Posted by Sen on December 25, 2008
[Revised March 2016]
Did a regiment of 750 musketmen line up to execute the Bab, in a barracks square in Tabriz, and all miss their target? Early accounts, and those closest to Tabriz, do not say that a whole regiment, or 750 men specifically, constituted the firing squad. Later reports, in the Bahai Writings, do say this. Here’s how Abdu’l-Baha tells the story:
By one rope the Báb was suspended and by the other rope Aqa Muhammad-‘Ali, both being firmly bound in such wise that the head of that young man was on the Báb’s breast. The surrounding housetops billowed with teeming crowds. A regiment of soldiers ranged itself in three files. The first file fired; then the second file, and then the third file discharged volleys. From the fire of these volleys a mighty smoke was produced. When the smoke cleared away they saw that young man standing and the Báb seated by the side of His amanuensis Aqa Siyyid Husayn in the very cell from the staircase of which they had suspended them. To neither one of them had the slightest injury resulted.
(Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 26-7)
The way Shoghi Effendi tells it, it goes like this:
The firing squad ranged itself in three files, each of two hundred and fifty men. Each file in turn opened fire until the whole detachment had discharged its bullets. So dense was the smoke from the seven hundred and fifty rifles that the sky was darkened. As soon as the smoke had cleared away the astounded multitude …. beheld a scene which their eyes could scarcely believe. The Báb had vanished from their sight! Only his companion remained, alive and unscathed,…
(Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 52-3)
and in Nabil’s version:
As soon as they were fastened, a regiment of soldiers ranged itself in three files, each of two hundred and fifty men, each of which was ordered to open fire in its turn …. The smoke of the firing of the seven hundred and fifty rifles was such as to turn the light of the noonday sun into darkness.
(Shoghi Effendi, The Dawn-Breakers, p. 510)
The Dawn-Breakers even has a photograph of the place:
But I have a problem with these accounts. I’m a practical man, I started my working life as a carpenter. So when I see a text say “two hundred and fifty men” lined up, I try to make a workable picture of that. Allow say 60 cm for each man (2 feet for the more imperial among us), and that gives us a line 150 metres long, or 500 feet long. How far are they from the target? I think of all the historic pictures of executions, and the range of accuracy of muskets with smooth bore barrels. 10 metres or 30 feet from the target would be safe, 15 metres would already be risky. There was a reason why the old dueling-with-pistols custom called for just ten paces, turn, and fire. Any more paces than that, and it wouldn’t be interesting. Even at twenty paces apart, your odds were better than Russian Roulette.
So let’s do a little geometry: if the line is 150 metres long, and the target is 15 metres from the centre of the line, then the soldiers on the end have to fire at a target that is just over 75 metres away (which they therefore have little chance of hitting), and they have to direct their fire inwards, turning about 80 degrees to fire across the front of their companions.
And that’s just the problem with the front file. The men on the ends of the two files behind them, firing inwards at that angle, will mow down the front rank in handfuls.
But then, would anyone in their right minds set up an execution squad with gunpowder muskets, to fire in three ranks? Either the second rank waits for the smoke to clear, in which case they can see that their work is not required, or they fire blind — in which case there are going to be wooden shutters with holes in them, and roof tiles broken, and probably bystanders hit as well. The third rank cannot fire at all, because if they did, the glowing hot remains of the wads they use to hold the gunpowder in place, and which pop out of the barrel after the bullet, would end up all over the front rank.
For that matter, think of the damage to the building from 750 bullets: and by some accounts the rooms behind the Bab and his companion were actually in use. If the commander was planning to use 750 muskets, he wouldn’t have put the Bab in front of a building in use, or anything else of value.
And if you were given command of 750 men, and told to conduct a controversial execution, in a public place with a large crowd, wouldn’t you want most of your soldiers turned to face the crowd?
So how many muskets can we believe?
Let’s suppose that the commander does want to make the execution particularly impressive. It’s a show of state power. For the thunder of massed muskets, the cost of the powder and the damage to the building are an acceptable price to pay. A line 15 metres long (25 men shoulder to shoulder), 10 metres from the target, would place the men at either end of the line 15 metres from their target, and turning inward 30 degrees. That’s not too far, and the angle is not ludicrous. If the front rank kneels, another rank could be placed behind them. That gives a maximum of 50 men, not 750.
