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Three Sources of Shiʿi Knowledge and Authority

Three Sources of Shiʿi Knowledge and Authority

Publisher: Idaho State University


Three Sources of Shiʿi Knowledge and Authority:

Texts, Reason, and Mysticism in Islamic Intellectual History

Zackery M. Heern

Idaho State University, Pocatello, Idaho, USA



This version is published on behalf of www.alhassanain.org/english

The composing errors are not corrected.

Table of Contents

Introduction 5

1. Formation of law, mysticism, and hadith collection (c. 700-1000) 8

2. Rationalism and illuminationism (c. 1000-1600) 12

3. Akhbārī School and the School of Isfahan (c. 1600-1800) 16

4. Neo-Uṣūlism and Shaykhism (c. 1800-Present) 18

Conclusion 23

Endnotes 24


Throughout Shiʿi history, scholars (ʿulamāʾ) have been trying to answer the following question: in the absence of the Prophet and the Imams, how is sure knowledge (ʿilm) derived? As the duty of producing an answer to this question became the responsibility of scholars, the limits of their authority also came into question. This paper argues that the Shiʿi tradition of producing knowledge and justifying clerical authority consists of a tripartite system rooted in the texts, reason, and mysticism. In other words, Shiʿi socio-intellectual activity was built on the foundational texts (Qurʾan and hadith), rational thought, and mystical experience (including intuition and dreams). These three sources have caused inter-scholastic divisions since most scholars have categorically rejected one or more of these sources. Some scholars, however, have accepted a synthesis of the three sources. The following illustrates that appeals to these three sources of knowledge and authority have been made in each major period of Shiʿi thought. As a result of a broad reading of Shiʿi intellectual activity, this paper suggests that scholarly appeals to the three sources are historically consistent.

The fourteenth-century Baghdadi scholar, Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī, was one of the first to synthesize the three sources in his theoretical approach to knowledge. He argues that the way of the philosophers (ʿaql), the tradition of the theologians (naql), and the intuition of the mystical theosophists (kashf) are the three parts of metaphysics.1 Moreover, in his Risālah fī Maʿrifāt al-Wujūd, Āmulī claims that these sources are the methods of attaining knowledge, but only kashf leads to divine reality.2 In other words, Āmulī accepted all three sources, but favoured kashf.

Historically, mainstream scholars were often defined by their approach to textualism, rationalism, and mysticism. Akhbārīs emphasized a textualist approach, while Uṣūlīs have become synonymous with those who accept reason. Scholars who emphasized mysticism as a source of knowledge and authority are generally known as theosophists (ḥikmat al-ilāhiyyah) or illuminationists (ishrāqiyyah). During the critical post-Safavid period, three schools of thought competed as representatives of each knowledge source: Akhbārīs, Uṣūlīs, and Shaykhīs (who preferred to be called Kashfiyyah (Intuitionists)). Although these schools developed into competing socio-intellectual movements, the divisions between them may not be as rigid as is often assumed. The following, therefore, will emphasize both the convergences and divergences that connect and disconnect the three sources of knowledge and authority. Since scholars in one school often borrow from the other schools, we should be wary of imposing rigid divisions between the three trends in Shiʿi thought.

The basis for authority in Shiʿism is the Imamate, an institution whose foundation rests on the Imams’ infallible knowledge. According to Louis Massignon, the Imam is humanity rendered divine.3 As Mohammad Amir-Moezzi has pointed out, the Imam has also been considered the ‘manifestation of a primordial Light proceeding from divine Light, a theophanic entity.’4 Traditions attributed to the Imams suggest that the Prophet Muḥammad and Imam ʿAlī were created together from the same light some two thousand years before the creation of the world.5 Additionally, the Imams have been referred to as the ‘exoteric facet of God’, which makes God, whose essence is unknowable, accessible to mankind. Therefore, according to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, ‘it is thanks to us [the Imams] that God is known.’6 In the Shiʿi tradition, therefore, knowledge and authority are intimately associated with the Imams.

During the occultation of the twelfth Imam, authority has been delegated to Shiʿi scholars, who have justified their authority on the basis of their knowledge of the texts, their rationalist methodologies, and their mystical experiences. Of course, not all scholars claim authority on the basis of all three methods. In fact, it is rare for a scholar to utilize each source in this tripartite system. Most scholars place emphasis on one of the three sources. However, if we take Shiʿism as a whole, these three trends form the bases on which Shiʿi scholars make claims to knowledge and authority.

