Ketman: Veiling God

“There is not a single true Moslem in Persia.”
—Reported statement by a Persian to Arthur Comte de Gobineau
(cited in “Versions of Censorship”, by McCormick & MacInnes)

One of the great accomplishments—or offenses—of Islám was in conquering and subjugating the Persian Empire. Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire a millennium earlier, but it hadn’t been very long until another Iranian empire had taken the place of Alexander’s Hellenistic successors. Even during that short Hellenistic era, Iranians were disenfranchised but they were not so subjugated and humiliated as they would be under Islám.

Classical Islám is known for having been somewhat tolerant of the “people of the Book” (Arabic: أهل الكتاب, Ahl al- Kitâb), but it was far from certain whether Persians qualified as People of the Book at the time of the Arab conquest. Zoroastrianism, as it was practiced, was an oral tradition. The high priests of Persia used books as archives, not as liturgical aids.

It couldn’t have helped that Zoroastrians were generally seen as idolators, because of their use of fire in worship.

Modern Shí‘a (شيعة) Muslims—at least those of Iran—do generally consider Zoroastrians People of the Book, but that is more likely due to the influence of Zoroastrian apostates on the development of Shí‘a Islám than any early Arab view.

It is no secret that one of the closest companions of Muhammad and ‘Alí was a Persian, but that Persian (Salmán) was a Christian. The Arab conquerors had little reason to show tolerance to Zoroastrians, except that the latter were the citizens of a great empire, and may have had a thing or two to share with the Arabs, if only the Persians could be converted.

Many of the Zoroastrian “converts” to Islám were known to be less than dedicated Muslims. There are records of mass apostasies in the years after the Arab conquest. There may have been many Iranians that welcomed Islam, but there were certainly many that did not.

The persecution complex of the Shí‘a is well-known. It is understood to have originated in the persecution and disenfranchisement of the Shí‘a by the Sunni, but I cannot help but wonder whether some of this Shí‘a sense of injustice is rooted in the near-annihilation of Zoroastrian Iran.

The persecution of the Shí‘a apostates of Zoroastrian Iran may have also contributed to the practice of Islam as secretive, esoteric religion that seems rather antithetical to the worldly, practical, and political nature of the Qur‘án.

discretion: … in order to protect one’s own life and security, and those of one’s imam and his companions, as well as the integrity of his doctrine, “secrecy” designated by terms such as taqiyya, ketman and kòab÷ [?] is a canonical obligation for the Shi‘ite.
—Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi

Zoroastrianism, like the Islám of the Qur‘án, is not an ascetic or esoteric faith. Secrecy and esoterism may have been the only means for Iranians (and others) to entertain their heretical epiphanies under the yoke of Islám. If their faith was to survive, it would have to do so in the name of Islám. So I’m not surprised that so many Súfí mystics gave lip service to Islám, or called their heresies “esoteric” readings of Islám. What choice did they have?

Esoterism and secrecy were not Persian passions before Islám. To the contrary, one of the defining characteristics of Zoroastrianism is its aversion to deception. The Zoroastrian notion of Evil, Druj, is typically translated “the Lie”, but alas, it became easier to lie under the shadow of Islamic swords.

It is perhaps best to describe Islamic esoterism as a natural bi-product of Islám. It was probably the might of Islám and its ruthless persecution of heresies (not to be confused with Jews and Christians) that gave rise to Islamic esoterism, so esoterism is an ironic inevitability in the Islamic world. Still, we may yet detect the whisperings of pre-Islamic religion in the orthodox doctrines and esoteric heresies of Islám.

To be continued

Further Reading

The Divine Guide to Early Shi’ism: Sources of Esoterism in Islam, by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi.

Encyclopedia Iranica: Shi‘ite Doctrine by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi (2005)

Christopher Hitchens:

A discussion of chapter three of “The Captive Mind” by Czeslaw Milosz.

5 comments on “Ketman: Veiling God

  1. Wahid Azal says:

    Dear Dan,

    You sound like a nineteenth century Edward Sa’idian type orientalist caricature pontificating on a subject far more complex than how you are laying it out here. And either you have not read Moezzi or are misrepresenting his arguments.

