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COLLECTIONUnpublished articles
TITLEBrief Analysis of the features of Bábí Resistance at Sheikh Tabarsi
AUTHOR 1Sepehr Manuchehri
ABSTRACTThe unique features of the Bábí Resistance in Sheikh Tabarsi; how it compared to other militia movements in terms of numbers, membership, social status, military training and leadership.
NOTES Presented at the Bahá'í Studies Conference in Sydney, Australia, October 1998. Original paper was presented in Persian. English translations are attempted by the author and are only intended to convey the general message.

Some of the footnotes in this paper have been found to be inaccurate, and it is possible the paper may contain other errors. Use with caution. [-J.W., 2015]

TAGSShaykh Tabarsí siege
`O listeners, know that the purpose of telling the story of this person and others like him is to give encouragement to the sympathisers in order to arise in the service of His cause. It also serves to punish the neglectful by reminding that this Cause was not futile, and groups of commoners did not volunteer to be massacred in vain. But, this was a significant event unsurpassed [in history] where grand people from every dynasty lost their lives in complete sanity and obedience, and by their own will in the path of the Beloved'
Haji Mirza Jani Kashani - Nuqtat-ul-Kaaf pp 196

* * * * * *

The Tabarsi tomb is located 13 km south of the city of Babol [formerly known as Bar-Foroosh] in the heart of a forest surrounded by rich Persian rice fields. It consisted of a relatively large block of land fenced off by a low wall on all sides. At the centre of the block, lay the tombstone of Sheikh Ahmad Tabarestani-Mazandarani who was one of the better known authors and philosophers of the `Emamieh' sect of Islam. In the vicinity of his grave, several rooms and a balcony were constructed. The whole structure was run down over the years and lay in a state of disrepair as a result of inattention on the part of the government and the local authorities. It was occasionally visited by some Muslim faithfuls, and others used the nearby area to burry their dead. This place was without a caretaker until the arrival of the Babis and by all accounts was a run down building in a remote location.

This paper briefly analyses the unique features of the Babi Resistance in Sheikh Tabarsi and attempts to compare it to the other militia movements in terms of numbers, membership, social status, military training and leadership.

1. Lack of Military Training

The heroism and bravery shown by the Babis has been confirm by all Babi, Bahá'í and Qajar accounts. There is no doubt that waves of the regular Qajar troops, regional armies and volunteer forces attempted in vain to crush the uprising using sophisticated weaponry. This heroism extends beyond individual bravery in to clever strategic planning, good organisation, high team morale and unquestioned loyalty to the instructions issued by the leadership.

Two years after his supposed victory, Abbas-Gholi Khan Larijani, the chief commander of the government forces at the time was asked by Prince Ahmad Mirza [the second in line to the throne at the time] at a private gathering to talk about the battles. He said :

`My dear Price, how can I start to tell the story as it is quite intriguing indeed ... the bravery shown by Mulla Hossein has not been seen in living history ... My soldiers and I were amazed at the strength of his drive. Even more intriguing was the fact that every target he picked with a sword, was cut in a straight manner. [After the battles] we could tell from the bodies of the dead and injured who was targeted by Mulla Hossein ... [I say this because] most of them were formerly Mullas, Ulama or religious students and had not heard the sounds of guns and cannons in their lives. These people were starved from food, water and other comforts and appeared physically exhausted. Yet, at time of battle, this same people were transformed in to a new spirit and mobility and displayed a degree of confidence and courage that no one is able to comprehend..' (1)

The Chief Commander was quite correct. A reasonable number of Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi were full blown Mullas of various towns in their own right, or were in the process of becoming recognised as a Mulla, or were practicing as religious students [Talabeh]. This particularly holds true for the leadership. This class [Ulama] were a protected species in the Qajar period - even in modern Iran - and are renowned for their preference for worldly comforts including fine food and women.

Almost non of the Babis had witnessed or participated in any forms of conflict or battle prior to Sheikh Tabarsi. They did not even know the basics of one-on-one fights. There is virtually no accounts to suggest that any of them had committed murder or killed any person before coming to the battles. In other words, they were totally and utterly inexperienced and unfamiliar with military operations. There are numerous examples of the transformation of these people after the start of battles. Haji Mirza Jani remarks about a certain Reza Khan who had developed an expertise in chopping off the heads of the cannon operators hiding behind the cannons. (2)

Another example is sighted of Mulla Hossien who chased after a particular soldier in one battle. The soldier retreated and hid behind a tree and used his rifle as his guard. Mulla Hossein quickly applied his sword and cut the tree, rifle and soldier in to six parts. (3)

In modern militia uprisings, such lack of training and experience will quickly lead to a hasty defeat at the hands of the regular government troops. However, Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi held up the Royal Qajar Army for more than nine months despite lack of weaponry and basic necessities. If the purpose of Babi leadership was purely military, the resistance could have continued well beyond nine months. Waves after waves of the best and most competent Qajar officers and soldiers were time and time again mutilated and decimated by these former civilians.