Periodizations of Shiʿi thought often emphasize the tension between textualism and rationalism, which reflects the primacy that Shiʿi scholars generally assign to legalism. But this focus on legalism can lead to the false dichotomy that frames Shiʿi history as a competition between rationalists and traditionists. Likewise, mystical trends should not be overemphasized at the expense of Islamic law.

Indeed, much of the scholarship on Shiʿi law, especially in the modern period, emphasizes the Uṣūlī-Akhbārī dispute.7 The main disagreements between Akhbārīs and Uṣūlīs, which Khwānsarī summarizes from ʿAbd Allāh al-Samāhijī’s famous list are as follows:

1. Uṣūlīs accept ijtihād, while Akhbārīs rely on the texts;

2. Uṣūlīs accept four sources of law, while Akhbārīs accept the first two;

3. Uṣūlīs divide the community into mujtahids and muqallids (emulators), while Akhbārīs believe that all Shiʿis are muqallids to the Imams; and

4. Uṣūlīs issue legal rulings based on ijtihād, while Akhbārīs issue judgments on the basis of texts.

Scholars who work on Shiʿi legalism include Hossein Modarressi,8 Robert Gleave,9 Devon Stewart,10 Norman Calder,11 and Etan Kohlberg.12 Those who highlight mystical trends in Shiʿism include Seyyed Hossein Nasr,13 Mangol Bayat,14 Mohammad Amir-Moezzi,15 Abdulaziz Sachedina,16 and Henry Corbin.17 While Modarressi and others primarily view Shiʿism through the lens of jurisprudence, Henry Corbin concludes that ‘Shiism is, in essence, the esotericism of Islam.’18 Whereas Modarressi divides Shiʿi law into eight periods, which he defines almost exclusively in terms of rationalism and traditionism,19 Corbin divides Shiʿism into ‘four great periods,’ two of which he defines solely in terms of theosophical thinkers.20

Building on the periodizations of Modarressi, Corbin, Ahmad Kazemi Moussavi,21 and others, the remainder of this paper outlines a brief history of Shiʿi textualism, rationalism, and mysticism during the following four broad periods:

1. Formation of law, mysticism, and hadith collection (c. 700-1000)

2. Rationalism and illuminationism (c. 1000-1600)

3. Akhbārī School and School of Isfahan (c. 1600-1800)

4. Uṣūlī School and Shaykhī School (c. 1800-Present).22

1. Formation of law, mysticism, and hadith collection (c. 700-1000)

The formative period of Shiʿi thought was primarily associated with the succession of Shiʿi Imams. According to Shiʿi teachings, the world cannot exist without a proof (ḥujjah), which indicates knowledge (ʿilm) in both its exoteric (zāhir) and esoteric (bātin) forms. The Imams inherited perfect knowledge from the Prophet Muḥammad, which they passed on to the community through their infallible (maʿsūm) guidance. In fact, possession of infallible knowledge and divine inspiration are defining characteristics of the Shiʿi conception of the Imamate.23 According to Imam Muḥammad al-Bāqir (d. 735), the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt) was the only source of knowledge. More specifically, only the designated living Imam possessed such perfect knowledge. The Imam’s brothers, for example, did not necessarily possess it. The Imams received their knowledge in various ways, including the voice of angels, a column of light, and a ‘scratching in the heart.’24 Knowledge attributed to the Imams encompasses, but is not limited to, the following: all of the sciences, law, the unseen, interpretation of the Qurʾan, the past and the future, thoughts of others, and all languages (including that of animals).25 Unlike prophets, however, Imams do not receive revelation (waḥy) in the form of a distinct book, or a separate legal system. Additional distinctions of the Imams include that they do not cast a shadow, they are always in a state of ritual purity, they can see what is behind them, their urine and faeces are invisible, and their prayers are always answered.26

Imāmī Shiʿi law is often referred to as the Jaʿfarī School after Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765), whose “statements form the major source of imami jurisprudence,” according to Robert Gleave.27 Following Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq’s lead, early Shiʿi scholars generally accepted the consensus (ijmāʿ) of the companions of the Imams, but rejected analogical reasoning (qiyās) and personal judgment (raʾy), since they only produce probable or conjectural knowledge (ẓann). Shiʿi scholars often used raʾy and ijtihād interchangeably, and the rejection of raʾy, therefore, was generally interpreted as a prohibition of ijtihād.28 Norman Calder argues that Shiʿi scholars rejected qiyās and ijtihād as part of the polemical debate with Sunnis.29 (Uṣūlī acceptance of ijtihād later became a critical issue that divided Akhbārīs and Uṣūlīs.) Departing from the conventional idea that ninth- and tenth-century Shiʿi scholars were traditionists, Christopher Melchert suggests that, like Shāfiʿīs, they were a ‘semi-rationalist middle party - traditionalist, perhaps by self-definition and intention, but willing to argue for their position in a rationalist style.’30 Modarressi argues that the Imams employed an exemplary method of reasoning and consistently encouraged their followers to utilize rational thought.31

