Mulla `Ali Bastami,  Letter of the Living

`Ali Bastami, Mulla (?-1846) Second Letter of the Living (q.v.) and first Babi martyr. The Bab chose him to announce his advent in the Shi`i shrine cities of Iraq where the most important Shi`i clerics lived. When he did so, he was arrested, tried, and sent to Istanbul where he died.

1. Early life and Conversion. Mulla `Ali was born in one of the villages near Bastam (or Bistam) in western Khurasan. He did his primary studies in his hometown, married, and had children. He completed his education in Mashhad, where he became known for his sincerity and his zeal in investigating religious matters. In the course of his studies, he came to learn of the Shaykhi (q.v.) movement from Mulla Ja`far Kirmanshahi, one of the Shaykhi `ulama of Mashhad. He was immediately attracted to the movement and soon entered into communication with its leader, Sayyid Kazim Rashti (q.v.). Eventually he left his home and family to study under Sayyid Kazim in Karbala. After seven years his father and relatives, distressed by his long absence, came to Karbala and obtained Sayyid Kazim's approval for the eager scholar to return home. Mulla `Ali could not, however, settle at home and after less than two years was back in Karbala.

Mulla `Ali was one of those who accompanied Sayyid Kazim Rashti on his last pilgrimage to Kazimayn and was in Karbala when Sayyid Kazim died on 2 January 1844. This event caused a crisis in the Shaykhi community because Sayyid Kazim had not appointed a successor. After several weeks of indecision, some of the disciples including Mulla `Ali retired to the mosque of Kufih for forty days of fasting and prayer (i`tikaf). They then decided to set off in search of the new leader to whom Sayyid Kazim had alluded. Mulla `Ali, who reached Shiraz and recognized the Bab about a month after Mulla Husayn Bushru'i (q.v.), was given the titles Thani man amana ("the second who believed") and Letter of the Living, and may, in view of a statement in the Persian Bayan (q.v.), have been regarded as the return of the Imam `Ali (BYP 1:3). He is said to have been led to the Bab by a vision.

2. Mission to Iraq. The Bab instructed Mulla `Ali to go to Bushihr and meet there with the Bab's uncle Haji Mirza Sayyid Muhammad (see "Afnan.1.c"). He then went to Najaf, a holy city in Iraq that is the site of the shrine of the Imam `Ali and a center of Shi`i scholarship. There he delivered a message from the Bab to Shaykh Muhammad Hasan Najafi, the foremost Shi`i mujtahid of the day. The message was abruptly rejected and Mulla `Ali expelled from the city. He arrived in Karbala, the other important center of Shi`i scholarship in Iraq and the headquarters of the Shaykhi movement. Here he spread the writings of the Bab, especially among the Shaykhis, many of whom accepted the message. So great was the messianic fervor and controversy that resulted that it was even reported in the dispatches of the British consul in Baghdad (BBR 83-89).

Eventually, the Shi`i `ulama in Karbala had Mulla `Ali arrested and transferred to Baghdad. Najib Pasha, the governor of Baghdad, convened the most prominent of the Sunni and Shi`i `ulama on 13 January 1845 to try Mulla `Ali. Among those gathered were Shaykh Mahmud al-Alusi, the Mufti of Baghdad; nineteen other Sunni `ulama; Shaykh Hasan ibn Kashifi'l-Ghita', the leading Shi`i figure after Shaykh Muhammad-Hasan; Sayyid Muhammad-Baqir Qazvini, the foremost cleric in Karbala, who had been the bitter enemy of Sayyid Kazim; Shaykh Hasan Gawhar, a leading Shaykhi; and five other Shi`i `ulama.

Accounts of the proceedings are confused and contradictory. However, the written verdict of the court is extant. It reveals that the court had examined a copy of the Qayyumu'l-Asma (q.v., which Mulla `Ali had brought with him) and had grasped the fact that the author of the book was claiming divine revelation. The Sunni `ulama unhesitatingly pronounced both the author and the bearer of the book to be heretics and condemned them to death. The Shi`i `ulama were more guarded in their verdicts (probably because the affair had been politicized into a Sunni versus Shi`i, and Turk versus Iranian issue) and refused to countenance more serious punishment than banishment or imprisonment.

The events associated with Mulla `Ali in Najaf and Karbala and his trial in Baghdad are of importance for several reasons. First, the commotion caused by Mulla `Ali and the willingness of large numbers to accept his message was in itself remarkable--especially as the Bab had told Mulla `Ali not to reveal the Bab's identity at first. The message of the Bab reached here a level of public awareness and controversy that was not seen elsewhere in the early years of the Bab's ministry. Second, these events mark the first clash between the nascent Babi-Baha'i religion and the `ulama of Islam (Shaykh Muhammad-Hasan's rejection of the message brought by Mulla `Ali is referred to in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, q.v., KA 166:79). The verdict of the court set the pattern for later Muslim denunciations of the new religion. Third, the opposition met by Mulla `Ali from both the religious and secular authorities altered the course of Babi history in that it persuaded the Bab to abandon his original plan of proceeding from Mecca directly to Karbala.

The affair of Mulla `Ali had wider consequences in that it even threatened relations between Iran and the Ottoman Empire. Concerned to maintain the jurisdiction of the Iranian government over its subjects in Iraq, Haji Mirza Aqasi (q.v.) and Muhibb-`Ali Khan, the governor of Kirmanshah, insisted on Mulla `Ali's return to Iran. The foreign ambassadors in Istanbul were involved in attempts to mediate. The event is of importance in Islamic history also: the coming together of Sunni and Shi`i `ulama to give a joint fatwa was unprecedented in modern times and also marked the first occasion in which the Ottoman Empire had accorded the Shi`i `ulama official recognition as a judicial authority.

3. Imprisonment and death. When the Iranian government intervened, Najib Pasha referred the matter to Istanbul in a letter dated 25 January 1845. In mid-April instructions arrived to the effect that Mulla `Ali should be sent to Istanbul. After being kept at Bolu for a time, he was brought to Istanbul. He was interrogated there again and openly declared his belief in the message of the Bab. Since the authorities feared that if he were simply exiled to one of the Aegean islands he would continue to spread the Babi teachings, he was sentenced to hard labor in the naval dockyards outside Istanbul.

The Iranian government, however, continued to press for his extradition for punishment in Iran. Eventually the Ottoman authorities agreed, but according to an Iranian report dated 4 December 1846, when orders were sent to release him from his forced labor, it was found that he had died a few days earlier. He was thus the first Babi to die for his faith.

See also: "Letters of the Living"; "Turkey."

Moojan Momen

Bibliography. On Mulla `Ali's life, see RR 175-80, 211-19. On his trial, see BBR 83-90; Moojan Momen, "The Trial of Mulla `Ali Bastami: a Combined Sunni-Shi`i Fatwa against the Bab," Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies 1982, 20:113-43; RR 220-38. See also GPB 10; DB 66-69, 87-92; ZH 3:105-9; BHD 58-68.