Religious Authority, Doctrine and Minorities in Persianate Shiʿism

The panel explores different facets of religious authority in Shiʿism, as they have emerged in the Persianate world at different points in history and issued from both politically-sanctioned and alternative readings of the founding texts.

The first paper puts the Usuli-Akhbari conflict in historical context, by re-assessing the Ketab-e naqz, the prominent 12th century treatise by ʿAbd al-Jalil Razi that is considered one of the first sources of the conflict. In the paper, the treatise is analysed in the context of the Bawandi espahbads efforts to overcome the rival Nizari Ismaʿili state of northern Iran, showing how the proto-Usuli approach to the notion of authority is used to buttress a religiopolitical agenda.
The second paper deals with the critical role which Tusi plays in the restructuring of the Ismaili doctrine.
The third paper will deal with authority and legitimacy at a time when the Usuli-Akhbari conflict had already been won by the Usilis, and the doctrine of the authority of the ‘most learned’ (aʿlam) of the Shiʿi jurisconsults was established. By analysing the approach of Iranian Sufism to this crucial matter from 18th to 20th centuries, the paper shows how the issue of spiritual and social leadership in Twelver Shiʿism is a highly problematic one, and how the mystical approach to the idea of velayat turns the hierarchical order of the spiritual and the social upside-down.
A fourth paper, added by the conference organizers, explores the survival of the shrine of Sheykh Safi al-Din after the fall of the Safavids.
The overall aim of the panel is to show how the very notion of authority has taken on different forms throughout history in Persia and the neighbouring regions, and how a closer analysis of these forms allows for a more nuanced appreciation of their consequences at the social level, which challenges established categories.


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The Kitāb-i Naqz of ‘Abd al-Jalil Razi, a 12 century Twelwer Shi’i scholar preacher based in Rayy, has had a special role in the history of Northern Iran in the 12th century. Compiled around 1160, the Kitāb-i Naqz is important as a historical source, as well as a theological reference to the Usūlī Twelwer Shi’ite religious-political doctrine.
As far as Twelwer Shi'i theology is concerned, Razi’s book refutes the coeval Akhbari tendencies, showing a rather accomodating attitude towards Hanafi Sunnis and rationalist Twelver Shiʿis, stressing on ideological reconciliation between the Imamism and Muʿtazilism, as well as the Maturidya. In this sense the Kitāb-i Naqz avoids more or less the radical Shiʿi ideas about the Companions of Muhammad, preferring the opinions of those Sunni ulamā’ who showed sympathy towards ’Ali. Within Imamism, the Kitāb-i Naqz can be characterized as a pro-Usuli doctrinal essay supporting a theology close to Mu’tazili rationalism, and as such has been widely read.
When it comes to politics, the paper shows how the main aim of ‘Abd al-Jalil Razi as a committed Twelwer Shi’i scholar was to fuel strong ideological support for the Twelwer Shi’i Bāwandid ispahbads against the powerful Nizari Isma’ili state in Northern Iran. The Kitāb-i Naqz heavily criticizes the Nizaris and glorifies the military efforts of ispahbad Shah Ghazi Rustam (1142-1165) who is depicted as the ideal Shiʿi king of his age. Putting a strong emphasis on Sunni-Twelwer Shi’i cooperation against the Nizaris, the Kitāb-i Naqz proudly calls the Bawandid kingdom the new Mecca of the entire Muslim world.
The main objective of this paper to shed light on the sources of the Kitāb-i Naqz and to investigate what sort of influence it has exerted on later Shi’ite literature and on full-fledged Usulism.

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Following the Nizārī-Mustaʿlian schism, the Ismailis of Alamūt gradually began revising their doctrines beginning with a new emphasis on the doctrine of taʿlīm as reformulated by Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ. The second phase of this revision begins after the declaration of qiyāmat by the fourth ruler and the first Ismaili Imam in Alamūt, Ḥasan II.

Ṭūsī plays a critical role in restructuring Ismaili doctrines in the works he produced and supervised during his affiliation with the Ismailis. His major Ismaili works, including Rawḍay-i taslīm, Maṭlūb al-muʾminīn and Āghāz wa anjām include significant pointers as to how Ismailis in Alamūt began rethinking and reinventing the concept of authority in light of the discourse of qiyāmat. The role of Ṭūsī may be compared to that of Ḥamīd al-Dīn al-Kirmānī, when he was called to reorganise the daʿwa system at the time of al-Ḥākim bi Amir Allāh.

