“Mysticism” in Iran, 17-21c.


A review of Safavid Shiʿism, the Eclipse of Sufism and the Emergence of ʿIrfān, by Ata Anzali.

Sufism, as everyone knows, is simply an Islamic subset of the overarching analytical category of mysticism. But what is such a definition but a bald act of domestication, an attempt to manage the unmanageable Other? Perhaps mysticism as a category is simply too strait for use, and sufism too messy and ebullient to be squeezed into an imperialist cage.

Indeed, it can be argued that the importance of sufism in the development of Islamicate civilization significantly outstrips that of any other mystical tradition vis-à-vis its parent religion, being comparable in historical significance to the shattering of Latin Christendom (Bulliet). The reasons for this are partly to be sought in the DNA of Islam itself and partly in historical accident. Specifically, the Mongol conquest of western Asia in the 13th century destroyed the tottering institution of the caliphate and crippled the prevailing jurisprudential pattern of Islamicate society; into the vacuum thus created rushed the mystical and messianic energies that had been more or less latent in the jurisprudential pattern since the consolidation of the Abbasid imperium, and sufism—a well-defined religious current from the 10th century onward—vaulted to hegemonic status as the primary form of both popular and elite piety even in regions the Mongols had not touched (Mir-Kasimov). On the one hand, sufi orders (sg. ṭarīqa) exploded into existence and proliferated rapidly over vast areas; on the other, sufi theory, particularly that of the unaffiliated Andalusian mystic Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240), achieved such intellectual currency that even the most sober thinkers of later centuries vied to appropriate it for their philosophical systems in the quest for epistemological universalism. That is to say, from the 13th century onward many forms of Islamicate philosophy, and certainly the most successful ones, are in fact mystico-philosophical amalgams. This increasingly seamless synthesis between sufi theory and peripatetic and illuminationist philosophy, essayed by Sunni and Shiʿi thinkers alike, is typically held to culminate in the works of Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. ca. 1636), greatest exponent of the so-called school of Isfahan, whose system dominated the philosophical scene in Iran to the modern period. Most significantly, the hegemonic status of sufi theory throughout the early modern period meant that no Enlightenment-style amputation of intuition could occur; pure reason, that narrow faculty, was deemed incapable of accessing metaphysical realities on its own, though of great utility in processing prophetically- or mystically-revealed data into a coherent system.

With the consolidation of Turko-Mongol Perso-Islamic culture throughout West, Central and South Asia, this in the form of the Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal and Uzbek states, the jurisprudential pattern was reinstituted in the 17th century: imperial dynasts were increasingly attracted to the stability the old pattern offered and now threatened by the more unmanageable mystical-messianic pattern that had brought their empires into being a century before. The Safavid state in Iran (1501-1722) offers the most extreme example of this about-face. A dynasty that swept to power precisely as militant, messianic sufis, the Safavids were all too aware of the devastating effectiveness of that particular combination; later Safavid shahs therefore sought to undercut the sufi threat by transforming Iran into a bastion of Shiʿi orthodoxy, mediated by an emerging hierocracy of Twelver ulama. The Shiʿi hadith industry, tasked with providing a comprehensive basis for an exclusively Twelver society, boomed. At the same time, organized sufism fell under elite and popular suspicion, notwithstanding its deep roots in Iran (indeed, the khanaqah or sufi lodge was born in Khurasan). The state’s commitment to Shiʿi-Sunni polarization also meant that sufism’s overtly Sunni origins became a serious liability to practicing sufis and the mystically-minded. Some orders, such as the Niʿmatullāhiyya, decamped for the greener pastures of India; others, such as the Kubraviyya (with its main branches, the Nūrbakhshiyya and Barzishābādiyya/Ẕahabiyya), remained in Iran and adapted to the new Twelver context.

This decline in the social prestige of sufism, however, did not lead to a corresponding obsolescence of sufi theory, by this point inextricable from philosophy; but it did impel mystical philosophers and mystically-minded ulama to carefully distance themselves from its organized forms. This they did by transposing sufism onto a Shiʿi foundation, systematically replacing the sayings of Sunni sufi masters with hadiths of the Imams. (Indeed, this intense focus on Shiʿi hadith by the mystically-minded led to the association of sufi theory with the burgeoning Akhbari camp; mystical philosophers like Mullā Ṣadrā and his students wrote voluminous commentaries on Kulaynī’s al-Kāfī and the other major Shiʿi hadith compendiums as a matter of principle.) Crucially, they also began to replace terms like sufi and sufism with the more innocuous and less specific ʿārif and ʿirfān, such that the latter became definitive by the early 18th century. This deceptively simple terminological shift has gone unremarked until now; the generic term ʿirfān is habitually projected backward onto theoretical sufism as a whole with little regard for the specific intellectual and sociopolitical conditions of its emergence in Iran during the 17th and 18th centuries. By ignoring this context, we run the risk of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of religiosity and spirituality in early modern and modern Iran.

