Modernizing Sufism: Safī ‘Alī Shāh’s Mīzān al-Ma’rifah and Late Qajar Epistemic Culture

By Robert Ames
Submitted to Session P4673 (Scenarios of Cosmopolitanism, 2016 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
19th-21st Centuries;
In What is Islam? Shahab Ahmed argues that the Orientalist equation of Islam with legalism has not only impoverished Western scholarship on Islam by relegating other modes of Islamic expression to the discipline’s margins, but, that this colonial reduction of Islam to law also limited the scope of Muslim thinkers’ responses to colonial conditions. He notes:
“It is striking that so much of the discourse of modern reformist Muslims—who have, for the most part, received the norms of modernity…by the force of arms and coercive administration of European colonialism—about (what is) Islam has been about rethinking the Islamic state by rethinking Islamic law, and not about rethinking theology, philosophy, ethics, poetics, and Sufism as a hermeneutical means to modern Islamic norms.”
This paper follows Talal Asad’s observation that the equation of humanity to the legal identity conferred upon subjects by the nation-state is distinctly modern by presenting a reading of a Sufi treatise on knowledge and ethics composed during the Nāsirī period (1848-1896). It uses Safī ‘Alī Shāh’s Mīzān al-Ma’rifah to propose that Iranian Sufism was just as concerned as legal scholarship with modeling “the human” in light of the nation-state and along simultaneously modern and Islamic lines. It posits that this text stages Sufism as “a hermeneutical means to modern Islamic norms,” the ethical injunctions of which model Sufi subjectivity in order to accommodate it to the disciplinary powers of the modern state and modern epistemic norms.

Nile Green has noted that Safī ‘Alī Shāh’s ethical writing illustrates “the moral interface between the Sufi adept and the Persian ‘gentleman’ more generally;” it endorses a behavioral code that “echoes normative Iranian rules of social etiquette.” This code, though, does not merely reflect conventional manners for their own sake; ethical cultivation is a necessary condition both for subjects’ access to knowledge and their becoming fully human. To possess “humanity” (ādamīyat) is both to be a subject of knowledge and an object of ethical assessment. In demanding that would-be Sufis conduct themselves in a manner becoming a nineteenth-century gentleman, these texts bind moral formation, and the knowledge it yields, to class and gender norms that took shape in the Nāsirī period (1848-1896). Safī ‘Alī Shāh’s Mīzān al-Ma‘rifah (The Scale of Knowledge) positions Sufism as a discipline capable of yielding knowledge by staging its injunctions as displays of modern respectability and rationality.