Careful strategic planning was a major ingredient of the resistance. The Babi leadership used techniques that horrified regular and experienced troops. It is not known whether these plans were thought out well in advance, or came as a divine inspiration during the heat of the moment. Babis had planned that Mulla Hossien would always lead the pack, covered by a few horsemen a short distance away, followed by the rest of the Babis on bare foot raising their swords and waving their hands in the air. Some had rifles but did not use up more than one bullet. They would generally fire that bullet when they got fairly close the enemy lines, and quickly drop the rifles, resort to their daggers and swords and shout `Ya Quddus' and `Ya Saheb-ul-Zaman'. Mulla Hossein would lead by example and advise Babis to begin the battle. Every time one of the Babis was hit, the others would take his place without showing any emotion or hesitation. There was never any urge to flee, everyone wanted to be killed in order to protect his fellow Babis. (4)

The resistance appears particularly interesting when we consider that Bab never permitted Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi to conduct a Holy War [Jahad]. Mulla Hossein and Quddus constantly reminded Babis to only defend themselves. Every time Babis got the upper hand and appeared to change the balance of the military confrontation and exert a degree of offensiveness, Mulla Hossein would quickly order a retreat.

The Babis actually wanted to be killed during the conflict. Chief Commander Abbas-gholi khan Larijani further explains that to the amazement of everyone, the Babis appeared to view killing and being killed as part of the same coin. They almost competed with one another to be killed and displayed absolutely no fear. It was as though they regarded rifles, swords and daggers as an eternal source of salvation. (5)

Their insistence at defensive fighting techniques coupled with a decrease in their food supplies during the final weeks of the resistance, forced the Babis to take some desperate actions. On one occasion the government forces had erected four towers on the four corners of the compound and installed cannons on the top of each tower and were bombarding the compound from above. Babis immediately began to dig underground tunnels to take refuge. The natural water table in Mazandaran is fairly close to the ground, and hence tunnels were often flooded. To add to their misery, heavy rain also impeded their efforts. They found the tunnels unbearable and could not dwell in the compound because of the cannon fires. The ones inside the rooms had to endure constant firing and bombardments. (6)

It quickly became clear to the soldiers that contrary to the propaganda of Ulama and Qajar regime, the Babis never intended to overthrow the King. They wanted eternal happiness and viewed the conflict as a blessing from God. Their distinctive `Ya Quddus' and `Ya Saheb-ul-Zaman' shouts instilled fear in the hearts of the opposition. The Qajar officers instructed their troops to shout `Ya Nasir-ul-Din Shah' in response. (7)

The other unique feature of this uprising is the uneven distribution of fatalities. In modern militia uprisings we witness far greater causalities on the part of the militias compared to the regular forces, particularly if the militia are based in a fixed position. The low casualty differential of Babis during the battles of Sheikh Tabarsi coupled with their non-existent military training and experience is quite startling. In one of the battles seventy believers were killed in one night. After dawn it became evident that the government forces had suffered 400 dead and 1000 injured. The dead included 35 colonels. Abbas-Gholi Khan Larijani arranged for the removal of the bodies to nearby town of Amol for burial. As soon as the news got to Bar-Foroosh, the local Mulla [Saeed-ul-Ulama] became frightened and assumed that the Babis will soon invade the town. He quickly paid for a private army to guard his private residence. (8)

The high morale of Babis and their willingness to be martyred contrasted starkly with the behaviour of the Ulama who were provoking the public against them. The open fear displayed by the Ulama further erode the confidence of government troops. The Ulama knew well that they could not match Babi arguments during a public debate. Hence they resorted to further fuelling the flames of war by encouraging volunteers to join the `Holy War' against the infidels. As the military's list of causalities and fatalities increased, the public opinion pressure also intensified to find a peaceful settlement. This made the Ulama even more vocal in recruiting volunteers and inciting violence. The public quickly began to question the role of the Ulama. Haji Mirza Jani describes a visit to Mazandaran at the time of the battles. He witnessed local shopkeepers and labourers openly saying that: `the Ulama expect public respect during times of weddings and celebrations. They eat the finest dishes, wear the best fabrics and marry the prettiest women. But when they are expected to respond to counter claims and answer logical arguments, they sit at home and send the poor to the killing fields. If they genuinely believe their claims, why don't they join the battles ?' (9)

