Sufis and Shi’ites

Ibn Khaldun then turns his attention to trends that began to develop in Sufism after its heroic period. In his reading of Sufi history it was the Shi’ites who led Islamic mysticism astray.

The ancient Sufis did not go into anything concerning the Mahdi [that is, the expected Muslim Messiah]. All they discussed was their mystic activity and exertion and the resulting ecstatic experiences and states. It was the Imamite and extremist Shi’a who discussed the preferred status of Ali, the matter of his Imamate, the claim made on his behalf to have received the Imamate through the last will of the Prophet, and the rejection of the two Shaykhs [that is, Abu Bakr and Umar]. …

Among the later Sufis, the removal of the veil and matters beyond the veil of sense perception came to be discussed. A great many Sufis came to speak of incarnation and oneness. This gave them something in common with the Imamites and the extremist Shi’a who believed in the divinity of the Imams and the incarnation of the deity in them. The Sufis also came to believe in the "Pole" and in "saints." This belief looked like an imitation of the opinions of the extremist Shi’a concerning the Imam and the Alid "chiefs."

Ibn Khaldun will return to the Shi’a-Sufi theory of "Poles" and "saints." He continues:

The Sufis thus became saturated with Shi’a theories. Shi’a theories entered so deeply into their religious ideas that they based their practice of using a cloak on the fact that Ali clothed al-Hasan al-Basri in such a cloak and caused him to agree solemnly that he would adhere to the mystic path. This tradition (begun by Ali) was continued, according to the Sufis, through al-Junayd, one of the Sufi shaykhs.

However, it is not known for a certainty whether Ali did any such thing. The mystic path was not reserved to Ali, but all men around Muhammad were models of the various paths of religion. The fact that the Sufis restrict precedence in mysticism to Ali smells strongly of pro-Shi’a sentiments. This and other afore-mentioned Sufi ideas show that the Sufis have adopted pro-Shi’a sentiments and have become enmeshed in them. (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima 3.51) [IBN KHALDUN 1967: 2:186– 187]

And so, on Ibn Khaldun's view as a Sunni historian, the chief tenets of the "recent Sufis" that show the influence of Shi’ism are their discussions of the Godhead's becoming incarnate in certain chosen souls and their insistence on the Divine Oneness to the extent that it became in effect pantheism.

Tradition scholars and jurists who discuss the articles of faith often mention that God is separate from His creatures. The speculative theologians say that He is neither separate nor connected. The philosophers say that He is neither in the world nor outside it. The recent Sufis say that He is one with the creatures in the sense that He is incarnate in them or in the sense that He is identical with them and there exists nothing but Himself either in the whole or in any part of it. …

A number of recent Sufis who consider intuitive perceptions to be scientific and logical hold the opinion that the Creator is one with His creatures in His identity, His existence and His attributes. They often assume that this was the position of philosophers before Aristotle, such as Plato and Socrates. … The Oneness assumed by the Sufis is identical with the incarnation the Christians claim for the Messiah. It is even stranger, in that it is the incarnation of something primeval in something created and the Oneness of the former with the latter.

The Oneness assumed by the Sufis is also identical with the stated opinion of the Imamite Shi’a concerning their Imams. In their discussions, the Shi’a consider the ways in which the oneness of the Deity with the Imams is achieved. (1) The essence of the primeval Deity is hidden in all created things, both sensible and intelligible, and is one with them in both kinds of perception. All of them are manifestations of it, and it has control over them—that is, it controls their existence in the sense that, without it, they would not exist. Such is the opinion of the people who believe in incarnation.

(2) There is the approach of those who believe in absolute Oneness. It seems as if in the exposition of those who believe in incarnation, they have sensed the existence of an (implicit) differentiation contradicting the concept of Oneness. Therefore, they disavowed the (existence of any differentiation) between the primeval Deity and the creatures in essence, existence, and attributes. In order to explain the difference in manifestations perceived by the senses and the intellect, they used the specious argument that those things were human perceptions that are imaginary. By imaginary … they mean that all those things do not exist in reality and exist only in human perception. Only the primeval Deity has real existence and nothing else, either inwardly or outwardly. (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima 6.16) [IBN KHALDUN 1967: 3:83–86]

Ibn Khaldun has no doubts about whence these notions derived, or about their essential falsehood.

The recent Sufis who speak about the removal of the veil and supersensory perception have delved deeply into these subjects. Many of them have turned to the theory of incarnation and oneness, as we have indicated. They have filled many pages with it. That was done, for instance, by al-Harawi [ca. 1010–1089 C.E.] in the Book of Stations and by others. They were followed by Ibn al-Arabi [1165–1240 C.E.] and Ibn Sabin [1226–1271 C.E.] and their pupils, and then by Ibn Afif [ca. 1260–1289], Ibn al-Farid [d. 1235 C.E.] and Najm al-Din al-Isra’ili [1206–1278 C.E.] in the poems they composed.

The early Sufis had had contact with the Neo-Isma’ili Shi’ite extremists who also believed in incarnation and in the divinity of the Imams, a theory not known to the early Ismailis. Each group came to be imbued with the dogmatics of the other. Their theories and beliefs merged and were assimilated. In Sufi discussion there appeared the theory of the "Pole," meaning the chief gnostic. The Sufis assumed that no one can reach his station in gnosis until God takes him to Himself and gives his station to another gnostic. …

The theory of successive "Poles" is not, however, confirmed by logical arguments or evidence from the religious law. It is a sort of rhetorical figure of speech. It is identical with the theory of the extremist Shi’a about the succession of the Imams through inheritance. Clearly, mysticism has plagiarized this idea from the extremist Shi’a and come to believe in it.

The Sufis furthermore speak about the order of existence of the "saints" who come after the "Pole," exactly as the Shi’a speak of their "representatives." They go so far (in the identification of their own concepts with those of the Shi’a) that when they construed a chain of transmitters for the wearing of the Sufi cloak as a basic requirement of the mystic way and practice, they made it go back to Ali. This points in the same direction. Among the men around Muhammad, Ali was not distinguished by any particular practice or way of dressing or by any special condition. Abu Bakr and Umar were the most ascetic and pious people after the Messenger of God. Yet, none of these men was distinguished by the possession of any particular religious practice peculiar to him. In fact, all the men around Muhammad were models of religion, austerity, asceticism, and pious exertion. This is attested by their way of life and history. Indeed, with the help of these stories, the Shi’a try to suggest that Ali is distinguished from the other men around Muhammad by being in possession of certain virtues, in conformity with well-known Shi’a beliefs. (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima 6.16) [IBN KHALDUN 1967: 3:92–93]

There are clear parallels between the Gnostic current in Islamic Sufism and the developing ideology of Sufism. Though the wedding of the two strains was not officially consummated until the creation of the Safavid state in Iran in the sixteenth century, the liaison was being prepared much earlier. It is not certain when the affinities between Shi’ism and Sufism first developed, but they were already present when Shi’ism elaborated its theory of the Imam as a charismatic figure who possessed an authoritative spiritual knowledge and imparted it to adepts. The distance between the Shi’ite Imam and the Sufi saint, particularly the archetypical saint, the "Pole" around whom the saints of each generation revolved, was not great. From the twelfth century onward the distance grew even smaller with the evolution of what has been called "theosophical Sufism" or "Illuminationism." The wisdom (hikma) of the Shi’ites was quite simply the mystics' gnosis (marifa).