The Imam and the Qutb: The Axis Mundi in Shiism and Sufism

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Zachary Markwith
The earth shall never be empty of the witness of God (ĕujjat AllΪh).2
In Christianity, Christ is envisaged as the Axis Mundi, or the cosmological and
spiritual center around which the world rotates.

The central and all-encompassing
reality in Islam is Allah—the One (al-Aĕad)—who is transcendent, yet immanent.
According to the Islamic esoteric tradition as it manifests in both Sunni and ShīЫite
Islam, Allah is at the center of creation through the theophany of the purified heart of
the Universal Man (al-insΪn al-kΪmil). The Prophet of Islam said, “The heart of the
faithful is the throne (al-Ыarsh) of the All-Merciful (al-RaĕmΪn),”3 the throne being a
symbol of Divine knowledge and authority. It is through the Universal Man, who is
the ImΪm (ruler and guide)4 in ShīЫism and the Quĥb (Pole) in Sufism, that God’s
Names and Attributes are most clearly reflected, and through whom He controls the
spiritual affairs of humanity. The ImΪm and Quĥb in Islam derive their power and
station from the inner reality of the Quran and the Prophet Muĕammad (al-ĕaqīqah almuĕammadiyyah).
5 In Islam, Muĕammad is the Universal Man par excellence, while
1 We are indebted to the writings of S.H. Nasr, especially “The Sufi Master as Exemplified in
Persian Sufi Literature” and “ShiЫism and Sufism: their relationship in Essence and in
History” in Sufi Essays (Chicago: ABC International Group, Inc., 1999), pp. 57-67, 104-120.
We also wish to thank M.H. Faghfoory for his encouragement, and for allowing us access to
his soon to be published translation of Shaykh MuЫadhdhin SabzawΪrī’s Tuĕfeh-ye ЫAbbΪsī,
and also Farah Michelle Kimball, who first introduced us to many of the texts mentioned in
this study.
2 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “Sufism and the Perennity of the Mystical Quest” in Sufi Essays
(Chicago: ABC International Group, Inc., 1999), p. 28.
3 See “The Heart of the Faithful is the Throne of the All-Merciful”, by S. H. Nasr in Paths to
the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East, ed. James Cutsinger (Bloomington, IN: World
Wisdom, 2002), pp. 32-45.
4 When we refer to ShīЫism we will be focusing on IthnΪ Ыasharī ShīЫism and the Twelve
ImΪms in this tradition, while also recognizing the other braches of ShīЫism, such as Zaydī
and IsmΪЫīlī ShīЫism.
5 Sufi Essays, p. 111.
the ImΪm in ShīЫism, and the Quĥb in Sufism are seen as a continuation of the inner
function of the Prophet, leaving humanity and the universe with a living link or bridge
to Heaven.
This paper will examine how the Axis Mundi is envisaged in ShīЫism as the
ImΪm, and in Sufism as the Quĥb, while comparing these terms to each other, and also
to Christ’s function in Christianity, which helps to define the term Axis Mundi. We
will look closely at the functions, biographies, and sayings of the ShīЫite ImΪms and
the poles in Sufism, and examine how these two streams of Islamic esoterism connect
through the reality of the ImΪm and the Quĥb, which according to the ShīЫite Sufi
Sayyid Ĕaydar Āmulī, “are two expressions possessing the same meaning and
referring to the same person.”6 We will also examine the concept of the “ImΪm of
one’s being” in the writings of certain ShīЫite scholars. According to this perspective,
each traveler on the spiritual path is encouraged to find the center of his or her own
being, which he or she inwardly identifies with the ImΪm or Quĥb. While historical
personages will inevitably figure into this topic, and to a certain extent help to
elucidate the function of the ImΪm and Quĥb, our intention is not to definitively
identify the Pole of each age. Rather, the objective is to examine the trans-cultural
reality of the Axis Mundi, and specifically how it is envisaged in ShīЫism and Sufism
according to the primary Islamic sources, including the Quran, Ĕadīth literature, and
the sayings of the ImΪms, as well as the writings of classical Sufi and ShīЫite scholars
such as Muĕyī al-Dīn ibn ЫArabī, ЫAbd al-Karīm al-Jīlī, and Sayyid Ĕaydar Āmulī.
While our approach intends to let the traditional sources speak for themselves, we will
also rely on contemporary secondary sources to help analyze the important
differences and remarkable commonalities that exist between the ImΪm in ShīЫism
and the Quĥb in Sufism, and also other related issues which have shaped the religious
and cultural ethos for ShīЫites and Sunnis. Finally, we believe that this study, and
others like it, will help to demonstrate important points of intellectual collaboration
and mystical convergence between ShīЫites and Sunnis in Islamic history.
The Quran and the Prophet
The sole axis in Islam and Islamic esoterism as it manifests in ShīЫism and
Sufism is the Absolute Reality, whose primary and central determination is the Quran.
6 Ibid., p. 111.
The Quran—the Word of God in Islam—is revered in a manner similar to Christ in
Christianity.7 According to the book of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God...Through him all things were made…”8 Comparing Christ to all
of creation, Ibn ЫArabī states in the chapter on Jesus in the Fuģĩģ al-ĕikam,
[Jesus] is the Word of God, and he is the Spirit of God, and he is the slave of
God…All existent things are the inexhaustible Words of God; all come from
Be! (kun), and Be! is a Word of God.9
In this passage, Ibn ЫArabī’s ontology and cosmogony are based on the verse
in the Quran which states, “But His command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that
He saith unto it: ‘Be!’ and it is.”10 The entire cosmos is seen as a sacred text, which
complements the Quran, and also issues from and indicates higher levels of being, and
ultimately Absolute Being. In Ibn ЫArabī’s cosmology, all of creation exists as living
words, whose archetypal realities correspond to the words of the Quran. From this
perspective, the Quran is not only the central axis on the level of manifestation, but
also the archetype of creation. To understand the role of the Prophet, the ImΪm, or the
Quĥb, one must appreciate the central and existential importance of the Quran, which
is considered by Muslims to be the primary source of all Islamic knowledge.
Referencing the French Orientalist Louis Massignon’s work on the Muslim
martyr Manģĩr al-ĔallΪj, whose life paralleled the life of Christ in Christianity,
Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes:
Through the study of ĔallΪj, he demonstrated that Sufism has its roots in the
Quran. Far from being a heretic, ĔallΪj was the epitome of orthodoxy, for
only the saint is orthodox in the most universal sense of the term. He stands
at the Center and, from the traditional perspective, everyone else is located at
a point which is peripheral vis-à-vis that Center. Massignon realized that
meditation upon the verses of the Quran, emulation of the Prophet and the
grace issuing from the Quranic revelation constituted the origin and
substance of Sufism.11
Massignon was one of the first European scholars to appreciate the Quran’s
primary influence on Sufism and Islamic esoterism in general. His penetrating study
7 Ibn ЫArabī states in his Fuģĩģ al-ĕikam, “Gabriel conveyed the Word of God to Mary just as
the Messenger conveyed the Word of God to his community.” The Ringstones of Wisdom
(Fuģĩģ al-ĕikam), trans. Caner K. Dagli (Chicago: The Great Books of the Islamic World,
2004), p. 159.
8 John 1:1-3.
9 The Ringstones of Wisdom (Fuģĩģ al-ĕikam), pp. 163-164.
10 Quran 36:81
11 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World (London: Kegan Paul
International Ltd, 1990), pp. 259-260.
of al-ĔallΪj revealed a Sufi, who, like Christ, embodied the Divine Word. In Islamic
esoterism, the saint, like the Prophet before him, approaches God by absorbing His
Word—the Quran—into his being. In traditional Muslim societies, the presence of the
Quran is ubiquitous. A Muslim hears the Quran when he is born, in taxis, and in the
bazaar. He recites it during the five daily prayers, reads a portion of it during the day,
reflects on its message, and sees it in the sacred art of calligraphy. In addition,
particular chapters such as Yā Sīn12 are recited for him when he dies. The Sufi not
only participates in and benefits from all of these recitations and remembrances of the
Quran, but also focuses on and repeats quintessential verses during his daily litanies.
One cannot exaggerate the importance of the Quran in Islamic esoterism.
Like the Virgin Mary who gave birth to the Word of God, Muĕammad—the
unlettered Prophet (al-nabī al-ummī)—was pure enough to receive the Word, but in
the form of the Book. His soul complements the sacred Book. When asked about the
Prophet, his wife ЫĀ’isha answered, “His character was the Quran—he liked what the
Quran liked, and grew angry when the Quran was angry.”13 His Sunnah or wont,
which includes his Ĕadīth or sayings, is the first explanation of the Quran. The Quran
calls Muĕammad a shining lamp (sirΪjun munīr),14a mercy for the worlds (raĕmatan
lil-‘Ϊlamīn),15and the seal of the prophets (khΪtam al-anbiyΪ’),16 among other
honorific titles, which indicate his status among Muslims.
Generally speaking, all Muslims attempt to emulate the Sunnah of the Prophet,
while ShīЫites and Sufis (who are Sunni or ShīЫite) also look to the inner reality of the
Prophet (al-ĕaqīqah al-muĕammadiyyah). According to S.H. Nasr:
In the metaphysical sense, the Prophet is both a manifestation of the Logos
and the Logos itself, both the beginning of the prophetic cycle and its end,
and, being its end and seal, he contains from an essential and inward point of
view the whole prophetic function within himself.17
While Muslims view other prophets such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses,
and Jesus as Poles of their time, the Prophet Muĕammad is, from an Islamic
perspective, a synthesis of the all the Divine messengers, and the chief Pole of all who
12 Quran 36:1-83
13 Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad is His Messenger (Chapel Hill, North Carolina:
The University of North Carolina Press, 1985), p. 46.
14 Quran 33:46
15 Quran 21:107
16 Quran 33:40
17 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.,
2002), p. 36.
came before him, and all who come after him. Eleven of the ImΪms in IthnΪ Ыasharī
ShīЫism are his biological descendents through the Prophet’s daughter FΪĥimah and
his spiritual heirs through his cousin and son-in-law ЫAlī ibn Abī ĤΪlib.18
Furthermore, every Sufi order (ĥarīqah) traces its lineage back to the Prophet through
ЫAlī, and in some cases through ЫAlī and the Prophet’s companion Abĩ Bakr.19
ЫAlī, the first man to accept Muĕammad as the messenger (rasĩl) of God, said
the following of the Prophet, which is recorded in the Nahj al-bΪlaghah:20
He is the leader (ImΪm)21 of all who exercise fear (of Allah) and a light for
those seeking guidance. He is a lamp whose flame is burning, a meteor whose
light is shining and a flint whose spark is bright. His conduct is upright, his
behavior is guiding, his speech is decisive and his decision just. Allah sent
him after an interval from previous prophets when people had fallen into
errors of action and ignorance.22
This passage indicates the ShīЫite belief that the Prophet of Islam was the
ImΪm of the first ImΪm, ЫAlī, and therefore the leader and guide of the Muslim
community. This is an important point to examine because many Sunnis believe that
the presence of the Prophet is eclipsed in ShīЫism by the ImΪms, whereas ShīЫites
18 Of course ЫAlī and FΪĥimah were married, and were the parents of the second and third
ImΪms in ShīЫism, Ĕasan and Ĕusayn. Among ShīЫites and Sufis, the sanctity of FΪĥimah is
frequently compared to that of the Virgin Mary, both giving birth to the saintly martyr.
19 Reza Shah-Kazemi writes, “It is often said that the Naqshabandī ĥarīqah is the exception to
this rule, tracing its decent from the Prophet through the first caliph, Abĩ Bakr, rather than
through ЫAlī. But it should be noted that this affiliation with Abĩ Bakr pertains only to one of
its three principal silsilahs. In his work, al-ĔadΪ’iq al-wardiyyah fī ĕaqΪ’iq ajilla al-
Naqshabandiyyah, (Damascus, 1306/1889), p. 6, ЫAbd al-Majīd b. Muĕammad al-KhΪnī,
himself a Naqshabandī-KhΪlidī shaykh, refers to the first silsilah (al-silsilat al-ĩlΪ) as the
‘golden chain’, and this begins with ЫAlī, proceeding through the ShiЫi Imams until ЫAlī b.
MĩsΪ, then to MaЫrĩf al-Karkhī and the other masters. The second silsilah (al-silsilatu’lthΪniya)
likewise begins with ЫAlī and proceeds through Ĕasan al-Baģrī. It is only the third
silsilah, which is called al-silsilat al-ģiddīqiyya which proceeds from the Prophet to Abĩ Bakr
(al-ģiddīq). Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam ЫAlī (London:
I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2006), p. 190.
20 Regarding the authenticity of the Nahj al-balΪghah, S.H. Nasr writes, “One day in the ‘60s
[Henry] Corbin asked ЫAllΪmah ĤabΪĥabΪ’ī the following question: ‘As a leading authority on
ShīЫite philosophy and religious thought, what argument would you provide to prove that the
Nahj al-balΪghah is by the first ImΪm ЫAlī [and not its compiler Sayyid Sharīf al-Raąī as
many Western orientalists claim]?’ The venerable master of Islamic philosophy answered,
‘for us the person who wrote the Nahj al-balΪghah is ЫAlī even is he lived a centrury ago.’”
“Reply to Zailan Moris” in The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Library of Living
Philosophers, vol. 28, ed. L.E. Hahn, R.E. Auxier, L.W. Stone Jnr. (Carbondale, IL, 2001), p.
21 The title ImΪm is a Quranic term used to refer to prophets such as Abraham, as is the word
ShīЫah, which is used to refer to the ShīЫah or followers of Abraham. In this paper we will use
the word ShīЫah, as it is commonly used in the Islamic world to refer to the followers of ЫAlī.
22 Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, Peak of Eloquence (Nahjul Balagha), trans. Sayed Ali Reza
(Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 1996), p. 238.
simply see the ImΪms as a continuation of the Prophetic light (al-nĩr almuĕammadiyyah),
which is central in both ShīЫism and Sufism.
The presence and function of the Prophet is also central in Sufism, second
only to the Quran. The Sufi sage ЫAbd al-Karīm al-Jīlī, who is famous for his work,
al-InsΪn al-kΪmil (The Universal Man),23 wrote the following about the Prophet of
O Centre of the compass! O inmost ground of the truth!
O pivot of necessity and contingency!
O eye of the entire circle of existence!
O point of the Quran and the FurqΪn (the Proof, i.e. the Quran)!
O perfect one, and perfecter of the most perfect,
who has been beautified by the majesty of God the Merciful!
Thou art the Pole (Quĥb) of the most wondrous things.
The sphere of perfection in its solitude turns on thee.
Thou art transcendent, nay thou art immanent,
nay thine is all that is known and unknown, everlasting and perishable.
Thine in reality is Being and not-being; nadir and zenith are thy two
Thou art both the light and its opposite, nay but thou art only darkness to a
gnostic that is dazed.24
S.H. Nasr also wrote the following poem entitled, “YΪ Ĕabīb-AllΪh (O
Beloved of God),” about the Prophet, of which we shall quote an excerpt:
O Seal of Prophecy, Pillar of Existence,
O Prophet of God, His beloved,
At once praised and praising His Majesty,
Unlettered, yet fount of all knowledge
O most perfect of His creatures, drawn near,
In that Nocturnal Ascent which crowned thy earthly life,
Thy being for whom He created the heavens,
The servant of the One, yet master of the world,
Whose light sustains that spectrum of forms,
Which constitutes the abode of our existence…25
One can discern from the above passages that the Prophet Muĕammad is the
ImΪm and Quĥb for ShīЫites and Sufis even if these titles are normally reserved for
specific saintly personalities who succeeded him. The Prophet is the source of
legitimacy for the ImΪm and Quĥb, who represent the light of the Prophet for
generations of Muslims living after the time of Muĕammad. The Quran and the soul
of the Prophet are the twin sources of Islamic esoterism and Islam in general. While
our study is about the ImΪm and the Quĥb and their respective functions, it is not an