Commander Abbas-Gholi khan Larijani repeatedly advised the Ulama to lead by example and participate in the `Holy War' in order to reclaim public confidence. The Ulama then publicly announced that they are moving to the battle front. Quddus learnt of the news and decided to play on their fear. He instructed Babis to place the heads of the slained soldiers on display at the top the trenches. (10)

Presence of Ulama in the battle front produced no tangible results for the government troops. In fact their open display of fear caused havoc in the ranks of volunteers and soldiers. To such an extent that Abbas-Gholi Khan Larijani ordered them to return to their homes - without seeking prior permission from Amir Kabir [Prime Minister] . Haji Mirza Jani remarks that the Mullas' quarters in the battle front was located 14 km away from the Fort Tabarsi. They were restless at nights and reluctant to take part in the confrontations. Abbas-Gholi Khan Larijani feared that this might effect the morale of his troops and asked them to return. They happily followed his request. (11)

In stark contrast, the Babi leadership was quite prepared for the worst. Quddus became instantly pleased at the sight of a killed Babi. On one occasion a cannon ball fell on the roof of his room, Mulla Sadegh Khorasani quickly arose and gestured to Quddus to follow suit. Quddus remained still and said `If the Beloved desireth to finish us off with a bullet, why should we refuse ? and if He does not, it will never happen' (12)

2. Number of Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi

The uprising provided an opportunity for Babis around the country to gather together and defend the cause under the leadership of Mulla Hossein and Quddus. This was an open invitation and was heeded by many people from various backgrounds. Babis of Sheikh Tabarsi represented the majority of regions and areas of Iran. Haji Mirza Jani remarks : `At present there are about 400 Muslims from all walks of life including the learned, shopkeepers, Haji's, Siyyid's and servants, a few each from various regions of Iran and other countries who have declared their faith and have forsaken their lives for Allah' (13)

Mahjur-Zavarehi estimates the number of Babis who accompanied Mulla Hossein at Savad-Kooh were 313 with the following distribution : (14)

Area Numbers
Isfahan 40
Behnamir 40
Boshruieh 24
Mashhad 22
Myamai 19
Herat 14
Zanjan 13
Ghom 12
Sangesar 10
Qazvin 10
Torsheez 10
Tehran 9
Shahmirzad 9
Shiraz 8
Ardestan 7
Kashan 6
Hamadan 6
Tabriz 5
Torbat Heidari 5
Karbala 5
Ghaen 4
India 4
Kaquk 4
Babol 4
Kerman 3
Oroomieh 3
Kermanshah 3
Yazd 3
Shahrood 3
Chalat 3
Kanadi 2
Amol 2
Tabarsi 2

Note the town with Letters of Living (Boshruieh, Oroomieh, Babol, Qazvin, Tabriz, Yazd and India) have a prominent presence. There were 14 Afghans and 4 Indians amongst the Babis. This broad representation indicates that at the time of Sheikh Tabarsi, the Babi religion had truly been spread around the country. Which in turn demonstrates the huge success of the Letters of Living and early Babis in spreading the cause of Bab in a short spate of time.

Haji Mirza Jani stipulates that 230 people surrendered at the end of the uprising (18). Which could mean that the total casualties were less than one hundred. The total number of 313 is also noted in Nabil's narrative but as we shall see a considerable number of Babis from other towns and regions joined the battles afterwards. Therefore the difference between statistics produced by Mahjur-Zavarehi and Haji Mirza Jani or Nabil can be attributed to the timing. The new comers made up for those who were lost at the battles and hence it could be concluded that the total causalities may have been slightly more than one hundred.

It is interesting to point out that some of those who left their towns to join the battles, never joined Sheik Tabarsi due to various reasons. Some arrived simply too late. For example Mulla Ebrahim Shahmirzadi first learned of the Babi cause in Karbala and return to join Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi without success (19). Mulla Ali Bajestani only reached Sheikh Tabarsi after the surrender and subsequent slaughter of the Babis (20). Mulla Ahmad Muallem-Hessari and his companions set out from Khurassan to join their fellow Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi. Local mobs and mullas became aware of their presence and decided to arrest them. After observing the strict embargo, Mulla Ahmad and his companions retuned to Khurassan (21). Similarly Mirza Abdullah Isfahani, Aqa Muhammad Ghasem, Aqa Mirza Muhaamad-Ali Nahri and Aqa Muhammad Taqi Hana-Saab were prevented from joining the Sheik Tabarsi due to the embargo around the fortress (22). Karablai Muhammad Hamzeh set out from Gilan to join in the battles and was informed by other Babis in the city of Lahijan that the event had been concluded. He was informed of the events in Zanjan and subsequently travelled to that location to assist the Babis (23). Soleiman Khan [Kolah-dooz] set out from Karbala to joint the Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi and had reached Tehran where he was told that the battles have been concluded. (24)

