Let us start with the Quranic verse: “Hold on to the religion of God and do not get divided amongst yourselves.”

A lesson for all generations of Muslims long forgotten and buried amongst deep- rooted misunderstandings and self-created differences. What happened to the concept of the Muslim Nation, and to the concept of “All Muslims are brothers unto one another.?”

Islam is a religion of peace, harmony, tolerance, brotherhood, justice, equality and moderation. No where does it preach hatred and violence. Then how did we get to where we are today. This is a burning question faced by every conscientious Muslim in the existing socio-political climate of the Muslim world.

 “I am leaving for you two things, that if you hold on to them, you will never go astray: the Quran and my Sunnah”.   Or

“I am leaving for you two things, that if you hold onto them, you will never go astray: the Quran and the Ahle- Bait”.     Prophet Mohammad ( SAWW)

 The need of the hour is rapprochement, compromise, respect and understanding in the wide circle of differences and mistrusts between us. We are one, we share the same roots, the same history, our hearts beat with the same passion and our eyes cry for the same reasons…yet we don’t cry for each other.

Common to the race entire is their gain or loss,
Common is their faith and creed, common too the Rasul of God;
One Kaaba, one Allah, and one Quran inspire their heart,
Why can’t the Muslims then behave like a single lot?
Cast, creed and factions have disjointed this race,
Is this the way to forge ahead, to flourish in the present age?   (Iqbal)

 This is an article on the similarities between the two dimensions in Islam. It deals with the elements of spirituality common to both these dimensions and hence the closeness and kinship that results. It begins by taking for granted the Islamic character of both Sufism and Shia’ism, and hence we will waste no time in coming exactly to our discourse.

 Shia’ism and Sufi’ism (within the framework of Sunni’ism) are both, in different ways and on different levels, intrinsic aspects of Orthodox Islam. Both are the fruits of the same tree, and the fact that they bear fruit is proof enough of their living existence. The fruit is there to prove that the tree has its roots in a soil that nourishes it. And spiritual fruit can only be borne by a tree whose roots are sunk in a revealed truth. And though it is the root of the tree that drinks, it becomes evident on the head of the tree, through the branches and leaves and fruits. The tree that does not drink withers…

 In order to compare the Sunni and Shiite perspectives it is essential to take a brief look into the past and understand their origin:

From an external point of view the difference between the two schools stem from the issue of  successor-ship to the Prophet (SAWW) and the leader of the community after his death.

 These differences started right at the time of the Prophet’s (SAWW) departure from this world. A small group believed that the true successor to the Prophet’s legacy must only be from his (SAWW) family, and backed Ali , whom they believed to have been designated by the Prophet (SAWW) himself. The famous saying “I am from Ali and Ali is from me” according to Shia’ doctrine is the logic behind this political and theological belief. That and of course the Prophet’s great attachment and fondness for Ali, and the numerous instances and incidences of Ali’s wisdom and valour. This group came to be called ‘shia’ meaning partisans of Ali.

 While the majority on the basis of consensus of opinion opted for the leadership of AbuBakr. To them successor ship was not an issue of Wilayat . At the time of the Prophet’s demise consensus of opinion  settled for Abu Bakr Siddiq;  the “Second of the First in the cave”. His life  was replete with Prophet’s admiration and his own sacrifices in the initial stage of Islamic history. This group came to be known as ‘ahle sunnah wal jamma’ meaning the people of traditions and consensus of opinion.

 Nevertheless a decision was taken in history , according to the situation of that time and a government came into establishment according to the principles of an Islamic State. History is witness to the fact that all through out the 30 years of rule by these Rightly Guided Khalifas  (Khulafae- Rashideen) Islam thrived in its true vibrancy and in its true meaning. The successors to the seat of Khilafat did complete justice to their positions.(Sura Ibrahim 24-25) and remained true to their mission till the last drop of their blood.  Umar’s  tenure as leader of the new and budding Ummah proved very successful paving the way for Islamic conquests and expansion, both militarily and socially. The end of  Usman’s rule and through out  Ali’s stay in office both  leaders faced tough decisions and turmoil. Nevertheless Islamic unity and reconciliation remained their prime concerns.

 Seest thou not how

God sets forth a parable..?

A goodly Word

Like a goodly tree

Whose root is firmly fixed,

And its branches reach

To the heavens,

 It brings forth its fruit

At all times, by the leave

Of its Lord

So God sets forth parables

For men, in order that

They may receive admonition

 When Umar Farooq, sword in hand was threatening to behead any one who had the audacity to announce the death of the Prophet (SAWW), the response to his uncontrollable grief were these words “ The Rasool has died, not his ideology”.

