Introduction by Juan Cole

The Azali-Baha'i Crisis of September, 1867

I present here the micro-history of a fateful weekend during which the Babi movement was definitively split into the Baha'i and Azali religions. While the event has been noted relatively briefly by a number of authors, there is no extended account that takes advantage of the whole range of available primary documentation for the crisis, or that attempts to weight these documents so as to arrive at a sound picture of the sequence of events and the roles and motives of the main players. The significance of the crisis for the definition of the Baha'i and Azali factions of Babism, and, indeed, for the development of the Baha'i faith as a separate religion, must also be considered. Beyond a concern with trying to establish which accounts are more reliable, and to reconstruct the train of events, I shall also be interested in the literary and religious symbolism used to make sense of the contest between Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri (1817-1892), known as Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i religion, and Mirza Yahya Nuri (d. 1912), known as Subh-i Azal, who said he was the vicar of the Bab.[1] Finally, I wish to come back at the end of the paper and to make some comments on the implications of my admittedly somewhat old-fashioned methodology for postmodern nervousness about 'master narratives' and polyvocality or the retention of multiple voices in the writing of history.

After the Bab was executed in 1850, the leadership of the movement became extremely fragmented, with many claimants to Babi leadership and to divinity putting themselves forward.[2] Sometimes in the 1850s, a single city would be split into three distinct Babi communities, each with a different 'divine' leader. The Nuri household of four brothers from a noble background, who were Babis, was one focus of leadership, and they seem to have made a self-conscious decision to put forward the youngest brother, Mirza Yahya Subh-i Azal, as a sort of first among equals, and to attempt to convince the generality of the Babis to look to them, and to Azal in particular, for leadership. (The household consisted of Mirza Yahya 'Azal' Nuri, Mirza Husayn Ali 'Baha'u'llah' Nuri, Mirza Musa 'Kalim' Nuri, and Mirza Muhammad Quli Nuri. Baha'u'llah was the treasurer for the household and for contributions received in Azal's name from believers; he also screened Azal's appointments and met with pilgrims when Azal was too concerned for his own security to do so.) Despite Azal's reclusive style of leadership, and despite continual behind-the-scenes conflicts between Azal and Baha'u'llah, they succeeded in presenting a relatively united front from their place of exile in Baghdad (1853-1863) and then for the first year or so of their sojourn in Edirne (Adrianople) in 1864 through the first half of 1865. As a result, most Babis back in Iraq and back in Iran came to accept Azal as the Bab's vicar by the early 1860s, though many of them also came to admire Baha'u'llah's mystical writings. The Nuris had the advantage of being in the Ottoman empire, where they could not be so easily further sanctioned or executed as were Babi leaders inside Iran. (Thus, Mirza Sa`id "Basir" Hindi, a claimant to leadership with great charisma, was executed by a government official in the early 1850s, and many Babi leaders died in regional conflicts and then in the pogrom of 1852 after the Babi attempt on the life of the shah. At least one rival claimant, Dayyan, was assassinated by an enraged partisan of Azal, who read one of Azal's works as having called for Dayyan to be struck down.) Among the increasingly pro-Azal Babis, there were a sprinkling of partisans of Baha'u'llah from the late 1850s, who saw him as the esoteric, real successor to the Bab, whereas they painted Azal as an exoteric figurehead. This sentiment was especially strong in Baghdad, but also could be found as a decidedly minority view in Iran.

Then, probably beginning in autumn of 1865 or winter of 1866, Baha'u'llah had gradually put forth an open claim of his own, infuriating Azal and his followers, such as Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani, both in Edirne and in Iran. Baha'u'llah reports that in the joint Babi household at the house of Amrullah, he overheard partisans of Azal plotting against him.[3] Salmani reports that Azal attempted to have Baha'u'llah assassinated in late winter of 1866.[4] As a result, Baha'u'llah broke up his household and moved away from Azal, cutting off contact with him. According to Salmani, in March and April of 1866, "Davish Sidq-Ali was directed to go to Azal's house every day and fetch whatever he asked. However, as soon as Azal was separated from the rest of us, and his 'brotherhood' was ended, Darvish refused to go to his house. 'After a thing like that,' he said, 'I cannot go there any more.'"[5] Baha'u'llah himself briefly withdrew from contact with any but his closest family, but after two months began receiving visitors again. In the subsequent year (summer 1866 to summer 1867), he wrote many tablets setting forth his new claims to be the return of the Bab and the promised one of the Babis, thus superseding any authority Azal might have had as the putative vicar of the Bab. (Baha'u'llah denied in this period that the Bab had ever actually appointed a vicar [vasi], though most Babis at that point believed Azal had been so appointed.) Many Babis still hoped for a reconciliation between the two brothers, whereas others had already begun choosing up sides.

By the late summer of 1867, the conflict between Baha'u'llah and Subh-i Azal had come to a head. The Baha'i accounts of the way in which the Tablet of the Divine Test (Lawh-i Mubahalih) came to be written by Baha'u'llah contain a number of discrepancies, but all agree that it was written in late August or in September of 1867, not long after Baha'u'llah had moved to the house of Izzat Aqa in a quarter of Edirne. Moreover, it came about as a result of a building conflict between the 'Baha'is' (Baha'u'llah and his partisans) and the 'Azalis' (his half-brother Mirza Yahya Subh-i Azal and his partisans). Only two years before, they had been at least outwardly united as Babis and most had recognized Azal as at least the first among equals among Babi leaders, and many saw him as much more. It is not possible to be sure of the exact date for these events. Mirza Javad Qazvini is the only one who gives a precise day, 26 Rabi` II 1284, corresponding to 27 August 1867.[6] However, several other reliable sources report the month as having been Jumada I, which coincided with September, 1867. Qazvini cannot have been right about the month. However, it strikes me as a little unlikely that an inaccurate date, as opposed to month, would have stuck in his mind. It is most tempting to conclude that Qazvini got the date right and the month wrong, and that the crisis occurred on 26 Jumada I, 1284, or 25 September 1867. This theory is given weight by the fact that 25 September that year did in fact fall on a Friday.

The accounts we have of the incident derive from a number of pens. I will weight very heavily two narratives of Mirza Aqa Jan Kashi, 'Khadimullah.'[7] He was an eyewitness to most of the events he recounted. It is impossible to date the composition of his accounts, for while they appear in tablets that presumably come from the 1880s, he could have been quoting much earlier diary entries. They were probably written, in any case, no more than 15 years after the event, and so are earlier than most other extant memoirs. Khadimullah had direct access, as well, to Baha'u'llah s memories of the events. One problem in documenting this fateful weekend is that Baha'u'llah had forbidden his partisans to come to the Sultan Selim mosque. Khadimullah, however, somehow received special dispensation to do so. Also extremely important is a contemporary letter, which appears to have been written in autumn, 1867, by Mirza Javad Qazvini, from whom we also have a much later brief narrative, translated by Browne.[8] Qazvini was literate and was on the scene, though he did not see everything with his own eyes since Baha'u'llah forbade his partisans to come to the mosque. His accounts often have the ring of truth to them and demonstrate firm knowledge of telling detail. I do not have access to most of the narrative of Nabil Zarandi, but I do have a paragraph on his attempt to deliver the tablet to Azal, and Nabil would also be weighted as important.[9] The account of Muhammad Ali Salmani, Baha'u'llah's barber and masseur, provides some interesting information, but suffers from the author not having been directly involved in the events (though he was in Edirne at the time), from his being illiterate, and from his writing decades after the fact. In particular, he appears to confuse two distinct persons named "Sayyid (or Mir) Muhammad," and he recounts some events that seem implausible and are unsupported by other sources. The least trustworthy account is that of Mirza Haydar Ali Isfahani in his Delight of Hearts (Bihjat as-Sudur), which is embellished by exaggeration and unbelievable details, of a sort that make me question whether he was still in Edirne when the incident occurred.[10] My suspicion is that he only heard much later oral retellings of it, which had added grandiose details that he reports uncritically. The main value of his brief passages on this subject lies in his revelation that Baha'u'llah went to the Mevlevi Sufi center after leaving the mosque, something that other sources do not mention, but which is at least plausible.

The earliest two published accounts we have are from an eyewitness, Khadimullah, Baha'u'llah s secretary, and are contained in two tablets issued on behalf of Baha'u'llah, so that his own memories are also being drawn upon. Late in the Akka period, it was apparently common for Baha'u'llah to suggest to Khadimullah the gist of what he should write, and then to review it, and make corrections and to add passages in his own words. Later Baha'i tradition has maintained that such tablets (Lawh-i Maqsud is a famous example) only employed this form as a literary device, and that the entire tablet was written by Baha'u'llah, some of it in the voice of Khadimullah. This theory strikes me as a little unlikely, however, and it seems more natural to accept that Khadimullah wrote the passages himself as an amanuensis, having been given general instructions by Baha'u'llah, and with the latter going over the final text before it was released.

The back story given by Khadimullah is that Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani, a partisan of Azal's, at some point came into conflict with Baha'u'llah.[11] Baha'u'llah informed him, "O Muhammad, you have no knowledge of the path of the prophets or the character of the pure ones." A few days later, he visited Baha'u'llah. He made some statement, which was not accepted. (It appears that he drew on a saying of a medieval mystic, but Khadimullah s description is oblique). A few days passed, and he again asked to come into Baha'u'llah's presence. He requested that Baha'u'llah order Azal not to write anything more: "For Aqa Muhammad Ali Isfahani asked a question about a verse of Persian poetry, and he could not understand its meaning." Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani, although he generally supported Azal, is said to have had a low opinion of his abilities to have manipulated him, and may have wondered whether he should see if he could develop a similar relationship with Baha'u'llah. Baha'u'llah said, "Sayyid, what business do you have with this impertinent meddling?"

In the end, Baha'u'llah banished him from his presence. Muhammad Ali Salmani appears to be referring to this incident when he writes that Baha'u'llah wrote a tablet for a newly-arrived Babi named Mirza Muhammad Kaziruni in which he "dismissed" a "Sayyid Muhammad," who is certainly Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani.[12] Salmani says that Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani was furious with Baha'u'llah at the time because the latter had virtually ordered him to leave Edirne, appointing for him a sum of money. "He has shed his poison on me," this Sayyid Muhammad is reported by Salmani to have said of Baha'u'llah. Salmani tended to mix up Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani with Mir Muhammad Kaziruni, and Khadimullah says that Baha'u'llah wrote the dismissal letter directly to Isfahani. He says Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani then went to Azal and, despite severe reservations about him, put himself out as an Azali for a while, until the two finally fell out. During this time, Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani was cultivating and meeting with about 70 other Babis who leaned toward Azal.[13] There were about 100 Iranian Babis in Edirne, so that about 30 were neutral or siding with Baha'u'llah around 1866-67. Salmani says that Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani complained to Azal that Baha'u'llah was claiming to be the embodiment of God's dominion, and that Sayyid Muhammad encouraged Azal to issue the challenge and make his own claims clear. Salmani writes that Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani:

went to Azal at the time of the separation and told him, "Our master, Baha'u'llah, now claims to be the embodiment of `Mine is My dominion,' and announces that all must be subject to his command. Here is his tablet revealed for me. What have you to say?"

Azal replied, "His Holiness the Exalted One, the Bab, appointed me as His successor (ja-nishin). The successor is myself."

"Don't confuse us," Mir Muhammad said. "You speak thus; he makes a claim that is absolute [or "universal": kulliyyih]. Go and sit down; settle the question between you."

