The Babi Community of Iran

by NUR (Wahid Azal)

Whether by anecdotal rumor or in the literature, the Baha’i leadership and organization has over the years gone out of its way to deny agency as well as in numerous circumstances to deny the very existence of the Bayani community. The Bayanis, whom popular terminology has termed Azalis (a term which they take as a pejorative and thus a term of derision), are the remaining followers of the post-Islamic esoteric Twelver Shi’ite religion founded by Siyyid ‘Ali Muhammad Shirazi, the Essence of the Seven Letters, the Bab (d. 1850).

In 1849, a little under a year before his execution in Tabriz on July 8th 1850, the Bab had nominated the then nineteen year old Mirza Yahya Nuri Subh-i-Azal (d. 1912) to succeed him as his ‘mirror’ (mirat) and successor (janeshin). Among sundry other titles and epithets he had received from the Bab, Mirza Yahya Nuri has come to be known primarily as Subh-i-Azal, i.e. the Dawn or Morning of Pre-Eternity, given that the Bab held the years of his revelatory ministry to accord with the famous but cryptic Tradition of Ultimate Reality (hadith al-haqiqa), otherwise known as the hadith kumayl, i.e. the Zen-like (and possibly apocryphal) discussion said to have occurred between the first Shi’ite Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661) and Kumayl ibn Ziyad al-Nakhai (d. 701) regarding the nature of ultimate reality. The fifth theophanic sequence of this Tradition states, “A Light Illuminating from the Morning-Dawn of Pre-Eternity and shedding its traces upon the tablets of the Talismanic-Temples of Mono-Unitarian Unicity (nurun ashraqa min subh al-azal fa-yaluha ‘ala hayakil-t-tawhid atharihi).” Subh-i-Azal had appeared amongst the Babis in the fifth year of the Bab’s revelatory ministry, thus the epithet.

The Bab further sent numerous epistles and tablets to his nominated successor making ecstatic, proclamatory locutions about him, such as, “I am you and you are I (anta ana wa ana anta),” and in his longest testamentary document he made the pronouncement, “O Name of the Pre-Eternal [referring to Azal], I verily testify upon this that there is no other god but I the Dearly Precious, the Best Beloved, then I testify upon this that there is no other god but Thee the Protector, the Peerless!” It was the Baha’i patriarch ‘Abbas Effendi ‘Abdu’l-Baha (d. 1921) who first coined the term Azali as a sectarian slur to cast the adherents of the Bayan as exclusive followers of Subh-i-Azal rather than as followers of the Bayan and Subh-i-Azal as the mirror and successor of the Bab. Unfortunately the term has since stuck in the popular consciousness, yet it is not the term its adherents have ever known themselves by.

In April 1912, almost sixty-three years after he had been nominated by the Bab, Subh-i-Azal died in exile in Larnaca, Cyprus, where he is now buried in a small, modest shrine. Although some Western language sources, including E.G. Browne (d. 1926), have stated that Hadi Dowlatabadi (1908-09?) had initially been nominated by Subh-i-Azal to succeed him - upon whose own death the succession is then held by these sources to have devolved upon his son Yahya Dawlatabadi (d. 1939) -, the fact of the matter is that there is absolutely no primary source documentation or any other evidence supporting this assertion. The unanimous position of the Bayani community today is that Subh-i-Azal left no will and testament; that therefore there was no successor; and so effectively the leadership of the Bayani community became henceforth a collective endeavor, a position foreseen by the Bab himself in the aforementioned will and testament.

