The Babi Uprising in Zanjan: Causes and Issues
By John Walbridge (1)
Walbridge is an expert on Islamic philosophy and Islamic intellectual history with an emphasis on the cultural role of philosophy and science. In the mid-1980s, following his interest in learning and studying Islamic mysticism and the social history of the contemporary Middle East, Dr. Walbridge became interested in Baha’i works and teachings and became a Baha’i along with his wife, Dr. Linda Walbridge.
Since his approach to the field of religion and religious studies was combined with a scientific and free-thinking and truth-seeking view, and was free from dogmatic and sectarian thinking, there were differences between him and the Baha’i organizational and administrative officials, as well as active and fanatical Baha’is. In 1994, he founded an Internet group at Indiana University to discuss the topics of sociology and social affairs of the Baha’i religion and named it Talisman. However, the organizational officials in the Baha’i community of America and Haifa, after learning about the formation of this group and the materials published in it, which were different from the conventional views and opinions of the Baha’i organization, opposed it and excommunicated the members of the group and threatened expulsion from the Baha’i community. These threats finally caused Dr. John Walbridge, along with his wife, Linda Walbridge, and some other Bahá’í intellectuals to voluntarily withdraw from the Bahá’í community.
On 5 May 1850 the Bábís of Zanjan rose in rams against the Qajar governor of the town. Led by a charismatic cleric known as Hujjat-i Zanjani, two thousand Babi fighters with their families held part of the town against a much larger government army. Nine months later, when the army captured the last ruined houses held by the Babis, fewer than a hundred Babi fighters survived to face execution.
There is never a neat answer to the question of why a historical event occurred, and the question is that much harder to answer when the information is in fundamental ways incomplete and when the participants themselves differed deeply about the meaning of the event. There were two other major Bábí revolts  Mazandaran in 1848-9 and Nayriz in 1850 and at least four other instances where Bábí uprisings might have been expected: Shiraz, Qazvin, and Isfahan in 1846, and Tehran in 1852. There were, of course, many urban disturbances of various sizes in Iran in this general period that did not involve Bábís. For the question of causation to be answered usefully, we must ask why there were Bábí revolts at all, why they happened in some places and not in others, and why they differed in the different places. What chain of events could lead to such violence in a small town? How were the Bábís able to coalesce into a fighting force effective enough to hold off regular troops far superior to them in numbers and equipment? What was there in the pre-existing social, economic, and political structure that allowed the town to divide so suddenly and totally? What were the ideas that shaped the actions of the various parties for there were at least five major groups playing active roles in the siege: the Bábís, the Zanjan clerical establishment, the government, the regular army, and the local levies. The actions of each group were shaped by its political interests, by its religious opinions and conceptual structures, and by the events as they unfolded. Finally, what were the effects of the battle on the Bábís, in Zanjan and elsewhere, on the town, on the government, and on the Shic ite religious establishment?
The Conversion of Hujjat and the Development of Babism in Zanjan
When news of the claims of the Báb began circulating in Iran, Hujjat sent one of his followers to investigate. The man eventually returned with a letter from the Báb. He found Hujjat preparing to begin the class he taught in his mosque every day after congregational prayers. On reading the letter Hujjat became visibly agitated. He abruptly ended the class, took off his turban, and asked for the lambskin cap of a layman to wear. He had become a Bábi. There are evidently two points being made here. First, by trading his turban for the lambskin hat (kulah) of a layman, he renounced any claims to religious leadership in the face of the Bab’s overwhelming authority and knowledge. Second, the hat was a symbol of a Persian’s dignity. In Persian poetry, the lover is pictured as distracted and disheveled in his longing for his beloved. His disgrace in outward matters—like losing his hat—merely confirms the sincerity of his love and is thus no disgrace. Despite the likelihood that a large portion of the population of Zanjan—or at least of Hujjat’s personal following—was converted to the faith of the Báb immediately, understanding of the implications of the claims of the Báb came only gradually and not all aspects of the new faith were discussed publicly. After the first incident in the mosque, “he invited the people [to embrace the new doctrine], such of them as he deemed capable of receiving it, in secret; and sometimes he would say openly, ‘“The author of these verses claims to be the Bab, as in [the tradition] “I am the City of Knowledge, andc Ali is its Gate.’”  Another source explains: “Each person had a different idea about the Sayyid-i Báb’s cause:
some understood Him to be the Gate of wilayat;
some imagined Him to be the Gate of the Promised Qa’im;
some souls thought Him to be the Qa’im of the House of Muhammad;
a very few believed Him to be the Gate of the Most Great Manifestation;
but as to His truth, they were in agreement, not dispute.”
Hujjat began corresponding with the Báb. Nabil says that in an early letter the Báb conferred on him the title Hujjat, “the proof,” a title of the Báb himself, and urged him to preach the Bábi teachings publicly. A sermon attributed to Hujjat perhaps captures the religious excitement of the moment:
“O people! To day the Desire of the Worlds has appeared unveiled. The Sun of Reality is dawning; the lamps of imagination and blind imitation are extinguished. Turn your faces toward His Cause, not to me, who am but one of His servants. Before His knowledge my knowledge is but a dead lamp before the Sun. Know God by God, the Sun by its light. Today the Lord of the Age is manifest, and the King of the Contingent World is in existence. Today both the seeker of mystic truth and his master [murldl va murshidl] are engaged in the worship of idols, not worship of God. Now the people are seized by another tumult, a new madness.”
In Zanjan, as elsewhere, the prohibition of smoking became the most visible characteristic of the Bábis: “In the meeting [when he received the Bábi’s letter and became a Bábi] he took the chibouk in his hand and broke it. Afterwards the people imitating him smashed their chibouks and water pipes, burned their tobacco, and ceased to sell it. …Hujjat informed the people of some of the commandments and prohibitions of the Sayyid-i Bab.”
There were also public recitations of the writings of the Báb. Several Bábi and Baháʼí sources allude to a dispute concerning congregational prayer. It is considered praiseworthy in Islam to pray in congregation when possible, but it is only obligatory in the case of the Friday noon prayer. One large mosque in a town is designated as the “Friday mosque” (Jami’). In many places, including nineteenth-century Iran, the imam jum’a, the cleric who led the Friday noon prayers and preached the sermon, was appointed and paid by the government and was one of the most important ecclesiastical officials in the city. It was the custom to mention the ruler in this Friday sermon, and the omission of his name in the sermon was a symbol of rebellion. There was an additional significance in Shi’ism. The right to lead prayers and preach the Friday sermons was originally the Prophet’s. When he did not lead prayers, he would appoint another in his place. After him this right belonged to the Imam— imam actually meaning “a leader of prayers.” In the prolonged absence of the Imam other arrangements had to be made, but should he return, the responsibility would once more devolve upon him personally. On becoming a Bábi, Hujjat discontinued leading congregational prayer because he had heard that the Báb had made it unlawful for anyone else to lead prayers without his express permission. When the Báb wrote to tell him to lead Friday prayers, the Bábis went to the Friday mosque. A scuffle ensued between the Bábis and the followers of the imam jum’a. In the end the Bábis triumphed and Hujjat led the prayers and delivered the sermon.
The incident indicates how threatening the Bábis must have appeared to the established authorities. Existing political authority in the Shi’ite world was legitimate only in the absence of the Imam. With an Imam—how the Báb’s claim was generally understood by non-believers, and in large part by believers—once more in the world, all existing institutions existed only at his sufferance. When his orders happened to conflict with the existing order, the Bábis had no hesitation in asserting his authority against king and ulama. The authorities recognized the revolutionary implications of the claims of the Báb and acted accordingly. Hujjat’s conversion probably occurred in 1846.  Early the following summer the Báb himself was to come to Zanjan. On 23 September 1846 the Báb had left Shiraz, expelled by the authorities. After some months in Isfahan, where he had been protected by the governor, he was summoned to Tehran. The shah was curious to see him, and important prisoners were dealt with in the capital. Haji Mirza Aqasi, the prime minister, was a Rasputinesque figure an old dervish who owed his position to his religious dominance over the shah. It seems that he feared that the shah might fall under the influence of the Báb, and in the end the Báb was dispatched to Aqasi’s home in Maku, in the farthest northwestern corner of the country. The halt of several weeks so near the capital had allowed news of the Báb’s presence and destination to spread among his followers. Though his escort was under orders to go around the main towns on their route, many Bábis came out to meet the Báb. In Zanjan there was known to be a large Bábi community, well organized with a resolute and capable leader who had not hesitated to cause trouble in the past. At the least public demonstrations were to be expected.
When word of the Báb’s approach reached Hujjat, he sent his courier to meet the Báb in Sultaniyya, one stage east of Zanjan, offering to arrange a rescue. The man approached the camp carrying a basket of cucumbers, one of which had a message from Hujjat concealed inside. The Báb wrote in reply: “Your project accords not with expediency, for today strife is not approved. Moreover they have summoned you to Teheran, and the governor has already dispatched horsemen to set you on the road.”
