H-Bahai
Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (February, 1998)




Ruptured Spaces and Effective Histories:

The Unveiling of the Babi Poetess Qurrat al-`Ayn Tahirih in the Gardens of Badasht.*


by Negar Mottahedeh




But if Goethe was right to assert that when we cultivate our virtues, we at the same time cultivate our faults, and if, as everyone knows, a hypertrophied virtue--such as the historical sense of our age appears to be--can ruin a nation just as effectively as a hypertrophied vice: then there can be no harm in indulging me for this once.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Uses and the Disadvantages of History for Life, foreword.

The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past.

-Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, XIV.



The Babi conference in Badasht was held in the summer of 1848. Although the conference is significant in history as a moment that designates the messianic movement's complete break with Islam, it has received little focused attention in contemporary Iranian historiography. This is perhaps due to the lack of consistent information on the specifics of the gathering.

One can relate this paucity of detail in the early renditions of the Badasht conference to the way in which some of the particulars of the proceedings were perceived by the conference participants. Significantly, to be sure, the occasion of Qurrat al-`Ayn's unveiled appearance recorded in Nabil's Narrative as recollected by Shaykh Abu Turab. Female unveiling in the public sphere before the turn of the century in Iran was not only rare, but for a Shi`ite populace such as that assembled in Badasht, it was a gesture of relentless revolt. For that reason alone, perhaps, the act was perceived as unseemly for a comely woman who was venerated as an emblem of purity and infallibility among the followers of the Bab.

My general attempt here is to unpack the function of revolutions as forces that introduce discontinuity in history, problematizing thereby the writing of a comprehensive and continuous history. More specifically however, I will address the ways in which the Babi revolt in Badasht introduced a rupture in Islamic history. Pried open by the unveiled appearance of Qurrat al-`Ayn in the public and male domain of the Badasht gardens, the historical discourses on Islamic space are reconfigured and disarticulated, affecting the very heart of Islamic notions of selfhood and identity. By positioning the reading of this moment of unveiling on the problematic figure of Shaykh Abu Turab in Nabil's Narrative, I will discuss how the necessary configuration of human agency in an effective history reintroduces continuity into the historicity of revolt. In doing so, I argue, human agency problematizes the relation between the discontinuous character of revolutions and the "patient and continuous" development of history.

Foucault, Genealogy and Effective History.

Writing in 1971 Michel Foucault elaborated his position on traditional historiographic practices in an homage to his mentor Jean Hyppolite in an essay called "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History". In formulating his thoughts about the direction of his own historiographic practice, Foucault refers to Nietzsche's conception of genealogy as an "effective history". Drawing on Nietzsche's uses of the notion of origin, Foucault maintains that the foundation of any event depends not on a single orginary gesture, but on a discontinuous multitude of events and attitudes for its emergence. History writing therefore must take a second look at the bedrock for its claims. For if events are not formed on the basis of continuous progress and development, historiography can in no way support its current practice which purports to be a dry affirmation of facts and figures, which merely recognize specific originary moments and mirror them so to enable mankind's rediscovery of a lost and uniform self. Foucault writes that:

The writing of history, according to Foucault, must take on new forms. Forms that question in their very conception notions of the unitary subject, that interrogate the affirmations of stability at the base of nature and culture, and that disrupt practices preoccupied with the tracing of uninterrupted progress in human history. An effective history must therefore question the unity of authorship and authority behind the formulation of cultural life, because it recognizes chance as the originator of intent. Effective history thereby cuts any notion of continuity at the heart of tradition. True historical sense as Foucault understands it, "confirms our existence among countless lost events, without a landmark or point of reference." (2)

The recollecter of Qurrat al-`Ayn's unveiling in Badasht, Shaykh Abu Turab, came out of the Shaykhi school, much like most of the early adherents of the Babi movement in Iran in the middle of the nineteenth century . The school was situated in Karbala (Iraq), a place which was a major center for Shi`ite religious training. The Shaykhi school, associated Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa'i, was known for its progressive teachings and reformist attitudes.

A significant number of the early adherents of the Bab had received six to nine years of formal religious training at the school. Indeed much of their thinking about the day of Resurrection, the advent of the Imam Mahdi and the theory of prophetic cycles came from their contact with the instructor and later leader, Sayyid Kazim. (3) After the death of Sayyid Kazim, many of them found the fulfillment of their teacher's promises of the return of the Imam Mahdi (as the abrogator of the Islamic dispensation, the Qur 'an and the Shari`ah) in the teachings and the personage of the Bab. Typically the Shaykhi-Babis opposed the corruption of Shiite doctrine within Shi`ite orthodoxy and had a strong awareness of the way in which it accommodated for the needs of the Qajar rule.

From the perspective of effective history, Shaykh Abu Turab's recollections of the unveiled Babi poetess Qurrat al-`Ayn's appearance in a garden in Badasht emerge as significant when measured in the balance of this historical force field. For in their very formulation, these recollections introduce a rupture within the traditional historical Islamic discourses on space. --Spatial discourses which purport to be the very foundation for Islamic notions of selfhood and identity.

