Eurocentrism and the Question of the Safavid Order An Alternative Perspective

| October 26, 2016 | 0 Comments

 Seyed Javad Miri

Institute of Humanities and Cultural Studies, Tehran, Iran



One of the key concepts in sociology is the concept of solidarity. By solidarity social theorists think of consolidating elements which bring diverse social groups into a unified whole. In other words, solidarity refers to the ties in a society that bind people together as one. By looking at history of Iran since the disintegration of the Sassanid Dynasty until the establishment of the Safavid Dynasty we can realize that active mysticism could operate as a solidarizing force in making of social cohesion. In this sense the Safavid Order has been one of the unique social movements which brought unprecedented cohesion to the Iranian society which is still with us after five tumultuous centuries in one of the most destabilizing regions of the Heartland. In this paper, the author has attempted to study the solidarizing importance of the Safavid Order in a sociological fashion.

Keywords: Safavid order, Iran, Ardabil, Islamic mysticism, Iranian society cohesion.    





One of the key concepts in sociology is the concept of solidarity. By solidarity social theorists think of consolidating elements which bring diverse social groups into a unified whole. In other words, solidarity refers to the ties in a society that bind people together as one. By looking at history of Iran since the disintegration of the Sassanid Dynasty until the establishment of the Safavid Dynasty we can realize that active mysticism could operate as a solidarizing force in making of social cohesion. In this sense the Safavid Order has been one of the unique social movements which brought unprecedented cohesion to the Iranian society which is still with us after five tumultuous centuries in one of the most destabilizing regions of the Heartland. I would like to argue that we need to deconstruct current disciplinary approaches towards Sufism as most of sociological approaches on Sufism are of eurocentric nature. By eurocentrism in sociology as far as Sufism is concerned I mean reductionist approaches which overlook the importance of spiritual/esoteric ideals in the constitution of self and society. Of course, even today within sociological discourses one can discern the rise of interpretative and postpositivistic approaches but it seems scholars on Sufism have not gone beyond the positivistic epistemes yet. In other words, it is upon undisciplinary sociologists to create alternative discourses which could shed light upon uniquely Iranian as well as Islamic questions/problems outside the parameters of uneurocentric paradigms. To put it differently, it would be a grave mistake to expect eurocentric scholars to create methodologies, epistemes, forms of knowledge and concepts in explaining alternative problematiques such as Sufism and Sufi Orders or the solidarizing importance of the Safavid Order.        

Orientalistic Approaches in Sociology

It should not come as a surprise if one would declare that there is no sociological study on Sufism without the paradigms of Eurocentrism. In other words, most of current studies on Sufism are offshoots of orientalistic paradigms within disciplinary social sciences. In other words, one cannot find uneurocentric or alternative approaches towards Sufi Orders and the existing theoretical approaches toward Sufism within sociological contexts are deeply indebted to eurocentric paradigms. For instance, the path-breaking work of Randal Collins, i.e. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change is a great example of how orientalistic approaches within the parameters of eurocentric sociology could look like as far as Sufism is concerned. (1998) By quoting a phrase of Rumi’s poetry (I am the mote in the sunbeam or I die a stone and become a plant) without having a synoptic approach to Rumi’s underlying background assumptions, Collins mistakenly assumes that Rumi is a radical pantheist! (1998. 425)

Needless to argue that Rumi has never been a pantheist and by relying on these verses without having a synoptic approach it would be impossible to understand Rumi’s worldview. Besides, as it is impossible to construct a view on Hegel without taking into consideration the Hegelian traditions, it is impossible to understand Rumi without taking into consideration the long-standing traditions of Rumi studies in Iran. But the orientalistic view is based on a false assumption that we can dissociate Rumi or other Sufi masters from the rich traditions which have catered them for centuries. By doing so, orientalistic approaches have been incorporated by seminal sociologists such as Collins who have dared to issue verdicts on such highly complex issues such as Sufism and Gnosticism. On the other hand, the trouble is with scholars who take these orientalistic approaches as the scientific criteria in analyzing homegrown philosophical, transcendental and esoteric traditions without realizing the severe critiques which have been leveled at the core foundations of eurocentric scientific edifice.     

Orientalism and the Question of Sufism

Orientalism should not be considered only as a discipline along other academic disciplines. This is a widespread assumption which has caused great damage within humanities, in general, and studies on Sufism, in particular. On what grounds do we argue this? As demonstrated briefly above, sociologists take orientalistic vision of the other as criteria in analyzing Restern societies and cultures without realizing that their analyses are biased and based on eurocentric visions of the ‘other’. (Miri, 2013) In order to understand this argument we need to deconstruct the disciplinary social science edifice which would assist us in fathoming the detrimental role of orientalistic approach toward Sufism. When Europeans set on their global expeditions in 16th century and onward they encountered different cultures, civilizations, religions and societies around the world which seemed to be different than their own societies in some core countries of Western Europe. Of course, the very contours of these differences were distinct both in terms of quantity and quality. For instance, they encountered cultural units in Amazons where people had different forms of communal configurations or they came across societies such as China, Safavid Empire, Ottoman Empire, Gurkanid Empire or Tsarist Empire of Russia where societies had complex socio-political and religio-cultural configurations that surpassed simple aboriginal social formations. However, Europeans considered their own societies due to the Scientific Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the Enlightenment Tradition as a unique social configuration that should be treated in a totally differently order. Thus a new concept was coined to conceptualize this exceptional social order, i.e. the concept of modern and the process which could lead to a modern state of affairs came to be conceptualized as modernity. These sets of beliefs came to make up the backbones of disciplinary episteme vis-à-vis the other and the Restern cultures. In other words, on the evolutionary ladder we came to have on the top societies which are modern, industrial, enlightened and scientific and below the modern societies of western Europe we came to have oriental societies which are not modern, industrial or enlightened but suffer from different kinds of regressive pathologies. In addition, on the evolutionary ladder, the disciplinary approach came to construct a savage category which is the totally other of the Enlightened Europe. Each of these societies came to be allocated under the territory of different forms of disciplines, e.g. modern society should be studied by disciplines such as sociology, economy, political science, psychology and econometrics; oriental society, on the contrary, should be left to orientalism as a discipline due to the fact that this kind of society has not reached to mature threshold of rationality and for this matter it lacks authentic subjectivity. This is why we don’t have orientology but orientalism as the latter indicates that the ‘other’ is not mature enough to be taken seriously and objectively. In other words, experts on Restern cultures should construct the civilizational contours based on eurocentric subjectivities which are both authentic and normal or higher on the ladder of evolution. The third kind of societies should be left to disciplines such as anthropology which takes care of savage mindsets involved in magic and ruled by mythological norms rather than modern/scientific rationalité.

Seen in this light then it is easier to understand that the totality of the ‘other’ – and here the orient- is regarded in a reductionist fashion. In other words, if we take Sufism as a phenomenon which is not or a European origin then in the epistemic frame of Eurocentrism it is treated as an inferior way of living which lacks rationality as a scientific norm in the mindset of eurocentric scholars. To put it differently, it is an epistemological mistake to conceptualize Sufism within the parameters of eurocentric science of Orientalism.                 

Sociological Significance of Sufi Orders

Very few sociological studies have been undertaken from a uneurocentric point of departure where one could see the importance of Sufi Orders across the world in terms of actualization/realization of human individuation process and creation of fundamentals of sane/intelligible social organizations. Most of the studies have focused on organizational dimensions of orders in a negative fashion which contradicts the general trends within Sufi Orders. In addition, the models which sociologists have employed in explaining orders seem to be very much influenced by eurocentric models which have been invented in explaining Christian ascetic orders such as Benedict Order or Knights Templar Order. Of course, one can find similarities between esoteric dimensions of gnostic orders but these similarities should not lead us to believe that their respective functions were all of the same kinds. In other words, one should not take the eurocentric models as universal models and in accordance to these types study all forms of orders. It seems this is how sociologists have gone about in conceptualizing plural forms of orders and religious associations. To put it differently, we need to invent undisciplinary models in explaining how Sufism and Sufi Orders have been instrumental in creating necessary conditions for self-actualization of human subjects and also how they have been successful in establishing forms of sacred canopies in the long history of Iran and the Muslim World in general.           