23 See Titus Burckhardt’s translation De l’Homme Universal (Paris, Dervy-Livres, 1975).
24 And Muhammad is His Messenger, p. 137-138.
25 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Muhammad: Man of God (Chicago: Kazi Publications, Inc., 1995),
p. 5.

exaggeration to state according to both ShīЫism and Sufism there is no sanctity in
Islam, except through the barakah (grace) that issues from the Quran and soul of the
The Imam in Shī’ism
That which is sought in prayer and the Divine Law
The essence of devotion and the spiritual path
The purpose of the truth of the Truth
Is Allah, Muĕammad, and ЫAlī26
-Shaykh Mu’adhdhin KhurΪsΪnī
The ImΪm in ShīЫism is the inheritor of the Prophetic light (al-nĩr almuĕammadiyyah).
He is given political, intellectual, and spiritual authority over the
Muslim community through the walΪyah or initiatic function, which is bestowed by
God and His Prophet. We shall focus on what is most essential in the function of
walΪyah, namely, spiritual or initiatic authority. We have chosen this course because
according to the ShīЫite tradition the other two domains of authority derive their
legitimacy from the spiritual and initiatic reality of walΪyah. Furthermore, a polemic
discussion concerning political authority after the death of Muĕammad will only
obscure the topic at hand. Many Sunnis and ShīЫites in Islamic history believe that
this issue has and continues to be exploited to disrupt the unity of the Islamic
community (ummah).
Concerning the concept of walΪyah, S.H. Nasr writes,
The Prophet, in terminating the prophetic cycle and in bringing the last
SharīЫah into the world, also inaugurated the cycle of “Muĕammadan
sanctity” (walΪyah/wilΪyah muĕammadiyyah) which is ever present and
which is the means whereby the spiritual energy of the Tradition is
continuously renewed.27
The terms wilΪyah (sanctity) and walΪyah (initiatic power) are related to the
word walī,28 which means saint, friend, or master with various political, intellectual,
and spiritual implications. According to the famous ĕadīth at Ghadīr Khumm, the
Prophet said, “For whomever I am his master (mawlΪ) and the authority whom he
obeys, ЫAlī will be his master. Oh God! Be friendly with the friends of ЫAlī and an

