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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 4

The Timurid Period (8th/14th-9th/15th Centuries)

Popular Religion

      Perhaps more important for the further development of Shi'ism than the works of scholars in the field of jurisprudence and theology was the further effort to integrate Sufi thought into Shi'ism. Even the eminent scholar of this period, ibn Fahd, was sympathetic to Sufism and several of his works demonstrate this. But the true successor to Haydar Amuli of the previous century was Muhammad ibn 'Ali al-Ahsa'i known as ibn Abi Jumhur, who died in the opening years of the 10th/16th century. ibn Abi Jumhur was an orthodox Shi'i scholar who studied at Najaf and for a time at Karak-Nuh, the Shi'i centre in the Jabal 'Amil. He continued Amuli's work in integrating Sufism and Shi'ism. But he widened the scope of his endeavours by also attempting to unite and integrate philosophy and Mu'tazili and Ash'ari theology. He tried to show that all of these led to the Sufi concept of existential monism (wahdat al-wujud).

      Among some Sunni scholars of this period there was also a leaning towards Shi'ism. Husayn Wa'iz al-Kashifi, who was a Sunni Traditionist and Qur'an commentator, wrote a book called the Rawdat ash-shuhada (The Paradise of the Martyrs) eulogising the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn in such moving terms that the book was enthusiastically adopted by Shi'is. He also wrote a work on the futuwwa which was another important pro-Shi'i manifestation in Sunnism (see p. 90).

      While there may not have been much of importance occurring among the ulama of Twelver Shi'ism during this period, this was by no means true of Shi'ism among the people. Although it is difficult to distinguish between extreme Shi'ism (ghuluww), Twelver Shi'ism and the pro-Shi'i tendency within Sunni Islam, it is clear that there was a great Shi'i ferment occurring among the people in western Iran, northern Iraq, eastern Anatolia and northern Syria. Into this Shi'i cauldron went the ideas of the Isma'ilis, the Hurufis, the ghulat, as well as the Twelvers. Out of this came a wide variety of movements some of which remained within the mainstream of Islam and some of which moved beyond it. The 'Alawis (Nusayris) in northern Syria and the Ahl-i Haqq in western Iran became separate sects (see pp. 46-7, 58). The Bektashis were accommodated within the Ottoman Empire as a Sufi order. The Musha'sha' set up as a state in south-east Iran. The Safavids began as a Sufi order but after achieving political power became absorbed into Twelver Shi'ism. All these groups show marked Twelver Shi'i features and, in particular, most of them emphasise devotion to the Twelve Imams.

      Throughout Iran several of the most prominent Sufi orders were evolving in a more Shi'i-orientated direction. The most important of these, from the point of view of the future history of Iran, was the Safavid order of Sufis. This order was founded by Shaykh Safiyu'd-Din (650/1252-735/1334) in Ardibil in north-west Iran during the Ilkhanid period. He was a Sunni and during his lifetime became sufficiently influential to include most of the inhabitants of Ardibil among his disciples. He was probably of Kurdish or Turkoman origin but the later Safavid kings concealed their ancestry so as to claim descent from the Seventh Imam, Musa al-Kazim. Shaykh Safiyu'd-Din was succeeded by his son, grandson and great-grandson who each maintained this Sufi order in much the same orientation and were highly respected by the Jalayir and Timurid rulers. By the end of this period the order had greatly extended its influence, having disciples in most parts of Iran, Iraq, Anatolia and even in some parts of Syria. It was still at this time an orthodox Sunni order.

      Nineteenth-century orientalists used to assert that Shi'ism was an Iranian innovation within Islam. As a reaction to this, more recent writers have emphasised the fact that the early Shi'a were Arabs and that the majority of the Iranians were Sunnis until the advent of the Safavid dynasty. However, this later trend has tended to belittle the significance of Iranian Shi'i centres such as Qumm, which were important from the beginning of the emergence of Shi'ism, and also the importance of such early Iranian scholars as ibn Babuya and Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa. Moreover, although it is true that the majority of Iranians were Sunnis until the advent of the Safavids, this fact conceals the large number of Shi'is in Qumm, Rayy, Kashan and much of Khurasan. It also conceals the important pro-Shi'i influence of Sufi orders such as the Kubrawiyya, who were predominant in east Iran, and the craft-guilds in the cities, which were modelled on the futuwwa. These must have played a key role in preparing the populace for the acceptance of Shi'ism under the Safavids.


