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Prophets often have short lifespans – for some hard-to-understand reason, human society reacts badly to the founders of the world’s great Faiths, and persecutes them terribly.
Abraham and Moses faced prison, exile, ridicule, and persecution. Krishna and Buddha suffered derision and official censure. Society’s leaders crucified Christ; made war on Muhammad; tortured, exiled and imprisoned Baha’u’llah; and ordered two firing squads to execute the Bab.
What happened to this young prophet called the Bab, who started a progressive new Faith in 1844, in the midst of one of the world’s most corrupt and backwards societies?
The Bab – a title that means “the Gate” – suffered enormously during the six short years of his revelation, but even after his gruesome death the Babi Faith paved the way for the global emergence of the Baha’i Faith, just as John the Baptist did for Jesus’s new revelation.
His story began less than two centuries ago. The Bab’s new Faith emerged out of the prophetic Sufi mysticism prevalent in 19th Century Persia. The Bab’s stirring message — that his teachings heralded the future appearance of a great global revelation — rapidly caught fire in that very tradition-bound Shi’a Muslim culture. Abdu’l-Baha, the head of the Baha’i Faith after its founder Baha’u’llah’s passing, described the Bab this way:
The Bab, the Exalted One, is the Morn of Truth, the splendor of Whose light shineth throughout all regions. He is also the Harbinger of the Most Great Light, [Baha’u’llah] … the One promised by the sacred books of the past, the revelation of the Source of light that shone upon Mount Sinai, Whose fire glowed in the midst of the Burning Bush.
At first just a few people learned about the Bab, but then thousands and tens of thousands began to become Babis, breaking away from their society’s Islamic traditions and practices and thereby challenging the authority of its leaders. The rapid growth of the Babi Faith rattled the underpinnings of Persian society, whose clerics and rulers did not react kindly to this new religious development, to say the least.
Because of the explosive growth of the Bab’s Faith, the Qajar government ordered the execution of this young, intensely charismatic messenger — who was only thirty years old at the time.
The government and the Islamic clerics had already gruesomely tortured and killed more than 20,000 of the Bab’s ardent followers during the short, intense six-year duration of the Babi movement. Because the Bab called for revolutionary changes to the prevailing system of religious belief and governance, and because he taught the unity of all religions, the authorities feared that this dynamic new challenge and its growing support would soon sweep them from influence and power.
Despite this wholesale genocide against the Bab’s followers, more and more people continued to become Babis. In 1850, frightened and desperate to crush the Babi movement, the authorities decided to execute the Bab. When they charged him with apostasy — the same exact charge the Pharisees leveled against Jesus — the Bab refused to repent or refute his teachings, calmly accepting the consequences.
Then, on that fateful July day in 1850 – 172 years ago – the Bab’s jailers ordered him executed by firing squad in the town square of Tabriz, Persia. One of the Bab’s young followers insisted on accompanying him in death, and the authorities gladly consented. A massive crowd of ten thousand people watched from the roofs of the barracks and the nearby houses surrounding the square.
Immediately, though, a complication arose. Earlier that morning Sam Khan, the commander of the Armenian regiment of soldiers ordered to carry out the execution, had begged the Bab’s forgiveness in advance. “I profess the Christian faith,” the Russian officer told the Bab in his cell, “and entertain no ill will against you. If your Cause be the Cause of Truth, enable me to free myself from the obligation to shed your blood.”
“Follow your instructions,” The Bab gently told the commander, “and if your intention be sincere, the Almighty is surely able to relieve you from your perplexity.”
When Sam Khan gave the order to fire, his soldier’s muskets roared. One western journalist who witnessed it reported that “The smoke of the firing of the seven hundred and fifty rifles was such as to turn the light of the noonday sun into darkness.”
The crowd gasped, because when the smoke cleared the Bab had disappeared. His devoted young follower stood completely unscathed at the base of the wall, the ropes that had bound him and the Bab hanging in tatters. Astonished, the crowd shouted that they had witnessed a miracle. Sam Khan, now relieved from his perplexity, immediately ordered his 750 riflemen to march away, swearing that he would never again obey such an order, even if it cost him his own life.
As soon as Khan’s troops left the square, the colonel of the official Tabriz bodyguard volunteered to carry out the execution. After the guards found the Bab in his cell peacefully finishing a conversation, they strung him and his young follower up by ropes again. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, recounted what happened next in his book God Passes By:
“O wayward generation!” were the last words of the Bab to the gazing multitude, as the regiment prepared to fire its volley, “Had you believed in Me every one of you would have followed the example of this youth, who stood in rank above most of you, and would have willingly sacrificed himself in My path. The day will come when you will have recognized Me; that day I shall have ceased to be with you.”
The second firing squad took aim and fired. This time, the execution succeeded.
The fused, bullet-ridden bodies of the Bab and his faithful follower — called Anis, which means “close companion” — now repose under a golden dome on Mt. Carmel in Haifa, Israel. Millions of people from all over the globe visit that holy spot, and every day the Shrine of the Bab proclaims the Baha’i message of unity, peace, love and selflessness to the entire world.
Baha’is believe that the Bab, the forerunner and herald of the Baha’i Faith, set in motion a fresh cycle of progressive revelation to humanity. His revolutionary new teachings opened the path for the new message of Baha’u’llah, and his ultimate sacrifice gave us all a new vision of a unified world.