Saturday, December 14, 2013

Mullā Ṣadrā on the cosmic authority (ولاية تكوينية) of the Friends of God

In a recent piece that is about to be published on walāya takwīnīya in the Safavid period, I discuss various thinkers including Mullā Ṣadrā focusing primarily on his discussion in al-Shawāhid al-rubūbīya. Now, of course, one could have looked at other texts – and the most obvious lie in his extensive and still little studied exegesis. I recently realised I had seen an article - a useful indexical one - on Mullā Ṣadrā on the concept of walāya:

ʿAbd al-ʿAlī Shukr, 'Vilāyat dar andīsha-yi Ṣadr al-mutaʾallihīn', Khiradnāma-ye Ṣadrā, no. 66 (winter 1390 sh/March 2012), pp. 39-52

After a introductory section outlining senses of walāya, the author points out two schemes of walāya. The first distinguishes between a common sense (ʿāmm) that is open to all believers, and the second is for the select (khāṣṣ) friends of God whose selfhood dissolves in the very essence of the divine. This is indicated in his commentary on the Light Verse and in other places and clearly draws upon the Sufi exegetical tradition (probably from Ghazālī). The second scheme is found in his exegesis on the Throne Verse - God's walāya for believers means one of three things: i) his assistance in the completion of his proofs and his guidance, ii) his help for them to overcome their enemies and to manifest their faith and make it emerge above all others, and iii) his assistance for their accomplishment of their moral obligations and supererogatory acts that draw them near to him [Tafsīr, āyat al-kursī, ed. Muḥammad Khājavī, Tehran: Bunyād-e Mullā Ṣadrā, 1389 Sh/2010, V, p. 254]. Thus walāya involves both push and pull factors: acquired by the performance of spiritual exercises, but also free gifts of grace. 

Ok so what about the concepts of walāya takwīnīya and tashrīʿīya that arise from the school of Ibn ʿArabī? It's clear that the former links an early Shiʿi insistence in hadith upon the cosmic role of the Imams as the manifestation of the divine (wajhullāh) to the Akbarian idea that links to this of the Imam/Walī as the totality of the divine names, as the one who comprehensively manifests divine attributes. Once the Imam/Walī has the rank, he can act at the level of the cosmic order (al-amr al-takwīnī) - such a person is the perfect human that mediates between the divine and the cosmos [al-Asfār al-arbaʿa, ed. Aḥmad Aḥmadī, Tehran: Bunyād-e Mullā Ṣadrā, 1381 sh/2002, VI, p. 252; Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, ed. Najafqulī Ḥabībī, Tehran: Bunyād-e Mullā Ṣadrā, 1386 Sh/2007, I, p. 345]. 

The authority to define what the sharīʿa is - walāya tashrīʿīya - is a continuation of the prophetic function and is discussed in his commentary on the hadith collection al-Kāfī. In his engagement with the controversy over the seal of walāya, he sides with the Shiʿi tradition of the school of Ibn ʿArabī (starting at least with ʿAbd al-Razzāq Kāshānī d. 1336) that insists on the seal's identification with the Mahdī [Sharḥ uṣūl al-kāfī, ed. Muḥammad Khājavī, Tehran: Pazhūhishgāh-e ʿulūm-e insānī, rpt., 1383 sh/2004, II, pp. 476 and see pp. 467-68].

The real question is whether beyond the particularities such as this latter point whether Mullā Ṣadrā's concept is really a Shiʿi one or a Shiʿi version of a concept in the school of Ibn ʿArabī. The obvious place to look further more carefully is the commentary on the kitāb al-ḥujja of al-Kāfī. But beyond that, as I indicate in my article one needs to look elsewhere such as the work of his student Fayż Kāshānī (d. 1680), not least in his Kalimāt-e maknūna and other works for a more seamless bringing together of the Akbarian and the Shiʿi strands, and perhaps to figures like Qāḍī Saʿīd Qummī (d. 1696) whose magnum opus is a glorious Shiʿi Neoplatonic commentary on the hadith collection al-Tawḥīd of al-Shaykh al-Ṣadūq (d. 991). I realise that I still need to return more extensively to discuss the question of what makes Mullā Ṣadrā a Shiʿi thinker beyond the obvious. And then one slowly and surely gets entangled in the debates on the nature of authentic Shiʿi discourse..

More on Niẓām al-Dīn Gīlānī

I am grateful to Mohammad Karimi Zanjani-Asl for sending me the various volumes of treatises that he has edited of Gīlānī's.
Since I have already commented in the previous post on the collection of some of his philosophical works, I comment on the others here:

1) al-Ḥarāra al-gharīzīya - edited by Ḥakīm Sayyid Ẓill al-Raḥmān, published in 1391 Sh/2012 as volume 4 of the Mīrās-e Quṭbshāhī series. Like the Rasāʾil, they are based on a single manuscript copy held in the microfilm library Markaz-e Iḥyāʾ in Qum. The editor is an eminent specialist on traditional Muslim, Galenic medicine (ṭibb-e yūnānī), significant given Gīlānī's role as a disseminator of medical and scientific knowledge in the Deccan. The treatise itself - around 35 pages - is prefaced in Persian and English with a brief introduction to the scientific works and to the treatise. The work itself focuses on the notion of innate heat as a property that indicates life of the body and the soul. the specific case discussed is the nature of heat in humans especially in the process of the conception and incipience of the human soul in the embryo through the idea of the innate heat in semen. In the proemium, he says that he wrote the text at the request of the ruler (and his patron) ʿAbdullāh Quṭbshāh on the nature of heat and how human embryos, blood and flesh are produced through the agency of the divine. This is another facsimile edition in a very clear hand - described as nastaʿlīq although it seems rather naskhī to my eyes.

2) Dū risāla-ye falsafī-ye fārsī - this is one of two volumes published by a new press Nashr-e majmaʿ-ye dhakhāʾir-e islāmī in 1392 Sh/2013 [which seems to specialise at least in some of their publications on works from the subcontinent) - on two treatises: on the refutation of metempsychosis (dar radd-e tanāsukh), and on the reality of death and the fear of death (bayān-e ḥaqīqat-e mawt u kayfīyat-e khawf az mawt). Both texts are edited and barely a few pages each (the whole paperback booklet is around 50 pages). The texts are prefaced with a correspondence with the 'shaykh' of the Meccan precinct ʿUtāqī Afandī [based on a literary and historical majmūʿa in the Majlis Library manuscript 5996]. The editor suggests that it was on the basis of this correspondence that Gīlānī, a major courtier and vizier at the time, was bestowed the title of Ḥakīm al-mulk. Interestingly he refers to Afandī as 'ṣūfī' which suggests that at this time it was not yet a disapproved term. The treatise condemning metempsychosis is prefaced with a useful discussion on the conception in Islamic intellectual history with an excellent set of references. Karimi suggests that the text was primarily aimed at the Nuqṭavīs at court who following Pasīkhānī upheld metempsychosis. The second treatise is also rather short. Karimi - and the evidence of these texts - suggest that the Quṭbshāhī court was quite an intellectual salon in which, mirroring some ʿAbbāsid fora and the Fāṭimid court, 'majālis al-ḥikma' took place - and these works are a result of those learned sessions, summaries of the arguments that Gīlānī as an official court intellectuals put forward. So two points worth further investigation: what was the role of the Nuqṭavīs in the Deccan, and what were these salons at the Quṭbshāhī court and how common were such fora in India?

3) Finally, there is a collection of three treatises on natural philosophy also published by the Nashr-e majmaʿ-ye dhakhāʾir-e islāmī published in 1391 Sh/2012 and comprises: a treatise on the four elements (ʿanāṣir-e arbaʿa), on the nature of wind and thunder and lightning, and the creation within a week. The texts (again rather short) are prefaced with a useful introduction to Gīlānī's positions on natural philosophy. In the third text, he says that it emerged from a salon session in Jumāda II, 1055 H/July 1645 in which he defends a broadly Biblical-Qurʾanic account of creation in a period of time, broadly ex nihilo (perhaps in refutation of non-linear conceptions of time and creation posited by Indian thinkers at court). These texts further show that Gīlānī was basically an Avicennan-Galenic thinker - at the end of the final treatise, he cites Ibn Sīnā from al-Taʿlīqāt and Mīr Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī (d. 1498) - on this point the editor makes a common mistake of conflating 'Sayyid Ṣadr al-Dīn Muḥammad' with Mullā Ṣadrā. The Ṣadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī mentioned here is clearly Mīr Ṣadr al-Dīn the author of a treatise on Ithbāt al-wājib, and not Mullā Ṣadrā who never wrote a treatise of that genre.

I'm looking forward to further works of Gīlānī being edited by Karimi, not least the Ḥudūth al-ʿālam. What will emerge I think is an interesting thinker who transmitted the tradition of Mīr Dāmād to the Deccan but also someone who remained an Avicennan-Galenic thinker and testified further to the enduring significance of Avicenna in the Islamic East.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Philosophy and Science between Iran and India: The case of Niẓām al-Dīn Gīlānī

For some years now, scholars have been looking at the work, particularly in science of the Iranian scholar Niẓām al-Dīn Aḥmad Gīlānī (b. Gīlān, 993/1585, d. Hyderabad or Isfahan, 1071/1660). After studying in Isfahan with Mīr Dāmād and Shaykh Bahāʾī, he emigrated probably around 1041/1631 to India.

[Rudiger Arnzen, 'Mapping Philosophy and Science in Safawid Iran and Mughal India: the case of Niẓāmuddīn Aḥmad Gīlānī and ms Khudā Bakhsh 2641', Mélanges de l'Université de St-Joseph lvi (1999-2003), pp. 107-160
The ms discussed is a wonderful blend of Graeco-Arabica, Neoplatonic texts such as the so-called Theology of Aristotle (Uthūlūjiyā), works of Fārābī and Avicenna, Bābā Afḍal Kāshānī, Sufi texts, and even Gīlānī own works including on medicine]

At first he went the court of Shāh Jahān (r. 1628-1658), a common destination for Iranian seekers of patronage. But he decided to enter the service of Mahābat Khān (d. 1634) who has rebelled against Jahāngīr but was pardoned under his son and appointed the governor of Delhi, and at whose salon he met and debated other scholars as discussed in his Shajara-yi Dānish. Accompanying Mahābat Khān on campaign in the Deccan when he was appointed as governor of Dawlatabad, probably on the death of Mahābat Khān in 1634, he decided to return to Iran; however, on invitation, he changed his mind and went to the Quṭbshāhī kingdom of Golconda where he was the recipient of the patronage of Sulṭān ʿAbdullāh Quṭbshāh (1035/1626-1083/1672). He became the main court physician, received the title of Ḥakīm al-mulk, and wrote a major compendium of medicine entitled Majmūʿa sharīfa fī-l-ṭibb for the Sulṭān in 1055/1645. Here is a picture of a manuscript of this text that was auctioned recently:

Gīlānī's work on medicine comprising sixteen treatises was later published. This is the list of the works contained therein:

He supposedly also wrote a Persian history of the Quṭbshāhī dynasty entitled Ḥadīqat al-salāṭīn, of which numerous manuscript copies survive. However, the author of that text is a different Niẓām al-Dīn Aḥmad Shīrāzī. He also acted as an ambassador for the Quṭbshāhīs to the court of Shāh Jahān and even to the Safavid Shāh ʿAbbās II. 

Muḥammad Karīmī Zanjānī-Aṣl and Āzādih Karbāsiān have produced a facsimile edition of a selection of his 'philosophical works' based on a majmūʿa in the collection of the Markaz-e Iḥyāʾ-ye mīrāth-e Islāmī 981 in Qum which were supposedly copied in the lifetime of Gīlānī. They have then prefaced an introduction in Persian and English - the Persian one is somewhat more extensive. It is volume one of a new series entitled Mīrās-e Quṭbshāhī published as a joint venture between the Majmaʿ al-Zakhāʾir al-islāmīya in Qum and Bonn University's Institut für Orient-und-Asienwissenschaften. Other works published in this series include: al-Ḥarāra al-gharīzīya, eds. Zanjānī-Aṣl and Ḥakīm Zillur Raḥmān, and two collections of poetry by Muḥammad Rūḥ al-Amīn Iṣfahānī entitled Leylī va Majnūn and Bahrām-nāma. The only other work of Gīlānī that seems to have been published is Miẕmār-e dānish (or Farsnāma) edited by Arif Naushahi and published by Tehran University Press in 1996. 

The volume contains:
1) Risāla fī ḥudūth al-ʿālam - a major concern of the school of Mīr Dāmād and it would be worth carefully examining this text alongside the works on that topic of Mīr Dāmād and Mullā Shamsā Gīlānī. This is an Arabic treatise that clearly defends Mīr Dāmād's particular position on ḥudūth dahrī (perpetual creation) as a modification of Avicenna responding to attacks on Avicenna from Mīr Makhdūm Sharīfī Shīrāzī (d. 1587) and Nūḥ Effendī (d. 1070/1659). He explicitly ties his text to Mīr Dāmād by describing it as ḥikma īmānīya/yamānīya which is juxtaposed with ḥikma yūnānīya - scriptural, prophetic philosophy as opposed to Greek philosophy. 

2) Risāla fī sharḥ kalimat al-islām - a short treatise on the testament of faith, a renowned genre of treatises including by his teacher Shaykh Bahāʾī, Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī and others - and draws upon statements on divine unity from the Nahj al-balāgha and works of Ibn ʿArabī. He explicitly cites the views of Shaykh Bahāʾī and quotes the famous formulation in the Nahj of the relation of God and the cosmos being one of togetherness in which they are neither identical nor distinct (lā bi-muqārana...lā bi-muzāyala).

3) Risāla fī bayān al-ʿaql al-faʿʿāl - this is another example of Shiʿi neoplatonism connecting the work of Fārābī and Avicenna to statements of Amīr al-muʾminīn. 

4) Manāfiʿ-ye mawt - this is a work that arose out of a majlis at the Quṭbshāhī court and draws upon the akhlāq tradition. 

5) Risāla dar sharḥ kāʾināt-i jav va raʿd va barq va ṣāʿiqa - this final Persian treatise is an explanation of various natural phenomena like thunder and lightening. 

The concern of most of these texts is philosophical theology and demonstrates once again that in the 17th century, scholars trained in Isfahan tended towards a holistic understanding of knowledge connecting science to philosophy, mixing the Greek and the early Shiʿi heritage, and linking explicitly Neoplatonism to the sayings of the Imams. Facsimile editions - especially ones as clear as this - are a contribution. But given the short nature of the texts, it is a shame that the editors did not consider producing full critical editions of the text that draw citations and so forth. But nevertheless a contribution. And further evidence for my position of how to read and understand ḥikma in the Safavid-Mughal period. 

PS: I'm grateful to Hunter Bandy for indicating that Zanjānī-Aṣl has written about another work of Gīlānī's: Radd-e tanāsukh. He suggests that the text is a critique not only of ishrāqī thinkers who were at least ambivalent if not supportive of metempsychosis (on which see Schmidtke and Freitag) but also of Nuqtavīs. As far as I know, we still need to look into the issue of Nuqṭavīs at Deccan courts and the supposition is possible. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Delhi in the Nineteenth Century

Partly because of the anniversary of 1857 a few years back and the growing interest of how the British presence impacted and transformed the elites, whether social or intellectual, of the old Mughal Empire, Margrit Pernau's new book Ashraf into Middle Classes is an exciting new publication. It builds upon a recent volume that she edited on the famous Delhi College.

Pernau's monograph considers the period from the British hegemony in Delhi from 1803 through to the twentieth century Khilafat Movement culminating in the 1920s. The central issue of research relates to identity and how sharafat became a key feature of this. The study is divided chronologically into three periods: the initial British impact, the aftermath of 1857, and the period under Empire. Apart from the point that identity is fluid, dynamic and transformed, she also questions whether it is always formulated within the context of alterity. Questions of class, gender, and ethnicity are then weaved into this narrative. Given her own work within the history of emotions and the desire to use the data to inform comparative studies, she links and compares the notion of the ashrāf with the middle classes - the rise of the middle classes after all is linked to notions of modernity and progress in European history and in wider narratives of how modernisation and secularisation work in the modern world. A related video of a seminar at Chicago is here. The monograph is a rich and wide ranging study and will become a definitive account of the long nineteenth century in Mughal history.

Faruqui on Dārā Shikoh

This is part one of a lecture by Munis Faruqui on Dārā Shikoh linked to his ongoing project.

Mughal Studies

Mughal Studies is really quite a vibrant field. Apart from the wider trend of looking at the 'so-called' Gunpower Empires as a cultural continuity and stressing the need for a connected histories approach that rejects the categorisation of nationalist historiographies, there have been a number of excellent developments.
First, we have this blog - the Mughalist - which brings together materials and links that are essential if you are interested in the area.
Second, Azfar Moin's ground-breaking monograph The Millenial Sovereign builds upon recent re-assessments of the dominance of messianism from the Timurid period onwards. He argues for continuities of Safavid and Mughal conceptions of kingships as sacral in ways which places the king above the religious communities that constitute his subjects.
Third, there is the recent work of Munis Faruqui on the administration and functions of the Mughal Empire focusing on the role of princes. Here is a recent lecture of his on Dārā Shikuh. This is part of an ongoing project on Dārā that he has. Alongside a new book on the formation of Mughal Empire, he is writing about Dārā and his context.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Maʿrifat Series on Mullā Ṣadrā

A while back I mentioned an excellent TV series on philosophy and the intellectual life in Shiʿi Iran with the renowned public intellectual and Tehran University Professor Ghulām-Ḥusayn Ibrāhīmī Dīnānī.
He did a series of 12 episodes on the thought of Mullā Ṣadrā earlier in the year which have been uploaded onto YouTube.

Here are some of them:
In this first episode which lays the foundations for the discussion, they try to define what one means by transcendent philosophy (al-ḥikma al-mutaʿāliya), and part of this is Dīnānī's contention - that accords with something I wrote in my doctoral dissertation years ago and I guess it might have been the result of conversations with him back in the late 1990s - that tashkīk, the notion of modulation in the structure of being, is central to Mullā Ṣadrā's philosophy so much that it is the main hermeneutic of being.

This episode focuses on his conception of motion in substance (a Neoplatonic but anti-Aristotelian doctrine):

The core of Mullā Ṣadrā's thought concerns his position on being, its manifestation and its provision of ontological foundations in the study of reality:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Philosophy in the time of Avicennan Hegemony: the 12th Century

Our understanding of the history of Islamic philosophical traditions becomes richer and more nuanced by the day as more and more specialists enter the field and make contributions. In particular, recent developments are beginning to shed greater light on the crucial 12th century when Avicennan philosophy became established, fused with different currents of philosophical kalām including Ashʿarism and the modified Muʿtazilī school of Abū-l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī (d. 436/1044) – Robert Wisnovsky has for some time been studying that Avicennan legacy not least in his article in the Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, and now in another collected volume Interpreting Avicenna. The 12th century is precisely the period that Yahya Michot described as one of ‘la pandémie avicennienne’, not least because of the lack of success in refuting and challenging Avicennan ideas. Avicenna and Avicennism survived; ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī (d. 525/1131), Sharaf al-Dīn al-Masʿūdī (d. 582/1186), ʿAbū-l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī (d. c. 560/1165), Abd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī (d. 629/1231 – but now on him see this new book by Cecila Martini Bornadeo), Ibn Kammūna (d. 683/1284 – on him, see the book by Pourjavady and Schmidtke) and others did not even if now and then some thinkers in the later traditions referred back to their works.

Ayman Shihadeh at SOAS has made a number of important contributions here, beginning with his article in 2005 in Arabic Sciences and Philosophy on the 12th century, more recently another article in the Bulletin of SOAS in 2013 on Ibn Ghaylān al-Balkhī (d. c. 590/1194) as well as his facsimile edition of Nihāyat al-marām fī dirāyat al-makān of Ḍiyāʾ al-Dīn al-Makkī, father of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzi (d. 606/1210). Similarly, a Warburg Institute colloquium on the 12th century convened by Peter Adamson (now at Munich) has resulted in a volume In the Age of Averroes. The 13th century that immediately followed in rather significant as well since that is when the illuminationist tradition associated with Suhrawardī (d. 587/1191) became established, as did the new Avicennan orthodoxy of Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 674/1274), and the emergence of Imāmī kalām with him and his student ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī (d. 725/1325). It would be great to have a conference called In the Age of Ṭūsī

But in terms of the 12th century, one of the figures whom we have known for some time, not least because of his supposedly non-Aristotelian logical text al-Baṣāʾir is Zayn al-dīn ʿUmar b. Sahlān al-Sāwī or Sāvajī (d. c. 537/1143). Gholamreza Dadkhah and Mohammad Karimi Zanjani Asl at Bonn have produced an edition of three works in logic and philosophy as the first volume in a new series in ‘Iranian philosophy’ published in Germany by Goethe & Hafis. The three texts, all in Arabic, are rather short totally barely 50 pages in all – and they are:

  1. Risāla fī taḥqīq naqīḍ al-wujūd primarily concerned with the semantics of the term wujūd and its predication (and previously edited and published by Muḥammad Taqī Dānishpazhūh - I wonder why one would need to improve on something he did - I need to look more carefully again), 
  2. al-Tawṭiʾa fī-l-muʿjizāt wa-l-karamāt on the epistemological and psychological background to making sense of miracles responding to the positions of al-Shahrastānī (d. 548/1153), 
  3. and Nahj al-taqdīs on the problem of God’s knowledge of particulars, defending Avicenna against Ghazālī.
An introduction in Persian that is longer than the texts adequately present Sāwī, his texts, the manuscripts and some aspects of his thought – a much more abridged English introduction is not nearly as useful and suffers from issues in expression, orthography and transliteration – and also one wonders why a work published in Germany has nothing in German? 

In terms of Sāwī’s one context, we have an individual associated with the Seljuk court – he wrote al-Baṣāʾir for the vizier of Sanjar, Naṣīr al-Dīn Maḥmūd Marwazī. Sāwī was a student of Muḥammad b. Yūsuf Īlaqī (d. 534/1141), an Avicennan thinker (who wrote on medicine as well as philosophy), associated with Asʿad Mayhānī (d. 527/1132), a teacher at the Niẓāmīya in Baghdad and a third generation student of Avicenna, interacted and debated with Shahrastānī, and taught Ibn Ghaylān al-Balkhī. Thus in terms of his networks, he was clearly an important figure engaged in the debates for and against Avicenna at the time when Avicennism was becoming established. His influence still needs to be considered – Ziai wrote the famous Encyclopaedia Iranica entry on him but there is little else. In particular, he is attributed with a refutation of Shahrastānī’s Muṣāraʿat al-falāsifa that may have influenced Ṭūsī’s own refutation, but until we study the text we cannot say for sure. But nevertheless, the editors have done a decent job – the history of philosophy requires both research and careful critical editions of texts as well as the studies of their ideas, impact and influence. What we now need is for someone to join the dots and link together the emerging Avicennan networks, to analyse the thought of these thinkers in the 12th century and crucially show us how Avicennism emerged and perhaps even more significantly how that might be distinguished from Avicenna's own contributions, not least because the later traditions (Mullā Ṣadrā, for example, often associated Avicennism with the works of Bahmanyār, Lawkarī, Ṭūsī and others alongside citing the actual texts of al-Shifāʾ, al-Taʿlīqāt/al-Lawāḥiq and al-Ishārāt). 

And for those of us interested in intellectual history with a focus on philosophy, things just get better by the day. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Modern mystics in the Shiʿi seminary

Ever since the revolution in 1979 and no doubt because of Ayatollah Khomeini's own tastes and commitments, the study and promotion of mysticism (ʿirfān) has been central to the Shiʿi seminary - the ḥawzeh. Works have proliferated on the mystical and ascetic qualities of teachers of what was usually called ethics (akhlāq) in the ḥawzeh
This series of programmes - here in Arabic translation - shown on Iranian TV (al-Kawthar) provides a series of biographies using talking heads, many of whom are well known teachers in the ḥawzeh and specialists in ʿirfān. Here is the first of a series of episodes on ʿAllāma Ṭabāṭabāʾī, crucial because of the association of the study of ʿirfān with the so-called ṭarīqa associated with him, his teachers and his contemporaries including his cousin Sayyid ʿAlī Qāḍī, and Sayyid Hāshim al-Ḥaddād.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

It's the economy, stupid! Reconsidering the fall of the Safavids

In the last couple of decades the study of Safavid Iran has progressed seriously and rapidly, partly encouraged by the series of Safavid roundtables held from Paris to Edinburgh, and partly by the rising interest in the period expressed by Iranian historians – in fact this autumn there will be a major conference on Safavid history in Tehran. Critical (or at the least reliable) editions of historical works, biographical dictionaries, literary and theological texts, as well as the major contributions of Iranian scholars such as Rasūl Jaʿfarīyān and Manūchihr Pārsādūst (mostly in the area of narrative history) have all produced a conducive environment for the flourishing of Safavid studies. 

Rudi Matthee has contributed to this development in serious engaged scholarship through his studies of the political economy of the late Safavid period and his absorbing study of the culture of pleasure at the Safavid court. In the book under review, Matthee tackles one of the key points of historiographical contention relating to the why and how of the fall of the Safavid dynasty and the ‘decline’ of eighteenth century Iran. Safavid studies suffer often in comparison with the other ‘gunpowder empires’. Iran had neither the wealth of India or the Ottoman Empire, nor did it have the administrative structures and resources. Similarly, historians of Safavid Iran had a wealth of narrative and discursive sources at their disposal but in comparison to Ottomanists and specialists of Mughal India lack the extensive archival and documentary sources necessary for the understanding of political and imperial history. Matthee turns back to an area famously studied by Lockhart earlier in the twentieth century. An earlier generation of scholars blamed cultural reasons for the fall of the Safavids – the feeble nature of a harem-besotted and intoxicated series of Shahs, the intolerance of the Shiʿi clerics given ever greater power to discriminate against Jewish and Christian minorities (especially merchants) and Sunni notables (especially tribal levies in the military) and an inability to control over-mighty subjects (alongside the inability to create a strong and centralised state often in contrast to the supposedly centralised Mughal empire) are seen as key reasons for the Afghan sack of Isfahan in 1722 and the occupation of Iran. However, Matthee argues that the fall of the Safavids was not just due to moral degeneracy – rather the real structural reasons lay in political mismanagement, weakening of the military (and the failure of the new Safavid form of the devsirme to establish an independent force loyal to the Shah), the breakdown of communications and control between the court and the provinces, disastrous economic and monetary policies, and the inability to establish authority. His analysis shifts us back to the real problems in the political economy of Iran from the death of Shah ʿAbbas onwards. The language of decline is not entirely discarded but the teleology of it challenged.

The structure of the book broadly follows a chronological approach – and demonstrates where the significant shifts occurred. He starts with a foregrounding chapter on patterns in late Safavid Iran. The key point in this chapter is to argue both against the notion of an arbitrary centralised state as well as the idea that state power was legitimate, established and abstract. Safavid power was thus a series of negotiated connections between differing forces, exigencies, and interests that needed to be balanced. The realities of Iran posed challenges: the lack of homogeneity within a terrain that was relatively poor compared to its neighbours did not provide the bases for stable and strong governance. In a sense the suggestion is not why did the state collapse so quickly in the 1720s but why did it manage to survive for over two centuries given the wide-ranging tensions? Chapters two and three examine the court and the process of the weakening of the Shah due to the rise of court intrigue and over-mighty subjects. Chapter four moves onto the devaluation of the coinage and the monetary weakness of the state and its mints. Chapter five examines the shifts in the military, connected to an increasingly gulf in authority and control between Isfahan and the provinces examined in chapter six. Following the treaty of Zuhab in 1639 one would have expected the military to regroup and consolidate but the shift to conflict with the Mughals and on the northern borders did not allow for the possibility, and the alienation of tribal levies was a key feature in formenting rebellion. Only then does Matthee deal with the question of religion in chapter seven to examine the treatment of religious minorities. The final chapter deals with the turmoil that led to 1722. The state did not fall because it was dominated by eunuchs, clerics and the harem – but rather their dominance was symptomatic of the systemic political and economic weaknesses of the empire that had become ever greater over the course of the seventeenth century. The Safavid state had always been ‘in crisis’ and exemplified the paradigm of the rise and fall of polities articulated by Ibn Khaldūn. In this sense, it was actually the reign of ʿAbbas I that was exceptional because he was exceptional.

In the current sectarian politics of the Middle East where Safavi has become a term of abuse for the Shia and especially for those who are sympathetic to Iran, no doubt there will be some who will look to this book to see how to bring down the republic, partly demonstrating their inability to understand how history works. On the flip side one wonders why, despite the actions of the Ottomans that were equally politically expedient - and sectarianism arises out of political problems and opportunities and is not the logical conclusion of theological difference - they have not been stigmatised and the actions of current Sunni anti-Shiʿi bigots are not called ʿUthmānī. Iranians also need to understand as he states correctly the difference between historical realities and perceptions of the Safavid period that continue to inform and distort notions of nation and identity in the present. Much of the impact of history is determined by the ways in which we try to imagine our collective memory and identity over time and project ourselves upon our ancestors. 

But if Matthee’s work has implications for the contemporary – and I have never understand history to provides lessons in such simplistic terms as contexts and times change – it is that a sectarian mindset that reduces the political to religious difference will fail to discern the real structural and political-economic problems and challenges that arise in states. Following the awards that the book has won including from MESA and the ISIS, no doubt it will attract the attention of non-specialists and even policymakers. And it deserves to be read widely as it is the best work on the Safavid period to have emerged in recent years and provides a wide scope to understand the nature of the empire. But ultimately, Matthee’s book is a modified version of that modern political slogan – it’s the economy, stupid! In this sense, Marx lives and remains of relevance to the study of the contemporary Middle East.