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Babism

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Babism

    A revivalist Shi'i movement of the 1840s, Babism was founded by an Iranian merchant named Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi . In 1844 at the age of 25, Shirazi claimed leadership of a Shi'i school of thought known as Shaykhiyah, which had followers in Iran and Iraq. Although he lacked formal religious training, Shirazi declared himself Bab (gateway to knowledge), a traditional term for an individual acting on behalf of an imam. Babism emphasized innate (or inborn) knowledge over clerical training, strict observance of Islamic law, and the imminent return of the Hidden Imam, or messiah. The movement gained wide support among merchants, government officials, and other social groups that were traditionally secular, or nonreligious.

    Traditionalist Shi'i clerics opposed Babi teachings and had Shirazi placed under house arrest. In 1848 he announced that he was the Hidden Imam and that he had begun a new religious era. A series of bloody clashes with Iranian troops nearly wiped out the Babi leadership. Executed in 1850 , Shirazi left behind a body of writings that his followers regarded as divine.

    Persecution of the Babis in Iran intensified after a failed attempt to assassinate the shah in 1852 . A group of survivors fled to Baghdad, where two brothers founded separate strands of what came to be known as Middle Babism. Mirza Yahya , the designated successor of the Bab, based his teachings on Babi doctrines. Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri , however, gained a wider following among those inside and outside the sect with a new and simpler revelation—one more easily understood by laypersons. This movement gradually evolved into the Baha'i faith.

    Babism was the last of a series of movements that began in the Middle Ages calling for a revival of radical Shi'i values. It was the only one, however, whose teachings evolved into a religious system, Baha'i, that extended beyond Islam. Many Muslim historians consider it a failed attempt at social and religious reform and a modern heresy.

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