The Worldview of the Ghulat (Pt. II)

“Be on the lookout over your children so that the Ghulat do not corrupt them … the Ghali returns to us (i.e. from his heighty beliefs) but we do not accept him, while the Muqassir catches up to us (i.e. our real station) so we accept him …”1

– Imam al-Sadiq

Originally posted on Shiitic Studies. | Click for Part I

5. Antinomianism

Most of the Ghulat considered the injunctions of the Sharia (Divine Law) to be non-binding on them by virtue of their recognition of the Imam.

The early proto-Sunni authority, Sharik b. Abdallah al-Nakhai (d. 177), knows of companions of Imam al-Sadiq – Mufadhal b. Umar among them – who claimed that:

Ja‘far narrated to them that recognition of the Imam suffices to spare one from fasting and prayer2.

That Mufadhal was associated with such a belief is independently corroborated by the account of two companions of Imam al-Sadiq: Muawiya b. Wahb and Ishaq b. Ammar. The duo desired to perform the Ziyara of al-Husayn once and picked up Mufadhal b. Umar on the way. Fajr happened while they were ‘four Farsakh from Kufa’. They dismounted to pray while Mufadhal remaining stationary and did not dismount from his donkey.

They asked:

O Aba Abdillah (i.e. Mufadhal) – Will you not pray?

At which he claimed unbelievably:

I have already prayed before leaving my house!3

This belief was justified by the creedal statement ‘Salat is a man’ or ‘Sawm is a man’, that is to say, prayers and fasting are embodied in a man (i.e. the Imam), and all the hundreds of verses iterating the importance of Salat are actually commands to recognize the true status of that man and associate with him.

One who does this becomes part of the elite. Now he is above the requirement to perform the physical ritualistic acts of worship which are more suited to the slavish masses.

Indeed, these acts of worship are:

Fetters and shackles. Required not of them (i.e. the elite) but only of the ‘the people of Opposition’ (i.e. those who reject or are unaware of the Imam) being a ‘punishment’ for them4

They mocked the latter for not understanding the inner significance of the acts and for toiling over them in expectation of salvation only to be doomed to perdition

Similarly, ‘Zina is a man’ or ‘Khamr is a man’, that is to say, adultery and wine are embodied in a man (i.e. the enemy of the Imam), and all the verses denouncing such sinful acts are taken to be commands to repudiate that man and disassociate from him.

So if you forbid yourself to acknowledge them and avoid them (i.e. the enemies of the Imam) then you have avoided what Allah has forbidden upon you5

The elite who knew the true Batini (allegoric) interpretation of these verses could consequently drink wine, fornicate and commit all other prohibited acts to their heart’s desire.

This must have been a very attractive doctrine and it is not surprising to find such an allegoric interpretation being falsely attributed to the Imams themselves.

A companion questioned Imam al-Sadiq:

It is narrated from you that al-Khamr (intoxicants), al-Maysir (games of chance), al-Ansab (dedicating stones) and al-Azlam (divination by arrows) are men (i.e. not the sinful acts)

The Imam gives an answer which is an important principle to keep in mind when making Tafsir of the Qur’an:

Allah Mighty and Majestic does not address His creation by what they do not know6

In other words, it is against Allah’s wisdom to mislead the people by revealing verses that literally mean one thing while actually intending another hidden meaning which the masses cannot access.

Imam al-Sadiq had to write a letter to Abu al-Khattab repudiating such a belief:

It is not as you say!

We are the root of truth and the branches of truth is obedience to Allah. Our enemy is the root of falsehood and its branches are the abominable acts.

How can He be obeyed One who is not recognized? And how is He recognized One who is not obeyed?7

This last statement means that recognition of the Imam (i.e. the root) and obeying him in performing the Wajibat and avoiding the Muharammat (i.e. the branches) go together.  The tree of true religion without either of them is not complete.

Nevertheless, the belief persisted.

A partial antinomianism is ascribed to the Bashiriyya, followers of a contemporary of Imam al-Kadhim called Muhammad b. Bashir:

They asserted that what is obligatory upon them from Allah the Exalted – is the establishment of the five daily prayers and the fasting of the month of Ramadhan, but they rejected the giving out of Zakat, the performance of Hajj, and all the rest of the obligations.

They proclaimed the lawfulness of the forbidden, (permitting) incest and homosexuality. They gave as a justification for that – the words of Allah: ‘or He pairs (lit. marries) them off – both males and females’ (42:50)8

Imam al-Ridha sent the Ghali Muhammad b. Furat two things: A Khumra (prayer-mat made of palm-leaves) and some dates.

The latter deciphered the Imam’s intention:

He has sent me the mat so that I can pray upon it and has motivated me towards it (i.e. to begin praying), while the dates is him forbidding me from the alcoholic drinks (i.e. made from fermented dates)9

This belief was ascendant in the time of Imam al-Askari and had even made inroads in the Shi’i stronghold of Qum.

A companion writes to the Imam:

He (i.e. Ali b. Hasaka) claims that SalatZakatHajj and Sawm are in actuality recognition of you and recognition of the one who has the status held by such a one like Ibn Hasaka in his claim of Babiya (i.e. being a Bab) and prophethood.

He also claims to be the Perfect Believer by virtue of which all acts of worship like SalatSawm and Hajj are dropped for him (i.e. he does not need to do them).

Not only this, but all commandments of the religion are to be understood in the way I have just described for you.

The people have inclined to him in great numbers, so if you deem it proper to favour your followers with an answer about this, saving them from perdition thereby

The Imam wrote in reply:

Ibn Hasaka – may the curse of Allah be upon him – has lied! It is enough for you to know that I do not consider him to be among my followers.

What is wrong with him?! May Allah curse him! For – by Allah – Allah did not send Muhammad and the prophets before him except with the HanifiyyaSalatZakatSiyamHajj and Wilaya10

In a variant account of what is possibly the same letter as above:

This is about a group (i.e. in Qum) who speak-of and read-out narrations which they attribute to you and your forefathers … and it is a man called Ali b. Hasaka and another called al-Qasim al-Yaqtini (i.e. who are doing this).

Among their beliefs is that they say that the words of Allah the Elevated: “Verily Salat safeguards from indecency and wrong-doing” (29:45) refers to a man (i.e. Salat is embodied in a man), not to prostration or bowing.

Similarly, Zakat refers to that man, not to a set number of gold coins nor to the giving out of wealth.

They have done likewise in regards injunctions concerning the obligatory, the recommended and the forbidden – they have interpreted and transformed it in a way akin to that which I have mentioned (above).

So if you deem it proper to clarify for us and to favour your followers by that (answer) in which lies their safety and salvation from these beliefs which can lead them to perdition (then do so)

To which the Imam replies:

This is not our religion therefore disassociate from it11

It is in the same vein that Muhammad b. Nusayr al-Numayri, a contemporary of Imam al-Askari and the notorious leader of the Nusayris, is said to have:

Permitted the prohibited, and legalized intercourse between men – one with the other – in their anus.

And he considered it to be for both the doer (of homosexual intercourse) and to whom it is done just one of the gratifications and of the good (pure) things.

A man ‘saw Muhammad b. Nusayr with his own eyes’ and:

A male-servant was on his back (i.e. performing intercourse on him)

The man rebuked him for that but Ibn Nusayr said:

This is one of the gratifications and it is part of humbling oneself to Allah and abandoning haughtiness!12

We can now understand why taking the Sharia lightly, specifically avoiding to perform Salat, was considered to be the key means of identifying the Ghulat. After all ‘exaggerated’ beliefs can be hidden in the heart but a condescending attitude towards public communal rituals could disclose one’s true affiliation.

Sayyid Ibn Tawus (d. 664) preserves a report in which al-Husayn b. Ahmad al-Maliki questions Ahmad b. Hilal al-Karkhi (d. 267) about what was being said concerning Muhammad b. Sinan (d. c. 220) ‘in regards his association with Ghulu’ to which Ahmad responds:

I seek refuge in Allah!

