By Rasul Jafariyan1
From one perspective, a distinction must be made between two groups: one that considers itself reformist and speaks of using every door for improvement, progress, civilization, and even religious and intellectual education of the people without necessarily being familiar with the original texts and important sources when discussing the past; and the other group whose work involves exploring the history of thought and reflection based on texts. I emphasize this difference from the standpoint of trying to belong to the second group myself, as I navigate through the lines, discover new texts, and increase my knowledge about Islam, Iran, and the history of thought through this search in primary sources. At the same time, I also keep a half-eye on the contemporary situation. However, in reality, I consider my primary task to be researching the history of thought in the past.
But the significant difference lies in the fact that some, who have very limited knowledge of the past and have at most read a few popular books from certain historical periods, primarily focus on the present day. They strive to address contemporary issues with the information they have gathered, often attempting to create narratives about religion, Shiism, and their history. They may claim religious devotion, Iranian nationalism, or adopt leftist approaches to attract people, believing they have achieved something and gradually falling into the mistaken belief that they are on the right path.
At best, they are activists who strive to provide solutions to contemporary societal issues by reflecting on the Quran, the traditions, and their limited understanding of reason (which is nothing more than general knowledge they acquired through their education in school and university). They are products of their time, educated during a specific historical period, with particular slogans, values, and predetermined ideas that they have absorbed through their upbringing. However, they hardly read anything from ancient texts and do not take the opportunity to explore the ethical, philosophical, and religious works of the past. They perceive Islam in the way they want it to be today.
These individuals, even in the periods of the first and second Pahlavi dynasties, are less aware of the history of thought, except for specific narratives they have acquired through general studies. However, they are truly less informed about the thousands of books and ideas that have been present in the corners and crevices of the country, and have played a significant role in shaping their era.
If we go a little further back, they consider the Constitutional period as a specific narrative, and they have very little knowledge of the culture of the Qajar era. Essentially, they have read very little from the Qajar period, and they are unaware of what thoughts prevailed during that time in major cities. For them, the formation of movements like the Babi Faith is still unclear, and the intellectual roots behind it are uncertain. They resolve the matter in their minds with a few sentences and general judgments. The Qajar era is a transitional period for us, and its documents and records are not limited to a few printed books but encompass hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that continue to collect dust in the National Library or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ document center.
There is a significant period of crisis and upheaval in Iranian history known as the Afsharid and Zand periods, which harbors hundreds of unspoken intellectual issues. It witnessed particular movements that took shape during that time. The fate of buried news during this period, the destiny of philosophy, the fate of knowledge – all these aspects of its heritage that reached the Qajar era are often unknown to us due to our lack of familiarity with the texts from that period, including manuscripts and other matters. The most important transformation in Shiite thought, paving the way for subsequent deviant movements, occurred during this period. There hasn’t even been proper research in this field.
When Shariati delved into the Safavids and wrote more than five hundred pages on the topic, it can almost be said that apart from common knowledge, he knew nothing about the Safavids. It is unlikely that he had even read the work of Nasrullah Falsafi on Shah Abbas.2. He presented his empty speculations about Safavid thought based on the ideas of Mulla Sadra and others as “Safavid Studies.” In fact, he exemplifies a general reformist who had little knowledge of the history of thought during that period. It can be reasonably assumed that he had not even read the work of the most important work on the subject, Tarikh-e Alam-ara-ye Abbasi. Of course, he was an intelligent person and had eloquent prose. The history of Safavid culture is in Persian poetry, and they haven’t even read an entry from the Tazkereh of Nasrabadi, let alone read Khulasah al-Ash’ar3 or Arafat al-‘Ashiqin4 with its eight volumes, not to mention hundreds of other collections and treatises.
Similarly, our general reformists have no knowledge of Iranian history from the time of Islam’s arrival in this land to the Safavid period, spanning nine hundred years. Very few among them know that the Seljuks, for instance, preceded the Khwarazmian dynasty. They may have heard some things about the Mongols, but they are unaware of how Iranian culture took shape during the three hundred years after the Mongol era. They’ve heard about the Mongol invasion but have no idea about the impact of the Ilkhanate period on our culture.
The meaning of this statement is not that, for instance, I am knowledgeable about these periods. The point is that if someone wants to understand contemporary thought and form opinions about the present based on the past, they shouldn’t impose their preconceived notions with the general knowledge they have of religion and philosophy. Fragments of this history of thought are present throughout all layers of our society. Just as hundreds of Mongolian words have permeated the Persian language, the thoughts, and ideas from the Ilkhanate period have also influenced our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, they attribute things to Shia Islam and Iran that have no basis in the history of Shia or Iran, but they express these views as if they are deeply aware of them.
