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Dossier – Les interactions entre šīʿites imāmites et chrétiens

Safavid Iran and the Christian Missionary Experience

Between Tolerance and Refutation
Rudi Matthee
p. 65-100

Résumés

Cet article étudie la relation entre l’élite dirigeante safavide et les représentants du christianisme à Ispahan au xviie siècle, en mettant l’accent sur le groupe restreint mais influent des missionnaires catholiques actifs dans la capitale safavide à l’époque. La relation entre les deux groupes est caractérisée par l’ambiguïté et l’ambivalence. La réfutation et le rejet exprimés par la culture dominante alternent avec un traitement cordial et un intérêt sincère pour le christianisme exprimé par le shah et les grands dignitaires du pays. Cet intérêt se manifeste par une curiosité pour les principes et les symboles de la foi ainsi que par une volonté d’engager un vrai débat intellectuel. Certains cas de convivialité autour du vin sont même attestés. Ce climat de tolérance s’explique en partie par le pragmatisme et le rôle joué par les missionnaires dans la société safavide en tant que passeurs culturels, diplomates, traducteurs et interprètes. Ils étaient également populaires et admirés pour leur érudition, et estimés pour leurs compétences médicales présumées. Derrière ces phénomènes, nous argüons ici qu’une même force émotionnelle est partagée par le šīʿisme duodécimain et le catholicisme  : ces deux monothéismes «  mitigés  » s’organisent autour du martyre, de la sainteté et de la justice rédemptrice, impliquant dans les deux cas une eschatologie et une iconographie comparables. L’acceptation par le šīʿisme d’une révélation continue et l’ouverture à une certaine flexibilité qui en découle ont également joué un rôle dans la fascination mutuelle entre les deux groupes, comme en témoigne une curiosité inhérente et une volonté de tester ses croyances contre celles des autres avec des arguments rationnels. Dans une certaine mesure, tout cela reflète ce que Shahab Ahmed a appelé l’éblouissante diversité d’un monde islamique prémoderne qui s’étend des Balkans au Bengale. Une telle tolérance et l’attitude qui consiste à « vivre et laisser vivre » avaient cependant leurs limites. Le shah et l’élite dirigeante servaient souvent de tampon protecteur contre l’intolérance cléricale, sans que jamais cela ne devienne une politique officielle. Le shah restait le mandataire de Dieu, chargé de faire respecter l’ordre musulman šīʿite. S’il protégeait les chrétiens et était fasciné par le christianisme, c’était à un niveau personnel et non structurel.

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  • 1 The total number may have been upwards of 300,000. See Herzig, ‘Armenian Merchants of New Julfa’, p (...)

1As cross-border migration and resistance to it go, the early 17th century was a tumultuous time for Iran. In 1603‒1605, Shah ʿAbbās I (r. 996/1588‒1038/1629) had hundreds of thousands of Armenians moved from their ancestral land in the southern Caucasus into Iran’s interior. At least 5,000 of these were transplanted from their home town of Julfa on the Aras River to a newly built suburb of Isfahan, called New Julfa, where they were housed and given religious and commercial privileges.1 A new round of incursions into the Caucasus a decade later brought many more thousands of Armenian and Georgian Christians into the Safavid realm, adding to an already sizeable pool. In the long term, this influx radically altered the composition of the administrative and military elite of the Safavid state.

  • 2 Della Valle, “Informatione della Georgia”, p. 8.

2The Turkmen Qizilbāš tribal leaders, who until then had formed the top echelon of the Safavid bureaucratic and military class, now had to compete with a growing number of converted Armenians and Georgians, so-called ġulāms, or slave soldiers. The appointment of the Armenian-Georgian Allāhvirdī Ḫān as governor of Fārs and effectively most of southern Iran in 1004/1595 dramatically heralded the transformative nature of this development, for he would soon turn into the country’s most powerful ruler after the shah. By the second decade of the 17th century, the New Julfans were the most consequential merchant class in the country, more than 30,000 Georgian soldiers were said to be serving in the Safavid army, and there was not an (urban) household without its Georgian slaves.2

  • 3 In 1695 the total number of Carmelites in Iran is said to have been eight, four in Isfahan and two (...)
  • 4 Poullet [d’Armainville], Nouvelles relations du Levant, vol. 2, p. 274.
  • 5 Tavernier, Les six voyages, vol. 1, p. 420.

3The number of European missionaries who arrived in Iran in the same period was infinitesimal by comparison, never amounting to more than a handful for each order—the Augustinians, the Carmelites, the Capuchins and the Jesuits, in that order of arrival.3 The number of Muslims they managed to convert never added up to anything noteworthy either. The French Franciscan Poullet d’Armainville in the 1660s ce tartly noted that there were more missionaries than Roman Catholics in Iran.4 His compatriot, the well-known Huguenot merchant-traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, concurred, claiming, with sarcastic understatement, that in all of Isfahan, including New Julfa, there were no more than five or six Catholics to be found.5

  • 6 Hartman, “William of Augustine”, p. 222.
  • 7 For explicit examples of clerical unhappiness with the presence of the missionaries in Iran, see [C (...)
  • 8 For an editio princeps of della Valle’s anti-Islamic polemical work, see Catherina Wenzel’s critica (...)
  • 9 For this, see Halft, “Schiitische Polemik”; “Sayyid Aḥmad ʿAlavī”; and Piemontese, Persica vaticana(...)
  • 10 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 255. See also Eskandar Beg Monshi, History o (...)
  • 11 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 314‒316; de Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 62, 69‒70.

4The success of the Catholic missionaries may have been limited, and their ultimate importance mainly lies in the informative documentation they left behind. That, though, did not keep them from becoming targets of those who resented their presence in Iran. There were those who saw the European men of the cloth as a potential fifth column, conspiring with the hated Portuguese.6 The spokesmen of the Šīʿī clerical class grumbled at what they saw as a major intrusion of Christian elements into their society and, more concretely, soon after the arrival of the Augustinians, agitated against their request to build a church in Isfahan, which the shah nevertheless permitted. Even if open expressions of the resentment the ʿulamāʾ felt vis-à-vis the missionaries are rare in the surviving sources, their unhappiness is unmistakable.7 It is surely no accident that the well-known philosopher and theologian Sayyid Aḥmad ʿAlavī ʿĀmilī penned two anti-Christian treatises in this very period. One, titled Lavāmiʿ-i rabbānī (1031/1621), was meant as a rebuttal of a refutation of Islam that had been composed by the Roman nobleman Pietro della Valle.8 The other, the Miqal-i afāʾ (1032/1622), was designed as a refutation of a treatise titled Āʾīna-yi aqq-numā that had originated in India.9 We also have some evidence that Shah ʿAbbās’s harsh treatment of the non-Julfan Armenians in the early 1620s ce was in part designed to appease Iran’s hardline clerics—among them the powerful šay al-Islām of Isfahan, Bahāʾ al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Ḥāriṯī al-Hamdānī al-ʿĀmilī (a.k.a. Shaykh Bahāʾī, 953/1547‒1030/1621), who among Isfahan’s Christians had the reputation of disliking Christians.10 Nor is it surprising that, before long, an anti-ġulām faction formed in court circles. Made up of representatives of the Qizilbāš and members of the high clergy, this faction was most vocal in its opposition to the admission of so many Christians into the ranks of the bureaucracy.11

  • 12 Nationaal Archief, VOC 1215, Gamron to Batavia, 30 March 1657, fol. 864; Richard, Raphaël du Mans, (...)

5Iran’s Šīʿī clerics continued to show their displeasure with the presence of a Christian element in their midst by writing various anti-Christian works in the radd-i pādrī and radd-i Narānī genre until the end of the Safavid period. They also were, and remained, the main force behind instances of marginalization and persecution of local Christians (and Jews) throughout the 17th century. It thus was a hardline cleric—possibly Muḥammad Taqī Maǧlisī, father of the better known Muḥammad Bāqir Maǧlisī—who, arguing that Christians polluted the water of canal that supplied the royal palace by washing their clothes in it, was mainly responsible for the subsequent expulsion of the Armenians from Isfahan proper in 1657.12

6None of this resistance is really surprising, coming as it did from an elite used to having a monopoly on religious knowledge and authority while enjoying the attendant material perquisites. Its members naturally felt challenged by representatives of a rival faith, Christianity, who competed with them for various types of royal favor. What is surprising is the larger, paradoxical context in which this opposition occurred: a climate of ambiguity and ambivalence in which refutation and rejection existed alongside interest and even fascination, receptivity in the form of a willingness to engage in intellectual debate, and a measure of toleration on the part of the dominant culture.

7This latter aspect of the interaction between Islam and Christianity in Safavid Iran is the focus of this essay, which will attempt to clarify the background and sketch the contours of an environment in which the representatives of these two faiths interacted and communicated in an ambience of remarkable openness and congeniality which at times even shaded into conviviality.

Narrative and Iconographic Šīʿī-Catholic Convergence

  • 13 See, for example, Troupeau, “Les églises d’Antioche”.
  • 14 The resulting blending and the measure of mutual toleration this produced are still visible in vari (...)
  • 15 Examples include Palestine at the annual Nabī Mūsā festival until this erupted in violence in the 1 (...)
  • 16 Pitton de Tournefort, Relation d’un voyage, vol. 2, p. 321. Chardin qualifies this observation by i (...)

8Muslim admiration for Christianity, its art and architecture, its mosaics and icons, is long-standing and well documented.13 This essay leaves no room for a discussion of the origins of the complex interaction between Christianity and Islam. Suffice it to say that, as the later manifestation of monotheism, Islam has a capacity to absorb Christian elements in ways that Christianity does not with regard to Islam. The Safavid movement itself emerged in the deeply syncretistic, religiously competitive environment of eastern Anatolia, Azerbaijan and the southern Caucasus, a region that always was and remains today a land of overlapping religious beliefs and practices.14 Indeed, in the Caucasus Islam and Christianity had long been entwined in ways similar to common celebrations such as existed between Islam, Judaism and Christianity in other parts of the Islamic world.15 Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, a French naturalist and botanist who spent time in the Caucasus at the turn of the 18th century, observed how Muslims in Georgia appealed to Christian-Georgian saints, how Georgians invoked Armenian holy men, and how local Armenians at times prayed to Muslim prophets. He went on to claim that there were Muslim women in Georgia who secretly professed Christianity. This, he added, included the daughter of the vizier, the wife of the governor’s physician, who, as the local Capuchins insisted, had been baptized in secret and who went to confession and often visited churches, where she would maintain an upright position without giving any outward sign of her true religious beliefs.16

  • 17 Couto, “Les festins à la cour”, p. 571; Brummett, “The Myth of Shah Ismail”.
  • 18 Vermeulen, Sultans, slaven en renegaten, p. 57.

9The persona of Shah Ismāʿīl, the founder of the Safavid state at the turn of the 16th century, embodies this type of syncretistic blending. Shah Ismāʿīl (r. 907/1501‒930/1524) comes across as anything but a rigid monotheist in his (Turcophone) poetry, in which he famously invoked Iran’s pre-Islamic tradition by calling himself Firaydūn, Ḫusraw, Ǧamšīd, and Żaḥḥāk. In addition, he referred to himself as the living Ḫiżr—referring to an enigmatic prophet mentioned in the Qurʾān—as well as Jesus, son of Mary, and, for good measure, the Alexander (the Great) of his contemporaries. His Christian credentials, meanwhile, were impeccable. His mother, Ḥalīma, was the daughter of Despina Ḫātūn, who herself was the daughter of Johan IV of the Byzantine enclave of Trebizond, the wife of the Aq-Quyunlū ruler Uzun Ḥasan (r. 857/1453‒882/1478). Various—controversial because originating in Christian circles—sources claimed that Ismāʿīl’s guard included many Christians, numbering some 10,000 Christians.17 Admittedly self-serving rumors also circulated in contemporary Europe about how Ismāʿīl and his Turkmen Qizilbāš warriors destroyed Sunnī mosques but spared Christian churches, how they drank alcohol with abandon and ate pork with gusto, and how the Qizilbāš believed in the Trinity and venerated the Virgin Mary as the mother of God.18

  • 19 Farhad, “The Dīvān of Sultan Ahmad Jalayir”, p. 502; Necipoğlu, “Persianate Images”.
  • 20 De Orta Rebelo, Un voyageur portugais, p. 120‒121.
  • 21 De Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 46‒47.
  • 22 Krusiński, History, vol. 1, p. 128.

10As for the Virgin Mary, representations of her, with or without child, in Persianate art go back at least as far as the 14th century, the transitional period between the Mongol and the Jalayerid dynasties, which gave rise to Europeanizing influences in general.19 The special veneration of the Virgin Mary remained a prominent feature in Safavid Iran. The Portuguese traveler Nicolau de Orta Rebelo in the early 1600s ce reports the existence of painted images of Mary and the baby Jesus in the palace of Imām Qulī Ḫān, the governor of Fārs, in Shiraz.20 European paintings and religious images were among the gifts the Augustinian friar and Portuguese envoy, António de Gouvea, brought for Shah ʿAbbās in 1602.21 The Polish Jesuit, Thaddeus Krusiński, writing more than a century later, plausibly attributes the special role accorded to Mary to the Georgian women inhabiting the royal harem. These, he said, held on to their ancestral faith, including retaining the custom of taking Christian names—hence the frequent occurrence of the name Mary (Maryam) among them.22

  • 23 See Stronge, “The Land of ‘Mogor’”, p. 106.
  • 24 For the iconography of Twelver Šīʿism, see Fontana, Iconografia dell’Ahl al-bayt; and the contribut (...)
  • 25 See Fontana, Iconografia dell’Ahl al-bayt, p. 22‒29 and plate VIII.
  • 26 Amir-Moezzi, Le Guide divin, p. 235.

11The emotive power of religious symbolism and aesthetic sensibility as reflected in imagery demonstrably played an important role in the fascination Christian faith held for many people in Safavid Iran. Like the Mughals, the Safavids “absorbed Christian iconography”.23 Christianity and Twelver Šīʿism, marked by a ‘compromised’ monotheism involving a deity who manifests himself in multiple ways, share a number of figurative and narrative themes and elements. Christ, the God who became human, bears a striking resemblance to Imām ʿAlī, who is human as well as divinely ordained and who came to be seen as an incarnation of the divine in the more extremist, ġulāt, variants of the Šīʿī faith. He is typically depicted in a saint-like manner, draped in green, his head surrounded by a Christ-like halo. Catholicism and Šīʿī Islam, moreover, both revolve around the notion of redemptive suffering through martyrdom, and the narration and visualization of this aspect is at the core of both.24 There is nothing more central to the Christian faith than the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ—a drama commemorated in the medieval passion play. Foundational to Šīʿism, in turn, is the drama of Imām Ḥusayn, his martyrdom on the battlefield of Karbala, narrated and visualized not just during the annual Muḥarram ceremonies but in a variety of popular settings, including story-telling and painting. Ḥusayn and Christ appear twinned, the connection reinforced by a tradition according to which Christ was born on the 10th of Muḥarram, the day of Ḥusayn’s martyrdom. On one 15th-century painting they appear together.25 And Christ’s projected return at the end of time finds its equivalent in the Parousia of the last Imām of Šīʿism, the Imām of the Time. A focus on miracles, too, binds the two faiths together. Curing illness and walking on water are just two of the miraculous acts attributed to both Christ and the Šīʿī imāms.26

  • 27 De Silva y Figueroa, Commentaries, p. 476. For common roots and similarities between St George, Ḫiż (...)

12At least one contemporary observer, the Spanish envoy Don García de Silva y Figueroa, who visited Isfahan in 1618‒1619, refers to such blended and cross-referenced sainthood. He reports that the Iranians believed that Santiago, or St James, the patron Saint of Spain, was the same as their own ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, which, he added, was why they always depicted him on horseback with weapons of war, fighting his enemies or wild animals. The Iranians, Don García claimed, held the same erroneous belief with regard to the mythical St George, the source of fertility, whom they equated with the equally mythical Muslim prophet al-Ḫiżr, also associated with eternal life, who is particularly beloved among Šīʿīs and even more so among ʿAlavīs, and who, many Šīʿīs believe, encountered Muḥammad al-Mahdī at Ǧamkarān near Qum.27

  • 28 Pereira de Lacerda, L’ambassade en Perse, in Gulbenkian (ed.), Estudos históricos, vol. 2, p. 93.
  • 29 Gulbenkian, “De ce qu’avec la grâce de Dieu”, p. 158; Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. (...)
  • 30 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 8, p. 104‒105. Chardin adds that, at the instigation of a rich Armenian merc (...)
  • 31 Bembo, Travels and Journal, p. 349.
  • 32 De Bruyn, Reizen, p. 173.

