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In Memory of His Holliness Sultan Ali Shah Gonabadi



Hazrat Hajj Sultan Mohammad Gonabadi Sultan Ali Shah
Renewer of the Nimatullahi Order in Iran

Sufism is the spiritual reality of Islam, even if it was not known as “Sufism” at the inception of Islam. Phenomenologically speaking, it proves to be the essence of Islam, which gives life to it, like the soul gives life to the body. In Sufi terminology, Islam has two aspects: shari’at, its outer dimension, or body, and tariqat, its inner dimension, or soul. These two aspects were inseparably joined in the person of the Prophet, but little by little through the history of Islam, there were people who paid attention only to the shari’at, Islamic law, and even confined Islam to this. Often the fuqaha or ‘ulama took this attitude. In contrast to them there were people who emphasized the spiritual reality or tariqat, who became famous as Sufis.
The propagation of Islam was not through the sword of the rulers, but by the heartfelt word of the Sufis. The cutting swords of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi or Nadir Shah Afshar did not make Islam influential among the Hindus. It was by the spiritual attraction and life giving breath of Sufi masters such as the successors of Shah Ni’matullah Wali or Mir Sayyid ‘Ali Hamadani that they became Muslim.
Whenever the Muslims were weakened and deviated from the truth of Islam, great Sufis tried to renew and revive it. Sometimes this was done explicitly, as in the case of Ghazali, whose revival finds written form in his famous Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), and sometimes it was implicit, as with Shah Ni’matullahi Wali.
The idea of renewal in Islam was not a mere accident of history, but was foreseen by the Prophet himself. It is reported in a hadith that he said, “Verily, at the beginning of every hundred years, God raises one for this community of Islam who renews it’s religion for it.” Regardless of the soundness of this hadith, and whether what is mean is exactly one century, which is beyond the scope of this paper, the idea of a revival of Islam and that it must be renewed in a manner appropriate to the times, was in the minds of the Muslims.
In Sufism itself, from time to time deviations occurred. The use of expressions such as, “false Sufi claimant” and “true Sufi claimant”, in books such as Jami’s Nafahat al-Uns, bears witness to this phenomenon. Among the most prominent critics of such deviations were the Sufi masters. They were the true reformers and renewers of Sufism.
Sufism has usually suffered at the hands of two groups: (1) pseudo-Sufis who fancy that the inward aspects of Islam suffice for them and that they may consciously abandon its outward precepts; and (2) those fuqaha who restrict their understanding of Islam to its outward aspects and ignore its interior. Each of these groups has an incomplete understanding of Islam, one with respect to shari’at and the other with regard to tariqat. This is why the Sufi shaykhs were usually confronted by these two groups. Renewal and reformation of Sufism most often required a re-balancing of shari’at and tariqat in order to preserve its original formation. It is this effort at balancing that prompted the great Sufi shaykhs to take into consideration the circumstances of their times in order to make religious precepts appropriate to them. This enabled them to present Islam in a more complete fashion and to keep it from deviation. In a hadith attributed to the Imams, it is reported, “One who is conscious of his times is not in danger of being confounded.”
One of the greatest reformers and renewers of Sufism was Shah Ni’matullah Wali. His was one of the most catastrophic times for the Muslims, especially in Iran, which had suffered through the attacks of the Mongols and the Timurids after them. In religious affairs there were Sufi pretenders on the one hand, who did not practice Sufi teachings, and hypocritical preachers on the other, who used religion for personal gain. In his poetry, Hafiz reproaches both groups, thus bearing witness to the situation in Iran. When the religious teachers had fallen so far astray, the religious ethos of the common people of the time would also have been in a state of degeneration.
In those days, Shah Ni’matullahi Wali, as master of the Ma’rufi Order and successor to Shaykh ‘Abdullah Yafi’i, tried to improve both the inward and the outward religious conditions. He exposed the misdeeds and pseudo-teachings of the current Sufi pretenders, and criticized both Sunni and Shi’ite ‘ulama. He called upon Sunnis to return to the sunnah of the Prophet of love for the Ahl al-Bayt, while he reminded Shi’ites that the main pillar of Shi’ism is the forgotten truth of walayat, rather than points of law and political issues. Thus, he refused to be a rafizi (one who rejected the Companions of the Prophet) or khariji (one who rejected the leadership of ‘Ali).