"I am willing," Azal said. "I can vindicate my claim in any way he chooses."[14]

Salmani now implausibly has Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani serves as a mediator between Azal and Baha'u'llah in setting up the mosque meeting. This is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. Isfahani had already been banished from Baha'u'llah's presence, and so would not have been a welcome mediator. Moreover, Khadimullah makes it clear that the news of Azal's challenge reached Baha'u'llah at the last moment, and through other persons. Still, the identification of Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani as the instigator of the challenge is borne out by both Khadimullah and Nabil Zarandi (see below). Baha'i sources also are convinced that Azal only issued his challenge in the end because he and Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani were convinced that Baha'u'llah would never agree to meet him face to face after he had announced their separation more than a year before.[15]

Khadimullah reports that one Friday morning, Azal abruptly issued a document (sanad) calling for Baha'u'llah to meet him at the Sultan Selim mosque in Edirne that very afternoon, at which time both of them would face each other and call down ritual curses on one another, in hopes that God would send down a sign that would demonstrate the truth of one or the other. This custom, called mubahalih in Persian, is a very old one in the Middle East and appears to have evoked the contest between Moses and Pharaoh's magicians. The Iranian tobacconist Hasan Aqa Salmasi, who was not a Babi, was with Azal when he wrote the document and was responsible for spreading knowledge of it among the Iranian Babi community (many of whom frequented his shop). One who heard about the challenge was a recently-arrived Babi, Mir Muhammad Mukari Shirazi. He appears to have been sitting in the tobacconist's shop talking with the Azalis when his conversation turned to the conflict between Azal and Baha'u'llah, and Hasan Aqa told him about the recently-issued challenge.[16] Mukari, a caravan leader, was an old-time Babi who had accompanied the Bab to Mecca and had also been in the party that went with Baha'u'llah from Baghdad to Istanbul. Khadimullah says that it was only after the mubahalih document was issued that Mir Muhammad Mukari became aware of it. Some sources depict Mukari as fairly even-handed in his relations with Azal and Baha'u'llah, and he may initially have been one of those who hoped for a reconciliation.

Khadimullah reports that Mukari then went to the house of Izzat Aqa and informed Mirza Muhammad Quli, Baha'u'llah s half-brother, of the challenge. In a letter written from Edirne to his friends in Qazvin, Mirza Javad reports, "One day I was in the house of God, when I noticed that someone had arrived in the receiving room. He said, 'I met with the idolaters [Azalis]. After some conversation they made a decision and wrote out a document.'" Mukari did not have the document with him, clearly, but was reporting it. Mirza Muhammad Quli told Mukari that there was no need for the Bab's camel driver (jiludar) to actually present the document. Rather, they were ready to appear. Qazvini says he instructed Mukari to go and tell Azal and his companions to come. Khadimullah depicts Mukari as actually meeting with Baha'u'llah at that point, and says that Baha'u'llah himself told him: "Go and inform the gentleman that I am waiting in the mosque."[17] Baha'u'llah had been preparing to take his midday rest, according to another account by Mirza Javad Qazvini. Instead, he set out that very hour for the Sultan Selim mosque. Mirza Javad reports of Baha'u'llah that: "from the moment of his exit from the house until he entered the above-mentioned Mosque, in the streets and markets, he continued to utter verses in an audible voice so that all who saw him and heard the verses were astonished."[18] In his contemporary letter of the time, Mirza Javad describes the scene with similar language, but mentions that Baha'u'llah addressed his verses to Mukari. Since, however, Mukari had been sent to inform the Azalis that Baha'u'llah had accepted the challenge, it seems more likely that he met back up with Baha'u'llah later at the mosque. One source says that when Mukari arrived at Azal's house, his wife came out and said, "It will be today."[19]

When Baha'u'llah arrived at the mosque, the preacher was preaching a sermon. Mirza Haydar Ali reports that the preacher fell silent on Baha'u'llah s entry, "either by choice or because he forgot what he had to say." Baha'u'llah took his seat on the mosque floor amongst the worshippers and gestured for the preacher to continue his sermon. "Time passed and everyone expected Azal to arrive also, but to their great surprise he never appeared."[20] News that Baha'u'llah was waiting at the mosque spread among the network of Babis. Khadimullah reports that the news reached him while he was shopping for household goods at the bazaar, and that he immediately set off for the Sultan Selim. He saw that a crowd of curious onlookers lined the way near the mosque and they gestured toward it, indicating that "Seyh Efendi" (as Baha'u'llah was known in Edirne) had gone that way. Inside, he found that the worship ceremony was over and Baha'u'llah was sitting alone with Mir Muhammad Mukari, reciting a stream of verses that had reduced the other to tears. Baha'u'llah had forbidden the other Babis from attending.[21] At length, Baha'u'llah dispatched Mukari to remind Azal again of the appointment, saying "O Muhammad, go to them and say, come, with your ropes and your staff."[22]

According to Khadimullah, Azal replied to Mukari directly that the confrontation would have to be postponed. Khadimullah dramatizes Mukari's attempt to convince Azal to come to the mosque, having him say, "You yourself chose these arrangements. You stated a preference for this matter. You wrote a document saying that whoever did not appear today is false and far from the truth. Then how can any word of yours be depended upon?"[23] Mirza Haydar Ali Isfahani reports that Azal said he was ill.[24] Mukari returned, unsuccessful, to the Sultan Selim mosque, rejoining Baha'u'llah there, and delivering Azal's message. Qazvini says that Mir Muhammad arrived saying, "Mirza Yahya asks to be excused because today it is not possible for him to present himself. He therefore begs you to appoint another day, and to write a note to this effect, signed and sealed, that whoever does not present himself at the appointed time is an impostor."[25]

