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Imagining New Authorial Configurations in Persianate Sufism

Panel IX-10, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
Intellectual histories have imprisoned Sufism in scholarly vocabularies as “Islamic Neoplatonism,” rendering local, embodied, and contingent experiences invisible. Similarly, rampant theorizations on spiritual interiority do little practical work for tracing the pathways that led Sufi orders to inhabit discursive and ritual postures to survive unique contexts. Inspired by scholarship investigating the transformation of Sufism in Iran that allowed its long-term survival as an institutionally revised ʿirfān (Anzali 2017), "Imagining New Authorial Configurations in Persianate Sufism" challenges conventional wisdom by considering diverse political contexts—from early-modern Central Asia and the Deccan, to Qajar, Pahlavi, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Across these adjacent landscapes, Sufi partisans have competed against epistemic, institutional, and cosmic authorities to carve out a central role in the religious life of Muslims. These papers contribute to our knowledge of local, contingent, and unique experiences of Sufi scholars, orders, leaders, and hagiographers while demonstrating the worldly stakes in the otherwise universal claims of religious power and authority. The authors of this panel ask the following questions: What discursive tools allowed a female Sufi leader to channel the charismatic leadership of the Prophet to guide a Central Asian Sufi community while unabashedly challenging the necessity of such guidance? How did Iranian Shiʿi migrants appropriate longstanding Sufi political theologies to re-theorize sovereignty in the early-modern Deccan? Why did Shiʿi Sufis in late-Qajar Iran develop novel vocabularies to link adherents to masters who may not have recognized such claims? How did revolutionary clerics and irreligious litterateurs alike appropriate mystical poetry to transform Iran in starkly different directions? And why would a universal Sufi intercessor restrict its authority to not transgress juridical power in contemporary Iran? Bringing together scholars of Religious Studies and Literature, History, and Anthropology who examine diverse archives, this panel speaks to theoretically situated conversations around gendered, ethnic, scholastic, civic, and poetic authority. Exploring these dimensions, members of this panel call for revisiting traditional taxonomies and moving beyond the familiar axes of ẓāhir/bāṭin, baqā’/fanā’, and other binaries that occlude socio-cultural context to emplot Persianate Sufism in explicitly terrestrial terms. In doing so, we hope to generate a discussion with our respondent and audience about the ways in which the study of Persianate Sufism has moved away from the apolitical, world-denying, and aloof depictions of Henry Corbin (d. 1978) and his students towards multi-dimensional dynamic, engaged, and world-affirming authorities.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • This paper focuses on a debate in 1970s Iran about the poetry of Hafez of Shiraz (ca. 1315-1390) between Ayatollah Morteza Motahari (1919-1979), an influential theorist of the Islamic Republic, and Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000), a prominent Modernist poet. At the center of the debate is the meaning of ‘erfan in the poetry of Hafez, expanded and contracted to fit the political aspirations of the poet and the ayatollah. I argue that this phase in refashioning of ‘erfan shows the mutually constitutive relationship between “religion” and “literature” and the role they played in shaping the political discourse of pre-revolutionary Iran. Following Talal Asad's Secular Translations, I trace the translations involved in producing and making sense of ‘erfan in the second half of the 20th century Iran with a focus on the history of the term in the local setting on the one hand, and the traveling theory of "mysticism" between the Persianate Sphere and the Western context.
  • The Dhahabīyya order, a prominent Sufi order in Iran, can be traced back to the Kubrawīyya order, an important Sufi order with a rich history in Islamic mysticism. In this inquiry, I examine the post-Sadra interpretation of religion and the propagation of Sadra's ideas by Sufi-philosophers, who presented an interrelated version of Shi'ism and Sufism. Furthermore, I intend to investigate the resurgence of the Niʿmatullāhī Sufi order and its plausible association with the Sufi School of Najaf in the Shia seminary. To establish a foundation for studying the Dhahabīyya order's evolution, I will initially explore the recent scholarship on the Kubrawīyya order. This investigation has unearthed a previously overlooked relationship between Kubrā and Khuzestan in Western scholarly research. Additionally, I will examine the role of Ismāʿīl Qaṣrī in Kubrā's Sufi chain, as well as the significance of Kumayl b. Ziyād Nakha⁠ʾī, a faithful companion to Ali and a crucial figure in Shia Islam, in linking many Sufi orders to Ali and, consequently, to the Prophet. Subsequently, we will delve into the revival of the Dhahabīyya order in Iran after the Safavid era. This revitalization was marked by the emergence of Barāzishābād, who played a pivotal role in the rejuvenation of the Dhahabīyya order in Iran. We will scrutinize the philosophical and mystical ideas that materialized during this period and examine the connection between the Dhahabīyya order and the Sufi School of Najaf Seminary in the 19th century. Moreover, we will investigate the crucial role of the Dhahabīyya order in the convergence of Shiism and Sufism and the impact of this amalgamation on Islamic mysticism.
  • The present paper examines the construction of female religious authority based on the case of the sixteenth century female Sufi master celebrated as Aghā-yi Buzurg (the Great Lady) from Bukhara. Considering the insufficiency of historical sources documenting female religious authority within Muslim contexts, we are fortunate to have access to the Maẓhar al-ʿajāʾib and later narrative traditions in reconstructing Aghā-yi Buzurg’s legacy and tracing people’s interest in her over half a millennium. The Maẓhar al-ʿajāʾib is a remarkable text for the reassessment of women’s history and the role played by women in early modern Central Asia. Although devotional and hagiographical sources are often overlooked for their distinct view of history, they are essential for the understanding of early modern religious worldview. These sources not only give voice to Aghā-yi Buzurg, albeit through her male devotees and hagiographers, but also enables us to glimpse into popular attitudes and assumptions concerning women, their experiences, and societal gender ideals. Assessing such sources as a forum for historical reflection on societal perceptions on prescriptive gender roles creates new ways of conceptualizing gender history. By highlighting the transforming historical character and complexity of female religious authority, Aghā-yi Buzurg’s example demonstrates that the silence in archives does not necessarily suggest that women were excluded from public engagement and leadership opportunities in early modern Central Asia. The reproduction and reception of the Maẓhar al-ʿajāʾib in the period of several centuries could promise more texts dedicated to women produced in Islamic Central Asia. The reproduction and reception of the Maẓhar al-ʿajāʾib in the period of several centuries could promise more texts dedicated to women produced in Islamic Central Asia.