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The Bab and Christianity I: The Bab and the Christians of Shiraz, Bushire and elsewhere.




The Bab and Christianity I : The Bab and the Christians of Shiraz, Bushire and elsewhere.

Stephen Lambden, UC Merced.

In Progress and under revision = last updated 23-07-2021.

Early in the 17th century Shāh `Abbās I (1587‑1629), wishing to consolidate his successful campaigns against the Ottoman Turks, forcibly depopulated eastern Armenia of thousands of families of Armenian and Georgian Christians and Jews. Many were settled in villages around Isfāhān and Shīrāz (ADD cf. Waterfield, 1973:66f). By the 19th centurym however, only a small community of Armenian Christians resided in Shīrāz. In 1824 Wolff counted "twenty families of Armenians.. and two Greek families." 1 At that time there were a few wealthy and educated native Christian merchants. 2 

            A small Armenian Christian community with its own church existed in Būshire during the first half of the 19th century.3 Among them were numbered a few wealthy and well educated merchants. In 1824 the Christian missionary Wolff  noted that several of the Armenian Christians of Bushire spoke English. With the cooperation of Aretoon Constantine (a wealthy Armenian Christian merchant of Būshire), established a Lancastrian school there before moving on to Shīrāz (Wolff, MJ., II:21ff). 4 


  • 1. Wolff, MJ III:68. In idem R&ML:79, it is noted, early 1830's ill treatment of the Armenians, ".. for though the Mohammedans at Sheeraz are considered as the most civilized they are nevertheless the most cruel and inhuman set of people (the people of Khorasan excepted throughout Persia)..["]?? Check.
  • 2. Fifty years later the condition of the Armenian Christians of Shīrāz was described by
    Arnold as miserable in the extreme; see Arnold 1887:146‑7.
  • 3. See Wilberforce, 18?? J&L. II:356. Shepherd noted that, "In Bushire, the Armenian Christians have an old church, in whose yards lie the bodies of several of the officers belonging to the Indian army." (1857:143).
  • 4. Apart from the native Armenian Christians of Bushire there was, of course, a British presence.In 1778 the headquarters of the British East India Company were transferred from Basra to Bushire which "became the principal British centre, both commercial and political, in the Persian Gulf" (Wright 1977:2 + see App. III:190).  During the first half of the 19th century a not inconsiderable number of British diplomats, military officers, travellers and missionaries resided in, passed through or spent some time in Bushire (Wright, 1977:62f; cf. Wolff, MJ III:2f.).


Between 1811 and 1850 a succession of zealous Christian missionaries and evangelically oriented occidental travellers visited Būshire and Shīrāz. Certain of their observations and the records of the attitudes of the Shī`ī Muslims with whom they came into contact, provide important insights into the religious milieu within which the Bāb spent his formative years.

            The "Padri", as Henry Martyn (1781‑1812) came to be known, resided for almost a year in Shīrāz and Bushire (mid 1811‑mid‑1812). He arrived in Bushire from India on 21st May 1811 then spent from June 9th 1811 until 12th May 1812 in Shiraz (for sources on the life of Henry Martyn see bib below). Soon after his arrival in Shīrāz his presence precipitated an exchange of polemical tracts and an endless stream of curious Muslim visitors. Here he revised Sabat's Persian translation of the New Testament and, by virtue of his piety and learning, made a deep and lasting impression on the Armenian Christians, orthodox Shī `ī and Sufi population (cf. Waterfield 1973:92f). Visited by "all the great and learned" (Wilberforce (ed), J&L:361)  of Shīrāz he found many Sufis particularly receptive to the Christian Gospel. In a letter dated December 12th 1811 he wrote‑:

"These Soofies [Sufis] are quite the methodists of the East. They delight in every thing Christian, except in being exclusive..The doctrine of the Trinity they admired, but not the atonement, because the Mahommedans, they say, consider Iman Hosyn [Imām Husayn] as also crucified for the sins of men; and to every thing Mohommedan they have a particular aversion. Yet withall they conform externally. From these, however, you will percieve the first Persian church will be formed, judging after the manner of men."  (Cited Wilberforce ibid. 383. cf. 386ff.).

            Though no Muslims appear to have been converted by Henry Martyn, his presence in Shīrāz served to widen the already liberal perspective of a fair number of the Muslim inhabitants.

            Having made contact with the Edinburgh Missionary Society which had a station at Astrakhan, Captain Peter Gordon (         ), armed with tracts and Bibles and attempted to introduce the Gospel into Persia in 1820. After visiting Qum, Kāshān and Isfāhān he reached Shīrāz in  July 1820. He singled out the latter place as suitable for occupation by a `quiet meek minister' - For some details see Wright,1977:114‑5. Gordon 1833 has not been available to me ...

At Shīrāz he not only distributed Bibles and "above fifty tracts" to leading Jews and Armenian Christians but presented " the Arabic Bible, Persian Testaments, Psalters and Tracts" to prominent Muslims. To "above three hundred Mussulmans and a great number of Jews" he preached the Gospel and dispensed "one hundred Persian Tracts to Persian Mussulman boys." (Refer,  MJ III:66.). Wolff furthermore listed fourteen  prominent Muslims to whom he gave the "Word of God" as follows:

  • 1. To His Excellency the Prime Minister of the Prince of Shiraz, Zachi Khan,
  • 2. Shukr Ali Khan.
  • 3. Muhammed Ali Khan.
  • 4. Sheikh Hasan Mujtehid, chief doctor of Shiraz. =  Ḥasan ibn ʻAlī Shīrāzī  = شيرازي، حسن
  • 5. Sheikh Abd Alnabe = Shaykh `Abd al-Nabi
  • 6. Sayd Khan =  Sayyid Khan
  • 7. Mullah Muhammed Ali  = Mulla Muhammad `Ali
  • 8.Hasaan Bek. = Hasan Beg
  • 9. Muhammed Jaafer. = Muhammad Ja`far
  • 10. Ahmed Ibrahim. = Ahmad Ibrahim
  • 11. Ali Resa Khan.
  • 12. Haj Muhammed Hussein, "head of the Soffees" = Haj Muhammad Husayn
  • 13. Mirza Ibrahim Kassaroone. = Muhammad Ibrahim Kazaruni
  • 14. Mullah Muhammed Jaafer, the friend of Henry Martyn." = Mulla Muhammad Ja`far.

The guest of Mīrzā `Alī Akbar, the then British agent in Shīrāz, Wolff was visited by leading Muslims who remembered Henry Martyn with affection. Certain of them had studied Martyn's now printed Persian translation of the New Testament. Indeed, shortly after his arrival at Shīrāz Wolff's host informed him that Martyn's translation was "now much read" especially among the Sufis of Shīrāz. (Wolff, Missionary Journal [III], 35).

The leading Dhahabī Sufi of Shīrāz, Mīrzā (Muhammad Shafī) Kuchak‑i Wi āl (d.1262 /1846), it is   worth noting, visited Wolff and informed him that he was engaged in writing a refutation of a work of the Dutch diplomat and theologian Hugo Grotius (or Hugo de Groot b. Delft, 1583 – shipwrecked, 1645 CE), and requested that he send the completed work to England ( ibid., p.68. cf. E. G.Browne, 1969:316.). Wolff had apparently distributed copies of de Groot's (Grotius') 1660 De Veritate religionis Christians  (or part of this work) in the Arabic translation of the English Biblical scholar and orientalist Edward  Pococke (b. Oxford,1604 – 1691), the first Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford. He apparently authored a Latin and Arabic version of Grotius De Veritate religionis Christians entitled Kitāb fī XXiat al‑ sharī`at al‑masīḥiyyat [??] which was originally published in Oxford in 1660.

Note that Hugo Grotius' De veritate religionis Christianae, existed in an  Arabic trans.or version  by Pococke. It was published in 1660 in a  Latin edition which included an Arabic version : Editio nova cum annotationibus cui accessit versio Arabica;  Oxonii : Excudebat Gulielm. Hall, 1660 (reprint 1982). This work  is dedicated to Robert Boyle signed: E.P. (Edward Pococke) "who did the Arabic version that forms the second part of the work". The 1982 reprint is a reproduction of original in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (See Hugo Grotius De veritate religionis Christianae. (Microform, 1982) listed in World Cat under series Early English books, 1641-1700, 1332:24).

The leading Shī`ī mujtahid, Shaykh Hasan Shirazi  - presumably the later supreme Shi`i authority, the marja al-taqlid and a relative of the Bab-  also encouraged his pupils to write refutations of de Groot's anti‑Muslim polemic and set certain of them the task of reading the Bible in order " to find in it prophecies respecting Muhammad and his name Mad‑Mad" (ibid p. 59ff.) The last words of Gen 17:20, [Heb.] bi‑me'od me'od (= `exceedingly' = "Mad‑Mad"[sic]) had long been thought by Muslim apologists to be a prophetic intimation of the name Muhammad. This, in particular, since  bi‑me'od me'od ( b  = 2 +  m = 40 +  a   = 1 +  d = 4 [45] + m  = 40 +   = 1 + d   = 4 [45] total = 92 ) and Muhammad (m = 40 + h  = 8 + m  = 40 +  d  = 4: total = 92) have the same numerical value (92).

The Shī`ī mujtahid, Shaykh Hasan Shirazi further informed Wolff that he liked to "argue with foreigners", especially freemasons, since  it "sharpens the understanding" (Missionary Journal [III]. 57).