One of the initial roles of scholars was the collection of traditions attributed to the Imams. They also debated theological questions, such as whether the Imams possessed infallibility, or if they were simply pious scholars with a comprehensive knowledge of the Qurʾan and Prophetic hadith. At times, disagreements became so heated that they would result in one scholarly circle declaring infidelity (takfīr) on another - a practice utilized by modern Uṣūlīs who declared that Akhbārīs, Sufis, Shaykhīs, and others were infidels.32 Rifts also occurred between hadith collectors and theologians. Some collectors of hadith fabricated hadith reports to defeat their rivals.33 Clearly, texts and reason played a fundamental role in the formation of Shiʿi law and theology.

Shiʿis also embraced the mystical tradition that developed in this period and acknowledged that the Imams possessed supreme esoteric knowledge just as their exoteric knowledge was perfect. The Imams are said to have possessed the red lambskin (al-jafr al-aḥmar), which includes the Prophet’s sword, and the white lambskin (al-jafr al-abyaḍ), containing divinely revealed books, including the Torah, Gospel, Psalms, and Abraham’s Scrolls. These texts were handed down from the Prophet through the Imams starting with Imam ʿAlī and are thought to have empowered the Imams with prophetic vision.34 Among other secret sources of knowledge, the Imams possessed ‘Fāṭimah’s Book,’ which was a revelation from God that is three times longer than the Qurʾan, and was presented by an angel or Imam ʿAlī to Fāṭimah in her sleep in order to help her cope with the death of Muḥammad, her father.35 Imam ʿAlī clearly stated that the Imams ‘see what others cannot see and they hear what others do not hear. They have access to divine secrets.’36 In fact, this is a primary characteristic that differentiated Imams from others. Therefore, the primary source of knowledge and authority during this period was inspiration obtained by the Imams.

During the Umayyad period (661-750), Muslim scholars began challenging the religious authority of the caliph and claimed to be the heirs of Muḥammad. This sentiment is summed up by the founder of neo-Uṣūlism, Wahīd Bihbihānī (d. 1792), who argues that mujtahids ‘are successors of the Chosen Messenger, guardians of the Chaste Ones’ orphans, cut off from them by occultation and concealment, treasures of the precious faith after the Prophet and the Imams, and custodians of the way of the saved sect among the Muslim community.’37 Additional Shiʿi scholars, including al-Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī (d. 1277) and Ḥusayn ibn al-Ḥasan al-Karakī (d. 1592) referred to jurists as heirs of the prophets.38

By the Abbasid period (750-1258), Muslim scholars emerged as an influential group. During the pre-occultation period, the primary role of Shiʿi scholars was the transmission of legal traditions. Additionally, the Imams often taught esoteric secrets to their disciples and bestowed some of their charismatic authority on them, allowing them to perform miracles. Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq said that his disciples ‘are the repositories of my secrets and through them all innovations are nullified.’39 At this stage, practical authority of the ʿulamāʾ primarily rested on their knowledge of the texts, not the performance of miracles. However, esoteric knowledge continued to be associated with them.

There is no shortage of accounts in biographical literature depicting hadith transmitters as recipients of the miraculous powers of the Imams. For example, Imam al-Bāqir extracted gold from the ground with his foot after Jābir ibn Yazīd al-Juʿfī (d. 745) complained of being poor. The Imam is also reported to have shown Jābir al-Juʿfī the kingdom of heavens and the earth in a similar manner that God had shown Abraham.40 Taking an additional step down the path of esoteric knowledge, disciples claimed to perform their own miracles. With knowledge from the Imams, Maytham al-Tammār and Muḥammad ibn Sinān (d. 835) were able to predict the future. Salmān al-Fārisī (d. 644-647) possessed even greater spiritual powers. After Imam ʿAlī taught him the greatest name of God (al-ism al-aʿẓam), he could foretell the future and communicate with angels.41 Amir-Moezzi argues that ‘there is thus an “organic” link between the imam and his initiate,’ who ‘participates in the divine Being’ and ‘possesses the ontological and initiatory qualities required for performing miracles.’42 As the claims to miraculous phenomenon grew in the early Shiʿi community, heresiographers started identifying some figures as exaggerators (ghulāt), who were not to be confused with moderate Shiʿis. Amir-Moezzi contends that this ‘distinction between “moderate” and “extremist” Shiʿism appears to be artificial…unless one considers the imams themselves to be “extremist”.’43

