J.S. Stuart Glennie, M.A, International Review, September 1889

The Modern Revolution in Persia

Source: International Review, September 1889, p.91-99;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

That slew the Sophy, and a Persian Prince
That won three fields of Sultan Solyman.
Merch. of Ven., Act ii., sc. I

INNUMERABLE have recently been the articles in newspapers and magazines about Persia and the Shah, but not one, so far as I have observed, about what, historically and politically is incomparably more important, Persia and the Revolution. Yet the fact is, that 1848, the great year of European Revolutions, or at least Insurrections, was the year likewise, not only of the accession of the present Shah to the throne, which his Turkish, not Persian, ancestors had won by the most atrocious crimes little more than half a century before (1796), but was the year likewise of the definite beginning of a great national revolutionary movement, similar to the contemporary European movement, not only in its intellectual basis, but in its political and social aims. This movement, suppressed, though it has been, with remorseless cruelty, not only now honeycombs all Persia, but has extended itself on one side to Bombay, and on the other to Bagdad, and Acre, where indeed, not far from the lower slopes of Mount Carmel, the present head of the movement now lives in exile. Trusting that, in the INTERNATIONAL REVIEW, I address readers who believe that countries are to be regenerated from below, rather than from above, and that Persia is to be regenerated, not so much by a Shah and a Baron de Reuter, as by the triumph of a great national and popular movement of regeneration, even though this may not have happy results for a foreign usurper, I propose to state, with the brevity here necessary, some of the main facts as to the history and character of that Persian revolutionary movement which is but an eastern branch of that general and world-embracing movement ordinarily distinguished as the Modern Revolution. And my desire and aim in making this statement is to draw some attention to facts which, if duly considered, will prevent an even worse crime than we were guilty of in Egypt in suppressing a national revolt for the sake of a foreign tyrant – a worse crime, because in Persia the national movement has incomparably more solid bases, and is incomparably more developed than it was, or even yet is, in Egypt -and a worse crime, because the only result of supporting the Shah against a revolution of his subjects would be to bring them under a far heavier iron heel than his, the heel of that worst downtreader of Nationalities, the Russian Tzardom.

2. Bābism, the name by which this revolutionary movement is usually distinguished, is no mushroom growth. Essentially it is but a continuation and development of the revolt of the Aryan Persians against the Semitic creed and law of Islam – a revolt which has existed ever since the conquest of Persia by the Arabs in the seventh century of our era. With the eleventh and succeeding centuries to the sixteenth this revolt shewed itself in a new spirit of nationality, and new birth of literature, in proof of which it must here suffice to recall the names of Firdausy (d.1021), Avicenna (d.1036), Omar-el-Khayyam (d.1123), Yalalu-d-Din Rumi (d.1273), Saadi (d.1275), Hafiz (d.1389), Mirkhund (d.1498), and Khundimir (d.1534). Thus the way was prepared for what was in Persia, as in Europe, an epoch of religious revolt and national up-rising in the sixteenth century. A native dynasty, the Sufawi, founded by Shah Ismail, in 1499, and thrice alluded to by Shakespeare, then again established itself in Persia, and, at the same time, just such a heretical religion with respect to orthodox Islamism as Protestantism was among us with respect to Papism. But again, in the history of Persia, there was a striking synchronism with the history of Western Europe. The epoch with us of the French Revolution, was the epoch in Persia of the overthrow of its native dynasty; and of the establishment of the foreign dynasty of Kajar Turks, represented by the present Shah. And yet again, as above said, the great revolutionary epoch in Western Europe, 1848, was such an epoch also in Persia. For then it was that the great Persian prophet and leader, Mirza Ali Mohammed, surnamed El Bāb, “the Gate” (to God) codified, as one may say, his doctrines and ordinances in a work called Biyyan the “Exposition,” and gained a formidable number of enthusiastic disciples. And if, as I would submit, the Eastern Question is really the question as to how the East and the West are best to be brought into mutually beneficial relations; if, further, the spirit of the dominant Semitic religion of the East is, indeed, fundamentally opposed to that of the Aryan civilisation of the West; and if a people is to be regenerated, and the yoke of an obstructive religion shaken off, only by giving scope and direction to native progressive movements, we shall, I think, conclude that Bābism deserves from us something much more practical than a mere contemplative interest. But is there stuff in it – stuff not of intellectual speculation only, or even also of moral ideal, but stuff of heroic fortitude and persistence, to make it worth while practically to interest ourselves in saving Bābism from extinction? Of this we may judge from the incidents of its rise, the circumstances of its outbreak as a great revolt, and the character of its present activity.

