On October 6, Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize. Mohammadi is currently in jail in Iran. The jury said that Mohammadi, 51, has campaigned against the Iranian government’s use of death penalty and the alleged systematic use of torture and sexualised violence against political prisoners, especially women.

Mohammadi’s Nobel is especially significant in the backdrop of the continuing protests against the compulsory hijab in Iran that started with the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman in police custody last year. As powerful symbols of the fight against compulsory veiling, religious orthodoxy and an oppressive state, Mohammadi, and Amini follow in the line of a long tradition of activists fighting for women’s rights in Iran. It is a line that stretches back almost 170 years to the first woman to publicly unveil herself, Fatima Baraghani (d. 1852).

Baraghani, better remembered today by the names given to her – Qurrat al-‘Ayn (comfort of the eyes) and Tahirih/ Tahira (pure, unblemished) – was a charismatic poet, religious scholar, rabble rouser and early women’s activist. Her heroic (and somewhat theatrical) actions once captivated the imagination of many, from Viceroy of India Lord Curzon to French stage actor Sarah Bernhardt and Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

A woman who, depending on whom you spoke with, was simultaneously a “saintly martyr, a cunning vixen, or a fiery feminist…”, Baraghani pioneered a long tradition of feminism in Persia that kicked off with her courageous act of unveiling in 1848.

She is remembered today in Iran and the West as a women’s rights activist and a Baháʼí religious reformer. But her writings and story also percolated into the popular imagination in India, where her memory has persisted and taken on a life of its own through her reimagining by generations of writers, religious figures and poets – from Sarojni Naidu to Mohammed Iqbal and even Habib Jalib.

Tahirih’s public unveiling and martyrdom

Fatima Baraghani was born sometime between 1815 and 1819 to a religious Shia Muslim family in Qazvin, Iran, and unusually for a woman of that time, she was highly educated in literature and religion. All accounts of her life emphasise her stunning beauty and charisma as well as the depth of her poetic talent. Early on, she began composing poetry and also began a correspondence with religious scholars of her time, who were impressed with her scholarship. One of those whom she corresponded with was Syed Ali Mohammed Shirazi, a messianic reformer later known as the Báb (or Gate), who spoke of the arrival of a promised redeemer and prophet.

Baraghani quickly became one of the first converts to the Báb’s new ideology, which subsequently evolved into the Baháʼí faith under the direction of one of the Báb’s associates, Baháʼu’lláh. Baraghani contributed immensely to the development of the Báb’s ideas and theology, and played a pivotal role in pushing him to declare an abrogation of the old Islamic dispensation and the beginning of a new world order.

At a meeting in 1848, called the Conference of Badasht, she tried to shake the Báb’s followers out of their complacency and advocated for women’s rights and a break from tradition. Emphasising the new ideology, she appeared unveiled in public in front of an audience of men, brandishing a sword.

According to hagiographical accounts, the horrified men jumped in horror, with one cutting off his throat and others fleeing the scene. Almost immediately, allegations of deviance, and immortality proliferated, until Baháʼu’lláh, the Baháʼí Prophet, intervened in her support and named her- Tahirih, or pure.

The tumultuous events at the conference resulted in Tahirih being imprisoned for years and then sentenced to a gruesome death in 1852 – she was strangled, thrown into a dry well and bricked alive. All the while, she allegedly shouted: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.” No evidence of her actually saying this exists outside of Baháʼí hagiographies.

Various groups read different motives and meanings into Tahirih’s deliberate unveiling in 1847 and her subsequent martyrdom in 1852. The clergy and state in 19th century Iran saw her as spreading corruption on earth (fasad fil-arz). But for the Baháʼí religion that emerged afterwards, she was a pure martyr of the faith and an early proselytiser. Western biographers, and many modern Iranians, such as the author Azar Nafisi, saw an early feminist and champion of women’s rights. To yet others, like Pakistani poet Habib Jalib and Tajik Soviet writer Abol Qassim Lahoti, her passionate call for change was a form of proto-Communist rebellion. But perhaps the most interesting and unique take on her story is found in the writings of Islamic thinkers and poets from India- such as Allama Iqbal, who admired her passion.

The garden in Iran where Tahirih was martyred. Credit: Bahai Media.

Tahirih’s popularity in India

While Tahirih’s appeal to feminists, progressive writers and reformists is obvious, little explains her unusual and continued popularity, bordering on total adulation, among Muslim thinkers in India and Pakistan, including highly conservative circles. While they might not have agreed with what she stood for, they had nothing but high praise for her remarkable and brilliant poetry and the depth of her passion and conviction. Her story has been kept alive outside of Baháʼí circles, almost entirely due to the voluminous amounts of literature produced about her by South Asian Muslim litterateurs and theologians.

While elements of Tahirih’s story had been circulating in South Asia, and in the West for decades, the efforts of one American Baháʼí evangelist, Martha Root ensured that they were not forgotten, and triggered a sustained interest amongst South Asian litterateurs in her life and work.

Root, who first visited India in 1915, noted that everywhere she went people seemed to know more about Tahirih than the Baháʼí faith. She marveled at how India’s “cultured classes” knew Tahirih’s poems by heart. Following repeated requests from Indians of all stations – Sarojni Naidu to the courtiers of the Nizam of Hyderabad – for copies of Tahirih’s Persian poems, Root and a fellow Karachi-based Baháʼí, Esfandyar Bakhtiari, brought out and distributed an edited selection of her poems, Tuhfa-e Tahirah (Tahirih’s Gift) in 1930.

