A Glimpse into the Relationship of Shi’ism and Sufism; With a Special Emphasis on the Works of Mawlana Rumi

Written by: Agha Shabbir Abbas



This paper will serve as a brief investigation into the point of view of the Shi’a Muslims in regards to Sufism. The focal point of this is to understand as to why the Shi’a Muslims tend to take credit for personalities who were non-Shi’a, specifically Sufi. The paper has been divided into two parts, the first part “A Glimpse into the Relationship” of Shi’ism and Sufism whereas the second part is titled “The Works of Mawlana Rumi”. Dividing the paper into two parts provides a much needed structure to an otherwise ambiguous topic. The first half of the paper deals with basic theological and historical similarities as well as convergences. The second half of the paper deals with a brief input on Shams al-Din Tabrizi the spiritual master and Shaykh of Mawlana Rumi. The second half continues with a selection of Mawlana Rumi’s poetry in which fundamental Shi’a polemics are derived.


A Glimpse into the Relationship:

Overlooking the differences in appearance and name, Shi’ism and Sufism are quite similar, albeit in a complex manner. This similarity in the view of the Shi’a cause many allegations to be produced that such and such Sufi personalities or thinker were in actuality Shi’a. Notable examples are Mawlana Rumi, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, and the late-modern Allama Iqbal. This paper is an effort to understand the reasoning behind such phenomena.

Before delving into the issue, what Shi’ism is and who Shi’a are must be defined. Shahram Pazouki, an Iranian philosopher of religion defines Shi’ism broadly by saying that a “Shiite (Shi’a), not in the current sense of the jurists or dialectical theologians, but in its true meaning, that is, belief in the continuing spirituality and walayah of the Prophet in the person of ‘Ali, and belief that after the Prophet there is always a living guide (wali) on the way of love,” he defines Sufism as “the way of the heart (walayah) is the way of love, in which the wayfarer purifies his heart until he gains union with God..” (Pazouki 29)  Similarly the famed Professor of Islamic studies, Henry Corbin says that “the term walayah has been used frequently, and we know that Shi’ism is a religion of walayah.” Hence those who accept walayah are wholeheartedly Shi’a, no matter what they call themselves. This rather loose definition of Shi’ism gives the Shi’a freedom from historical accuracy when allotting Sufi figures to them-selves; especially since this definition would be inclusive of a large otherwise non-Shi’a population.


Nonetheless the complexity between both movements derives from the fact that both Shi’ism and Sufism are much involved with the spiritual aspects of Islam, they both look at Islam with a dual mindset, where there are the Dhahir, exoteric, and Batin, esoteric, spheres of Islam. However other than these two outlooks there is also the sectarian difference between Shi’ism and Sunnism, where the practitioners of Sufism tend to align themselves with the latter sect.


In function, Sufism has been used by Sunnis to decorate Sunnism with esoteric beliefs, of which it would have otherwise lacked. Largely, for Sunnism, the concept of esotericism is foreign. However, in comparison Shi’ism is entrenched from its core, with esoteric principles. The famed 14th century Islamic historiographer, Ibn Khaldun, affirms that much of the esoteric concepts and beliefs upheld in Sufism find origination in Shi’ism. He says in his Muqaddimah:


“The Sufis thus became saturated with Shi’ah theories. (Shi’ah) theories entered so deeply into their religious ideas that they based their practice of using a cloak (khirqah) on the (alleged) 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. (The tradition thus inaugurated by ‘Ali) was continued, according to the Sufis, through al-Junayd, one of the Sufi shaykhs. However, it is not known with certainty that ‘Ali did any such thing. The (mystic) path was not reserved to ‘Ali, but all the men around Muhammad were models of the (various) paths of religion. The fact that (the Sufis) restrict (precedence in mysticism) to ‘All smells strongly of pro-Shi’ah sentiment. This and other afore-mentioned Sufi ideas show that the Sufis have adopted, pro-Shi’ah sentiments and have become enmeshed in them.” (Muqaddimah 3.51)