26 Tuĕfeh-ye ЫAbbΪsī, p. 18.
27 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam (Chicago: ABC International Group,
Inc., 2000), pp. 79-80.
28 Sufi Essays, p. 57.

enemy of the enemies of ЫAlī.”29 In the context of ShīЫism and Sufism, after the
Prophet, ЫAlī is the first walī AllΪh (friend of God), and therefore the model of
sanctity in Islam. He was also given the title Amīr al-mu’minīn or Commander of the
Faithful. According to another ĕadīth, the Prophet said to ЫAlī, “Are you not satisfied
to be to me what Aaron was to Moses except that after me there will not be another
prophet?”30 According to ShīЫite sources, ЫAlī transmitted this initiatic power and
esoteric function to his son Ĕasan, by Divine Command and the decree of the Prophet,
who then passed it on to Ĕusayn, and so on. A ShīЫite participates in this initiation and
sanctity by accepting the ImΪm as his leader and guide, especially in the domain of
the Islamic sciences, which include Quranic interpretation (tafsīr, ta’wīl), the
transmission of Ĕadīth, theology (kalΪm), philosophy (ĕikmah/falsafah), and gnosis
(ЫirfΪn/maЫrifah). Henry Corbin describes the latter, which is central in our discussion,
as follows “ShīЫite gnosis, as an initiatic religion, is an initiation in doctrine.”31
ShīЫism is however a complete tradition that contains both exoteric and esoteric
dimensions. Our goal is not to reduce ShīЫism to gnosis, but to examine ShīЫite gnosis
within its total religious framework. According to ShīЫism, by virtue of accepting the
ImΪm one gains virtual, and in the case of the elect, direct access to the Divine
Reality, in the same way that one does in Sufism through the initiatic chain (silsilah).
The difference is that in ShīЫism this initiatic function is the exclusive right of the
ImΪm, whereas in Sufism, one’s spiritual master takes on the inner function of the
The Prophet of Islam said, “My household is like the ship of Noah; whoever
embarks upon it will be saved and whoever turns away from it will be drowned.”33
For ShīЫite Muslims, the ark of Noah and the household (ahl al-bayt) of the Prophet
represent the nexus connecting the believer to Heaven. The ark is a symbol of
posthumous salvation, and also represents the voyage of the Spirit, from the terrestrial

29 ЫAllΪmah ĤabΪĥabΪ’ī, ShiЫite Islam, trans. and ed. S.H. Nasr (Albany, NY: State University
of New York Press, 1975), p. 180.
30 Justice and Remembrance, p. 20.
31 Henry Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala
Publications, Inc., 1978), p. 134.
32 On the differences between these two perspectives, see Moojan Momen’s chapter “Sufism,
ЫIrfΪn, and Ĕikma” in An Introduction to ShiЫi Islam (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press,
1985), pp. 208-219.
33 ShiЫite Islam, p. 180.

domain of existence to the angelic world, from our occidental exile to the Orient, the
abode of Light, during this life.34
The central axis in ShīЫism is the ImΪm. While all of the ImΪms in ShīЫism
participate fully in the reality of walΪyah, there is also a distinct feminine pole of
sanctity, which complements that of the ImΪm, and is most clearly represented by the
Prophet’s daughter FΪĥimah. According to ShīЫism, FΪĥimah was forced to endure
many trials and is often compared of the Virgin Mary. In an act of special symbolic
significance for ShīЫites and Sufis alike, the Prophet placed his cloak over his family,
including his daughter FΪĥimah. S.H. Nasr writes:
According to the famous Ĕadīth-i kisΪ’ (the tradition of the garment) the
Prophet called FΪĥimah along with ЫAlī, Ĕasan, and Ĕusayn and placed a
cloak upon them in such a manner that it covered them. The cloak symbolizes
the transmission of the universal walΪyah of the Prophet in the form of partial
walΪyah (walΪyat-i fΪĥimiyyah) to FΪĥimah and through her to the ImΪms who
were her descendents.35
Henry Corbin writes, “FΪĥimah, the daughter of the Prophet and the mother of
the holy ImΪms, is the ‘confluent of the two lights,’ that of prophecy and that of
initiation.”36 For ShīЫites, FΪĥimah is the archetype of feminine perfection, destined to
suffer the loss of her sons, Ĕasan and Ĕusayn. Of particular importance for ShīЫites is
the martyrdom of ImΪm Ĕusayn, Sayyid al-shuhadΪ’ (the Master of martyrs), the third
ShīЫite ImΪm, at Karbala’. The army of the Umayyad Caliph Yazīd killed him, along
with seventy-two close associates and family members, on the tenth day of the month
of Muĕarram in the year 61/680.
The epic battle at Karbala’, culminating in the martyrdom of Ĕusayn, has been
compared to the Passion and crucifixion of Christ in Christianity.37 Perhaps more than
any other event in Islamic history, the martyrdom of Ĕusayn helped to shape the
religious ethos of the ShīЫite community. To this day, Ĕusayn’s martyrdom is
commemorated and mourned throughout the ShīЫite world during the Islamic month
Muĕarram. Regarding the martyrs, the Quran states, “But do not think of those that
have been slain in God’s cause as dead. Nay, they are alive! With their Sustainer have

34 See Henry Corbin’s The Voyage and the Messenger (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books,
1998), which deals with this theme in Shī’ism, and also the work of Ibn SīnΪ, ЫAĥĥΪr,
Suhrawardī, and other Sufi masters.
35 Sufi Essays, p. 109.
36 The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, p. 156.
37 See James A. Bill and John A. Williams, Roman Catholics and ShiЫi Muslims (Chapel Hill,
NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), pp. 63-74.

they their fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve" (3:169-
170). The tomb of Ĕusayn in Cairo, where his head is buried, is in fact a spiritual
center and a place of pilgrimage and barakah (grace/blessing) for ShīЫites and Sunnis
The fourth ShīЫite ImΪm Zayn al-ЫĀbidīn or ImΪm al-SajjΪd is responsible for
one of the most important prayers in the ShīЫite world, al-Ģaĕīfah al-sajjΪdiyyah, also
known as The Psalms of Islam,38 which is among the earliest works of its kind in the
Muslim world, and is perhaps the prototype of similar Sufi prayers. ImΪm SajjΪd’s
son, the fifth ImΪm, Muĕammad al-BΪqir was also an excellent scholar who began the
systematization of Islamic Law as well as other Islamic sciences, which his son, ImΪm
ĢΪdiq, and later scholars brought to fruition. ImΪm al-BΪqir also spoke about the
ImΪm as the ĕujja or proof of God, which highlights some of the most esoteric ShīЫite
teachings. According to Arzina Lalani,
The world, al-BΪqir maintains, cannot exist even for a moment without the
ImΪm who is the ĕujja of God. If the ImΪm were to be taken away from the
earth even for an hour, the earth would swallow up its inhabitants just as the
sea swallows its people. ‘We [the ImΪms] are,’ al-BΪqir says, ‘the ĕujja
[proof] of God and His Gate. We are the tongue as well as the face of God;
we are the eyes of God [guarding] His creation and we are the responsible
guardians (wulΪt al-amir) of God on earth.’ Al-BΪqir adds that God is
worshipped through the ImΪms and it is through them that God is known and
declared as One.39
Of central importance is also the sixth ImΪm, JaЫfar al-ĢΪdiq, who unlike many
of the ImΪms was given a certain amount of intellectual freedom during parts of his
life. He was able to disseminate the exoteric and esoteric knowledge of his ancestors
to a wider audience. ImΪm ĢΪdiq is considered the founder of the ShīЫite school of
law, which takes its name, JaЫfarī, from him. We also know that the founder of one of
the first Sunni schools of law, ImΪm Abĩ Ĕanīfah,40 was one of his students, as well
as other eminent Sufis such as IbrΪhim al-Adham, Bishr al-ĔΪfī, and BΪyazīd al-
BasĥΪmī.41 In Michael Sells’ chapter “Early Sufi Qur’an Interpretation” in his text

38 Imam Zayn al-ЫAbidīn, The Psalms of Islam (al-Ģaĕīfat al-ģajjΪdiyya), trans. William C.
Chittick (London: The Muhammadi Trust, 1988).
39 Arzina R. Lalani, Early ShīЫī Thought: The Teachings of Imam Muĕammad al-BΪqir (New
York: I.B. Tauris, 2000), p. 83.
40 Ideals and Realities of Islam, p. 161. All of the Sunni schools of law were therefore either
directly or indirectly influenced by ImΪm ĢΪdiq.
41 Sufi Essays, p. 114.

