Uncompromising accommodation: Remarks on modern Iranian Shiʿi Sufism’s attitude to resistance

  • Alessandro Cancian Institute of Ismaili Studies


Starting from the report of an incident occurred in Tehran in 2018, which triggered a wave of repression and resistance involving members of a popular Iranian Sufi order, the Neʿmatollāhī-Gonābādī, this article explores the ways and forms in which modern Shi‘i Sufism articulates its identity at the social and political level and vis-à-vis the authorities of the Islamic Republic if Iran. In doing so, this essay tackles the ways in which this identity is voiced and how individual members of the mystical order manifest their proximity to some areas of the reformist camp. This political vitality and outspokenness, along with forms of resistance adopted by the members of the brotherhood in the face of the increasingly pronounced aggressiveness of the Islamic Republic towards Sufism, testifies the complexity of the nature of the order’s relationship with the political sphere. The analysis of the texts and the praxis of the order’s notables and their disiples shows that the oft-repeated declaration of distance from politics are genuine but far from simplistic, a far cry from unconditional political quietism Sufism is often accused of. By addressing this complexity, in this article the author sets out to address the many paradoxes inherent in this clash and the battle for the appropriation of the legacy of mysticism in contemporary Iranian Twelver Shi'ism, which is grafted onto a broader discourse on political authority in Shiʿism and revolutionary Iran.


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Author Biography

Alessandro Cancian, Institute of Ismaili Studies

Alessandro Cancian is Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, where he works on Shiʿi Sufism, Qur’anic Exegesis and the intellectual and religious history of early-modern Iran. A historian of religions and anthropologist by formation, he has published books and articles on religious education in Shiʿi Islam, Shiʿi Sufism and Qur’anic exegesis. His latest monograph is The Emergence of Shiʿi Sufism: Sulṭān ʿAlī Shāh Gunābādī and His Commentary on the Qur’an (Oxford University Press: 2023).