Baba Tahir Uryan

The problems concerning the authorship of quatrains supposed to have been written in the eleventh century are particularly relevant to our discussion, because they concern the dating of the very beginning of Persian Sufi poetry. For all we know, the quatrain was the first verse form which the mystics used for the expression of their thoughts and experiences. Unfortunately, to all specimens known from the eleventh century the philological uncertainties just outlined are attached.

If we may trust the single chronological indication about his life, the first Sufi who can be identified individually as a poet would have been Baba Tahir, nicknamed 'Uryan ('the Naked').10 At some time between 1055 and 1058 Sultan Tughril Beg, who had just established the Saljuq House as the new Turkish power in the eastern part of the Abbasid Caliphate, made his entry in the city of Hamadan. Three Sufi saints were standing on a hill near the gate. 'The Sultan's eyes fell upon them; he halted the vanguard of his army, alighted, approached, and kissed their hands.' One of them, who was 'somewhat crazy in his manner' said to Tughril: 'O Turk, what wilt thou do with God's people?.' The pious man who thus dared to remind the new ruler of his duty as the protector of the community of the believers, was Baba Tahir.11

The date of this event conflicts with a dating of Baba Tahir's death in the Muslim year 410 (1019-20) given by the nineteenth century anthologist Riza-Qull Khan Hidayat, which is not supported by any earlier source. There remains, inevitably, a considerable doubt regarding the dating of his life, and no other biographical details are available. On the other hand, the few facts that are known all point to Hamadan as his hometown, or possibly the nearby mountains of Luristan. In that area he was immortalised by the Ahl-i Haqq ('The People of the Truth'), a sect beyond the farthest boundaries of Islamic heterodoxy with a following among the Lurs of the Zagros mountains. In their sacred book Saranjam, Baba Tahir appears as an angel serving the third of the seven manifestations of the Divine who made their appearance in the sacred history of the world according to the mythology of the Ahl-i Haqq.

As a literary figure, Baba Tahir is more tangible because of the works attributed to him. They include a fairly large amount of quatrains and a few ghazals. The former deviate from the standard ruba'Iyat because they are written in one of the variations of the hazaj, which is a common metre in classical poetry. Another particularity pertains to the language of these quatrains which, although written basically in literary Persian, contain many dialect forms. It has been argued that they were originally composed in the Luri dialect and in the course of time

1 o were more and more adapted to the standard language. To distinguish these poems from the regular quatrains they are often referred to as du-baytis. There also exists a collection of 400 Arabic maxims on Sufi themes, entitled al-Kalimat al-qisar ('The brief words'), on which a number of commentaries, both in Arabic and Persian, have been written.

To add to the obscurity surrounding the historical figure of Baba Tahir there are uncertainties with regard to the authenticity of the quatrains. The oldest source which contains a few of these poems dates from the fifteenth century; the other poems can be found only in much later collections. The du-baytis are still very popular in Persia. An album compiled by Vahld Dastgirdl in 1927, which contains 256 quatrains considered to be genuine by the editor, was reprinted many times over.

It is hardly possible to attach historical value to the image of Baba Tahir's personality as it is reflected in these poems, and the same applies to the mystical ideas expressed. The collection has without doubt been added to later, so that mystical concepts and symbols have been inserted which were still strange to a rural saint of the eleventh century.

With these reservations in mind, it should be said that the image we gain from this uncertain source has a number of traits which lend it a remarkable individuality. Baba Tahir appears to us as a dervish, the wandering beggar for the sake of his mystical search:

While I wander through the desert, night and day, Tears are streaming from my eyes, night and day. No fever do I feel, nor pain in any place; I only know that I am crying, night and day.

Occasionally, terms are used which belong to the vocabulary of the qalandars, a phenomenon which appeared only more than a century later in the history of Sufism. It did play a great part in the development of Sufi poetry, but this also was a development

which had not yet begun in the lifetime of Baba Tahir.

I am that drunk whom they call a 'qalandar'; I have no home, no family, no shelter. My days I spend circling your place; At night I put my head upon the tiles.

Baba Tahir presents himself in particular as a desperate lover whose outbursts of passion have a prominent place on his repertoire. His love is often expressed in a quite profane manner but the true intention cannot be mistaken if we take into account the meaning of the corpus as a whole.

Your locks are these two strings on my robab; Why do you keep me in such wretched state? At all times you refuse to be with me; Why are you entering my dreams at night?

Love means above all loneliness and suffering because the object of his yearning remains unattainable.

My Lord, take care of my lonely heart! Friend of the friendless! I am friendless. They say: 'Poor Tahir does not have a friend'. The One I love is God; do I need any friend?

There is a passionate gloom in many of these quatrains, when they speak of the continuing fight against the soul that clings to this world; this struggle can only end in the final destruction of the 'self, the most formidable obstacle on the path towards the Beloved. In one of Baba Tahir's quatrains physical death is welcomed as the delivery of the soul from its bondage to this world:

That great day when the grave shall hold me tight, My head will rest on tiles and mud and stones. The feet turned to the Qiblah, the soul set free, My body will be in a fight with snakes and ants.

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