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Taqiyyah- What is it? (Part 1)

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    Taqiyyah- What is it? (Part 1)

    The Practice of Taqiyyah (Dissimulation)
    in the Bábí and Bahá’í Religions
    Sepehr Manuchehri

    Beware that in this divine dispensation testimony is not limited by speech and belief is not entrusted on the tongue. The sign of faith is the preparedness for being sacrificed in the path of the Lord. You cannot claim to be a Bábí unless you reach the ultimate stage of detachment from personal welfare, material comforts and family life. Now return to your home and ponder in solace: At the time of reckoning the mob will attack your house, confiscate your life possessions, take your wife, massacre your children and force you to recant in exchange for freedom. In that hour if you have the resolve to take in all of the afflictions and remain steadfast in the Cause, only then are you considered to be a Bábí.
    Mulla Jalil Urumi (Letter of Living) to Haji Nasir Qazvini [1]

    Many customs and traditions that are prevalent amongst the followers of various Islamic sects today are not based on the fundamental principals of the Islamic belief. Rather they have gradually been instilled in the sub-culture during centuries. Taqiyyah or dissimulation of one's true belief has been a common practice amongst the followers of Ismailiya, Wahhabiya, Haydari, Nemati and Shaykhi schools of thought during the Qajar era.[2]

    Susan Maneck (Hikmat in the Bahá'í Writings and History 1996) remarks that 'Iranians often tend to reserve access to their inner self to a small circle of intimates. Among these persons, interactions ought to be pure and constant, maintaining a spiritual integrity. With those outside that circle one behaves with reserve and formality, concealing one's true intentions. Far from being insincere they see it as conducting themselves with wisdom.' Maneck accurately reflects the use of wisdom in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and within the Bahá'í community.

    This paper intends to portray the historical application of Taqiyyah in the progress of Bábí and Bahá'í religions. It considers the practice of Taqiyyah during the revelation of the Báb, amongst the early Bábí disciples, treatises and compilations written under Taqiyyah. It looks at cases of Mass Taqiyyah, instances where Bábís cooperated with the authorities in suppression of their peers and describes the attitude of the government officials towards these individuals.

    Though the origins of Taqiyyah can be traced back to the early Shiite communities, some Iranian sources allege its wide spread practice amongst the first generation of Iranian Zoroastrians following the introduction of Islamic rule.[3] However most sources agree that Taqiyyah in one form or another has been a feature of religious life in Iran during the 18th and 19th Century.[4]

    The version of popular Islamic thought promulgated in Iran was at odds with that of the other countries under Islamic rule. The major point of difference lay in the excessive praise and importance placed in Imam Ali (son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed) and the adoption of an alternative version of the early Islamic history. Built on accepting the guardianship of the twelve Holy Imams, the Shiite theology emphasised subjugation and promised taking revenge against the forces of infidel oppression at the coming of the promised Mahdi.[5]

    Shiite thought established Taqiyyah as a means to safeguard the believers from the oppressors of the time. This was seen as a tactical manoeuvre designed to protect and consolidate their numbers in order to assist and support the promised Mahdi in due time and rise up against the established and corrupt world order.

    However the circumstances surrounding the coming of Mahdi and differing opinions concerning the Day of Resurrection caused major disagreements within the Shiite hierarchy. This caused many scholars to postpone the coming of Mahdi in their literature to a distant future. Various stories and legends became popular concerning the intimate details surrounding his lengthy 'disappearance' and his likely 'reappearance'. Scholars who did not support such myths viewed the coming of Mahdi in a more humanistic sense. They remoulded the concept of Taqiyyah to the dissimulation of the personal details of Mahdi. Numerous traditions and literature were released concerning the practice of Taqiyyah on His name and the details of his coming in the writings of Shaykh Abbas Qumi and Qu Baqir Majlissi.[6] The majority of these traditions were attributed to Imam Ja'afar Sadiq the sixth Holy Imam.[7]

    It is interesting to note that by the time of the Qajar period the practice of Taqiyyah was widespread amongst the followers of alternative Islamic Schools (Ismailiya, Wahhabiya, Shaykhi and Sufi) as a safeguard against the dominant and powerful Usuli Shiite Ulama. Taqiyyah was even used by minorities such as Jews and Bábís to protect their numbers against the constant harassment of mainstream Islam.

    Taqiyyah in Shaykhi Thought
    The practice of Taqiyyah confined Shaykhi eschatology to philosophical arguments. Shaykh Ahmad Ahsai's frequent references to the necessity of Taqiyyah owing to the limited capacity of the ordinary believer to grasp the true meaning of the secrets of religion indicates his hesitation to declare his more controversial views.[8] Moreover, his configuration of the 'Perfect Shi'a' did not necessarily affirm the immediate resurgence of the Hidden Imam. The 'Perfect Shi'a' was a protomessianic figure. But his guidance to the extent that it was recognised by the public did not herald the return of the Imam Mahdi, at least in consistent theological language.

    The same approach can be observed in the works of Ahsai's successor Siyyid Kazim Rashti. Rashti acknowledges:

    Elaboration on the secrets of the subject of Ma'ad would lead us to raise various matters which are not appropriate to our time. Since the people of this age cannot tolerate them and this would accelerate their denial. As our Lord Sadiq, peace be up on him, has said 'Not all that is known is to be said, and not the right time has come for all that is to be said, and not all appropriate sayings should be said to those who are incompetent of understanding.' Therefore, owing to their complexity, reference to these matters without full explanation are beyond public comprehension. This is the reason why the Holy Imams and the adepts among Shiites constantly covered the delicate details of this subject under the cloak if outward expressions so that the secret gem would be safely protected from the encroachments of the ignorant.[9]

    Prudence and secrecy inspired an allegorical language. Signs of metaphorical speculations can be detected in Ahsai's works which on one occasion specify the date of birth and the date of revelation of the Qa'im in a codified message.[10] Perhaps this triggered the followers of the Shaykhi school to refer to Shaykh Ahmad and Siyyid Kazim as Hamil (Carrier),[11] a title that points to a knowledge of hidden secrets and a responsibility to protect them.

    The Shaykhi thought became popular in Iran and the Atabat. Advocation of this thought by the political establishment (represented by Haji Ababa Karim Khan Kirmani, a leading student of Ahsai and an influential member of the Qajar clan) and the renowned Mujtahids in major cities (such as Mulla Moamaqani in Tabriz) popularised discussions on the intimate details of the return of Mahdi and his proposed reappearance.

    Taqiyyah thus became an important tool for the promulgation of the Shaykhi thought on the one hand, and the concealment of their hidden 'secrets' on the other. Shaykh Ahmad used this dual approach during his travels in Iran whilst promoting his vision.

    Revelation of the Báb
    The Báb initially laid claim to the position of the 'Deputy' of the Hidden Imam. Many early Bábís were ordered to transmit this claim to the public and other believers.[12] This approach was intended to create a sense of anticipation for the appearance of an unidentified promised person. In His work Dala'il Sab'a, the Báb declares:

    Since I was aware of the limits of the public, I ordered the concealment of my name.[13]

    In December 1844 he instructed Mulla Husayn in the following words:

    Do not reveal the word of your Lord to those who would deny it. Observe the practice of Taqiyyah in order to avoid persecution and imprisonment.[14]

    Mulla Husayn appreciated the practical importance of this approach. For instance, he refused in the first weeks after his conversion, to disclose the personal details of the Báb to his Shaykhi compatriots in Shiraz. This caused resentment amongst some of them who took their grievance to the newly arrive Quddús: 'Jinab-i Akhund has attained the presence of the Lord, recognised His station and remains unwilling to disclose His details.' Mulla Husayn was forced to explain instructions from the Báb requiring the concealment of His name. At this time the Báb was seen to be passing by. Kahn immediately looked up and said: 'I do not see this Cause as distinct from this young Siyyid.' Mulla Husayn then responded by a verse from Rumi 'I desire a sharp vision who recognises the King in disguise.'[15]

    The Báb in his early correspondence with his disciples strongly forbade them to divulge his identity.[16] On a few occasions He quoted well-known traditions from Imam Ja'far Sadiq on the necessity of Taqiyyah:

    Taqiyyah is my faith and the faith of my forefathers. Anyone who does not practice Taqiyyah has no faith.[17]


    By your refined wisdom my Lord, you made Taqiyyah your command. Thus people practiced it from the beginning of occultation up to now. And that practice was the testimony to [peoples'] eagerness to come to your presence.[18]

    After his return from Mecca, the Báb was arrested in Bushihr and taken into custody in the residence of Husayn Khan Nazimu'l Dowla, the Governor of Fars. On the same Friday, the Báb was pressured by the Ulama, particularly the Imam Jumha of Shiraz, to publicly renounce His earlier claims in the grand Mosque of Vakil in front of a congregation of the faithful. The Báb attended the prayer session and publicly denied his claim to the position of 'Deputyship' of the Hidden Imam. This renunciation no doubt saved his life from the evil intentions of the Shirazi Ulama who had earlier encouraged Husayn Khan to execute Him. The public renunciation although pleasing Shaykh Abu Torab, the Imam Jumha, failed to impress the new Shaykhi converts and early believers in general.[19]

    In the early phase of His revelation, the Báb revealed His position as that of 'Bábíya' or the Gate leading to the presence of the Hidden Imam and clearly instructed His followers to conceal His name.[20] Haji Siyyid Javad Karbalai recounts a lengthy interrogation of his friend and colleague Mulla Ali Bastami (second Letter of Living) in Karbila, in an effort to learn the name of the Báb. The conversation as recorded in Kashfu'l Qita indicates the loyalty of Mulla Ali to this instruction from the Báb.

    After a few months the Báb observed a greater acceptance and readiness amongst His people and gradually moved His claim to that of Zikryya and Qaiemyya meaning that of the Hidden Imam in its entirety. In the final years of His life He publicly announced the station of Mazhariah meaning that of a manifestation from God.

    The reception of His message was not free from confusion. A number of early believers instantly recognised His true station right from the onset. This naturally resulted in confusion and disagreement amongst the Bábí community during the early phase of the revelation. At a time when the Báb intended to convey his message with caution, many of his leading followers (e.g. Tahirih, Váhid and Hujjat) openly declared the coming of the promised Mahdi and proclaimed His message linking it to the earlier Shaykhi prophecies. No doubt the adoption of such a cautious policy by the Báb managed to attract the maximum attention with the minimum possible controversy during the early months. However the scope and impact of His revolutionary claims would eventually draw the full wrath of the Ulama. Bahá'u'lláh mentions this fact in one of His tablets:

    The Báb in response to the weakness of the people revealed His message with wisdom. In one instance He writes 'This revelation is the point of Quran in its entirety'... on another occasion he reveals 'If people were not weak the word Mashiyya would not have been mentioned.' No doubt these utterings were made in wisdom. If He had revealed what was revealed in His final years during the early period, the fire of opposition and denial would have inflicted in the early days what was inflicted on Him in the final days.[21]

    The Báb openly declared His station as the promised Qá'im during the public trial in Tabriz. After the punishment handed to Him following the trial, He wrote a letter to Prince Nasiru'l Din Mírzá:

