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Islam in Iran, Safavid Era
Encyclopedia Iranica

It was in the Safavid period that Oṣuli-Aḵbāri polemics came acrimoniously to the fore, doubtless because the ulema were now involved for the first time in ministering to a demographically significant population. Mollā Mo-ḥammad Amin Astarābādi (d. 1033/1624 or 1036/1627, q.v.) provided a comprehensive statement of the Aḵbāri position in his al-Fawāʾed al-madaniya, a work written in Mecca, not Medina, despite the implication of its title. This book became the target of several refutations, and its author was accused of introducing strife into the Shiʿite community. The Aḵbāri position nonetheless enjoyed supremacy throughout the 17th and much of the 18th centuries, and many luminaries of the period adhered to it, albeit with varying degrees of emphasis; among them were Moḥammad-Taqi Majlesi (d. 1070/1660), Mollā Moḥsen Fayż Kāšāni (d. 1091/1680), and Neʿmat-Allāh Jazāʾeri (d. 112/1700). The prominence of the Aḵbāris was reflected also in the compilation of voluminous collections of Shiʿite Hadith, especially the Wāfi of Fayż Kāšāni and the Tafil wasāʾel al-Šiʿa of Ḥorr al-ʿĀmeli (d. 1104/1693, q.v.; Stewart, pp. 179-85).

The Safavid period is notable also for the flourishing, among a significant number of the Shiʿite scholars, of gnostic and philosophical thought, two overlapping disciplines known respectively as ʿerfān (q.v.) and ekmat; the difference between the two is primarily one of emphasis, experiential with ʿerfān and intellectual with ekmat. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “school of Isfahan” in that several of the scholars in question resided in Isfahan, which was indeed the intellectual as well as political capital of Persia from the beginning of the 11th/17th century onwards (see isfahan school of philosophy); the most significant of them was, however, Ṣadr-al-Din Širāzi, also known as Mollā Ṣadrā (d. 1050/1640, q.v. at iranica.com), who spent much of his life in a village near Qom and then in Shiraz. A number of elements were fused in this endeavor: Avicennan philosophy as mediated by Naṣir-al-Din Ṭusi (d. 673/1274), especially its emanationist elements; the Ešrāqi (see ILLUMINATIONISM) thought of Sohravardi Maqtul (d. 587/1191), which claimed to transmit the teachings both of Hermes and of ancient Persia; and, most importantly, the concepts and worldview of Moḥyi-al-Din Ebn al-ʿArabi (d. 638/1240), entitled Šayḵ al-Akbar (the supreme shaikh), justly so in view of his lasting influence both on Sunnite Sufism and on Shiʿite ʿerfān and ekmat. An alternative characterization of the “school of Isfahan”—which was not of course unified in every respect—would be that it sought to unify the perspectives of obedience to revelation (šarʿ), mystical illumination (kašf), and rational demonstration undertaken by the philosophers. In addition to Ṣadrā, mention may be made of his two principal students, ʿAbd-al-Razzāq Lāhiji (d. 1072/1661) and Fayż Kāšāni; Bahāʾ-al-Din ʿĀmeli (d. 1030/1622), perhaps the most versatile scholar of the entire Safavid period; Mir Dāmād, a grandson of ʿAli Karaki; and Mir Abu’l-Qāsem Fendereski (d. 1050/1640, q.v. at iranica.com).

Quite apart from the profound influence of Ebn al-ʿArabi, ʿerfān had several other elements undeniably reminiscent of Sufism: a terminology delineating spiritual progress toward the divine presence, an emphasis on the relationship between master and disciple, and a claim to initiatic descent from Imam ʿAli and the subsequent Imams of the Prophet’s Household. Sufism had, however, generally borne a Sunnite stamp throughout its history, a feature that was experienced as problematic, and most of the practitioners of ʿerfān therefore sought to distance themselves from it. Some scholars, notably Nur-Allāh Šuštari (d.1019/1610) in his Majāles al-moʾmenin, therefore sought retrospectively to claim for Shiʿism all those Sufis who had expressed their veneration for the Imams. A more reasonable undertaking was Fayż Kāšāni’s authoring of al-Maajjat al-bayżā fi eʾ al-eʾ, a redaction of Ḡazāli’s Eʾ ʿolum-al-din, in which Hadith from Sunnite sources are replaced by those of Shiʿite provenance.