So argues Ata Anzali in his dissertation, “Safavid Shiʿism, the Eclipse of Sufism and the Emergence of ʿIrfān,” which successfully retrieves this 17th-18th-century context. In doing so, it opens a key aspect of the still poorly understood early modern period to scholarly purview. (This study, not surprisingly, won last year’s prize for best dissertation in Iranian Studies from the Foundation for Iranian Studies.) Given the importance of Anzali’s work for our understanding of the intellectual, religious and sociopolitical history of early modern Iran, I will be unusually detailed in my summary of his findings as an aid to specialists and nonspecialists alike.

In the preface, Anzali surveys the uses and abuses of the term ʿirfān in modern-day Iran. The mainstream contemporary debate is largely between puritanical understandings of Shiʿism on the one hand, which regard sufism and philosophy as accretions to be rejected, and mystico-philosophical understandings on the other, which claim the category of ʿirfān as an essential component of the legacy of the Imams. (Sufism, taṣavvuf, remains a pejorative term for both camps.) This argument has escalated in the last decade due to various sociocultural developments set in motion by the Islamic Revolution. Most notably, ʿirfān figures as a major part of the new religiosity developed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his students, who despite considerable opposition succeeded in naturalizing both philosophy and ʿirfān as components of the official seminary curriculum. This did not defuse the widespread hostility to institutionalized sufism, particularly as represented by the Zahabi and Niʿmatullahi orders, but Khomeini’s investment in the high sufi tradition protected them from outright persecution. The period of liberalization after the end of the Iraq war also saw the rise among the Iranian middle class of syncretistic, grab-bag, New Age spiritualities, which mix traditional sufi and occultist elements with Western imports (see an account of Alireza Doostdar’s dissertation on this phenomenon here). Significantly, such movements are also termed ʿirfānī in contemporary Persian discourse. This outlook similarly posits a firm divide between institutional forms of sufism, often viewed as corrupt and superstitious, and ʿirfān as a modern and pluralistic discourse of spirituality (maʿnaviyyat).

Both ʿirfānī strands have caused the ideologues of the revolution much anxiety, particularly under Ayatollah Khamenei, resulting in intolerance toward and persecution of “fake” ʿirfāns, sufi and New Age alike. In protest, Niʿmatullahis, one of whose most important khanaqahs in Qom was razed in 2006, have argued (unsuccessfully) for the synonymity of the terms sufism and ʿirfān. Anzali thus declares his overriding purpose to be to “identify the cultural trajectories and intellectual trends that contributed to the formation of this dichotomy,” particularly as exploited as “an effective discursive tool both by secular and religious authorities to legitimize the persecution of Sufis” (p. 10).

Chapter one, “The Big Picture,” outlines “the historical and intellectual contexts in which the category of ʿirfān emerged and was developed” (p. 10). As Anzali describes it, the terms maʿrifa (‘knowledge,’ ‘gnosis’) and ʿārif (‘knower,’ ‘gnostic’) emerged as distinct terms around the middle of the 9th century, marking the transition from pietistic asceticism (zuhd) to a new spiritual vision “primarily concerned with the cultivation of the inner life” (p. 15). This “inward turn” led to the emergence of sufism as a cohesive movement from the 10th century onward, animated more by the ideals of love and self-transcendence than by the self-obsession of asceticism. During this period maʿrifa came to represent the object of the sufi path. This category reached its culmination in the thought of Ibn ʿArabī, Doctor Maximus (al-shaykh al-akbar), the most important theoretician of high sufism and inspiration to a long line of mystically-minded intellectuals. Despite his heavy usage of the term pair maʿrifa-ʿārif, however, the cognate term ʿirfān remained somewhat marginal in sufi writings well into the early modern period.

