Beyond Sharia: critical thinkers in Islam examined

Video series on ERC project

Wine Drinking in a Spring Garden, attributed to Iran, ca. 1430 (source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Wine Drinking in a Spring Garden, attributed to Iran, ca. 1430 (source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When talking about Islam, we often discuss rules and traditions, piety and politics. What many people do not know is that there have always been critical freethinkers since the birth of Islam. Mystics and non-conformists challenged the ideas of pious believers, in a region stretching from India to the Balkans. A team of scholars led by Asghar Seyed-Gohrab examines the work of these counter-thinkers. The title of their project: Beyond Sharia: The Role of Sufism in Shaping Islam. In a series of videos, the team members explain their research.

Who were these non-conformists?

Beyond Sharia has been made possible by an ERC-Advanced Grant awarded to Asghar Seyed-Gohrab by the European Research Council (ERC). In this video, he explains what exactly is being examined in this project and what makes Beyond Sharia so special.

Interview with Asghar Seyed-Gohrab on Beyond Sharia

Wise fools address hypocrisy among believers

By provoking with their appearance and behaviour, the first non-conformists held up a mirror to pious believers. In his PhD thesis, Amin Ghodratzadeh conducts research on these non-conformists, who were called ‘wise fools’. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, they defied the image of what was pious and normal in words and deeds.

Interview with Amin Ghodratzadeh on 'wise fools

Qalandars ignored Islamic rules

A category of Islamic mystics (Sufis), known as qalandars, challenged the Islamic rules such as pilgrimage, prayer and fasting, while praising Christianity, the drinking of wine and homo-erotic love.

In her PhD research, Alexandra Nieweg focuses on the rise of these vagabonds and freethinkers, whose thinking emerged throughout the vast Persian cultural region from the 12th century onwards. The poet Hakim Sana'i extensively described their way of thinking in his work. Work which has been a source of inspiration for generations of influential mystical poets such as Attar, Rumi and Hafez.

Interview with Alexandra Nieweg on qalandars

The work of world-famous mystic Rumi

A name familiar to increasingly more people is that of the 13th-century poet-mystic Rumi: probably the most widely read Sufi poet in Islamic culture. Maarten Holtzapffel examines Rumi's work. Specifically, he looks at how the non-conformist ideas in Rumi's poetry transcend religious boundaries. Ideas interpreted by some as expressions of humanism.

Interview with Maarten Holtzapffel on Rumi's poetry

Women's role in Sufism deserve more research

The contribution of women to Islamic mysticism is often neglected. Zhinia Noorian wants to change that in her postdoc research. For instance: how do male mystics use femininity to express a mystical concept? In what way were women depicted and how did female mystics write about the same concepts as male mystics?

Interview with Zhinia Noorian on the role of women in Sufism

Secularity in the Persian cultural area, centuries before the Enlightenment in the West

Centuries before the Enlightenment in the Christian world (1685 – 1815), secularity was present in the Persian cultural area. As a postdoc, Arash Ghajarjazi does research on medieval non-conformist ideas and the emergence of secularity in the Persian cultural area. He examines the work of various Persian intellectuals who criticised Islam, including Omar Khayyam. His thinking can sometimes be called downright atheistic and his quatrains are still world-famous.

Interview with Arash Ghajarjazi on Omar Khayyam

The divine religion in Mughal India investigated

Another question  that is examined by the Beyond Sharia team is about the influence that freethinkers such as Feyzi had on politics. Fatemeh Naghshvarian investigates this in her PhD research, in which she specifically looks at the 16th-century Mughal Empire.

At the court of emperor Akbar the Great, mystic freethinkers such as Feyzi had an advisory role in shaping a new religion: the ‘divine religion’ (din-e elahi). This new religion allowed things that were banned under Islamic law (Sharia), such as the sale of wine, prostitution, eating pork and interreligious marriages. Churches were built and all religions had full freedom.  

Interview with Fatemeh Naghshvarian on divine religion in Mughal India

Freethinkers and vernaculars in Anatolia

The resistance of the qalandars went beyond opposing religious dogmas. They also turned against Persian and Arabic, the languages of the elite, by writing in vernaculars. As a result, their ideas became widespread.  Postdoc researcher Leila Rahimi-Bahmany examines the life of the 15th-century Anatolian qalandar Kaygusuz Abdal. His work became a source for the Alevis in modern Türkiye and Syria.

Interview with Leila Rahimi Bahmany on freethinkers in Anatolia

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 101020403).