Repressing Sufism in Iran: Ideological Differences or Concerns About Increasing Popularity?


Due to the harsh conditions suffered by the Gonabadi Dervishes in Iranian prisons, a number of them were transferred to hospitals after their health conditions deteriorated with the contraction of several dangerous diseases. In light of this, Iranian lawmakers have called for urgent and serious consideration of the challenges facing Gonabadi Dervishes as well as the conditions they endure inside Iranian prisons by the head of the Iranian judiciary Ebrahim Raisi.

Several members of the Gonabadi Order have gone on a complete hunger strike, with Iranian authorities paying no heed to their demands. This is not the first time that the Dervishes have gone on strike. The strikes have occurred repeatedly since their crisis with the government in February 2018. According to international human rights reports, the Dervishes are subject to several forms of repression, prosecution, and torture. They have been denied food, medicine and sleep in addition to serious abuses committed against detained female members.

I- A History of Abuse

In the past, Iranian officials concealed their ideological and sectarian motivations driving their crackdown on the Gonabadi Dervishes. Rather,  Iranian officials have attributed their crackdown to legal violations by the Gonabadi Dervishes.  This means that  Iranian officials do not admit to the fact that  Gonabadi Dervishes are oppressed by the state. The Iranian government is following in the footsteps of the Safavid state in cracking down on  Sufis and oppressing them.  Throughout history, Sufi  Dervishes were subject to prosecution at the hands of the Safavids in Iran. The term  Sufi was considered synonymous with atheism. The Nimatullahi  Sufi Order moved its activities to India.

Before the Safavids and during the era of the founder of the Nimatullahi  Sufi Order, Nooraldin Shah Nimatullah Kerman,  Amir Tumir ordered Nimatullah to leave Khorasan although he did not have any inclination to revolt or seek power. Tumir was concerned about Nimatullah’s influence due to his  large number of supporters in Khorasan. Khorasan Before the Safavids and during the era of the founder of the Nimatullahi  Sufi Order, Nooraldin Shah Nimatullah Kerman,  Amir Tumir ordered Nimatullah to leave Khorasan although he did not have any inclination to revolt or seek power. Tumir was concerned about Nimatullah’s influence due to his  large number of supporters in Khorasan.

When clerics took power after the 1979 revolution, they dealt with  Sufi Dervishes in a similar manner as seen during the Safavid period. The pro-Velayat-e Faqih religious elite does not consider the Gonabadi Dervishes as a legitimate sect within Shiism, but as heretics who misinterpret religious texts going against  Shiite consensus or, in other words, threaten Velayat-e Faqih. Others view it as a Sunni group that embraces Shiism culturally  inan attempt to exclude  Gonabadi Dervishesfrom Shiism as a sect and question their Shiite legitimacy.

Since  Iranian authorities  view  Gonabadi Dervishes as heretics who do not represent Shiism, they launched a crackdown against their members in 2009 due to the group’s support for Mehdi Karroubi in the elections and their participation in the protests against repression and electoral fraud. The Isfahan Friday prayer leader warned against Sufism. Bulldozers destroyed the tomb of the Sufi  Nasser Ali in the cemetery of Takht-e Foulad situated in Isfahan. The artifacts of the tomb had been looted, which distressed the Sufis and heightened their sense of oppression and humiliation. In 2010, reports revealed a plan by the religious elite to totally obliterate Gonabadi Dervishes in Iran. In 2011,  Iranian authorities launched a massive crackdown on the Gonabadi Dervishes.  Those arrested were subject to solitary confinement, were not allowed to contact their attorneys  and  denied fair trials, according to human rights organizations.

All these violations against  Sufis in Iran have had a negative political impact.   This raises questions about the reasons behind this state crackdown and the aims of the religious elite.

