Iranian authorities have stepped up the intimidation and harassment of Gonabadi Sufis, ordering the arrests of several religious leaders, sending others into exile, and destroying religious buildings. 

In mid-July, Iranian authorities blocked two sites run by the Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order. The sites publish the teachings of Noor Ali Tabandeh, the order’s spiritual leader, and its other elders. The Workgroup for the Determination of Illegal Content, which works under the supervision of Iran’s prosecutor general, ordered the bans.

Authorities also banned the published materials by scholars including the works of Reza Tabandeh, a lecturer at the University of Toronto, Mohammad Ali Saberi and Heshmatollah Riazi. The publications had been used in classes on Sufism and Islamic mysticism.

The Sufis and Islamic mystic orders have been under varying levels of pressure since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “Sufism — or mysticism — is an Islamic doctrine,” writes Muhammad Jawad Adib, “an ascetic way of life rooted in sharia, which aims to purify the soul and abandon earthly cares in hopes of getting closer to God and totalizing existence. Religions usually have an inner and outer aspect and often these two aspects contradict one another. Political Islam in Iran, headed by the clerics, is a clear example of exoteric Islam that is in opposition to the mystical tendencies inspired by spiritual analysis of sharia. Sufis’ lack of interest in exoteric Islam and religious rules has always been a point of conflict between the Sufis and the clerics.”

The list of harassment against Sufis is long. Followers of Sufi orders have been tortured and imprisoned, and their places of worship have been destroyed and raided on a regular basis. Mohammad Sharifi Moghadam, a student Sufi activist, told IranWire that the blocked websites were just the latest in a series of attacks by authorities, and he said it would not be the last. 

He pointed out that in the past few months, in addition to the websites being blocked, authorities have put Noor Ali Tabandeh under house arrest and banned him from traveling. Sufi students have been expelled from universities and security forces have arrested a number of them.

A Very Long List of Harassments

Moghadam has drawn up a list of recent arrests, intimidation and harrasment: Ahmad Moradi was arrested in Haji Abad in the southern province of Hormozgan and authorities also confiscated religious relics at his home; authorities raided the home of Kazem Dehghan in the city of Kavar in Fars province, which is also used as a gathering place where Gonabadi dervishes hold religious ceremonies; dervishes in the holy city of Qom have faced increased harassment; authorities raided a greenhouse owned by Gonabadi dervish Amir Ali Mohammadi Labbaf and terrorized his employees.

Moghadam says this list is not exhaustive. “They have banned people like Farshid Yadollahi, Mostafa Daneshjou, Dr. Shahram Pazooki and Ali Mohammad Saberi from studying and teaching,” he says. “They fired Dr. Mohammad Ali Tavousi from his job with the Cultural Heritage Organization for the crime of being a Sufi. They banished seven dervishes from the city of Kavar, [sending them] to various towns, near and far. But they did not stop there. They arrested one previously-exiled Sufi and imprisoned him.”

Moghadam was referring to Mohammad Ali Shamshir-Zan. Authorities arrested him on January 7, 2017 in the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas; where he had been forced to live after authorities sent him into exile. He is still in prison after more than seven months and the charges against him have not been officially announced. His family has repeatedly appealed to the judiciary to tell them the reasons for his arrest but have so far received no answers.

Fear of Dissent

Rahmat Fakhrabadi, a Gonabadi dervish who lives in Shiraz, told IranWire the regime has no tolerance for any voice but its own. “Whether you are a Sunni, a Baha’i, a Sufi or belong to any other denomination, it makes no difference,” he said. “Anybody who lives outside a framework set by them has no right to life, education or business. They put so much pressure on you that you yourself come to the conclusion that you are different and cause your own isolation and obliteration. They either grab you and throw you in jail or shut down your place of business, take away your business permit and exile you.”

He says that the regime’s usual tactics against Gonabadi dervishes are banishment and exile. “It is not always the court that decides where you must live and whether you can travel or not,” says Fakhrabadi. “The decision-making is not transparent. And it is not only the Qutb [guru] who is affected. Many elders of the Gonabadi order are not permitted, officially or unofficially, to travel. They live under conditions similar to house arrest.”

As part of its crackdown on sufis, the regime also destroys Sufi religious places. In Qom, they destroyed the Sufis’ congregational hall, exiled the elder Seyed Ahmad Shariat to Tehran and banned him from returning. Seyed Alireza Jazbi lived in Isfahan with his family until he, too, was exiled to Tehran and was forced to leave his family behind. Kazem Dehghan was exiled to Zahedan, Hamid Arayesh to Ahvaz, Mohsen Esmaili to Dezful, Mohammad Ali Dehghan to Zabol, Mohammad Ali Sadeghi to Maragheh and Ebrahim Bahrami to Sardasht. “And there are many more,” says Fakhrabadi.

When I asked Mohammad Sharifi Moghadam why the regime harasses and intimidates Gonabadi dervishes he said it was because Sufis have such a strong sense of “brotherhood, friendship and altruism,” allowing them to “move collectively.” For the regime, this approach to life and sense of well being are both alarming and threatening.  

Political and Historical Roots

But Mostafa Daneshjou, a Sufi lawyer who has spent time in prison, says that there are both historical and political roots to the authorities’ hostility toward Sufism. According to him, Shia clerics consider themselves to be the guardians of Shia Islam so, with such a monopolistic worldview, they cannot tolerate any worldview outside their own. They see Sufism as a serious threat. Some of them even believe that the revered Persian poets Rumi, Hafez and Saadi are heretics. They, said Daneshjou, “have reduced religion and Sharia to its jurisprudence.”

Daneshjou says that in the case of Noor Ali Tabandeh, the personal animosity of certain religious figures has definitely played an important role in his intimidation, but more important than this, he believes, are the social and political factors driving the hatred. The way that the regime has behaved has resulted in a phobia toward official dogmatism,  and has actually promoted mysticism. He says the regime believes the variety and diversity of religious voices in society work against the interests of the regime. “This is one reason for suppressing religious dissenters,” he said. “The Sufi community is an independent community and is not under the regime’s control. When they are even afraid of the independence of professional associations and guilds, it is no wonder that they are much more scared of independent groups like the Sufi community.”

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