Early Developments

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.

Initially, most of the conversions to the Baha'i Faith came from the former Babi community. Eventually, however, new believers were drawn in from the Muslim majority community and, from the 1880s onward, from the Zoroastrian and Jewish minorities in Iran. There continued to be conversions from among the Muslim clerics and these would travel through Iran spreading the Baha'i Faith and deepening the knowledge of the existing communities. New communities sprang up in towns such as Hamadan, where there had been no substantial Babi community. Baha'u'llah also directed the geographical expansion of the Baha'i community. He sent capable Baha'is to areas such as India, Burma, Egypt, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, establishing new Baha'i communities and converting for the first time appreciable numbers of Sunni Muslims and some Christians.

These Baha'i communities were not at first much distinguished from the Muslim communities from which most of them sprang, but early on, outside observers noted that the position of women in these communities was improved. One of the factors that led to the Zoroastrian and Jewish conversions was the fact that the Baha'is did not regard them as ritually unclean as the majority Shi'i Muslim community did, and were willing to enter their homes and eat with them. They were also attracted to the teachings of the Baha'i Faith, which they believed were better attuned to the modern world.

Study Questions:
     1.     What sort of people became the main leaders of the Babi movement?
     2.     Did the Babis attack their opponents?
     3.     How did the Bab and Baha’u’llah keep in contact with their followers?
     4.     What instructions did Baha’u’llah issue to his followers about how they should conduct themselves?
     5.     How did the growth and spread of the Baha’i Faith during the time of Baha’u’llah occur?

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