Baha’is abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset for 19 days. While this abstention from food and drink is a test of one’s will and discipline, the Fast is not just about abstaining from food. The Fast is, primarily, a spiritual practice.
Born in Shiraz, Iran on 20 October 1819, Siyyid Ali-Muhammad would become known to the world as the Bab (meaning “the Gate” in Arabic). The Bab was the symbolic gate; it was His mission to herald the coming of this promised Manifestation of God whom we know to be Baha’u’llah. In the Baha’i calendar, the Birth of the Bab and the Birth of Baha’u’llah are celebrated one after the other in one festival referred to as the “Twin Holy Days”.
Mirza Husayn-Ali, who is known to the world by His title, Baha’u’llah, was born in Tehran, Iran on 12 November, 1817. Baha’u’llah means “Glory of God” in Arabic and He is the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith. The anniversary of the day He was born is celebrated alongside the Birth of the forerunner of His Revelation, the Bab. These Twin Holy Days are celebrated annually as one festival where the closely interwoven missions of these two Divine Luminaries are remembered together.
The Twin Holy Birthdays of the Bab and Baha’u’llah
Only a handful of humanity are aware that barely 160 years ago Iran witnessed a re-enactment of scenes that had occurred in Roman Judaea two millennia earlier. The ancient land — known as Persia at the time — was about to boil over and, as a result, a new religious movement peaceably inviting men and women to embrace a new commandment from God, had been all but vanquished. As a fluke of fate or fortune, its call for world unity as the will of God for our Age, had barely managed to reach beyond the borders of Persia and the Ottoman Empire — the two empires whose two monarchs and religious orthodoxies were determined to stamp out these ‘stirrers of sedition’. Today worldwide and unquenchable, this movement is alive and well. It is the Baha’i Faith.
But what would call for a musketry of 750 riflemen to riddle a mild-mannered young man of thirty-one, a kindly demeanour and a noble purpose to a pulp of flesh and bone? What would cause a youth of only fifteen to beg the soldiers for the honour of being martyred with him? Yet so it came to pass. The youth Anis, and his young Master who held him in his embrace, were shot by three volleys of bullets, each volley fired by a file of 250 soldiers. The scene of this gory spectacle was Tabriz, Persia, and the year was 1850. Thousands of spectators had gathered to observe the scene. This young man was the Bab.
What indeed would drive a brilliant young heir of a distinguished vizier to decline the honour of a ministerial position in the imperial court, and to gladly exchange the extravagant and influential career paved for him for life in prison and mortal threat? To be paraded bare-footed through the streets of Tehran to his prison-dungeon while pelted with stones by the angry crowds on the roadsides. To be thrown into the Black Pit with a 100-pound chain on his neck and stocks on his feet with the intent of affecting his slow and painful death. To survive the crushing ordeal only to be banished from his native land to Iraq and Turkey and finally to the notorious penal colony of Akka. The man at the prime of his youth was Baha’u’llah.
Lord Curzon of Kedleston and Comte de Gobineau, notable first-hand observers of Qajaric Persia in the 19th century, attest in their voluminous accounts to the decades of violent turmoil in Persia following the peaceful revelations of the Bab and Baha’u’llah. In Iran, the Baha’is continue to be persecuted for believing that the Bab and Baha’u’llah are Twin Manifestations of God to succeed Prophet Muhammad, the twin founding figures of their Faith. The dates of their birth are celebrated by the Baha’is as the Twin Holy Birthdays. This year the two-day celebrations of their birth, the only Baha’i holy days following a lunar calendar, occur on November 13 and 14. The Bab was born in Shiraz on the first day following the occurrence of the eighth new moon after Naw-Ruz (20 October, 1819), and Baha’u’llah in Tehran on the second day (two years earlier on 12 November, 1817).
The honoured youth called to weld the extraordinary historical bond between the Bab and Baha’u’llah was Mulla Husayn, a bright young scholar of scriptural prophecies ablaze with a single-minded resolve to discover the prophesied ‘Qa’im’ — or ‘He Who arises’ — in Shiraz. He was the first of seventeen young theological students arriving in Shiraz with the same fervent Messianic mission. Mulla Husayn was spotted by a green-turbaned young merchant in the city’s outskirts and warmly welcomed to lodge at his house for the night. In the dead of night on 23 May 1844 the Bab revealed what he regarded a precious secret to Mulla Husayn. While serving his guest tea from a silver samovar, the host, almost casually, related that he is none other than the Promised One of all ages foretold by all the Prophets of old, the one he had sought to find. Instead of noisome fanfares or epic miracles broadcasting literal prophetic fulfilment, Mulla Husayn later reminisced how it was the utmost love and meekness his host showed personally towards him that — had he no other claim to greatness — would alone have sufficed to convince him.
The Bab revealed to Mulla Husayn and the rest of his initial disciples that his sole purpose, as a Messenger of God, was to prepare the way for the imminent appearance of an even greater Messenger — “Him Whom God shall make manifest.” But he also cautioned that to embrace his cause was to invite mortal peril, nation-wide bloodshed and, eventually, his own martyrdom at the hands of the Persian priestly elite. A bold claim to Messengership in succession to Muhammad, him who was deemed the ‘final prophet’, would undoubtedly be met with torture and death by the orthodox Shi’ite clerics of Persia. Despite fully aware of the grim eventuality, thousands of adherents, from all walks of life, were to flock to his Cause in a brief space of time. The rapid expansion of the Bab’s followers, quite foreseeably, caused alarm amongst the Shi’ite clergy. But their brutal slaughter was prompted by neither fairness nor necessity.
At that fateful night in Shiraz, the radiance of this turbaned Shirazi stirred Mulla Husayn to such depths as to arise, spontaneously and undeterred by the perils in wait, to proclaim far and wide the young merchant’s bold claim. He dispatched forthwith on horseback, under the Bab’s instructions, to the capital Tehran. As to his mission to the capital, the Bab offered Mulla Husayn only these veiled words:
A secret lies hidden in that city. When made manifest, it shall turn the earth into paradise.
In Tehran, Mulla Husayn was determined to find a man of extraordinary spiritual qualities. None impressed him. Save one young man. A fellow-student had told him of a scion from one of the great aristocratic families of Persia whose sole occupation, despite his great wealth and stature, was to befriend the poor and the stranger. He had consecrated his home to helping the indigent of Tehran. One of the rooms in his large mansion had been transformed into a ward for tending sick women and children. The man and his wife had earned the twin titles “the Father of the Poor” and “the Mother of Consolation.” Overjoyed by these news, Mulla Husayn sent a letter to Baha’u’llah containing some verses of the Bab. Baha’u’llah instantly embraced the Bab’s Message and became his most powerful follower.
Since childhood Baha’u’llah’s was a heart agonized by suffering and cruelty, once shaken for over a week by a harsh historical account he had merely chanced upon in a book. In spite of his acute sensitivity, his calmness and serenity even as an infant was such as to amaze the mother. Khadijih Khanum could not recall if he ever cried or waxed restless. His keen intellect caught his father’s attention. “He is a little short”, the mother once remarked while watching the child walk. “But don’t you know what a wonderful mind he has!” the father exclaimed with pride. Early on Baha’u’llah had earned a reputation as the prodigal son of Mirza Buzurg, a well-known minister of the Shah.
After accepting the Bab as a Messenger of God, and publically proclaiming his cause, his inherited properties were confiscated, his possessions looted and his body thrown into the Black Pit. But his fate in exile and imprisonment was sealed when thousands of Babis and other Persians began flocking to him after the martyrdom of the Bab and the murder of all the other Babis of renown, including the illustrious Mulla Husayn. The news of his awe-inspiring presence and superb insight, coupled with his penetrating revelations, had began to spread from mouth to mouth, and to attract admiration and animosity in equal measure.
…were all the sorrows of the world to be crowded into my heart they would, I feel, all vanish, when in the presence of Baha’u’llah. It is as if I had entered Paradise.
– Prince Zaynu’l-Abidin Khan
What was the Message, claimed as God’s, that brought so much misery to its twin noble Messengers? Let each fair-minded observer draw his or her own conclusions whether these ideals represent yet another fanciful distraction from worthier pursuits, or whether nothing short of an unswerving commitment to them is, indeed, “the secret that can turn the earth into paradise”.
The purpose of the one true God in manifesting Himself is to summon all mankind to truthfulness and sincerity, to piety and trustworthiness, to resignation and submissiveness to the will of God, to forbearance and kindliness, to uprightness and wisdom.
Shut your eyes to estrangement, then fix your gaze upon unity. Cleave tenaciously unto that which will lead to the well-being and tranquillity of all mankind. This span of earth is but one homeland and one habitation.
Sam Karvonen is a ridiculously fortunate husband and a thoroughly blessed father. He is specialized in conflict-affected countries and inspired by the everyday heroism of their lay citizens. Oh, and a Baha'i of course.