CONVERSION v. To Babism and the Bahai faith



v. To Babism and the Bahai faith

The Bahai faith was adopted by tens of thousands of people in late 19th-century Persia. These conver­sions probably began on a small scale some time between 1280/1864 and 1283/1866. In 1279/1863 the prominent Babi Bahāʾ-Allāh, while in exile in Baghdad, had declared himself to a very small group of close disciples and relatives as the messianic figure (man yoẓheroho ʾllāh) whose advent had been pre­dicted by Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī, the Bāb. Bahāʾ-Allāh subsequently encountered opposition from his younger half-brother Ṣobḥ-e Azal (see azali babism), whom many Babis had accepted as the leader of the community. In many of his writings, issued from exile in Edirne in the late 1860s, Bahāʾ-­Allāh used Babi texts to prove his own claims, and the first major audience he addressed in his new role of prophet appears to have consisted of Babis in Persia who were dissatisfied with Ṣobḥ-e Azal’s rather secre­tive leadership. Typical of Bahāʾ-­Allāh’s works in these years is the letter Sūrat al-aṣḥāb (Surah of the companions), which contains mystical imagery, ethi­cal exhortations, and instructions on how to prosely­tize and evokes symbols concerning the end of time. Many such letters were disseminated throughout Per­sia by couriers drawn from the ranks of Bahāʾ-­Allāh’s close friends and followers, like Moḥammad “Nabīl” Zarandī and Najaf-ʿAlī Zanjānī, who was executed by Persian authorities around 1284/1867 (for Bahāʾ-­Allāh’s works from his Edirne period, see 1348 Š./1969, IV, esp. “Sūrat al-aṣḥāb,” pp. 205-39).

Examination of developments in the community in Shiraz, the home of the Bāb, affords a glimpse of the shift among Babis to Bahāʾ-­Allāh. The Bāb’s own relatives, except for one nephew who converted under the influence of the Bāb’s widow, Ḵadīja Begom, in the 1850s, had remained Shiʿite Muslims. In 1278/1862 a maternal uncle, Sayyed Moḥammad Šīrāzī, visited Bahāʾ-­Allāh during a trip to the Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbalāʾ. In answer to his questions about Babism Bahāʾ-­Allāh wrote Ketāb-e īqān (Book of certitude), which prompted Sayyed Moḥammad to convert to Babism. Gradually other members of the Bāb’s family in Shiraz became Babis. As they consti­tuted a prominent merchant clan, operating a trading empire that eventually extended from the interior of Persia throughout the Persian Gulf and as far as India and China, these relatives, the Afnān, played an influential role in spreading the new religion.

Not long after Bahāʾ-­Allāh moved to Edirne he sent Nabīl to Persia on a missionary journey. Nabīl stopped at Shiraz, where he convened a meeting of the Babis, including the Afnān, and publicly burned Ṣobḥ-e Azal’s writings, declaring those of the Bāb and Bahāʾ-­Allāh alone to have the status of scripture. Prominent members of the Afnān were for a time troubled by this development but finally decided in favor of Bahāʾ-­Allāh, who had been responsible for their conversion and with whom they had stronger ties. Nabīl went to Isfahan and then traveled to Khorasan, where he re­peated his performance. The Afnān who adopted the Bahai faith were supported by a preacher from Yazd, Moḥammad-Ebrāhīm Yazdī, who also converted fifty or sixty members of a clan of Kāzerūnī tailors in Shiraz. Their presence added a certain boisterousness to Bahai meetings, to which the Afnān were unaccus­tomed (Afnān, pp. 168-83).

From early Bahai manuscripts it appears that sayyed (claiming descent from the Prophet Moḥammad) mer­chants played an extremely important leadership role in bringing the Babis into the Bahai faith. Aside from the Afnān, the Nahrī family of Isfahan, wealthy mer­chants of sayyed background who had adopted Babism in the 1840s, emerged in the 1870s as mainstays of the Bahai community in Isfahan. Two Nahrī merchants were martyred on the orders of a leading mojtahed in 1297/1880 (Samandar, pp. 179-80; Ešrāq-e Ḵāvarī). Another important family was the Bāqerāf (Baqerov) of the Sādāt-e Ḵamsa clan of Rašt, merchants with large property holdings and sayyed lineage who en­joyed international trading contacts (ʿAmīd-al-Aṭebbāʾ, passim). The Afnān and the Nahrīs probably origi­nally adopted Babism out of genuine conviction, but later membership in Babi and subsequently in cosmo­politan Bahai society became an ideological expres­sion of their elite status as sayyeds and of their independence from the government and the Shiʿite clerical establishment. Most Babis and Bahais were not them­selves sayyeds or merchants but came from families of urban artisans and shopkeepers, yet it was the sayyed merchants who most often emerged as community leaders, having ties of patronage with the petty-bour­geois and working-class Bahais, in addition to the common religion.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s Bahāʾ-Allāh wrote a number of works, some of them in the form of letters to the kings and leaders of the world, stressing his principles: the need for a world government, a single world language, religious tolerance, abandonment of nationalist chauvinism, and diversion of military bud­gets to relief for the poor. His program attracted converts from outside Babism. For instance, former Shiʿite clergymen like Mīrzā Abu’l-Fażl Golpāyagānī or Nabīl-e Akbar Qāʾenī (Samandar, pp. 15-57) adopted the Bahai faith, which, unlike Babism, had a strong rationalist emphasis. These learned individuals in turn often became itinerant missionaries and preach­ers, employing their clerical skills and networks to spread Bahaism among Shiʿites. Golpāyagānī, for instance, undertook missionary journeys from Tehran to Isfahan, Kāšān, and Hamadān in the 1880s, then outside Persia to Ashkhabad and Samarkand, and fi­nally to Egypt and the United States. Itinerant Bahai preachers became known as moballeḡīn, missionaries of the faith, and provided a different sort of leadership from that of the more sedentary urban elites. Converts to Bahaism from the Shiʿite middle strata joined the tens of thousands of Babi converts, attracted not only by Bahāʾ-­Allāh’s religious charisma but also by his reformist principles. In the 1880s Bahais in Persian cities began to establish consultative councils (maḥāfel-­e šūr), as mandated in Bahai law. The first such council was formed secretly among prominent Bahais in Tehran around 1295/1878. It subsequently sent missionaries throughout Persia to spread the faith in an organized manner and to encourage a greater degree of organization among already existing Bahai communi­ties, as well as adherence to Bahāʾ-Allāh’s new book of laws, the Aqdas. Mīrzā Asad-Allāh Eṣfahānī, for instance, traveled widely in Khorasan, Māzandarān, Yazd, Fārs, and Kāšān on behalf of the Tehran council. The spread of the new faith met with violent opposition from the state and from the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ, who some­times succeeded in having prominent Bahais executed. But by creating martyrs, particularly in a culture that so celebrated the courage and spiritual power of mar­tyrs, they appear only to have made the religion more attractive to some sections of the public (Meḥrābḵᵛānī, 1980? 1981?).

The openness and cosmopolitan attitude of many Bahai merchants and missionaries enabled them to make contact with and to achieve conversions among non-Muslim minorities in Persia, particularly Zoroastrians and Jews. Zoroastrian conversions began in Yazd in the mid-1880s, and Bahais of Zoroastrian background made significant contributions to the new religion. All the Zoroastrians of Qazvīn appear to have become Bahais. Bahāʾ-Allāh, unlike most Shiʿite Per­sians, acknowledged the validity of Zoroastrianism, placing Zoroaster in the line of true prophets that included the biblical and koranic figures. He traced his own lineage to the Sasanian ruling family, and he wrote to Zoroastrians in pure Persian, without the admixture of Arabic words. He considered himself the messianic figure promised in all the great religions, including the Zoroastrian Shah Bahrām. Such promi­nent Zoroastrians as Mollā Bahrām Aḵtar-e Ḵāvarī, Kay-Ḵosrow Ḵodādād, and Sīāvoš Safīdvaš embraced the Bahai faith, and Zoroastrian merchants, profes­sionals, and prosperous farmers were among the first to adopt it; they led some peasants and artisans into the new faith, as well. For most of these people, however, conversion meant entering an enlightened club; they did not immediately forsake their own communal activities and rituals, and only slowly in the course of the 20th century did Bahais of Zoroastrian background come to make their primary identification with the Bahai faith.

Conversions of Jews to the Bahai faith began in the late 1880s, primarily in southwestern Persia, but they have not been as well studied as conversions among Zoroastrians (see iv, above). Significant conversions of Jews in Hamadān appear to have continued into the 1930s, but Persian Jews seldom adopted the Bahai faith after the state of Israel was established in 1948, an event that engendered pride in their ethnic ancestry. Peter Smith (1987, pp. 86-99, esp. p. 95) suggests that for minorities Bahaism functioned as an ideology of modernization, providing an alternative to rigid tradi­tionalism that allowed them to continue to affirm the value of their ancestral religions while entering a cosmopolitan and pan-Persian society (cf. Fischel; Smith, 1984; Stiles, 1983b; idem, 1984).

Conversion to the Bahai faith in Persia was largely a 19th-century phenomenon. Although some Persians converted in the 20th century, joint government and clerical persecution of the faith succeeded in marginalizing it and slowing its growth. Indeed, Smith estimates that, although the total number of Persian Bahais grew from 100,000 to 300,000 between 1317/1900 and 1404 = 1363 Š./1984, their proportion of the Persian population actually declined, to less than 1 percent. This decline may be accounted for partly by Bahai fertility rates lower than those of Shiʿite Mus­lims, but it nevertheless suggests that relatively few new conversions were occurring (Smith, 1984).

Sources. The Balyuzi Library, London, contains numerous manuscripts treating the period of conver­sions in Persia. Relevant material can also be found in such biographical dictionaries as those of Kāẓem Samandar and ʿAzīz-Allāh Solaymānī. Some histo­ries and biographies have been summarized by H. M. Balyuzi and Adib Taherzadeh. Material bearing on conversions in general and those from Judaism and Zoroastrianism in particular is included in the work of Mīrzā Abu’l-Fażl Golpāyagānī. The major academic study of the issue has been carried out by Susan Stiles. For Jewish conversions, see the work of Walter Fischel.



Mīrzā Ḥabīb-Allāh Afnān, Tārīḵ-e amrī-e Šīrāz, Afnān Library, London, ms. Mīrzā Yaḥyā ʿAmīd-al-Aṭebbāʾ Hamadānī, Wāqeʿāt-e goḏašta-ye amrīya-ye Rašt, 1307-1345, Afnān Li­brary, London, ms. Anonymous, Woqūʿāt-e tārīḵīya . . . bar aḥebbā-ye elāhī dar Ābāda, Afnān Library, London, ms. Bahāʾ-Allāh, Āṯār-e qalam-e aʿlā IV, Tehran, 125 = 1348 Š./1969.

H. M. Balyuzi, Eminent Bahāʾīs in the Time of Bahāʾuʾllāh, Oxford, 1985.

ʿA. Ešrāq-e Ḵāvarī, Nūrayn-e nayyerayn, Tehran, 123 = 1346 Š./1967.

W. J. Fischel, “The Bahai Movement and Persian Jewry,” The Jewish Review 7, 1934, pp. 47-55.

Mīrzā Abu’l-Fażl Golpāyagānī, Rasāʾel wa raqāʾem, Tehran, 1357 Š./1978; partial tr. J. Cole, Letters and Essays 1886-1913, Los Ange­les, 1985.

R. Meḥrābḵᵛānī, “Maḥāfel-e šūr dar ʿahd-­e jamāl-e aqdas-e Abhā,” Payām-e bahāʾī 28, 1980? pp. 9-11; 29, 1981? pp. 8-9.

Ḥ.-ʿA. Oskūʾī, Tārīḵ-e amrīya-ye Āḏarbāyjān, Afnān Library, London, ms. K. Samandar, Tārīḵ-e Samandar wa molḥaqāt, Tehran, 131 = 1353 Š./1974.

P. Smith, “A Note on Babi and Baha’i Numbers in Iran,” Iranian Studies 15/2-3, 1984, pp. 295-301.

Idem, The Babi and Baha’i Religions, Cambridge, 1987.

ʿA. Solaymānī, Masābīḥ-e hedāyat, 9 vols., Tehran, 106-121 = 1328-­43 Š./1949-64.

S. Stiles, “The Conversion of Religious Minorities to the Bahá’í Faith in Iran. Some Preliminary Considerations,” paper presented at Los Angeles Bahá’í History Conference, University of California, Los Angeles, 1983a.

Idem, Zoroastrian Conversions to the Bahá’í Faith in Yazd, Iran, M.A. thesis, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1983b.

Idem, “Early Zoroastrian Conversions to the Bahá’í Faith in Yazd, Iran,” in J. Cole and M. Momen, eds., From Iran East and West. Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History II, Los Angeles, 1984, pp. 67-94.

A. Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahāʾuʾllāh, 4 vols., Oxford, 1974-86.

The author is grateful to M. Amanat for permission to consult his unpublished paper on Jewish conversions

(Juan R. I. Cole)

Originally Published: December 15, 1993

Last Updated: October 28, 2011

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