Bicentenary of the Báb: The Bringer of Unity to the Human World

Two hundred years ago a special being was born in Shiraz, Iran—then known as Persia—Who brought radically new teachings to the world. He taught that humanity must abandon old, divisive, sectarian ways of thinking, recognize the unity of the whole human family, abandon all forms of prejudice, and show respect for women.

He was known as “The Báb” (1819–1850), a title meaning “the Gate” and in His brief life of 31 years, wrote more than one hundred books. Shocking to the people of His time, He announced that He was the “Promised One,” Whose coming had been prophesied in all the holy books of the great religions of the world. His unusual claim and his radical and refreshingly sensible teachings attracted a large number of receptive followers, who later suffered greatly for His cause, and led to His being severely persecuted. He was finally executed in 1850 in an effort to stamp out the swiftly-growing movement He founded.

The Báb’s Writings and life are full of inner meaning, and allusions to spiritual concepts. Many were written in mystical language, especially directed to the people of his time and culture. In order to understand his Writings and the greatness of His ideas and message, it is important to become familiar with the context of His life and the dominant religious thinking of the audience he spoke to. Although they had very modern implications, the principles he taught were deeply embedded in the Quranic theology and philosophy of his time.

The Báb’s life and writings are dynamic and charismatic, from whatever angle we might view them. The spiritual movement inaugurated by the Báb was brief in time—only six years—but nevertheless brought about a revolutionary, productive and powerful social movement, one which shook the society of Persia to its core, and introduced new values for the world. One of these radical new ideas was the elimination of the clergy, and the principle that all human beings are equal in the sight of God, capable of embodying the same moral values and responsibilities for the advancement of society.

The Bab challenged contemporary schools of thoughts and dominant views in fundamental ways. He was one of the first in the history of his country who talked about and had profound respect for women. In the teachings of His major book, “The Bayán,” He said that offending or saddening others, particularly women, is highly reprehensible. The Báb considered women the “pillars” of society.

The Báb challenged his hearers, most of whom were deeply corrupt and embedded in ancient customs, clinging to superstitious, outmoded, narrow-minded, sectarian beliefs, and urged them to explore and exemplify new and uplifting moral principles, such as the unity of God and the human family, moderation in all things, even kindness towards animals. He prohibited capital punishment and the bearing of arms. He forbade the punishment of children, substituting instead education and encouragement. [1] In another passage, the Báb commanded that poverty be eradicated and begging prohibited, urging all who are able to engage in useful work. He enjoined the wealthy and the government to help those less fortunate in society and advised that the extremes of wealth and poverty be eliminated.[2] In the corrupt and backward society of His time, such teachings were seen as radically modern and attracted a courageous and devoted following, many thousands of whom would suffer torture and death at the hands of their persecutors.

In addition to foretelling the coming of “One Whom God will make manifest,” Bahá’u’lláh, Who would announce His station as the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith which we know today, the Báb came to bring about fundamental change in all aspects of life, from moral standards of daily life and in religion itself. He was one of the earliest to call for the elimination of individual authoritarian leadership and introduced the concept of consultation. No one person, He taught, should lead a community of faith, a practice which until that time had led to many abuses of power. Thus, He encouraged His followers to adopt a new concept of leadership through group consultation, in which no single individual would consider himself above others in station. Thus, He established the foundation for a new kind of human community, for the new World Order which His successor, Bahá’u’lláh, would later elaborate more fully.

Quoting frequently from the Qur’an, so intimately familiar to His hearers, the Báb confirmed the Muslim view of man as occupying the highest station in the world of being and as having been created in God’s image.[3] That is to say, all the attributes of God are reflected in man. He gives the example of a mirror. In His view, the inner essence of man is a reflection of the divine attributes. For the Báb, the human being, regardless of gender, has the unlimited potential to develop these attributes of nobility of character, steadfastness, truthfulness, justice, and open-mindedness.

The Báb also gave new meaning to the concept of Heaven and Hell. In His view, heaven is the development and maturation of one’s divine potential and hell the attachment to the ephemeral attractions of the world. The new system which the Báb advocated would usher in an entirely different mode of human interaction and decision-making, which would eventually allow for and nurture a more mature attachment to, and striving for, the acquisition of divine attributes, that is, the development of spiritual values in the society. It would be Bahá’u’lláh, the “One Whom God would make manifest,” Whose coming the Báb foretold, Who would later develop these concepts and provide the foundational principles to guide and govern human civilization for the next 500,000 years.

In one of His best-known books, the “Kitabu’l-Asmá’,” the Báb describes three hundred and sixty-one names of God. He says that one of the names of God is the divine “Farmer” and that God is the best of “farmers.” He explains this analogy by saying that God plants the seeds of the verses of God in the hearts of men. And just as God is the true farmer, so all farmers in this world are reflections of God. Thus, all need to consider the farmers in this same way and treat them with the same respect that they would show the kings and ministers of the world.

Another important focus of the Báb’s message is the spiritual reconstruction of the economy and industry, deploring the absence of spiritual and moral values of the system of His time. He urged mankind to strive for perfection in all things, and to achieve what is in our power to achieve. In His Writings He uses the term “perfection”[Itqan]. When we strive for perfection, we aim to reflect the names and attributes of God and are enabled to become the mirror image of the divine virtues. That is when we become the supreme image of God. Then our actions become sacred, like prayers, and our work may be likened to devotion. Thus, the Báb teaches that when we achieve our highest potential, we are in paradise. [4]

The Báb gave us an entirely new definition of freedom, not the absence of all limitations or a lawless society, but rather the voluntary adoption of practical and spiritual laws, suitable for and capable of benefitting the modern world. We human beings have the capacity to change, and it is only logical that our laws will have to change accordingly. The Báb helped us to see that everything is dynamic and that religion itself is no exception; thus religion is what protects and provides the basis for a better civilization.

Now, in celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Báb, it is an opportune time to learn about this unique figure, His role in announcing the coming of Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith and His own radical teachings. Together, these two precious beings have given us many new ideas for the improvement of society and the advancement of civilization. Hopefully, more and more people will find their ideas useful and inspiring and will investigate independently how to use them to benefit our daily lives and, in so doing, will see that they offer practical solutions for the new kind of society we can build together.

[1] The Báb, The Bayán, Vahid 4.

[2, 3] Ibid.

[4] The Báb, Kitabu’l-Asmá’.

Cover photo: Shrine of the Báb, Haifa, Israel 

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