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The Baha’is and the Constitutional Revolution: the case of Sari, Mazandaran, 1906-13

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This is an Author's Accepted Manuscript of an article published in Iranian Studies, volume 41, number 3, June 2008, pp. 343-363 (© Taylor & Francis), available online at:

The Baha’is and the Constitutional Revolution:

the case of Sari, Mazandaran, 1906-13
Moojan Momen

Accounts of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran have tended to ignore the role of the Baha’is in that event. This paper looks at the case of Sari in Mazandaran where the Baha’is of the city played a major part in initiating the move towards Constitutionalism and in educating people about the reforms envisaged and about the modern world. They also led the way in carrying out some of these reforms. In particular, the Baha’is established the first modern schools in the town. In this process, they were opposed by the Muslim ‘ulama in the town, who equated Constitutionalism and the Baha’i Faith, and persecuted the Baha’is of the town relentlessly for both reasons, leading eventually to the killing of five of the leading Baha’is of Sari in 1913. A brief account is also given of the attitude of the Baha’i leader ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921) towards the Constitutional Movement and the role of the Baha’is in it. This paper follows the events of the seven years 1906-1913 in Sari and describes seven swings of the pendulum of power in the town alternating between the Baha’is and Constitutionalists on the one hand and the ‘ulama and the royalist forces supporting Muhammad ‘Ali Shah on the other. It points out that the neglect of the Baha’i aspect of these events by historians has led to a failure to account adequately for some of the events of these years.

The events of the Constitutional Revolution have now been extensively researched and analysed. The events of this period in Mazandaran have also been chronicled, for example in the second volume of Mahjuri’s Tarikh-i Mazandaran1 and Shayan’s Tārikh-i Daw-hizār-sāla-yi Sārī,2 and analyzed, for example in the last chapter of Kazembeyki, Society, Politics and Economics in Mazandaran, Iran, 1848-1914.3 It is the contention of this paper, however, that previous authors have neglected the Baha’i dimension of these events and without this dimension, a full understanding of this period is not possible. Indeed, some facts such as the election of Hajji Shaykh al-Ra’is (1264/1848-1918) who had no connections with Mazandaran as the delegate for that province to the second Majlis (parliament) in 1909 remain inexplicable unless one takes into account the Baha’i dimension. This paper will seek to unravel some of these issues in relation to the town of Sari in particular.

During the course of the movement for reform in Iran at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, one of the accusations hurled against the reformers by their enemies was that they were “Babis”. As early as 1861, the Faramushkhana set up by Mirza Malkam Khan was accused of being a rallying-point for the Babis.4 In the 1890s, we find that Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi (“al-Afghani”) was considered by many to be a “Babi” and even to be the head of the Babis.5 And throughout the period of the Constitutional Revolution we find anti-Constitutionalists such as Shaykh Fadlullah Nuri in his Lavāyih (a series of printed pamphlets distributed throughout Tehran) accusing the reformers of being Babis,6 while the troops besieging the Constitutionalists in Tabriz in 1909 were urged on in their efforts by the assertion that they were performing a religiously meritorious service by killing the “Babis” in that city (the Baha’is were known as “Babis” by the general population of Iran at this time).7 Given that the “Babis” were considered enemies of Islam and rebels against the Qajar regime, this was a serious accusation and one that was damaging to the reformers personally and to the reform movement.

In general this accusation was false in that most of the reformers were not “Babis” but there were two grounds on which the accusation was at least partly true. Firstly, although the figureheads of the Constitutional Movement such as Bihbihani and Tabataba’i were strict Muslims, many of those most active in agitating and manipulating affairs behind the scenes were Azali Babis.8 Secondly, the Baha’i community in Iran were enacting an ambitious social programme including establishing modern schools, the advancement of the social role of women and the election of local representative councils – all of which were also part of the programme of the Constitutionalists and reformers. The role of the Baha’i community in the Constitutional revolution has been little studied as yet9 and there have been no studies of individual Baha’i communities. The events in Sari which is the subject of this paper are interesting in that here we have a case where the accusation of the Constitutionalists being “Babis” had a much more solid basis in that the leading Constitutionalists in the city were Baha’is.

