Bahaism as a religion had as its background two earlier and much different movements in nineteenth-century Shiʿite Shaikhism (following Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī [q.v.]) and Babism. Shaikhism centered on theosophical doctrines and believed that a perfect Shiʿite existed on earth at all times, and many Shaikhis (as well as other Shiʿites) expected the return of the hidden Twelfth Imam in 1260/1844. Shaikhis in particular joined the messianic Babi movement of the 1840s, which shook Iran as Sayyed ʿAlī-Moḥammad Šīrāzī proclaimed himself, first the bāb or “gate” of the Twelfth Imam, and then the return of the imam himself. As the new creed spread, violence broke out between Shiʿites and Babis, ending when Qajar government troops intervened to besiege and massacre the Babis. The government executed the Bāb in 1850. Some Babi leaders in Tehran plotted, in revenge, the death of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah, but the assassination failed and large numbers of suspected Babis were tortured and killed.
An Iranian notable and important Babi figure, Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Nūrī, “Bahāʾ-Allāh” was imprisoned but found innocent after the attempted assassination. He was exiled to Iraq, in the Ottoman empire, then to Istanbul and Edirne in Turkey. He was accompanied by his younger half-brother, Mīrzā Yaḥyā Ṣobḥ-e Azal, whom the Bāb appears to have pointed to in 1850 as leader of the Babi community. The Bāb had also spoken of the advent of another messianic figure, “he whom God shall make manifest (man yoẓheroh Allāh),” and in 1863 in the garden of Necip Paşa in Baghdad Bahāʾ-Allāh informed a handful of close followers that he was the messianic figure promised by the Bāb (Ostād Moḥammad-ʿAlī Salmānī, Ḵāṭerāt, ms., International Bahāʾi Archives, Haifa; Eng tr. M. Gail, My Memories of Bahāδu’llāh, Los Angeles, 1982, p. 22). While in Edirne (1863-68) Bahāʾ-Allāh wrote letters to Babi followers in Iran openly proclaiming himself to be the spiritual “return” (rajʿa) of the Bāb. During the Edirne period relations between Bahāʾ-Allāh and Ṣobḥ-e Azal became increasingly strained, and in 1867 Bahāʾ-Allāh sent his younger brother a missive demanding his obedience to the new revelation, which Azal rejected. Babis in Iran were then forced to choose between Bahāʾ-Allāh and Azal. The vast majority accepted the assertions in Bahāʾ-Allāh’s writings that he was a manifestation of God (maẓhar-e elāhī) bearing a new revelation, rejecting Azal’s form of Babism. Although the Bahais date the inception of their religion from Bahāʾ-Allāh’s 1863 private declaration in Baghdad, the Bahai community only gradually came into being in the late 1860s, and most Babis did not become Bahais in earnest until after 1867, though many may have been partisans of Bahāʾ-Allāh earlier (Bahāʾ-Allāh, “Sūrat damm,” Āṯār-e qalam-e aʿlā IV, Tehran, 125 Badīʿ/1968, pp. 1-15; “Lawḥ-e Naṣīr,” Majmūʿa-ye maṭbūʿa-ye alwāḥ, Cairo, 1920, pp. 166-202; Salmānī, Ḵāṭerāt, tr. pp. 42-48, 93-105).
In 1868 Bahāʾ-Allāh and some close followers were exiled to ʿAkkā, in Palestine, by the Ottomans, and Azal and his partisans were sent to Cyprus. The vast majority of Babis lived in Iran, and Bahāʾ-Allāh found ways to continue to send epistles and tablets (sing. lawḥ) to them. In 1873, while under house arrest in the old city of ʿAkkā, Bahāʾ-Allāh, in response to requests by the Bahai community in Iran for a new book of laws to accompany his new revelation, set down the Aqdas (al-Ketāb al-aqdas, Ketāb-e aqdas “Most holy Book” [q.v.]), meant to supersede the Koran and the Bāb’s book of laws, the Bayān.
