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An Old Sufi Laments His Lost Youth (Amir Khosrow, Public domain)

Supra Confessionals in the Medieval and Early Modern Persophone Zone

What catalyzed the supra-confessional move in the post-Mongol Persophone zone, and what did it leave in place for the ideologues of Iran’s 1979 revolution—another watershed regularly misattributed to confessional tenets—to cultivate and propagate?

Secularity, like sovereignty is an old unspoken concept.[1] It critiques religion’s multifarious overtures to the conduct of politics to alloy governance, and for the premodern world, it is the grammar of that concession—the twinning of religion and politics is one such example—that has attracted scholarly attention. Secularity is wielded most frequently by religionists against various opponents, as for instance in the writings of al-Māwardī, (d. 1058), Imam al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 1085) and Ghazali (d. 1111) who grappled with the fallout from a weakened caliphate in the eleventh century. (Yavari 2019

In modern sociological literature, secularity has been defined, inter alia, as “institutionally as well as symbolically embedded forms and arrangements for distinguishing between religion and other societal areas, practices and interpretations” (Wohlrab-Sahr and Kleine 2021). This approach may implicitly imply that premodern political analysis fails to distinguish between normative and empirical study of politics, that different national contexts conjunct in different ways with changing historical circumstances, and that national contexts themselves are very much defined by prevailing religious traditions. In her post in this forum, Sita Steckel offers a nuanced reading of medieval secularity and differentiates an arena for temporal rule, a mainstay of medieval political discourse in the Christian and the Islamic worlds, from a secular, non-religious sphere that is a modern development. Significantly, Steckel argues for delinking the two, as the temporal domain was not generally divested of religious authority or norms. In a similar vein, Roy Mottahedeh has pointed to the distinctions between sacred and secular, sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal, ecclesiastical and lay, or even divine and human in premodern Islamic thought, that are analogues to the distinctions made in the Western Christian traditions and important in their unexpected difference from the distinctions that the latter make. (Mottahedeh 2022, 222) The premodern Islamic worldview, he further suggests, allows not just a profane realm but also a partly secular realm that is derived from the historical experience and the theological logic of Muslim thinkers. (Mottahedeh 2022, 224)

Religiously inflected political discourse and civil conflict is the proper archive for studying medieval secularity. An example is the confessional discourse that was foregrounded in the post-Mongol period with the rise to prominence of a variety of new pieties, mostly Sufi in inclination. It has long been the mainstay of scholarship on the premodern Islamic Middle Eastern world that the Shi‘ification of Iran in the sixteenth century was a watershed in the history of the region. Firmly Sunni – save for several urban pockets such as Qom and Rayy – the populace was for the most part converted to Shi‘ism by the Safavid shahs (1501-1722), or so the story goes. As to impetus, most point to the Safavid attempt to distinguish their territory from the Ottomans to the west and the traditional elites of the Turco-Iranian world that held the reins of power since the fall of the Abbasids in the thirteenth century. This Safavid reformation, to use Steckel’s formulation, replaced the politically hostile Sufi masters with Shi‘i religious elites who relied on royal support for expanding their domain. (Steckel 2023)

Newer iterations of that paradigm have focused on the dominance of Sufi communities in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad in 1258, their philo-‘Alid piety in spite of their Sunni confession, and their efforts in warming Muslim hearts, particularly in the eastern caliphate to the family of the Prophet, and through them to full-fledged Shi‘ism. The philo-‘Alidism is typically evidenced by references to Sufi writings, wherein Shi‘ism is denounced, as is sectarianism (including Sunni zealotry), and the Sufis are presented as the prefect community that goes above and beyond all boundaries and confessions and comes to embody the Islamic ideal of unity that refracts the oneness of the divine being. ‘Alā al-Dawla al-Simnānī (d. 1336), for example, describes his Sufi creed not as a hybrid Sunni-Shi‘i affair, but a new religion that is the true Sunni creed, it is the most perfect because the Sufis have the most purest practice, the most universal outlook and the most perfect worship: “True Islam is that of the Sunnis, the most balanced of persuasions, in which the four rightly guided caliphs and Muhammad’s progeny (ahl al-bayt) and his disciples are praised; no Muslim is accused of disbelief; and all prophets, scriptures and angels are respected, so that confessional prejudice is eschewed and various communities can live in peace.” (Simnānī 2017) To Simnānī, therefore, the ideal creed reflects not a reconciliation between various articles of faith but a supra-confessional poise that forges a new path to true Islam. Its venom is directed more against sectarian zeal than Shi‘i tenets.

