One does not lightly foray into the field of Timurid studies. While we might talk nonchalantly of a “Timurid Empire,” what constituted Timurid dominion was in fact an ever-shifting patchwork of princely appanages in Iran and Central Asia that grew in number and direct competition with each other after Timur (Tamerlane) died in 1405. To complicate matters, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural landscapes in this dominion were likewise numerous and diverse; the proliferation of Sufi orders in the eastern Islamic world and their heightened presence in Turco-Mongol societies like that of the Timurids only underscore a deep heterogeneity. This is why Ilker Evrim Binbaş’s book Intellectual Networks in Timurid Iran: Sharaf al-Dīn ʿAli Yazdī and the Islamicate Republic of Letters should be roundly applauded and welcomed among historians of early modern Islamic history. Not only does Binbaş plumb the depths of this heterogeneity, he also provides new, or at least underexplored, evidence in tandem with an overarching theoretical model that aims to find connections and deeper meaning in the seemingly chaotic and disparate realms of the fifteenth-century Timurids. Binbaş’s point of entry into this complex landscape is the litterateur-historian Sharaf al-Din ʿAli Yazdi (d. 1454), a figure of considerable repute who (among other things) penned a major Timurid chronicle entitled Zafarnama. However, as the author makes clear in the first two chapters, Yazdi was much more to his contemporaries. Indeed, he is presented here as an intellectual lodestar of sorts through which new and unprecedented systems of thought were introduced, debated, and disseminated. Yazdi’s formal and informal relationships are impressive: with a number of powerful members of the Timurid dynastic family, such as Ibrahim-Sultan, with teachers like the master occultist Saʿin al-Din Turka, as well as with patrons and notables like Mir ʿAli Shir Navaʾi and ʿAbd al-Rahman Jami. For Binbaş, such relationships can be better appreciated through the under-studied Munshaʾat-i Yazdi, a compilation of Yazdi’s letters that comprises personal correspondence as well as more formal epistles on behalf of various notables. While there is no shortage of figures comparable to Yazdi in earlier and later periods (e.g., Rashid al-Din Hamadani, Ghiyath al-Din Khwandamir), Binbaş contends that the intellectual landscape had shifted considerably, and the issues being debated in the cities and courts of the fifteenth-century Middle East and Central Asia were unique in Islamic history. Herein lies the novel contribution of this book, whereby Yazdi was part of what the author calls an Islamicate “Republic of Letters” that gave rise to powerful and potentially revolutionary ideas about the nature of God, God’s relationship with humankind, and how divine will manifested itself in the created world. For Binbaş, it was the association of certain intellectuals with a number of religiopolitical crises during the first half of the fifteenth century that warrants our attention, since “the active involvement of intellectuals and Sufis in political life created a new political space beyond the usual patron-client networks” (20). Identifying these individuals is no small challenge given the self-censoring nature of the sources (crown-commissioned chronicles, hagiographies, exegetical treatises), but Binbaş indeed “recovers” an entire landscape of esoteric philosophers, occultists, and gnostic thinkers who were both active and in active communication with one another, from Cairo to Samarqand. Thus, we hear of the usual coteries, such as the Niʿmatullahis of Yazd as well as the Khvajagan of Khurasan (both Sufi brotherhoods), but we also encounter intriguing references, such as to the famous Ikhvan al-Safaʾ (“Brethren of Purity”) which appears to have been a re-articulated fifteenth-century Ottoman version of the original tenth-century secret society of gnostic thinkers that had been based in Iraq (8). Also interesting are Yazdi’s references to the Ahl-i Kashf va Tahqiq which denotes to a group of intellectuals who believed that “true” reality (ḥaqīqa) could only be perceived if one embraced the “unity of existence” (waḥdat al-wujūd) that had been discussed by two centuries earlier by the famous Sufi philosopher, Ibn ʿArabi. In doing so, one also accepted the concept of coincidentia oppositorum (unity of opposites), and, as Yazdi himself states: “the finest perfection of any quality depends on its ability to embrace its opposite” (100). With such premises in mind, the Ahl-i Kashf va Tahqiq (“Those who reveal and understand Truth”) looked for evidence of divine perfection in celestial events, astrology, and, more profoundly, a cabbalism-inspired system wherein some twenty-nine “isolated” (muqaṭṭaʿat) letters in the Qurʾan provide the basis for accessing the underlying truth of not only revealed scripture but all of God’s created universe. The science of lettrism (ʿilm al-ḥurūf) was relatively common among medieval Islamic thinkers, and Binbaş looks particularly to Yazdi’s fascination with the literary convention of muʿammayāt, or logogriphs, whereby poets “encoded” meaning in lines of poetry that could only be deciphered through a careful (arguably painstaking) reading. Yazdi clearly saw great potential in such muʿammayāt, but contemporaries, most notably the litterateur-cum-statesman Mir ʿAli Shir Navaʾi and the famous Timurid poet Jami, were doubtful. The most popular Timurid treatise on muʿammayāt, the Risala fi al-Muʿamma by Amir Husayn Nishapuri “Muʿammaʾi” (d. 1498), is not mentioned by Binbaş, and it would be interesting to see whether Yazdi’s unique gnostic approach was noticed by this doyen of muʿammā-writing. Nishapuri’s impact was such that a group of commentaries regarding his treatise was collected in the early sixteenth century (Sharh-i Dastur-i Muʿamma-i Nishapuri; see also Maria Eva Subtelny, “A Taste for the Intricate: The Persian Poetry of the Late Timurid Period,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 136, no. 1 : 56–79; and Francis Richard, “Quelques traités d’énigmes (moàmmâ) en persan de XVe et XVIe siècles” in Christophe Balaÿ, C. Kappler, and Živa Vesel, eds., Pand-o Sokhan: Mélanges offerts à Charles-Henri de Fouchécour, , 233–242). The book careens slightly in the second half with detailed chapters on the nature of historiography and political philosophy in the early to mid-fifteenth century. There are a number of fascinating subsections in these chapters—such as typologies of historiography according to Timurid patrilineal lines (e.g., Miranshahid versus Shahrukhid and the commissioning of chronicles—pictured excellently in Figure 5.1, 171), as well as the tumultuous relationship between Shahrukh and Iskandar-Sultan based in Fars. But at the end of the day, readers may wonder at the overall cohesion of this study, while a general audience will likely be overwhelmed by the detail and depth of Binbaş’s inquiries (especially in chap. 6, “Writing History in the Timurid Empire”). Nonetheless, there is no doubt that this book will serve as an excellent resource for serious students of Timurid history who want to push further into the nature of Timurid sources, historiography, and the deep and heterodox world of Sufis, intellectuals, poets, and statesmen. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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