The Unpatriotic Persian: Fazl Allah Khunji as Pioneer of Anti-Safavid Propaganda

By Matthew Melvin-Koushki
Submitted to Session P4159 (Pro- and Anti-Safavid Propaganda, 1480-1580, 2015 Annual Meeting
Central Asia; Iran;
13th-18th Centuries; Iranian Studies; Ottoman Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The gradual transformation of the Safaviyya sufi order into an extremist Shi‘i political-military force during the second half of the 15th century profoundly disturbed many contemporary men of Persian letters. The threat this presented was gravest for the Aqquyunlu Empire due both to geographic proximity and to Safavid claims to Aqquyunlu legitimacy. As a consequence, scholars connected to the Aqquyunlu court were the most discomfited, and hence the first to develop sophisticated forms of anti-Safavid and anti-Shi‘i propaganda that would shape Ottoman-Safavid and Uzbek-Safavid politics during the 16th century. Their number includes Jalal al-Din Davani (d. 1502), ideological mainstay to the Aqquyunlu, and two of his students who worked together as high-ranking members of the Aqquyunlu chancery, Fazl Allah Khunji Isfahani (d. 1521) and Idris Bidlisi (d. 1520). But unlike his colleague Bidlisi and other contemporary observers, who were initially more cautious in their critique of the burgeoning Safavid threat, Khunji — a highly sensitive, idealistic, outspoken and powerful writer of ornate Persian prose — was anything but. He was responsible for the earliest literary attacks on the Safavids during the 1480s, a project he continued with increasing vigor and rage during his self-imposed exile among the Uzbeks after the fall of the Aqquyunlu capital in 1501; from the safety of Transoxania he pushed every promising Sunni sultan within earshot, Uzbek and Ottoman, to liberate his beloved Iran from the depraved Qizilbash horde. His passionate appeals were met with charges of Sunni fanaticism, however, and his Sunni patrons proved distressingly willing to accept the reality of a Safavid Iran for reasons of realpolitik.

Khunji died a despairing exile; but his influence in anti-Safavid and anti-Shi‘i polemics was seminal. This paper, then, examines the development of these polemics from 1480 to his death in 1521. It first identifies the various rhetorical and scholarly strategies the Isfahani ‘alim deploys throughout his oeuvre, then turns to an analysis of his last known letter (Topkapı E. 8334), written sometime after June 1519 to a physician friend in the retinue of the Ottoman sultan Yavuz Selim (r. 1512-20). This remarkable document shows Khunji still in singleminded pursuit of his life’s project and fervent in his belief that the Safavid conquest was reversible. Most significantly, it proposes Selim as the universal ruler of Islamdom, from Egypt to Khurasan (Selim having annexed the Mamluk domains in 1517), and details plans for a joint Uzbek-Ottoman invasion of western Iran.