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Posts Tagged ‘Nasrudin Shah’

It’s taken me only just over a year to get round to finishing The Islamic Enlightenment: the modern struggle between faith and reason by Christopher Bellaigue, which by my standards is not too bad.

I finally got hooked by it. It’s fascinating for a number of reasons that the subtitle summarises. But that is not all.

Bellaigue deals with three middle-eastern contexts in his book on the Islamic Enlightment: Iran, Egypt and Turkey. It is not surprising therefore that he should spend a significant number of pages dealing with the impact on Iran of the Bábí and Bahá’í movements, as he terms them.

There was at least one major surprise to me in his account. More of that later.

He deals at length with the reign of Nasrudin Shah. Within that there is a short section on the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, with regular references to their influence at different points throughout the later sections.

I bought it partly because a review also contained the following: ‘The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani [Qurrat al-Ayn], who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told.’ It describes her as one of the ‘brave radicals’ adding she is ‘Iran’s first feminist.’

More of the details of that in a moment.

Though her review effectively quotes the title of a book The Woman Who Read Too Much, Bettany Hughes doesn’t mention it. Alberto Manguel’s review captures the essence of the book, which suggests that it provides an important supplement to any more conventional historical approach. He wrote:

Less interested in theology than in literature, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani has chosen to construct, around the figure of Táhirih, a complex fragmented portrait that brings to literary life not only the remarkable personality of someone little known in the west, but also the convoluted Persia of the 19th century, treacherous and bloodthirsty.

The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh

Bellaigue’s account of the Bábí/Bahá’í impact on Iranian society begins on page 140:

The Bábí movement, which began in the 1840s, went on to become an important catalyst of social progressiveness in mid-nineteenth century Iran, promoting interreligious peace, social equality between the sexes and revolutionary anti-monarchism.

He oddly describes it as based on ‘secularism’ as well as ‘internationalism, and the rejection of war.’ He goes on to describe its survival ‘to the present day’ in the form of ‘Bahaism which emerged from Babism in the late nineteenth century’ adding that this ‘qualifies it for inclusion in any narrative about modernisation in the Middle East.’

It was, he explains, experienced as ‘a mortal threat to Islam,’ which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Bábís. For this reason hostility towards it continues in Iran to the present day. Even though he sees ‘the theology of Bahaism’ as ‘a little whacky’ he concedes that ‘the social vision was anything but.’ It transcended any Islamic perspective in its ‘vision of consultative democracy,’ in the ‘distinction it made between religion and politics’ and in ‘its promotion of a world civilisation united by a common language.’

Bellaigue concludes his account of this ‘movement’ by saying ‘Having declared the redundancy of the Muslim clergy, Bahá’u’lláh and his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, proposed one of the most enlightened social systems of the time.’

Given the persecution it endured, he notes as surprising Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration concerning ‘the abolition of war’ and His forbidding the ‘denigrating of other religions.’ He points out the Bahá’í Faith’s continuing ‘efforts to live in peace with Islam,’ which continues to be largely rejected within the country of its birth, Iran.

Tahirih, aka Qurrat al-Ayn

Belaigue’s account of Tahirih, aka Qurrat al-Ayn, begins (page 147) by claiming she is ‘one of the most remarkable characters in nineteenth century Iranian history. She is both a feminist icon and the mediaeval saint.’

He recounts her early life and then focuses on perhaps the most famous incident in her entire life apart from her leaving of it – her appearing unveiled at the conference of Badasht (page 151).

Qurrat al-Ayn’s removal of the veil was a blatant rejection of the Prophet Muhammad’s command to his followers, set down in a famous hadith, that ‘when you ask of them [the wives of the Prophet] anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain.’

He then explains a crucial ambiguity:

‘Curtain’ and ‘veil’ are the same word in Arabic, and this ambiguous hadith is the basis on which the practice of veiling women has been sanctified.

After the conference, when the participants were marching north, ‘the sight of an unveiled Qurrat al-Ayn chanting prayers alongside Quddus prompted a group of villagers to attack them. Several Bábís were killed; the rest fled.’

I think it important to mention here that, while noting the intensity of her religious faith, Bellaigue, for obvious reasons given the theme of his book, looks particularly at the political legacy and inspiration of Qurrat al-Ayn. There is another important aspect of her life that needs to be included if we are to achieve anything life a complete sense of her contribution to our culture.

This can be accessed not just from Bahá’í sources. There is a book I discovered in the rich seams of Hay-on-Wye’s bookmines: Veils and Words: the emerging voices of Iranian women writersby Farzaneh Milani. On page 93 she quotes in translation the following poem:

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.

To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.

In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.

This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.

I think that should be enough to indicate that she was a poet and writer of considerable power.

Milani argues that (page 90): ‘Tahereh’s contribution to the history of women’s writing in Iran is invaluable: she proves that women could think, write, and reason like men – in public and for the public. Such actions set her apart from her contemporaries and confer upon her an inalienable precedence.’

Sadly, this view was not yet widely shared outside the Bahá’í community at the time of her writing in 1992, 140 years after Tahirih’s murder, which, coincidentally, was also the anniversary of the death of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith :

Whether because she has been deemed to too offensive, too dangerous, or too minor a literary personage, no article, let alone a full-length book, has been written either on work, or on her life as a struggle for gaining a public voice.

Her poetry is also challenging, something else that might militate against its wider acceptance (page 91):

Some of Tahereh’s poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Bábí jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle away.

Her life and verse complemented and, in one way at least, seemingly contradicted each other (page 93):

If self-assertion is a cardinal tenet of Tahereh’s life, self-denial and self-effacement are key elements of her poetry. The themes of love, union, and ecstasy relate to mystic and spiritual experience.

In the end, there is perhaps more mystery than certainty about the facts of Tahereh/Qurrat al-Ayn’s life, as Bahiyyih Nakhjavani suggests in the Afterword to her absorbing novel The Woman Who Read Too Much:

We know more about what is not known than what is. Her date of birth, for example, is uncertain. The exact circumstances of her death are equally unclear. The details of her marriage and divorce are ambiguous, as is the question of whether she abandoned her children or were they were taken from her.

And the list continues for half a page (p 316). What is beyond argument is what her life stood for and what she died for, and the lasting impact that has had on the course of history since then.

An Unexpected Influence

Returning to Bellaigue’s book in which there are other incidental references to the Bahá’í Faith, as I finished The Islamic Enlightenment, I found an extremely interesting piece of history that I‘d never heard of before. It happened in the reign of Muzzafar al-Din. Bellaigue writes (page 238-39): ‘in January 1906 the shah, embarrassed by the forthrightness of the opposition that had established itself at Shah Abdulazim, and disquieted by strikes in the bazaars, agreed to convene a ‘House of Justice,’ a body made up of influential men that would adjudicate on the complaints of the people, dimly inspired by the(banned) Bábí councils of the same name.’ Later though, the shah’s ‘health had taken a turn for the worse and the government had no intention of carrying out his promise to set up a House of Justice.’

I decided to check this out. I clearly should’ve read further into Moojan Momen’s collection of Western accounts of Bábí and Bahá’í history, which was the first book I pulled off the shelf to check, (page 354 – my bookmark is stuck at the previous page – I got close but not close enough). He quotes, ‘In December 1905, as a result of.a large crowd taking sanctuary in the shrine of Shah ‘Abdu’l-‘Azím near Tihrán, the Shah agreed to dismiss ‘Aynu’d-Dawlih and convene an ‘Adálat-Khánih (House of Justice). Whatever was meant by the latter, the Shah, after the dispersion of the crowd at Shah ‘Abdu’l-‘Azím, showed no intention of fulfilling his promises.’

There are probably many other equally hidden influences on history originating in the Bábí and Bahá’í ‘movements,’ as Bellaigue terms them.

On the whole, and not only for his references to the spiritual path I have chosen to follow, this is a valuable account of one region’s attempt to reconcile its religious history with the pressures of modernity. There is clearly still a long way to go.

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