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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam:
The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 5


               Shi'i Islam in the Medieval Period

                        AD 1000-1500

The Seljuq Period (5th/11th-6th/12th Centuries)

Political Developments

Following the decline of the 'Abbasids, Iran and Iraq were for a time
under the sway of an Iranian dynasty of Shi'i persuasion, the Buyids.
However, at the beginning of the 5th/11th century the empire of this
dynasty was gradually seized by waves of Turkish tribes emanating from
Central Asia. These Turkish tribes adopted Sunnism in its severest
form under the Hanafi School. The first of these Turkish dynasties was
the Ghaznavids who took over most of Iran, reaching their greatest
extent in about 421/1030. They were followed by the Seljuqs who
conquered the Ghaznavids in Iran and pressed on into Iraq, finally
overthrowing the Buyid control of Baghdad in 447/1055.
  The Seljuqs were to remain in power in Iraq and much of Iran until
the last years of the 6th/12th century, vanishing from the scene only
a few years before the advent of the Mongols.
The coming of the Seljuqs was at first a great blow to the Shi'is. In
the previous chapter it was noted that the great Shi'i jurist
Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa had his house in the Karkh quarter of Baghdad
attacked and his library burned and was forced to flee to Najaf
Shi'ism was publicly cursed from the pulpit in the mosques of
Khurasan,[1] and the Shrine of Husayn at Karbala was damaged in
489/1095.[2] The powerful minister of the Seljuq Sultans, Nizamu'l-
Mulk, was the principal opponent of the Shi'is but after his
assassination in 485/1092 the pressure on the Shi'is began to lift.
The death of Nizamu'l-Mulk marks the beginning of the decline of the
Seljuqs and from this time on rival factions within the dynasty fought
one another. During this period a number of Shi'is achieved prominent
positions. Majdu'l-Mulk, a secret Shi'i from Qumm, was minister to the
Seljuq Sultan, Berk-Yaruk. At-Tughra'i of Isfahan was minister to


Sultan Mas'ud but he was charged with being an Isma'ili and executed
in about 514/1120 after Mas'ud's defeat at the hands of his brother
Sultan Mahmud. Sultan Mahmud's minister Anushirvan ibn Khalid of
Kashan, who wrote a famous history of the Seljuq period, is reported
in several sources to have been a Shi'i.
  Also after the death of Nizamu'l-Mulk, there was a resurgence of the
power of the Abbasid Caliphate. This reached its peak under the
Caliphate of an-Nasir (576/1180-622/1225). During this period, Shi'i
influence at the Abbasid Court also grew. Several ministers to the
Caliphs were Shi'is and an-Nasir himself was very sympathetic and
reconciliatory to the Shi'i. He chose as his minister for a time,
Sayyid Nasiru'd-Din ibn Mahdi, an 'Alid and a Shi'i of Rayy.
  The Seljuqs were in control of most of Iran and had Baghdad under
their sway for much of this period. But the situation in the rest of
Iraq and in Syria was different. Even when the Seljuqs were at their
strongest, a number of semi-independent tribal amirates existed in
Iraq. The most powerful of these were the Mazyadids, a dynasty of
Shi'i amirs who made their capital at Hilla on the banks of the
Euphrates between Karbala and Najaf. It was the Buyids who first
recognized the Mazyadids as amirs in this area in 403/1012. But it was
not until Seljuq times that the Mazyadids came into their own. Hilla,
their capital, was built in 495/1101 by the greatest of the dynasty,
Sayfu'd-Dawla Sadaqa (479/1086-501/1108), at a time when most of
southern Iraq was under his control and his influence was great even
in Baghdad. From the first, Hilla was a Shi'i centre of learning.
Sayfu'd-Dawla, who is praised in history for his generosity and
hospitality, was killed in a battle against the Seljuq Sultan
Muhammad, but Dubays, his son and successor, continued to be a
powerful factor in the affairs of southern Iraq and Baghdad. The
dynasty continued in power until the death of 'Ali, the son and
successor of Dubays in 545/1150.
  In northern Iraq, the Hamdanid rule was ended by another Shi'i
dynasty called the 'Uqaylids who held power in Mosul from 380/990
until about 489/1096.
  In Syria also, dynasties of Shi'i amirs held sway for long periods
of time. In the previous chapter, the Shi'i Hamdanid dynasty has been
noted. Following their collapse another Shi'i dynasty of amirs arose
in Aleppo called the Mirdasids. They remained in power until overcome
by the 'Uqaylids of Mosul in 472/1079. The 'Uqaylid occupation of
Aleppo lasted only until 478/1085 when this region came under the
control of the Sunni Seljuqs.
  Further south in Syria, at Tripoli (Tarablus), another Shi'i dynasty
of amirs, the Banu 'Ammar, held power until overthrown by the
crusaders in 503/1109.


