Welcome to the website of the ERC Advanced Project Beyond Sharia: The Role of Sufism in Shaping Islam. The research program of Beyond Sharia has been made possible thanks to the Advanced Grant awarded to professor Asghar Seyed-Gohrab by the European Research Council (ERC).

The team behind this research group, consisting of both senior and junior researchers,  examines the emergence, flourishing and lasting appeal of non-conformist movements in Islamic intellectual history from the tenth century to the present day, investigating how Islamic antinomian movements consolidated Islam in a vast region from the Balkans to Bengal, while offering methods of self-reflection that allowed for critical thinking within Islamic streams of thought. By examining how generations of Islamic mystics and intellectuals in the Persianate world challenged, redefined or rejected Islamic canonical law in their poetic, artistic, philosophical and political writings and teachings, this project generates significant new insights into transgression in Islam.

Below you can find a description of the 8 interrelated projects of Beyond Sharia.

Ph.D. I: Wise Fools and the Interrogation of God

This project studies the origin, ideology and presentations of the ‘wise fools’ in Iran, Central Asia, Syria and Egypt between the 9th and 12th centuries, as possible forerunners of qalandars. They were a prominent social type in Islamic urban culture. Mainstream religious schools at that time remained within a fairly clearly defined orthodoxy, but the wise fools show us what was happening on the fringes of religious and philosophical thinking. Wise fools violated social norms, but they were tolerated–admired even. They were not expected to comply with law or custom. As they had renounced the world completely, they were considered to be involved with fundamental questions relating to the holiest tenets of Islam, including God’s justice, benevolence and compassion, and the hereafter. This Ph.D. will examine both Arabic and Persian sources. Key sources in this study are the works of al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868) and al-Nayshābūrī (d. 1015) and several mystical epics by ʿAṭṭār, in which the wise fools appear.

Ph.D. II: Literary Qalandars

Poetry, mostly in Persian, was a chief vehicle through which to communicate mystical ideas and doctrines to a broad audience from the 11th century onwards and over a vast geographical area, even far from the main Persian-speaking communities. A fascinating phenomenon and an unanswered question for literary scholars is the sudden emergence, flowering and ubiquitous presence of antinomian motifs, metaphors, imagery and stories in Persian poetry from the 12th century onwards. Antinomian tropes were introduced particularly by Ḥakīm Sanā’ī (d. 1131), who became a model for generations of influential mystic poets such as ʿAṭṭār, Rūmī and Ḥāfiẓ in the medieval period, and more recently by figures such as Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938), the spiritual father of Pakistan. These literary aspects cluster around the figure of the qalandar and the tavern or a brothel (kharābāt, lit. the ‘ruins’). Central themes include praise of wine, the tavern and the cupbearer; sexual licence; gambling; and praise of non-Islamic religions such as Christianity and Zoroastrianism and references to the cross, bell and church. The Ph.D. is expected to deal with several questions. One is how these motifs so quickly became ubiquitous in poetry and were cited in prose works from India to Anatolia in the coming centuries. Real qalandars with specific shocking traits appear in the 13th century, while the literary tropes pre-date them by at least a century. Did qalandari metaphors inspire people to adopt a vagabond lifestyle? The Ph.D. will investigate how prevalent literary themes and motifs affect the forms and content of social, political and religious developments in subsequent centuries. While the basic qalandari tropes remained popular in different parts of the Persianate world, new elements were added. A possible reason for the appearance and popularity of such tropes is the condemnation of institutionalized Sufi brotherhoods.

Concretely, this project begins with a close reading of texts, primarily Sanā’ī’s poetry. The Ph.D. will first make an inventory of qalandari themes, motifs and imagery in the writings of Sanā’ī and ʿAṭṭār, two influential and early mystic poets, and limited specific texts on Qalandars such as the Qalandar-nāma-yi Khaṭīb-i Fārsī, which describe the Qalandar’s social manifestation. While qalandari motifs usually have a positive meaning, mystic poets also used them for their negative connotations. In some cases, there is a play between the positive and negative connotations. Many terms which were originally positive, such as Islam, Muslim, faith and Kaʿba, developed negative connotations as symbols of falsehood and hypocrisy.

