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The Calling: Tahirih of Persia and Her American Contemporaries
A New Book by
Hussein Ahdieh & Hillary Chapman

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Tahirih's Father's House

Qazvin, Masjid i Shah al Nabi

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[Tahirih's] mother's scholarly accomplishments were recognized by important clerics in a kingdom where women had no legal standing. Her aunt was so well-educated she could teach classes for women in a time when most men—let alone women—were illiterate. Her father and uncles attained the highest levels of theological and judicial learning in the land. She was the progeny of a family whose intellectual distinction ran in both its branches. She was a deep thinker in a mass of ignorance, an outspoken voice in a muzzled gender, a poet calling to God, and a mystic who would stun and galvanize her Muslim country-folk. Her legal name was Fatimah, the same as her grandmother, so the family members used the name Umm Salmah out of respect for their older relative. As a little girl, they affectionately nicknamed her Zarrin-Taj, 'crown of gold'. And it was this little girl who caused this learned family to be remembered around the world as the family of the mystic, apostle, and poet Tahirih of Qazvin (c.1817-1850).

Tahirih grew up in a world bounded by the lattice work in the walls of the large and gracious family home, dominated by the presence of powerful clerics and learned women, and suffused with education and learning. This house with its women’s wing in which she was born and the quaint second floor library where she studied, the traditional theology of the men in her family, and the learning and customs current in her day all became prisons. In time, she transcended them all.

The eldest of the seven daughters of a prominent cleric, Mulla Salih, who also counted eight sons among his children from several wives, Tahirih most likely had one full brother and sister. Tahirih’s mother was from a prestigious family who counted a long line of clerics even more prominent than the men in her husband’s family, though she was not Mulla Salih's first wife. She had the good fortune to be able to attend the girls' section of the large school founded by her father, which numbered hundreds of students including some from other parts of the kingdom and as far away as India. She studied Persian literature and poetry with her mother, religious jurisprudence and its principles, Islamic traditions, and Qur'anic commentary, with her father, uncle, and brothers, and different branches of philosophy with two clerics who were her cousins. Because of her ability, she taught all of her sisters in the woman’s section of the school. Later on she also educated her sons there, which was very unusual for a woman to be able to do. Not only did she demonstrate real intellectual capacity, she also memorized the entire Qur’an and may well have learned to speak Turkish along with Persian and Arabic. Her family lived in a Turkic-speaking neighborhood of Qazvin, and, later in her life, she may have written some poetry in that language. Given the talent she exhibited, her father may well have hoped that she had been born a boy to enhance the public prestige of the family and to be his successor.

Several of her male contemporaries attest to her extraordinary intellect and eloquence.Her brother confessed that she was by far the superior sibling:

“We were all, her brothers and cousins, fearful to speak in her presence, so much did her knowledge intimidate us, and if we hazarded to put forward an opinion on a point of doctrine that was in dispute, she would prove to us where were going wrong in a manner so clear, precise and magisterial that we were thrown into confusion and withdrew.”

Nevertheless, her natural ability and her education separated Tahirih from the mass of Persian women whose early lives were very different. She would have been expected to follow a carefully arranged course because a woman's life in this time was completely scripted, her role having been assigned to her by the chance of her birth. The arc of her life followed a trajectory determined by tradition.

Excerpted from The Calling by Hussein Ahdieh & Hillary Chapman