Whatever orders the Báb may have issued, the town was in a state of high excitement when he arrived. The governor sent a note to Muhammad Big Chaparchi, the chief of the escort, saying that he wished to meet the Báb. By now crowds were coming to the caravansary. The guards were doing a brisk business taking bribes to admit people to meet him. The governor became alarmed and sent two messengers in quick succession urging Muhammad Big to leave Zanjan immediately. The officer had no choice but to go farther that night. That same night Hujjat was arrested. Two factors lay behind his arrest:
The first, of course, was concern about the possibility of the rescue of the Báb and Babi disturbances in Zanjan. It must be remembered that in May 1847 this would not have had the importance for the central authorities that Babi matters were to assume in the next three years. So far disturbances involving Babis had mostly involved the arguments of the ulama—noisy and irritating but not of major concern to the authorities. Even at Zanjan, there is little evidence that the secular authorities were particularly concerned about the Babis. From their point of view, sending Hujjat to Tehran was a logical precaution against local disturbances. That they were also concerned about the possibility of the rescue of the Báb is shown by the timing of Hujjat’s arrest.
The second factor, the indignation of the ulama, was a more serious concern. Whereas the Bábi and Baháʼí historians emphasize the concern of the secular authorities about the possibility of the Bab escaping, the Muslim historians emphasize Hujjat’s religious disputes with the local ulama.
This interpretation is supported by a contemporary document, the petition quoted above. It was prepared by one of the ulama and listed specific complaints of eighteen individuals, mostly Zanjan ulama, about Hujjat’s heterodoxies. It was written in Jumada I 1263/17 April-16 May 1847, the month of the Báb’s visit to Zanjan and of Hujjat’s arrest. Whether this is one of the letters sent by the ulama that resulted in Hujjat’s arrest or whether it was prepared immediately afterwards and sent to Tehran to help make the case against him, we cannot tell for certain. What is remarkable is that there is no specific reference to Hujjat’s being a Bábi, though there are references to his being an “innovator and inventor in religion” and to his having “devised a false sect.” Almost all the accusations have to do with his denial of the authority of the Shi’ite ulama and his unorthodox legal rulings. There are a number of explicit references to acts and words from before he became a Bábi. Clearly, the ulama of Zanjan did not yet understand the implications of the Báb’s claims, nor did they distinguish between Hujjat’s Bábi and Akhbari heterodoxies. Perhaps Hujjat was still teaching the Báb’i doctrines with caution or semi-secretly. In Tehran Hujjat was received by the shah, who chided him for his willingness to follow an ignorant Shirazi sayyid . Hujjat maintained his convictions and was held for about a year under a loose house arrest. During this time he corresponded with the Báb and occasionally met with some of the Tehran Bábis and debated with the ulama at court.
When Hujjat was arrested and taken to Tehran, the Bábis were a minor concern of the authorities—the source of local disturbances in the south and a possible threat to the prime minister’s spiritual dominance of the shah. A year and a half later, the situation was very different. The Báb had been moved from Maku to Chihriq at the urging of the Russian minister, who was concerned about the possible influence of the Báb in Russian Transcaucasia. The Báb had been tried in Tabriz before the crown prince and had maintained his claims against important ulama of the city. The summer of 1848 brought Bábi disturbances in Mashhad. That fall there was open fighting as an armed body of Bábis, bearing the black banners of Shi’ite apocalyptic rebellion, traveled west across Mazandaran. Rumors flew among the Bábis of Tehran that they should all join this party for the final battle against ungodliness predicted by Shi’ite tradition. The Bábis were stopped near Babul and built defenses at the little shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi. It was late the next spring before government troops were finally able to dislodge them. As this drama began to unfold, the old shah died. Nasir al-Din Mirza, now the shah, came from Tabriz, accompanied by his ruthless and efficient minister Amir Kabir. Hujjat, hearing rumors that the new prime minister intended to have him killed, escaped from the city disguised as a soldier and returned to Zanjan. His followers received him with rapturous demonstrations. The new governor did not dare to act against Hujjat, but confined himself to torturing the two men who had announced Hujjat’s return. Civil war was eighteen months away. The division in the town between Bábi and Muslim followed preexisting fault lines. Hujjat, before his conversion, was the leader of an Akhbari community to some extent distinct from the rest of the town. They lived in their own neighborhood, which became the Bábi stronghold when fighting broke out. When he became a Bábi these people followed his example. The lines were not sharp, though. Families divided when the fighting came. Many, especially those with property to protect, deserted when fighting became imminent. It is also clear that the Bábis were in most respects not much different from what they had been as Muslims. Their views on theological issues were thoroughly Shi’ite; they simply accepted the Báb as the Imam. Their practices were also largely Shi’ite and Islamic. Evidently, they continued the Akhbari reforms that Hujjat had instituted earlier, with the addition of a few distinctively Bábi practices derived from rather early writings of the Báb—the prohibition of tobacco and recitations from the writings of the Báb, for example. There is no evidence of practices enjoined by the Bay an, the Báb’s major doctrinal and legal work composed about 1848. The degree to which Bábi laws were applied in this period is difficult to determine. It was probably only a year or less between Hujjat’s initial conversion and his arrest and imprisonment in Tehran, so it is likely that the process of applying Bábi law was incomplete when he was taken to Tehran in the early summer of 1847. The Zanjan Bábis evidently sent a deputation to Hujjat in Tehran to ask for instructions about their obligations under Bábi religious law. The Muslim historians allude to Hujjat’s having imposed novel commandments and prohibitions. One source refers to his contradicting Islamic law and then goes on to repeat the common accusation of apocalyptic antinomianism and of the practice of community of property and wives. More plausibly, he adds that they replaced the Muslim greeting of salam with the Bábi greeting Allah-u akbarx There were also Shaykhi Babis in Zanjan, originally followers of the esoteric Shi’ite sect that furnished the bulk of the Bábi converts elsewhere. During the fighting they were organized as a separate unit and may not have felt the same personal allegiance to Hujjat that the other Babis did. They were sufficiently distinct that the Muslim authorities tried to induce them to betray the other Bábis.
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Notes:. Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University-Bloomington . I use the term “revolt” for convenience, though it does not exactly fit. See Denis MacEoin, “The Babi Concept of Holy War,” Religion 12 (1982): 94. The reader can in the end judge for himself what term fits best. . The Babi accounts of Hujjat’s conversion differ on details, but all mention the dramatic reception of the letter and his renunciation of the mulla’s turban. See cAbd al-Ahad, “Reminiscences,” 771-73; Zanjani, Vaqayic , 9-10; Nabil, Dawn-Breakers, 178-79; Hamadani, New History, 136-37. Non-Babi accounts agree that his conversion was effected through correspondence with the Bab but place it as late as 1848. See cAli Quli Mirza Ttidad al-Saltana, Fitna-yi Bab, ed. cAbd al-Husayn Nava’i (Tehran, 1351 Sh./1972), 61; Sipihr, Nasikh 3:89; Hidayat, Rawdat 10:448; Muhammad Sadiq DiyaD i, “SanadI rajic ba shurish-i Babiyan-i Zanjan,” Yaghma 20, no. 3 (1346 Sh./1967): 163. . Abd al-Ahad, “Reminiscences,” 775-76; Hamadani, New History, 13. . Hamadani, New History, 136-37. . Zanjani, Vaqdyic, 11. . Abd al-Ahad, “Reminiscences,” 775; cf. Sipihr, Nasikh 3:389; Hidayat, Rawdat 10:448; Ftidad al-Saltana, Fitna, 61. . Nabil, Dawn-Breakers, 532-33. As he progressively claimed higher stations, the Bab sometimes gave his earlier titles to his prominent followers . Zanjani, Vaqayic, 11-13. This and some of the other sermons attributed to Hujjat may be from the lost compilation of his writings entitled Saciqa (The Thunderbolt). See Ittilac at; cAbd al-Ahad, “Reminiscences,” 825-26. . Abd al-Ahad, “Reminiscences,” 775. . Hamadani, New History, 371-72; Nabil, Dawn-Breakers, 533. Nicolas, Alt Mohammad, 335, following Zanjani, Vaqdyic , 11, says that what happened was that Hujjat began leading the Friday form of prayer in place of the everyday prayer, following the law that the Friday prayer should supersede the daily prayer when the Imam returned. . All the Babi sources agree that a follower of Hujjat met the Bab in Shiraz, thus between early July 1845 and September 1846. . Another factor is that the Zanjanis expelled their governor at about this time. See below, p. 000 and n. 000. The relationship between the two incidents is not clear. . I tidad al-Saltana, Fitna, 61; Hidayat, Rawdat 10:447; Sipihr, Nasikh 3:89. . abil, Dawn-Breakers, 533-34. It should be noted that there is a different explanation of Hujjat’s exile to Tehran. On 11 Sha’ban 1263/25 July 1847 a riot broke out in Zanjan, occasioned by the governor’s kidnapping and rape of a local woman (Sipihr, Nasikh 2:206-7). According to Ittila’at, which evidently uses an additional source unknown to me, the governor was taken out of the city by a mot)—face blackened, wearing a paper hat, and riding bareback and backwards on a donkey. Hujjat and his chief clerical rival both issued fatwas justifying the mob, and so both were brought to Tehran. There are chronological difficulties in associating Hujjat with this incident—although it is certainly his style. . Muslim sources, certainly wrongly, date Hujjat’s conversion to th is exile in Tehran. . Momen, Bábi and Baháʼí Religions, 72. . Nabil, Dawn-Breakers, 538-39.