No future for independent Dervishes in Iran who don’t align with the regime
After 44 years of the so called Islamic Revolution in Iran we should have a clear picture about the inner nature and the intentions of the ruling regime. Being founded on April 1. 1979, the first years of the Islamic Republic were marked by often changing alliances of diverse political protagonists. Finally a certain ideological-religious power faction consisting of specific Mullahs and Revolutionary Guards took hold of more and more power sweeps until nowadays. The Supreme Religious Jurist of a politically modified shiite Islam owns highest political and religious authority. He is being complemented by a so called guardian council whose members are being chosen by the Supreme Leader who theoretically could dethrone him. This regime’s system is being characterized by methods of ruling like misfeasance of the judiciary, defamations, exclusions, diverting funds to its own patronage, brutal suppression of protests or murders of humans who oppose or seem to be a danger for the existence of the regime inside and outside the country.
Life in Iran is dangerous for Sufis nowadays as it is for sunni and shiite Muslims, Baha’i, Christians and people of other denominations who don’t follow the state ideology. The commingling of religion and state to an ideology that excludes any other ideas, believes and concepts effects the common life of blind or dedicated followers of the ideology and those who follow a different world view to the disadvantage of the latter.
Denominations that do not submit to the Supreme Leader as their religious or spiritual archon are continuously being attacked by assignment of the Revolutionary Guards and are under massive pressure. Their presence alone endangers the existence of the dogmatic-religious state ideology.
Opposition figures criticize that western countries and international Organizations react far too passive towards this. Who does not submit to the ideology of the state, who doesn’t accept the Supreme Leader as his own personal spiritual guide, will be targeted, will be victim of infiltration, outlawing and defamation. This applies specifically to religious or ethical groups. Even muslim Sufi, namely members of the Nematollah Gonabadi Order are affected.
Religious power brokers in Iran regard Sufi as their rivals. Sufi hold values such as free thoughts and speech, sovereignty, self-determination, plurality and responsibility, which contradict the claim for leadership of the power elites, who misuse religion for their own benefits.
The variety of Sufi personalities, life styles and schools of thinking is huge and often leads to irritations of those who conceive Sufism in a narrow way. Maybe the least common denominator of all Sufi groups could be the seeking of a close connection to God. The inner state of love that would enable the connection is a high ideal. And there are as many ways leading to the state as there are humans, as every human has a different point of departure, comprehension and intake capacity. Some interpret their membership to a Sufi order as closeness to God because they attribute sacrosanct holiness and highest perfection to their leader, which – as they believe – would transfer to them automatically. In contrast, some Sufi teachers describe mostly in an oral manner, rarely written down, how a Sufi evolution path looks, which exercises how often need to be repeated and which stages a student needs to pass in order to achieve gradually the state of love.
In the course of many centuries Sufi have experienced appreciation, prosecution, mockery, veneration, outlawing and distinction. There were some women but mostly men. In times of social transformations more women show who are familiar with Sufi teachings and who strive on the Sufi path of substantial evolution.
Sufi orders emerge
At the outset of the 7th century neighbouring Sasanid and Byzantine empires fought numerours and fierce wars. Thereby weakening each other in a substantial way. A considerable number of people fled into the mountains, where they build monasteries to find peace and where they practiced contemplation along gnostic teachings. Eventually, Arab armies destroyed the Sasanid empire under the flag of Islam.
From the 10th century on the inhabitants of the monasteries were named “Sufi” for their life style. From their way of life various Sufi orders emerged in the 12th century that became a part of the societies coined by islamic aspects. Possibly these early hermits named themselves “Sufi”. With the centuries passing they integrated into those societies.
They delved into the spiritual aspects of the Quran but there is a distinctive proximity with jewish, christian and buddhist Gnostics.
Commingling of politics and religion by the Mullah-Regime
When the Safavids who stemmed from a Sufi dynasty took power during the 16th century they legitimized their authority and rule as well by being intolerant and suppressive against other Sufi, and established a new dogma.
A similar pattern shows in last centuries so called Islamic Revolution in Iran. Iranian main figure of revolution Ruhollah Khomeini originated from a Sufi family. He created the system of Velayat-e faghi, wherein he commingled aspects of spirituality, religion and governing. His system was used by certain parts of the machinery of power to eliminate opponents who were either political rivals or held spiritual or religious positions that did not accept the state-uniform principle of the one Supreme Jurist or his claim of a legitimation by God, while Khomeini lived secluded from society in his own visions.
