Letters Archive
Spring 1996, Vol. 4, No. 2
  • The South, Religion, and the Scopes Trial
  • The Earlier Millennium
  • The Cosmology and Eschatology of the Ghulâlt
  • The Cosmology and Eschatology of the Ghulâlt

    Kathryn Babayan

    My work, in very broad terms, focuses on idealists, optimists and visionaries who believe that justice could reign in this evil world of ours. It explores this sense of immediacy in the desire to experience a utopia on earth. Reluctant to await another existence, perhaps another form, or eternal life ensuing death and resurrection, these men (ghulâlt) who I study, want to hasten the attainment of the apocalyptic horizon of Truth. For them, time is cyclical; the ghulâlt do not see the universe in linear terms of a beginning and an end, but as successive cycles where the end of one era spontaneously flows into the beginning of another. Existence and time are eternal. And they are religious men who maintain the unity of God and invariably yearn to experience God's omnipresence. These spiritually inclined men envisage divinity incarnated in earthly gods, each believer craving to communicate with the divine personally in anticipation of prophetic inspiration and illumination. It is with such a temperament of hope and of continued prophecy that one such group, the Qizilbash (Red Heads) took up arms to fight for Isma'il Safavi, their divinely inspired leader, a venerable godhead in their eyes, to establish Truth and Justice on earth. With Isma'il, it is the added ingredient of charisma that concerns me, an element that so often secures the success of such messianic movements. But alas, it also involves a story of betrayal and of human fragility when confronted with the task of fusing spiritual and temporal power together to ensure a harmonious and egalitarian worldly existence for humankind.

    My book attempts to under stand how basic issues human beings have been preoccupied with throughout recorded history—where we come from, what our purpose is in this world and in this universe, and where and if we travel from here—animated the spiritual landscape of the Qizilbash. What were the particular cultural (social, religious, and political) conditions under which such questions were expressed in the agrarian age and in the geographical and historical setting of early modern Iran, Iraq, and Anatolia? What mixture of traditions did these Qizilbash draw on in the articulation of their syncretic ideals? It is my hope that such a study will shed light on one cultural variety, on a particular option, synthesis, paradigm, and eschatology born out of the age of Late Antiquity: the product of an interaction between the Irano Semetic and Hellenic cultures. This is the broad outline upon which my study has its inquisitive foundation.

    More particularly, I explore the Safavi world (1501-1722), an esoteric chapter in the history of early modern Iran that witnessed the royal enthronement of Isma'il, the spiritual guide of the Safavi order. This mystic (sufi) turned king (shah) claimed to be the reincarnation of a host of prophets (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad) and kingly heroes (Faridun, Khusraw, Jamshid, and Alexander) from Iran's cultural past. "Prostrate thyself! Pander not to Satan! Adam has put on new clothes, God has come," writes Isma'il in his poetry composed as he, together with his adepts, the Qizilbash, conquered Iran and Iraq (1501). In an attempt to add temporal power to the already existent Safavi spiritual dominion, these Qizilbash allegedly entered the battlefield unarmed, thinking that Isma'il's miraculous powers would shield them. Some are claimed to have devoured men alive in submission and devotion to their godhead. It is not solely on the basis of his personal charisma that Isma'il wielded such power, for he had inherited from his ancestor, the mystic Shaykh Safi al-din (d.1334), the leadership of the Safavi order and, hence, a saintly aura and a spiritual legitimization, which in early modern Islamdom was so intimately associated with sufism (mysticism) and the dervish culture. Moreover, in the Anatolian context where Isma'il's grandfather Sultan Junayd (d.1460), had spent over a decade (1448-59) in exile from Ardabil (NW Iran) ac cumulating Turkman disciples and engaging in holy war against Byzantium, the prestige of this family of saintly men had become imbued with divinity. Indeed, Junayd claimed to be God and his son, Haydar (d.1488), who had introduced the ritual red headgear (hence the name Qizilbash) that symbolized membership in this transformed sufi brotherhood, claimed to be the son of God.

    I attempt to understand the religious milieu of the Qizilbash and delineate the web of beliefs that bound them to their Safavi masters—beliefs historians have vaguely termed "extreme Shi'ism." I have adopted a variety of approaches to trace the "spiritual landscape" of Qizilbash Islam, a landscape that was shaped by Islam as a living religion, but was nevertheless incongruous with its textual ideals. I regard this landscape seriously, as a global phenomenon, because a series of similar messianic movements had manifested themselves between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries in the European provinces of the Ottoman empire, as well as in Anatolia, Iraq, Iran, Transoxiana, and India. Safavi historiography, however, has focused on the Qizilbash as political actors, because initially they came to form the military and administrative backbone of the early Safavi empire. In addition, scholars have concentrated on the adopted imperial religion of Twelver Shi'ism, because once Isma'il conquered Iran he altered his rhetoric; he adopted the Persian royal title of "shah" and proclaimed Twelver Shi'ism as the religion of his domains. Nevertheless, the nature and origins of Safavi revealed revolutionary beliefs that remain unexplored. Safavi historians have assumed that with the proclamation of Shi'ism as the religion of the Safavi imperium (in 1501), an easy and thorough conversion ensued.