When the Twelfth Imam disappeared in 874, Shiʿi scholars argued that it was impossible for him to be dead because the world cannot exist without a proof (ḥujjah). Therefore, they maintained that he was still alive, but entered the state of occultation (ghaybah). He would continue to provide guidance to four successive deputies, who were granted the spiritual power to access the Imam’s perfect knowledge. The deputies became intermediaries between the Hidden Imam and the Shiʿi community by seeing and communicating mystically with the Imam.44 In fact, these deputies were not known for their own learning but for their spiritual connection to the Imam. Like many hadith transmitters, the deputies were famous for possessing supernatural powers, such as divination, innate understanding of different languages, and clairvoyance.45 The miracles that they performed provided proof of their claims of communication with the Imam. In other words, they established their authority on the basis of intuitive knowledge.

Once the last deputy died in 941 without appointing a successor, the Major Occultation of the Hidden Imam began. The Shiʿi community was now faced with the crisis of not having direct access to an Imam. Who, if anybody, would fill the void of the Imam during the Major Occultation, which was supposed to end when the Hidden Imam reveals himself at some future date? For Shiʿis this was a crisis not unlike the death of Muḥammad. In practice, leadership and guidance of the Shiʿi community was now placed squarely on the scholars. Although lacking infallibility, scholars were left to fill the void of the Imams, which led to debates over the nature and limits of their authority and knowledge. During the pre-occultation period, scholars had already served the Shiʿi community as doctors of law and transmitters of traditions. Neo-Uṣūlīs eventually argued that it was their prerogative to inherit the leadership that was once the sole responsibility of the Imams. In practice this authority translated to the following: enacting legal norms, imposing legal punishments, leading jihad, dividing booty, leading Friday prayer, collecting and distributing zakat and khums, and upholding legal norms.46 Many non-Uṣūlī scholars argued, however, that these functions could not be carried out until the Hidden Imam returns from occultation.

The legacy of the position filled by the ʿulamāʾ, then, is based on their traditional roles as hadith transmitters, deputies of the Hidden Imam, and successors of the Prophet. Akhbārīs understood the role of ʿulamāʾ more as transmitters and collectors of hadith, while Uṣūlīs eventually saw themselves as deputies of the Hidden Imam and successors of Muḥammad. Although most Akhbārīs emphasize the fact that early scholars transmitted the knowledge of the Imams to lay Shiʿis, some also point out that hadith transmitters possessed some measure of the charisma of the Imams through access to intuition. Significantly, the Imams taught some of the transmitters more esoteric secrets than others, and some scholars claim to have reached a higher level of esotericism than others.

According to Amir-Moezzi, ‘from the second half of the fourth/tenth century, the “theologico-legal-rational” movement, which continues to this day, began to dominate, thus marginalizing the original “esoteric non-rational” current.’ For Amir-Moezzi, this means that knowledge was now limited primarily to rational theology and law, and that power now meant temporal authority instead of thaumaturgical ability.47 However, hagiographical works, especially Tunikābunī’s Qiṣaṣ al-ʿUlamāʾ, contain numerous accounts of Shiʿi clerics performing such supernatural feats.48 The importance of the miracles that Tunikābunī and others attribute to Shiʿi scholars lies in the development of Shiʿi thought and leadership, not in the historical veracity of Tunikābunī’s stories. Because early scholars were said to have performed miracles, it became necessary for later scholars, especially those advocating change, to possess the ability to perform them as well. If they could not, on what other basis could it be proven that they were authorized to initiate changes in the Shiʿi establishment? Mysticism of the Imam, therefore, is evident in the rationalist tradition - especially after Shaykh al-Mufīd and Shaykh al-Ṭūsī.49