Salmani says that "Mir Muhammad" (whom we know to be Mukari here, but whom Salmani may have confused with Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani) went back and forth to Azal's house two or three times, and that Azal at one point promised to come, but never did.[26] Salmani is probably right that Mukari made two trips, one after he had met Mirza Muhammad Quli at Baha'u'llah s house, and one from the mosque later that afternoon. However, the detail from the contemporary letter by Qazvini that in response to the first trip, that one of Azal's wives had come to the door and said the contest would occur that day, rings true and might help explain Azal's seeming inconsistency if she was unaware that he was ill (or that he had decided to play ill, if that is what he did). After a while, Baha'u'llah, Mukari and Khadimullah, who had joined him, said ritual prayers (salat).[27] Baha'u'llah waited till sundown, but Azal never arrived. (In the Muslim world, sundown marked the beginning of the new day, so at that point the date appointed by Azal in his initial challenge passed.)

Baha'u'llah walked with Mukari and Khadimullah through Edirne's streets that dusk, no doubt feeling rather triumphant. He is said by Khadimullah to have delivered a long Arabic sermon to Mukari as they walked in the lanes, proclaiming himself the return of the Bab and of the Prophet Muhammad, stating his fearlessness before both clergy and kings, and celebrating his victory over Azal, whose boasting had been revealed to be empty. Although Khadimullah says that "everyone" heard the sermon, it was in classical Arabic, which no one in the street could have understood except the more educated Iranian Babis or those who had spent a long time in Baghdad, and these appear not to have been present. It so happened that, on the route, Baha'u'llah passed the tobacco shop of Hasan Aqa Salmasi, which was frequented by partisans of Azal. Hasan Aqa had been the first to know of Azal's initial challenge and had been responsible for spreading news of it among the Iranian Babis in Edirne. Baha'u'llah stopped at Hasan Aqa's store and told him, "Based on the decision that the gentleman had announced in his proclamation, the countenance of the All-Merciful presented himself, whereas the idolaters repudiated their own agreement."[28]

As he continued on his route, Baha'u'llah passed the Mevlevi tekye or Sufi center and decided to join the chanting, dancing, whirling mystics to celebrate his day of triumph. Mevlevis were followers of Mawlana Jalalu'd-Din Rumi and their twirling dances to the accompaniment of chants from the Mathnavi or mystical "couplets" of Rumi made them known in the West as the "whirling dervishes." Referring to Rumi, whom many Iranians look upon as a significant spiritual teacher, Baha'u'llah quipped, "Mawlana needs a visit from us."[29] Baha'u'llah went into the building. Mirza Haydar Ali says that there were many others, including city notables, around Baha'u'llah at this point, but we cannot be sure that was true. Indeed, it is not clear whether Mukari and Khadimullah were still with Baha'u'llah at this point. Here, too, the dervishes are reported to have ceased their dancing and chanting on Baha'u'llah's entrance, until he and his companions were seated and he gestured for the festivities to resume. Salmani, in his homely style, says that when Baha'u'llah finally reached home afterwards, he commented, "The fellow said he would appear. But there was no sign of him."[30] As soon as he arrived home that Friday evening, Baha'u'llah wrote out the Surat al-Mubahalah or Tablet of the Divine Test. Calligraphed by `Abdu'l-Baha, it summarized some of the discourse he had delivered to Mukari while walking down the street. It fixed a further two days in which Azal might fulfill his challenge, Sunday and Monday, during which Baha'u'llah would be at Sultan Selim mosque waiting for him.[31]

Mirza Haydar Ali wrote in his memoirs that Baha'u'llah himself pointed out the next day how, on two occasions that Friday, worshippers had fallen silent at Baha'u'llah's entrance. This coincidence was clearly held by the Baha'is to be an auspicious sign. That Saturday, Baha'u'llah issued the Tablet of the Divine Test to Hasan Aqa the tobacconist. He entrusted delivery of this tablet to Muhammad 'Nabil-i A`zam' Zarandi, stipulating that Nabil only hand it over to one of the Azalis who frequented the shop if he received a sealed note from Azal, in accordance with the agreement struck Friday afternoon. Nabil tried three days with partisans of Azal who socialized at the tobacco shop, but proved unable to procure from Azal any such warranty, nor did Azal appear either Sunday or Monday at the mosque.[32] Nabil himself tells the story in this way:

He favored me with his grace by entrusting that tablet to this servant, so that I might deliver it, and read it out to them. For Sayyid Muhammad [Isfahani] always said, "We shall make the truth known by means of a divine test [mubahalih], and Baha'u'llah will never come."

Also Baha'u'llah told me to compose a poem recounting the details of the day, from his departure from his house until his return from the Sultan Selim mosque, and to send it along with the blessed tablet [Surat al-Mubahalah] to Azal. That very moment I put everything that had happened into verse, and delivered the poem, with the tablet. When Mulla Muhammad Salmasi Tabrizi saw the tablet, he said, "I swear by God, nothing but the truth could be ascribed to the author of these words!" He stood up and said, "I am going to Sayyid Muhammad [Isfahani] and will say to him, 'Either you must bring from Yahya a paper with his seal on it, and without delay, or you will have to admit that you lied and you'll never again challenge someone to a ritual cursing match.'"

I sat in the shop. When he came back, he said, "I will bring the paper stamped with a seal tonight." For three days, I went every day, and Mulla Muhammad spoke ill of those persons. They had written far and wide that they had come to the mosque for the divine test, but Baha'u'llah did not show up. Mulla Muhammad Tabrizi also saw the verse narrative, and wept upon reading it, saying, "If Sayyid Muhammad [Isfahani] and Mirza Yahya [Azal] had been able to produce verses in a whole week such as you wrote out in one day, at that time they might have had a right to put themselves forward."[33]

This counter-challenge had met Azal's request that another day be appointed and was probably intended to show the ultimate in fairness to Azal, who had claimed to be ill on the day he had originally fixed for the divine test. In this way, Azal was deprived of any such excuse, since he had two whole further days to meet the new challenge, and would have had to be on his death bed to make a plausible excuse of illness again! For his part, Azal appears to have given himself an out insofar as he refused to take delivery of Baha'u'llah's sealed note and refused to reciprocate with one of his own. From an Azali point of view, there never was an agreement from Mirza Yahya's side to Baha'u'llah's stipulations for a new rendezvous. Some Azalis, the Baha'is allege, wrote letters back to Iran reversing the actual course of events and having Azal appear while Baha'u'llah cowered in his house. Whether this is true and what exactly was Azal's reaction to the fiasco could only be explored with better access than I now have to Azali sources. The Baha'is interpreted as a sign of cowardice Azal's failure to show up on any of the three days he or Baha'u'llah had put forward, and partisans of Baha'u'llah such as Mirza Javad Qazvini and Mirza Hadi Shirazi put that spin on the these events, quickly spreading news of them and the related tablets to Iran.[34] A Mir Muhammad, presumably Mukari, is also reported by Salmani to have said of Azal, "That man is nothing but a liar. He never showed his face."[35] He took leave of Baha'u'llah and left for Istanbul. (Since Salmani seems to have conflated Mir Muhammad Mukari with Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani, it is not impossible that he is referring instead to the latter.)

There are many details that remain unclear. Did Mukari accompany Baha'u'llah to the mosque, or did he go from the house of Izzat Aqa to summon Azal, only rejoining Baha'u'llah at the Sultan Selim later? I favor the latter scenario. It seems to me unlikely that Baha'u'llah delivered his discourse to Mukari on the way to the mosque, as Qazvini alleges in his letter (he was not himself allowed to go to the mosque with Baha'u'llah, so he is repeating perhaps garbled hearsay). Rather, Khadimullah says Baha'u'llah delivered his sermon to Mukari on the way back from the mosque, and to this he was certainly an eyewitness and most probably was the one who recorded or memorized the discourse for later transcription. Because the sermon to Mukari says that Baha'u'llah "will go" to the mosque, it may have been thought necessary that it was composed on the way there rather than on the way back. But this approach to the text is overly literal, ignoring the possibility that the future tense is a rhetorical device, and it contradicts Khadimullah's eyewitness account.

Is it possible to make a clear distinction between the roles of Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani and Mir Muhammad Mukari in the issuance of Azal's challenge? Khadimullah's version, of the 1880s, explains the origins of Azal's challenge in the disgruntlement toward Baha'u'llah of Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani. Salmani, as we have seen, at some points confused Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani with Mir Muhammad Mukari (or certainly did not carefully distinguish in his narrative between the two). The illiterate Salmani seems unaware of the written document Azal released and, instead, makes "Mir Muhammad" (a seeming conflation of Isfahani with Mukari) a go-between and paints him as hostile to Baha'u'llah. In contrast, Shoghi Effendi has Mukari resent Azal's claims.[36] I find this assertion a little difficult to believe, since if he already resented Azal, why was he visiting with him and the Azalis that Friday morning, on which he heard of Azal's challenge? Why did he try so hard to ensure that Azal showed up and that there was a fair contest? It is far more likely that he had not made up his mind yet. In Shoghi Effendi's version, Mukari prevails upon Azal to issue the challenge for a meeting at the Sultan Selim mosque so as to settle the issue. But the version of Khadimullah merely has Mukari find out about the challenge through Aqa Hasan and depicts him as delivering the news of it to Baha'u'llah's household. The contemporary letter by Mirza Javad Qazvini does seem to say that, after Mukari had been conversing for a while with the Babis, the document was issued. It is possible that the whole affair had already been set in motion by earlier discussions between Azal and Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani, and that the direction Mukari's conversation took that morning merely provided an occasion for Hasan Aqa to announce the document containing the challenge. It seems unlikely that Mukari served as anything more than a pretext for its promulgation. Khadimullah makes it clear that Mukari found out about it after the fact. If he, at that time, had no strong feelings of partisanship for either Baha'u'llah or Azal, as I have suggested, this impartiality may help explain why some sources make him pro-Azal and others make him pro-Baha'u'llah. Moreover, Salmani may not have been alone in confusing this "Mir" (ie, Sayyid) Muhammad Mukari with Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani.

Mirza Haydar Ali Isfahani introduced further confusion and his account seems especially untrustworthy in some regards. Khadimullah's narrative, written presumably in the 1880s, contains no mention of any participation in these events either by the Ottoman governor of Edirne or of the city notables, and does not speak of crowds at any point lining Baha'u'llah's path. Had these persons and events been involved in the story, given how much prestige they bestow on Baha'u'llah, it seems to me unlikely that Khadimullah would have neglected them. Nor are they mentioned by Qazvini, another eyewitness. Still, the author of The Delight of Hearts says that Azal wrote a letter to Hursid Pasa, the Ottoman governor of Edirne, complaining about Baha'u'llah and charging that he was not sharing the Ottoman stipend with the other Babis.[37] (Baha'u'llah denied this vehemently and, also, at one point has some fun with the Azalis, saying that these same persons who complain so bitterly about needing a bigger share of the Ottoman stipend also claim to be divine [rububiyyat]). Hursid Pasa is said to have shown the letter to Baha'u'llah and sought advice on how to deal with the conflict. Baha'u'llah is said to have offered to meet Azal any time and to acknowledge the justice of his claims were he actually to come to such a rendezvous. Mirza Haydar Ali reports that the governor first suggested to Azal that he go to Baha'u'llah's house, but that Azal declined, saying that he and his brother did not visit each other's house. The alternative of the governor's mansion was rejected because, Azal was supposed to have said, Baha'u'llah's Shi`ite sensibilities made him see civil government as a usurpation of authority that should belong to the Imam. Finally, he is said to have suggested the Great Mosque of Sultan Selim as the meeting place. Mirza Haydar Ali also depicts a thronging crowd around Baha'u'llah as he marched to the mosque that Friday afternoon, stopping traffic, with many in the crowd attempting to kiss his feet.