This form of ruling method is well known from other contexts as stalinistic purge. It is a practice of groups who are interested in power, who run one wave of violence, abuse and destruction after another, while the world public stands by wondering.
Many Iranians blame global politics to be little interested in what their regime does to the population. In 2009 the German Human Rights representative Guenther Nooke was very outspoken about the actions of the regime in Iran but ever since the world public reacted rather in a quite restrained way concerning the brutality against Sufi who are independent of the regime.
Nematollah Gonabadi order in the focus of the regime
In 1981 radical forces set fire to the gathering house of the Nematollah Gonabadi Sufi in Teheran. Since that time this order has experienced ongoing violence against its members, destruction of its sites and has become a victim of power aspirations of some state ideologues. In 2006, after a wave of smear campaigns of some ideologues against Sufi, groups of Basiji in cooperation with official security personnel pulverized the big gathering place of the Nematollah Gonabadi order in Qom. More than 2500 women, men and children who tried to protect the house were injured and arrested.
In 2007 the same happened in Boroujerd and in Chermahin. In 2008 on the Isle of Kish, in Ahwaz and Omidieh. In 2009 Basiji militia men destroyed a library and a gathering house of the dervishes in Isfahan. In 2011 Basiji miltia men attacked dervishes in Kovar and in Fuladshahr and killed some of them. In 2013 there were attacks in Shahr-e Kord, Bandar Abbas and Khorramshahr. Eventually in 2018 the verbal and physical attacks were directly pointed at the head of the Nematollah Gonabadi order in Teheran, launched by intelligence services of the regime and the Revolutionary Guards. This resulted in several fatalities, hundreds of wounded dervishes, dozens of prisoners and a strict house arrest for the head of the order, 90 year old Dr. Nour-Ali Tabandeh.
Prisoners are being ill-treated
Abbas Dehghan, journalist and member of the order, was one of the persons arrested during this attack by the Revolutionary Guards in February 2018 along with other 300 women and men. After 70 days of torture – a procedure often applied by the henchmen of the regime to press prisoners for invented confessions that fit into the narrative of the regime – he suffered from a stroke. Originally he was sentenced to 11 years and six months in prison, additionally to 74 lashes. This sentence was later reduced to six years and three months. In January 2023 he was released.
Behnam Mahdschubi, another dervish who was arrested during the massive attack of 2018 and later tortured, died 2021 under suspicious circumstances in prison. Someone managed to smuggle an audio tape out of prison whereon he can be heard complaining about various torture and forceful actions. We learn that he was coerced to take substances not known to him.
Sima Entessari, a female member of the order belonged as well to those who were detained in 2018. She was sentenced to two years. Against the rules of the regime she was imprisoned in the penitentiary centre of Garchak in a cell she had to share as a political prisoner with women who were held for drug abuse reasons. One of these women was promised advantages in her own trial if she attacks the Sufi women. She found an opportunity and heavily beat up Sima Entesari. Meanwhile Mrs Entesari is set free.
Mr Saeed Soltanpour and Mrs Faezeh Abdipour, members of the order, were arrested in November 2022 in Karaj and Gorgan. They had participated in a nationwide protest against the murder of a young woman by the security forces in Teheran. Soltanpour had been serving previously a jail sentence. He was one of the prisoners of the arrests in 2018 but was released due to circumstances around Covid. After being arrested recently, he is now held without further notice.
Long sentences for Sufi couple
A striking example for how the regime in Iran tries to deter prominent Sufi personalities from participating in protests against the regime is the case of the married couple Gharehassanlou. The physician Dr Hamid Gharehassanlou and his wife Farzaneh Gharehassanlou who is a laboratory scientist are reknown for their social engagement.
The couple acts from a Sufi mind-set. They financed the construction of several schools in poor areas and they donate regularly for public hospitals.
