Celebrating the Conference of Badasht and Tahirih’s Announcement of the Promised One
Author and Professor of Mass Communications at St. Cloud State University, Dr. Roya Ahkavan, offers this article based on her unique scholarship on the 19th century Persian religious martyr and poet, Tahirih, in celebration of the June/July anniversary of the 1848 Conference of Badasht, at which Tahirih appeared without her veil and announced the “Apocalypse” foretold in religious prophecy. In the context of Tahirih’s discourse, this advent signifies the beginning of a new era of human progress toward social justice and equality, global unity and world peace.
When we look at the world today, what is immediately visible to the naked eye is a process of destruction and disintegration. A few hours of watching the news can create deep concern, sadness, and even hopelessness. Yet, alongside the disintegration, a simultaneous and parallel process is unfolding; one of constructive integration, and it can be seen clearly when examined from a historical perspective.
This bifurcation—the parallel movement of the constructive alongside the destructive—became dramatically pronounced in the middle of the nineteenth century. Soon after the sending of the first telegram on May 24, 1844, all charts of human activity, whether in the scientific or the social realm, began an exponential rise from a horizontal to a vertical position. New technological inventions began to connect diverse peoples across the planet, sparking a growing consciousness of humanity’s oneness and interdependence. In the social arena, a new urgency emerged to ensure equality of rights for all human beings, to enact laws against slavery and to move toward gender equality. Peace and social justice took on increasing prominence as human ideals, exemplified in the spontaneous formation of more than 400 grassroots peace societies, as well as the first ever gathering of heads of state at the Hague in 1899 to discuss procedures for peaceful resolution of international disputes—leading within less than half a century to codified systems of collective security and international law.
In response to the increasingly visible growth of this new constructive collective consciousness, upheavals of various kinds have developed within the destructive plane. Clearly, those who have lost legitimacy and privilege will not give up their utopia of the past without a fight. They are bound to take a last stand. Yet, despite the unspeakable suffering that these destructive forces continue to inflict upon humanity, the constructive process has never stopped. Nor can it be turned back. The ongoing advancement in the human civilisation is deeply rooted in the discovery of both physical and spiritual truths. Once discovered, a physical truth inexorably leads to new inventions. The same is true of spiritual truths.
The nineteenth century marked an unprecedented moment in the evolution of humanity when both the physical and spiritual truths needed to bring about a new stage in human progress were discovered simultaneously. Notably, the revolutionary technological advances in the West coincided with the unveiling of transformative truths in the East. In a millenarian movement at the heart of the Persian and Ottoman empires, a young man known as The Báb (1819-1850) declared, among other teachings, the revolutionary truth that all human beings are equally noble and sacred emanations of the same Divine Reality and must be accorded equal rights and opportunities to fulfil their highest potential. In a world firmly rooted in hierarchy and autocratic rule in religious, social, and political arenas, The Báb’s teachings delegitimised all systems of oppression built upon the exertion of power by one human being over another and set in motion profound sociological implications.
The mantle of leadership to proclaim the revolutionary teachings of The Báb was taken up by a young woman, Tahirih (1817-1852), one of The Báb’s leading disciples and the foremost heroine of the Bábi movement.
Tahirih was born in Qazvin, Iran, within an orthodox religious environment that was severely punishing of independent seekers of enlightenment. Yet, early in her life, Tahirih’s innate gifts of intellectual brilliance and mystical perception had compelled her father, an erudite religious scholar, to provide her with a level of advanced education denied to other women in her society.
Tahirih epitomised the quintessence of heroic audacity in searching for, recognising, and proclaiming transformative truths. When faced with the heartrending choice to submit to the tyranny of the orthodox ecclesiastic family she was married into at an early age, or to leave everyone and everything behind to continue her spiritual quest, she chose the latter.
Upon finding the object of her quest in the Bábi movement, Tahirih began to choreograph her life and dedicate her every word and action to awakening humanity. In her prolific scholarly and poetic discourse, she used the symbolism of “removal of the veil” as a prominent motif in announcing the revelations that were destined to set in motion a new era in human progress. Hers was a vision of the “apocalypse” that reflected the original Greek meaning of the word (“lifting the veil”) and signified unveiling of new truths that would transform human bondage to emancipation, injustice to justice, and bloodshed to peace. While making the most momentous proclamation of her life in the summer of 1848 at the Conference of Badasht, Tahirih appeared without her veil in a symbolic act, unheard of in her society, that was meant to signal a complete break with the past and an “end” to the world as people knew it.
Tahirih’s revolutionary actions and writings shook the pillars of the established orthodoxy throughout the empire. She spoke to multitudes, wrote lengthy dissertations to religious authorities, and challenged the most powerful Ecclesiastes to public debate. For this she endured violent opposition, house arrests, and exile. After refusing repeated offers of clemency to recant her beliefs, Tahirih was sentenced to death by edict of Shia Ecclesiastes and the Shah and executed at the age of thirty-five.
Tahirih pursued her extraordinarily heroic quest for the emancipation of humanity within a staunchly oppressive patriarchal society and under the harshest of circumstances. Throughout her life, she was fully aware of the inevitability of martyrdom for her pursuits. Two centuries later, we live in a world where the conditions for protagonists of a just and peaceful global order are far more favourable. The old mindsets and institutions are tottering under their own weight in the destructive plane. Patriarchal systems are challenged and delegitimised. Moral courage, empathy, wisdom, and emotional intelligence are in ascendance, and the feminine and masculine aspects of humanity are gradually moving into the balance required for prosperity and peace.
Despite the disintegrative process visible all around us, Tahirih’s clarion call for a new global order built upon independent investigation of the truth, social justice, and oneness of humanity continues to reverberate resoundingly within the constructive collective consciousness and beckons us to act as catalysts in its realisation.