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]