Browne on Babism and Bahá'ísm

  By Juan I.R.Cole

            Browne first developed an intense curiosity about Babism when he read Gobineau’s account in the summer of 1886, and one of his pursuits during his subsequent year-long sojourn in Iran (1887-88) was making contact with the Babis and gaining access to their manuscripts. Browne admired the heroism of the Babis in the revolutionary period 1848-52, found a “beauty” even in the Bab’s more ungrammat­ical writings, and was impressed by Gobineau’s account of the Babi leader Ṣobḥ-e Azal. He was thus rather taken aback to discover, upon making contact with “Babis” in Iran, that almost all had become Bahá'ís, followers of Azal’s older half-brother Bahāullāh, who had replaced the Bayān with the Aqdas (Browne, 1889, pp. 486-87, 901, 933; idem, 1893, repr. 1926, pp. 328-29).

           In true nineteenth-century style, Browne was after the pristine origins of the Babi movement, considering later developments to be departures. He thus considered the Azalīs more reliable than the Bahá'ís in putting him in touch with the Babi past and regretted the rivalry between the two groups. He seems early one to have taken the Azalī side in the struggle; when Iranian Bahá'ís reproached him for inclining to Azal, he did not deny it and blamed Bahá'í violence toward Azalīs (1893, repr. 1926, pp. 578-79). In his 1889 papers for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society he set out for the first time in English a detailed account of the evolution of Babism and the rise of Bahá'ísm after 1850. He entered into frequent correspondence with Azal and his followers and in the spring of 1890 voyaged to Cyprus, where he spent two weeks with Azal, then to Akkā (Acre), where he spent a week with the Bahá'ís.

           Among Browne’s Azalī contacts in Istanbul was Shaikh Aḥmad Rūḥī, who told him late in 1890 about a manuscript entitled Hašt behešt, a polemic against Bahaism. Although this book had just been written by Rūḥī himself and Āqā Khan Kermānī, both sons­-in-law of Azal, Rūḥī misrepresented it as the work of Āqā Javād Karbalāʾī, an eyewitness to events of early Babism. Karbalāʾī had become a Bahá'í, but Rūḥī told Browne that he had been an Azalī.

            Browne was at first excited by Hašt behešt, wrongly considering it a primary source for early Babi history and a vindication of Azal’s right to head Babism after the Bab’s death (1892, pp. 680-84, reporting Rūḥī’s correspondence); he much later came to realize the true authorship of Hašt behešt (idem, 1932, p. 76, para. 1; for more recent scholarship on this work and on Kermānī, see Bayat, pp. 160-61).

            At Akkā Browne had acquired a copy of the account of Babi and Bahá'í history by Bahāullāh’s son ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, which he published with a trans­lation and extensive annotation, as A Traveller’s Narra­tive in 1891. Browne spoke highly of Bahāullāh and Abdul-Baha in his introduction to this work, but his notes (II, pp. 356-73), written later, show a willingness to believe charges that Bahāullāh had ordered some of his enemies assassinated; this later attitude was much influenced by the anti-Bahá'í calumnies of Hašt-behešt.

            In 1893 Browne published an English translation of Mīrzā Ḥosayn Hamadānī’s Tārīḵ-ejadīd, a late pro-Bahá'í account of the Babi period. Again his notes to this work indicate an implicit belief that even late Azalī accounts of Babi history are somehow more authentic than Bahá'í accounts, whereas in fact both represent evolution away from the original ideas of pristine Babism.

            But Browne’s interest in this subject was fading, and he turned later in the 1890s to his literary history of Iran, to which he devoted the rest of his life. His enthusiasm for the study of Babism waned for several reasons. An Oxford Magazine review (25 May 1892, p. 394) attacking his work on this topic as a waste of time stung him deeply. In addition, the constant polemics between Azalīs and Bahá'ís pained him, as did those between partisans of Abdul-Bahā and those of his brothers after Bahāullāh’s death.

            When Browne became caught up in the Consti­tutional Revolution in 1905-11, he showed some peri­pheral interest in whether or not the small minority of Azalī’s and Bahais were participants. He concluded, however, that the Bahá'ís, with their emphasis on world unity, were too cosmopolitan to be good nationalists, and he thought Iran needed nationalists at that point (Browne, 1910, pp. 424-29). In 1910 he published, at the urging and with the cooperation of the Shia scholar Mīrzā Moḥammad Khan Qazvīnī, the manuscript of Ketāb-e noqṭat al-kāf, which they attributed to Ḥājī Mīrzā Jānī, an early Babi who had perished in 1852.