It is precisely on the basis of Abu Turab's recollections that I argue that the Babi revolt at the Badasht conclave constituted an event which in Foucault's own formulations was neither "a decision," "a treaty," "a reign," or "a battle," but "the reversal of forces," "the usurpation of power," "the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who once used it" and ironically, "the entry of a masked 'other'," into the realm of traditional history.(4)

The Babi Revolt in Badasht

The Babi Conference in Badasht was held for three weeks between June and July of 1848. Mulla Muhammad `Ali Barfurushi (Quddus), one of the first people to join the Babi movement and his companions (who were among the Conference's participants) had intended on raising the Black Standard in Mashhad. (5) They were, however, forced out of the city of Mashhad due to heightened anti-Babi fervor and were wandering on horseback in the North Eastern corner of Iran. Qurrat al-`Ayn and her companions, traveling from Tehran, were on their way to the region of Khurasan to join Quddus' forces and to ride under the Black Standard. They met the group of wandering Babis en route on the Mazandaran-Khurasan road and from all accounts decided to change their destination. Despite the turn of events the two groups joined and decided to rent three gardens in which they could contemplate their fate and review a range of questions regarding the identity of the movement and its future strategy.

The group's charismatic leader Sayyid `Ali Muhammad-surnamed the Bab- had claimed (in 1844) to be "the Gate" to the Qa'im who would usher forth a new era in religious history. Due to his claim, which traditionally would imply the imminent relinquishment of power by both the Shi`ite clergy and the Qajar dynast, the Bab was imprisoned by the authorities in a remote castle-prison in Azarbaijan. The prime agenda of this group of eighty -one Babis, therefore, was the plight of the Bab. They were anxious to find a way to rescue him. Any effort in this direction, however, was contingent on a plan of future action. "Moderation and prudence in the face of mounting hostility, radical Babis argued, could lead only to further suffering. Yet the final Insurrection against the forces of oppression would materialize only if the Qa'im made his advent unequivocally apparent."(6) This raised the question of the Bab's precise claim and the nature of his mission. Who was the Bab? Was he, the Qa'im--the Messiah who they had been expecting for hundreds of years? Was his message a rejuvenation of the Islamic truth? Or did he intend to establish a new and independent religion? These pressing questions, unrelated to the question of loyalty to the Founder, were meant to establish the status of the movement and the identity of its participants.

Of the three gardens, one was assigned to the famous poetess and Babi leader Qurrat al- `Ayn --surnamed Tahirih (The Pure One) at the Conference. The second was assigned to Quddus. The third garden Mirza Husayn `Ali, later known by the title Baha', and who had rented the properties, reserved for himself. (7) The rest of the participants camped on the grounds surrounding these Babi leaders.

The narratives and histories of the events differ slightly in the manner in which the events took place. Most agree on the following points: 1) that the poet/leader Qurrat al-`Ayn appeared unveiled before the conference participants; 2) that she argued for a definite break with the tradition of Islam; 3) that confusion and contention followed, leading to the denial of Faith on the part of several of the participants; and 4) that the gathering effected the further development of the movement and affected a radical change in the rituals and actions undertaken by its participants.

Qurrat al-`Ayn, the poetess, took on the leading role at the conference, arguing for a definitive break with the old Islamic traditions. Some sources maintain that Quddus rejected her as a radical and "the author of heresy". She, on the other hand, questioned Quddus' claims to leadership, having failed to raise the banner of Babi revolt in Mashhad. (8) This radical split between the two leaders is claimed by most parties to have determined the dynamics of the Badasht Conference.

Shaykh Abu Turab recollects: Qurrat al-`Ayn's unveiling

Shaykh Abu-Turab, who the Babi historian Nabil introduces as the "best-informed as to the nature of the developments in Badasht," is reported to have related the following incidents:

Historians fascinated by the cite/sight of Qurrat al-`Ayn's unveiled appearance have either applauded this gesture as the originary moment of women's liberation in Iran or in absolute disgust for this act of heresy claimed this gesture to be the foundation for, as well as the fundamental proof of, the deserved ill repute and false motives of the Babi movement. Seldom have they stayed in the garden to witness what Shaykh Abu Turab claims to have followed. Nabil's informant goes on to report that Qurrat al-`Ayn who had seated herself next to Quddus:

The Shaykh's lucid recollection of the moment of Qurrat al-`Ayn's usurpation of power is unequaled in the annals of early Babi historiography. (11) Yet, before I go on to discuss the specific ways in which I think this recollection of the events at Badasht "cuts" (to paraphrase Foucault) our knowledge of Islamic history and disarms its notion of a unified subjectivity as well as its sense of historical continuity, I would like to briefly discuss the Islamic discourses on space and their effects on the historiography of the Islamic garden. For it is against these practices that Qurrat al-`Ayn's radical critique is aimed.

Islam and Spatiality

It is said that in the early days of the religion of Islam the Prophet Muhammad used space and orientation as a way to establish the fundamental nature of Islam. He did this first to distinguish his new born revelation from paganisms by aligning the new religion with other extant monotheistic religions. Every day he would turn in prayer towards Jerusalem -- the Qibla of Judaism and Christianity. For the followers of the new religion this corporal gesture became a sign of difference from the surrounding religious practices, affiliating the religion of Islam through the orientation of the body in space with the other two monotheistic religions. Then one day, it is said, his followers realized that he no longer was turning in that direction, but that he now was turning towards Mecca, changing the direction of his prayer in order to establish the unique and independent nature of Islam within the context of monotheism. (12) Spatiality thus gained relevance for the identity of the pious Muslim through these doctrinal and ritual practices of the body.

Spatial practices in most Islamic countries today function similarly to constitute a national and a personal identity. They are enforced as doctrines or laws to distinguish the realm of the public from the private. Spatial discourses directly superimpose the differential place of women and men upon this private/public split. These practices are significantly and hermeneutically linked to the verse 53 of sura 33 of the Qur'an on the issue of the hijab which in Arabic literally means to hide something from sight, to separate or establish a threshold or to forbid. (13) Thus linked, the verse of the hijab is construed as a prohibition that concerns space, and is more commonly associated with the practice of veiling.

Verse 53 of sura 33 of the Qur'an reads as follows:

Traditionally, when the question of the relevance of a certain verse arises, Islamic scholars turn towards memory or recollection. (15) The Hadith have constituted this memory for posterity through the (re)collection of the various stories told by the associates and the family of the Prophet. Among the thousands of these Hadith there is one significant story which relates to the Qur'anic verse on the question of veiling and which, according to the Moroccan feminist scholar Fatima Mernissi, gets lost in the shuffle. This misplacement, which should more relevantly be called "dissimulation" (because of the word's close association with the act of veiling), has instituted a rather skewed impression of the context of the verse, and suggested that the Prophet ordered the separation of the sexes with it. (16) The political and cultural context for the descent of the verse on the hijab as constituted by al-Bukhari's version of Anas' recollections of this incident would prove such a view far from the mark.

The Prophet's Wedding Night: the institution of the veil

In his collection of Hadiths, the historian al-Bukhari writes that on the night when he celebrated his marriage to Zaynab, the Prophet Muhammad became frustrated with his guests. The whole city of Medina had been invited to the celebrations and despite the show of impatience on the part of the Prophet, the guests would not leave. Finally, standing on the threshold of the wedding chamber he recited the verse of the hijab (quoted above), while drawing a curtain between himself and his companion, Anas. (17) In effect this act of drawing the curtain not only separated the space between the sublime and the profane (the space between the Prophet and his disciples), but also the space between two men. This act and the verse of the hijab , situated above all the identity of the two men as separate and established a hierarchical division of power between the two through a spatial division.

In the period that followed, the verse revealed on the Prophet's wedding night became a handy tool for a confused community in civil war in Medina. The wedding of Zaynab and the Prophet took place during a period of instability in which the Prophet attempted to gain a foothold in Medina. The Muslims were constantly under attack by the surrounding community and it was obvious that one of the most powerful ways to weaken an already unsettled community was through attacking the Muslim women. The verse of the hijab gave the Muslim community a solution to a whole network of problems. (18) The act of veiling was introduced into the Muslim community as a way to distinguish between the wives of the Prophet (to whom the Medinese were forced to show respect) and the female slaves. (19) Veiling, then, derived from the act of drawing the curtain between two men, was introduced into the Muslim community in Medina as a sign of hierarchical differentiation, now between women. In the midst of civil war, the wives of the Prophet adopted the veil to protect themselves from molestation and the community from vigilant attacks.

During this war, the streets of Medina, i.e. public space, became male space and if women of higher status wanted to enter into this space, they were to do this on the condition that they pull a piece of clothing over their heads and bodies. (20)

Mernissi argues that the institution of this act in the Medinese period marked the beginning of women's repression in Islam-- a religion which from its inception was an egalitarian community. (21) To agree with her on this point, one would have to disregard the more recent history of Muslim women, who in the struggle for independence in the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) and in the struggle against imperialism in Iran during the Islamic Revolution (1978-79) chose to don the veil as a gesture of difference from the West. In other words, they chose to veil as a gesture that would position them against the perceived "repression" of colonial and imperialist power. (22)

So, rather than argue that the veil is essentially repressive on the one hand or essentially liberating on other hand, I would suggest based on this reading of history, that the verse of the hijab revealed on the Prophet's wedding night entered into an apparatus of power and knowledge. It did so as a point of communal identity at a restless moment in Islamic history. The female body was construed as the focal-point of this identity. As such it was given the task to protect the Muslim communal identity by protecting its own. Islamic identity was thus constituted on a problematic rupture divided on this body's gendered split between nature and culture-and again on its historically hierarchized social divide- a body culturally constituted as vulnerable and perceived as naturally harmful. (23) Having entered into the apparatus of power and knowledge at this level, the verse of the hijab marked a problem for closure within Islamic discourses on space. Its fluctuations within the contending recollections/knowledges that surrounded it and the political discourses that activated it, further problematized the constitution of a unified and continuous Islamic identity despite all efforts to construe it as otherwise. The veil as a representation of this fragmented identity came to function both positively and negatively within the dynamics of power. As a point of identity it became an arena of constant struggle and domination for the future Muslim communities. It functioned therefore as a screen behind which the mysterious, the feared and the stereotypical and sexually potent Muslim female figure could lay dormant, always ready to erupt into the uncertain domain of the public.

Space and its gendered partitioning, as we have already observed, is fundamental in several ways to both the doctrine and the practice of Islam. Before we return to the discussion of its disarticulation in the gardens of Badasht, I would like to move our attention to a consideration of a particularly potent public space which has for centuries fired the imagination of indigenous Muslim poets and geographers alike. This is the space of the garden.

The Islamic Garden

We can imagine that in the context of the ecological conditions of the area "conquered" by Islamic thought, the garden could be seen as a way to ameliorate the often life-denying, arid and monotonous conditions of the land. People of high and low economic status incorporated a life-sustaining oasis, into their own properties, carefully sheltered away with a wall in order to (one can only assume) shut out the hustle-bustle and odors of the city. This is clearly depicted, even if we only cast a passing glance on the various collections of images that have been handed down through Mogol arts, and ancient Persian miniatures and carpets. It would seem, from a cursory study of the vegetal imagery introduced into the carpet tradition during the Abbasid period in Iran, that the garden was so greatly valued that it was important to construct a never-fading image of it onto a transportable medium such as the carpet. This would introduce the garden's verdant quality to interior spaces.