   Several of those who travelled through Syria in the 5th/11th
century commented on the large numbers of Shi'is there although it is
not always clear to which sect of Shi'ism they are referring. Most of
the cities near the Syrian coast had a majority of Shi'is: Aleppo,
Tripoli, Ba'albakk, Sidon, Tyre and Tiberius, while even the cities
further inland had large Shi'i populations: Hums, Hama and Damascus.3
One writer estimated the Shi'is to outnumber the Sunnis throughout
  The declining power of the Fatimids in Egypt resulted in a gradual
shrinking of their empire. In Syria, their region of control was
steadily decreasing while in north Africa independent states came into
being. The setting up of the Zirid state in Tunis by Mu'izz ibn Badis
resulted in a general massacre of Isma'ili Shi'is in 407/1016 and
Shi'ism never recovered in that area. The Ulama

Although Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa (Shaykh Muhammad at-Tusi) lived on into the
early Seljuq period and by transferring his residence from Baghdad to
Najaf was responsible for the transfer of the centre of Shi'ism to
that city, he himself more properly belonged to the previous Buyid era
and should be regarded as the culmination of that period.
  The century after Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa has usually been regarded as
somewhat sterile in terms of intellectual and religious development
within Shi'ism In the same way that Muhammad Baqir Majlisi's
overwhelming influence in a later age was to be succeeded by a century
in which no-one could emerge from the shadow of his influence, so also
Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa's towering achievements (probably in combination with
the changed political circumstances) led to a century in which there
was little creative development. It has been called in some sources
the period of taqlid (imitation, i.e. unquestioned following of
Shaykhu't Taifa's lead).
  However, the century after Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa's death must not be
totally written off. There were a number of important works written
during this period by ulama who, although not of the stature of
Shaykhu't Ta'ifa, were nevertheless of some importance. His son and
grandson remained in Najaf maintaining the primacy of that town.
However, by the time of the passing of Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa's grandson,
Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Muhammad at-Tusi, in 540/1145, Aleppo was
becoming increasingly important as a Shi'i centre with the presence
there of such figures as Abu'l-Makarim Hamza ibn 'Ali al-Halabi known
as ibn Zuhra (d. 585/1189) and Muhammad ibn 'Ali as-Sarawi al-
Mazandarani known as ibn Shahrashub (d. 588/1192).
Aleppo was the centre of Shi'i learning for about half a century from
540/1145 to 590/1193.

Another important Shi'i centre of that time was northern Iran,
Tabaristan (now known as Mazandaran) and the region extending as far
south as Qumm. This area also produced some significant scholars
during the Seljuq era. The most important of these were Abu Ja'far
Muhammad ibn 'Ali at-Tabari of Amul (d. 514/1120), who wrote
the Bisharat al-Mustafa, and Diya'u'd-Din Fadlu'llah ibn 'Ali al-
Husayni ar-Rawandi (d. after 548/1153) and Qutbu'd-Din Sa'id ibn
Hibatu'llah ar-Rawandi (d. 573/1178) in Kashan. In Khurasan there
lived Fadl ibn Hasan at-Tabarsi (at-Tabrisi, d. 548/1153), who wrote
one of the most important Shi'i commentaries on the Qur'an, the Majma'
  This period marks an important watershed in Shi'i history. From
about the beginning of the 4th/10th century until the middle of the
6th/12th century, the most important ulama of the Shi'i world had been
Iranians. There was now a shift and for the next four hundred and
fifty years until the late Safavid period, the most important ulama
were to be Arabs (with a few notable exceptions such as Khwaja
Nasiru'd-Din Tusi).
  The Mazyadid capital, Hilla, had been established in 495/1101 and
was immediately an important Shi'i centre. But it was not until about
a century later that it rose to pre-eminence in the Shi'i world,
overtaking Aleppo. It was to remain thus for about three hundred
years. The scholar responsible for establishing Hilla's importance and
also for ending the century of taqlid to Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa was Muhammad
ibn Ahmad, known as ibn Idris al-Hilli (d. 598/1202). Ibn Idris was
the first to dare to express views that were different to those of
Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa whom he regarded as having introduced into Twelver
Shi'ism a number of innovations which had no basis in the Traditions
of the Imams. He was followed by Muhammad ibn Ja'far (d. 636/1239 or
645/1248) and his son Ja'far ibn Muhammad (d. 680/1281), both known by
the name ibn Nima.
  The Shi'i ulama of this period directed most of their energies
towards polemical works defending their beliefs against Sunni attacks.
However, in doing so, they succeeded in defining more clearly many of
the theological issues and set the stage for the developments of the
Mongol period.

The Popular Religion

In the field of popular religion, the manaqib-khans started in Buyid
times continued, but more covertly, to avoid clashes with the Sunni
authorities. To counter them and their praise of 'Ali and his family,
the Sunnis brought into being fada'il-khans who exalted Abu Bakr,
'Umar and the other companions of the Prophet.


