Baha'i Library Online

COLLECTIONTranscripts of videos and audio
TITLEThe Baha'i Faith (Part One): Origins and the Bab
AUTHOR 1Filip Holm
PUBLISHED AS Let's Talk Religion
DATE_THIS2020-07-23
ABSTRACTPart one of an academically-minded yet accessible video essay on the Babi and Baha'i Faiths as a work of public scholarship by a religious studies scholar who is part of the popular 'Religious Studies YouTube' community.
NOTES Transcript prepared by Doug Couper from video online at youtube.com/watch?v=bc7AvTq1FGY.

See also The Baha'i Faith (Part Two): Baha'u'llah and His Teachings.

 
CONTENT

1. Transcript (see video below)

The Baha'i Faith (Part One) - Origins and the Bab
youtube.com/watch?v=bc7AvTq1FGY
uploaded by Let's Talk Religion
2020 July 23
19:57 minutes
Video description: The Bahá'í Faith is described as one of, if not the fastest growing religion in global history. This first video explores the history of the Babi movement in Iran as a precursor to the worldwide Baha'i faith; see also part two.
Transcriber's comment: The vast majority of over a thousand public comments about this video on YouTube, praise it as well-researched and scholarly. Many 'filler' words / phrases like 'um' / 'you know' are deleted in transcripts. (Clarifications, explanations or grammatical agreements are inserted in parenthesis). If a reader thinks a concept is compromised in this process, please contact us.
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Today, the Bahá'í faith is, according to some estimates, the ninth largest religion in all of the world, with about seven million followers. It is present in basically every corner of (the) earth from the Middle East to Europe and the United States and Asia - and with some famous people actually being Bahá'í's like Rainn Wilson from The Office (a popular American television show). All of this is especially impressive and interesting when we consider that the religion is barely 150 years old and this would make it one of the, if not the fastest growing religion in all of history. But what is this religion that seems to have taken the world by storm? What are the origins, history and teachings of the Bahá'í faith? This is what I'll explore in this series.

The Bahá'í faith is a very young monotheistic religion which has three, you could say, main principle(s): (1) that there is what's called the unity of God, (2) the unity of religions and (3) the unity of mankind. But to understand the Bahá'í faith fully, we need to understand where it comes from, its origins, its background and the movements from which it emerged. The Bahá'í faith has its origins in 19th-century Iran, and so to understand the faith and its development, we of course need to understand the context in which it appeared. As always, I would like to thank all of my patrons for supporting this channel, and to give a special shout out to a new patron Adam Chraibi who is now the second person in the third tier. Thank you so much Adam, this is highly appreciated.

In any case, as I've said, the Bahá'í faith has its origins in 19th-century Iran. It is thus also important to know that the religion develops (sic) out of Shia Islam which was the prominent religion in the region at the time. So to understand the Bahá'í faith, we need to understand Shi'ism first. Shia Islam is characterized by their perspective on authority and who was the rightful successor after the Prophet Muhammad. The Shiites believed that the descendants from / in the Prophet Muhammad's family who were called Imams are the rightful leaders of the Muslim community and the Twelver branch of Shi'ism, which is the largest today, believe that there were twelve Imams starting with the prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali and ending with a figure whose name is Muhammad Al-Mahdi who lived in the ninth century. Whereas all the other Imams, the first 11 Imams, died, the last Imam, the 12th Al-Mahdi, is thought to have gone into occultation, or spiritual hiding you could say, and is thought to return at the end of time to redeem the world at the beginning of a Judgement Day. Al-Mahdi is thus a kind of messianic figure in Shia Islam who is thought to return at the end of time to reinstate true religion in the world.

I don't have time to go into a full explanation of Shi'ism in a general sense, so you can watch some of my previous videos on the subject - but what is important to emphasize here is also that Shi'ism has had a large emphasis on what we could call a certain esotericism. Many Shiites in history have interpreted the Qu'ran, at least parts of the Qu'ran, through a process known as Ta'wil which is usually translated as esoteric interpretation. So the idea is that the Qu'ran has an outer meaning called Zahir and then an inner meaning called Batin, and the process of Ta'wil is to extract the hidden meanings that are hidden beneath this literal outer meaning. This is a very prominent aspect of much of Shia theology, especially by the Ismailis, but also in Twelver Shi'ism.