The survival of the Bayani community in the face of often virulent hostility and persecution from both the majoritarian orthodox Shi’ite Islamic milieu of Iran as well as by the Baha’i organization is in itself a significant story demanding to be told. It is also an important case-study of non-traditional forms of (especially post-Islamic) Iranian esoteric spirituality to merit independent investigation on several fronts. Unfortunately the largely disorganized status of this community since the teens of the last century, coupled with its conspicuous lack of an organizational center and charismatic leadership; not to mention its consistent deployment of the discipline of the arcane (taqîya); together with the fact that the bulk of the present information and sources on the internal history of the Bayanis from 1912 to the present is in the form of anecdotal stories or unpublished memoirs and diaries in private hands; has made such an endeavour virtually impossible until pretty much now. The situation began to change in the early part of this decade with an internet list on yahoogroups and then entered a new phase in late 2004/early 2005 with the launching of the website

With the public re-emergence of the Bayani community we are now in a postion to employ both narrative as well as the methodologies of the social sciences to begin seriously examining both the wider historical as well as the wider sociological position of the Bayani community of Iran and its contribution(s) to the greater modern Iranian polity in its social and historical trajectories. The historians Mangol Bayat and Janet Afary in the ‘80s and ‘90s respectively have already done some preliminary contextualization to that end, especially in regard to those Bayanis prominently involved politically in the Constitutional Revolution; but the real meat, as it were, still remains to be written. One significant aspect which requires careful exploration is the impact Bayani intellectuals had on the modern study of Persian literature, since this area was pioneered by luminaries such as Allameh Mohammad Qazvini (d. 1949), a lifelong Bayani who co-authored the lengthy introduction to the Leiden edition of Hajji Mirza Jani Kashani's (d. 1852) kitab-i-nuqtat'ul-kaf with E.G. Browne, and Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda (d. 1959), the author of the monumental, multi-volume loghat-nameh encyclopedia, who is rumored to have been one. On other fronts we have feminists and democratic liberals such as Sadiqah Dowlatabadi, who herself and whose whole family remained dedicated, lifelong Bayanis, not to mention the prime minister Mohammad-Ali Forughi (d. 1943). In the best tradition of Tahirih Qurrat'ul-'Ayn (d. 1852), i.e. the Bab's seventeenth Letter of the Living and the famous remover of the veil, it will be recalled that the Sorbonne educated Sadiqah Dawlatabadi was the first modern Iranian woman who appeared unveiled in the streets of Tehran in 1927 dressed in European attire. In her last will and testament she declares, "I will never forgive any woman who visits my grave veiled" (quoted by Janet Afary in The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1905-1911, New York, 1997, p.187).

Indeed the position of the Bayani community in the movement for democratic freedoms, change and reform in Iran is a long, well-documented but tortuous one. The veritable founding fathers of the Constitutional Revolution, Shaykh Ahmad Ruhi (d. 1896) and Mirza Aqa Khan Kirmani (d. 1896), were both sons-in-law of Subh-i-Azal and the joint authors of a Bayani apologetic text entitled Hasht Behesht (8 Heavens), which was edited by E.G. Browne. Although considered a Shi’ite source of emulation (marja’ taqlid) and not a Bayani per se, nevertheless Mirza Hasan Shirazi whose fatwa trigerred the tobacco rebellion of 1890-91 against Nasiruddin Shah's (d. 1896) foreign concession was a cousin of the Bab’s and could very well have been somewhat influenced by the Bab and the ideas behind the religion he founded. It should be noted that on flimsy and rather contrived evidence, the Baha’is have actually gone to outright claim Mirza-ye Shirazi as one of their own. Be that as it may, let us here also mention the constitutionalists Va’ez Kirmani, Shaykh Ahmad Majd al-Islam Kirmani, Mirza Jahangir Khan Shirazi and Malik’u-Motakalemin who were all lifelong Bayanis.

To conclude this maiden post to my blog, I ask the unbiased reader to now consider the photograph I have posted along with this post: a photograph taken in the late 1930s/early 1940s of a group of Iranian Bayanis gathered in assembly presumably in Tehran during the very period that Western Baha’i sources, and especially the Baha’i patriarch Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (d. 1957), were claiming in the West and the East that no ‘Babis’ (meaning Bayanis/Azalis) any longer existed in the world and that all Babis had become Baha’is! This photograph demonstrates for posterity the tout court falsity of that position.

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