The Safavid Order and Solidarity

There is no doubt that ideas are as important as actions in the history of human civilizations. One of those central ideas which could bring colossal changes in any human society is the idea of solidarity. By solidarity, we refer to the ties in a society that bind people together as one but the question is how one can bridge between the individual realm and communal dimension. (Bayertz, 1999) Based on esoteric teachings each human individual is potentially capable of realizing the good/beauty/truth within her/his own self under the guidance of an authentic Sheikh. However these individual dimensions of individuation within Sufi Orders have taken social and collective aspects too. In other words, by establishing ‘House of Collective Remembrance’ i.e. Khaneghah or Convent, Sufis were able to organize themselves in efficient ways. To put it differently, by looking at organizational chains of Sufis one can discern rational orders of mobilizations as well as chains of commands which turned them into highly complex and impenetrable institutes. But it would be a mistake to consider these complex institutes as solely social unions in formal Weberian outlook due to the fact that what bind people here in these orders is the very person of Pir and cordial connections between disciples and their respective Sheikh. In other words, it is not solely the text or structures which matter but it is enchanting role of the Pir which is hard to fathom within impersonalized paradigms of disciplinary epistemes. The Safavid Order could create and galvanize the necessary conditions of solidarity by emphasizing actively self-actualization and the building of a sane society based on esoteric ideals.      

The Safavid Order and the Shiite Worldview

Whenever one reflects on Sufism and their esoteric teachings most scholars tend to argue that the main trait of Sufism is to be occupied with other-worldly issues. By looking at major orders within the history of Sufism one can discern that there are ample evidences in backing up this dominant view among scholars. However the Safavid Order seems to provide a different model of conceptualizing Sufism within the prism of Shiite Worldview. In other words, the Safavid Sheikhs took seriously the famous tradition of Prophet Muhammad, i.e. Here is the necessary field for the Hereafter by rechanneling the suppressed energy of the people towards reconstructing a new social order where attempts for individual self-realization were connected to active involvements in erecting a sane society (based on esoteric ideals). Of course, there are many arguments against the political project of the Safavid Dynasty (Keddie, 1989) but it is hard to deny the critical significance of this Sufi Order in creation of one of the most successful social systems in one of the most turbulent junctures of the world history. (Aghajery, 2010. 16-20) In other words, by re-enchanting the public sphere through chivalric codes of conduct the Safavid Order changed the socio-politico-cultural landscape of Iran and even the world of Islam forever. For instance, the jurisprudential concept of authority was reconnected to the chivalric modality of mysticism in an unprecedented fashion which galvanized the masses in a solidarizing fashion. By looking at poetry of Shah Ismael one can discern easily how separate modalities were unified into a harmonic whole by Safavid Pirs. In concluding this paper I shall read for you a poem by Hazrate Shah Isamel where one can see the integral approach of the Safavid Teaching in creating a solidarizing sense of being through weaving Shiite ideals and symbols along with Sufi sense of self-actualization:

منـــــــم بیر تن ولی جانــوم علــــی دور     دامــارومــده گـــزن قانوم علـــــــی دور

منــــــه بــو دفتـــر و دیــــوان گـــرکمــز     منــــوم دفتــرلــه دیوانــوم علـــــــی دور

منـــــــم بیــر قطـــــره سو اونون یانینـدا     منـــــوم دریای عمانـــــوم علـــــــــی دور

منــــــم یعقــوب ســــــرگشتــه جهانــــدا     منـــــوم یــوسف کنعــانــوم علـــــــی دور

بو سوز “علـی” سوزی دور ای خطائی     منوم بو ســوزده اوستــادوم علـــــــی دور

(Ismailzadeh, 2001)


  1. Aghajery, S. H. An Introduction to the Relationship between Religion and State in the Safavid Iran. Tarhe No, Tehran, 2010.
  2. Bayertz, Kurt, ed. Solidarity, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999.
  3. Collins, R. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1998.
  4. Ismailzadeh, R. Poems of Shah Isamel. Tehran: International Publishing House of Al-Hoda, 2001.
  5. Keddie, N. Roots of Revolution. New Haven: Yale University, 1989.
  6. Miri, S. Javad, ed. Orientalism: A Eurocentric Vision of the Other. London: International Peace Studies Center Press, 2013.
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