Mystics, monarchs and messiahs
Tensions that motivate
October 7, 2003
Epilogue in Kathryn Babayan's Mystics,
Monarchs and Messiahs (Harvard Center for Middle Eastern
Studies, 2003). Babayan is associate professor of Iranian History & Culture
at the University of Michigan.
We began our cyclical journey with the greater Mediterranean
world of late antiquity when prophets like Jesus, Mani, and Muhammad
entered the debate over authority with a monotheistic response
and universal vision. The body of the book focused on a microhistory
of Safavi Iran as a way of capturing some early modern alternatives;
manifestations of the dialogue between Semitic, Indo-Iranian,
and Hellenic cultures that continued to resist the monotheist
impulse to delay the meeting of the holy with the human until
the end of time.
I would like to close with a larger picture
of the history of modernity in Iran to trace a trajectory into
the future of some of the book's actors, the motifs they
invoked, and the desires they revealed. My conclusions will be
brief; they are afterthoughts on the significance of the Safavi
episode in Islamic history, more particularly, in those lands
where the Persian language came to dominate politically.
Throughout the narrative, I have tried to identify
a Persianate ethos recognized and practiced by a variety of ethnic
Turks, Kurds--and religious groups--Alid, Imami, Mazdean--living
in Anatolia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; each providing its own particular
renderings. Mazdean and Alid features of Persianate culture shared
symbols such as the Persian language, the sun, the mystic, the
monarch, and the messiah, or the ritual commemoration of the
drama of Karbala, creating a sense of "group belonging" that
I have at times referred to as an identity. This cultural system
uttered in the Persian dialect was transmitted through epics
like the Shahname and the Abu Muslimname and
translated into Turkic dialects spoken as far east as Samarqand
and westward all the way to Istanbul.
Identification with a Persianate
ethos was not necessarily bound to a territory, a body that would
be grounded in modern Iran with the advent of the West and the
entire imperialist project of modernity that mapped the contours
of nation-states. Attempts to confine heteroglossia, to fuse
a single Persianate language, were visible impulses in the Safavi
world. In this centrifugal process, lands that came to be controlled
by the Safavis (mamalik-i mahrusah), referred to
in the chronicles as Iranzamin, the "Land of Iran,"
were marked by binary tensions between Alid and Mazdean idioms.
a spectrum of meanings ran through these two poles, their dialectic
shaped the rhythms of history that permeated Safavi oral and
I have emphasized a number of ways in which
common signs were given signification through these two sites
of representation and how each came to incorporate shared icons
into their particular cognitive styles, memory-narratives, and
ritual expressions. Explorations into the cosmos of the Qizilbash
and Nuqtavis served as examples, providing social and political
texture for these symbols as well as glimpses into the ways in
which they were experienced. In early modern Safavi Iran, Mazdean
and Alid domains of signification overlapped, and as we saw with
the Nuqtavis and Qizilbash, boundaries were porous; one could
easily slip into the universe of the other.
By the end of seventeenth century with the writing
of an oppressive Safavi discourse and the physical assault on
cyclical time, the "way of metempsychosis," was to
have officially been silenced. The successful erasure of ghuluww-tainted
figures--Ali's third son, Muhammad b. Hanafiyya, and his
avenger, Abu Muslim--from the pages of Shi'i history was
accompanied by an enumeration of excesses that violated the tenets
A decree in 1694 was to be read in all mosques,
in some even inscribed in stone: provincial governors, aldermen,
and judges were to enforce the word of God. Functionaries who
had neglected the shari'a in the past were punished. Wine bottles
from court cellars were publicly smashed in the central square
of Isfahan. Music and dance were to cease at all weddings, and
in male and female gatherings. Sodomy, prostitution, and gambling
were banned. Coffeehouses were closed down. Opium and "colorful
herbs" were declared illegal. Islamic garb was to be enforced.
It was in the name of Divine Law that these practices were marked
Although these shari'a-based denunciation
were not new impulses, with the Safavi patronage of Shi'i
scholars, judges, and preachers, the foundations of a religious
establishment were actualized. Through institutions like the
mosque, theological seminaries, and religious endowments (waqf),
the Shi'i clergy could now take part in the game of politics.
Hence, a new stock character entered the dynamics of Iranian
history--the jurisconsult (mujtahid) who was privy to knowledge
of the word of God.
These Shi'i scholars challenged charismatic
mystics thanks to a theological school (Usuli), which
sanctioned the position of specialists in Divine Law as the sole
between the believer and God. In the absence of the Hidden Imam,
these specialists not only claimed direct access to God, some
like Mulla Qassim in Safavi Isfahan and Khomeini in contemporary
Iran, would argue that political rule was reserved for them as
well. With the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the mujtahid would eclipse the figure of the monarch.
Idealists and visionaries continued to voice their
desire for alternative visions of justice. A longing for immediate
with the holy and a hope to experience a utopia on earth was
expressed through a familiar apocalyptic language of change.
The break with cyclical time and a gnostic way of being had not
been complete in Safavi Iran. Believers continued to anticipate
Messiahs who emerged from mystical circles, unveiling new cycles
of revelation. Groups like the Ahl-i Haqq and the Nusayris in
western Asia, the Naqshbandis in the east, and the Alevis in
Turkey still practice these beliefs. Political vicissitudes shaped
the degree to which so-called "exaggerated" utterances
could be voiced publicly, or on the margins of secrecy.
in republican Turkey, with the rise of a shari'a-minded
consciousness organized into political parties, the secular government
has in fact encouraged Alevi expression in the hope of mitigating
religious orthodoxy. Heresy and orthodoxy continue to define
each other; what distinguishes each meaning has much to do with
the one who does the defining. For some Shi'i ghulat,
revenge was no longer articulated against the Sunni oppressors
of the family of the Prophet. Although they continued to resist
the hegemony of rationalist theologians patronized by monarchs
like the Qajars (1785-1925), a new enemy had emerged on the scene
with the advent of Western imperialism, whether in the form of
the British or the Russians. Some dervish groups came to interpret
colonialism as a sign of the end of time.
In Central Asia (Marv),
the Englishman Joseph Wolff, traveling in the middle of the nineteenth
century, captures some of these readings. As one dervish claimed,
"[T]he English people are now Timur, for they are descendents
Khan. The Inglees will be the conquerors of the world." Another
Turkmen is held to have said that "the Russians shall be
the conquerors of the world," while a dervish from Patna
framed the British dominance of India in apocalyptic terms. The
different ways in which the West was incorporated into the consciousness
of Muslims reveals not only a strand that read colonial rule
as old prophecies foretold in the corpus of Muslim eschatological
traditions, but other Muslims perceived the West as a site of
cultural, spiritual, and political resistance.
Apocalyptic thinking continued to resonate with
the ways in which history was interpreted and lived by a variety
of Muslims in
nineteenth-century Qajar Iran. Astrological calculations in synchronicity
with Shi'i eschatological traditions set the date 1844
as a fatal year when a variety of millenarian responses were
voiced within the Shi'i community--Nimatullahi, Isma'ili,
Babi--and, beyond, among a heteroglot Christian, Zoroastrian,
and Jewish population living in Persianate landscapes.
the Nurbakhshi Hajji Muhammad Na'ini chose to emphasize
a return to the Persian past, claiming that "ere long will
Iran be made the shrine around which will circle the people of
the earth." Others like the Bab articulated change from
within the Shi'i paradigm of the return of the Hidden Imam
to initially declare himself as his Gate in 1844, and then to
go public as the Imam himself (1848)--the manifestation of God.
Yet it would be another prophet, Mirza Husayn Ali
Nuri, known as Baha'ullah, the "Glory of God" (1817-1892), who
emerged out of the Babi movement with a universal vision that
had evolved through its Mazdean and Abrahamic cycles to express
an alternative worldview cognizant of a new global reality. Baha'ullah
continued to repudiate the hegemony of a Shi'i rationalist
school (Usuli) who sought to seal prophecy after Muhammad
as a solution to the debates over authority that the Imami community
had to revisit with the occultation of the twelfth Imam (874
C.E.) and a renewed expectation of his appearance. Echoing traditions
of ghuluww, Baha'ullah saw revelation as a process,
each cycle progressively illuminating new layers of the divine
As Ismael Velasco has aptly put it, "Baha'u'llah appropriated
not merely the pre-Islamic past but, crucially, the non-Islamic
present, to predicate a post-Islamic future."
religious dissent had throughout Islamic history challenged cultural
hegemonies that attempted to rationalize religion, severing direct
and intimate contact between the holy and the divine in the name
of Islam. Those Persians who embraced Baha'ullah's message, whether
Shi'i scholars, Qajar royalty, courtiers, sufis, craftsmen,
Zoroastrians, or Jews, were responding to similar pressures.
Critical of the Shi'i clerical establishment, Baha'ullah
imagined a utopia where religious liberty and human equality
fostered heteroglossia. What distinguished Baha'ullah from
other like-minded Iranian reformists was that he was speaking
as the spokesman of God.
Baha'ullah's ideal society
was not secular, for he lamented the spiritual and ethical decay
in the West, associating it with the erosion of religion and
its replacement with reason. Instead, Baha'ullah legitimized
the sovereignty of monarchs, but independently of clerical authority.
These two bodies were to remain separate but joined, a tradition
he recalled back to the "Covenant of Ardashir," locating
it within a Persian genealogy of sovereignty.
was speaking in the language of Persianate culture for an audience
who understood it. But as Juan Cole has persuasively argued,
Baha'ullah was ascribing meanings to the notion of justice
that were now indeed global ideals that had found realization
in the American Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the
Rights of Man, and even the religious freedom and equality of
minorities expressed in the Ottoman Tanzimat. Such ideals were
being encountered at a time when Europe was building world empires,
expanding militarily into Islamic territories.
An insidious cultural
imperialism provoked a crisis of identity, shaping a multitude
of "Muslim" constructions of itself and the "West" till
this day. Baha'ullah was critical of European militarism,
but he admired their technological advancements and egalitarian
beliefs. He used examples of Achaemenid glory and tolerance to
bolster pride so as to shake the Iranian out of his sorry state
of subjugation, rejecting the racist orientalist arguments internalized
by some Iranians, seeing themselves as inferior to the Europeans.
As Velasco has succinctly put it:
Baha'ullah appropriated the idiom not just of
Persianate Islam, but also of the West and used it to resist
hegemony. In other words, the Baha'i teachings opened an avenue
for a new, post-Islamic identity that promised to overcome and
finally resolve the cultural (and by implication political and
social) tensions of the day. They also posed an unmistakable
challenge to the existing order. What was seen by some Persians
as the fulfillment of Islam was regarded by others as its open
Baha'ullah articulated his universal language of liberty
and justice from within the framework of Shi'i ghuluww. Only once Bahai'sm was established as a new religion, however,
defining itself as the fulfillment of Shi'i messianic expectations
and broke with the shari'a, unveiling a new universal revelation
did Babism became tagged as ghuluww. As in the case of the
Nuqtavis, it is the pubic revelation of a new order that promises
on earth, which marks the boundaries of ghuluww. But unlike
the universalism of the Nuqtavis, whose alchemical conception
the cosmos imagined all spiritual and material creation as
equal, Baha'ullah's universalism transcended the Nuqtavi
need to emphasize a Persian Ajami identity.
Perhaps this had
something to do with the particular historical context of each
prophet. After Mongol rule, Pasikhani was confronted with a
fragmented Caspian Sea region, in which a plethora of regional
movements rose in the name of Ali and emphasized the prestige
of Muahammad's family (sayyid). Baha'ullah, on the
other hand, lived in an age in which not only Iran but the
entire Abode of Islam was colonized by the West. The advent
and European world hegemony ushered in an era in which localisms
no longer remained isolated within regional dynamics, but were
now intimately connected to a global society.
in Tehran came to matter to London and Paris, just as these
European capitals would prevail on Tehran. The late antique
language of apocalyptics in its Abrahamic mode shared by Jewish,
and Muslim cultures was indeed a unifying system. It took a
consciousness like that of Baha'ullah to recognize this and
reinterpret eschatology as a spiritual revolution that promised
the integrity and freedom of all citizens of the world.
with a Persian past and the will to return to it resurfaced in
modernity, although it took on a very different
incarnation in the form of Iranian nationalism with the chauvinistic
flair characteristic of nationalist visions. Binary tensions
between what was officially identified as Mazdean and Alid
continued to mark the history of Iran.
The Safavis as agents
culture had produced a dominant discourse that crystallized
this dual image, shaping a sense of "Iranianess" for the
future denizens of modern Iran. The ebb and flow of Iranian
history gravitated around imaginations in which both Shi'i
Iranian symbols were used to construct narrative memories.
How governments manipulated these two symbolic repositories,
aspects were appropriated, redefined, and branded as excess
shaped the trajectory of the history of modern Iran.
I have isolated three memory hooks on which a
Persian past fastened itself--the Persian language (alphabet,
solar calendar, and the physical ruins of pre-Islamic Iran.
These symbolic resources would be mobilized and reanimated
next three centuries following Safavi rule. Both the successor
dynasties of the Qajars (1785-1925) and the Pahlavis (1925-79)
began to rewrite Iranian history with different degrees of
emphasis on pre-Islamic Iran, supplanting or writing out Shi'ism
in the process.
Safavi representations of the Mazdean sun,
symbol of sacral kingship, and the Shi'i lion, evoking
Ali's chivalric struggles for truth, were fused together,
serving as twin symbols of monarchy. Qajar imagery added a
crown that enshrined the lion-and-sun as though visually asserting
the power of kingship over civil and religious domains. A process
was set in motion that formalized the lion-and-sun symbol into
a national emblem of Iran written into the first Iranian Constitution
Afsaneh Najmabadi has unraveled this fascinating
trajectory, exposing the layers of meaning and the iconic shifts
in this single sign that continues to enjoy multiple associations
of "Iranianess." Her readings illuminate the gendered
and sexual impulses behind the evolution of this icon, relating
it to the project of modernity that introduced ideals such
romantic marriage and heterosexual love under the gaze of the
West. In the process of standardizing this symbol, she delineates
the ground that was laid out for competing and contesting meanings
of "Iranianess" to emerge in time.
Just as the sun
came to shine its feminine face and the masculine lion became
her partner, the lion-and-sun came to be associated with early
Qajar kingship. Gradually, as the sun began losing all her
feminine features toward the end of Qajar rule, she was transformed
an abstract circle, finally to be desexualized by Reza Shah
Pahlavi. In Irano-Muslim culture in which male bisexuality
was the norm,
it would not be embarrassing for a monarch to be associated
with a bigendered imperial logo. But as the Western perception
sodomy as "unnatural" became internalized by an elite
of Iranians exposed to the West, the female figure had to be
veiled in a male-dominated national iconography.
With the Pahlavis, the lion-and-sun symbol became
so associated with an oppressive Westernizing monarchy that the
that toppled it replaced it
with Arabic calligraphy inscribing the monotheism of the new regime. With the
victory of a rationalist interpretation of the word of God, a single language
of Shi'ism was imposed by a Shi'i clergy that had now established
a theocracy as agents of God, and perhaps at the behest of the Mahdi himself
embodied by Imam Khomeini in the popular imagination. It was a Persian past
that was now being erased.
As Najmabadi points out, although
the lion had a definite
iconic association with Ali in Safavi and Qajar visual culture, it was eliminated
in the era of Islamic rule as a national symbol. Returned to its previous religious
domain, it was to be displayed in banners hoisted during Muharram commemorations
marking the martyrdom of Husayn. Although in 1979, Ali and his progeny had
in reality appropriated the authority of monarchs and messiahs,
and religion and
politics had merged once again, the lion had been contaminated by Pahlavi kingship
with its reintroduction into a Persian symbolic field.
The lion that had been
a symbol of Rustam's heroism in the Shahname and an Irano-Semitic
icon of kingship in medieval Iran was marked with the figure of Ali and would
be fused during the Safavi episode with Shi'ism. The lion was returned
to its old domain of identification with the Qajars and Pahlavis defined
by their opponents, the Islamic Republic, as a sign of the historically corrupt
of Persian shahs. What was deemed as old was in fact a synthesis of the old
and the new, for Ali and the Imams were now speaking in Persian.
it is the West with its interest in archaeology and its reintroduction
of Greek histories that preserved an interpretation of the Iranian
what had been commemorated in Ferdowsi's Shahname that the
ruins of Persepolis and the Sasani palace of Ctesiphon would provide the
legitimacy for a new form of Persian revival. French archaeologists who had
a monopoly over
Iranian antiquities under the late Qajars began to provide scientific backing
to a mytho-history of Persian glory.
In a step to reclaim Iran's integrity
as a nascent nation-state, Reza Shah revoked the French concessions of
1895 and 1900 through an act of parliament in 1927, and came
to personally protect
material remains of an Iranian past for his program of nation-building.
With his establishment of the Museum of Iran Bastan (1937) inspired
by the Sasani Palace at Ctesiphon, Reza Shah began to codify a singular
meaning for these ruins. No longer were they signs of Persian
glory that alerted
Arab or Iranian Muslims to the success of Islam and the mutability of
but rather they were to be read and felt as sights of ancient pride to
be recalled into the present sense of "Iranianess."
his nation as Iran, a term used locally, rather than the Western appellation
had entered European discourse through the Greek designation of their
enemy, the Persians who ruled from Fars. He also chose a new
name for his family,
adopting the term "Pahlavi" that designated the ancient language of Iranians
before the Arab conquest, before Arabic words colonized the Persian alphabet.
Although it is related that Reza Shah had forgotten his own Iranian past,
him to ask an American orientalist, Donald Wilber, the meaning of the
word "Pahlavi," Reza Shah was not only responding to an Iranian
A current of Iranian nationalism was active among
scholars like Sadiq Kiya and Ibrahim Purdavus, the very first
professors who taught
of Archaeology, established in 1937 at the Tehran University by Reza
Shah. Sadiq Kiya published his research on the Nuqtavis in a journal
he had established
like-minded colleagues entitled Iran Kudeh, "The Land of Iran."
Such Persian impulses had been voiced earlier in Qajar Iran by intellectuals
and politicians like Akhunzadeh and Mirza Aqa Khan Kirmani.
project as a "lieu de memoire," seeing it as a pivotal text for the
continuity of Persian culture and its resilience against Arab dominance.
It was thanks to Ferdowsi that they believed the fate of Iranians
did not resemble that
of the Egyptians. The Persian language became the privileged site
for nationalisms and anti-Arab sentiment to mine. And we must
that these voices
were uttered at a time when Iran's Muslim neighbors were expressing
versions of Arab and Turkish nationalism.
The rejection of Arabs
and, by association, of Islam prompted an Iranian identification
had marked Islam as backward, despotic, and carnal. The Persian linguistic
kinship with French or English through its Indo-European past served
as a bridge to the
West that could save Iran's face from its Islamic taint. A movement
to purge the Persian language of Arabic words produced a genre
in pure Persian (parsigari) that had a previous incarnation
in Safavi Iran.
A genealogy can be traced from the Nuqtavis who
fled to India--Azar Kayvanis--to
a nascent nationalism voiced in the form of Zoroastrian revivalism
and the preservation of the Persian language. Dictionaries were
mode of this
expression, compiling lexicons of Persian unfettered by Arabic.
But such movements underscored Persian superiority, de-emphasizing
of Nuqtavi thought; two different directions in which the Bahai
faith and Persian nationalism took.
Both Pahlavi monarchs, father and son, manipulated
these tendencies and exaggerated the identification of Iran with
de-rooted the clerical establishment, depriving it of its legal
and educational functions.
The clergy retreated into their mosques from which a new revolution
remembering a Shi'i past would emerge.
Alongside such institutional
had cultural and political reverberations, Muhammad Reza Shah broke
Islamic calendar and instead inaugurated a new era that would reckon
time through solar
calculations beginning with the reign of the Achaemenid monarch
Cyrus. His two thousand five hundred-year commemoration of Persian
at the site
was the most extreme of the many manifestations of Pahlavi revival,
and was the brainchild of another orientalist, Arthur Pope, who
surveyed Iranian art and
architecture. The new Western factor would complicate the complex
dynamics of Iranian identity formation, whether in the territory
of Iran, or
diaspora living in the West since the Islamic Revolution.
Persian xenophobia under the Pahlavis gave voice
to a variety of opposition, both secular and religious. Among
the clergy, Khomeini
was the most
vocal. Breaking the silence of contemporary accommodating clerics,
blamed the Pahlavis
for Iran's enslavement by the West. He argued for the incompatibility
of monarchy and Islam, quoting Muhammad as his source. Even intellectuals
like Jalal Al-i Ahmad and Ali Shariati, who had toyed with Marxism,
spoke in the common
of Shi'i Islam represented by Khomeini. Each, of course, placed
a different emphasis on the centrality of Shi'ism for the Iranian.
For these men
a spectrum of Iranian malaise, the Persian revival and its concomitant
obsession with the West was deemed foreign to the Iranian populace
at large. Iranians
not only knew nothing of this Persian past, but a consumerism
was infesting Iran
that ate at the soul of every citizen; even the villager was
struck by it. Al-i Ahamd located this "spiritual enslavement
that Europe had injected into Iranian imagination" at the height
of Iran's confusion. He coined a word for this disease--"gharbzadegi,"
Euromania--and likened it to locust in fields of wheat, who infest
the wheat from within,
leaving behind only skin."
Despite Al-i Ahmad's break with his
own clerical heritage and his candid critique of the rigidity,
hypocrisy, and superstition
of clerics, his ensuing struggles to find a home for himself in
Iranian political life left him with an emotional longing that
was filled by those Shi'i
memories and rituals that made him an Iranian--something that became
him during his pilgrimage to Mecca. The Iranian revolution of 1979
spoke in this very language of cultural resistance, and, as Al-i
Ahmad had anticipated,
would be a revolution of the "word," for only if the word were
uttered from within its religious domain (Shi'i) could it have
the power to succeed.
But as the Islamic Republic came to eliminate the
sun-and-lion symbol, as it attempted to eradicate Persian New
the discipline of Archaeology,
Achaeminid and Sasani history prominent in Pahlavi textbooks, these
sites are rooted in Iranian cultural imaginations. Today, they
are sites of resistance
both inside the boundaries of Iran and among exile Iranians in
the West. Whether nostalgia or kitsch the lion-and-sun emblem on
coffee mugs, the revival of
Zoroastrian studies in Iran as well as among amateur scholars in
exile, the Persian past
is now a living and organic "millieu de memoire." The Islamic Republic
appropriated these sites somewhat reluctantly as the war with Iraq
necessitated a revival of nationalism. Shi'ism as a universal ideology
has not freed
itself of the referent that is Iran, at least in this cycle of
During the millennium-and-a-half history of conversion
of former Sasani dominions to Islam, Mazdean and Alid idioms
have been the
styles of expression.
Mystics, monarchs, messiahs, and, more recently, mullahs, have
been endowed with the authority to privilege particular memories
merging the two languages, as Shah Isma'il did, or rejecting Shi'ism,
as did the Pahlavis. And we have the counterexample of Khomeini,
who asserted the hegemony of Shi'ism over a Persian past. Such
diametric responses, influencing the cyclical processes of change--moving
to and from an Arab (Islamic) present to a Persian past.
constantly shifting is what continues to be constructed at every
turn of history
as "Iranian" and
"Shi'i." Despite attempts from the rise of Islam up to the Islamic
Revolution in Iran to reject
one for the other, the duo has resisted separation. Continuities
are not linear--they do not necessarily live on in their distinct
in every (re)invention
of "Iranian" or "Shi'i," both elements have already
been merged--they have lived previous incarnations in each other's
fields of representation. What is seen as Shi'i in one cycle of
history is actually
imagined as Iranian in another age.
Since the rise of colonialism, a third icon--the
West--has joined this duo to create a triangle that marks the
tensions that motivate
Western democratic ideals embraced by Baha'ullah, are now the platform
for reformist clerics like Khatami in Iran who emphasize the rule
of law and civil society in the language of Islam. The prospect
and messiahs seems gloomy today, but we should not forget that
and was embraced just over a century ago. And that in the 2001
in Iran, a young sufi from Ardabil presented himself as a candidate.
It is difficult for many of us living in this age
of reason to believe in
or in reincarnation.
The rationalist project of Abrahamic monotheisms has, indeed, succeeded
in severing the holy from the human. Although many educated citizens
world would ridicule
ghulat beliefs, relegating them to the realm of superstition
and magic, some continue to dream of justice and union with the
divine in apocalyptic
terms. This book offers itself as a bridge to a past to which we
are now blind, a guide
not only for exploring another culture, another mentality, but
understanding that world on its own terms.
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