If we focus on the term wilāyah [primacy, guide, lordship] and words related to spiritual authority and temporal power, as Ayātullāh Mutahharī did in a formidable and authoritative synthesis, we note that this terminological repertoire has a very precise meaning in Shī'ite thought which is related to the idea of a unified government.1 Wilā', walāyah, wilāyah, walī, mawlā, are nominal forms of the verbal substantive of the trilateral root walla (waw-lam-alif maksurah) which has the primary meaning of “being close,” from which is derived “to be at the front of,” from which is derived the meanings of “government” and “governor” in the temporal and political sense of the words and “leader” and “chosen” in the spiritual sense. The same root gives place to a series of words which denote power and authority, that is, being close to the center [wasat] of sovereignty. And the Arabic word wasat [center] gives a gamut of terms which indicate “mediation” or “intercession” [tawassut].
Other unfamiliar terms derived from the same trilateral root waw-lam-ya are walī and mawlā. Walī means “friend,” “intimate,” “close,” and with the respect to the Imāms “holiness” and by extension spiritual “closeness” to the divine center. The passive participle mawlā means, among other things, “one who deserves a clientele,” and more frequently “boss,” “lord,” “protector,” “tutor,” “master,” “owner” and so forth. In Shī'ism, mawlānā [our lord / our master] is used to address the Prophet and the Imāms and, in Sūfism, it is used to refer to the great spiritual masters like Rūmī2 or Ibn al-'Arabī.
We have listed the various forms and verbal nouns because with the auxiliary one can better understand everything which is implied by the idea of Imāmate or Caliphate and how it is conceived in Shī'ite thought in relation to spiritual authority and temporal power. In the time of the Prophet, the title mawlā [master] had the connotation of spiritual authority and universal temporal power. The basis of any Caliphate or true government is the transcendence of its foundation, the very basis of its sovereignty, authority, and legitimacy.
However, with the downfall of effective power in the succession of the Caliphate, starting with Abū Bakr, the title khalīfah also suffered from the same process of depreciation. After the four khulafā' al-rāshidīn [rightly-guided Caliphs], the Caliphate ceased to have the connotation of sovereignty and, in fact, to admit the sense of effective authority. This can be seen clearly with Mu'āwiyyah, the founder of the Ummayad dynasty, who considered himself the “first king [malik]” of Islām.3
He is responsible for losing the effective [spiritual] authority of the Caliphate and diminishing the meaning of many titles which, in the early days, were exclusive Caliphal prerogatives. This includes the very term khalīf which, upon entering the common language, became so diluted that any governor of Islām could claim to be the Caliph of his own dominion.
Among some Sunnī commentators and misinformed Orientalists, there are those who believe that when 'Alī became the Fourth Caliph, according to the temporal and political precedence more than the spiritual, he was implicitly accepting the authority and the method of election of the previous Caliphs in that they accomplished similar political and social functions as governors and elders of the Islāmic community.4From a Shī'ite perspective, it is clear that 'Alī never accepted the Caliphate in the sense that the three Caliphs who preceded him did.
On the contrary, as Imām–in the Shī'ite sense of spiritual and political regency as well as ta'ālīm, the esoteric faculty of perfectly interpreting the intertexual mysteries of the Qur'ān and the sharī'ah–'Alī was the legitimate spiritual heir and political successor of the Prophet, something which he and his successors always insisted upon.
As he explains explicitly in his letters and sermons, 'Alī accepted the function of Caliph–in the Sunnī sense of governor and legal administrator–to avoid schism while preserving the function of wilāyah for himself. As Nasr says, this is how 'Alī can simultaneously be seeing as Caliph and Imām, by both Sunnis and Shī'ites, in accord with the different perspectives on the issue (see Nasr's preface to Tabātabā'ī's Shī'ite Islām 10-12).
The wilāyah inherently implies certain legal and political faculties. The Imām, as we have said, exercises the spiritual magistrate and the esoteric guidance of the wilāyah. He also performs the function of administrator of the sharī'ah, fully interpreting its legal code and legitimately dispensing justice through his role as perfect monarch, by the fact that he embodies spiritual authority and temporal power.
The monarch [from the Greek monos, “the sole one” and arjé, “rule,” “principle”] is the “supreme sovereign,” unique and universal,” and not merely a “king” [malik] since a king only administers the temporal functions of government while the monarch is the one who rules according to the monarchy of divine right, established from above, by the mandate of God and not by human choice.
As Lord Acton, a British historian of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As human history has shown us, human lust for power can become exacerbated by its very existence. It can make man dream of limitless power, causing him to rebel against his plight, his powerless limited being. Justice and peace are then viewed as unacceptable unless they can help increase and maintain power and wealth.