And true to his words Abu Bakr lived up to the challenges of his time and succeeded in providing the basic, structural strength to this new-founded ideology for it to spread its influence outside its geographical borders and grow strong, Umar’s time reaped the benefit of this solid base provided by his predecessor and so did  Usman and then Ali, all remained true stalwarts and protectors of this ideology of their beloved Prophet (SAWW), throughout their lives. Not one of them let go of the strength of faith, intensity of devotion and unconditional love for the Prophet, peace be upon him , which was the building block of all these governments against all the odds and under all circumstances. If we could celebrate our stalwarts like Christians celebrate their saints we would have innumerable statues standing all around the world begging us to bow down to them. But we praise our heroes our way….


Sura Fat-h (29)

 Mohammad(SAWW), is the Apostle

Of God, and those who are

With him are strong

Against Unbelievers, (but)

Compassionate amongst each other.

 Thou wilt see them bow

And prostrate themselves

(In prayer), seeking Grace

From God and (His) Good Pleasures.

 On their faces are their

Marks, (being) the traces

Of their prostration

This is their similitude

In the Taurat,

And their similitude

In the Gospel is,

Like a seed which sends

Forth its blade, then

Makes it strong, it then

Becomes thick and it stands

On its own stem, (filling)

The sowers with wonder

And delight. As a result,

It fills the Unbelievers

With rage at them.

God has promised those

Among them who believe

And do righteous deeds,


And a great Reward.

 It is also a fact that partisans of Ali were always present even during the time of the Prophet, Abu Dharr, Salman, Miqdad, Ammar, but actual division of the two sides began after the Prophet’s (SAWW) death and the issue of his legacy.

 Thereby began two different interpretations of one Divine message, both nevertheless remaining within the orthodox framework of Islam. Each representing the same reality from within two different perspectives. That reality is Islamic esotericism or gnosis.

Since Islam is a religion of multi-dimensions, and is a world-wide religion meant for different ethnicities and racial types, there exists in it a multitude of interpretations and perspectives, all of course within the legal framework of Islamic orthodoxy, that can be understood and related to by people of different intellectual, spiritual and psychological tendencies and integrated within those societies as a whole.

This diversity and distinctiveness is in actuality the beauty of the Quranic interpretations, in our search for the Divine, and the presence of different schools of thought is in actuality a sign of a living religion. It is in essence the very culture of Islam that it has the capacity to weave and enmesh an ideology into the very fabric of the society it infuses.

   ‘If we take Sufism and Shiaism in their historic manifestations in later periods, then neither Shia’ism nor Sunni’ism, nor Sufi’ism within the Sunni world derives from one another. They all derive their authority from the Prophet (SAWW) and the source of Islamic revelation’.. ‘But if we mean by Shia’ism.. Islamic esotericism as such, then of course it is inseparable from Sufi’ism.’(Syed Hossein Nasr)

 ‘So many sided is this Sunni sentiment- in hadiths, in the Sufi orders, in guilds, in popular tales-that not only in its support for the original, but in its whole piety Sunni Islam can be called half Shiite. In certain areas of the Islamic world, particularly in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, one meets among Sufis certain groups as devoted to the Shiite Imams, especially Ali and Hussain, as any Shiite could be, yet completely Sunni in their practice of the law’…(M.G.S.Hodgson, Journal of  the American Oriental Society, vol75).

 Let us touch on the differences between Sunni’ism and Shia’ism in brief :

 1.   An important aspect of Sunni’ism as opposed to Shia’ism is its political theory.

2.   There is a difference of view concerning the issue and meaning of political rule and the question of the capacity of a political successor and established political authority.

3.   There is a distinct role of intermediaries between man and God. In Shiite religious philosophy the role of intermediaries is quintessential in the existence of their belief system. It should be noted however that the role of intermediaries in both Sufi’ism and Shia’ism is a   matter concerning the spiritual and inner religious life and does not in any way alter the structure of Islam. Islam in itself is a religion without priesthood or religious hierarchy. And man does not pray to anyone but God.

4.   In the field of law the difference is in the continuance of Ijtihad in Shia’ism, which continues           to this date due to the living presence of the Imam (Al-Mahdi). In Sunni’ism Ijtihad as such has been closed, but there are fatwas from Ulemas as the need arises.

5.   In the Sharia there is a difference in the amount of inheritance to the female and the presence of the allowance for contract marriage, in Shia’ism.

