrīz (British consulate: September, 1906; Turkish consulate: June, 1909; see Browne, Revolution,p. 130). The anti-Constitutionalist Shaikh Fażl-Allāh Nūrī took bast with some followers in Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm for ninety days to express his disapproval of constitutional government (Malekzāda, IV, p. 212; Abdul-Hadi Hairi, Shiʿism and Constitutionalism in Iran,Leiden, 1977, p. 192). Like others involved in large-scale political protest, bastīsenjoyed various forms of support; in addition to British diplomatic protection, Constitutionalists were given financial aid by wealthy Iranian bankers and merchants (Gilbar, p. 299).
There were many attempts to restrict bast. In cases of great offense, attempts were made to starve out the bastīs(Massé, p. 407, quoting Morier). Violating or breaking of bast by force (Šekastan-e bast) brought about a malediction or a curse upon trespassers. This was the case of the Afsharid Nāder Mīrzā, who showed disrespect to the shrine of Imam Reżā and to the ʿolamāʾ (Algar, pp. 33, 47f.). After he had killed the mojtahed Mīrzā Moḥammad Mahdī he was tortured and put to death (Nāʾīnī, Jāmeʿ-e jaʿfarī, ed. Ī. Afšār, Tehran, 1343 Š./1964, pp. 111ff.; M.-Ḥ. Qoddūsī, Nāder-nāma, Mašhad, 1339 Š./1960, p. 441). He had also killed a bastī hidden in his stables (Malcolm, II, p. 59 n.). His mischief was recalled by Ayatollah Ṭabāṭabāʾī at the time of the Constitutional movement, when bast was broken by Qajar troops as Mašhad and Shiraz (Algar, p. 249). Troops broke bast at Mašhad in 1934 (see R. M. Savory, in G. Lenczowski, ed., Iran under the Pahlavis,Stanford, 1978, pp. 97f.). Authoritative reduction of bast was undertaken by Amīr(-e) Kabīr, who objected to the use of mosques to shelter armed followers of the ʿolamāʾ in Isfahan, Tabrīz, and Tehran. He also tried to suppress extraterritorial bast (Algar, pp. 129ff., F. Ādamīyat, Amīr-e Kabīr o Īrān,Tehran, 1354 Š./1975, pp. 432ff.). There were renewed attempts to suppress bast after Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah’s first visit to Europe (Curzon, I, p. 460). One of the most portentous violations of bast occurred in January, 1891, when Jamāl-al-Dīn Asadābādī “Afḡānī” was violently expelled from Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm (Algar, pp. 199ff.; Pakdaman, pp. 141ff., 321ff., letter to Amīn-al-Żarb). The Majles, which was bombarded by the troops of Moḥammad-ʿAlī Shah (June, 1908), was also considered a bast.Moṣaddeq took refuge in it in 1953 (see P. Avery, Modern Iran, London, 1965, p. 436).
Although only Muslims benefited, in principle, from bast,there were exceptions for Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians (see, e.g., Curzon, I, p. 155; on ḏemmīs’ protection, see Lambton, p. 141). Bast protection was extended to ritually pure animals (Massé, p. 405; Algar, pp. 134f.; on pilgrim animals, see B. A. Donaldson, The Wild Rue,London, 1938, p. 68). Safety was not guaranteed to Babis who had been promised bast immunity (Browne, tr., Tarikh-i jadid, pp. 152f.). Jules Richard, a Frenchman who promoted photography in Iran, converted to Shiʿism after being involved in a scandal and took bast at Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm in 1857 (see Ch. Adle, Studia Iranica 12, 1983, p. 257).
In Afghanistan, religious bast was practiced until the Communist revolution. Places such as the sanctuary of Mazār-e Šarīf, and the tombs of Sultan Maḥmūd and of the poet Sanāʾī at Ḡaznī were reckoned as basts. But the most celebrated basts were located at Qandahār and Herat (Farhādī).
At Qandahār, the Masjed-e Ḵerqa contains a fragment of a cloak attributed to the Prophet Moḥammad. This was brought from central Asia by Aḥmad Shah Dorrānī, whose tomb lies nearby. In September, 1881, Amir ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān ordered that ʿAbd-al-Raḥīm Āḵūnd Kākar—who had, together with other mullahs, proclaimed a takfīr-nāma against him—be “pulled out” of that sanctuary. He then killed him with his own hands (Munshi Sultan Mahomed Khan, ed., The Life of Abdur Rahman Amir ofAfghanistan, London, 1900, I, p. 216). In December, 1959, there was a large-scale protest against the unveiling of women encouraged by Dāʾūd’s government. Obvious manifestations of modernization (a local cinema, a girl’s school, government buildings) were attacked. Ṣeddīq Wazīrī, governor of Qandahār, was replaced by General Khan Moḥammad Khan, who used force to soothe the revolt (Reštīya). According to the official version, landowners and arbābswanted to take bast in the Masjed-e Ḵerqa for their usual protest against taxation. Riots were said to have resulted from the government’s refusal to acknowledge bast (this official version is followed by L. Dupree, Afghanistan, Princeton, 1973, pp. 536f.). Near Herat, bast was traditionally provided at the sanctuary of Ḵᵛāja ʿAbd-Allāh Anṣārī located at Gāzargāh (on the shrine, see F. Saljūqī, Gāzargāh, Kabul, 1962 and 1976, and Āryānā (special issue), 1355 Š./1976; Golombek, The Timurid Shrine at Gazar Gah, Toronto, 1969). During the civil war of 1929, various places were used as bast in Sunni-Shiʿite conflicts at Herat (Gāzargāh, Mūy-e Mobārak, Ḵerqa-ye Šarīf; Farhādī).
Official sources provide scant information on bast; we must rely mainly on observations made by foreign residents and travelers.
H. Algar, Religion and State in Iran 1785-1906, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969.
E. G. Browne, The Persian Revolution 1905-1909, London, 1910, repr. London, 1966.
Idem, tr., The Tarikh-i jadid or New History of Mirza Ali Muhammad the Bab,Cambridge, 1893.
J. Chardin, Voyages du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient, ed. Langlès, Paris, 1811, VII, pp. 368ff.
G. N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, London, 1892, repr. 1966.
R. Farhādī, personal communication, 1984.
G. G. Gilbar, “The Big Merchants (tujjār) and the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906,” Asian and African Studies 11, 1977, pp. 275-303.
A. K. S. Lambton, “Social Change in Persia in the Nineteenth Century,” ibid., 15, 1981, pp. 123-48.
M. Malekzāda, Tārīḵ-e enqelāb-e mašrūṭīyat-e Īrān, Tehran, 7 vols. J. Malcolm, The History of Persia, London, 1815.
H. Massé, Croyances et coutumes persanes, Paris, 1938, II, pp. 404-07.
H. Pakdaman, Djamal-ed-din Assad Abadi dit Afghani, Paris, 1969.
S. Q. Reštīya, personal communication, 1984.
R. M. Savory, “Bast,” in EI2. D. Wright, The English amongst the Persians,London, 1977.
Idem, The Persians among the English, London, 1985, pp. 185-204.
Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: December 15, 1988
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 8, pp. 856-858