Anti-Sufism in Early Qajar Iran: Āqā Muḥammad ‘Alī Bihbahānī (1732–1801) and His Risāla-yi khayrātiyya

Oliver Scharbrodt

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


With the revival of the Ni‘matullāhī Order in late eighteenth-century Iran, the confrontation between uṣūlī ‘ulamā’ and Sufis gained new momentum. While the relationship between official Iranian Shiism and organized Sufism had been strained since the rise of the Safavids, the firm establishment of uṣūlism among Shii ‘ulamā’ and the Sufi revival in the late eighteenth century initiated a polemical discourse between both groups over the definition of religious orthodoxy.
This chapter contains the first detailed discussion of the earliest manifestations of uṣūlī anti-Sufi polemics at the turn of the nineteenth century, focusing on the writings and activities of Āqā Muḥammad ‘Alī Bihbahānī (1732-1801), who was one of the fiercest anti-Sufi ‘alīm of early Qajar Iran and earned the epithet ‘Sufi-slayer’ (ṣūfī-kush) for his implication in the murders of several leading Sufis. In his major anti-Sufi polemic, Risāla-yi khayrātiyya, he anathematized Sufis and Sufism and provided a religious justification for their persecution. The branding of Sufis as standing outside the pale of orthodox Twelver Shiism in his treatise, which proved to be instrumental in shaping anti-Sufi discourse in Qajar Iran, will be discussed for the first time in this chapter.
The writings and activities of Bihbahānī provide evidence of the polemical discursive struggle over the definition of religious orthodoxy in early Qajar Iran. Bihbahānī’s anti-Sufi writings and activities were, however, not solely concerned with definitions of religious orthodoxy. He and other uṣūlī ‘ulamā’ competed with Sufis to obtain the patronage of the young Qajar dynasty. For this reason, Bihbahānī corresponded with members of the Qajar court, including Fatḥ ‘Alī Shāh, in order to secure political support for his anti-Sufi stance. Bihbahānī therefore played an important role in the success of the uṣūlī ‘ulamā’ by gaining the patronage of the young Qajar dynasty, which initiated the commitment of the Qajars to the uṣūlī brand of Twelver Shiism. The Sufis – with the exception of the reign of Muḥammad Shāh – were left in a marginalized position, branded as heretics and religious dissidents by the religious and political establishment.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSufis and Their Opponents in the Persianate World
Place of PublicationIrvine, Cal.
PublisherJordan Center for Persian Studies
ISBN (Print)9781949743203
Publication statusPublished - May 2020


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