Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies No. 4 (September, 1997)

Individualism and the Spiritual Path in Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i

by Juan R. I. Cole

"Mysticism" is a notoriously difficult word to define. Most often, as with Troeltsch, mysticism is discussed as a spiritual current differentiated from other sorts of religiosity, the high ritualism of the church and the egalitarian enthusiasm of the sect.(1) In Islam, of course, mysticism has been taken to be synonymous with Sufism. This paper is in large part about the attack on aspects of Sufism by a non-Sufi, Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (1753-1826), and it raises a number of questions.(2) Was Shaykh Ahmad himself a "mystic," despite his anathemas against Sufism? And if so, in what sense, or what senses? As for the matter of definition, the late Michel de Certeau suggested we speak instead of the "procedures" of mysticism, which he thought remarkably homologous with those of modern psychoanalysis. He saw these as

(1 launching a radical attack against the founding principles of the historical system within which these procedures are carried out; (2 authorizing a critical analysis by establishing a space (be it "mystical" or "unconscious") posited as different but not distant from the configuration organized by those founding principles of the historical system; (3 specifying theory and practice through a central attention given to enunciation ("prayer" or "transference"), the interrogation of which eludes the logic of statements and is supposed to make possible the transformation of social "contracts" by setting out from the subjects' structuring relations; (4 supposing that the body, far from being ruled by discourse, is itself a symbolic language and that it is the body that is responsible for a truth (of which it is unaware); (5 seeking in representations the traces of the affects ("intentions" and "desires," etc., or motive and drives) that produce them, and perceiving the "tricks" (the rhetorical "devices") that produce the quid pro quos between the hidden and the shown.(3)

These procedures and the aims behind them suggest a set of criteria by which to evaluate Shaykh Ahmad's thought, and perhaps also permit us to understand better his motives for rejecting Sufism.

Shaykh Ahmad Al-Ahsa'i (1753-1826), a native of Eastern Arabia educated in Bahrain and the theological centers of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, spent the last twenty years of his life in Iran, mainly Yazd and Kermanshah, where he received the protection and patronage of princes of the Qajar dynasty, which had restored Shi`ism as Iran's state religion. In Iran, he became much revered by the people. He rejected an offer from Fath-`Ali Shah (r. 1798-1834) to reside in the capital, Tehran, as a royal favorite, for fear that his commitment to justice for the ordinary folk would eventually lead him into conflict with the court. Al-Ahsa'i's speculative writings constitute one of the last great flowerings of Muslim theosophy before the impact of modern European thought in the nineteenth century. He came to consciousness at a tragic time for Shi`ite Islam, which was battered in the eighteenth century by the Sunni Afghan invasion of Shi`ite Iran and dethronement of Shi`ism as the state religion, by the anti-Shi`ite Wahhabi tribes of Arabia, and by growing Russian and British power.

What the French expounder of Islamic mysticism, Henri Corbin, termed "creative imagination" plays a central part in Shaykh Ahmad's writings. Despite the Islamic tradition’s general discomfort with myth, Shaykh Ahmad appeals to it, and he also paints word-pictures of multi-colored divine thrones, footstools, and heavenly and earthly spheres, as aids to spiritual focus.(4) He maintained an extremely complex relationship with his immediate intellectual heritage, the philosophical and mystical strands in the School of Isfahan, accepting its implications for gnosis (`irfan) and rational thought, but rejecting any tinge of pantheism or metaphysical monism. In addition, Shaykh Ahmad was influenced by a still little-known Eastern Arabian tradition of thought.(5) His use of symbolic language captured the imagination of tens of thousands in the Arab East, Iran, and India, and the controversial mystical Shaykhi order came to be established in his name, largely after his death.

Shaykh Ahmad's spiritual enterprise bears some resemblance to Sufism, insofar as he seeks knowledge of the divine, `irfan, and accepts a view of the cosmos as made up of hierarchies running from the material to the intellectual, the latter coming closer to God. The believer's purpose is to move away from gross matter and animal instincts toward divine qualities and insights by means of spiritual and meditative exercises, dreams and trance-states. The metaphor of the wayfarer traversing this metaphysical lattice is common to Shaykh Ahmad and the Sufis. Yet at several key junctures, al-Ahsa'i profoundly challenges the Sufism of the orders, especially in regard to its social structure and conceptions of authority. What drives Shaykh Ahmad to critique so vehemently the position and role of the Sufi shaykh or pir, among whose ranks, after all, must be counted beloved figures in popular Iranian Islam such as Jalalu'd-Din Rumi and Shah Ni`matu'llah Vali?