One of the problems facing the Babis in the 1850s and 1860s was that of religious authority. With the execution of the Bāb and the massacre of many prominent Babi disciples, the original leadership of the religion was mown down. Regional sects developed within Babism, with local claimants to high station competing for allegiance. Azal, who followed a policy of keeping himself incognito, provided little effective leadership. Bahāʾ-Allāh won out partially because he solved these problems of legitimacy and organization. The Aqdas prescribes that in every locality a Bahai steering committee (termed bayt al-ʿadl “house of justice” [q.v.] ) should be set up to administer the affairs of the religion. In addition, Bahāʾ-Allāh provided active leadership through his letters from exile, and through his close companions (called moballeḡīn “teachers”) who were sent back to Iran to implement his policies (al-Ketāb al-aqdas, Bombay, n.d., pp. 30-31; ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, Taḏkerat al-wafāʾ, Haifa, 1924; Kāẓem Samandarī, Tārīḵ-e Samandar wa molḥaqāt, Tehran, 131 Badīʿ/1974; Mīrzā Ḥaydar-ʿAlī Eṣfahānī, Baḥjat al-ṣodūr, Bombay, 1913).
After 1873 the Bahais in Iran began to organize themselves in accordance with the Aqdas and gradually began to follow its laws. For example, because of that book’s emphasis on the education of children of both sexes, informal Bahai schools were set up. The Christian missionary Bruce noted in 1874 in Isfahan the rapid increase in Bahais (letter of Reverend Bruce, 19 November 1874, in M. Momen, ed., The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, 1844-1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts, Oxford, 1981, p. 244). J. D. Rees of the Indian civil service found in 1885 evidence of substantial Bahai followings among the merchant class in Qazvīn, and among townsmen in Hamadān, Ābāda, and Mašhad (J. Rees, “The Bab and Babism,” Nineteenth Century 40, 1896, pp. 56-66, quoted in Momen, Bābí and Bahá’í Religions, p. 245). The government and the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ carried out periodic persecution of the new religion, as in Isfahan in 1874 and 1880, in Tehran in 1882-83, and Yazd in 1891 (see missionary and consular reports in Momen, Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, pp. 251-305). Bahaism spread in this period, not only among Iranian Shiʿites but also among the Zoroastrians in Yazd and Jews in Kāšān and Hamadān (see the letters to the Zoroastrians by Mīrzā Abu’l-Fażl Golpāyegānī (q.v.) in his Rasāʾel wa raqāʾem, ed. R. Mehrābḵānī, Tehran, 1978, pp. 463-511). Internationally, Bahaism spread from the late 1860s to 1892 in Iraq, Turkey, Ottoman Syria, Egypt, Sudan, the Caucasus, Turkish Central Asia, India, and Burma.
Bahāʾ-Allāh appointed his eldest son ʿAbbās Effendi ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ (q.v.) to head up Bahaism after him. ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ assumed the leadership of the religion in 1892 upon his father’s death, and was accepted by almost all Bahais as the perfect exemplar of his father’s teachings. Some of his younger half-brothers, led by Moḥammad-ʿAlī, joined a handful of Bahai “teachers” in opposing ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ’s authority, but this small group eventually died out. From 1892 to 1921, under ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ’s leadership, Bahaism spread to Tunisia, Arabia, North America, Europe, China, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, and Australia, as well as making further progress in countries where it had earlier been established, such as India. The well-organized Bahai community of the United States was particularly active in spreading the religion, and was encouraged to do so by ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ in such of his writings as the Alwāḥ-e tablīḡī-e Amrīkā (in ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, Makātīb III, Cairo, 1921; tr., Unveiling the Divine Plan, New York, 1919). In Iran Bahais continued to be active, and to spread their religion. They faced several waves of major persecutions. The 1896 assassination of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah by Mīrzā Reżā Kermānī (q.v.), a follower of Sayyed Jamāl-al-Dīn “Afḡānī” (q.v.), was widely blamed on Babis or Bahais at first. Pogroms against Bahais were undertaken in 1903 in Rašt, Isfahan, and especially Yazd (Moḥammad-Ṭāher Malmīrī, Tārīḵ-e šohadāʾ-e Yazd, Cairo, 1926; diplomatic correspondence in Momen, Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, pp. 373-404). They were caught in the middle of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11. Despite the support for constitutionalism in Bahāʾ-Allāh’s writings, Bahai leaders were careful not to take sides too openly, primarily, it seems, in order to avoid provoking their opponents in the opposing camps thus endangering their vulnerable community, but probably also out of concern that their very identification with the cause might undermine it in Iran. Nevertheless, ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ around 1906 urged Bahais to attempt to elect two ayādī-e amr Allāh “Hands of the cause of God” (q.v.) to parliament (copies of ms. letters in the author’s possession). He later became disillusioned with the Majles and urged Bahais to dissociate themselves from politics (ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, Resāla-ye sīāsīya, Tehran, 1913), a policy which gradually became frozen into a Bahai principle. Anti-Bahai attacks increased again at times of political unrest, and the early 1920s prelude to Reżā Khan’s coup also saw numerous pogroms (diplomatic correspondence in Momen, Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, pp. 405-52).
