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A short outline of Baha’u’llah’s life
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A short outline of Baha’u’llah’s life

by Alison Elizabeth Marshall

Baha'u'llah was born in the city of Tehran, Iran, in 1817. His given name was Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri. The name 'Baha'u'llah' is an Arabic title meaning 'Glory of God'[1] that Baha’u’llah adopted as an adult. Baha'u'llah's family was from the village of Takur in the district of Nur, which is situated to the north of Tehran. Baha'u'llah's father, Mirza Abbas Nuri (Mirza Buzurg), had four wives and three concubines to whom he had 12 surviving children.[2] He held high office in the Iranian government until he became a victim of political intrigue and lost his position in 1835. He died in 1839 and Baha’u’llah became the head of the household.

In 1844, when Baha'u'llah was 27, a person named Siyyid Ali Muhammad (the Bab), from the city of Shiraz, made a private declaration to a guest who was seeking enlightenment that he, the Bab, was a prophet inspired with a divine message. The Bab’s writings and message are complex, but the gist of what he had to say was that humanity was entering a new age in its spiritual evolution and that his appearance marked the beginning of that process. He said that his principal role at the dawn of this new age was to bring news of, and prepare people for, the imminent appearance of the Promised One whose writings and teachings would be the focal centre of this new age. Over the following five years (1844-1849), news of the Bab’s message spread throughout Iran and became very popular. Baha'u'llah became a Babi in 1844 and brought many members of his family into the new religion. But the widespread popularity of the Babi movement was a threat to the country’s civil and religious authorities. The government imprisoned the Bab in mountain fortresses in the far north of Iran and, in a heresy trial, the clergy tried to discredit him and make him renounce his claims. In hot-spots throughout the country, the Babis came into armed conflict with the authorities. Finally, the government took advantage of a lull in the Bab's popular support and had him executed by firing squad in 1850.

In 1852, some Babis seeking revenge for the Bab's execution attempted to assassinate the Shah of Iran, Nasiru'd-Din Shah. The attempt failed and the Shah sustained only minor pellet shot wounds. Nevertheless, the Shah was incensed and afraid, believing that the Babis wanted to overthrow him. He ordered a massacre of the Babi community. Baha'u'llah was arrested, bastinadoed and imprisoned in the infamous Tehran dungeon known as the Siyah Chal (Black Pit). Originally, this dungeon held the water for the public bath, but by this time it was used to hold criminals, mostly on death row. Its cell was three floors underground and about 20 metres long. Prisoners lay on the floor in two rows, facing each other, with their feet shackled to the floor and their necks in heavy chains. While Baha'u'llah was incarcerated there, he experienced the first visions that inspired the message he would later proclaim in his writings. In one of his letters, he says that, while he lay sleepless on the floor of the cell, he heard a sweet voice above him and, when he looked up, he saw a celestial woman in the air in front of him. He says that her being was full of joy and that she was addressing the whole of humanity with the news that he was “the best-beloved of the worlds” and “the beauty of God”.[3] 

Baha'u'llah was released from the Siyah Chal after four months because the authorities could not prove he was involved in the assassination attempt. They ordered his exile and he chose to go to Baghdad, Iraq, where he settled for 10 years. At that time, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire and was ruled by Sultan Abdu'l-Aziz. The Iranian government was unhappy about Baha'u'llah living so close to its border and pressured the Ottomans to have him moved. Eventually, the Ottoman government relented and, in 1863, 'invited' Baha'u'llah to live in its capital, Istanbul (Constantinople). Before leaving on the four-month journey to Istanbul, Baha'u'llah rented a garden on the outskirts of Baghdad, where he stayed for 12 days. On the first day, he announced to his close family and friends that he was the Promised One that the Bab said would bring the full glory of the new day in humanity's spiritual evolution. This first, open declaration took place on April 21, 1863. Baha'is call it the First Day of Ridvan[4] (Paradise). It marks the culmination of the Babi religion, which lasted 19 years, and the beginning of the religion known today as the Baha'i Faith.