The Neo-platonic hierarchy of the Fatimid era was filtered and reduced to a much smaller cosmology which was, this time, close to Sufi articulations about authority and the walāya of Ismaili Imams. Moreover, Ṭūsī was much closer to the thinking of Ibn Sīnā and worked in the midst of various competing narratives, particularly that of al-Shahrastānī whose works left a lasting impression on Ismaili doctrines.
The revised Ismaili doctrines of the Alamūt period worked like an emancipating template which eased the later intermingling of Ismailis with Sufis. Their adherence to a highly spiritual and esoteric interpretation of Islam, which had this time shifted more towards the bāṭin as compared with the Fatimid period, facilitated even further the developments which led to the contemporary remodelling of authority and leadership in the Ismaili imamate.

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In the early 20th century, the third master of the Gonabadī branch of the Neʿmatollahi Sufi order, Nur ʿAlī Shah II, wrote a short book in which he invited the Iranians to unite under the banner of Sufism to put an end to the fragmentation of the country that occurred in the years of the civil war that followed the Constitutional revolution. This call was only one of the many episodes that prompt to reflect upon the status of religious authority in Twelver Shīʿism and its complex relationship with the multiple claimants to spiritual primacy. Despite the overt profession of adhesion to the tenets of modern Usuli Shīʿism made, in different occasion, by the Gonabadi Sufis, their approach to the question of spiritual leadership remains problematic, to say the least, if analysed against the usual enunciation of the theory of marjaʿiyyat in Twelver Shiʿism. In this paper, I intend to address this problematicity. The literature produced by the Neʿmatollahi Sufi masters and intellectuals is punctuated with occasional outcries against the ignorance and arrogance of the ʿolamā-ye zaher, and their record of suffered persecution, even quite recent, speaks of a troubled relationship that never came to the point of an accomplished accommodation. Under this respect, Gonabadi literature remains largely unexplored, and an investigation into the textual corpus of this Sufi brotherhood allows a better understanding of this relationship Recent events in Iran show how religious discourse in the Islamic Republic is still crucial to the understanding of political developments in that country. How the parts involved in the struggle will be able to decline their religious legitimacy in a public sphere more and more constrained and controlled by the guardians of the “official State Shiʿism”, will affect significantly the religious future of Iran and the whole Shiʿism. It is in this sense that Gonabadi claims to religious legitimacy, although far from being claims to political authority whatsoever, must be regarded as carrying some weight for the future configuration of the religious and the political spheres in Iran.

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This study investigates the administration of the Sheykh-Safi Shrine and its relationship with the successive central authorities after the collapse of the Safavid Dynasty.
In the history of Iran, numerous researchers have studied the Safi Shrine from various viewpoints, such as the relationship of the Shrine with authorities, its cultural and architectural aspects, and the religious and popular movements centered on the shrine. It is well known that there are limited archival materials for a study of pre-modern Iran; however, this is not the case for the shrine. Many researchers, such as Aubin, Morton, Gronke and Rizvi, have analyzed archival sources, e.g., “Ardabil documents” and the land register (Sarih al-melk), and pointed out the various aspects of the shrine’s socioeconomic characters, religious issues, and the relationship of its administrations with the monarchs of the various dynasties. These studies can be classified into three periods: before the construction of the Safavid dynasty, during the Safavid period, and both these periods.
On the contrary, few studies focus on the shrine post the collapse of the Safavids in the early eighteenth century. One of the reasons for this is the growing importance of the Shi‘ite shrines of Mashhad and ‘Atabad from the sixteenth century onward. Therefore, it is reasonable that these “orthodox” shrines attracted more researchers than the Safi Shrine.
An analysis of the Safi Shrine after the collapse of the Dynasty will be useful for a better understanding of the long history of the shrine. This study shows how the religious institute that lost the former dynastic support and prestige tried to survive and maintain its existence. Such a topic has been hardly investigated in Iranian history.
This study examines the archival documents preserved in the shrine and the Tabriz archives. These documents describe the administration of the shrine and its relationship with the local society and central authority in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
On the basis of the analysis of these archival sources, I put forth two arguments. The first argument is that by bargaining with successive dynasties, such as Afsharid, Zand and Qajar, the shrine’s administrators attempted to secure the former privileges as a “fait accompli.” My second argument is that being independent from governmental authority, the shrine became highly integrated into the local Ardabil society and made efforts to preserve its own properties sometimes with compromise on the contract for them.