Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

20,000 martyrs?

This began with a member of the Bahai-studies list who wrote:

> A while ago I was part of a Baha’i history discussion forum. To my
> surprise I found that there was full agreement from a number of
> prominent Baha’i scholars that the number of Babi/Baha’i martyrs was
> much less than the normal figure of 20,000, probably two or three
> thousand if I recall.

My reply, on November 23, 2007:

I think that is low: we can account for about 4000 I think, and
presume that there are a small number not counted, but not many. The
Babi-Bahai community was quite good at remembering its martyrs and
recording them.

You said:

> the figure of 20,000 doesn’t just come from Baha’i individuals.
> Apparently ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave the figure, and Shoghi Effendi did.

In the Traveller’s Narrative, Abdu’l-Baha says:

Now in these years [A.H. one thousand two hundred and] sixty-six and
sixty-seven throughout all Persia fire fell on the households of the
Babis, and each one of them, in whatever hamlet he might be, was, on
the slightest suspicion arising, put to the sword. More than four
thousand souls
were slain, and a great multitude of women and
children, left without protector or helper, distracted and confounded,
were trodden down and destroyed.

Abdu’l-Baha’s figure lines up very closely with the actual numbers
that can be counted – 4000 or a little more. But notice that he also says
that a multitude of women and children were left defenceless and destroyed.
Some may actually have died, some may simply have suffered so much that
they are to be considered martyrs. Iran at that time was subject to
famines, and in some regions many people died — particularly those
without a “protector or helper.” Weakened people die of disease, as well
as hunger. It is not impossible that the Babi community suffered losses of
around 20,000 people, and that the number actually executed — mainly the
adult men — was 4 to 5 thousand.

In the Will and Testament, Abdu’l-Baha says “Ten thousand souls have shed
streams of their sacred blood in this path, their precious lives they
offered in sacrifice unto Him,” and Shoghi Effendi echoes this in God
Passes By: “It is characterized by nine years of fierce and relentless
contest, whose theatre was the whole of Persia, in which above ten
thousand heroes laid down their lives” (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p.

So there is nothing “canonical” about the figure of 20,000 martyrs,
other figures are also given in authoritative Bahai texts. And there is
nothing surprising about a 4-fold variance between different counts, when
none of them specify exactly what is being counted, and some do not even
specify an exact period


Share this page:
Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter
Short link for this item:

8 Responses to “20,000 martyrs?”

  1. Hamid said

    Sen. I read on same blog that:

    >The first person to give the figure of 20,000 was a government official.>

    That’s correct.

    >On the history list it was suggested that this person inflated the figure since the Shah would be pleased with the higher number.>

    That’s possible.>

    Who is the government official? What source is there for this story? No one else seems to know…

  2. Sen said

    The posting you refer to is one by David Friedman on Bahai-studies, 23 November 2007. He doesn’t give a source.

    In his paper on ‘suspended genocide‘ (pdf), Moojan Momen says “Conservative estimates put the total number of Babis killed during the whole period of 1848 to 1853 at 3,000, while other historians, including the Iranian court chronicler Sipihr and the Baha’i leader ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844–1921), claim 20,000 or more.” Moojan wrote that in 2005. He goes on to suggest that the difference between the low and high figures is that one represents executions and the other the total number killed, in pogroms and other ways. Much like my suggestion above. However there is some difficulty in showing that there were more than 20,000 Babis in Iran at the time!

    In a letter of 4 September 2005, the Research Department writes:

    in his work “Tarikh-i-Zuhurur-al Haq,” Fadil-i-Mazandarani has made the following statement: “the author of the Nasikhu’t-Tavarikh [i.e. Lisanu’l-Mulk Sepehr -Sen] wrote that up to the present time 20,000 individuals have been killed.” While Fadil-i-Mazandarani makes mention of the author of Nasikhu’t-Tavarikh, he does not indicate in which of his many works the reference to 20,000 can be found. In our letter dated 22 January 1984, it was assumed that the number was recorded in the Nasikhu’t-Tavarikh. The Research Department has now been asked to confirm in which of the author’s works the reference is located, and it was not able to provide any further information.

