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Walāya in Shi`i-Shaykhi and Babi-Baha'i literatures



Dimensions of Walāya in Shi`i-Shaykhi and Babi-Baha'i literatures

Extract from Lambden Ph.D. thesis ([1987] 2002) --under revision and supplementation,

Nubuwwa  and walāya  :  modes of prophecy and  divine providence.

 Islamic literatures contain numerous and divergent attempts to define, clarify and expound the non‑systematic, qur’ānic prophetological terminology. The term nubuwwa  (prophecy, prophethood) occurs only five times in the Q. (3:79; 6:89; 29:27; 45:16; 57:26). It has no detailed explanation beyond the fact that nubuwwa was bestowed upon the progeny of Abraham and the "children of Israel" (Q. 29:27; 45:16). References in the ḥadīth literatures highlight the importance of nubuwwa.  Muhammad, for example, is reckoned to have stated that, "The genesis of your religion is nubuwwa   and raḥma   (Divine mercy)" (Al‑Dārimī, Sunan  IX). In the Q., the early `creeds’ and later doctrinal treatises, belief in the prophets and the power of prophethood are regarded as central to Muslim faith (Wensinck, 1938). Both Sunnī and Shī`ī Muslims consider nubuwwa   (prophethood) a fundamental element of religion. In Shī`ī Islam its importance is such that it often follows tawhīd (the Divine Unity) among the five "pillars". The closely related walāya concept has been regarded as a "sixth" pillar of twelver Shīism.

 A great many Islamic books and treatises have been written dealing with nubuwwa and related mode(s) of waḥy (divine guidance), concepts of  ilḥām  (inspiration) and the miraculous powers of various prophet figures attendant upon their  prophetic  commission. Anawati has succinctly defined Islamic prophethood as "essentially an investiture granted by God to certain people" (ERel. 8:465). The relationship between the prophet and the angels, the jinn and humankind was likewise much discussed. In Shī`īsm discussions often centred upon concepts of walāya  relative to the nabī,  the rasūl   and the role of the exalted imām.

By the 3rd/ 9th century, Islamic discussions of prophecy were part of comprehensive kalām (theological discourse) (Strousma, 1985:102f). A theory of prophecy, furthermore, was an essential element in Islamic philosophical systems (Brinner, 1988:66). Philosophical, mystical, theosophical and other dimensions of prophetological theory contributed to the huge and very rich Islamic prophetological legacy. All manner of theories were entertained about the nature and significance of modes of communication between God and humankind. Worth citing at this point is the following passage from the K. Al‑Arba`īn fī uṣūl al‑dīn   of Abū Ḥamīd Muhammad al‑Ghazalī (d. 505/1111) which constitutes an excellent summation of the orthodox position regarding angels, prophets and waḥy (divine inspiration):

Know that God created the angels (al‑malā’ikat) and raised up the anbiyā’ (prophets) and enabled them to perform miracles (al‑mu`ajizāt). The angels are one and all [no more than] His servants who did not wax proud on account of service to Him, neither did they weary of it. Day and Night they utter unceasing praise. The anbiyā’ (prophets) are those sent unto his creatures. He transmits his waḥy   (divine revelation) unto them through the instrumentality of the angels. Wherefore do they [the prophets] cry out through waḥy (divine inspiration) and this is not waḥy  from their own self"  (al‑Arba`a, 19‑20).  Shī`ī discussions of these matters often make much of the differences between nabī  and rasūl   relative to the position  of the walī  (locus of divine guidance) and the sanctified Imam. This can be seen, for example, in the `Ilm al‑yaqīn (The Knowledge of Certainty) of Mullā Muḥsin Fayḍ al‑Kashānī (d.1090/1679) (`Ilm 1:366f).

 Along with nubuwwa (prophethood) the term walāya  (= wilāya) is generally expressive of God’s providential  overseership mediated by  such agents of his power, salvific intimacy  and purpose as the nabī,  rasūl,  imams and saints.  The walāya   concept lies at the very heart of Shī`ī religiosity, often indicating "adherence to the imams and the recognition of their mission" as infallible exponents of the Q. and possessors of `ilm al‑ghayb (knowledge of the unseen).  Within Shī`īsm walāya is especially related to the role and sanctity of `Alī and the Imams of the ahl al‑bayt (House of the Prophet) who are the trustees and bearers of the divine command (wālī al‑amr) as is the messianic Qā’im, entitled ṣāḥib al‑amr   (bearer of the command). The identification of the believer with the imamate as the fountainhead and locus of wilāya is essential to Shī`īte soteriology (Landolt, Enc.R 15:316f; Anawati, Enc.Rel. 7:464f). 2

