Anti-Sufism polemics in Early Qajar Iran: Aqa Muhammad Bihbahani (d. 1801) and his Risala-yi khayratiyya

Oliver Scharbrodt

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


With the revival of the Ni‘matullahi Order in late 18th century Iran, the confrontation between usuli ‘ulama’ and Sufis gained new momentum. While the relationship of official Iranian Shiism towards organised Sufism had been strained since the rise of the Safavids, the firm establishment of usulism among Shii ‘ulama’ and the Sufi revival in the late 18th century initiated a polemical discourse between both groups over the definition of religious orthodoxy.

This paper discusses the earliest manifestations of usuli anti-Sufi polemics at the turn of the 19th century by focusing on the writings and activities of Aqa Muhammad Bihbahani (d. 1801) who was one of the fiercest anti-Sufi ‘alim of early Qajar Iran and earned the epithet sufi-kush for his implication in the murders of several leading Sufis. In his major anti-Sufi polemic, Risala-yi khayratiyya, he anathematised Sufis and Sufism and provided the religious justification for their persecution. The branding of Sufis as standing outside the pale of orthodox Shiism in his treatise will be discussed which proved to be instrumental in shaping anti-Sufi discourse in Qajar Iran.

The writings and activities of Bihbahani give evidence of the polemical discursive struggle over the definition of religious orthodoxy in early Qajar Iran. Bihbahani’s anti-Sufi writings and activities were, however, not solely concerned with definitions of religious orthodoxy. He and other usuli ‘ulama’ competed with Sufis over patronage by the young Qajar dynasty. For this reason, Bihbahani corresponded with members of the Qajar court, including Fath ‘Ali Shah, in order to gain political support for his anti-Sufi stance. Thereby, Bihbahani played an important role in the success of the usuli ‘ulama’ in gaining patronage by the young Qajar dynasty which initiated the commitment of the Qajars to the usuli brand of Twelver Shiism. The Sufis – with the exception of the reign of Muhammad Shah – were left in a marginalised position, branded as heretics and religious dissidents by the religious and political establishment.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSufis and Mullahs
Subtitle of host publicationSufis and Their Opponents in the Persianate World
EditorsReza Tabandeh, Leonard Lewisohn
PublisherUniversity of Exeter
ISBN (Print)9781949743203
Publication statusPublished - 16 Apr 2016
EventSufis and Mullahs: Sufis and Their Opponents in the Persianate World - University of Exeter, Exeter, United Kingdom
Duration: 14 Apr 201616 Apr 2016


ConferenceSufis and Mullahs
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Sufism
  • Iran
  • Qajar
  • Anti-Sufism


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