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October 14, 2003

Reformation: Up and Down and Around
Kaveh Khodjasteh  [info|posts]

For a while in the intellectual circles of the still religious educated class in Iran, people entertained a vision of new reformations in Islam that would embrace freedom, democracy and nationalism. They envisaged a new version of Islam that would solve the dilemma of a nation divided between the traditions of the past and the confusing political trends of a new era. These visions became so mainstream that the word "reformation" picked up an air of progressiveness and even tolerance. This association however is misleading and unnecessary. Reformation, as an intentional transformation, can bring extremely orthodox ideas back into power. In this post, I'll try to bring examples of such conservative reformation movements.

During the 15th and 16th century, after the emergence of nation-states in both Europe and the Middle East, Abrahamic religions had to find a new role in their respective societies: Christians, Jews and Muslims. What happened in all of these three religions was more or less a reformation to more orthodox and rigid interpretations of faith, responsibility and morality: a return to the origin.

In the remnants of the Abbasid empire after the Mongol invasions three new empires were flourishing: Ottoman Turks, Safavid Persians and the Moghuls of India. They all came equipped with an ideological base of Islam that built upon the tradition of Sufism, Philosophy and/or Asherism. However they were all going through religious reformations.

In the Ottoman empire after a period of more or less open discussions and gradual innovations in Islam and its metaphysics, conservative champions of shariah like Ahmad ibn Taymiyah of Damascus and his pupil Ibn al-Qayin al-Jawziyah, who were very popular at their times, started a new reformation movement to extend the Shariah to make it apply to every circumstance that a Muslim would possibly encounter. Ab initio this sounded not very repressive: just a solution for the anxieties and difficulties of the age of reason for Muslims. However in their zealous effort they attacked Kalam,Philosophy and even Sufism. Like their Christian counterparts they wanted to go back to the original Qur'an and Hadith: "I have examined all theological and philosophical methods and found them incapable of curing any ills or of quenching any thirst. For me the best method is that of the Koran".* Remember that since those times (not entirely dissimilar to these) were times of doubt, awe and expositions to new worlds and ideas, these reformations were indeed necessary; They helped people free their mind from the labour of moral responsibility. Thus was said: "The doors of ijtihad are closed".

In the Safavid Persia [as it was still officially called Persia and not yet Iran] very similar to their contemporaries, the Italians through the renaissance, there was a revival of artistic expression and a creative return to the pagan origins of Iranian culture. Despite that the conservative reformation was taking shape and in fact the Safavids became the exponents of a new Twevlver Shi'ism and started wiping out Sunnism in Iran. Shah Ismail, the first king of the Safavids even saw himself as the Imam of the era and brought back the ancient pre-Islamic ideas of "King, the Shadow of God". The Shi'ite scholars, despite enjoying the greater respect and autonomy they were receiving after this period, never sympathized fully with the ruling dynasties. In fact for them the doors of ijtihad was not closed and any verdict was open to challenge. A challenge that they used in many occasions. However they did not dismiss philosophy and metaphysics, up to the point of producing theologists and philosophers such as Mir Damad and Mulla Sadra with visions similar to those of Greek orthodox Christians and also to the Jewish Kabbalists.

India picked up its share of this reformation much later. During the rule of Akbar, the third Moghul emperor of India all faiths were accepted. He even became vegetarian and gave up hunting out of respect for Hindus. He even started a Sufi cult under his name that became also a place for mystics from different faiths too. His tolerance however was reversed completely by his successor, Aurengzebe who started limiting Hinduism and even began destroying non-Muslim temples in India: an unfortunate move that left its marks on both Muslims and Hindus in the Indian sub-continent such harshly that the separation of India and Pakistan in the modern times can only be called natural.

All of these three trends show examples of religious reformations that led to more conservative and stricter rule of religion in people's lives. These reformations although somewhat needed at their time became the basis of a static and strict version of Sunni Islam as of we know it now. Indirectly they also provided enormous political and economical power for the clerical orders of Shi'i Islam. In the coming posts in this series, I will try to cover the more recent efforts in Islamic reformation, namely those by Jamololdin-e-Asad Abadi (Afghani) in the early 20th century and the modern reform movements in Iran and the Arab world.