Early Islamic Mysticism, he devotes the first section to ImΪm al-ĢΪdiq, who interprets
the verse in the Quran “Adam received from his lord the names” (2:27) to mean:
Before any of his creation existed, God was. He created five creatures from
the light of his glory, and attributed to each one of them one of his names. As
the Glorified (maĕmĩd), he called his Prophet Muĕammad [which also means
“the praised” or “the deserving-of-praise”]. Being the Sublime (ЫAlī) he
called the Amir of believers ЫAlī. Being the Creator (fΪĥir) of the heavens and
earth, he fashioned the name FΪĥima. Because he had names that were called
[in the Quran] the most beautiful (ĕusnΪ), he fashioned two names [from the
same Arabic root] for Haģan and Ĕusayn. Then he placed them to the right of
the throne.42
The above quotation is similar to another saying of ImΪm al-ĢΪdiq, who is
both the sixth ImΪm in ShīЫism and an early Quĥb in most Sufi orders, “We are the
Names of God.”43 Sayings such as these are interpreted in a variety of ways by
ShīЫites, who generally limit their application to the ImΪms, and by Sufis who extend
the meaning of “We” to include the Quĥb, awliyΪ’ (friends of God), and all of
ImΪm al-ĢΪdiq is also significant because his son IsmΪЫīl represents the
continuation of ShīЫism through the IsmΪЫīlī ImΪms, while his son MĩsΪ al-Kaĭīm is
the seventh IthnΪ Ыasharī ImΪm. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss all of
the branches of ShīЫism and their relation to Sufism, but it is not difficult to see how
each ImΪm had more than one intellectual and spiritual successor.
This phenomenon is also seen in the life of the eighth ShīЫite ImΪm ЫAlī al-
RiąΪ. Many Sunni Sufi orders trace their lineage, not only through the first ImΪm,
ЫAlī, but also through the first eight ImΪms. The famous Sufi, MaЫrĩf al-Karkhī was a
direct disciple of ЫAlī al-RiąΪ, about whom Martin Lings said, “the eighth ShīЫi ImΪm
who, from his sepulcher at Meshhed, may be said to preside over the whole of
Persia.”44 Of course the ImΪms are not seen as specifically “ShīЫite” by Sunni Sufi
orders, but as poles of their time. It is difficult to trace the influence of all of the
ImΪms on early Sufism. Indeed, this is not our intended purpose. Rather, our goal in
this section is to gain insight into central importance and reality of the ImΪm, and then
to compare the ImΪm to the Quĥb in Sufism.

42 Michael Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1996), pp. 77-
43 ЫAllΪmah ĤabΪĥabΪ’ī, Kernel of the Kernel, comp. and edt. Sayyid M.Ĕ. Ĕusayni TihrΪnī,
trans. Mohammad H. Faghfoory (Albany NY: State University of New York, 2003), p. 19.
44 Martin Lings, What is Sufism? (Cambridge: the Islamic Text Society, 1999), p. 120.

For various reasons, it is even more difficult to trace the influence of the ninth,
tenth, and eleventh ImΪms (Muĕammad al-Taqī, ЫAlī al-Naqī, and Ĕasan al-ЫAskarī)
on Sufism or ShīЫism for that matter. It has been suggested that at this point in time
during the Abbasid period the ImΪms chose to remain silent due to persecution.45
Regarding the twelfth ImΪm S.H. Nasr writes:
In speaking of the Sufi master in the Persian context one must remember the
role of the twelfth ImΪm, who is the Hidden ImΪm, both in ShīЫism and in
Sufism as it exists in the ShīЫite world. Inasmuch as the ImΪm, although in
concealment, is alive and is the spiritual axis of the world, he is the Pole
(Quĥb) with whom all Sufi masters are inwardly connected. He is to ShīЫism
what the supreme Pole is to Sufism in its Sunni context. In ShīЫism the
ImΪms, especially ЫAlī, the first, and the Mahdī, the last, are the spiritual
guides par excellence. The Hidden ImΪm, representing the whole chain of
ImΪms, is the pole that attracts the hearts of the believers and it is to him that
men turn for guidance.46
From one perspective, ImΪm Mahdī’s (ĢΪĕib al-ZamΪn, the Lord of the Age)
concealment is a symbol that is indicative of the end of time, where tradition, esoteric
knowledge, and the Truth are veiled from the majority of men. They are to be
revealed in the eschatological events, which include the return of the Mahdī along
with Jesus Christ, that are prophesied in both Sunni and ShīЫite sources.47 At present
however, the Hidden ImΪm, makes it possible for men to reach the Divine Reality, in
a manner that is similar to the initiatic function of Khiąr the “Green Prophet”,48 the
guide of Moses mentioned in the Quran. This is exemplified by the guidance received
by a contemporary of the Prophet, Uways al-Qaranī, who was guided by the Prophet
spiritually, without having met him physically. Concerning ImΪm Mahdī, Mohammad
Ali Amir-Moezzi writes,
Invisible or incognito, the presence of the hidden ImΪm has a beneficent
effect on the faithful; his influence is compared to an illumination, or to rays
of light; the Prophet is said to have stated: “…His faithful are illumined by
his Light; they profit from his walΪyah during his Occultation, just as one
profits from the sun even when it is covered by clouds.49

45 Tuĕfeh-ye ЫAbbΪsī.
46 Sufi Essays, p. 66.
47 Most Sunnis however do not believe that the Mahdī is the twelfth ImΪm, but await the
return of another figure, who is also said to be a descendent of the Prophet.
48 Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early ShiЫism: the Sources of
Esoterism in Islam, trans. David Streight (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press,
1994), p. 110.
49 The Divine Guide in Early ShiЫism, pp. 115-116.

In IthnΪ Ыasharī ShīЫism the Mahdī had a lesser occultation, which began in
260/872, and a greater occultation, which began in 329/939 and lasts until the end of
time. In ShīЫism, the Hidden ImΪm can be envisaged as the goal of mystic quest, in a
manner similar to the Holy Grail. He is a source of spiritual sustenance and light that
is hidden in the depths of the heart. According to S.H. Nasr:
The ImΪm also exists within the hearts of men. He is the inner guide who can
lead man on the journey beyond the cosmos and also into the inner
dimensions of his own being, if only man could reach his inner pole. That is
why certain ShīЫite gnostics and Sufis have instructed the disciple to seek the
‘imΪm of his being’.50
Here the ImΪm takes on a similar function to that of Christ in Orthodox
Christianity, as well as esoteric currents in Western Christianity.51 The Prophet of
Islam, as well as pre-Islamic prophets, also serve this function in certain Sufi schools,
most notably the schools associated with ЫAlΪ’ al-Dawlah SimnΪnī, which have
spoken of the “Abraham of one’s being” or the “Moses of one’s being,” who become
identified with subtle physiological centers.52 Likening the Ыaql, the Intellect or the
eye of the heart, to the ImΪm, M.A. Amir-Moezzi writes,
What is seen with the “eye of the heart” is a light (nĩr), or more precisely
several modalities of light (anwΪr). It is located at the center of the heart and
is sometimes identified with Heiro-Intelligence (al-Ыaql): “Hiero-Intelligence
in the heart is like a lamp in the center of the house.” ЫAql is the means of
vision with the heart and in this case it is a synonym of īmΪn, faith, but at the
same time its reality (ĕaqīqah) constitutes the object of vision. It is known
that the reality of Ыaql is identical to the ImΪm: Ыaql is the interior ImΪm of the
Amir-Moezzi goes on to quote the fifth ImΪm Muĕammad BΪqir, “The light of
the ImΪm in the hearts of the faithful is more brilliant than that of the brilliant day
star.”54 The hidden guide (ustΪd ghaybī) as an inner light is also the theme of Henry

50 Sufi Essays, p. 66.
51 For a valuable study on this topic, see James A. Bill & John Alden Williams’ Roman
Catholics and ShiЫi Muslims (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
52 See “The Seven Prophets of Your Being” in H. Corbin’s The Man of Light in Iranian
Sufism, pp. 121-131.
53 The Divine Guide in Early ShiЫism, p. 48.
54 Ibid., p. 49. These teachings are also found in Sufism. According to a poem attributed to
Manģĩr al-ĔallΪj:
For the Lights of religion’s Light are Lights in men,
For the Secret, Secrets in secret depths of souls,
And for Being, in beings, is a Being that saith ‘Be’.
Reserved for it my heart is, guided, and chosen.
O ponder what I say with the Intellect’s eye.
Keen is the Intellect of hearing and of insight.