    1) Esotericism is hard wired into any reading of the Qur’an, and from the very beginning as Moezzi has shown. In fact it is the very reading of the Qur’an over the question of providential guidance/wilaya that splits Islam between the Shi’a and the Sunni, not whether dispossessed Zoroastrians under the Muslim conquest become the agents of subterfuge under the cloak of Shi’ism. Yes, the Zoroastrian milieu contributed to the development of Shi’ism in significant ways. But overstating this angle in a historical trajectory is deliberately failing to look at multiple internal developments and the phenomenology of the Text as well as the ur-phenomenon of the question of continuing Prophetic charisma under strained circumstances and usurpation, which contributed to the esotericism (although there were many other factors as well). Moezzi lays all this out. How do you explain the existence of passages like the Throne Verse, the Light Verse and many similar in the Qur’an, or the blatantly Gnostic Docetist narrative of Jesus’ cruxifixion and death in the Book, or the Hekhalotian Jewish Gnostic nature of the Moses narrative? These weren’t Zoroastrian at all. If outside influences are to be invoked, then an even touchier question arises about Muhammad’s possible Gnostic – i.e. Jewish, Christian Ebionite and Manichaean – influences before a single Arab Muslim army had even set foot in Iran. For example, the whole lacunae of the “seal of prophets” is conspicuously Manichaean from start to finish, as is the revelatory continuation through time of the True Religion motif, not to mention the imagery of the World Tree and Lamp in the Light Verse. If you accede to this, then you must then accept that the foundations of Islam – at least with Muhammad Himself (pbuh) – derived from an esoteric template of some sort.

    2) Also, like many of these Orientalists, in this and other posts, you seem to want to paint such a rosy picture of Sassanian religion that you forget that the Empire fell not because of a better Arab conquest army; but because both internal and external subjects were fed up with the uncompromising caste rigidities and unchecked fundamentalist priestly zealotry of the Sassanian state. A High Priest Kartir would give any Osama, Khomeini or Deobandi cleric a run for his money and then some, and in the manner in which he was instrumental in the bloody genocidal persecution of Manichaeans and later his successors with the Mazdakites, tends to diminish the whinging arguments about the Muslim conquest and how it panned out. The religious minorities under the Muslim conquest actually faired better in the long run than they did under the brutal and intolerant fundamentalist Sassanian state.

    2) Salman the Persian was a Mazdakite who converted to Christianity and then Islam. FYI

    3) Do you know Arabic, and classical literary Arabic? If so, your argument falls again.


  2. Dan Jensen says:

    Dear Wahid,

    Thanks again. Your input certainly has added much to my understanding.

    I was raised a Baha’i. This means to me that I was raised as a heretical Muslim. I was raised on Quranic verses and Islamic notions, with no lack of Shi’a and Sufi content (albeit unoriginal). In light of this, I hardly feel like some wide-eyed orientalist-tourist like Browne, de Gobineau, or Corbin, so eager to be seduced by the exotic. I most admire western minds such as those of Heraclitus, Albert Einstein, and Henry David Thoreau. But yes, I am quite interested in Persian religion; and no, I do not admire the Sassanians. The Sassanians were dogmatic, brutal tyrants. So were the Umayyads.

    I’m reading Corbin, BTW, so maybe I’ll come around. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve read Moezzi, but I don’t think enough, and I plan to read his “The Divine Guide in Early Shi’Ism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam”.

    As I concluded in the entry following this one, I believe that Shi’a Islam is fundamentally Islamic, so I don’t believe we have a disagreement in that respect.

    I don’t think the case for esotericism in Islam is so strong, considering that so many Muslims have managed without the esoteric for so long. How many times has one of these esoterics whom you (and I) admire fallen under Muslim accusations of heresy? Some, such as Al-Hallaj and Suhrawardi, were executed for their “esotericism”. Of course, esoteric Muslims such as yourself must insist that Islam is fundamentally esoteric, but there are plenty of blue collar Muslims who see their faith as a matter of practical obedience (submission) to God.

    I do not deny that early Islam had some esoteric aspects, but I think the esoteric has always been a minority position in Islam, which is of course a natural place for the esoteric. I am well aware of the Verse of Light, as it was by far my favorite Quranic verse when I was a young Baha’i. To me, it says that divine knowledge exists at many levels (light being latent in oil was hardly a new idea), but I now prefer the Hadith that commands Muslims to “seek knowledge even unto China”, because that actually admits that knowledge can be found outside “the Book”. The Light Verse stands alone in a book that is too brutish to be read as a mystical guide. In general, I think that esoteric readings of the Qur’an are inspired more by a need to recast all the Qur’an’s calls to slaughter, mayhem, and persecution in a more humane light. Even the calls to charity in the Qur’an read like “do it or else” threats. Sufism seems a natural human response to Islam. In that respect, Sufism is very Islamic, but how many Sufis recite only the Qur’an?

    I only know a little Arabic–primarily classical, having studied under Mark Hellaby for a year at the Baha’i World Centre and on my own. I was surprised to discover how little Arabic many Persian Baha’is have allowed themselves to learn.