Like many other Shi`i thinkers, Shaykh Ahmad believes that the Sufi shaykhs arrogate to themselves functions and stations appropriate only to the Twelve Imams, and he sees the entire phenomenon of Sufism, whether Sunni or Shi`i, as a Sunni plot against the primacy of the House of the Prophet. I do not intend to dwell on this line of attack, which is after all hardly confined to al-Ahsa'i, and which is the least attractive element in his intellectual system. It appears to be more of a rhetorical device than an argument in its own right, an attempt, for polemical purposes, to discredit Sufism as inevitably Sunni, than an argument in its own right. It is never elaborated upon in any logical manner, but simply asserted. When Shaykh Ahmad considers the objection that some Sufi orders are Shi`i, and that perhaps the condemnations of Sufism in Shi`i hadith collections might be aimed solely at Sunni Sufis, he replies that so-called Shi`i Sufism must also be condemned, because of the way its adherents engage in esoteric interpretation (awwala) the sayings of the Imams.(6) In the final analysis, then, his objection is to a set of premises and methods.

The more serious critique of Sufism in his work lies in two directions, both evident in the replies he gave from Yazd in 1811 to Mulla `Ali Rashti, who appears to have been a Shi`i Sufi, perhaps a Ni`matu'llahi. First, Shaykh Ahmad says that most Sufis in his experience adhere to the doctrine of the unity of being (wahdat al-wujud), which he codes as pantheism, and which he finds logically absurd and doctrinally noxious. He deplores Ibn `Arabi's ideas in this regard, and regrets his influence even upon Shi`i thinkers such as Mulla Sadra and Mulla Muhsin Fayz Kashani. One objection he raises to the unity of being is the conclusion Ibn `Arabi and some of his followers reached that all dualism is ultimately illusory. This compels the Sufi observation that even Samiri, who in Islamic lore created the golden calf for the Children of Israel to worship, was performing God's work, since God must be worshipped in every form; and even Pharaoh, then, was also a believer. Shaykh Ahmad, on the other hand, is a determined dualist in the ethical, doctrinal and metaphysical domains. He thunders condemnations of moral turpitude and doctrinal error, and replies to this notion of the good Pharaoh with a raft of contrary Qur'an quotations.(7)

Second, he is repelled by the adulation and obedience proffered to Sufi pirs by their disciples or murids. I would like to concentrate here upon this latter concern, and to explore its logic. First of all, Shaykh Ahmad attempts to draw a distinction between Sufi pirs, whose authority is illegitimate, and mystics or mystical knowers (`urafa', sing. `arif), whose enterprise is in accordance with Shi`ism. Mystics can be recognized by their knowledge and their deeds. In regard to knowledge, mystics perceive the realities (al-haqa'iq), and all of their beliefs and knowledge are in accordance with the teachings of the Imams and do not contradict the exoteric beliefs of the common Shi`is. That is, mystics say words like those spoken by the ordinary Shi`is, except that the mystics understand the purport of these statements, whereas their true meaning might be hidden from the laity. This proposition recalls the argument of twentieth-century language analysts, who maintain that flights of metaphysical rhetoric that cannot be expressed in language understandable to ordinary persons are meaningless. Shaykh Ahmad seems to require an analogous "ordinary language" criterion for mystical discourse, though of course he is interested in excluding, not all metaphysical statements, but those propositions and that stray too far from community consensus (e.g., most ordinary Shi`is did not think of Samiri and Pharaoh as, in reality, believers doing God's will). He differs from the language analysts in seeing such propositions as having both richer and thinner semantic levels, such that the mystic achieves a "thick" understanding, whereas the ordinary believer might understand only a "thin" surface meaning.(8)

Should some impugn the exoteric beliefs of the community, then they are simply ignorant and obdurate. For, he says, the Legislator (the Prophet Muhammad) neglected nothing, but rather said everything openly to all the people. What he did not elucidate, it is forbidden for anyone to elucidate. The esoteric, then, does not contradict the exoteric; were it to do so, it would be proven false. For the exoteric is the Truth, which the Prophet built; and it is faith; and it is tangible and universally believed and transmitted (al-mahsus wa al-mutawatir), in which no error is possible. In anything else, error is possible. The proof of the right position, then, is that it is in accordance with the exoteric aspects of Shi`ite belief and practice. Shaykh Ahmad likens the exoteric and the esoteric to the human soul and body; were a human soul placed in an animal body, it would not suit it, and vice versa. The two are, then, inevitably paired.

What of the mystics' deeds? He says that, clearly, they will practice whatever was ordained by the Legislator, for the latter enjoined obligations in a form that accords with the being of the worshippers. Shaykh Ahmad here becomes uncomfortable with the implication in what he has just written, that human needs might in any way shape divine actions. He therefore clarifies that, in actual fact, the very being of the worshippers was dictated by revelational Being. That is, the worshipping human being's existential reality accords with revelational law because the latter is a prior ontological principle that shaped the former. Mystics know that the essence of the inner reality of the law-abiding believer is esoteric worship (al-`ibadah al-batiniyyah), which is right belief and knowledge. And the essence of the exoteric religious obligation is exoteric knowledge, which is ritual worship and works, as established by the legislator. The Prophet, in ordaining worship, gave attention to the spirit and the heart, but also to the body and its physical members, all of which must be brought into play. His holistic, body-and-soul conception of mystical progress leads Shaykh Ahmad to condemn antinomian "mystics" as nothing more than ignoramuses. How could one's inner soul believe while one's outer body remained an infidel? he asks.(9) Here "esoteric knowledge" seems to be analogous to what Muslim philosophers would have called theoretical philosophy, whereas "exoteric knowledge" is equated with the practicalities of worship and ethical action, the equivalents of practical philosophy. Both are required by Shaykh Ahmad, just as both are required by medieval thinkers such as Tusi in his Nasirean Ethics.