They are soon placed on the backburner due to innate egocentrism and worldly ambitions. This is why the Gospel refers to heads of nations as tyrants who rule like absolute sovereigns while the powerful ones oppress them with their power (Matthew 20:25; Mark 10: 42). In a divine monarchy, based on balance, harmony, justice and peace, quite the opposite is true.
On the basis of the above, it can now be understood why in Shī'ism, the sovereign authority of Imām al-Mahdī has an eminently regulating and restorative function which is proper and non-transferable. In other words, he is worthy, by divine design, of the “central” position he occupies.
As an “intercessor” between heaven and earth, he is beyond the distinction between the spiritual and worldly realms of existence. The very nature of “intercessor” in the true sense of the word is quintessential to the Seal of the Cycle of Initiation. It is for this reason that he is referred to as the “center” [wasat].5
The “center” in question is the fixed point around which the world rotates. It is designated symbolically by all religious traditions as the “pole” [qutb] and is generally represented by a “wheel.” The most obvious sense of this symbol is the absolute dominion over the worldly order. This is why Imām al-Mahdī receives the majestic titles of sāhib al-zamān [Lord of the Age], al-arkān [The Pillars], al-qā'im [The Restorer], al-muntazar [The Awaited One], al-hujjah [The Proof] as well as al-qutb or the Spiritual Pole of the Age.
The title of sāhib al-zamān, in its most sublime sense, applies exclusively to the Mahdī. He is granted this title in virtue of his role as the primordial universal legislator who formulates the most appropriate laws in accordance with the conditions during our cycle of existence. He directs the movement of our cycle without participating in it in a visible fashion. He maintains himself simultaneously present and hidden in the world, the same as in Aristotle's notion of the “unmoving motor.”
In light of these considerations, it is understood why Imām al-Mahdī has the fundamental attributes of “Justice” and “Peace.” He shares these attributes with çakravarti, [from the Sanskrit: “he who makes the wheel turn”], the “Universal Monarch” of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions; with wang, the “Pontiff King” of Taoism and with melki-tsedeq, the “King of Justice and Peace” of the Jewish tradition.6
The Invisible Imām's attributes of justice and peace are veiled forms of his spiritual functions which, by an effort of cosmic unity, are identified with earthly equilibrium and harmony. In light of these concepts, we can affirm that the Shī'ite concept of wilāyah, the spiritual and temporal authority of the Imām, is the Islāmic equivalent of all of these traditional notions from both East and West, including the Hellenist and Hellenist-Christian concept of the panbasileus or “Absolute King,” who was the lord of a unique and universal empire.
Imām al-Mahdī is particularly revered for his role as Executor of Prophetic Knowledge or First Intellect. At the same time, he is the Archetype of Man, the Visible and the Invisible, the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega. As Henry Corbin perceived from the development of Shī'ite Prophetology, this human form in its pre-eternal glory is called Original Adam [Ādam al-haqīqī], the Perfect Man [insān kāmil], the Supreme Spirit and Scribe, the Absolute Caliph, and the Pole of the Poles [qutb al-aqtāb].7 Imām al-Mahdī is also the Eternal Muhammadan Reality [haqīqah muhammadiyyah], the Light of His Glory, His Sanctifying Virtue, His Primordial Logos or Divine Word and his Perfect Epiphany.
In light of the above, we can say that in the beginning of Islām, Shī'ism, like Sūfism, was a latent and nameless reality profoundly rooted in the esoteric dimension of the Qur'ānic revelation.8 In the Islāmic world, the function of Shī'ism, like that of Sūfism, is similar to the human heart in the sense that the heart is the vital center of the human body as well as being, in reality, the intellectual “center” of a reality that transcends any formal determination.9
This “central” role of Shī'ism at the heart of the Islāmic world has always, and continues to be, hidden from outside observers, who insist upon its non-Islāmic origin. They insist on this theory because Shī'ite doctrine does not appear in the first centuries, particularly during the life of the Prophet, with all of the metaphysical development that would manifest itself later on.10
From a historical perspective, Shī'ism surfaced immediately after the death of the Prophet and can be defined as “Alī's Islām” or the “Islām of Ahlul Bayt.” The emergence of Shī'ism was not merely the consequence of a political conflict related to the succession of the Prophet, although this certainly helped to precipitate the events. What is important, above all, is the “central” role that Shī'ism played in the Islāmic world after the demise of the founder of Islām.11
As a continuation and a doctrinal complement to the nubuwwah, it was imperative for the wilāyah to manifest itself in the world upon the completion of the prophetic mission. Since wilāyah implies the same possibility of prolonging the spiritual leadership and the esoteric guidance of the Prophet, it cannot be superimposed on the nubuwwah as long as the Prophet was alive.12
In other words, Shī'ite Islām, which was supposed to serve as a support for the wilāyah, the spiritual and esoteric dimension of the nubuwwah must manifest itself upon the death of the Prophet. This moment, both cosmologically and metaphysically, signals the start of the wilāyah, the beginning of its temporal and exoteric manifestation. It is at that point when the wilāyah [guardianship] ceases to be a latent, nameless reality, and transforms itself into a manifest and named reality.
