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. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Must we be pluralists? Some History

It seems as if alongside the question of violence and its legitimacy (and inevitability) the question of how religions relate to each other and tolerate the other has become one of the key issues of the day. Christian theologians for some time have been formulating a theology of religions, ranging from thorough pluralists to outright exclusivists. John Hick openly has espoused a radical form of pluralism predicated upon a Kantian distinction between the noumenal Real (or God as we normally call her) and a plethora of phenomenal 'reals', lived and historically embedded religions that seek to make sense of God. Since we can never know God as such, the ineffable mystery, we need to effect a humility before the unknown and hence forgo the certainty that often affect fundamentalist forms of faith. In our time when diversity and pluralism are clearly seen as moral goods - a position with some qualification with which I broadly agree - even some of the traditional institutions try to embrace change and come unstuck; one thinks of the odd situation somewhat recently of the Vatican endorsing a more pluralistic, far further than Vatican II form of universal salvation that even embraces atheists in their final destiny (and one feels a certain indignation on the part of atheists being dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of Heaven), and almost immediately afterwards pulling back in favour of the comfort of extra ecclesiam nulla salus - the equivalent of a Muslim exclusivist's 'you will burn but that doesn't mean we cannot get along' form of 'ethical engagement'. 

Mohammad Khalil's Islam and the Fate of Others: the Salvation Question, a revised version of his Michigan doctoral dissertation, is a timely and modest work that deserves to be widely read, not just by those in Islamic studies and theology but also by those interested in current politics. It is modest because it downplays how radical his historical findings are whilst being quite aware of the significance of his case studies for our contemporary debates. Our everyday obsession with religion and politics that has punctuated life at least since 9/11 means that we often are asked about the nature of belief and its implications not least for the afterlife. The basic assumption that many people hold is that Islam (which Islam? who speaks for it?) is both a supercessionist and exclusivist faith, denying the validity of other traditions, not least the Abrahamic ones that went before and certainly denying the possibility of salvation and success in the afterlife for those who are not Muslim. However, while such a view may arise out of a simple and literalist reading of some scriptural texts, Khalil’s aim is to demonstrate that the scholarly and theological actuality over time is not so simple – and in fact, even some of the figures cited by proponents of violence and exclusion in the contemporary period do not fit the stereotype. Furthermore, such a view of Islam as a monolithic, exclusionary faith begs the question of how one might go about defining a Muslim. Some of these rather difficult questions are neatly sidestepped - one wishes for a more ambitious and bold Khalil sequel that will engage this. 

Khalil’s strategy is to interrogate many of the assumptions that we may hold including how we define our terms. One may argue that the very language of salvation and the question reveals a Protestant (or Western Christian) bias: the question arises as a response to the need to overcome the original sin in which all the children of Adam are born. Many Western Christian responses therefore develop the tripartite theory of final destination: exclusivists insist that salvation is only and only through Christ and the Church, inclusivists attempt to find space for the salvation of others through mechanisms such as arguing that godly people from other faiths will find salvation through the holy spirit acting through them, and pluralists defend the salvation of others. One might ask whether these three options are exhaustive and to what extent they extend to the study of all religious traditions. Since we cannot entirely re-invent our language of religion, at element of genuflection towards these categories is inevitable. Khalil argues that in fact within Islamic discourses there are notions of salvation and success in the afterlife that do not require us to accept the doctrine of original sin; furthermore, Islamic theologies recognise that the beginning of humans is a good and positive place in the presence of the divine and hence the end desired is a return to that primordial space. Khalil argues that the question of the final destination of non-Muslims (and indeed of different types of Muslims) is important because it reveals much about the nature of God and the nature of the afterlife. Two key sets of questions in this context are: how can a merciful God damn for all eternity those who refuse to believe in him and his communication to them? What does that say about Islamic notions of mercy? How does one square mercy with the basic consensus that some will be in paradise and some in hell in the afterlife? Second, if salvation is potentially universal because the Islamic kerygma is universal, then why do scriptural texts only identify some groups of people as the saved in the afterlife? Does soteriology actually reveals serious tensions between universalist claims and exclusivist realities in Islam? On one point, Khalil is very clear: one cannot distinguish ethical interaction from views on final destination – it is certainly problematic to damn the other for eternity and yet insist that such an opinion should not obviate harmonious co-existence!

The core of Khalil’s argument comprises four chapters on four thinkers over the ages who have addressed the question – and along the way he considers other views not least of contemporary Muslim academics especially in religious studies who have ventured to answer it as well. He does not spend much time justifying his selection – Ghazālī, Ibn ʿArabī, Ibn Taymiyya and Rashīd Riḍā – although he does say that they are all representative of major traditions and well known to Muslims across the world. So his selection is based on how different Muslims in the present see their traditions, and not based on those views that may or may not be the most intellectually and spiritually satisfying or rigorous. Each chapter is therefore a careful study in intellectual history paying close attention to text, and including along the way some other kindred thinkers whose example is cited in modern times – for example, the chapter on Ibn ʿArabī includes a short section on Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1635), the famed Iranian Shiʿi thinker popular in Iranian scholastic circles. The first chapter on Ghazālī considers his works and concludes that he is a thinking inclusivist who considers damnation to be the exception. Despite being a Sufi – and the debate about what constitutes Ghazālī’s ‘real’ views – Khalil does not consider him to be a ‘closet universalist’. What is clear is that Ghazālī allows for the salvation of non-Muslims (and his definition of Muslim and heresy is one best followed through examining Frank Griffel’s work). In this way, Khalil’s work complements Sherman Jackson’s study of Fayṣal al-tafriqa and Moosa’s work on Ghazālī’s liminal theology. An excursus in this chapter considers the inclusivism of the Indian Sunni thinker Shāh Walī Allāh (d. 1762). While useful to find historical calques, this is a missed opportunity. Ghazālī as one would expect discusses other Abrahamic faiths – Khalil might have used Shāh Walī Allāh to consider the question of the salvation of non-Abrahamic believers such as Hindus and Buddhists which would have been a meaningful question in his Indian context. Being an Abrahamic inclusivist or pluralist is not the same as being an inclusivist or pluralist as such. What one does find in Shāh Walī Allāh that is of interest – echoing an earlier position of al-Bīrūnī and finding consonance in many modern inclusivists such as Muṭahharī (d. 1979) whom he mentions elsewhere is the notion that those who are stupid or ignorant of God’s message to them are absolved from the implications of their incorrect choices in this world. Muṭahharī's scheme clearly distinguished between the incapable (and unaware) and those who are perfectly cognisant of the truth but stubbornly deny it and hence live up to the name of kāfir