Mulla `Ali Rashti, Shaykh Ahmad's main interlocutor on these matters, now pursues the question of the seeker's need for a guide, which Sufis insist involves an obligation to obey implicitly the pir. Rashti concedes that Sunni pirs may claim too much authority and charisma, trespassing on ground properly occupied by the Imams, but suggests that the Path does require a guide (murshid), and that it is not easy for even the Shi`i seeker to arrive at the goal without one.

In reply, Shaykh Ahmad refuses to concede this point to the Sufi Shi`is, insisting that one must enter a house through its doors, and that the Imams are the doors here. The shortest path to God is that blazed by the Legislator, with all its prayers (individual and prescribed), ritual acts, good traits and deeds, concentration upon the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and preparedness for death. These are enshrined in books possessed by the believers, of law, way and truth (shari`ah, tariqah, haqiqah). Shaykh Ahmad refers to a saying of the Prophet that knowledge is not a matter of learning, but is a light that descends upon the heart by God's grace. In one saying, `Ali insists that knowledge is not in the heavens but in one's heart, and that believers should train themselves under the direction of spiritual mentors (ruhaniyyun).

The innateness of spiritual knowledge constitutes one of Shaykh Ahmad's prime arguments against the need for a full-blown pir of the Sufi sort. He says that such knowledge was displayed to the creation in the preexistent World of the Atom (`alam adh-dharr), when God posed the question to His potential creatures, "Am I not your Lord?" According to the Qur'an, these then answered "Yes!" No persons will now accept any piece of knowledge save if they encountered it there at that primal scene. Teachers in this world are in reality mere awakeners (munabbihun) of the learners, and their reminders of what they have forgotten of their pre-existent memories. Do you not see how, he asks, when your teacher informs you of certain matters, you accept only those that you can perceive? Your perception, he concludes, derives from the insights you were given in the World of the Atom. Shaykh Ahmad takes this Platonic theory of learning in an egalitarian direction; the most a guide can do is remind you of what you already essentially knew. The guide is therefore not a superior being bestowing unprecedented knowledge on the seeker; his only advantage is in serial time--he happened to recover some preexistent memories before the seeker did.

Another reason for which pirs are redundant is that the Imams are something like a collective Logos, mediating effectively between believers and God. Shaykh Ahmad quotes a hadith, without specifying from which Imam it derives, that "We are the learned (al-`ulama') and our partisans are the pupils (al-muta`allimun)." The Imams guide those who emulate them to all good, and prevent those who oppose them from arriving at the truth. Only through their mediation (bi wasitatihim) does God bestow on any of His creatures being, light, nourishment, life and death. The believer's prayers and deeds, on the other hand, can only ascend to God through them. He here instances `Ali's saying, "We are the knowers, and none knows God save by the path of our knowledge." Shaykh Ahmad says that this statement has three meanings for the people of God. The first is that God can only be known by the attributes that the Imams ascribed to him, and all other descriptions of the divine are false. The second is that whoever knows God and does not know the Imams has not in fact known God, for they are His attributes (sifatuh) whereby He is made known. For a thing is not known save by its attributes, which are like knowledge of it and are the temple of its manifestation. The third is that `Ali was referring to the esoteric knowledge that the Imams had with them, and which they teach to whomever they choose, in accordance with God's special command. The path is, then, their path; progress is toward them, and they are signposts (adilla', `alamat) along the way. Whichever of the three possible meanings of "knowledge" is chosen, Shaykh Ahmad concludes, it is clear that there is no need for anyone to have a guide (murshid) other than them. Any guide to their path as they blazed it cannot be an intermediary in his own right, but is merely an awakener and a reminder.(10)

The need that Rashti mentioned, for a companion on the path, does not prove the necessity of adopting a murshid, for a companion is a fellow passenger, not the vehicle itself. For Sufis, Shaykh Ahmad observes, the murshid is the ship of salvation, the vehicle that carries the seeker over land and sea. He condemns Sufis who advocate that seekers imagine the image of their murshid when they make their intention (niyyah) before performing their obligatory prayers, or even contend that their prayers are not valid if the seeker neglects to do so. Astonished, Shaykh Ahmad points out that the One being worshipped is Omnipresent, whereas the image of the murshid is limited (occupying, as a limited and distinct act of imagination, the lowest rung in the hierarchy of being, a position somewhere in the level of malakut or this world of dominion). The image of the pir in the mind's eye is only, therefore, a this-worldly act of allusion (isharah malakutiyyah). What is needed, he says, is the removal of the veils of glory (subuhat al-jalal) without any allusion. The worshipper, in accordance with what the Imams have taught him, must turn toward God without any sense of allusion or direction, so that the Countenance of God appears. For followers of the Imams, it is impermissible for the worshipper to conjure up an image at all, at the time he is making his intention. Even images of Muhammad and `Ali would be forbidden, since their images are limited, and the limited cannot attain the unlimited.