2. Rationalism and illuminationism (c. 1000-1600)

Shaykh al-Mufīd and al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā promoted a rationalist approach to Shiʿi thought. Shiʿi law entered a new phase when Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 1022) adopted rational argumentation in his al-Muqnīʿah,50 which clearly moved beyond the transmission of the textual sources of the Qurʾan and hadith. Shaykh al-Mufīd maintained the superiority of the foundational texts by arguing that reason needed the help of the texts, not the opposite. In practice, however, he does seem to use textual sources to back up his reasoning instead of using reason to expound on revelation. Prior to Shaykh al-Mufīd, the task of scholars was to collect traditions, not give their opinions on them. Shaykh al-Mufīd harshly attacked scripturalists and accused them of being too liberal in their collection of traditions, without investigating or even thinking about what they were reporting.51 He rejected their use of traditions transmitted by only one source (akhbār al-āḥād) and instead relied on the Qurʾan, widespread (mutawātir) traditions, and consensus (ijmāʿ) of Shiʿis as the first threes sources of law.

Additionally, Shaykh al-Mufīd argued that reason (which included an understanding of language and textual criticism) was a source of Shiʿi law that would help jurists make sense of the textual sources. It was Shaykh al-Mufīd, therefore, who was the first to adopt the four sources of the Uṣūlī system - the Qurʾan, hadith, consensus, and reason. He put these ideas forward in his al-Tadhkīrah bi-Uṣūl al-Fiqh, the first known Shiʿi work on the principles of jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh). To this day, Uṣūlī scholars accept the four sources of uṣūl al-fiqh advocated in this text. In practice, this rationalist approach allowed for greater pliability of the law for the newly established Buyid dynasty (945-1055) in Baghdad, which sponsored Twelver Shiʿism. In fact, this rationalist approach would often be preferred by state-sponsored Shiʿism.

A student of al-Mufīd, al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā (d. 1044), further developed the rationalist approach to jurisprudence and argued for an even more prominent role for reason. He claimed that knowledge could be established by reason alone.52 His treatises on the legality of working for the government, for example, are based more on rational argument, than on textual references from the Imams.53 Like al-Mufīd, al-Murtaḍā suggested that only traditions that are widely transmitted (mutawātir) are sure to produce perfect knowledge, whereas isolated reports (akhbār al-āḥād) could not because they were probably the result of fabrication.

The third important rationalist of this period was Shaykh al-Ṭāʾifah al-Ṭūsī (d. 1067), who applied the rational arguments of al-Mufīd and al-Murtaḍā to the traditions. Shaykh al-Ṭūsī’s rationalist-traditionist compromise transformed Shiʿi law and was considered authoritative for a full century after him, a period that is often described as a period of emulation (taqlīd) because of the overwhelming acceptance of his work and the lack of intellectual output, which resulted from the Seljuq invasion of Baghdad.54 Unlike his rationalist predecessors, he retained the authority of isolated hadith reports and developed a method to reconcile contradictory traditions. Shaykh al-Ṭūsī also compiled hadith collections (Tahdhīb al-Aḥkām and al-Istibṣār, which are considered as two of the ‘four books’) and relied more on texts and less on reason than had al-Murtaḍā.55 He concluded that most traditions are isolated reports (al-akhbār al-āḥād), but they are valid because previous generations of Shiʿis had accepted them. Rejecting any recourse to doubt (shakk), Shaykh al-Ṭūsī employed caution (iḥtiyāt) in order to proceed when certainty cannot be determined.

The capital city of the Mazyadid dynasty (961-1150) that ruled central Iraq was Ḥillah, which became an important Shiʿi centre of learning for a full three centuries. Scholars in Jabal ʿĀmil also played a central role in Shiʿi thought during this period.56 Ibn Idrīs al-Ḥillī (d. 1202) was the first major scholar of the Ḥillah School and is credited for ending what is often described as a period of emulation (taqlīd) of Shaykh al-Ṭūsī. Ibn Idrīs criticized al-Ṭūsī for introducing innovations into Shiʿi thought. Rejecting the validity of isolated hadith reports, he and additional scholars of his time revived the rationalist methodology of al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā.57

Al-Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī’s (d. 1277) conception of law moved even closer to that of Sunnis and further from Shaykh al-Ṭūsī’s reliance on the practice of early Shiʿis. Al-Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī used his knowledge of Sunni law to justify the use of ijtihād and qiyās (which were previously vehemently opposed by Shiʿis) as long as they were formed in the presence of an Imam. Thus, he became the first Shiʿi scholar to adopt ijtihād into his theoretical approach, which he legitimized on the basis of probability (ẓann), a principle later accepted by Wahīd Bihbihānī and the neo-Uṣūlī School. Acceptance of probable knowledge was a ground-breaking development as it was an admission that certitude in law is not always accessible. Because of the importance that al-Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī placed on ijtihād, he increased the authority of mujtahids and reinforced the claim that Shiʿi scholars are the deputies of the Hidden Imam during the occultation. He insisted that the ruling of a judge is the same as knowledge from God and that the issuance of a fatwa is like ‘talking with the tongue of [God’s] law.’58 Given that the endeavours of a mujtahid may only result in probable knowledge, al-Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī’s theory, therefore, is somewhat paradoxical.