Due to the difficulties faced by the Sufis in Iran after the death of Shah Ni’matullahi, the qutbs of the Order moved to India at the invitation of Sultan Ahmadshah Bahmani of the Deccan. During this time, from the end of the Safavids until the end of the Zandi dynasty, because of the political upheaval in Iran, the kings’ rejection of Sufism and the sovereignty of the ‘ulama who had good relations with the government, most of the Sufi orders either left Iran or operated clandestinely. Although the Safavi dynasty was itself based on a Sufi Order, the attitude taken by them was very exclusivist, so that they did not permit the free operation of other orders. This situation continued until 1190/1776, when Riza ‘Alishah Deccani, who was then qutb of the Order, sent two of his authorized shaykhs, Hazrat Ma’sum ‘Alishah and Shah Tahir Deccani, to Iran. The latter died soon after arriving in Iran, or on the way, and the revival of the Order in Iran was left to the former and one of his main disciples, Nur ‘Alishah Isfahani. These two behaved in a way that attracted the attention of the people who had long forgotten Sufism. Many people, including some of the prominent ‘ulama, such as Sayyid Bahr al-‘Ulum (d. 1212/1797) and ‘Abd al-Samad Hamadani (who was killed in 1216/1801 by Wahhabis), became their followers, and Sufism became current in Iran again. The opposition of some of the ‘ulama to Sufism, however, continued, and they even persuaded some of the Qajari kings to kill the Sufi shaykhs on the pretext that they sought to take over the government. One can mention the martyrdom of Mushtaq ‘Alishah in Kerman, or that of his disciple Muzaffar ‘Alishah in Kermanshah at the order of the influential jurist, known as the “Sufi-killer”, Muhammad ibn Bihbihani.
After Nur ‘Alishah, the Ni’matullahi Order became the most popular Sufi order in Iran. Whenever Sufism becomes popular, pretenders to it abound. During the time when Rahmat ‘Alishah (d. 1278/1861) was the qutb of the Order, Sufism became especially popular, in part because the Qajar king, Muhammad Shah, entered the Order. After Rahmat ‘Alishah passed away, the Ni’matullahis divided into three branches: (1) the followers of Hajj Muhammad Kazim Isfahani Sa’adat ‘Alishah; (2) followers of the uncle of Rahmat ‘Alishah, Hajj Muhammad, famous as Munawwar ‘Alishah; and (3) the followers of Mirza Hasan Safi, famous as Safi ‘Alishah. This division first appeared due to the differences about the explicit decree of Rahmat ‘Alishah that he should be succeeded by Sa’adat ‘Alishah. After some time, the opponents of Sa’adat ‘Alishah brought another decree attributed to Rahmat ‘Alishah according to which Munawwar ‘Alishah was to be the successor, despite the fact that Munawwar ‘Alishah himself admitted that he had not received the decree personally. Safi ‘Alishah first renewed his covenant with Sa’adat ‘Alishah, and denied the validity of the decree of Munawwar ‘Alishah. However, after Sa’adat ‘Alishah refused to appoint him as shaykh, he broke his covenant with him and became a disciple of Munawwar ‘Alishah. After some time, he also rejected the leadership of Munawwar ‘Alishah and proclaimed himself qutb. In this way the Ni’matullahi Order broke up into three chains: first, the Sultan ‘Alishahi or Gunabadi chain, which is the main and largest chain; second, the Dhul Riyasatayn chain; and third, the Safi ‘Alishahi chain.
The Sultan ‘Alishahi chain takes its name after the successor of Sa’adat ‘Alishah, Hajj Mulla Sultan Muhammad Sultan ‘Alishah, who was born in Gunabad in Khorasan in A.H.L. 1251/A.D. 1835.