Perhaps the most famous of this group of Babis is Tahireh who travelled to the vicinity of Sheikh Tabarsi but could not get through the embargo and was subsequently arrested and savagely murdered (25). Haji Mulla Muhammad Hamzeh Shariaatmadar was 90 years of age when he set out to join Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi. He was prevented from joining because of the heavy embargo outside the fortress (26). Ostad Muhammad Asgari Kafsh-Doos set out from Sangesar but was struck by illness and could not joint other Babis (27). Mulla Ali Akbar Pishnamaz, his brother, Mulla Ali-Muhammad Pishnamaz and Mulla Saleh together with 200 other Babis travelled to Sheikh Tabarsi, but decided to return after they observed the heavy embargo (28). Aqa Alireza Tajer Shirazi set out from Mashhad, but was arrested, tortured and heavily fined in an area near Sheikh Tabarsi (29).

Some attempts actually succeeded. For example Aqa Mirza Abutaleb from Sangesar was a local trader who learnt of the Babi cause in the town of Shaahi, and met up with three Babis who had travelled from far away to joint the Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi. These three were in hiding to avoid the mob and local government agents. Aqa Mirza Abutaleb dressed them up as merchants and accompanied them with his servants on (his) horses towards Sheikh Tabarsi. Luckily all joined the fortress without any incidents (20). Reza Khan Turkaman was a nobleman who was suspected of being a Babi and was driven out of the government armed forces. He yearned to joint the Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi and decided to approach the troop commanders and repent in order to be given a position in the battle front. His apology was accepted and he was placed in a column of forces commanded by Prince Mehdi-Gholi Mirza. On the day of the first battle, he ran his horse towards the fortress, joined the Babis and yelled abuse at the government forces. (21)

3. Socio-Economic mix of the Babi Battlers

We mentioned that the Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi broadly represented the various regions of Iran. A brief examination of their background reveals that they were mullas, farmers, nobles, cooks, merchants, shopkeepers, builders, teachers, blacksmiths, tailors and tradesmen. These people soon began to assist the Sheikh Tabarsi community with their trade skills. Working hours were long, sometimes interrupted by the battles and there were no expectations for wages or payments. Their utmost cooperation and consultation seemed to please Mulla Hossein and Quddus. In stark contrast, such classes of people in the Qajar period had a great deal of friction and tension with one another. For example, in amongst the forces of commander Abbas-Gholi Khan Larijani, the volunteer Ulama were treated differently from other soldiers and maintained their own privileges including guards and private accommodation. Other soldiers and commoners were housed in a make shift camp far closer to the fortress.

Haji Mirza Jani reports that Quddus actually determined the boundaries and general layout of the fortress and advised Mulla Hossein and other Babis to begin the construction and repair works. He then instructed each person to provide assistance in accordance with his line of trade. Builders [Bannaa] started to build, tailors began to sew and metal workers started to make swords with the utmost joy (32). He further reports the extensive repairs made by the Babis to a run down and dis used bath inside the compound. This was dedicated to Quddus who practiced and preached cleanliness, and bathed every day. (33)

Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi were not just blue-collar hard working labourers or Mulla's. Amongst them were wealthy businessmen who utilised their riches and capital to advance the Babi cause. Babis who accompanied Mulla Hossein numbered 230 and possessed about one hundred horses of varying value (some 100 Toomans, and some 50 Toomans). One merchant donated about 5,000 Toomans worth of emeralds and silk (34). Aqa Morteza Zanjani and his brother were notable merchants in Shiraz and were eventually martyred at Sheikh Tabsrsi (35). Mirza Muhammad Bagher Khurassani was a renowned tradesman and strategists of his region. He was involved in the organisation and planning of the battles. After his execution, the enemies found mince horse meat in his pockets indicating the level of starvation these people were under (36).

Haji Abdul-Majid Neishaboori was a wealthy merchant. He donated his massive inheritance to the cause. He initially gave a huge sum of money and goods to Khosrow Ghadikalai in order to stop his soldiers from harassing the Babis. He obeyed the instructions from Mullas Hossein, discarded his valuable items and materials and joined the battles of Sheikh Tabarsi (37). Haji Mirza Jani reports that Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi had in excess of 200 horses, between 40 to 50 cows and 300-400 lambs which was mainly donated by Babis from Mazandaran region(38)