Sufi supra-confessionalism is also on parade in an early sixteenth century collected biography of Naqshbandī masters, Rashaḥāt ‘ayn al-ḥayāt (Sprinklings from the Fountain of Life) by ‘Alī Ṣafī b. Ḥusayn Wā‘iẓ Kāshifī (d. 1532). A quasi three-dimensional text that is best read with the aid of a floorplan rather than a table of contents, each generation is built upon a set of four pillars, the successor-disciples (caliphs) appointed by the previous master shaykh. While the Sufi masters uphold the floors, the walls of the edifice are provided by rashaḥāt or sprinklings, rules and instructions that flow from generation to generation and bind and nurture the Naqshbandī community. There too, the template of authority is explicit in its intention to connect the Naqshbandī elders with both Sunni and Shi‘i luminaries. 

In one rashḥa, Kāshifī’s protagonist, the Naqshbandī Sufi master ‘Ubayd Allah Aḥrār (d. 1490), describes the Sufi cosmological hierarchy:  There is sharī‘atṭarīqat (Sufi path) and ḥaqīqat (truth). Sharī‘at is fulfilling God’s exoteric commands, ṭarīqat is mindfulness and undivided attention to various aspects of the internal life, and ḥaqīqat is sharp insight into those matters. (Kāshifī, II: 503). The triangulated piety in Aḥrār’s model abrogates any competition between sharia and ṭarīqa by proposing a third plane that transcends both, as did Simnānī’s model referenced earlier.  

In this narrative, agency lies with the Sunni religious rulers and scholars who impinge on philo-‘Alid specifics, such as veneration for the household of Muhammad, to appropriate the best of that theology and discard the remainder as sectarian dross. But the writings of a good number of Shi‘i scholars of the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries shows that the traffic in Sufi supra-confessionalism was as hectic among Shi‘i Sufis as it was for their Sunni brethren. The writings of the eminent theologian Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī (d. after 1385) is a case in point. According to Āmulī, a Muslim who combines sharia with ṭarīqa and ḥaqīqa is at once a Sufi and a true Shi‘i who has mastered the balance between the exoteric and esoteric demands of Islam and eschews both the literalist creed of the jurists and the antinomian proclivities of radical groups. (Kohlberg 1989

Farhad Daftary has pointed to the very same in Ismaili teachings from the fifteenth century. The admonitions of Imam Mustanṣir bi’llah of Anjidan (d. 1480), for one example, begin with the sharī‘at/ṭarīqat/ḥaqīqat model, depicting ḥaqiqat as the inner essence of sharia that is attained via the spiritual path or ṭarīqat. (Daftary 2022) Similarly organized is Muḥaqqiq Bīdgulī’s (d. 1679-80) Riyādh ‘al-ārifīn wa minhāj al-sālikīn, which divides the components of the sharī‘at/ṭarīqat/ḥaqīqat model into eight gardens (riyādh) that are subdivided into streams (nahr), springs (shu‘bah) and sprinklings (rashḥa) to guide the believer on the path of spiritual inquiry—a conciliation between the piety-minded and those inclined to a personal divine experience or illumination. (Muḥaqqiq Bīdgulī 2016) Such examples abound.