A brief study the life style and practices of the Iranian nobility, as depicted especially by the grand narratives of royal history and Iranian (mystical) poetry, may allow us to reach similar conclusions. We learn that gardens were always incorporated into the structures of dynastic residences for the pleasure and traditional rituals of the ruling class. These tales situate the royal garden as a site of romance and hedonistic pleasure, and as spaces where the king would hold court and celebrate his weddings. In allegories of the garden, the space of the garden represents and activates the dynast's dreams, desires and nightmares. The garden not only enables his daily and ritual activities it is an integral part of his physical and phantasmagoric realities. (24)

Traditional historiographic practice claims the garden's main function to be the spatial reflection of the Paradise of the Qur'an. Its structure in the form of the Persian Chahar Bagh, for example, is said to directly represent the Garden of paradise described by the Prophet Muhammad himself in this following verse:

This description of Paradise is regularly interrupted by the refrain:

thereby giving room for detailed attempts to figure out a geography of Paradise in the form of two times two gardens, a quadrangular layout of many royal Persian gardens called the Chahar Bagh or "Four Gardens."

Echoing theocratic narratives, historians of the garden return to similar Qur'anic verses about Paradise as a source that unquestionably situates the origin and the homogenous nature of the Islamic garden for all time. Historians of the Islamic garden place the garden in the grand narrative of Muslim life and attribute its very structure and continuity to the authority of the Prophet.

What is sorely missing from these historical accounts is a sense of discontinuity and change that leaves open to further research the construal of a variety of other influences in the making of the material paradise on earth: considerations for irrigation and traditional horticultural practices are examples of these. Other considerations for instance for the ease of hunting, for aesthetics and architecture may also be the reasons behind the garden's present form. What is denied in the traditional historical analyses of the Islamic garden, then, is an analytics of the social and historical contexts which may signal various sources of authorship and historical influence, not to mention deeply embedded pre-Islamic associations with the garden and its beauties, as external conditions for the emergence of such a discourse. (26)

The Prophet's Wedding Chamber and the Gardens of Badasht

It is precisely against this kind of historiography that assumes a "suprahistorical" perspective and discourse that I have launched Shaykh Abu Turab's memory of the revolt in Badasht. The event, or rather, the critical practice I attribute to it, presupposes four methodological principles identified by Michel Foucault in his 1970 inaugural lecture at the College de France "The Order of Discourse" : the principle of reversal, wherein the origin, tradition and authority of the Islamic discourse on space is put into question; the principle of discontinuity, which recognizes the discontinuity of discursive practices on space, their crossing, juxtaposition and exclusion; the principle of specificity which recognizes the violence of discourse done on things -- here Islamic space; and finally the principle of exteriority which identifies the external conditions of possibility for such a discourse.

In my reading, Shaykh Abu Turab's recollections of the proceedings of the Badasht Conference are remarkable, because they situate, for the first time in close to twelve centuries, a female unveiled in Islamic public space. Beyond this, they are remarkable, because of the place that they claim that such an event took place, and finally because of the striking rhetoric that is associated with this provocative gesture in a garden.

Although twelve centuries apart, (al-Bukhari's version of) Anas' recollections of the event of the descent of the verse of the hijab on the threshold of the Prophet's wedding chamber and Shaykh Abu Turab's recollections of the moment of Qurrat al- `Ayn's unveiling in the gardens of Badasht have similar although inverse effects in their appropriation by traditional historical practice. Whereas in the case of the Prophet Muhammad the rhetoric, that is the Qur'anic verse, is preserved in historical memory over and above the act of drawing a curtain between two men; in the case of Badasht, the act of a female's unveiled appearance, rather than Qurrat al-`Ayn's powerful address, is remembered.

In the case of one, the preservation of the word enabled the opportunity for men to regain control over the liberated woman folk of Mecca and Medina, while in the case of the other, the act of unveiling was seized as a figurative construct that would reinforce the Babi discourse on equality. (27) Both of these historiographic practices, though dealing with events that are separated by many centuries, are examples of the ways in which discourse is a violence done to things. A critical stance against this kind of discursive violence is evident in Qurrat al-`Ayn's own rhetorical practices as recollected by Shaykh Abu Turab.

The Order of Discourse

If we consider the gestures and rhetorics that are said to have occurred at Badasht together as a co-determining whole, we are struck by the recognition and the awareness Qurrat al-`Ayn herself professed of the place in which she spoke, not only as a public space that is exclusively reserved as a male domain, but also as the space of the garden which for centuries has been associated with the space of the Islamic paradise. In sustaining this recognition, I will propose that the gesture of unveiling by Qurrat al-`Ayn signaled a critical analytics on two fronts and an acknowledgment of a violence done to space by discourse on two levels:

On the one hand we see that in the simple act of appropriating the Qur'anic verse, "Amongst gardens and rivers..." Qurrat al-`Ayn's speech acknowledged the structural imposition of the discourse of the Qur'anic Paradise on the space of the garden. On the other, her appearance unveiled in a traditional public domain questioned the imposition of Islamic territorial partitioning upon an otherwise undifferentiated public space. In both cases she questioned the structural imposition of a so-called Islamic discourse on space. Her use of Qur'anic language at once supported the authority of the Qur'an while simultaneously undoing its meaning through a specifically gendered mode of enunciation in the public sphere. She thus appropriated a vocabulary and "turned it against those who had once used it." In this act of appropriation Qurrat al-`Ayn effectively resituated paradise and hell on earth. She did so by suggesting that those sitting in the garden in that very tent, were the pious assembled before the potent King. In her speech and action Qurrat al-`Ayn thus, reintroduced human agency within the context of history and positioned authority and change within the realm of human activity. She questioned thereby the contiguous character of historical unfolding as prefigured and guided solely by a Divine hand.