Abd-al-Bahāʾ further refined the Bahai administrative apparatus, calling for elections of local Houses of Justice or Spiritual Assemblies (maḥfel-e rūḥānī-e maḥallī) by majority vote, and preparing for the election of national Spiritual Assemblies (maḥfel-e mellī) and of an international House of Justice (bayt al-ʿadl-e bayn al-melalī). Also in his will and testament (Alwāḥ-e waṣāyā, in ʿAbd-al-Ḥamīd Ešrāq Ḵāvarī, ed., Resāla-ye ayyām-e tesʿa, Tehran, 103 Badīʿ/1947, repr. 129 Badīʿ/1973, pp. 456-84; tr. Shoghi Effendi, Will and Testament of ʿAbdu’l-Baha, New York, 1925) he appointed his grandson Shoghi (Šawqī) Effendi Rabbānī (q.v.) leader of Bahaism after him as walī-e amr Allāh (Guardian of the cause of god). He stipulated that Shoghi Effendi should appoint the next guardian from among his children or close cousins. Some Bahais, like Ruth White, refused to accept Shoghi Effendi, others, like Aḥmad Sohrāb thought him too authoritarian. Only a miniscule number of Bahais, however, followed them, and Shoghi Effendi’s vigorous leadership and administrative abilities led to a great expansion in the number of Bahais world-wide. In his first decade of leadership he presided over the election of Bahai national Spiritual Assemblies in the British Isles (1923), Germany (1923), India (1923), Egypt (1924), the United States of America (1925), and Iraq (1931) (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, Wilmette, Ill., 1944, 1970, pp. 323-401; Ruḥíyyih [Mary Maxwell] Rabbānī, The Priceless Pearl, London, 1969).
After 1925 many Iranian Bahais began refusing to be identified by their family’s ancestral religion on their passports and other official papers, and Bahai institutions began issuing marriage certificates in accordance with the laws of the Aqdas. In 1927 Bahais convened their first national conference of delegates from the nine provinces of Iran, and planned to begin annual national conventions like those held in the United States. Bahais organized for the establishment of primary schools, the improvement of the status of women, and the propagation of their religion. The secularism of the Reżā Shah government in the late 1920s at first helped the Bahais, who built a Bahai center (ḥaẓīrat al-qods) in Tehran, and began holding public meetings. There, eighty-four of the ninety-five delegates to the national convention gathered to elect the first national Spiritual Assembly in 1934 in accordance with the by-laws translated from those of the national Spiritual Assembly of the United States. Walī-Allāh Khan Warqā was elected chairman, ʿAlī-Akbar Forūtan became secretary. National committees were set up for children’s education, women’s progress, and the establishment of a Bahai house of worship (mašreq al-aḏkār) on a tract of land near Tehran (“Report Prepared by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahāʾīs of Iran,” The Baháʾí World: A Biennial International Record 6, Wilmette, Ill., 1937, repr. 1980, pp. 94-108; “Bahāʾī Administrative Divisions in Iran,” Baháʾí World 7, Wilmette, Ill., 1939, pp. 571-75).
From 1934, however, the Reżā Shah period was not a particularly happy one for the Iranian Bahai community, though violence against them occurred much less frequently because of better security and less influence over affairs by the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ. Reżā Shah’s autocratic rule meant he brooked no independence and uncontrolled activity from any social or religious institutions, including Bahaism. The rise of the Bahai administrative order was perceived as a challenge to this central policy, and therefore all schools belonging to the Bahai community were closed (see bahai schools) throughout Iran. Moreover, his government refused to recognize the validity of Bahai marriage certificates, banned the printing and circulation of Bahai literature, closed some local Bahai centers, confiscated Bahai ballot boxes at district conventions in some localities, forbade Bahais to communicate with their coreligionists outside Iran, dismissed some Bahai government employees, and demoted some Bahais in the military. Elections of the national Spiritual Assembly had to be held by mail (Knatchbull-Hugessen to Simon, no. 554, 15 December 1934, FO 371/17917, quoted in Momen, Bábí and Báhá’í Religions, pp. 477-78, sec also pp. 462-81; National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of Iran, “Annual Report,” Baháʾí World 7, Wilmette, Ill., 1939, pp. 133-45).