The elitest tenor of the terms maʿrifa and ʿirfān made them similarly attractive to philosophers—even the strict peripatetic Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) devoted a chapter of his seminal al-Ishārāt wa-l-Tanbīhāt (known as the ‘Quran of the philosophers’ (muṣḥaf al-falāsifa)) to the ‘stations of the gnostics’ (maqāmāt al-ʿārifīn). Despite assumptions by later commentators that this section of the work represents a notable contribution to sufi discourse, however, it is clear that Ibn Sīnā meant it as a challenge to this discourse. For him, an ʿārif is an advanced philosopher whose rational soul has attained to the Acquired Intellect (ʿaql-i mustafād). In his Ḥayy b. Yaqẓān, moreover, Ibn Sīnā redefines the concept of pīr (aka shaykh, murshid, ustād, quṭb), or spiritual guru, in philosophical terms: it is the Active Intellect in its capacity as psychopomp guiding the soul’s return to its First Principle. Thenceforward, an author’s interpretation of this category would serve as “an important barometer of how closely he associates with traditional institutionalized forms of Sufism” (p. 27). With philosophers increasingly penning treatises with sufiesque themes, sufis rose to the challenge and responded in kind. Somewhat equivocally, Ghazālī (d. 1111) holds in his Mīzān al-ʿAmal that training in the rational sciences is a prerequisite for embarking on the sufi path, while in his spiritual autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-Ḍalāl, he rejects philosophy and dialectical theology (kalām) as viable paths to felicity, and champions sufism in their place. Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 1274), in contrast to Ibn Sīnā, appears to have thought of sufism as complementing his philosophical system, and more accessible to the common Muslim than the latter; this view is evident in his Awṣāf al-Ashrāf, a treatise on sufi ethics. This shift from challenge to concilation has much to do with the meteoric rise of institutionalized sufism in the later 12th and 13th centuries; by 1500 sufism had become a hegemonic presence throughout the Muslim world.

As suggested above, a fundamental change took place in the Iranian religiopolitical landscape between the 14th-17th centuries, which saw the transformation of the Ṣafaviyya from sufi order to military force to ruling dynasty. In their ascendancy, however, the Safavids found the revolutionary energy and spiritual syncretism of the Qizilbash upon which they had initially depended to be a liability during the state-building phase, which required a new, more manageable religious orthodoxy. Shah Ismāʿīl (r. 1501-24) thus chose Twelver Shiʿism as his state religion for the promotion and maintenance of social cohesion and in order to differentiate Iran from the Sunni Ottoman Empire; Shiʿi ulama began to be imported to this end. The Safavid state underwent many of its dramatic structural and ideological transformations under Shah ʿAbbās the Great (r. 1587-1629), during whose reign “complex ideology, sophisticated culture, and religious zeal, rather than raw military power, provided cohesion” (p. 54). The marginalization of the Qizilbash was offset by the ascendancy of the bureaucrat class and the imported ulama class, gatekeepers of Twelver orthodoxy. However, the latter did not consolidate their power until the second half of the 17th century, and were largely divided among themselves up to that point. The position of the ulama was only strengthened, moreover, with the eventual conversion of a critical mass of the populace to Shiʿism. As Anzali notes, “The one hundred years from 1620 to the abrupt end of the Safavid Empire in 1722 can be seen … as a century in which we witness the evolution of the ʿulama from a heterogeneous, and in some cases syncretistic, group in which prominent figures like Shaykh Bahāʾī and Majlisī Sr. depended more on their Sufi-inspired personal charisma than on institutional power, to a tightly-controlled, highly hierarchical and institutionalized social class” (p. 56)—a clerical hierocracy, in short. This transformation was accomplished primarily through religious education, which entailed the building and endowing of a network of madrasas in major urban centers.

The irony of the Safavid case thus lies in the fact that they presided over the demise of organized sufism in Iran precisely in their capacity as a former sufi order who could brook no competitors. As such, historians have usually assumed that the Safavids actively extirpated the sufi orders according to a policy of a systematic persecution, but while plausible and convenient as an explanation this “top-down conversion model tells us more about the problematic assumptions of its advocates rather than a close reading of the contemporaneous historical evidence” (p. 45). A better explanation is a bottom-up one, whereby the entrenchment of a Shiʿi orthodoxy among Iran’s masses through state policy led to social tensions and a decline in prestige that often prompted practicing sufis to simply move to the peripheries of the Safavid state or into neighboring Ottoman, Uzbek or Mughal territories. The Naqshbandis in particular faced particular hostility and occasional state repression due to their emphasis on their Sunni roots; but even they remained in Iran throughout the 16th century. This braindrain within Iranian sufism meant that it was increasingly represented by qalandars, populist preachers and out-and-out charlatans, who made an easy target for the emerging class of Shiʿi ulama; they were thus able to paint their conflict with the sufis “as a war between knowledge and superstition, discipline and laxity, and observance and antinomianism” (p. 47). Other orders had already been in decline before the advent of Safavid rule, including the Niʿmatullāhiyya, who by the 16th century had devolved into an “aristrocratic familial entity” focused on intermarrying with the Safavid ruling elite (p. 48). Still other orders like the Kubraviyya were happy to adopt many of the elements of Shiʿi orthodoxy and de-emphasize specifically sufi terminology and practices. The Kubravi Nūrbakhshiyya branch was the most prominent sufi order in Iran from the 16th to the mid-17th century, but its rival branch, the more flexible Barzishābādiyya/Ẕahabiyya, was to play “the most significant role in the the Shiʿi-Sufi synthesis and the eventual emergence of ʿirfān as a distinct category in the latter half of the seventeenth century,” as they were “more willing than any other Sufi order to adopt Safavid-approved Twelver religious belief and practice” (p. 49). The rest of the dissertation therefore deals with the story of the Zahabis in detail, which is often also the story of the Nurbakhshis.