[I will provide some references for this work soon]
[The Thread: Reformation: Motivation and Background]

Borghan at October 14, 2003 01:04 PM [permalink]:

This a irrelevant comment, but calling Safavi's Persian is not correct. They are Azari, and as a matter of fact the official spoken language in their palaces were Azari.
Also, though Iran was not called "Iran" by European at that time, and actually later during Reza Shah its official name for European was changed to Iran, it was called "Iran" by Iranians! It was called "MAMALEK-E-MAHROSE-YE IRAN" and Fars (Persia) was just part of it. (Not to mention Ferdosi's poets)

Kaveh Kh. at October 14, 2003 01:15 PM [permalink]:

I refered to the English name at the time but your comments are correct and I think one of these days there will be a post on this subject! Maybe you should write it?

AIS at October 15, 2003 12:12 AM [permalink]:

Some minor points:
1- Calling Molla Sadra a philosopher is giving him credit he does not deserve. He was a motekallem, ie someone who uses philosophical 'techniques' to 'prove' religous doctrins. Philosophy is a human open minded quest for truth. The two are VERY different.

2-There was nothing natural in the division of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan (and later seperation of Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan). As far as I know it was only the obstinate and irrational (IMO) insistance of Jenah that made the division possible. The Moslem League back then was ready to accept a share in the Independant India.
That is not to say that harsh differences did not exist, merely that it possibly wouldn't have led to this division if it wasn't for the person of Jenah. So many died during the independce for it and so many might in the future with this stupid nuclear arms race going on there.
My main reference is the book 'Liberty in midnight' (I think that is the correct original title-in Persian it was 'Azadi dar nimeshab') by two American journalists whose names I have forgotten now.)

3- As you mentioend Kaveh, Persia is the name the rest of the world has known Iran form very ancient times. It is originally the name of only one tribe within Iran, but I honestly don't see the problem with that.
For example Germans and Allemands were only two of the many tribes that were called Deutsch (or Teutonic by its Latin counter part) and outside Germany that's what the land is called, where as the Germans themselves use Deutschland. The same goes for Greece, Grecs and Ionians being only two tribes in west and east of Greece respectively. They call themsleves Ellas (Hellenians as is used in English).
One can sure find other examples, the Hungary for example ....
The same goes for Iran and Persia.
I think Reza Shah , whom I happen to respect a lot BTW, made a mistake in changing the English name. Persia had all the historical and Biblical connotations that Iran lacks for outsiders, especially since it is usually mistaken for Iraq.

(The name Iraq by the way is an arabized version of Iran, as far as I have been able to find out)

Narges at October 15, 2003 03:03 AM [permalink]:

I'm surprised of your comment on mollasadra.He was obviously a philosopher at least for his "Substantial motion" theory.He added a very important category of possible changes to these 4 categories :cange in 1)position 2)place 3)quality 4)quantity.He added "change in essence(substance,johar)" which its outcome is the proof of existence of God.If some philosophy has something to do with God ,it is not a good reason for calling it "Kalaam" and not philosophy.His thoughts are really brilliant and unique.No encyclopedia calls him "motekallem":
Açıkgenç, Alparslan, Being and Existence in Sadra and Heidegger(1994)

M.S. at October 15, 2003 11:15 AM [permalink]:

To the best I know the word "Iraq" is not an arabized verison of "Iran", though it might be an arabized version of some other Persian word. Would please give a reference about this claim.

Kaveh Kh. at October 15, 2003 12:30 PM [permalink]:

Reza Shah changed the name to Iran because French newspapers at the time were making fun of his title "Shah de Perse" (correct my French!) by comparing him to "Chat de Perse" (Persian Cat). They were refering to him as a puppet if I remember well and he got mad and changed the name of the country so that his title would change! Can you imagine?!

Senior Grad at October 15, 2003 01:24 PM [permalink]:

Your "argument" about why Reza Khan changed the name of the country doesn't hold water, Kaveh, as amusing as it sounds. It reminds me of someone suggesting that the word Halloween must have something to do with Kadoo Halwaayee (Persian for pumpkin)! French must have called Shah de Perse by calling him the Persian pussy long before the reign of Reza Shah. Are you suggesting that Reza Shah had a shorter temper than his Ghajar predecessors? Abbas Milani writes:

"In 1935, at the suggestion of Persia's misguided Ambassador to Nazi Germany, the country's name was changed to Iran. That was the heyday of Aryan supremacy and the word Iran literally means "land of the Aryans." Something of a breech began to appear in Persian and Western consciousness. Persia with its indelible aura of past grandeur and glory, was suddenly, and I think unwisely, replaced by Iran. With the simple stroke of a pen, as Foroughi soberly noted, the richly resonant and renowned identity of Persia was traded for a bleak unknown..."