Corbin’s text The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. In this text Corbin compares the
intellectual intuitions of the inner angelic guide of the Sufis such as SimnΪnī, Najm al-
Dīn KubrΪ, and ShihΪb al-Dīn Suhrawardī, to the ImΪm that is witnessed in the hearts
of the faithful in ShīЫism. 55 It is this spiritual archetype that summons man to his
higher nature and is in fact identical to it. The ImΪm is a centripetal and transcendent
power orienting man’s attention inward towards his heart and the angelic world,
which is the locus of the Divine Presence. Corbin, like Suhrawardī and students of the
IshrΪqī school of thought, emphasizes inner illumination through the Intellect or the
eye of the heart, and the pristine source of other modes of knowing. In ЫirfΪnī ShīЫite
epistemology, it is through this higher faculty that one perceives the Divine
theophanies, one’s higher Self, or the “Angel of one’s being”. This is the fount of
Revelation (waĕy) for the prophets, and inspiration (ilhΪm) and sacred knowledge
(ЫīrfΪn/maЫrifah) for the saints. Corbin says, “the Angel [of one’s being] has the same
spiritual function as the ImΪm in ShīЫism, the walΪyah of the ImΪm as the donor of
hidden meaning, and it would seem that ShīЫite Sufism alone makes the idea of the
walΪyah clear from all sides.”56
The Quĥb in Sufism
When speaking of the Quĥb in Sufism, one must realize that this term
possesses different shades of meaning according to the religious, historical, and
cultural context in which it is used. In a ShīЫite Sufi context the term Quĥb refers to
the ImΪm, and only by extension the Sufi masters who represent him. In Sunni
Sufism, it can also refer to the direct successors of the Prophet, the heads of each Sufi
order, or great scholars or saints who acquired this title from their respective
communities. For the purpose of this study, I will be generally referring to the term
Quĥb as the supreme living axis in the celestial hierarchy of the Sufis, while
occasionally making use of the other more popular definitions when necessary.
According to Muĕyī al-Dīn ibn ЫArabī, who is considered by many to be the Greatest
Master (al-shaykh al-akbar) of doctrinal Sufism,

Martin Lings, Sufi Poems: A Mediaeval Anthology (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society,
2004), p. 30.
55 The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, pp. 130-131.
56 Ibid., p. 131.

The Pole is both the centre of the circle of the universe, and its
circumference. He is the Mirror of God, and the pivot of the world. He is
bound by the subtle links to the hearts of all created beings and brings them
either good or evil, neither one predominating. But from the point of view of
the Pole, these things in themselves are neither good nor evil, and become
good or bad as a result of the vessel that receives them. The Pole’s dwelling
place is the dwelling place of pure existentiation (ījΪd)…He is the universal
Veil within Existence. He keeps the treasures of divine Generosity. God is
perpetually epiphanized to him…He is located in Mecca, whatever place he
happens to be bodily. When a Pole is enthroned at the level of the quĥbiyyah,
all beings, animal or vegetable, make a covenant with him other than men
and jinns (with a few exceptions)…57
This passage describes the role of the Quĥb according to one of the most
influential Sufi scholars in Islamic history. It is clear from Ibn ЫArabī’s words that the
Pole is more than just a title of respect, but a spiritual function that transcends our
ordinary understanding of what it means to be human. Indeed, in Sufism, the Quĥb
possesses the highest degree of sanctity that a human can attain at any given time by
virtue of his spiritual proximity to the Prophet of Islam and the Divine Reality.
Moreover, he is responsible for governing a spiritual hierarchy, which directs and
guides men on the spiritual path (ĥarīqah) to the Truth (al-ĕaqq). In Sunni Sufism, it is
impossible to come to a clear consensus as to the identity of the Pole in any one age
because each Sufi order traces its lineage through different masters.
According to the great Persian Sufi poet JalΪl al-Dīn Rĩmī (1207-1273) in his
I adore ЫAlī, love is our creed
and whoever holds us as their enemy
May he become blind in both eyes.
We found felicity from the love of ЫAlī
On every breath our consciousness brings us more felicity
The lucrative reward that I have with the love of ЫAlī
O Brother! This world and the next are the reward in this deal
He who calls anyone other than the Prince of the Faithful as ImΪm
He is an idol-worshipper, and breaking idols is our job
O You lover of the Truth, love the king of all men
Whoever does not love this king is a stranger to us, and our enemy
The vision of every KhΪrajite is deprived from seeing ЫAlī’s face
The neck of every NΪģibī (ЫAlī’s enemy) hangs on our hanging pole
O Shams of Tabrīz, be silent, do not reveal divine mysteries any more
Whoever know the mysteries of that king, is aware of our mysteries too.58

57 Michel Chodkiewicz, Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn
ЫArabī (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993), p. 95.
58 Tuĕfeh-ye ЫAbbΪsī, p. 152.

While there is not the same degree of unanimity that one finds in the ShīЫite
world regarding the ImΪm, most Sufis suggest that ЫAlī is the first Quĥb after the
Prophet Muĕammad.59 The Sufi poet ЫAĥĥΪr wrote, “Know the light of Aĕmad
[Muĕammad] and Ĕaydar [ЫAlī] as one. Discover these mysteries by the help of your
intellect.”60 The axis of Islam is represented by ЫAlī’s sword Dhĩ’l-faqΪr61, which was
given to him by the Prophet. The two points at the top of the sword can be said to
represent the two main esoteric traditions in Islam, ShīЫism and Sufism, both of which
come back to the hands of ЫAlī. Every Sufi Order (ĥarīqah) traces its lineage back to
ЫAlī, including those such as the Naqshabandiyyah, which also trace their lineage
back to the Prophet’s close companion Abĩ Bakr. From ЫAlī and Abĩ Bakr the
various Sufi Orders (ĥuruq) branch out, yet share the same trunk. This is the
Muĕammadan grace (al-barakah al-muhammadiyyah), whose roots are the Divine
Revelation. According to S.H. Nasr,
It can be said that if ShīЫism is the “Islam of ЫAlī,” the grace or barakah of
ЫAlī is present in the Sunni world in the Sufi orders as well as craft guilds
which have been traditionally linked to the orders…It cannot be said that
ShīЫism is the origin of Sufism. But it can be said that because there is but
one source of Islamic esoterism issuing from the revelation and soul of the
Prophet and in as much as ЫAlī stands at the origin of ShīЫism, and is at the
same time the outstanding representative of Islamic esoterism, the sources of
ShīЫism and Sufism are nearly the same and they have many elements in

59 Apparently this view was not held by Ibn ЫArabī, who puts Abĩ Bakr, ЫUmar, and ЫUthmΪn
before ЫAlī when he writes, “Some of the Poles possess an authority which is manifested and
hold the office of caliph in the external sense, just as they are caliphs in the inner sense in
virtue of their spiritual rank. This was so in the case of Abĩ Bakr, ЫUmar, ЫUthmΪn and ЫAlī,
Ĕasan and MuЫΪwiya ibn Yazīd, ЫUmar ibn ЫAbd al-ЫAzīz and al-Mutawakkil…” Ibn ЫArabī
does however recognize that the various Poles have different spiritual stations depending on
which prophet they inherited their station from. He also writes, “The most perfect of Poles is
the Muĕammadan Pole. The ones below him are divided hierarchically according to the rank
of the Prophets whose heirs they are; for they are the heirs of Jesus, of Abraham, of Joseph, of
Noah, and so on; and the position of each pole is determined by the position of the prophet
who heir he is…Thus, some are superior to others, but this superiority relates only to their
spiritual knowledge, and there is no distinction to be made between them as regards their
office (quĥbiyyah) and the government of the universe (tadbīr al-wujĩd).” He also states that
ЫAlī, ЫUmar, Zayn al-ЫAbidīn, ЫAbd al-QΪdir al-JīlΪnī and others were afrΪd or solitary saints,
of equal yet independent status with the Pole. Seal of the Saints, pp. 95-96, 107.
60 Ibid., p. 146.
61 Symbols of Sacred Science, pp. 179-184.
62 Ideals and Realities of Islam, pp. 121-122.

