The most recent face-off between the Islamic Republic security establishment and Gonabadi Sufis over the possible arrest of their guru Noor Ali Tabandeh has ended with the retreat of security forces.
On Sunday, February 4, after hours of standoff between uniformed and plainclothes officers and hundreds of dervishes, who had gathered around Tabandeh’s house to shield him from arrest, Brigadier-General Masoud Mosaddegh arrived at the scene, promised to remove security agents, and asked them to disperse [Persian link].
Gonabadi Sufis face constant harassment and arrest by the security forces of the Islamic Republic, but the dervishes who had gathered around their guru’s house insist that his arrest is a “red line” for them.
The Gonabadi Sufi Order is one of the three main branches of the Nematollahi Sufi Order that originated with Shah Nematollah Wali, a Sufi master of the 14th and 15th centuries. Gonabadi dervishes, the best known of his followers, say they believe in peace, security and equality and shun violence and politics. They believe that to arrive at truth one must follow both sharia and tarighat (the mystic “way” toward the divine) and this is not possible without a “guide” or a “mentor.” Noor Ali Tabandeh is the current grand master of the Gonabadi dervishes.
Noor Ali Tabandeh holds a PhD in law and has defended many opposition figures in Iran, both under the monarchy and under the Islamic Republic. He was a founder of the Society for Defending Freedom in 1985 and he was a critic of Velayat-e Faqih or the “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist,” the founding principle of the Islamic Republic. In 1990 he was among 90 political figures who signed a strongly-worded letter to the then-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, condemning the policies and practices of the Islamic Republic. For this he spent eight months in prison during which his wife died.
Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tabandeh defended dissident figures such as Ayatollah Khomeini’s brother Ayatollah Pasandideh and Ayatollah Jalal Al-Din Taheri Esfahani, Isfahan’s Friday Prayers Leader. One of his best-known clients after the revolution was Abbas Amir-Entezam, an ambassador and a one-time deputy to Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, who is now the longest-held political prisoner in the Islamic Republic. Under Bazargan, Noor Ali Tabandeh served for a brief period as a deputy at both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, but he resigned of his own choice in 1980.
In 1996, following the death of Mahboub Ali Shah, who was the grand master of the Gonabadi Sufi Order, he succeeded him as Ali Shah had wished in his will.
Sermons but no Ceremonies
Five days a week, the followers of Noor Ali Tabandeh attend his morning sermons. On the remaining two days, Thursdays and Fridays, his sermons are open to all, be it dervishes or otherwise. On Monday and Friday nights Gonabadi dervishes organize gatherings around Iran and in other countries. The order does not have established ceremonies and or a specific way of dressing. The dervishes always say they only think about peace, friendship and kindness, not governing or politics. Tabandeh says that dervishes are free in their individual lives. And the dervishes say that although they stay away from politics, they do stand up to “injustice”.
The dervishes also claim to have “the answer to the most important question that human beings ask.” Kasra Nouri, a journalist and a Gonabadi dervish who has recently been released from detention, says that he personally believes this key two-part question was posed by the 13th-century Iranian mystic poet Rumi in his verse: “From where do I come? For what did I come?” He says Sufis believe that they have the answer to this question and they know what they want in life. “Perhaps,” says Nouri, “our difference with others is that we know what we want and why we are alive. Our actions and our beliefs are in harmony with each other and we practice what we say. We seek the truth with the guidance of Dr. Tabandeh on a path of compassion, equality and friendship.”
Sufism is not inherited and Sufis do not proselytize. Gonabadi dervishes follow Shia commandments including praying five times a day and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. But if an individual wants to join them they are required to visit Noor Ali Tabandeh. If he decides that the person has arrived at a heartfelt certainty, then he or she will be able to join his circle of Sufis.
According to Kasra Nouri, over the last two decades, the conduct and the thinking of the Gonabadi dervish order has been polished by the legal teachings of Tabandeh. “Today many thinkers and scientists are trying to find a way out of violence and extremism that has spread around the globe,” he says. “Now they have turned to studying Sufism to find the answer.” He also emphasizes that those accepted as dervishes are “free in their social activities and in their decision-making.”
Tabandeh’s pamphlets and speeches are the among the most important reference texts for Gonabadi dervishes. But other books, including one by Tabandeh’s father Saleh Ali Shah, are also considered must-reads. Most of these books emphasize the importance of shunning violence and politics.
But what about Tabandeh himself, who served in the government of the Islamic Republic, albeit for a brief time? “As a free-spirited individual and citizen, a dervish can step into politics to achieve peace, freedom, calm and security,” says Kasra Nouri. “Each individual needs to manage his own life in step with divine intentions, peace and enlightenment. But Sufism is not after governing. Government has no value for us. Although many Sufis such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi [a 13th-century Persian philosopher, scientist, and mathematician] served as viziers and in positions of power they remained dervishes.”
A Tight-knit Group
Many believe that the the Islamic Republic harasses Gonabadi dervishes because they are such a tight-knit community and the regime views them as a potential threat. It was this closeness that enabled dervishes to respond quickly to the threat of Tabandeh’s arrest. But Kasra Nouri says their actions are only defensive and that they are only demanding the security they deserve. “To defend the sanctity of our beliefs we stand up as long as we are alive,” he says, “even if they aim their guns at us.”
Critics of Gonabadi dervishes say that Tabandeh’s followers never question or criticize the his teachings and compare his leadership to Velayat-e Faqih, although Tabandeh has long been a critic of the Guardianship of the Islamist Jurist. Kasra Nouri rejects this criticism. “Being a dervish is a matter of heart,” he says. “We love him and visit him because he is our teacher and guide.”
Nouri emphasizes that these teachings demand followers to stand up to injustice. “Avoiding violence is a sort of ideology for us,” he says, “meaning that we never forget that the other side is human, too. They might do something out of ignorance, so we hold off. You must be humane to be a dervish. How you dress and what job you have makes no difference. In 2014 when they bloodied and beat Gonabadi dervishes, Dr. Tabandeh called them ‘ignorant brothers.’ Defense must be moral and humane. In the recent episode [outside Tabandeh’s home] nobody was hurt. It was only to tell the regime that he is our red line.”