The Shi'ite principle of allegorical interpretation of the Koran - ta'wil - fitted well with the mystical trendencies of the Sufis, especially as the purveyor of this tradition was said to be Muhammad's son-in-Law, 'Ali ibn-e-Talebi. When this was coupled with the innate superstition of the Iranian people it is easy to see why Sufism took hold in such a strong way in Iran. The tradition that Shi'ism is the outward or exoteric form of Sufism was probably first formulated by the 14th century Iranian mystic Said Haydar Al-Amuli and was furthered in recent years by the French Orientalist Henri Corbin who died in 1978. However it is unlikely to have any historical basis.
The antinomian tendencies of some early Sufis aroused the hostility of both Shi'ites and Sunnis, and some like the tenth century pantheistic mystic Hallaj were even executed. The absolute obedience of the disciple to the master required by Sufism does not at first sight sit easily with the exclusive authority of the twelve Imams. By the start of the 12th century, however, the great mystic Ahmad Al- Ghazali had reconciled the way of the Sufi - tariqat - with the canon law or shari'a, and paved the way for another great Iranian Sufi, Farid Al-Din Attar to write his famous and popular allegorical treatise - "The Parliament of the Birds" or Mantiq Al-Tair - during the thirteenth century.
Under the later Seljuks at the end of the 12th century and the start of the thirteenth we find Sufism well established, particularly in Eastern Iran where a number of congregations or brotherhoods became well established. There were parallel organisations of artisans for whom the tradition of respect for a master and initiation into secrets represented a means of maintaining their negotiating power with autocratic patrons. Most of the prominent Sufis of this time were Sunnis, but the historical association of the mystical tradition with the Son-in-Law of Muhammad, 'Ali ibn-e- Talebi, may help to account for the predominance of 'Alid inscriptions on conteporary monuments such as the Dar Al-Ziyafeh. Another factor was the formation of futuwwa or youth leagues which were paramilitary groups which arose during the instability just before a during the Mongol Invasion, and which while niether specifically Sufi nor Shi'ite combined elements of both.
By the end of the thirteenth century the link was well established, as shown by Nasir Al-Din Tusi the famous astronomer, and theologian, who having first studied under the Ismaili Assassins at Alamut, then advised Hulegu Khan and his son Aqaba masterminding first the defeat of his former associates, the Assassins, in the North and then advocating the overthrow of the Abbasid Caliph Muta'sim in 1257. At the same time he was in correspondence with the Anatolian mystic and poet Jalal Al-Din Rumi and employed the Christian, Barhebraeus as a collaborator in the observatory he built at Maragheh. In spite of his service to the pagan Khan and his far from ascetic life style he nevertheless wrote one of the most authoritative treatises on tariqat, "The Ethics of Nasir" - Akhlaq-e-Nasiri) in which he classifies the stages leading to obliteration of the self - fana' - under thirty headings which can be paralleled with the stages in the magnum opus of contemporary alchemists.
As Mongol authority declined more militant orders, along the lines of the Assassins developed, and this led by the middle of the fourteenth century to several small Shi'ia-Sufi principalities being set up, notable amongst which was the one in Sabzavar to the East of modern Tehran, which retained its independence until Timurlane overthrew it in 1381. At the same time Sheikh Safi Al-Din Ishaq, who died in 1335, founded his order in Ardebil which was in turn to lead to the establishment of Shi'ism as the official religion of Iran three centuries later under the Safavids. His grandson, Sheikh Haydar, who took over the leadership of the order in 1460 was responsible for the introduction of the red hats with their twelve tassels worn by the Qizilbash, whose name in Turkish, means "redhead". By this time therefore no doubt of the military character or these orders which were actively engaged in supporting Islam against the Christian Caucasians. He had initially sided with the Aq-Quiunlu leaders who had patronised his father Sheikh Junayd, but his growing power turned his former allies against him and he fell in battle against them in 1488. It was left to Haydar's son, Ismail to carry off the supreme prize at the head of his Qizilbash dervishes, by seizing control of Iran and founding the Safavid dynasty. However Heinz Halm has pointed out that we cannot regard Shah Ismail as either an orthodox Muslim or Sufi. Shah Ismail's own poems make clear his own view of himself.
I am Ismail, I came into the world;
I walk on earth as in heaven;
The unknowing shall know me:
I am 'Ali, 'Ali is me!

I am identical to God ...
Come, look now at the divine truth, thou errirng blind man:
I am the Absolute Primal Moving Cause of whom men speak.
tr. Halm, Heinz. "Shiism" 1991, p.82, Edinburgh
By the time of Shah Abbas I the dervish and Sufic orders had become an embarrasment and a potential source of political instability. He therefore set about the systematic extermination of the Sufi brotherhoods allowing those who felt inclined to a gnostic viewpoint, such as Sheikh Bahai who assisted in the planning of the Masjed-e-Imam, and whose sundial can still be seen there today, to adopt a less politically sensitive and antinomian form of Sufism, which acknowledged the authority of the central government. At this time the Ni'matullah order of Sufis was destroyed in Iran and its remaining adherents fled to India, only to return to Iran during the 19th century under the patronage of the Qajars. These gnostic tendencies were frowned upon by the predominantly Shi'ite clerical administration, but still flourished under royal patronage. Shah Abbas II founded hermitages for those who preferred to lead a solitary life, and his father Shah Safi had patronised a school of gnosticism in Isfahan whose founder was Said Mir Muhammad Baqir Astarabadi, who in turn was the son-in-law of Al-Karaki, under whose influence Shi'ism had been established as the official state religion. Mir Astarabadi is for this reason often called Mir Damad, since damad is Farsi for son-in-law. The gnostic teachings of this Isfahani school taught that as a result of illuminative wisdom (ishraq) brought on by spiritual exercises, the adept is led to an understanding of himself which in turn enables him to find a path home for the soul. The entire process is called "recognition" or 'irfan. The school flourished until the clerical administration persuaded the pious Shah Sultan Husayn I (1694-1722) to put a violent end to the movement.
Under the Qajars in the nineteenth century there had been a revival of interest in Sufism, possibly sparked by the return of the Master of the Ni'matullah order from India. However a campaign was led against them from Kerbala by the extreme Shi'ite cleric, Agha Muhammad Baqir Wahid Bihbihani, who came originally from Isfahan, and under Fath 'Ali Shah, Bihbihani's son, 'Ali Bihbihani, nicknamed Sufi-Kush or "Sufi Killer", secured the excommunication (takfir) of the Sufis and the murder of the Master of the Ni'matullah order. Excommunication of this form was also used to discredit the remaining survivors of the Isfahani school of gnosticism in 1822. The subsequent history of Sufism in Iran during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century C.E. is in inverse proportion to the strength of the clerical administration, or ulama, which was in constant opposition to the Qajar rulers, whom they saw as manipulated by Britain and Russia.
Today Sufism appears to be tolerated in Iran. The author has visited Sufis who make no secret of their views and the crossed axes and begging bowl, which is the symbol of the Ni'matullah order, can be seen on the outside of at least one Khanaqah, or Sufi meeting house, in the north of Tehran.
Nimatullah IconNimatullah Sufism home page

IconMateen Siddiqui's Haqqani Sufi Home Page

Sufi StorytellerMariam Ispahani's collection of Sufi Stories