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Tahirih Becomes a Heroic Figure in Books and Plays

Hussein Ahdieh | Mar 4, 2018

PART 5 IN SERIES The Death of Tahirih: The Women’s Rights Martyr

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Hussein Ahdieh | Mar 4, 2018

PART 5 IN SERIES The Death of Tahirih: The Women’s Rights Martyr

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

As Tahirih’s powerful story spread, many authors began to depict her as a heroic figure in scholarly treatises, books and plays.

Edward Granville Browne—one of the most important scholars to first bridge the distance between the Western and Persian worlds, and the only Westerner who met Baha’u’llah—wrote glowingly about Tahirih.

Though he came from a wealthy family of shipbuilders and was put on a track to become a doctor, the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war aroused a lifelong interest in the near East, because Browne sympathized with the underdog Turks.

Browne had a humanistic outlook on life, with concerns for human liberty, internationalism, constitutional government, and the brotherhood of man. He may have become attracted to the story and teachings of the Bab and Baha’u’llah because they were similar to his own views.

Browne read about the Babi Faith in Gobineau’s book and came to admire the Bab’s high-minded morals, courageous behavior and universal teachings. By 1887 he had become deeply interested in Persian language, culture, and history, so he undertook a year-long trip through Persia in 1887-88, to research Babi origins by meeting believers and finding original manuscripts. By this time, though, most Babis had become Baha’is.  

Another important piece of work that resulted from this trip was Browne’s translation of a history of the Babi and Baha’i Faiths, A Traveller’s Narrative, written by Abdu’l-Baha. Browne had acquired the text in the original Persian while in Palestine and then translated and annotated it. In it, Abdu’l-Baha praised and made this definitive assessment of Tahirih:

… the appearance of such a woman as Qurratu’l-‘Ayn is in any country and any age a rare phenomenon, but in such a country as Persia it is a prodigy—nay, almost a miracle. Alike in virtue of her marvelous beauty, her rare intellectual gifts, her fervid eloquence, her fearless devotion and her glorious martyrdom, she stands forth incomparable and immortal amidst her country-women. Had the Babi religion no other claim to greatness, this were sufficient—that it produced a heroine like Qurratu’l-‘Ayn. – E.G Browne, Tr., Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 309.

Another important book about Persia written by a Westerner, Persia and the Persian Question, was published in 1892. Its author, Lord Curzon, would travel widely throughout his life, going so far as Korea, and eventually serve as Viceroy of India. In this book, he wrote an excellent and insightful summary of the Babi movement, including this passage about Tahirih:

Beauty and the female sex also lent their consecration to the new creed, and the heroism of the lovely but ill-fated poetess of Kazvin, Zerin Taj (Crown of Gold), or Kurrat-el-Ain (Solace of the Eyes), who, throwing off the veil, carried the missionary torch far and wide, is one of the most affecting episodes in modern history. – Lord George Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, p. 497.

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942), an English explorer, diplomat, and military man who made extensive expeditions throughout China, India, and Tibet’s remote and mountainous regions, came to the United States in 1893 to give a presentation at the World Conference of Religions. In a later book, he described Tahirih as “Almost the most remarkable figure in the whole movement ….” who “…was known for her virtue, piety” and that, for her faith, “… she gave up wealth, child, name and position for her Master’s service.” – Sir Francis Younghusband, The Gleam, pp. 202-203.

A British journalist, Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol, wrote a book on British interests in the Middle East, The Middle Eastern Question, published in 1903. In his retelling of the story of the Bab, he praised Tahirih as standing in contrast to orthodoxy’s dim view of women:

Socially one of the most interesting features of Babiism … is the raising of women to a much higher plane than she is usually admitted to in the East. The Bab himself had no more devoted a disciple than the beautiful and gifted lady, known as Kurrat-el-Ain, the “Consolation of the Eyes,” who, having shared all the dangers of the first apostolic missions in the north, challenged and suffered death with virile fortitude, as one of the Seven Martyrs of Teheran. No memory is more deeply venerated or kindles greater enthusiasm than hers, and the influence which she wielded in her lifetime still ensures to her sex. That women, whom orthodox Islam barely credits with the possession of a soul, are freely admitted to the meetings of Babis, gives their enemies, the Mullas, ample occasion to blaspheme. But they have never produced a tittle of evidence in support of the vague charges of immorality they are wont to bring against the followers of the new creed. – Ignatius Valentine Chirol, Baha’i Tributes.