Without a doubt, there are other companions or contemporaries of the Prophet,
such as Abĩ Bakr, Abĩ Dharr, SalmΪn, BilΪl,63 and Uways al-Qaranī,64 who are also
eminent representatives of Islamic esoterism. Yet, the very fact that ЫAlī stands at the
head of all Sufi orders going back the Prophet, suggests that the first ShīЫite ImΪm is
also the first Quĥb in Sufism. The Prophet of Islam’s saying, “I am the city of
knowledge, and ЫAlī is its gate; so whoever desires knowledge, let him enter the
gate,” is often invoked by Sufis to legitimate this claim,65 as well as the ĕadīth, “I did
not whisper with him, but God whispered with him.”66 It is worth noting that one of
the eminent representatives of Islamic esoterism in the generation following the
Prophet was Ĕasan al-Baģrī, a Sunni disciple of ЫAlī, and teacher of the great female
saint RΪbiЫah al-ЫAdawiyyah.67
Here we see how the influence of the Quĥb transcends outward religious
differences, yet respects them on their own level. This in a sense sums up the attitude
of Sufism towards Sunnism and ShīЫism. Indeed, there are Sufi orders that are Sunni
such as the QΪdiriyyah, the ShΪdhiliyyah, or the Naqshabandiyyah, and others that are
of a ShīЫite persuasion, such as the NiЫmatullΪhiyyah or the Dhahabiyyah.68 On the
one hand, the identity of the current Quĥb in a ShīЫite Sufi order will invariably be the
Hidden ImΪm, who the Sufi shaykhs represent. On the other hand, there is no
consensus among Sufis as to the identity of the Quĥb in the Sunni world, except in the
case of past poles, such as the eminent ЫAbd al-QΪdir al-JīlΪnī and Abĩ Madyan
ShuЫayb. According to Martin Lings, “It would perhaps be true to say that no one
since the death of the Caliph ЫAlī has exercised in person a spiritual influence of such

63 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Three Muslim Sages (Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1976), p. 84. It
is interesting to note that among the Prophet’s companions who are associated with Sufism,
ЫAlī, Abĩ Bakr, Abĩ Dharr, and Uways (along with the Prophet himself) were Arabs, SalmΪn
was Persian, and BilΪl was African. While most of the poles of early Sufism were either Arab
or Persian, Sufi orders in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent, China, the Malay
world, and even Europe and the Americas, would also claim that their masters are or are
connected to the current Pole.
64 Strictly speaking Uways was not a companion, but a contemporary who knew and was
close to the Prophet spiritually while living in Yemen.
65 Justice and Remembrance, p. 11.
66 Tuĕfeh-ye ‘AbbΪsī, p. 3.
67 Sufi Essays, p. 114.
68 Ibid., p. 119.

far-reaching dimensions as did ЫAbd al-QΪdir.”69 JīlΪnī attested to his spiritual rank by
saying, “This foot of mine is on the neck of every saint of God.”70
It is generally believed that at any given time there is only one Pole on the
earth who initiates and guides men spiritually and even directs the affairs of the
cosmos. He is surrounded by the awliyΪ’ (friends of God) who make up a spiritual
hierarchy and look after the affairs of humanity in various regions.71 In the early days
of Sufism it is generally agreed that the great poles were Sarī al-Saqatī and Junayd of
Baghdad, and also IbrΪhim al-Adham and BΪyazīd al-BisĥΪmī of Khorasan. It is also
believed that the founders of the great Sufi orders were poles (aqĥΪb) such as ЫAbd al-
QΪdir al-JīlΪnī, MuЫīn al-Dīn Chishtī, Abĩ’l Ĕasan al-ShΪdhilī, JalΪl al-Dīn Rĩmī,
ShΪh NiЫmatullΪh, Aĕmad TijΪnī, MĩlΪy al-ЫArabī al-DarqΪwī, Aĕmadu BΪmbΪ,
Aĕmad al-ЫAlawī,72 as well as saints who did not found a ĥarīqah, but are seen as
intellectual and spiritual poles nonetheless. Here we are reminded of Abĩ ĔΪmid al-
GhazzΪlī,73 ShihΪb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī, Muĕyī al-Dīn ibn al-ЫArabī, and Ģadr al-Dīn
Shīrazī, who was a ShīЫite. We should reiterate the point that many Sunni Sufi orders
have as many as the first eight ImΪms of ShīЫism in their silsilah (chain of initiation)
as poles, such as the QΪdiriyyah and ShΪdhiliyyah orders.
Concerning the qualities of the Pole, which he recognized in his own master,
ЫAbd al-SalΪm ibn MΪshish, Abĩ’l-Ĕasan al-ShΪdhilī wrote:
The Pole has fifteen miracles. Hence, anyone who makes a claim to all or any
of them must be distinguished by the [Divine] provision of mercy,
sinlessness, viceregency, proxyhood, and the sustenance granted to those who
carry the majestic throne. In addition, he must have received illumination into
the reality of the Divine essence and an all-encompassing comprehension of
the [Divine] attributes. He must likewise be honored with the miracle of
judgment, the ability to distinguish between the two existences, the
separation of the first from the first, that from which it was separated until its
end and those who have been established therein, the judgment concerning
what is before and what is after and concerning the One who has neither
before nor after, and the knowledge of the beginning, that is, the knowledge
which encompasses every science and everything known, from the first secret
until its end, then returning to it again. This, then, is a criterion which God

69 What is Sufism?, p. 112.
70 Seal of the Saints, p. 108.
71 Here we are reminded of the seven saints of Morocco and the nine saints of Java.
72 What is Sufism?, pp. 100-127.
73 Abĩ ĔΪmid’s younger brother Aĕmad GhazzΪlī was a Pole of Sufism, while many Muslims
believe Abĩ ĔΪmid was an intellectual pole, if such a term is permitted, whose defense of
Sufism remains virtually unsurpassed in Islamic history.

gave the shaykh by which to test anyone who makes a claim to this lofty
rank, which guards secrets and encompasses the divine provision of lights. 74
Some antinomian Sufis have suggested that the Divine Law (SharīЫah) is
dispensable at a certain stage of the Path. This perspective contradicts the teachings
and experiences of most Sufi masters and poles, such as Abĩ’l-Ĕasan al-ShΪdhilī,75
who wrote the following regarding his own spiritual station:
My heart was enlightened one day and I saw the kingdom of the seven
heavens and the seven earths. I then committed a minor sin, after which the
vision was concealed from me. I was astonished that such a trifling
occurrence could conceal from me something so momentous. Just then
someone said to me, ‘[Spiritual] insight is like [physical] sight: The tiniest
thing that gets in the eye can obstruct one’s vision.’76
We read in the Quran, “On the earth there are signs, to all who are endowed
with inner certainty, just as [there are] within your own selves…”77 This verse is of
particular importance for Sufis. And like other verses in the Quran it has several
levels of meaning. For the Quĥb or Universal Man, the signs on the earth and those in
his soul coincide. Not only does he initiate men into the Divine mysteries, but the
actual cosmos is seen as a reflection of his inner state. One often hears stories about
the birth of the prophets, the ImΪms, or great saints, which coincide with rare celestial
events, such as the coming of a comet, or even stories of people who have seen the
sky light up—as it does during the day—in the middle of the night! One recalls the
story mentioned in the Gospel, where the three wise men saw a star in the east, which
signified the birth of Christ.78 The cosmos is said to reflect the inner state of the Quĥb
during his entire life. When the Prophet of Islam first received the Revelation in 610,
it is said that the entire sky turned green. While it is impossible to verify the
hagiographical miracles associated with the lives of prophets and saints, it is
important to note that many ShīЫites and Sufis believe that there is a direct connection
between the macrocosm and the microcosm—or the Universal Man—who is seen as
the axis of the world.

74 Ibn ‘Ata’Allah al-Iskandari, The Subtle Blessings (Lata’if al-Minan), trans. Nancy Roberts
(Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2005), p. 112.
75 Some would object to this assertion, citing Moses’ experience with Khiąr, mentioned in the
Quran. Khiąr’s actions, however, did not contradict the Divine Law, they only appeared to in
the eyes of Moses.
76 The Subtle Blessings (Lata’if al-Minan), p. 111.
77 Quran 51:20-21
78 Matthew 2:1-2

Of particular importance in Islam and Sufism is the symbol of the spiritual
sun. JalΪl al-Dīn Rĩmī’s enigmatic companion Shams al-Dīn (lit. the sun of religion)
al-Tabrīzī is said to symbolize the spiritual sun—the light of the Prophet (al-nĩr almuĕammadiyyah)
and the Divine Light (al-Nĩr). Shams set Rĩmī’s heart on fire, and
inspired his incomparable poetry, such as his Mathnawī, which many have identified
as an esoteric commentary on the Quran. In the samΪЫ (spiritual concert) of Rĩmī’s
Mawlawiyyah ĥarīqah, the dervishes turn around their own axis, the heart, and also in
a larger circle around the shaykh. The dervishes represent the movements of the
planets around the Sun, the angels around the Throne, and also Rĩmī’s lament for his
companion Shams. The latter’s mysterious disappearance79 left Rĩmī in a state of
separation and longing, which only increased his love for the Friend. Many Sufi
orders have movements that correspond to those in the Mawlawiyyah ĥarīqah and that
assist in orienting man’s attention towards the Divine Sun, not to mention the
circumambulations that Muslims make around the KaЫbah during the annual
pilgrimage (ĕajj) to Mecca. The presence of Shams in the life of Rĩmī reveals the
enormous impact of the Pole, not only for those in the Mawlawiyyah ĥarīqah, but also
for the world at large, which continues to draw inspiration from Rĩmī’s poetry, and
the sacred dance that the Mawlawiyyah order performs.80
We must also distinguish between the Ghawth, who is the chief Quĥb in
Sufism, and the poles of each order. Ultimately, there is only one Pole on the earth at
any given time. Yet, each order has its own pole (who may in fact be the Quĥb), who
is the spiritual master (shaykh or pīr). These two perspectives do not necessarily
contradict each other because the spiritual master of a particular order is seen as
having a spiritual connection with the Quĥb or the Prophet of Islam. While being
effaced in the Divine Reality and the light of the Prophet, he is also effaced in the
light of the Quĥb. In fact, he represents the light of prophecy and the light of initiation
for the disciple, while existing somewhere on the spiritual hierarchy in the proximity
of the Quĥb, whom he has found in his own being.