Mirza Muhammad-Taqi Djuani was a renowned goverment official and teacher in his native town of Sabzevar who joined Sheikh Tabarsi and assumed the role of commander in a number of Babi battles (39). Reza Khan, a former Army Officer donated between 4000 and 5000 Toomans, left the comfort of his life and gave his life in Sheikh Tabarsi (40). After the enforcement of embargo and running out of supplier, Aqa Sied Abutaleb smuggled the remaining donkeys in the compound to near by towns for sale. He then used the money to buy clothes and food for the Babis inside. (41)

Mirza Muhammad Bagher Ghaeeni was a respected scholar, author, politician, poet and artist from Mashhad. After joining Sheikh Tabarsi, he became Mulla Hossein's right hand man and advised him on battle policy, organisation and strategy. He displayed extreme bravery and strength in times of adversity. He designed the walls and buildings in the fortress, all of which represented a complete symmetry (42). Haji Muhammad Karadi owned a number of gardens and properties. He was an expert in battle techniques and served in the Egyptian forces in his younger days. He joined Sheikh Tabarsi at the age of 80, but became paralysed whilst in the fortress. (43)

In addition, there were other Babis from the outside who donated funds to assist Sheikh Tabarsi. Without this external support, it would have been impossible to resist against the onslaught of government attacks for nine months. Such assistance came in the form of hard cash, tea, sugar or animals. For example Mirza Alireza Mostashar-ul-Dolleh from Mashahd was a well known personality with numerous properties, shops and gardens. He financed the expenses of Mulla Hossein and his party from Mashhad (44).

This degree of riches, goods and capital movement to the Babis raised the envy of Khosrow Ghadikalai and his soldiers. The main cause of the preliminary clashes between the two sides could be attributed to this fact. However, Quddus and Mulla Hossien went to great pains to stress that Babis must share their possessions with one another and never lose sight of the ultimate purpose which was martyrdom in His cause. Haji Mirza Jani describes the early encounter with Khosrow Ghadikalai :

`He came to Mulla Hossien and asked for money. Mulla Hossien instructed the payment of 100 Toomans and some goods. He then asked for Mulla Hossein's horse and sword. Mulla Hossein replied: Leave this particular request, these items are a gift from a special person and under no circumstance shall I give them away..' After the initial clashes, Mulla Hossein instructed Babis to discard all of their possessions and leave. Later he arranged for the possessions to be collected and taken to Sheikh Tabarsi. He then gathered everyone for a meeting and advised that these belongs to all of you. He then nominated a cook and joined the Babis during meal times . (45)

Haji Mirza Jani again describes a scene where the Babis were eating `Choltook' inside Sheikh Tabarsi. Quddus rushed outside his quarters and said `Have you come to this fortress to part take in a feast or to assist the cause of God ? If you came here for a feast, you all had fine foods in your houses in complete security. Why are you here ? If you came here to assist the cause of God what are these preparations ?' He then instructed that they give the food to horses, lambs and cows. In an instant their foods reserves were depleted. (46)

When food supplies became scarce, Quddus instructed that the sick and weaker horses be sacked from the fortress, and other horses be slaughtered for human consumption. He `halalled' horse meat. For some of the Babis - particularly the wealthier ones - this was quite difficult. They eventually started to eat and were joined by Quddus (47).

After all the horses were slaughtered and consumed, Babis turned to grass. They cleared inside of the compound from all vegetation including weeds and leaves. They resorted to getting leaves from outside of the compound and risked bullets to obtain a few leaves. For nineteen days their diet consisted of a warm plate of water in dawn and dusk (48). After surrender, they appeared weak, hungry and ill (49). The last days of the battles saw them with no weapons, horses, food or physical stamina. It is interesting to note that given this state of affairs, the government forces could not break their resistance or defeat them militarily. In a cunning way their resorted to Quran to break the deadlock. In other words, the conspiracy of Ulama saved face for the attacking forces at the end of the day. The Babis proved that through divine confirmation and faith one could survive and win despite all the odds.

4. Resistance of the Babi Families

The Sheikh Tabarsi uprising was not solely limited to the battles near the fortress. Families, fellow Babis and sympathisers all over the country played an active role in sustaining the resistance movement and keeping the memories alive. The Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi held out against the combined government and volunteer forces for nine months and most were eventually martyred. But their families and friends in various regions were the target of an organised campaign for years. In addition to bearing the loss of their loved ones, these families had to endure years of verbal abuse, physical hatred, economic sanctions and severe violation of their human rights.

The resistance shown by these families was far longer and they were tested in more ways than their loved ones. They were often lonely families in isolated towns who had to ensure hardship on their own including children who had lost their fathers in an early age . In a majority of cases the Ulama provoked the locals to impose an economic embargo on the families. The faith and character of the families was severely tested but they remained defiant despite the difficulties. The families were instrumental in encouraging their loved ones to participate in Sheikh Tabarsi in the first place, and were the ones who paid a dear price after their martyrdom.