In chapter two, “The Making of the Anti-Sufi Front,” Anzali analyzes the formation and development of a strong anti-sufi front in Iran in the second half of the 17th century, particularly among religious scholars in Isfahan. The stigmatization and marginalization of sufism was accomplished by emphasizing “its Sunni roots and the antinomian behavior of some Sufis and dervishes” (p. 71). He first turns to the surge in refutations (sg. radd) of sufism. There is no evidence to suggest the production of anti-sufi rudūd in Iran in the 16th century, although there was a measure of political will to suppress politically active sufis like anarchic Nuqtavis or disenchanted Qizilbash. With the demise of the old religious and political structures of power and “the rise of new ones based on clerical authority” (p. 74), however, an organized and sustained attack against sufism became possible from roughly the 1640s onward. This attack reached its pitch between 1651-1666, but anti-sufism sentiment became even more widespread (if also more diffuse) thereafter; Mīr Lawḥī (d. after 1671), a popular puritanical preacher, fanned its flames.

Making common cause with puritanical jurists, elite philosophers in Isfahan such as Mīr Dāmād (d. 1631) and Mīr Findiriskī (d. 1640) were equally contemptuous of institutionalized and popular sufism—this while some of their number, Mullā Ṣadrā most famously, sought to synthesize sufi theory and illuminationist-peripatetic philosophy (this project being a western Iranian speciality since the 14th century). Yet this did not prevent the latter from writing, in 1618, an important polemical work against sufism, Kasr Aṣnām al-Jāhiliyya (‘Smashing the Idols of Ignorance’), which depicts sufis as lazy and ignorant fraudsters and their shaykhs as “tail-less and earless donkeys” (p. 91) while endeavoring to retain the category of “real sufis” as represented by Ibn ʿArabī in particular.

Anzali proposes that it was precisely Mullā Ṣadrā’s endeavor to synthesize sufi theory and philosophy that set up philosophy too for puritan critique in the second half of the 17th century. Thus it was that the battle against heterodoxy, first launched against Nuqtavis and storytellers and then sufis more broadly, also added philosophy as a favorite target. This last trend began with Muḥammad Ṭāhir Qumī’s (d. after 1686) Ḥikmat al-ʿĀrifīn, a highly technical Arabic work attacking Mullā Ṣadrā and Ibn ʿArabī. Qumī’s choice of title is here highly significant, and represents a first push to reclaim the term ʿirfān from sufism for the cause of Twelver Shiʿism, with Imam replacing God as object of maʿrifa. This work served as a model for subsequent anti-philosophy works, written in Persian for the benefit of a wider, non-elite audience, which began to be produced from around 1669 onward. The anti-philosophy battle proved an uphill one, however, in that philosophy, unlike khanaqah-based sufism, was an integral part of madrasa curricula, and madrasa stipends were still closely tied to expertise in the subject. Even philosophically incompetent jurists (like Muḥammad Bāqir Khātūnābādī (d. 1715), the most prominent jurist at the end of the Safavid period) would try, unconvincingly, to pass themselves off as teachers of philosophy.

Here Anzali provides an important corrective to the common romantic portrayal of philosophy, along with sufism, as victim of bigoted literalist jurists during the Safavid period. All rhetoric aside, philosophers remained influential at court through the early decades of the 18th century. The primary shift was in public opinion, and even that was hardly universal; Shiraz in particular seems to have remained a hotspot for the study of the rational and mystical sciences. Two themes thus emerge: the study of hadith became a universal occupation of the scholarly elite, including in philosophically- and mystically-minded circles of learning; and philosophy, in spite of some high-profile opposition, continued to be studied as a matter of course. Only the catastrophic fall of Isfahan in 1722 served to put a damper on the study of philosophy in Iran.

