Peter Smith

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The Babi Movement: 25 Propositions

This is a list of ’25 propositions’ which Moojan Momen and myself appended as a basis for further discussion to a now ancient (1986) paper on the Babi Movement.

The paper details are: Peter Smith and Moojan Momen. ‘The Babi Movement: A Resource Mobilization Perspective‘. In In Iran: Studies in Babi and Bahá’í History vol. 3, ed. Peter Smith, pp. 33-93. Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1986.


In considering Babism as a social movement, we have resisted the temptation to present high-level hypotheses as to origins and development. We will doubtless succumb to this temptation elsewhere. But for the present we have sought to establish some of the basic questions concerning how the movement developed, rather than address the more intractable issues of why it developed.

This is not to devalue these wider questions. We recognize their importance. As a contribution to this work of theoretical analysis we present twenty-five propositions regarding the religious, political and social significance of the Bábí religion. We regard these propositions as basic elements in the construction of higher level theories. We have and will write in support of these propositions elsewhere. Some are supported in the present article. This propositional form lends itself to ready falsification by those who would disagree with us.

A. Religious Factors:

1. The Bábí movement was a phenomenon within Shi’ism. It made no significant impact beyond the confines of Shi’ism.

2. The movement carried a strong religious charge. It gave expression to a number of powerfully evocative Shi’i motifs. Its leaders spoke to the religious concerns of the day and presented (some) Bábí beliefs in a manner that was accessible to religiously inclined contemporaries.

3. More controversial beliefs were initially concealed from both non-Bábís and from the Bábí rank-and-file.

4. At a time of increasing emphasis on orthodoxy (as defined by the higher ranking ulama), the movement gave voice to elements of the popular and dissenting religious traditions.

5. The movement’s leaders initially called for a religious reformation and condemned clerical corruption.

6. Local variation in appeal was probably great.

7. The movement provided a comprehensive system of meaning and could ultimately provide an alternative sense of identity to Shi’ism. Initially, however, most Bábís probably saw themselves as true Shi’is rather than as members of a separate religion.

8. There is little evidence for a contemporary crisis of meaning in Iran. Other than the possible effects of repeated military defeat at the hands of the infidel Russians, there had been no traumatic challenges to the indigenous Shi’i religious tradition. The intellectual impact of the West was as yet extremely limited.

B. Political Factors:

1. The Bábís were explicitly political in their demands. The Báb’s claim to Mahdihood challenged the legitimacy of all existing institutions. Their attempt to establish a theocracy entailed the displacement or co-option of the existing regime.

2. The government perceived the Bábís as insurrectionaries and suppressed the movement accordingly.

3. Although there were individual Bábís who were insurrectionary, it has not yet been established that the Bábís, as a community, were consciously and preparedly insurrectionary. If they were, then their attempt was poorly coordinated for such a well-organized movement.

4. Both Bábí radicalism and militancy and the outbreak of violence are best seen as part of a developing and interactive process.

5. Local factors were crucial. Where large Bábí communities developed, they were inevitably drawn into the complex web of communal politics.

6. Prepolitical discontent does not appear to have been a significant factor. Nonreligious forms of political protest (such as insurrection) were readily available.

7. Anti-Qajar sentiment does not appear to have become a factor until the Bábís had become alienated from the state.

8. There is no convincing evidence to support the thesis that Babism was proto-nationalist in its appeal.

C. Socio-economic Factors:

1. Differential recruitment to the Bábí movement proceeded along social networks and along class lines. A wide cross-section of urban social groups was included, and in certain areas village groups were well represented. No effective contact was made with the nomadic tribes.

2. The thesis that Babism represented a form of bourgeois reformism is not well supported. Bábí laws favoring merchant interests were a late addition and do not appear to have contributed to the religion’s appeal.

3. “Modernistic” social reform was not a central part of Bahá’í teaching, albeit that there was some amelioration in the social laws regarding women.

4. The popular radicalism of the later Bábís may be seen as reflecting eschatologically heightened, but traditional Islamic, ideas of charity, equity, and the struggle against injustice.

5. The movement may have reflected opposition to the economic and political powers of the higher ulama.

6. Divisions among Bábís between “radicals” and “conservatives” proceeded on class lines. The more affluent laity and the more established clerics were generally the more conservative.

7. Babism expanded throughout the Shi’i heartland of Iran. It was not an expression of regional sentiment.

8. Mid-nineteenth-century Iran was experiencing a profound and multi-faceted economic crisis, but in what manner this may have been linked to the emergence of the movement remains unclear.

9. The Bábís were not anti-European. The Báb commended the adoption of various aspects of European life and manners.


One comment on “The Babi Movement: 25 Propositions

  1. Pingback: The Babi Movement: A Resource Mobilization Perspective [BRM 1] | Peter Smith's Notes on Baha'i Studies

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This entry was posted on October 5, 2013 by in Baha'i Studies and tagged .
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