All of these assertions are lacking in earlier and more reliable reports, and they seem to me to be pure fantasy. We are told by eyewitness Aqa Husayn Ashchi that the governor, Hursid Pasa, did have social relations with Baha'u'llah.[38] But neither Khadimullah nor Baha'u'llah refer to any role in these events for the governor, and it is absolutely incredible that they should not have mentioned it if he had had one. Moreover, it is not plausible that there were crowds in the street around Baha'u'llah as he went to the mosque. The crowds would already have been in the mosques, since it was the time of Friday congregational prayers. Other sources, like Mirza Javad, simply note that Baha'u'llah's chanting of verses as he walked toward the mosque elicited the amazement of bystanders who saw him. Mirza Haydar Ali also depicts the governor and city notables as accompanying Baha'u'llah from the Sultan Selim mosque to the Mevlevi tekye and sitting with him at the latter place. These elements of Mirza Haydar Ali's account strike me as almost certainly untrue. Unfortunately, Fadil Mazandarani gives credence to some of these details from Mirza Haydar Ali in his account of the incident.[39] Shoghi Effendi, on the other hand, does not mention any role for the governor. He does, however, attribute a role to Sayyid Muhammad Mukari of Shiraz in pressing Azal to issue the initial dare, something that the phrasing of Khadimullah's account makes a little unlikely.

The crisis produced three texts by the two leaders. The first was Azal's challenge, which unfortunately is not reprinted in any of the sources available to me. The second is Baha'u'llah's oral discourse, delivered to Sayyid Muhammad Mukari in the streets of Edirne after they had departed the mosque at sundown. The third is the Tablet of the Divine Test, penned late Friday evening after Baha'u'llah had returned home from the chanting and dancing session of the Mevlevi Sufis. Although the discourse was delivered only that evening, and probably memorized on the spot by Khadimullah, Baha'u'llah most likely composed elements of it earlier in the day, beginning with his swift march to the mosque at midday, when he was said to have amazed bystanders by reciting verses as he went. One important theme is the comparison of this divine test to the contest between Moses and Pharaoh's magicians. This theme emerges as early as Friday afternoon when Baha'u'llah sent Mukari for the second time to fetch Azal, telling him, "O Muhammad, go to them and say, come, with your snares and your staff." This language is repeated in the body of the subsequent evening discourse. It evokes Qur'an 20:59-72, which speaks of the Egyptian magicians menacing Moses with their rope snares and their staffs:

So we showed Pharaoh all Our signs, but he cried lies, and refused. "Hast thou come, Moses," he said, "to expel us out of our land by thy sorcery? We shall assuredly bring thee sorcery the like of it; therefore appoint a tryst between us and thee, a place mutually agreeable, and we shall not fail it, neither thou."

"Your tryst shall be upon the Feast Day," said Moses. "Let the people be mustered at the high noon."

Pharaoh then withdrew, and gathered his guile. Thereafter he came again, and Moses said to them, "O beware! Forge not a lie against God, lest He destroy you with a chastisement. Whoso forges has ever failed."

And they disputed upon their plan between them, and communed secretly, saying, "These two men are sorcerers and their purpose is to expel you out of your land by their sorcery, and to extirpate your justest way. So gather your guile; then come in battle-line. Whoever today gains the upper hand shall surely prosper."

They said, "Moses, either thou wilt cast, or we shall be the first to cast."

"No," said Moses. "Do you cast!"

And lo, it seemed to him, by their sorcery, their ropes and their staffs were sliding; and Moses conceived a fear within him. We said unto him, "Fear not; surely thou art the uppermost. Cast down what is in they right hand, and it shall swallow what they have fashioned; for they have fashioned only the guile of a sorcerer, and the sorcerer prospers not, wherever he goes."[40]

This theme of Baha'u'llah as a new Moses is also evoked when he says in the discourse that the palm of his hand was rendered white (the miracle of the suddenly whitened palm was attributed to Moses in Muslim tradition), and he refers to his "staff," saying, "were we to cast it down, it would swallow to the entire creation," just as Moses' staff swallowed the magicians' serpents.

Baha'u'llah begins the discourse by saying that he had departed from his house with "manifest sovereignty," presumably meaning that he went of his own sovereign will to confront Azal. He tells Mir Muhammad Mukari that the spirit has thereby vacated its seat, and that thereby the spirits of the pure ones went forth, along with the souls of the past messengers. "Spirit," of course, is an Islamic sobriquet for Jesus, but I do not believe that is the referent here. I think Baha'u'llah is referring more like to the holy spirit. Baha'u'llah then says he is the return of the Bab, and also the return of the Prophet Muhammad. (It is thus particularly appropriate that he wins his victory in a mosque). Baha'u'llah is here appealing to the Babi doctrine of the 'return' or raj`at, wherein the personality-attributes of past historical persons recur in contemporary human beings. Although the messianic figure sought by the Babis was called by the Bab 'He whom God shall make manifest', Baha'u'llah in this period seems instead to have said he was the 'return' of the Bab, establishing a continuity between the Bab's writings and persona and his own. Baha'u'llah announces his defiance of all the clergy, mystics, and monarchs on earth, insisting that he would recite God's verses to them without any fear. These assertions also echo the Moses theme, insofar as he defied Pharaoh (civil authority) and his priests (religious authority). Baha'u'llah notes that he is, technically speaking, acting contrary to religious counsels in agreeing to meet with a hypocrite and an idolater like Azal. And despite this one exception, he does insist that the bonds with any loved ones (such as a brother) who rejected Baha'u'llah's cause in favor of Azal had from that moment been severed. He defines Azal as having previously been the embodiment of only one of God's names, and says that to prefer one of the divine names over God himself would be a form of idolatry. He redefines religious authority (prophets, messengers, imams and vicars) as being legitimate only if it upholds Baha'u'llah's cause. (This assertion undermines Azal's authority as the supposed vicar of the Bab.) Finally, Baha'u'llah complains that Azal had once been just one of the Babis, like any other man, but that his passions and selfishness had led him to begin having grandiose ideas about himself. Baha'u'llah explains that he had himself helped build Azal up, to his current regret, for a "secret reason" (hikmat). (The traditional Baha'i explanation is that Azal was put forward as the exoteric leader in order to protect the real leader, Baha'u'llah; though, this story no doubt presents an overly rationalized picture of the complex relationship between Baha'u'llah and Azal, 1850-1866).