That the religious landscape of the Persophone zone was drastically altered in the period between the Mongol invasions and the coming of the Safavids originally leaders of a Sufi movement is self-evident. Rather than a migration from the Sunni to the Shi‘i creed, however, it is a plethora of supra-confessional pieties that catalyzed religious change and by extension, political transformation. Apart from the Sufi supra-confessional strand, one could cite the Mughal emperor Akbar’s (r. 1555-1605) celebrated dīn-i ilāhī, or true religion, which pivoted around the principle of universal conciliation, the Nuqtawī creed of Maḥmūd Pasīkhānī (d. 1427), as well as the India based Ādhar-Kayvānī school. (Sheffield 2022) Equally emblematic of the new pieties is the politically active and apocalyptic Ḥurūfiyya (Lettrist) movement founded by Faḍl Allāh Astrābādī, who claimed to have received the full meaning of Muhammad’s message in a revelation and was executed for this and other such innovative beliefs by the Tīmūrid governor of Azerbaijan in 1394. Although considered a heresy and decried in mainstream historical sources, the innovation in the Ḥurūfī creed were, for the most part adoptions of Shi‘i tenets. (Mir-Kasimov 2014)

Supra-confessionalism is attested even in faraway Khotan in the sixteenth century, where according to Rian Thum sectarianism was largely absent, and Hanafi Khotanese prayed at purported tombs of ‘Alid imams. Against the conventional grain that sees lingering vestiges of a proto-Shi‘ism in Khotan, Thum suggests that the sacred geography there is “a fantastic example of the inability of doctrinal differences alone to create sectarianism or confessionalism.” (Thum 2022, 641). 

Academic interest in early modern supra-confessionalism that dominated in Iran and the Persophone zone is on the rise, even if not in this specific formulation. Significantly, it differs from public non-confessional acts in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, such as shrine visitation, (Mulder 2019) or marriage alliances with leading Shi‘i families. (Yavari 2018

Much work remains to be done and the above is only one part of a larger project on religious change as the marker of early modern Iranian history, which in many ways catalyzed the Islamic revolution of 1979. The new pieties that marked early modern history in Iran and the Persophone zone, and to varying degrees in other parts of the Islamic world, (Christmann 2007) may have been short-lived, but they also begat modern identities and in the longer run, new nations. (Reinhard Schulze, “Islam and the Global History of Secularity” (lecture, Conference on “Secularities – Patterns of Distinction, Paths of Differentiation,” presented at the HCAS “Multiple Secularities – Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities,” Leipzig, October 5, 2018). What is genuinely at stake in recasting the religious history of the early modern Islamic world is not simply a call for new, improved labels, a cleverly angulated composite noun to supplant ‘syncretistic,’ ‘hybrid,’ or ‘synthesis.’ Rather, the hope is for a paradigm of religious change that is not restricted to a spectrum stretching from Sunnism to Shi‘ism, along which pieties of dazzling variety may be plotted. The new pieties of the early modern period demand not just a thorough revision of how the history of Sufi movements and practices is studied, and a reevaluation of categories and concepts used to differentiate religious movements and identities, but also a rethinking of Islamic history in the context of global history. Even if convergence between various parts of the early modern world—in both what came before early modernity and what came after it— remains elusive, a comparative approach to religious change may help illuminate global currents that defy easy categorization and, crucially, predate the empire-building impulse that for many early modernists sculpts their era from what came before it. A gradual move—in both the Islamic and Christian worlds— from broad “schools” of law as well as what their proponents dismissed as myriads of weird heterodoxies, to the later, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the murkier world of boutique sects in small enclaves, is one such global current.

[1] Secularity is an unspoken concept, but not in the same way that religion is regarded by some as a modern construct; see the distinctions raised in Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin, “What You Can See When You Stop Looking for What Isn’t There,” in Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), pp. 1-12. Barton and Boyarin provide a useful contrast with the views expressed by Sita Steckel and Roy Mottahedeh, cited below.

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Supra Confessionals in the Medieval and Early Modern Persophone Zone

What catalyzed the supra-confessional move in the post-Mongol Persophone zone, and what did it leave in place for the ideologues of Iran’s 1979 revolution—another watershed regularly misattributed to confessional tenets—to cultivate and propagate?

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