Qurrat al-`Ayn's address at Badasht questioned the homogenous unity established as the source of authorship of the Islamic garden and of the social division of space. In other words, her speech and her act of unveiling in the public domain reconfigured the disjunction between the doer and the deed --a disjunction which ironically presupposes a continuity between the Author of Islam and "his" work and "his" people on earth. Put differently, whereas before it had been a given that it was Allah's will that Islamic space was to be divided by the believers into two territories, and that the garden should be divided into four, to reflect Qur'anic Paradise, Qurrat al-`Ayn's action and speech now clearly posited human activity as the external condition of possibility for spatial discourse in Islam. Human activity was the only party responsible for this determination.

Because of the imbrication of spatiality and veiling in Islam, one can additionally say that if she could unveil despite the so called injunction to veil (exemplified by the appropriation of the Qur'anic verse), then others could appropriate the veil without that injunction in mind. Human activity alone could therefore be held responsible for the construal of a gendered space and the constitution and the authorship of the garden as the Qur'anic paradise.

Her act and her speech introduced a disjunction between the Islamic discourses on space, "cutting" them off from their assumed Qur'anic injunctions. Qurrat al-`Ayn thus situated the deed and doer within the same discursive matrix. In effect her gesture and speech proposed the possibility of a reversal in the meaning of that space through the force of rhetorical and practical juxtaposition. The garden, previously regarded as the space of paradisical and poetical musings, was thus redressed as a space of activity and resistance.

Her appearance unveiled in the public and gendered space of the garden also questioned the hierarchical structure imposed on the space of the garden as space of piety as well as that of nobility. In questioning this heirarchical structure Qurrat al- '`Ayn claimed that her presence in the garden as the word spoken by the Qa'im would put to flight "the chiefs and nobles of the earth". Although physically unveiled her speech re-veiled her (so to speak) as the Word spoken by the Qa'im himself, the charismatic leader who according to Shiite tradition was to abrogate the Islamic Shari'a (law) and establish the reign of a new era in religious and political history. Her gesture thus introduced a "foreign other" into the realm dominated by the rhetorics of authority and power formerly attributed to her sexual counterpart. As such she launched a frontal attack on (Islamic) hierarchical and other-worldly discourse, introducing human activity as the only basis for social progress.

In the days that followed this historical speech each of the participants at the conference took on a new name whereby signaling their rebirth into a new era in time. Then, as if to acknowledge Qurrat al-`Ayn's gesture, the participants discarded their prayer rugs which by its design orients the pietistic body towards Mecca and broke their prayer seals, equating them to idols in a gesture not unlike Muhammad's when he, in the Holy City, tried to convey the definite break with an era of paganistic devotion by destroying the objects of idol worship. The space of Islam was confronted by a discourse of antagonism at the Badasht Conference, thereby creating the conditions for a new discourse on space and a new era in (religious) history. (28)

Shaykh Abu Turab's recollections

By positioning my own historiographic intervention (in the Islamic discourses on space) on Shaykh Abu Turab's recollections of the events that took place at the Badasht Conference, I have attempted to reconstruct a consistent, continuous, and antagonistic portrait of a revolutionary movement that through the gestures and words of one of its renowned female representatives 'introduced discontinuity into the life of the Islamic mind'. In appropriating these recollections, I have argued that the Babi movement (read through the moment of its self-recognition in Badasht) was a revolutionary movement, that 'cut' our knowledge of Islamic history, disarmed its notion of a unified subjectivity and questioned its sense of historical continuity in the figure of the authorial Word of its Prophet. Ironically, this claim was only made possible by the appropriation of an undivided subjectivity informed by Shaykh Abu Turab's recollections of Qurrat al-`Ayn.

For if we look at other accounts of Qurrat al-`Ayn, there is reason to believe that matters are not as straight forward as they seem. (29) The British Orientalist Edward Browne's collections of various historical materials suggest that in one of his conversation with Mirza Yaha --also known as Azal, the half-brother of Baha'u'llah-- it was remarked that Qurrat al-`Ayn never intentionally took off the veil. (30) Browne comments that if he can remember the conversation correctly, this early Babi responded to the question of Qurrat al-`Ayn's discarding of the veil in the following words:

It is not true that she laid aside the veil. Sometimes when carried away by her eloquence, she allowed it to slip down off herface, but she would always replace it after a few moments. (31)

Nabil's Narrative, Agency and Effective History.

The positioning of my historiography of the Babi revolt in Badasht on the recollections of Shaykh Abu Turab is rather precarious in the context of Babi history, since no one seems to dwell on Abu Turab identity. Browne suggests that Abu Turab was one of the earliest disciples of the Bab and that he was married to one of Qurrat al-`Ayn's female students, a woman of "extraordinary virtue and piety" (32) Nabil on the other hand introduces Abu Turab as a Shaykhi who never really acknowledged the Bab's claims until much later in the Bab's career. (33) According to Nabil he apparently died in the Tehran prison where he was held captive with some well known Babi leaders including Baha'u'llah. (34) There appears to be no other reference to Turab anywhere else.