3. It was after a youth spent in the most eclectic studies, not of the Korān only, but, as would appear, of the Scriptures also of the Jews and of the Christians, and of the ancient Sufi philosophy of Persia; after a pilgrimage to Mecca, in which holy city he should seem first to have definitively detached himself from the faith of Mohammed; and after a critical period of final self-determination passed, – on his homeward journey, at that ruined mosque of Koufa, where Ali the beloved nephew and son-in-law of Mohammed was assassinated, and which is more sacred even than Mecca to Persian Muslims – that Mirza-Ali Mohammed began, in his native city of Shiraz, his polemic against Islam. And what is most remarkable, his discourses won immediate success. With extraordinary hardihood and exaltation, and with an utter disregard of ordinary conventionalties, he pointed out in how flagrant contradiction with the Korān itself were the lives, the precepts, and the dogmas of the Moullas or clergy. Soon there formed around him a Church, burning with zeal to sacrifice wealth and life itself for the sake of the truths he proclaimed. For now he announced himself as the Bāb, the gate by which alone a true knowledge was to be obtained of God. Much of this enthusiasm was, no doubt, due to the personal fascination of the young Prophet, his marvellous charm of countenance, attractive sweetness of manner, and unrivalled eloquence. But to much deeper and more permanently working causes than this was the success of his preaching due. And this, and the importance, therefore, of Bābism, is proved by the fact that throughout the whole extent of a sparsely-populated empire, without any such means of communication as we have in Europe, the fame of the Prophet of Shiraz, intelligence of his doctrines, and enthusiastic reception of them, spread with an almost incredible rapidity. The first apostle of the new Religion was one of the most learned Moullas of the distant northern province of Khorassan; and she who stands next to the Bāb himself in the veneration of Bābists, belonged to the also distant province of Mazenderān; and never even saw him for whom she died. There was, indeed, a time when this new movement almost received official recognition. For though the Bābists afterwards showed themselves capable of the most unconquerable fortitude as martyrs, there was no vain seeking of martyrdom. On the contrary, every means were taken to recommend themselves to the then reigning sovereign, Mohammed Shah. Nor was it from any enthusiasm for Islam that suppression was finally decided on, but rather from utter religious indifference, and the weak dislike of an invalid voluptuary, and his buffoon of a friend and vizier, to give themselves – trouble.