In Sangesar, up on being informed of the Sheikh Tabarsi uprising, an old couple advised their son Safar Ali to join the forces of Qa'em. Later when the father heard that Safar Ali was killed, he went to the local bath, dyed his beard [a traditional practice usually reserved for celebrations and weddings] and announced to the town `I have arranged a wedding for my son'. Locals thought that he has turned insane after the tragedy and shunned him (50). After the conclusion of Sheikh Tabarsi, Mirza Kazim Qaeeni returned to Mashhad to his mother. His mother initially thought that the son may have deserted the battle front. She indicated her anger and disappointment in him. When the son convinced her that he was captured and subsequently released by the soldiers and his father - Mirza Muhammad Bagher - was executed instead, she arranged a gathering and distributed sweets and biscuits to celebrate and break the news to other Babis (51).

Again in Sangesar, a widow made the arrangements for her three sons to travel to Sheikh Tabarsi. Prior to their departure she asked them to do her proud and to be steadfast and lose their lives in assisting the cause of Q'aem. After few weeks, her only remaining son was preparing to join his brothers in Sheikh Tabarsi. She advised him to delay his trip until she receives a reply to her letter from the Bab. When the son asked her about the contents of her letter, she read out the contents : `This old lady understands that you [Bab] regard all believers in complete equality. I had four sons and have sent three, and this is more than my fair share. I will indeed sent my fourth son if it is considered mandatory. However, I am old and require this son to look after me from now on. However if you see fit, I shall send him as well.' The Bab subsequently advised her to keep the fourth son for her service and further pointed out that he is truly considered one of us [despite not participating in the battles]. (52)

It is fascinating to note that out of the Sheikh Tabarsi community, some survived to tell the tales and even participate in future uprisings. Ostaf Jaafar Banaa Isfahani returned to Isfahan and lived a long life and later disclosed many of the memories, whilst Abolhassan Chit-Saz went on to join the Zanjan resistance and martyred there.(53)

The cruelty of the locals in Sangesar and Shahmirzad was particularly pointed. It is reported that the families of Babi martyrs in these towns celebrated the martyrdom of their loved ones, congratulated one another, dyed their beards and appeared very joyous. The locals were infuriated by this behaviour and refused to sell them any goods or services. Many children and elderly suffered from malnutrition due to the lack of milk and bread. A particular Babi [Mirza Ahmad] escaped with his old mother from Sangesar to Shahmirzad where his sister was staying for some peace and quite. The Muslim women in the town attacked the mother and sister in the streets, pulled their hair and accused them of betraying their religion for the benefit of infidels and foreigners. This particular family suffered alone, and wept together from the persecutions. Mirza Ahmad was the guardian of his brothers' children as they had been martyred in Sheikh Tabarsi. He reports severe financial and emotional hardships. The locals had enforced a food embargo on the family to such an extent that they resorted to cooking and consuming weeds. Mirza Ahmad even attempted to sell the family properties and gardens in order to obtain food, but the local refused to deal with him saying he is an infidel and a foreign agent. The family even suffered from close Muslim relatives. His uncle constantly tried to make life difficult for them. On one occasion he instigated a complaint to the local governor advising that they must be punished and killed. Mirza Ahmad reports that he maintained his dignity and respect for the rogue uncle at all times. (54)

The mother and sister of Mulla Hossein were ecstatic on the news of the martyrdom of their two sons. Their house became a focal point for the local Babi community where they gathered to teach the faith and communicate information to one another (55). They actually commissioned one of the survivors of Sheikh Tabarsi, Muhammad Hossien Zavarehi to write a detailed account of his memories of Mulla Hossein's martyrdom.

The families were easy prey for the Ulama, and were persecuted every time the government forces were dealt a heavy blow in the battle front. Despite lack of media in those days, the influx of dead and injured in to local towns of Mazandaran gave the people a barometer of the proceedings. Ulama sought revenge from easy targets to consolidate their position at the time of military stalemate. The Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi were constantly coached by Quddus and Mulla Hossien in times of need, whereas the poor families had no console and had to endure hardships on their own. On a number of occasions, the authorities tried to persuade Babis to leave the fortress by resorting to their close relatives and family members :

Once during the course of the battles, Prince Medi-Gholi Mirza arranged for the father, step mother and sister of Quddus to come to the battle front. Prince asked the father `What are the intentions of your son from causing such havoc ?' He replied that I am ignorant of the reasons behind his activities. The Prince sent him near the fortress to talk to Quddus. It is reported that once he saw Quddus, he was shocked and temporarily lost his speech. After regaining his composure, he talked about their captivity and the Prince's scheme. Quddus replied that captivity and suffering in the path of God are quite valuable. But be aware that your [former] son has now been transformed. The person who is speaking to you is the spirit of Christ. Go back and inform the Prince of the facts. The father did so and was released after a few days. (56)