To add more complexity to the matter, Abu Turab seemingly plays the most insignificant role in the grand and at times grotesque history of the Babi movement as presented in Nabil's Narrative. He appears only four times in the more than seventy years of history narrated by Nabil. Once as the chronicler of the Badasht conference (35), a second time as Qurrat al-`Ayn's body guard after the Conference (36) , a third time as the harbinger of glad tidings at Shaykh Tabarsi (37) , and finally as a character witness against Haji Mirza Karim Khan Kirmani in his recollections of Sayyid Kazim. (38)

It this the latter moment that I would like to pause and reflect on since here, once again, Abu Turab's unfailing recollections are drawn upon to elucidate a critical situation. (39) In Nabil's historiography, Abu Turab's recollection of Karim Khan is brought into the picture only paragraphs before Sayyid Kazim Rashti's death is characterized. This is obviously a moment that if not negotiated carefully would create a potential crisis for Babism's legitimacy as a religious movement.

Sayyid Kazim was known as the religious leader of the Shaykhi school, a heterodoxy of Shi`ite Islam situated in Karbala (Iraq). According to most accounts, the Bab's initial claims of Mahdihood were directed at Sayyid Kazim's students, many of whom accepted it after the teacher's death and became active participants in the movement. (40) Shaykh Abu Turab is claimed to be one of Sayyid Kazim's prominent students who late in the Bab's career accepted the latter's claim to Mahdihood. Qurrat al-`Ayn and Quddus were among other students who accepted this claim.

Sayyid Kazim had, according to most sources, for years taught the Return of the Twelfth Imam and prepared his students to investigate this claim were it to occur in their life time. In 1844, when the Bab proclaimed his mission a great many of Sayyid Kazim's students recognized this claim. In effect the Bab took on "the successorship" of the Shaykhi school after the teacher's death.

The positioning of Abu Turab's recollection in the context of Nabil's historiography becomes clear, if we consider the role played by the third party ( Haji Mirza Karim Khan Kirmani) of this recollection in relation to the development of the Babi movement. Karim Khan, another prominent student's of Sayyid Kazim, left the Shaykhi school some years before the death of its leader (Sayyid Kazim) and established himself in Kirman where he started his own branch of the school (called the Kirmani school). Although familiar with the Bab's claims, Kirmani whole-heartedly rejected the Bab and was for years involved in the agitation of the remainder of Sayyid Kazim's students against the Bab and his followers.

Abu Turab's recollections, situated (in textual terms) only moments before Sayyid Kazim's death in Nabil's Narrative give his words a highly charged task: to recall a moment in which Sayyid Kazim rejects his own student, Karim Khan. In Abu Turab's recollection of this conversation Sayyid Kazim is said to have referred to Karim Khan as one "accursed," whose doctrines are "heretical" and "atheistic" and "who has grievously erred in his judgment". (41) Abu Turab's recollection of this conversation with his own teacher can be read as a self-serving character assassination. But its strategic positioning at a crisis point in Nabil's historiography, clearly situates its contents in a historiographic place that rids the reader of any doubt as to the successorship of Sayyid Kazim before the historical crisis even occurs (in historiographic terms). For Nabil, Abu Turab's recollections situate the necessary continuity of his narrative of the Babi movement's revolutionary history and its legitimacy.

But we should ask: why is this important? What relevance does this textual positioning have for a revolutionary history that relentlessly posits human agency as the driving force of social progress, and that uses strategy in the face of chance to disrupt the foundations of Islamic thought through introducing discontinuity in history?

Abu Turab's character role, although infinitesimal in Nabil's narration of Babism revolutionary history, is played on a measured field of continuity and discontinuity. Abu Turab's recollections of Badasht in the Narrative launch an account of the movement's discontinuity with Islamic traditions and values, forcing a break between Islam and Babism in the figure of the Conference. Turab's recollections of Qurrat al-`Ayn's actions and words in Badasht, much like his portrayed role as her body guard after the Conference suture the necessary subjectivity that would then posit human agency and action up against the "scrambled" identity of Islam. His recollection thus situates a continuous subjectivity against the decrepit identity that is Islam's. (The Conference participant's collective appropriation of new names, we should note, is important in the configuration of this new subjectivity) For Nabil, this still leaves the question of the movement's legitimacy unanswered.

In drawing on Abu Turab's recollections, Nabil situates the Babi movement's legitimacy in Sayyid Kazim's rejection of his pupil Karim Khan. He does this, more importantly, before the teacher's death. Indeed, through this rejection and almost fortuitously he posits the Bab as the legitimate claimant to Sayyid Kazim's successorship. Thus creating through Abu Turab's memory, a continuity between the two schools of thought: Shaykhism and Babism Legitimacy is thus established in the face of every claim directed at the movement from it opponents.

The figure of Abu Turab must be seen as a problematic one, then. Divided on the juncture between insignificance and infinite signification; split on the critical line dividing continuity and change; and called upon to bear witness to the movement's legitimacy and Qurrat al-`Ayn's illegitimate gesture, Abu Turab represents the figure of the Babi movement as such. For as Fischer and Abedi remark the Babi movement as a revolutionary movement was a "mixture of progressive ideas and initiatives and reactionary theocratic ones" often encountered on a rhetorical level (at least) within the body of Islamic and especially the Shi`ite heterodoxies.