Rashti now tries again, describing the pir as one who is exalted over the seeker only because he has followed the path to the end and then selflessly come back down to the lowest levels to help others ascend it. Part of the purpose here is to prevent an impulsive leap of emanation (tafrah fi al-fayd ka al-makan wa al-zaman) such as (can occur?) in time and space. (I do not entirely understand this elliptical statement in Rashti's question, but apparently his Sufi ideal was for the divine emanation to be received in a level manner and allow a smooth progression toward God; the pir seems to be conceived as a moderator of the flow of grace, so that it not "overload" the seeker or catapult him to a stage for which he is not prepared).

In reply, Shaykh Ahmad points to the arduousness of the mystical path, whereon the wayfarer journeys among barren hills and steep inclines, then launches upon terrifying waves in a billowing sea, so that he is encompassed by waves from above and below, while jet clouds cast down lightning and thunder, a lightning whose brilliance blinds onlookers. He concludes by quoting lines from a poetry (a qasidah) about the voyage by `Abdu'llah b. Qasim as-Suhrawardi. Shaykh Ahmad, however, throws this image of an extremely hazardous trek back in the face of the Sufis, saying that no one can act as a guide thereon save one who is unique, an arrived one whose soul is perfect, having traversed the states of satisfaction, contentment, and radiant acquiescence. For one who is not perfect in his soul cannot perfect others, and were an imperfect person to attempt such guidance, he would run the risk of having seekers emulate his imperfections. The possessor of virtue (dhi al-fadl) may be of three sorts, he says. The first sort is like light, such that its grace is greater than its reality warrants, so that it is able both to manifest itself and to illuminate other things. The second sort is like a live coal, which is imbued with grace in precise accordance with its reality. It is manifest in and of itself, but nothing is added to it whereby it may illumine others. The third sort is like a stone, the grace in which is less than its reality, such that it cannot even manifest itself, much less illumine others. Now, the murshid must be of the first sort. He may proceed in two ways. First, in order to teach the lowly, he must descend to their level, as the Imams did, who even occasionally spoke the speech of animals in order to communicate with them. Second, he can elevate the imperfect person by means of his excess virtue, and can perfect that seeker. Shaykh Ahmad implies, but does not explicitly state here, that only the Imam fits the description of such an autonomous, perfect person who can raise the lowly to heights of perfection. As for other guides, they can be at most awakeners and reminders.(11)

Mulla `Ali Rashti's next question has to do with the concept of self-annihilation (al-fana') in the pir. He begins by noting that, while some insist that one can only see the Goal through a thousand veils, that is, one can only see God throught he pir, others conceive of the pir as a veil which must at some point itself be torn away in order for seekers to attain the ultimate Goal. Either way, what, he asks would be the harm in approaching the goal through the intermediary of the pir, provided that the seeker's gaze is fixed upon the ultimate and true Goal—for in this way, one will see unity in multiplicity.

Shaykh Ahmad in return continues to question the very premise that Sufi pirs possess any valuable or true knowledge about God. He heaps scorn on those who claim the ability to write voluminous volumes filled with divine secrets, but say that they forbear to do so because the people could not accept the truth. He insists that since the seeker knows that the pir is not divinely protected (ma`sum) from sin, the seeker should accept from him only what does not contravene the revealed Law. In each instance, the seeker should find out from the pir what his reasoning was in giving any judgment, and should examine the reasoning closely to see if it accords with Islam. All this is in regard to the great, central principles of religion (usul al-din), upon which there is general agreement. On the level of subsidiary (furu`) or secondary law, which addresses disputed matters through the principles of jurisprudence, it is necessary for the pir to be a qualified jurisprudent in order for him to rule authoritatively on any matter, and he may not depart from the consensus of the Shi`ites without strong evidence. Should he not possess this jurisprudential expertise, Shaykh Ahmad implies, his legal advice would be worthless, and he explicitly says that it is impermissible for the seeker to obey his pir simply because he is attached to him. While it is allowed (indeed it is complosory) unquestioningly to obey someone like an Imam, who is divinely protected, it is not allowed to give such unthinking obedience to an ordinary human being. Thus, the pir in making any pronouncement must offer his seeker evidence that the seeker finds well-grounded and convincing.
Finally, al-Ahsa'i appears to question the ability of the pir to lift up his seekers, insofar as the seeker has already determined his destiny by the attitude he took when answering God's summons at the preexistent primal scene. When God asked, "Am I not your Lord?" all creation replied in the affirmative. But some did so insincerely, secretly harboring a rancor toward God, and those souls were thereafter doomed to wickedness in this life. Insofar as each creature could freely decide in what spirit to answer the question, this is not a doctrine of predestination, but rather resembles the Hindu notion of karma, that past decisions and actions are responsible for the individual's prosperity or misfortunes in this life. In any case, a pir cannot now intervene to reverse the consequences of a hypocritical answer at the primal scene. He adverts again to the adherence of figures like Ibn `Arabi to Sunnism, giving the example of the Andalusian's praise for Yazid the Umayyad, the persecutor of the Imam Husayn, which Shaykh Ahmad believes entirely disproves the notion that Ibn `Arabi had any access to divine inspiration (kashf).(12) Shaykh Ahmad implies that his Sunnism and regard for Yazid proves that he did not even give the “right” answer in primordial time (since the central element of those events, in the Shi`i telling, was the choice of acceptance of the Imams)—much less can he pretend to be of the stature of the Imams and a guide to others.

