The spiritual tradition and historical evolution of Shi’ism. Of the currents of Islam, it is characterised by the corpus of teachings attributed to the Fourteen Infallibles: Mohammed, his daughter Fatima and the twelve imams. And secondly by a hierarchical ‘clergy’ which frames and manages the lives of the faithful

This article was published in Oasis 10. Read the table of contents

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According to current opinion, Shi’ism seems to be defined by two distinctive signs.[1] Firstly, a mystical devotion of a set of holy people called the Fourteen Infallibles (maʽsûm): the prophet Mohammed, his daughter Fatima and the twelve imams.[2] Secondly, a ‘clergy’, a sort of hierarchical and structured theocracy that frames and manages the lives of the faithful. The first factor is at the centre of the Shiite religious tradition and the second constitutes the outcome of the historical evolution of a specific current. The spiritual and temporal destiny of Shi’ism seems to lie in a combination of the two.

Within the great diversity of the religious currents of Islam what characterises Shi’ism, after a certain fashion its specificity, is its corpus of sacred traditions (hadîth), that is to say the teachings attributed to the Fourteen Infallibles and more in particular to the imams. This corpus is made up of an immense set of texts of tens of thousands of pages, gathered together in compilations, the oldest of which, amongst those that have come down to us, were composed more or less between 850 and 950 of the vulgar age. This is the case of the collections of al-Kulaynî, of al-Saffâr and also of Ibn Bâbawayh. An examination of the doctrinal traditions of this corpus clearly demonstrates that Shi’ism is a religion of imams. The figure of the Imam/imam, both in its divine, metaphysical, dimension (lâhût), and in its human dimension (nâsût), constitutes the alpha and omega of faith and to such an extent that all religious disciplines, from theology to eschatology, from law to the exegesis of the Koran, passing by way of cosmology, mystics and philosophy, take on a meaning only in relation to imamology.

If we wanted to summarise the quintessence of the Shiite faith, and basing ourselves on the corpus of sacred traditions, we could say that it gravitates around two distinct visions of the world which are at the same time interdependent. First of all, the dual vision of the world according to which every reality, from the highest to the most banal, carries within it two levels: a manifest, apparent and exoteric level (zâhir) and a second level hidden from the first, a secret, esoteric, dimension (bâtin). Thus in theology God unites in Himself an Essence, a hidden and totally inaccessible level, the absolute Unknowable, and a revealed level of His Name and Attributes channelled towards a metaphysical being whom Shi’ism calls by a thousand names: celestial Imam, cosmic Man, primordial Guide etc. In his turn this archetypal Imam possesses a concealed level which is precisely his metaphysical dimension and a revealed, apparent, level, which is manifested by the person of the earthly imam, the temporal and spiritual guide par excellence, the man and woman of God, whose sacral status is designated by the complex term walâya (which could be translated by ‘holy covenant’ or ‘charismatic power’). In prophetology, to give another example, every divine revelation, ‘descended’ in the form of Scripture, also possesses an exoteric level, that of the ‘letter’, communicated to the majority of the faithful by a prophet who is sent (rasûl, nabî) and a secret, esoteric, level, that of the ‘spirit’, communicated to a minority of the initiated by the imam (or walî, ‘the Friend/Ally of God’, the holder of the walâya). Thus the earthly imam, thanks to his own person and to his hermeneutics (taʼwîl) of the letter of Scripture (tanzîl), initiates his disciples into a Secret whose content is the celestial Imam, the revealed Face of God.

