The Time a King Let the Leader of a Cult Become King to See if the World Would End

In today’s age of relatively stable international relations, it is hard to imagine the impact of something like the Mongol invasions. Starting in 1206, It was a trying time for those who initially witnessed them: mountains of skulls, burning cities, murder and pillaging on a wide scale. Even if Genghis Khan’ descendants became more urbane and grew closer to their conquered peoples, the initial shock of it all was massive. The conquered people struggled to make sense of the carnage and their new reality. New religious movements that promised a bright future rose to meet the new age. Some of these movements were as apocalyptic as the events recently witnessed. Out of the ashes of the old political order, new states were formed that looked to the Mongols for legitimacy, just as new religious reactions to the carnage looked to instill hope and resistance in the conquered people. A chain of events that could only arise from these conditions led to a very bizarre story of how a Persian king let a leader of a cult take the throne so apocalyptic prophecies could be fulfilled.

The Mongol invasion caused a great upheaval in the Islamic world. It saw the end of the Abbasid caliphate when the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258. The Mongols seized and consolidated the Persian speaking lands of West and Central Asia. The response by the common people was to turn inward. This inward turn was facilitated by Sufism and popular forms of devotion not associated with any one institution. Sufism is an Islamic form of mysticism. In the early days of Sufism, charismatic personalities engaging in asceticism and mystical union with the divine attracted followers who gathered around them for guidance. Sufism grew into institutionalized orders, where a shaykh leads his followers to purify themselves with rituals and guidance. Sufi orders and shaykhs authenticated themselves with official lineages going back to Muhammad through his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib. As Mongols burned cities and stacked mountains of skulls, it is not surprising to see the masses and elites turn to Sufism. Popular religion was an important reprieve during this time, acting as an intersection between the Islamic sects, and even between religions. Muslim and non-Muslim figures like Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Alexander the Great, and legendary Persian figures like Rustam and Isfandiyar saw a massive spike in popularity as anti-Genghis heroes that stood for everything Genghis Khan and his Mongols were not. Ali was an especially popular saintly figure, as he was a common hero shared between Shiism, Sufism, and local forms of popular religion. With learned elites and unwashed masses accepting Sufism, its structure’s utility to organize devoted followers around a charismatic leader did not go unnoticed. Leaders of the era gathered around themselves a retinue of devoted Muslim and non-Muslim followers that treated their political leaders as spiritual guides responsible for their salvation. Other mystical groups began to adopt the Sufi orders’ hierarchy and organizational systems. These groups were non-orthodox Shia sects that started to see a booming popularity because of their extreme devotion to Ali, and for extreme doctrines that acted as political rebellion against Mongol elements.

One of the many groups associated with using a Sufi structure to propagate themselves is a cult called the Hurufis <who-roofies>, or Letterists. The Letterists were founded by Fazl-Allah Astarabadi <fuz-lala aster-a-bahd-ee> from the city of Astarabad <aster-a-bahd> in modern day Iran. Fazl-Allah was a scholarly man born to a Sunni judicial family in 1339. He was learned in law and the Qur’an, but later formed spiritual ambitions and became a wandering dervish. During the Muslim holy moth of Ramadan in 1374, he had an experience in his wanderings that led him to believe he was a manifestation of divinity and the founder of a new religion. This religion was based on the science of letters. Fazl-Allah took the Arabic letters to have cosmic significance, and inherent power akin to magic. The new religion took the organizational structure of a Sufi order, as was popular at the time. Even though officially split from Islam, The Letterists continued to venerate the figure of Ali allowing them to fit in amongst non-orthodox Shia. Fazl-Allah began to amass a large enough following that caught the attention of Mongol authorities and was promptly put to death in 1394.

The Letterists also saw a sectarian split during the lifetime of Fazl-Allah. Letterist Mahmud Pasikhani <pass-ee-khan-ee> was fascinated with the extra Arabic letters invented to accommodate sounds found in the Persian language, but not in Arabic. To Pasikhani, the Persian letters held enough metaphysical significance, that he split from established Letterist doctrines. These Persian letters are Peh, Che, Zhe, and Gaf. Each of these letters were given extra markings to distinguish them from established Arabic letters, hence the new group’s name the Nuqutis <nu-cooties>, or Pointists. They also believed in 4 cosmic cycles that happened every 6000 years, with each cycle ushering in an age of Persian or Arab dominance. Pasikhani saw himself at the end of one Arab cycle, and at the verge of a Persian cycle that would usher in an era of prosperity for Persians and one of degradation for Arabs. These cycles are ushered in by an apocalyptic event, and one was predicted by Pasikhani to come soon. These apocalyptic and racist doctrines alarmed fellow Letterists and Pasikhani was eventually cast out of the group. Pasikhani had structured his new cult like the Letterists and Sufi orders before them. Pointists referred to their own as Dervishes, the Persian word for a Sufi. Both the Letterists and Pointists shared another commonality: they spread amongst the literate middle class in urban populations, and not the illiterate masses in rural areas. This is easily explained because of the highly literate nature of both groups; illiterate people have little need for such a text heavy doctrine they cannot understand. The two groups split geographically, with the Letterists trying their luck westward into the Ottoman Empire. Before Mahmud Pasikhani could fulfill his role as “Millenial King” and usher in the new Persian age, he died in 1427.

