Sufi Side of Muhammad Shah Qajar

  November 27, 2023   Read time 6 min
Sufi Side of Muhammad Shah Qajar
There were other, more serious, political consequences of Muhammad Shah's mystical beliefs. That the country should be ruled by a king of unorthodox belief was in itself scandalous. Moreover, his submission to Hajjl Mlrza Aqasi as murshid excluded the possibility of any direct influence by the ulama on the conduct of affairs.

While Sufis were thus favored and their shrines as freely endowed as those of the Imams, it was no longer possible to suppress all manifestations of Sufism, much less to enjoy the support of the monarch and his ministers in so doing. The open profession of Sufism became common, and thus the standing and influence of the ulama among the masses was endangered. Their rivals in directing the religious emotions of the nation were protected, and throughout the reign of Muhammad Shah we encounter no mujtahid daring to emulate the example of Mlrza Muhammad 'All BihbihanI in the killing of Sufis. The ground thus gained by the Sufis was never entirely lost, and they enjoyed a position of security and even respect in the reign of Nasir ud-DIn Shah. Not even with the patronage of the monarch and his minister, however, did they represent anything more than a mild irritant for the ulama: the institutionalized nature of the power of the latter, and its greater breadth and acceptance, made it virtually invulnerable. Ultimately, the monarch, no less than any other Shi'i, was bound to conform, in matters of practice, to the rulings of a learned mujtahid, as marja'-i taqlld. In the case of Fath 'All Shah, this conformity had sometimes been enforced. But Muhammad Shah's unquestioning devotion to Hajji Mlrza Aqasi left no room for the consultation of religious authority. "The deeds of one who has a king for disciple will appear pleasing, even if they are all evil." Not only were the monarch and his minister unamenable to clerical direction, but also throughout the country intercession by the ulama and pressure on local governors became less successful. The gap between doctrinal conceptions of authority and the realities of monarchical power could be partially offset only by a policy of careful accommodation on the part of the monarch, and such a policy was never undertaken by Muhammad Shah. This, together with certain tendencies toward strengthening the central power of the state, made conflict between the state and the ulama inevitable.

The conflict began at the very outset of the reign. On the death of Fath 'All Shah, Mirza Abu-l-Qasim Qa'im Maqam summoned together the ulama of Tabriz, among them Mirza Ahmad Mujtahid and Mirza 'All Asghar Shaykh ul-Islam, requested them to break the news of his accession to Muhammad Shah—then Crown Prince and Governor of Azerbayjan—and to cooperate in maintaining order during the transfer of rule to the new monarch. But even before the new monarch left for the capital, he had clashed with the ulama and ordered the execution of one of their number. In July, 1834, he was confronted with a riot occasioned by a shortage of corn and a consequent rise in the price of bread. The townspeople, holding his entourage responsible, gathered in front of his palace to protest, led by a mulla. When they refused to disperse, he give orders that the mulla be seized and hanged in full view of the public. Other disturbances in which the ulama participated occurred in Tehran, but Muhammad Shah on arriving there was greeted by many of the ulama, and temporary peace prevailed. Considerably more serious was the prolonged reign of anarchy in Isfahan where Fath 'Ali Shah died, in which Hajjl Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Shafti played a leading part. On the death of Fath 'Ali Shah, Husayn 'Ali Mirza Farmanfarma had proclaimed himself Shah in Shiraz, taking the name of 'Ali Shah, and dispatched his brother, Hasan 'Ali Mirza Shuja' us-Saltana, in the direction of Isfahan to gain the obedience of the province of Iraq. In Isfahan itself his claim was supported by 'Abdulläh Khan Amin ud-Daula, the last minister of Fath 'All Shäh, and by Häjjl Sayyid Muhammad Bäqir Shaft!. Thei r motives in so doing are of some interest: Amin ud-Daula, a long-standing enemy of Allähyär Khan Asaf ud-Daula, was unwilling to see his sister's son mount the throne. Beyond this, however, his alliance with Häjjl Sayyid Muhammad Bäqir is indicative of religious motive. Even in the atmosphere of pious devotion to the ulama created by Fath 'All Shäh, Amin udDaula had been renowned for his attempts to win their favor. It is possible that he may already have been aware of the threat posed to their influence by the Sufi inclinations of the new monarch, liusayn 'All MIrzä had, shortly before the death of Fath 'All Shäh, expelled the Sufi Häjjl MIrzä Zayn ul-'Äbidln Shlrväni from Shiraz at the request of the ulama.35 Although Abü-l-Qäsim Qä'im Maqäm was still Muhammad Shäh's minister, his closest confidant and subsequent vazlr, Häjjl MIrzä Äqäsl, was one of the "spiritual progeny" of MIrzä Zayn ul-'Äbidln. Thus Husayn 'All MIrzä might reasonably have been thought to be more amenable to clerical pressure, and therefore a more desirable occupant of the throne.

For Häjjl Sayyid Muhammad Bäqir, such considerations were doubtless also of importance. In his case, however, we see personal ambitions of a more marked nature. His effective dominance of the affairs of Isfahan in the reign of Fath 'All Shäh has already been described, and that sovereign, in the course of one of his later visits to Isfahan, is reputed to have noticed a change in his character—a greater interest in personal power. Thi s would seem to be borne out by his relations with the lütls, a kind of secret society that at times engaged in brigandage on its own account and at times acted as the executive arm of clerical authority. On the death of Fath "All Shah, they immediately began to plunder Isfahan, storing their spoils in the Masjid-i Jum'a. Their leader, Ramadan Shah, became virtual ruler of the town and had coins struck in his own name. Evidence of Hajji Muhammad Baqir's involvement in these activities is contradictory: Fraser claims that he encouraged the lutis, while von Tornau writes that on the contrary he attempted to restrain them. According to the Nasikh ut-Tavarikh, Amln ud-Daula sent a message to the ulama, in which he recalled the respect they had enjoyed under Fath 'All Shah, and asked them, as a sign of gratitude, to restrain the lutis from excessive plundering. In response, Hajji Sayyid Muhammad Baqir and Mir Muhammad Mihdl, the imam jum'a, gave orders that a number of the brigands be delivered to Sultan Muhammad Mlrza, and have their hands and feet severed. It thus appears possible that both Amln ud-Daula and Hajjl Sayyid Muhammad Baqir sought to allow the destructive energies of the lutis only so much scope as was compatible with their own purposes. In one sense, the lutis were merely one element of disorder in the chaos accompanying the change of ruler; but, as we shall see, in Isfahan there was a continuing relationship between the lutis and high religious authority. They represented a force that might be pitted against the government; and the sanctuary afforded by mosques and the residences of the ulama was their ultimate protection against retaliation.

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