13Various contemporary eyewitnesses testify to the Safavid fascination with Christian iconography. The Portuguese Augustinian envoy Luis Pereira de Lacerda in 1604‒1605 relates how Muslims, moved by devotion as well as curiosity, would frequent the Augustinian convent in Isfahan and how they venerated the images of Christian saints and kissed these with great respect. He specifically refers to the (unnamed) daughter of a Muslim khan who would visit the church at least once a week with her entourage, bringing offers, and how she had been cured from the illness from which she had been suffering.28 Diego de Santa Ana, the first prior of the Augustinian convent in Isfahan, echoes this story, insisting that Muslims held Christ in such high esteem that their women, even those belonging to the elite, would come to their church to have the Gospel held over their heads in order to receive some form of benediction.29 Two generations later, the well-known French merchant-traveler Jean Chardin claimed that Iranian Muslims would visit the Armenian cathedral—the one built under Shah ʿAbbās I’s auspices in 1614—as if it were a theater, to admire the wall paintings with biblical scenes that had recently come to adorn it.30 A decade later, the Venetian Ambrosio Bembo observed how in Isfahan’s bazaars Armenians sold images of Christian saints on gypsum and parchment, adding that these found a ready clientele, even among Muslims, who bought them out of curiosity.31 At the turn of the 18th century, the Dutch painter Cornelis de Bruyn, who traveled widely in both Ottoman lands and Safavid Iran, put this phenomenon in a comparative context. He declared that there was little difference in religion between the Turks and the Iranians, except that the former did not decorate their homes with paintings, whereas the latter accepted illustrated books, which one saw “commonly in their homes”, with images of horses, hunting scenes, various other animals, birds, flowers, etc.32

  • 33 The Christian spouse is mentioned in Lefèvre, “Su un’ambasciata persiana”, p. 365. For the Morgan B (...)

14Shah ʿAbbās I, one of whose spouses was Christian, was among those who admired Christian images. We have a vivid example of the attraction Christian narratives and imagery held for him. He famously showed great interest in the illustrated, so-called Morgan Bible presented to him by the Discalced Carmelites during their first visit to Iran in 1608. Opening up the work, the shah is said to have asked many questions about the stories and their illustrations. After perusing the work he reportedly handed it to his subordinates with the order to have explanations of the images added in the margins.33

  • 34 Bailey, Jesuits and the Grand Mogul, p. 35.
  • 35 Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, History, vol. 1, p. 96‒97.

15There is more than Shah ʿAbbās’s curiosity about the Bible and especially its illustrations that hints at a convergence of taste along these lines. Gauvin Alexander Bailey, discussing the fascination of Mughal rulers with European-style art and techniques, argues that they “interpreted missionary art on their own terms and used images of Christian saints and angels to proclaim a message based on Islamic, Sufi, and Hindu symbolism and lined with Persian poetic metaphor”.34 Similar forms of ‘elective affinity’ existed in Safavid Iran. When in 1616 ce Shah ʿAbbās I invaded and laid waste to Georgia, killing and enslaving thousands while plundering the riches of Kakhetʻi and Gremi, he made an exception for the ecclesiastical treasuries his troops came upon. As the Armenian chronicler Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, writing in the late 17th century, put it: 35

The shah ordered that utensils, holy chalices, gospels, censers, chasubles, other vessels and holy items from the churches of Kakhetʻi and Gremi, as well as the magnificent and valuable religious decorations with rare precious stones and pearls not be destroyed, but be transported to the city of Isfahan to the royal treasury. They all remain there to this day. Many of our Armenians have testified that they have seen these holy items. They also transported, among other religious items, the seamless garment of Christ, which is located at present in the same treasury in the city of Isfahan, in front of which they light a lamp to this date.

  • 36 The role of Safavid court officials in commissioning art is emphasized by Habibi, ʿAli Qoli Jebādār(...)

16The final and arguably most compelling case of esthetic convergence is the so-called farangī-sāzī, Europeanizing, style of painting, a phenomenon that remains intriguing in its uniqueness: Iran’s 17th-century receptivity to European art, which is not limited to discernable ‘influence’, but a matter of adaptation of a local iconography to an idiom that was at once external and obviously intimate enough in sensibility to call the hybrid result a matter of elective affinity—the only such example in the vast Asian universe, representing a ‘conversation’ of sorts. Just as the Iranians had adopted East Asian artistic techniques and themes following the 13th-century Mongol invasion and rule by adapting a foreign style to their own traditions, so they proved susceptible to outside impulses four centuries later—with, arguably the same remarkable, albeit more limited results. Farangī-sāzī began with Iran’s encounter with the output of a small number of Dutch painters who worked for the royal court in the early 17th century. The style continued to flourish and in some ways culminated under Shah Sulaymān (r. 1077/1666‒1105/1694), who no longer engaged foreign painters. There is some controversy about the channels of influence and the nature of local patronage, but there can be little doubt that Armenian mediation played a role in what seems intimately linked to the appreciation of ‘Christian’ art by Iranians and perhaps to an upsurge in local patronage and production of religious art in New Julfa.36

  • 37 Letter Juan Taddeo di San Elisio, n.d., in Biblioteca da Ajuda, Lisbon, 46‒IX‒19.

17One of the more striking aspects of the farangī-sāzī genre is indeed the prevalence of biblical iconography. We have a report from the hand of the Spanish Father Juan Tadeo di San Elisio, the head of the Carmelite mission in Isfahan in the early 1600s, which mentions a Flemish painter employed by Shah ʿAbbās I who showcased some of his paintings during an audience with the ruler. One represented Christ taken off the Cross. Father Juan used the opportunity to observe that the shah and his grandees admired such Christian images, so similar in appearance to those of their own ‘saints’. The shah approved of this, whereupon Father Juan offered him the image of Christ.37

  • 38 Habibi, ʿAli Qoli Jebādār, p. 108.
  • 39 See Sobers-Khan, “Women as Symbols”, p. 135.

18Among Safavid painters, such iconography expressed itself in a preference for women of moral standing, Elisabeth, Mary Judith, Mary Magdalene, and in a particular in love of the Virgin Mary, with the Annunciation being a favored theme. The symbolism is striking, and especially the use of the Virgin Mary may be seen as a substitute for the image of Fāṭima in Šīʿism—in line with Muḥammad Bāqir Maǧlisī, who compared the Madonna of Christianity to the Fāṭima of Šīʿī Islam.38 This biblical iconography was carried over into early Qāǧār times.39

Debate and Disputation

  • 40 De Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 54.
  • 41 De Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 206.
  • 42 De Gouvea, Jornada do Arcebispo, p. 134.

19The reports about especially Shah ʿAbbās I’s interest in and preference for Christianity mostly appear in missionary writings, and thus should be approached with some caution. A good example is António de Gouvea’s claim that Shah ʿAbbās told him how many Christians there were in his entourage and that he trusted them more than anyone.40 A self-serving statement is not a priori a reason for dismissal, though. Such claims, after all, did not just originate solely among those who had a stake in the issue. Shah ʿAbbās clearly used his Christophilia for political purposes, to woo or impress his European guests, to cow his underlings or at least to make it unequivocally clear to his entourage who was in charge in his realm. De Gouvea bears witness to this with an anecdote in which he describes how the shah ordered wine to be brought during an assembly where, aside from a delegation of Portuguese missionaries, various judges and clerics, including the šay al-Islām of Isfahan, were present. He next forced everyone to drink to the health of the pope.41 The same Portuguese envoy recounts how, during a maǧlis, gathering, the monarch turned to his grandees, including the ǧir-bāšī (head of the merchants) and the qurčī-bāšī (head of the Praetorian Guard), and challenged them by asking them how they would react if he turned Christian, to which they unanimously responded that they would do whatever pleased His Majesty.42

  • 43 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 245.
  • 44 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 245.

20The Carmelite fathers also recount how in early January 1620 Shah ʿAbbās, attending the Armenian Blessing of the Waters Festival, engaged in a discussion about religious matters with members of his entourage and three Christian missionaries. Several times he asserted that “‘whoever did not believe in Jesus Christ and [in his status as] the Spirit of God, was a Kafir’—an infidel”.43 He also expressed a desire to see various Christian relics that had been brought from Armenia when the Julfans had been resettled. Presented with these, he kissed them and placed them on his head; then he bade those present to stand reverently before such holy objects, “paying them in deed almost as much honour as a Christian sovereign might have done”.44

  • 45 Shah ʿAbbās I routinely socialized with foreign visitors. Ṭahmāsb Qulī Ḫān was said to love Christi (...)
  • 46 See the contributions in Lazarus-Yafeh et al. (eds.), The Majlis; as well as Abdullaeva, “Origins o (...)
  • 47 Tolan, Saracens, p. 233‒239; Kedar, “Multilateral Disputation”.

21These examples suggest that the appreciation of Christian stories, symbols and artifacts at the Safavid court was not just politically motivated. Despite the official restrictions on proximity to and interaction with non-Šīʿīs imposed by the rules of naǧāsāt, ritual impurity, it is remarkable how easily the Iranian Muslim elite, from the shah himself to high-ranking political authorities, mingled with Christians, including missionaries. Not only that, but the Safavid elite proved eager to engage these learned visitors from foreign lands in intellectual debate on a variety of topics, including religious ones, in a relaxed atmosphere and, at times, under the enjoyment of ample drink.45 This type of debate, munāara, has a long history in Iranian (and Islamic) history. Going back to pre-Islamic times, the munāara was typically conducted by two individuals who debated opposites, seeking to persuade each other. Common humanity was an underlying theme.46 Christian missionaries working in Islamic lands had been engaged in this type of disputation at least from the 13th century onward, when Dominican friars had conducted polemics against Muslims (and Jews) in Muslim-dominated Spain.47

  • 48 Alonso, “El primer viaje”, p. 537.

