Discourses of Inclusion and Exclusion in Safavid Iran

The idea of this panel grew out of the shared interest by its members on issues of sectarianism (albeit losely defined) and its configuration in political and religious discourses in the Safavid period. Although some very valuable works have been done in the last decades to advance discourse studies in Safavid Iran, we believe that this topic remains widely underdevelopped in our field, especially when compared to what has been done done in Ottoman and Mughal studies. We believe that more complex theoretical frameworks need to be applied to these discussions, and we intend to contribute to fill in this gap.
The three papers constituting our panel touch upon the issue of sectarian conflict and the use of religious language in Safavid politics. The major themes to be explored in our panel are ritual cursing in Shi'ism (la'n), anti-Sufi polemics, and the political dynamics between the center and the perifery in the Safavid frontiers. Methodologically speaking our papers range from social history to strictly textual analysis, as we believe that these two approaches need not be seen as mutually exclusive but rather as complementary. Such interdisciplinary approach will allow us to tocuh upon other related discussions in our field in need of reexamination. These tangential topics include the formation of clerical authority in Safavid Iran, the relation of the central administration with regional (and often non-Twelver) elites, and the constant redefinition of orthodoxy by the 'ulama' as a political tool.
A fourth paper, added by the Conference Program Team, focuses on the hereditary power and authority of the descendents of the Khurasani Sufi Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Alberto Tiburcio
McGill University


Sholeh Quinn
University of California, Merced


by Alberto Tiburcio / McGill University

One of the major debates in the study of Safavid Iran, particularly of its final decades, is the nature of the relationship between the state and the non-Shi’ite minorities, as well as the relationship between the Shi’ite hierocracy and other seemingly heterodox Muslim groups. One important body of literature for the study of this phenomenon is that of anti-Sufi polemics written by the ʿulama’. So far, most studies on anti-Sufi trends in this period have focused on its sociological and political aspects, signaling the growing tensions in the frontier regions and the ʿulama’s changing attitudes vis-à-vis previously favored traditions, such as ʿirfan. These political and sociological explanations are important; however, without a solid analysis of anti-Sufi texts themselves, there is a risk of presenting a rather monolithic picture of anti-Sufi trends. Thus, what I propose is to compare three anti-Sufi texts by Muhammad Tahiri Qummi, ʿAli Quli Jadid al-Islam, and Niʿmatullah al-Jaza’iri to show the variety of ways in which late Safavid scholars articulated their suspicion of Sufi practices. This study aims to compare the rhetorical elements of each polemical text and to contextualize the particular preoccupations of each author. By contrasting the different contexts and the different preoccupations reflected on each text, I hope to present a complex picture of the evolution of the anti-Sufi discourse and of its political motivations.

by Roesmary Stanfield-Johnson / University of Minnesota

‘Alī al-Karakī’s Nafaḥāt al-lahūt fī la‘n al-jibt wa’l-ṭāghūt is formally a treatise setting forth the criteria and conditions for calling upon God to forsake the enemies of religion by cursing them. Al-Karakī (d. 1533) wrote this argument in 1512 to support Shāh Ismā‘īl I (d. 1524) following the Herāt conquest, aware of the sectarian chaos to which the city was being subjected, and knowing that the city’s pro-‘Alid factions could profitably be attracted to the public ritual of cursing the first three Sunnī caliphs. Thus, in writing the Nafaḥāt, al-Karakī served the shāh by uniting two doctrines of Twelver Shī‘ism on the treatment of the perceived enemies of ahl al-bayt: dissociation (barā’a) and cursing (la‘n). Consequently, his text, once applied to society at large, unified praxis and doctrine in the Safavid public square.

Given the origins and application of al-Karaki’s Nafaḥāt, it’s no wonder that historians approach it mostly as a politically motivated document, giving little attention to its religious claims. Keeping in mind that to a Shī‘ī scholar of the early sixteenth century the act of expounding the truth or falsity of a doctrinal position would have a direct bearing on salvation, this paper examines al-Karakī’s doctrinal strategies for drawing his community nearer to God through the discourse of the Nafaḥāt.

by Nazak Birjandifar / McGill University

This paper examines the political career of Khan Ahmad Gilani II (d. 1626), the ruler of Gilan in the late sixteenth century. The province of Gilan was at times a semi- autonomous area of the Safavid Empire and had a long history of local rule. Gilan’s inaccessibility made it appear independent both prior to and following the rise of the Safavids. Khan Ahmad II was a member of the Kiyayi dynasty of Gilan. His grandfather had ruled Gilan, and had converted from Zaidism to Twelver Shi‘ism in order to appease Shah Isma‘il and remain in power. An ambitious ruler, Khan Ahmad II at times sought to remain autonomous. This paper will analyze the evolving relationship between Gilan’s notables, and especially Khan Ahmad II, on the one hand; and the Safavid sovereigns and qizilbash military elite on the other. It will do so within the context of existing approaches to center/periphery relations, throwing new light on the local dynamics of Shah ‘Abbas’ centralization policies and their implications for Gilan. The Safavid shahs were well aware of the challenges of removing local dynasties marked by propertied and influential local dignitaries, including Sayyids, with long historical roots. However, the silk-producing province of Gilan was too important for the Safavid ruling elite to ignore. Despite the difficulties of reaching Gilan by land, the Safavids used a variety of approaches to navigate the politics of the inclusion of local dynasties within the broader Safavid polity.

by John Dechant / Indiana University Bloomington

In recent years, scholars have been challenging and deconstructing many of the dominant narratives of Sufism, such as the pioneering yet dated outline of Sufi history as constructed by Spencer Trimingham. My presentation, a case study in the Shaykhs of Jam, the hereditary descendants of the Khurasani Sufi Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam (d. c. 1139), supports and contributes to this trend. Utilizing a number of under-utilized sources, including a more complete manuscript of one of the most important hagiographies devoted to the family, I argue that the Shaykhs of Jam were never an “Order” or tariqa as some have argued. Rather, the family represents both the power and allure of the tariqat as well as the fact that tariqat were never the only face of Sufism. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, amidst the rise of several of these tariqat as well as the geo-political changes that rocked Iran and Central Asia in the early sixteenth century, a number of members of the family became affiliated with established tariqat, notably the Naqshbandiyya and Kubraviyya tariqat. Yet at the same time, the Shaykhs of Jam retained their allure as a family of prominent local notables, their power independent of the tariqat, owing instead to the hagiographic memory of their charismatic Sufi ancestor. By exploring how and why certain family members became involved in other groups and how the family and its supporters continued to assert its own separate identity, we can arrive at a better understanding of what Sufi Orders represented as well as what constituted Sufi Islam in the greater Persianate world in the Late Middle and Early Modern periods.