If the number of 750 is reduced to something more probable, the rest of the story (both the events and their religious interpretation as miracle and sign) can stand. This means that the account of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi are not reliable, but this is not a problem for Bahais, as neither is regarded as infallible in historical matters. The Universal House of Justice writes, for example:
The Guardian was meticulous about the authenticity of historical fact. One of the friends in Yazd wrote to him stating that the account given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in one of His Tablets about events related to the martyrdom of some of the believers in that place was in conflict with known facts about these events. Shoghi Effendi replied saying that the friends should investigate the facts carefully and unhesitatingly register them in their historical records, since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself had prefaced His recording of the events in His Tablet with a statement that it was based on news received from Yazd. (Letter dated July 25, 1974)
The conclusion that a firing squad could have consisted of as many as 50 men is not the same as evidence that it was 50 men. For actual history, we need sources. So what do the credible historical accounts say? A few days after the execution of the Bab, the Russian Consul in Tabriz, Anitchkov, reported “the two condemned men faced death gallantly … Both were shot by the soldiers. But these latter, little used to proceedings of this sort, transformed the punishment into complete torture.” The British Consul in Tabriz, Richard Stevens, reported almost two weeks after the event “The founder of this sect has been executed at Tabreez. He was killed by a volley of musketry, and his death was on the point of giving his religion a lustre which would have largely increased its proselytes. When the smoke and dust cleared away after the volley, Bab was not to be seen … the balls had broken the ropes by which he was bound, but he was dragged from the recess where after some search, he was discovered, and shot.” These earliest reports say nothing about the size of the firing squad, and that is significant: a firing squad of as many as 50 men would be so noteworthy that it would be mentioned.
Two eyewitness accounts of the execution are interesting, although they were written down much later, and not by the witnesses themselves. W.S. Blunt reports that in 1881 he met a man who claimed to have witnessed “a religious prodigy, notorious, if I remember rightly, at Tabriz. On that occasion, one of these prophets, being condemned to death by the supreme government, was bound to a cross with two of his companions, and after remaining suspended thus for several hours, was fired at by the royal troops. It then happened that, while the companions were dispatched at the first volley, the prophet himself remained unhurt, and, incredible to relate, the cords which bound him were cut by the bullets, and he fell to the ground on his feet.” Similarly, Owen Tweedy reports meeting an Armenian in Tabriz in the early 1930s whose grandfather had witnessed the execution. In his account, “…the Bab and the other stood firm, and were suspended by the arms from gallows-like frames in front of the firing-squad. The order was given and the volley rang out; but when the smoke had cleared away the Bab’s friend hung dead on his ropes, but the Bab himself had disappeared. The bullets had cut the ropes and he had fallen unharmed and had escaped into the crowd. Of course he was discovered almost at once, and once again he was hoisted on to the gallows. But the first firing-squad refused to act again, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that other soldiers were found to take their place. This time there was no mistake, and the Bab died.”
(The four reports above are all quoted in Momen, The Babi and Baha’i Religions, pp 77-82).
Again, the significant point is that these reflections of early reports do not mention the firing squad being unusually large. Two early reports do mention the size of the squad, as a small group of soldiers. In Persien das Land und seine Bewohner (1865) by Jakob Eduard Polak, the author states (volume 1. p. 350):
Bei der Execution, welche in Tabris stattfand, wurde der Delinquent gegen eine Mauer gestellt, und eine kleine Abtheilung Soldaten hatte aus Commando zu schießen.
For the execution, which took place in Tabriz, the condemned man was placed against a wall, and a small party of soldiers was ordered to shoot …”
This is confirmed by what appears to be an independent account also originating in 1865, from Mirza Kazem-Beg, a Russian from the Caucasus. He wrote a book on the Babis, Bab i Babidui, which was published in French in the Journal Asiatique in 1866. Kazem Beg’s account of the event says:
“At a signal, a platoon from the Christian regiment advanced and fired. By an extraordinary chance, the musket balls struck only the cords with which the Bab was tied: they broke and he felt himself free. A clamour arose. The Bab, it is said, moved towards the people in an attempt to persuade them it was a miracle.”
(The link opens page 377, where the story begins: the extract is on page 379).
Polak does not indicate his source, but it cannot be French translation of Mirza Kazem-Beg, since that was a published a year later. It is hardly plausible that he would have read Kazem-Beg’s Russian book and worked it into his own book, since the two books were published in the same year. Nor is it likely that Kazem-Beg got his information from Polak’s German account, because Kazem-Beg’s account is more extensive. So we have either two independent sources from 1865, or two reflections of a source that is even earlier than 1865.
Another European account from 1865, that of Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau in Les religions et les philosophies dans l’Asie centrale pp. 270-271 makes no mention of the size of the firing squad.
An account that cannot be precisely dated is cited in the ‘New History‘ collated by E.G. Browne. The New History is considerably later (circa 1880) but reflects the story as it had been told in Iran at an earlier date. In this version, Anis is executed first, with the Bab watching, then the Bab was suspended and the “regiment received orders to fire, and discharged their pieces in a single volley,” all missing except for bullets that cut the cords on which he hung. Then a Christian regiment was ordered to fire the volley, but “according to the account written by the late Haji Mirza Jani, on this second occasion also no hurt accrued to the Blessed Figure of His Holiness, but at the third volley three bullets struck him.” Haji Mirza Jani Kashani was martyred in 1852, making this a very early source, but the work he wrote seems to have been lost (Browne mistakenly identified it with the work known as the Nuqtatu’l-Kaf, which also quotes from this lost account in places). Supposing that the New History quotes him accurately, the citation indicates that in Iran at least, before 1852, the story did not explicitly say that the whole regiment was the firing squad, and the detail of only three bullets striking the Bab would imply to hearers that the firing squad was of a fairly normal size. This is not to say that Haji Mirza Jani gave an accurate account: all it tells us is where the detail of 750 rifles did not come from.