Also, Iraq must be (but I'm not sure) an Arabized form of Arak, a city in central Iran. This word may have been applied to a larger area rather than a city, but I'm positive Iraq and Arak are somehow related (unlike Halloween and "pumpkin"!)

Mulla Sadra and philosophy. Remember even Isaac Newton was known as a philosopher in his time, his subject being "Natural Philosophy", if I'm not mistaken. The present distinction between Philosophy and Science and Theology is something relatively new. Imam Ghazzali, therefore, can be also called a philosopher, let alone Mulla Sadra!

Milani continues:

"In English, German and French, Iran is a novice of a word, one that conjures no memory but only a distant, troubled, and more recently, troubling, land at the end of the earth. All too often, Iran is still confused with Iraq, assumed to be another 19th century colonial concoction, an expedient consequence of the "Great Game."..."

Read it all in

Senior Grad at October 15, 2003 01:35 PM [permalink]:

Okay, I take that Arak thing back. Sounds like even scholars haven't made up their mind about the etymology of the word "Iraq". The reason why I thought they could be related was I have a faint recollection that some Ayatollah Eraghi had changed his name to Ayatollah Araki or the other way around (possibly the latter!) some time ago, or something. By the way, have you noticed that central Iran seems to breed Ayatollahs much more than other areas: Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Araki, and Ayatollah Golpa are eminent examples.

"The etymology of 'Iraq' may come from this region, biblical Erech. Medieval Arabic sources used the name 'Iraq' as a geographical term for the area in the south and center of the modern republic."

Senior Grad at October 15, 2003 02:03 PM [permalink]:

Now some afterthoughts: I found this post to be generally interesting and informative. I actually wanted to ask you to provide references, so I was happy to see at the end that you are going to do that. I had no idea about the Mughals before I come to the US. This is not something we are taught about in Iran. I happened upon a fantastic memoir by Babur, a notable Mughal emperor, known as Babur-nama (naturally) that is translated from Persian (believe it or not! Remember that Persian used to be the langauge of the court in Mughals' era) to English and you can order at and enjoy! I've heard fascinating (and perhaps exaggerated) tales about Akbar and his pluraistic views. To show off a little bit, Akbar did never learn to read or write, but was a great patron of arts, didn't mind Hindu dancers or Sufi musicians and enjoyed them all at once!...

M.S. at October 15, 2003 03:51 PM [permalink]:

I think this pattern of changing from a reform oriented movement to some notion of solid, inflexible authurity can be seen in other types of school of thinking. I mean it's not just true for religious reformation movement. The same thing happened to almost all ideologies when they came to power and established a system to rule a country. I guess the problem is POWER and ESTABLISHMENT not the way of thinking, be it religious or non-religious.

Senior Grad at October 15, 2003 03:58 PM [permalink]:

And some half-baked thoughts: I think we may need to take the discussion one step further and put the whole issue of reformation (or, to use a more neutral term, transformation, or, I don't know, even deformation, or whatever you want to call it) in a broader context. Granted, searching for similarities between Islam and Christianity can be useful, but it can also be misleading, if one reads too much into it. IMO, religion, although a great force in making culture, is itself but a part of culture, not, mind you, the other way around.

Some of the things that I read above reminded me of something I had come across about a portion of the history of Spain. One author (whose name I shall refrain to disclose for certain undisclosed reasons) writes about the end of the Spain's "Golden Age" (Siglo de oro):

"Through conquest and national and cultural unification, Spain had increased its hegemony and wealth, but its "purification" of religion and people within the country soon led to a poverty of cultural isolation and economic backwardness. After two centuries Spain was exhausted. The signs were everywhere. The nation had been living off New World gold, it had thrown out the working and mercantile class of Jews and Moors, it had lost its vast European territories, and had seen the French invading its northern region. After a succession of weak kings in a court attended by corrupt officials, recovery was doomed. The economy plunged, causing sporadic famine and inciting the picaresque novellas of hunger. All these known and often repeated causes of Spain's decline entered the vocabulary of its best authors, including that of the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the great figure among New World writers..."

Sounds familiar? You bet! So I tend to believe that there are probably more general patterns. Religion, to be sure, plays a role in all these social interactions (to borrow a word from chemistry), at times "progressive" and thus leading to great civilizations, and at times "reactionary", causing stangnation in the flowering of those very civilizations! But its role may not be a dominant one, really. It can be adamant at times, no question about it, but I guess we should try to keep thingsin perspective.

Senior Grad at October 15, 2003 05:00 PM [permalink]:

By the way, could you please "link" this to your previous beads of the thread? I mean give link to your past writings in FToI. It'd be appreciated.

Kaveh Kh. at October 15, 2003 05:25 PM [permalink]:

- Look!
- What?
- It's not an argument it's a story!
- Which is not true...
- So?
- So nothing.

hajir at October 15, 2003 05:28 PM [permalink]:

I am happy with the current name of my country, Iran, and I don't think that Persia could represent the people of a country where hardly half of the people are persians.
Iraq as I have heard is coming from the persian word "Ark" or "Arg" which means city. Arak and Iraq could have the same root.

maryam at October 16, 2003 05:00 PM [permalink]:

Here is my version about the name “Iraq”!
The name Iraq comes from a Sumerian city called “Uruk” on the bank of the Euphrates in southern Mesopotamia. It was called “Erech” in the Old Testament.

AIS at October 17, 2003 06:26 AM [permalink]:

I haven't any references for the origin of the name of Iraq at the moment. What I wrote was what I had come by in one or two reliable books on the historical analysis of teh Bible.
The relationship with Arak is plausible, since the center of Iran was once called Eraq al Ajam , hence the style Eraqi in poetry, where as Iraq was called Eraq al Arab. Ofcourse they still might be from two different etymologies with the same Arabized version. However if the Arak connection is true, then Arak itself seems to be related to Eyrs and Aryans as Iran is, but I am not sure of this either.
the other two propositions seem also reasonable: Both Arg (Castle) and Uruk (Erech). I checked the spelling of Erech in the Hebrew Bible, it is written with an Alef and not an Ayin(=eyn) (Genesis 10:10). so there's a difference. However there are some common words between Arabic and Hebrew that are written with alef in one and ayin in the other.
I would be grateful if anyone can present a reliable decisive reference for this name.
Anyway, thanks for the new insights everybody. :)

As for Mullasadra and his motion of 'essences',well I hardly call that an innovation. Actually it's a bit funny since the whole purpose of Aristotle in forming his theory of 'substances' was to resolve the problem of 'change' first introduced by Heraclitus. Actually Plato, Aristotle and the Atomists were more or less solving the problem posed by him (see for example Popper's 'The Open Society and its Enemies -volume 1-chapter 2). So the substances were meant to be unchangable (like the Platonic 'ideas' or 'forms'). Making them changable and re-discovering Heraclitus' dilemma and presenting more or less his doctrin again (that everything is in flux) seems hardly laudable (or even original!) (The problem of motion of substance arose in the middle ages by Alchemy and by the Eucharist if I'm not mistaken , not really philosphical meditations I hope you agree.)

I still think Mollasadra and his likes are not philosophers-like Aquinas or almost all christian midelavian thinkers. I don't even consider the likes of Hegel with his return to 'tribal philosphies' worthy (or even real) philosophers either; so my views might be a little unorthodox on this.

Senior Grad at October 17, 2003 02:46 PM [permalink]:

After I wrote one of the comments above, I remembered that Ghazzali actually wrote Tahafat al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of Philosophers), so he himself wouldn't like to be considered one of the philosophers, although some would consider him the Descartes of Islam, because he once doubted everything, or something of that sort. (By the way, Descartes seems to be the only "real" philosopher than France has produced! Philosophy seems to go well with the Anglo-Saxon, and even German mentalities, but not with the French!)

In any case, I think we can safely categorize Mulla Sadra as a *thinker*--a mullah who cared more about Reason than many other mullahs, his contemporary or not, who would put Sunnah above Reason(AGHL vs NAGHL, you know).

The point about "argument" is also well-taken. I think I was somewhat aware of that myself, hence the quotes. Sorry for the mix-up, anyway.