22The Carmelite Father Vicente de S. Francisco in 1610 ce explained the Iranian propensity to engage in intellectual debate with outsiders as follows:48

The Persians are by nature curious and come to visit the church of the Fathers and like to engage in debate about the matters of the Lord and of the faith, and they are beginning to understand its mysteries, in particular the adoration of images and other matters, for which they erroneously hold Christians to be idolaters, and they use reason, as a result of which it is easier for them to convert to the faith than other Muslims.

  • 49 Until the mid-17th century, the missionaries saw debate with Muslims as a means toward conversion. (...)
  • 50 Alonso, “Documentación inédita”, p. 311.
  • 51 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 249‒255.

23Now that last point remained wishful thinking, but we do know that in the 17th century, public debate frequently occurred at the instigation of grandees or even the shah himself. Other than the vain hope on the part of the missionaries that debate might lead to conversion, intellectual engagement often seems to have been the main purpose.49 The Theatine Father Pietro Avitabile in 1633 summed this up when he said that unlike the Turks, who didn’t like to discuss their religious laws, the Persians were eager to do so and would come to the missionaries for that purpose, expressing a love of Christianity and hoping for reciprocal respect.50 Shah ʿAbbās I even ordered such a debate involving the religious permissibility of iconography after members of the English East India Company objected to its use in their variant of the Christian faith, Anglicanism.51

  • 52 De Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 70. See also Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. 158‒159.

24Even more institutional forms of tolerance are recorded. One is the frequently mentioned freedom of Christians who had converted to Islam to return to their original faith. The first one to refer to this is de Gouvea according to whom ʿAbbās declared that any Muslim who wished to become Christian would be free to do so, on condition that de Gouvea and his men would not prevent any Christian subject of the shah from converting to Islam.52

  • 53 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 33.
  • 54 It is unclear which of the three Sasanian Yazdigirds is meant here.
  • 55 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 33‒35.

25This may sound like the wishful thinking of a Portuguese missionary but the principle is confirmed by Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, a 17th-century Armenian chronicler who attributes the origins of this decree to Shah ʿAbbās I as well. He recounts how one day, checking on his realm in disguise, as was his wont to do, the shah ended up talking to an Armenian priest named Dawit‛. Asked to judge the current ruler, Dawit‛ judiciously responded that “we don’t know anything good or bad about the shah, but it is not right to speak bad of him, for he is the shah”.53 ʿAbbās next asked the priest about the illustrated book he was copying, to which Dawit‛ responded that it was a book of martyrs. Clearly fascinated, ʿAbbās asked him to explain. Dawit‛ told him the story of St Hakob (St Jacob of Nisibis). Asked about the king under whom this saint had lived, he assured the shah that it was (the Sasanian monarch) Yazdigird, who was Zoroastrian.54 Clearly impressed, the shah left, asking Dawit‛ to pray for him. Sometime later ʿAbbās gathered the heads of state, including Isfahan’s religious leaders, explaining that he had had a dream—involving the encounter with Dawit‛—which had been followed by a command that, once carried out, had made a terrible light appear in the sky, descending on St Hakob and darkening the sun. He then ordered that a new law be entered into the books whereby Christians who had converted to Islam and wished to revert to their original faith would be free to do so.55

  • 56 See Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 35.
  • 57 Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. 158‒159.
  • 58 Bembo, Travels and Journal, p. 299, 306, 349.
  • 59 Alonso, “El primer viaje”, p. 537.
  • 60 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, Mémoires historiques, vol. 2, p. 24‒26; The Chronicle, p. 48‒50.

26Zakʻaria insists that the decree had remained in place ever since, explaining how in 1675 he had gone to the city of Qazvin where he had received a decree from Shah Sulaymān on five converts to Islam who had reverted to Christianity.56 Others confirm this state of affairs. The Carmelite Ange de St Joseph, writing in the 1660s, reiterates that it was possible for Christians to return to their original faith after converting to Islam, and that upon doing so they actually received a certificate stating that they were murtad.57 The Venetian traveler Ambrosio Bembo even insisted that in Safavid Iran direct apostasy from Islam was permitted.58 The sources yield two actual instances of such a seemingly unthinkable move, both occurring in the orbit of Shah ʿAbbās I. One concerns the ruler’s Italian interpreter, reportedly an Iranian who had converted to Catholicism by undergoing baptism.59 The other is found in the story of Ġazāl, an Armenian woman who had come to Isfahan as one of the Armenians deported from Old Julfa in 1604‒1605 ce. Spotted by Shah ʿAbbās during a riding trip in New Julfa, she became the monarch’s personal dancer and favorite entertainer. During ʿAbbās’s campaign to Baghdad in late 1623, she repented and decided to become a nun. In response, the shah had her brought to his palace, released her from bondage and handed her a letter stating that she was free to exercise her Christian faith throughout his realm.60

  • 61 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 147‒149.

27Shah ʿAbbās’s direct successors were in many ways no different in their stance vis-à-vis Christianity and its foreign representatives. Shah Ṣafī I (r. 1039/1629-1052/1642), his grandson and immediate successor, became known for his cruelty, and especially the sanguinary beginnings of his reign horrified many foreign observers. But he redeemed himself and ended up enjoying a good reputation among European residents of Isfahan by continuing and even improving on, his grandfather’s record with regard to his treatment of Christians. Deacon Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ tells a remarkable story about the Armenian community of Ardabil, which had been resettled to the town by Shah ʿAbbās I and which, with royal permission, had built a small church with a wooden roof, of all places next to the shrine of the founder of the Safavid order, Shaykh Ṣafī. When the local mullās heard about this, they gathered a crowd which set out to level the church. The khan of Ardabil, unable to prevent this from happening, proposed to the distraught Armenians that they turn to the grand vizier, Mirzā Muḥammad ‘Sāru’ Taqī, to seek redress. The latter suggested writing a petition and seeking the intercession of the Armenian notable Ḫvāǧa Šafraz to represent this to the shah during the next audience. This was done. The shah, apprised of the story, ordered a letter written to the khan of Ardabil and the mullās of the town, admonishing them that they had committed a grave sin by destroying the house of the Christians and erasing the memory of the great Shah ʿAbbās, and that only their service to the shrine of Shaykh Ṣafī stood between them and the death penalty. The shah next issued a raqam ordering the authorities in Ardabil to rebuild the church at their own expense and using their laborers and artisans. In due time a “magnificent and beautiful brick church was built at an [unfortunately unrecorded] site designated by the local Armenians”.61

  • 62 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 516‒517; Krusiński, History, vol. 1, p. 129.
  • 63 See Matthee, Persia in Crisis, p. 183‒191.
  • 64 The treatise, held by the Vatican Library, MS Pers. 49, is titled Risāla dar bayān-i iʿtiqādāt va m (...)
  • 65 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 398‒399. See also Bedik, A Man of Two Worlds, p. 225‒226.
  • 66 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 514.
  • 67 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 146.

28Under Shah ʿAbbās II, Ṣafī’s son and successor (r. 1052/1642‒1077/1666), Safavid Christophilia may be said to have culminated, especially after grand vizier Muḥammad ‘Sāru’ Taqī, who was known for his anti-Christian sentiments, had been eliminated in 1645.62 His reign saw various instances of discriminatory measures against non-Šīʿī groups in society, yet these do not carry the imprint of the ruler.63 The shah showed a real interest in Christianity by commissioning a treatise explaining the tenets of the faith from the Dominican Paolo Piromalli (1591‒1667), who learned Persian while he resided in New Julfa between 1644 and 1653.64 Indeed, ʿAbbās II was universally praised by Christians, both indigenous ones and foreign observers, for his friendly attitude vis-à-vis their co-religionists, and it was even said that he was so “prepossessed in favor of Christianity that it was disagreeable to him to speak ill of it”.65 Chardin went further, claiming that Iran’s Armenians regarded him as more Christian than Muslim.66 Deacon Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ stopped short of such a claim yet did insist that the shah “loved Christians” and would invite Christians and Muslims alike to his banquets, as well as visit the “houses of the Christians during their weddings and other major festivities”.67

  • 68 See Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 173‒175.