    Tensions, however, between the spiritual landscape of Qizilbash Islam and Shi'ism had surfaced from the very inception of Safavi rule. It was not until a century later that the political power of the Qizilbash had waned and Shi'i orthodoxy had received the necessary political sanction to redraw its map of Shi'ism in Safavi Iran; sufism, a tendency so embedded in classical Safavi culture was, then, cast as heretical and expunged from the boundaries of legitimacy. Formalisms began to quench the free-spirited experiment that had given birth to the Safavi idiom. As the intuitive gave way to the cerebral, an age of colloquia between spiritual and temporal, reason and experience, mystical and theological came to a close. Since politics and religion were so intimately linked in Safavi Iran, the transformations occurred on all levels; repercussions of the erosion of Qizilbash Islam manifested themselves in the realms of written and oral culture, in forms of sociability, as well as in politics. I believe that a proper assessment of the meaning of change within the realm of religion and politics in Safavi society must consider both as components of a system that em bodies behavior and attitudes, as well as ideology. To understand the Qizilbash, religion and politics should be studied as two complementary spheres interacting within a cultural system. For the Qizilbash, a dichotomous line between these two realms did not exist.

    The most striking elements that distinguish these types of messianic movements, referred to pejoratively by Islamic heresiogra phers as the "exaggerators" (ghulâlt), from normative Islam is their particular cosmology and eschatology.* The ghulâlt do not believe in resurrection—one of the five tenets of Shi'i Islam. For them the human being dies but to be reincarnated, returning to this world in a different form. There is no heaven or hell for the ghulâlt. Beyond a recurring cluster of doctrinal precepts, such as the idea of the transmigration of the soul and the belief in the possible incarnation of all or part of the divine in certain men, these movements share a conception of cyclical hiero-history: the notion that prophetic revelation never ceased and a conception of his tory as a succession of dispensa tions that would inevitably lead to a Final Era of Unveiled Truth and Utopian Lawlessness on Earth. The advent of the personification of the Holy Spirit, bear ing glad tidings of a new dispensation of social Justice, is in the here and now—not at the end of monotheistic time. Beliefs that revelation never ceased, that Muhammad was not the seal of the prophets, and that souls of old prophets could migrate into different human beings at any given time allowed for a constant rejuvenation and continuity of ghulâlt movements in time and space, albeit in varied forms and languages. Not only did it present an alluring platform for aspiring revolutionaries to embrace, but it became a channel through which social and political protest could be voiced.

    The theme that runs through my book is the attrition of the Qizilbash. My analysis centers around the dynamics of structural transformations—ideological and institutional—that the Safavi realm had to undergo in the process of its conversion into an orthodox and absolutist empire. I move from the analysis of cabals and coup d'etats, through ac counts of the moments of emergence of messianic leaders, to the analysis of the formation of vernacular traditions through hadith (collection of sayings and acts of Muhammad and the Imams) and storytelling, to the forms of sociability connected with courtly assemblies and coffeehouses of Safavi Iran. I emphasize this cultural change on many levels (courtly, religious, written, and oral) of Iranian society, and show how it is based on the emergence of new paradigms of authority, and on new loci of intellectual socialization.

    I explore the spiritual land scape of the Qizilbash in an era when conversion to Shi'ism and the waning of Qizilbash political might was becoming an institutional reality. Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) thoroughly incorporated slaves into the ranks of the military and the central and provincial administrations to counter the autonomous nature of the Qizilbash. Trained at court, these slaves owed alle giance to the shah, as ruler of the Iranian lands, rather than to a spiritual guide whose rule extended into metaphysical domains. Shi'i clerics were to replace the religious role of the Qizilbash. Shah Abbas patronized the clergy and introduced them into the Safavi court. Shorn of their spiritual aspect, the activities of Safavi kings were now sanctioned so long as they were in accord with the instructions of qualified jurisconsults. At this point some obedient Qizilbash disciples revolted against their master, who had turned into a full-fledged temporal king. I see the language of rebellion both at court and in the provinces—the motifs and symbols evoked in reaction to this betrayal—as reveal ing aspects of the original nature of Qizilbash Islam.

    My work represents an initial effort to reconstruct a system of beliefs that never entered the annals of Islamic history as a coherent body of ideas and practices, but whose doctrines, even today, are adhered to and practiced by communities in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Anatolia. I have the good fortune of spending this year at the Robert Penn Warren Center for Humanities at Vanderbilt amidst an interdisciplinary medley of scholars who are considering the meaning of time, of beginnings and ends, embedded in different symbolic forms. The fellowship has allowed me time to study ghulâlt movements from the early Islamic era (eighth century through the eleventh century) more closely and focus on the nature of their spirituality, enabling me to identify the pre-Islamic roots of their belief systems. Many early ghulât leaders were mawalì (non-Arab converts to Islam) of Jewish, Christian, gnostic, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian backgrounds. They carried into their understanding and expression of Islam their own perceptions of the cosmos. Such perceptions of time and speculations on the soul are preserved in poetry and epic romances. Alas, these sources remain untapped, because Islamicists have limited themselves to texts emanating from the courtly and religious realms of the legal and theological to reconstruct ghulât ideas. All this resonates in our present age, for as I mentioned earlier such groups still exist in the Middle East. The Bahai religion, for example, has its roots in ghulâlt beliefs. The Islamic revolution in Iran (1979) also played on the rhetoric of such messianic expectations, publicly associating Khomeini with the expected messiah who would establish Justice where the injustice of the Pahlavi monarchy reigned. And in this apocalyptic age of ours, we are bound to see revolutionary ideals articulated through such culturally available paradigms.

    Kathryn Babayan is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt and the William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center. While at the Center, she is participating in the 1995/96 Fellows Program entitled "The Apocalypse Seminar: Fin de Siècle, Millennium, and Other Transitions. " Babayan is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.

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