  3. Wahid Azal says:

    Dear Dan,

    1) You say,
    “I was raised a Baha’i. This means to me that I was raised as a heretical Muslim.”

    I would beg to differ with you here on the assumptions you are making and would submit that whether raised as a Bahai or currently in your post-Bahai status, you are and have remained throughout as American as apple pie. I think the assumptions that you are making are also part of a larger pedagogical problem of a typological Bahai social individuation, shall we say, that extends well beyond yourself. Let’s unpack what this can mean in light of the Baha’i sub-culture you hailed from.

    a- You’re an American, white, middle-class.
    b- Your religious affiliation growing up was Haifan Bahai.
    c – I am also assuming you grew up as a suburbanite and not in the rural countryside.

    These three factors above demonstrate that your social pedigree growing up was as far as an adherent to a heretical Islamic offshoot sect as one can get, since there is nothing remotely Islamic (whether culturally or otherwise) about the Western and North American white Bahai culture other than as a sort of “claimed” (and tangentially claimed, at that) reference point as to an origin. This is a long convoluted discussion, and we can get into it if you wish, but I would submit that your social individuation in Baha’i-scape had more to do with both prevailing Western North American Protestant Christian, secular and American assumptions than any heretical Islamicate ones. If you had been a Shriner, a member of the Nation of Islam and similarly heterodoxically placed Islamic groups in America, this would be one thing. But given the emphasis of Shoghi Effendi from the 1920s to culturally de-Islamize the BF in both the West and the East, and given the predominance of white socialite upper class types in the leadership machinery of the BAO from the teens of the 20th century, it is evident as the noon day sun that you are more a product of your own culture than of the East, even by association of label.

    Moreover, the literature of the BF in the West is witness to a literary (for lack of a better word) de-contamination conducted of overtly Islamic or Islamicate themes and nuances; so whatever you were exposed to, again, was a socially engineered effort by the leaders of your creed to ‘represent’ something without actually representing it as it is, i.e. claiming without essentialized representation. The warped denigration that Islamicate culture suffers under Bahai literary representations (not to mention the Bahai mind) is legion, and no one can come away from such relentless propaganda over a lifetime other than brainwashed to some level. This is all called re-Imagination and it is a species of falsification that all totalitarian creeds engage in. Both the Bahai historical texts and the culture supporting it as a whole are full of this stuff; so, again, what you grew up with was not what you are saying it was. I should know, because I grew up within both your own sub-culture as well as the Persian one, which is even more rabidly anti-Islamic than yours – albeit it has attempted to keep a veneer of Persian-ness intact (however inadequately).

    2) You say,
    “I don’t think the case for esotericism in Islam is so strong, considering that so many Muslims have managed without the esoteric for so long.”

    Mutatis mutandis, this same argument can be applied to the Christian West, and even more strongly. You are making an argument from contemporary circumstances with the rise of fundamentalism and Islamism in the modern period and applying it to the whole of Islamicate civilization. This is patently false. You had several Muslim empires that rose from within the matrixes of various esotericisms. The Fatimid state of Egypt was founded by Isma’ilis, the most esoteric branch of Shi’ism. Sufi orders abounded in the mid Abbasid period almost as a quasi-pillar of the state. The Safavid state was founded by Turkish speaking Qizilbash Sufi warriors. Babur, the founder of the Mughal state of India, was a Sufi, and the influence of the Chishti order in the court of Mughal India is well documented. The influence of Sufi figures and Sufi orders amongst the Mamelukes, the Seljuqs and countless dynasties and states is legion. During the Ottoman period Sufism was almost the official Islamic credo, and on and on the evidence goes.

    In fact, as compared to medieval Catholic Europe (and even Protestant Europe of the Reformation) the Islamicate world enjoyed far more esoteric diversities than Europe ever did or could — note they committed wholesale genocide against Cathars and Bogomils in Europe, excommunicated people like Meister Echkart on flimsy pretexts, while the Qarmatiyyun could get away in stealing the Black Stone in Mecca itself. And on and on the evidence goes. This is not to suggest that medieval Islamicate was some esotericist’s paradise. It patently was not. But it was far, far beyond the erroneous pictures being painted here. As such your assertion that “…the case for esotericism in Islam is [not] so strong” is plain wrong and both history and the textual tradition proves it so. Esotericism has been vibrant in the Islamic world from day one and the present forces ranged against it, such the Neo-Salafi brands of fundamentalism or even Khomeinism, are in any case products or reactions to secularizing efforts in the twentieth century. Even a firebrand reactionary and opponent of an Ibn ‘Arabi such as Ibn Taymiyyah counted himself as a Sufi and initiate of an esoteric fraternity. How do you explain that one?

