Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: September 2016

4 - The Wilayat of 'Ali in Twelver Shi'ism, Sufism and the Religion of the Medieval Isma'ilis



The muddled relationship between Shi'ism and Sufism is as unresearched in scholarship today as it was unexplained in medieval times. Already demonstrated in this book, the primary reason behind this historical incomprehension was the traditional Shi'a practice of taqiyya or dissimulation. The general lack of progress in understanding Shi'a-Sufi relations stems from the difficulty experienced by modern scholars in engaging with certain spiritual concepts and esoteric sciences common both to Shi'a Islam and Sufism. Known only to the initiated few, these concepts were used to express Shi'ism through Sufism. These concepts and their practice, which historically provided the metaphysical basis for accommodating Sufism within Shi'ism, are still far from understood by most modern scholars of religion.

In the context of this book, an explanation of these common concepts, and the direct correlation through them of Sufism to the idea of the Shi'a Imamate, will clarify our ‘lost’ medieval Shi'a-Sufi relationship. This correlation, at least for the Suhrawardi Order in Multan and Uch, was expressed through the astrological reckoning of the event of Ghadir Khumm, when the Prophet appointed 'Ali as his successor. Like in the Chetir ceremony at Shams's shrine (explored in Chapter 2), the Ghadir Khumm principle has also been found represented through symbols on Suhrawardi buildings in the middle Indus region. These symbols, however, revolve around the direct connection of Ghadir to the Persian New Year, Nawruz, instead of it being established through Chaharshamba-yi Suri, as is the case in the Chetir ceremony. In addition, in the Suhrawardi buildings contained in this book, the use of the astrological disposition of Ghadir actually goes a step further, since it is employed as a template for accommodating religions like Hinduism within Islam.

The link between the event of Ghadir Khumm, when according to Shi'a Islam the Prophet openly announced his cousin 'Ali as his spiritual and temporal successor, and the Persian New Year Nawruz, has long been acknowledged in Shi'a hadith. But until now, this event has never been fully explored for its conceptual implications on Shi'a religious transcendentalism, mainly due to a dearth of material. For similar reasons, it has not been used to explore 'Alid Sufism either, or more specifically, for understanding our Isma'ili-Suhrawardi connection.