From a welter of conflicting accounts and detail, I have attempted to construct as complete and as plausible a picture of events on the long weekend of 25-28 September 1867 (which I tentatively suggest for the dates) as is possible from currently available sources. In my telling, the crisis began more distantly with the conflict between Azal and Baha'u'llah in 1866-1867, and more proximately with Baha'u'llah's 'dismissal' of Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani, who appears to have been the one who convinced Azal to issue the challenge to a divine test. On the morning of what was probably Friday, 25 September, Mir Muhammad Mukari Shirazi, a newly-arrived old-time Babi, was sitting with partisans of Azal at the tobacco shop of the Shi`ite, Hasan Aqa Salmasi, and was told about Azal's challenge. He hurried to Baha'u'llah's residence, the house of Izzat Aqa, where he informed Mirza Muhammad Quli, Baha'u'llah's brother, of the announced rendezvous at the Sultan Selim mosque. He was sent back to Azal to confirm that Baha'u'llah would be there and one of Azal's wives replied that so would Azal. Mukari rejoined Baha'u'llah at the mosque, where Baha'u'llah spent the afternoon reciting verses and waiting. After some time, he sent Mukari for a second time to Azal, who begged off on grounds of severe illness and who asked that Baha'u'llah appoint another day for the challenge. At sunset Baha'u'llah, Mukari, and Khadimullah left the mosque and walked in the streets of Edirne, with Baha'u'llah delivering a messianic discourse to Mukari, announcing himself as a new Moses, and as the Return of the Bab and Muhammad. They stopped at the tobacco shop and Baha'u'llah told Hasan Aqa what had happened. Then Baha'u'llah stopped (with or without his companions) in at the Mevlevi Sufi chanting and dancing session that evening. When he arrived home, he composed the Tablet of the Mubahalih and `Abdu'l-Baha calligraphed it. He sent it the next day with Nabil to Hasan Aqa's shop in an attempt to have it delivered to Azal and to receive from him a sealed reply, but in this mission Nabil failed, though he kept trying all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Azal's unwillingness to follow through on his own challenge appears to have caused his stock to fall enormously both among the Babis in Edirne and those in Iran. The weekend of the divine test was probably a crucial propaganda tool for Baha'i missionaries in Iran, and helps explain the relatively rapid desertion of Azal by so many Babis in Iran who had relatively recently looked to him for leadership. The entire incident appears to have been a crucial miscalculation on his part. He seems to have thought Baha'u'llah would not consent to face him. And while he may have genuinely been ill on the Friday he had appointed for the challenge, most Babis, who interpreted reality rather symbolically and with attention to the import of events for knowing the divine will, might well have seen his illness itself, on the day of his challenge, as a divine sign. Certainly, few could forgive him for not meeting Baha'u'llah's subsequent challenge. The entire incident also spelled closure for the Baha'is in their relations with Azal and the Azalis. No further serious hope seems to have been entertained of restoring Babi unity. The Azali-Baha'i split was permanent and the Baha'is had become convinced that they needed fear nothing from Azal.

The Baha'is interpreted the crisis as a replaying of the contest between Moses and Pharaoh's magicians. Azal was seen as the representative of hidebound and selfish religious hierarchy, prideful and haughty before God. Azal played the 'magician,' whereas Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz and some other monarchs represented Pharaoh. Baha'u'llah was a serene and fearless Moses, imbued with charismatic power and ensured of success. His 'staff' of divine support and audaciousness swallowed up Azal's challenge and erased the efficacy of whatever poor gifts of sorcery the latter might have possessed. Uncowed before the 'kings and emperors' of the world, Baha'u'llah as Moses was now prepared to address Pharaoh directly, as he did in his Tablet to the Kings, which was written later that autumn of 1867.

Throughout this analysis of the Azali-Baha'i crisis of September, 1867, I have favored earlier and simpler accounts by principals over later and more elaborated ones by persons farther from the scene of action. Although I have attempted to construct a coherent and plausible narrative, I want to emphasize that I do not intend it to be a 'master narrative' in the sense of a privileging of some narrative voices and a freezing out of others. It is true that I have dismissed Mirza Haydar Ali Isfahani's account as largely fantasy. In so doing I do not mean to suggest that his later celebration of the incident in exaggerated terms is without value for our understanding of how hagiographic traditions about Baha'u'llah were elaborated by Iranian Baha'is. (It is no accident, for instance, that his account is prominently highlighted in an uncritical way by Baha'i writer, Adib Taherzadeh.) It is not Isfahani's 'voice' that I wish to exclude in general, but rather the details he ascribes as historical fact. Several important accounts, which may challenge some of my conclusions (such as the rest of the account of Nabil Zarandi), may come to light. I am also keenly aware that all my sources are Baha'i, and that Azali points of view have been inadequately represented in the above. Since so many voices have yet to be heard on this crisis, this paper is in a sense unfinished, though so too is all writing of history.