Al-Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī’s nephew, al-ʿAllāmah al-Ḥillī (d. 1327), elevated the position of rational proofs to a new height. He claimed that reason was on par with revelatory texts and that only scholars who were skilled in applying rational proofs could interpret theological and judicial questions. Therefore, he carved out an even larger niche for Shiʿi clerics. Al-ʿAllāmah al-Ḥillī was the first to suggest that the Shiʿi community is divided into mujtahids and muqallids.59 He further suggested that if a muqallid failed to comply with the rulings of a mujtahid, he was a sinner. This is the general framework later accepted by Uṣūlīs.60 Muḥammad Amīn al-Astarābādī (d. 1626-7) accused al-ʿAllāmah al-Ḥillī of claiming that most Shiʿi traditions were not sound (ṣaḥīḥ), and in fact, al-ʿAllāmah thought that most traditions were isolated (al-akhbār al-āḥād), which did not produce certainty.61

The school at Ḥillah was destroyed by the Shiʿi Mushaʿshaʿ dynasty in 1449, but rationalist influence continued under the guidance of scholars in Jabal ʿĀmil, who played a prominent role in Iran during the Safavid period. Initially, however, Sufi shaykhs had more charismatic authority than jurists. It was in this context that al-Muḥaqqiq al-Karakī (d. 1534) and al-Shahīd al-Thānī (d. 1559), a follower of the school of al-Shahīd al-Awwal (d. 1384), addressed problems that arose as a result of the adoption of Shiʿism as a state religion. At the heart of these matters were the limits of the power of religious scholars.

It was al-Shahīd al-Thānī who formulated the theory of general vicegerency (al-niyābah al-ʿāmmah), which claims that the ʿulamāʾ are vicegerents of the Hidden Imam. Building on al-ʿAllāmah al-Ḥillī, he suggested that all the latent duties of the Imams are the responsibility of the ʿulamāʾ.62 Significantly, al-Shahīd al-Thānī, like previous jurists, was primarily concerned with the duties of the Imam that had practical implications for the state. These pragmatic rationalists did not include esoteric dimensions of the Imam’s authority in their theoretical conceptions. In other words, they replaced the intuitive methods that the Imams had used to obtain knowledge with reason.

As Shiʿi rationalism was developing in the eleventh century, Sufism also flourished as a popular form of religious expression. Sufism initially remained closely connected to Sunni Islam. As such, it was rejected by many early Shiʿis, especially during the Seljuq period. Shiʿi scholars, then, were in a position of competing with Sufis for claims on esoteric forms of Islam. Therefore, claims to intuition (kashf) and inner knowledge (bāṭin) were prominent during this era. Shaykh al-Mufīd, for example, supported the designation of gates (sing. bāb) to describe the special companions of the Imams, including the above-mentioned Jābir al-Juʿfī. Shaykh al-Mufīd explains that because of their close connection with the Imams, bābs were able to perform miracles. However, by the end of this period, rationalists began to reject the term bāb precisely because of its widespread usage by self-proclaimed bābs. Shaykh al-Ṭūsī, for example, even used the word bāb negatively, indicating that the term had lost its meaning because of its widespread usage.63

Arguably the most important thinker of this period was Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274), who applied philosophical ideas from Avicenna and others to Shiʿi theology after having spent considerable time with Ismāʿilīs in the famous Alamūt fortress of the Nizārīs.64 Initially Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī received patronage from Ismāʿilīs and later became prominent in the government of the Mongol emperor Hulagu Khan (d. 1265). Al-Ṭūsī wrote on a variety of subjects, including mathematics, theology, astronomy, and philosophy, and is often referred to as ‘the third teacher’ (al-muʿallim al-thālith), after Aristotle and al-Fārābī. Immersed in Shiʿi theology and Sufi mysticism, al-Ṭūsī came to the conclusion that the distance between philosophy and mysticism was not great.65 In his autobiography, Sayr wa Sulūk, al-Ṭūsī explains that he rejected exoteric kalām and came to support Ismāʿilī esoteric philosophy.66 He also wrote a treatise called Rawḍā t al-Taslīm, which is a guide for travelling from the physical plane to the spiritual world and includes a description of Shiʿi cosmology. He explains that religious duties must be followed outwardly, but perfect knowledge only emanates from the esoteric path.67