In short, early accounts, and those closest to Tabriz, do not say that a whole regiment, or 750 men specifically, constituted the firing squad. Rather they imply a normal size firing squad. Kazem Beg’s account specifies a platoon, while Polak says a small group. Perhaps the platoon became 750 as the story was told and retold, by incremental exaggeration, but I think there is a more direct explanation. Persian has fewer prepositions than English, with the result that each preposition has to serve many purposes. ‘Az’ for example can mean from, out of, than, with, belonging to and so on. So suppose that A tells B: a firing squad from (az) Sam Khan’s regiment was drawn up to execute the Bab. B understands, and tells C: a firing squad consisting of (az) Sam Khan’s regiment was drawn up to execute the Bab. C tells D, Sam Khan’s regiment was the firing squad, and D wonders, how many soldiers make a regiment? Oh, 750 … then they must have been drawn up in lines.
As I’ve noted, early reports such as that of Kazem Beg in 1865 say or imply that a platoon from the regiment was the firing squad for the first attempt to execute the Bab. Where was it first reported that it was the entire regiment, of 750 men? In The Babi and Baha’i Religions, Moojan Momen records a letter from Reverend L. Rosenberg, a British Missionary in Adrianople, to the Evanglical Alliance in London, bringing the persecution of Baha’u’llah and the Bahais to their attention. No date is given for the letter itself: Momen quotes a copy of the letter that Rosenberg sent to the British Consul in Adrianople, John Blunt, on August 13, 1868. The letter begins with an account of Rosenberg’s meeting with Baha’u’llah, and a confused account of the origins of the new religion. In the course of this he says,
Having received the word of God [i.e., the Bible] as the rule of faith and practice, and as test of all other religious books and religions as far back as 25 years, Mirza Hussein Ali Ishan [Baha’u’llah] and Mohammed Ali [Ali Muhammad, the Baba] began to preach in Iran before the Shah of Persia to all the Moslems, and during seven years they bore the ‘cross of the gospel’ under heavy persecutions till at last Mohammed Ali was apprehended, tied to a tree and 750 soldiers discharged their guns at him; thus he fell a martyr to the truth by the order of the Persian Government.
This must reflect what Rosenberg was being told by Bahais in Edirne (Adrianople), in 1868: he does not indicate having any other source, and the oddities in his account (Baha’u’llah and the Bab preaching together, Baha’u’llah called Ishan) do not match any written source I know of. One might even guess that Rosenberg was the source of the mistake, perhaps because of a mistake in translation. But that is hardly possible, since Abdu’l-Baha was in Edirne, and he says that the firing squad was a regiment in three files. We can hardly suppose that Abdu’l-Baha knew nothing of this story and learned it from Reverend Rosenberg around 1868. The idea that a whole regiment fired must have circulated among Bahais in or before 1868.
Please feel free to use the comments section to add any earlier sources, or credible sources from Tabriz, that I have missed.
Reducing the size of the execution squad to something that is physically possible does not minimise the miracle, it only increases its plausability. A miracle is an unlikely event that happens at a time and in a way that makes it highly significant, especially in a religious context. Execution squads have missed, airmen have jumped from a burning plane without a parachute and survived, sailors have drifted for months in a little boat with no supplies and survived. But when the founder of a new religion, proclaiming the beginning of a new age for humanity, survives his own execution, that’s a sign. It’s the timing, not the scale, that makes us read it as a miracle. To give a fictitious example: suppose a plane full of pilgrims is struck by lightening as it is coming into land, and a wing comes off. Yet it manages to land on a wing and lots of prayers. If you add to that story, that there were 750 pilgrims in the plane, it is no more miraculous. And a practical man will come along and say, there’s no aircraft on the market that seats 750 passengers. Adding an obviously impossible exaggeration makes the story less credible, not more significant.
Whether you like such stories, or have no time for things that just can’t be true, it is clear that miracles cannot be part of the essential verities, the root principles, of Bahai belief. Abdu’l-Baha says:
For if we consider miracles a great proof, they are still only proofs and arguments for those who are present when they are performed, and not for those who are absent.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 100)
Something that is valid for some people, and not for others, cannot be one of the essential verities that define Bahai identity. It follows that the Bahai community must have room to include those who don’t believe in miracles, or don’t believe this one or that one, or, like me, believe in miracles but don’t believe the impossible.
~ Sen McGlinn