Ph.D. III: Qalandars in the ‘Divine Religion’ in India

This project aims to map the central role of antinomian mystic poets at the court of the Mughal Emperor Jalāl al-Dīn Akbar (r. 1556-1605), introducing the ‘Divine Religion’ (dīn-i ilāhī), which taught the equality of all religions and strove for a ‘universal peace’ (ṣulḥ-i kull). Several scholars have described the Divine Religion as an attempt to break free of Islam, while others call it a “heresy within Islam” (Aziz Ahmad, EI, Dīn-i Ilāhī). The researcher will work with the hypothesis that there is a line of development from the ‘wise fool’ ideas of the 9th and 10th centuries to qalandari metaphors in classical poetry and real wandering saints, to political application in 16th-century Mughal India. The Emperor’s inner circle consisted of Persian émigrés, refugees and those who had chosen exile to escape the Shiite Safavids’ persecution of non-conformists in Iran. What was the relationship between Akbar’s inner circle and the qalandars and how are antinomian ideas reflected in court poetry? Who was the audience and how did they respond? Akbar’s reign was the apogee of literary production, which dwindled dramatically under the austere and conservative Aurangzeb after him, who abolished the title of poet laureate and established a sternly Sharia-dominated rule, suppressing the syncretistic Divine religion.

Ph.D. IV: Of Love and Wisdom: Rumi’s Transgressive Ideas and the Rise of Humanism

Rumi was a popular poet and mystic even in his own time, writing on a wide range of mystical themes, placing love at the centre of his philosophy. He is a best-selling author in the United States, speaking to different peoples with different ideologies. The researcher will investigate Rumi’s reception in the modern world, examining how the antinomian ideas expressed in his poetry are interpreted as a humanist philosophy, transcending religious boundaries. How are his transgressive ideas used as a counter to the violent ideas of Islamist ideology, emphasizing a different Islam? For many people Rumi is the personification of a version of Islam that can coexist harmoniously with western humanist principles. Rūmī’s critique of the outward aspects of the ‘church/mosque’ as a hindrance to inner growth recurs in the unorthodox figure of the qalandar. His ideas of unconditional love (both hetero- and homosexual) and of love as a single source for all religions echo those of mystics in many traditions. The researcher will work with the hypothesis that Rumi’s very accessible formulation of transgressive ideas has resulted in a new interpretation of Islam which is akin to the modern Western appreciation of religion, society and spirituality. The researcher will examine how Rumi has become a resource for ‘picking and choosing’ the material for different philosophies. Who are these people that are attracted to Rumi? Which aspects of Rumi’s thought and what passages of his work do they cite? What points do they seek to make by citing Rumi? Does this appreciation of Rumi bring people together? Does it lead to a different image of Islam or is this just an endeavour to mitigate the prevailing image of Islamic radicalism and orthodoxy?

Postdoc I (vacancy): Practise before you Preach

The Postdoc will investigate the spread of Islamic antinomianism in Anatolia and the Balkans. The antinomian movements play an essential role in shaping our understanding of piety in Anatolia, which influenced Ottoman literary and religious culture. There has been little research on popular Islam in Anatolia, especially Islamic mysticism. Karamustafa observes that “the archaeology of the religious lives of Turkish speakers in late medieval and early modern Anatolia is in many ways still in its infancy” (Karamustafa, 2014: 329). Mystical literature in Anatolia is commonly associated with the renowned mystical poet Rūmī, a traditional theologian whose life changed forever on meeting the charismatic qalandar dervish, Shams. Rūmī employed qalandari themes in his poetry but he did not become a qalandar. This project examines how the literary and religious works and legacy of one influential dervish, Kaygusuz Abdāl (lit. ‘Carefree dervish’ 15th century), contributed to the spread of qalandari notions of piety in Anatolia. Kaygusuz Abdāl is a towering figure, one of the chief antinomian mystics and a prolific author, writing in many genres in both prose and poetry in the vernacular Turkish, ranging from visionary monologues to sermons criticizing the institutionalized Sufis and legalistic divines in the big cities from the standpoint of a provincial dervish. His life is shrouded in obscurity but his own works and the hagiographies shed light on his life and religious views.