Side by side with this vision of the world there exists another which can be defined as dualist, according to which the history of the world is a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil, between Light and Darkness, and between Knowledge and Ignorance. The Friends of God and their faithful, the spiritual guides and their initiated followers, constitute the forces of Knowledge. For the whole length of history they are persecuted, maltreated or even massacred by the forces of Ignorance, that is to say the adversaries of the prophets and the imams: the unbelievers, but also, more often, those who within the same religion only have faith in the ‘letter’ of this last and reject its spirit, thereby amputating a religion of what is most essential in it, its esoteric and spiritual dimension. These ‘experts of the exoteric alone’ (ahl al-zâhir) turn faith into an instrument of ignorance and violence. The asymmetrical war between the two sides will only end with the future coming of the hidden imam, the Mahdi of Shi’ism, the architect of the final and definitive victory of the men of Knowledge. As one can understand, the person of the imam occupies the central role in this dual vision of the world which is shaped around one of the two components of the Shiite religion: the axial notion of initiation, that is to say the move from the apparent to the hidden, and the cosmic idea of the struggle between Good and Evil.



Prohibitions and Paradoxes

Thus the specifically religious tradition of Shi’ism is of a mystical, esoteric and initiation-based kind. It is also quietist in the sense that its normative texts, within the corpus of the Hadîth, lay down a net distinction between the political sphere and the religious sphere, between the temporal and the spiritual, in particular forbidding the faithful, in order to conserve the purity of their faith, from any positive political activity, whether it involves trying to govern by bringing down a power that is adjudged to be unjust or collaborating with a power that is seen to be just. This prohibition will also apply until the eschatological Return of the hidden imam, the only true just Sovereign (sultân ʽâdil). Here is located what has been called ‘the paradox of Shi’ism’, the fact that is to say that a doctrine based on initiation and quietism was able to create within it a heavily politicised tendency which in the end gave rise to the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1978-79.

The beginnings of this long history go back to the fourth century and the tenth hegira of the vulgar age, an authentic turning point for Islam in general and for Shi’ism in particular, because it was marked by various decisive events: indeed, the fourth century was first of all the epoch of the Shiites in power (the Buwayhids at the centre of the Abbasid caliphate, the Ishmaelites in northern Africa, the Hamdanids in Syria, and the Carmats in the region of the Persian Gulf). It was also the moment of the rationalist turning point of Islam after the assimilation of Aristotelian thought as a result of the translations of Greek works which had been begun a century earlier. Lastly, it was the end of the period of the historical imams of the twelve infallibles because in 329/940-941 the last imam was said to have returned to his final Concealment (ghayba kubrà) which according to the faithful still continues today.

The combination of these historical, political and religious causes led, among other things, to the advent of a new class of Twelver jurists/theologians who gravitated around Buwayhid principles and tried to justify their rule by remaining in positions of power. Given that the Sunni Abbasid caliph was still in power and the Sunnis remained a substantial majority, these scholars perceived a pressing need for political legitimacy and began to distance themselves from the doctrine of their ancient coreligionists who belonged to the original esoteric and supra-rational tradition. This took place in the name of ‘reason’, a key word of the epoch.

The ancient corpus which contained by no means few traditions that were adjudged to be non-rational and were subjected to the new science of the Hadîth. A certain number of teachings were declared absurd from the point of view of reason or subjected to new interpretation, in particular those that concerned the doctrines of an esoteric or initiation-based character, or, moving along the same lines, those that prohibited all political activity. A new rationalist theological-juridical tradition began to develop which in the centuries to come would become dominant and a majority position, increasingly isolating the early esoteric tradition. Amongst the great founding names of this new tradition may be cited al-Shaykh al-Mufîd, al-Sharîf al-Murtadâ o Abû Ja‘far al-Tûsî of the fourth/fifth centuries/tenth/eleventh centuries.

The void of religious authority which was created with the Concealment of the imam was gradually filled by the Doctor of Theology. After the fall of the Buwayhids and the repression of the Shiites of Baghdad, the rationalist current subsequently experienced major developments in the school of the Iraqi city of Hilla during the period of the seventh/eighth/thirteenth/fourteenth centuries thanks to thinkers such as al-ʽAllâma al-Hillî or al-Muhaqqiq al-Hillî.


The Establishment of the Clergy

Another major turning point was the advent of the Safavid dynasty in Iran (1501-1722) and the declaration that Shi’ism was the religion of state.

