Mufawwiḍah and Ghulāt: What’s the Difference?

The death of ʿAlī al-Riḍā in 202/818 was a turning point in the history of Imāmī Shiʿism. The eighth imām of the Shiʿa left behind his seven-year-old son, later known as Muḥammad al-Jawād (d. 220/835), as the only viable candidate to inherit the mantle of the Imamate. The Shiʿi community was divided over the candidacy of al-Jawād, disagreeing over whether or not a child of seven was qualified to lead the faithful in matters of law and theology. Eventually the mainstream of the Imāmīs settled on the leadership of al-Jawād when a number of rationales for a child-imām were put forward. Perhaps the most widely-accepted was the view that compared al-Jawād to the qurʾanic Jesus and John the Baptist, who, according the Qurʾan, were recognised as prophets from their childhood. The Shiʿi faithful saw in al-Jawād a candidate who, in order to become an Imām, did not need to acquire knowledge by learning the content of the books left behind by his forefathers – nor did he need to learn the precepts of religious law in order to arrive at new legal positions through the process of rational reasoning (which the Shiʿis of the third/ninth century called qiyās, but unlike the qiyās of the Ḥanafī rite) – rather, the dominant view maintained that the seven-year-old al-Jawād was an Imām appointed by God and was given perfect knowledge of the sharīʿah.

It has been noted by the standard historical accounts about third/ninth century Imāmī Shiʿism that the post-Riḍā milieu witnessed the popularisation of extremists ideas concerning the nature of the Imāms, chief among them is the doctrine that elevated the position of the Imām to the supernatural and cosmological while adopting a dim view of the political and legal dimension of the office of the Imamate.

It is often the case that academic and traditional studies of Shiʿism overlook important nuances when terms such as ‘extremism’ and ‘unorthodox’ are invoked in order to contrast the post-Riḍā trends with the outlook of the circles of Muḥammad al-Bāqir (d. 114/732) and Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 148/765), the fifth and sixth Shiʿi Imāms respectively. The terms most-oft invoked are Ghulāt and Mufawwiḍah. Together they have become bywords for post-Riḍā Shiʿi extremism. There was little attempt, however, to distinguish the two in modern scholarship about Shiʿi Islam. It seems that even the third/ninth century Shiʿi scholars of ḥadīth in Qum could not easily separate ghuluww from tafwīḍ.

What exactly then is the difference between the Ghulāt and the Mufawwiḍah? I will refer to one incident recounted by al-Najāshī (d. 450/1058) (about whom I will write an entry in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE) in his rijāl work Fahrasat asmāʼ muṣannifī al-shīʻah (but popularly known as Rijāl al-Najāshī) that aptly highlights the difference between ghuluww and tafwīḍ, at least as the issues were understood in the third/ninth century.  

The account in al-Najāshī describes the moment when the folk of Qum, considered the leading seat of Imāmī learning in the third/ninth century and its ḥadīth scholars the most ardent critics of extremism, decided to kill a certain Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Ūrama al-Qummī after suspecting him of harbouring the extremist ideas of the Ghulāt.

We are told by al-Najāshī that the Qummīs halted their the plan to kill Muḥammad b. Ūramah after they found him engaged in prayers through the night. The performance of prayers – ritually or otherwise – was presumably a telltale sign that someone was not from the Ghulāt.

But why did the Qummīs suspect Muḥammad b. Ūramah in the first place? The matter is further complicated when we learn that our suspected extremist is reported to have penned a rebuttal of the Ghulāt, as al-Najāshī notes in his entry. The clue to the difference between ghuluww and tafwīḍ lies in the mention of a work of exegesis that was attributed to Muḥammad b. Ūramah where he supposedly espouses bāṭinī views about the cosmic role of the Imāms, based on al-Najāshī’s reference to takhlīṭ (that is, mixing ‘orthodox’ with ‘unorthodox’ views), a byword for extremism in the early Shiʿi corpora.

The case of Muḥammad b. Ūramah brings the ghuluwwtafwīḍ distinction into sharp focus. The Shiʿi sources describe the Ghulāt as recognisable by their dereliction of religious duties such as prayer and fasting. An account in al-Kashshī, the fourth/tenth century Shiʿi scholar of ḥadīth and rijāl, tells us as much, stating that in the earlier centuries when a Shiʿi failed to observes the daily prayers he would branded a member of the Ghulāt. The performance of ritual prayers was clear proof that someone was not from the Ghulāt; that is because the Ghulāt did not uphold the legal precepts of the sharīʿah which they considered unbecoming of a true devotee of the Imāms. The seemingly esoteric (bāṭinī) ideas suspected of Muḥammad b. Ūramah seem closer to tafwīḍ than they are to ghuluww.

The Mufawwiḍah, who appeared on the scene at the end of the second/eighth century, while holding on to extremist notions like the cosmic role of the Imām, did not however abandon the legal duties of the sharīʿah nor did they elevate the Imāms to the divine rank of gods, although they did speak of the Imāms as possessing cosmic powers of elevated status.

The Mufawwiḍah share a number of commonalities with the Ghulāt, the belief in the cosmic role of the Imāms and their supernatural qualifies is one prime example. The Ghulāt, however, abrogated the sharīʿah owing to their belief (according to the sources) that adherence to the legal duties imposed on Shiʿi and non-Shiʿi Muslims is a limitation that betokens intellectual inferiority and failure to grasp the true nature of the Imāms. For, according to the Ghulāt (as the sources describe them), when one learns the Secrets of the Imāms and their cosmological nature, legal rituals such as prayer and fasting become superfluous.

The close disciples of the Imāms were oftentimes the target of verbal attacks by the Ghulāt and the Mufawwiḍah. As one would expect, the disagreements revolved around issues of theology and how one should come to understand the role of the Imāms after the Prophet. A representative example showing the chasm between the theological views of the close learned disciples of the Shiʿi Imāms, on the one hand, and the Ghulāt and Mufawwiḍah detractors, on the other, is the case of Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh b. Abī Yaʿfūr al-ʿAbdī (d. 131/749), arguably the closest of Jaʿfar al-Ṣadiq’s associates. According to al-Kashshī, a disagreement broke out between Ibn Abī Yaʿfur (al-ʿAbdī) and Muʿallah b. Khunays of the extremists.

Speaking on the nature of the Imāms, Ibn Abī Yaʿfūr described the Imāms as pious and learned scholars (ʿulemāʾ abrār atqiyāʾ). Khunays disagreed. In his view, the Imāms were prophets. When the matter was brought to Jaʿfar al-Sādiq he sided with Ibn Abī Yaʿfur, urging Muʿallah to abandon his extremist opinions. There is little here to help us identify the precise theological orientation of Khunays, that is, whether he belong to the Ghulāt or the Mufawwiḍah. We are in a better position to discern religious inclination when we consider the practice or abandonment of mandatory rituals. The Ghulāt did not care for the legal rituals of Islam such as prayer and fasting, whereas the Mufawwiḍah considered themselves duty bound to follow the finer points of law, even if they maintained extremist theological positions (at least as portrayed in the sources).

A useful summary of intra-Shiʿi debates and chronology of the main events leading up to the rationalist-turn after the fourth/tenth century could be found in Hossein Modarressi’s Crisis and Consolidation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: