Teachings of the Báb
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Siyyid `Alí Muḥammad (born 20 October 1819 – died 9 July 1850) was the founder of Bábism, and one of three central figures of the Bahá'í Faith. He was a merchant from Shíráz, Persia, who at the age of twenty-four (in 23 May 1844) claimed to be the promised Qá'im (or Mahdi). After his declaration he took the title of Báb meaning "Gate". He composed hundreds of letters and books (often termed tablets) in which he stated his messianic claims and defined his teachings, which constituted a new sharí'ah or religious law. His movement eventually acquired tens of thousands of supporters, was virulently opposed by Iran's Shi'a clergy, and was suppressed by the Iranian government leading to thousands of his followers, termed Bábís, being persecuted and killed. In 1850 the Báb was shot by a firing squad in Tabríz.
The teachings of the Báb can be grouped into three broad stages which each have a dominant thematic focus. His earliest teachings are primarily defined by his interpretation of the Qur'an and other Islamic traditions. While this interpretive mode continues throughout all three stages of his teachings, a shift takes place where his emphasis moves to philosophical elucidation and finally to legislative pronouncements. In the second philosophical stage, the Báb gives an explanation of the metaphysics of being and creation, and in the third legislative stage his mystical and historical principles are explicitly united. An analysis of the Báb's writings throughout the three stages shows that all of his teachings were animated by a common principle that had multiple dimensions and forms.
In his earliest years the Báb focused on explanations and commentaries on verses of the Qur'an, and on the teachings that represent "true Islam" "until the day of resurrection". During this time, while many Islamic injunctions remained in force in his writings, the Báb claimed that he had the authority to clarify issues relating to the details of Islamic Sharia. He used this genre against the grain of the established tradition, and he interpreted Islamic texts and traditions to transform, reverse and redefine the conventional meanings. For example, he tended to diverge from standard Muslim practices by making requirements stricter, such as enjoining additional prayers. Discussion of Shí'í millenarian themes were also an important part of the early works and gave his movement an apocalyptic edge; this was the day of the return of the Mahdi, of the victory and dominion of God. They gave the Bábí movement a widespread popular appeal.
His works frequently quoted and provided commentary on passages from the Qur'an. Unlike classical Qur'anic commentaries by theologians or Sufis, however, he usually commented on the meaning of the text letter by letter rather than the meanings of the words and sentences, allowing him to use a sacred text as a point of departure for revelation on a theme distantly related or even unrelated to the Qur'anic passage. The Báb's overall approach to texts and many Islamic doctrines was symbolic and metaphorical, and he often rejected literal interpretations of apocalyptic doctrines. While he sometimes used Sufi terminology, his reasoning and approach are distinct from any other school of thought. The Báb taught that the realm of language, as well as all other aspects of phenomenal reality, including natural and cultural objects were symbolic of a deeper spiritual meaning. He taught that everything that exists in the world is a sign that proclaims the sovereignty of God. In this way, reality is a type of language that consists of words and letters that celebrate the divine revelation in all things.
The Báb's early doctrines started to change in 1848 when he abrogated Islamic shari'ah law. The Bábí shari'ah included its own form of pilgrimage to the Báb's house in Shiraz. A Bábí calendar of nineteen months of nineteen days was defined that started on Persian Naw-Ruz and included a four-day intercalary period (to raise the total days to 365, 19 times 19 being only 361). The last 19-day month, falling in March, was the Bábí month of fasting. Bábí obligatory prayer was different from Muslim practice as well, but was deemphasized compared to dhikr, repetition of various scriptural verses. Laws regulating marriage discouraged polygamy, forbade concubinage, and instituted a year of waiting before a divorce could be completed. Such laws, and the removal of any explicit need for women to veil themselves, potentially improved the status of women to a considerable degree. The Báb, however, never explicitly delineated a principle of equality of the sexes, and other regulations continued the separation of the sexes in public.
The themes of jihad and martyrdom also remained important in the Báb's writings. The Báb often wrote theoretically about jihad in the sense of armed struggle, but he never explicitly announced the beginning of a jihad, and he completely undermines the concept of jihad by defining holy war in a way as to make it contingent on impossible conditions, thus nullifying it. The various Bábí struggles appear to have primarily involved defensive jihad. Martyrdom, an immensely important theme in Shí'ism, was important to Bábís as well, with the siege of the Bábí fort at Shaykh Tabarsí being viewed as a Bábí recapitulation of the events of Karbila. Hundreds of individual Bábís were martyred in public, usually in ways that inspired admiration or even allegiance to their cause.
In his later writings the Báb described the divine or eternal essence to be unknowable, indescribable and inaccessible. The Báb compared the divine to the sun which remains single, although it appears under different names and forms in the persons, prophets, whom it is in manifested in. Some of these teachings exhibit features common to earlier Shite sects such as the Ismailis and the Hurufis. However, his teaching on the need for successive "prophetic cycles" is completely an original conception. He also reinterpreted Shí'í eschatological terms, such as "resurrection", "Judgment Day", and "paradise" and "hell". He stated that "Resurrection" means the appearance of a new revelation, and that "raising of the dead" refers to the spiritual awakening of those who have stepped away from true religion. He further stated that "Judgment Day" alludes to the time a new Manifestation of God comes, and his acceptance or rejection by the Earth's inhabitants. Thus the Báb taught that with his revelation the end times had come and the age of resurrection had started, and that the end-times were symbolic as the end of the past prophetic cycle. Traditional Shí'í millenarian beliefs were reinterpreted so radically that few of the popular traditional expectations were left.
Another constant theme in his works, especially in the Persian Bayán, is that of He whom God shall make manifest: a messianic figure who would come after him. Bábís were exhorted to leave a chair for him at all gatherings and constantly to be prepared to accept him. The Báb also developed legal principles that were intended to be implemented in a theocratic Bábí state if He whom God shall make manifest approved and implemented them. The rules of this state included the burning of non-Bábí books and the banning of non-Bábís from residence within its boundaries.
Several of the Báb's writings following his return to Chiriq in August 1848 to his execution in July 1850, such as the Kitáb-i-Asmá', discussed ritual practices largely unrelated to the actual circumstances of the Bábí community. The Báb's writings also contained many codified chronograms, cabalistic interpretations, talismanic figures, astrological tables, and numerical calculations, some of which appear to be similar to the Nuqtavi cabalistic symbolism. The number 19 appears in many parts of the Báb's writings, which also resembles Nuqtavi documents. While some elements found in the Nuqtavi school are confirmed in the writings of the Báb, the literal emphasis that the Nuqtavi school placed on letters as direct elements of divine creation are foreign to the Báb's teachings; his teachings have little to do with the issue of the actual letters or their literal divine character, but instead, concern a mystical world view where the sacred character of human beings is the image of God.
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