The threat of genocide hangs over the Bahais of Iran. Since 1979 more than 110 men and women, most of them leaders of the Bahai community, have been put to death. Hundreds have been jailed. Some have been abducted and never heard from again. Thousands have been made homeless. Retired government employees have lost their pensions. Teachers have been fired. Children have been denied public education and some have been kidnapped and placed in Muslim homes where they could be compelled to embrace Islam. Property has been confiscated. Bahai shrines have been demolished.

There are reasons to think that all of this is part of a systematic effort to force the four or five hundred thousand Iranian Bahais to recant their faith. Should the effort fail, tens or even hundreds of thousands could be massacred.

The West is largely unaware of the peril in which the Iranian Bahai community, in spite of its law-abiding and nonpolitical character, finds itself. Neither the fury of the mullahs nor the nature of the Bahai religion is well understood here. Thus a situation may arise in which mass murder could once again be committed without the world’s taking notice.

The Iranian revolution occurred under the banner of Islam. The crowds that challenged the monarchy in the streets were led by a coalition of Westernized intellectuals and the clergy, but it was the clergy who played the dominant role and fashioned the new regime. Therefore it is not surprising that the constitution of the Islamic Republic, its educational and social policies, its treatment of religious minorities and of women, and its view of the world beyond Iran’s borders should have been heavily influenced by the beliefs and attitudes of the radically conservative, activist elements among the mullahs.

Once in control of state power, the clergy initiated measures to turn Iran into the utopia of their dreams. In the clerical republic only the ayatollahs would think and decide, the rest would practice taqlid (imitation), walking in the footsteps of stern, turbaned gurus. In the clerical republic there would be no foreign influences, no Western literature or music, and even Persian classical poets tainted with free thought would be censored. Women would know their place; and religious minorities—Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews—would live, as they had lived for centuries, isolated, restricted, and disdained. Of course, in the clerical republic there would be no room for Bahais, hated as renegades and unprotected by the Koranic injunction to tolerate Christians and Jews.

The Shiite clergy’s hatred of the Bahai faith goes back to the very inception of the new religion. For a thousand years the majority of Shiites had waited for the advent of the twelfth Imam, descendant and successor of the Prophet Muhammad, who, according to tradition, had mysteriously disappeared in AH 260. A thousand lunar years later, in AH 1260 (AD 1844) a young merchant of Shiraz, Sayyid Ali Muhammad, proclaimed himself the Bab, the gate to the Hidden Imam. The Bab rapidly gained a number of devoted followers, many of them mullahs.

As the mission of the Bab evolved, he declared to his disciples that he was not merely the gate but the Hidden Imam himself and that his role was that of a prophet and the herald of one whom God shall manifest, a messenger who would fulfill ancient prophecies and bring about righteousness on earth.

The Bab’s teachings were a radical departure from the literalist fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. The Shiite clergy could neither tolerate the rejection of its theology, nor could it permit criticism of itself as an institution. Faced with the rapid spread of the Babi movement, the clergy induced the government to crush what it saw as a pernicious and dangerous heresy. The Bab was executed in Tabriz in 1850, and in the next few years thousands of Babis were put to death. By the end of 1852 the mullahs and the government felt certain that the danger had passed. A majority of the Babis were dead. A few were exiled abroad. The remnant were dispirited and inactive.

The situation changed drastically in the next decade. A leading disciple of the Bab, Mirza Husayn Ali, known as Baha’u’llah, proclaimed himself the messenger foretold by the Bab. Most of the surviving Babis accepted the claim and became Bahais, followers of the new religion, the Bahai faith.

Exiled first to Baghdad, then to Constantinople and Adrionople, and finally, in 1867, to Acre in Ottoman Syria, Baha’u’llah died in 1892, leaving a body of writings his followers hold to be the equivalent of the Bible or the Koran. Baha’u’llah taught that God was unknowable in his essence but that his will was known through an unending succession of messengers among whom were Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, and Muhammad. Each was a link in the chain of progressive revelation that provided the spiritual impetus for the development of humanity. Man had a twofold destiny: inwardly he must engage in a neverending quest for divine qualities, while his life in society must be dedicated to the advancement of civilization.


The Bahai faith shared with Islam belief in God, the immortal soul, revelation, and the prophetic station of Muhammad. However, it interpreted traditional eschatological notions as allegories, and it abolished or drastically modified Islamic law. While the prohibition of alcohol remained, polygamy, holy war, ritual purity, and hundreds of rules governing personal and social conduct, elaborated over the centuries by learned interpreters of the scriptures, were set aside. Last but not least, the Bahais had no clergy, each individual being enjoined independently to investigate religious truth and the community being entrusted to elective governing bodies.

As the numbers of its adherents increased, the Bahai community became a cross section of Iranian society. Within its ranks there were merchants, artisans, officials, workers, peasants, professionals, and even tribesmen. Strongly committed to education, the rights of women, and the work ethic, the Bahais tended to be better educated, more prosperous, and less provincial than average Iranians. They also developed a strong sense of solidarity and commitment, while keeping the door to their community wide open to those who wished to join.

