MARTYRDOM AND THE BAHA'I FAITH
"Great is the blessedness of those whose blood
Thou hast chosen wherewith to water the Tree
of Thine affirmation, and thus to exalt
Thy holy and immutable Word."
-The Báb (Siyyid Ali Muhammad, 1819-1850)
Martyr-Prophet of the Bahá'í Faith
In the beginning days of every world religion, the new Faith has been received with eagerness and joy only by a relative few. Most respond with apathy, suspicion, even hatred. The new Faith suffers persecution at the hands of the old, and many believers in God’s infant Faith are called on to sacrifice their lives that God’s teaching for the new Day might be established in the world. The shining examples of these martyrs inspire their fellow believers and the world at large. Their acts of selflessness offer proof of the spiritual power of God’s new message for humanity.
The Bahá'í Faith, in its brief history, has seen over 20,000 of its brightest lights extinguished by the intolerance of Fundamentalists. Most of these occurred in the early years of the Faith’s existence, and the site of the greatest persecution has been Iran, where the Faith was born. Such luminous and revered figures as Mulla Husayn, Quddus, Vahid, and Tahirih were among the early martyrs.
Martyrdom is not a station to be gained through philosophical understanding or physical courage. It is a condition of the spirit, a freedom and transcendence above the material, which the martyrs see as a divine gift. Old and young, male and female, erudite and illiterate—all are represented in the hall of the martyrs of Bahá.
THE STORY OF BADÍ
“O King, I come unto thee from Sheba
with a weighty message!”
Bahá’u’lláh had written a Tablet for the Shah of Iran, which for years remained undelivered. Bahá'u'lláh said the one to carry the Tablet had not yet been created. Aqa Buzurg was a youth of 17, a “handful of dust” who came into the presence of Bahá'u'lláh and became a new creation. Bahá'u'lláh gave him the title Badí – wonderful. Badí traveled on foot all the way from Akka, Palestine to Tehran, Persia to deliver the Tablet. On his arrival, he was brutally tortured and finally killed. Bahá'u'lláh greatly mourned his loss and named Badí the “Pride of the Martyrs.” (Taherzadeh III, 175, 179)
THE MARTYRDOM OF THE BÁB
In July of 1850, the Báb and one of His faithful followers were suspended before a firing squad of 750 soldiers in Tabriz, Iran while thousands looked on. He fearlessly proclaimed “O wayward generation! Had you believed in Me every one of you would have followed the example of this youth… and would have willingly 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." (Nabil, 514)
THE STORY OF RÚHU'LLÁH
According to Bahá'u'lláh, spiritual understanding and wisdom is not dependent on learning but on detachment. Rúhu’llah was the 12-year old son of an eminent Bahá'í named Varqá. Many stories highlight what remarkable insight he had.
One day, in the city of Zanjan, a Mulla was riding on his donkey through town and he saw Rúhu'llah and his brother he asked their names. Rúhu'llah told him. (Rúhu'llah means “The Spirit of God” and is a title for Jesus Christ) The Mulla told him, “That is a great name. Christ was named Ruhu’llah, and He used to raise the dead and give them life.” Rúhu'llah said, “Sir, if you slow down the pace of your donkey, I too shall raise you from the dead and give you a new life.” The Mulla hurried away, saying, “You two must be Babi children.”
Later, Rúhu'llah witnessed his father’s body cut into pieces before him. The boy was then asked to recant. He refused and said he only wished to join his father. He was then strangled to death. (Taherzadeh IV, 63-64)
THE STORY OF MÍRZÁ MIHDÍ
“Glorified art Thou, O Lord, My God!
Thou seest me in the hands of Mine enemies,
and My son bloodstained before Thy face...