In these kind (sic) of interpretations, of course, many Quranic verses are read as metaphors or allegories that hide true meanings behind those literal words. For example in the writings of the Ikhwan al Safa, the Brethren of Purity, who were likely Ismailis, the second largest group of Shiites, there's an abundance of this kind of rhetoric. They viewed history as cyclical and divided world history into cycles of 7,000 years, which is by the way the true meaning to them of God creating the world in seven days. And each thousand years within the 7,000 year period is a cycle that is associated with a certain prophet. So the first thousand years is the cycle of Adam followed by the cycle of Noah, Abraham and so on until we reach the sixth cycle which is that of Muhammad and which, according to them, is the current cycle or era. (Here, the video depicts a chart of these cycles prepared by the Ismaili scholar Dr. Khalil Andani, whose YouTube channel is IsmailiGnosis)

The seventh cycle will begin at the coming of al-Mahdi or al-Qaim which is (sic) two names for the same person (that is) the Messianic figure who (will redeem) the world at the end of time and (then) reinstate true religion. They also believed in this al-Mahdi figure but thought that it was a different Imam who was this figure. So this idea of al-Mahdi or al-Qaim as this Messianic figure who will return is present in many branches of Shi'ism, with the only difference being that different branches believed that different Imams were this Mahdi figure. As I said, the Ikhwan al Safa were most likely Ismaili Shia, and the Baha'i faith grew out of Twelver Shi'ism which is a different branch of Shi'ism completely, but I bring this up to emphasize that while the Brethren of Purity had these ideas, these are (the) kinds of ideas that were prevalent in all of Shi'ism, and in Twelver Shi'ism as well, and this would thus have a large influence and impact on the events that took place in Iran in the 19th century.

The beginnings of this story can arguably be said to be in a movement called Shaykhism which originates (sic) in the early 19th century with a guy called Shaykh Ahmad al-Asha'i. He and his successor Sayyid Kazim Rashti (died 1843) presented a unique interpretation of Shia doctrine. The Shaykhi seemed to have emphasized a kind of mysticism and that Shaykh Ahmad had visionary experiences of the Imams, but one of the central ideas that they seemed to have occupied themselves with the most, was the return of the Mahdi. Indeed a very important and significant date was approaching (at that time). In the Islamic calendar, the 12th imam is said to have disappeared in the year 260 AH (After Hijrah) which is the year 874 (CE) in the regular Gregorian calendar. Very soon in the mid 1800s would be the Islamic year 1260 AH (After Hijrah - 1844 CE) (and) this means exactly a thousand years after the disappearance of the last Imam. So given the preoccupation some Shias had with cyclical time and in particular with thousand year cycles, as we talked about, this resulted in an atmosphere of great expectation in the community. Was al-Mahdi to return soon?

The Shaykhis represent one group who very much believed so. They very much held the idea that Mahdi was to return very very soon and told their followers to be on the lookout for him. When the second leader of the Shaykhis, Sayyid Kazim Rashti died in 1843, there was a crisis of succession. He hadn't actually appointed any one successor as leader of the community, but instead insisted that al-Mahdi had actually returned and told his followers instead to go look for al-Mahdi, and have him as their new leader instead. This brings us to a very interesting young man by the name of Sayyid Ali Muhammad al-Shirazi. As His name suggests, he was from the city (of) Shiraz in modern Persia, and had been born in 1819. It seems He had travelled in his youth and come into contact with the Shaykhis, probably joining them and being highly influenced by a lot of their teachings. By the time Sayyid Kazim Rashti died in 1843, Sayyid Ali Muhammad was only about 24 years old, but He had already garnered a reputation as a kind of holy man or mystic in his hometown. On the night of May 22nd 1844, a prominent Shaykhi, by the name of Mulla Husayn, travelled to the city of Shiraz to look for the Mahdi or Qa'im as his leader had instructed him. Once there he was invited to the house of Sayyid Ali Muhammad, and what happened that night in that house would be one of the most significant religious events and turning points in the last few centuries.