            Qazvīnī wrote the Persian introduction, and Browne wrote an English preface, in which he attacked the Bahá'ís for attempting to rewrite history (in Tārīḵ-ejadīd) in order to lessen the importance of the Bab in favor of Bahāullah and accused them of suppressing Noqṭat al-kāf. Although it is true that this manuscript probably circulated infrequently among Bahá'ís, the many copies of it in Bahá'í collections in Iran and in Haifa demonstrate that they hardly suppressed it. Furthermore, some material and attitudes expressed in Noqṭat al-kāf certainly postdate 1852. The work should probably be recognized, therefore, not as the “original” history, which the Tārīḵ-ejadīd was meant to supplant, but as an alternative tradition about early Babism, containing primary material but redacted from an Azalī point of view before the final break between Azal and Bahāullāh.

            Mīrzā Abul-Fażl Golpāyegānī and other Bahá'í scholars replied to Browne that they had seen Ḥājī Mīrzā Jānī’s early chronicle of Babism and that Noqṭat al-kāf was not it. A number of Azalīs and Bahá'ís wrote or published important memoirs or chronicles in response to this publication of Noqṭat al-kāf; Browne deposited those sent to him in his collection but wrote nothing about them (Balyuzi, pp. 70, 72-73; Browne Coll., Cambridge University, F. 57[9] “Resāla-ye Sayyed Mehdī Dahajī”; Mīrzā Abu’l-Fażl Golpāyegānī and Mehdī Golpāyegānī, Kašf al-ḡeṭāʾ, Tashkent, 1919).

            Browne’s last substantial work on Babism was the publication of a miscellany of essentially unedited materials, some of them translations, entitled Materials for the Study of the Babi Religion (1918). He also included a few specimens of Babi and Bahá'í poetry in the fourth volume of his Literary History of Persia (1924) and remarked favorably on the crisp style of Bahāullāh’s Ketāb-e īqān. His obituary of Abdul-Bahā, written in 1921, was, in contrast to the rather tense communications of a decade earlier, warm and appreciative and showed admiration for his promotion of racial unity in the segregated United States.



  Abdul-Bahā, A Traveller’s Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, ed. and tr. E. G. Browne, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1891.

  H. M. Balyuzi, Edward Granville Browne and the Baháʾí Faith, Oxford, 1970 (a full evaluation from a committed Bahai point of view).

  M. Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, Syracuse, 1982 (for issues related to Rūḥī, Kermānī, and Hašt behešt).

  E. G. Browne, “The Bábís of Persia,” JRAS, N.S. 21, 1889, pp. 485-526, 881-1009 

  Idem, “Catalogue and Description of 27 Babi Manuscripts,” JRAS, N.S. 24, 1892, pp. 433-99, 637-710. 

  Idem, ed., Kitáb-i Nuqṭatul-Káf, Being the Earliest History of the Bábis, GMS 15, Cambridge, 1910.

  Idem, ed., Materials for the Study of the Bábí Religion, Cambridge, 1918.

  Idem, the Persian Revo­lution of 1905-1909, Cambridge, 1910.

  Idem, ed. and tr., the Táríkh-i-Jadíd, or New History of Mírzá Alí Muḥammad, the Bab, by Mírzá Ḥuseyn of Hamadan, Cambridge, 1893.

  Idem, A Year Amongst the Per­sians, London, 1893, repr. Cambridge, 1926.

  D. E. MacEoin, “A Revised Survey of the Sources for Early Bābī Doctrine and History,” King’s College Cambridge fellowship dissertation, 1977 (for discussion of philological issues related to Browne’s approach to Bahai manuscripts, as well as the problem of Noqṭat al-kāf).

  M. Momen, Selections from the Writings of E. G. Browne on the Bábí and Baháʾí Religions, Oxford, 1987 (with scholarly pre­faces and notes making use of Browne’s notebooks to identify individuals whose real names Browne had suppressed).

  R. A. Nicholson, ed., A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Manuscripts Belonging to the Late E. G. Browne, Cambridge, 1932. 

  Browne’s notebooks and correspondence, both at Cambridge and in private hands, shed further light on this subject.


  Source: Encyclopedia Iranica

  Accessed at Nov 20, 2019

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