   It was during this period that Sufism first began to become a
medium of religious expression for the masses. Although a great
expansion in Sufi orders began during this period, it was principally
a phenomenon in Sunni Islam and frowned upon by Shi'is. Indeed, it has
been suggested that the growth of Sufism at this time was a direct
result of the suppression of Shi'ism by the Seljuqs. Sufism grew, it
is postulated, to fill the gap in the field of the esoteric side of
Islam left vacant by Shi'ism. But a more powerful stimulus towards the
growth of Sufism at this time was probably that Muslims were beginning
to despair of ever creating the perfect society through the leadership
of the Caliph and began to look to individual morality and the
spiritual advancement of the individual. It was not until the Mongol
era, however, that Sufism began to make a significant impact on
  One further important development was the espousal by the Caliph an-
Nasir (who, as has been noted above, was markedly pro-Shi'i) of
brotherhoods with chivalrous ideals. These brotherhoods were called
futuwwa (youths) and were usually modelled on 'Ali as the ideal of
Islamic chivalry: 'There is no youth (fata) braver than 'Ali.' The
futuwwa was to become an important instrument for the development of
pro-Shi'i sympathy among the Sunni masses in later centuries.

Geographical Spread

The 5th/11th century saw the ebbing of the tide of Isma'ili Shi'ism
that, in the previous century, had threatened to engulf Islam. In the
Gulf area, the Qarmati state, which had declined since the late
4th/10th century, was destroyed by local tribes in 470/1077 and
Isma'ili control was never re-established in that region. In Syria,
also, the Fatimids were gradually pushed back, starting with the
Mirdasid capture of Aleppo in 1023 and later the Seljuq advance to
Jerusalem in 1070. In these areas where Isma'ili power was ebbing,
there suddenly appear large communities of Twelver Shi'is (in Bahrain,
al-Ahsa and the Jabal 'Amil in Lebanon) where there are no reports of
large communities of Twelvers having been before. Although this is a
point that requires further investigation, it can tentatively be
postulated that the ebbing tide of Isma'ili power left behind these
large Twelver Shi'i communities as converts from Isma'ili Shi'ism. The
reasons for such conversions are not hard to discern. The Isma'ilis
had become feared and hated by the rest of the Muslim world and large
numbers were killed wherever the orthodox community could lay its
hands on them. This was particularly true of the Qarmatis
of the Gulf area, who had committed the sacrilegious act of removing
the Black Stone of the Ka'ba. Thus it seems plausible that as the tide
of Isma'ili power ebbed, large numbers of Isma'ilis should convert to


much more acceptable Twelver form of Shi'ism, thus forming the basis
of the present-day Twelver communities in Bahrain, al-Ahsa and the
Jabal 'Amil.
  With regard to the distribution of Shi'is in the Muslim world during
this period, it was substantially the same as has already been
described in the previous chapter for the Buyid period. An analysis of
the geographical origins of Shi'i ulama dying in the 6th Islamic
century (AD 1106-1202) can be found in Table 3.[5]

     Table 3: Geographical origins of Twelver Shi'i ulama who died    
              in the sixth Islamic century (AD 1106-1202)

Rayy (and Varmin)          59 Isfahan               9
Qumm (and Awa)             43 Kufa                  8
Sabzivar                   34 Karbala               8
Qazvin                     32 Daylam (Gilan)        7
Kashan (and Rawand)        32 Tafrish (near Qumm)   7
Tabaristan (Mazandaran)    27 Basra                 5
Nishapur                   26 Qa'in                 4
Mashhad (and Tus)          21 Tarablus (Tripoli)    3
Aleppo                     20 Bahrain               3
Hilla                      16 Shiraz                2
Baghdad                    14 Egypt                 1
Gurgan                     13 Mosul                 1

The Ilkhanid Period (7th/13th-8th/14th Centuries)

Political Developments

The Mongol invasions of the Islamic world which began in 627/1220 were
a great blow to the civilisation of Islam in that the great cities of
the eastern Islamic world were devastated to an extent from which they
never fully recovered. These invasions were also a blow to the Sunni
orthodoxy in that the fall of Baghdad and the subsequent killing of
the 'Abbasid Caliph, Musta'sim, in 656/1258 removed one
of the pillars on which the constitutional theory of Sunnism had been
  The Mongol invasions were not, however, such a blow to Shi'ism. The
rule of the non-Muslim Mongols, who were at this time Shamanists and
Buddhists and who treated the Shi'is and Sunnis alike, was a
considerable improvement on their former position as an oppressed
minority under the Seljuqs. While Baghdad, the centre of
Sunni orthodoxy, had been devastated, Hilla, the main centre of


submitted to the Mongols and was spared. The killing of the 'Abbasid
Caliph threw Sunni theology and constitutional theory (which had over
the years built up the theoretical position of the Caliph even as his
defacto powers were weakening) into some disorder, while the occulted
Imam of the Shi'is had not been affected. Thus the weakening of
Sunnism led to a relative strengthening of Shi'ism. The presence of
the Shi'i scholar Khwaja Nasiru'd-Din Tusi among the chief advisers of
the Mongol leader, Hulagu Khan, must also have given comfort to the
Shi'is in the midst of the holocaust caused by the Mongols.
  Sunni historians have frequently accused Shi'is of having urged and
brought about the fall of Baghdad and the murder of the Caliph. This
accusation has only very slight justification. Baghdad's fate was
sealed by the Caliph's own refusal to submit to the advancing Mongol
army. Although it is true that ibn al-'Alqami (d. 656/1258), the Shi'i
minister to the Caliph, did ask the Mongol force to attack Baghdad, he
did this after he had been dismissed as minister and as a consequence
of Sunni attacks upon the Shi'is in Baghdad. Nor was Khwaja Nasiru'd-
Dim's role in the fall of Baghdad anything more than the execution of
his duties as astrologer to the Mongol army. Moreover, it is doubtful
whether any Shi'i action against an oppressive Sunni regime and in
favour of an advancing Mongol army that
had Nasiru'd-Din as one of its advisers and could therefore, be
presumed to be sympathetic, can be classed as treachery. In the event
Hulagu Khan showed no particular favour to the Shi'is on the capture
of Baghdad and several prominent Shi'is, including Sharafu'd-Din
Muhammad ibn Tawus, the naqib (leader) of the 'Alids in the city, were
  As conditions settled in the Middle East under the Mongol Ilkhanid
dynasty which controlled most of Iran and Iraq, the Shi'is found the
Ilkhanids to be tolerant rulers and even sympathetic to Shi'ism. The
first of this dynasty to convert to Islam and enforce Islam in his
court was Ghazan (reigned AD 1295-1304). He turned out the Buddhist
priests and built many mosques. He also showed leanings towards
Shi'ism in that he frequently visited the Shi'i shrines in Iraq and
built hostels called dar assiyadas, for descendants of the Prophet.
  The brother and successor of Ghazan, Oljeitu (reigned AD 1304-1316),
took the name Khudabanda when he became a Muslim. His minister,
Sa'du'd-Din Sawi, was an ally of the Shi'is and introduced the Shi'i
theologian, Taju'd-Din Muhammad ibn 'Ali Awl, to the court. The
efforts of the latter and 'Allama al-Hilli resulted in Khudabanda's
conversion to Shi'ism in 709/1309,[6] Shi'ism became the official
religion of the state and even when, in 711/1311, Sa'du'd-Din was
executed and Taju'd-Din murdered, 'Allama al-Hilli was brought from
Hilla to help consolidate the Shi'i position.[7] However, the Shi'i
advantage was


cancelled after Khudabanda's death as his son, Abu Sa'id, was a
staunch Sunni.
  From AD 1335 onwards the Ilkhanid dynasty gradually crumbled with a
succession of feeble aspirants to the throne and much factional
fighting. During this period a number of Shi'i states were
established. At Sabzivar in Khurasan, Hasan Juri, the head of the
Shaykhiyya-Juriyya, a Shi'i-Sufi order, helped the Sarbadarids to
establish a small Shi'i state which existed from 1337 to 1386. The
Sarbadarids were a series of rulers who maintained a Shi'i republic
with a strong emphasis on expectation of the Hidden Imam. The first of
them, Amir 'Abdu'r-Razzaq, was killed by his brother, Amir Vajihu'd-
Din Mas'ud, in 738/1337 and it was the latter who really founded the
state. Mir Qavamu'd-Din Mar'ashi (d. 781/1379), known as Mirza
Buzurg, the head of another branch of the Shaykhiyya order, founded a
Shi'i state based on Amul in Mazandaran in 760/1359. His son, Sayyid
Kamalu'd-Din (d. 820/1417), was defeated by Timur in 794/1391 but
confirmed in his governorship and the line continued as semi-
independent rulers until the Safavid era. These two small Shi'i
states were interesting principally because they were based on Sufi
orders, combining a commitment to Shi'ism with military
characteristics; the same combination found in the Safavid order that
was, two centuries later, to sweep to power and have such a decisive
influence on the fortunes of Shi'ism in Iran.
  Several of the minor local dynasties that replaced the Ilkhanids are
stated to have been Shi'i or sympathetic to Shi'ism. But it is not at
all clear whether these dynasties or the Sarbadarids referred to above
were Twelver or tended to extremist (ghuluww) views. In all
probability they were similar to the Safavids in the earliest days of
their dynasty, mixing orthodox Twelver views and ghuluww ideas. The
Jalayir dynasty in Adharbayjan and Iraq, and the Chupanids in
Adharbayjan were among those dynasties sometimes thought to have Shi'i
leanings though the evidence for this is weak.
  In Syria, the last Shi'i state, the 'Uqaylids, had fallen before the
Seljuqs in AD 1085 and Shi'ism itself was actively suppressed by
'Imadu'd-Din Zangi who took Aleppo in 1128. During the next two
centuries the area became an arena of constant
conflict between the forces of Islam and the crusaders. Throughout
this period Shi'is of all sects, especially the Isma'ilis and the
Nusayris ('Alawis), often sided with the crusaders against the forces
of Sunni Islam. The Shi'is in Syria received two great blows in the
last half of the 13th century. The first was the capture of Aleppo by
the Mongols in AD 1260 when many thousands of Shi'is were slaughtered.
The second was the massacre of Shi'is that occurred at the end of the
13th century when the crusaders were driven from Syria by the Mamluks
of Egypt. The Mamluk Sultan, al-Ashraf, in particular