Sayyid Ḥaydar Ā mulī , mentioned above, is one of the most cogent theosophical Shiʿi thinkers, who claimed that the Imams were his spiritual mentors. Among his most important works is a commentary on Ibn al-ʿArabī’s (d. 1240) Fuṣūṣ under the grand title ‘The Compendium of Esoteric Doctrines and the Source of Light’ (Jamīʿ al-Asrār wa Manbaʿ al-Anwār). An underlying theme in this text is that the real Shiʿis are those who employ the inner reality (bāṭin) of things transmitted from the Imams. Therefore, those who are concerned with religious doctrines and law are only probing the external realities of Shiʿism. More importantly for our discussion, he claims that Ibn al-ʿArabī’s book, Fuṣūṣ, was an ‘inspired book’ since it was transmitted to Ibn al-ʿArabī by the Prophet after the Prophet had received it in the hereafter.68 Ā mulī also explains that his own texts ‘form two categories: there are those that can be considered as effusions from above, and those that emanate from within us. As to the effusions from above, these are the spiritual exegesis (taʾwīlāt) from the Holy Quran.’69 He confirms that his commentary on Fuṣūṣ is in fact one of those that was ‘effused upon him from above’ and was therefore the result of divine inspiration (kashf). Ā mulī argues that although the period of revelation is closed, the path of kashf is open through Shiʿi gnosiology, the science of attaining intuitive knowledge.70 In sum, Ā mulī claimed that his knowledge was not the result of prolonged research, but divine inspiration.

Sayyid Muḥammad Nūrbakhsh (d. 1463) also combined rationalist Shiʿi thought with Sufi mysticism. After having studied in the Shiʿi school of Ḥillah, he claimed absolute authority of the Mahdī, both mystically and judicially. According to al-Khwānsarī, rationalist scholars were alarmed at Nūrbakhsh’s proclamation, but did not consider him an infidel because of his orthodox approach to both Sufism and shariʿah.71 A Sufi order named after Nūrbakhsh has survived until the present in Baltistān, located in the mountains of northern Pakistan.72

3. Akhbārī School and the School of Isfahan (c. 1600-1800)

Traditionist scholars rejected Uṣūlī rationalism, charged them with adopting Sunni methods of jurisprudence, and maintained a reliance on the texts. After Muḥammad Amīn al-Astarābādī (d. 1626-7) articulated an attack on rationalist methodology in his al-Fawāʾid al-Madaniyyah, the scripturalist trend grew into what has become known as the Akhbārī School.73 Al-Astarābādī rejected ijtihād as a tool of Sunnis and because it did not produce perfect knowledge, but resulted in probability (ẓann) at best. Since al-Astarābādī did not think that the Qurʾan could be understood directly by scholars, he argued that traditions are the real source of authority for Shiʿis during the occultation of the twelfth Imam. He replaced ẓann and ijtihād with ordinary certainty (al-yaqīn al-ʿādī) and sensible reasoning (al-ʿaql al-ḥissī).

Underlying al-Astarābādī’s approach was the idea that a reliance on traditions will result in a more unified community than the acceptance of probable rulings arrived at by fallible scholars. This is not to be confused with a rejection of juristic authority. Al-Astarābādī was more concerned with how the jurist acquires authoritative rulings than the limits of the jurist’s authority. In practice al-Astarābādī’s approach did, in fact, place limits on the role of mujtahids. Whereas Uṣūlīs eventually argued that the mujtahids themselves are the authoritative sources of emulation (sing. marjaʿ al-taqlīd) for the Shiʿi community, al-Astarābādī explained that the hadiths are the marjaʿ of the Shiʿi community during the occultation. He insisted that only the hadith reports, which are the key source of knowledge and authority, should be emulated in the absence of the Imam.74

Al-Astarābādī’s challenge to rationalists spread through scholarly networks and his ideas were adopted in many Shiʿi centres of learning, including Bahrain and Karbalāʾ.75 The Safavid scholar Muḥammad Taqī al-Majlisī I (d. 1659) suggests that the majority of students in the centres of Shiʿi learning accepted al-Astarābādī’s views. Although al-Majlisī I further explains that he chose a moderate position between Uṣūlīs and Akhbārīs, he admitted that most of what al-Astarābādī said was true.76 Al-Majlisī I rejected analogical reasoning (qiyās) and personal judgment (raʾy) and only used ijtihād to reconcile contradictory hadith reports. The focus on traditions during this period brought new hadith reports to light. In fact, al-Majlisī I’s son and successor, Muḥammad Bāqir al-Majlisī II, compiled the most important hadith collection during this period in his Biḥār al-Anwār. Similar to his father, al-Majlisī II is often said to have taken a moderate path, adopting an Akhbārī approach judicially, but a more Uṣūlī stance in terms of clerical authority. The Akhbārī School placed the emphasis back on the texts to the point that Bihbihānī’s Uṣūlī School eventually accepted the primacy of revealed sources over reason, similar to Shaykh al- Mufīd.

Another development that occurred during the late Safavid period was the rise of the School of Isfahan,77 which stressed the role of intuitive and inner knowledge. The school’s founder was Muḥammad Bāqir al-Astarābādī, better known as Mīr Dāmād (d. 1631), whose disciple recounts his visions of the Imams, from which he learned the prayer for protection from Imam ʿAlī.78 The School of Isfahan was a continuation of the illuminationist philosophy that originated with Shahāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī (d. 1191), who promoted the idea that true knowledge was the result of both rational and intuitive emanations from the mind.79 Suhrawardī promoted Neo-Platonism after he dreamed of Aristotle, who told him of Plato’s superiority.80 For Suhrawardī, intuitive knowledge comes from mystical experiences, which include different stages of intuition, such as mystical perception (dhawq), mystical vision or unveiling (kashf), and mystical revelations (mukāshafāt). It is only experiential knowledge that leads to certainty. Supreme authority in the community and deputyship of God, according to Suhrawardī, rest on the one who reaches perfection in philosophical knowledge and mystical experience.81 Suhrawardī was eventually executed by the great Saladin on charges of claiming that prophecy after Muḥammad was possible.

The main proponent of this school of thought during the Safavid period was Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1640),82 who promoted a cosmology that included rationalism and visionary experience, and required purification of the soul through asceticism, mysticism, and gnosis. He conceived of knowledge as an interaction and unveiling of existence and therefore ‘makes epistemology an exercise in ontology.’83 For Mullā Ṣadrā, existence must be known and experienced intuitively. Knowledge, which is ultimately the same as existence, is the result of a process that is ‘obtained through unveiling (mukāshafah), confirmed by revelation (waḥy), and proved through demonstrative arguments (burhān).’84 Although Uṣūlī jurists have challenged his thought, aspects of Mullā Ṣadrā’s metaphysics are accepted in mainstream Shiʿism, and many Shiʿi scholars consider Mullā Ṣadrā’s work to be the most advanced mystical philosophy ever written.85

Shiʿi mystical thought continued to grow towards the end of the Safavid period, especially after the reign of Shah ʿAbbās I. The School of Isfahan became so prominent that many government officials and mainstream Shiʿi ʿulamāʾ embraced it, including Mullā Muḥammad Taqī al-Majlisī I (d. 1070/1659) and Mullā Muḥammad Bāqir Sabziwārī (d. 1090/1679), who was the shaykh al-islām of Isfahan. Additionally, Mullā Muḥsin Fayḍ Kāshānī (d. 1680), a student of Mullā Ṣadrā, developed his ideas, including transcendent wisdom (al-ḥikmah al-mutaʿāliyyah). Unlike Ṣadrā, Kāshānī was an avowed Akhbārī, even if his Akhbārī credentials were questioned by Yūsuf al-Baḥrānī in Luʾluʾāt al-Baḥrayn because of Kāshānī’s affiliation with mysticism.86 Kāshānī enjoyed a high position at the Safavid court after Shah ʿAbbās II (1642-66) summoned him to live in the capital, where he advised the Shah on religious matters and led the Friday prayer.

Muḥammad Bāqir al-Majlisī II was a significant figure of this period, in part because he supported a synthesis of rationalist, scripturalist, and illuminationist trends. As already noted, his Biḥār al-Anwār is one of the most important modern Shiʿi collections of hadith. However, he also promoted Uṣūlī rationalism and the necessity of mujtahids. Additionally, al-Majlisī II promoted the esoteric dimension of Shiʿism, and in Biḥār al-Anwār he says that the goal of the life of every Shiʿi is to emulate the Prophet and the Imams in order to reach their inner state. He further suggests that the elite (khawāṣṣ) are fully capable of accessing esoteric knowledge.87