It happened long ago, far from the Palouse. Multiple independent accounts agree on one fact: The execution didn’t work the first time. An estimated 10,000 observers witnessed it.
On July 9, 1850, a young man and his companion, bound together, were suspended by ropes in a courtyard of Tabriz, Persia. A regiment of soldiers, three ranks of 250, prepared to fire. At the order, the first rank fired and dropped to its knees, followed in turn by the second and third.
Smoke from 750 black-powder muskets briefly obscured the scene. As it dissipated, the companion was seen wounded. The ropes were severed, but the intended target was gone.
That target was Ali Muhammad, a 30-year-old merchant. Six years earlier, he had claimed to fulfill Shiite Muslim traditions concerning the Promised One of Islam.
He adopted the title “Bab,” the “Gate of God,” and his mission was to prepare the world for one greater than himself, a “universal manifestation of God,” who would bring peace to the world through the unification of humankind. Muslims believe Muhammad was the “Seal of the Prophets,” the final bearer of God’s revelation.
The Bab’s claim, and later his teachings, “were a threat to the very foundations of Islam.”
His announcement was immediately disputed by Islamic leaders. For six years they agitated for his execution, inciting riots among the people and seeking assistance from government officials.
But as the Bab’s persecution grew, so did his influence. While his message excited hope in some quarters, violence arose against him elsewhere. During those six years, the Bab was interrogated and imprisoned repeatedly. His disciples, known as Babis, were tortured and killed for what they believed.
On the day of his execution, the Bab was led “through crowded streets … to be executed in front of some 10,000 people.” Shortly after the execution failed, the Bab was found in his cell dictating to his amanuensis. The regimental commander refused a second attempt, so another regiment carried out the execution. This time it succeeded.
Two years later, a Babi “fired a round of shot from his pistol” at the Shah. The government had the excuse it needed: It unleashed a pogrom, hunting down, torturing, imprisoning and murdering thousands of Babis.
One, a nobleman named Mirza Husayn Ali, was bastinadoed and imprisoned. In his lightless underground dungeon, surrounded by murderers and thieves, he had a vision confirming that he was the one foretold by the Bab.
After four months, he was released and exiled, ultimately to Acre, a city in modern Israel.
While in exile, he adopted the title conferred upon him by the Bab, a title by which we know him today — Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i faith.
From these inauspicious beginnings, that faith has embraced the remotest places on Earth with a message of the unity of humankind, a concept with profound implications and ramifications.
Disclosure: I have been a Baha’i for more than half a century.
On July 10, Baha’is in thousands of locations around the world will commemorate that execution. (The actual date, like the solstices, shifts occasionally.)
Two years ago, Baha’is celebrated the bicentenary of Baha’u’llah’s birth in October 1817. A similar observance this October will honor the bicentenary of the Bab’s birth in 1819. The birthdays are observed on consecutive days.
The significance of these two births is reflected in the emergence of a new civilization from shards of the old. As people of disparate cultures and nationalities recognize the oneness and essential unity of humankind, that civilization is sprouting and growing around the Earth — including the fertile soil of the Palouse.
Pete Haug’s eclectic interests and several careers drew him across the U.S. and into China with his wife before retiring south of Colfax. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.