"Mysticism" in Iran

The Safavid Roots of a Modern Concept

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Ata Anzali
  • Columbia, SC: 
    University of South Carolina Press
    , August
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At the turn of the 16th century, when the Safavids took control of Persia, the region’s politics and culture underwent a drastic transformation, the ramifications of which remain up to the present. Founded by descendants of the Sufi master Safi al-Din Ardabili (d. 1334), the empire unified much of Iran under a single political entity with a distinctively Persian and Shiite flavor, which separated it from its Turkish and Arab Sunni neighbors. Although in recent decades the features and multifaceted consequences of this period of Iranian history have been the subject of scholarly deliberation, the Safavids’ impact over mystical Islam and the “Shiitization of Sufism” that started under their rule has remained an understudied facet of such historiography. Ata Anzali’s “Mysticism” in Iran, a revised version of his doctoral thesis (Rice University, 2012), seeks to fill this academic gap. It illustrates the historical trajectory of ‘irfān, a category of Shiite mysticism vis-à-vis the primarily Sunni mysticism usually labeled as taṣawwuf, and scrutinizes the gradual emergence and crystallization of its semantic, discursive, practical, and organizational space from the 17th century onwards.

The volume opens with an introduction addressing the juxtaposition of ‘irfān with taṣawwuf in post-revolutionary Iran. It highlights the role of Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989), a leader with a strong background in Islamic mysticism, in incorporating‘irfān into the Iranian Shiite seminary curriculum as well as the difficulties that arose for mysticism in the Iranian landscape subsequent to his death. The rather short first chapter presents an historical overview of the appearance of the term ‘irfān and other derivatives from the Arabic root -r-f (knowledge, recognition), such as ma‘rifa and ‘ārif, in pre-Safavid texts. It argues that the word ‘irfān, unlike the latter two derivatives, remained a marginal term in Sufi classics and lexicons, though it gained some prominence in Islamic philosophy, especially in the works of Avicenna (d. 1037). Chapter 2 expounds how the Safavid Empire, despite its own Sufi genealogy and its establishment with the assistance of Anatolian Qizilbash semi-Sufis, became a major venue for a campaign to suppress the Sufi orders (ṭarīqas). It explains the rise of the Shiite ulama and the subsequent harsh critique of Sufism by the traditionalists, puritan-fundamentalists, and rationalists of the time. 

The Sufi response to such critiques is discussed in the next chapter. While members of several Sunni ṭarīq as immigrated to Ottoman and Indian lands, most of the orders remaining in Safavid territory converted to Shiism and began redefining their Sunni past. The example of the Zahabiyya, an offshoot of the Kubrawiyya that “was at its inceptionboth Shi‘ite and Safavid in nature” (71), is used to substantiate such a process of appropriation and synthesis. Chapter 4 takes the reader from Isfahan, the Safavid capital and hitherto the book’s focus, to Shiraz, another cultural hub of the empire. Characterized by a tolerant climate with active Shiite mysticism and an intense poetic and philosophical atmosphere, the city is considered to have been fertile soil for the germination of the concept of ‘irfān. Instead of the renowned members of l’école d’Isfahan, two scholars from the Shiraz circle, namely Shah Muhammad Darabi (d. 1718) and the Zahabi reviver Qutb al-Din Nayrizi (d. 1760), are introduced as the originators of this notion. A further step in the development of ‘irfān and its promotion to the status of a “discourse” during the post-Safavid era is the subject of the following chapter, which studies its penetration into ulama circles in Iran and Iraq, its gradual institutionalization in Shiite madrasas, and the eventual advent of a group of ‘irfān-minded ulama. The Nimatullahi revival and the emergence of the Babi movement, both persecuted and marginalized by ulama-cum-state power, are also discussed. 

Chapter 6 explores the last phase of Shiite mysticism’s maturation. It explains the appeal of ‘irfān to modernist thinkers in 20th century Iran—who perceived it as a universalist, individualistic, and egalitarian spirituality compatible with a modern weltanschauung—and its spread among the growing Iranian middle-class. The key figure discussed is the ex-Nimatullahi preacher Keyvan Qazvini (d. 1938), whose modern formulation of Shiite mysticism influenced later secularists and neo-traditionalist ulama alike. Finally, the epilogue addresses the author’s deliberate rejection of the usual practice of translating ‘irfān as “mysticism.” He does so mainly, Anzali says, to avoid the Eurocentric perspective of seeing privatized and individualistic mysticism as an originally Western phenomenon, which later entered non-Western settings.

Utilizing a threefold model of invention-institutionalization-modernization in investigating ‘irfān’s trajectory, “Mysticism” in Iranis quite successful in discovering the historical roots of contemporary debates in Iran pertaining to Islamic mysticism and showing both religious and sociopolitical implications of such debates. It challenges the commonplace idea of a distinction, or contradiction, between mystical and orthodox/orthoprax trends within Islam by means of unearthing a longstanding tradition of ‘irfān in Shiite madrasas, thus highlighting the internal dynamics of Islamic mysticism as well as the heterogeneity of Islamic orthodoxy. The fluent narrative of the book (except for some hiccups in the second half of chapter 3) is substantiated by numerous references to sources hardly available to non-Persian speaking readers, including original manuscripts and a rich yet mostly unconsulted corpus of scholarship produced by Iranian academics.

Anzali, who exhibits being well-versed not only in Shiite mysticism but also in Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy, makes several suggestions for further research throughout the book. He is well aware of the importance of analyzing the discourse of ‘irfān against the broader backgrounds of the Islamic(ate) world and from a global perspective (38n, 230–33), though such an enterprise was not his concern in the current volume. Despite ‘irfān having been defined by its advocates primarily in contrast to taṣawwuf, as Anzali demonstrates, additional studies underscoring the interconnectedness of the Islamic world and interactions between Shiite and Sunni mysticism—the latter also undergoing phases of reformation and modernization in recent centuries—will supplement the findings of this book and present a wider-contextualized view of the subject. 

In a nutshell, Anzali’s readable book is a landmark in studying the intellectual history of Shiite mysticism and an insightful resource for all readers interested in the spiritual, intellectual and political evolution of Shiism since the early modern period.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Saeed Zarrabi-Zadeh is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ata Anzali is an assistant professor of religion at Middlebury College. After undergoing extensive training in traditional Islamic disciplines in Shi‘i seminaries of Iran, he moved to the United States and received his Ph.D. in religion from Rice University in 2012.


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