Sunni religion is more concerned with the rational and practical side of Islamic thought, whereas Shia’ism has both esoteric and exoteric aspects to it equally. Sunni theology does not concern itself with esoteric questions as such as does Shiite theology, but Sufi’ism within the framework of Sunni theology provides it with its mystical dimension.

 There is a difference too in the form of benediction upon the Prophet (SAWW) in use among the two groups, in one group grace of the Prophet is realized through all the companions present with him during his time, including his (SAWW) family, in the other it is felt primarily in the family of the Prophet (SAWW). Furthermore there is an addition of two sentences in the call for prayers and Friday prayers do not occupy a central importance (due to the absence of the Imam) as opposed to Sunni practice.

 In Shia’ism, the concept of Imamat is of supreme importance, infact Shia’ism is the Islam of Ali, and it revolves around the concept of “I (Prophet Mohammad SAWW) am the city of knowledge and Ali is its doorway ”. In fact Ali is in actuality the bearer of the torch of esoteric Islam and the fountain from which spring forth countless streams of Islamic gnosis.  Hence the political aspect of the twelve Imam Shia’ism is connected with the personality of the Imams. The perfect government is that of the Imam, in his absence any form of government is incomplete. But again there have been Shias’ who have supported Sunni caliphate in India on purely political level, although Shia’ism does not accept Caliphate as it exists in the Sunni world, for them it lacks legitimate political authority.

 “The twelve Imams are like the twelve constellations of the zodiac in the spiritual firmament. At their centre stands the Prophet (SAWW), the sun whose light illuminates these constellations. The Imams are, for the Shia’ a part and continuation of the spiritual reality of the Prophet (SAWW), and together with him, who is their source and origin in both the metaphysical and biological sense, determine the contours of that spiritual universe in which the Shia’ live”                 (Syed Hossein Nasr)

 According to Shaykh HamzaYusuf :

“Two paths to Allah exist for the people of this world, the path to salvation and the path of sanctification. For those who desire more than the minimum and yearn for intimate knowledge of their source and ultimate destiny, sanctification allows them that possibility”

“The Prophets are sanctified souls that are specially prepared by their Lord, not only as a vessel of divine knowledge but as a means of conveying it to others. For men and women who take from these prophets and come after them heeding their call, it is through the path of santification that the prophetic path is continued in this world for others to walk the path of salvation”.

Sanctification is a process that continues throughout one’s life on earth and is finalized with a purified soul that is content and ready to return to Allah in a sanctified state. These souls are then able to act as milestones for those on the path of salvation”

 This process of sanctification that exhibits itself through men of God in Sufi’ism, exhibits itself through the Imams in Shia’ism. The cycle of prophecy terminated with the Prophet (SAWW) who was the ‘Seal of prophecy’, but with the termination of this cycle began the ‘ cycle of initiation’. This cycle (silsilah) is a chain of authorities, commencing from Maula Ali  in all cases except for  one Sufi order that is initiated by Syedna Abu Bakr  and this cycle of initiation will continue till the end of time. It is the channel through which  connection between man and God is kept alive and constant. This is the door-way for man kind to achieve sanctity and understand the esoteric dimensions of revelation. It is his journey from the Zahir to the Batin.

Now the person who inaugurates this cycle of initiation (Wilayah), and whose duty it is in every age to fulfil the function of the Wilayah, is the Imam, whose figure is so important in Shia’ism,

  According to Syed Nasr:

Today in Shiite world there are three groups of Gnostics or mystics : those who belong to a regular Sufi order such as the Nimatullahi or the Dhahabi , who follow a way very similar to the way of the Sufis in the Sunni world, then there are those who have had a definite spiritual master but do not follow an organized silsilah or established centre, and thirdly those who have received Gnostic and mystical inspiration but do not possess a human master. Of this later group some are Owaisis and some belong to the line of Khidr, and most reach spiritual contact with the Imam, who is also the inner spiritual guide.

“Shia’ism and Sufism possess a common parentage, in that they are both linked with the esoteric dimension of Islam and they draw inspiration from the same place. In later periods they have had many mutual interactions and influenced each other in innumerable ways.” (Syed Hossein Nasr)

 During the lifetime of the Imams, particularly from the first to the eight century the contact between the two groups was the most. Early Sufis have reaped treasures from books the likes of Nahj-ul Balaghah, Sahifa- Kamilah and Usul al-Kafi , containing the sayings of the Imams. During this period there were intimate contacts between the Imams and early sufis of those times. Hasan al Basri and Uways al Qarani were disciples of Ali. Ibrahim Adham, Bishr al Hafi, Bayazid al- Bastami was associated with the circle of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq and Maruf al-Karkhi was in close companionship of Imam Rida. (Peace and blessings of Allah be upon all of them).