Sayyid Ali Muhammad declared that night to Mulla Husayn, exactly a thousand years after the disappearance of the last Twelver Imam, that He was al-Bab, the Gate to the 12th Imam. Some say that His claim actually went even further than this at this early point, but we'll reserve this point for later. Mulla Husayn is said to have then asked the Bab - which is the name that He would then go by (and) which I would refer to Him by for now on - a couple of questions to prove His identity which he apparently answered in a satisfactory manner by writing a book or the first section of (a) book called Qayyum al-Asma' - which has become one of the most important sacred scripture for both Babis, followers of the Bab, and later Baha'is as well. In this text He refers to Himself as "the greatest remembrance of God and as the Gate to the hidden Imam". In any case Mulla Husayn at that point became a devoted follower of the Bab, and soon many other Shaykhis followed in his footsteps as well, and thus there had developed a movement around the Bab which became known as Babism. He initially gathered around eighteen disciples or missionaries who became known as the Letters of the Living whom He would send out as missionaries to different parts to spread this new message.

He travelled to Mecca with one of His followers to declare His mission as the Gate to the 12th Imam and He, in general, started to gain a pretty significant amount of followers which worried the Shia clerics to a very large degree. His increasing number of different writings started to be spread by His followers, and was done so covertly, making a point not to reveal the Bab's actual name. You can imagine the whisperings and atmosphere that must have prevailed in the region at the time. The Imam is said to have returned, al-Mahdi is said to have returned, and there are these secret, sacred writings that are being spread around. What if it's actually true?

In a very dramatic fashion, the name of the Bab is then said to have been revealed by one of His followers adding his name to the Muslim call to prayer which, of course, outraged the Shia scholars. The years that followed His proclamation would see increasing tensions arise. The Bab gained more and more followers but as a result, He also garnered more criticism and more persecution. He moved to Isfahan where he was protected by the Governor for a while, but was later imprisoned in Azerbaijan. There was (sic) also increasing tensions within His larger group of followers who sometimes very stridently defended their faith and wasn't (sic) necessarily afraid to use force. A turning point was when a leading Shia scholar called Mulla Muhammad Taqi was murdered by a Babi sympathizer. This led to major changes in the Babi situation in the region as persecution and oppression was (sic) doubled down on as they were now more and more being seen as both a social and political threat in Iran.

Another very dramatic shift happened in 1848 when the Bab revealed that His message and His identity was a lot more radical than what had been claimed previously. He now not only claimed to be the Gate to the hidden Imam, He was actually the Imam himself. He was Al-Mahdi who had returned to fulfill the prophecy and was thus a new messenger of God. Whether this was a gradual development or the idea from the beginning is hard to say for sure. Some claim that He actually claimed to be the Mahdi from the beginning but that He kept this knowledge only to His close followers, and that this larger declaration was only a sort of public declaration, so to say, but we don't know for sure. In any case, this was obviously a very radical idea that, if true, would mean a turning point in history and of course also would mean that the Day of Judgement was approaching. He was put on trial that same year since His movement had become an increasing threat to the leaders and the clergy and during this very famous trial, when asked to reveal or explain His identity and His mission, He is famously reported to have said "I am the Qa'im that you have been waiting for"- thus confirming His intentions to a shocked audience. After an intense trial of questions and answers He was spared from death but returned to the prison in Chehriq.

This was a radical break with established mainstream Shia Islam and one that would, of course, establish Babism as an entirely new movement or religion in a way. In the words of (author) Peter Smith "In Shi'i (in the video, the word could be heard as Shia / Shi'ite) terms, the Bab's public claim to be the Mahdi was a profoundly radical act. In popular belief, the Mahdi was the rightful ruler of the faithful and the inaugurator of the final days prior to the Resurrection." To the Babis, this also meant a break with Sharia or Islamic law which was to be replaced by a new Babi law - one that was contained in one of the Bab's books called the Bayan which, in a way, was supposed to replace the Quran as the most sacred law-giving scripture. The following period saw an increasing amount of unrest. There were many different conflicts, violent conflicts in which people from both sides, both Babis and anti-Babis, were killed in these conflicts. Babis were massacred in the hundreds and even thousands, but they also used force themselves and not always defensively, it seems. So the Babis became more and more seen as a very serious threat to security and to society, and this became too much in 1850 for the chief minister Amir Kabir and so in an effort to cut off the head of the snake, so to speak, he ordered to have the Bab executed.

