When the Persian government ordered the execution of the Babi poet, martyr and women’s rights advocate Tahirih, the news spread quickly.
But the book which introduced the Bab and his revolutionary new Faith to a broad generation of European intellectuals was “Religions et philosophies dans l’Asie central” (Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia), by Joseph Arthur, Compte de Gobineau (1816-1882)—which wasn’t published until 1865, thirteen years after Tahirih’s death.
Gobineau was a French writer and diplomat who had been posted in Persia during the time of the Bab. He wrote an account of his impressions and understanding of the religious beliefs of the people in that part of the world, which contained the first extensive account of the Babi religion and early history of the Bab’s Faith. Gobineau had come into possession of the only manuscript of a history of the Babi Faith, written by Haji Mirza Jani, a Babi who was killed during the bloody persecutions of 1852.
Gobineau wrote descriptions of Tahirih which convey the degree of her talent and capacity and the high regard in which she was held:
Not only did she have a rare command of Arabic, but she became outstanding in her understanding of the interpretation of the Qur’an, the Islamic traditions (hadiths), and great Islamic thinkers. In Qazvin, she came to be regarded as a prodigy. – Compte de Gobineau, Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia, p. 168.
… she was not content with passive belief; she spoke publically about the teachings of her master; she stood up not only against polygamy but also against the use of the veil, and showed her face in public places to the great shock and scandal of her family and all sincere Muslims, but also to the applause of the numerous people who shared her enthusiasm and whose public preaching greatly added to the circle of believers. – Ibid.
… she consecrated herself fully to her Apostleship of the Bab to which he had given all the rights and entrusted her with many responsibilities. Her knowledge of theology became immense … I never heard any Muslim put in doubt the virtue of such a unique person. – Ibid., p. 169.
After his book appeared, prominent French thinkers and scholars also cited Gobineau in their descriptions of the Babi movement and Tahirih. Joseph Ernest Renan, an eminent French religious thinker and political philosopher, made mention of the Babis over several pages in his book, Les Apotres (‘The Apostles’), dwelling on the physical cruelty they suffered and their single-mindedness of purpose which he describes as a characteristic of people from “that part of the world.” – p. 307.
Another French scholar, André-Ursule Casse de Bellecombe, wrote an entire article on Tahirih—for whom he used the title ‘Qurratu’lAyn’—in the historical journal of the Institute of France, “L’Investigateur,” in 1870. Bellecombe served as the Director the Institut Historique of France.
Yet another French scholar, Clement Huart, wrote a short book, “La Religion du Bab,” in 1889, which included Tahirih. Huart began learning Arabic at the age of fourteen and went on to study the languages and literatures of the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian worlds. In addition, he had an excellent knowledge of English, Italian, and German. In this book, Huart praised Tahirih’s great knowledge and her independent spirit, citing her going about unveiled. Because of his great linguistic talents, Huart devoted many pages to his own translations from Persian and Arabic into French of passages from the Bab’s Writings and explicated some of the Bab’s teachings.
England’s Contemporary Review published a whole article, “Story of the Bab,” in December of 1885, with a description of Tahirih based on Gobineau “as a woman who, had she been born in Europe, would have ranked with our most honored heroines of this or any age” and who had a courage “as indomitable as that of her master.” – Mary Wilson, “Story of the Bab,” The Library, Jan-April 1886, Volume 7, p. 813.
With all of this attention in the West, Tahirih’s fame began to spread, influencing the movements for women’s suffrage and emancipation in Europe and North America:
A poetess, less than thirty years of age, of distinguished birth, of bewitching charm, of captivating eloquence, indomitable in spirit, unorthodox in her views, audacious in her acts, immortalized as Tahirih (the Pure One) by the [Bab] and surnamed Qurratu’l-‘Ayn (Solace of the Eyes) by Siyyid Kazim, her teacher, she had, in consequence of the appearance of the Bab to her in a dream, received the first intimation of a Cause which was destined to exalt her to the fairest heights of fame, and on which she, through her bold heroism, was to shed such imperishable luster. – Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 7.
This series of essays is excerpted from Hussein Ahdieh’s and Hillary Chapman’s The Calling, available here: https://www.bahaibookstore.com/The-Calling-P8882.aspx