This chapter is a compilation of stories of some of the most significant martyrs of the Baha’i faith in the late 1800s and the brutal persecution suffered by Baha’is, especially in Iran, during that period. All of these accounts were originally published by the British Orientalist Edward Granville Browne, a professor at Cambridge University, in two of his books about the Babi and Baha’i religions. Prof. Browne is generally regarded as the most important Western scholar of these new Middle Eastern faiths in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The four stories reproduced here—three from Persia and one from the Russian Empire—were selected by Shua Ullah Behai for inclusion in his book manuscript, appearing in a chapter called “Baha Ullah.” I have divided the text of the first three sections into smaller paragraphs for ease of reading.
Note that in these historical accounts, the term Babis is used to refer to Baha’is, since Baha’ism was still usually considered a sect of Bab- ism at the time of the events described.
In this faith, history repeated itself, and thousands of learned men sacrificed their lives for the enlightenment of their fellow-beings. The young progressive Iranians should realize the greatness of those noble souls, and their martyrdom for the freedom which they are enjoying today.
The following articles are a few examples of the events that occurred.
The Martyrdom of Sayyid Hasan and Sayyid Husayn,101 102 Recounted by ‘Abdu’l-Baha 103
[In 1879] there were amongst the inhabitants of Isfahan two brothers, Seyyids of Tabataba 104, Seyyid Hasan and Seyyid Huseyn, celebrated in those parts for piety, trustworthiness, and nobility; men of wealth, engaged in commerce, behaving towards all men with perfect kindliness and courtesy. And to all outward appearance no one had observed in either of these two brothers any swerving from what was best, much less any conduct or behaviour which could deserve torment or punishment; for, as is related, they were admitted by all (preeminent) in all praiseworthy and laudable qualities, while their deeds and actions were like exhortations and admonitions.
These had transacted business with Mir Muhammad Huseyn the Imam-Jum‘a 105 of Isfahan; and when they came to make up their accounts it appeared that the sum of eighteen thousand tumans 106 was due to them. They (therefore) broke off (further) transactions, prepared a bond for this sum, and desired it to be sealed. This thing was grievous to the Imam-Jum‘a, so that he came to the stage of anger and enmity. Finding himself in debt, and having no recourse but to pay, he raised clamour and outcry saying “These two brothers are Babis and deserve severe punishment from the king.” A crowd at once attacked their house, plundered and pillaged all their goods, distressed and terrified their wives and children, and seized and despoiled all their possessions.
Then, fearing that they might refer the punishment to the step of the king’s throne and loose their tongues in demand of redress, he (i.e., the Imam-Jum‘a) fell to thinking how to compass their death and destroy them. He therefore persuaded certain of the doctors [of Islamic law] to co-operate with him, and they pronounced sentence of death. Afterwards they arrested those two brothers, put them in chains, and brought them before the public assembly. Yet seek as they might to fix on them some accusation, find some fault, or discover some pretext, they were unable to do so.
At length they said, “You must either renounce this faith [i.e. Babism and Baha’ism], or else lay down your heads beneath the sword of punishment.” Although some of those present urged them saying, “Say merely ‘We are not of this sect,’ and it is sufficient, and will be the means of your deliverance and protection,” they would by no means consent, but rather confirmed and declared it with eloquent speech and affecting utterance, so that the rage and violence of the Imam- Jum’a boiled over, and, not satisfied with killing and destroying them, they inflicted sundry indignities on their bodies after death to mention which is not fitting, and of which the details are beyond the power of speech.
Indeed such wise was the blood of these two brothers shed that even the Christian priest of Julfa 107 cried out, lamented, and wept on that day; and this event befell after such sort that every one wept over the fate of those two brothers, for during the whole period of their life they had never distressed the feelings even of an ant, while by general report they had in the time of famine in Persia spent all their wealth in relieving relieving the poor and distressed. Yet, notwithstanding this reputation, were they slain with such cruelty in the midst of the people!
Further Martyrdoms in Isfahan Province, Recounted by Dr. Robert Bruce 108
Aqa Mirza Ashraf of Abada was put to death for his religion in the most barbarous manner in Isfahan about October last [i.e. in 1888]. The hatred of the mullahs was not satisfied with his murder; they mutilated his poor body publicly in the Maydan 109 in the most savage manner, and then burned what was left of it.
Since then we have had two other persecutions of Babis, one in Sidih and the other in Najafabad.110 111 In Sidih, where the Babi community is small, their houses were burned and their wives and children ill- treated. The men saved themselves by flight to Tehran, and I am told that about 25 of them have just returned to Isfahan and are in the Prince’s stables in bast (i.e. sanctuary).