[1] For the Babi movement, see Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

[2] Denis MacEoin, "Divisions and Authority Claims in Babism (1850-1866)." Studia Iranica 18, 1 (1989):93-129.

[3] Juan R. I. Cole, "Redating the Surah of God (Surat Allah): An Edirne Tablet of 1866?" Baha'i Studies Bulletin vol. 6, no. 4 - vol. 7, no. 2 (October 1992):3-16.

[4] Muhammad Ali Salmani, Sharh-i Hal, "My Memories of Baha'u'llah", trans. Marzieh Gail (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1982), pp. 49-53.

[5] Ibid., Sharh-i Hal, p. 35; trans. My Memories of Baha'u'llah, p. 93.

[6] Mirza Javad Qazvini, "An Epitome of Babi and Baha'i History to A.D. 1898," trans. E.G. Browne in his Materials for the Study of the Babi Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1918), p. 24.

[7] Baha'u'llah (with Khadimullah), "Lawh-i Mubahalih," in `Abdu'l-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari, ed. Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 9 vols. (Tehran: MMMA, 1973), 4: 277-281; Baha'u'llah (with Khadimullah) in Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 7:238-246.

[8] Mirza Javad Qazvini/Babis of Qazvin, (autumn, 1867), MS letter in Mazandarani, "Tarikh-i Zuhur al-Haqq," vol. 5, pp. 39n-44n; also Qazvini, "Epitome," trans. Browne, op. cit.

[9] Muhammad "Nabil" Zarandi, "Matali` al-Anwar," (Dawnbreakers, vol. 2), MS, quoted in Fadil Mazandarani, "Tarikh-i Zuhur al-Haqq," vol. 5, copy of Persian MS in author's possession, p. 30n.

[10] Mirza Haydar Ali Isfahani, Bihjat as-Sudur (Bombay: Deccan Printing Press, 1914, pp. 77-79); idem., Stories from the Delight of Hearts, ed. and trans. A.Q. Faizi. (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1980), pp. 22-24.

[11] Baha'u'llah with Khadimullah, Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 7:239; the rest of this paragraph is based on this citation, including the quotes.

[12] Salmani, Sharh-i Hal, p. 35; trans. My Memories of Baha'u'llah, p. 93.

[13] Baha'u'llah with Khadimullah, Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 7:239.

[14] Salmani, Sharh-i Hal, p. 35; trans. My Memories of Baha'u'llah, pp. 93-94.

[15] Baha'u'llah with Khadimullah, Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 7:240.

[16] Some sources say his nisbah was "Shikari"; he must have been from a village near Kazirun in Fars, so that some sources call him "Mukari," others "Shikari," others "Kaziruni" and still others "Shirazi".

[17] Baha'u'llah with Khadimullah, Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 4:278; Mirza Javad Qazvini/Babis of Qazvin, autumn 1867, in "Tarikh-i Zuhur al-Haqq, vol. 5, p. 39n.

[18] Qazvini, "Epitome," trans. Browne, pp. 24-25, quote on p. 25.

[19] Qazvini/Babis of Qazvin, autumn 1867, in TZH 5, p. 42n.

[20] Haydar Ali Isfahani, Bihjat as-Sudur, p. 78; trans. Delight of Hearts, p. 23.

[21] Baha'u'llah with Khadimullah, Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 7:240-241.

[22] Ibid., 7:241; this is a reference to the magic snares and staffs used by Pharaoh's magicians in their contest with Moses.

[23] Haydar Ali Isfahani, Bihjat as-Sudur, p. 78.

[24] Baha'u'llah with Khadimullah, Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 4:278.

[25] Qazvini, "Epitome," trans. Browne, p. 25.

[26] Salmani, Sharh-i Hal, p. 35; trans. My Memories of Baha'u'llah, p. 93.

[27] Baha'u'llah with Khadimullah, Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 7:241. Khadimullah says they prayed the salat-i badi`ih, or Babi way, but this strikes me as unlikely since to do so in public at a major mosque on Friday would have provoked a riot by orthodox Muslims. It is more likely that they prayed in the Muslim manner.

[28] Baha'u'llah with Khadimullah, Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 4:278-80.

[29] Haydar Ali Isfahani, Bihjat as-Sudur, p. 78; trans. Delight of Hearts, p. 23.

[30] Salmani, Sharh-i Hal, p. 35; trans. My Memories of Baha'u'llah, p. 95.

[31] Baha'u'llah with Khadimullah, Ma'idih-'i Asmani, 7:241; text in Mazandarani, "Tarikh-i Zuhur al-Haqq," vol. 5, p. 29.

[32] Zarandi, "Matali` al-Anvar," quoted in Mazandarani, "Tarikh-i Zuhur al-Haqq," vol. 5, p. 30n.; Qazvini, "Epitome," trans. Browne, p. 25.

[33] Zarandi, "Matali` al-Anvar," op. cit.

[34] Habib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha'u'llah, 4 vols. (Oxford: George Ronald, 1974-1987), 2: 298.

[35] Salmani, Sharh-i Hal, p. 35; trans. My Memories of Baha'u'llah, p. 95.

[36] Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, God Passes By (Wilmette, Ill.: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1970), p. 168.

[37] Haydar Ali Isfahani, Bihjat as-Sudur, p. 76-77; trans. Delight of Hearts, p. 22.

[38] Aqa Husayn Aschi, "Tarikh-i Vaqa'i`-i Baghdad va Islambul va Edirne va `Akka," copy of MS in author's possession, pp. 43-44.

[39] Mazandarani, "Tarikh-i Zuhur al-Haqq," vol. 5, pp. 27-29.

[40] A.J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (London: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 343-342.