The Baha’i Community of Sari

The question of who was a Baha’i at this time and the range of Baha’i identities that existed is one on which a great deal could be said but in fact little research has been done. This paper is, in one way, an empirical contribution to this question but there is not the space to analyse this question extensively here. Most Baha’is did not of course openly identify themselves as such since that would have meant almost certain death. Suffice it to say that the evidence for being a core member of the Baha’i community includes such factors as being asserted to have been a Baha’i in histories written by Baha’i and Muslim authors, membership of the Baha’i local elected council (local spiritual assembly), having descendants who are Baha’is and who assert that their ancestor was a Baha’i, and being in correspondence with or visiting the Baha’i leader ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921).

In contrast to the nearby town of Barfurush (now Babul), where there was a strong Babi community, established by Mulla Muhammad ‘Ali ‘Quddus’ in the 1840s, which then went on to form the foundation of a Baha’i community, there was no Babi community in Sari and the leading mujtahid of the city at the time of the Bab, Mirza Muhammad Taqi Sarawi, was much opposed to the new religion. The Baha’i community in Sari only gradually developed during the last half of the nineteenth century. Probably the first Baha’i in the town was Shaykh Hadi Afrāpulī (d. 1316/1898), a cleric who had been a fellow-student of Mulla ‘Ali Jan Māhfurūzakī (executed 1883). When news of Mahfuruzaki’s conversion to the Baha’i Faith spread to Sari in the 1870s, Afrapuli volunteered to go to Mahfuruzak (a village 10 kilometres south-west of Sari) and put his friend straight. This trip resulted instead in Afrapuli’s conversion. Among other prominent early Baha’i citizens of the town were Ghulam-Husayn Khan Shapur Muqtadir ul-Sultan Kirmani, a government official; Karbala’i Yusuf Kirmani, a darvish who had the name Haqq-Mutlaq, and Shahzada Hakim, a physician.10

When Mirza Ibrahim Nuri Saham al-Dawla arrived as deputy governor in Sari in 1883 with orders from Kamran Mirza Na’ib al-Saltana, the governor, to clear the province of Baha’is and in particular to arrest Mulla ‘Ali Jan Mahfuruzaki, he asked Aqa Vali the kalantar of Sari for a list of Baha’is. The latter gave him a long list of Baha’is both in the town and in the surrounding area. One of the government officials, Mirza Mahdi Kārpardāz, was, however a covert Baha’i and saw this list. He insisted that the kalantar had only made such a long list in order to increase his own importance and that it was worthless. Eventually the governor tore up the list.11

During the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century, a number of prominent citizens of Sari became Baha’is. The spread of the Baha’i Faith was greatly assisted by the arrival in the town of Mirza Hasan-i Va‘iz, a preacher from Qazvin. The latter used to quote occasionally from passages of the writings of Baha’u’llah in his sermons and recitals of the sufferings of the Imams. If anyone’s interest was sparked by this and they came up afterwards and asked him about these passages, he would speak to them for a while and if they seemed promising, he would start to tell them about the Baha’i Faith.12 Another person who played an important role in spreading the Baha’i Faith was Mirza ‘Inayatullah of ‘Aliyabad (later Shahi, now Qa’imshahr), who occupied a senior position in the court of Muzaffar ud-Din Mirza at Tabriz.13

Among the prominent people of the area to become a Baha’i was Lutf-‘Ali Khan Kulbadi (d. 1352/1933) who held the titles Salar Mukarram, Salar Muhtasham, Muhtasham Nizam and Sardar Jalil (referred to henceforward as Sardar Jalil although he only held this title towards the end of this period). He belonged to the leading family of landowners and notables in Kulbad (or Gulbad, now named Galugah), the most eastern district of Mazandaran but lived most of the time in Sari. After the death of his uncle Rida-Quli Khan, Lutf-‘Ali Khan inherited his rank of Mir-Panjih (major general) and command over the army in eastern Mazandaran. By the beginning of the 20th century, he was the wealthiest and most powerful figure in eastern Mazandaran as well as the largest landowner.14 He became a Baha’i through Mirza ‘Inayatullah ‘Aliyabadi and prospered despite being quite open about his beliefs. The following story is instructive in that it depicts the tightrope on which such individuals walked as Baha’is and the strategies they employed to avoid trouble. In about 1883, finding themselves powerless against Sardar Jalil, some of the local ‘ulama sent a complaint to Kamran Mirza Na’ib al-Saltana, the governor of Mazandaran, that he was spreading the Baha’i Faith and had assembled a group of armed men ready to arise against the government. Sardar Jalil was summoned to Tehran. “We hear you have established a religious circle (hawza) and the shah is very angry with you,” Na’ib al-Saltana said to him. Sardar Jalil, feigning ignorance and stupidity and playing on the alternative meaning of the sound of the word, replied, “I have only one pool (hawd@) in the new house that I have built and if the shah commands it, I will have it filled in.” Na’ib al-Saltana pressed him with a few further questions but, in the end, laughed and allowed him to return to his home with a cloak of honour.15 Sardar Jalil purchased some of those villages in Mazandaran that had large numbers of Baha’is in them, such as Ivil and Mahfuruzak, so that the Baha’is could live there without fear of harassment and persecution from their landlord, as happened elsewhere.

