Baba Tahir

(fl. btwn. 10-13th centuries)

Baba Tahir (fl. btwn. 10-13th centuries) He lived in Hamadan in central Iran. He is best known for his poems called du-bayti (a type of quatrain which differs slightly from the standard ruba‘i meter) that he composed in an archaic vernacular dialect of Persian. These quatrains are known for their simplicity of diction, earthy humility, spiritual intensity and sincerity, being filled with the images of Iran’s austere deserts and wind-blown mountains. One of Persia’s first Sufi poets, he gloried in the unconventional dervish’s existence and celebrated his life as a footloose vagabond (qalandar). His vision of God’s presence throughout all manifestations of the natural world is tempered by his lamentations over man’s insignificance in the cosmos and acknowledgement of the inevitable fascination of erotic human love. Since the 1950s his poetry has been set to music by the foremost Persian composers and sung by nearly all the great classical vocalists of Iran.


Baba Tahir, known as ‘Uryan, Persian mystic and poet flourishing in the eleventh century whose poetry, composed in the form of twin couplets, includes poems in a Western Iranian dialect. Mystical aphorisms are also attributed to him. His birth and death dates, living, the manner of receiving his education, and his treading the Sufi path are not precisely and clearly attested in early sources and his Sufi and secluded way of life, and therefore his anonymous life lead to further ambiguity of his character, giving birth to legendary and miraculous anecdotes quoted by his devout followers. Some scholars have acknowledged eleventh century as the approximate time of his birth (later than 1068-1071). Riza Quli Hidayat records his death date as 1036, though this date is not based on any source. ‘Ayn al-Quzzat Hamadani’s Epistles the earliest source in which mention is made of his name as Tahir, without the titles Baba and ‘Uryan. According to the source, ‘Ayn al-Quzzat visited the grave of Tahir or Fatha, a mystic esteemed by ‘Ayn al-Quzzat. However, the earliest historical source in which mention is made of the conversation between the Seljuk Tughril and Baba Tahir is the report included in Rawandi’s Rahat al-Sudur. According to the report, Tughril commanded his army to halt and noted Baba Tahir’s manner of speech and presence of mind by the latter’s recitation of a Qur’anic verse befitting the occasion. The anecdote reflects that Baba enjoyed such prestige in the late first half of the eleventh century that the powerful Seljuk Sultan kissed his hand, fulfilled his request, wept, tolerated the mystic’s censure, and kept Baba’s broken jug handle as a ring and talisman. Therefore, Baba Tahir’s death should have postdated Tughril’s arrival in Hamadan, i.e. 1068-1071. Based on Rawandi’s report, the majority of later scholars have recorded Baba’s death postdating 1068 or 1071. Thus, the anecdote about Baba Tahir’s visiting ‘Ayn al-Quzzat’s dead body and talking to it, Khwaja Nasir al-Din Tusi’s visiting the cave wherein Baba was, and the latter’s solution to the former’s astronomical problem lack historical accuracy, but Baba Tahir might have been a contemporary of Avicenna. Edward Browne regards the conversation between Baba and Avicenna as a possibility. The name of Baba Tahir’s father is recorded by the author of al-Dhari’a, Aqa Buzurg Tihrani, as Fereydun. The Title Baba, indubitably connoting esteem, precedes his name in all earlier and later biographical and historical sources. The title is equal to Pir, Shaykh, and Murshid, as other mystics, e.g. Baba Afzal and Baba Kuhi, bore the same title, reflecting their exalted positions as perfect spiritual guides. It is mentioned in Kashf al-Mahjub that the title Bab, abbreviated form of Baba, was accorded to great Sufis and Shaykhs of Farghana. Further, our poet records his nom de plumes Tahir and Baba Tahir in three ghazals with twin couplet rhyme scheme and a ghazal respectively. He was called Baba in Hamadan as well, but the title ‘Uryan is not attested in any early source and its first attestation is to be found in mid 15th century. Mention is made of him in manuscript miscellany dated 1469, preserved at the Konia Museum, as ‘‘the greatest mystic Baba Tahir of Hamadan may God bestow His Mercy upon him.’’ The title ‘Uryan most probably reflects Baba’s refraining from mundane attachments. Nonetheless, the title has given birth to its literal meaning, i.e. frequenting public places with barefoot and bare head, though his Sufi character and his conduct, which had been contrary to common practice contributed to such interpretations. Baba has been mentioned in some sources with the attributes like mad and wise fool. Baba Tahir is regarded as hailing from Hamadan in the majority of sources and in Persian’s collective memory. However, his being regarded as a Lur, as attested by some sources, undoubtedly arises from the Luri dialect used in some of his poetical pieces. Attribution of his miraculous powers is mainly of a legendary nature leading to the ambiguity of his character. Such legendary anecdotes include one concerning his sudden attainment to intuitive knowledge.