In Najafabad there are about 2,000 Babis. They tried the same game with them, but some hundreds of them took refuge in the English Telegraph Office in Julfa, and the Prince 112 took their part and banished from Najafabad to Karbala the mujtahid who persecuted them, so the result is that they are freer now than they have ever been. I took very great interest in the poor people, not only for their own sakes, but for the sake of Persia also; as, if liberty is gained for them, it will be a great step towards breaking the power of the mullahs and getting liberty for all.
The Martyrdom of Haji Muhammad Riza, Recounted by Baron Rosen 113
At 7 a.m. on September 8 (August 27, old style 114), 1889, two fanatical Persian Shi’ites, Mashhadi ‘Ali Akbar and Mashhadi Huseyn, threw themselves, dagger in hand, on a certain Haji Muhammad Riza of Isfahan, who was peaceably traversing one of the most frequented streets of Ishqabad, 115 and inflicted on him 72 wounds, to which he succumbed. Haji Muhammad Riza was one of the most respected of the Babis of Ishqabad. The crime was perpetrated with such audacity that neither the numerous witnesses of the occurrence, nor the constable who was on the spot could save the victim of this odious attack.
The assassins yielded themselves up to the police without any resistance; they were placed in a cab and conveyed to the prison. During the transit they fell to licking up the blood which was dripping from their daggers.
The examination, conducted with much energy by the military tribunal, gave as its result that Muhammad Riza had fallen victim to the religious bigotry of the Shi’ites. Fearful of Muhammad Riza’s influence, the Shi’ites of Ishqabad, acting in accordance with the orders of mullahs who had come expressly for this purpose from Khurasan, [Persia] resolved to cut short the Babi propaganda by lolling Haji Muhammad Riza. Knowing well, however, that the crime would not remain unpunished, they left it to chance to determine what persons should sacrifice themselves for the Shi’ite cause. Thus it was that the individuals named above became the assassins of Muhammad Riza, who had never injured them in anyway.
The sentence of the tribunal was severe: ‘Ali Akbar and Huseyn, as well as two of their confederates, were condemned to be hanged, but the penalty of death was commuted by His Majesty the Emperor [Alexander III of Russia] to hard labour for life.
This sentence was hailed by the Babis with an enthusiasm easy to understand. It was the first time since the existence of the sect, i.e. for nearly fifty years, that a crime committed on the person of an adherent of the new religion had been punished with all the rigour of the law. The impression produced on the chief of the sect, Baha[’u’llah], appears to have been equally profound.
The Martyrs of Yazd, Recounted by a Baha’i in that City 116
On the evening of the 23rd of the month of Ramadan A.H. 1308 (May 2, A.D. 1891) two persons, named respectively Aqa ‘Ali Asghar Yuzdaruni and Aqa Gazargahi, went to the mosque of Amir Chaqmaq. 117 The people who were in the mosque recognised these two as Babis, and said to them, “You are Babis; why do you come to the mosque? Curse (the Bab), or we will torment you.” They answered, “We are not Babis.” “If you are not Babis,” said their persecutors, “then curse.” As they refused to curse or revile (the Bab), the people loaded them with abuse, and raised a clamour, crying, “These two men are Babis and have entered our mosque,” and began to insult and maltreat them. Hajji Na’ib, the Farrash bashi 118 of Prince Jalalu’d-Dawla, 119 who was present in the mosque, seized these two men and carried them before the Prince. They were severely beaten, cast into prison, and fined. Three days later they were released.
Three days after their release, Prince Jalalu’d-Dawla again demanded them at the hands of the Farrash-bashi, who set himself to discover them. One Mahdi by name, the son of Ustad Baqir the druggist, offered his services to the Farrash-bashi, saying, “I know where they are, and will point them out to you.” So he accompanied the Farrash-bashi, together with ten farrashes, as a guide, and led them to the house of Ustad ‘Abdu’r-Rahim Mushld-baf, where they arrested these two men and five others who were with them in the house. The seven they seized and brought before the Prince-governor, Jalalu’d- Dawla, striking them often on the way about the face and head, and finally casting them into prison. The names of the other five prisoners were, Mulla ‘Ali of Sabzawar, Asghar, Hasan, Aqa Baqir, and Mulla Mahdi.
Next day Prince Jalalu’d-Dawla summoned them before him and interrogated them, bidding them curse and revile (the Bab), that he might set them free. They refused to do this, and frankly avowed that they were Babis.