    This weak soul has no desire contrary to the will of the Lord and the Guardians of His Cause. Though my being is mere nothingness but since my heart is able to recognize the true meaning of the oneness of God, the manifestation of His prophet and the Guardianship of His Imams, and my tongue confesses to all that has been revealed by Him. I hope for His mercy and have no desire save His contentment.
          If certain words – contrary to His will – have been revealed from my pen, my purpose has not been that of rebellion. In any event I seek forgiveness of His Excellency. This servant has no knowledge to warrant any claims... Certain prayers and words that have been revealed from the tongue do not represent any concerns.
          And the claim to the deputyship of His Excellency Hujaullah – peace be up on Him – is void. This servant has not laid such a claim or any other one. Request is made for clemency from His Royal Excellency (king) and your Excellency to honour this servant with your mercy, kindness and forgiveness.[22]

    A quick comparison between the above letter and His earlier repentance in Shíráz reveals a familiar pattern:

    1. The Báb regards any claims to the position of Deputyship of the Hidden Imam as void. In fact He repeatedly spoke of being the Hidden Imam and an independent manifestation from God during His exile to Azarbayijan. Such claims were far greater than His early position of Bábíya or Gateship which he adopted only months earlier in Gateship. The Báb had bestowed the title of Bábíya and Deputyship to Mullá Husayn as early as the Shíráz period. The title of Bábu'l-Báb further illustrates Shíráz Husayn's new transformation. Therefore theologically from that point onwards the Báb was no longer the Deputy to the Hidden Imam.
    2. The Báb rejects any suggestion of leading a rebellion against the State. The Qajar establishment were seriously concerned about the hidden agenda of the Báb. Overtures and suggestions of possible revolt were made by the Ulama keen to form an alliance with the State in suppression of the Bábí movement. After the involvement of the Royal troops in the Tabarsi and Zanjan uprisings – events that Ulama had created – many Bábís openly supported a revolt against the oppressive forces. This in turn increased the suspicion of the officials.
    3. The Báb rejects any notions of having acquired knowledge. This issue was floated by the Ulama to belittle His reputation in revealing verses in speed and writing in a style similar to that of Quran. Ulama claimed that the Báb had earlier acquired such knowledge from their peers. In effect claiming that the Báb was repeating what they had taught Him earlier.
    4. The Báb refers to His thorough understating of the fundamental Shiite principles. These are namely Tawhid (Oneness), Nabuvva (Prophethood) and Velaya (Guardianship). This was partly in response to Ulama's claim that he had developed a psychological disorder and confused the basic concepts of religion. The Báb in effect conveyed his appreciation of the popular understanding of Shiite teachings and his intimate knowledge of these issues.

    Taqiyyah Amongst the Early Disciples
    Many of the Báb's loyal followers observed his instructions on the practice of Taqiyyah and became the source of invaluable service to the new Cause. Others used Taqiyyah to selfishly protect their livelihood. Some went further and actually provided assistance to the officials in persecuting the other Bábís.
    Siyyid Hassan and Siyyid Husayn Yazdi both met the Báb whilst in Isfahan. Siyyid Husayn immediately became His scribe and recorded many of the divine tablets and letters revealed by Him. The two brothers continued to serve the Báb in this capacity until His exile to Maku. Siyyid Hassan was ordered by the Báb in Maku to recant his faith, retire from service and return. Siyyid Husayn stayed until the end and similarly followed Báb's instructions, practiced Taqiyyah and was saved from the enemies after His execution. A short time after the Báb's execution, Siyyid Husayn went to the Russian Consul General in Tabriz and conveyed certain information on the final hours of Báb's life and Bábí teachings in general. The Russian Consul General took Siyyid Husayn to Tehran with himself under diplomatic protection. Siyyid Husayn was well respected in the Bábí community as the only disciple who personally witnessed the final four years of the Báb's life and was a privy to the secrets of the Cause. He was known as Aziz (favourite) Katib (scribe) and Katib-ul-Bayan (scribe of Bayán). Bahá'u'lláh refers to the two brothers in one of His tablets:[23]

