SUFISM IN THE SECRET HISTORY OF PERSIA – Book Sample
Contents – SUFISM IN THE SECRET HISTORY OF PERSIA
- Preface ix
- Acknowledgements xiii
- Abbreviations xv
- Introduction: Iranian or Persian? The religious landscape of
- Iranian identity 1
- The macrohistorical pursuit of secret Persia and the Sufi
- myth-history 5
- From Mithra to Zarathushtra 15
- The Gathas and Mithra 41
- Mithraism and the parallels of Sufism 61
- The resurgence of “Persianate” identity in the transmission and
- fusion of ancient Iranian ideas within Islam 79
- From late antiquity to neo-Mazdakism 103
- Later antiquity: Mazdak and the Sasanian crisis 139
- Between late antiquity and Islam: The case of Salman the
- Persian and Waraqa (the Christian scribe) 157
- The end of the journey: Persian Sufism 205
- Conclusion 223
- ct bibliography 227
- ex 231
IRANIAN OR PERSIAN? THE RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE OF IRANIAN IDENTITY
This book has been a part of my continuing journey to excavate the socio- religious identity of Iran, and in the process to learn a thing or two about my ancestral past.
Persia is an ancient land, possessing a long-standing cultural heritage that few others, apart perhaps from the Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese, could boast.
Persia’s mystique is probably owed to the early Orientalist scholars who set up the picture of the East, in particular Persia, as the exotic other – and especially as the source of all mystery, in the way that Egypt captures the imagination today.
This attitude of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship, that is, thinking of Persia as the origin of religious ideas, has since been revised, but it is one which regardless lingers in the discourse of contemporary Iranians. Interesting as it may be to entertain such notions, Persia would be better thought of as the land of extraordinary innovations. Possibly much to the dismay of my Iranian readers, Persia did not invent “everything”, but Persians have certainly been among the finest innovators: from empire building, religion, culture and language to architecture, alcohol and astronomy.
The centralized geographical location of the land itself lends to the nature of her people.
Iran differs from the Arab nations of the Middle East and should not be lumped together with them. Iran is, in fact, part of an Indo-European heritage, complete with its own distinct language, separate from its Semitic neighbours in the Near East. Sure enough, one of the most remarkable aspects about Iran is that it has retained its unique cultural, and to a degree its religious, identity through many episodes of invasion (Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol), the most lasting of which has been the Arab (Islamic).
And while noticing how Iran’s theocratic regime has received a great deal of negative portrayal through tabloid media, we need reminding that the nation has always had a strained relationship with the UK and US as more recent invasive powers.
There is growing interest in Iran among both academics and the general public, prompting desire to learn more about her special resilience. This book is writ- ten to respond to such interest, and aims to explain Iranian religious identity for those wanting to understand contemporary Iran more intimately.
A recurring motif in popular Iranian attitudes is the unremitting desire to be distinguished from an “Arab”. Having become the subject of lighthearted jokes among Iranians themselves, this attitude nevertheless voices an under- lying concern of a repressed aspect of Iranian identity.
It typically crops up in the way that some Iranians idealize the past (either the Shah’s regime or pre- Islamic Iran) and is especially acute in the way Iranians deal with the Arab- Moslem conquest of Iran. When observing contemporary Iran, one is not only presented with a dense cultural and religious content, but also by an unmistakable feeling that something has been repressed in the past.
Iran’s complex religious identity is owed to the unique synthesis of Iranian and Arab Islamic elements, Iran being unique in that it has preserved pertinent themes of its long-standing heritage, though these are now blanketed over with Islamic culture. Soon to be revealed is that this “blanket” of Islam was tucked in to fit the contours of the Iranian cultural landscape, and began to form its own expression through Twelver Shi’ism.
While Iranian Shi’ism has accommodated many of Iran’s cultural and spiritual needs, certain fundamentalist manifestations of it have in the long run subdued that liberal aptitude detectable in the poetry of an Omar Khayyam or an Hafiz-e Shirazi.
In short, general observations would comfortably reveal that Iranians, whether they are conscious of it or not, con- sider themselves first and foremost “Persian” (culturally), and then Moslem, so far as their Islam is forged out of their “Iranianness”
. It may be difficult to get some Iranians, especially those steeped in their Shi’ism, to admit to this special datum, and it would perhaps make for an interesting sociological study at some future date, but Iran certainly has all the trappings of a repressed culture.
The case for “Persianate” Sufism can be contextualized in the peculiarities of Iran’s rich and diverse cultural and religious past. As a result, Sufism in Iran can be nationalistic, and somewhat racist. As such, the study of Sufism in Iran must involve questions about the politics of identity.
The Nematollahiya1 are a case in point, since they carry all the right symptoms of a Sufi community affected by the after-effects of the 1979 revolution. That is, for the bulk of its Iranian contingent, Sufism is very much about pre-Islamic Iran and the heritage of Persianate culture which harbours the spirituality of its past. “Sufism”, therefore, for the Nematollahiya, is introduced to Islam. More precisely, such Iranian virtues as javanmardi (chivalry) and adab (etiquette) have been infused into Islam to make up the bulk of the “spiritual” content of “Persian Sufism”.
This is certainly the special case for the Khaneqahi Nematollahi Sufi order, which this study uses as the model for discussing a basic framework for exploring so-named “Persianate Sufism”. To be clear, this study only observes a certain dynamic of Nematollahi Sufism as lived by a majority of its Iranian members (whether migrant or not), while the order itself is extremely diverse culturally, with quite a large non-Iranian following, most of whom go about their Sufi practice without paying much attention at all to the Iranian agenda.
The order, having its roots in Iran, yet having transplanted itself, within the UK and the US primarily, caters for the needs of both its Iranian and non- Iranian adherents.
THE RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE OF IRANIAN IDENTITY: THE MODEL OF “HIDDEN HISTORY”
Peeling back the layers, what this book explores is a part of Persia’s intellectual and spiritual consciousness, without which one could certainly never under- stand her greatest mystics, let alone the many peculiarities of her complex “ethno-national” and institutional tradition, such as the Imamate. The ques- tion is how does one talk about this repression?
Does it take the form of “hid- den history”, as suggested by Yuri Stoyanov, of Zoroastrianism lurking behind spiritual alternatives in southern European spiritual history?2 Stoyanov’s thesis is a good point of departure, although for the Persian case we prefer to write of a “hidden macrohistory”, that is, history over a huge space of time, throughout which, if our attention is attuned to them, cultural and religious anomalies that persist in Persian historical consciousness can be detected.
Stoyanov’s thesis utilized the Bogomil heresy to explain the crucial character of the Balkan reli- gious identity. This, of course, was by way of divulging a “hidden history” of Christianity. He argued that the Bogomils represented a secret current, which he carefully explained as cropping up in the past through a series of Gnostic Christian heresies ultimately underpinned by Zoroastrianism.
In so doing, he explained how this “hidden history” accounts for the peculiar nature, charac- ter and place of “Bosnian Islam” in the Balkans. There is a similar “feel” about our own macrohistorical adventure, yet the difference in the Persian case is not one particular cultural and religious symbol or phenomenon that is in question, but rather several links of a number of associated phenomena in the intellectual life (and historical events) that make up the “past” or the back- ground of Persian Sufism – our major focus – and to some extent the perso- nae of “Persianate Islam” in general. The Twelver Shi’ite character of “Iranian
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