In chapter three, “The Sufi Response,” Anzali analyzes sufi reactions to the building anti-sufi atmosphere, with a focus on the Ẕahabiyya and Nūrbakhshiyya suborders, in the context of the increasing dominance of “orthodox” Twelver Shiʿism in Iran. The ostensibly heretical nature of some sufis’ teachings aside, sufism’s Sunni past presented a major problem, and made it both a sitting duck and a trojan horse for its enemies among the Twelver ulama. Despite the fact that the major sufi orders remaining in Iran had become fully Shiʿi by the mid-17th century, sufis were still regarded as disguised Sunnis espousing a “tainted and distorted version of Shiʿism” (p. 129). For sufism to survive in Safavid society, then, its Sunni origins had to be explained away. The first and most influential revisionist attempt was made around the turn of the century by the Nurbakhshi sufi Nūr Allāh Shūshtarī (d. 1610), whose Majālis al-Muʾminīn presented past sufis as but dissimulating Shiʿis fearful of persecution, categorically denying any Sunni affiliation on the part of major sufi figures such as Rūmī, Ibn ʿArabī, ʿAṭṭār, Najm al-Dīn Kubrā, etc. This revisionist project eventually achieved its aim; by the early Qajar period sufism and Sunnism were widely considered to be incompatible categories.

In order to get at the mechanics of this impressive transformation, Anzali takes as a case study the history of the Zahabi sufi order, which is often inseparable from that of the Nūrbakhshiyya. Even in the second half of the 17th century and the early decades of the 18th, the Nūrbakhshiyya were still the only major sufi order known to both proponents and opponents of sufism in Safavid Iran, a fact often overlooked in scholarship on the period. The decline of the Nurbakhshis in Iran during the 18th century was offset by the rise of the Ẕahabiyya, however, who then sought to appropriate Nurbakhshi claims to legitimacy and authority by “rewriting Nūrbakhshī history as their own” (p. 134).

The increasingly pressing need for sufi orders in Safavid Iran to transition from a Sunni to a Shiʿi discourse of legitimacy produced a crisis of identity; sufis responded with innovate attempts to legitimize their tradition on the basis of a new canon—the four early Shiʿi hadith compendiums, together with other, nonstandard compilations as need arose. The old markers of identity and narratives of sacred history were partially or completely effaced, and new ones invented in their place. As Anzali notes, “Most of these new markers connected Sufi discourse to the Sufi elements of Safavid sacred history … or to the sources of Twelver tradition that lent themselves to being used as evidence of the authentically Twelver nature of Sufi discourse” (p. 139).

This process coincided with increased pressure on sufis generated by the anti-sufi front, particularly after the deaths of the openly pro-sufi Shah ʿAbbās II (r. 1642-66) and various scholar allies. As a result, prominent scholars such as Mullā Ṣadrā and Fayż Kāshānī (d. 1680) distanced themselves from sufism, and by 1687 three of the harshest critics of sufism, Muḥammad Ṭāhir Qumī, Ḥurr ʿĀmilī (d. 1693) and Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī (d. 1699) had attained to the supreme office of shaykh al-islām in Qom, Mashhad and Isfahan respectively, a decisive victory for the anti-sufi campaign. But even here a distinction must be drawn between organized sufism and mystical propensities; in his efforts to recover the forgotten legacy of the Imams, no less a figure than Majlisī Jr., often portrayed as a bigoted fanatic, assimilated many elements of sufi thought. Economic hardship also contributed to the decline of the sufi orders in Iran, and the Zahabis too fell on hard times before experiencing a revival under the leadership of Sayyid Quṭb al-Dīn Muḥammad Nayrīzī (d. 1760), thirty-second quṭb of the order, a hadith scholar far more attached to madrasa than to khanaqah who refused to be be called a sufi.

How could popular opinion have turned so decisively against sufis over the course of less than a century, this despite a heavy reliance up to that point on the rich symbolism of sufism for making sense of the cosmos, and transfered its attachment so wholly to Twelver ulama? This remarkable transposition was accomplished not by puritanical clerics, elitist philosophers or Usuli jurists, but rather through the offices of extremely popular, hybrid, syncretizing figures like Shaykh Bahāʾī, Majlisī Sr., Majlisī Jr. and Fayż Kāshānī. These high-ranking ulama effectively redirected religious attention from charismatic sufi shaykhs to the Imams as sources of worldly and spiritual succor; to this end they marshaled newly recovered Shiʿi traditions for the support of popular religiosity, which continued to run the gamut from talismanic magic to shrine visitation. In this project they depended on their populist allies, encomiasts (sg. maddāḥ) of the Imams, whose services had already helped to blur the lines between Shiʿism and Sunnism throughout the Islamicate world during the 13th-16th centuries (this giving rise to the phenomenon termed Alid loyalism by Marshall Hodgson and Twelver Sunnism by Rasūl Jaʿfariyān—i.e., tavallā minus the Safavids’ insistence on tabarrā).