I have, O my Lord, offered up that which
Thou hast given Me, that Thy servants may
be quickened and all that dwell on earth
be united.” — Bahá'u'lláh
Mírzá Mihdí, known as the Purest Branch, was the son of Bahá'u'lláh. During the time that the family was imprisoned in Akka, he fell through a skylight in the roof, landing on a wooden crate, which pierced his ribs. Bleeding, he begged Bahá'u'lláh that his life might be offered up so that the heavy restrictions of the imprisonment might be eased. Though it caused great sorrow to Himself and the family, Bahá'u'lláh accepted his sacrifice and exalted it to the rank of the great sacrifices of past Dispensations, such as Abraham’s offering of His son, Jesus’ Crucifixion and the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. (Taherzadeh III, 211, 213)
While the Bahá'í Faith exalts the station of its martyrs, martyrdom is by no means something that Baha’is are encouraged to pursue. As one scholar states it: “In most cases, Bahá'u'lláh discouraged the believers from seeking martyrdom. He has, in His Tablets, urged the friends to protect their lives by all means possible, so as to be able to teach the Cause of God to others. Indeed, Bahá'u'lláh has given the station of martyr to those who teach the Cause with wisdom.” (Taherzadeh IV, 57)
THE STORY OF KEITH RANSOM KEHLER
Keith Ransom Kehler (above), the “first and distinguished” American Bahá'í martyr, died from disease and not from any persecution. Still her sacrificial deeds earned her the title of martyr. After a trip around the world in the early 1930s spreading the Bahá'í teachings, Keith landed in Haifa in 1932, where Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, directed her to go to Iran to persuade the Shah to allow Bahá’í literature to come into the country. For a year she championed the rights of the Bahá'ís fearlessly, but in the end she had no luck and in fact things got worse. In the fall of 1933 she fell sick and died of smallpox in Isfahan. Shoghi Effendi said she offered up her precious life in sacrifice “on Persian soil, for Persia’s sake.” With a poetic twist of Fate, she was buried in the same cemetery in Isfahan as two other great Bahá'í martyrs, known as the 'King of Martyrs' and the 'Beloved of Martyrs.' (Ruhe-Schoen, 164)
PERSECUTION OF BAHÁ'ÍS AFTER 1979 ISLAMIC REVOLUTION
The current campaign of systematic persecution began with the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, virtually the entire leadership of the Iranian Bahá’í community was arrested and executed or disappeared. In all, more than 200 Bahá’ís have been killed or executed since the Islamic Republic’s founding, and nearly 1,000 Bahá’ís have been imprisoned. Thousands of Bahá’ís also were fired from jobs, deprived of pensions, and excluded from education. Bahá’í properties, sacred sites, and cemeteries were confiscated and destroyed. All manner of rights to religious freedom, worship and assembly were abrogated. ("Persecution," Bahai.org)
THE TEN WOMEN MARTYRS OF SHIRAZ
“I wish I had not only one life but a thousand
lives to give in the path of God.” - Mona
In Shiraz in 1983, ten Bahá’í women, arrested and charged with the “crime” of teaching religious classes for children and youth, were hanged, one by one, from the oldest to the youngest, as the others stood by. Prisoners who watched the 1983 hangings said that the executioners had hoped to force the younger women to recant their Faith, or even simply to say they were not Bahá’ís. None did, all preferring to die rather than to renounce their beliefs. Ranging in age from 16 to 57, the ten Bahá’í women were led to the gallows in succession. Authorities apparently hoped that as each saw the others slowly strangle to death, they would renounce their own faith. But according to eyewitness reports, the women went to their fate singing and chanting, as though they were enjoying a pleasant outing. ("Hanged")
IRAN'S CURRENT PROJECT OF "CULTURAL CLEANSING"
While the executions of Bahá'ís in Iran has tapered off in recent years, the Iranian government has a long term strategy of destroying the Bahá'í community while avoiding international attention. The Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council has secretly called for a series of restrictions on the access of Bahá’ís to education and livelihood that is nothing less than a blueprint for the strangulation of the Bahá’í community. ("Introduction to The Bahá'í Question")
For more information, as well as updates, a good website to begin with is http://bahai.org/dir/worldwide/persecution.
Nabil-i-Zarandi, The Dawnbreakers. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1932.
Roohizadegan, Olya. Olya's Story. Oxford: One World Publications, 1993.
Ruhe-Schoen, Janet. A Love Which Does Not Wait. Riviera Beach, FL: Palabra Publications, 1998.
Taherzadeh, Adib. Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. Vol 4. Oxford: George Ronald, 1987.
"Hanged for teaching 'Sunday school'" The Bahá'í Question. 2006. Office of Public Information, Bahá'í International Community. 4 Jan 2008. <http://question.bahai.org/004_1.php>
"Introduction" The Bahá'í Question. 2006. Office of Public Information, Bahá'í International Community. 4 Jan 2008. <http://question.bahai.org/001.php>
"Persecution" The Bahá'ís. 2006. Office of Public Information, Bahá'í International Community. 4 Jan 2008, <www.bahai.org/dir/worldwide/persecution>