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Bahá'í Literature

by Denis MacEoin

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 3
New York: Columbia University, 1989
This article is concerned primarily with poetry and belles lettres rather than apologetic, didactic, historiographical, liturgical, or scriptural materials.

Bahai literature is a large body of writing in Persian and Arabic produced by leaders and adherents of the Bahai religion in Iran from the 1860s to the present. This article is concerned primarily with poetry and belles lettres rather than apologetic, didactic, historiographical, liturgical, or scriptural materials, except insofar as the last-mentioned exhibit characteristics of literary interest.

The immediate antecedents of Bahai literature are the various scriptural and apologetic writings produced in the 1260s/1840s by the Bāb and some of his leading followers. Babism was primarily a literate and elitist movement among a section of the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ, but from its outset conventional learning and scholarly writing were, if not wholly rejected, relegated to a status much inferior to that enjoyed by the products of “innate knowledge” and “inspired” composition or “revelation,” in which the speed of writing was regarded as a sign of divine activity. In the later phase of the movement (roughly 1264/1848 to 1283/1866), the ability to write or utter “divinely-inspired” verses became the chief criterion whereby claimants to religious authority might be judged. Several individuals regarded as ommī (in this case unlearned, but not illiterate) began to write in this manner, but apart from works by the Bāb and Mīrzā Yaḥyā Nūrī Ṣobḥ-e Azal, very little of this material has survived. Nevertheless, those writings we do possess, together with letters and fragments by other members of the Babi hierarchy (all of them ʿolamāʾ, like Mollā Moḥammad-ʿAlī Bārforūšī Qoddūs, Qorrat-al-ʿAyn Ṭāhera, Sayyed Yaḥyā Dārābī, and Sayyed Ḥosayn Yazdī share certain important characteristics (see MacEoin, Babi Doctrine and History, chap. 4). There is a tendency toward esotericism, obscurantism, idiosyncrasy in matters of style, grammar, and subject, and the use of extended doxological and invocatory formulae (particularly in elaborate perorations based on the divine names). Free association and stream-of-consciousness-style composition are marked features of some works, e.g., the Bāb’s Ketāb al-asmāʾ and Ketāb-e panj šaʾn or Ṣobḥ-e Azal’s Merʾāt al-bayān, Ṣaḥāʾef al-Azal, Laḥaẓāt, etc.

These characteristics are retained in the later writings of Ṣobḥ-e Azal (which include a great deal of poetry), but otherwise the Azalī branch of Babism has been almost bereft of literary productions of any kind, in spite of the existence of Azalī litterateurs such as Mīrzā Āqā Khan Kermānī, Shaikh Aḥmad Rūḥī Kermānī, and Mīrzā Yaḥyā Dawlatābādī. Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Nūrī Bahāʾ-Allāh, whose Bahai version of the original Babi movement rapidly ousted its Azalī rival throughout Iran, first came to prominence as one of the unlearned revealers of inspired verses in Baghdad during the 1850s and then as the de facto head of the faith in the 1860s. His early writings represent a significant departure from most previous Babi writing (except for the poetical works of Qorrat-al-ʿAyn, with whom he was associated) in that they are, for the most part, couched in straightforward prose or verse. Although he was later to take a marked aversion to such matters, Bahāʾ-Allāh was at this period markedly influenced by Sufi writing and even spent a two-year period (1270-72/1854-56) living as a dervish in Kurdistan (see Cole, “Baha'u’llah and the Naqshbandi Sufis”). Sufi influences are particularly at work in a small number of poems composed in Baghdad, Kurdistan, and Istanbul, several of which bear the pen name (taḵalloṣ) “Darvīš.” The most important of these are: 1) a Persian ḡazal entitled Rašḥ-e ʿamā, generally considered his earliest extant work; 2) an Arabic qaṣīda of 127 distichs (bayts) entitled al-Qaṣīdaal-warqāʾīa, modeled on ʿOmar ebn al-Fāreż’s famous Naẓm al-solūk; 3) a Persian maṯnawī of 318 bayts entitled Maṯnawī-e mobārak, written in Istanbul and probably the last of Bahāʾ-Allāh’s works in verse. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of these poems, which are written in an elegant yet uncomplicated style and possess considerable freshness, is the complete absence of identifiably Babi elements.

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