29The same chronicler offers a remarkable story about an exchange between Shah ʿAbbās II and the Armenian Kathoghikos Hakob, who upon the death of Philippos in 1655 succeeded him as head of the See of Etchmiadzin. The shah inquired about the prelate’s religious identity, to which he responded that he was a Christian. ʿAbbās II then queried him about the identity of Christ, to which Hakob replied that he followed “what was written by the prophets”. Asked whether he believed Christ was divine, he responded in the affirmative. Instead of having him killed, the shah asked Hakob to explain, which he did by recounting the history of the prophets from the time of Moses to that of Christ. When he had finished, ʿAbbās approvingly confirmed that he had narrated the story of the prophets correctly, asked the Muslim attendees if they had anything to say and invited the prelate to write a petition with any wish he might have. Hakob requested and received tax exemption in perpetuity for the monastery of Echmiadzin.68

  • 69 De Rhodes, Relation de la mission, p. 46‒47; Richard, Raphaël du Mans, vol. 2, p. 224‒226. Accordin (...)
  • 70 [Villotte and Frizon], Voyages d’un missionnaire, p. 134‒136.

30Shah ʿAbbās II and his grandees would also participate in disputations on matters of the faith, such as the divinity of Christ. Grand vizier Muḥammad Beg (in office 1654‒1661) even took part in one as part of a fact finding mission after the Jesuit fathers were accused of having profaned a copy of a Qurʾān in their possession.69 At time, clerics participated in these as well.70

  • 71 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 146.

31Instances of outright socialization occurred as well. Whenever he gave a banquet for his princes and the notables, Shah ʿAbbās II would invite Armenian grandees from New Julfa such as Ḫvāǧa Šafraz and Ḫvāǧa Petrum. He would also visit the houses of the Christians during their weddings and other major festivities, making “no distinction between them and Muslims”.71

  • 72 Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Rome, Gall. 97ii, Claude Ignace, Isfahan to Claude Bouchier, Rome (...)

32ʿAbbās II invited not just the notables of the Armenian community but, no less outgoing than his great-grandfather and namesake, ʿAbbās I, he would routinely ask Western visitors, envoys, missionaries or merchants to join him in his drinking sessions, allowing them to quaff from his own goblet. One such instance occurred in late 1665, when the members of the first official French delegation to Iran, representing Louis XIV, were hosted at one of Shah ʿAbbās II’s palaces for an evening of entertainment, including the watching of fireworks. The French Jesuit missionary in attendance claimed that the libations included “excellent Shiraz wine”, of which the guests were offered several rounds in gold cups, after which ʿAbbās II promised that he would henceforth send some each year to the great monarch of France.72

  • 73 A third, non-eyewitness description is given by Maertial de Thorigne, a Frenchman who resided in Al (...)

33We have especially vivid eyewitness descriptions of the party organized by the court on 3 February 1665 in honor of the foreign residents of Isfahan, French and Dutch merchants and missionaries, including Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and Raphaël du Mans, the Capuchin friar who would live in Iran for nearly fifty years, acting as the shah’s main interpreter.73 The party started at nine in the morning, with Shiraz wine being served from long-necked bottles of Venetian crystal. The shah, knowing that Europeans liked to drink while eating, made sure to have them served roasted and boiled meat as well trout from the Caspian Sea. The atmosphere at the party was relaxed, the conversation alternating between light topics, including women, and serious matters involving the present strength of the Ottomans, geopolitical conditions in Europe and the difference between the monarchical and republican form of government—a topic that the Dutch in attendance were asked to elaborate on. ʿAbbās was offered two oil paintings of courtesans brought by Armenian merchants from Venice or Livorno. This prompted the Safavid ruler to ask Tavernier about his taste in women and his idea about female beauty, to which the Frenchman diplomatically responded by pointing out that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that different culture had different standards.

  • 74 Tavernier, Les six voyages, vol. 1, p. 487‒502; Daulier Deslandes, Les Beautez de la Perse, p. 30‒3 (...)

34All the while the party was enlivened by song and dance. This went on until after midnight when the shah, alerted to that fact that his hosts’ attention was flagging, gave them permission to leave. Tavernier remarked that during the sixteen hours that the party lasted the eunuchs who stood guard remained in upright position without eating or drinking anything. Daulier Deslandes, a companion of Tavernier’s and another guest, more ominously observed how a number of courtiers stood by, watching from a downstairs porch, afraid to enter, sullen and clearly disapproving of their sovereign behaving with so much familiarity with foreigners.74

  • 75 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 398‒399. For more grumbling about the prominent role of Christians in (...)
  • 76 See Chardin, Voyages, vol. 5, p. 216‒217, and vol. 6, p. 444‒445; as well as Kaempfer, Exotic Attra (...)

35Given all this, one understands Chardin’s claim that, when ʿAbbās II died in 1077/1666, the Christians cried for him for having been so tolerant.75 Nor is it surprising that precisely in his period some ʿulamāʾ began to grumble about boozing shahs who failed to project an image of Islamic probity.76

  • 77 In Landau, “European Religious Iconography”, p. 425.
  • 78 Krusiński, History, vol. 1, p. 131.

36Under the last two Safavid rulers, Sulaymān and Sulṭān Ḥusayn, such extraordinary openness and conviviality diminished. Both were sedentary rulers, more susceptible to the influence and advisement of the clerical class than inclined to carouse with Frankish foreigners. Taxes on Armenians went up in this period, periodic calls went out for the stricter enforcement of purity laws for non-Šīʿīs, and the coronation of Sulṭān Ḥusayn in 1105/1694 was accompanied by a ban on drinking and other activities deemed unislamic. To the extent that drinking parties continued in the orbit of these two rulers, these took place in the privacy of the palace without foreign guests attending. Yet the fascination with the images and the rituals of Christianity endured in court circles. We know, for example, that Shah Sulaymān was enthralled by the pictures decorating the Vank Cathedral of New Julfa.77 And if we are to believe Father Krusiński, Shah Sulṭān Ḥusayn was in his heart of hearts not convinced that Islam was any better than Christianity, thought that Christian workmen were more qualified than Muslim ones and suspected that Christians excelled in points of religion as well.78

The Missionaries: Role and Reception

  • 79 For this, see Matthee, “Safavids under Western Eyes”.
  • 80 As Stefan Halikowski-Smith argues, several qualities made prelates good envoys, including their vow (...)

37What role did the missionaries play in all this? Even if their dreams of conversion, beginning with the shah and the elite, were never fulfilled, Iran proved a relatively congenial place for the European men of the cloth—as it did for all European visitors and residents.79 This went far beyond the initial reception which was typically cordial, having to do with the customary hospitality of Iranians and the fact that they saw these visitors from abroad first and foremost as diplomats or at least as representatives of foreign powers, who were to be respected as such.80

38The friars working in Iran operated in an atmosphere marked by relative freedom. They lived in a state of relative protection, and if they did not have permission to proselytize among Muslims, they were allowed to bring Armenians and other minorities to the ‘true faith’.

  • 81 Herbert, Travels in Persia, p. 168.

39It seems clear that, for these and other reasons, most missionaries—like Westerners in general—liked Iran. They liked it better than the Ottoman Empire beyond Istanbul, with its lawless eastern lands stalked by Arab and Kurdish marauders; better than India with its torrential monsoons, its oppressive humidity and—beyond the Persianate court—its incomprehensible polymorphic religion filled with seemingly bizarre rituals. They enjoyed the fabled hospitality of Iranians, which was reinforced by mihmāndārī, the unique custom of defraying foreign envoys from the moment they entered the country until they left its soil. They felt a certain affinity, not just with Iranian rituals and esthetic sensibilities, but with the manners and customs of the people and the sophistication of their culture. Thomas Herbert put it best albeit condescendingly when he said that “for their manner of husbandry, buildings, and civility”, Iranians were “more resembling ours of Europe than any other we had hitherto observed in Asia”.81

  • 82 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 163, 446‒447.
  • 83 See Matthee, “Between Aloofness and Fascination”.
  • 84 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 165.
  • 85 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 6, p. 155, claims that the Iranians perceived the Augustinians as ambassador (...)
  • 86 Kaempfer, Exotic Attractions, p. 193‒194, 273.

40The Iranians reciprocated. People and especially young boys on the street might insult and curse the friars, throwing rocks at them and calling them dogs.82 Members of the Safavid elite suspected the Frankish men of the cloth of ulterior motives, as they tended to be suspicious of foreigners in general.83 And even after Shah ʿAbbās I himself broke with the habit, especially pious people refused to have any contact with them, even to shake hands, just as they avoided contact with all non-Šīʿīs, considering them naǧis, ritually impure.84 Yet the elite generally treated official European visitors with great courtesy and hospitality, and not just because they saw them for what they were, as representatives of European kings and the Catholic pope.85 Iranians may have found the voluntary poverty and the humble attire of the friars, especially the ones belonging to mendicant orders, difficult to interpret. None of this was totally unfamiliar to them, to be sure, for these men and their ways no doubt reminded them of their own dervishes and qalandars, religiously inspired beggars in far more ragged attire than the missionaries would wear. But to a culture preoccupied with outward appearance and concerned about presenting oneself well before one’s host, especially as a foreigner, the custom of missionaries to appear even before the shah in simple habit and sandals must have seemed incomprehensible for lacking decorum and appropriate respect.86 Yet, some admired precisely this simplicity reflecting voluntary poverty. Educated Iranians also valued the missionaries for their erudition, and especially for their scientific knowledge—specifically of mathematics, astronomy and medicine—as well as for the ability and willingness to engage in learned disputation with them on matters of faith and philosophy.

