The Worldview of the Ghulat (Pt. I)

A group from our Shia will love us until they will say about us that which the Jews said about Uzayr and that which the Christians said about Isa b. Maryam, so neither are they from us, nor are we from them1

– Imam al-Sajjad

Originally posted on Shiitic Studies.


The original Ghulat did not all share identical beliefs, but there is enough similarity between the disparate trends making up the ‘Ghulati movement’ of that period to allow us to speak of a common world-view.

I have attempted to reconstruct this world-view by undertaking a thorough study of all the relevant material found in an early and authoritative work, the so-called Rijal al-Kashshi. The latter work has been chosen because it is a matchless source on the subject, meticulously documenting as it does the interaction between the Imams and their contemporaries including the Ghulat.

Of particular interest are the many reports in this work which follow a similar pattern wherein a companion presents the statement(s) of an individual accused of Ghulu to the Imam – this individual could be a one-time prominent companion of the Imam or a pretender using the charismatic authority of the Imam for his own ends – followed by a denunciation from the Imam. Such reports indirectly provide us a window into what the Ghulat of those times were thinking.

My finding is that the common world-view of the Ghulat was built around the pillars numbered and substantiated below:

1. Divinity of the Imams

Most trends of the Ghulat considered the Imam to be divine in some way.

Imam al-Sadiq says to one of his companions:

O Aba Muhammad, disassociate from the one who claims that we are Lords2

Another companion (i.e. Salih b. Sahl) admits to having held such a belief at one point in time:

I used to believe in the divinity of Abi Abdillah عليه السلام

I entered upon him one day, so when he (the Imam) saw me he said: O Salih, we are – by Allah – created slaves, we have a Lord whom we worship, and if we do not worship Him then He will punish us3

A few companions were debating just this belief when they went to Imam al-Sadiq for resolution:

Khalid al-Jawwan said: I, Mufadhal b. Umar, and some people from our companions were in Madina when we disputed each other about the divinity (of the ‘Aimma).

Then we said: Let us go to Aba Abdillah’s عليه السلام door so that we can ask him.

He (Khalid) said: We were stood at the door when he (the Imam) came out to us saying: “rather mere honored slaves, never preceding Him (Allah) in word, and they always follow His orders” (21:26-27)4

While the genesis of this claim is quite early5, evidence of a more sophisticated theological doctrine is available for the Ghali called Bayan b. Sim’an.

Bayan’s ‘two gods’ theory

Bayan b. Sim’an was a contemporary of both Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya (a surviving son of Imam Ali and the center of speculation for Kaysani claims) and Imam al-Sajjad.

He is credited with putting forth a Qur’anic justification for the belief in the divinity of the Imam. He interpreted Q. 43:48 to mean that there is an Ilah al-Sama (God of heaven i.e. Allah) and at the same time a distinct Ilah al-Ardh (god of earth i.e. the Imam).

Hisham b. al-Hakam presents his belief to Imam al-Sadiq as follows:

Bayan interprets this verse “And He is the One who is in heaven God, and in earth God” (43:84) that the one on earth is different from the God of heaven, and the God of heaven is different from the god of earth. That the God of heaven is greater than the god of earth. That the people of the earth recognize the merit of the God of heaven and magnify Him (i.e. but do not recognize the god of earth)6

We have indirect evidence that Bayan identified his ‘god of earth’ to be Imam al-Sajjad.

Zurara heard Imam al-Baqir saying:

May Allah curse Bayan the straw seller!

Verily Bayan – may Allah curse him – used to lie about my father.

I bear witness that my father Ali b. al-Husayn was (merely) a righteous servant (i.e. nothing more)7

That this verse became a popular locus for the claim of the Imam’s divinity can be demonstrated by the fact that it comes up again and again in our sources.

Sadir al-Sayrafi informs Imam al-Sadiq:

A group claims that you are gods. They recite for us about that a (verse from the) Qur’an: “And He is the One who is in heaven God, and in earth God” (43:84)8

Imam al-Sadiq was informed that some companions of the famous heresiarch Abu al-Khattab (incl. Ja’far b. Waqid) travelled to Biyrudh and declared to its people:

“And He is the One who is in heaven God, and in earth God” (43:84) – It is the Imam (i.e. interpreting the Imam as god on earth)9

Bayan’s Host Imamology

How exactly did these proponents who considered the Imam to be the ‘god of earth’ saw this divinity accruing from?

al-Shahristani (d. 548) says:

Bayan said: The divine particle transfused into Ali and united with his physical body. In it (this divine particle) did he know the Unseen when he used to inform others about the future trials and it would come true … and by it (not his physical body) was he able to uproot the door of Khaybar10

From this we discover that the Bayaniyya deified the Imam because he hosted the indwelling divine ‘spirit’, ‘particle’, ‘light’ or ‘spark’. In other words, the bodies of the prophets and ‘Aimma were receptacles or vessels to be filled with something of the ‘God of heaven’.

