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July 9, 1850: The Martyrdom of the Báb

07/08/2011 03:08 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2011

Each year on July 9, members of the Baha'i Faith commemorate the Martyrdom of the Báb, an event which -- according to Baha'is -- witnessed the execution of one of God's divine messengers to humanity.

Irrespective of one's own beliefs, the drama surrounding the emergence of the Báb on Persia's national stage in the mid-19th century, and the series of events that led to his ultimate martyrdom, is a story of profound meaning. For Baha'is, it is a recent example of one of God's divine teachers who faced persecution and self-sacrifice in order to restore spiritual life to the decaying soul of mankind.

The Báb, whose title means the 'gate' in Arabic, grew up as a merchant known as Siyyid Ali Muhammad in the Persian (now Iranian) city of Shiraz. As a child, he displayed such knowledge and wisdom, even explaining some of the most difficult passages of the Quran to his fellow students and teachers, that his schoolmaster eventually dismissed him from his studies, saying there was nothing they could teach him.

In 1844, the Báb declared his mission, at first to only 18 individuals who sought him out on their own accord. He said his purpose was to prepare the way for the coming of the 'Promised One of all Ages', a divine teacher who would fulfill religious prophecies of the past and proclaim a message that would ultimately unite mankind. Baha'is believe this teacher was Baha'u'llah, and the Báb's rank as a messenger of God in his own right was meant to signal the importance of the revelation that Baha'u'llah would bring that same century.

The Báb's declaration, itself an event which is celebrated by Baha'is as a Holy Day on May 23rd each year, quickly drew the attention of thousands of seekers who were attracted to the Báb's message amidst of one of the darkest, most depraved periods in Iranian history. "Such must be the purity of your character and the degree of your renunciation," he told his followers, "that the people of the earth may through you recognize and be drawn closer to the Heavenly Father who is the Source of purity and grace."

The Báb's growing popularity upset the grip on power of the established religious clergy, who feared a loss of influence due to the Báb's message. Even an emissary for Muhammad Shah of Persia, sent to interview the Báb and investigate the truth of his claims, was won over by his teachings and himself became a Bábi, the name given to the followers of the Báb at the time. Western scholars and diplomats documented "tales of magnificent heroism" about the Bábi community including Professor E.G. Browne, who said: "The spirit which pervades the Bábís is such that it can hardly fail to affect most powerfully all subjected to its influence ...".

Within time, Muhammad Shah was convinced by religious leaders to attempt to eradicate the Báb and his nascent faith, mounting a violent campaign that would claim the life of approximately 20,000 of the Báb's followers, and led to his imprisonment for two years in a remote fortress in the mountains of present-day Azerbaijan. The Báb wrote at the time, "Worship thou God in such wise that if thy worship lead thee to the fire, no alteration in thine adoration would be produced, and so likewise if thy recompense should be paradise."

The brutal campaign to exterminate the Báb's followers is in itself a tragic and captivating account, chronicled by a number of historians at the time who were shocked at the savagery of the Persian government and awed by the heroism of the thousands of men, women, and children who willingly accepted death to preserve a truth held deeply in their hearts.

When Naser al-Din Shah replaced his father on the Persian throne, he determined that the Báb himself should be eliminated, and ordered a public execution to be held in Tabriz.

And thus, on July 9, 1850, at the age of 31, just six short years after the declaration of his ministry, the Báb faced an execution squad of 750 soldiers. While giving his final instructions to his secretary, the Báb was interrupted to be brought to the public square for his execution. "Though all the world be armed against Me, yet shall they be powerless to deter Me from fulfilling, to the last word, My intention," stated the Báb as he was separated from his secretary.

The commander of this regiment, Sam Khan, a Christian, was so impressed with the Báb's demeanor and presence that he asked the Báb to intervene so that he would not have to carry out the execution and perhaps invite God's punishment for his actions. The Báb instructed him to carry out his mission, telling him "if your intention be sincere, the Almighty is surely able to relieve you from your perplexity."

The Báb was tied up and suspended by a rope against a wall, bundled together with a youthful follower named Anis, who refused to let the Báb die alone on that day. Roughly 10,000 people filled the public square to witness the execution of a man who teachings had captivated the nation. When the 750 shots were fired, a cloud of smoke filled the air. When it cleared, the public was shocked to see what appeared to be either a fluke or a miracle. Anis stood alone, unharmed, and the Báb was nowhere to be seen, the ropes which suspended them now laying on the ground in tatters.

After a frantic search, the Báb was found back in his room with his secretary, concluding his final instructions and messages. "I have finished my conversation," remarked the Báb. "Now you may proceed to fulfill your intention."

Sam Khan was so shaken that he would not proceed with the execution and ordered his men to depart. A new regiment was hastily put together to complete the task. The second time they succeeded, and the smoke from the 750 guns clouded the skies of Tabriz for the rest of the day.

"Had you believed in Me, O wayward generation," the Báb declared in his final moments. "Every one of you would have followed the example of this youth, who stood in rank above most of you, and willingly would have sacrificed himself in My path. The day will come when you will have recognized Me; that day I shall have ceased to be with you." (Read a historical account of the martyrdom of the Báb.)

The Báb's shattered remains were discarded outside the city walls to be eaten by dogs, but they were rescued by several of his followers, who kept them hidden for many years. Finally, in 1909 the Báb's remains were entombed in a shrine in Haifa, Israel. This shrine, which sits on the historic Mount Carmel, is now a site for pilgrimage for Baha'is around the world.