    So far as I know, that’s the current state of the art: the statement has not been found in Lisanu’l-Mulk Sepehr’s big chronicle called Nasikhu’t-Tavarikh, but it might be in another work or in correspondence, and it’s possible that Abdu’l-Baha saw this and cited it – but I would think it’s rather unlikely. (Bear in mind I’m a theologian, not a historian). I think that the 20,000 figure is likely to be a literary trope, built on a number of deaths (or sufferings counted equivalent to martyrdom) which is larger than the number of formal executions. I understand that we know the names of almost a thousand martyrs in the period (Ahang Rabbani assembled a list), and it’s easy to suppose there were several times that number in fact.

    However, it’s not the number but the personal stories that count: consider the Burghers of Calais: the whole town starved, but we need only five to stand for the courage and suffering of the whole town, — in fact, we only need one image to represent the whole story.

    Or the victims of the holocaust: one girl’s diary makes all the millions human for us.

    Thomas More was only one.

    Each of the martyrs, for whatever cause, is only one.

    And we are only one, responsible to ourselves for how we use, or waste, our lives. Martyrdom is not about the size of the dip in
    demographics, it is about the height of exaltations of the human spirit.

  3. Mark Townsend said

    This resembles cases where the estimated number of early believers was judged to be in the millions.

  4. Steven said

    I found a newspaper story from December 1852 mentioning 20,000. How does this relate to “>The first person to give the figure of 20,000 was a government official.>” See

    Note this is after a few news articles from October to November referencing hundreds.

    There is also a news story originating in October 1852 that mentions the diversity of people committing these acts of violence against Babis (and because it is not the original story must in fact date even earlier.) See

  5. Sen said

    Well done. The Persian court chronicle I referenced is Mirza Muhammad Taqi
    Lisan al-Mulk Sipihr (Sepehr), Nasikh al-tawarikh, dated 1858. So it looks as if Sipihr might have been taking his figure from reports going back to 1852. I confirmed the date, December 18, 1852, from the British newspaper archive.

  6. Steven said

    Indeed that is where I found it. Some of the newspaper services let you “clip” views of articles for non-paying customers but I’ve not found that option there.

  7. Mobini said

    by studying the article of Moojan Momen in the Encyclopedia of Iran,I assume it correct that total Babis (at that time there were no Bahai follower at all ! They appeared from 1868 ) killed in the battles or so, in Iran ,are between 2 to 3000 persons. This is the figure for it we may collect names.
    After 1979 revolution of Iran, about 200 Bahais were killed ,mainly in the first years,when many other Muslim people were also executed on the accusation of ” people of the ex-regime,by the revolutionary court.
    Altogether, it is not proper to use the term genocide for these events.

  8. Sen said

    Your figure is correct, so far as we can know the numbers. As I noted in the posting, Abdu’l-Baha states “More than four thousand souls were slain, and a great multitude of women and children, left without protector or helper, distracted and confounded, were trodden down and destroyed.” Not every person deliberately killed would we recorded, especially if they were Arabs or Kurds and so on (because of prejudice, and because language differences and different social networks would reduce the chance that the report would be transmitted). So it is reasonable to suppose that a thousand men can be added to Momen’s figure. If one wants to guage the total effect on the Babi community, however, one must add the women and children who, while not deliberately killed, died of disease, cold or starvation (famine was a big killer in Iran at the time) because their men were killed and/or their homes destroyed or expropriated). In Bahai terminology, these too would usually be called martyrs.

    Attempted genocide is an appropriate term, not for the events of Nayriz or the shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi, but for the mass killings following the attempt on the life of the Shah. It is not necessary to kill a million before the term may be used. For example, if a tribe of 100 warriors decides to eliminate a tribe of 30 warriors, by killing the men and boys and taking the women and children, that is a genocide, even if only 60 men and boys were killed. Geno-cide, as the etymology shows, is a killing (-cide) where the target to be killed is a “people” (geno-), whether defined by descent, language, or some other characteristic. The purpose of the killing of Babis after the attempt on the life of the Shah was to eliminate a people, the Babis. Given the chaotic and largely pre-modern state of Iranian government and society, it was not an efficient attempt, and the Babi community survived it. It was a small community anyway, so the numbers killed rank in the thousands. Nevertheless, it has a place in the ignominious history of humanity’s genocides.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: