October 27, 2019


The spark that set the city of Zanján aflame with persecution and great suffering was a small one: a simple quarrel between a Bábí youth and a Muslim youth. The Bábí youth was imprisoned by the governor, the Madju’d Dawlih – a maternal uncle of the new Sháh who was looking for ways to win the good graces of the sovereign. All efforts to have the boy released proved futile until Hujjat, a native of Zanján, stepped in to secure his release.

Hujjat was an early convert to the Bábí Faith. Originally a fiery cleric named Mullá Muhammad-‘Alí from Zanján, he had unorthodox ideas and often lamented how far the Shí’i religion had fallen. When the Báb’s star began to rise over the horizon of Persia, he sent his disciple Mullá Iskandar to Shíraz to conduct a minute and independent inquiry. When Mullá Iskandar – who had been deeply touched by the Báb – returned while Hujjat was entertaining a number of leading divines and announced that “whatever should be the verdict of his master, the same would he deem it his obligation to be,” Mullá Muhammad-‘Alí exploded in fury. “What! But for the presence of this distinguished company, I would have chastised you severely. How dare you consider matters of belief to be dependent upon the approbation or rejection of others!” When he then read the first line of the Qayyumu’l-Asma’, he fell to the ground and acknowledged that those words came from God and pledged his allegiance to the Báb, exhorting the gathering to follow suit, stating that “Whoso denies Him, him will I regard as the repudiator of God Himself.”

In honour of his eloquent sermons and capacity to silence his detractors, the Báb called him Hujjat’ul-Islám, the Proof of Islám, and thereafter, Hujjat, a man who did not to live by half-measures, bravely taught the Bábí Faith with fire and passion. As a result, he was both hounded and hunted and forced to flee many a town and village. Eventually, he returned home and soon found himself in the midst of the crisis that had engulfed the Bábí community of Zanján.

Incensed by the youth’s incarceration, Hujjat appealed to the governor to release the child and allow his father to be imprisoned instead, to no avail. A sum of money was also offered by the believers, but that too was ignored. Finally, Hujjat sent one of his comrades to meet with the governor and have the youth released. This man not only managed to free the youth and infuriate the governor, it inflamed the clergy of Zanján, who pressured the governor to arrest Hujjat. Although he sent guards to apprehend him, they were routed by a group of Bábís seeking to protect Hujjat, who, crying out Ya Sahibu’s Zaman!, O Lord of the Age!, wounded one of them and sent the others running in panic. This shout spread terror among the townspeople, and the guards, having failed to arrest Hujjat, instead arrested an unarmed Bábí who was then butchered by the governor, his attendants and even a Muslim cleric who stabbed him in the heart with a penknife.

This murder aroused the bloodlust of many government officials who vowed to destroy the Bábí community with the approval of the governor, who agreed, sending a town crier out into the streets of Zanján to proclaim that whoever was willing to endanger his life, to forfeit his property and expose his wife and children to misery and shame, should throw in his lot with Hujjat and his companions, and that those who were desirous of ensuring the wellbeing and honour of themselves and their families, should withdraw from the neighbourhood in which the Bábís lived and seek the shelter of the sovereign’s protection.

The town was immediately divided in two. It also divided families and caused great turmoil in many a home. That day, every tie of affection seemed to be dissolving, and solemn pledges were forsaken in favor of a loyalty mightier and more sacred than any earthly allegiance.

As a result of this polarization, the Bábís took shelter at the turreted Fort of ‘Alí-Mardán Khán, where they built 28 barricades as a means of protecting themselves and from which they defended their battered community. The fortress housed some 2,000 Bábí men and 3,000 women and children, who also assisted in helping in whatever way they could. The women would sew, wash, cook, tend to the sick and wounded, gather cannonballs and bullets for reuse and cheered the warriors who sought to protect them. Some 200 joyful marriages took place in the fort presided by Hujjat, although no one knew if their spouse would survive the day.

Nasirí’d Din Sháh and his Prime Minister, Mírzá Taqí Khán, who particularly wished to stamp out what he considered to be a heresy, sent some 6,000 troops to root out and destroy the Bábís living in the fort. The Bábís, however, only came out to defend themselves and were expressly forbidden to needlessly kill the Sháh’s soldiers.

One of those who watched helplessly as her Bábí brothers took to the field of martyrdom was 17-year-old Zaynab. She and her sister Sháh-Sanam, who had married Hujjat, were the children of an elderly Bábí who had died not long before. Zaynab felt a deep urge to throw in her lot with her Bábí brethren and take up arms in defense of her people.

Without telling anyone, she cut her hair, put on male clothing and, taking up the family sword, threw herself into the battles at the fortress. She was so fearless and enthusiastic that she immediately caught the attention of both the attacking enemy forces and the Bábí fighters. Hujjat, recognizing his sister-in-law as he watched her from the battlements, called her to him. “No man has shown himself capable of such vitality and courage. Why have you disguised yourself?” he asked. “My heart ached with pity and sorrow,” she answered, “when I beheld the toil and sufferings of my fellow-disciples. I advanced by an inner urge I could not resist. I was afraid lest you would deny me the privilege of throwing in my lot with my men companions. I can confidently assure you that no one has yet discovered my sex. You alone have recognized me. I adjure you by the Báb not to withhold from me that inestimable privilege, the crown of martyrdom, the one desire of my life.”

Hujjat was deeply moved by her words, and renamed her Rustam-‘Alí, the brave and zealous hero of the great Persian epic, The Shanameh. “This is the Day of Resurrection,” Hujjat replied, “the day when all secrets shall be searched out. Not by their outward appearance, but by the character of their beliefs and the manner of their lives, does God judge His creatures, be they men or women.”

Thereafter, Zaynab was the pride of the Bábí warriors and the scourge of the Sháh’s army, for she was known as a fearless and an excellent sharpshooter. When her true identity became known to both Bábís and Muslims, her life began to take on mythic proportions. Time and again she led contingents of Bábís and routed their enemy. Towards the end of the siege, however, while fighting the troops and battling hunger as they all did, she knew that her time was growing short. From within the fort, Zaynab witnessed a surprise ambush overtake her companions and begged Hujjat to let her go to their defense. Knowing that her time had come, he let his tears flow, but said nothing. Taking his silence as tacit approval, she launched herself into battle, all the while shouting to the Muslim soldiers: “Why befoul by your deeds the fair name of Islám? Why flee abjectly from before our face, if you be speakers of truth?” She had already overturned three barricades and was in the process of overturning a fourth when she was cut down by a hail of bullets. So great was her reputation as both a warrior and a symbol of purity by both Muslims and Bábís that some 20 women declared themselves Bábís and joined the companions in the fort.

Despite Hujjat’s pleas to the Sháh, which went unanswered, he and the Bábís of the fort continued to defend themselves despite great deprivation. Eventually, having reached an impasse, the Qu’ran was again used to draw out the Bábís and create a false sense of security by promising them the forgiveness of the Sháh. Hujjat was not fooled, however, and following a rapid breach in the ceasefire, asked those who wished to leave in the middle of the night for their safety to do so, but they refused.

One day, while doing his ablutions for his prayers during a bombardment, Hujjat was struck in the arm by a bullet. The wound became seriously infected, however. Hujjat died suddenly while reciting his prayers, the Báb’s name still lingering on his lips. Not long after, the government allow the regiments to storm the fort. The siege of Zanján had lasted almost nine months, from May 1850 to January 1851. The captured Bábís were either murdered or enslaved, thus drenching the earth of Zanján with innocent blood.

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