He (Muhammad b. Sinan) was – by Allah – the one who taught me ritual purity (for Salat), confining the spouses (in the homes) and was an ascetic worshipper13

In other words, the fact that Ibn Sinan cared enough for external forms of worship and jurisprudential issues as to teach Ahmad about them and lived a life of renunciation removes any doubt in the mind of the latter that the former could have been caught up in Ghulu.

When Muhammad b. Awrama (alive in 254) was suspected of Ghulu by the Qummis because of the reports he was transmitting, the situation escalated to such an extent that would-be assassins were sent by the powerful Ash’ari tribe to kill him, his life was spared only because:

They found him praying by night, from the beginning (of the night) to its end, a number of nights, so they suspended their verdict on him14

Muhammad’s long night worship was taken as evidence that he was perhaps, not in fact, a Ghali.

That this test was used to determine whether someone was free of the taint of Ghulu or not is made explicit by one early practitioner of formal Rijali evaluation.

al-Kashshi asks his teacher Muhammad b. Masud al-Ayyashi (d. c. 320) about the status of various narrators of Hadith and the latter says when speaking of one of them:

As for Ali b. Abdallah b. Marwan then the ‘group’, that is the Ghulat, are tested in the times of prayer (whether they pray or not), and I have not been in his company in a time of prayer15 

6. Tanasukh (transmigration) and Hulul (incarnation)

We have already seen that early Ghulat who subscribed to Host Imamology, such as Bayan b. Sam’an, considered the Imam to be ‘god on earth’ while distinguishing between the latter and the unknowable ‘God in heaven’.

But how did they explain the undeniable historical fact of the death of one Imam and the taking over of another Imam?

Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 429) records:

Bayan said to them: A ‘spirit of God’ transmigrated into the prophets and the ‘Aimma16

This is belief in Tanasukh (transmigration), a mechanism by which ‘something’ of the divine (‘spirit of God’ in this case) would at some point leave the body of the current ‘host’ when he dies and transfer to the next. The process began with the Biblical patriarchs, passed on to the Prophet Muḥammad, and then to the Shiʿi Imams (moving from father to son).

This obviously did not apply to groups such as the ʿAlyāʾiyya and the Mukhamissa who subscribed to Incarnationist Imamology and did not draw any distinction between the Imam and ‘God in heaven’. They held instead the belief in Hulul (successive reincarnation) wherein God, the same heavenly entity, comes down to the earth and:

Reveals Himself to His creation in every Cycle and Age17

He does this by:

Alternating bodies and changing names18

Ishaq b. Muhammad al-Basri (d. 286), who was one of the ʿAlyāʾiyya, summarized this doctrine succinctly in his statement:

If they were a thousand they would still be one19

The key question for these groups was the identity of the singular divinity who comes repeatedly whilst disguised in many personas.

For the Mukhamissa it was Muhammad who was God and who – in Sa’d b. Abdallah’s (d. 301) summary20 -:

Reveals Himself to His creation in diverse Forms. In the Forms of male and female. Old and young. Middle-age and child. He appears sometimes as parent and other times as off-spring, while he is (in actual fact) neither a parent nor an off-spring. He (also) appears as husband and (other times) wife.

They claimed that Muhammad was Adam, Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa and Isa. He never ceases appearing among the Arab and the Non-Arabs. Just as He appears among the Arabs He is apparent also among the non-Arabs, but in a Form different from the Form He assumes among the Arabs. (He appears there) in the Form of Ceasars and kings who possessed the World. Their reality (of all these) is Muhammad nothing else!

(In this way) they made all the prophets and messengers, Ceasars and kings, from the time of Adam up to the appearance of Muhammad, to have the same status – the status of Muhammad, and He (Muhammad) is Lord.

It is in the Final Cycle and Age that Muhammad came as Himself, which is not to say that God’s true physical form is that of Muhammad-the-man, but that He retained His ‘true name’ when He assumed human form.

