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Shrine of the BábOn 17 Raḥmat each year (9 July in 2016), we remember the day in 1850 when the Báb (whose name means “The Gate”) was martyred. A century later Shoghi Effendi called it “the most dramatic, the most tragic event” in the whole of Bahá’í history – an honour that presumably stands today, 165 years after the event.

The Báb’s life foreshadowed Bahá’u’lláh’s. In 19th century Persia He announced that He was a religious teacher prophesied in the scripture of other religions, and that another even greater Prophet was to come soon after. His teachings very quickly attracted great interest and within a few years he had up to a million followers, from all walks of life. Persia’s priests and government saw Him as a huge threat to their power, and a crackdown on the young Faith was not long coming. The Báb was imprisoned in a remote corner of northwest Persia, while Bábis were caught up in armed struggles all around the country and many died appalling deaths. But the ministers and priests began to think the only way to destroy the movement was to destroy its Leader, and they set out to kill Him. They ordered that the Báb be transferred from the bleak fortress in Chihriq, where He was being held prisoner, to the army barracks in nearby Tabriz.

The Báb Arrives in Tabriz

The day before the Báb’s execution, early in the morning, the Báb and his companions were led through the streets of Tabriz in chains. A crowd massed round them on the way to the barracks, hurling insults and throwing stones at their faces. Not far from the courtyard, a Bábi called Muhammad-'Aliy-i-Zunuzi, surnamed Anis, burst through the crowd and begged the Báb to allow him be martyred with Him. The Báb said, “Arise, and rest assured that you will be with Me. Tomorrow you shall witness what God has decreed.” Two other friends of the youth also forced their way through the crowd and pledged their loyalty, and they were all imprisoned in the same cell. That night, the Báb appealed to His friends: “Tomorrow will be the day of My martyrdom. Would that one of you might now arise and, with his own hands, end My life. I prefer to be slain by the hand of a friend rather than by that of the enemy.” The very thought brought tears to His disciples’ eyes. But Muhammad-‘Ali jumped up, offering to do anything the Báb desired. The others protested in shock, but the Báb announced that as the young man was truly devoted, tomorrow he would be martyred with the Bab just as he wished.

The next morning, just before He was taken to receive His death warrant from the ruling priests, the Báb sat with His secretary and close companion, Siyyid Husayn, giving His final instructions to him. Before He had finished the prison officer entered and shouted at Siyyid Husayn for holding up the proceedings. The Báb replied, “Not until I have said to him all those things that I wish to say can any earthly power silence Me. Though all the world be armed against Me, yet shall it be powerless to deter Me from fulfilling, to the last word, My intention.” The prison officer separated the two nonetheless.

The task of execution was given to a colonel called Sam Khan and his regiment. Sam Khan was a Christian from Armenia and he did not share the Persian government’s hostility for the Báb. The fame and reverence of the Báb led him to fear he might be killing a holy man, and he was reluctant to carry through the execution. The Báb told him that he had nothing to fear, reportedly saying, “Follow your instructions, and if your intention be sincere, the Almighty is surely able to relieve you of your perplexity.” Sam Khan went ahead as planned.

The Execution

At noon that day, the Báb and his companion were hung by their arms from ropes attached to the wall of the barracks, in front of a firing squad of 750 guns, split into three groups. Atop the roofs of the barracks buildings and nearby houses a crowd of around 10,000 people gathered to watch the extraordinary figure being executed. Each of the three groups of 250 guns fired in turn. The smoke was dense. When the air had cleared there was no sign of the Báb, He had apparently disappeared. His friend, meanwhile, was standing alone and unhurt with his ropes cut. The crowd went into uproar. The military officers frantically searched for the Báb, and found Him finishing His conversation with Siyyid Husayn in the same nearby room where He had been interrupted before. As soon as the prison guard entered, the Báb told him, “I have finished My conversation with Siyyid Husayn. Now you may proceed to fulfil your intention.” The guard was so dumbfounded that he walked out and immediately resigned his job, while Sam Khan ordered his men to leave the barracks and refused to have any further part in the affair. But the colonel of the bodyguard volunteered his own regiment as a replacement.

The Báb and His companion were again suspended from the barrack wall and 750 guns fired on them. This time the bullets riddled the two bodies until they were apparently a single mass of flesh and bone. The Báb’s last words had been these:

“Had you believed in Me, O wayward generation, every one of you would have followed the example of this youth, who stood in rank above most of you, and willingly would have sacrificed himself in My path. The day will come when you will have recognised Me; that day I shall have ceased to be with you.”

The moment the shots were fired, a violent gale rose over the city and a dust whirlwind darkened the sky from noon until night.

In a turn of fate that has often characterised Bahá’í history, the people who harmed the Báb’s Faith came to sorry ends themselves. The officers of the regiment who carried out the execution together with a third of its soldiers died in an earthquake the same year, when a wall collapsed on top of them. The other two-thirds of the regiment were all executed in front of a firing squad in Tabriz, just like the Báb, after a failed mutiny a few years later.

From a Ditch to a Shrine

The night of the execution, the mangled remains of the two victims were taken outside the city gates and dumped by the moat to be eaten by wild animals. To prevent the Bábis removing the bodies and giving them a dignified burial, a total of 40 soldiers kept watch by the bodies outside the city. But one of the Bábis, Haji Sulayman Khan, who was staying with a local mayor, was so determined to rescue the bodies and risk his life that the mayor enlisted one of his assistants for the job instead. In the middle of the night, the mayor’s assistant took the bodies from under the guards’ noses while they slept, and laid them in a specially-made wooden casket in a safe hiding place nearby. When Bahá’u’lláh heard about this development he instructed Haji Sulayman Khan to bring the bodies to a local shrine in Tehran and there they were hidden.

From then on, the Báb’s remains had to be kept a close secret to keep them out of the hands of the Faith’s enemies. Whenever danger threatened or word got out about their whereabouts, Bahá’u’lláh, or later ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, would have the casket moved to a new location. It was a full sixty years before the Báb’s remians were finally laid in the ground. In that time the bodies were moved around over a dozen hiding places: under the floorboards of a shrine; between the walls of an abandoned temple; concealed within various Bahá’ís’ houses – a secret from even the Bahá’í community – until at last they were laid to a proper rest in Haifa in 1909, by a tearful ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. It was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s vision that a string of terraced gardens would lead up the mountain to a shrine for the Báb and beyond to the mountaintop.

The Martyrdom of the Báb

17 Raḥmat
(10 July)