4. War is just as opposed to the Ideal of Bābism as to that Humanitarian Ideal of Modern Europe, of which it is but an Oriental form. The believers in the revelation of the Bāb are essentially men of peace having a horror of violence. But to resolve on the suppression, or even merely on the non-protection of a faith, animating its partisans with such enthusiastic self-devotion as Bābism, was to make war certain. And of the armed revolt of Bābism, caused certainly more by the impolicy of the Government in rejecting the submissive overtures of the Bābist leaders, than by the original action of the leaders themselves, the theatre was the province of Mazenderān on the southern shores of the Caspian. The first engagement was in the town of Balfouroush. Afterwards the Bābists built, and established themselves in a strong-hold of their own. Besieged here, they defended themselves for months with such ingenuity, valour, and persistence, that the besiegers were glad to accept the capitulation of the Bābists on condition of their lives being spared. With that treachery, however, which ordinary morality so readily condones in established, and so inexorably condemns in unestablished Power, this capitulation, its condition notwithstanding, was followed by a massacre. The next stand was made in the town of Zendjan, and here the insurrection assumed very formidable dimensions, but was at length, suppressed. Long before this, the Bāb, though he had in no way directly interfered in these political movements, had been seized in his retirement at Shiraz, and confined in the, citadel of Tabreez. After two years of imprisonment, spent by him in continuous meditation and composition, his execution was decided on. By a singular chance, the bullets which were to slay. him only severed the rope by which he was suspended. Astounded by the apparent miracle, the crowd, had he thrown himself among them, would certainly have favoured his escape; the belief in his divine character would have been incalculably strengthened, and he might now have been on the throne of Persia. He chanced, however, to take refuge instead in a sentrybox.. Here he was presently cut down, and his body was cast without the walls to be devoured by the bird and beast scavengers of Eastern cities. Soon after, the great Preacher of Bābism, known by the various names of Zerryn Tadj, “Golden Crown,” Gourret-Oul-Ayn, “Consolation of the Eyes,” or Hezret-Tahereh, “Her Highness the Pure,” was seized and imprisoned. If, however, she would but formally deny her faith, she was assured of her life. But life, on such a condition she contemned; and she was burned alive. Yet the effect of these massacres and martyrdoms was not extinction, but exasperation. This showed itself in 1852 in an attempt to assassinate the present sovereign, Nasr-ed-Dīn-Shah. On this, there followed, not only massacres, but tortures of the most horrible and revolting description. These, however, were borne not by men only, but by women, and even by children, with a calmness, a fortitude, an exultation even, which did more than their lives could have done to intensify hatred of Islam, and confirm belief in Bābism. Think, for instance, of men women and children being driven through the streets to the scaffold with candles stuck in holes cut in the flesh. Think of them – of women and of children – falling, bleeding, and burning, on the street, yet refusing to deny the Bāb, and pricked up with bayonets, Think of a father, one of the crowd of victims having so horrible a choice forced on-him as the sacrifice of his conscience, or the butchery of his two young sons on his breast. Think of this, and then judge the clerical eulogist of the Shah who lately sang his praises in the congenial columns of the Pall Mall Gazette.

5. Thus ended what may be distinguished as the second, or militant stage in the history of the rise of Bābism – the period of which the chief events were the insurrection in Mazenderān, the martyrdom at the Bāb, and of Gourret Oul Ayn, and the indiscriminate massacre with which the attack on the Shah was revenged. But the atrocities of the final massacres had the very reverse effect to that intended. It was the executioners and the Government, rather than the Bābists and the people who were struck with terror. For the inference from the spectacle, not of death only being calmly faced, but of the most shocking tortures being heroically endured, by persons of both sexes, of every class, and of every age, could not but be: Victory is in the faith that can inspire such self-devotion. Henceforth, therefore, the tactics of both parties changed, and Bābism entered on its third stage. On the one hand, the Government, fearing to discover how many were of this new faith, refrained from searching out a heresy which it could evidently not exterminate. And on the other hand, the Bābists only made themselves more feared by unhesitatingly adopting the custom of the Ketmān, that is to say, conforming to rites, and using phrases which, by a scarce perceptible tone or gesture, conveyed to the initiated, the very opposite meaning to that which they seemed naturally to express. For the last thirty-five years there has thus been a truce between Islamism and Bābism. Efforts have indeed been made to stop the active propaganda that is known to be going on, and especially at Baghdad, among the pilgrims to the sacred plain of Kerbela, and mosque of Koufa. Little success, however, has, I believe, attended these efforts. Nor was it likely that they would be successful against such resolutely wary tactics as those now, with persistent enthusiasm, adopted by the Bābists, In this third stage of its progress, Bābism has thus returned to the apostolic proselytism of its first stage; but yet with an immense difference. Refusal of recognition by the State, and merciless persecution, has transformed it from a mere heretical sect to a great political and social movement. Offered to Mohammed Shah by its first apostle, Moulla Houssein Boushrewyeh as the means of realising, at length, the desire of such great native sovereigns as Shah Abbas, Ismail Shah; and NadirShah, to see founded a New Religion, fusing, the doctrines of Muslims, of Christians, and of Jews, and hence uniting in the strongest of bonds all the subjects of the Persian Empire, and further recommended as assimilating also the best ideas of European civilization; its acceptance might have given new support to the throne, and new extension to the kingdom of Persia. But its alliance, as we have seen, was rejected both by Mohammed Shah, and the present sovereign, Nasr-ed Dīn Shah. And this foreign dynasty of the Kajars has now in Bābism its most resolute and dangerous foe.