Shaykh Ahmad relies in this essay on the doctrines of Usuli Shi`ism, that formal jurisprudential training is necessary before someone can issue authoritative legal judgments, which the laity must obey; but that in matters of the principles of religion and doctrine, everyone must come to the correct conclusions through his or her own reasoning and effort. Blind emulation of others in this latter sphere is impermissible. From this point of view, Sufism looked entirely wrongheaded. Here we have pirs, often lacking in formal jurisprudential training, issuing opinions on matters pertaining to Islamic law and practice. We have seekers pledged to obey their pirs unquestioningly, even in matters that should be an individual responsibility, such as faith and creed.

As for the Sufi concept of the annihilation (fana') of the base self, Shaykh Ahmad accepts it in principle, but does not endorse Mulla `Ali Rashti's formulation of "annihilation in the pir." First of all, he points out that whereas Mulla `Ali was willing to speak of the pir as a "veil" between God and believers, though perhaps a translucent one, for Shi`is the Imam `Ali is not a veil between believers and God. He implies that the Imams are therefore much better sources of grace than are pirs. He explains that God's essence is unknowable, and we can know only His manifestations, His names and attributes, as represented by Muhammad and the Imams. So if the goal were to rend the veils separating us from the divine Essence, that is a chimera. Nor, however, can he accept the Sufi formulation of the need to see the goal through a thousand veils. Such veils exist, and they must be rent. It is in his teaching concerning these veils that Shaykh Ahmad’s individualism is most strikingly evident.

According to Shaykh Ahmad, while the divine Essence is inaccessible to ordinary believers, all humans possess attributes that constitute a manifestation to them of God. Therefore, although an annihilation of the divide between the seeker and God is impossible, it is possible to demolish the barrier between these persons and the internal manifestation of God within them. In Shaykh Ahmad's formulation, this is His manifestation to you by means of yourself; your annihilation is within yourself (wa lakinnahu zuhuruh laka bika fa fana'uka fika). Likewise, the "oneness" that is seen in multiplicity cannot be the oneness of God, since that would imply an identity between dust and the Lord of Lords. On the other hand, the created world does go back to a primal unity, sometimes mythically referred to as the Primal Water, wherein the first stable entity to emerge was the Primal Intellect. The Intellect is the first branch of the tree of eternity in of Saqurah, a garden of heaven.(13) It is thus possible that the mystic might be able to attain a perception of the unity of all created things on the plane of limited being, including the accidents and substances such as fill the Most Great Depth (al-`umq al-akbar), by annihilating the barrier between their individual psyches and the manifestations of God within them. This unity, Shaykh Ahmad says, is sometimes referred to as the Countenance of God. He is careful to say that what is being achieved is a perception of the unity of the manifestations of the Primal Water, not of the Primal Water itself, since what comes later cannot directly perceive principles that are prior to its existence.(14)

The interface of divine and human therefore lies inside human beings. When, in 1819, another Shi`i mystic, Muhammad Mahdi Astarabadi, asked Shaykh Ahmad for a commentary on the saying, "Whoso knows his self, knows his Lord." he replied that it was a variant attributed to the Imam `Ali of the Prophetic saying, "He who is most knowledgeable about his self, is most knowledgeable about his Lord." Al-