It was at the beginning of this period that the creation of the Shiite clergy was begun and developed and its first task was to provide a justification for the religious policy of the dynasty towards the Sunni Ottomans. The members of the clergy offered themselves explicitly as continuators of the rationalist scholars of the Buwayhid Baghdad of the tenth century. The great theologians-jurists, who by now were called ‘representatives of the hidden imam’, gradually acquired the prerogatives that traditions conferred exclusively on the imam or the person explicitly designated by the imam. We may cite by way of an example the famous ‘four juridical cases’ (al-ahkâm al-arbaʽa), that is to say the direction of collective prayer, the application of religious justice and the legal penalties of the Koran, the collection of certain religious taxes and the declaration of offensive holy war. The rehabilitation of these practices, which had been ‘suspended’ since the Concealment of the twelfth and last imam in the tenth century in name of Tradition, secured great social, political and financial power for the institution of the clergy which fostered growing autonomy in relation to the court.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the ‘Father of the Islamic Revolution’, connected himself in an explicit way to the politicised theologians of the Buwayhid epoch and the Safavid era. His political theology sought to be the last step in a thousand-year process that had gone from the rationalisation to the ideologicalisation of religion, trying to replace the figure of the imam with that of the Doctor of Law (faqîh). It is no accident that his central political thesis, which employed the most sacred term of the Shiite tradition, bears the name walâya al-faqîh (‘the charismatic power of the Doctor of Law’).[3] He was the first ‘non-Infallible’ in the history of Shi’ism (after the brief interval of the activities of Mûsà Sadr, another political leader) to have the sacrosanct name of ‘imam’ (something which for that matter provoked the ire of a certain number of religious authorities and of the faithful). Seen in this perspective, the politicised ayatollah of our times have nothing ‘fundamentalist’ about them, given the evident break with Tradition that was effected in the ancient works of Hadîth.

It should, however, be emphasised that the original esoteric tradition also experienced notable progress after Shi’ism became officialised by being made the religion of state in Iran, above all else through numerous schools of philosophy (for example those of Mullâ Sadrâ al-Shîrâzî or of al-Qâdî Sa‘îd al-Qummî) and the great Shiite mystic brotherhoods (for example Ni‘matullâhiyya, Dhahabiyya, Khâksâr, Shaykhiyya) which have remained alive and particularly popular until today. These ‘traditionalist’ and quietist faithful, adept in hermeneutics as a basis of practical spirituality, see themselves as the sole continuators worthy of the name of the ‘religion of the imams’


Essential Bibliography

Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, La religion discrète. Croyances et pratiques spirituelles dans l’Islam shi’ite (Vrin, Paris, 2006).

Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Guide divin dans le shi’isme originel. Aux sources de l’ésotérisme en Islam (Verdier, Lagrasse 20072).

Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Christian Jambet, Qu’est-ce que le shi’isme? (Fayard, Paris, 2004).


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] In this article I mean by ‘Shi’ism’ its principal and majority branch, that is to say twelver (after the twelve imams) imamate Shi’ism, the religion of state in Iran since the fifteenth century. Amongst the other important branches one may cite Zaydism, Ishmaelism and Nusatrism/Alawism.

[2] I write ‘imam’ with a small ‘i’ when I refer to a historical physical imam (the twelve, that is to say the eleven descendants of Fatima and her husband ʽAlî – the last of these imams, the ‘awaited hidden imam’ is seen as the eschatological Saviour; and ‘Imam’ with a capital ‘I’ when I refer to the Imam in his metaphysical dimension (cf. infra).

[3] In the view of some it is necessary to speak about wilâya (rather than walâya) al-faqîh. Grammatically speaking, the two things are identical. Neither this subtle change of vocalisation nor the scholastic discussions about the term remove any of its sacredness from the collective unconscious of the Shiites.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, “Mysticism and reason in the religion of the Infallibles”, Oasis, year V, n. 10, December 2010, pp. 97-99

Online version:
Text by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, “Mysticism and reason in the religion of the Infallibles”, Oasis [online], published 1st December 2009, URL: