Dusk at the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei on the eve of Ramadan, photo by tylerdurden1“We must not consider gnosis as a religion among others, but as the heart of all religions,” said Allamah Tabataba’i, one of leading Shi’ite Muslim thinkers and clerics of the 20th century. “Gnosis is one of the paths of worship, a path based on knowledge combined with love, rather than fear. It is the path for realizing the inner truth of religion rather than remaining satisfied only with its external form and rational thought.”

The sentiment was echoed not long ago, at the end of December 2014, by Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Alavi-Gorgani. “We should not think that unity is only for Muslims,” the he proclaimed, “God wants us to have unity with other religions as well.” What made Grand Ayatollah Alavi-Gorgani’s statement even more remarkable is that it was made in response to — and as a criticism of — atrocities carried out in Iraq against Yazidis and Christians by the terrorist militia calling itself ISIS.

Making up only about 10 percent of Muslims today, with most in Iraq or Iran, Shi’a Islam is generally overlooked, misunderstood, or misrepresented. Yet, it not only possesses a long tradition of mysticism or Islamic Gnosticism (‘irfan), but very probably laid much of the groundwork for the more systematized Sufism after the the middle of the 11th century, when Tugrul Bey, leader of the Sunni Seljuk tribe, was appointed caliph.

Although Shi’ites had come to rue parts of the Muslim world, after this, they were removed from positions of power. Nevertheless, although Islamic mystics had existed before this, probably in response to the expunging of the more mystical branch of Shi’ism, they now began to draw on Shi’ia Islam and other sources, creating Sufi schools and traditions.

The similarities between Sufism and Shi’ism are noteworthy, though most Sufi schools are, technically, Sunni. Both place a great deal of importance of ‘Ali, the esoteric, and on spiritual lineage. Shi’ites also accredited miraculous characteristics to the imams, such as being born clean and already circumcised. This was the first time, within Islam, that such claims had been made, though this would appear within Sufism, which similarly accredited the Sufi saints with marvellous characteristics.

According to esoteric Shi’ism, there is, however, another miraculous occurrence when an imam is born. God, it is believed, creates a column of light before him, and throughout his life, the imam is able to visualize this column — which exists between him and God — and to discover, through it, the answer to any question.

What, then, is the root of Shi’ism?

On the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, the Muslim community (Ummah) found itself divided, with the majority (Sunnis, or “traditionalists”) supporting Abu Bakr for the new leader (caliph), and a lesser number believing that the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali was the lawful successor. This group would become known as the Shi’ites (Partisans of ‘Ali).

Although ‘Ali would, in fact, become the fourth and last of the “rightly-guided Caliphs,” for Shi’ites he is much more, being also the first imam. You’ve undoubtedly heard the term, and understand it to refer the leader of a congregation, similar to a priest. This is true in Sunni Islam. In Shi‘ism, however, the term is used very differently. According to mainstream Shi’a Islam, there have been only 12 imams throughout history, and it is the function of the imam to lead humanity toward an inner or esoteric understanding. As such, according to Shi’a Islam, there must always be present on the earth either a prophet or an imam. (The final imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdi, is believed by mainstream Shi’ites to be currently in “occultation,” waiting to reveal himself, at which point he will bring peace and justice to the world.)

If for the Shi’ite Muslim the imam guides them toward the inner, esoteric understanding of the faith, for Sufism the venerated shaykh is key to the transformation of the disciple. Sufi masters, including Rumi, have compared the process to that of alchemy, and the role of the Shaykh to that of the red sulphur, integral to the transformation of base metals into gold. The Sufi initiate is on the path from the base man to the spiritual man.

This journey, however, is of course guided by various meditations and practices.  The relationship of Sufi master and disciple, that begins with formal initiation, can include the practice of spiritual transmission. Here, master and disciple concentrate upon each other, to create a spiritual bond between them and to open the heart of the disciple.

After this, the disciple will practice dhikr, the practice of “remembering God” by reciting one of the names of God, sometimes out loud, and sometimes silently. Dhikr requires the whole being of the initiate, from their mouth to their heart, intellect, and soul. Since many Sufi sects have traditionally observed shari’a (Islamic law), they must also have observed dietary restrictions prior to performing dhikr. The Sufi disciple will also have cleaned and dressed themselves in the proper attire, and will have perfumed the area for their practice.

After this, they will sit crossed-legged, meditating on the Shaykh, imagining him in the place of the “third eye,” as it is often referred to in spiritual circles today, creating a link between themselves and their spiritual master. However, not all Sufis meditate on the same name of God. In some traditions, the name al-Mawla (the Master) was recited by new Sufi disciples, while the name al-Sadiq (the Sincere) was believed to confer spiritual knowledge (gnosis), creating in the Sufi a sincere heart.

In recent years and decades, we have, in the West, become aware of Sufism through the poetry of Rumi, and various media articles about Islamic spirituality. Yet our appreciation for Shi’ism and its impact on Islamic spirituality is sadly lacking.

There are many problems in the world today, and religion often seems to be the cause. As initiates, we shouldn’t ignore suffering just because it is convenient for us to turn a blind eye, or take positions simply because they are popular. The heart of spirituality is not the political or social but, as Allamah Tabataba’i reminds us, a gnosis that transcends division and leads us to perceive — to borrow a phrase from Grand Ayatollah Alavi-Gorgani — the unity of religions.

Image credit: tylerdurden1