All the supernatural abilities of the Imam derive from being a host to the divine particle without which the Imam is just an ordinary human. 

The ʿAlyāʾiyya/Mukhamissa Incarnationist Imamology

With the passage of time, however, another even more pernicious belief grew hold in which there was no such distinction between God of heaven and god of earth, rather, God himself came down from heaven and is incarnated ‘in the flesh’, present in our midst in the person of the Imam.

A central piece of evidence available to us for this is al-Kashshi’s description of the beliefs of the Ghali Bashshar who was a contemporary of Imam al-Sadiq:

The belief of Bashshar is that of the ʿAlyāʾiyya – they say: Indeed Ali is Lord. He appeared (i.e. incarnated) in the Alawi and Hashimi (form) (on earth), and He (Ali) made his Slave and Messenger to appear (i.e. incarnate) in the Muhammadi (form) (on earth)11

The ʿAlyāʾiyya who were active in the time of the latter Imams believed that God whom they identified as ‘Ali’ (the cosmological reality) incarnated in human form as ‘Ali-the-man’ while sending his Bab (servant and Messenger) whom they identified as ‘Muhammad’ (the cosmological reality) who incarnated in human form as ‘Muhammad-the-man’.

We can learn more about them by studying the indispensable description provided by Sa’d b. Abdallah al-Qummi (d. 301)12 of a related grouping called the Mukhamissa, since they shared the same basic schema with the ʿAlyāʾiyya differing only in the identification of God and the Bab.

The Mukhammisa are followers of Abi al-Khattab … they asserted that God Majestic and Mighty is Muhammad … He (i.e. Muhammad) has never ceased being amidst his creation, present in his essence, taking any Form He wishes …The essential reality of the Bab is Salman and he is the Messenger of Muhammad being attached to Him and Muhammad is Lord …

Muhammad first appeared to humans on earth as His true self (i.e. Light) and:

Invited them to acknowledge His Oneness, but they rejected him

It is at this stage that Muhammad changed tack and decided to assume human form:

So that His creation can relate to Him and are not terrified of their Lord

When he came as human He did not announce His reality to everyone rather:

He appeared to them in the Guise of Prophethood and Messengership but they rejected Him.

Breakthrough only occurred when:

He appeared to them in the Guise of Imama and they accepted Him

We are dealing here with the phenomenon of successive re-incarnations of the same cosmological reality. Muhammad first came as His true self (i.e. Light) but was not divinized because the humans could not relate to Him, nor was He divinized when He came as prophet, rather, He was only first divinized when He appeared as Imam. This alludes to the historical reality that it was only in this later period that some contemporaries of the Imams recognized their divinity for the first time.

All this is to say that the Imam had a dual status according to the Mukhamissa.  Imama was the Dhahir (apparent) status which most of the Shia recognized but more secretive was his Batin (hidden) status which is that he is:

God whose reality is Muhammad

The people are divided into commoner and elite based on whether they know of the Imam’s hidden status – in which case they encounter Him as His true self.

Those who are among His elect ones encounter him in His Light (i.e. His true self), and one who is not among His select ones will only encounter Him as human of blood and flesh.

The historical reliability of Sa’d’s account is corroborated when this duality of perception is also attributed in our work (Rijal Kashshi) to a Ghali contemporary of Imam al-Kadhim called Muhammad b. Bashir. He is said to have held that:

Musa عليه السلام had formerly been manifest among creation who could all see him. He would appear to the people of Light as Light (i.e. his true self), and to the people of turbidity as turbid, that is, in the likeness of their form – as human and fleshly mortal13

2. Control and Maintenance of the Universe

For subscribers to Host Imamology, the god of the earth (i.e. the Imam) was seen as a ‘lesser god’ who performs functions that Muslims usually consider the remit of the one God. This was termed Tafwidh (delegation). It included the Imam distributing Rizq (sustenance) to the slaves.

A companion reports to Imam al-Sadiq the doctrine of an otherwise unknown Ghali as follows:

Abu Harun al-Makfuf claims that you said to him: ‘If you want the Eternal then no one can perceive that one, but if you want the one who creates and gives out sustenance then he is Muhammad b. Ali عليه السلام

The Imam replied:

He has lied upon me, may Allah curse him! By Allah there is no creator except for Allah, Alone, without any partner. It is Allah’s right over us to make us taste death, and the one who does not perish is Allah, the creator of the creations, and the fashioner of the fashioned ones14

Two companions enter upon Imam al-Sadiq and inform him that:

Mufadhal b. Umar says that you are the ones who allot the Rizq of the slaves.

The Imam replied:

By Allah – None allots our Rizq except Allah. I was in need of food for my family once, so my heart became constrained, and I became ponderous over what I was going to do, until their (i.e. my family members’) strength drained (i.e. due to hunger), only then did my soul get pleased (i.e. my Dua for Rizq was answered). May Allah curse him and disassociate from him.

They both said to him: Do you curse him and disassociate from him? He said: Yes, so you two also curse him and disassociate from him, may Allah and his messenger disassociate from him15

So if the Imam himself has to plead to Allah for his Rizq then how can he be the one who distributes Rizq?

3. Knowledge of the Ghayb (Unseen)

The Ghulat held that the Imams had an absolute knowledge of the Ghayb, which in practice meant that they knew everything (possessed infinite knowledge), something which is only true for Allah alone.

Anbasa b. Mus’ab informs Imam al-Sadiq that Abu al-Khattab was reporting that he (the Imam) had affirmed possessing knowledge of the Ghayb to him.

The Imam replied:

As for his saying that I said that I know the Ghayb (Unseen) then by Allah – the One whom there is no God but Him – I do not know the Ghayb (Unseen). May Allah not reward me by my dead nor bless me in my living if I had said that to him.

Anbasa comments:

And in front of him (i.e. the Imam) was a small black girl just beginning to walk

The Imam looks at her and says:

There was from me to the mother of this one like the tracing of the pen (i.e. slight sexual contact) but this one issued to me, so if I knew the Ghayb she would not issue to me! (i.e. the Imam would not have had intercourse with the mother if he knew that the union would result in a child).

The Imam cites another example of his lack of knowledge of future outcomes:

I also divided up with Abdallah b. al-Hasan a farm-land between me and him, so he got the even land and water (for well), while I ended up with a hilly tract, so If I knew the Ghayb then I would have acquired the even land and the water and he would have got the hilly tract!16

In another instance, Yahya b. Abdallah b. al-Hasan (a descendant of Imam Hasan) says to Imam al-Sadiq:

                May I be made your ransom, they think that you know the Ghayb!

And the Imam replied:

Praise be to Allah! Praise be to Allah! Put your hand upon my hair, for by Allah – there is not a hair in my body nor upon my head except that it has stood (i.e. in apprehension of their false claim).

No by Allah, it (i.e. the knowledge we have) is not but an inheritance from the messenger of Allah17 صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم

Abi Basir says to Imam al-Sadiq:

They say that you know the number of the drops in the rain, and the number of the stars, and the number of leaves in all the trees, and the weight of what is in the ocean, and the number of sand particles.

At which point the Imam raised his hand to the sky and said:

Praise be to Allah! Praise be to Allah! No by Allah, no one knows this except for Allah18

4. Non-cessation of Prophecy

If the Imam is divine then the leaders of various Ghulati trends saw themselves as his prophet. No one could reach god (the Imam) except through them as the Bab (doors) to salvation.

Al-Kashshi read one of the books of the Tayyara Ghulat which attributed to Mufadhdhal b. Umar al-Ju’fi the claim that:

Twelve of us entered in to see Imam al-Sadiq whereupon he began greeting each one of us individually and calling each one of us by the name of a prophet, saying to one of us ‘Peace be upon you O Noah’, to another ‘Peace be upon you O Ibrahim’, he greeted the last one of us saying: ‘Peace be upon you O Yunus’. Then he (the Imam) said: Do not distinguish between the prophets!19

We have more evidence of this for the period of the latter Imams.

One of the companions of Imam al-Askari wrote to him:

May I be made your ransom. O my master, Ali b. Hasaka claims that he is one of your followers, and that you are the First Eternal, and that he is your door and prophet, and that you ordered him to invite others to accept that20

Imam al-Askari says about another Ghali:

Ibn Baba claims that I appointed him a prophet and that he is the door. May Allah curse him. Shaytan has ridiculed him and thus deluded him. May Allah curse the one who accepts this from him21

Al-Kashshi states the following while describing the splinters among the later Ghulat:

A group believed in the prophethood of Muhammad b. Nusayr al-Numayri. That is because he claimed that he was a prophet sent (to the people), and that (it was) Ali b. Muhammad al-Askari عليه السلام (who) had sent him (as a messenger)22

A concomitant of the claim to be prophets was the claim to receive revelation. This took many forms.

A number of the Ghulat claimed to see visions where various figures (the Imam-god) appeared to them. The Imams would explain these as apparitions of devil(s).

Hamza b. Ammara al-Barbari used to claim that Imam al-Baqir appears to him to instruct him.

When Imam al-Sadiq was informed of this he replied:

He has lied by Allah! No one comes to him but Mutakawwin. Verily Iblis has charged a devil called Mutakawwin (i.e. shape-shifter) to appear to people in any form it wants. If it wants (it comes) in a small form or in a large form. No by Allah! It does not have the ability to come in the form of my father23

Imam al-Sadiq says about a number of Ghulat leaders:

The Devil appeared to Bayan, al-Sarri and Bazi’ in the most handsome form that a human can have from the top of the head to the navel24

Imam al-Askari states about another Ghali:

A devil appears to Qasim and inspires to him alluring words in deception (allusion to 6:112)25

The Ghali Yunus b. Dhabyan, on the other hand, claimed to have heard a voice from heaven. One of his companions quoted his account to Imam al-Ridha:

I was making the Tawaf in one of the nights when I heard a call coming from above my head ‘O Yunus – it is I who am Allah there is no God except Me, so worship Me and establish the prayer for my remembrance’ (20:14). I raised my head to look up and lo and behold it was “J” (alluding to Jibril).

The Imam was so furious at this ‘a fury such that he could barely control himself’ and he said to the companion:

Get away from me! May Allah curse you! May He curse the one who reported this to you! And may He curse Yunus b. Dhabyan a thousand curses followed by another thousand curses! Each curse sufficient to expel you to a pit of Hell!

I bear witness that no one called out to him except a devil. Verily Yunus is together with Abi al-Khattab in the severest of punishments, bound together with their followers unto that devil, together with Firaun and the people of Firaun in the severest of punishments. I heard this from my father.

An eye-witness reports:

The man stood to depart, he had not reached the door and made but ten steps when he fell unconscious, vomited out his excrement and was carried away dead.

The Imam explained:

An angel bearing a column came to him and struck him on the head such a blow that his bladder reversed (upside down) and he vomited excretion. Allah hastened his soul to the Hawiya and joined him with his man who informed him of this, with Yunus b. Dhabyan, and he saw the devil who used to appear to him26

It is clear from the Imam’s pairing of the two that Yunus was following in the footsteps of Abu al-Khattab. One is consequently unsurprised to find that when the daughter of Abu al-Khattab died, Yunus was said to have:

Glanced at her grave and said: Peace be on you O daughter of the messenger of Allah!27

An even greater claim of an ascent to heaven to meet God was made by the Ghali Abu Mansur al-Ijli.

A companion narrates to Imam al-Sadiq:

Aba Mansur narrated to me that he was made to ascend to his Lord who wiped his head and said to him in Persian يا پسر ‘O son’.

The Imam said:

My father narrated to me from my grandfather that the Messenger of Allah said: Iblis has taken up a throne between heaven and earth, and taken up sentinels as numerous (in number) as the angels, so if he calls a man and he (the man) responds to him, it is treaded behind him and foot-steps are extended towards him, Iblis shows himself to him and he (the man) is raised up to him.

Verily Aba Mansur was a messenger of Iblis.

May Allah curse Aba Mansur! May Allah curse Aba Mansur! – thrice28


  1. Rijal al-Kashshi (Qum: Mu’assassa al-Nashr al-Islami, 1427): No. 191
  2. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 529
  3. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 632
  4. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 591
  5. There are historical reports that Ali was divinized already in his lifetime. A thorough analysis of these in the Shia Hadith corpus is forthcoming in the article ‘Abdallah b. Saba – Man or Myth’
  6. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 547
  7. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 541
  8. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 551
  9. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 538
  10. al-Milal wa al-Nihal (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifa, 1414): Vol. 1, Pgs. 176-177
  11. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 744
  12. al-Maqalat wa al-Firaq (Tehran: Matba’a Haydari, 1963): Pgs. 56-57
  13. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 906
  14. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 398
  15. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 587
  16. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 515
  17. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 530
  18. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 532
  19. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 588
  20. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 997
  21. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 999
  22. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 1000
  23. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 537
  24. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 547
  25. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 996
  26. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 673
  27. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 674
  28. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 546