II- The Reasons and Dimensions of the Conflict

It can be said that the main justification used by the Iranian government to repress Sufis  is the conflict between two currents: The Sufi Dervishes and the pro-Velayat-e Faqih elite. The pro-Velayat-e Faqih religious elite believes in cultural domination at the level of religion and sect. Therefore, to understand the issue of the Dervishes, we should  study the general framework of sectarian and religious minorities who are deprived of  most of their religious, sectarian , political and social rights in Iran.  We should also  explore it by studying the different anti-Velayat-e Faqih interpretations presented by ethnic and sectarian minorities or by movements  from sub-sects. 

Iranian philosopher Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari spoke of cultural guardianship, arguing that it is a branch of Velayat-e Faqih. The Iranian elite adopting Velayat-e Faqih believes in the absolute version of Velayat-e Faqih, which includes guardianship over cultural affairs, hence shaping people’s identity and culture.

Monitoring  Sufi Dervishes and cracking down on them is mainly attributed to their emergence as competitors to Khomeini’s Velayat-e Faqih.  It is not a political rivalry since the Dervishes believe in Intizar (Waiting  for the Hidden Imam’s return) when it comes to politics.   The seeking of knowledge, and the jurisprudential and sectarian approach of Dervishes – based on attracting people through  spirituality and emotion –  has not yet been distorted by them participating in governance and politics. People still love  Sufi Dervishes. And this has raised the concerns of the Iranian religious elite supportive of Velayat-e Faqih as they fear  Sufi Dervishes could expand, spread and find acceptance among the Iranian people, which would enhance the Sufi interpretation of Shiite Islam and inevitably reduce the clout of Velayat-e Faqih. Therefore, the government attempts to prevent this by using security measures at its disposal rather than through the Hawza. In a striking paradox, this reminds us of what Tumir demanded from the founder of the Nimatullahi Sufi  Order, to leave  Khorasan when he attracted a large number of supporters.

Also, there is a historical concern that has been looming ever since the era of the Safavids against Sufis and Sufism due to considerations related to political legitimacy, not only because of the large number of supporters that Sufi Dervishes are able to attract. Although the Safavids, who were part of the Sufi current, came to power with the aid of the Sufis, they turned against them when they felt that they posed a danger given their participation in the Safavids’ ascent to power and takeover of the country.

This is in addition to another important dimension. It is related to the Iranian authorities’ concern  that Sufis would turn to political activism due to their engagement in the 2009 political dispute when they threw their weight behind Mehdi Karroubi in the presidential elections using their wide base of supporters. Hence the Sufis violated their own Shiite doctrine of Intizar and strategy of no involvement in politics.  It is not known whether this  transformation in the thought of the Dervishes is strategic or temporary. Or is this transformation merely a response to the oppression inflicted on the supporters of the Green Movement  rather than a legitimatization of political activism by Sufi Dervishes?

There is no official statement of the Gonabadi Order or its senior leaders indicating that they have abandoned their historical position since the era of their founder. This  historical position is represented in staying away from politics and shunning revolution and governance. But there is evidence that the founder of the  Gonabadi Order, Nour Ali Tabandeh, was not supportive of Khomeini in the early days of the revolution. Instead, he was close to religious leftist groups and adopted social democratic principles, which indicates another dimension of difference between the two sides.

The reasons for differences arising between the ruling religious elite and the Gonabadi Dervishes  can be detailed as follows:

1- The History of the Sufi Jurisprudential Conflict

 The clerics have maintained a negative position in general towards  the Gonabadi  Dervishes. It is a historic position that is beyond sect and geography. But the new development in Iran was witnessed when the clerics took power, which brought the jurisprudential differences between them previously confined to the corridors of the seminaries into the public arena.

The ruling religious elite who belong to the traditionalist jurisprudential group worked to end the differences which  are deeply rooted in history and remain the hallmark of the jurisprudential community from the early days of Islam across all its sects to this day. The pursuit to end these differences was not confined to the academic approach and interfering in the work of the seminaries, but it also included using  security apparatuses, which the government hints at using or uses to end scientific and sectarian differences against any group deemed heretical or astray.

