Millennialist Narrative and Apocalyptic Violence
The Case of the Babis of Iran
The Babi movement of Iran came to a society in the nineteenth century that had a set millennialist narrative, which included an apocalyptic battle between the forces of good (led by the Imam Mahdi) and evil. Its founder, the Bab, at first appeared to claim to be just the intermediary for the Imam Mahdi, but later claimed to be the Imam Mahdi himself. This set in train expectations that the apocalyptic narrative of violence would begin. The writings and actions of the Bab were provocative, but there was nothing in them to suggest an initiation of violence. Indeed, he specifically held back from calling for a jihad, which the Imam Mahdi was expected to do. Over a period of time, however, the Islamic clerics escalated matters, calling on the state to intervene to halt the spread of the movement. This led eventually to violent confrontations in three locations in Iran in 1848-1850 and an attempted assassination of the Shah in 1852. This paper looks at the events of 1848-50 and describes how the apocalyptic narrative played out. It frames the events that occurred within the theoretical schema of assaulted, fragile and revolutionary millennialist groups suggested by Wessinger and examines the stages in the escalation of the conflict, the narratives that informed this, and specifically at those factors that increased the likelihood of violence. It also examines developments after 1852 that moved the focus of the religion, now called the Baha'i religion, from catastrophic millennialism (pre-millennialism) to progressive millennialism (post-millennialism).