On July 9th 1850, the Bab, the forerunner to Baha’u’llah, was executed in Tabriz, Persia by a firing squad of 750 men. The Bab, which means “the Gate” in Arabic, was a Messenger of God whose role was to herald the coming of the latest Manifestation of God: Baha’u’llah. In 1909, after being hidden away for more than half a century, the Bab’s remains were finally interred on Mount Carmel, Israel.
On a spring evening on May 22rd, 1844, Siyyid Ali-Muhammad announced that He was the bearer of a Divine Revelation whose aim was to prepare the world for “Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest,” a Messenger of God known as Baha’u’llah. Baha’is refer to Siyyid Ali-Muhammad by His title, the Bab, which is Arabic for “the Gate,” and that eventful evening is celebrated every year by Baha’is around the world.
As Baha’is around the world gather on 17 Rahmat according to the Baha’i calendar, they will focus on the Bab’s martyrdom in Tabriz in 1850, ponder its spiritual significance, and offer their supplications to the Divine.
On that holy day commemorating the horrendous event of His execution, it is also probable that many will wonder what it would have been like to encounter the One who was the Prophet-Forerunner of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith.
Pilgrims have the opportunity to view an image of His likeness in the International Baha’i Archives building on Mt Carmel, for most Baha’is the only time they will see it.
It is a 19th century portrait in Persian miniature style. (There are no photographs of Him.)
When they discuss their impressions afterwards, many tend to say that the painting confirms what contemporaries said about Him — that He was serene and handsome.
Also in the Archives is a display of clothing once worn by the Bab, and that shows His refined taste for beautifully-made garments with harmonious colours, elegant but not lavish.
From this distance in time we get the idea of a beautiful presented young man.
As we seek to develop our understanding of the Bab, we can ponder on accounts by some of those who were blessed to be in His presence during the three decades of His life.
So what did His contemporaries make of Him?
Generations present and in the future will always be grateful that the only Westerner 1 to meet the Bab, Dr William Cormick (1819-1877) 2, made an effort to describe Him.
“He was a very mild and delicate-looking man, rather small in stature and very fair for a Persian, with a melodious voice which struck me very much,” 3 Dr Cormick said.
“In fact, his whole look and deportment went far to dispose one in his favour,” he said.
“To all inquiries he merely regarded us with a mild look, chanting in a low melodious voice some hymns, I suppose.”
“He only deigned to answer me, on my saying that I was not a Musulman 4 and was willing to know something about his religion, as I might perhaps be inclined to adopt it. He regarded me very intently on my saying this, and replied that he had no doubt of all Europeans coming over to his religion.”
There is also another description by a Westerner. It is by a British diplomat’s wife, Lady Mary Sheil, who didn’t meet the Bab 5 but knew Dr Cormick, so it is likely that her depiction has its origins in what he told her.
Lady Mary wrote that the Bab “possessed a mild and benignant countenance, his manners were composed and dignified, his eloquence was impressive, and he wrote rapidly and well.” 6
The best-known description comes from Mulla Husayn, who, in Shiraz on 23 May, 1844, witnessed the Bab’s declaration that He was a divine messenger. 7
Mulla Husayn first described meeting Him on a street in the city. 8
The Bab, he said, was a young man of radiant countenance, Who wore a green turban and Who, advancing towards him, greeted him with a smile of loving welcome.
He had a “gentle yet compelling manner,” Mulla Husayn said.
“As I followed Him, His gait, the charm of His voice, the dignity of His bearing, served to enhance my first impressions of this unexpected meeting.”
They went to the Bab’s house where at one point during the evening, the Bab asked him a question. The response provides interesting descriptive details.
“Has your teacher given you any detailed indications as to the distinguishing features of the promised One?”
“Yes,” Mulla Husayn replied. “He is of a pure lineage, is of illustrious descent, and of the seed of Fatimih. 9 As to His age, He is more than twenty and less than thirty. He is endowed with innate knowledge. He is of medium height, abstains from smoking, and is free from bodily deficiency.”
After this reply, the Bab paused for a while and then with “vibrant voice declared: ‘Behold, all these signs are manifest in Me!’”
Mulla Husayn remarked on the melody of His voice, “(I was) enthralled by the music of that voice which rose and fell as He chanted.”
His reaction conveys a sense of the spiritual power of the Bab: “This Revelation so suddenly and impetuously thrust upon me, came as a thunderbolt which, for a time, seemed to have benumbed my faculties.”
“I was blinded by its dazzling splendor and overwhelmed by its crushing force. Excitement, joy, awe, and wonder stirred the depths of my soul.”
“Predominant among these emotions was a sense of gladness and strength which seemed to have transfigured me. How feeble and impotent, how dejected and timid, I had felt previously! Then I could neither write nor walk, so tremulous were my hands and feet.”
To enhance our understanding of the Bab’s spiritual power, it is instructive to learn about the effect He had on His jailer when He was incarcerated in a forbidding castle on a mountain above the town of Mah-Ku 10 near the border between Persia and the Ottoman and Russian Empires.
The chief jailer, Ali Khan, was first very strict on the Bab but one day he had a dream of such spiritual potency that, as one who was there described, 11 “his self-assertiveness and pride seemed to have entirely vanished.”
“By every means in his power, he determined to atone for his past behavior. Ali Khan set out, within the limits imposed upon him, to provide whatever would tend to alleviate the rigour of the captivity of the Bab.”
And what of the Persian populace?
Many met Him yet many did not so it seems clear that His spiritual power transcended any personal charisma experienced when meeting Him.
Hundreds of thousands of Persians adopted the faith of the Bab, the most important being Baha’u’llah Himself, but they also included distinguished scholars, religious leaders and the famous poet Tahirih as well as many ordinary citizens.
The mysterious and extraordinary effect of this charming, well-presented young Man has endured, and it increases beyond His own lifetime, inspiring generation after generation to consecrate themselves to the Faith of which He was the Herald and to devote themselves to the challenging task of unifying humanity in a global society of justice and love.
Footnotes & Citations
Another Westerner saw Him but did not describe Him.[↩]
Dr Cormick was seconded as a physician to the Crown Prince, Nasiri-d-Din, and accompanied Him in Tabriz.[↩]
For a text of his report The Babi and Baha’i Religions, 1844-1944, by Moojan Momen, pp. 74-5[↩]
Michael Day is the author of "Journey to a Mountain", "Coronation on Carmel" and "Sacred Stairway", a trilogy that tells the story of the Shrine of the Bab, as well as a photo book “Queen of Carmel" on the same topic. He also authored the 2021 publication "Fragrance of Glory: An account of the Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha". He was a journalist for daily newspapers in Australia and New Zealand. Then, from 2003-2006, he was the editor of the Baha’i World News Service at the Baha’i World Centre. Now based in Benowa, Gold Coast, Australia, he is researching and writing on aspects of Baha’i history.