Iran continues to arrest Sufi mystics. The victims of state suppression represent the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi order, the main body of traditional metaphysical Muslims in the country. On April 20, Abdolghafour Ghalandari Nejad, a webmaster for the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi site Majzooban Noor (The Alluring Light), was detained in the south Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas.
Situated on the strategic Strait of Hormuz, Bandar Abbas is a source of anxiety for the Tehran clerical dictatorship. Dozens of Sufis joined Ghalandari's family in front of the local office of Iran's Ministry of Internal Security. They demanded to know the details of Ghalandari's case. They warned against his possible transfer to a prison run by the Iranian Cyber and Information Exchange Police, known by its Farsi-language initials as FETA. The FETA detention center is a place feared greatly by Iranian dissidents.
Ghalandari was allowed to speak to his mother by celphone and said his physical condition was good but that he was being interrogated and had no idea where he was. His captors promised that a formal charge would be issued and that he could be visited while in custody. These legal rights have been denied generally to other Gonabadi-Nimatullahis, confined in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison and jailed in the city of Shiraz. Ghalandari was previously arrested last year, but released.
The protestors in Bandar Abbas dispersed after Ghalandari communicated with his mother. *(UPDATE: The Gonabadi-Nimatullahi website Majzooban Noor announced on April 29 that Ghalandari had been released after five days' interrogation in the Intelligence Office at Bandar Abbas, followed by transfer to the city's central prison. Ghalandari was warned verbally by Bahrami Nejad that charges against him include "acting against national security," "propaganda against the regime," and "cooperation with the website Majzooban Nur.")
Iran is the greatest of all Muslim lands in the history of Sufi mysticism. It is often asserted that the Sufi author Jalalad'din Rumi (1207-73 CE) is the most widely-read poet in the U.S. Rumi is among the supreme literary figures for Iranians. He is joined in the Iranian consciousness to such Sufis as Bayazet Al-Bastami (804-874), Husayn bin Mansur Hallaj (858-922), the great Al-Ghazali (c. 1058-1111) -- known as the Muslim equivalent of Thomas Aquinas, Faridud'din Attar (12th-13th centuries), Saadi Shirazi, from the generation after Attar, Hafez Shirazi (1325/26-1389/1390)... the list is spectacular in its extent.
Western enthusiasm for Sufis like Rumi is not new. The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel was influenced by Rumi. In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson became a lover of Saadi Shirazi, describing him as "like Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Montaigne ... perpetually modern."
Henry David Thoreau, our great idealist, was also devoted to Saadi Shirazi, writing of him in 1852, "A single thought of a certain elevation makes all men of one religion; I know, for instance, that Saadi entertained once identically the same thought that I do, and therefore I can find no essential difference between Saadi and myself. He is not Persian, he is not ancient, he is not strange to me. By the identity of his thought with mine he still survives."
Walt Whitman was similarly affected. He began his poem "A Persian Lesson," "For his o'erarching and last lesson the greybeard sufi,/In the fresh scent of the morning in the open air/On the slope of a teeming Persian rose-garden..."
It is tragic, however, to observe the current Iranian clerical dictatorship pursuing a ferocious anti-Sufi campaign. Sufis are attacked in many Muslim countries, most violently in Pakistan, where many have been killed, but harassed most consistently, by the state authorities, in Iran. Iran is ruled by clerics who claim the Sufi legacy for themselves alone.
Persecution of the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi Sufis has been relentless. The motive for the Iranian government assault on them is simple: They are blunt critics of the theocracy. Last month, Dr. Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, the most active Gonabadi-Nimatullahi public representative -- forced into exile in Europe -- commented, "in 1963 the Shah of Iran wanted to grant women the right to vote. In response to this, Ayatollah Khomeini made himself heard as an Islamic authority, and said that it is against Islam to let women vote and a transgression of the religion of Islam. When the Shah left the country in 1979 one of the first things Khomeini did was to say that Islam authorizes women to vote and to become members of the parliament. He was manipulating Islam. He used the name of Islam to manipulate the mind of the masses."
The International Organization for the Preservation of Human Rights in Iran (IOPHRI) has tried to draw the attention of the world to the official cruelties perpetrated against the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi Sufis. The campaign of brutalization against the contemplative Muslims began in earnest with the ascent to power of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.
In 2006, as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a Sufi meeting house in the theological center of Qom was leveled by the political militia known as the Basij. In that incident, some 1,200 Sufis were arrested after fighting to defend the structure. The next year saw the burning down of a Sufi building in the western Iranian town of Boroujerd, followed by obliteration of the ruins using bulldozers.
The year 2009 produced one of the most scandalous anti-Sufi acts by the Iranian rulers. In Isfahan, another theologically distinguished metropolis, the mausoleum of the Sufi poet and enlightener Nasir Ali, who lived in the 19th century, was devastated, again with bulldozers, and the adjoining Sufi prayer house was obliterated.
With the emergence in 2009 of the dissident Green Movement in Iran -- which the Gonabadi-Nimatullahis supported vigorously -- the revenge of the regime was intensified. Since then, lawyers, webmasters and ordinary adherents of the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi order have been imprisoned, tortured and killed.
The rulers of Iran are worried about a resurgence of reformist protests, with Ahmadinejad termed out this year and presidential elections scheduled for June 14. A revival of the reformist Green Movement, in which Gonabadi-Nimatullahis and millions of other Iranian Sufis would surely be prominent, is possible. The Iranian Sufis -- pride of the global Muslim esoteric tradition -- may be more vulnerable to suffering and martyrdom than ever.