Ahsa’i states that the validity of neither of these reports has been challenged by the philosophers and clerics.(15) They have, however, differed as to its meaning, with many reducing it to insignificance by saying that the intent was that just as one cannot know one's self, one cannot know God. The real meaning of the saying, Shaykh Ahmad affirms, is that

in creating human beings God endowed them with being (often symbolized by Light and Water), which, sincie it is bestowed upon them from an external source, Shaykh Ahmad refers to as an extrinsic reality or essence (kunh min rabbih). The reason for which humans could accept the bestowal of being, however, is that they have a receptivity (qabiliyyah) to or patiency (infi`al) with regard to being, a receptivity that constitutes their intrinsic essence (kunh min nafsih). It is implied that ordinary human consciousness tends to reside in the intrinsic essence, and that special efforts must be made to break through to the extrinsic essence, which is that “self,” knowledge of which is equivalent to knowledge of one’s Lord. For knowledge of illumination would entail knowledge of the illuminator, and whoever has known an attribute has known the possessor of that attribute. He discusses at some length another metaphor for this sort of knowledge of the divine, encouraging the reader to consider a flame viewed in a mirror. Here the form of the flame is like extrinsic being, whereas its apparition in the mirror is like intrinsic or passive being. One cannot know essence of fire by means of its mirror-image, but one can attain some knowledge of the flame (its heat, for instance) by means of its actual form. In the same way, when perspicacious believers, the possessors of discernment, see their own extrinsic reality, their own divine light or endowed being, then they get a inkling of their Lord.

One begins one's spiritual evolution, of course, with a much fuller sense of one's intrinsic being than of one's extrinsic being. The former, which is nothing more than one's receptivity to the divine ontological light, is characterized by attributes and subjective consciousness, which form a cloud of glory that obscures one's God-given essence. How, then, may we attain a knowledge of the true self that would in turn lead to knowledge of our Lord? Shaykh Ahmad's answer might best be characterized as Shi`ite Zen. It is to strip away all ordinary consciousness. Just as, in Mu`tazilite theology, the scholastic stripped away (ta`til) the apparent attributes of God, ending only with the unadorned divine essence, so Shaykh Ahmad counsels a similar stripping away of apparent human attributes, as a means to self-realization.

The way to strip away the veils is to cast off from your essence in your subjectivity and conscience all the qualities of your essence, and do not look at your motion or quiescence, your sleeping or waking, your crying or laughing . . . your being the father of someone or the son of someone . . . Everything that can truly be said to be a thing in every regard, cast it away out of your sight and give it no consideration, for it is different from your soul. If you join something to your soul in knowing your soul, you have not known your soul; you have only known something, part of which is your soul. For instance, if you know your soul by virtue of its created nature, then you have known something composite, whereby you cannot [in turn] know God. For He is not composite and cannot be known by something composite. It is necessary to pierce the clouds of glory in their entirety . . . in the sense that you strip your soul of all veils, that is, of all qualities, relationships, attributes, actions and conditions, until nothing is left but the essence alone.(16)

Inner spiritual exercises, and the attainment of higher states of consciousness, then, form a further basis for religious authority in Shaykh Ahmad's system.

The Shaykh, like the Ni`matu'llahi pirs who were his contemporaries, insisted on the spiritual experiences of the heart as a legitimation of religious authority, rather than accepting the mere mastery of legal details as in mainstream Usulism. Can he, then, be seen as a Sufi pir of sorts? This may seem an odd question given the dim view he has taken of the pirs. I believe this question, however, to be more complex than it might appear on the surface. Let us begin by reexamining the Shaykh's attitude to Ibn `Arabi. It is clear that Shaykh Ahmad accepted in its broad outline much of the metaphysical scaffolding erected by Ibn `Arabi. He at one point quotes a commentary on the latter's Bezels of Wisdom about the imaginal world and other metaphysical realms, and suggests only minor corrections to the view presented.(17) The one point (aside from statements that strike him as pantheistic) at which he grows vituperative is when, in Meccan Revelations, Ibn `Arabi discusses the authority of the Sufi leaders as spiritual poles (aqtab, sing. qutb) channeling the grace of God into the world. For Shaykh Ahmad, this is damnable blasphemy, since only the Shi`ite Imams can play such a role.

Yet, what Shaykh Ahmad ultimately appears to propose is that while the divine grace is funneled into this plane via the Imams, they have their contact-points in the person of mystics like Shaykh Ahmad himself. That is, once the Imams are restored to their proper place as sole bearers of inspiration, then it is permissible to speak of a contemporary Perfect Person arising to reflect the light of the Prophet's family into this world. This Shi`i guide can be no more than a reminder or awakener, but such a role does indicate that the guide has advanced further on the spiritual path than the seeker. Shaykh Ahmad's conception of moral perfection and the overflowing of grace in those who attain it are homologous with Sufi thought, but differ in their strong grounding in esoteric Shi`ite symbols and texts. If the Ni`matu'llahis, with their pirs and their rootedness in the Persian mystical tradition, constituted the bestowal of a Shi`ite veneer on Sufism, Shaykhism might rather be seen as the embellishment of occult Shi`ism with selected Sufi motifs.