 Ibn al‑`Arabī (d. 638/1240) and various of his numerous commentators have made much of concepts of nubuwwa (prophethood) and wilāya  ( "sainthood"). For the Great Shaykh walāya is essentially the bāṭin (inner depth) of nubuwwa, itself of various kinds as the following passages from the Futūḥāt al‑Makkiyya   must suffice to illustrate:

Walāya (divine guidance) is expressive of nubuwwa `āmma   (general prophethood) and that prophethood which is legalistic (al‑tashrī`) also known as nubuwwa khāṣṣa (specific prophethood)... Muhammad is the khātam al‑nubuwwa (seal of prophethood) for there is no prophethood (nubuwwa) after him. Yet after him was the like of Jesus among the ūlū al‑`azm   (those characterized by steadfastness) of the Messengers (al‑rusul) and certain specified Prophets (al‑anbiyā’)... [in due course] there will  be disclosed a walī   ("saint") possessed of absolute prophethood (nubuwwa al‑muṭlaqa)...  (Futuhat, 2:24, 49; cf. 1:200, 429; Fusus,134‑6;160,191). 3

 Ibn al‑`Arabī saw himself, Jesus and the future Mahdī as loci or "seals" of various modes of wilāya.  Jesus, for  example, is the seal of the general, absolute wilāya (khatm al‑walāya al‑muṭlaqa) (Qayṣarī, Sh.Fusus, 255, 456, 460, 843; Landolt, Enc. Rel.15:320f).

 In the course of commenting upon nubuwwiyya ("prophetology") in the utterance of Jesus (kalimat `īsāwiyya) in his Sharḥ fuṣūs al‑ḥikam, Qayṣārī (d.751/1350) makes key statements about nubuwwa khaṣṣa  and nubuwwa `amma,  general and specific prophethood respectively. Much commented upon by Ibn al‑`Arabī and his devotees this terminology was utilized and commented upon by the Bāb in his Risāla fī’l‑nubuwwa al‑khāṣṣah  (Trestise on the specific prophethood). Therein he explained the al‑nubuwwa al‑khaṣṣa   (specific prophethood) of Muhammad as an expression of the mashiyya  (Divine Will): 

The bearer of the al‑nubuwwa al‑kulliyya (universal prophethood) is the mashiyya (Divine Will) which.. descended from the world of  His Essence...  the mashiyya  was the genesis (mabdā’)  of  nubuwwa al‑khaṣṣa (specific prophethood) and the absolute walāya,  the divine Light and  the Lordly mysteries.. (R‑Nub.K 14:331‑2).

 Shī`ī irfānī  ("gnostic") writers of the Safavid and other periods indulged in complex discussions about the relationship between nubuwwa  and walāya.  A few notes from the Kalimāt‑i maknūnih  (Hidden Words)  of  Fayḍ al‑Kāshānī (d.1007/1680‑81) will illustrate this in that this work contains an interesting  discussion of the senses in which al‑insān al‑kāmil  (The Perfect Man ["Human"]) could be considered a  nabī  (Prophet) or a walī  (bearer of  wilāya, `benefactor’, `saintly guide’). Kāshānī states that al‑nubuwwa al‑muṭlaqa is "ultimately real prophethood" (al‑nubūwwa al‑ḥaqīqa), an eternally existing reality like al‑nubūwa al‑`amma  (general prophethood). It is the force through which Muhammad infuses all existence and is the locus of all Ḥaqq  (Ultimate Reality). Its bearers are variously entitled al‑khalifa al‑a`ẓam (Most Great Khalifa), quṭb al‑aqṭāb  (Pivot of Pivots)  al‑insān al‑kabīr  (The Great Human) and  Ādam al‑ḥaqīqa  (The Adam of Reality). Therefrom the "Supreme Pen" (al‑qalam al‑a`lā) inscribes reality as the al‑`aql al‑awwāl (First Intellect) and the al‑rūḥ al‑a`ẓam (Most Great Spirit).  This al‑nubuwwat al‑muṭlaqa  (absolute prophethood) is alluded to as the first creation of God, the "Light" (nūr)  of Muhammad and the locus of his being a nabī  (Prophet) when "Adam was betwixt water and clay" (Kāshānī, Kalimat, 186).