This was followed by Root’s detailed biography, Tahirih the Pure, published later that decade, leading to further interest in Tahirih’s life, particularly outside Baháʼí religious circles. Tahirih’s biography was initially printed as a limited edition for private circulation and distributed to prominent Indians. But Root also gave a copy to Allama Mohammed Iqbal personally when she met him in 1930.

Iqbal, the prominent Islamic poet-philosopher who is today remembered for poems like Saare Jahan se Achcha and in Pakistan for the two-nation theory, was at the peak of his popularity. Root noted that Iqbal was already intimately acquainted with Tahirih’s poetry and deeply impressed by her life.

By this time, Tahirih was already widely popular across South Asia and a cottage industry of legends about her was already in existence. The literary figure, Abdul Halim Sharar, better known for his lengthy Islamic historical novels, had already brought out a booklet called Qurrat-ul-‘Ayn and praised her poetry extravagantly. Deobandi scholar Anwar Shah Kashmiri had composed poetry in her style, and a selection of her writings had been published from Calcutta. Her story was so popular that Muslim intellectuals, such as writer Syed Sajjad Haider Yildrim, named his daughter, the famous Urdu novelist and Sahitya Akademi award winner Qurratulain Hyder, after Tahirih.

Martha Root, an image of her book, Tahirih the Pure, and philosopher Mohammed Iqbal. Credit: Bahai Media, Biblio and Wikimedia Commons.

Iqbal and his ‘Javidnama’

In 1932, Iqbal published what he considered his life’s greatest accomplishment – the Persian language epic poem, Javidnama, which narrates the story of a spirit, Zinda-Rud, journeying through the heavens guided by the poet Rumi as they explore the intricacies of existence.

The book, intended as a poetic exposition of Iqbal’s philosophy and as advice for generations to come, has variously been described as everything from meandering to breathtaking in its scope. Zinda-Rud encounters a bewildering array of characters in the spheres of existence that he journeys through, ranging from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to Hindu philosopher and linguist Bhartruhari who expound differing worldviews.

However, one scene in particular, of Zinda-Rud’s journey through the Sphere of Jupiter (falak-e mushtari), stands out as extraordinary. There, he is introduced to the “noble spirits of Hallaj, Ghalib and Qurrat al-Ain Tahira who disdained to dwell in Paradise…” and proceeds to hear their song. Here, Iqbal chooses to club Tahirih with Islamic heroes known for antinomian lifestyles that broke with orthodoxy, but remain revered.

Full of praise for Tahirih, Zinda-rud goes on to sing her famous poem, whose incipit is “gar ba tu uftādam nazar cehrā ba cehrā, rū-ba-rū, …. nukta ba nukta, mu ba mu (If I could only raise my eyes face to face, in front of you, I would narrate grief for you, point by point, hair by hair).” This poem, usually referred to in English as Point by Point, was so widely imitated in Urdu literature that critics noted that there “would seldom be any Urdu poet who would have not said a poem following the style of Tahirih…”

The tumult that Tahirih raised

This unusual encounter with Tahirih in the Javidnama vividly illustrates the reasons for the widespread admiration, esteem and even borderline adulation that Tahirih was held in amongst otherwise orthodox, and conservative Islamic thinkers in India.

In his poem, Iqbal explicitly links Tahirih with Mansur Hallaj (who died in 922 common era), the Sufi whose ecstatic utterance of the phrase, Ana’l-Ḥaqq (I am the truth) in a moment of mystic self-annihilation led to his execution for heresy. Iqbal makes it evident that he sees their stories as linked, and calls them pure spirits that “have raised hell in the heart of the sanctuary (shor-ha afgandeh dar jān-e ḥaram)”.

Hallaj’s utterance of Ana’l-Ḥaqq is widely celebrated in Islam as a moment of mystic spiritual realisation, that however broke with sharia and hence was an act that had to be punished from a legalistic view. Tahirih’s actions were similarly re-read by Iqbal as having spiritual import, and in a sense, unleashing creative “dynamism and tension” that would renew the faith, and the soul. While outwardly heretical, her unveiling simultaneously also heralded spiritual renewal, and the tumult (shor) that was necessary for Iqbal’s true believer (mard-e momin) and the development of his self.

This South Asian reinterpretation of Quratulain Tahirih as a martyr to love, and the admiration she is held in, even amongst those who strongly disagree with her, is remarkable, especially compared to the attitudes towards her in other parts of the world.

While others have either dismissed her as a harlot, heretic and apostate, or made her into a saintly martyr for women’s rights, in India, the fact that she was a Babi, stood for the abrogation of Islamic sharia, explicitly challenged clerical authority and publicly discarded the veil is immaterial. She remains pure, like her name Tahirih, even to her enemies because of the force of her passion, her refusal to recant her faith, her willingness to die for her convictions and her bravery in the face of orthodoxy.

As one admirer, the late Sufi, Naseeruddin Naseer who used to often state to widespread applause put it, “…it is immaterial what her faith was…whether she was a believer or a kafir… [the passion in] her poetry is definitely Muslim.”

That is probably what Iqbal had in mind, when he described her as someone with a fire in her breast so strong that it might melt the world… (ātish āndar sīne shān gītī gudāz).

A fire for reform that 170 years later is still burning.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy grew up on Imam Khomeini Road in Hyderabad and reads some Persian.

Writer’s note: There are multiple variant spellings of her name. The Baháʼís use a distinct orthography with diacritics which spells her name as Táhirih. The Persian spelling of her name is Tahirih, which is pronounced and often spelt as Tahira in the sub-continent.