For Shaykh Ahmad, then, the Shi`ite learned man is not simply a mundane thinker dependent on nothing more than the divine text and his intellectual tools for its interpretation. The Learned must have a spiritual pole (qutb), a source of grace (ghawth), who will serve as the locus of God's own gaze in this world. Both pole and ghawth are frequently-used Sufi terms for great masters who can by their grace help their followers pursue the spiritual path. For Shaykh Ahmad, the pole is the Twelfth Imam himself, the light of whose being is in the heart of the Learned. The oral reports, he notes, say that believers benefit from the Imam in his Occultation just as the earth benefits from the sun even when it goes behind a cloud. Were the light of the Imam, as guardian (mustahfiz), to be altogether extinguished, then the Learned would not be able to see in the darkness.(18)

Let us return, now, by way of conclusion, to the "procedures" of mysticism outlined by Certeau. What of the "radical attack" on the prior and enveloping "historical system" common in mystics? Shaykh Ahmad's rhetoric in this regard is confusing. He upholds the Shi`ite tradition and attacks figures--Ibn `Arabi, Mulla Sadra, Mulla Muhsin Fayz--whom most would categorize as mystics. And yet, he is hardly a hidebound traditionalist or a literal-minded legalist. In a treatise not discussed above on the principles of jurisprudence for the Akhbari Shaykh Husayn al-`Asfur of Bahrain, he even sees the proper operation of jurisprudential reasoning to depend on the illumination (ishraq) received in the jurisprudent's heart from the Imam.(19) Drawing on Harold Bloom, I would argue that here we are seeing a belated mysticism, elaborated in the wake of centuries of previous work, from the shadow of which Shaykh Ahmad wishes to extricate his own ideas, and which finds it necessary to attack, not only dry legalists such as the Akhbaris, but also a highly developed mystical Establishment embodied in Sufi orders and convent-based study of a canon that prominently featured the works of Ibn `Arabi and his school.(20) The attack focuses on existential monism and the inadequacies of the piri-muridi system, but leaves much else intact. The double-edged nature of the attack does not blunt, and should not obscure, its mystical intent and underpinnings. Shaykh Ahmad, in his conception of the spiritual path as a process of "stripping" (ta`til) away personality-attributes as a means of arriving at the divine reflection within oneself, at the extrinsic being bestowed by God, has certainly delineated a space different from the founding principles of conventional legalist Shi`ism. It is also a space somewhat different from the "annihilation in the pir" advocated by some Sufis, insofar as it insists on an egalitarian spiritual field and a retention of the individual ego.

The theory and practice of this path are enunciated as a deepened or "thick" experience of Shi`i daily ritual and scripture readings, in addition to a specific meditative technique taught and advocated by Shaykh Ahmad himself. Although this point is not made explicitly in the essays discussed above, it is safe to say that in Shaykh Ahmad's system the body is very much a symbolic discourse within this path, as can be seen in the ceremonial elegance of the daily prayers, with their cosmic orientation and the expressive humility of prostration. Shaykhis became famous for the meticulousness and self-abasement of their ritual visits to the shrines of the Imams, in which they postured their bodies all around the tomb, and they contrasted this corporeal ubiquity at the sacred places with the Usuli Shi`i tendency simply to come in and stand at the head of the tombs. Al-Ahsa'i's famous and complex "four-body" metaphysics, which situates human beings at the intersection of the physical world and the world of Platonic forms, also points to the body as discourse.

The pursuit of gnosis or `irfan has implications for the social contract insofar as the sort of blind obedience in spiritual matters required of the seeker toward the pir in Shi`ism is disallowed here. The entire Sufi social structure of the head of the Order (sajjadah-nishin) at the apex, with deputies (khalifahs) in each city or region, is attacked as based on a falsehood. Shaykh Ahmad advocates, in the realm of spirituality and the principles of religion, a more equal association of believers, some of whom are slightly more advanced and so able to help awaken or cue their co-religionists to their own latent spiritual potencies. He envisages this spiritual egalitarianism and individualism as congruent with a much more hierarchical division of labor in the realm of legal discourse and practice, where the rulings of trained Usuli jurisprudents must be obeyed by the laity. Finally, Shaykh Ahmad pays extreme attention to the rhetorical devices that produce the quid pro quo between the hidden and the seen. The exoteric/esoteric divide is one of the more powerful plot devices in his system. Yet here, too, he desires to reconfigure it so as to stress the necessity of absolute contiguity between the two, so that the esoteric produces no doctrinal or ritual deviation or innovation, but simply reveals a more profound insight into the exoteric. This formulation allows him simultaneously to attack dry legalism (wherein the esoteric dimension is missing altogether) and Sufism (wherein the esoteric has been allowed to get out of control, coming to depart from the matrix of the exoteric and producing doctrines such as the secret piety of Pharaoh).