    No, I think your minimalization of the esotericisms of Islamicate – that is, until the modern period with the rise of reactionary fundamentalisms — is more a product of a Bahai pedagogy of the world and history, not actual facts. Besides, as the adage goes, outside of the urban centers, the Islamic world is awash in oceans of heterodoxy and esotercism.


  4. Dan Jensen says:

    Hi Wahid,

    I can hardly deny being an American. It appears that you consider the categories “American” and “Muslim” mutually exclusive. In that case, I could never have been a Muslim. I suspect the same logic applies to you, unless you are an Arab.

    I was raised on the road, from south-central LA to the impoverished Islands off South Carolina, the son of missionary parents: a blind father and an epileptic mother, doing what they could to bring their very Islamic message of One God One Religion One Mankind to the world. We had our Jihad. We lived to spread the House of Peace. World peace and World domination. Sometimes we did well, sometimes we barely got by. Sometimes we got by on the good will of others.

    Your criticisms of the Baha’i Faith’s attempts to westernize only corroborate my point that it is a heresy, hated only all the more by anti-western Islamists such as yourself. But the Baha’i Faith will never shake off its Islamic roots; its Sunni legalism and politics, and its Shi’a idolatries. Its westernization remains a PR drive, largely skin deep. The fundamentals remain very Islamic: law, fear, community, world domination.

    Shoghi Effendi was, by the way, a child of his times. He was no Westerner, nor did he aspire to be one. He was contemptuous of Western ideals. He was a Islamo-Communist. I’m confident that time will bear that out, but no one may remain that cares enough to write a book on it.

    As for mutatis mutandis, I am no apologist for Christendom. I can see good in a variety of spiritual traditions. For instance, I can see how Islam and Christianity both served to inspire secretive movements because they both oppressed heresies in similar fashions. Your many levels of meaning in the Qur’an, just like the many levels of meaning in the Bible, are simply due to the fact that different people have been forced by orthodox persecution to recast scripture as they could because they were not permitted to recognize anything else as holy. Different shades of meaning will always emerge when unlimited imaginations are incarcerated within a book–regardless of the book.


  5. Wahid Azal says:

    Dear Dan,

    1) Islamicate is the term of choice. You might wish to venture into the research of Marshall Hodgson and glean its multiple implications.

    2) I am an Iranian, a Bayani, and absolutely unabashed about the typology of an “en islam iranien” which my heterodox Shi’ite pedigree (esp. Shaykhi-Babi) and civilizational heritage defines me by and as who I am. That doesn’t make me an Islamist – perhaps an Islamophile in the same way a Louis Massignon was – any more than Ghandhi was an Arya Samaj pan-Hindu Aryan bigot. My struggle against Bahaism is beyond the simplistic Islamic “heresy” rubric as well. Bahaism is simply a travesty on multiple levels, not to mention not a proper religious tradition in the first place, whatever its claims.

    3) Yes, white American Bahai and Islamicate are culturally mutually exclusive. If you had been brought up something else, like a Shriner, that would be a different thing. But you weren’t. As such your type-casting of the sub-cultural Bahai milieu of North America as quasi-Islamic (qua heresy) can very easily be demonstrated to be a false designation. The examples you gave can be applied to Protestant Christian missionizing just as well, or even the Mormons. Please provide more concrete examples critically assessed, and also please juxtapose critically as well with *real* examples within the Islamic world itself.

    4) Shoghi Effendi was very much a child of his times, absolutely, but also an example of a Westoxicated figure. Cases in point, he barely wrote in Arabic and Persian. His manner of dress was Western. His administrative building and pedantic bureaucratic fasco-technocratism was a reflection of a mind influenced not by Eastern perspectives and mores, but by early 20th century Western European and possibly Leninist-Kemalist ones. His taste in architecture (as reflected in the grotesque monstrosities on Carmel) was Greco-Roman, not Byzantine, let alone Islamic. When he finally got hitched, he married a Western, Canadian woman hailing from an upper class socialite Montreal elite and moneyed sub-culture. His most trusted aides were all Western Bahai converts. This was a man who throughout his career deliberately and meticulously sanitized all Islamic cultural aspects out of the picture because, as a Westoxicated figure, the man obviously felt deeply ashamed of his cultural roots and heritage. In short, this man was a 1930s style fascist and Western authoritarian in the best tradition of a Mussolini or Ataturk. His growing up under the Young Turk regime could not have failed to influence.

    5) I believe your present judgment on the hermenuetical tradition of Quranic commentary in Islamicate requires further study. The answers you are providing on the emergence of esotericism in Islam are quite simplistic, and wrong. Hodgson, an American and University Chicago professor, can highlight some of those.


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