  • 87 Della Valle, Viaggi, vol. 1, p. 659.
  • 88 Olearius, Vermehrte Newe Beschreibung, p. 512; Andersen & Iversen, Orientalische Reise-Beschreibung (...)
  • 89 Berchet (ed.), La Repubblica, p. 221‒222.
  • 90 De Rhodes, Relation de la mission, p. 46‒47; Zimmel, “Vorgeschichte und Gründung”.
  • 91 On him, see Thi Kieu Ly Pham’s essay in this issue.

41The missionaries proved to be useful in other ways as well. The royal court, short on knowledge of European languages, enlisted some as translators and interpreters in its communication with other European visitors. Father Juan Tadeo di San Elisio for years served as Shah ʿAbbās I’s interpreter and confidant. He also acted as a teacher of European languages to local interpreters.87 The missionaries continued to render services as translators for visiting embassies from the West. The Augustinian Father Joseph a Rosario, for instance, acted as interpreter for the Holstein embassy that visited Isfahan in 1636‒1637.88 The Polish envoy who came to Isfahan in 1647 had his requests to the shah drafted by the Carmelites of Isfahan.89 Another example is Father Aimé Chézaud, the learned Jesuit who headed his order’s convent of Isfahan in the mid-1650s. Chézaud was given access to the residence of grand vizier Muḥammad Beg, to which he was invited at regular intervals.90 Another Jesuit, Alexandre de Rhodes, was frequently invited to represent the Christian voice in disputations at the court on account of his excellent Persian.91 The most famous case, of course, is Raphaël du Mans, the Capuchin Father who during the nearly fifty years he spent in Isfahan acted as a liaison between a host of European visitors, including many travelers, and Iranian society and culture.

  • 92 Bembo, Travels and Journal, p. 326‒327.

42The Christian fathers also played an important role in the distribution of news, either through missionaries visiting from other missions in Asia or by way of letters and printed material arriving directly from Europe. Members of the Iranian elite, curious about events and developments in Europe, would visit the fathers in their convents to be informed about events in the West and to keep the missionaries abreast of developments in Iran.92

  • 93 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 244‒245.
  • 94 Anonymous, “Mémoire de la mission d’Erzeron”, p. 286.
  • 95 See Anonymous, “Mémoire de la province du Sirvan”, p. 50.
  • 96 Pereira de Lacerda, L’ambassade en Perse, p. 93.
  • 97 De Rhodes, Relation de la mission, p. 39‒40; Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. 164‒165; (...)
  • 98 Richard, Raphaël du Mans, vol. 1, p. 109, n. 272.
  • 99 Krusiński, History, vol. 2, p. 150. See also Lockhart, Fall of the Safavī Dynasty, p. 208‒209.

43The missionaries, finally, were popular, among commoners as much as the elite, for the medical skills many brought with them and the healing magic they were thought to possess. As noted, various foreign observers insisted that Iranians loved images of Christian saints and attributed healing power to them.93 The missionaries’ (presumed) medical knowledge and curative talents literally opened doors, even the inner sanctum of the homes of the elite. Success in curing illness counted as useful for the spread of God’s word.94 This remained a pattern for the ages.95 The aforementioned Pereira de Lacerda observed that many Muslims were drawn to the Augustinian convent of Isfahan in hopes of being cured from disease.96 Others insisted that Iranians often brought their sick children to the missionaries to have the Gospel read over the infants’ heads, and that many had thus received baptism on their deathbeds. One Carmelite father claims to have baptized 3,000 Šīʿī children in this manner.97 Even grand vizier Shaykh ʿAlī Ḫān (in office 1669‒1689), an official known for his anti-Christian sentiments, is said to have had a missionary read the Gospel to his sick son.98 Decades later, Maḥmūd Ġilzāʾī, the head of the Afghan band that seized Isfahan, asked the ‘healing gospels’ to be read to him during a bout of insanity.99

  • 100 Hentsch, Imagining the Middle East, p. 37.
  • 101 Windler, Missionare in Persien, p. 430‒434, 456‒458.
  • 102 Windler, Missionare in Persien, p. 452.

44For the Christians of the Orient and even of Spain, everyday contact with Arab civilization had a tempering effect on their theological quarrel with Islam.100 In Iran, human interaction had a similar working. Missionaries housed travelers regardless of their faith or provenance; they themselves, in turn, were accommodated and given shelter by the (Protestant) Dutch in Bandar Abbas. In Isfahan, they engaged in reciprocal visits and exchanged pleasantries and gifts. The Dutch even furnished them credit.101 Father Raphaël du Mans is the quintessential figure here: his role as representative of the church, tasked to try and convert non-Christians, was overshadowed—and certainly has been overshadowed in modern scholarship—by his role as broker and informant. Jean Chardin, for instance, enjoyed du Mans’s hospitality during several of his visits, and du Mans introduced him as well as many other travelers to Safavid grandees. All this prompted a Jesuit colleague to complain that du Mans had spent fifty years engaged in discussion with court officials and literati, doing too little for God and the Church all this time. To this criticism du Mans is said to have responded by stating that it was quite something that he hadn’t lost his faith in the process.102

  • 103 Windler, Missionare in Persien, p. 462‒470, 502‒511.

45Of course much of this openness and receptivity was a function of making a virtue out of necessity. Parties that would have lived in separate worlds to the point of shunning each other at home of needs found common ground by being relegated to a common social space in a foreign land. The missionaries justified their interaction with non-Catholics by referring to extraordinary circumstances. Even the Carmelites, bound by a vow of poverty and contemplative insularity, succumbed to the inevitability of social contact in the Iranian environment.103

  • 104 For the Mughal Empire, see Lefèvre, Pouvoir impérial, p. 18‒19.

46This inclusiveness, finally, was the ultimate hallmark of smart imperial management. Safavid Iran was less diverse than Mughal India, linguistically as much as ethnically and religiously, but its most successful rulers followed the same sensible inclusionary policy of allowing people to adhere to their own religions and fostering an atmosphere of toleration at court.104

  • 105 Schjeldahl, “Brotherhood”, p. 103.
  • 106 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 514‒519.
  • 107 The observation about the growing assertiveness by the ʿulamāʾ was made by Raphaël du Mans. See Ric (...)

47It is important not to idealize all this from either side, not to paint a romantic portrait of convivencia à la Andalusia, as some form of multiculturalism avant la lettre. In the words of art critic Peter Schjeldahl, reviewing an exhibit in New York City of works by Francisco de Zurbarán, the Counter Reformation “didn’t fancy tolerance”.105 The Safavids didn’t fancy tolerance either. For all the toleration they exhibited, it is important to remember that interest in and sympathy for Christianity in the Safavid realm had its limitations. It could never compete with politics, raisons d’État, so to speak, having to do with wielding and maintaining power. The shah was clearly a protective buffer against clerical intolerance.106 But he ultimately was the head of an Islamic polity, a trustee of the divine, tasked to upheld the Muslim order. By the same token, it is surely no coincidence that Iran’s religious authorities became more assertive as of 1667, the year when Shah Sulaymān, having just acceded to power under the name Ṣafī II, was floundering, ill and feeble, projecting weak royal power.107 ‘Toleration’ as a result could never become institutionalized; even in practice it had to cede to the imperative of the Twelver Šīʿī nature of the state and society, for this was the bedrock of society, the primordial force that lent legitimacy to the very dynasty.

48Why is all this significant? I think it is significant for the glimpse into an alternative universe that this interaction offers us in the current global climate of recrudescent religious sectarianism, ethnic conflict and political bigotry. Between 1555, the year of the Peace of Augsburg, and 1618, the beginning of the Thirty Years War, Europe underwent a process of what historians call confessionalization, the imposition of the faith along the principle of cuius regio, eius religio. Nothing of the sort happened in Safavid Iran. Twelver Šīʿism was its official faith, to be sure, and examples of oppression of adherents to other faiths abound, but there was enough space at the level of practical discourse to allow for divergent interpretations of inter-faith truth and meaning, just as there was enough space within the Safavid administrative structure for Sunnī proclivities among various grand viziers and at least one of the dynasty’s rulers— Shah Ismāʿīl II (r. 984/1576‒985/1577). If Safavid rulers didn’t fancy tolerance, most did practice a distinct form of toleration, an admixture of pragmatism, curiosity and a philosophically underpinned perspective on faith as multifarious and, essentially, a private affair.

Conclusion

  • 108 Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität, passim.
  • 109 Ahmed, What is Islam, p. 175, 201. On his publication, see also Emilio G. Platti’s essay in this is (...)
  • 110 Ahmed, What is Islam, p. 278.

49Of late, several scholars have argued that Islam in its premodern manifestation inherently tolerates a large measure of ambiguity; indeed, that, despite appearances, ambiguity—the reconciliation of oppositional elements—is its essence.108 Especially the late Shahab Ahmed discerns in premodern Islam a vast land of “dazzling diversity”, of far greater ethnic, linguistic and religious variety than post-Roman Europe ever exhibited, a universe of “intrinsic pluralism and complexity”, yet unified in a “common paradigm of Islamic life and thought.”109 Islam, Ahmed argues, is capacious, capable of accommodating contradiction. Islam in its pre-disenchanted state is a protean faith and way of life, open to wonderment and exploration, embracing a variety of mutually opposing statements.110 Cosmopolitanism, a way of being open and flexible to the world, permeated premodern Islam. Internally, Muslims have been dealing with difference, diversity and disagreement for 14 centuries, Ahmed insists.

50Ahmed arguably pushes his argument too far—incorporating elements found in Muslim-majority societies that by most accounts are extraneous to Islam and disregarding many Islamic beliefs and practices that reflect intolerance rather than openness—but he does conjure up a set of sensibilities that seem particularly valid for the eastern half of the territory stretching from the Balkans to Bengal, what today we call the Persianate world. And within that realm especially Twelver Šīʿism with its acceptance of continued revelation appears open to versatility. It shares such versatility with Catholicism. For all their shared authoritarian, top-down authority structures, and despite instances of persecution, both faiths have always left room for diversity and multiplicity, allowing for divergent interpretations and a willingness to engage in dialogue with those who differ, clearly with the aim of prevailing, of persuading one’s opponent, but with the added goal of learning something from and about that same opponent. This communality surely facilitated the ease with which representatives of both groups engaged in discourse in Safavid Iran.

  • 111 Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. 158‒159. This was, of course, also the case at the cou (...)
  • 112 Manucci, Storia do Mogor, vol. 1, p. 41.
  • 113 See Manucci, Storia do Mogor.
  • 114 See Manucci, Storia do Mogor.

51The interest shown in Christianity by Iranians, the elite as much as the common people, was in part a matter of fascination with its paraphernalia, its iconography, its symbolism, the idea of sainthood, the notion of the second coming. But it also reflected inherent curiosity and a willingness to test one’s beliefs against those of others with rational arguments. The Carmelite Ange de St Joseph in the later 17th century referred to such inquisitiveness when he (erroneously) insisted that among Muslims only the Iranians permitted open discussion of religious issues.111 His contemporary Niccolao Manucci, who, having left his native Venice at a young age, spent a lifetime in the Muslim world, elaborated on this assertion. He put the freedom he experienced in Iran in a comparative perspective by pointing out that Iran was the only country in the Islamic world where one was permitted to “use arguments, make inquiry, and give answers in matters of religion without the least danger”.112 In Iran, he insisted, there was liberty “to put and reply to questions on matters of the Christian religion between Christians and Persians, without fear of being interfered with on that account”.113 Everywhere else—in the Ottoman Empire, Arabia, the Mughal realm, Balkh, Bukhara and among the Uzbeks and the Pathans—nothing of the sort was possible: religion was inviolable, only to be questioned at the risk of death.114

  • 115 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 5, p. 258.

52Given all this, one understands why Chardin called the Iranians essentially deists.115 At the risk of generalization, one could say that, in many ways, they still are. Then as now, the ‘literalist’ ʿulamāʾ did have reason to be worried.

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Notes

1 The total number may have been upwards of 300,000. See Herzig, ‘Armenian Merchants of New Julfa’, p. 60‒61; Ghougassian, Emergence of the Armenian Diocese of New Julfa, p. 30‒31.

2 Della Valle, “Informatione della Georgia”, p. 8.

3 In 1695 the total number of Carmelites in Iran is said to have been eight, four in Isfahan and two each in Shiraz and Basra. See [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 514.

4 Poullet [d’Armainville], Nouvelles relations du Levant, vol. 2, p. 274.

5 Tavernier, Les six voyages, vol. 1, p. 420.

6 Hartman, “William of Augustine”, p. 222.

7 For explicit examples of clerical unhappiness with the presence of the missionaries in Iran, see [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 261; de Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 62; Florencio del Niño Jesús, Biblioteca Carmelitano-Teresiana, vol. 2, p. 111.

8 For an editio princeps of della Valle’s anti-Islamic polemical work, see Catherina Wenzel’s critical edition of the original Persian version in this issue, as well as Michael Weichenhan’s transcription of the Latin translation of della Valle’s work.

9 For this, see Halft, “Schiitische Polemik”; “Sayyid Aḥmad ʿAlavī”; and Piemontese, Persica vaticana, p. 281, 288, 292, 297, 299, 312, 314, 316‒317.

10 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 255. See also Eskandar Beg Monshi, History of Shah ʿAbbas, vol. 2, p. 960‒961.

11 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 314‒316; de Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 62, 69‒70.

12 Nationaal Archief, VOC 1215, Gamron to Batavia, 30 March 1657, fol. 864; Richard, Raphaël du Mans, vol. 2, p. 143.

13 See, for example, Troupeau, “Les églises d’Antioche”.

14 The resulting blending and the measure of mutual toleration this produced are still visible in various ways in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. The old city houses the only mosque known to this author that features two adjacent prayer niches, mirābs, one for Sunnīs and one for Šīʿīs. A short walk away, a Zoroastrian ātiš-gāh (fire temple) and a proud synagogue testify to a long history of tolerance and co-existence in Georgia. For conditions in Georgia under Safavid control, see Rayfield, “What Did the Iranians”, p. 41.

15 Examples include Palestine at the annual Nabī Mūsā festival until this erupted in violence in the 1920s; Morocco, where traditionally Jews as well as Muslims would visit shrines of each other’s holy men; and the autonomous republic of Tatarstan in Russia, which has been called the centre of ‘Volga coexistence’, and a ‘collective Islamic-Christian space’. For Morocco, see Voinot, Pèlerinages judéo-musulmans. For Tatarstan, see Rubin, Russia’s Muslim Heartlands, p. 139‒140. Another example is the cult of St George in various locales. See Laird, “Boundaries and Baraka”; Sack, “St. Sergios in Resafa”. A modern example of initial ecumenical worship turning into confessional separatism is Vloeberghs, “Worshipping the Martyr President”, p. 87.

16 Pitton de Tournefort, Relation d’un voyage, vol. 2, p. 321. Chardin qualifies this observation by insisting that, although Georgians easily converted to Islam for the purpose of gaining employment and emoluments from the Safavid crown, they jealously guarded their faith in Georgia itself, preventing the Safavids from even building a mosque in Tbilisi other than a small one inside its fortress. See Chardin, Voyages, vol. 2, p. 67, 79‒81.

17 Couto, “Les festins à la cour”, p. 571; Brummett, “The Myth of Shah Ismail”.

18 Vermeulen, Sultans, slaven en renegaten, p. 57.

19 Farhad, “The Dīvān of Sultan Ahmad Jalayir”, p. 502; Necipoğlu, “Persianate Images”.

20 De Orta Rebelo, Un voyageur portugais, p. 120‒121.

21 De Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 46‒47.

22 Krusiński, History, vol. 1, p. 128.

23 See Stronge, “The Land of ‘Mogor’”, p. 106.

24 For the iconography of Twelver Šīʿism, see Fontana, Iconografia dell’Ahl al-bayt; and the contributions in Khosronejad (ed.), Art and Material Culture.

25 See Fontana, Iconografia dell’Ahl al-bayt, p. 22‒29 and plate VIII.

26 Amir-Moezzi, Le Guide divin, p. 235.

27 De Silva y Figueroa, Commentaries, p. 476. For common roots and similarities between St George, Ḫiżr (and Elijah), see Haddad, “‘Georgic’ Cults”; Riches, St. George. Until the modern Arab-Israeli conflict complicated matters, Jews, Muslims and Christians jointly visited the shrine of Elijah, Mār Ǧirǧis (St George) and Ḫiżr in Palestine. See Laird, “Boundaries and Baraka”.

28 Pereira de Lacerda, L’ambassade en Perse, in Gulbenkian (ed.), Estudos históricos, vol. 2, p. 93.

29 Gulbenkian, “De ce qu’avec la grâce de Dieu”, p. 158; Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. 164‒165.

30 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 8, p. 104‒105. Chardin adds that, at the instigation of a rich Armenian merchant who had visited Italy, the New Julfans had, of late, reluctantly agreed to go against their custom of leaving their churches unadorned, by having the interior of the Vank Cathedral painted. They soon came to regret this decision, though, for while Muslim visitors found the images entertaining, many also saw them as an offensive form of idolatry. This created a dilemma for the Armenians, who at various times contemplated removing the paintings, yet left them in place so as not to raise the ire of Muslims by depriving them of their entertainment.