Chapter four, “The Invention and Spread of ʿIrfān,” expands on the foregoing with a discussion of “the intellectual, social, and religious forces that contributed to the formation of a new discourse on spirituality centered on the emerging categories of ʿārif and ʿirfān,” and an examination of the major Shirazi thinkers “responsible for the formation and spread of this alternative discourse” (pp. 10-11). That is to say, here Anzali shifts the focus of his discussion from the imperial and intellectual center of Isfahan to Shiraz, the city where the new category of ʿirfān was conceived. Shiraz, known for centuries as a vibrant, cosmopolitan center of philosophical, mystical and occultist thought with close connections to India, was “a more tolerant environment that was hospitable to forms of belief and practice that would have been marked, contested, and persecuted as ‘deviant’ or ‘heretical’ in other, more conservative urban centers like Isfahan, Qom, and Mashhad” (p. 182). Along with a healthy sufi and Nuqtavi population, Shiraz had been home to the most prominent philosophers of the Islamicate world in the later 15th and 16th centuries, including Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī (d. 1502), Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī (d. 1497), Najm al-Dīn Maḥmūd Nayrīzī (d. 1526), Ghiyās al-Dīn Manṣūr Dashtakī (d. 1541) and Shams al-Dīn Khafrī (d. 1550), who formed the so-called school of Shiraz. A number of the members of the so-called school of Isfahan, including in the first place Mullā Ṣadrā, were Shirazis as well. As home to figures like Khafrī’s son Maḥmūd Dihdār ʿIyānī (fl. 1569), moreover, the city was also the most important center of occultist thought in Iran during the same period.

As noted, Mullā Ṣadrā’s comprehensive synthesis of sufi theory and peripatetic-illuminationist philosophy within a traditionalist Imami framework was a primary midwife for this new category of ʿirfān and came to serve, retrospectively, as its main point of reference. Significantly, the Shirazi philosopher equates the sufi category of ʿārif with that of ḥakīm mutaʾallih, or the ideal, theosized sage addressed by his system; but his usage of the term ʿirfān is infrequent and unsystematic. His students increasingly emphasized this category, but again not systematically. ʿAbd al-Razzāq Lāhījī (d. 1661), for instance, draws an equivalency between the terms uṣūl al-dīn, ḥikmat-i ilāhī and maʿrifat—not ʿirfān (p. 189). Fayż Kāshānī likewise pairs ḥikma and maʿrifa, while designating his teacher ṣadr-i ahl-i ʿirfān, ‘chief of the gnostics’ (p. 190).

Sufis and mystically-inclined religious scholars also played a key role in this development. This faction is exemplified by Sayyid Quṭb al-Dīn Muḥammad Nayrīzī, renewer (mujaddid) of the Zahabi order, whose most influential work, Faṣl al-Khiṭāb (aka Ḥikmat al-ʿĀrifīn), similarly advances a passionately Shiʿi brand of scholarly sufism heavily influenced by the hadith movement of the late Safavid period. Most notably, Nayrīzī draws a sharp distinction between falsafa and ḥikma, the former deriving from the Greeks and the latter deriving from the fountainhead of prophecy; the two categories are also differentiated as al-ḥikma al-falsafiyya/al-yūnāniyya (discursive or Greek philosophy) and al-ḥikma al-ʿalawiyya/al-aḥmadiyya/al-nabawiyya (Alid/Muhammadan/prophetic philosophy). His fulminations against discursive philosophy are largely rhetorical, however; as with Ḥaydar Āmulī (d. after 1385) or Mullā Ṣadrā, Nayrīzī’s critique is best understood not as a wholesale dismantling of philosophical discourse but as an insider attempt to reform it by bringing it into accordance with both Twelver doctrine and sufi theory. Indeed, his rhetorical distinction between secular or Greek and prophetic or Alid philosophical discourses goes back to Mīr Dāmād, who designated them yūnānī (Greek) and yamānī (Yemeni) respectively. Moreover, Nayrīzī claims both Mullā Ṣadrā and Fayż Kāshānī as confederates. In the Faṣl, Nayrīzī also sets up a group he calls ahl al-faqr (‘folk of poverty’), or ʿārifs, in opposition to a “triangle of evil”—philosophers, puritanical pseudo-scholars and sufis (p. 204). His notable distinction between ʿārif and ṣūfī and vehement refusal to be called the latter—this while asserting his guardianship of the Zahabi sufi order—indicates that the term sufi had become irretrievably stigmatized by the end of the Safavid period.