His tomb lies on a hill in North West Hamadan, facing the Alvand summit on the one side and the shrine of a descendant of an Imam, Harith (Hadi) ibn ‘Ali, on the other. Hamd Allah Mustawfi is only second to ‘Ayn al-Quzzat in making mention of Baba. Enumerating the holy shrines of Hamadan, he refers to Baba’s tomb. His earlier tomb had been erected in the 12th century in the form of a hexagonal brick tower, but as it was subject to perdition in early 20th century, its reconstruction was taken into consideration in 1938 though it was left incomplete and it was once again reconstructed in the years 1950-1952. Finally, the present tomb was erected in the years 1967-1970 by the Society for the National Heritage of Iran. Some notables from Hamadan have been also buried in the vicinity of Baba Tahir’s tomb.

Baba Tahir’s renown is mainly indebted to his twin couplets appealing to the elite and the public. The terms twin couplet (dubayti) and tarana have been applied to this genre of poetry in recent centuries, though it was formerly referred to as fahlawi and fahlawiyyat. Based on available evidence, Persians, at least those inhabiting central and western regions, were inclined toward this genre of simple and popular poetry. Some scholars have not accorded due attention to the difference between twin couplets and quatrains in terms of rhythm and theme, but they have termed Baba’s twin couplets as quatrains or have applied both terms to them. It is not clearly know why some twin couplets by other well known and less-known poets have found their way into manuscript and printed collections of Baba Tahir’s poetry. On the other hand, popularity of twin couplets and fahlawi taranas has led to distortions in Baba’s poetry and they have, in time, been subject to Persian literary idiom (Dari Persian) and some scholars have even adapted the fahlawi prosody of some of Baba Tahir’s poems to the standard prosody of twin couplets, i.e. the meter of hazaj-i musaddas-i mahdhuf (or maqsur): mafa’ilun, mafa’ilun, fa’ulun (or mafa’il). Shams Qays’ al-Mu’jam is the earliest of the sources including a twin couplet attributed to Baba Tahir, without having made mention of the poet’s name. The twin couplet in question has been subject to distortion and incorporated in Baba Tahir’s Divan (complete poetical works) edited by Wahid Dastgirdi, serving as an instance of unraveling the distortions made in Baba’s poetry. 

Some contemporary scholars and biographers termed Baba Tahir’s language as Razhi, Raji, or Razi, apparently referring to the older dialect of the people of Rayy. Some also maintain that he wrote his poetry in the Luri language. Rypka regards the dialect used in Baba’s poetry to be ‘regional’ (mahalli) and maintains that his poetry is folkloric and later poets, e.g. ‘Ubayd Zakani, made use of regional dialects in their jocular and satirical works. However, Abrahamian makes mention of the similarity between the dialect used in Baba Tahir’s poetry and that of the Jewry from Hamadan. Natil Khanlari, enumerating some of the differences between the dialect used in Baba Tahir’s poetry and that of Jewry from Hamadan, rejects Abrahamian’s view. Enumerating the views held by some orientalists, Browne quotes Clement Huart’s opinion according to which some Western Iranian dialects are connected to the Avestan language. Huart terms the former as New Median or Muslim Pahlavi, i.e. the Pahlavi used in the Islamic period, and further regards Baba’s poetry to have been composed in one of such dialects. Studies have been made concerning the phonological system reflected in Baba Tahir’s poetry. Huart studied some linguistic and phonological features of the dialectal words employed in his poetry. Adib Tusi and Mihrdad Bahar have also transcribed, analyzed, and translated some of Baba’s poetical pieces.

