Building a Mountain of Light: Niẓām al-Dīn Gīlānī and Shīʿī Naturalism Between Safavid Iran and the Deccan

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With the revival of Imāmī or “Twelver” Shīʿa Islam in the Safavid Empire (1501- 1722) of Iran, histories of its clerical elite have emphasized the overt juridical mechanisms that they erected in support of their imperial project. Alternatively, many have also argued that gnostic counter-currents emerging in the same milieu reflected a wider disinterest in political activism. This dissertation provincializes the experience of the Safavid heartland to ask how Iranian émigré scholars working among the royal courts of the Deccan Sultanates (1490-1687) engineered an elite scholarly culture through alternative intellectual rubrics that were simultaneously gnostic in character and overtly political. Drawing on unstudied Arabic and Persian manuscripts trafficked within the Quṭbshāhī Sultanate of Golkonda-Hyderabad (1518-1687), I recover the intellectual career of one of these émigré scholars, Niẓām al-Dīn Aḥmad Gīlānī (b. 1585, d. after 1662), who forms the centerpiece of a nearly two-century story of evolving Shīʿī scholasticism in service of the state. Gīlānī’s intermittent sojourns between his homeland of Gilan, the academies of Safavid Iran, various courtly spaces in Mughal India, and his long-term home in the Deccan make him the perfect subject to refashion these territories into a contiguous intellectual terrain. In six chapters, I show how various medical, natural philosophical, and occult sciences practiced and theorized by Gīlānī and his colleagues as “Shīʿī naturalists” were not only legitimated by Muslim scripture, but were heavily patronized by Muslim rulers as a cornerstone of their political theologies. It demonstrates, furthermore, how Gīlānī’s mode of naturalist inquiry builds upon a speculative and

affective intimacy with non-human and non-Muslim others.






Bandy, Hunter Casparian (2019). Building a Mountain of Light: Niẓām al-Dīn Gīlānī and Shīʿī Naturalism Between Safavid Iran and the Deccan. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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