Sufi Master as the True Marjaʿ? Authority, Legitimacy and Mysticism in Contemporary Iran

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.