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The Baha’i Faith had its initial origin in a revolutionary departure from Islam called the Babi Faith. Emerging from mystical Sufi tradition, the Bab (a title, pronounced bōb, which means The Gate) promulgated a newly-revealed religion that challenged the status quo in nineteenth-century Persia and served as the precursor and progenitor of the Baha’i Faith.
From its beginnings in 1844, the Babi religion enraged and threatened the Muslim clergy and the government — because it proclaimed that religion must be renewed from time to time in a Divine Springtime. The physical seasons must change: Our lives depend on it. The Bab taught that our spiritual lives also depend on change and growth. Eventually, winter ends and new life awakens and pushes through the stagnant earth. The Babis believed that the time had come for a spiritual awakening, that new, progressive religious ideas must push aside outdated dogma. In a society steeped in the belief that Muhammad was the last of all prophets, and that Islam was the final and greatest of all religions, this was blasphemy; apostasy; a heinous crime. In Persia in the mid-1800s, there was no such thing as religious freedom.
During this tumultuous period, tens of thousands of people became followers of the Bab. But the harsh reaction from the powerful clerical establishment and the government resulted in torture, prison and death for approximately twenty thousand of the Babis. Despite this, Baha’u’llah and his companions fearlessly proclaimed their Faith, and willingly went to prison for it, even though they had committed no crime.
Baha’u’llah’s wife Navvab learned of her husband’s first arrest when a servant suddenly rushed into her presence in great distress. “He is arrested!—I have seen him!” the servant cried. “He has walked many miles! O they have beaten him! … His feet are bleeding! . . . There are chains upon his neck.” Soon, everyone knew of Baha’u’llah’s arrest and the family home was ransacked by mobs. Navvab gathered what she could and escaped with her children into hiding. She knew very well that Babi women and children had been murdered by mobs many times before.
For many years she and her husband had worked side by side to help the destitute – in fact, Baha’u’llah had long been known in Persia as the Father of the Poor. Now, she and her children had instantly become homeless themselves. To purchase food for the children, she sold some gold buttons from her clothing. At times she had nothing to offer her children to eat but a bit of dry flour that she poured into the palms of their hands. Despite their own dangerous situation, the family’s greatest anxiety centered on Baha’u’llah: Was he alive? Was he being tortured?
After a few days the family learned when the authorities had imprisoned Baha’u’llah – the infamous Siyah-Chal, the “Black Pit” of Tehran. Baha’u’llah’s oldest son Abbas, later known as Abdu’l-Baha, then eight years old, could not be held back. He loved his father intensely, and had to see him. He persuaded a servant who worked for the family to take him to see his father. The servant took the boy to the prison and carried him on his shoulders down the stairs into the pit. As they descended into the darkness, they could see nothing. Suddenly, they heard the voice of Baha’u’llah command, “Do not bring him!”
Immediately, they turned around and walked back out. ‘Abdu’l-Baha then learned from the guards that the prisoners would emerge briefly at noon for their meal. He waited until noon when, filthy and ragged, guards brought the men out of the pit. Then he saw his father: bent over from the chains, his neck bruised and swollen from a heavy steel collar, clothes tattered, hair and beard disheveled, his face pale and gaunt. At some point during his imprisonment, Baha’u’llah had been poisoned and his appearance dramatically showed its effects. The child fainted from the shock. He had to be carried away.
Abdu’l-Baha’s own words about Baha’u’llah’s captivity — which later became a forty-year odyssey of exile to other countries and continuous confinement — describe what he began to understand on that terrible day:
Because He suffered imprisonment, we are free to proclaim the oneness of the world of humanity for which He stood so long and faithfully. He was chained in dungeons, He was without food, His companions were thieves and criminals, He was subjected to every kind of abuse and infliction, but throughout it all He never ceased to proclaim the reality of the Word of God and the oneness of humanity. -Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 6-7.
Adapted from One With All The Earth, © Kalimat Press 2003, All Rights Reserved.