was severe on the Shi'is. The Druse and Nusayris were forced to
conform to the outward forms of Sunni Islam. The Isma'ili fortresses
were reduced one by one, and the Twelvers were driven out of Kisrawan
in 1305 and sought refuge in the Biqa' valley of central Lebanon where
they remain to this day.
  This was a period in which Islam was beginning to spread rapidly in
India. At least one dynasty of this period, the Bahmani Kings of the
Deccan, showed Shi'i proclivities but made no attempt to enforce
Shi'ism on the populace.

The Ulama

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.
  The leading Shi'i scholar at the beginning of this period was Abu
Ja'far Muhammad ibn Muhammad, Khwaja Nasiru'd-Din Tusi (d. 672/1271).
It is difficult to say which were his most important intellectual
achievements because he made so many major contributions in such a
wide variety of fields. He was an important astronomer and
mathematician as well as writing on medicine, ethics, history and
geography. From the point of view of Shi'ism his most important
achievement was to incorporate philosophical concepts, from his study
of Avicenna and other philosophers, into Shi'i theology. Until this
time philosophy had been viewed with suspicion as it was closely
associated with Isma'ili thought. But Nasiru'd-Din, who had spent many
years in the Isma'ili stronghold of Alamut, revolutionised Twelver
Shi'i theology (kala-m) by expressing it in terms of concepts
introduced from philosophy.
  At Hilla, which was still the main centre of Shi'ism at this time,
the ibn Tawus family dominated the city for several generations. One
of their number, Majdu'd-Din Muhammad, succeeded in negotiating
Hilla's surrender to the Mongol army without any bloodshed. Another
representative of the family, Radiyu'd-Din 'Ali ibn Musa (d.
664/1266), was the leading Shi'i scholar of his time. He was not much
interested in legal matters but was rather orientated towards
mysticism and asceticism and is credited with performing many miracles
(karamat). He claimed to be in contact with the Imams through dream
and vision and also claimed to have
met the Hidden Imam.
  After ibn Tawus, the next important Shi'i scholar at Hilla was


ibn  Hasan, Muhaqqiq al-Hilli or Muhaqqiq al-Awwal (d. 676/1277). He
was the author of the Shara'i' al-Islam which has remained to this day
one of the foremost works in Shi'i jurisprudence. He, together with
his nephew, Hasan ibn Yusuf, 'Allama al-Hilli (d. 726/1325) were the
most important Shi'i scholars of this period. They introduced
important developments in the role of the ulama (see pp. 185-
6).'Allama al-Hilli was responsible for establishing ijtihad as the
central methodology of Shi'i jurisprudence and for introducing methods
of criticism of the hadith.
  'Allama al-Hilli was succeeded by his son Muhammad ibn Hasan,
Fakhru'l-Muhaqqiqin (d. 771/1370), who in turn was the teacher of the
first of great Shi'i scholars from the Jabal 'Amil region of Lebanon,
Muhammad ibn Makki al-'Amili, known as Shahid al-Awwal (the First
Martyr). Having studied in Hilla, Shahid al-Awwal returned to Syria
where because of the strongly anti-Shi'i climate maintained by the
Mamluks, he was forced to maintain dissimulation (taqiyya). Shahid al-
Awwal succeeded in establishing the Jabal 'Amil as an important centre
of Shi'i studies, although it did not yet equal Hilla in importance.
He was arrested and kept in prison in Damascus for one year before
being executed on the orders of the Mamluk
Sultan Barquq in 786/1384.
  During this period, 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. Ibn Maytham al-Bahrani (d.
679/1280) wrote a commentary on the collection of 'Ali's speeches
known as the Nahj al-Balagha (the Path of Eloquence) which interpreted
much of the material in a Sufi manner.
  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 Sufi Orders

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.
  In Khurasan the Kubrawiyya order, which had started as an orthodox
Sunni order in the early 7th/13th century, gradually adopted an
increasingly Shi'i orientation. As-Simnani (d. 736/1336), a Shaykh of
the major line in the order, although still regarding himself a Sunni,
regarded 'Ali as superior to the first three Caliphs and the qutb
(axis) of his time. Another prominent Shaykh of the Kubrawiyya, 'Ali
Hamadani (d. 786/1385), although described as a Sunni, greatly
venerated 'Ali and the House of the Prophet. He played an important
part in taking this Sufi-Shi'i admixture to India. Later several lines
in this order became openly Shi'i. The Shaykhiyya-Juriyya order of
Shi'is has previously been referred to (see p. 93).
  In Anatolia the futuwwa orders, modelled on 'Ali (see p. 90), were
very prominent among the Sunni Seljuq Turks and more particularly
among the Turkomans, among whom they were called akhis. The
Khalwatiyya, one of the principal Sufi orders in Anatolia, had strong
pro-Shi'i roots as indicated by the institution of
a twelve-day fast for the


Twelver Shi'i Imams. The Baba'i order on the other hand showed ghuluww
influence. The Baba'is are of interest also in that they were another
example of a Sufi order that became military and eventually in
638/1240 arose against Kaykhusraw, the Seljuq Sultan of Qonya.

Geographical Spread

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]

  Table 4: Geographical origins of Twelver Shi'i ulama who died in the 
 seventh (AH 1203-1299) and eighth (AH 1300-1396) Islamic centuries
                      7th Century    8th Century    Total

Hilla                      34             47        81
Mazandaran                 18             12        30
Aleppo                     13             15        28
Jabal 'Amil                 4             17        21
Khurasan                   14              6        20
Qumm (and Awa)              6             12        18
Bahrain                     9              6        15
Kufa                       13              3        15
Wasit (Iraq)                8              7        15
Baghdad                     9              5        14
Karbala                     4              6        10
Damascus                    0             10        10
Shiraz                      2              7         9
Hamadan                     4              4         8
Rayy                        5              3         8
Irbil (near Mosul)          4              4         8
Kashan                      1              6         7
Yazd                        3              4         7
Isfahan                     5              2         7
Qazvin                      5              1         6
Najaf                       1              5         6
Mosul                       3              3         6
Egypt                       5              0         5


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

Political Developments

Timur, who is known to Europeans as Tamerlane, led the second wave of
Mongols that devastated Iran. This second wave was not as destructive
as the first but even so some seventy thousand lost their lives in
Isfahan alone, for example.
  Having conquered Transoxania, Timur advanced into Iran in 782/1380.
By 795/1393 the conquest of Iran and Iraq was complete and Timur
turned his attentions to Russia and India. By 803-4/1400-01. Timur had
advanced to Syria and Turkey.
  Timur was himself a Sunni, but was not unsympathetic to Shi'is.
Thus, for example, he allowed the Shi'i Sarbadarids in Sabzivar to
continue as his vassals. In particular he favoured 'Alids, descendants
of 'Ali, and was lenient towards them even when they rebelled against
him. In the massacre at Isfahan, for example, the
'Alids were spared.
  Timur died in 807/1405 and after some factional fighting his fourth
son, Shah-Rukh, came to power and reigned until 850/1446. Shah-Rukh
ruled over Khurasan and much of Iran. He was also sympathetic to
Shi'ism, and his wife, Gawhar-Shad, built a magnificent mosque at
Mashhad adjacent to the Shrine of the Imam Rida. The last
of the Timurid rulers, Sultan Husayn ibn Bayqara (reigned
875/1470--911/1506), maintained a culturally brilliant court at Herat.
For a time, early in his reign, he was disposed to making Shi'ism the
religion of the state but was dissuaded from this.
  To the west of Shah-Rukh's domain there lay lands controlled by
Turkoman tribes, the Qara-Quyunlu based around Lake Van and the Aq-
Quyunlu centred on Diyarbakr. Initially it was the Qara-Quyunlu who
were triumphant when their chief Qara Yusuf overcame Sultan Ahmad
Jalayir and conquered Adharbayjan in 813/1410. Under Jahan Shah the
Qara-Quyunlu spread eastwards to occupy western Iran, Fars and Kirman
although they failed to overcome Shah-Rukh's son and successor, Abu
Sa'id, in Khurasan. Later, however, the fortunes of the two tribes
were reversed and the Aq-Quyunlu came into prominence under Uzun
Hasan, overcoming Jahan Shah in 873/1468. Uzun Hasan was ruler of all
of Iran and Iraq until his death in 882/1477.
  While the Aq-Quyunlu were undoubtedly orthodox Sunni, there remains
considerable doubt concerning the Qara-Quyunlu. A study of the poetry
of Jahan Shah has revealed that the Qara-Quyunlu had a pro-Shi'i
tendency, albeit Shi'ism of an extremist (ghuluww) nature.[10] Ispand,
son of Qara Yusuf and brother of Jahan Shah, who was Governor of
Baghdad from 836/1432 to 848/1444, is reported to have been converted


to Twelver Shi'ism after a religious debate between Sunni ulama and
the Shi'i scholar, ibn Fahd. what is not clear, however, is to what
extent the Qara-Quyunlu and the other preceding dynasties that showed
a pro-Shi'i tendency, such as the Jalayirs and Chupanids, were
genuinely Shi'i in sympathy and to what extent they were using Shi'ism
as a political tool to gam the obedience of their subjects.

The Ulama

While Hilla remained the most important Shi'i centre of learning
during this period, its importance declined so that when at the close
of this era the Safavid state was set up, its most prominent ulama
were to come from the Jabal 'Amil in Lebanon and not from Hilla. The
reason for this decline is almost certainly connected with the harshly
intolerant extremist Musha'sha' regime that came to control the area.
In 857/1453 Hilla was taken by 'Ali, the son of Muhammad ibn Falah,
and was looted, laid waste and burned to the ground. The town remained
under the control of the Musha'sha' until 872/1467.
  The eminent mujtahid Shahid al-Awwal lived on into the first few
years after Timur's conquest and was invited by the Sarbadarid ruler,
'Ali Mu'ayyad, to go to Khurasan and establish Twelver Shi'ism there.
But the invitation arrived too late for Shahid al-Awwal; he was
already in prison and soon to be executed. However, he wrote his
important work, al-Luma'a ad-Dimashqiyya for the Khurasani ruler.
  Under the shadow of Shahid al-Awwal, the Jabal 'Amil and especially
the village of Karak-Nuh became increasingly important while Bahrain
was also rising in importance. But, in general, the century following
Timur's conquests was devoid of any ulama of the importance of 'Allama
al-Hilli and Shahid al-Awwal of the previous century. The only ulama
worth mentioning are al-Miqdad ibn 'Abdu'llah al-Hilli (d. 826/1422)
and Ahmad ibn Muhammad, known as ibn Fahd al-Hilli (d. 841/1437).

Sufism and the 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-
  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.
  The Hurufis were a sect started by Fadlu'llah Astarabadi (740/1339-
804/1401) who claimed to be a prophet. Much of their doctrine
resembles the Isma'ili or the early ghuluww views, in that Fadlu'llah
claimed to be able to reveal the true inner meaning of the Qur'an and
the religious observances of Islam. This interpretation (ta'wil)
involves an elaboration of the mystical significance of numbers,
letters and the parts of the body. Although the number seven occurs
frequently, there is also a clearly Twelver aspect to these teachings
with praise of the Twelve Imams and Fadlu'llah even claimed to be the
return of the Twelfth Imam.

   Fadlu'llah began preaching his doctrine in 786/1384 and was
executed in 796/1403 on the orders of Timur. But his doctrines
continued under


his first successor (Khalifa), 'Ali al-A'la, who, persecuted by Timur
and his successors, fled into Anatolia where he had a profound
influence on the evolution of the Bektashi order.
  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.
   With the accession of Junayd (the fourth Shaykh after Safiyu'd-Din)
to the leadership of the order in 851/1447, a new phase of the order's
development began. This hitherto peaceful order suddenly became a
military one and launched a series of campaigns against neighbouring
Christian states. Junayd became the effective ruler of a small state
centred on Ardibil (albeit as a vassal of the Aq-Quyunlu) and thus
came to combine spiritual with temporal authority. Also during
Junayd's leadership, the Shaykh of the order became regarded as a
manifestation of the divinity and thus the order became identified
with extremist Shi'i (ghulat) views. It is not clear at what point the
order became openly Shi'i but it was almost certainly at about this
time. Although Junayd claimed to be conducting a religious war (jihad)
against the Georgians of the Caucasus, he could not resist a strike
against the Shirvanid territory which bordered on Georgia. He was
killed in battle against the Shirvanids in 865/1460. His son Haydar
continued his father's aggressive policies and eventually also met the
same fate in 893/1488 at the hands of Sultan Ya'qub of the Aq-Quyunlu
who had become alarmed at Haydar's aggression. It was Haydar who
organised the movement's followers into a body of troops called
Qizilbash (redheads: on account of their wearing red hats with twelve
points indicating their adherence to the Twelve Imams). It is clear,
however, that the Shi'ism of the Qizilbash at this period had little
resemblance to orthodox Twelver Shi'ism. They regarded their leader as
a divine figure and would thus have been classed by Twelver Shi'is as
extremists (ghulat). Haydar's sons


