Contesting Mysticism and Philosophy in Safavid Iran

Safavid studies have greatly progressed with an emphasis on developments in thought, practice and identity. Court culture, especially under Shah ‘Abbas, was significantly geared towards articulating elite Shii identity through attachment to philosophical and mystical modalities of what it meant to be Shii in the new imperial dispensation. However, such commitments were not free of contestation - and in the developing new dispensation of Safavid Iran identities and ideas were as much contested as they were asserted. Building upon previous work by Said Arjomand, Rasul Jafariyan, Kathryn Babayan and many others including the participants in the panel, the papers will show how over the course of Safavid history, the very conceptualisations of philosophy and mysticism were asserted and contested. The papers begin with the earliest Safavid period and go through to the end. Three papers will cover particular thinkers and periods, while the fourth paper will consider the contestations of both philosophy and mysticism over the whole period.

The opening paper considers how the Shirazi philosopher Mansur Dashtaki (d. 1542) formulated the idea of an Avicennan ‘irfan, or mode of mysticism, that was distinct from the school of Ibn ‘Arabi and similarly distinguishable from the forms of illuminationist Avicennan philosophy common in the pre-Safavid period. He provides further evidence for how the Shirazi thinker pre-figures a number of notions in Mulla Sadra. At the end of the period, the second paper considers the case of the Zahabi Shah Muhammad Darabi (d. 1717) and the shift from the discourse of tasavvuf to ‘irfan that occurred in the late Safavid period, partly due to contestation. This shift remains significant in Iran today. He provides further evidence for why we need to actively engage with the texts to see how these discourses were contested and transformed. The third paper examines how the occult discourse of lettrism came to constitute a mode of Safavid-era philosophy by considering the much neglected thinker Mir Damad (d. 1631). The chair's paper will consider the reasoned arguments against both tasavvuf and hikmat focusing upon the contestation over the nature of existence, the argument about monism (wahdat al-wujud) that underlay the attack on the antinomianism of Sufis in the Safavid period. We envisage the panel as the first step in a series of discussions on new perspectives on intellectual history in the period.


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This paper will consider the emergence of an Islamic mysticism (ʿirfān) with a conspicuous Shīʿī colour in the early Safavid period by examining a little known treatise known as Maqāmāt al-ʿarifīn wa manāzil al-sāʾirīn written by the Shīʿī philosopher-mystic Sayyid Ghiyāth al-Dīn Dashtakī (d. 1542), known as the “Third Teacher” (al-muʿallim al-thālith) by his contemporaries, and the “Eleventh Intellect” (al-ʿaql al-ḥādī ʿashar) by his later admirers.

The Maqāmāt al-ʿarifīn of Ghiyāth al-Dīn Dashtakī was written towards the end of his life when the Safavids ruled Persia and established Shiism as the official religion of the realm. Unlike Dashtakī’s earlier works, produced during the periods of anti-Shīʿī hostility under the rule of the Āq-Quyunlu, in the Maqāmāt he does not hesitate to demonstrate his deep commitment to the Shīʿī faith. Primarily intended for Peripatetic philosophers with mystical proclivities, this treatise is in fact a commentary upon Fī maqāmāt al-ʿarifīn (On the Stations of the Mystics), the ninth namaṭ of Avicenna’s al-Ishārāt waʾl-tanbīhāt.

This paper will argue that the treatise heralds Mullā Ṣadrā’s synthesis between revelation (waḥy), reason (ʿaql), and mystical intuition (kashf). Its Shīʿī character is indicative by the author’s attempt to bring harmony between mystical ideas such as spiritual wayfaring and relevant traditions (aḥādīth) reputedly uttered by the Shīʿī Imams. As one would expect, the work is both discursive and didactic, it instructs aspiring mystics on correct method and on ways of avoiding extreme spiritual mannerism, including the “dangers of blind dogma and austere asceticism”, terms used by the author to refer to Sufism and Sunnī kalām.

Additionally, this paper will consider whether the Maqāmāt marks the emergence of Shīʿī mysticism in the early Safavid period as a distinct intellectual tradition. For example, Ghiyāth al-Dīn speaks specifically of al-ʿirfān al-shīʿī, a mystical tradition which is presumably different from Sufism, and which advocates instead spiritual wayfaring inspired by the teachings of the Shīʿī Imams.

