For the last few days, the streets of Tehran have been the scenes of an unusual confrontation. Sufis, practitioners of Islamic mysticism, have been fighting with the regime’s repressive forces. Gonabadi dervishes from all corners of Iran are coming to Tehran to defend a contemporary Sufi master, Noor Ali Tabandeh.
There were unconfirmed reports in late January and early February that security forces had clashed with sect members outside the home of their leader in northern Tehran. A website linked to the dervishes said police were trying to set up checkpoints around the home to monitor visitors. Clashes broke out, and police said gunshots were fired to disperse the protests.
“The law enforcement forces arrested a number of dervishes and ended the protest by firing tear gas,” Mohsen Hamedani, deputy governor of Tehran, told the state-run news agency, IRNA.
Known for their tolerant, peaceful, and inclusive interpretation of Islam, Sufis are natural targets of the dogmatic, intolerant, extremist mullahs, who consider Sufi doctrines, beliefs, and orders as heretical. Given the mullahs’ hostility to any variance, their ferocious anti-Sufi campaign comes as no surprise. However, the advent of Sufis actively resisting against the regime signifies both a transformation of Sufism and the highly revolutionary potential of Iranian society.
Here are five important facts about the recent Sufi uprising in Iran.
- Sufism is an important and growing religious movement in contemporary Iran. The rapid rise of Sufism in the past few decades directly reflects the faltering appeal of a regime espousing afanatical, extremist account of Islam. Sufism has always rivaled the dominant juridical account of Islam, and the demise of the mullahs’ regime is reciprocated by a rising interest in an alternative view of Islam, i.e., Sufism. In addition, since any activity by any opposition groups is illegal and harshly repressed within Iran, joining a Sufi order provides a venue for social organization and coordinated movement for shared goals. Sufi worship is not illegal in Iran, but the practice is frowned upon and adherents persecuted.
- The Sufi’s participation in active resistance against the tyrannical regime indicates a radical change. These generally beloved mystics are historically known for their introspection andtolerance. Because of their characteristically peaceful attitudes, Sufis are the last group one would expect to join a revolutionary movement. The emergence of revolutionary Sufis in Iran indicates an overwhelmingly popular revolutionary tendency that transcends all cultural, ethnic, and religious boundaries. In other words, the society must be on the verge of a revolutionary breakthrough before Sufis are turned into revolutionaries.
- Iranian Sufis first took to the streets to voice their opposition to the regime in 2014. After being jailed for their protests, Sufi prisoners launched waves of hunger strikes in order to force the regime accept their demands. The tactics are characteristic of the members and supporters of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), the main Iranian resistance group. The recent outbreak of protests and clashes confirms the mystics’ movement has become part of the larger current of resistance sweeping the country.
- The tactics the dervishes have taken up to express their opposition to the regime are not the only signs of a revolutionary transformation of Sufism in Iran. The Sufis’ demands are much in line with the dissident majority: they want freedom of speech, they oppose the regime’s tyrannical domestic policies, and they reject its destabilizing interventions in the region. In fact, the slogans chanted by the Sufis in their demonstrations have been the same as those of the recent anti-regime protests across the country.
- The Sufis’ uprising against the regime is not a unique, sporadic, or transient phenomenon. Their struggle against the jurists’ dogmatic view of Islam has historical roots. Their currentmovement is not independent of the Iranian dissident majority’s fight for freedom and democracy. In fact, the Sufis political behavior and tactics are a strong indicator of the radical political change within Iranian society. This same revolutionary trend shook the pillars of the mullahs’ regime during the recent, country-wide protests. The demand by those demonstrators and the Sufis,in all their various forms of protest, is one: regime change.
Article by Shahram Ahmadi Nasab Emran, M.D., M.A., Ph.D. (c), a doctoral candidate at Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics, Saint Louis University. He has participated in international policy forums, including the Policy Studies Organization’s annual Middle East Dialogue conferences, and has written for multiple Iranian news outlets.