This article is intended to be a general survey of the history of the Bahá'í Faith. The first part consists of a very brief overview of the main events in Bábí and Bahá'í history. Much of this material is dealt with in more detail in other articles. In the second part of the article, a series of themes that have developed in the course of Bahá'í history will be examined.
Although much of the existing knowledge is provisional in nature and much research remains to be done, the main outlines of Bábí and Bahá'í history are generally clear. There is, however, no such thing as a single correct view of Bábí-Bahá'í history. The academic study of the Bahá'í Faith is in its infancy and some aspects of the historical account are still controversial. The following short article necessarily neglects aspects of this uncertainty and controversy.
I - Major events in Bábí and Bahá'í history
Although the Bábí movement is separate from the Bahá'í Faith and should be treated so, Bahá'ís regard the Bábí movement as inextricably bound up with the origins of their own Faith and thus consider the start of the Bábí movement in 1844 as the start of their own religion. This is not just a theological viewpoint grounded in the Bahá'í belief that the Báb, while an independent Manifestation of God (q.v.), was nevertheless the precursor and announcer of the coming of Bahá'u'lláh, it is also a historical fact that the vast majority of Bábís became Bahá'ís and thus the Bábí movement merged into the Bahá'í Faith. Thus, whilst the Bábí religion should be seen as an independent movement with its own distinctive ethos and values, its significance here is as a background to the Bahá'í religion which emerged from it.
1. The Early Bábí Movement (1844-53)
The Bábí movement began in mid-nineteenth century Iran.
a. Shaykhism The Bábí movement had its origins in the Shaykhí movement, a heterodox school within the Twelver branch of Shí`í Islam (q.v.). Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsá'í (q.v.) had developed a series of philosophical and mystical views. These had led to his being condemned by other Shí`í `ulamá. Prior to his death in 1826, Shaykh Ahmad had appointed one of his pupils, Sayyid Kázim Rashtí (q.v.), as the leader of this group. Under the latter, the Shaykhí movement was subjected to even more criticism by other Shí`í `ulamá and gradually drew away from the main fold of Twelver Shí`ism.
From the viewpoint of Bábís and Bahá'ís, the most important aspect of Shaykhism was the teaching that many of the concepts within Shí`í Islam that were understood as literally true should in fact be understood metaphorically as spiritual truths. This applied in particular to Shí`í eschatology, the expected re-emergence of the promised Hidden Imám. The Shaykhís taught that instead of a literal re-emergence of a man who had gone into hiding one thousand years ago, the return of the Imam might be understood spiritually and metaphorically. Furthermore, in their lectures, the Shaykhí leaders are reported to have considered the return of the Imam to be imminent. There was also an emphasis on a living charismatic authority, a concept that was to prove of great importance in the transition to Babism.
b. The Early History of the Bábí Movement (1844-48) When Sayyid Kázim died in Karbalá, Iraq, in January 1844, he did not appoint a further leader to the Shaykhí movement. According to reports in Bahá'í histories, he ordered his disciples to disperse and seek out the one whom they were to follow. As a result of this, a group of young Shaykhí students came to Shiraz in 1844. Here they accepted the claims of Sayyid `Alí Muhammad, who took the title of the Báb (q.v.). The Báb called his earliest disciples the "Letters of the Living" (q.v.) and ordered them to disperse throughout Iran and Iraq and spread his teachings. This initial expansion followed the existing network of Shaykhí communities, but later came to include non-Shaykhís as well (see Smith and Momen, "Bábí Movement").
The exact nature of the early claims of the Báb was somewhat ambiguous, probably intentionally so. Some considered that he was just a representative of the Hidden Imam, but those of the `ulamá who had a chance to examine his writings could see that his claim was much more extensive in that he was claiming the same prerogatives as the prophet Muhammad. This led many of the `ulamá to oppose the new teachings. Thus as the movement spread throughout much of Iran and Iraq, there were confrontations between the `ulamá and the Bábís, some of which led to violence and persecution.
The Báb himself performed the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1844. It appears that it was his intention to proceed from Mecca to Karbalá where he had instructed his followers to gather. But the Letter of the Living who had gone to this region, Mullá `Alí Bastamí (q.v.), had been seized and put on trial in Baghdad in January 1845. Hearing of the reception accorded to his emissary, the Báb decided to return to Shiraz. He was, however, forced to leave that city after a year as a result of increasing opposition. He transferred to Isfahan, where he was protected for a time by the powerful governor of that city, Manúchihr Khán (q.v.). After the latter's death on 21 February 1847, however, the Báb was taken on the orders of the government to the fortress of Mákú in the far northwest of Iran. From this time on, the Báb was to remain a prisoner, being transferred to the fortress of Chihríq in April 1848.
c. The Bábí Upheavals 1848-53 The year 1848 marks an important turning point in the history of the Bábí movement. Four events during this year served to produce a marked change in the fortunes of the new religion. The first was the promulgation by the Báb of the Persian Bayán, the book of his laws; the second was the Báb's open declaration at his trial in Tabriz (July 1848) that he was the Hidden Imám, the promised Mahdí that the Shí`ís were awaiting; the third was the conference of Badasht (q.v.), in the summer of this year, at which a group of prominent Bábís gathered and proclaimed the independent nature of the Bábí religion. These successive events removed the veil of ambiguity from the claims of the Báb, making it clear that he claimed a station equal to the Prophet Muhammad and was thus abrogating the Islamic dispensation. This challenging proclamation led many of the `ulama to increase their denunciations and they called on the government to take action against the Bábís.
A fourth critical event occurred towards the end of 1848. It was during the disturbances that occurred after the death of Muhammad Sháh in September 1848 that some Bábís who were coming from Mashhad under the leadership of Mullá Husayn Bushrú'í (q.v.) were attacked in Mázandarán. Having killed some of their attackers, they took shelter in the shrine of ShaykhTabarsí (q.v.). For the first time, the government was asked to lend its support against the Bábís, and troops and cannon were sent to assist the local forces in an all-out attack on them. The resultant armed struggle at Shaykh Tabarsí (q.v.) was to last seven months. The Bábís, who were joined by Quddús (q.v.), a leading Letter of the Living, may have numbered some 600. Those who were not killed in the fighting eventually surrendered on the offer of an amnesty, upon which most of them were captured and later executed.
The Shaykh Tabarsí upheaval was followed by further armed conflict at Nayríz (q.v.) in the south (May-June 1850), at which the Bábís, numbering about a thousand and led by Vahíd (q.v.), were again tricked into surrendering and were then massacred. At the much more prolonged upheaval at Zanján (q.v.), on the road between Tehran and Tabriz (May 1850-January 1851), gradual attrition was responsible for the eventual defeat of some two thousand Bábís led by Hujjat (q.v.).
These violent incidents have created an impression of general Bábí militancy which may or may not be justified. Certainly, there were Bábís who adopted a militant attitude towards their opponents, but there were many others who did not. Whatever the case, after 1848, all Bábís were subject to a series of severe attacks. These included the public execution of some of the religion's prominent members in Tehran in February 1850 and the execution of the Báb in Tabriz in July 1850.
Following the execution of the Báb, the Bábís were leaderless and in disarray. A number of persons came forward to claim leadership. The Báb had written of "He Whom God shall make manifest" (q.v.), a messianic figure that would come after him. But none of the claimants were able to unite the Bábís under his leadership. Matters became much worse after a small group of Tehran Bábís made an attempt on the life of the Shah in 1852. The attempt was unsuccessful and the result was an intense persecution that claimed the lives of most of the remaining leading Bábís, including Táhirih (q.v.), the foremost female disciple of the Báb and one of the Letters of the Living. There was also a second upheaval at Nayríz (October-December 1853).
2. The Bábí Collapse and Revival (1853-66)
The Bábí movement was crushed; its leading figures were mostly dead; the remnants of its followers were either driven underground or into exile. It appeared that nothing would remain of the movement. Crucial to the survival of the movement was the small band of Bábí refugees that now gathered in Baghdad (q.v.), which lay in the territory of the Ottoman Empire. Among these was Mírzá Husayn`Alí Núrí Bahá'u'lláh (q.v.). Another was Mírzá Yahyá Subh-i-Azal (q.v.), Bahá'u'lláh's half-brother, who claimed the leadership of the Bábí community on account of a letter of authority that had been sent to him by the Báb. But Azal proved ineffective as a leader and it was Bahá'u'lláh, over the course of a decade, who assumed the effective leadership and sought to raise the morale of and reorganize the Bábí community both in Baghdad and throughout Iran.
