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In 2016 the centre organised a three day conference, Sufis and Mullahs: Sufis and Their Opponents in the Persianate World. 

Image: Wallace Putnam (American Artist, d. 1989), Hallaj Dancing on Way to Gallows, 1980, oil on canvas, 82 x 54 inches 

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Archive of past events

An archive of past conferences and events in the Centre can be found below. There is also a listing here.

Wallace Putnam (American Artist, d. 1989), Hallaj Dancing on Way to Gallows, 1980, oil on canvas, 82 x 54 inches 

Sufis and Mullahs: Sufis and Their Opponents in the Persianate World

14-16 April 2016

Sufis and Mullahs Programme

Conference Synopsis

Sufis and Mullahs Biodata


Opposition to Sufism and persecution of Sufis have been unfortunate facts of Islamic history for over a millennium. Many reasons for this opposition exist. Fundamentally, the conflict is rooted in differences of metaphysical and theological perspective – constituting an opposition between esoteric and exoteric modes of thinking. Although Muslim jurists, theologians and Sufis share similar ethico-spiritual and devotional concerns, the epistemological, theosophical and metaphysical interests of the Sufis usually completely differed from those of the jurists and the theologians who practice apologetic theology (kalam). The Sufis emphasise intuition (dhawq), inspiration (ilham) and mystical unveiling (kashf) as valid modes of esoteric knowledge (ma′rifa), use a secret symbolic language (lisan al-isharat), and express themselves through ‘words of ecstasy’ (shathiyyat) and erotic poetry, while the latter’s ideational framework depends overall on reason (’aql), logical demonstration (burhan) and a variety of rationalist approaches and disciplines.
With the controversial trial, and later, martyrdom of Mansur al-Hallaj in 922, the science of Sufism (’ilm al-tasawwuf) itself became severely contested by members of the orthodox Sunni religio-political establishment. Members of the Baghdad School of Sufis were persecuted in a series of inquisitions (mihan) conducted by the popular preacher Ghulam Khalil, who had accused them of being heretical antinomians (ahl al-ibaha). This was just the beginning of what was to become a contest between two quite separate visions of religion: a hardline legalistic, often puritanical, scripturalism promulgated by the exoteric theologians (’ulama al-zahir) and a tolerant, ecumenical, and broadminded intuitive approach to Islam advocated by Sufis whose vision of Canon Law of Islam (shari’a) accentuated the interior dimensions of its dogmas, rites and rituals, believing that God is better approached and apprehended by internal remembrance of the heart (dhikr), especially when amplified by listening to erotic poetry sung to musical accompaniment (sama’), than through legalistic speculation, ratiocination and logical argumentation. 

With the rise of state-sponsored extremist Shi‘ite clericalism under the Safavids in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of the Sufi Orders were suppressed and driven out of Persia. A whole literature of anti-Sufi polemics was generated from the mid-sixteenth down to the early twentieth century in Persia, the social after-effects of which can be seen today in the current widespread destruction or state expropriation of Sufi shrines on the part of hardline Shi‘ite clerics in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the past three and a half decades, and the ongoing persecution, harassment and imprisonment of Sufis there. 

On the literary level, many centuries before the rise of the Safavids, in classical Persian Sufi poetry one finds a similar opposition between juridical and Sufi Islam expressed in poetic imagery and figures of speech, a contested religious vision from which was generated several rich genres of satirical anti-clerical poetry in Persian known as ‘Songs of Infidelity’ (Kufriyya), ‘Wild-man Poetry’ (Qalandariyya) and ‘Sufi-Zoroastrian-symbolist verse’ (Gabriyya). 

Bringing together scholars and specialists on Sufism from around the world, this conference, focused geographically on the Persianate world of greater Iran, Anatolia, the Ottoman Empire, and Central Asia, aims to examine the theological, philosophical, and literary dimensions of the Sufi/anti-Sufi conflict as much as its socio-historical causes and origins

(AHRC) Classical Persian Poetry & poets: The Timurid & Turkmen Periods - Dr Leonard Lewisohn
30 March 2013

The workshop focused on the life, works and thought of all major and some of the minor poets who flourished during in the late Mongol, Timurid and Turkmen periods (roughly the 14th-15th centuries) when most the models of classical Persian poetry were perfected, and during which many major Persian poets flourished. Participants discussed and revisited the quite different conclusions regarding the decadence or deviance of the poets of this period that scholars have reached. Some of issues raised by the speakers included: intertextuality in Persian poetry; bachannalian and wine symbolism; eroticism and doctrines of love; Ibn Arabis theomonism; development of poetic genres; and the politics of patronage on Persian poetry.

Read more

  • Persian Language Course 31st March - 5th April 2014 
    A one-week residential Persian language course was hosted by the University of Exeter, in collaboration with BIPS. Further information:  Persian course details.

  • Crisis, Collapse, Militarism and Civil War: The History and Historiography of 18th Century Iran - Dr Michael Axworthy
    Workshop Saturday 16th March 2013

    The Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Exeter presented a workshop on the History and Historiography of 18th Century Iran, funded by the British Institute of Persian Studies.  A range of international experts on the period presented papers, including Rudi Matthee from the University of Delaware, Gene Garthwaite from Dartmouth College, Ernest Tucker from the Naval Academy, Annapolis and Edmund Herzig from Oxford. The main focus of the workshop was the history and historiography of the period, but speakers also presented papers on intellectual, literary and religious developments.

  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Shirin Ebadi delivered a stimulating lecture on human rights in Iran
  • 10 November 2010
    ‘Iran's Mongol Experience’
    This seminar held by Professor David Morgan of the University of Wisconsin - Madison discussed what the impact of Mongol conquest and rule in 13th and 14th century Iran was: for ill (the initial effects) and, at least to some extent, for good (some aspects of the subsequent Ilkhanid regime), as well as considering what the Mongol legacy to Iran might have been.
  • Exeter, 28 May 2009, at 2pm at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies
    A time for decision: Iran’s presidential elections 2009” 
    A lecture with Luciano Zaccara (Honorary Research Fellow at IAIS) who explained the Iranian electoral system and procedures prior to his travel to Iran to observe the 10th Iranian presidential election.
  • London, 12 February 2009, at Chatham House, in association with the Royal Institute of International Affairs
    A lecture and seminar with Prof. Gary Sick (Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, and Director of the Gulf2000 network), who discussed the current position of Iran in its international and internal political context.
  • CPIS Inaugural roundtable
    Exeter, 29 January 2009, at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies
    An afternoon workshop (1.30 - 5 pm) to explore the significance of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the 30th anniversary of which falls at this time. Speakers included:
    • Mr. Baqer Moin (formerly Head of the BBC Persian Service, and biographer of Khomeini),
    • Prof. Farhang Jahanpour (formerly Professor of Language at the University of Isfahan),
    • Prof. Sami Zubaida (Emeritus Professor of Politics and Sociology, Birkbeck College),
    • Prof. Sadegh Zibakalam (Professor of Politics at the University of Tehran).
      Discussions were followed by a reception to mark the inauguration of the Centre.
  • Hafiz and the School of Love in Classical Persian Poetry - conference 2007
    To listen to the lectures given in 2007 at the conference on "Hafiz and the School of Love in Classical Persian Poetry" convened at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies by Leonard Lewisohn and James Morris, you can access the following link: < >. The proceedings of this conference were published as Hafiz and the Religion of Love in Classical Persian Poetry, edited by Leonard Lewisohn (London: I.B. Tauris 2010).