1850: The Bab, Prophet of Baha’i

On this date in 1850, a Persian merchant who claimed to be the Islamic messiah was shot in Tabriz for apostasy.

The Bab — the handle means “Gate”; he was born Siyyid `AlĂ­ Muhammad — started preaching as a young man in 1844 and attracted a following unwelcome to the orthodox Shi’a clergy and the powers that were.

The Bab would claim to be “that person you have been awaiting for one thousand years”: the Mahdi. And in a John the Baptist-like pose, he would also pledge to be preparing the way for another, “He whom God shall make manifest,” to follow his footsteps.

Authorities cracked down on this subversive faith and its heretical claim to have a divine messenger, hailing the Bab before a clerical tribunal that found him a blasphemer and an apostate. After dawdling a couple of years, the government finally ordered him shot … to which punishment a young disciplie submitted himself voluntarily as well.

Reputedly, the public execution by firing squad was quite a fiasco for the government, and/or a miracle for the Bab. It is said that the entire sizable regiment deployed to volley at the Bab and his devotee managed to miss everything, but to shoot through the rope that was holding the prophet suspended a few meters above the ground. In the Baha’i version, he miraculously disappears from the first execution attempt and is found later calmly conversing with a secretary in his prison cell, at which point he’s (successfully) executed a second time.

A less pious version of the story commencing from the same starting point of unmarksmanlike executioners has the Bab shot out of his rope and availing the smoke of the discharge to scramble out of the courtyard, only to be detained before he could make good an escape.

Inevitable disputes about the succession to this charismatic figure ensued his death, and several claimed to be the Bab’s Promised One. The main current of the tradition evolved into the Baha’i faith, accepting the claim of Baha’u’llah to this position. (A tiny remnant of Babism still persists who dispute Baha’u’llah’s legitimacy and still await the Promised One.)

July 9 is a major holiday for Baha’i, for whom the Bab is a revered figure.

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