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Religion Library: Baha'i

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Moojan Momen

The Baha'i Faith is less than 200 years old and there have as yet been no Baha'i governments or any areas under Baha'i jurisdiction. Therefore, there has been no occasion in which Baha'i authorities have undertaken conquest or empire building. Since Baha'u'llah, as one of his first acts when he took up his mission in 1863, abrogated the concept of "holy war," it seems unlikely that such enterprise will occur in the name of the Baha'i Faith in the future either. 

From the very start of its history, however, the Baha'i community has been subjected to severe persecution, mainly and continuously in Iran, its country of origin, but also sporadically in other parts of the world. These persecutions have ranged from physical attacks and killings to the bureaucratic imposition of disabilities upon the community.

Within the first year of the Bab's declaration of his mission in 1844, his claims were denounced and a convocation of leading Sunni and Shi'i Islamic religious leaders in Baghdad condemned him (although he was not present at the proceedings), as well as anyone propagating his claims, as heretics and worthy of death. His emissary to Iraq was arrested and sent to Istanbul where he was condemned to imprisonment and hard labor and where he died a little while later.

In Iran, the Bab was also condemned within a year of the declaration of his mission and there was an ever-rising chorus of protests from the Islamic religious leaders, resulting in the arrest and confinement of the Bab himself and attacks upon his followers, the Babis. These attacks culminated in three episodes in different parts of Iran, in 1848-50, in each of which between 300 and 3000 of the Bab's followers were surrounded by royal troops and eventually, after sieges lasting from one to seven months, massacred. Not surprisingly, such actions by the state led to great resentment among the Babis who became leaderless when the Bab himself was executed in 1850. With the Bab's restraining influence removed and Baha'u'llah in temporary exile, the path was left clear for an extremist charismatic leader to emerge among the Babis of Tehran, leading eventually in 1852 to an unsuccessful attempt by a small group of the Babis to assassinate the Shah. This resulted in a fierce persecution and the issuing of an order for a general massacre of all Babis.

Although Baha'u'llah established a different religion and explicitly prohibited his followers from acts of violence, holy war, or any activity calculated to subvert the government, the Baha'is remained under the cloud of suspicion and enmity that resulted from the action of the Babis—indeed the Baha'is were known as Babis in Iran for the whole of the 19th century. Anyone publicly identified as a Baha'i was liable to execution and so the Baha'is were forced to carry out their religious and communal activities in secrecy. Local governors or local religious leaders would use persecution of the Baha'i community in their area as a way of shoring up their own authority or discomfiting a rival. The severest episode of persecution of the Iranian Baha'i community occurred in Yazd in 1903 when a mob went wild in the streets of the city for several days, killing Baha'is wherever they could be found and resulting in over 100 deaths in the city and the surrounding villages.

From the Writings of Baha'u'llah on the Persecutions Suffered by the Baha'is of Iran
O Shaykh! This people have passed beyond the narrow straits of names, and pitched their tents upon the shores of the sea of renunciation. They would willingly lay down a myriad lives, rather than breathe the word desired by their enemies . . . They have preferred to have their heads cut off rather than utter one unseemly word. Ponder this in thine heart. Methinks they have quaffed their fill of the ocean of renunciation. The life of the present world hath failed to withhold them from suffering martyrdom in the path of God.
 

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