The clergy, who have ever been mischief-makers and are always eager to provoke trouble and bloodshed, hastened to avail themselves of this opportunity, and urged Prince Jalalu’d-Dawla to kill these seven men. So far as can be ascertained, the Prince wrote his consent and desired the clergy to ratify it with their seals and signatures. So they agreed to make these seven pass beneath the sword of cruelty and injustice. While the Prince was interrogating them, some of his own attendants who were in his presence were filled with wonder and amazement, saying to themselves, “These have done nothing for which they deserve to incur wrath and punishment!”
On the morning of Monday the 9th of Shawwal (May 18,1891) the following members of the clergy, Shaykh Hasan of Sabzawar, Shaykh Muhammad Taqi of Sabzawar, Mirza Sayyid ‘Ali Mudarris, Mulla Hasan of Ardakan, and Mulla Husayn of Ardakan came to Prince Jalalu’d- Dawla’s palace. They were concealed behind a curtain, and the seven Babis were then brought in. The Prince said to them, “I wish to set you free. Now by my head I conjure you to tell me truly whether you are Babis or not.” “Yes,” they replied, “we are Babis,” confessing and acknowledging it. The clergy who were concealed behind the curtain of deceit heard their avowal, and at once wrote out and sealed the warrant for their death. The executioner was summoned forthwith and ordered to slay them. ‘Ali Asghar was strangled with the bow-string in the Prince’s presence in the most cruel manner. The other six were led through the bazaars with music and beating of drums to the market¬place, where they were killed one after another. The rabble of the people mobbed them, striking them with sticks, spitting on them, reviling them and mocking them. As the throat of each one was cut, the mob tore open the body to look at the heart, saying, “How bold they are in the presence of death and the death-warrant and the headsman! With what strength of heart do they yield up their life, while no word of cursing or reviling escapes their lips! We must see what sort of hearts they have.”
When they had slain all the seven, they poured tar over their bodies and set fire to them. Never before this day have such behaviour, such malevolence and wickedness, been seen in any people as are seen amongst these Shiites in Persia. One of the Babis (he who was named Asghar) they bound to a tree in the marketplace, cut off his hands with the sword, then ripped open his belly, and finally beheaded him. Another, Hasan, they wounded in the head with swords and sticks, driving him about the marketplace and bidding him curse and revile (the Bab). “What should I say?” he answered, “do whatever is commanded you.” So they cut him in pieces.
Till sunset of that day the bodies of these seven were in the hands of the roughs and rabble of the populace, and they brutally pelted them with stones, set fire to them, and burned them. After they had killed them and burned their bodies they asked permission of Prince Jalalu’d- Dawla to illuminate the city, and he gave them permission for two nights, but such was the disorderly conduct of the roughs and the exultation of the clergy on the first night that permission for the next night was withdrawn.
The widows and children of these seven men dared not, for fear of the mob, leave their houses or enter the bazaars even to obtain food and drink, and so remained without water or food until at length some Christian merchants of the Dutch nation sent provisions to them.
After the blood of these seven had been shed, a Babi named Hajji Mulla Muhammad Ibrahim Mas’ilagu, who had gone to a place ten hours distant from the city towards the mountains, was followed and arrested by Hajji Na’ib the Farrash-bashi, severely beaten, brought back with every indignity to the city, carried before Prince Jalalu’d-Dawla, and cast into prison. His wife and children went to the Dutch merchants and entreated them to intercede and deliver him from the cruel clutches of his persecutors. These accordingly went before the Prince, but he would not admit their mediation, and declared that he had already sent the man to Tehran. On the following night he slew him with his own hands and had the body cast into a well.
By reason of these events many persons have fled into the surrounding country, and a strange commotion and disquietude prevail. The authorities have made it a pretext for extorting money, and have fined and mulcted many persons. They have also arrested several more, who are still in prison. They seized one named Aqa Husayn, a silk-merchant, who had in his possession nearly five hundred turnons’ (£15o) 120 worth of silk belonging to himself and others, all of which they took from him. The clergy and Prince Jalalu’d-Dawla have made this thing a means of obtaining money, and have extorted large sums from all (the Babis), leaving their wives and children without bread.
Never before has such injustice been seen. Why should loyal and obedient subjects, who have been guilty of no offence, and who seek but to reform men’s morals and to increase the welfare of the world, be subjected to such cruel persecutions by order of the foolish ones of the earth who show themselves under a garb of knowledge? Why should they be compelled to flee as outlaws and to wander as beggars from door to door, or be scattered abroad in mountains and deserts? Loyalty forbids us to appeal to foreign powers, and we can but cry in our anguish, “O God! We submit with patience and resignation to what we suffer at the hands of these godless, merciless and cruel people!” Thus do we tell our sorrow to our God, praying Him to take away from us the wickedness and oppression of the forward and ignorant ones of the earth. We have no helper but God, and none to support and succour us save Him.