In the light of all this, it is not surprising that Sufi orders with Shiʿite affiliations fared not much better than their Sunnite counterparts. Shah Esmāʿil bestowed on Shah Qāsem Fayżbaḵš (d. 917/1511), son of Sayyed Moḥam-mad Nurbaḵš, an extension of the family lands near Rayy as a token of his favor, but Shah Qāsem’s son Bahāʾ-al-Din earned the wrath of the same Safavid ruler not long after, and, as it was delicately phrased by Moḥammad Ḵᵛāndmir, “in accordance with the requirements of fate, he was interrogated and passed away” (abib al-siar IV, pp. 611-12). Perhaps as a defensive measure, another grandson of Nurbaḵš, Qiwām-al-Din, who had already tried to establish his dominance in Rayy, began building castles and fortifications on the family lands, but to no avail, for he was put to death in 937/1530 on the orders of Shah Ṭahmāsb (Bashir, 2003, pp. 87-92). Although the Nurbaḵšiya no longer functioned thereafter as an organized Sufi community with hereditary leadership, it persisted as a line of spiritual filiation; scholars as prominent as Bahāʾ-al-Din ʿĀmeli and Mollā Moḥsen Fayż Kāšāni have been identified as Nurbaḵši.
As for the Neʿmat-Allāhis, their presence in Persia as an active Sufi tradition (ariqat) was probably on the decline even before the Safavid seizure of power, thanks to Shah Ḵalil-Allāh’s migration to the Deccan some sixty years earlier. Members of the family held a number of administrative posts under both Esmāʿil and Ṭahmāsb, primarily in Yazd, and they were given wives from the Safavid house. Some of them, it is true, also laid claim to spiritual functions and used typical ariqat names intended to betoken high status, but their prominence, both spritual and worldly, was at an end by the mid-11th/17th century.

The only Sufi order to survive the Safavid era more or less unscathed was the Ḏahabiya, a Shiʿite offshoot of the Kobrawiya that can be traced with reasonable certainty to Ḡolām-ʿAli Nišāpuri (d. 938/1531). He and his followers may indeed have participated in the propagation of Shiʿism in early Safavid Khorasan, aided in the task by the roots they struck among merchants and artisans. The Ḏahabis avoided any hint of antinomian tendency by donning the garb of the ulema and presenting their precepts and practices as a natural extension of the teachings of Shiʿism. They nonetheless came under attack in Mashad early in the 17th century with the result that they transferred their center to the more congenial atmosphere of Fars; even there their security was threatened in the closing decades of Safavid rule, causing Sayyed Qoṭb-al-Din Nirizi (d. 1173/1760), their leader at the time, to seek refuge in Najaf. This was the last external crisis the order had to face (Zarrinkub, 1983, p. 263).

Non-Twelver Shiʿite communities were much affected by the rise of the Safavid dispensation. The Zaydis of Daylam and Gilān were persuaded to embrace Twelver Shiʿism during the reign of Shah Ṭahmāsb (1524-76), apparently without coercion. Although small Zaydi communities may have persisted much later, this effectively marked the final stage in the absorption of Zaydism by Twelver Shiʿism in Persia, a process which had begun much earlier (Madelung, p. 92).

As for the Ismaʿilis (see ISMAILISM), their fortunes were, typically, more complicated. Imams of the Qāsemšāhi line had established themselves at Anjodān, a large village near Maḥallāt in central Persia, not long before the Safavid triumph; Mostanṣer Beʾ-llāh (d. 885/1480), thirty-second of the line, is the first Imam known definitely to have resided there, and like his predecessors he appears to have affected a Sufi exterior, possibly as a Neʿmat-ollāhi initiate, for he was known locally at Shah Qalandar. From Anjodān, apparently successful efforts were made to contact Ismaʿili communities scattered across Persia and to have them acknowledge the authority of the Qāsemšahi Imam by sending him their tribute. The thirty-fifth Imam, Nur-al-Din Moḥammad Abu Ḏarr ʿAli, a contemporary of Shah Esmāʿil, gained the favor of the Safavids sufficiently to be given a wife from the royal household, which suggests that he was feigning Twelver beliefs (the practice of taqiya; Daftary, 1990, pp. 471-73). The nature of Qāsemšahi belief became still more opaque when Abu Ḏarr ʿAli’s son and successor, Morād Mirzā, began associating with the Noqṭawis of Kāšān, a millenarian sect with insurrectionary ambitions. As a result, in 982/1574, Ṭahmāsb ordered him to be captured and his community in Anjodān to be punished; he escaped but was recaptured and executed (Daftary, 1990, pp. 472-73). The next Qāsemšahi Imam, Ḏu’l-Faqār ʿAli Ḵalil-Allāh, reverted to the relatively straightforward ruse of professing Twelver Shiʿism; he was rewarded with a Safavid bride, and his community, with exemption from taxation. The affairs of Anjodān thereafter remained peaceful until the transfer of the Imamate to the nearby village of Kahak.

