The Letters of the Living is the title given by the Bab to His first 18 followers. The Bab was a merchant from Shiraz, Persia. His name was Siyyid Ali-Muhammad Shirazi, but He is known to the world as the Bab, which means “the Gate” in Arabic, and Baha’is believe that He was the symbolic gate between past ages of prophecy and a new age of fulfilment for humanity. When the Bab was 25, He proclaimed to be both a new Prophet, and the herald to “Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest”, Baha’u’llah.
The first person to accept the Bab’s claim was Mulla Husayn, a young Shaykhi1 scholar, whom, like many other Shaykhis, had set out in search of the Promised One. In May 1844, Mulla Husayn’s search led him to the city of Shiraz, where he met the Bab, and in the course of one evening, became the first person to believe in the Bab.
The First 18 Disciples
After Mulla Husayn, 17 others recognized the Founder of the Babi Faith through their own independent search between May and July, 1844, and the Bab gave them the title “Letters of the Living”.
The Letters of the Living is “Huruf-i-Hayy” in Arabic. The Arabic word “hayy” corresponds numerically with 18. The 18 Letters of the Living and the Bab Himself are known as the First Vahid (unity) of the Babi Dispensation, which numerically parallels with 19.
The Bab specifically chose to use the term “letters” in connection to the first individuals to believe in Him as a Manifestation of God. The letters act as an intermediary between the Point, or the Messenger of God, and the flourishing words and sentences – the new thriving revelation – brought by the Manifestations of God.
The Letters of the Living – one woman and seventeen men – were:
- Mulla Husayn-i-Bushru’i (his title is Babu’l-Bab, or “Gate of the Gate”),
- Muhammad Hasan (his brother),
- Muhammad-Baqir (his nephew),
- Mulla Aliy-i-Bastami,
- Mulla Khuda-Bakhsh-i-Quchani (later named Mulla Ali Razi),
- Mulla Hasan-i-Bajistani,
- Siyyid Husayn-i-Yazdi,
- Mirza Muhammad Rawdih-Khan-i-Yazdi (or Dhakir-i-Masa’ib),
- Mulla Mahmud-i-Khu’i,
- Mulla Jalil-i-Urumi,
- Mulla Ahmad-i-Ibdal-i-Maraghi’i,
- Mulla Baqir-i-Tabrizi,
- Mulla Yusif-i-Ardibili,
- Mirza Hadi (son of Mulla Abdu’l-Vahhab-i-Qazvini),
- Mirza Muhammad-i Aliy-i-Qazvini,
- Fatimih Baraghani (who received the title Tahirih, meaning “the Pure One”),
- and Mulla Muhammad-Ali Barfurushi (titled Quddus, which means “the Most Holy”).
The Bab’s Mission
The Bab dedicated His life to transforming old habits, norms and attitudes. He wrote many works during His life, one of the most important being the Bayan (which means “Utterance”). “The Bayan” can refer to either the Persian Bayan or the Arabic Bayan, which are two different texts that were revealed around the same time in 1847-48, the fourth year of His short mission, or it could refer to whole of the Bab’s Revelation.
The Persian Bayan is considered the Mother Book of the Bab’s Dispensation. In it its Author explains that women have an important role in society and both sexes are equal in the sight of God. The Bab taught compassion and striving to bring about joy to fellow humans; seeking understanding and science is praised, as well as the union of knowledge, action and faith.
Taking Refuge Under Their Shadow
The Bab mentions the Letters of the Living directly and indirectly in many of His Writings. For example, He remarks that belief in the Manifestation and the unity of God entails belief in the Letters of the Living and vice versa. According to the Bab everyone who turns to the Letters of the Living will be safe, until the arrival of “Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest”.
The Bab encouraged building places of worship, not only in His name, but also in the name of the Letters of the Living. Their station is, however, spiritual and symbolic. The Bab gave them no authority to interpret or rule, no office or ongoing missions amongst the Babi community.
Paving the Way for Baha’u’llah’s Faith
The Bab asked His disciples to travel, spread His religion and prepare people for the Promised One of All Ages who would come after Him. Their role was to introduce the Bab’s Faith and this newly revived system of believing and seeking knowledge. The majority of the Letters of the Living remained loyal to the Bab’s Cause and 12 of them were killed for their beliefs before the birth of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation.
After the Martyrdom of the Bab, His followers turned increasingly to Baha’u’llah. They found the same spirit and wisdom in Baha’u’llah they had witnessed in the teachings of the Bab. Baha’u’llah did not publicly declare His Mission until April 1863. Only one Letter of the Living survived to embrace of the Cause of Baha’u’llah: Mulla Baqir-i-Tabrizi. He had accompanied Baha’u’llah to the Fort of Shaykh Tabarsi and was present at the Badasht Conference in 1848, two monumental and historic occasions in the early history of the Baha’i Faith.
The Significance of the Letters
According to the Bayan, the Letters of the Living are the return of the essences and attributes of the Holy Family of Islam. The corresponding 18 key figures of Shia Islam constitute the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad; His son-in-law, Ali; His daughter, Fatima; 11 Imams from the Holy Family, and four vicegerents intermediating for the Hidden Imam or four angels responsible for creation, sustenance, death and existence.
The Bab also made clear that the Letters of the Living have a spiritual influence as long as they are facing the Sun of Truth, but would lose that power when turning away. Not everybody remained loyal to the Bab. Getting close to the Manifestation of God also means more severe tests. For example, Mirza Hadi, one of the Letters of the Living, distanced himself from the Babis and eventually became unfaithful.
Most of the Letters of the Living remained in the forefront of the Babi Dispensation and there’s much to learn from their dedication. The Bab used the term “letter” to refer to all of His believers, not just the first 18. He welcomed all of humanity to join a new civilization, a revitalized way of thinking – a living mindset we can all strive for:
Whoso acteth in conformity with that which is revealed therein [the Bayan] will abide in Paradise, under the shadow of His affirmation and reckoned among the most sublime Letters in the presence of God.2