were exiled to Fars, but in the increasing anarchy that accompanied
the collapse of the Aq-Quyunlu dynasty, they were able to return to
Ardibil. Haydar's first son 'Ali was killed in 900/1494 by one of the
Aq-Quyunlu, Rustam, leaving the leadership of the order to the
youngest son Isma'il who was to found the Safavid dynasty.
  A movement that in many ways paralleled the Safavids in its early
stages was the Musha'sha'. The movement was started by Muhammad ibn
Falah, the foster son of the eminent Twelver scholar, ibn Fahd. In
840/1436, despite the opposition of ibn Fahd, ibn Falah proclaimed
himself to be the Mahdi. Later he centred himself at Huwayza in
Khuzistan in south-west Iran and managed to obtain the allegiance of
several of the Shi'i tribes of the area on the basis of his messianic
claims. With the help of his son he was soon in control of the whole
area from Ahwaz to the Tigris. All who were not his followers were
considered as infidels and therefore there was extensive looting and
killing. Najaf and Hilla were attacked in 857/1453 and even Baghdad in
860/1456. But then a Qara-Quyunlu army was sent against the Musha'sha'
which defeated them, killing 'Ali, ibn Falah's son. ibn Falah himself
died in 866/1461. Ibn Falah's descendants ruled the area with similar
extremist (ghuluww) doctrines until overcome by the Safavids in
914/1508. The descendants of ibn Falah remained, however, as Safavid
governors of the province. As time went by the Musha'sha' became less
and less extremist (much as the Safavids themselves did), until
eventually they became orthodox Shi'is. Huwayza became by the
11th/17th century a centre of Twelver Shi'i teaching and ibn Falah's
great-great-grandson was a respected Twelver Shi'i scholar.
   The drift towards Shi'ism in several lines of the Kubrawiyya order
has been mentioned in the preceding section. 'Ali Hamadani's
successor, Khwaja Ishaq, plotted a revolt against Shah-Rukh. Part of
his plan was to put forward one of his disciples, Muhammad ibn
'Abdu'llah, who became known as Nurbakhsh, as the Mahdi. This revolt
in 826/1423 failed and Khwaja Ishaq was executed. Due to the respect
for the family of the Prophet which Shah-Rukh shared with his father,
Timur, Nurbakhsh himself was spared. He attempted a second uprising in
Kurdistan and was again defeated and this time detained in Herat until
the death of Shah-Rukh in 851/1447. Nurbakhsh was then allowed to go
to Shahriyar where he established the headquarters of his order and
where he lived until his death in 869/1464.
  Nurbakhsh remained a Sunni but with strong Shi'i leanings. He
emphasised his own 'Alid lineage, quoted from Shi'i works, visited
Shi'i shrines in Iraq and is even said to have studied under ibn Fahd
in Hilla. But he also considered the first three Caliphs as Sufi
Saints. His Shi'i leanings were essentially an expression of his
Sufism. In later years,


however, his order became increasingly Shi'i and was to exert a strong
influence on many of the Shi'i ulama of the Safavid period as well as
playing a major role in the spread of Shi'ism in India.
  From the Kubrawiyya there was also derived the Dhahabiyya which
later became openly Shi'i. The Khalwati orders in Anatolia, which were
linked to the Safavid order, also had Shi'i leanings.
  In Anatolia the Baba'i order, mentioned in the preceding section,
gave rise to the Bektashi order which was to become the order of the
Ottoman Janissary troops. This Sufi order contains very strong threads
of Shi'ism, albeit of an extremist type in that 'Ali is elevated to a
divine trinity of God, Muhammad and 'Ali. It also venerates the Twelve
  Shah Ni'matu'llah Wali, who in 762/1360 had gained many disciples at
the court of Timur in Herat, settled in Mahan in south-east Iran and
made that the centre of his Sufi order, the Ni'matu'llahis. Although a
Sunni as far as religious observances are concerned, his writings show
a great devotion to 'Ali (he himself was from an 'Alid family of
Aleppo). He died in 834/1430 and his successors continued his pro-
Shi'i line until, during the Safavid era, the order became openly
  It is not clear exactly when and how Twelver Shi'ism spread to
India. It may well have been that, as a result of the devastation
caused by the Mongol invasions, Twelver Shi'is migrated there. The
first monarch to have given Twelver Shi'ism support in India is
reputed to have been Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq (reigned AD 1325-51),
but his successors adopted an anti-Shi'i policy. In the Deccan, the
Bahmani kings who ruled from the mid-14th to the early 16th centuries
showed some pro-Shi'i inclinations. One of the most important of their
ministers, Mahmud Gawan, was a Shi'i. Shah Ni'matu'llah Wali (see
above) had a strong influence on this dynasty while another major pro-
Shi'i Sufi shaykh, 'Ali Hamadani (see p.196), travelled in India and
Kashmir in 1380.
  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
  Although much of what has been written in this chapter may appear to
be the history of extremist (ghuluww) Shi'ism rather than Twelver
Shi'ism, its relevance will become evident in the next chapter when
the fusion of extremist Shi'ism and Twelver Shi'is under the Safavids
is described.
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