On November 3rd, 2022 they visited a commemoration event for Hadith Nadschafi, a young woman of 22 that had been shot by Bassiji militia men during a protest held in Karaj. On their way home they passed a scene wherein security forces in uniform attacked protesters in the streets. Two protesters were killed and several injured. In the following mass panic a Mullah was injured, too. According to eye witnesses on the scene Dr Gharehassanlou took care of his first aid and timely admission to a hospital. In the same turmoil another person, a Basiji militia man named Rouhollah Ajmian, was fatally stabbed with a knife. Mr Gharehassanlou is reported to have shielded the injured man from attackers in order to enable first aid to him.
His humanitarian and medical committment turned to a blow of fate against him. Hamid Gharehassanlou got arrested a few days later in his own house by a brutal and unworthy manner. He was massively beaten, resulting in several broken ribs and a Pneumothorax (collapse) of his left lung. Some pictures show extensive hematoma on the limbs and on the torso. He had to be treated several times and endured an emergency-operation.
As they often do, the regime agents made up phantasmal stories wherein Gharehassanlou was stylized to an assailant who would have murdered a Basiji militia man. In August 2023, 53 year old Dr Hamid Gharehassanlou, member of the Gonabadi order, has been sentenced by a court of appeals to 15 years in jail in a remote region, his wife Farzaneh to five years jail in a remote region. Based on a coerced confession the Revolutionary Court in Karaj had sentenced Hamid to death in the first place and his wife Farzaneh to 25 years in prison without granting any visitors. This happened in accelerated procedures without admission of a legal counsel.
The cruel arbitrariness of the regime sparked a strong international attention and pressure on the authorities. A group of Iranian lawyers appealed with strong evidence, leading to the suspension of the death sentence.
We can suspect that the regime intends to punish the couple for two reasons: sanctioning their participation in the event of commemoration and a strong sign to practitioners who in times of widespread street protests against the regime act according to their hippocratic oath and help injured protesters.
Confusion on succession in Nematollah Gonabadi order
When Dr. Tabandeh, spiritual head of the Nematollah Gonabadi order died end of 2019, the regime could take advantage of the situation and go one step further in dismantling the previously independent order and integrate it into its machinery of obedience to its ideology.
One part of the members abandoned being Sufi altogether, some follow Ali Reza Jazbi who was enthroned by the regime or Reza Tabandeh who is seen cooperating with the regime, whereas another part of the members relate to Dr Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, who lives in France and has constantly taken publicly distance from the regime and its machinations while reaching out to human rights organizations and EU politicians with information on the nature of the regime and its brutal attacks against religious minorities in Iran.
Mr Jazbi was one of the persons who lived close to Dr Nour Ali Tabandeh when he was set under house arrest. Jazbi wrote down messages of the head to the members of the order. Some leading figures inside the order claimed he would change the messages to the very reverse. How did Jazbi reach so close to Dr Tabandeh?
In the early years of the 20th century the fathers of the two had been working on the compilation of a book on the line of succession of Nematollah Gonabadi Sufi. The head of the order at that time rewarded him out of gratefulness with the title of a Sheikh, while the two children grew up with each other.
But the further development of the sons took different directions. Dr Nour-Ali Tabandeh took distance from the life of the order throughout his youth and followed the ideals and the life style of the renown Indian ascetic, jurist and peace activist Mahatma Gandhi.
The spirit of many members of the order seemed to him to be submerged in superstitions. These members were convinced that the head of their order was a supernatural being that can anticipate each calamity or disaster. Each mischief would only happen because the head of the order would let things happen for hidden reasons that were not perceivable to them. In the same time these members took themselves for perfect human beings alone for their membership in this order.
Tabandeh on the contrary regarded the Sufi path as an inner commitment to learn and develop ones deep inner human substance and not be quiet in the face of any tyranny.
When he reached the age of 25, eventually he joined the Nematollah Gonabadi order that was then headed by his father. Later he became a judge and engaged himself for the rights of every Iranian, be it men or women. His political activities were sovereignty, liberty, education and responsibility.
Finally, in 1997 his predecessor appointed him as the next leader of the order.
The life-journey of Ali Reza Jazbi are not quite distinct. Some imply he is closely related to the ministry of information. Jazbi was the contact to the ministry of information when attacks against Dr Tabandeh reached their peak. Jazbi represents the old line according to which a dervish should be obedient and everything that happens is Gods will alone. This attitude is in line with the political application of Islam by the regime forces in Iran, that would like to subjugate everything and everyone for its political ambitions.