6. Armed suppression and persecution has had but the effect of giving to Bābism a policy. And if the most striking and important characteristic of the religious and social doctrines of Bābism is its assimilation of old Aryan and modern European ideas; an equally striking and important characteristic of its political doctrines is the way in which it allies itself with that new spirit of nationality, the manifestations of which, in the National Theatre and otherwise, are among the most remarkable phenomena of the recent history of Persia. Now the dynasty of the Kajars is not only of mixed Turkish blood, and with no pretension even to descent from the old Persian sovereigns but it has neither the sanctity of long continuance, not yet being a century old, nor of great memories; for the administrative incapacity has been no less proverbial than the cruelty and ingratitude of the Kajar Turks. But the policy of Bābism, as originated by its Paul, Moulla Houssein Boushrewyeh – for the Bāb himself, absorbed during his brief life in mystical thought and doctrinal exposition, refrained from directing the political acts of his followers, and contented himself with dying for them – the policy of Bābism is founded on the doctrines uncontested in Persia, that the descendants of Ali alone have a legitimate right to the crown, and that, in the double quality of heirs of the Sassanids, and of the Imāms – the Imām Hasan, the son of Ali, having married Bibi Shahr-banu, daughter of the last king of the Sassaniere dynasty, Yezdegird III. But the Bāb, being a Seyyid or descendant of the Prophet, inherited all the rights of the race of Ali, because, from the Persian point of view, he had the blood of Yezdegird in his veins; and because, from the Muslim point of view, he was a reflection of the Imāmat. And as there is no lack of, at least, titular descendants of Ali, and of Mohammed, the present or any future chief of the Bābists may easily, even independently of his being a re-incarnation of the Bāb, have as good claims to such descent as the Bāb himself.

7· See, then, what a new force Bābism offers to the statesman for the solution of the Eastern Question. That question, largely considered is, as I have said, the question as to how best independent, progressive life may be revived in the East, and East and West brought into the most beneficial mutual action. Infinitely preferable to the introduction of European ideas by European domination, must be the free assimilation of such ideas. What interest, then, must attach to a movement in which such an assimilation has been freely begun, and in connection with all the national traditions of the oldest State on this side the Indus. But if Persia were thus regenerated from within, the southward advance of Russia would be checked and her domination confined to where alone it can be beneficial – Central Asia, north of the Oxus and the Himalayas. This is clearly seen by the politicians who manipulate the newspaper organs of the Tzardom, both native and foreign, Continental and English. Hence, not a word is permitted about this great National movement of Persian regeneration which the strong despotism of the Czar would crush with a ruthlessness of which the weak despotism of the Shah has been only spasmodically capable. How shameful is this silence – tending as it does to facilitate the crucifixion of the oldest of Oriental Nationalities, and a Nationality of our own Aryan blood – I have been here able only to indicate. But my knowledge of the Bābist movement is derived, not only from such authentic sources as the famous book of the late French Ambassador to Persia, the Comte de Gobineau, but from personal acquaintance with these who have either taken part in the movement, or have personally known its heroic founders. Perhaps, therefore, if I had here had more space to set forth the religious, social and political doctrines and ideals of the Bābists, the reader might have been enabled to do more justice to what has been either the ignorance, or the blindness, and cowardice of the Capitalist and “Liberal” press, in their late eulogies of the oppressor of the Bābists. I trust, however, that I may have said enough, to indicate at least what ought to be the basis of the Foreign Policy of that new Radical Party which will crush out of existence the “Liberalism,” that, according simply to its own needs, makes much or little of national movements; now denounces Bulgarian atrocities, and is now guilty of incomparably worse Egyptian and Soudanese atrocities. The basis of the new Foreign Policy must be continuous knowledge of, and consistent sympathy with National movements, and freedom from all embarrassing engagements to crowned oppressors. Nor would anything more strengthen the cause of Progress at home than such knowledge of, and sympathy with those world-wide movements of the Modern Revolution of which that in Persia is only one of the Oriental developments.