79 Some ShīЫites believe that Shams was the Hidden ImΪm. Despite the problems that arise
when one attempts to verify such claims, Shams serves the same function for Rĩmī and the
Mawlawiyyah ĥarīqah as the Hidden ImΪm does for ShīЫites. Again we are concerned with
how the ImΪm and Quĥb are perceived by ShīЫites and Sunnis.
80 Rĩmī says in his DiwΪn-i Kabir, “I am a slave of the Quran if I have a soul. I am dust of
the road of Muĕammad, the Chosen. If anyone quotes from my sayings other than this, I have
nothing to do with him and I have nothing to do with his words.”

In the context of ShīЫite Sufism, the Ghawth, who can be envisaged as the
supreme Pole, is the ImΪm, while the Quĥb is a Sufi Master who is the deputy of the
Ghawth. From a ShīЫite Sufi perspective the ImΪm is responsible for initiating the
founders of the great Sufi orders. As we have seen, the ImΪms do in fact play a major
role in the chains of even the Sunni Sufi orders. This perspective is seen in the
diagram below,81 which presents the spiritual hierarchy as seen by the NiЫmatullΪhī
ĥarīqah in the time of its founder ShΪh NiЫmatullΪh.
In this model, we see a bipartite differentiation of the supreme Axis, who is
seen as the Mahdī and who is represented by the Sufi Master.
While various orders gravitate to either ShīЫism or Sunnism, depending on
what region they are found in and their spiritual chains, Sufism has always been able
to transcend outward differences. It is also possible to have Sunnis and ShīЫites in the
same ĥarīqah, not to mention rare cases when seekers from other religions were given
guidance by Sufi Masters, and allowed to participate in Sufi gatherings.
Referring to the spiritual hierarchy of saints (awliyΪ’), which can be envisaged
as concentric circles surrounding the Axis, Henry Corbin quotes RĩzbehΪn Baqlī:
81 Nasrollah Pourjavady and Peter Lamborn Wilson, Kings of Love: The History & Poetry of
the NiЫmatullΪhī Sufi Order of Iran (Tehran: Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, 1978),
p. 42.
(‘the Bestower of Aid’,
The Mahdī)
Quĥb al-aqĥāb
(‘Pole of Poles’ – Shāh Ni'matullāh)
Khalīfah of the Khalīfah of the
Malakĩt (Spiritual Mulk (‘The Kingdom’:
World) – Qāsim Anwār The Material World)
Shāh Rukh
Four Quĥbs
Forty Saints
Four Hundred Saints
Four Thousand Saints

In this model, we see a bipartite differentiation of the supreme Axis, who is
seen as the Mahdī and who is represented by the Sufi Master.
While various orders gravitate to either ShīЫism or Sunnism, depending on
what region they are found in and their spiritual chains, Sufism has always been able
to transcend outward differences. It is also possible to have Sunnis and ShīЫites in the
same ĥarīqah, not to mention rare cases when seekers from other religions were given
guidance by Sufi Masters, and allowed to participate in Sufi gatherings.
Referring to the spiritual hierarchy of saints (awliyΪ’), which can be envisaged
as concentric circles surrounding the Axis, Henry Corbin quotes RĩzbehΪn Baqlī:

81 Nasrollah Pourjavady and Peter Lamborn Wilson, Kings of Love: The History & Poetry of
the NiЫmatullΪhī Sufi Order of Iran (Tehran: Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, 1978),
p. 42.

God, possesses on earth three hundred eyes or persons82 whose heart is
consonant with the heart of Adam; forty whose heart is consonant with the
heart of Moses; seven whose heart is consonant with the heart of Abraham;
five whose heart is consonant with the heart of Gabriel; three whose heart is
consonant with the heart of Michael; one (the pole) whose heart is consonant
with the heart of Seraphiel.
And Corbin then adds his own commentary:
The sum of 356 persons is raised to the total of 360 by four figures of
prophets who, according to Islamic esoterism meditating on the Quranic
revelation, have the common characteristic of having been carried off alive
from death: Enoch (that is to say Idrīs, identified with Hermes), Khiąr, Elijah,
and Christ.83
Closely connected to the spiritual hierarchy of the Sufis is the connection
between prophecy and sanctity. In the writings of many Sufi scholars, most notably
Ibn ЫArabī, each saint takes his station from a particular prophet, such as Enoch,
Moses, Jesus, or Muĕammad, which determines the saint’s level of realization.84
William Chittick, one of the contemporary authorities on the writings of Ibn ЫArabī,
refers to the spiritual hierarchy in terms of the Divine Names, which make up the
cosmos itself:
Thus for example, the Pole manifests the name God, because the Pole is the
fully actualized image of God, comprehending and embodying all the divine
attributes without exception. The two Imams manifest the names King and
Lord—that is, God as ruler and controller of the universe (the Absolute) and
God as nurturer and protector of each living thing in the universe (the
Infinite). The four Pegs display the traces of the names Living, Knowing,
Desiring, and Powerful (often called the “four pillars” of the divinity). The
seven Substitutes reveal the properties of the names Living, Knowing,
Loving, Powerful, Grateful, Hearing, and Seeing.85
The Names and Attributes of God are a central theme in the Quran. These are
the permissible aniconic forms of worship for the Muslim. According to Ibn ЫArabī
and others, each person was created through or with a Divine Name, and must
actualize that latent quality or virtue within themselves. As we see above, the awliyΪ’

82 One is reminded of the famous ĕadīth qudsī, in which God speaks through the Prophet in
the first person, “…When I love [my servant] I become his hearing with which he hears, his
seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he
83 The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, pp. 54-55.
84 For an in depth discussion of this topic see M. Chodkiewicz’s Seal of the Saints:
Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn ЫArabī.
85 William Chittick, “The Absent Men in Islamic Cosmology” in The Philosophy of Seyyed
Hossein Nasr, ed. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Randall E. Auxier, and Lucian W. Stone, Jr. (Chicago:
Open Court Publishing Co., 2001), p. 703.

and the Quĥb, reflect these names most clearly, and in the case of the Quĥb, the
Supreme Name, Allah.86 Herein lies one of the mysteries of the Prophet’s name ЫAbd
AllΪh (servant of God), or other names such as ЫAbd al-RaĕmΪn (servant of the
Merciful), ЫAbd al-QΪdir (servant of the Powerful), etc. The servant is annihilated
before the Name, and is seen to reflect (to a degree87) that Quality of God in the
On the question of whether or not a woman can be considered the Quĥb,
Claude Addas writes concerning Ibn ЫArabī’s view, “He distinguishes himself from
some of his co-religionists, because for him there was no level of spiritual realization
which women are incapable of attaining.”88 Addas then quotes Ibn ЫArabī’s al-FutĩĕΪt
al-makkiyah (The Meccan Revelations), “Men are women have their share in every
level, including the function of Pole (Quĥb).”89 While the Pole and the celestial
hierarchy of saints are generally viewed within the context of Islamic esoterism, some
eminent authorities in Islamic history have suggested that this hierarchy is made up of
saintly men and women from all religions. Regarding the inclusion of saints and sages
from other religions in the celestial hierarchy of the Sufis, S.H. Nasr writes,
During these years [Ibn ЫArabī] continued to have his theophanic visions. He
had already had a vision of the invisible hierarchy ruling the Universe,
consisting of the Supreme Pole (Quĥb); the two imΪms; the four “pillars”
(awtΪd) governing the four cardinal points; the seven “substitutes” (abdΪl) the
influence of each of whom reigns over one of the climates; the twelve chiefs
(nuqabΪ’), dominating the twelve signs of the Zodiac; and the eight nobles
(nujabΪ’) corresponding to eight heavenly spheres. He also had a vision of all
the spiritual poles of the revelations anteceding Islam, and realized the
transcendent unity of all the traditions revealed by God to man.90