But Muhammad kept coming even after.

Similarly, the Imams after him, their status is that of Muhammad, and likewise Fatima, they claimed that she is Muhammad and she is Lord …

This explains their doctrine regarding the Ahl al-Kisa (Holy Five).

They asserted that four of these five are deceptive, no truth to them, for the essential reality is the Person of Muhammad and His Form

In other words, Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn do not have independent existence as separate entities!

In fact it is just Muhammad coming again while assuming those outward forms!

It is not clear to the present author what kind of existence Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn were said to possess in the lifetime of Muhammad-the-man. That is, before God had incarnated as them one after the other. Perhaps they were merely animated bodies emulating life.

Muhammad does not come alone, but always comes with his pre-eternal subordinate (Bab) whose reality is that of Salman.

He (i.e Salman) is the Bab and messenger who appears with Muhammad in every instance. Both among the Arabs and the Non-arabs …

In the Final Cycle and Age, Salman accompanied Muhammad first as Salman-the-man and then assumed different forms for the later Imams (who, recall, are in reality Muhammad).

All those who came before (i.e. previous heresiarchs) like Abi al-Khattab, Bayan, Sa’id, al-Mughira, Hamza b. Ammara, Bazi’, al-Sarri, Muhammad b. Bashir, were prophets, Babs, transforming bodies and changing names, but the reality is one, and that is Salman

The ʿAlyāʾiyya shared an identical schema to this, differing with the Mukhamissa only in identifying the God and the Bab who come again and again.

As al-Kashshi relates:

They (i.e. the ʿAlyāʾiyya) denied the Person of Muhammad (as Lord), and held that Muhammad was Slave and Ali Lord. They placed Muhammad in the status that the Mukhammisa had placed Salman in (i.e. that of Bab), and they made him (Muhammad) a Messenger to Ali21

This aligns perfectly with the quotation attributed to the aforementioned Ishaq b. Muhammad al-Basri in a separate work:

Ali is God. He appears in every age. He is al-Hasan in the time of al-Hasan. Likewise He is al-Husayn (in his time) … He is the one who sent Muhammad22

Their doctrine with regard the Ahl al-Kisa is similar to the Mukhammisa with an expected twist:

The seeming reality of the three Persons Fatima, Hasan and Husayn is a deception. The truth is the Person of Ali. For he is the first of these in Imama23

As is common with groups that are so closely linked, what seems to us to be a minor variation (in this case, the identity of God and the Bab, with the Mukhamissa opting for the duo Muhammad/Salman and the ʿAlyāʾiyya opting for Ali/Muhammad) was to them significant enough to be the difference between salvation and perdition.

This explains the exaggerated vitriol and bitter rivalry between them which can be said to be even more pronounced than that which is found between totally unrelated groups.

And the ʿAlyāʾiyya were called by the Mukhammisa – ‘Ulya’iyya’ (i.e. pejoratively). They (the Mukhammisa) held that Bashshar – the barley seller – when he rejected the deification of Muhammad, and placed it in Ali, and made Muhammad a slave to Ali, and rejected the Messenger-ship of Salman – he was transfigured (Maskh) into the shape of a bird which is called Ulya, found by the sea, so this is why they called them Ulya’iyya24

If successive Imams are, for the Mukhammisa and ʿAlyāʾiyya, successive incarnations of the same divinity, then it is only logical to conclude that there is no real genealogical father-son relationship between them as was held by those who saw the two Imams as mere humans.

This sect (i.e. the Bashiriyya), the Mujassima (?), the ʿAlyāʾiyya, and the companions of Abi al-Khattab (i.e. including the Mukhammisa) – uphold that whoever claims descent as belonging from the family of Muhammad then he is a falsifier of his lineage, inventing about Allah a lie.

That such (who claim descent) are the ones whom Allah referred to as ‘Jews’ and ‘Christians’ in His words: “And the Jews and the Christians said: We are the sons of Allah and his beloved ones. Say: then why does he punish you for your sins? Rather you are just humans from among those He has created” (5:18).

Muhammad (=Allah) in the Madhhab of the Khatabiyya and Ali (=Allah) in the Madhhab of the ʿAlyāʾiyya. So they (the claimants) are ‘from among those the two (Muhammad or Ali as Allah) created (i.e. not fathered)’, and these ones (i.e. the claimants) are liars in what they have claimed of their lineage since Muhammad to them and Ali (to the others) is the Deity, neither begetting nor begotten nor adopting.

We can only end with the statement al-Kashshi interjects after recording the above:

Allah is far exalted from what they describe and what they speak – a great exaltation!25


Some would argue that Ghulu is in the ‘eye of the beholder’ in so far as one man’s Ghulu is another man’s correct doctrine. After all, those who called others Ghulat (lit. extremist) for supposedly exaggerating the status of the Imams were themselves called Muqassir (lit. deficient) for supposedly demeaning the status of the Imams.

But this is not a matter of academic inquiry where feigned ‘impartiality’ has to be maintained and both sides treated with ‘sympathy’. We are dealing with the very serious issue of religious truth which has to be anchored in revelatory sources.

Even if we accept some subjectivity in debating the finer points of Imamology, there is no doubt in my mind that the main components of the Ghulati world-view (this two-part article enumerates six of these) would be taking them outside the pale of ‘normative’ Shi’ism, if we define the latter as the movement that is historically closest to that which the Imams propagated. Unless, that is, one wants to ignore a plain sense reading of the Qur’an and subscribe to the conspiracy theory of Taqiyya within Taqiyya.


  1. Amali al-Tusi (Qum: Dar al-Thaqafa, 1414): Pg. 650, No. 12
  2. Rijal al-Kashshi (Qum: Mu’assassa al-Nashr al-Islami, 1427): No. 588
  3. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 589
  4. al-Maqalat wa al-Firaq (Tehran: Matba’a Haydari, 1963): Pg. 57
  5. ibid
  6. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 513
  7. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 512
  8. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 907
  9. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 1046
  10. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 997
  11. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 994
  12. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 1000
  13. Falah al-Sa’il (Qum: Markaz Intisharat Daftar Tablighat Islami, 1419): Pg. 52. Ahmad b. Halil al-Karkhi in the chain of this published edition should be corrected to Ahmad b. Hilal al-Karkhi as has been done here. This is because the former does not occur in any books of Rijal while the latter is a narrator from Muhammad b. Sinan and is narrated from by al-Husayn b. Ahmad al-Maliki. The matter is settled conclusively in favour of such an emendation when we note that Ibn Tawus immediately follows the report as given with a comment by Abu Ali b. Hammam who comments that ‘Ahmad b. Halil (sic.) was born in the year 180 and and died in the year 267’ – dates that he is elsewhere quoted as giving for Ahmad b. Hilal al-Karkhi.
  14. Rijal Ibn al-Ghadhairi (Qum: Dar al-Hadith, 1422): Pg. 94; See also Rijal al-Najashi (Qum: Mu’assassa al-Nashr al-Islami, 1418): Pg. 329
  15. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 1014
  16. al-Farq bayna al-Firaq (Cairo: Maktabat Ibn Sina, 1988): Pg. 208
  17. al-Maqalat wa al-Firaq: Pg. 56
  18. al-Maqalat wa al-Firaq: Pg. 57
  19. Ta’rikh Madinat al-Salam (Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1422): Vol. 7, Pg. 411. al-Khatib al-Baghdadi quotes from a now-lost Kitab al-Radd ala al-Ghulat of Abi Muhammad al-Hasan b. Yahya (sic. Musa) al-Nawbakhti who quotes what Ishaq had written in ‘a book of his’
  20. al-Maqalat wa al-Firaq: Pgs. 56-57
  21. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 744
  22. Ta’rikh Madinat al-Salam: Vol. 7, Pgs. 410-411
  23. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 744
  24. ibid
  25. Rijal al-Kashshi: No. 907