The earliest extant manuscript (no. 2546) of Baba’s poetry, dated 1469 and preserved in Konia, includes 25 vocalized couplets (two qit’as and eight twin couplets). Eight twin couplets of his are also incorporated in ‘Arafat al-‘Ashiqin. Some of Baba’s twin couplets have been quoted in a number of biographical works compiled in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many manuscripts independently or partially containing his poetry are available with different libraries. Huart first published baba’s poetry in 1885. This edition includes 59 twin couplets, their French translation, and variants below each twin couplet. Huart published 28 more twin couplets and a ghazal by Baba in his 1908 edition. Later, based on the 59 twin couplets included in Huart’s edition and those contained in an earlier manuscript copy in his collection, Heron Allen published his translation of 62 twin couplets by Baba (London 1902). Baba’s poetry appeared in German, Armenian (Abrahamian, Baron Aram Garonne), Urdu (Huzur Ahmad Salim), and other languages by orientalists and translators. Persians have memorized baba’s twin couplets owing to their simple themes, fluency, and freedom from complicated poetical devices. Some Persians sing them accompanied or unaccompanied by musical instruments (Nay, Tar, ‘Ud) and some of the couplets have become proverbial. His poetry is marked by natural motives, e.g. mountain, desert, flowers, and plants, and also delicate feelings, ascetic and unsocial life, nostalgia, sorrow for instability of life, yearning for union with the beloved, complaining about intransience and unfaithfulness, deep affection, keeping one’s word, confession to sins, repentance, mourning remoteness from the beloved, and passions of platonic love. A mystical treatise in Arabic including aphorisms is attributed to Baba. Different manuscripts of the work include 23 chapters and 368 aphorisms and some contain 50 chapters and 421 aphorisms. It has been accorded significance by Sufis for long and Hidayat makes mention of it under the title of Risalat. Commentaries have been written on these aphorisms the earliest of which is ascribed to ‘Ayn al-Quzzat, though evidence indicates that the commentary is not by him. Another commentary, entitled al-Futuhat al-Rabbaniyya fi Mazj al-Isharat al-Hamadaniyya in 1484-1485 by Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Khatib Waziri at the behest of Shaykh Abu ‘l-Baqa’ Ahmadi. It is an in-text commentary in which Baba’s words have intertwined with the commentary and the quotations from mystics and Sufis. Two commentaries have been written on Baba’s aphorisms by Mulla Muhammad Gunabadi, well-known as Sultan ‘Ali Shah (1872-1948): one is a commentary in Persian entitled Tawzih (1947), published in 1954, and the other is in Arabic under the title of Izah (1968). Few manuscript copies of ‘Ayn al-Quzzat’s commentary are available in different libraries. A survey of Baba’s aphorisms and the commentaries written on them reflect that Baba was not a layman, but a quite prominent Sufi guide and a scholar well-versed in matters like exoteric and esoteric knowledge, intelligence and the soul, this world and the hereafter, mystical instructions and spiritual dance, intuition, meditation, asceticism, trust in God, satisfaction with Divine Will, ecstasy, love, poverty, and absorption in God, namely he was perfectly versed in the most detailed principles of jurisprudence, Islamic law, the most delicate questions of philosophy, mysticism, and Sufism. Bertels truly remarks that scholars like Baba Tahir, having proceeded with their advanced studies, joined Sufism. Baba’s tomb is located in the West of the city of Hamadan in a neighborhood known as Bun Bazar, opposite the Shrine of a descendant of Imams, Harith ibn ‘Ali.


Tarikh-i Adabiyyat dar Iran (386-382); Justiju dar Tasawwf (186-192); Da’irat al-Ma’arif-i Farsi (9/357); Rayhanat al-Adab (215-1/214)