In 1904, Tahirih was the subject of a play put on in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Written by Isabella Grinesvkaya, the pen name of the Jewish writer Berta Friedberg, she may have first heard of the story of the Bab from the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who, according to Benjamin Jowett, a distinguished Oxford professor, often spoke of the Bab.

In France, in 1905, the first full-length history of the Bab was published, Siyyid Ali Muhammad dit le Bab, by the French Consular official who served in Persia, A.L.M. Nicolas. Nicolas first came to know about the Bab because his father’s diplomatic service in Tihran overlapped with that of Gobineau. His father and Gobineau had gotten into a dispute over the nature of a manuscript acquired by the former. Nicolas found in his father’s papers a critique of Gobineau’s book on the religions of Central Asia, so he decided to research the subjects in the book, and, in this way, came into contact with the writings of the Bab. As he worked on understanding the Bab’s text, The Seven Proofs, he became so moved that he became a believer:

My reflections on the strange book [The Seven Proofs by the Bab] that I had translated, filled me with a kind of intoxication and I became, little by little, profoundly and uniquely a Babi. The more I immersed myself in these reflections, the more I admired the greatness of the genius of him who, born in Shiraz, had dreamt of uplifting the Muslim world ….

Nicolas wrote a thorough account based on Persian sources and observation of the history of the Bab and the Babi movement, and translated three of the Bab’s major works.

In his book, Nicolas devoted many pages to Tahirih. He pointed out that Tahirih had responded immediately to the Bab’s teachings, and did not allow petty literal interpretations of the Qur’an to interfere. The whole of chapter twelve describes Tahirih’s execution. She is described as having attracted many women to the Bab by telling them of the liberty promised in the new revelation, and then having been subject to seven interviews about her beliefs and teachings by two prominent Mullas. She criticized the clerics for their literal interpretation of prophecy. The clerics declared her a heretic and left. Nicolas tells the story of her martyrdom in which, after sunset, the streets were emptied, and she was taken to the Il-Khani gardens, and there, one of the captain’s soldiers was ordered to strangle her.  

In 1910, a second play on the Bab was put on, this time in the English-speaking world—written by Laura Barney and called God’s Heroes. Laura Barney was the daughter of a socially prominent artist in Washington DC, was educated by private tutors, and attended a boarding school in France founded to educate girls. She continued her studies in Paris where she first heard about the Baha’i Faith and became a believer; she married the first Frenchman to convert to the Baha’i Faith, Hippolyte Dreyfus. She went on to use her wealth to finance the travels of Baha’i teachers and to make repeated visits to Palestine, where she compiled a long set of answers given by Abdu’l-Baha to questions on the Baha’i teachings later published as the book Some Answered Questions, which became one of the most important sources for the explication of the Baha’i teachings.
This series of essays is excerpted from Hussein Ahdieh’s and Hillary Chapman’s The Calling, available here:

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  • Steven Kolins
    Mar 5, 2018
    Add * Austrian Marie von Najmajer "Gurret-úl-Eyn: Ein Bild aus Persiens Neuzeit" in 1874 and in 1908 Constance Faunt Le Roy Runcie attempted to publish a romance novel while living in Missouri, USA. I think one thing to note is that most of these presented Tahirih as romantically involved which seems a sexist observance of weakness that the only thing that can give a woman strength to do what she did was to be romantically in love with it's Center. I have sometimes thought of Jeremiah 31:22 as when women would rise up to greet the Promised One and we ...all end up calling out to each other as a believing women to another.
    • Hussein Ahdieh
      Aug 5, 2018
      Thank you for your relevant comment my friend!
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