Due to its cosmological and metaphysical nature, the historical apparition of Shī'ism was meant to coincide with the Cycle of wilāyah, the start of 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib's earthly mission. The esoteric function of the first Imām, hidden until the moment of the Prophet's death, was meant to manifest itself in a partial opening of the Muhammadan wilāyah and the seal of the universal wilāyah. We can thus fully appreciate the importance of the designation [nass] of 'Alī as successor [khalīfah] and executor [wasī] of the Prophet.13
'Alī, the first link in the spiritual chain of the Imāmate and the rukn or pillar of Islāmic Gnosticism, represents the complementary dimension of the Prophethood; his path, Shī'ism, is a dimension of the depth found at the core of the Qur'ānic message.
None shall have the power of intercession, but such a one as has received permission [or promise] from [Allāh] Most Gracious (19:87)
On that Day shall no intercession avail except for those for whom permission has been granted by [Allāh] Most Gracious and whose word is acceptable to Him. (20:109)
He knows what is before them, and what is behind them, and they offer no intercession except for those who are acceptable, and they stand in awe and reverence of His [Glory].(21:28)
No intercession can avail in His Presence, except for those for whom He has granted permission. (34:23)
Say: To Allāh belongs exclusively [the right to grant] intercession. (39:44)
How many-so-ever be the angels in the heavens, their intercession will avail nothing except after Allāh has given leave for whom He pleases and that he is acceptable to Him. (53:26)
Intercession, however, is not available to unbelievers, as is clearly stated in the Qur'ān (6:51; 2:123; 2:254; 6:70; 6:94; 7:53; 10:18; 19:87; 26:100; 30:30; 32:4; 36:23; 39:43; 40:18; 43:86; 74:48). Intercession is not available to those who are guilty of kufr or shirk. Almighty Allāh addresses the polytheists, warning them that their partners will be unable to intercede with them on the Day of Judgment.
According to Shaykh Sadūq:
The right to intercession belongs to the prophets [anbiyyā'] and awliyyā'. And among the believers [mu'minīn] also there are some who can intercede on behalf of people equal in number to the tribes of Rabī'ah and Mudar. Even the least of the believers will be liable to intercede on behalf of 30,000. (122)
It is narrated in Sadūq's Risālatu al-i'tiqādāt, Fakhruddīn b. Ahmad al-Najafī's Majma' al- bahrayn and Hasan b. Yūsuf b. 'Alī Ibnu'l Mutahar al-Hillī's al-Bābu al-hādī 'ashar, that the Prophet said: “May Allāh not grant my intercession to him who does not believe in my (power of) intercession.”
All of the various orthodox manifestations of Islām believe in the intercession of the Prophet and the awliyā'. See Kabbānī's Encyclopedia of Islāmic Doctrines:http://www.sunnah. org/ibadaat/ twsl.html.
The belief in intercession does not mean that there is an intermediary between human beings and God. It is merely an extra means of attaining His mercy.
It is unfortunate that Sayed 'Alī Reza, the English translator of Nahj al-balāghah, would engage in the wholesale takfīr of the Sūfī, claiming that “According to Shī'ah 'ulamā' all these sects are on the wrong path and out of the fold of Islām” (422), an intolerant attitude which tarnishes his otherwise informative commentary.
It is equally regrettable that a scholar of the caliber of Ayātullāh al-Uzmā Shaykh Fazel Lankarānī would reject mysticism ruling that “Sūfism, in the eyes of Shī'ism, in general, [as well as] Islāmically, has no religious basis, and there is no sign of it in the teachings of the Prophet” (http://www.lankarani.net/ English/faq/en.htm). This was the very attitude addressed by Imām Khumaynī in Islām and Revolution where he laments that:
We find some scholars…denying the validity of mysticism and thus depriving themselves of a form of knowledge. It is regrettable… Those who wear cloaks and turbans and denounce the mystics as unbelievers do not understand what they are saying; if they did, they would not denounce them” (423-424).
Merely because the words sūfī and 'ārif are not found in the Islāmic texts of the first century Hijrah does not signify that mysticism and Gnosis did not exist. They did in fact exist under the general umbrella of 'ilm [knowledge]. As official institutionalized Islām became increasingly legalistic and focused on the exoteric foundations of the faith, the adherents of its mystical and esoteric dimension needed to distinguish themselves by calling their science 'irfān and by designating themselves as Sūfis (Awānī 169).