Nayrīzī’s most important teacher, Shāh Muḥammad Dārābī (d. ca. 1717), a long-lived Shirazi scholar who sought patronage in India, taught sufi theory together with hadith and philosophy; yet he refused not only to be called a sufi but to associate with any sufi order. Dārābī’s significance here lies in the fact that his appears to be the first attempt to systematically replace terms like sufi and sufism with ʿārif and ʿirfān, this in order to relieve the mystical tradition of the burden of its terminally negative contemporary reception. Most notably, he proposes ʿirfān as an authentic Shiʿi term for spirituality, divorced from the inherently Sunni background of taṣavvuf: by definition, an ʿārif cannot be a Sunni. Such a move exemplifies Dārābī’s larger strategy of reinterpreting technical sufi concepts in a manner that significantly weakens their connection to traditional sufism in favor of orthodox Shiʿism. This strategy, moreover, was pursued within a mainstream Avicennan and Tusian framework, not a Sadrian one; that is to say, Dārābī’s concept of ʿirfān is directly indebted to Ibn Sīnā’s treatment of the same in the Ishārāt as expounded upon by Ṭūsī and Ghiyās al-Dīn Dashtakī. Yet unlike these philosophers, Dārābī reincorporates the sufi tradition to establish a distinctively Safavid Shiʿi mystical discourse centered on the term ʿirfān. Dārābī’s status as an accomplished Shirazi poet in the line of Ḥāfiẓ—the former’s pen name, naturally, was ʿārif—is equally significant for understanding his larger project. Dārābī’s Laṭīfa-yi Ghaybī, a highly popular commentary on a selection of Ḥāfiẓ’s ghazals, was especially effective in propagating his new notion of ʿirfān; there Dārābī defends the Tongue of the Unseen against charges of Sunnism and recruits him as an key ally in the struggle to redefine sufism.

With the sudden collapse of the Safavid Empire in 1722, many ulama relocated to the Ottoman-controlled shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf. Their number included mystically-inclined scholars like ʿAbd al-Raḥīm Damāvandī (d. after 1747), in the first place a hadith specialist with a possible Nurbakhshi or Zahabi affiliation, who frequently cites Ibn ʿArabī and his students together with Mullā Ṣadrā, Fayż Kāshānī and Dārābī. Like Dārābī and Nayrīzī, he consistently replaces the terms sufi and sufism with ʿārif and ʿirfān.

But ʿirfān only became the official term for a distinct discipline (fann) with Mullā Mahdī Narāqī (d. 1794), a member of the saintly akhlāqiyyūn or moralist party, which operated within the framework of the established Twelver hierocracy while quietly espousing mystical and occultist views. Another member of this group, Āghā Muḥammad Bīdābādī (d. 1782), was student to Nayrīzī and teacher to the great Qajar-era reviver of Sadrian philosophy, Mullā ʿAlī Nūrī (d. 1830). Both Narāqī and Bīdābādī can be characterized as Akhbari scholars with a private penchant for the system of Mullā Ṣadrā.

Thus the genre of mystico-philosophical writing that emerged from the reconceptualization of sufi doctrine within the new paradigm of Twelver religiosity achieved in the 17th century gradually assumed a distinct identity that came to be designated ʿirfān in the 18th. As Anzali summarizes (p. 250):

This newly consolidated use of ʿirfān became the semantic locus of a decontextualized, privatized, elitist, and somewhat pluralistic version of Sufi discourse; decontextualized because its connections to previous Sufi discourse were de-emphasized or intentionally severed; privatized, because it existed in the absence of the strong social networks that existed around Sufism with the khānaqāh at their center; elitist, because the complex mystical philosophy at the heart of ʿirfān was only accessible those trained for years in Islamic philosophy and Ibn ʿArabī’s speculative mysticism; and pluralistic due to having been significantly influenced by Hafez’s pluralism and cosmopolitan thought. Although the latter characteristic was neglected by religious scholars deeply committed to an exclusively Twelver framework of thought, it was taken up in the early decades of the twentieth century by modern minded intellectuals of Iran, who sought a universal and pluralistic concept to describe their spiritual perspective and experience.

