Imperial Mysticisms: Piety and Power in Early Modern Empires from a Global Perspective

Imperial Mysticisms:
Piety and Power in Early Modern Empires from a Global Perspective


November 27-30, 2019

Central European University

Auditorium B

Artillery, bureaucracy, a monetary system, and a sense of religious mission were some of the factors that enabled early modern imperial dynasties, primarily, the Ming Chinese, Mughals, Safavids, Ottomans, the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs, and the Aviz of Portugal, to hold sway over large parts of the inhabited world. The study of governance and social organization in these early modern empires has enhanced our knowledge about the symbolism of power, its embodiment in charismatic figures, and its mediation in societies of ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. The conference planned by CEU’s Center for Religious Studies will explore largely overlooked factors of empire-building: the political and social impact of mystical spirituality, piety, and ritual. Employing a global comparative approach with few precedents, the conference will examine the structural parallels and differences between various mystical movements of this imperial age, be they Buddhist, Catholic, Shi'ite or Sunnite, as well as related manifestations within Jewish, Lutheran, or Christian Orthodox minority communities.

The intimate alliance between imperial dynasties and mystical sects extended to political alliances as well as patterns of social organization.  Networks of Sufi brotherhoods and Christian contemplative orders fulfilled an important function as vehicles of administration, symbolic legitimation, social cohesion, and cultural exchange. Their political aspects merit analysis both from the outside, by retracing institutions of piety and their imperial functions, and from within, by identifying patterns of imperial rule in mystical systems of thought. The politics of piety provided an imperial glue that seemed to have responded to the spiritual needs of subjects who were confronted with an invasive administration and a mysterious distance of the center of power. At the same time, mystical movements served as a potential channel of discontent.

Comparative research on the world-wide manifestations of mysticism in the imperial practice and performance of power seems promising for several reasons. It will enable us to highlight the appeal mystical spirituality had within the different religious traditions of the period; to point out historical contacts and transmission lines of a direct or indirect character and to discuss whether these religious and political developments fit into a common historical narrative. Regardless of what the answer to this question will be, we are certain that the elaboration of global perspectives, terminologies and research agendas is a goal worthy of being pursued in its own right. The conference will thus be part of approaches in historiography that aim at overcoming old epistemological boundaries between the study of the Orient and that of the West.

Based on these considerations, the following questions could be explored in the conference:

  • In which ways did mystics interact with ruling dynasties? Who were the mystics who had direct access to the monarch and to his advisers? Which doctrines did mystics follow and which ones proved to be useful for the state? Which mutual benefits were derived from the patronage, in terms of governance and propaganda?
  • To which extent did mystics formulate legitimizing concepts of sacred kingship? Which elements from political reality came to be metaphorically reflected in mystical worldviews? To what extent did rulers inversely try to enhance their personal authority by adopting ascetic or esoteric norms of conduct and government?
  • Which forms of personal authority did mystics claim? Does the core concept of a Sufi being a "Friend of God," with direct knowledge of the divine will, have parallels in other mystical traditions?
  • How did mystical concepts and forms of piety shape court culture with regard to religious ritual and law, cosmology, literature, art, philosophy and sciences? How were individual mystics, institutions, and concepts incorporated into the state clergy, bureaucracy and educational enterprise?
  • Which new institutional patterns of mystic brotherhoods and networks appeared in the contact with empires? How were medieval models of mystical piety transformed, serialized, and collectivized?
  • On what basis did rulers and clergies distinguish between saintly and deviant mystical revivals? Which ones did they seek to use and incorporate, and which ones did they repress, persecute, or alienate from positions of power?
  • To what extent did mysticism function as a vehicle of cross-cultural cohesion in empires that spanned vast territories and diverse religious, ethnic and linguistic identities? When and why did originally esoteric doctrines and rites become part of popular culture? How did mystics address and involve audience of both genders and all social classes?
  • Is it possible to conceptualize and narrate the cooperation between empire and mysticism as a global phenomenon, and can we propose a common periodization fitting the religious environments of various continents?