How many books do we have about Fakhr al-Razi, the prominent Iranian scholar whose works have had a profound influence on the history of theology? Before Henry Corbin, how much did we really know about Mulla Sadra, someone who has been shaping our thinking for at least three hundred years? Let’s go back to the Qajar period. Before the book by Hamid Algar, how much did we know about the diverse intellectual currents of the Qajar era, and even that book only scratches the surface? How many books have we written about the history of thought during the Qajar period after Abdulhadi Haeri?
The truth is that without knowing the history of thought and intellectual developments in Iran, without familiarity with the precise texts from each era of Iran’s history, one cannot claim to have knowledge of religion. Translating the Quran into modern language and deviating from the insights found in ancient commentaries is not a valid claim to being a proficient Quran scholar or translator. These are personal interpretations, not what the Quran itself has stated. Fakhr al-Razi is one of the most important and influential figures in the history of Iranian thought, as is Ghazali. Failing to understand these thoughts correctly, and not recognizing Iranian thought, weakens reform efforts for desired changes and ultimately adds another futile experience to the lessons of the past.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the history of thought in Iran, even academic dissertations often don’t provide a reliable source of information. Most of them are superficial and primarily based on speculation and assumptions, rather than a thorough examination of the original texts. These dissertations might seem beautifully presented on the surface, but they lack substance. The main reason for this lack of substance is the failure to properly engage with ancient texts and instead, relying on a few general and ordinary texts.
Our General Weakness in Studying History5
Not knowing history, is a significant problem for many researchers in various fields related to history. I understand that history, in and of itself, doesn’t prove or disprove an idea, but I’ve emphasized many times that awareness of history makes us more vigilant and informed when evaluating new thoughts and theoretical concepts. The problem is that many don’t feel this need and dive directly into their specific subjects, assuming that reading a few general history books will solve their problems.
The truth is that many of the theories and viewpoints expressed in various political, social, cultural, and intellectual fields have their own specific historical contexts. Without understanding these contexts, it’s impossible to design and assess these ideas. Our colleagues, at the very least in whatever intellectual field they are active, should examine the historical and environmental roots of these thoughts. They need to know the history of each issue accurately. This knowledge requires extensive research and exploration. It’s not the case that, for example, reading a few general books on the Safavid era will suffice, or that from the Qajar period, where there aren’t even many good general books in Persian, they can gain insights by reading one or two books. History, especially the history of thought within its specific temporal and political contexts, is one of the most crucial tools for evaluating ideas and thoughts.
This principle applies not only to contemporary times but also to understanding Islam. Without a proper understanding of the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, without understanding the pre-Islamic and Islamic environments, and without understanding the various contexts in which Islam grew and developed, one cannot make any claims about it. This awareness requires the presence of different and diverse specialists.
After nearly forty years of work in the field of Islamic history, I can confidently say that we have largely studied Islamic history based on our own preferences and circumstances, driven by political desires and the need to prove this or that, rather than truly becoming experts in it. We lament the absence of Umayyad or Abbasid historians in our country. We lament the absence of serious specialists in Islamic economic history. We lament the absence of a serious research journal dedicated to the study of early Islamic history.
This is our situation regarding the history of Islam. However, when it comes to later periods, as Shia Muslims in Iran, we haven’t attached much importance to general Islamic history at all. We neither recognize states like the Ayyubids and Mamluks nor possess substantial scholarly knowledge about the Western Islamic regions in North Africa. I say this to students in these fields as well: despite the prevailing perception that significant work has been done in these areas, they should be aware that everything is relatively unexplored unless it is found in French or Arabic texts. In these areas, there are at most a few translations available.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.
- This is a relatively older post from 2018 by Rasul Jafariyan that can be accessed here: https://t.me/jafarian1964/11668 – The author needs no intro, as he is one of Iran’s and the seminary’s most renowned and experienced historians.
- The work in Persian, titled Zindagani Shah ‘Abbas-i Aval, can be accessed through this link https://archive.org/details/dli.ernet.437861/page/n1/mode/2up
- One of the most important books written in the Safavid era, by Taqi al-Din Muhammad b. Sharaf al-Din Kashani
- Authored by Taqi al-Din Awhadi Baliyani
- This post was made in 2020, https://t.me/jafarian1964/12397