Transmission of Polemics in Safavid Iran

A Case of Transmission of Knowledge       [DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 20, January 2017]


In the seventeenth century a cycle of religious polemics took place, which involved the two main courts of the Persian speaking world (namely the Mughal and the Safavid) and the Church of Rome. In this contribution I will briefly lay out the background surrounding these debates and point towards some of the methodological challenges that they pose, especially from the lenses of transmission of knowledge.

From the early Mughal court to late Safavid times

The cycle in question originated with the arrival of the Spanish Jesuit Jerónimo de Ezpeleta y Goñi (better known through his monastic name, Jerome Xavier) (d. 1617) at the court of King Akbar the Great (r. 963-1014/1556-1605). There, Xavier became involved in projects of biblical translations and theological polemics. Akbar had an interest in sponsoring scholars of different religious backgrounds for his project of developing a hybrid “divine religion (dīn-i ilahī). However, Xavier had in mind a more militant missionary agenda, as attested in the composition of his Fons Vitae (The Fountain of Life) and its Persian adaptation, the A’inah-yi ḥaqq-numā (The Truth-Reflecting Mirror). Although more research needs to be done regarding the circulation and readership of this latter text, we know that it was taken to Iran by European missionaries, possibly Carmelites. It then attracted the attention of Sayyid Aḥmad b. Zayn al-‘Abidīn al-‘Alawī al-‘Amilī (d. ca 1060/1650), who wrote a response to it by the name of Miṣqāl-i ṣafā (The Burnisher of Purity). This text then found its way to the Vatican, where it became the object of other refutations. At least three of them survive, respectively by the traveler and musicologist Pietro della Valle (d. 1652), and by the theologians Bonaventura Malvasia (d. 1666) and Filippo Guadagnoli. This latter scholar produced two versions of his refutation of the Miṣqāl-i ṣafā, a Latin one under the title of Apologia pro Christiana Religione and an adaptation of it into Arabic. This text was itself taken to Iran by other missionaries, where it inspired at least two known works conceived with very different intentions. One was a refutation of the Miṣqāl-i ṣafā, which was also effectively an abridged Persian version of Guadagnoli’s Apologia, written by the French Jesuit Aimé Chézaud. The other was a refutation of the Apologia by a Portuguese Augustinian missionary who had converted to Islam and adopted the name of ‘Alī Qulī Jadīd al-Islām (d. ca 1134/1722). Other polemical works were written in this period, although it is not clear whether they were informed by this same cycle of polemics or by other exchanges. For instance, Muḥammad Bāqir Khātūnabādī (d. 1127/1715) translated the Gospels into Persian and produced a short commentary on them. Another text that remains to be examined is the Nuṣrat al-ḥaqq (The Triumph of the Truth) by Ẓāhir al-Dīn b. Mullā Murād Tafrishī (d. 17th c.), which was a response to another Capuchin Gabriel de Chinon (d. 1668). On the Christian side there was also the contribution of the Armenian theologian and Bishop Hovhaness Mrkuz Nor-Joghayets’i, who wrote a treatise defending Christianity addressed to the Persian king Shāh Sulṭān Husayn (r. 1110-1134/1694-1722). (Ja‘fariyan 1370sh.; Gulbenkian 1981; Richard 2006).

On Muslim knowledge of the Bible

There are many intriguing aspects surrounding to the study of these texts. We must first understand them within the history of religious polemics, scriptural translations, and in some of the cases, convert literature. Polemical exchanges between Muslims and Christians date back to the Abbasid period. Specialists are still investigation the nature of the knowledge that these communities had of each other’s scriptures: first, there is a near-consensus on that fact that there was no pre-Islamic translation of the Bible and that whatever early Muslims and Arab Christians knew about it was mostly through oral references and through contact with Syriacs. And second, studies of early uses of the Bible among Muslim polemicists suggest that the constant recurrence of the same quotations indicates that they did not have access to the entire biblical codex. (Griffith 2013; Lazarus-Yafeh 1992; Vollandt 2015) This of course will change gradually and by the early modern period many translations of the Bible into Arabic, Persian, and Turkish were available. (Malcolm, “Comenius, Boyle, Oldenburg…” 2007) Yet, not all polemicists had the same access to these translations nor had they the same knowledge of the original sources. What is clear, nonetheless, is that many of the tropes and rhetorical strategies used in polemics became fixed since their first occurrences and continued to appear in early modern times. For this reason, polemics are often dismissed as unoriginal and as filled with commonplaces, which is probably why we still lack a diachronic comparative study of the nuances and evolution of the topoi used in them.

On the transmission of polemical literature and scriptural translations

In order to make better sense of the recurrence of these tropes and of the nature of the treatment of the scriptures by their authors, we need to inquire not only into the history of the circulation and transmission of the polemics themselves, but also of the biblical translations they were using. Unfortunately, this is not always an easy task. For example, in the case of Aimé Chézaud we know that he acquired a high level of proficiency in Arabic, Armenian, and Persian. In his work, he accused Aḥmad al-‘Alawī of lacking direct knowledge of the scriptures, particularly of the New Testament. However, as Francis Richard argued, what is not clear is whether Chézaud himself had any knowledge of Hebrew, which might had been more useful given that Aḥmad al-‘Alawī based most of his refutations on the Old Testament. If anything at all, it seems that the latter might actually have had a more privileged access to Hebrew specialists, as attested by the fact that a Bible gifted to Shāh ‘Abbās I (r. 996-1038/1588-1629) contained Judeo-Persian explanations in the margins. It is quite possible that these were made by a Rabbi favored by the Safavid court and that Aḥmad al-‘Alawī have consulted him for his work. (Richard, 2006: pp. 15-17) However, not all of these sources can provide us with the same degree of detailed marginal notes, colophons, or ex-libris, nor do we always have enough information on the contents of libraries and awqāf to give us an idea of what books were available to the scholars in question. Missionary correspondence and biographical dictionaries sometimes contain indirect references on this regard, but rarely enough to help us reach any definite conclusions.

In many cases the clues can only begin to be inferred from the texts themselves. Let us take the example of Khātūnabādī’s commentary to his translation of the Gospels. He recounts a story in which Adam is ailing after leaving the Garden of Eden. Seth tries to go back to Eden to seek help and the Angel Gabriel intercepts him. After telling the Angel about Adam’s ailment, Seth is given a branch from a tree and he is instructed to put it on Adam’s chest to cure him. (Khātūnabādī, 275) This story is, of course, not in the canonical scriptures, but from the pseudoepigrapha. How did Khātūnabādī get access to this story and what did it mean for him to use it in the context of a commentary on the Gosepls? One very likely explanation –and I must emphasize that this a hypothesis that I am only starting to contemplate– is that some versions of the aprocrypha might have circulated through Armenian translations, as it is known that Armenian manuscripts of these stories existed, and that these were in turn transmitted in Persian, perhaps orally. But it is also possible that he may have had learned about this through translations of Latin sources brought by the missionaries. It could also be that this theme had permeated into the Muslim imagery and perception of Christian dogma in a much earlier period.

More research would be needed to assess these questions, but what is clear is that any attempt to answer them might only become possible through a detailed (and, alas, speculative) analysis of the texts, rather than by extra-textual empirical data. In this sense, the social history of the transmission of knowledge might need to take a back seat and make way for the textual, with all the methodological risks that this approach may entail.

Alberto Tiburcio Urquiola (December 2016)

 Primary sources:

  • Jadīd al-Islām, ‘Alī Qulī. Sayf al-mū’minīn fī qitāl al-mushrikīn, Qum: Intishārāt-i Anṣariyān, 1375sh./1996-1997
  • Jeronimo Javier, S.J. La Fuente de la Vida: Tratado Apologetico dirigido al Rey Mogol de la India en 1600. Donostia San Sebastian: Universidad del Deusto, Insituto San Ignacio de Loyola, 2007.
  • Khātūnabādī, Mīr Muḥammad Bāqir. Tarjumah-yi anājīl-i arba’ah. Qom: Markaz-i Amuzishī va Pizhūhishī-yi Imām Khumaynī, 1373 sh./1994-1995

Secondary literature:

  • Alam, Muzaffar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. “Frank Disputations: Muslims and Christians in the Court of Jahangir (1608-11).” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 46, no. 4 (2009): 457-511.
  • Griffith, Sidney H. The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the “People of the Book” in the Language of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • Gulbenkian, Roberto. The translation of the Four Gospels into Persian. Schriftenreihe der Neuen Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft, 29. Immensee: Nouvelle Revue de science missionnaire, 1981.
  • Halft, Dennis. “Hebrew Bible Quotations in Arabic Transcription in Safavid Iran of the 11th/17th Century: Sayyed Aḥmad `Alavī’s Persian Refutations of Christianity.” Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 1, no. 1-2 (2013): 235-52.
  • Ja‘fariyan, Rasul. Dīn va siyāsat dar dawra-yi Ṣafavī. Qum: Ansariyân, 1370 sh./1991-1992.
  • Lazarus-Yafeh, Hava. Intertwined Worlds: Medieval Islam and Bible Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Malcolm, Noel. “Comenius, Boyle, Oldenburg, and the Translation of the Bible into Turkish.” Church History & Religious Culture 87, no. 3 (July, 2007): 327-62.
  • ______. “Comenius, the Conversion of the Turks, and the Muslim-Christian Debate on the Corruption of Scripture.” Church History and Religious Culture 87, no. 4 (2007): 477-508.
  • Moazzen (M.). “Institutional metamorphosis or clerical status quo? New insights into the career and work of Sayyid Mîr Muhammad Bâqir Khâtûnâbâdî”, Studia Iranica 45, no. 1 (2016): 65-88.
  • Richard, Francis. “Un augustin portugais renégat apologiste de l’Islam chiite au début du XVIIIe siècle.” Moyen Orient et Océan Indien 1 (1984): 73-85.
  • ______. “Le Père Aimé Chézaud, controversiste et ses manuscrits persans.” Nāmeh-ye Bahārestān: International Iranian Journal for Research into Islamic Manuscripts. VI-VII, no. 11-12 (Spring-Winter 2005-2006): 7-18.
  • Stone, Michael E. Armenian Apocrypha Relating to Adam. Atlanta : Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.
  • Vollandt, Ronny. Arabic Versions of the Pentateuch: A Comparative Study of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Sources. Biblia Arabica, Vol. 2. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2015.

To quote this publication:

Tiburcio Urquiola, Alberto, “Transmission of Polemics in Safavid Iran: A Case of Transmission of Knowledge”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, n° 20, online edition, January 2017, available at:

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