By Denis Mac Eoin

      BĀB “door, gate, entrance”: a term of varied applications.

            It is applied differently in several sects to a rank in the spiritual hierarchy, either as conceived in transcendent terms or as actually manifested in the religious system on earth. Thus, the Ismaili hierarchy of ḥodūd al-dīn includes the bāb as fourth in rank after prophet, asās, and emām (Hollister, p. 260), while under the Fatimids bāb came to be used as a title for the chief ḥojjat, immediately under the imam and responsible for the organization of the daʿwat (Lewis, “Bāb”).

            In the Nosayrī sufi system, the bāb is the third element in the hierarchy after maʿnā and esm, in which the maʿnā is equivalent of the Ismaili “silent” (ṣāmet) imam; the esm is equivalent of the “speaking (nāṭeq) imam, and the bāb, a gateway to the imam.

            The names of the abwāb are given for the first seven cycles and for the cycle of Islamic imams, beginning with Salmān al-Fārsī (with Alī and Moḥammad). (For lists of these names, see Massignon, “Nusairī.”)

            The Druzes apply the term Bab to the embodiment of the ʿaql al-koll who stands as the first of the hierarchy of five agents below the divinity; thus, Ḥamza b. ʿAlī, their founder, claimed to be the bāb as the last incarnation of universal reason (Carra de Vaux, “Druzes”).

            Among the Twelver Shias, the term is applied in a variety of ways to the Imam, who is spoken of in traditions as bāb Allāh, bāb al-hodā, bāb al-īmān, and so forth, in which capacity he is the means of access to the knowledge of God, and an intermediary for the passage of prayers and grace between the divine and human worlds (for numerous traditions on these themes together with Koranic verses interpreted accordingly, see Kermānī, Mobīn I, pp. 227-31; for commentary on the application of the term abwāb al-īmān to the Imams in the zīāra al-jāmeʿa al-kabīra, see Aḥsāʾī, Šarḥ I, pp. 78-85; for discussion of this theme in general, see Kermānī, Eršād I, pp. 338-69; idem, Feṭrat II, pp. 198-213).

           Imam Alī is described in one tradition as the gate of the knowledge of the Prophet, the latter being “the gate of God” (Kermānī, Mobīn I, p. 228), while a well-known ḥadīṯ (extant in several versions) ascribes to Moḥammad the words “I am the city of knowledge (madīnat al-ʿelm) and ʿAlī is its gate; will you enter the city other than by its gate?” (ibid., pp. 229-30). Shia interpretation of Koran 2:58 and 7:161 identifies the Imams with the bāb through which the Children of Israel are to pass after saying “ḥeṭṭa” (for traditions, see Kermānī, Mobīn I, p. 229; for commentary, see Aḥsāʾī, Šarḥ II, pp. 227-31; Šabestarī, Šarḥ, pp. 148-49).

            The term also came to be used among the Imami Shias to designate the representatives of the Imam and is best known in its application to the four abwāb believed to have acted as intermediaries for the twelfth Imam during his lesser occultation: Abū ʿAmr ʿOṯmān b. Saʿīd ʿOmarī, his son Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad (d. 305/917), Abu’l-Qāsem Ḥosayn b. Rūḥ Nowbaḵtī (d. 326/937), and Abu’l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Moḥammad Sāmarī (d. 329/940). (On these, see Maškūr, Tārīḵ-e Shia, pp. 137-42; Hussain, Occultation, chaps. 4-7.)

            Other claimants to this rank appeared during the same period (ibid., pp. 142-46), but in the end the system of bābīya was abandoned in favor of the theory of the greater occultation. During the nineteenth century, a section of the Shaikhi school came to regard Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī and Sayyed Kāẓem Raštī as gates of the Imam, a belief which led to the emergence of Babism, following the application of the term bāb to Alī Moḥammad Shīrāzī .


J. N. Hollister, The Shīa of India, London, 1953.

B. Lewis, “Bāb,” in EI2 I. L. Massignon. “Nuṣairī,” in EI1 III. B. Carra de Vaux, “Druzes,” in EI1. Ḥājj Moḥammad Khan Kermānī, al-Ketāb al-mobīn, 2nd ed., 2 vols., Kermān, 1354 /1976.

Ḥājj Moḥammad Karīm Khan Kermānī, Eršād al-ʿawāmm, 4th ed., 4 vols. in 2, Kermān, 1340 /1961.

Idem, al-Feṭrat al-salīma, 3rd ed., 3 vols. in 1, Kermān, 1338 H/1959.

Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī, Šarḥ al-zīāra al-jāmeʿa al-kabīra, 4th ed., 4 vols., Kermān, 1355 /1976.

Ḥojjatul-Eslām Ḥājī Sayyed Moḥammad Ḥosaynī Šabestarī, Šarḥ-e zīārat-e jāmeʿa-ye kabīra, Tehran, 1333 /1954.

M. J. Maškūr, Tārīḵ-e Shia wa ferqahā-ye Eslām, Tehran, 1355 /1976.

J. M. Hussain, the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam, London, 1982.

Denis Mac Eoin, “Hierarchy, Authority and Eschatology in Early Bābī Thought,” in P. Smith, ed., In Iran: Studies in Bābī and Bahā’ī History III, Los Angeles, 1986, esp. pp. 113-14.

  Originally Published: December 15, 1988

  Last Updated: August 18, 2012

  Denis Mac Eoin, “BĀB,” Encyclopedia Iranica, III, pp. 277-278

  (Accessed on 30 December 2018).

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