Today is the birthday (1819) of the Báb (“the door/gate”), whose birth name was Sayyed ʿAli Muhammad Shirāzi (سيد علی محمد شیرازی — descendant of the prophet Ali Muhammad from Shiraz), the founder of Bábism, and one of the central figures of the Azali and Bahá’í faiths. His birthday is celebrated in the Bahá’í tradition on this date using the Gregorian calendar rather than the Islamic or Bahá’í calendars. He is considered to be a figure rather like John the Baptist in the Christian tradition, that is, a forerunner who prepared the way for Bahá’u’lláh. (see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/ascension-of-bahaullah/ ). He also has followers in his own right. Bahá’ís claim that the Báb was the spiritual return of Elijah and John the Baptist, that he was the saoshyant referred to in Zoroastrianism, and that he was the forerunner of their own religion. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was a follower of the Báb and claimed to be the fulfillment of his promise that God would send another messenger. What follows gets a bit detailed and I understand if it is a bit much to digest for a simple daily post. I do think it is important, however, to glimpse the historical evolution of branches of Islam. The average non-Muslim Westerner doesn’t even know the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, let alone the branches of these main denominations.
The Báb was born in Shiraz to a middle-class merchant of the city. His father was Muhammad Ridá, and his mother was Fátimih (1800–1881), a daughter of a prominent merchant in Shiraz. She later became a Bahá’í. His father died while he was quite young and he was raised by his maternal uncle, Hájí Mírzá Siyyid `Alí, who was also a merchant. He claimed to be a descendant from Muhammad (a sayyid) through Husayn ibn Ali through both his parents. When he was in Shiraz his uncle sent him to maktab (primary school) and he was there for 6 to 7 years. Some time between when he was 15 and 20, he joined his uncle in the family business, a trading house, and became a merchant in the city of Bushehr in Iran, near the Persian Gulf. Some of his earlier writings suggest that he did not enjoy the business and instead applied himself to the study of religious literature. One of his contemporary followers described him as,
. . . very taciturn, and would never utter a word unless it was absolutely necessary. He did not even answer our questions. He was constantly absorbed in his own thoughts, and was preoccupied with repetition of his prayers and verses. He was a handsome man with a thin beard, dressed in clean clothes, wearing a green shawl and a black turban.
An English physician him as a young man by saying: “He was a very mild and delicate-looking man, rather small in stature and very fair for a Persian, with a melodious soft voice, which struck me much.
In 1842 he married Khadíjih-Bagum (1822–1882); he was 23 and she was 20. She was the daughter of a prominent merchant in Shiraz. They had only one child, a boy named Ahmad who died the year he was born (1843). The pregnancy jeopardized Khadijih’s life and she never conceived again. The young couple occupied a modest house in Shiraz along with the Báb’s mother. Later, Khadijih became a Bahá’í.
In the 1790s in Persia, Shaykh Ahmad (1753–1826) began a religious movement within Twelver Shia Islam. His followers, who became known as Shaykhis, were expecting the imminent appearance of the al-Qa’im of the Ahl al-Bayt also called “the Mahdi” (the 12th (hidden) Imam, somewhat akin to a Messiah, whom some Twelver Muslims believe will appear at the second coming of Jesus). After the death of Shaykh Ahmad, leadership was passed on to Kazim Rashti (1793–1843). In 1841 the Báb went on pilgrimage to Iraq, and for seven months stayed mostly in and around Karbala. There he is believed to have met Kazim Rashti, who showed a high regard for him. He is believed to have attended some of Kazim Rashti’s lectures. On his death bed in December 1843, Kazim Rashti counselled his followers to leave their homes to seek the Mahdi, who, according to his prophecies, would soon appear. One of these followers, Mullá Husayn, after keeping vigil for 40 days in a mosque, travelled to Shiraz, where he met the Báb.
The Báb’s first religious inspirational experience, witnessed by his wife, is dated to about the evening of 3 April 1844. The Báb’s first public connection with his sense of a mission came with the arrival of Mullá Husayn in Shiraz. On the night of 22 May, Mullá Husayn was invited by the Báb to his home. On that night Mullá Husayn told him that he was searching for the possible successor to Kazim Rashti, the Promised One. The Báb told Mullá Husayn that he was Kazim Rashti’s successor and the bearer of divine knowledge. Mullá Husayn became the first to accept the Báb’s claims to be an inspired figure and a likely successor to Kazim Rashti. The Báb had replied satisfactorily to all of Mullá Husayn’s questions and had written in his presence, with extreme rapidity, a long tafsir (commentary) on surah “Yusuf”, which has come to be known as the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ and is considered the Báb’s first revealed work.