In his last years Tabandeh kept on repeating that the true successor in wicked times should be hidden in order to stay safe for the time the dangers have passed when it will be possible again to rebuild the order. Thus in his state of plight at the end of his life Dr Tabandeh tolerated that the title of successor was taken by Ali Reza Jazbi but he didn’t leave him a written document about the succession which is imperativ.
Continuous Self-evolution is the mission of the Sufi
Dr Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh served Noo-Ali Tabandeh for many years as a speaker of the order abroad. Tabandeh authorized him to minister to people as a spiritual guide according to the necessities and situations of the present time.
Currently he attracts people in Iran and abroad who do not rely on their membership to the order by birth but would like to breathe the spirit of Sufism and prefer to work on a personal spiritual routine in relation to a skillful master.
Dr Tabandeh resisted during many years the constantly growing regime pressure on him to relate the Nematollah Gonabadi Order under the guidance of the Supreme Leader Khamenei. He kept on taking a deescalating position thus the regime could not find an excuse accusing him of enmity against God. This would have been an accusation that leads to a death sentence in Iran. The dependent and politically exploited judiciary system in Iran misuses this kind of accusations to eliminate unloved adversaries.
The essence of Sufism trusts in free decisions. The essence of the ideology of Iran under the leadership of Ali Khamenei trusts in collectivism and absolute coercion. Khamenei intends to increase his weak personal legitimation by taking the Nematollah Gonabadi Order under his guidance.
Ali Reza Jazbi has been made successor by the regime. He has changed the admission to the Order, which formerly had been without presuppositions into a dictum that people have to study Islam with a shiite Mullah before being admitted. The Islam conveyed by state Mullahs is a politicized version based on revayat (traditions) rather than based on deep understanding of the Quran. This is a first reference to how the Order will be absorbed into the architecture of the regime.
Human dignity is inviolable
Following quotation of the Human Rights Charter reminds us of the Sufi attitude. They use different words but it is in the same spirit. “Humans are born free and bestowed with equal dignity and rights. They own reason and conscience and shall show each other solidarity.”
For Sufi dignity is the beginning and goal of their encounter with God. God created the world as an imperfect place. Humans are born with a huge variety of potential into this world. All of the individuals bring their inalienable rights. Their inherent freedom is to develop their creative potential and contribute to a positive society and a peaceful cohabitation with other humans and nature.
Hafez used to describe the attitude as following: “A harmonious life in both worlds (before and after death) is based on 2 principles: a) generosity and kindness towards friends; b) tolerance towards adversaries.” Love and peace are the cornerstones of Sufism. No war against others, no conflicts. To live in peace with believers and non-believers, with Muslims (Sunni, Shia…), Baha’i, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, all other denominations.
The most important struggle for Sufi is to attain control of their Ego. Noor-Ali Tabandeh added some more words to this general principle: to be agile and clear like water in the face of friends, to stand strong like a rock in the moment of attacks.
“Who lives in peace with us and cultivates friendship will receive our attitude that is like a refreshening water spring; who would like to bring us apart and destroy our unity, will face our determined stance.
What are the perspectives for self-determined Sufi in Iran?
Tyranny and suppression in the eyes of a Sufi is an act of destruction of everything that is human. For this reason they may oppose barbarous actions. One of the characteristics of spiritual maturity in a Sufi sense is their behavior in the face of tyranny. One needs to be determined, courageous and selfless. In London a man of Iranian origin lives this principle. He started end of February 2023 a hunger strike in front of the Foreign Office in London and keeps on demanding the listing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. He accepts consequences of his dedication, consequences fro his hunger strike that lasted for 72 days. He tries to unite the estranged opposition outside of Iran. His message keeps on claiming that he wishes nothing for himself personally but to promote solidarity. He does not fight for an ideology but for the common goal of various people with conflicting views. In many interviews he focusses on the matter itself and not his background or believes. Some demonstrations with ten-thousands supporters in London and more worldwide were some of the results he achieved. This spirit is alive in many Iranian women and men when they rise against the regime. For the time being determined opposition against tyranny and suppression seems to nourish the perspective for a time of generosity and tolerance.
“We did not come upon this earth in order to engross each other or to enclose our wonderful souls, but to experience ever deeper the heavenly qualities in us: courage, freedom, light!” Hafiz
© Helmut Gabel, 2023