Quddus had a step brother named Heidar and referred to him as `brother'. Up on his departure for Sheikh Tabarsi, Quddus arranged for Heidar to reside in the house of Haji Shariaatmadar [a sympathetic local mulla]. Heidar became restless and constantly wept for his half brother and begged to be allowed to return to his home. After Prince Mehdi-Gholi Mirza learnt of his whereabouts, he ordered his soldiers to bring Heidar in to his quarters. As soon as Heidar arrived, he ordered executioners to slay him. He was still on the horse back when he was brutally slaughtered. His grief-stricken mother took his body to town for burial, but the locals refused burial. He was later buried in a remote location outside the town (57). Quddus had an uncle named Aqa Muhammad Sadeq who came to assist the Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi on two occasions, and was ordered twice by Quddus to return. He lived a long life and told of the heroics he witnessed at the fortress. (58)

During the height of the battles one of the Royal couriers came to see Prince Mehdi-Gholi Mirza and suggested that since he knew Mulla Mahdi Kandi [one of the Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi] personally, he may be able to persuade him to abandon the fortress and return to his family. Prince allowed him to proceed to the fortress. Up on being informed, Mulla Mahdi came to see the his old acquaintance. He appeared wearing an arabic style white garment with a white band wrapped around his head and carrying a sword. He hurriedly requested his friend to convey the message as he was anxious to return and obey instructions from Quddus. The courier reports that he was dumb founded by what he observed and temporarily forgot everything. The only thing he remembered was Mulla Mahdi's young son - Rahman. He said `I have brought you a message from your young Rahman: My kind father, What happened to your love and affection ? Why have you left us without support in a dreadful state of affairs ?' Mulla Mahdi replied `Tell him that the true Rahman has come and filled my heart with his love, making no room for the love of physical Rahman'. The courier then jokingly told Mulla Madi `What will you do to me of I enter this fortress ?' He answered `If you have come to seek the truth, I will guide you. If you come because of our old friendship, I will serve you the best I can and share with you all that I have including boiled weeds and burnt bones. But if you come with the purpose of violence and murder, I will defend by displacing your head with one movement of this very sword and throw your body from the heights of the walls.' The courier then said `The Prince has just announced a decree that whoever abandons the fortress will be safe and they will pay for his expenses to return to his family.' Mulla Mahdi replied `I will give this message to every believer. I must go now, please leave if you have nothing more to add.' (59)

5. United and Determined Leadership

Often militia movements suffer from multiple splits due to differences in opinions of their leaders. The hunger for power coupled with greed and control of instruments of destruction, will gradually generate personality clashes, arrogance and envy amongst the top echelon. This will in turn reduce their movement to a marginal force. In the Sheikh Tabarsi movement, this was not the case. Mulla Hossein and Quddus were the leaders, but their love and affection towards one another seems surreal. Mulla Hossein assumed the role of the military leader whilst Quddus was their spiritual leader. All decisions taken was through consultation and prior agreement and had the total support of the hierarchy. There were no disputes and no one was held in Sheikh Tabarsi against their will.

Quddus referred to Mulla Hossien as `Sultan Mansur' [the victorious king] and Mulla Hossien called Quddus `Habib' [the beloved]. This alone served to strengthen the spirit of unity amongst the believers. This is further evident in the period leading to the martyrdom of Mulla Hossien. According to eye witness accounts, Mulla Hossein first requested the permission of Qoddus to be martyred. Quddus initially refused and then reluctantly agreed. Mulla Hossein's seemingly dead body suddenly starts to talk to Qoddus. And Qoddus with an injured mouth starts to reply back. Such events are beyond the understanding of physical realm and further demonstrate that this movement was spiritual in essence. Muhammad Hossien Ibn Muhamad Hadi Tabatabai Zavarehi, one of the Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi at the time writes :

Mulla Hossien used to preach all believers for three consecutive days [prior to his martyrdom] to respect and obey the instructions from Quddus (60). One day Mulla Hossien addressed all believers and said whom amongst you is prepared to accompany me [to the battle]. Every one responded positive and he replied `If all of you accompany me, my `Habib' will be left on his own. Only some of you must come with me. (61)