During the period of his exile in Baghdad, Bahá'u'lláh initiated a number of new directions for the Bábí movement. First, he began to write books in a plain style that was easily understood by ordinary Iranians. His works such as the Book of Certitude (q.v.) were able to make a direct appeal to literate Iranians (rather than the indirect appeal mediated through members of the `ulamá as had been the case with the Báb's writings). These were enthusiastically received by many Bábís and other Iranians. Second, he entered into dialogue with Iraqi Sunnís, including some of the `ulamá. Third, while the Shaykhís and early Bábís had been somewhat antagonistic to the more mystically inclined Sufis, Bahá'u'lláh spent some time at a Sufi center in Sulaymániyyih (q.v.) and later through books such as the Seven Valleys (q.v.) and the Four Valleys (q.v.) expressed Bábí religious themes in Sufi terms.
The resurgence of the Bábí movement led to renewed fears on the part of the Iranian government. They asked the Ottoman government to take steps against Bahá'u'lláh. The result of this was an edict from the Ottoman authorities that Bahá'u'lláh should be brought to the capital, Istanbul. Just as he was leaving Baghdad, Bahá'u'lláh spent twelve days (22 April- 3 May 1863) at a place that Bahá'ís call the Garden of Ridván (q.v.), just outside Baghdad. Bahá'ís believe that during these twelve days, Bahá'u'lláh made a declaration of his station as a new Manifestation of God (q.v.) in succession to the Báb. The exact details of this declaration are not known and it was not at first widely circulated. Thus when Bahá'u'lláh arrived in Istanbul (q.v.) and four months later was sent on to Edirne (q.v., Adrianople) in European Turkey, he was still regarded as a leader of the Bábís both by the Bábís themselves and by the government.
3. The Emergence of the Bahá'í Faith (1866-92)
It was while he was in Edirne that Bahá'u'lláh openly announced his claim to be "He Whom God shall make manifest," the messianic figure promised by the Báb. Bahá'u'lláh's claim was opposed by Azal. Bahá'u'lláh's claim to be "He Whom God shall make manifest" superseded Azal's position and the latter refused to accept this. As the split between the two became known in Edirne, it was to Bahá'u'lláh that the overwhelming majority of the Bábís turned. Bahá'u'lláh also sent emissaries to Iran with the same result. Most of the Bábí remnant became Bahá'ís, with only a small number coming to form a separate Azalí community.
Azal's opposition caused grave problems for Bahá'u'lláh. Eventually it was in part to lead to the further exile of Bahá'u'lláh to Akka (q.v.) in Syria. This occurred in 1868 at the instigation of the Ottoman authorities. At first Bahá'u'lláh was kept in strict confinement in the barracks, and later confined to a house in the city. Eventually Bahá'u'lláh was allowed to leave the city and take up residence outside the city walls. Major developments during this period include the instructions or encouragement given by Bahá'u'lláh for a number of his followers to take up residence in other countries, such as Egypt, Caucasia, Turkmenistan, and India, thus spreading the new religion; the resurgence of persecutions in Iran as the vigour of the new movement began to make itself felt; the initiation by Bahá'u'lláh of a series of letters to many of the leading rulers of the world, announcing his message to them; and the production by Bahá'u'lláh of a number of books in which he laid out the laws of his religion as well as the social principles which would act as the basis for the world peace which he advocated.
This period also saw a significant breakthrough in the appeal of the religion with the conversion of Jews and Zoroastrians in Iran (and also later Levantine Christians). This contrasted with the Bábí movement which was essentially confined to Shí`í Islam. Bahá'u'lláh had laid the groundwork for this breakthrough as early as the Baghdad period when he addressed a number of Biblical themes in his Book of Certitude and Jawáhiru'l-Asrár (q.v.). But it was, in particular, the work of Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl Gulpáygání (q.v.), relating the Bahá'í Faith to Jewish and Biblical prophecies and themes that took this process further.