Stung by what they quite correctly saw as a revival of the hated Babi movement, the members of the clergy resumed their assault. There were killings in 1896, in 1903, during the revolution of 1906-1911, and there have been occasional outbreaks since. However, modernization was gradually changing the mental climate among the Iranian elite. The influence of religion declined, opening the way to secularism, nationalism, and communism. During the reign of Reza Shah (1925-1941) the clergy lost much of its economic and all of its political power. To preserve their hold on the masses and to restore their influence on the educated, the mullahs needed a scapegoat that could be blamed for the decline of Islam and for all the ills that beset a rapidly changing society experiencing the full force of Westernization.

Reza Shah felt no sympathy for the Bahais. He closed their schools, forbade the publication of their literature, and periodically subjected them to general harassment, but he did not permit them to be massacred. The clergy had to find new means of struggle. As early as 1938 a group of mullahs in Mashhad, a holy city in eastern Iran, concocted what purported to be a Persian translation of the memoirs of Prince “Dalqurki,” presumably Dolgorukov, who had served as Russian minister in Iran. “Dalqurki” tells of being sent to Iran in 1844 by Tsar Alexander II (who was not to ascend the throne for another eleven years, but the mullahs were not good at Russian history) to weaken the country by destroying Islam. “Dalqurki” boasts of having been the true founder of the Babi religion.

This crude fabrication with its blatant appeal to the new Iranian nationalism was rejected even by known antagonists of the Bahai faith, such as the historian Ahmad Kasravi, as well as by Mojtaba Minovi and other less partisan scholars. Yet “Dalqurki’s” memoirs entered the mainstream of Iranian thought. To this day most Iranian intellectuals take that illiterate forgery for an authentic document explaining the origins of a faith of which they are otherwise surprisingly ignorant.

At about the same time in the USSR an Iranist, M.S. Ivanov, in his book The Babi Uprisings in Iran, advanced the thesis that whereas the religion of the Bab was a revolutionary attempt by the Iranian bourgeoisie to resist Western commercial penetration, the Bahai faith, with its emphasis on universal peace, world government, tolerance, and nonviolence, represented cosmopolitanism and surrender to the forces of foreign imperialism. Echoes of this view, supported by the most flimsy evidence and reflecting simple-minded Marxism at its lowest intellectual level, can be heard in the works of some European and American writers, including Roots of Revolution, the recently published history of modern Iran by Nikki Keddie.

After 1953, with the cooperation of SAVAK, the political police, there arose clerically inspired organizations such as Tabliqat-e Eslami (Islamic Propaganda) dedicated primarily to slandering the Bahai faith, disrupting Bahai meetings, and attacking individual Bahais. These organizations disseminated rumors linking the Bahais to everything that could be perceived as harmful to the interests of the people. Denied freedom to reply, the Bahais could not disprove allegations made against them.

The establishment of the Islamic Republic made it seem possible for the clerical extremists to carry out a final solution of the Bahai question. There began a systematic campaign of terror against the leadership of the Bahai community. In August 1980 the National Spiritual Assembly, governing body of the Bahais of Iran, was abducted and disappeared without a trace. Eight of the nine members of the new Assembly that succeeded the earlier one were executed on December 27, 1981.


The campaign against the Bahais was carried abroad. Appearing on “The MacNeill-Lehrer Report,” a supporter of the new regime, later its chief delegate to the UN, referred to the rumors of Bahai cooperation with the SAVAK. Three years later, now a fugitive in the United States, he repudiated every allegation made against the Iranian Bahais. In a letter to an American friend he wrote that “the Iranian Bahais are the only people whose persecution, which includes confiscation or destruction of property as well as summary arrests and executions, is motivated solely by fascistic aggression without any provocation whatsoever.”

Yet the damage has been done. Doubt has been planted in many minds. The limit of irrationality was reached by a certain Robert Dreyfuss in a grotesque pamphlet that turned Khomeini himself into a secret ally of the Bahais. In his Among the Believers V.S. Naipaul, writing out of an abundance of ignorance, delivered himself of a few vacuous remarks about the Bahai faith. Perhaps Naipaul could claim poetic license. After all, he was only expressing his feelings. Professor H.R. Trevor-Roper has no such excuse. Commenting on Naipaul’s travelogue in The New York Review,1 he mentions the Bahai heresy which “has its temple in Haifa, and has established itself, like other deviant cults, in California.” The application to the Bahai faith of terms such as “heresy” and “cult” may be a matter of opinion, but the mention of California clearly expresses disdain for a movement that would establish itself in such a sordid place and suggests a kinship with unsavory groups. It may come as a surprise to Trevor-Roper that there is no Bahai temple in Haifa and that the American state with the largest Bahai population is South Carolina.

Yet information on the history and the teachings of the Bahai faith is easily available. Already in the nineteenth century there appeared in Europe books by Gobineau, Kazembek, Tumanskii, and Browne. Since then the literature has expanded and now includes studies by Balyuzi, Taherzadeh, and Bausani.2

Some perceive a secularization of religion in the Bahai commitment to the unity of mankind, world peace and world government, the harmony of religion and science, universal education, the equality of the sexes, the abolition of extremes of poverty and wealth. Bahais see in these principles a contemporary expression of the externally valid quest for the brotherhood of man. That their beliefs, aspirations, and actions are frequently misunderstood and at times misrepresented is the result of a century of oppression in the country where the faith was born, of malice on the part of some and of ignorance on the part of others.

Perhaps the horrors that are being perpetrated against the Iranian Bahais will lead to a clearer understanding of the Bahais and their beliefs.

This Issue

May 13, 1982