Another powerful figure of the area to become a Baha’i was Qasim Khan Huzhabr Khaqan ‘Abd al-Maliki Zaghmarzi (later Huzhabr al-Dawla, by which name he will be referred to in the rest of this paper), a chief of the ‘Abd al-Maliki tribe and a military commander of its troops.16 He was described as “a very dignified good-tempered young man. His mind is enlightened and he always reads scholarly books and novels translated from the French.”17 There is less certainty about the Baha’i identity of a third figure, Mirza ‘Ali Khan Salar Fatih (Sardar Fatih) Kujuri, a man who had risen from humble origins to a position of power in Sari as the agent of Nasr ul-Saltana Tunukabuni (Sipahdar). According to one source, he was a Baha’i,18 but an elderly member of the Sari Baha’i community does not remember him being mentioned as a Baha’i.19 It seems likely that he was a Baha’i or closely associated with the Baha’is in Sari in the early stages of the Constitutional Revolution but that when he went to Tehran in 1911, he ceased to associate with the Baha’is, since there is no record of his being active as a Baha’i there.

It was largely because of the protection of such figures that the Baha’i Faith was able to spread rapidly in Sari in the decades preceding the Constitutional Revolution. Many individuals who were conscious of the need for social reform and moral regeneration were attracted by its teachings. Among these was Sayyid Husayn Muqaddas (1287/1870-1343/1924), a member of a prominent local landowning family of sayyids, who was studying at a religious college when he was converted to the Baha’i Faith by Mirza Hasan-i Va‘iz Qazvini. Word of Muqaddas’s conversion spread and, when his father died, a cleric named Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali Fadil, wanted to take Muqaddas’s inheritance away from him. Muqaddas went to Tehran and succeeded in having his rights confirmed there. After this Muqaddas’s influence throughout the city increased. He had considerable land under cultivation and lived on a large plot of land on the outskirts of the town.20 He converted his former fellow-student, Mirza Muhammad Hamza-yi Pishnamaz. The Baha’i community in the town came to include a number of prominent merchants such as Mirza Muhammad Isma‘il Amin al-Tujjar Isfahani, Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali Mushir al-Tujjar Tabrizi (who was a son-in-law of Mirza ‘Inayatullah ‘Aliyabadi) and Hajji Muhsin Kashmiri. Also converted were Aqa Mahmud Sa‘atsaz (1280/1863-1912), who was engaged in journalism and had been a darugha (police chief) in the town and the bazaar trader Aqa Mirza Habib Kharazi-furush Isfahani. There were also two physicians who became Baha’is Aqa Lutf-‘Ali Khan Majd al-Atibba’, who became a Baha’i in 1303/1885 and had extensive property in Arata Bur Khayl, and Mirza ‘Ali Akbar Hafiz al-Sihha (d. c. 1313/1895), who was in charge of public health and also had property in Arata. The latter’s four sons later took the surname of Dustdar and the eldest of them Ihsanullah Khan (1884-c.1944), studied at the Baha’i-run Tarbiyat School and then at the St Louis School in Tehran and later taught French at the schools in Sari (hence the reference to him as “Monsieur” Ihsanullah Khan in the list below).21 Majd al-Atibba’s interest in reform is demonstrated by his membership of the Mazandaran branch of the Jāmi‘-yi Ādamiyyat (established c. 1903), an organization that was inspired by Mirza Malkam Khan’s writings on reform and that promoted the modernization of Iran.22

As part of their movement towards community development and social progress, the Baha’i community in Iran began to switch in the opening years of the twentieth century from a more traditional system of community leadership, by elders and former clerics, to elected councils, called local spiritual assemblies (mahfil-i ruhani), to administer its affairs in each locality. In Sari, Sardar Jalil was elected the chairman of this assembly and Sayyid Husayn Muqaddas its secretary.23

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