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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 3

Sufism

      The main trend in Shi'i intellectual life during this period can be summarised as consisting of the integration of philosophy and mysticism (Sufism) into the mainstream of Shi'i thought. The Shi'i theology evolved in this period remains predominant to the present day. There were also important developments during this period in the field of jurisprudence and in the development of the role of the ulama. With the tolerance of the Ilkhanid government and the removal of the 'Abbasid Caliphate, tensions between Sunnis and Shi'is decreased markedly especially in the eastern Muslim world. No longer was the polemic between the two an important part of the writings of the scholars. That is not to say that there was no dispute between the two sects. But even though the great Sunni scholar, ibn Taymiyya, wrote a refutation of one of 'Allama al-Hilli's works, this was combined with respect for his opponent.[8] The majority of Sunni scholars, represented by such figures as Baydawi, refused to enter into the controversy at all.

      This easing of the hostility between the Sunnis and the Shi'is allowed each side to adopt a great deal of the thought of the other. Shi'i ulama such as 'Allama al-Hilli borrowed freely from Sunni methods of dealing with the hadith literature. But the most important results of this rapprochement were the attempts by several Shi'is to bring Sufism into Shi'ism. Even more important in this respect than ibn Maytham was Sayyid Haydar ibn 'Ali Amuli who lived until the closing years of the 8th/14th century in Baghdad. He attempted to bring together Shi'ism and Sufism by stating that Sufis were in reality only Shi'is who were more concerned about the esoteric aspects of religion, while other Shi'is concentrated on the external aspects such as doctrine and religious law. In his principal work on this theme, Jami' al-Asrar (The Compilation of Mysteries), Sayyid Haydar links the names of the prominent early Sufis with the Twelver Imams. He stresses everything in Sufi writings that indicates that divine knowledge was purveyed to the lines of Sufi Shaykhs through the Imam 'Ali, while at the same time emphasising everything in the writings of previous Shi'i ulama in favour of Sufism.

      The rapprochement between Shi'ism and Sunnism was to have an even greater impact on Sunni Islam. Firstly, among Sunnis there developed a tendency to what is called tashayyu' hasan (good or moderate leaning towards Shi'ism). This meant extolling the virtues of 'Ali and condemning Mu'awiya and Yazid but without going to what was considered the extreme of Twelver Shi'ism and rejecting the first three Caliphs and exaggerating the position of 'Ali and the Imams. But, even more importantly, the Sufi orders, which were in the process of being formed into organised schools with chains of successive leaders during this period, also took a pronounced pro-Shi'i turn in their mode of thought and expression. It was an era when the majority of the great Sufi Shaykhs claimed to be descendants of 'Ali — such figures as ar-Rifa'i (d. 578/1182), al-Badawi (d. 675/1276), and ad-Dasuqi (d. 676/1277). Simultaneously, the Sufi concept of the position of the Shaykh came to parallel increasingly the Shi'i Imamate while 'Ali came to occupy almost as important a position in Sufism as he did in Shi'ism. These changes resulted in several Sufi orders gradually evolving from Sunnism to Shi'ism.

      These developments in Sufism and popular religion, important as they may have been for the later evolution in Twelver Shi'ism, were at this stage separate from the mainstream of Twelver Shi'i Islam. Some idea of the geographical spread of Twelver Shi'ism can be obtained from analysis of the geographical origins of the ulama of the period. Table 4 relates to ulama whose deaths occurred during the 7th (1203-1299) and 8th (1300-1396) Islamic centuries.[9]

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