If we are to rely to some extent on the implicit mirror that I have placed between the early days of the Islamic religion and the events at Badasht, it is clear that the historicity of revolt is not only in its innovations or, in Foucault's phraseology, in the introduction of "discontinuity" or "interruptions" in history. Revolts are, to a limited extent, moments that harken back, not only to establish their legitimacy, or to construe a unified subjectivity in the face of danger, but also to animate the moments of the presentwith the life force of a distant and desirable past. As such, they constitute and activate moments of the past within the present moment of the everyday. This is an instance of Walter Benjamin's notion of der Jüngste Tag-- where the chronicler's most recent day is also and inevitably the messianic Day of Judgment. (42)

In this light, as Amanat notes, Edward Browne is not far from the mark when he argues that the Babi movement was essentially Shi`ite in its Weltanschauung and that Babi history was a reenactment of the idealized Shi`ite past. (43) None the less, we can see within the fruit of this memory of an idealized past, the seed of "a dynamic future". Qurrat al-`Ayn's constitution of individual agency and human responsibility as the force that must be materialized into action can only be seen in this light in the context of religious history.








Footnotes


(*)Many thanks to the UCLA Journal of History readers of the first draft whose extensive comments helped in the formulation of this version of the essay. Also my deepest appreciation and thanks to Jacob Krauss without whose long distance faxes, encouragement and critiques, this paper wouldn't have taken shape. I am also grateful to Juan Cole and the two anonymous readers for H-Bahai's Occasional Papers for their informed criticism.


(1)Foucault, Michel. "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" Foucault Reader Ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 88


(2)"Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" 89


(3)Nuqtat al-Kaf reviews these aspects of Shaykhi thought in great detail. Refer to E.G. Browne's version of Nuqtat al-Kaf on-line on the H-Bahai publications website at http://www.h-net.msu.edu. Also see Juan Cole's three papers on Ahsa'i on-line at http://www-personal.um ich.edu/~jrcole/papers.htm. Cole also pursues these themes in some detail in the work of Baha'u'llah in his article ""I am all the Prophets": The Poetics of Pluralism in Baha'i Texts" in Poetics Today 14: 3 (Fall 1993), 447-476.


(4)ibid. 88


(5)In July 1848 the Babi leader of this upspring, Mulla Husayn Bushrui --the first disciple of the Bab-- raised the Black Standard in Mashhad and set off westward. The implications of this gesture for the government and the religious hierarchy alike were obvious. In Shiih Islam, there is a well known Tradition attributed to the Prophet that suggests, that should one see the Black Standard coming from Khurasan then one should go to it. The Mahdi -the religious leader who went into hiding in the early days of Islam --according to this Tradition-- will be there. More importantly, however, the raising of the Black Standard in Khurasan was an act imbued with historical and contra-dynastic significance. The raising of the Black Standard is historically known as the gesture which inaugurated the final overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasids. This symbolic act not only signaled an impending attack on the existing religious order by the coming of the Mahdi, but also posed a definitive threat for the existing dynasty. Although, ironically, the importance of this challenge got buried under the confusion of the government over the death of Muhammad Shah, the populace in Barfurush en route confronted the Babis traveling under Mulla Husayn's banner, forcing them to take up positions around the Shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi. The conflict between the two groups lasted from mid-October 1848 to early May 1849.


(6)Amanat, Abbas. Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran 1844-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell UP,1989), 325


(7)Bahá or Baha'u'llah would in 1863 establish the Bahá'í Faith. See Balyuzi's Baha'u'llah, The King of Glory


(8)Amanat 326


(9)Rabbani, Shoghi The Dawn Breakers: Nabil's Narrative of the Early Days of the Baha'i Revelation. British Edition. (London: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1953), 211-213


(10) Nabil's Narrative 211-213


(11)his same word for word rendition can be found in Fadil Mazandarani 's Tarikh-i Zuhur al Haqq Volume II.


(12)Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. (New York: Addison Weslley, 1987), 65-70


(13)ibid., 93


(14)ibid., 85


(15)This practice situates a significant difference between Western perceptions of stories and memories, where often times the latter are considered mere fables and thus disabling in an effort to constitute Truth and Knowledge.


(16)For other references to Hadiths related to this verse consult Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992 (Chapter 3)


(17)Mernissi,The Veil 100


(18)ibid. 92


(19)Ahmed suggests other circumstances for the institution of the veil, drawing from Inb Sa'd's (re)collections. See Women and Gender , 54


(20)In this particular context I am referring to the Prophet's wives, since his wives were the only ones that came along on the expedition.


(21)Fatima Mernissi suggests this event as a symbolic expression of "regression on sexual equality" commingled with a "regression in social equality", but the coincidental imagery of the descent of the hijab over all women for the "fifteen centuries that followed" in this paragraph and her subsequent discussions strongly suggests the above reading (178-79).


(22)See Fanon's discussion of the veil: "Algeria Unveiled" in A Dying Colonialism and Shirazi-Mahajan's discussion of the role of the veil in the Iranian Islamic revolution in Critique (Spring 1993)


(23)We have come to learn that sexuality, in the context of Islam, is territorial (Mernissi, Beyond 81). Sexuality is mapped, as it were, unto the specific topology of the public and the private. In this context, female veiling is formulated as a way to ensure the purity of the public sphere, generally designated as male, and the protection of the female, in the same context, through a gesture of dissimulation. As such, this construction permits the definition of female identity, in this context, as split. On the one hand, in the context of the perception of her natural constitution, the female is seen as a distraction, an invasion or intervention to the male's formulation of his identity as pious or divine. Her presence as a "natural"/sexual being in the public sphere, in other words, interferes with the Muslim man's relation with his God. On the other hand, in the context of her cultural status in Muslim history and as the embodiment of the community's identity as such, the female is seen as weak, indeed in need of protection in the male domain. The veil thus covers over her constitutional split, creating a unified or whole subject that is both dangerous by nature and incapable to defend herself or the Muslim community's identity within the social domain. Without the veil this dual and dangerous quality is thought to come to the fore, unveiling a "scrambled" identity, dangerous and mutilated.