2- Between  Pure Sufism and Hybrid  Jurisprudence

Here lies a problematic issue. The religious elite supportive of Velayat-e Faqih in Iran,  controlling  both the state and seminary, is a  gnostic elite who respects Ibn Arabi and adopts the transcendent theosophy school of thought. At the same time, they are a traditional seminary-inspired and jurisprudential elite representing an Islamic movement. All these contradictions have merged in a way that  is unprecedented in Shiite history.  On the other side, the Dervishes revere Ibn Arabi, but they read his approach in a passive way, not an active one and understand him within the framework of rejecting differences among sects and promoting tolerance among people. Perhaps they also embrace bolder tenets such as annihilation and metaphysics, and textual interpretations different from those embraced by supporters of Velayat-e Faqih. This is in addition to the fact that the Gonabadi Dervishes are not supportive of traditional jurisprudence. They focus on the essence not the outside appearance, and hidden truths more than the evident ones. In addition to the foregoing, they don’t believe in Velayat-e Faqih as they have  qotbs (pillars, masters) who are like guardians in the Twelver Shia doctrine. A qotb  is a guardian. Then how can the supreme leader’s will supersede that of the   qotb, who is in the position of the Infallible Imam?

3- Political  Sufism

Most Sufi orders do not seek power and do not play a role in politics. Dervishes in Iran do not deviate from this line. But the Gonabadi Dervishes’ participation in the 2009 protests, the increase in their popular bases and the historical feud between the group’s spiritual leader Nour Ali Tabandeh and the leaders of the pro-Velayat-e Faqih current led the Iranian government to become concerned and suspicious towards them, so it worked to curb the group and its influence.

III- The Future of the Conflict Between the Religious Elite and the Dervishes

In this respect, an important question is raised about what the Iranian authorities in Tehran want. Do they want to totally obliterate the Sufis from the country as the Safavids attempted to do over a period of time? Or will the   authorities just seek to continually curb the Gonabadi Dervishes in order to ensure the  domination of the state-endorsed version of Shiite Islam  by cracking down on  those perceived as heretics?

It is likely that the religious elite does not seek to obliterate the Dervishes in Iran. Perhaps they seek to push them back to square one by employing violent policies towards some of their  elements and changing the  principles  adopted  when the Sufi Order  was established by Shah Nimatullah, who was fully aware of the negative impact when Sufi Dervishes engaged  in politics and revolution. This pushed him to commit his order to the affairs of worshiping God and asceticism. This philosophy led the Sufi order’s ideology to spread.

However, it is also likely that the conflict between the two currents: the Velayat-e Faqih and Dervishes in areas not related to political theories and governance will definitely continue. The Gonabadi Order is among the foremost Sufi orders in Iran in terms of historical foundation. It also  has the largest  number of followers and affiliates. The two  currents wrangle over the concept of Sufism and Irfaan (Islamic mysticism). They are in dispute over the ideal model and the endorsed interpretation of Shiism. In terms of politics, Dervishes don’t believe in Velayat-e Faqih. Jurisprudentially, there is a historical rivalry between Sufis and jurists. Hence, the two sides are in dispute over right and salvation.

Those embracing Velayat-e Faqih do not believe that rightness could exist multiple times simultaneously. It only exists once, and every party claims to be representing what is right. Therefore, several levels of sectarian thinking; deeming opponents to be worthy of admittance to Paradise or Hellfire, have emerged. The new development in this historical conflict between the pro-Velayat e-Faqih elite and Sufi Dervishes  emerged after the Iranian revolution.   The pro-Velayat e-Faqih elite took over power and worked to establish control and domination through rendering prevalent its own interpretation of religion, embracing it as an undisputed ideology and presenting it to the people as the teachings of heaven, as Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari puts it.

Editorial Team