      In Sunni Islam, Sufism has, through the Sufi Shaykhs, a major hold on the religious devotion of the masses. But in Shi'ism it has become largely a side-issue, a minority interest. It is the orthodox ulama who hold the religious leadership of the Shi'i community and few of them will have anything to do with Sufism. It is not possible in a work of this nature to undertake a systematic treatment of the mystical and metaphysical ideas of Sufism. And so in this chapter only Sufism in its relationship to Shi'ism and the history of the Shi'i Sufi orders will be considered.

      Although most histories of Sufism go back to individual ascetics such as Hasan al-Basri and Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya who lived in the centuries immediately after the Prophet, Sufism as it is known today, with its organised orders and their hierarchies and rituals, dates from the 12th and 13th centuries AD.

      The roots of this organised Sufism have a complex inter-relationship with the Shi'ism of the 12th to 14th centuries AD. Shi'ism achieved political power over almost all of the Islamic world in the 10th and 11th centuries. Then in the middle of the 11th century the Seljuqs came to power and severely repressed Shi'ism. It has been suggested that Sufism, in its organised form, arose at about this time to fill the vacuum left by the suppression of Shi'ism.[1] Certainly there is a great deal of similarity between Shi'ism and many aspects of Sufism which would tend to support this thesis.

      One of the most important doctrines of Sufism is the concept of the Perfect Man (al-Insan al-Kamil). This doctrine states that there always must exist upon the earth a man who is the perfect channel of grace from God to man. This man who is called the Qutb (Pole or Axis, of the Universe) is considered to be in a state of wilaya (sanctity, being under the protection of God). It can already be seen that there are great similarities between the concept of the Qutb in Sufism and the Shi'i Imam. Indeed, many of the Traditions referring to the Imam are also to be found among Sufis in relation to the Qutb: there can only be one Qutb on the earth at any one time; anyone who dies without recognising the Qutb of his time has died the death of the Jahiliyya; only recognition of the Qutb confers true belief, etc.[2]

      The authority to teach the Sufi path has been handed down from master (Qutb, Shaykh, Murshid or Pir) to pupil (Murid, Talib, Salik) through the generations. Most of these 'chains' of authority (silsila) traditionally go back through various intermediaries to 'Ali who among Sufis is considered to have received initiation into mystical truth from Muhammad. Thus among certain Sufi orders there has been a tendency to glorify 'Ali. This tendency (as has been noted in Chapters 5 and 6) may well have helped to prepare the people of Iran during the 14th and 15th centuries for accepting Shi'ism under the Safavids.

      However, it is precisely this closeness in certain areas between Shi'ism and Sufism that has led to antagonism among Shi'i ulama towards Sufism. The concept of the Qutb (who for most Sufi orders is the head of the order) as the purveyor of spiritual guidance and of God's grace to mankind is in direct conflict with the concept of the Imam who in Shi'ism fulfils this role. The vow of obedience to the Shaykh or Qutb which is taken by Sufis is considered incompatible with devotion to the Imam. Indeed, for Shi'is, the Twelfth Imam, who is alive and only in occultation, is the living Qutb and there can only ever be one Qutb upon the earth at any one time.

      There are several other reasons for the antagonism of the ulama towards Sufism: the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud (existential monism) is considered to be blasphemous; the chains of authority of even the Shi'i Sufi orders do not include all twelve of the Shi'i Imams, rather they progress through the first eight Imams, but after 'Ali ar-Rida they diverge through Ma'ruf al Karkhi to other individuals; the zakat is paid by members of the order to the head of the order and not to the ulama.

      The Shi'i Sufi orders have sought to bring their ideas more closely into line with orthodox Shi'i opinion. Thus, for example, the head of the order is often referred to as the Na'ib-i Imam (deputy of the Hidden Imam). But even this modification is not acceptable to the orthodox who regard themselves as the Na'ib-i Amm (general deputy) of the Twelfth Imam while no Na'ib-i Khass is permissible during the Greater Occultation (see p. 165).

      Historically (as has been shown in Chapter 5) several Sufi orders became increasingly oriented towards Shi'ism during the 15th century but it was not until the Safavid order become Shi'i and conquered Iran that several orders such as the Nurbakhshi, Dhahabi and Ni'matu'llahi became openly Shi'i.

Philosophy, Hikma and 'Irfan

      The goal of philosophy is considered to be the achievement of wisdom (hikma). Philosophers (hukama) have traditionally been divided into two groups: the Masha'iyun (peripatetic philosophers) who consider that wisdom is to be achieved by intellectual effort and rational processes; and the Ishraqiyun (illuminationist philosophers) who consider that true wisdom is best gained through spiritual discipline, the cleansing of the soul from all defilement and the acquisition of virtues.

      Also closely associated with hikma is irfan (gnosis or mystical knowledge). Although the Shi'i ulama have been opposed to Sufism for the reasons stated above, 'irfan is much more acceptable. It includes many of the ideas and much of the technical vocabulary of Sufism but divests itself of the features which the ulama find most objectionable: the formal structure of the orders, initiation, the murshid-murid (i.e. spiritual master to pupil) relationship, dhikr (repetitive recitations), concepts such as wahdat al-wujud (existential monism), etc.

      Typical works in the field of 'irfan deal with bringing out the inner, esoteric meaning of the Qur'an based on the process of ta'wil (bringing out of the spiritual meaning) rather than tafsir (technical commentary) of the verses. It is thus a very intellectual activity and can perhaps be better described as esotericism in contrast to the ecstatic mysticism of the Sufis.

      In this form mysticism has managed to retain a foothold within the curriculum of teaching in the Shi'i religious colleges but very much on the periphery. Interestingly, Ayatu'llah Khumayni taught 'irfan in Qumm prior to his expulsion in 1963.

      A movement that has had a great deal of influence on Shi'i thought is what is called Hikmat-i Ilahi. It can be thought of as the philosophical analysis and description of the mystical path. The name itself, Hikmat-i Ilahi, can be translated as Divine Wisdom, Divine Philosophy or Theosophy. It has also gone under the name of Hikmat-i Muta'aliyya which can be translated as Transcendent Theosophy.

      The school of philosophy called Hikmat-i Ilahi represents the culmination of the endeavour to bring together and harmonise the three major sources of spiritual knowledge in the Islamic experience: the revealed and transmitted sources which revolve around the Qur'an and Traditions; the conclusions drawn from the rational analysis of religion; and intuitive and ecstatic spiritual illumination. The roots of this movement go back to the earliest period of Islam and extend beyond Shi'ism itself. Its culmination and flowering was in the School of Isfahan (see pp. 112-13).

      Foremost among the influences on this movement was, of course, the Qur'an itself and in particular the ta'wil (esoteric interpretation or spiritual hermeneutics) of the Qur'an that is to be found in the corpus of the Traditions ascribed to the Shi'i Imams. Indeed, some of the most important works of the philosophers of this school consist of commentaries upon the Traditions of the Imams.

      The field of speculative theology (kalam) had, in previous centuries, been a major area of intellectual activity and the writers of the School of Isfahan were influenced not only by Shi'i kalam which had found its fullest expression in the works of Khwaja Nasiru'd-Din Tusi but also by the Mu'tazili kalam upon which earlier Shi'i theology had been based, as well as the Ash'ari kalam of Sunnism which had reached its culmination in the works of such figures as al-Ghazali, Fakhru'd-Din Razi and Sa'du'd-Din Taftazani.

      One of the most important influences on the Hikmat-i Ilahi movement was Shaykhu'l-Ishraq Shihabu'd-Din Suhrawardi (executed in Aleppo in 587/1191). His work in turn drew upon several inter-related strands: the revival of Zoroastrian angelology, Neo-Platonic cosmology, and in particular the metaphysical works of ibn Sina (Avicenna). From these sources and from direct spiritual experiences, Suhrawardi created the Ishraqi philosophy or the philosophy of oriental (in its metaphysical sense) illumination, a description of ecstatic and mystical experience in the context of philosophical concepts.

      A similarly important source of influence upon the School of Isfahan was the gnostic mysticism of Muhiyu'd-Din, ibn al-'Arabi, Shaykh al-Akbar (560/1165-638/1240). His metaphysical doctrines, which were to evolve within his school into such concepts as the Perfect Man (al-Insan al-Kamil) and existential monism (wahdat al-wujud), exercised a great influence on all aspects of Islamic mysticism.

      Sufism itself was one of the most important sources of inspiration for Hikmat-i Ilahi. Not only were several individual philosophers of this school themselves members of Sufi orders (and in particular the Nurbakhshi order), but there is frequent quotation in the writings of these philosophers from the great Iranian Sufi poets such as Jalalu'd-Din Rumi and 'Abdu'r-Rahman Jami.

      The Hikmat-i Ilahi philosophers were, of course, familiar with the philosophy of both the Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic traditions found in the writings of the Greek philosophers as well as the early Muslim philosophers such as ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Farabi.

      The full flowering of Hikmat-i Ilahi in the School of Isfahan in the 17th century was preceded by a number of similar preliminary works. Mention has been made elsewhere in this book of the work of Sayyid Haydar Amuli in bringing together Shi'ism and Sufism. There is also the important work of ibn Abi Jumhur who attempted an integration of philosophy, kalam and Sufi concepts into Shi'ism thereby laying an important foundation for the School of Isfahan. As a further example there is the work of Sa'inu'd-Din, ibn Turka Isfahani (d. 835/1431 or 836/1432) who integrated many of the themes of Suhrawardi and ibn al-'Arabi into his writings.

      As an example of the metaphysical system of this school and to demonstrate its links with other avenues of Islamic thought, the following is a brief analysis of the four journeys described by Mulla Sadra in Al-Hikmat al-muta'aliyya 'l-asfar al-'aqliyya al-arba'a (The Transcendental Theosophy concerning the Four Journeys of the Rational Soul). This work concerns the four journeys: from the creatures to the True One; from the True One to the True One; from the True One to the creatures; and from the creatures to the creatures.

      The first journey is described as being the path whereby man detaches himself from the physical world and his carnal self (nafs) and rending the veils that intervene between him and the Divine Beauty reaches the station of Annihilation in the Divine. In this 'journey' Mulla Sadra gives an exposition of metaphysics and ontology dealing with several philosophical issues.

      The second journey is described as being the path along which the traveller contemplates and comes to know and understand the Divine Names and Attributes. This is the station of sainthood in which the traveller comes to hear with His hearing, sees with His sight and is thus totally annihilated in the Divine Essence, Actions and Attributes. In this 'journey', Mulla Sadra discusses a number of philosophical questions such as creation ex nihilo, substance, quantity, quality and the receptivity of things to the Divine Grace.

      The third journey involves the termination of Annihilation (fana) and the start of Subsistence (baqa) in God. This is the state of the prophets (but not those prophets that bring laws). In this state, the traveller is able to travel through all the worlds of creation and to see all these worlds in their essence and exigencies. In this 'journey', our author deals with God in His Essence, His Names and Attributes, discussing such subjects as divine will, fate, evil and God's knowledge.

      The fourth journey is among the creatures but now the traveller, who is in the station of a prophet who brings laws, sees all beings in their essence and knows of the manner of their return to God and so is able to give them guidance. In describing this 'journey', Mulla Sadra deals with the soul and its development and with the question of the resurrection and other eschatological matters.[8]

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