The researcher will contextualize wandering dervishes such as Kaygusuz Abdāl in Anatolia, including their relationships with ordinary people, their reactions to institutionalized Sufi orders, and their responses to urban Muslim scholars. The research will then focus on Kaygusuz Abdāl’s literary works, analysing how Kaygusuz creates a transgressive worldview, which is attractive for his followers and challenging for his adversaries. The project will examine the impact and reception of Kaygusuz, relating this to Alevism, a Shiite community now widespread in Turkey, and especially to the majority Alevi-Bektaşi tradition.

Postdoc II: Of Piety and Heresy

This researcher will investigate the relationship between medieval antinomian ideas and the rise of secularism in the Iranian world, i.e., Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The focus will be on the poet Khayyam, his antinomian antecedents and modern reception. Iranian intellectuals from the 19th century onwards embedded medieval antinomian ideas in a Western political and philosophical discourse. The researcher will analyse how transgressive ideas attributed to Khayyam fed into anti-Islamic sentiments and nationalism. The transgression of sacred Islamic rules and convictions in modernist discourse in the Iranian sphere marked identity and emphasized intellectuals’ differences with the centre: mainstream Islam, but also Arab culture. The result was a secularist view of Islam, a worldly orientation and a rational approach to religion. The researcher will start from the hypothesis that without the existence and use of classical antinomian poetry it would have been impossible to formulate this secularist view in modern Persian-speaking societies. Ibn Sīnā’s (Avicenna’s) unequivocal condemnation of the creator and rejection of the eternity of the world, God’s knowledge of particulars and bodily resurrection was a bridge for modern intellectuals to entertain European modernists’ ideas on God. A follower of Avicenna’s philosophy, the poet Khayyam wrote about carpe diem, criticizing predestination and resurrection, doubting the existence of heaven and hell. The antinomian themes in poetry offered enormous room for many other poets and scholars to ponder thorny theological subjects. The researcher will analyse how new transgressive quatrains were composed and attributed to Khayyam through the centuries. S/he will analyse how earlier medieval scholars such as Avicenna wrote on the same issues a century earlier. The researcher will also examine Khayyam’s reception from the Balkans to the Indian Sub-continent chronologically, extending to the development of Khayyam as a champion of secularism in modern Iran, examining how the notions of religion, race and transgressive poetry were utilized to shape secularization.

Postdoc III: Feminizing Masculinity

The researcher will examine the homoerotic aspects of the qalandars and their negotiations with gender norms, and how they confound Islamic masculine norms. This researcher will analyse the qalandar saints’ gender transmutation and how/why they sometimes use a feminine grammatical gender, or adapt a feminine voice, or employ specific sexual metaphors, emphasizing their femininity. The researcher will  examine why their sexual activities were at times a threat to society, and why their propensities to homoerotic love made them a target for criticism. What are the implications of assuming the feminine gender in a patriarchal Islamic culture? Does it mean that the feminized saint is humble and has generative and nurturing powers, or is this use of the feminine gender a strategy to accentuate his dominance and superiority? Can this intentional inversion be interpreted as transgressive piety? Are these saints advocating women’s empowerment with such transgressive behaviour?

Principal Investigator (PI): The Crisis of Piety in Islam: Antinomian Currents, their History and Lasting Impact

Ultimately the controversy surrounding the qalandars and antinomian movements centres on the concept of piety, or taqwā. What does it mean to be a good Muslim? How does one become close to God, or enjoy God-given bliss? The Quran promises that salvation in both worlds can be attained through piety. In many Islamic texts, piety connotes the fear of God and abstinence, but it has other connotations such as ‘pious abstinence,’ ‘uprightness’ and ‘dutifulness.’ (Lewisohn, Encycl. of Islam, s.v. Taḳwā). In this overarching study, the PI examines how transgressive antinomian ideas developed from the periphery into the centre, informing the central notion of Islamic piety as a social ideal, moral virtue, and the essence of the faith of an individual. The PI of Beyond Sharia examines how mystics rejected and adapted central Islamic tenets. What was their appeal for those who were attracted to them? Were these antinomian movements nationalistically motivated, but pursued under a religious pretext? Was the concept of piety chosen as a means to provoke Islamic scholars? What were the responses of the orthodox Islamic jurists? How have contemporary Sufis, and other Islamic groups responding to Sufism, added to the discourse of piety? How are these movements politically motivated?