Baha'u'llah arrived in Istanbul on August 16 1863. But he was there for only four months when, as a result of further pressure from the Iranian government, the Ottoman authorities ordered him to move again. This time they wanted him to shift to Edirne (Turkey), 230 kms north-west of Istanbul on the far edge of Ottoman territory. Baha'u'llah was angry and adamant he would not go. He made his position clear to Haji Mirza Safa, a close confidant of the Iranian ambassador, to whom Baha’u’llah is reported to have said: "We, few that we are, will stand our ground, until every one of us meets a martyr's death”. Baha’u’llah knew that his innocence was obvious and saw the situation as a golden opportunity to take a stand against the persistent injustices. However, Baha'u'llah's half-brother, Mirza Yahya (Subh-i Azal), and a few others were more concerned about the possible consequences of refusing to go. They tried to convince Baha'u'llah to change his mind. Baha'u'llah never altered his view on the matter, but agreed to go against his better judgement.[5] 

Baha'u'llah lived in Edirne for just under five years. During this time, he made public his claim to be the Promised One the Bab had spoken of. He wrote letters to many Babis in Iran telling them who he was and sent epistles to world rulers, such as Queen Victoria, Napoleon III of France, Alexander II of Russia and Pope Pius IX. But his life was marred by his younger half-brother, MIrza Yahya, who considered himself to be the Bab’s successor due to the Bab’s assigning him the responsibility to “preserve what hath been revealed in the Bayan”.[6] And, in fact, there was something of an understanding among Babis that Mirza Yahya was the leader of the Babi community. As such, Baha’u’llah’s open claims to be the Promised One were received by Mirza Yahya as a threat and he and his close ally Siyyid Muhammad Isfahani deeply resented Baha’u’llah’s increasing popularity. Mirza Yahya invited Baha’u’llah to dinner and succeeded in poisoning and nearly killing him. He and Siyyid Muhammad also made false accusations about Baha’u’llah to the Ottoman authorities, for example, saying that Baha’u’llah was laying up arms for a rebellion.

The Ottomans were influenced by these false reports and were nervous that Baha'u'llah's claims to be the founder of a new religion would cause them trouble. One morning, out of the blue, soldiers surrounded his house and would not let anyone leave - even for food and water. The authorities detained the Baha'is, took possession of their property and auctioned it off the next day. Over the following week, Baha'u'llah and his followers prepared to leave. Nineteen days later, on August 31 1868, they arrived in the city of Akka, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (now in northern Israel). At that time, it was a part of the Ottoman province of Syria and was used as a prison-city for criminals and political prisoners. Initially, Baha'u'llah and his companions were housed in the city's citadel. The conditions were appalling. There was no clean water and the prisoners were given very little food. Most of them fell ill from diseases such as malaria, dysentery and typhoid. The authorities would not allow a doctor to attend them and three died.[7]

After nine years, the Sultan's decree to imprison Baha'u'llah had become a dead letter. Baha'u'llah moved out of Akka into the neighbouring countryside, where he lived until his death in 1892. During this time, He made a few visits to the nearby city of Haifa, which today is the location of the world centre of the Baha'i community.[8]

[1] The title is made up of two words: Baha’, meaning glory, beauty, splendor; and Allah, meaning God.

[2] Peter Smith, A Concise Encyclopedia of the Baha’i Faith, One World, Oxford, 2000, p 261.

[3] Baha’u’llah, Suriy-i-Haykal, in Summons of the Lord of Hosts,

[4] The word “Ridvan” is pronounced “Rizvan”.

[5] These details have been taken from H Balyuzi: Baha'u'llah: the King of Glory, pp 201-203.

[6] Peter Smith, A Concise Encyclopedia of the Baha’i Faith, One World, Oxford, 2000, p 53.

[7] J Mazidi: One With All the Earth, Kalimat Press, 2003, p45.

[8] For an excellent biography of Baha’u’llah, see Moojan Momen, Baha’u’llah. A Short Biography, Oneworld, Oxford, 2007.