86 According to Arzina R. Lalani, “The ImΪms, too, according to [ImΪm] al-BΪqir, know the
Greatest Name of God (ism AllΪh al-aЫĭam) which has seventy-three versions…” Early ShīЫī
Thought, p. 79. See also Ibn al-ЫArabī’s The Meccan Revelations (al-FuĥĩhΪt al-makkīyah),
ed. by Michel Chodkiewicz, trans. William Chittick & James Morris (New York: Pir Press,
2005) p. 190-197.
87 In Islamic cosmology, God’s angels, books, the signs in nature, and other theophanies also
reflect the Divine Attributes, while He and His Attributes transcend even the greatest
manifestation in the cosmos.
88 Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1993), p. 87.
89 Ibid., p. 87.
90 Three Muslim Sages, p. 95. S.H. Nasr also writes, “Sayyid Ĕaydar Āmulī, made no
reservations in pointing to the correspondence existing between the “Muĕammadan” pleroma
of seventy-two stars of the Islamic universe and the seventy-two stars of the pleroma
comprised of those sages who had preserved their primordial nature but belong to a world
outside of the specifically Islamic one.” Knowledge and the Sacred, p. 72

Referring to the eschatological events that are said to occur during the rise of
the Mahdī, whose function, but not his identity, is generally agreed upon by Sunnis
and ShīЫites, Amir-Moezzi states:
The Mahdī will also restore other religions, likewise abandoned and
disfigured, to their original truth, in effect, it is said that he will take out of
his cave, where they are hidden, all the holy Books of the earlier prophets,
and that he will have their principles followed by their faithful.91
We must remind our readers that after the return of the Mahdī, Muslims believe that
Christ will return, and will therefore be the Axis for Muslims, as he has been for
certain Sufis in Islamic history, and the whole of Christendom. Christ is of central
importance in the writings of many Sufis; foremost among them is Ibn ЫArabī, who
referred to Christ as the Seal of the Saints (khatm al-awliyΪ’)92 because of his role at
the end of time, as well as his archetypal importance as a Sufi master. Christ is one of
the clearest examples of Muĕammadan poverty (al-faqr al-muĕammadiyyah) in the
minds of many Muslims. And, as is the case with all pre-Islamic prophets, his
teachings and presence are revered among Muslims.
Some Conclusions
One cannot go so far as to equate ShīЫism and Sufism.93 While there are many
parallels between the doctrine of the ImΪm and the Quĥb—especially among ShīЫite
Sufis—the function and identity of these figures is not completely agreed upon among
ShīЫites and Sunnis. Some of these differences are highlighted by Moojan Momen:
It is precisely this closeness in certain areas between ShīЫism and Sufism that
has led to antagonism among ShīЫi ulama towards Sufism. The concept of the
Quĥb (who for most Sufi orders is the head of the order) as the purveyor of
spiritual guidance and of God’s grace to mankind is in direct conflict with the
concept of the ImΪm who in ShīЫism fulfils this role…Indeed for ShīЫis, the

91 The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism, p. 119.
92 S.H. Nasr writes, “Ibn ЫArabī and following him DΪ’ĩd al-Qayģarī consider Christ as the
‘universal seal of sanctity’, and Ibn ЫArabī refers indirectly to himself as the ‘particular seal of
sanctity’ whereas most ShīЫite authors believe these titles belong to ЫAlī and the Mahdī
respectively. In this delicate question the distinction between the ‘universal seal of sanctity’
and the ‘particular or Muĕammadan seal of sanctity’ must be kept especially in mind. In any
case this is a point of contention between Ibn ЫArabī and even his most ardent ShīЫite
followers such as Sayyid Ĕaydar Āmulī.” Sufi Essays, p. 108.
93 Of course for ShīЫite Sufis, ShīЫism and Sufism are the same reality. According to S.H.
Nasr, “It is [Sayyid Ĕaydar] Āmulī who believed that every true ShīЫite is a Sufi and every
true Sufi a ShīЫite.” Sufi Essays, p. 115.

Twelfth ImΪm, who is alive and only in occultation, is the living Quĥb and
there can only ever be one Quĥb upon the earth at any one time.94
ShīЫism and Sufism have a great deal in common, but as we have seen they are
not identical. Sufi masters can either been perceived as inheritors or usurpers of the
spiritual function of the ImΪms, much in the same way that some Sunnis perceive the
function of the ImΪms in ShīЫism in relation to the Prophet. S.H. Nasr helps to resolve
this issue by stating:
The function of the Imams and their descendents in the ShīЫite world is
fulfilled in the Sunni world by the saints, who are in fact in a metaphysical
sense the spiritual progeny of the Prophet and the ImΪms. The names of many
of the ImΪms appear in the chain of transmission (silsilah) of every Sufi
As we have seen, there are Sunni and ShīЫite Sufi orders. The latter of which
believe that the twelfth ImΪm is the Quĥb, whereas Sufi orders in the Sunni world
have as many as eight of the ShīЫite ImΪms on their chains of transmission as poles,
but also assign this function to a host of other saintly figures in Islamic history, such
as all four rightly-guided Caliphs, the founders of the Sufi orders, and often the
current head of each ĥarīqah.96 It is very difficult to reconcile the various applications
of these doctrines in the Shī’ite and Sunni worlds without reducing one point of view
to the other. However, ShīЫite Sufis believe the ImΪm and the Quĥb are the same
person.97 Conversely, when one closely examines the early chains of transmission of
the Sunni Sufi orders, one inevitably finds the name ЫAlī, and in many cases the

94 An Introduction to ShiЫi Islam, p. 209.
95 Ideals and Realities of Islam, p. 173.
96 This matter can be resolved further when we take into account the afrΪd or solitary saints
such as Khiąr, who, according to Ibn ЫArabī and others, achieve a level of sanctity on par with
the Quĥb, but are not under his jurisdiction. The story of Khiąr and Moses in the Quran
(18:65-82) helps to illustrate this point. If we maintain that there are other afrΪd in Islamic
history, as Ibn ЫArabī does, then it is not difficult to see how there can be more than one
center of spiritual authority. In fact, ЫAlī is seen by Ibn ЫArabī as one of the afrΪd, but a Pole
only after the first three Caliphs. When ShīЫism begins to crystallize as a tradition in Islam, it
does so independently of Sunnism, in the same way that ЫAlī was independent and even
advised the first three Caliphs. One is again reminded of the story of Khiąr and Moses in the
Quran. The lives and functions of all of the ImΪms are in many ways analogous to Khiąr and
his function. See Ibn al-ЫArabī’s The Meccan Revelations, vol. I, ed. M. Chodkiewicz, trans.
W.C. Chittick and J.W. Morris (New York, Pir Press, 2005), p. 266, and Seal of the Saints,
pp. 95-96, 107-108.
97 For example, some ShīЫites have suggested that the Prophet transmitted the solar or total
initiatic function (walΪyat-i kulliyyah) to the ImΪms, while the Prophet’s close companions
and the Sufi masters possess what has been called the lunar initiatic function (walΪyat-i
qamariyyah), because of their spiritual proximity to the Prophet and/or the ImΪms. See H.
Corbin’s The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, pp. 105, 156.

names of the first eight ShīЫite ImΪms, although they are not seen as ImΪms according
to ShīЫite Imamology, but as poles of their time.
In any case, the ImΪm and the Quĥb share a common function for their
respective communities, whether they are envisaged as the Prophet Muĕammad,
FΪĥimah, the Twelve ImΪms, the Quĥb, the awliyΪ’, Khiąr, or even pre-Islamic figures
such as Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Without oversimplifying the matter, for Muslims,
all of these figures are manifestations of the Axis Mundi, the central spiritual axis that
connects Heaven and earth, and around which the world turns. While ShīЫites and
Sufis believe that there is only one supreme Quĥb who manifests physically in our
current era, the prophets, ImΪms, and saints are all seen as celestial archetypes and
manifestations of the Pole for particular communities and individuals guiding them
back to the Divine Reality.
Our intention was not to identify the Pole of each age, but rather to elucidate
the reality of the ImΪm and the Quĥb in ShīЫism and Sufism. In addition, we have
sought to demonstrate their remarkable similarities, which include their cosmological
function as inner guide to the faithful, and bridge between Heaven and earth. This is
seen most clearly when the Axis of ShīЫism and Sufism does in fact coincide, as is the
case with the Prophet Muĕammad, ЫAlī, the Mahdī, and Christ. Ultimately, the ImΪm
or the Quĥb is the supreme witness of Divine Unity (tawĕīd). One may take the first
shahΪdah, LΪ ilΪha illa’LlΪh, “There is no god but God,” to mean, “There is no center
but the Divine Center,” or “There is no axis, but the Divine Axis.” To which He has
added, Muĕammadun rasĩl AllΪh, “Muĕammad is the messenger of God,” who is the
manifestation of Unity on the plane of multiplicity, the Axis Mundi, which sanctifies
the entire cosmos. Finally, one must remember the words of the Prophet, which
resonate clearly in the hearts of ShīЫites and Sufis alike, ЫAlīyun walī AllΪh, “Ali is
the friend of God,” which signifies initiation and transmission of the Muĕammadan
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