The rival Moḥammadšāhi Imamate was vested at the time of the Safavid conquest in the person of a certain Shah Ṭāher Ḥosayni. Like his predecessors in the Mo-ḥammadšāhi line, he resided in Ḵund, a locality near Qazvin, before being invited to the court of Shah Esmāʿil. There he aroused suspicion because of the devoted following that indiscreetly accompanied him while he was making his rounds, but he was permitted to settle in Kāšān. The resident Twelver scholars of the city seem to have penetrated his cover of taqiya, and they accordingly denounced him to Shah Esmāʿil; in addition, like his Qāsemšahi rival, Morād Mirzā, he was consorting with the Noqṭawis then proliferating in Kāšān. Accordingly, in 926/1520, an order went forth for Shah Ṭāher’s execution, but he succeeded in fleeing to the Deccan, where he attached himself to a local ruler, Borhān Neẓāmšāh, and converted him to Twelver Shiʿism. Such zeal on the part of an Ismaʿili Imam for the propagation of a fundamentally incompatible doctrine does indeed “seem rather strange” (Daftary, 1990, p. 489), and it can be explained only by invoking, yet again, taqiya. Indeed, it was a question of multiple dissimulation, for Shah Ṭāher additionally cultivated links to leaders of the Neʿmat-Allāhi order, who like himself were exiles from Persia. His son, Ḥaydar, however, was hospitably lodged at the court of Ṭahmāsb when sent there on a mission by Borhān Neẓāmšāh; he returned to the Deccan on the death of Shah Ṭāher in 925/1549. The Moḥammadšāhi line was perpetuated in India until the late 12th/18th century, but it no longer had any following in Persia.

The Noqṭawi movement with which both Ismaʿili branches became entwined originated as what might be called a super-heresy, that is, as an offshoot of the Ḥorufiya that was regarded as heretical by the parent movement itself. Its founder was Maḥmud of Pasiḵān, a village near Fuman in Gilan, known to the Ḥorufis as Maḥmud-e Mardud (“Maḥmud the rejected”) or Maḥmud-e Maṭrud (“Maḥmud the banished”) after his expulsion from their ranks for alleged arrogance; he died in 831/1427, supposedly a suicide, having cast himself into the waters of the Aras river (Kiā, pp. 5-6). The designation Noqṭawi is taken from the doctrine that the earth is the starting point (noqṭa) of all things, the remaining three elements being derived from it; alternatively, it may refer to the use of two, three, or four dots, variously arranged, as cryptic abbreviations in the writings of the sect. The primacy of the earth led the Noqṭawis to believe in a peculiarly materialist type of metempsychosis, according to which the particles of the body are absorbed as a single mass into the soil, to be reintegrated, by way of ingestion, on a plane of existence determined by the degree of virtue the deceased attained while alive. Traces of the former configuration are, however, apparent in the new: dogs could be recognized as having once been Qezelbāš Turks, their wagging tails being a trace of the swords they once wielded; and waterfowl as transmogrified clerics, their constant splashing being a relic of obsessive ablutions (Kiā, pp. 30-31). From this insight can be deduced a profound hostility to the twin pillars of the early Safavid state, the military and the religious. Insurrectionary ambitions were also implicit in the cyclical view of history cherished by the Noqṭawis: they believed that the appearance of Maḥmud marked the beginning of an 8,000-year “Persian epoch” (dawra-ye esteʿjām) in which Gilan and Mazandaran replaced Mecca and Medina as foci of sanctity (Kiā, p. 11). This doctrine may have helped facilitate the symbiosis of the Noqṭawis with the Ismaʿilis, who had espoused a similar view of history at certain stages in their tortuous evolution.

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