At Shīrāz then, Wolff found an "inquiring spirit " among both orthodox Shī`ī Muslims and Sufis (ibid., 154 cf. 69).  He contributed to their knowledge of matters Judaeo‑Christian by distributing Bibles and tracts which some among them studied in detail.  In 1834 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent Merrick on a "mission to Mohammedans". He was instructed to spend 4‑5 years gathering information on the Muslims of Persia and Central Asia with a view to ascertaining where "it is expedient for the Board to establish missionary stations" (For some details see, Miller, 1933:333f; Anon, n.d. [1936]):20‑21; Kawerau, 1958:281‑284). 

     After visiting Tabriz, Tehran and Isfahan he arrived in Shīrāz where he remained for no less than seven months (from September 1836‑‑March 1837?). At Shīrāz he became well acquainted with Mīrzā Siyyid `Alī who had helped Henry Martyn with his Persian translation of the New Testament a quarter of a century earlier. Summing up he views on Shīrāz he wrote, " There is much more toleration, or rather civilization, at Shīrāz now than existed in that city ten or fifteen years ago but I am fully persuaded that a public renunciation of Mohammedanism would, at this day, insure most certain and summary death" (cited Miller, 1933:334‑5).

His attempt to establish a school in Shīrāz where European science and literature would be taught was referred by the "Prince in Shīrāz" to the Mullās. They rejected the idea on the grounds that such an institution would undermine faith in Islam (see Miller, 1933:335). 

The author of at least two books on his missionary tours, Jacob Samuel, who at one point referred to himself as `Late senior missionary to the Jews for India, Persia and Arabia..', spent some time in Shīrāz between 1836 and 1837. Unfortunately, however, little is known about him and his published works are almost impossible to obtain (see Waterfield, 1973:97‑8).

In December 1845 from their base in Baghdad the Anglican missionary Rev. Henry A. Stern (Unterreichenbach, near Gelnhausen, 1820 – Hackney, 13 May 1885)   and Rev. P. H. Sternschuss (   ), anxious to promote Christianity among Persian Jews  ‑‑ on behalf of the London based Church's Mission to the Jews (CMJ) ‑‑ spent several weeks in Bushire and Shīrāz. They resided in Shīrāz (from 12th January until 30th January [?] 1846) at the same time as the Bāb and were received by the governor Husayn Khān. (Waterfield, ibid 113; Momen, 1982c). Visited by a "good many" Jews and Muslims including the British agent Mīrzā Ridā (described by Stern as a "base, contemptible, drunkard") Christianity "began to be the general topic of the day". Many Muslims asked for copies of the New Testament and, "with few exceptions", listened to the Gospel message " with the greatest patience and interest". Among the "professed seekers after truth" in Shīrāz, Stern and Sternschuss, made the acquaintance of "several illuminati" (Sufis ?) who were "very liberal and tolerant in their views, and spoke with reverence and respect of Christ and his followers". Some of them had read Pfander's Mizān al‑Haqq ("The Balance of Truth") and very much admired its "spirit, tone and style". Such openness on the part of certain Muslim groups in Shīrāz, convinced Stern that an "intelligent, pious, and prudent missionary might do incalculable good amongst the Musulmans of Persia." (Stern, 1854:124‑6).

It is thus clear  that at both Shīrāz and Bushire there were, during the first half of the 19th century, native Armenian Christian communities with their own churches and a few wealthy and well‑educated merchants. The British presence at B¬shire and the succession of Christian missionaries who visited that city and Shīrāz, served to bring Christianity to the attention of the Muslim population and encouraged a fair number of the learned to study the Bible. Learned adherants of the various Sufi orders represented in Shīrāz were particularly receptive to, and interested in, the Gospel message. Though no Shīrāzī Muslims appear to have converted to Christianity between 1811 and 1846 (though there were a number of learned sympathizers) the enquiring spirit adopted by the intelligensia meant that Shīrāz was the scene of a certain amount of Christian influence.

General Western  "Christian" influence upon the bāb


SEE EIr. Communications

            A certain openess on the Bāb to western progress and efficiency is suggested, among other things, by his praise of the European postal service. Prior to 1850 there hardly existed a postal service in Iran; there were no railways or carriage roads to make this feasible (Sperberny‑Mohammadi & Ali Mohammadi, 1993:89) The Bāb noted that the Iranian chāpārī system cannot be compared with that of the developed system in "the land of Farangistān"  where there exists a rapid and safe road and communications network and where postal services are not the monopoly of those in authority (Bayān IV.16. cf. K. Haykal al‑Dīn ). 

Such an attitude is also reflected in those writings of the Bāb in which a positive attitude is expressed towards western astronomy and the use of telescopes.

See Per. Bayān VI:13 [see Paraclete folder] Nicholas III:153‑6

The Bāb seems to have had a more positive attitude towards women than contemporary Shī`ī Muslims. He permitted, though discouraged, marriage to two wives (XXX ). Male association with women was viewed positively ‑‑ open, yet hardly revolutionary!  The Bāb appointed a woman, Fātima Baraghānī, known as āhira/ Qurrat al‑`Ayn  among his nineteen initial disciples, the Letters of the Living.

Reflects mercantile Sufi ethic? rather than any profound Christian influence.