Thus the Shi’a strongly insist that Sufism branched off of Shi’ism and the truth may have become hidden in fact due to taqiyyah, religious dissimulation. It is not an uncommon of Shi’a to claim that the ancestors of modern day Sufis were in fact concealing their beliefs. There is a lengthy history of Sufis being executed upon disclosure of their beliefs, Hallaj being a shining example. Presumably the Sufis hid their true beliefs in response to hostile oppressors. Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains “from the Shi’ite point of view Shi’ism is the origin of what later came to be known as Sufism. But here by Shi’ism is meant the esoteric instructions of the Prophet, the asrar which many Shi’ite authors have identified with the Shi’ite ‘concealment’, taqayah” (Nasr 230) The followers of ‘Ali, due to intense persecution, “practiced dissimulation (taqiyyah) during the entire period of the Imams, and even later”. (Tabandeh 23)


Nonetheless all movements in Islam claim to originate from the Qur’an, the central religious text for Muslims, and the Sunnah, Prophetic teachings, traditions, and practices. The difference being, that in Shi’ism, the Sunnah does not conclude with the death of the Prophet, but instead it continues on with his inheritor, the Imam. These Imams for the Shi’a are divinely selected descendants of Muhammad whose word is viewed no less than the Prophet himself. This concept of Imamat is totally rejected in Sunnism, however in Sufism many of the Shi’a Imams played an integral role in developing their religious tendencies, they were “representatives of Islamic esotericism.” (Nasr 231) The role of the Shi’a Imams in the development of Sufism is clear evidence that the two movements shared key derivatives. And this is not surprising because much of the early Islamic history is unclear; as such the first four centuries of Islamic history are largely understood to have lacked the definite sectarianism seen today.


Many of the common universally accepted aspects of esotericism developed during this era, which for the Shi’a, are seen as exclusively of Shi’a origin. This can best be witnessed in the Sufi and/or Sunni biography of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi’a Imam. Recorded in the authentic books of the Shi’a and Sunni, the Prophet Muhammad towards the end of his life declared ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor. The extent of this declaration is the fundamental point of divergence between Shi’ism and Sunnism, for the Shi’a insist that ‘Ali was the successor of the Prophet completely, as in politically and spiritually. This is exactly where the term Shi’a came from, Shi’atu ‘Ali, the partisans of ‘Ali. In contrast the Sunni largely ignore the declaration of the Prophet in regards to ‘Ali because they see it as something specific to a certain situation and not something timeless. However the Sufis accept the significance of the declaration similar to the Shi’a but only in a spiritual sense. The Sufi look to ‘Ali as the spiritual authority directly after the Prophet, hence all Sufi chains begin with ‘Ali albeit one. Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a contemporary Sufi, explains the importance of the said declaration that “’Alī’s spiritual sovereignty and its unconditional acceptance is binding on the believers till the Day of Judgment. It clearly proves that anyone who denies ‘Alī’s spiritual leadership in fact denies the Prophet’s leadership” (Qadri 5) This increased importance for ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib in both Shi’ism and Sufism is a strong indication towards their shared history. Of the many Sufi Tariqats, paths, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his descendants the Imams play immense roles. The Qadiriyya and the Naqshbandiyya silsilahs share with the Shi’a their Imams. The Qadiriyya in their order begin with the first 8 Imams of the Ithnaashariyya, whereas the Naqshbandiyya hold Ja’far al-Sadiq with high esteem. Many of the Sufi saints were either disciples of the Shi’a Imams or held very close relationships with them, “Hasan al-Basri and Uways al-Qarani were disciples of ‘Ali; Ibrahim al-Adham, Bishr al-Hafi, and Bayazid al-Bastami were associated with the circle of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq; and Ma’ruf al-Karkhi was a close companion of Imam Rida.” (Nasr 231)


Moving on, Shi’ism unlike Sufism is bound to a specific Islamic legislation, a Shari’a. Sufism as noted earlier is not. Thus a Sufi can follow the Hanafi legislation whilst also following a Sufi Tariqah (order). However this creates a gap between the esoteric and exoteric practices of Islam, whereas in Shi’ism all of the exoteric practices are in fact a means towards esotericism. The goal of “Shi’ism, even in its outward aspect, is oriented toward the spiritual stations (maqamat-‘irfani)”, to attain awareness. (Nasr 232)

In Sufism there is a concept of sainthood called walayah, mentioned in the definition of Shi’as, wherein saints are called walis or awliya. To become a formal practitioner of Sufism one must be initiated into the tariqat by a Wali. In Sufism and Shi’ism the first Wali after the Prophet is ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. Whereas this walayah in Shi’ism  is present at a much different level. Walayah for the Shi’a encompasses all aspects of authority; the wali in Shi’ism is the ultimate power, politically, spiritually, and so forth. In Sufism the wali is only the spiritual authority. This chain of walayah in both Sufism and Shi’ism is one that is continuous, beginning with the Prophet Adam till the modern era. The role of the Qutb (the pole/axis) within Sufism and that of the Imam in Shi’ism are by and large synonymous; for the Imam is more or less a Sufi Shaykh who is also the ultimate jurist. Hence for the Shi’a, all those who agree upon ‘Ali being the direct wali after the Prophet must be considered as adherents of Shi’ism, for accepting him as the Qutb they are in fact accepting his Imamat. This concept of the Sufis is of such similarity with the Shi’as that Sayyid Haydar Amuli, a 14th century Shi’a theologian and mystic, says that “the Qutb and the Imam are two expressions possessing the same meaning and referring to the same person.”(Nasr 235) In Shi’ism the Imams all possess ‘ismah, infallibility, similarly the Qutb in Sufism is al-Insaan al-Kaamil, meaning the perfect human thus also infallible. Sayyid Haydur Amuli also “believed that every true Shi’ite is a Sufi and every true Sufi is a Shi’ite.” (Nasr 238)


The Works of Mawlana Rumi:

After broadly highlighting the basic fundamental similarities between Shi’ism and Sufism as well as why Shi’as put forward claims on Sufism, it would be imperative to narrow the discussion on one particular topic. Due to his preeminence in the rank and file of Sufis the relationship between Shi’ism and Sufism must be analyzed through the works of Mawlana Rumi. But before delving into the personality of Mawlana Rumi we must briefly look at his spiritual instructor Shams al-Din Tabrizi because he also plays a role in the Shi’a allegations.


Shams al-Din Tabrizi in the eyes of the Shi’a plays the role of a Shi’a quite well, for his reclusions indicated that he relied much on the Shi’a practice of taqiyyah, defined earlier as dissimilation. Shams al-Din Tabrizi was able to escape in thin air, living amongst the people of Konya until he felt uncomfortable. Shams al-Din Tabrizi in his autobiography, Maqalat-i Shams-i Tabrizi, is presented as someone who could was surrounded in mystery. Shams al-Din Tabrizi is portrayed as if he could escape from the impossible.


“If a tree could run or fly,

it would not suffer

from the teeth of a saw

or the blows of an axe” (3,II:1244-46)


Shams al-Din Tabrizi generally is an individual whose biography is rather quiet on his self and his origins. As a result there is much speculation on him. In the Maqalat of Haj Bektash Wali, the Alevi mystic and philosopher, Shams al-Din Tabrizi is recorded to have been an “embroider” which happens to be the profession of another Shams al-Din, the 28th Shi’a Nizari Ismaili Imam, further fuelling the speculation of the people. (Virani 51) Another point of speculation on the character of Shams al-Din Tabrizi is the Shi’a mystic of Multan, named Shams al-Din Sabzwari. Sabzwari like Tabrizi lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. The evidence for two other Shams al-Din’s both of Shi’a origin raises many questions for the aforesaid community.


Moving on as discussed earlier walayah plays a huge role in Sufism. Walayah derives from the root wly “of which the words, wali, mawla, and mawlawi” are derived. (Pazouki 30) These three terms specifically the latter are highly significant in the study of Mawlana Rumi, for the very Sufi order initiated by Mawlana Rumi is known as the Mawlawi. Mawlana Rumi’s order is named justly as such for he emphasizes the importance of the living wali at many a places. He says in the Mathnawi:


“Thou dost not see this, that the nearness of the awliya (to God) hath

a hundred miracles and pomps and powers.” (Nicholson)

“Even now there exists a Solomon,

but we are blinded by exulting in our farsightedness” (3, II: 3731)


“Therefore in every epoch a wali arises: the probation (of the people) lasts until the resurrection” (3, II:815).

“He is the Mahdi (the guided one) and the Hadi (the guide), O seeker of the way: he is both hidden and seated before your face.” (3,II:818)


The above three couplets if read by a Shi’a quite strongly point towards the concept of Imamat, especially that of the occulted Mahdi. Mawlana Rumi clearly points towards the common man as being visually impaired and that the wali is evident yet unbeknownst to the commoners. The wali is “the ever-living spiritual presence of Islam” whether evident or hidden. (Nasr 232) This seemingly not only hints at the Shi’a issue of ghaybah, but also the occultation of the Shi’a Imam. In the collection of Shi’a hadith the Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq is known to have said that “The earth will (likewise) not remain devoid of such a representative of God till the occurrence of the Hour for if it were to remain devoid of a representative from God, then God would not be worshipped!’ (A man by the name of) Sulayman then said: ‘I asked al-Sadiq‚ So how does mankind benefit from an invisible and hidden representative?” The Imam replied, “just as they benefit from the sun when the clouds hide it!” (Bihar al-Anwar, v. 52, ch 20, p 92)


Returning to the issue of the succession of ‘Ali to the Prophet, if Mawlana Rumi were to follow the path of Sunnism he would define the term Mawla as anything but master, because the word master gives the Shi’a a polemical advantage. The Sunni tend to refrain from that definition and instead use the word “friend”, Mawlana Rumi differs by saying:


“Who is Mawla? He who sets you free and removes the fetters of

slavery from your feet.

Since prophethood is the guide to freedom, freedom is bestowed on

true believers by the prophets.” (3,I:423-5)


The guarantor of freedom is always the master, it would seem peculiar if not unfitting if the term Mawla were to be meant friend in the above couplet. Nevertheless another argument used by the Shi’as is that Mawlana Rumi recognizes the importance of the event of Ghadeer Khumm. The event of Ghadeer Khumm is regarded as one of the most important events in Shi’a history. The significance of this date is in the Shi’a claim that Prophet Muhammad was commanded by the Almighty to culminate the entirety of his tireless work, the spreading of the message of Islam, into the appointment of ‘Ali as the Mawla, master of the Muslims after him.


“For this reason the Prophet, who labored with the utmost zeal, applied

the name mawla to himself and to ‘Ali.

He said, my cousin ‘Ali is the mawla and friend of every one of whom

I am the mawla and friend.” (3,VI:4538-9)


The Shi’a interpretation of the Qur’anic verses revealed to Muhammad immediately prior to the Ghadeer Khumm event clearly coincides with the above couplet of Rumi.


“O Apostle! deliver that which has been revealed to you from your Lord; and if you do it not, then you have not delivered His message, and Allah will protect you from the people.” (5.67)”


Both illustrate the extremity in importance of the appointment of ‘Ali by reaffirming the immensely laborious and difficult task of Prophet-hood, Mawlana Rumi portrays the appointing of ‘Ali as the Mawla as a drastic measure, he “labored with the utmost zeal”. One works with zeal only in the rarest of circumstances. Whilst the Qur’anic verse places an ultimatum on the Prophet that if he does not appoint ‘Ali all his work would be in vain, for he would have “not delivered His (God’s) message”.


Mawlana Rumi, in the catalogues of history undoubtedly is seen as a great Sunni reference while also being in the forefront of all Sufi-masters. This outlook on him is not incorrect for it is known that he was a Hanafi jurist and theologian, descending from a line of such scholars. (Chittick 133) However, as discussed earlier, the Shi’a tend to treat all those who accept ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as the immediate wali after the Prophet Muhammad as one of their own. The special significance of ‘Ali being the wali after the Prophet is that the Prophetic commandment all Muslims to give ‘Ali bay’at, as in allegiance to ‘Ali, the Prophet proclaimed:


“Do I not have more right over the believers than what they have over themselves?” The People cried and answered: “Yes, O’ Messenger of God.” Then the Prophet held up the hand of Ali and said: “Whoever I am his master (Mawla), Ali is his master (Mawla). O’ God, love those who love him, and be hostile to those who are hostile to him.” (Musnad ibn Hanbal, v. 4, p 368)


‘Ali is the initiator of all spiritual chains in Sufism, henceforth the ceremony of ‘Ali attaining the station of master, Mawla, and the raising of the hand for bay’at is as “the grafting of the bitter existence of man to the divine tree in order for it to produce sweet fruit”. (Pazouki 31)


“Either take up the axe and strike like a man—like ‘Ali

Destroy this gate of Khaybar—

Or unite these thorns with the rosebush:

Unite the light of the friend (of God) with the fire (your soul)

In order that this light may extinguish your fire,

(and that) union with Him may make your thorns roses.” (II:1244-46)


“The Mary of the heart will not conceive the breath of the Messiah

Until the divine trust comes from one hidden place to another”



Without the swearing of allegiance towards the wali one’s heart would never be able to attain the desired station of love, walayah.

