Research Notes in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies,Vol. 4, no. 2 (November, 2000)

Süleyman Nazif’s Nasiruddin Shah ve Babiler: an Ottoman Source on Babi-Baha’i History. [With a Translation of Passages on Tahirih*]

Necati Alkan

Süleyman Nazif (1870-1927) was an eminent Turkish poet who nowadays is neglected. He mastered Arabic, Persian and French and worked for several government posts during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II.

In 1897 he fled to Europe, including Paris where he wrote in favour of a constitutional government. After returning from Europe, Abdulhamid gave him a post as chief secretary of a ministry in Bursa; at the same time he was an exile because of his political publications in Paris. He returned to Istanbul in 1908 after the Young Turk revolution, and held the office of governor in different cities. Nazif wrote an extensive number of nationalistic articles for newspapers.

As a result of a speech in January 1920 (when Istanbul was being occupied by the Allied Powers after WW I) in favour of the French turcophile Pierre Loti, who displeased Britain, Nazif was banished to Malta, where he stayed twenty months with more than a hundred other enemies of Britain. Süleyman Nazif died in Istanbul.

Among other published works of Süleyman Nazif is this little book Nasiruddin Shah ve Babiler (“Nasiru’d-Din Shah and the Babis”).[1] In his own words, it is not an important historical account but a mere record of personal encounters and memoirs. Nazif says that it was his duty not to be indifferent and insensitive towards important events that took place in the last hundred years in Persia and the Ottoman Empire. He regards the emergence and changing situation of two people as the worthiest events to be reflected upon in the Near East since the dawn of history in Asia.

According to his own words, he received the first substantial information on the Babis during his stay in Paris, from the poet Catulle Mendès.[2] The latter asked him how he viewed the Babis, stating that since Nazif was a Turk and spoke Persian, he must know more about them than Westerners. Nazif notes that until then, like many other Easterners, he had no substantial knowledge or good opinion about the Babis, and that when he heard the name “Babi” he imagined “a pair of bloodthirsty black eyes and a bloodstained dagger”. His reply to Mendès was that he had not studied the Babis and that in his country people spoke with fear about them, adding that “anarchist” in the West was equal to “Babi” in the East. To Mendès, this answer was insufficient. After talking about the works on the Babis he had read and summarising those, Mendès said with excitement that it is a pity that the Easterners, and in particular the Iranians, have misunderstood the Babis. Nazif concludes that this was a big mistake, and Nasiru’d-Din Shah, that poor ignorant, paid for this mistake with his blood because for fifty years he stubbornly refused renewal (p. 14).

In his book, Süleyman Nazif places Babi-Bahai history in the context of Iranian and Ottoman history. He recounts the genesis, development and fate of the Babi movement in Iran and the Ottoman Empire. He regards Ali Muhammad Shirazi, the Bab, as a true Muslim who preached the Islamic shari‘a and was faithful to it; later his followers distorted his teachings and established a tariqa in his name, probably as a result of and out of protest to what they experienced at the hands of the Iranian government. The brothers Sayyid Hasan and Sayyid Husayn, who were imprisoned with him but abandoned him after being released, were more fanatical Babis than Ali Muhammad Shirazi himself. They presented a more exaggerated Babism (ghulat-i Babiyya) than the Bab and and even wrote a Qur’an on his behalf without his knowledge (p. 49).

A special concern of Nazif is his admiration of Tahirih’s person, her beauty, and her virtues, expressed with magnificent words intended to eternalise her (see translation below). Contrary to official sources on Tahirih’s death, Nazif says that she was burned alive at the fortress in Tehran. Interestingly, he describes her as the “youhtful Turkish woman from Qazvin”.

Nazif also dwells on the personality of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and conveys to the reader his encounter with him in 1917 in Haifa. Abbas Efendi, “son and successor of the famous Baha’u’llah”, who had withdrawn from Babism[3] and established an independent mezheb/madhhab and, as stated by himself, a tarikat/tariqa, moved from ‘Akka to Haifa after the Second Constitution (Young Turk coup d’etat, 1908). Because his words and statements were for the most part distorted, ‘Abdu’l-Baha initially received visitors with suspicion. But then he was assured of Nazif’s sincerity and talked about all the events since his childhood (p. 18).

In connection with the exile of Mirza Yahya Subh-i Azal to Cyprus, Nazif notes that at that time the famous poet Ziya Pasha was governor of Cyprus. Here, as maintained by some Western historians, he had met Subh-i Azal and laid the foundations of the contacts between the Babis and the “Young Ottomans”[4], yet there is nothing to support this. Nazif remarks that “The more the Babis retreated towards the West, the goals and fundamentals they pursued also changed. The religious movement in Iran gradually took a social form”. He moreover relates that ‘Abdu’l-Baha was acquainted with Ziya Pasha and had communicated with him and Namik Kemal, another reform-minded and important figure among Ottoman literati of the Tanzimat (“reordering”) era: “When I met ‘Abbas Efendi… he told me with complete sorrow that he had an extensive correspondence with Kemal Bey but that out of worry over the investigation and persecution in the time of Sultan Abdulhamid II, he had burnt those letters” (pp. 52-53).

