Exploration and Conquest

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.

In Mazindaran a vast number of the servants of God were exterminated. The Governor, under the influence of calumniators, robbed a great many of all that they possessed. Among the charges he laid against them was that they had been laying up arms, whereas upon investigation it was found out that they had nothing but an unloaded rifle! Gracious God! This people need no weapons of destruction, inasmuch as they have girded themselves to reconstruct the world. Their hosts are the hosts of goodly deeds, and their arms the arms of upright conduct, and their commander the fear of God. Blessed that one that judgeth with fairness . . . this people that they have become the exponents of justice, and so great hath been their forbearance, that they have suffered themselves to be killed rather than kill, and this notwithstanding that these whom the world hath wronged have endured tribulations the like of which the history of the world hath never recorded. . .

Do thou ponder on the penetrative influence of the Word of God. Every single one of these souls was first ordered to blaspheme and curse his faith, yet none was found to prefer his own will to the Will of God. (Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pp. 74-5)

Although the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 was intended to bring constitutional government and civil rights to all of the citizens of Iran, the actions of the Islamic religious leaders led to the exclusion of the Baha'i Faith from among the religions to be recognized in the Constitution and paved the way for subsequent human rights abuses. It caused problems for Baha'i institutions, including schools and medical facilities, and meant that local officials could harass Baha'is at will. As the country became more centralized and bureaucratic under the Pahlavi dynasty, the obstacles placed before the Baha'i community increased. The community was prevented from printing its own books and journals and even from importing Baha'i books. The large network of Baha'i schools that had been established was closed down by government order in 1934-5. Even marrying under the Baha'i marriage ceremony became a criminal offence, resulting in many young Baha'i men spending the first few months of their marriage in prison.

The abuses suffered by Baha'is under the Pahlavi regime fades into insignificance, however, when compared with what happened after the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. A government-directed systematic campaign attempted to eliminate the Baha'i community of Iran by placing them under such pressure as to drive them to become Muslims. All communally-owned Baha'i properties were confiscated and membership lists used to identify individual Baha'is. Baha'i holy places and cemeteries were destroyed. The Baha'i national leadership, many local Baha'i leaders, and other Baha'is were executed in the first few years of the Revolution. Baha'is were expelled from all government employment and it was decreed that they would have to repay all wages or pensions that they had received from the government. Private businesses were also put under pressure to expel their Baha'i employees. The larger Baha'i businesses were confiscated and the smaller ones put under pressure by having operating licenses refused or boycotts organized against them. All Baha'is were effectively excluded from higher education and Baha'i children discriminated against in schools. There has been a constant stream of invective and disinformation about the Baha'is from the pulpits of the mosques and in the government-owned media.

The Baha'i community does not enjoy full freedom of human rights in any of the Arab states and there have been periodic campaigns against the Baha'is in many Muslim countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Indonesia, and Brunei. Apart from Muslim countries, there was, for varying periods of time, some harassment and persecution of Baha'is by the governments of countries where Orthodox and Catholic Christianity were powerful, especially in the Portuguese colonies in Africa in 1960s, where there were also Baha'i martyrs. Baha'is were also persecuted in Communist countries in the twentieth century and under authoritarian regimes like that of Nazi Germany.

Study Questions:
     1.     Why is it unlikely that anyone will ever start a war in the name of the Baha'i Faith?
     2.     Describe the persecutions of the Babi community.
     3.     Describe the persecutions of the Baha'i community up to 1979.
     4.     In what ways has the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran attacked the Baha’is of Iran since 1979?

Back to Religion Library