Thus it was that on July 9th 1850, the Bab and one of His followers were taken to a barracks square in Tabriz, suspended on a wall, and shot to death by firing squad. He would have been only 30 years old when this happened. Thousands of people, it is said, to have (sic) looked on as it happened, and many report(ed) that the first round of shots didn't kill the Bab - a second round being required. This, many Babis and Baha'is see as a kind of miracle and a confirmation of His true identity. This act of executing the Bab seems to have partly worked because the Babis were severely weakened by the death of their prophet and also many of their other leaders in different massacres and conflicts that were erupting in the region. Many Babis were forced to go underground or even flee from Persia altogether. The life and movement of the Bab is (sic), of course, to a large degree supported by His great charisma but also by His teachings and ideas. He is said to have composed an almost inhuman amount of different texts and writings - everything from letters to divinely inspired revelations.

Many of His followers and those who met Him often report that He was able to just improvise divinely inspired verses in a very rapid speed. For example, His first follower, Mulla Husayn, tells the story of that very faithful night when the Bab revealed His identity, "He took up His pen and with incredible rapidity revealed the entire Surih of Mulk, the first chapter of His commentary on the Surih of Joseph. The overpowering effect of the manner in which He wrote was heightened by the gentle intonation of His voice which accompanied His writing. Not for one moment did He interrupt the flow of the verses which streamed from His pen. Not once did He pause until (onscreen quote reads as till) the Surih of Mulk was finished. I sat enraptured by the magic of His voice and the sweeping force of His revelation."

The book or scripture he's referring to is called Qayyum al-Asma which is considered to be His earliest work and He also composed many other different kinds of texts, letters, scriptures and books. The largest and most significant is often considered the so-called Persian Bayan which He wrote while imprisoned in Maku. In these scriptures, He discusses everything from the Babi law that was to replace the Sharia to His very unique and esoteric interpretations of Qu'ranic concepts and verses. Many of His ideas were probably highly influenced by esoteric movements within Shi'ism and also Sufism. It is clear that He views time as cyclical, and also very uniquely holds that same idea of prophetic cycles - each cycle being associated with a certain prophet. This idea we, of course, recognize from the Ismailis that we discussed earlier. He refers to these prophets - the same prophets basically that Islam has like Adam and Noah, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad - he refers to them by the name Manifestation of God which should not be understood as incarnation, but rather a person in whom God's attributes are reflected perfectly; and so He's a prophet basically, but the name He uses and the later Baha'is would use is Manifestation.

The interpretations or explanations that he presents for certain Qu'ranic ideas or concepts we also find in other esoteric movements within Islam. For example, he used concepts like the Judgement Day and Resurrection of the dead as being allegorical. The world was not to be literally destroyed at the Day of Judgement and neither was (sic) the bodies of the dead to be raised. Instead the Day of Judgement meant the appearance of a new Manifestation of God, or prophet, Who would set the world right again; and Resurrection or the raising of the dead, was interpreted to mean a kind of spiritual reawakening of people when this new Manifestation appears. Similarly the claims to be al-Mahdi and the prophecy of his return was (sic) also read symbolically. The Bab did not claim to be the actual same person as the Imam living in the 9th century. Instead, the return of the Imam was a more symbolic one. In a way, the Bab's teachings and Babism can thus be seen as an extremely esoteric interpretation of Shia Islam (and) as a very significant and interesting movement that stands on its own as a fascinating religion. It still exists today albeit with very few followers.

The reason for its decline in numbers is partly because of its very strong association with the Baha'i Faith which we will talk about more in the next video. But it's very important not to simply equate the two as being the same, as many tend to do. The Baha'i Faith does develop out of Babism, but Babism stands on its own. It's its own religion. They're not the same thing, but it is true that in the Bab's writings, especially in the Bayan, He frequently refers to someone that He calls 'He Whom God shall make Manifest' as a great prophet or Manifestation that will succeed Him - and pretty soon at that. In fact when He talks about this person, He also claims that He is much superior to Himself - "for all that has been exalted in the Bayan is but a ring upon My hand, and I Myself am barely but a ring upon the hand of Him Whom God shall make Manifest." It seems that the Bab thus saw Himself as a kind of precursor to something much greater, almost like what John the Baptist was to Jesus. And this new Manifestation of God, this 'He Whom God shall make Manifest' was at least, according to some, a lot closer than many expected. And that is what I'll talk about in Part Two. I'll see you then.

2. Video

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