Mullá Husayn was the Báb’s first disciple. Within five months, seventeen other disciples of Kazim Rashti had accepted the Báb as a Manifestation of God. Among them was one woman, Fátimih Zarrín Táj Baragháni, a poet, who later received the name of Táhirih (the Pure). These 18 disciples were later to be known as the Letters of the Living and were given the task of spreading the new faith across Iran and Iraq. The Báb emphasized the spiritual station of these 18 individuals, who, along with himself, made the first “Unity” of his religion (in Arabic, the term wāhid “unity” has a numerical value of 19 using abjad numerals). The Báb, in his book the Persian Bayán, gives the metaphorical identity of the Letters of the Living as the Fourteen Infallibles of Twelver Shi’i Islam (Muhammad, the Twelve Imams, and Fatimah) and the four archangels. In his early writings, the Báb appears to identify himself as the gate (báb) to the Hidden Twelfth Imam, and later he begins explicitly to proclaim his station as that of the Hidden Imam and a new messenger from God.
In the Báb’s early writings, the exalted identity he was claiming was unmistakable, but because of the skeptical reception of this pronouncement by many people, his writings appear to convey the impression that he is only the gate to the Hidden Twelfth Imam. To his circle of early believers, the Báb was equivocal about his exact status, gradually confiding in them that he was not merely a gate to the Hidden Imam, but the Manifestation of the Hidden Imam and the Qa’im himself. During his early meetings with Mullá Husayn, the Báb described himself as the Master and the Promised One; he did not consider himself to be simply Kazim Rashti’s successor, but claimed a prophetic status, a kind of deputy, delegated not just by the Hidden Imam but through Divine authority.
In the early phase of his declaration to the public, the title báb was emphasized as that of the gate leading to the Hidden Imam, as the Báb had told his early believers not to fully disclose his claims or reveal his name. The approach of laying claim to a lower position was intended to create a sense of anticipation for the appearance of the Hidden Imam, as well to avoid persecution and imprisonment, because a public proclamation of mahdi status could have brought upon the Báb a swift penalty of death. After a couple of months, as the Báb observed further acceptance and readiness among his believers and the public, he gradually shifted his public claim to that of the Hidden Imam. Then in his final years he publicly announced his station as a Manifestation of God.
After the eighteen Letters of the Living had accepted him, the Báb and the eighteenth Letter of the Living, Quddús, left on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. At the Kaaba in Mecca, the Báb publicly declared his claim to be the Qa’im or Mahdi. He also wrote to the Sharif of Mecca, the Custodian of the Kaaba, proclaiming his mission. After their pilgrimage, the Báb and Quddús returned to Bushehr in Iran.
Preaching by the Letters of the Living led to opposition by Islamic clergy, prompting the Governor of Shiraz to order the Báb’s arrest. The Báb, upon hearing of the arrest order, left Bushehr for Shiraz in June 1845 and presented himself to the authorities. He was placed under house arrest at the home of his uncle until a cholera epidemic broke out in the city in September 1846. The Báb was released and departed for Isfahan. There, many came to see him at the house of the imam jum’a, head of the local clergy, who became sympathetic. After an informal gathering where the Báb debated the local clergy and displayed his speed in producing instantaneous verses, his popularity soared. After the death of the governor of Isfahan, Manouchehr Khan Gorji, who had become his supporter, pressure from the clergy of the province led to the Shah, Mohammad Shah Qajar, ordering the Báb to Tehran in January 1847. After spending several months in a camp outside Tehran, and before the Báb could meet the Shah, the Prime Minister sent the Báb to Tabriz in the northwestern corner of the country, where he was imprisoned.
After forty days in Tabriz, the Báb was then transferred to the fortress of Maku in the province of Azerbaijian close to the Turkish border. During his incarceration there, the Báb began his most important work, the Persian Bayán, which he never finished. Because of the Báb’s growing popularity in Maku and the governor of Maku converting, the prime minister transferred him to the fortress of Chehriq in April 1848. In that place as well, the Báb’s popularity grew and his jailors relaxed restrictions on him. It was at this time that Áqa Bálá Big Shíshvání Naqshbandí painted the only known portrait of the Báb. The Prime Minister ordered the Báb back to Tabriz, where the government called on religious authorities to put the Báb on trial for blasphemy and apostasy.
The trial, attended by the Crown Prince, occurred in July 1848 and involved numerous local clergy. They questioned the Báb about the nature of his claims, his teachings, and demanded that he produce miracles to prove his divine authority. They admonished him to recant his claims. There are nine extant eyewitness reports of the trial which vary somewhat in terms of the questions asked and the answers given. Only one answer is found in all nine eyewitness sources, where the Báb states that “I am that person you have been awaiting for one thousand years.”
The trial did not bring a decisive result. Some clergy called for capital punishment, but the government pressured them to issue a lenient judgement because the Báb was popular. The government asked medical experts to declare the Báb insane so that he could not be executed. It is also likely that the government, to appease the religious clergy, spread rumours that the Báb had recanted. The Shaykh al-Islām, a champion of the anti-Bábist campaign, who was not at the Báb’s trial, issued a conditional death sentence if the Báb was found to be sane. A fatwa was issued establishing the Báb’s apostasy which stated, “The repentance of an incorrigible apostate is not accepted, and the only thing which has caused the postponement of your execution is a doubt as to your sanity of mind.”