One empire that took advantage of developing spiritual trends was the Safavid Empire in Persia, founded by Shah Ismail in 1501. The Safavids started as a Sufi order passed from father to son with a lineage stretching back to Ali. Under the leadership of Shah Ismail, the Safavids militarized and expanded into a state.  It helped that Shah Ismail’s mother was a Mongol princess descended from Genghis Khan, complementing the spiritual authority of his father’s lineage with a political authority through his mother’s. The engine of Safavid militarization and politicization was the creation of a warrior dervish society of Turkmen soldiers called the Qizilbash <kizil-bosh>. Qizilbash means “redhead” referring to the odd caps they wore to symbolized Ali. The cap was red because popular imaginings of Ali saw him as a redhead. The Qizilbash ascribed Shah Ismail as one of the incarnations of Ali and even as a manifestation of the divine. They were so gripped with frenzy for Shah Ismail that they would eat the bodies of enemies who refused to give him their support. The Safavids with their Turkmen soldiers quickly conquered much of Persia, while Shah Ismail expanded his Sufi order’s scope. Being the Shaykh of this massive order, he treated his courtiers like Sufis, giving them initiation rituals and spiritual guidance. He accepted Muslims and non-Muslims as part of his expanding order, and encouraged more popular conceptions of Shiism, making it the official religion of his new empire.

The Pointists were at home in this new environment. Neither Sunni nor Shia, but easily slotted into the extreme ends of Shiism encouraged by the Safavid state. They saw so much success that the Qizilbash began fraternizing with them, and even joining the Pointist order. The Pointists saw a rise in popularity thanks to the emphasis on Persian fostered by both the Safavids, and their Indian neighbors the Mughals. As the dynasty was passed down after Shah Ismail, successive Safavid emperors wished to curtail the more radical religious elements that made the Safavids successful in the first place. They wanted to slowly implement orthodox Shiism as the state religion, but that would run counter to the Sunni population and the radical Shia elements in the military. As such the Pointists saw occasional periods of repression and resurgence throughout the years.

At one point around 1571, the Pointists tried to proclaim Safavid emperor Tahmasp Shah as their messiah, but Tahmasp engaged himself with an attempt to reign in their Qizilbash allies. The Pointists’ mixing with the Qizilbash had another effect: militarization. Learning from the success the Qizilbash and similar groups had mixing extreme Shiism with Sufi organization and militarization, the Pointists began organizing militarily. This was either to find a place in the military structure of the Safavid state, or to protect themselves as their fortunes rose and dipped. They also saw more success than failure over in the Mughal Empire under the reign of Emperor Akbar. Coronated in 1556, Akbar wanted to create a civil religion that combined elements of all known faiths, with him as its spiritual guide. This is very much in line with the spiritual trends discussed post Mongol invasion. The Pointists seemed to have such a prominent place that it was thought by Safavid intelligence they converted Akbar specifically to their religion. Over in the Safavid domain, the Pointists’ fortunes were about to change during the reign of Shah Abbas, who took the throne in 1588.

There are three differing accounts to our story. One is that Shah Abbas was a shrewd follower of Shia orthodoxy who wished to completely make his domain convert by banishing the remaining forces of Sunnism, Sufism, and extreme Shiism. He schemed to dilute his military with Caucasian slave and freed forces from Armenia, Georgia, and Circassia, emulating the Ottomans in the West. Shah Abbas upset the dominance of the Turkmen Qizilbash. He sought to undo the remnants of the Safavid Sufi order and extreme Shiism that the Safavid state was built on. During the early years of Shah Abbas’ reign the Pointists had huge followings in several Safavid cities including the capital Qazvin, and a growing armed presence thanks to their militarization. They were comfortable enough to approach Shah Abbas, and he even frequented the gatherings of popular Pointist leader Dervish Khursaw. In official records it is stated that Shah Abbas was just keeping an eye on Dervish Khusraw, rather than being a sincere follower. In 1591 a Pointist rebellion broke out in the region of Fars only to be quickly suppressed and the leaders put to death. This incident and the amassed following Pointists enjoyed were used against them when an internal power struggle led a Pointist leader to inform Shah Abbas that Dervish Khusraw was planning an uprising. The Pointists were rapidly suppressed, and Dervish Khusraw was executed. In 1594, the remaining Pointists proclaimed a prophecy that one of their own would hold the throne and usher in the final Persian age in a massive calamity.

