“His life is one of the most magnificent examples of courage which it has been the privilege of mankind to behold...”1 The object of this tribute by the prominent French writer A.L.M. Nicolas was the nineteenth-century prophetic figure known to us as the Báb.
On 23 May 1844, in Shiraz, Persia, a young man known as the Báb announced the imminent appearance of the Messenger of God awaited by all the peoples of the world. The title Báb means “the Gate.” Although Himself the bearer of an independent revelation from God, the Báb declared that His purpose was to prepare humankind for this advent.
Swift and savage persecution at the hands of the dominant Muslim clergy followed this announcement. The Báb was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned, and finally, on 9 July 1850, executed in the public square of the city of Tabriz. Some 20,000 of His followers perished in a series of massacres throughout Persia. Today, the Báb’s earthly remains are entombed in the majestic Shrine with the golden dome that overlooks the Bay of Haifa, Israel, and is set amidst beautiful gardens.
Although the young merchant’s given name was Siyyid ‘Ali-Muhammad, He took the name “Báb,” a title that means “Gate” or “Door” in Arabic. His coming, the Báb explained, opened the portal through which the universally anticipated Revelation of God to all humanity would soon appear. The central theme of the Bayán, His major work, was the imminent appearance of a second Messenger of God, one Who would be far greater than the Báb and Whose mission would be to usher in the age of peace and justice promised in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and the other world religions.
In some respects, the Báb’s role can be compared to the one John the Baptist served in the founding of Christianity. The Báb was Bahá’u’lláh’s herald: His principal mission was to prepare the way for Bahá’u’lláh’s coming. Accordingly, the founding of the Bábi Faith is viewed by Bahá’ís as being synonymous with the founding of the Bahá’í Faith--and its purpose was fulfilled when Bahá’u’lláh announced in 1863 that He was the Promised One foretold by the Báb. Bahá’u’lláh later affirmed that the Báb was “the Herald of His Name and the Harbinger of His Great Revelation which hath caused... the splendour of His light to shine forth above the horizon of the world.”2 The Báb’s appearance marked the end of the “Prophetic Cycle” of religious history and ushered in the “Cycle of Fulfillment.”
The Báb also founded a distinct, independent religion of His own. Known as the Bábí Faith, this religious dispensation produced its own vigorous community and its own scriptures and left its own indelible mark on history. The Bahá’í writings attest that “the greatness of the Báb consists primarily, not in His being the divinely-appointed Forerunner of so transcendent a Revelation, but rather in His having been invested with the powers inherent in the inaugurator of a separate religious Dispensation, and in His wielding, to a degree unrivaled by the Messengers gone before Him, the scepter of independent Prophethood.”3 With His call for the spiritual and moral reformation of Persian society and His insistence on the elevation of the station of women and the poor, the Báb indeed assumed a position reminiscent of the Prophets of the past. But unlike those Seers of old who could but look to the far future for the time when “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,” (Isaiah 11:9) the Báb, by His very appearance, signified that the dawn of the “Day of God” had at last arrived.
The boldness of the Báb’s proclamation--which imparted a vision of an entirely new society--stirred intense fear within religious and secular establishments. Consequently, persecution of the Bábís quickly developed and thousands of the Báb’s followers were put to death in a horrific series of massacres. A number of Western observers testified to the extraordinary moral courage evinced by the Bábís in the face of this onslaught. European intellectuals such as Ernest Renan, Leo Tolstoy, Sarah Bernhardt and the Comte de Gobineau were deeply affected by this spiritual drama that had unfolded in what was regarded as a darkened land. The nobility of the Báb’s life and teachings and the heroism of His followers became a frequent topic of conversation in the salons of Europe. The story of Táhirih, the great poet and Bábí heroine, who declared to her persecutors, “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women,” traveled as far and as quickly as the story of the Báb Himself.4
Ultimately, those opposed to the Báb argued that He was not only a heretic but a dangerous rebel. The authorities decided to have Him executed. On 9 July 1850, this sentence was carried out in the courtyard of the Tabriz army barracks. Some 10,000 people crowded the rooftops of the barracks and houses that overlooked the square. The Báb and a young follower were suspended by two ropes against a wall. A regiment of 750 Armenian soldiers, arranged in three files of 250 each, opened fire in three successive volleys. So dense was the smoke raised by the gunpowder and dust that the entire yard was obscured.
The report of the execution, written to Lord Palmerston, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, by Sir Justin Shiel, Queen Victoria’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, in Tehran on 22 July 1850 records: “When the smoke and dust cleared away after the volley, Báb was not to be seen, and the populace proclaimed that he had ascended to the skies. The balls had broken the ropes by which he was bound but he was dragged from the recess where, after some search he was discovered and shot.”5
After the first attempt at execution, the Báb was found back in His cell, giving final instructions to one of His followers. Earlier in the day, when the guards had come to take Him to the courtyard, the Báb had warned that no “earthly power” could silence Him until He had finished all that He had to say. When the guards arrived this second time, the Báb calmly announced: “Now you may proceed to fulfil your intention.”6
Again, the Báb and His young companion were brought out for execution. The Armenian troops refused to fire, and a Muslim firing squad was assembled and ordered to shoot. This time the bodies of the pair were shattered, their bones and flesh mingled into one mass. Surprisingly, their faces were untouched. The last words of the Báb to the crowd were: “O wayward generation! Had you believed in Me every one of you would have followed the example of this youth, who stood in rank above most of you, and would have willingly sacrificed himself in My path. The day will come when you will have recognized Me; that day I shall have ceased to be with you.”7
A.L.M. Nicolas chronicled this episode: “He sacrificed himself for humanity; for it he gave his body and his soul, for it he endured privations, insults, torture and martyrdom. He sealed, with his very lifeblood, the covenant of universal brotherhood. Like Jesus he paid with his life for the proclamation of a reign of concord, equity, and brotherly love.”8
The short six-year duration of the Báb’s mission in some respects symbolize the abrupt and startling transition to global consciousness that the Báb had called humanity to undertake. Since His bold proclamation in the middle of the last century, unparalleled scientific and technological advances have indeed provided the first glimmerings of a global society. In His role as the “Primal Point from which have been generated all created things,” the Báb set in motion a dramatic new cycle of human creativity and discovery.9
The nearly simultaneous appearance of two Manifestations of God, Bahá’u’lláh states, “is a mystery such as no mind can fathom.”10 For Bahá’ís, it is both an affirmation that the establishment of universal peace — the “Kingdom of God” — is not too far distant and a testimony to the greatness of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s appointed successor, explains:
"The Báb, the Exalted One, is the Morn of Truth, the splendor of Whose light shineth throughout all regions. He is also the Harbinger of the Most Great Light, the Abhá Luminary [Bahá’u’lláh]. The Blessed Beauty [Bahá’u’lláh] is the One promised by the sacred books of the past, the revelation of the Source of light that shone upon Mount Sinai, Whose fire glowed in the midst of the Burning Bush. We are, one and all, servants of their threshold, and stand each as a lowly keeper at their door."11
5. Quoted in John Ferraby, All Things Made New: A Comprehensive Outline of the Bahá’í Faith (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, rev. ed. 1975), p. 199.
* Adapted from Bahá’í Topics, an information resource produced by the Bahá’í International Community.