What is it about?

Shiism and Sufism have partially overlapping doctrines of spiritual authority, which defines conflict potential between Sufis and especially jurists (the dominant religious stratum in modern Shiism). Where Sufism itself is Shiite, differences narrow down while the chances for competition increase. To better understand the potential challenge in Shiite Sufi authority, contrastive cases from Christian mysticism are discussed where spiritual guidance is separate from divine authority. The article then turns to an overlooked Shiite Sufi treatise on 'friendship with God' (the valayat-name), written in the early twentieth century by an influential mystic master in Iran. The treatise is the key modern elaboration within Shiite Sufism of spiritual authority. Its interpretation focuses on the idea that Sufis have often sought to balance the requirements of religious sincerity and religio-political accommodation, which helps explain the ambiguity in their writings. Generally so but especially on the nature of spiritual authority, including in the valayat-name. The article interprets the murder of its author in 1909 as high drama where, in the context of provincial disorder, fraught economic relations locally and religious detractors determined to bring him down, ambiguity worked out as the opposite of accommodation.

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Why is it important?

Shiism and Sufism are major forces in the religio-political landscape of Iran, including in the modern era, whose relations remain unsettled. They have become more so since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, where jurists became rulers, and the stakes for Sufis to accommodate were raised dramatically. Doctrinal articulations of spiritual authority lie at the centre of discussions on Shiism, Sufism, and the Islamic Republic. Understanding their practice sheds light on the structure of the religious field in Iran and the ideological challenges to change.


The ambiguity/ambivalence theme has stayed with me since doing fieldwork in Iran over a decade earlier (and writing on it in my book Mystic Regimes), and it still seems to me of the utmost importance to understanding the world of Shiite Sufism. Dug deep to get details of Soltan'alishah's biography on the table and be able to trace patterns (political, economic, religious). Got exhausted in the process but - while more work definitely remains - was also satisfied to have reached plausible clarity on his fate and greater insight into the story of Shiite Sufism.

Matthijs van den Bos
Birkbeck University of London

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This page is a summary of: Conjectures on Solṭānᶜalīshāh, the Valāyat-nāme and Shiite Sufi authority, Sociology of Islam, February 2015, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/22131418-00303010.
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