The striking aspect about Shaykh Ahmad's critique of Sufism is how modern it sounds. Indeed, there are profound points of similarity between this early 19th-century Shi`ite evaluation and the reformist thought of twentieth-century thinkers such as Muhammad Iqbal. Individualism characterizes both thinkers. Existential monism, a complex doctrine that cannot actually be reduced to simple pantheism, nevertheless does require an ultimate submergence of the individual ego. So, too, did some ideas of annihilation or fana', although some Sufis also believed in the survival of the soul in God (al-baqa' bi'llah) after the destruction of the base self. Both al-Ahsa'i and Iqbal reject this loss of individuation. Both attack the authority-structure of piri-muridi as inimical to individual initiative and to a conception of the community (ummah) of believers as an egalitarian association of free persons. Although Shaykh Ahmad substitutes the Imams for the Sufi pirs as sources of spiritual authority, his hermeneutics are so subtle as to allow spaces for individual interpretation that might be foreclosed by a living pir. Despite the hierarchical tendencies of later Shaykhis, Shaykh Ahmad here claims to be no more than an awakener of others. While al-Ahsa’i's thought can be seen, as suggested in the introduction, as the culmination of certain medieval and early modern movements in Shi`ism, including esotericism (the Gnostic-leaning al-batiniyyah), Illuminationism, and `irfan, aspects of his system suggest that he should also be viewed as a modernist reformer, an advocate of individualism in an Islamic context.


1) Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

2) For Shaykhism see Henri Corbin, L'École Shaykhie en Théologie Shi`ite (Tehran: Taban, 1967), idem, En Islam Iranien, 4 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1971-72) and Mangol Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1982), pp. 1-58. For Shaykh Ahmad himself, see A.L.M. Nicolas, Essai sur le cheikhisme, vol. 1 (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1910); Vahid Rafati, "The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi`i Islam," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1979); and Denis MacEoin, S.V. "Ahsa'i, Shaikh Ahmad b. Zayn al-Din," Encyclopaedia Iranica, 3 vols. - (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983 - ).

3) Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, trans. Michael B. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 8.

4) See Juan R. I. Cole, “The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa’i,” Studia Islamica 80 (1994):1-23; Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn `Arabi, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969).

5) Shaykh Ahmad was influenced by theosopher Ibn Abi Jumhur al-Ahsa'i (b. 1434) (though he could be critical of the latter’s tendency to pantheism) and the great Bahraini thinkers of the Safavid period (1501-1722); see: Juan R.I. Cole, "Rival Empires of Trade and Imami Shi`ism in Eastern Arabia, 1300-1800," International Journal of Middle East Studies 19 (1987):177-204; W. Madelung, "Ibn Abi Djumhur al-Ahsa'i," Encyclopaedia of Islam, 5 vols. - (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1954-, 2nd edn.) (hereafter EI2); W. Madelung, "Ibn Abi Gumhur al-Ahsa'i's Synthesis of Kalam, Philosophy and Sufism," in La significance du bas moyen age dans l'histoire et la culture du monde musulman, Actes du 8e Congrès de l'Union Européen des Arabisants et Islamisants (Aix-en-Province, 1978), pp. 147-58. See also the forthcoming book by Sabine Schmidtke.

6) Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i/Mulla `Ali b. Mirza Jan Gilani Rashti, 1266/1811,in Shaykh al-Ahsa'i, Jawami` al-kalim, 2 vols. (Tabriz: Muhammad Taqi Nakhjavani, 1273-1276), I, ii, 2, p. 71.

7) al-Ahsa'i/Rashti, 1266/1811, Jawami`, I, ii, 2, p. 70.

8) Cf. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), for the distinction between “thick” and “thin” description in ethnography. He argues that the same event can be observed in a more canny or less canny way, and that the difference lies not in the primary experience itself but in the subtlety of interpretation and understanding that the anthropologist brings to bear on it.

9) al-Ahsa'i/Rashti, 1266/1811, Jawami`, I, ii, 2, pp. 71-72.

10) Ibid., p. 72.

11) Ibid., p. 73.

12) Ibid., p. 74.

13) For Saqurah and other heavenly garden motifs in Shaykh Ahmad’s thought see Cole, “The World as Text,” pp. 158-159.

14) al-Ahsa'i/Rashti, 1266/1811, Jawami`, I, ii, 2, p. 75.

15) Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i/Muhammad Mihdi Astarabadi, 2 Safar 1235/ 20 November 1819, Jawami`, II:127-128.

16) Ibid., II:129.

17) Ahmad al-Ahsa'i, "al-Kashkul," 1:94.

18) Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i/Sayyid Sharif b. Sayyid Jabir, n.d., Jawami`, I, ii, 25:266.

19) Shaykh Ahmad al- Ahsa’i/Shaykh Husayn al-`Asfur, n.d. [1797?], Jawami`, II, 42-46.

20) Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism (New York: Continuum, 1984).

Note: This paper is forthcoming in print form in a book on Shi`ism edited by Lynda Clarke and Mahmoud Ayyoub, and appears here in digital form with their kind permission.

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