Saturday, January 20, 2007

Qurrat al-Ain

Should I unveil my scented hair
I’ll captivate every gazelle
Should I line my narcissus eyes
I’ll destroy the whole world with desire
To see my face, every dawn
Heaven lifts its golden mirror
Should I chance to pass the church one day
I'll convert all the Christian girls.

-Qurrat al-Ain

Few Iranian women are as remarkable and as little known as Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani. She was born in about 1817 in Qazvin. Her father was a well-respected mullah who encouraged his daughter's religious education at a time when learning wasn't considered proper for young girls.

In other ways her upbringing was strictly traditional. At 14 she entered an arranged marriage with a cousin and the two of them moved to Iraq so he could pursue his religious studies. Fatemeh, also, continued her studies. She became interested in Shaykhism, a mystical school of Islamic thought. A teacher called her Qurrat al-Ain (Solace of the Eye). Central to Shaykhism was the idea that a special individual could serve as an earthly mediator between believers and the Mahdi, the hidden 12th Imam.

Fatemeh was in her 30s when she heard of a man from Shiraz who had declared himself "the Bab" - the Gate - the interlocutor between mortals and the Mahdi. She soon became a convert to Babism. She preached passionately and eloquently on behalf of the Bab, speaking to groups of men and women from behind a curtain. This was an era when women typically veiled their faces in addtion to covering their bodies.

“Such fame did she acquire that most people who were scholars or mystics sought to hear her speech and were eager to become acquainted with her powers of speculation or deduction. She had a brain full of tumultuous ideas, and thoughts vehement and restless.”

Fatemeh and the Bab never met, but he was sufficiently impressed with her through her correspondence that he declared her one of his 18 disciples. He called her Tahirih the Pure.

At a critical moment the Bab declared that he was more than just an intermediary between his followers and the Mahdi. "I am that person you have been waiting for for one thousand years!" he announced before a gathering of learned mullahs.

In declaring his own prophethood, the Bab completed his break with Islam. Some of his followers resisted, insisting that their beliefs were simply refinements of Mohammad's teachings. Other, more radical followers of the Bab, insisted their's was an entirely new religion. Qurrat al-Ain was among them. Babism promised a break with calcified orthodoxy, perhaps a greater role for women and a religious intensity that suited Qurrat al-Ain's personality. She impressed even skeptics and detractors of the Bab. Crowds of the curious and the faithful came to see her.

In 1848, Babis met in the Iranian village of Badasht to try to resolve their differences. Quarrat al-Ain was the only woman among the 80 leaders who convened there. On a summer evening, standing before the Bab's followers and curious villagers, Quarrat al-Ain removed her veil and revealed herself.

"All stood aghast before this sudden and most unexpected apparition. To behold her face was, to them, inconceivable. Even to gaze at her shadow was a thing which they deemed improper..."

Its said that one man was so shaken he cut his own throat and fled. The meeting ended in disarray. Babi persecution was on the rise and in 1850 the Bab was executed. He was 31.

Two years later, after an attempt on the Shah's life, the Bab's followers were rounded up and put to death. Among them was Qurrat al-Ain. In the hours before her execution she bathed, perfumed herself with rosewater, and dressed in a white gown. It's said she selected the silk scarf with which she was strangled.