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Religion Library: Baha'i

Early Developments

Written by: Moojan Momen

The Bab sent his first eighteen disciples, whom he named the "Letters of the Living," to various parts of Iran, Iraq, and India. These first disciples spread the news of the claim of the Bab and many responded positively, especially from among the Shaykhi community, which had been alerted by its now-deceased leaders to expect such a message. All of the Letters of the Living and many of the leading subsequent converts were religious scholars and some were religious leaders in their communities. When a local religious leader was converted, he would often bring with him the whole of his congregation and thus, in a number of towns and villages, there were soon appreciable numbers of Babis. Both the leadership and the main opponents of the Babi movement came from within the religious class.

In some places, one of the Letters of the Living would act as the leader of the community; this is true, for example, in Karbala, the Shi'i shrine city in Iraq, where Tahirih, the female Letter of the Living, resided. In other places, such as Nayriz in the south of Iran or Zanjan toward the northwest, a local religious leader would become a Babi and thus become the leader of the Babi community. In some towns, however, the Babi movement spread through a social network and in such cases, there was perhaps no overall leader. In Isfahan in central Iran for example, the Babi movement spread among the merchants and traders in the bazaar. There was at first no natural leader of this community, although in later years, one or two of the richer merchants became leaders by virtue of the support that they gave to distressed or persecuted members of the community.

Because the Bab spent a great deal of his ministry in prison or under house arrest, it was difficult for him to guide his followers or for them to obtain his writings. While the Bab himself was against violence and refused to call for a holy war or to allow his followers to try to free him by force, his isolation meant that this influence was not always felt among his followers. Thus while the Bab interpreted the prophecies regarding the war that would be waged by the Mahdi in spiritual terms, some of his followers, isolated from his guidance, took such prophecies more literally and prepared for war. Nevertheless, in general, the Babis did not directly provoke the violence that eventually broke out in 1848. And when they were besieged in three places where violent conflict occurred, they kept largely to defensive measures.

As opposition to the movement increased, so it was gradually driven underground, especially after the intense persecutions of 1848-52. During the time of the Bab and even more in the time of Baha'u'llah, a system of couriers was instituted. These would travel among Babi and later Baha'i communities picking up letters and financial contributions for the head of the movement and also distributing replies. Through receiving reports from hundreds of locations around the country, Baha'u'llah kept well informed about the Baha'i community and was well informed about conditions in Iran. He sent constant guidance to the Baha'i community as to the best way of conducting their affairs and their relationships with the authorities, which continued to persecute them. Baha'u'llah instructed the Baha'is to be loyal and faithful to the government; he forbade holy war and prohibited them from using any violence or engaging in sedition or dissident behavior. He encouraged them to conduct their affairs by consultative decision-making and emphasized the importance of unity in all undertakings.

 

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