It was only after the eight Imam, Ali al-Rida that the Imams and Sufis stopped associating with one another, not because of any thing else but the political climate was such that these associations could not be kept open.

After the Imams however the two parted ways and became distinct in themselves.

After the Mongol invasion they again formed close associations in many ways. Sayid Haider Amuli was also a Sufi and a student of Ibn Arabi,  his book Jami al-Asrar ,is a summit of  Gnostic Shiaism, where the metaphysical relationship between Shia’ and Sufi’ isms is treated.

It was Amuli who believed that every true Shiite is a Sufi and every true Sufi is a Shiite.

 The tendency towards rapproachement is also seen in the ninth-fifteenth century. Hafiz Rajab al-Bursi author of Mashariq al-Anwar, Ibn Abi Jumhur, author of  Kitab al-Mujli and Kamal al-Din Husayn ibn Ali’s Waiz e Kashifi. The latter a Sunni Naqhsbandi Sufi wrote Shiite devotional works , especially Rawdat al-Shuhuda.

During the same period writings of Ibn Arabi spread in Shiite circles. Ibn Arabi was a Sunni from Zahiri school of thought but his treatise on the twelve Imams   has always been  very popular. There existed an inward attraction and complementarism between Ibn Arabi’s work and Shia’ism which made integration of his teachings in Shiite Gnostic complete and immediate.

From the seventh-thirteenth to the tenth-sixteenth there were also and Sufi movements linked with both groups. Two such orders the Nimatullahi and Nurbakhshi played a vital role in the spread of Shia’ism in Persia during the Safavid domination. Nimatullahi order, close to the Shadiliyah order in its silsilah, became specifically Shia’ Sufi order, and possess a regularity of chain and methods very similar to the Sunni world. It is the still living Shia Sufi order, totally Shiite and functioning in a Shiite climate.

The Nurbhakhshi order, its founder sought to create a bridge between the two groups and gave his movement a Mahdiist colour. Despite facing persecution during the Ottoman Empire, to this day remains very Shiite in its tendencies.

During the Safavid rule, and a Shiite renaissance Shia names the likes of Mir Damad, Mir Findiriski, Sadr al-din Shirazi, Said Qumi and so many other Gnostics of that time were completely immersed in Sufi Gnostic ideas. There were also outstanding Shiite Ulemas who were practicing Sufis like Baha al-Din Amili and Mohammad Taqi Majlisi.

 It’s interesting to note that though Sufi’ism was the basis of Safavid rule in Persia, it was criticized and encountered a great deal of difficulty. It was during this time till today that the word tassawuf  was ousted from religious schools in Persia and changed to irfan. One can openly teach and study ‘Irfan’ but not Tassawuf.

Hence during government of Nadir shah, there was not much talk of Sufi’ism in Persia but it thrived in the Shiite circles in India.

  To say that a Sufi is a Shia and a Shia is a Sufi in as far as their spirituality is concerned, is a manifest truth. Both by virtue of their spiritual connection through the bait or silsilah or chain of initiation are performing the fundamental operation of tawil or hermeneutic interpretation, while remaining inside the law or sharia of their respective doctrine and interpretation of Islam.

Let us keep in mind here that though Shia’ism is more inclined towards the esoteric (batin) interpretation of religion, and Sunni’ism stresses in itself a practical and point-of-fact attitude, both of them fall within the legal parameters of orthodox Islam. Their presence and their differences in dealing with its meaning do not in any way disrupt the basic unity of the message of Islam. Shia’ism,and  Sufi’ism within Sunni’ism are all dimensions of one reality, three interpretations of on Divine truth. “There is no God, but God Himself”.

 Nothing can deviate anyone of these adherents from this doctrine of Unity in their belief, which is the basis of this religion and the very basis of the existence of its adherents. In Islam we live , in it we die and in it we will rise again. 

Now to conclude this essay I would once again quote Syed Hossein Nasr, ‘Sunni’ism and Shia’ism are two streams which originate from the same fountain, which is their unique source, namely the Quranic revelation.’ And they finally pour into one sea, which is the Divine Unity, whose means of realization each contains within itself. To have lived either of them fully is to have lived as a Muslim and to have realized the Truth, for the sake of whose revelation the Quran was made known to men through the Prophet (SAWW) of Islam”