            This same writer further maintains that the bāṭin (interiority) of absolute nubuwwa  is the "absolute walāya"   (bāṭin al‑walāyah hiya al‑walāyah al‑muṭlaqa).  It is related to the supernal  "Light" of  Imam `Alī’s utterance "I was a walī  (bearer of walāya),  when Adam was betwixt water and clay". The prophethood of all prophets results from their being channels of al‑nubuwwat al‑muṭlaqa  (absolute prophethood) (Fayḍ, Kalimāt, 186‑7). Shī`ī irfānī   speculation focuses upon `Alī (as opposed to Jesus)  as the locus of the eternal walāya  by virtue of which he, Muhammad and all the prophets, express the absolute walāya  in their absolute prophethood.

 Walāya and associated doctrines are expounded in the works of the first two Shaykhī  leaders, Shaykh Aḥmad al‑Aḥsā’ī  and Sayyid Kāẓim Rashṭī.  Commenting on maṭla` (Dawning Point), for example, in his Qaṣida al‑lāmiyya Sayyid Kāẓim states that this indicates walāya. This he defines as an eternally elevated phenomenon without beginning, as "the Eternal Light (al‑nūr al‑azal), the Primordial Designation (al‑ta`yīn al‑awwāl), the secondary Eternality (al‑azaliyya al‑thāniyya), the Bearer of Eternality upon Eternlity without Beginning (ṣāḥīb al‑azaliyya al‑azaliyya) and the sanctified, most holy Emanation (al‑fayḍ al‑aqdas asl‑muqaddas)".  It is something closely associated with the divine Essence (hiya ḥaqīqa al‑dhāt aḥad). Walāya, furthermore, has the station of the Primal Dhikr (Remembrance) (al‑dhikr al‑awwāl) and is the genesis of the divine Names and Attributes (mabdā’ al‑asmā’ wa’l‑ṣifāt) and a great deal more besides (Rashtī, al‑Qaṣīda, 6).

 Wilāya concepts are sometimes central to the Bāb’s imamological and gematric  interpretations of the letter wāw (= walāya) and central to his exegesis of various  qiṣaṣ al‑anbiyā’  episodes (T.`Asr 69:33ff on the 1st wāw = wilāyat al‑kulliyya...etc; 36f, 55f on letter 35 (= wāw), etc). His treatment of Adam and the angels in his early, highly imamologically oriented T. Baqāra   is also of interest in this connection. BA* likewise made use of concepts of wilāya  though these have yet to be investigated (e.g. L. Ḥurūfat, 74). Commenting upon the word "moon" in Q. 91:2 in his T. Shams, BA* has it indicate walāya.  Ultimately Bahā’ī wilāya  was focussed in SE* as the (Per.) Valī‑ yi amr Allāh  (Guardian of the [Bahā’ī] Cause of God’).


1 See, for example, Horovitz, `Nabī’, EI VI:802‑3; Biḥār, 11:13ff; McDermot, 1978 Ch. IV; al‑Razī, al‑Nubuwwāt..; Ceylan, 1996, Ch.6; Wensinck, 1932:203ff; Corbin, En Islam..I: 219‑284; Rahman, 1958 :30ff; Fahd, `Nubuwwa’ EI2 VIII:93‑97, Takeshita, 1987:107‑169 ; Robinson Waldman, `Nubūwah’, ERel. 11:1‑8; Brinner, 1989; Chodkiewicz, 1993.  

2 Within Islamic  thought the Arabic verbal noun wa[i]lāya (Per. vilāya[t] ) has a wide  and complex range of senses going well beyond the qur’ānic roots of this term  (Q. 8:44, 72).  Fundamental aspects of the "Islāmic social and spiritual life" are encompassed by walāya (Landolt, Enc.Rel.,15: 316‑323). In Shī`īsm and Sufism walāya / wilāya (these spellings are synonymous) have multi‑faceted theological, imamological and related meanings. Walāya can be indicative of divine `Authority’, `Trusteeship’, and ` Overseership’. It figures significantly in numerous Sunnī and Shī`ī sources and in a multitude of Sufī writings especially those of Ibn al‑`Arabī and his followers where wilāya (sainthood, etc) and walī (saint, friend [of God], etc) are centrally important concepts (Corbin, En Islam I: 242ff; Muṭahhari, 1402/1982; Ḥā’irī Shīrāzī, nd.; Elmore, 1999:109ff, 110 fn.7).

3 In his edition of the Fuṣūṣ, Afifi explains that Ibn al‑`Arabī uses various prophetological terms including, al‑nubuwwa al‑`āmma (general prophethood), al‑nubuwwa al‑muṭlaqa (absolute prophethood)  and al‑nubuwwa al‑khaṣṣah  (specific prophethood) which is identical with  al‑nubuwwa al‑tashrī  (legislative prophethood) (Fusus, Ar.176).