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Swan song
The many reformations of Iranian Islam

May 13, 2004

Some people believe that there is no such thing as coincidence or chance. Coincidence or not, I had been reading the article by Guive Mirfendereski about the sad demise of his father [See: Rising sun] and after sending him a brief note of condolence, returned to an article from the Encyclopedia Iranica, which had attracted my curiosity, mainly because it was written by the late Henri Corbin, author of the 4-volume En Islam Iranien and many other works. The article concerned an Azar Kayvan, a Zoroastrian from Shiraz, who, in the 17th century, left for India to found a Zoroastrian version of the celebrated illuminationist theosophic school initiated by the 12th-century Iranian gnostic, Shehab-al-din Yahya Sohravardi.

The latter's Philosophy of Light had accomplished the feat of integrating into gnostic Sufism, itself much influenced by neo-Platonism (including through the works of an Avicenna), some of the Zoroastrian archangels as well as semi-legendary kings of the Persian national epic like Kay Khosro. All this within his philosophy of Light which transcends sectarian divisions, as all gnostic thought inevitably must do. Back-and-forth movements of motifs and ideas that refuse to die and the consequent symbiotic relationship between old and new beliefs have often marked the thought patterns of the Islamic era, not only of Iran but of Iranian-influenced countries such as India under the Mughal dynasty. And indeed it was the liberal religious atmosphere of Emperor Akbar's India and his attempts at creating a world religion from the many strands of faith present in India, that was conducive to syncretistic thought.

The Illuminationist or Eshraqi school had a fruitful revival in the Safavid period, thanks to superior minds like Mir Damad and above all, Molla Sadra Shirazi whose metaphysical writings are arguably unequalled anywhere in the world. Such thinkers were not just content with rehashing the same old commentaries, but in the best tradition of the earliest days of the Mutazilites (most of whom were Persians converted to Islam in caliphal Baghdad), produced new ideas and took them to summits, beyond which lies only the thorny path of questioning the existence of God (without excluding a return to belief, but only by way of rational deduction). This could not happen in the special atmosphere of Safavid Iran, which had declared Shiism the national religion and imported theologians from Bahrain and the Lebanon to consolidate it as a national creed that eventually was to even condemn the very Sufism to which the Safavids' ancestors had adhered. It has been said that that was the beginning of the end, for while Europe followed the Cartesian school, Iran never ventured beyond the metaphysics of a Molla Sadra, who himself had to go into concealment to avoid persecution.

That did not arrest the popularity of his school, nor the proliferation of disciples who might take inspiration from him, even Zoroastrians, as is well evident from the singular case of an Azar Kayvan. The School of Isfahan (later moved to Shiraz) became so well-known that when the first student from the still unexplored desert of Najd in present-day Saudi Arabia, who decided to venture into the world beyond, to improve his knowledge, he proceeded to Shiraz. That man was the now justifiably maligned Abd-al-Wahhab, who was shocked to discover that Islam in Shiraz had 'degenerated' into (to him) incomprehensible philosophical rantings, and returned home to fulminate against the sin of compounding the teachings of the Prophet with the philosophy of the heretical Persians. Instead he preached a literalist Islam which is nowadays, thanks to oil politics, equated with Moslems everywhere, without much allowance for local divergences and idiosyncrasies, which have always been especially strong in Iran.

Azar Kayvan took the teachings of the Illuminationists to India where he created a Zoroastrian version for his fellow Parsees. As I read on, I found out that the noted theosophist of the School of Isfahan, Mir-Fenderesky, had been a disciple of this symbiosis between Zoroastrianism and the Illuminationists. An interesting exchange, in which a Zoroastrian turns to novel ideas coming out of his land in the guise of Islam, and on the other a noted scholar of Islamic gnosis attracted to the 'nationalized' version of the gnosticism of his school as conceived among Indian Parsees. Never mind that a footnote of the same article says that some of the books attributed by Azar Kayvan and his disciples to pre-Islamic figures are apocryphal, that the attempt to avoid Arabic words in the text is too forced and that the texts attributed to this school are not altogether devoid of opaque 'gibberish'. What matters most here is the symbiosis itself, the oecumenical attempt to syncretize the two main religions of Iran at their most creative instead of stagnating in the tired straitjacket of archaic beliefs.

This was by no means a novelty in Iran or among Iranians, who influenced Shia deviationism in the early days of Islam right under the nose of the Caliphs in Baghdad. It belies the by now hackneyed repetition, by superficially informed commentators in the press, that Islam, contrary to Judaism and Christianity, had never known any reformation. I had wanted to write an answer to such an inanity, but the subject is far too complex, difficult, and I felt inadequate for the task. The spark that triggered my decision was the coincidence that led me to the ancestor of the Mir Fendereskis by way of Azar Kayvan just after reading of the demise of his distinguished descendant, Ahmad Mir Fenderski, who belonged to a now defunct class of superior statesmen. To come across the name of his celebrated ancestor in an article devoted to syncretism in the history of Iranian religions seemed to me almost like a signal of fate. I just had to respond, no matter how amateurishly I might express my views. As with the school of Azar Kayvan among the Parsees of India, it is not the quality of what is said, but the purport of what is said that matters the most.

Indeed, to say that Islam has known no reformation is to ignore the history of Shiite thought from the earliest days. I do not mean the habitual explanation that Iranians were drawn to Shiism because they were used to hereditary kingship and were therefore in favour of Imams descended directly from the line of the Prophet Mohammad. Much more important was the messianic idea, unknown in Sunnism, as incorporated in the idea of an Occult Imam and his promised return at the end of time. The messianic idea goes back to before Zoroaster, to Mithra who represented the ultimately regenerative and purifying power of the sun and its emanations.

The messianic aspect was taken up in a more elaborate form by Zoroaster, whose seed deposited in a lake (generally taken to be the now mostly dry Lake Hamun in the province of Sistan) would, according to Zoroastrian eschatology, impregnate three virgins who, in turn, would give birth to a succession of three messengers, the last of whom would be the agent of the Final Resurrection of Good and the total elimination of Evil forces. If it sounds familiar, it's no coincidence, for thanks to meticulous study, we now know that the whole messianic idea ( as well as many more) was transmitted by the agency of the Zoroastrian Magi to Judaism and through it, to Christianity too. To Buddhism it infiltrated directly from Mithraism which continued to be practiced in eastern Iranian lands before the adoption of Buddhism under the Kushan dynasty. The very name of the Maitreya, Buddha of the future, is revealing enough.

As with Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism, so with Shiite Islam, and through it also to its many offshoots, including Ismaelism and more recently, Shaikhism and Babism. That such a powerful idea, the very expression of hope, having penetrated every major religion, should not influence Iranian Islam (either directly or through the agency of Iranian-influenced non-Iranians in Iraq), would have been surprising. Indeed, the figure of the Occult Imam came to represent the essence of Shiism, even though the person of the occulted one varied according to schools, from the offspring of the fourth Imam in Zaidism, to that aof the Seventh in Ismailism and of the eleventh in Twelver or Duodeciman Shiism of the majority trend. As though this were not already enough of a deviation from what the 'last of the prophets' had taught, extremist Shiites began to develop ideas about the 'hidden' or esoteric meaning of the Word, thus leaving the door wide open to change.

This did not remain a dead letter, and a host of different schools of thought developed not only within gnostic groups, but within the mainstream, the latest of whose interpretations, as expressed by the Usulis of the 18th century led to the present political rule by Shiite clerics, pending the coming of the occult Imam of the Age. As with any freedom, leaving the door open to reformation, does not always lead to the desired results, but at least the possibility of change is alive, unlike in Sunnism which only believes in the apparent meaning of the Word as transmitted to the Prophet of Islam.

That such a trend did not come to a stop, that it was not discouraged by the rigid orthodoxy of recently converted Turkic invaders who took the reins of power, shows just how strong the urge for reinterpretation has been within the framework of Iranian Islam. This is not the place to go into the labyrinthine details of the many ideas developed over fifteen centuries, nor am I qualified to undertake such a task. But this does give me a chance to remind of at least one or two of the most innovative schools that developed within Shiite Islam to show that Islam has known reformations much bolder than any among the Christians. Nowhere more so than within the Ismaelism of Alamut in the middle of the 12th century. Yes, as early as that, when Europe was still struggling with the Dark Ages of medieval papists. Not even the Bahais dared to venture that far.

To the messianic idea of a returning imam, the Ismaelis added that of a cyclical return that would eventually culminate in the final event, the Great Resurrection, when all prophetic eras and their laws would be superseded by the fact that religion had been interiorized within members of the community, who therefore no longer needed the Sharia.

The promise of the day, when that would occur, had been included in Ismaili doctrine, but circumstances had not allowed it to happen until one day in the 12th century when the heretofore persecuted Ismailis of Alamut, feeling somewhat relieved by the weakening of the Saljuk monarchs and therefore from the persecution to which they had responded with targeted assassinations of specific enemies, including that of the great statesman, Nizam-al-molk (which earned them unfairly the name of Assassins, wrongly associated with the use of hashish), proclaimed with pomp and ceremony on the plain below Alamut that the Resurrection had come and their Imam, Mohammad III, was the one who would declare the end of all prophecies as well as dispensation from the Law.

This situation lasted for about fifty years within their community, after which, isolation having weighed too much on the young, their leaders had to compromise with mainstream Moslems (mostly still officially Sunni at that time) and come out of their mountain fastnesses to live a more fruitful life. That compromise engendered greater success. Soon the number of Ismailis was on the rise, and thanks to their involvement in overland trade, they became extremely powerful, so much so that the future of Iranian Islam looked like it would take the Ismaili path, and 'free' itself partly from the shackles imposed by the rigidly institutionalized religion of the Saljuks. It was not to be though. The Mongols were coming, and when Hulaku was appointed to be the Ilkhan, he realized where competition was strong, and went for the jugular of Ismaelism.

The story of how it resurfaced from hiding under the guidance of the family of the Agha Khans is irrelevant to the point I am trying to make. This had been the boldest deviation in Islam, but it was not to be the last, since Shiism had yet to be declared the official religion of a recreated Iran, and a Bab was to show up in 19th-century Shiraz to claim the mantle of the promised Imam. The Azar Kayvan attempt at symbiosis was a marginal one, but along the same lines. Had it not been for the fact that Ahmad Mir-Fendereski had just passed away, I may not have noticed the name of his illustrious ancestor as one of those who, although trained as a theologian, was most drawn to the idea of syncretism with links not only to our own past, but with the greater world beyond.

With such a diversity at their disposal to study and ruminate, one can hardly conceive that the assiduous youth at work in the sophisticated computerized idea factories in Qom will not eventually produce something new. Something more akin to what the Kasravis and the Akhundzadehs had said. All of the progressive minds, secularists and even atheists of Iran's 20th-century history arose from clerical ranks, later to depart radically from their likes to propose new avenues. The movement initiated by them has not yet run its full course. Apart from the rich and diverse traditions to which their predecessors were exposed, the future breed of potential reformers has access to a range of cultures and ideas that their elder peers did not have. It would be atypical if such a training does not bring about a wealth of new thought, once the last breed of populist nominees, so visibly devoid of the merits required for the lofty positions they now occupy, has gone into retirement - to everyone's relief.

There are signs to behold. On a recent trip to Iran after an absence of 25 years, I did not see one turban on the streets except those on gigantic billboards, nor did I hear a loudspeaker blare out the call to prayer until I landed in Istanbul. Ashura had gone by and friends told me that this year, the whole program had been choreographed to new rhythmic beats in order to attract more people to the martyrdom ceremonies, irreverently called 'Hossein-parties' by some of the youth. One of the out-of-favour ayatollahs has written a book about Iranian Islam being different from the Islam of orthodox Sunnism and has thus given rise to a lively debate. 'Sinful' reng music can be heard on the radio, as well as outspoken satire at the expense of the mollas and their failures. Archeologists, including foreign ones, told me that there is more money available for the excavation of pre-Islamic sites than for Islamic-era ones. A young man from Ahvaz, visiting the Iran Bastan Museum, said in loud and clear words, that 'religion as a solution to our problems has clearly failed its mission'. Nor was he the only one to be fearlessly outspoken. There is altogether a sense of vibrancy in Iran that one cannot ignore as something that will have no morrow.

Still, one must not read too much into these signs either. Despite curiousity for other religions, including Buddhism, and definie interest in a secular state, as a way out of ou present predicament, at least half the people of the country are still attached to their rituals and beliefs, though, of course, in their own Iranian idiosyncratic way. That does not prevent them from advocating the separtion of state and religion and a democratically elected government. Some claim that the religiosity of these people is skin-deep and a radical change of direction might be acceptable to many more than meets the eye at present, but only if it comes from a trusted quarter which, elusive for now, may be in the making.This would have the advantage of putting the well-oiled mechanisms of clerical insitutions at the disposal of progressive reforms.

Utopia, perhaps? I am no soothsayer. There are many unknowns on the path of future salvation and many problems, not least serious environmental ones, that must be solved before one can be optimistic. I have only tried to shed light on the past as a guide to potential future trends in Iran and to keep hope alive as the immortal legacy of both Zoroaster and Shiite Islam. As for the people of Iran, their unprecedented level of awareness and critical judgment are an added promise. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are not lost on them, notwithstanding the impression of naïve journalists who mistake Iranian hospitality for approval of Bush and a will to submit to foreign intervention, the last thing Iranians of any political tendency would want. Nor does anyone harbour any illusions about the mollarchy, but for now, the majority prefer to put up with that which they know, as it shows signs of relenting on some of its rigours, rather than risk the unknown, or worse, violence and civil war. Most hope that the recent success of the conservatives will be their swan song. The invisibility of the latter may even point to the fact that they know it too well.

Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Women's University. She also did volunteer work for the Deparment of the Environment, where she planned education for schools and TV on environmental subjects. Since the Revolution she has been focusing on research and writing. Her latest appeared in The Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (Summer/Fall 2000) called "Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics int he Iranian World".

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