In the epilogue, “Modern Developments in ʿIrfān,” Anzali briefly discusses “how these developments connect to transformations initiated by the forces of modernity in late nineteenth and twentieth century Iran” (p. 11). He first invokes ʿAbbās Kayvān Qazvīnī (d. 1938), a famous Tehrani preacher and mid-ranking mulla, who recruited the category of ʿirfān in a bid to incorporate modernist ideals within a Shiʿi framework. Most notably, Qazvīnī espoused a universalistic vision wherein “real sufis” may be found in any religious tradition; members of the Theosophical Society, for example, can be said to adhere to a type of “universal ʿirfān” as an individualistic and pluralistic form of spirituality welcoming of rational, including modern scientific, thought (p. 269). Jalāl al-Dīn Humāʾī (d. 1980), the respected professor of Persian literature and sufism, adopted this vision wholesale, proposing ʿirfān as an overarching category compatible with science and technology and not tied to any religion or sect, with taṣavvuf as but a subset thereof; thus one can easily be an ʿārif without being a sufi. In the 1970s or early 1980s this definition was enshrined in the seminal Dihkhudā dictionary, making ʿirfān roughly equivalent to the (equally problematic and contested) English term mysticism.

Remarkably, then, it was precisely the centuries-long process whereby ʿirfān was polemically and apologetically separated out from taṣavvuf by sufis, philosophers and ulama that rendered the term attractive to modern Iranian scholars seeking to “identify cultural elements responsible for the ‘backwardness’ of their country in contrast to the progressiveness of Western civilization” and to rid the core of the prophetic message from its many time-bound accretions (p. 273). That is to say, the concept of mysticism as distinct from sufism was not forcibly transplanted into Iranian culture by “westoxified” puppets of European imperialism on the one hand or reactionary fundamentalists on the other, but was rather an “authentic,” mature category developed in response to Safavid imperialist pressures and ripe for appropriation by modern Iranian intellectuals.

Here Anzali offers, by way of conclusion, a brief but crucial methodological observation: While scholars of religion now decry the domesticating force of Western imperialist and/or scholarly will as being responsible for the categorical downgrading of mysticism from socioreligious institution to purely personal quest—thereby rendering it decontextualized, privatized, elitist and pluralistic—, case studies such as the present one demonstrate that this exclusive assignment of blame is far from being warranted. More damningly, to deconstructively uphold this view is precisely to succumb to the same binary thinking that such a maneuver is meant to avoid. Where ʿirfān is concerned, there can be no question of Iranian intellectuals’ mere “resistance” or “adaptation” to the forces of modernity; Safavid culture was possessed of sufficient agency—was sufficiently imperialist—to impose its own constructed categories and objectify its own Others in a way that remains salient to the present: “comparison has long been an imperial enterprise” (p. 277).

This landmark study, in sum, represents an important contribution to the study of Safavid-era Persianate sufism and philosophy and provides a new window onto the formation of a hierocratic Imami Shiʿi society in Iran, particularly with respect to the mechanics of Sunni-Shiʿi polarization. By mapping in exhaustive detail the emergence of ʿirfān discourse in Iran, moreover, it reconnects contemporary religiosities in the Islamic Republic as advanced by Imam Khomeini and his circle on the one hand and middle-class New Age enthusiasts on the other to their originary 17th-18th-century context. The revised version, forthcoming from the University of South Carolina Press under the (tentative) title Mysticism in Iran: The Safavid Roots of a Modern Concept, will be of great interest and utility not only to Safavid specialists but to intellectual, religious and cultural historians of the early modern period more broadly.

Matthew Melvin-Koushki
Department of History
University of South Carolina/
Department of Near Eastern Studies
Princeton University

Primary Sources

Muḥammad Dārābī, Miʿrāj al-Kamāl and Laṭīfa-yi Ghaybī
Muḥammad ʿAlī Mashhadī Sabzavārī, Tuḥfa-yi ʿAbbāsī
Muḥammad Ṭāhir Qumī, Ḥikmat al-ʿĀrifīn
Quṭb al-Dīn Muḥammad Nayrīzī, Faṣl al-Khiṭāb
Najīb al-Dīn Riżā Tabrīzī Iṣfahānī, Sabʿ al-Mas̱ānī
ʿAbbās Kayvān Qazvīnī, ʿIrfān-nāma
Valī Qulī Shāmlū, Qiṣaṣ al-Khāqānī
Maʿṣūm ʿAlī Shāh,  Ṭarāʾiq al-Ḥaqāʾiq
Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn Shīrvānī, Bustān al-Siyāḥa

Dissertation Information

Rice University. 2012. 299 pp. Primary Advisor: Jeffrey J. Kripal.


Image: Imam ‘Ali with Hasan and Husayn, Qajar-era painting. From the collection of the Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

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