All prophets were mystics as were their faithful followers. The first paragons of Sūfism were the ashāb al-sūfah, the Companions of the Ledge, about whom Sūrah 18:28 was revealed (170). They included such distinguished companions as Salmān, Abū Dharr and 'Ammār al-Yāsir (170). The early Sūfis were called zuhhad or ascetics, many of whom were associated with Shī'ite Imāms (170). Among the companions of 'Alī were found spiritual figures and ascetics like Kumayl and Maytham al-Tammār (170).
In his Essay on the Origins of the Technical Language of Islāmic Mysticism, Massignon shows that Islāmic mystics or rūhāniyyah have existed since the dawn of Islām. Islāmic mysticism is clearly based on the practice of the Prophet, the Imāms and their Companions and is directly derived from the Qur'ān and the Sunnah, both of which are oceans of mystical manifestations. As Awānī observes:
The hadīth literature in Shī'ism and the anthologies of the hadīths handed down from the Imāms are the veritable mines of Islāmic gnosis. The Usūl al-kāfī of Kulaynī and the other compendia of Shī'ī hadīth are real treasures of 'irfān… Moreover, the Shī'ī prayers and litanies found in al-Sahīfah al-sajadiyyah of the fourth Imām…is the best exposition and representation of Islāmic gnosis. Some Shī'ī prayers, like Du'ā' Sha'bāniyyah, Du'ā' 'Arafah, and Du'ā' Kumayl highlight the highest themes of Islāmic gnosis.
Shī'ī prayer books are replete with ritual formulae for acts of supererogation [nawāfil] also much emphasized in Sūfism and sometimes with identical formulations. The ritual invocation of the Beautiful Divine Names is the focus of emphasis in both Shī'ism and Sūfism. For example, Du'ā' Jawshan kabīr, found in Shī'ī prayer books contains one thousand divine names and is recited by pious Shī'ī on many occasions and a least once a week.
Some identical formulae based directly and indirectly on the verses of the Qur'ān are reiterated in both. The Shī'ī canonical books of hadīth are filled with themes which can be made the object of meditation and contemplation and which can find their true explanation in real 'irfān. (174)
As Ayātullāh Muhammad Taqī Misbāh Yazdī explains,
The points which can be found among the narrations attributed to the Noble Prophet and Pure Imāms, may Allāh bless all of them, and in their supplications and intimate devotions related to the above topics ['irfān, Sūfism, hikmah] are uncountable.
A religion without mysticism would not be a religion. As Ayātullāh Misbāh Yazdī explains, gnosis is not only a part of Islām, but the kernel and spirit of it which comes from the Qur'ān and prophetic Sunnah, just as the other parts of Islām. It would be a dry carcass and an empty shell.
As Awanī explains, “esoterism in each religion, which constitutes its core and kernel, is an integral part of that religion without which it cannot be a religion to start with;” “esoterism is the sine qua non of every religion, without which the religion would lose its vertical dimension and would be reduced to a horizontal and mundane level” (172). Sūfism is not an extraneous accretion super added to Islām … it is its esoteric or inward aspect [bātin] as distinguished from the exoteric or external aspect [zāhir]” (171-72). It is safe to say that “Sūfism is totally based upon the Holy Qur'ān, the sunnah of the Prophet, and the Household ['itrah]” (172).
Besides Ayātullāhs Muhammad Taqī al-Behjat, 'Izz al-Dīn Husaynī Zanjanī, Sayyid Mīrzā 'Alī Tabātaba'ī, JawādīAmulī, Lutfullāh al-Sāfī al-Gulpaygānī, Mīrzā Muhammad 'Alī Shahabadī, Muhammad Husayn al-Burujerdī, Abū al-Qāsim al-Khu'ī, Muhammad Sādiq al-Sadr, among many others, the mystical dimensions of Islām have also been fully appreciated by Ayātullāhs Khumaynī, Tabātaba'ī and Mutahharī who left us their interiorized insights in Light Within Me which is also available in an excellent Spanish translation titled Luz interior.
'Allāmah Tabātaba'ī was a specialist in exegesis, mysticism and philosophy while Ayātullāh Mutahharī was an expert in both Eastern and Western thought. Imām Khumaynī has also left us his Forty Hadīth: An Exposition of Ethical and Mystical Traditions, which has been partly translated into English, as well as a beautiful body of mystical poetry. The greatness of Imām Khumaynī was that, like the Prophet, he established equilibrium between the exoteric and the esoteric, between the worldly and the spiritual, and between religion and politics. He was able to function on various levels.
Scholars like Khumaynī, who are jurists, exegetes, mystics, philosophers, sociologists and poets, are few and hard to find. As Murata observes, ”[o]ne of the most unfortunate signs of the contemporary malaise of the Islāmic world is that the intellectual authorities have all but disappeared from the scene, while the jurists have a free hand to say what they want” (3).