101. In the mid 1900s, when Mr. Behai was writing, Iranian society and government were becoming more liberal and secular. This progress came to an end with the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which re established the political supremacy of conservative Shi’ite Muslim clergy. Since then, Baha’is in Iran have again faced severe persecution.
102.These brothers are usually known to Baha’is as the Nurayn-i-Nayyirayn (“Twin Shining Lights”), and by the titles given to them by Baha’u’llah after their martyrdom, namely, Sultanu’sh-Shuhadd (“King of Martyrs”) and Mah- bubu’sh-Shuhada (“Beloved of Martyrs”), respectively.
103. Edward G. Browne (Translator), A Traveller’s Narrative: Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Bab, Volume II. English Translation and Notes (Cambridge: University Press, 1891), pp. 167-169.
104. The Tabataba’i (also spelled Tabatabaei) are a family descended from Imam Hasan, the second of the Twelve Imams of Shi’ite Islam.
105.The imam who leads the congregational prayers in one of Iran’s major urban mosques.
106. The translator notes that this amount of the Iranian currency at the time (also spelled tomans) was worth “about £5400” in 1891. In 2014 U.S. dollars, this would be nearly 5800,000.
107.The Armenian quarter of the city of Isfahan. Present-day New Julfa.
108.Rev. Dr. Robert Bruce was an Irish Protestant evangelist and humanitarian worker for the Church Missionary Society, who lived in Julfa, Isfahan, in the late 1800s. This account of events in the area is an extract from a September 6, 1889 letter he wrote to Edward G. Browne. Published in Prof. Browne’s book, Materials for the Study of the Babi Religion (Cambridge: University Press, 1918), pp. 291-292.
109.The Maidan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (“Image of the World Square”), also called the Imam Square or Shah Square, is a large open plaza at the center of the city of Isfahan.
110.Sidih was a village and Najafabad is a small city, both located near Isfahan.
111. According to Sir Walter Townley, a British diplomat serving in Persia at the time, “On the return of these men to their homes about six weeks ago they were met and attacked by a mob headed by a man called Aqa Najafi, and seven or eight of them were killed and their bodies burnt with oil.” (From a letter to Edward G. Browne, April 13,1890, quoted in Materials for the Study of the Babi Religion, p. 294.)
112.Mass’oud Mirza, known as the Zill-i Sultan (“Shadow of the King”), was the governor of Isfahan. He was the eldest son of Naser al-Din Shah, but was not the heir to the throne because his mother was not from the Qajar family.
113. Baron Victor Rosen (Viktor Romanovich Rozen) was a Russian Orientalist and professor of Arabic, who was one of the first Europeans to study the Babi and Baha’i faiths academically. This account of the assassination of a Baha’i in Russia was reproduced by Edward G. Browne in A Traveller’s Narrative: Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Bab, Volume II. English Translation and Notes (Cambridge: University Press, 1891), pp. 411-412.
114.The Julian calendar, which was superseded by the Gregorian calendar which is used today. Russia remained on the Julian calendar until 1918.
115.Present-day Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. This city was near the border between Persia and the Russian Empire. It was under Persian control until 1881, when it was ceded to Russia.
116.This account is reproduced by Edward G. Browne in Materials for the Study of the Babi Religion (Cambridge: University Press, 1918), pp. 304-308. Prof. Browne identifies it as a “translation of a letter written from Yazd on Shawwal 15 A.H. 1308 (May 24, 1891) by one Husayn to Hajji Sayyid ‘Ali Shirazi at ‘Ishqabad; and by him communicated to me.” Its description of the persecu¬tion of Baha’is in Yazd, Iran, is similar to three other letters received and repro¬duced by Prof. Browne in the same book, including letters from Baha’u’llah’s sons Abbas Effendi ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Badi Ullah Bahai.
117. A major mosque in the city of Yazd. Also spelled Amir Chakhmaq.
118. Chief of the farrashes (jail-keepers).
119. Soltan Hossein Mirza Jalal ed-Dawleh was the son of Prince Mass’oud Mirza Zill-i Sultan and thus the grandson of Naser al-Din Shah. He was the governor of Yazd.
120.About S20,ooo in 2014 U.S. dollars.