31 Bembo, Travels and Journal, p. 349.

32 De Bruyn, Reizen, p. 173.

33 The Christian spouse is mentioned in Lefèvre, “Su un’ambasciata persiana”, p. 365. For the Morgan Bible, see Simpson, “Shah ʿAbbas”.

34 Bailey, Jesuits and the Grand Mogul, p. 35.

35 Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, History, vol. 1, p. 96‒97.

36 The role of Safavid court officials in commissioning art is emphasized by Habibi, ʿAli Qoli Jebādār. For Armenian merchant patronage, see Landau & van Lint, “Armenian Merchant Patronage”.

37 Letter Juan Taddeo di San Elisio, n.d., in Biblioteca da Ajuda, Lisbon, 46‒IX‒19.

38 Habibi, ʿAli Qoli Jebādār, p. 108.

39 See Sobers-Khan, “Women as Symbols”, p. 135.

40 De Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 54.

41 De Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 206.

42 De Gouvea, Jornada do Arcebispo, p. 134.

43 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 245.

44 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 245.

45 Shah ʿAbbās I routinely socialized with foreign visitors. Ṭahmāsb Qulī Ḫān was said to love Christians and to eat and drink with them without being concerned about the law of purity. See Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 87. Pietro della Valle noted how interested Iranians were in this type of discourse. See Piemontese, Persica vaticana, p. 282‒283. For other examples, see Richard, Raphaël du Mans, vol. 1, p. 43‒44; de Bourges, Relation, p. 87. Such gatherings were not confined to the capital. The Capuchin Gabriel de Chinon spent twenty years in Isfahan and from there was sent to Tabriz, where he founded a Capuchin convent. He was held in great esteem by the local khan, who discussed the Qurʾān with him. See du Mans, Estat de la Perse, p. C, CI, n. 1.

46 See the contributions in Lazarus-Yafeh et al. (eds.), The Majlis; as well as Abdullaeva, “Origins of the Munāara Genre”; Seyed-Gohrab, “The Rose and the Wine”.

47 Tolan, Saracens, p. 233‒239; Kedar, “Multilateral Disputation”.

48 Alonso, “El primer viaje”, p. 537.

49 Until the mid-17th century, the missionaries saw debate with Muslims as a means toward conversion. See Windler, Missionare in Persien, p. 242‒245.

50 Alonso, “Documentación inédita”, p. 311.

51 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 249‒255.

52 De Gouvea, Relaçam, p. 70. See also Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. 158‒159.

53 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 33.

54 It is unclear which of the three Sasanian Yazdigirds is meant here.

55 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 33‒35.

56 See Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 35.

57 Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. 158‒159.

58 Bembo, Travels and Journal, p. 299, 306, 349.

59 Alonso, “El primer viaje”, p. 537.

60 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, Mémoires historiques, vol. 2, p. 24‒26; The Chronicle, p. 48‒50.

61 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 147‒149.

62 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 516‒517; Krusiński, History, vol. 1, p. 129.

63 See Matthee, Persia in Crisis, p. 183‒191.

64 The treatise, held by the Vatican Library, MS Pers. 49, is titled Risāla dar bayān-i iʿtiqādāt va mahab-i kalimat Allāh-i ʿīsavī. See Piemontese, Persica vaticana, p. 361.

65 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 398‒399. See also Bedik, A Man of Two Worlds, p. 225‒226.

66 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 514.

67 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 146.

68 See Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 173‒175.

69 De Rhodes, Relation de la mission, p. 46‒47; Richard, Raphaël du Mans, vol. 2, p. 224‒226. According to de Rhodes, the arguments made by the missionaries had little effect on the Muslims, yet did sway the Armenians who participated in these debates.

70 [Villotte and Frizon], Voyages d’un missionnaire, p. 134‒136.

71 Zakʻaria of Kʻanakʻeṛ, The Chronicle, p. 146.

72 Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Rome, Gall. 97ii, Claude Ignace, Isfahan to Claude Bouchier, Rome, 10 Nov. 1665, fols. 331‒332.

73 A third, non-eyewitness description is given by Maertial de Thorigne, a Frenchman who resided in Aleppo and who compiled reports from various locales in the East. See Richard, Raphaël du Mans, vol. 1, p. 153‒166.

74 Tavernier, Les six voyages, vol. 1, p. 487‒502; Daulier Deslandes, Les Beautez de la Perse, p. 30‒37; Kroell (ed.), Nouvelles d’Ispahan, p. 18‒19; Richard, Raphaël du Mans, vol. 1, p. 154‒155.

75 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 398‒399. For more grumbling about the prominent role of Christians in this period, and the fear that they might take over, see Ǧaʿfariyān, afaviyyah, vol. 2, p. 791.

76 See Chardin, Voyages, vol. 5, p. 216‒217, and vol. 6, p. 444‒445; as well as Kaempfer, Exotic Attractions, p. 28.

77 In Landau, “European Religious Iconography”, p. 425.

78 Krusiński, History, vol. 1, p. 131.

79 For this, see Matthee, “Safavids under Western Eyes”.

80 As Stefan Halikowski-Smith argues, several qualities made prelates good envoys, including their vows of obedience, which gave them a certain pliancy; their status as men of the cloth, which gave them a cover; their familiarity with pomp and circumstance; and their role as confessors, which taught them to keep secrets. See Halikowski-Smith, “The Friendship of Kings”, p. 104.

81 Herbert, Travels in Persia, p. 168.

82 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 163, 446‒447.

83 See Matthee, “Between Aloofness and Fascination”.

84 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 165.

85 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 6, p. 155, claims that the Iranians perceived the Augustinians as ambassadors of Portugal, the Carmelites as envoys from the Pope, and the Capuchins and the Jesuits as emissaries from France.

86 Kaempfer, Exotic Attractions, p. 193‒194, 273.

87 Della Valle, Viaggi, vol. 1, p. 659.

88 Olearius, Vermehrte Newe Beschreibung, p. 512; Andersen & Iversen, Orientalische Reise-Beschreibunge[n], p. 149.

89 Berchet (ed.), La Repubblica, p. 221‒222.

90 De Rhodes, Relation de la mission, p. 46‒47; Zimmel, “Vorgeschichte und Gründung”.

91 On him, see Thi Kieu Ly Pham’s essay in this issue.

92 Bembo, Travels and Journal, p. 326‒327.

93 [Chick] (ed.), Chronicle of the Carmelites, vol. 1, p. 244‒245.

94 Anonymous, “Mémoire de la mission d’Erzeron”, p. 286.

95 See Anonymous, “Mémoire de la province du Sirvan”, p. 50.

96 Pereira de Lacerda, L’ambassade en Perse, p. 93.

97 De Rhodes, Relation de la mission, p. 39‒40; Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. 164‒165; Wilson, “History of the Mission”, p. 687‒688. See also Zimmel, “Vorgeschichte und Gründung”, p. 15.

98 Richard, Raphaël du Mans, vol. 1, p. 109, n. 272.

99 Krusiński, History, vol. 2, p. 150. See also Lockhart, Fall of the Safavī Dynasty, p. 208‒209.

100 Hentsch, Imagining the Middle East, p. 37.

101 Windler, Missionare in Persien, p. 430‒434, 456‒458.

102 Windler, Missionare in Persien, p. 452.

103 Windler, Missionare in Persien, p. 462‒470, 502‒511.

104 For the Mughal Empire, see Lefèvre, Pouvoir impérial, p. 18‒19.

105 Schjeldahl, “Brotherhood”, p. 103.

106 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 9, p. 514‒519.

107 The observation about the growing assertiveness by the ʿulamāʾ was made by Raphaël du Mans. See Richard, Raphaël du Mans, vol. 1, p. 77 et 82.

108 Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität, passim.

109 Ahmed, What is Islam, p. 175, 201. On his publication, see also Emilio G. Platti’s essay in this issue.

110 Ahmed, What is Islam, p. 278.

111 Ange de St Joseph, Souvenirs de la Perse, p. 158‒159. This was, of course, also the case at the court of the Persianate Mughals, especially during the reigns of Sulṭān Akbar (r. 963/1556‒1542/1605), and Ǧahāngīr (r. 1013/1605‒1037/1627). See Bailey, “Between Religions”; Alam & Subrahmanyam, “Frank Disputations”; Xavier, Mirʾāt al-quds; Lefèvre, “The Majālis-i Jahāngīrī”.

112 Manucci, Storia do Mogor, vol. 1, p. 41.

113 See Manucci, Storia do Mogor.

114 See Manucci, Storia do Mogor.

115 Chardin, Voyages, vol. 5, p. 258.

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Rudi Matthee, « Safavid Iran and the Christian Missionary Experience »MIDÉO, 35 | 2020, 65-100.

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Rudi Matthee

University of Delaware

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Institut Dominicain d'Études Orientales

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