Amused by this prophecy, Shah Abbas plucked a Pointist prisoner and appointed him king; even waited on him as a royal servant. After three days it was evident no great calamity would occur. Shah Abbas proven right once and for all executed the Pointist prisoner and went on a mass slaughter of Pointists in his domain. Several fled into the arms of Akbar over in India. Alarmed at his Safavid counterpart’s actions, Akbar sent him a letter chiding him for his religious intolerance. In this narrative, wiping the Pointists out was always part of Shah Abbas’ plan to officially instate orthodox Shiism as the state religion.

A more bizarre variant of these events is that Shah Abbas was informed by his astrologer that his reign was coinciding with a conjunction of inauspicious planets. This conjunction spelled doom for a member of the royal family. The conjunction just so happens to coincide with the Pointist prophecy. Shah Abbas either took the opportunity to put to test the Pointist prophecy or was simply avoiding having his royal family be the target of bad astrological signs. He put the condemned Pointist prisoner on the throne, and when the conjunction ended, he fulfilled the astrological prophecy by putting the Pointist to death.

Yet another narrative holds that Shah Abbas was a genuine believer in the Pointist cult. He had a very close relationship with Dervish Khusraw and took the Pointist prophecies seriously. The story goes that instead of a mere prisoner, he appointed his friend and Pointist leader Dervish Yusuf as king. He waited dutifully on Dervish Yusuf until it was evident that the Pointist prophecy was never going to happen. Filled with rage at being swindled by the Pointists, Shah Abbas led his repressions against them until they were wiped from his domain. Feeling guilt over taking part in blasphemy, he embraced orthodox Shiism for himself and his people. Regardless of which story is true, the irony of the Pointist prophecy is that the orthodox Shia scholars appointed to convert the Persians were Arabs from Lebanon. With this, Shah Abbas formally put an end to the post-Mongol boom of spirituality in Persia, simmering the population down to a more sober orthodox Shiism that continues to this day. Shah Abbas even married the daughter of one of these Arab scholars, locking in the relationship of Shia Lebanese scholars to his reign.

Regardless of the details, it was clear the Pointists’ time was up in Persia. Over in India, the Pointists continued to be a part of the Akbar’s religious apparatus. According to both Safavid and Mughal sources, they may have been integral in the creation of Akbar’s new religion. He appreciated their elevation of the Persian language and cultural symbols. They enjoyed his patronage so much that they appointed him as their expected Messiah to bring about the new age of Persian dominance as they tried to do earlier with the Safavid Tahmasp. He lavished them with important appointments to his court, and even administrative roles. This relationship between Akbar and the Pointists might have included intrigue against the Safavids. Akbar employed the Pointists in Persia as spies, including those close to Dervish Khusraw, possibly Dervish Khusraw himself. One of the possible narratives for Shah Abbas’ hatred of the Pointists is his discovery of these secret communiques sent from Akbar. In this case, Shah Abbas himself put the spy to death by his own sword.

The Pointists’ level of importance to the Mughals seems to end with Akbar’s reign in 1605. From there they fade from the historical record. Their Letterist cousins fared a little better in the Ottoman empire, melting their letter mysticism with occult trends in Anatolia and the Balkans. In Persia, traces of the Letterists and Pointists could be found in the emerging religion of Baha’ism, which sees the two as predecessors, and Persian nationalists who see the Pointists as proto-nationalists. Maybe in the end, this was the whole point of the Pointists.

Expand for References

Ahmad, A. (2003). THE SAFAVID RULERS AND THE NUQTAWI MOVEMENT. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 64, 1238–1247.

ARJOMAND, S. A. (1981). RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM (GHULUWW), ṢŪFISM AND SUNNISM IN SAFAVID IRAN: 1501-1722. Journal of Asian History, 15(1), 1–35.

Bashir, Shahzad (2005) Fazlallah Astarabadi and the Hurufis. Oxford: One World Publications

Moin, Azhar A. (2015) The Millenial Sovereign. New York: Columbia University Press

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