Haji Abd-ul-Majid Neishaboori, one of the survivors of Sheikh Tabarsi reports : `After dark Mulla Hossien came to see Quddus and indicated his desire to become martyred, and requested his permission. Qoddus was not happy to lose his close companion and after vigorous persistence from Mulla Hossien, he reluctantly agreed. They hugged one another for the last time. Many Babis were standing near the doorway. Some were happy [to be martyred] and some were saddened by the impending separation and others were completely overwhelmed by emotion. (62)

When Mulla Hossien finally left the fortress, he observed that nearly all of the Babis have also come out with him, leaving only a handful in the compound. He advised that his beloved is alone and requested that people return to the fortress to serve Quddus. Babis again lamented at the sorrow of losing Mulla Hossien, but he clearly ordered them to return and assist Quddus. (63)

Ostad Jaafar Bannaa Isfahani, one of the other survivors reports : `When Mulla Hossien was injured, he ordered retreat .. Babis brought back his body and up on being informed, all believers began to weep .. They took the body to Qoddus and placed it above his bed. Qoddus at that time was injured in the mouth and could not talk, so he wrote on a piece of paper for believers to leave him and Mulla Hossien alone in the room. As soon as his eyes saw the body, he sighed and sobbed. (64)

Mirza Muhammad Khurasani , another survivor reports : `I was standing on the door way of Quddus and heard voices of conversation. I was surprised since Quddus was seemingly asking questions and/or responding to a discussion [considering the his injuries]. Slowly I lifted the curtain and observed that Qoddus is communicating with Mulla Hossien. Mulla Hossien was smiling and talking. After the burial, I asked Qoddus about was I had observed. He wrote .. what you just experienced and heard is correct and one of the miracles performed by Mulla Hossein. (65)


This paper briefly considered a number of features of the Sheikh Tabarsi uprising and concludes that this movement was essentially spiritual in nature. It differs starkly with other militia movements of past and present times in that :

1. The participants had no prior military or battle experience. They were normal civilians in their own region. The clever techniques, organisation and planning demonstrated by Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi despite the lack of weaponry and supplies is quite startling. Infact their ultimate surrender came as a result of a cunning trick from Ulama to use Quran. They were never defeated militarily. The Bab only instructed them to defend. What could have been the consequence, had He ordered `Jahad' ?

2. The participants represented all social classes of their time. Amongst them were cooks, builders, tailors, mullas, merchants, tradesmen etc. Sheikh Tabarsi gave Babis from all regions an opportunity to come together and serve the leadership at once. The unity amongst the participants was in stark contrast to the social classes in the Qajar period. Thus unity and love can be attributed to their spiritual upbringing, and a competent leadership. The participants abandoned all of their worldly possessions for one common purpose.

3. The Sheikh Tabarsi resistance had the full supports of the Babi community at the time. Outside assistance in the forms of cash, goods and services enabled the Babis to keep defending for nine months. The families and friends of the martyrs were the target of a viscous physical abuse in their towns and regions. Their resistance carried on for a life time and caused enormous hardships within families. The Babis in Sheikh Tabarsi had been transformed to such an extent that family ties were no longer important for them. Numerous attempts by the enemies to utilise family members to ask them to quite failed.

4. A statistical analysis of the number of Babis at Sheikh Tabarsi shows that many joined the fortress during the course of battles. Numbers were variable. Some could not reach the fortress due to the embargo or illness whilst others were simply too late. Many used innovative tactics in order to join their fellow Babis.

5. A united and determined leadership was instrumental in utilising the human resources within Sheikh Tabarsi. The relationship between Quddus and Mulla Hossein can only be described as `Meta-physical'. Two Letters of Living : One the first, the other the last. They competed in praising and obeying one another. There was no arrogance, greed or hunger for power.

It must be stressed that - unlike claims made by some Iranian and Russian historians - the Sheikh Tabarsi movement was not a battle between `social classes of the time' or `the masses and the regime'. Simply because it lacks all of the features of a modern militia or uprising. The length, level of resistance and social analysis of this movement proves that Babis were only guided through the spiritual teachings and awakening emanating from the new Revelation. Otherwise no other `conflicts' could endure such a threat to the stability of the establishment for nine months during the reign of the infamous Prime Minister - Amir Kabir.


    1. Zohur-Al-Haq Vol.3 pp 120
    2. Nuqtat-ul-Kaaf pp 196
    3. Zohur-Al-Haq Vol.3 pp 132
    4. Nuqtat-ul-Kaaf pp 171
    5. Zohur-Al-Haq Vol.3 pp 132
    6. Nuqtat-ul-Kaaf pp 188
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    60. Khaterat Muhammad Hossien Ibn Mohammad Hadi Al-Tabatabai Al-Zavarehi pp 2
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    65. Khaterat Muhammad Hossien Ibn Mohammad Hadi Al-Tabatabai Al-Zavarehi pp. 16
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