The second chapter on Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) presents him as a quasi-universalist – and it is no accident that the most eloquent Muslim arguments in favour of universalism articulated by William Chittick and Reza Shah-Kazemi are grounded in an interpretation of his work. Ibn ʿArabī’s supercessionism is not in question; however, his insistence upon mercy for all is critical. In fact, the controversy over Ibn ʿArabī has much to do with his position on salvation not least because of his argument that punishment in hellfire is not eternal even if residing in the hellfire is eternal. This issue of eternity in the hellfire, with the concomitant question of whether Pharoah’s conversion to faith as he was drowning in the Red Sea was genuine and accepted by God, became the forum for serious debate in medieval and modern Islam. The excursus in this chapter is on Mullā Ṣadrā. While his espousal of Ibn ʿArabī’s position on the non-eternity of punishment is quite clear, much of the presentation of his ideas here, drawing upon Muhammad Rustom’s recent work are questionable. Mullā Ṣadrā’s Sufism is not so clear – without some clear definition of what that means – and he did not suffer opposition as presented here. One also wonders if the non-eternity of punishment means a universalism of final destination. The question is thus not resolved with respect to Mullā Ṣadrā.

The third chapter considers Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), the bête-noire of Islamic studies. Surprisingly, he turned out to be a universalist, accepting the non-eternity of punishment in hell (even if he opposed most of the metaphysics that justified it in Ibn ʿArabī). His student Ibn Qayyim followed him in this position. The excursus in this chapter is quite revealing because it demonstrates one of the pitfalls of Islamic studies and the need to address questions such as whether Islam advocates the salvation of others. Academics who are not Muslims and indeed not Muslim theologians often take it upon themselves to pronounce upon what constitutes a good Muslim or what the position is of Islam on a certain matter. The case that Khalil considers is the dispute between the Aḥmadī Mohammad Ali in his translation of the Qurʾan and James Robson, a professor and Qurʾan specialist at the University of Manchester in the early part of the twentieth century.

The final chapter on Rashīd Riḍā, the ‘founding’ figure of modern Salafī thought reveals a figure who advocates ‘interim inclusivism, ultimate universalism’. He tries to iron out historical difference and unsurprisingly advocates the position of Ibn Qayyim. In this chapter, Khalil considers some modern views – exclusivism thus turns out to be associated with Islamist thought not least Sayyid Quṭb (which will not surprise many although some may dispute it), many neo-traditionalist Muslims find their position along a spectrum of inclusivist positions, and pluralism attracts the likes of Farid Esack, Abdulaziz Sachedina and Abdol Karim Soroush (it is interesting that many advocates of pluralism in the contemporary period seem to come from a Shiʿi background but this is not discussed by Khalil). There is no excursus here – but the discussion of modern views fulfils that structural role in this chapter.

Two major points that one can take from the study are not only that Islamic discourses and theological traditions are diverse and multiple, and often eschew monolithic singular interpretations, but also that scripture despite the claims of some is neither clear nor unequivocal of some key issues such as those of eschatology and soteriology. A concomitant conclusion is that positions on salvation are not simply summarised as scripturalists favour exclusivism and Sufis favour pluralism. The book does need a conclusion – Khalil could have drawn together the conclusions of the study and also reflected upon what this entails for our contemporary discussions not least in current inter-faith contexts. In a sense, his edited volume Between Heaven and Hell(Oxford, 2013) does precisely that taking into consideration modern discussions across the spectrum. It would be fruitful reading this latter work as a companion alongside Khalil’s book. One problem with the discussions is that given the question being posed about non-Muslims, Khalil does not consider salvation in terms of Muslims: many of the thinkers that he considers may well have been more magnanimous to others than to those who also claimed to be Muslims. Ghazālī and Ibn Taymiyya anathemised different group of Shiʿi Muslims (and Ibn ʿArabī and Riḍā were not exactly philo-Shiʿi either) and thus one wonders in what sense one can safely describe them as universalists. Clearly for many Sunni thinkers in the past (and present) extra congregationem nulla salus holds true (ʿalayka bi-l-jamāʿa if you prefer). Nevertheless, Khalil has produced an excellent scholarly work that should be the starting point for those interested in Islamic discourses on salvation and one looks forward to further more theologically creative works that wish to take the debate further. 

It seems to me that any further debates which will arise from the Khalil book and collection need to start a process of rethinking: not only whether the tripartite options drawn from Christian theology of religion is adequate, but also how we might wish to distinguish between three types of problems: how do we reconcile rival truth claims? how do we allow for the salvation of different traditions with different accounts of truth and soteriology? and how we live and engage with each other ethically knowing that we hold different values dear to ourselves? Epistemology, soteriology, and ethics - those remain the big questions. And that requires not just a nuanced and fresh approach to Islamic philosophy but a careful reading of the scriptural accounts - after all the function of revelation is to bring the human close to and onto the path to the divine.