He was one of the most distinguished and famous ‘ulama and Sufis of his time, such that in most of the books of that time his name is mentioned. At the age of three he was faced with the loss of his father. Even at such a tender age, his excellence was apparent to all so that among the people and tribes of Baydukht and Gunabad he was known for his intelligence, wit, dignity and poise. After finishing his elementary studies in Baydukht, due to a lack of sufficient means, he temporarily suspended his studies, but because of his enthusiasm and eagerness, at the age of seventeen, he continued to pursue studies and made great strides, such that his local teachers no longer satisfied his scientific yearnings. Therefore, he set out by foot for the holy city of Mashhad to pursue his studies where he spent some time and benefited from the presence of the scholars there. From there, he then went to Najaf, Iraq, were he became proficient in fiqh, usul, and tafsir (exegesis of the Qur’an). Under famous fuqaha, such as Shaykh Murtiza Ansari, and was given permission for ijtihad in fiqh. On his return from Najaf, he went to Sabzavar, and under the direction of the famous philosopher, Hajj Mulla Hadi Sabzavari, he studied peripatetic philosophy, illuminationist philosophy and Mulla Sadra’s philosophy. He distinguished himself above all the other students of Sabzavari, and wrote marginalia to the famous book of Mulla Sadra, Asfar. Attaining mastery of these sciences did not satisfy his thirst for knowledge, which he began to seek from the hearts of the Sufis. At that time, the qutb of the Ni’matullahi Order, Sa’adat ‘Alishah, together with some of his disciples, went to Sabzavar. Mulla Hadi, who was devoted to the qutb, cancelled his classes and suggested that his students come with him to visit Sa’adat ‘Alishah. At that very first session, the late Hajj Mulla Sultan Muhammad was attracted to the Sa’adat ‘Alishah, even though the latter was not one of the ‘ulama, but he did not surrender to him, and after some time returned to Gunabad. Finally, in A.H.L. 1279, he set off on foot for Sa’adat ‘Alishah’s place of residence in Isfahan. With a passionate inner fire he went to him and was initiated in spiritual wayfaring toward God. Just as Mawlavi followed the illiterate Shams Tabrizi, he became a follower of the unlearned Sa’adat ‘Alishah. He spent little time on the various stages of the journey toward Allah, and was authorized by the master for guidance of the Sufi novices and was given the spiritual title of Sultan ‘Alishah. In A.H.L. 1293, Sa’adat ‘Alishah passed away and Sultan ‘Alishah succeeded him as the qutb of the Ni’matullahi Order. Sultan ‘Alishah became renowned throughout the Islamic world for both his knowledge and spiritual guidance. This resulted in inciting the jealousy of his enemies, those who were against his way. As a result, unfortunately, in A.H.L. 1327/A.D. 1909, he won martyrdom by being strangled. His grave is in Baydukht, Gunabad.
He has written many epistles and books, the most important of which are: his great Shi’ite Sufi commentary on the Qur’an in Arabic in four oversized volumes, Bayan al-Sa’adat; Sa’adat Nameh; and Majma’ al-Sa’adat; all of whose titles allude to his master, Sa’adat ‘Alishah. He also authored Walayat Nameh, Bisharat al-Mu’minin, Tambih al-Na’imin, Iyzah, and Tawzih.
As during the period of Shah Ni’matullah, the times of Sultan ‘Alishah were critical. It was the time of the encounter of Iran with modern Western civilization, when the people confronted new concepts, including scientific and social ones. Naturally, some completely rejected what was strange and new, while others superficially submitted. During this time, Shi’ite jurisprudence, which is based on ijtihad and the derivation of precepts in accordance with the needs of the times, had become stagnated. Most of the fuqaha, who were not conscious of the situation of the modern world, were zealous about the outward aspects of religion and only took into consideration the outward aspects of Western civilization, as well, which they judged to be contrary to Islam.
Sufism was also undergoing a crisis. The opposition of the fuqaha that began at the end of the Safavid period was vigorously maintained. The practice of the pseudo-Sufis also was apparently contrary to both the modernists as well as Islamic law. Taking all this into account, Hazrat Sultan ‘Alishah was confronted with three groups who opposed true Sufism: (1) some of the fuqaha, (2) the pseudo-Sufis, and (3) some of the modernists. All three groups were taken into consideration in his attempt to renew Sufism.
Aside from his position of leadership, Sultan ‘Alishah was a philosopher and a faqih, and both his philosophical positions and jurisprudential opinions were colored by his mysticism. He was a student of Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, who was at that time the most famous proponent of a philosophical system based on Sufism derived from the teachings of Mulla Sadra, and he himself adopted a system of philosophy that mostly followed in this tradition. In fiqh, he was a mujtahid, whose permission for ijtihad was granted by the great Shi’ite faqih of the time, Ayatullah Hajj Mirza Shirazi. Nevertheless, he did not issue any fatwas as a mujtahid, because he considered it necessary to keep the realms of tariqat and shari’at separate. However, some of his juridical opinions may be found in his tafsir, Bayan al-Sa’adat. His jurisprudential views show that he was completely aware of the need to take contemporary conditions into account when reaching decisions about Islamic law, and accordingly, he viewed music and chess as lawful, the People of the Book as essentially having ritual purity and slavery, taking more than one wife at a time, and opium smoking as prohibited.


Majzooban Noor, Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi Order News Site, would like to express its sincere condolences at this grievous loss to the presence of the Holy great Qutb of Nematollahi Gonabadi Order, Haj Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh, “Majzoob Ali Shah” and all the brothers and sisters in faith.