Originally written for Bahá’í Perspectives:
Continued from Part 1
Classical scholar Alexis de Tocqueville differentiated between three types of revolutions.
1) political revolutions
2) sudden and violent revolutions that seek not only to establish a new political system but to transform an entire society
3) slow but sweeping transformations of the entire society that take several generations to bring about (ex. religion).
The revolution I am about to describe is mainly the third, with elements of the second. However, like all revolutions, the spark was lit by an enigmatic figure; the revolutionary.
Che Guevara once said this about revolutionaries:
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. … We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.
Whether or not Che himself lived up to this ideal is a question to be answered by historians. During the 19th century, one individual not only fulfilled Che’s statement but exceeded it in ways we will never fully understand. His name was His name was Siyyid `Alí Muḥammad Shírází, known more commonly by his title ‘The Báb,‘ or the ‘Gate’.
His character was described as “the gentle, the youthful and irresistible person of the Báb, matchless in His meekness, imperturbable in His serenity, magnetic in His utterance, unrivalled in the dramatic episodes of His swift and tragic ministry.”
Born on October 20th, 1819, in Shiraz, Persia (Iran) and belonging to a noble family, the Báb was a descendant from Muhammad through the Imam Husayn through both his parents. The Báb was endowed with innate knowledge, and had little schooling.
During his childhood he dumbfounded his teacher, who sent him home, realising he had nothing to teach this extraordinary child. The Báb later joined his uncle in the trade of being a merchant. Soon after marrying, the beginning of the ‘revolution’ began, on the 23nd May 1844, in Shiraz.
So why did this revolution start in 19th century Persia (Iran)?
The ancient Greeks saw revolution as a possibility only after the decay of the fundamental moral and religious tenets of society.
Persia of that time was a place which was seen to be one of the worst in the world. The country was in ruins spiritually and materially, through neglect and extreme corruption as well as religious hypocrisy and fanaticism:
The people among whom He appeared were the most decadent race in the civilized world, grossly ignorant, savage, cruel, steeped in prejudice, servile in their submission to an almost deified hierarchy, recalling in their abjectness the Israelites of Egypt in the days of Moses, in their fanaticism the Jews in the days of Jesus, and in their perversity the idolators of Arabia in the days of Muhammad.
Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 3
This portrayal of Iran by Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, was not the only one at that time.
In the London Times Newspaper, dated December 26th 1845, Persia correspondent ‘Trebisonde’ wrote an article called ‘The State of Persia.’ He opened the article with the following sentence;
The state of Persia has never been more miserable, more unhappy, or more gloomy, than at present.
Trebisonde also goes onto describe the ‘avaricious’ character of the Vizier (Prime minister) of the Shah, who was so cruel that peasants have abandoned their villages and fled to the mountains and to the deserts, where they “prefer to suffer from hunger and misery rather than to be beaten to death” due to the greed of their governmental masters.
He then goes on to say:
none but an idiot like Mohammed Shah, the reigning King of Persia, would suffer his Grand Vizier to act as he pleases, and close his eyes against the sight of ruin of the kingdom. The feeble Shah regards his former precipitor as a saint, and interferes not in State affairs.
Thus an all too familiar scenario has been painted, a place where injustice, oppression and fear have reared their ugly heads. Persia of 1844 was a place ripe for revolution.
The world was an interesting place at this time. In Iran, people (Shaykhis) were waiting for the ‘Promised Qa’im’ or the ‘Mahdi‘, whilst in the western world, chiefly the U.S.A., thousands of Christians known as ‘Millerites’ (now know known as 7th Day Adventists) were waiting for the Second Coming of Christ, all in 1844.
On the 23nd May, 1844, the Báb declared himself to be that Promised one to both had been waiting for. His ministry lasted only 9 years, during which he composed hundreds of letters and books (often termed tablets) in which he stated his claims and proclaimed his teachings, which constituted a new sharí’ah or religious law. The mission of the Báb was to make way for one even greater than him, Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith in 1863.
The Báb’s ideas were so new and revolutionary, they created other smaller revolutionaries. One such ‘revolutionary’ was the famous poetess known as Tahirih, who at the Conference of Badasht, in 1848, threw off her veil signifying a break with Islam and heralding in the new Faith, a heretical act unheard of in entire the Islamic world. She was seen to be one of the first emancipators of women.
Azar Nafisi, a famous Iranian (and not a Baha’i) author and scholar said in an interview on PBS “The first woman to unveil and to question both political and religious orthodoxy was a woman named Tahireh who lived in early 1800s, you know. And we carry this tradition.”
The Bábi movement eventually acquired tens of thousands of supporters, was virulently opposed by Iran’s Shi’a clergy, and was suppressed by the Iranian government leading to thousands upon thousands of his followers, termed Bábis, being persecuted and killed in the most horrific manner. In 1850 the Báb was executed by a firing squad of 750 men in Tabriz.
Whilst the detailed story of the Báb, and his 9 year Ministry are epic in scope, and on par with the miracles, tragedy and brilliance of the stories of the ministry of other Manifestations like Moses, Christ and Muhammad (albeit concentrated into 9 years), they are likewise beyond the capacity of this blog entry. An extremely brief summary can be read here: http://info.bahai.org/babi-faith.html
This revolution was different to any other revolution previously experienced:
In sheer dramatic power, in the rapidity with which events of momentous importance succeeded each other, in the holocaust which baptized its birth, in the miraculous circumstances attending the martyrdom of the One Who had ushered it in, in the potentialities with which it had been from the outset so thoroughly impregnated, in the forces to which it eventually gave birth, this nine-year period may well rank as unique in the whole range of man’s religious experience.
(Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 3)
The Bábi Faith, however, stands unique, because it was a religion in its own right, lasting 9 years and paving the way for Baha’u’llah to found the Baha’i Faith.
Thus from a small room in Shiraz, to the creation of a Faith spanning the entire planet within 100 years is certainly a revolution. Especially as it has shaped, given vision and hopes to everyone of its members.
The Baha’i Faith was listed in The Britannica Book of the Year (1992-present) as the second most widespread of the world’s independent religions in terms of the number of countries represented. Britannica claims that it is established in 247 countries and territories; represents over 2,100 ethnic, racial, and tribal groups; has scriptures translated into over 800 languages; and has seven million adherents worldwide .
It is not just the spread of this Faith that is truly revolutionary, in such a short period but also the fact that it is one of the fastest growing religions in the world.
In 2007, Foreign Policy magazine said it was the second fastest growing religion in the world. Islam being the first.
So why has this revolution been largely ignored?
The answer is, as Gill Scott Heron sings, because the ‘revolution will not be televised.’
He ends his poem with ‘The revolution is live’.
We miss out on the big picture and lack from the power of hindsight. Some of us are blinded by our own egos, others are not even aware, asleep on our couches.
The Bible says:
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in
which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the
elements shall melt with fervent heat…
II Peter 3:10.
So maybe this revolution came like a thief in the night…
a thief that evaded closed-circuit cameras.