4. The Ministry of `Abdu'l-Bahá (1892-1921)
`Abdu'l-Bahá was the successor of Bahá'u'lláh as leader of the Bahá'í Faith.
a. Early Years of `Abdu'l-Bahá's ministry (1892-1911) In two important writings of Bahá'u'lláh, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (q.v.) and the Book of the Covenant (q.v.), `Abdu'l-Bahá was designated by Bahá'u'lláh as the sole authorized interpreter of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh as well as the center of authority to whom all the Bahá'ís must turn after Bahá'u'lláh's death.
The most pressing problem for `Abdu'l-Bahá during the years immediately following the passing of Bahá'u'lláh in 1892 was the sustained opposition of his half-brother, Mírzá Muhammad `Alí (q.v.). The latter accused `Abdu'l-Bahá of claiming for himself a station equal to Bahá'u'lláh and was able to draw over to his side the majority of those Bahá'ís living in the Haifa-Akka area as well as Jamál Burújirdí, a leading Iranian Bahá'í, and Ibrahim Kheiralla (q.v.), the man who had taken the Bahá'í Faith to America. But the majority of the world Bahá'í community remained faithful to `Abdu'l-Bahá. Mírzá Muhammad-`Alí's activities culminated in a period of renewal of the strict incarceration of `Abdu'l-Bahá within the walls of Akka from 1901 to 1909. After this, Mírzá Muhammad-`Alí's influence waned.
Undoubtedly the most significant development for the future of the religion was the spread of the Bahá'í Faith to North America. The Bahá'í Faith was established in North America through the efforts of Ibrahim Kheiralla and then spread from there to Europe and Australia. Soon there was a flow of American and European pilgrims coming to Akka.
This Western expansion, though limited in scale, for the first time made the Bahá'í Faith genuinely international. It was no longer confined to a Muslim milieu (see "Expansion and Distribution"). New formulations of the Bahá'í teachings in Western and Christian terms were developed, `Abdu'l-Bahá himself played a major role in this reformulation, as in Some Answered Questions (q.v.) in which he dealt with religious and philosophical themes and in his talks delivered during his Western tours (Paris Talks, Promulgation of Universal Peace), in which he dealt with social questions.
b. `Abdu'l-Bahá's journeys to the West and after (1911-21) following his release from confinement in 1909, `Abdu'l-Bahá moved to Egypt. In 1911, he made a journey to France and Britain, followed the next year by a much more extensive sojourn in North America and several countries in Europe. These journeys did a great deal to establish the Bahá'í Faith in the West. Not only did it allow the Bahá'ís in those countries direct and personal contact with the charismatic figure of `Abdu'l-Bahá, but it introduced the religion to a wide range of people who would not otherwise have heard of it. `Abdu'l-Bahá's numerous public addresses to universities, churches, synagogues, mosques, and philanthropic societies had the effect of gaining for the religion a large number of new admirers and adherents. `Abdu'l-Bahá's talks were to form the basis of the standard presentation of the Bahá'í teachings, especially the social teachings, for many decades after.
Other events of importance during `Abdu'l-Bahá's ministry were: the transfer of the remains of the Báb from Iran to Akka and their entombment in a shrine built by `Abdu'l-Bahá on Mount Carmel; the writing by `Abdu'l-Bahá of the Tablets of the Divine Plan, which were to become the master-plan for the spread of the Bahá'í Faith; the first steps in the building up of the modern administrative institutions of the Bahá'í Faith in both the East and West (see "Administration, Bahá'í"); the measures taken by the Bahá'í community of Ashkhabad in Russian Turkestan to develop many aspects of Bahá'í community life, culminating in the erection of a Mashriqu'l-Adhkár (q.v.); the activities of Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl Gulpáygání (q.v.) in teaching the Bahá'í Faith at the University of al-Azhar, the foremost place of learning in the Islamic world; and the extensive international travels of a small number of Bahá'ís, which helped to create the feeling of a worldwide religion.
5. The Ministry of Shoghi Effendi (1922-57)
Shoghi Effendi was the successor of `Abdu'l-Bahá as leader of the Bahá'í Faith.
a. The Development of the Bahá'í Administrative Order (1922-c.1937) The appointment of Shoghi Effendi as "Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith" was something of a surprise to the Bahá'í world. It became known only after `Abdu'l-Bahá's death on 28 November 1921 and the reading of his Will and Testament (q.v.) in January 1922.
Shoghi Effendi decided that his first priority would be to build up the Bahá'í administrative order. He concentrated for the first two decades of his ministry on this task: establishing the local assemblies; giving advice about their functioning; setting out the procedures for Bahá'í elections and consultation; creating the national assemblies and national conventions; ensuring their correct functioning; advising on the committee structures for these assemblies; and sorting out the proper relationships between these various bodies.
In addition, Shoghi Effendi initiated a major program for the development of the Bahá'í World Center (q.v.). He acquired buildings connected with Bahá'í history and planned the extension and beautification of the gardens around the buildings. Shoghi Effendi also made a major contribution to the development of Bahá'í literature in English, vastly increasing the range and quality of this by his books and translations.
During this period, the Bahá'í Faith experienced a number of reverses: the highly-developed Bahá'í community of Ashkhabad, following sustained persecution by the Soviet authorities in the 1920s and 1930s, was dispersed; the German Bahá'í community, which was the largest in Europe, was persecuted and its institutions disbanded by the Nazi authorities; there were further persecutions instituted by the Pahlavi government in Iran denying the Bahá'ís many basic human rights; the House of Bahá'u'lláh (q.v.) in Baghdad was seized by Shí`í Muslims and could not be regained despite the support of the League of Nations; and the courts in Egypt delivered a series of judgments against the Bahá'ís.
b. The Systematic Spread of the Bahá'í Faith (c.1937-63). Having substantially achieved his initial goal of setting up the Bahá'í administration, Shoghi Effendi then set this administration to work on a succession of plans for the expansion and consolidation of the Bahá'í Faith. Since it was the American Bahá'í community that had pioneered much of Shoghi Effendi's development of the Bahá'í administration, it was also this national community that received the first of the assigned national plans: the first Seven Year Plan (1937-44), in which they were directed to establish the Bahá'í Faith in Latin America. By the late 1940s, almost every national Bahá'í community was engaged on a plan of expansion.
Then in 1953, Shoghi Effendi launched the first global plan, the Ten Year Crusade (q.v.). The twelve national spiritual assemblies then in existence were each given responsibilities in this plan that aimed to disperse the Bahá'í Faith over the whole world.
c. The Interregnum of the Hands of the Cause (1957-63) Shoghi Effendi passed away on 4 November 1957, having appointed no one to succeed him in the leadership of the Bahá'í Faith. The only group who appeared to have any basis of authority for leading the Bahá'í Faith were the Hands of the Cause (q.v.), who had been appointed by Shoghi Effendi as "the Chief Stewards of Bahá'u'lláh's embryonic World Commonwealth" (MBW 127). Thus this group of individuals took over the responsibility for taking the Ten Year Crusade initiated by Shoghi Effendi to its conclusion in 1963.
The Hands of the Cause held a series of Conclaves. At the second of these, in 1958, they decided to bring into being, at the end of the Ten Year Crusade, the Universal House of Justice, an institution ordained by Bahá'u'lláh and stated by `Abdu'l-Bahá to be under divine guidance. In this the Hands of the Cause were opposed by one of their number, Charles Mason Remey (q.v.).
6. The Universal House of Justice (1963-)
With the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963, the Bahá'í Faith moved into a new phase of its development in that the leadership of the religion changed from appointed individuals to an elected council. This transition is regarded as signalling the beginning of a new epoch in Bahá'í history.
The Universal House of Justice decided to continue the pattern set by Shoghi Effendi in that the further progress and development of the religion was to occur within the framework of a series of international plans. This has led to an unprecedented growth of the religion, great internal changes and developments, the increasing involvement of the Bahá'í community in society, and a gradual emergence from obscurity in the public realm.
Unprecedented growth led to a decisive shift in the composition of the Bahá'í community internationally. Despite widespread geographical expansion, the Faith had hitherto remained predominantly Iranian in membership, with a small but significant minority of Westerners. From the 1960s onwards, the majority of Bahá'ís increasingly came to be drawn from the rural masses of the "Third World". Referred to by one authoritative source as the second most widespread religion in the world after Roman Catholicism (see Barrett 6), the Bahá'í Faith has come to assume some of the characteristics of a world religion: a remarkable transition from its origins 150 years ago as a "heterodox and seemingly negligible offshoot" (GPB xii) of an obscure grouping within Shí`í Islam.