Moving on, to slightly distance the legacy of Mawlana Rumi from the Sunni Orthodoxy we must look at the subtle barbs he writes towards the orthodoxy. Mawlana Rumi is known to have originally been a Sunni Orthodox scholar who changed his views only after having an epiphany caused by meeting Shams al-Din Tabrizi. Shams al-Din Tabrizi led him to forgo the knowledge he previously knew and dedicated his life to and instead learn and accept what he, Shams al-Din Tabrizi gave which was purely walayah. He defines walayah as the love that draws one closer to the divine. This love is indicative in much of his collection Diwan-i-Shams. In his writings he clearly describes his search for love by highlighting that the Orthodox knowledge of fiqh, jurisprudence, he studied would never lead him to his desired destination. Mawlana Rumi says:


“In that quarter where love was increasing (my) pain,

Bu Hanifa and Shafi’i gave no instruction” (3,III: 3832).


The fuquha, jurists, of Sunnism did not leave behind any teachings in regards to walayah. He further disassociates himself by rejecting the Sahihayn, Sahih al-Muslim and Sahih al-Bukhari, the most authentic Sunni texts in his quest for walayah. He says:

“Without the two Sahihs and narrations and narrators; nay, (they behold him)

in the place where they drink the Water of Life” (3, I:3464).


After the Qur’an, for the Sunnis the Sahihs are regarded as authentic and unquestionable. How could a Sunni with such depth of knowledge disregard the quotes, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad? Mawlana Rumi comes to the understanding that the sought love is not attainable through the vast resources of Orthodox Sunnism, the textual evidences; they only are attained through divine communication of the heart. Mawlana Rumi writes in Diwan-i-Shams:


“Love is nothing but a divine fortune and grace

It is nothing but openness of heart and guidance

Bu Hanifa did not teach love

Shafi‘i has narrated nothing about it

Malik knows nothing about the secret of love

Hanbal does not comprehend it (1, 100).”


Surprisingly, Mawlana Rumi also rejects the Sunni usage of qiyas (deductive analogy) as a means towards understanding the religion. This criticism of qiyas is one that is specific to Shi’ism. For Shi’a argue that not only is aql, intellect valid, but after the Prophet and the Qur’an the awliya, the Imams, are the ones who maintain the right to give explicit statements, Mawlana Rumi says:


“In a case where he does not find an explicit statement, there he will produce an

example from analogy.

Know for sure that the explicit statement is the revelation of the Holy

Spirit and that the analogy made by personal reasoning is subordinate to this”

(3,III: 3582-3).

Mawlana Rumi closes the debate on where to derive instructions by rejecting all that is emphasized in Sunnism and instead accept only what is said by the wali:

“Know that beside the breath (words) of the qutb of the time

transmitted knowledge is like performing the ritual ablution with sand

when there is water” (3, IV: 1418).
Mawlana Rumi is trying to emphasize that the scholars of religion are wasting time researching the authenticity of Hadith or Qur’anic Tafsir, exegesis, for the dictation of the qutb is all what is necessary. This directly relates with the Shi’a interpretation of the Hadith al-Thaqalayn, the Prophet Muhammad announced:

“I’m leaving among you something which is very important and should be followed, you will not go astray if you get hold of it after I am gone, one part of it being more important than the other: Allah’s Book, which is a rope stretched from Heaven to Earth, and my close relatives, who belong to my household. These two will not separate from one another till they come down to the reservoir, so consider how you act regarding them after my departure.” (Sahih Tirmidhi)

The qutb for Mawlana Rumi and the Sufis in general are the interpreters and guardians of knowledge likewise the Shi’a Imams are the caretakers of the Qur’an. Thus their word is the word, everything else is useless.

In retrospect the aforementioned should give some insight as to what the Shi’a view is on Sufism.


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