A few months after the publication of the book Beyrut Vilayeti[5], in the first volume of which twelve pages deal with the authors’ three meetings with ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Nazif met him in Haifa; the Baha’i leader complained that his statements and ideas were misrepresented there or not properly understood. Nazif confirms that some statements in those pages are not congruent with the “manifest intelligence” of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and adds: “I do not know how real ‘Abbas Efendi’s sincerity towards me was. I have not witnessed anything that corresponded to his insincerity” (p. 87). Süleyman Nazif ends the story of his encounter with ‘Abdu’l-Baha with the latter’s words that “We have no belief that is contrary to true Islam. Our judgment (ijtihad) is in accord with the spirit of Islam, let alone contrary”.

Finally, in a letter written to Nazif in Turkish and appended to the book, ‘Abdu’l-Baha complains about some articles on him, published in the newspaper Tasvir-i Efkâr[6]; he says that the information was received second hand by Westerners from certain persons in Istanbul who outwardly appear as Babis. Nazif, ‘Abdu’l-Baha states, who is a lover of truth and has studied the writings of Baha’u’llah, should scrutinise his replies to European and American newspapers and his Tablet to the Hague that contains the fundamentals of the Baha’i movement, and thus free himself from various kinds of prejudices[7]. Nazif assures the reader that he wrote down what he read about ‘Abdu’l-Baha and had witnessed himself without alteration, and that, after studying the letter and the newspapers ‘Abdu’l-Baha had sent to him, it is not his to write in favour or against his madhhab or tariqa.

Although Süleyman Nazif’s work has some factual errors, it can be regarded as an important primary source with regard to first-hand information that was not accessible before to the Western reader. Like other Ottoman sources from the 1910’s and 1920’s on the Babi and Baha’i religions, Nazif’s book is also highly positive and unbiased, something that modern Turkish academic literature fails to achieve.


* I am much indebted to Sholeh A. Quinn for proof-reading and revising this paper. No part of it may be reproduced and cited except with the express permission of the author.

[1] Written in 1919 as dated in the foreword, published 1923 (Ottoman script, 103 pages; Kanaat Kütüphanesi Matbaasi, Istanbul). Nazif appended a poem of Tahirih and a letter in Turkish by ‘Abdu’l-Baha to him.

[2] French poet and writer, 1844-1909.

[3] Nazif, p. 53: “Abbas Efendi had told me clearly and emphatically that he was not a Babi”, and: “Abbas Efendi withdrew from Babism and even was praying to God to guard him from it… It is also true that Subh-i Azal was surrounded by the company of the wicked and degenerated Babis. The power and grandeur was on Baha’u’llah’s side, as it is only Baha’u’llah’s still well established creed (mezheb) and order (tarikat) that is esteemed and influential in Europe and America” (p. 53, 54).

[4] First generation of Ottoman reformist intellectuals who advocated a liberal constitutional regime after European and Islamic ideals. Under the leadership of Midhat Pasha they succeeded in drafting the first constitution (meshrutiyet) in 1876. Their ideas were later inherited and developed by the “Young Turks”.

[5] A salnâme (yearbook) of the Beirut district, written by Mehmet Refik (Temimi)/ Mehmet Behcet (Yazar); 2 vols., Vilayet Matbaasi: 1335/1917; 1:10-15, “Babiler ve Babizm” (The Babis and Babism), and 1:269-80 “Babiler ve Babizm Hakkinda Tedkikât-i Mahalliye” (A Regional Study of the Babis and Babism). The authors approached ‘Abdu’l-Baha having heard that he is hiding the truths of his tariqa and appeared as a true Muslim; their observation after leaving the third meeting with him is: “Isn’t he a good actor?”.

[6] This book was first published in installations in this newspaper from 5 -28 January 1920.

[7] The letter (dated 17 Sha‘ban 1338, signed ‘Abbas-i Irani) was entrusted to Nazif after his exile in Malta and ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s death by some Baha’is.


Translation of passages on Tahirih; Süleyman Nazif: Nasiruddin Shah ve Babiler (Kanaat Kütüphanesi: Istanbul 1923); pp. 35, 44-49.

A young woman accepted Babism and became the disciple of the new Messiah. Her name was Zarrin Taj. But the people, being attracted to her countless virtues, gave her the title “Qurratu’l-‘Ayn” [solace of the eyes]. This exceptional woman who was extraordinarily intelligent, erudite, a poetess, mature, eloquent and resolute, also was, with regard to her chastity and decency, uncorrupted - even to the extent that she forced her enemies to confirm and admit [her eminence]. Her first followers conferred upon her the attribute “Tahirih” [the pure]; she was addressed and remembered by this name. Among the masters of poetry in Iran, the poems of Qurratu’l-‘Ayn in our day no doubt rank high. The minds and thoughts of those hesitating to support Babism were bewildered and captivated in the presence of Tahirih by her desire-inflaming beauty, her indisputable excellence, her particular eloquence and firmness and courage. She entered every place unveiled, and through her sermons about the new sect, in a brief time established a community with numerous members. …

This exceptional woman, in my opinion, is the world’s staunchest and most virtuous lady. When this exceptional woman was born, her parents gave her the name “Zarrin Taj” [golden crown]. She indeed was a golden crown. She was born with a diadem of beauty and grace and an endless treasure of talent for knowledge. After dedicating her merits and virtues, whether inherited or acquired, for the salvation of the people, they deemed the title “Qurratu’l-‘Ayn” as worthy for her. Zarrin Taj became a light of gladness and a flame of hope for every weary eye. In addition to such a beauty and courage, she was so chaste and decent that even her most pitiless arch-enemies could not question the attribute “Tahirih” conferred upon this exceptional woman by those gathered under the banner of her judgment, and those intending to kill her received confirmation and were treated with respect in the presence of her fame and honour. This symbol of chastity that valiantly and enthusiastically asso-ciated with everyone remained unstained from the corruption of passion.

Like the eloquence of her discourse that dominated the minds and consciences, her desire-inflaming beauty and grace consisted only of the excitement of her love for an eternally worshipped one who was her object and holy goal, on whose path she ultimately gave up her life.

Not only were the abandoned, the down-trodden and those people in need of help enchanted by her virtues, but also the great ones of that time. Even the highest rank police commander in Tehran was earnestly striving to mitigate the incarceration of this unique heroine and to liberate her completely. However, resolute and dignified as she was, Qurratu’l-‘Ayn rejected this proposed amnesty and, as she was faithful to her own honour, remained loyal to her noble principles. In the palace, the vicinity of which the plot against Nasiru’d-Din Shah took place, a great multitude of princes, important officials and notables was present while Zarrin Taj was being interrogated. At the same time that she was once again in the presence of these people declaring, without fear or doubt, her adherence and attraction to the Babi sect, she did not hesitate to include in her confession that she was ready to give up her life for the sake of her religion. Nothing could weaken her determination, neither her executioners’ threat nor the requests and tears of her husband and father who were present. The history of the world has hardly ever recorded [the story of] a woman, or even a man, who died such a tragic death with such fortitude. Zarrin Taj was born beautiful, and Qurrat'ul-Ayn wanted to die a great death.

Zarrin Taj was burned alive at the fortress in Tehran, and they threw her ashes into the winds of the horizons.

Qurratu’l-‘Ayn illustrated the last page of her life in this verse; who knows, she might have recited these two lines at that historical moment:

Be a salamander, be a moth, I do not say;
Yet brave, if you wish to be burned, stay.

This verse composed in two languages [Persian-Arabic] shows what eternal rapture for divine love she was in:

The gleaming of your cheeks has risen;
And the light of your countenance arisen.
Why don’t you cry out “Am I not your Lord?”
Cry out, “Yea, yea”.

Whether a sect or a religion; whether based on illusions or superstitions; whether resulting from the need of the age for renewal and development, it is very likely that Babism will revive either in its old condition or in another form. And again it is very likely that it will totally perish in the narrow ditch kicked into it by the Iranian shahs. But Qurratu’l-‘Ayn’s name and memory is always alive and fascinating. Nothing whatsoever, no might and no onslaught can destroy this name. If the goal for the sake of which she gave up her life is destined to be windswept and annihilated, it is written on her grave; but if life and power is promised and facilitated by God then Zarrin Taj’s dream and name will eternally flash like lightning on her glorious and noble stone:

She is more authentic, more genuine and more eminent, and a greater heroine than Jeanne d’Arc, so much so that from Eve to the last of Eve’s daughters to be born, every member of the noble community [Muslims], when remembering this youthful Turkish woman from Qazvin, will be moved to tears and swell with pride. Ah! Alas, Qurratu’l-‘Ayn! You were worth a thousand Nasiru’d-Din Shahs… a thousand Qajar dynasties. The executioners have not scattered your ashes to the horizons of Tehran, but from those horizons into the hearts of mankind. Every heart is your shrine, Tahirih!…

During Qurratu’l-‘Ayn’s interrogation the other imprisoned Babis were also present. All, including the young girls and boys among the arrested, were happy and at ease. They witnessed how Tahirih left for the place of execution without saying a word, not even words of farewell. When these wretched one’s turn came, both those involved in the plot and those not involved, without exception, admitted that they were Babis and, blessing moreover the name of Bab Ali Muhammad Shirazi, whom they addressed with “Hazrat” [His Holiness], and the names of the other Babi disciples and martyrs and adding their plea “May God sanctify them”, said that they were ready to face everything. …

The uprising in Mazindaran [Shaykh Tabarsi] and Qurratu’l-‘Ayn’s impetus were the greatest cause for these sudden changes. Zarrin Taj passed only a few month of this interval for the propagation of the sect and spent most of the time in prison. If she had been free and in more favourable circumstances, Iran for sure would have seen much better days.

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