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It is a commonplace among scholars of the Safavid religious history that ʿirfān, as the leading semantic signifier of a new and distinctly Shi’ite discourse on spirituality and metaphysics, emerged during the Safavid period to replace tasawwuf. While the emergence of this “ʿirfānian discourse” has been generally attributed to the Safavid suppression of Sufis, I believe our understanding of the exact processes under which this transformation happened and the intellectual players involved therein is sketchy, at the best, and distorted, at the worst. This paper take one small step to amend this situation. While the so-called “luminaries” of the Safavid period in Isfahan like Majlisī Jr., Mullā Ṣadrā and Mīr Dāmād have been at the center of scholarly attention and research, I argue that figures understood to be “marginal” to the intellectual developments of the late Safavid period have in fact played a crucial role in the formation of the ʿirfānian discourse. Shāh Muhammad Dārābī (d. ca. 1717) is one such figure. As one of the most prominent scholars of his time in Shiraz, his works in defense of Sufi teachings and practices is an untapped source in our gradual reconstruction of the initial stages of the development of the ʿirfānian discourse. For this purpose, I will specifically focus on an unpublished treatise of him titled Miʿrāj al-kamāl written after 1692. The work is a direct response to the unprecedented wave of attacks against Sufism at the second half of the seventeenth century Safavid Iran. As a Twelver scholar, firmly grounded in the study of philosophy, Shiʿi hadith and kalam, Dārābī’s Sufi-minded rhetoric departs significantly from traditional Sufi responses to such attacks in crucial ways. His redefinition of the role of the spiritual master (pīr) and the master/disciple relationship is a perfect example. While he is definitely in favor of preserving this, and some other, fundamental elements of Sufi thought and practice, the originality of his approach lies in his attempt to detach it from the traditional Sufi discourse and the socio-cultural network in which it has been traditionally understood. It is precisely this de-contextualization, I argue, that enable him and, many other Sufi-minded Shiʿi scholars, to transplant such ideas in Twelver religious discourse of his era and argue for their legitimacy and authenticity within this new discursive framework.

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At first blush, the lettrist or kabbalistic writings of Mīr Dāmād (d. 1630), the Third Teacher, seem a curious rabbit trail with respect to the philosopher’s larger project, and have largely been ignored as a result. Yet the status of lettrism as a mainstream intellectual current in Iran from the early 15th century onward suggests that any analysis that elides this component of Mīr Dāmād’s thought must remain incomplete. He produced at least three lettrist works or works with substantial lettrist content: Jazavāt u Mavāqīt, Nibrās al-Ḍiyāʾ and R. dar Asrār Muqaṭṭaʿāt-i Qurʾāniyya. In these works the philosopher explicitly engages the lettrist writings of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) (or pseudo-Ibn Sīnā) and Ibn Turka (d. 1432) in particular; the latter thinker was responsible for the mainstreaming of intellectual lettrism in Iran as a neoplatonic-neopythagorean science, a pursuit continued in the later Timurid period by such worthies as Ḥusayn Vāʿiẓ Kāshifī (d. 1504) and the leading exponents of the ‘school of Shiraz,’ Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī (d. 1502) and Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī (d. 1498). While philosophical lettrism was subject to a certain fluctuation of interest during the Safavid period (it is notably absent from Mullā Ṣadrā’s oeuvre, for instance), it continued to be regarded as an essential feature of the intellectual landscape well into the Qajar period. Most significantly, Mullā ʿAlī Nūrī (d. 1832), the great reviver of Sadrian philosophy, commented extensively on the lettrist writings of both Mīr Dāmād and Ibn Turka. While more popular early modern expressions of lettrism—epitomized by the anarchic Ḥurūfiyya and Nuqṭaviyya—brought the science into disrepute in some quarters, the lettrist proclivities of the Shaykhī and Bābī movements suggest that it remained an attractive discipline to thinkers and reformers in the Persianate world through the beginning of the 20th century. This paper, then, represents the first attempt to contextualize Mīr Dāmād’s lettrist writings within the early modern intellectual history of Iran, with particular attention to his reliance on Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Turka.

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While the study of anti-Sufism in the Safavid period is well advanced with some significant works by Babayan, Jaʿfarīyān and more recently Anzali, apart from the often repeated charge that Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1635) was hounded out of Isfahan for his mystical commitments, no one has seriously looked at works in the Safavid period that attack the study of ḥikmat and especially that form of philosophical inquiry that is deeply informed and inspired by mysticism. Philosophy had its own internal critics: Mullā Ṣadrā famously criticised Sufis for their approaches to inquiry and Avicennan thinkers for the paucity of the insight and their failure to commit to philosophy ‘as a way of life’. Opponents such as Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī (d. 1699) clearly condemned the unbelief inherent in philosophical and mystical inquiry.
However, by examining the work of the prominent theologian Mullā Muḥammad Ṭāhir Qummī (d. 1686), especially his Ḥikmat al-ʿārifīn (Philosophy of the Mystics) and al-Fawāʾid al-dīnīya (Religious Insights), I shall argue that the real point of contestation was not the actual practice of philosophy as a form of rational inquiry – other periods of Shiʿi intellectual history in Iran not least in the present maktab-i tafkīk demonstrate that the appeal to reason is one shared by those often accused of scripturalism – but the espousal of philosophy as a holistic means of describing reality and of a hermeneutics of the scripture that was influenced and informed by a worldview of monism (waḥdat al-wujūd) associated with the school of the Sunni Sufi Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240). In his other Persian works, Qummī like others in his period emboldened by the decline at courts of mystically inclined thinkers, attacked the Sufi orders and their practices and rounded upon Ibn ʿArabī and al-Ḥallāj as deviant role models for a Shiʿi society. In the two Arabic works, one finds on the other hand a polemic that is more scholarly and attuned to the study of philosophy. What emerges is a debate that is not for or against philosophy as such but about the very nature of what constitutes legitimate philosophical inquiry – and hence authentic Shiʿi learned culture.