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Spotlights on Shīʿī Esotericism from Umayyad Iraq to Fatimid Cairo

Panel X-18, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
After the successive tragedies of al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī’s surrender to Muʿāwiya, al-Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī’s death at Karbala, the collapse of al-Mukhtār’s rebellion in 67/687, and Muḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiyya’s pledge of allegiance to ʿAbd al-Malik in 73/692, the political ambitions of the old shīʿat ʿAlī in Iraq and the Ḥijāz were shattered. No ʿAlid made a move for the caliphate until Zayd b. ʿAlī’s rebellion of 122/740. By then, there was no longer a sufficiently cohesive shīʿat ʿAlī to answer his call; the Shīʿa had become something else. Or, rather, many things were then grouped together as Shīʿa. Indeed, already in the days of al-Mukhtār, highly heterogeneous elements of the population of Iraq—especially in the new city of Kufa and its hinterland—were adopting and adapting a distinctively pro-ʿAlid Islam in a bewildering variety of ways. This often involved the integration of elements of doctrine and practice taken over from their previous religious affiliations. One result of this was the emergence of the so-called ghulāt, the Shīʿa who “went too far” (ghalaw). Originally, the term was perhaps used for those who denied ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib’s death and foresaw his imminent messianic return to overthrow the Umayyads. In time, it was applied to diverse groups that believed, amongst other things, in the power of God’s secret “greatest name”, in the divinity of their Imāms, in a parallel world of “shadows”, in reincarnation, and in a circular playing-out of history in a series of epochal cycles. Over the second and third Islamic centuries, the Ghulāt established their own communities of belief, often experiencing tensions with other Shīʿī groups and the wider society. One of these groups, the Nuṣayriyya, eventually left Iraq, beginning in the early fourth century, to form a successful community in Syria that survives to this day. This panel aims to throw a series of “spotlights” on the history and beliefs of the Ghulāt from early Umayyad Iraq through to the established Syrian Nuṣayrī community in the fifth/eleventh century. The panellists will discuss reports linking Ghulāt doctrines to the Umayyad governor Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf, the possible origins of the term ghulāt in reference to the Khawārij, the formation of our late-third- and fourth-century sources on the early Ghulāt, and new insights into the history of the Nuṣayriyya, as revealed in Risāla Miṣriyya, a newly-discovered and -edited text from 11th-century Cairo.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Although some fragments of texts produced within Ghulāt communities and dating from the end of the second or—perhaps more likely—the early third Islamic century are available, they focus almost entirely on a handful of doctrinal themes: creation myths and cosmology; the world of shadows (aẓilla); transmigration (tanāsukh) and the hierarchy of being; the divinity of certain human beings; and the esoteric interpretation of religious duties. Almost all other historical data on the early Ghulāt is drawn from external sources: above all a handful of Imāmī-Shīʿī and Muʿtazilī heresiographies, supplemented with sporadic information from the major historians. To some extent, the historians’ information can be traced back to the sources they cite openly. The material in the heresiographies is, however, of uncertain origin. Although many more heresiographies have become available, scholarship has hardly addressed the question of its provenance in over 60 years. There is also another body of material that has received even less attention: that available in Imāmī rijāl- and ḥadīth-works. This paper will briefly give an overview of the different bodies of material on the Ghulāt that are found in the histories and the heresiographies and comment on their perspective and likely provenance, before offering an isnād-based analysis of the origins and transmission of the relatively large number of reports on the Ghulāt preserved in Abū ʿAmr al-Kashshī’s (fl. mid-fourth/tenth century) Rijāl.
  • What do the early Shiite ghulat have in common with the notorious Umayyad governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf al-Thaqafi (r. 694-714)? Nothing much, except for their connection with the beliefs in the Greatest Name of God (ism Allah al-aʿzam). Al-Hajjaj and the ghulat stood on the opposite side of the political spectrum; several of the ghulat rebelled against the Umayyads, while al-Ḥajjaj formed their backbone. Yet, we have texts that ascribe to both sides the ability to wield power through the Greatest Name of God. In this paper, I will explore this unexpected connection and the beliefs in the Greatest Name of God in context of eighth-century Iraq. Through the case study of the Name, the paper will shed light on the interconnected cross-sectarian and cross-religious milieu of early Islamic and Late Antique Iraq. It is rather well known that the Greatest Name of God played a central role in the cosmology of some of the early Shiite ghulat, such as Bayan b. Sam’an or Mughira b. Sa’id. So Bayan claimed for instance that he could, through the Name, vanquish armies, and Mughira that he could revive the dead. But these accounts may raise doubts: to what extent can we rely on the later heresiographies for their reliable depictions? It is perhaps less known that al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf was another figure seen as able to wield the power of the Greatest Name of God. In one of the speeches ascribed to him, we see him addressing the rumors that he knows the Greatest Name of God: “You claimed that I know the Greatest Name, so why do you fight the one who knows while you are ignorant” (Ibn Abi al-Hadid, Sharh Nahj al-Balagha). But again, how reliable are Hajjaj’s speeches that have been written down only much later after he died? We need to set these texts in their broader context. In this paper, I will draw on different types of sources—heresiographical accounts about the ghulat, the speeches of al-Hajjaj, Sunni and Shiite hadiths, and Sufi literature—to explore the eighth-century beliefs in the Greatest Name of God. Furthermore, I will highlight Jewish and other Late Antique parallels. I will argue that the beliefs in the Greatest Name of God were not limited to the ‘extreme’ claims of the ghulat, but were part of the multicultural milieu of eighth-century Basra and Kufa.
  • The accusation of “ghuluww” (“excess”, “exaggeration”, sometimes “extremism”) is one of the earlier polemical devices of the Islamic tradition, as it is mentioned twice in the Qur’ān (4:171 ; 5:77) in the context of anti-Christian polemics. However, it is in the domain of intra-Islamic polemics that it gained currency. The accusation found its most important development in the works of 3rd/9th century theologians and heresiographers who used it against certain branches of the Shīʿa which they subsumed under the derogatory label of Ghulāt (or “al-ghāliya”). The accusation aimed at specific Shīʿī groups holding various esoteric doctrines denounced by theologians (both Shīʿīs and non-Shīʿīs) as "exaggerate", such as the divinity of the Imām, the transmigration of souls, antinomianism, etc. Some theologians went as far as to proclaim the expulsion of groups labelled as Ghulāt from the Islamic community. However, early mentions of the accusation “ghuluww” in polemical epistles from the 1st-2nd/7-8th centuries and lexicographical treatises from the 2nd/8th and early 3rd/9th centuries show that it was originally used against the Khawārij rather than the Shīʿī groups which later came to be widely known as Ghulāt. The accusation aimed at what polemicists deemed a schismatic attitude of the Khawārij, purportedly leading them to adopt an excessively restrictive definition of the Islamic community and to exclude their opponents from it. Moreover, we find traces of this early definition of “ghuluww” as schismatic excess being simultaneously applied to both the Khawārij and branches of the Shīʿa in the works of early 3rd/9th theologians such as al-Jāḥiẓ and Ḍirār b. ʿAmr. In contrast, later sources draw a sharp distinction between these two currents and develop a purely doctrinal definition of “ghuluww” as an excess in esotericism, applying it solely to branches of the Shīʿa while excluding the Khawārij from its range. Through a genealogy of the accusation of “ghuluww” from the 1st-7th to the 4/10th century, this paper therefore engages in a critical study of the development of intra-Islamic polemics and its discursive devices. Furthermore, the confrontation of various definitions of “ghuluww” across time and texts throws a spotlight on the early disputes around the definition of the Islamic community and its shifting boundaries during the formative period. This study also aims to historicize the framework and categories through which classical Islamic sources of the late 3rd/9th and early 4/10th centuries depict the religious and political landscape of early Islam.
  • The Nusayris emerged as a separate sect in Syria in the tenth century, and within decades, they had created a rich and imaginative literature that adopted and expanded the esoteric Shi’i corpus associated with Ja’far al-Sadiq and his students in eighth-ninth-century Kufa. The Nusayris’ conception of God, the universe, and human nature significantly departs from mainstream Muslim beliefs, and, as a consequence, non-Nusayri Muslims have treated them as heretics. Writing the history of the Nusayris as a community has been nearly impossible safe for very broad outlines. This is because, despite the rather large corpus of Nusayri writings that are available to us today, they mostly focus on doctrine – the nature of God and humans, their relation to one another, cycles of history, etc. – while outsider sources have little more than polemical vitriol. There is tantalizingly little in all of these texts about real people and real communities. A recently discovered Nusayri text offers to fill this gap. It is written by ‘Imat al-Dawla Muhammad b. Mu’izz al-Dawla in the early 11th century in Cairo, and is entitled “Manhaj al-‘ilm wal-bayan wa nuzhat al-sam’ wal-‘iyan” (“The Path of Knowledge and Clarification and the bliss of hearing and seeing”). More than 400 manuscript pages-long, it is to date not only the longest, but the most detailed Nusayri text. Its importance lies in the fact that apart from theological and cosmological content, it provides intimate details about various aspects of life in the Nusayri community, and an emotional and detailed account of the author’s own spiritual quest, his pleading with a Nusayri elder, and his conversion into Nusayrism at the elder’s hands. In my paper I will use “Manhaj al-‘Ilm” to throw a micro-historical “spotlight” on the Nusayris at the turn of the eleventh century. In particular, I will discuss the author’s conversion narrative, the network of Nusayri scholars, and the nature of the Nusayri community of the time.