Critics of religious higher learning in early modern Iran


Fri, 01/18/2013 - 3:00pm to Thu, 06/30/2022 - 3:12am

Early Safavid rulers needed religious scholars who could develop a standard system of religious law to meet the needs of Safavid society. Therefore, in the sixteenth century, the Uṣūlī mujtahids, who regarded Shi‘ite law as an evolving, responsive, and assimilating sphere of activity, monopolized higher learning and played an active role in directing cultural and religious institutions as well as institutionalization of Shi‘ism in Iran. In the mid-seventeenth century, however, the legal-oriented curriculum faced challenges from both philosophers and Akhbārī scholars. Proponents of Islamic philosophy as well as traditionalism advocated restructuring the curriculum of higher learning. They argued that educational restructuring was critical to restoring what they believed to be “true” Shi‘ism. This paper discusses the major problems facing Shi‘ite higher learning by examining the critiques of such scholars as Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1635 or 1640), the Safavid philosopher, Muḥsin-i Fayḍ Kāshānī (d.1679), a renowned traditionalist, and Muḥammad Bāqir Khurāsānī, known as Muḥaqqiq-i Sabzawārī (d. 1679), the Shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan and a prominent mujtahid, and Muḥammad Zamān Tabrīzī (fl. early eighteenthcentury), an eminent Safavid pedagogue. Although these scholars voiced their concerns in different periods and had differing intellectual perspectives, their critiques have a great deal in common. All of them depict the intellectual attitudes of early modern Iran and criticize the literalist (ẓāhirī) religious authorities. Each of them thought that the formal religious sciences taught in madrasas as well as theological and philosophical speculations fell short of what education should be. Mullā Ṣadrā and Muḥsin Fayḍ, in particular, strove to formulate the approaches that they deemed would lead to what they referred to as “epistemic certitude” (yaqīn). In differing ways and with varying degrees of effectiveness, the critics promoted an ideal of what education should be and wrote to inspire those in the madrasas with a desire to restructure and pursue learning with a higher purpose than personal ambition.

Following the completion of a doctorate in Persian Literature and Culture at the University of Tehran, Maryam Moazzen recently obtained another PhD in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations from the University of Toronto. In 2011, she defended her doctoral dissertation on “Shi‘ite Higher Learning and the Role of the Madrasa-yi Sultani in Late Safavid Iran”; the revised dissertation is under review by E.J. Brill for their Islamic History and Civilization Series. She is currently a lecturer of Islamic Studies and Middle Eastern History in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona.



MENAS Colloquium Series, Spring 2013
Friday, January 18, 2013

3pm in Marshall 490

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