Sufi Castigator: Ahmad Kasravi and the Iranian Mystical Tradition

  • Book Title:
 Sufi Castigator
  • Book Author:
Lloyd Ridgeon
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About the book – SUFI CASTIGATOR

Sufi Castigator investigates the writings of Ahmad Kasravi who was one of the foremost intellectuals in Iran. It studies his work within the context of Sufism in modern Iran and mystical Persian literature and includes translations of Kasravi’s writings.

Kasravi provides a fascinating topic for those with interests in Sufism and Iranian studies as he attempted to produce a form of Iranian identity that he believed was compatible with the modern age and Iranian nationalism. His stress on reason and the demystification of religion caused him to repudiate Sufism and much of the Sufi literary heritage as backwards and believe it a reason for the weakness of modern Iran.

Kasravi’s historical observations were weak, and his writings indicate that he was working towards pre-determined conclusions. However, his works are of significance because they contributed to a major discussion in the 1930s–40s about the ideal image and identity that Iranians should adopt.

Despite the academic weaknesses of Kasravi’s works, he had a profound effect on the next generation of thinkers.

Sufi Castigator is a stimulating and meticulously researched book and includes two lengthy translations of Kasravi’s works, Sufism and What does Hafez Say?, and will appeal to scholars of Middle Eastern studies. Lloyd Ridgeonis senior lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Glasgow. His research interests include Sufism, Islamic theology and history, modern Iranian politics and culture and Iranian cinema and literature. He is the author of Aziz Nasafi, and he has recently edited a reader entitled Religion and Politics in Modern Iran.


Ahmad Kasravi’s life coincided with one of the most turbulent periods of Iranian history, when political, religious, societal and educational change occurred at an unprecedented rate. In an attempt to modernise Iran, many politicians and intel- lectuals desired to mould Iran into a dynamic, rational, motivated and forward thinking nation.

Inevitably, the means to achieve this differed; Kasravi desired to eliminate much of the Iranian mystical and literary heritage, whereas other intel- lectuals did not consider this heritage as inherently inimical with the creation of a modern nation-state. In fact the range of opinions indicates that the debate about the role of Sufism and mystical literature was indeed a major issue.

The responses to Sufism ranged from support and sympathy, from, for example, those in the circle of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Tehran, to suspicion and dislike by secular intellectuals such as Taqi Arani (who assumed that enthusiasm for mysticism would disappear with the onward march towards socialism) and outright hostility from Shi‘ite clerics such as Allameh Borqe‘i. One factor that unites all of these individuals was their desire to see a strong and free Iran (which may account for the distaste among some Iranians, including Kasravi and Borqe‘i, for “agents” of imperialist forces, such as E.G. Browne). Although some strove for higher goals (such as the universalism inherent within the ideal of creating an Islamic or Marxist ummah), for most the desire for an independent Iran begged the question of what it actually meant to be Iranian, and part of the debate was centred on Persian literature.

The wide variety of responses to Sufism and Hafez suggests that to understand Kasravi’s response it is necessary to look at other factors, besides the socio-political conditions, such as important features and events in his personal life. It has not been possible to investigate Kasravi’s personal life in this study, and it is hoped that further research will shed light on this topic. Kasravi’s anti-Sufism, however, does reveal an interesting dimension of intel- lectual thought in Iran during the period before 1945.

The attempt to modernise Iran through a “rational” discourse that demystified religion may be regarded as one of the elements in the modernising project that was spearheaded by Reza Shah (and in this respect this work supports the view that the modernisation pro- gramme was not driven solely by Reza Shah).

The atmosphere of modern Iran had resulted in the Sufis reforming themselves, typified in the way that the Anjoman-e Okhovvat structured and organised itself, and one wonders as to the extent to which such Sufi reforms were a response to Kasravi’s polemics.1 Certainly the reforms of the Anjoman-e Okhovvat pre-date Kasravi’s writings, so such forms of Sufism at best would have supported the modernising tendencies.

However, the issue is not so much whether the Iranian Sufis reformed themselves as a result of Kasravi’s writing but as to whether the Iranian “advisors” in society, and the masses in general, transformed their way of thinking (for this, according to Kasravi, was the real and most virulent danger).

Kasravi’s demystification of religion was undertaken by his appeal to reason (kherad), yet his works are littered with weak arguments that are not based on scholarly research. One may sympathise with the aim to create a strong Iran, and one may understand that this aim was, in part, a response to the desperate political and economic conditions of the time, but Kasravi’s writings on Sufism and literature were framed not on reason but on prejudice and clearly selective readings of mediaeval texts.

 His criticisms of Sufism might have fared better had he concentrated on his apophatic preferences, but even here, had he pursued this line in a scholarly fashion, he would have reached an impasse: how can a completely transcendent, infinite God create the finite world?

 To create involves some kind of connection with creation, and to permit this in itself is an admission that God may commune with his creation, and this leads to the possibility of mys- tical experience. Of course, this is an ancient problem that Aristotle attempted to solve with his theory of the unmoved mover, and Islamic theologians and philosophers elaborated on this issue in various ways.

 For the Islamic philosophers, the cosmos consisted of a number of celestial intellects, with the transcendent God at the outermost level. Even Ghazali, despite his rejection of Islamic philosophy, adopted this hierarchy of cosmic intellectual entities in his discussion of al-muta‘ as an intermediary between God and creation. With Kasravi’s rejection of the mediaeval cosmology, and the hierarchy of emanations or intellects, God and man are left completely separated.

Yet Kasravi was clearly satisfied with this situ- ation, and it enabled him to cut away at the superstitions and irrational beliefs and practices that he found in modern Iran and in its literature. However, his criticisms of Sufi beliefs betray a lack of research and knowledge of the finer details of the school of Sufism that espoused vahdat al-vojud. Although he skirted profound theological arguments, it is unfortunate that he never attempted to enter into them in any great detail.

It may be the case that Kasravi felt that his reader- ship restricted him from delving into more serious theological debates. However, it may also be true that the absence of reasoned, intellectual discussions was also due to a fanatical and paranoid dislike of mysticism.

Kasravi’s blinkered views of Sufism and Hafez, ironically, have some merit, for his critique of those individuals who limited Hafez to a single interpretation were well-founded. (It is of interest that a response to Kasravi’s work on Hafez was published by Ibrahim Monakkah, entitled “The Key of Explanation (or the Key to Hafez’s Language) – An Answer to Kasravi,”2 in which the author’s main point is that Hafez was a mystic.) However, Kasravi’s refusal to contemplate the

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