The crown prince’s physician, William Cormick, examined the Báb and complied with the government’s request to find grounds for clemency. The physician’s opinion saved the Báb from execution for a time, but the clergy insisted that he face corporal punishment instead, so the Báb suffered foot whipping (twenty lashes to the bottoms of his feet). The unsigned and undated official government report states that because of his harsh beating, the Báb (orally and in writing) recanted, apologized, and stated that he would not continue to advance claims of divinity. The document of his alleged recantation was written shortly after his trial in Tabriz. Some authors believe that the assertions were made to embarrass the Báb and undermine his credibility with the public and that the language of this document is very different from the Báb’s usual style, so that it could have been prepared by the authorities.
After the trial, the Báb was ordered back to the fortress of Chehríq. In mid-1850 a new prime-minister, Amir Kabir, ordered the execution of the Báb, probably because various Bábí insurrections had been defeated and the movement’s popularity appeared to be waning. The Báb was brought back to Tabriz from Chehriq for an execution by firing squad. The night before his execution, as he was being conducted to his cell, a young Bábí, Muhammad-Ali “Anis” from Zonuz, threw himself at the feet of the Báb and begged to be killed with him. He was immediately arrested and placed in the same cell as the Báb.
On the morning of July 9, 1850, the Báb was taken to the courtyard of the barracks in which he was being held, where thousands of people had gathered to watch his execution. The Báb and Anís were suspended on a wall and a large firing squad of Christian soldiers prepared to shoot. Numerous eye-witness reports, including those of Western diplomats, recount the result. The order was given to fire and the barracks square filled with musket smoke. When it cleared, the Báb was no longer in the courtyard and his companion stood there unharmed. The bullets apparently had not harmed either man, but had cut the rope suspending them from the wall. There was a great commotion, many in the crowd believing the Báb had ascended to heaven or simply disappeared. But the soldiers subsequently found the Báb in another part of the barracks, completely unharmed, giving his final instructions to his secretary. He and Anis were tied up for execution a second time, a second firing squad of Muslim soldiers was ranged in front of them, and a second order to fire was given. This time, the Báb and his companion were killed. In Bábí and Bahá’í tradition, the failure of the first firing squad to kill the Báb is believed to have been a miracle. Their corpses were dumped outside the gates of the town to be eaten by animals.
The corpses, however, were clandestinely rescued by a handful of Bábis and were hidden. Over time the remains were secretly transported according to instructions of Bahá’u’lláh and then `Abdu’l-Bahá by way of Isfahan, Kirmanshah, Baghdad and Damascus, to Beirut and thence by sea to Acre on the plain below Mount Carmel in 1899. On March 21, 1909, the remains were then interred in a special tomb, the Shrine of the Báb, erected for this purpose by `Abdu’l-Bahá, on Mount Carmel in present-day Haifa in Israel. The Bahá’í World Centre is located close to this site.
Bahá’ís and Bábis treat today as a holy day, ceasing work and holding festive gatherings. Something Persian/Iranian is suitable and I have chosen an eggplant and tomato stew, Khoresh Bademjan, which is very popular. It usually contains meat of some sort – lamb or beef – but I am giving a vegan version here because many Bahá’ís and Bábis (not all), refrain from eating meat. Given that the dish’s main ingredients are eggplants and tomatoes, which are New World cultigens, it’s not an ancient dish by any means. But, given that the Báb lived in the 19th century an ancient dish is not called for. One of the main ingredients is pomegranate molasses. I give a recipe for here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/cyrus-the-great/ or you can buy it online. The dish is normally accompanied by a yoghurt sauce, and should be served with rice.
For the Eggplant and Tomato Stew:
1 ½ pounds eggplant, stemmed, peeled, and cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled, and finely sliced
3 large cloves garlic, peeled, and finely chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp sea salt (plus extra for salting the eggplant)
1 28 oz can whole tomatoes, drained
¼ cup pomegranate molasses
1 pinch saffron
For the Yogurt Herb Sauce:
6 oz plain yogurt
¼ cup fresh, chopped dill
2 or 3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Place the eggplant in a large colander set over a bowl. Sprinkle generously with sea or kosher salt and set aside. For 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Heat the ¼ cup of olive oil over medium high heat in a Dutch oven or deep, heavy skillet. Add the onions and sauté until they are soft and translucent, and beginning to brown in spots. Add the garlic, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and salt, and sauté about a minute longer, stirring until the onions are coated and the spices are aromatic.
Press the eggplant well in the colander to release trapped fluid, and then turn it out on to paper towels and pat dry. Add the eggplant to the pan. Drizzle the pan with the extra 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Sauté, turning to coat the eggplant in the onion and spice mixture. Continue until the eggplant is tender and shrinks in volume (about 10 15 minutes).
Stir in the tomatoes, using a wooden spoon to break them into chunks. Add ½ cup of water, pomegranate molasses, and saffron. Stir well. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, and cook covered for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
To make the yogurt sauce mix together the yogurt, dill, garlic, and salt to taste in a small bowl. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve. The sauce can be made several hours ahead.
To serve top with the yogurt sauce, and extra fresh chopped herbs, if desired.