    In the presence of the Compassionate Lord in Azarbayijan were two souls. He sent away Husayn according to His mercy and expelled Hassan according to His justice. Although he was held in high regards by my Forerunner and Beloved[23]
    Mírzá Mohammed Zakir (Rowza Khan) Yazdi was a leading Shaykhi student who had accompanied Mulla Husayn to Shiraz. He became one of the Letters of Living and was ordered to spread the new message in the city of Yazd. His arrival and initial enthusiasm was met with severe opposition by the intolerant Ulama who immediately issued a Fatwa to take his life. He became disillusioned and searched for means to save his life. He relied on his Shaykhi credentials and claimed to be a devoted follower of Haji Mohammed Karim Khan Kirmani. He even married a woman from the Kirmani clan. With a combination of Taqiyyah and support from his new family he managed to spare his life and maintain his reputation amongst the Mullahs. Privately he remained a Bábí and taught the faith secretly to close confidants. He continued to practice Taqiyyah until the end.[24]

    Qahr'ullah was a Dervish from India who had travelled to Persia and became a Bábí. He met the Báb in Chihriq and was instantly transformed to such an extent that he openly declared the coming of Mahdi various villages in Azarbayijan. His open proclamation caused a stir in the city of Khoy and as a result many Bábís were persecuted. The Báb ordered him to leave Iran. He returned to India only to come back to Chihriq after a few months and sought refuge in close proximity to Báb's cell. When the Báb was taken to Tabriz for execution, Qahr'ullah followed Him barefooted. He was present at the hour of execution. After the execution he was arrested and interrogated. During the process, he practiced Taqiyyah and claimed to be a Sufi follower and was subsequently released. He was later killed in Tehran.[25]
    Many of the Bábí women who visited Tahirih whilst she was held captive at the residence of Kalantar Khan observed Taqiyyah. They pretended to be housemaids and carried back and forth correspondence between the Bábís and Tahirih.[26]
    Prominent Bábí leaders never encouraged other believers to practice Taqiyyah. In situations where a Bábí questioned his loyalties or doubted his beliefs, they were advised to make a personal choice. Buddas on a number of occasions told his followers during the Tabarsi uprising:

    The Lord is detached from any form of assistance from His followers. If all of you leave I shall reveal the Lord through my walking-stick.[27]
    Following the martyrdom of Mulla Husayn and increasing hardships inside the fortress, a number of Bábís lead by Mirza Mohammed Husayn Motavalli Qumi decided to leave the fortress. Qumi became their spokesman and met with Quddús. Upon hearing his intentions Quddús replied 'Very well, leave whenever you can.'[28]

    Mirza Mohammed Husayn Motavalli Qumi surrendered to the government forces claiming: 'I had initially approached Bábís to investigate their cause. After spending some time with them I observed many words and no action. I did not see any truth in their claims and left.'[29] A short time later he became disillusioned. Openly praising the Bábís and at other times questioning their resolve. When the Prince learnt about his state of mind, he sent Qumi to the nearby city of Sari fearing that he was a Bábí infiltrator.[30]
    The defection of Qumi instantly intensified the official propaganda encouraging the Bábís to surrender. This in turn caused more Bábís to reconsider their situation. Aqa Rasul Behnamiri and thirty of his companions left the fortress after they obtained permission from Quddús. They were not lucky. All were sprayed with bullets in the vicinity of the fortress. Their bodies were taken to nearby towns and publicly beheaded. Quddús would repeatedly say 'We passed over the actions of Aqa Rasul and God forgave him.'[31]

    Mirza Mohammed Husayn Motavalli Qumi was arrested years later in Tehran following the unsuccessful attempt on the life of the Shah. After torture he recanted his faith and cooperated with the officials in the identification of other Bábís in order to save his life. He survived the ordeal and later met Bahá'u'lláh in Baghdad only to become an Azali at a later date.
    Yesterday is but today's memory, Tomorrow is today's dream!