(24)This reading stems from Nezami's Haft Paikar (Seven Beauties) Translated by C.E. Wilson. But also see Julie Scott Meisami's essay: "Allegorical Gardens in the Persian poetic tradition: Nezami, Rumi, Hafez."


(25)From the Qur'an Verses 46-75 Sura 55


(26)As noted by G. Marçias in the Encyclopedia of Islam, "Persian horticulture flourished long before the birth of Islam and was associated with princely life." from BUSTAN: Encyclopedia of Islam , New Edition , London (1960)


(27)This forgetting on the part of Babi historiography constituted the foundation for the appropriation of that discourse for future feminist purposes. Consult for example the section on Tahirih Qurrat al-`Ayn in Farzaneh Milani's Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers where Qurrat al-`Ayn is placed as the first in the line of liberated/liberating women's voices in Iran. Also see Abbas Amanat Crowning Anguish (59) where he places her within a similar trajectory. Amanat also rejects these views in an earlier book: Resurrection and Renewal, 330. Also for a delightfully utopic and early account of the coincidence between Qurrat al-`Ayn's 'originary' gestures and the concomitant development of the Women's Movement in the West see Martha Root's Tahirih The Pure One 1938 Reprinted. Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1981


(28)Amanat , Resurrection 327


(29)Browne's edition of Kitab-i Nuqtat al-Kaf (a book which is said to be one of the earliest records of Babi history)does not refer to Qurrat al-`Ayn's unveiling at Badasht at all. Without giving a detailed account of the dispute between the two Babi leaders, Nuqtat al-Kaf records a speech delivered at the Badasht conference. Browne notes that because of the corruption of the manuscript at this point, he cannot say whether this speech was delivered by Quddus or Qurrat al-`Ayn (Tarikh-i-Jadid 357). The speech, regardless, treats the doctrine of "Return" (raj'at) at some length. The outward forms of religion (such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and alms) are all explained allegorically. The abrogation of the laws of the previous religious dispensation is announced, and laws in general are declared to be necessary only until such time as people have learned to comprehend the "Doctrine of Unity" (Tawhid) by which is meant the recognition of the true nature of the "Point" or Divine Manifestation of the age." (Tarikh-i-Jadid 357; Nuqtat al-Kaf 151-152 ) The text regards the days in Badasht as a time in which the fruits of the Bab's revelation reached their height of ripeness --a ripeness which tore open the fruit's own skin (az shiddat-i rasidigi pust ra parih namudand) to reveal an exquisite kernel (maghz-i dilkash). (145) This symbolism of the torn skin ccould be interpreted as Qurrat al-`Ayn's unveiling. More importantly, however, it oncurs with the imagery of the Day of Resurrection in contemporaneous performances of the Ta'ziyeh. (See my paper "Resurrection, Return, Reform: Ta'ziyeh as model for Early Babi historiography" given at the Middle Eastern Studies Association Conference in San Francisco November 1997.)


(30)This statement may of course be understood in terms of the way in which the notion of female unveiling is conceptualized in Islamic ideology. Unveiling has at different times and spaces been understood as gesture of female nudity. It's citation therefore is incriminating to the woman and to the pious in Islam. According to Amanat's assertions, many sources claim that Qurrat al-`Ayn did indeed unveil in public. Most say, however, that she only did so in the gathering of "believers". And while most sources agree that she never unveiled publicly before the Badasht Conference, others even doubt that she did so on that occasion. (Amanat, Resurrection 295-316). A double disavowal takes place in the reconfiguration of thesevarious narratives, wherein firstly none but the 'believers' are incriminated by this public violation and secondly, no one is whatsoever.


(31)Browne, Edward G. Ed. A Traveller's Narrative: Written to illustrate the Episode of the Bab by Abdu'l Baha 2nd ed. (Amsterdam: Philo Press 1975),314.


(32)ibid. 247


(33)A Shaykhi is a student of the esoteric Shaykhi school of Shi`ite Islam established in the middle of the 19th century in Karbala, Iraq. This is a school from which the Bab drew many of his early adherents.


(34)Nabil's Narrative 30


(35)Nabil's Narrative 211


(36)ibid. 216


(37)ibid. 29-31. For a discussion of the Shaykh Tabarsi upsprings also known as the Mazandaran upheavals see Moojan Momen "The Social Basis of the Babi Upheavals in Iran: a preliminary analysis " in International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 15 (1983) 157-183.


(38)Nabil's Narrative 29-31


(39)ibid.


(40)For a more detailed account of the movement and its history see Mangol Bayat Mysticism and Dissent : Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran Syracuse UP 1982.


(41)Nabil's Narrative 29


(42)For an excellent discussion of Benjamin's Jetztzeit see Ian Balfour's "Reversal Quotation (Benjamin's History)" MLN 106, 1991.


(43)see Browne, Edward G. The Literary History of Persia. vol. 4 (Cambridge and London 1902-1904), 197







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