Research into the formative period of Shiʿi Islam has come leaps and bounds in the laste couple of decades, inspired in particular by the work of Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, whose main insight has been to posit that ‘ancient’ Shiʿism is marked precisely by those doctrines and positions that the later rationalising tradition (in Baghdad and al-Ḥilla) rejected as ‘extreme’ (ghulūw). This was a particular form of heretication and othering that made sense once the communities were established and sought recognition in the ʿAbbasid and other courts and developed the institutions of learning and structures and hierarchies visible in other Muslim confessions. Or at least that is an element of the Makdisi theory applied to Shiʿi Islam: a confession crystallised once it became a legal school, adopted the hermeneutic of 'scholarly consensus' (ijmāʿ) and reconciled itself to power - in this sense the scholarly traditions of Shiʿi Islam can only be seen in terms of the normatively of the development of Sunni traditions and schools. An example of such an application is Devin Stewart's published doctoral dissertation.
Nevertheless, there remained the question of what made Shiʿi Islam distinct and how could one differentiate between the different tendencies that defined themselves as Shiʿi and what sort of construction was ‘extremism’? Is extremism an adequate rendition of ghulūw? By definition, an extreme is a relative position. It depends on where one places the centre - and even if that is located in the circle of the Imams, it begs the question of which circles and which particular Imams? Amir-Moezzi’s contribution is further complicated by Hossein Modarressi’s groundbreaking study of the formative period in the early 1990s, which posited ghulūw as exterior to the circle of the Imams and as a constant contrast and threat to the moderation of the scholarly community that remains to this day. However, this is predicated upon an assumption of the actual position of the Imams and those close to them, which perhaps we can never fully know. One finds that the rival tendencies of either ‘extremism’ or ‘shortcoming’ (taqṣīr) in the classical period are reproduced in more recent debates and even among the academics studying these issues. Much of those discussions were based on the use of heresiographical literature (both Shiʿi and non-Shiʿi) and re-reading the classical Imāmī sources in the light of ghulūw, including ones that ought to be carefully re-read or perhaps their attribution questioned - this applies as much to al-Barqī's Rijāl, al-Najāshī's Rijāl, and the Kitāb al-ḍuʿafāʾ of Ibn al-Ghaḍāʾirī (which barely seems to betray any sign of being a Shiʿi text). Nevertheless, for some time we have had a number of texts available that testify to the beliefs of the ghulāt, works surviving in Imāmī recensions, Ismaili ones and also among the descendants of many of those ghulāt groups in Kufa and Syria, namely the Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawī communities of the Levant. Asatryan – who has himself contributed by editing one such text – takes advantage of re-reading these sources, in particular those associated with the heresiarch al-Mufaḍḍal b. ʿUmar al-Juʿfī to rethink the formation of Shiʿi Islam and the construction of ghulūw in his work Controversies in Formative Shiʿi Islam. The recent (polemical Christian) publication of the works of the ʿAlawī tradition (Silsilat al-turāth al-ʿalawī) in Lebanon has provided researchers with texts that purport to come from within the tradition that has been compared to the manuscripts available in London, Paris and elsewhere that allow us to study the construction of that tradition. In all, thirty-six texts are now available to us, the best known of which has been the Kitāb al-haft wa-l-aẓilla ever since it was published by ʿĀrif Tāmir.
Asatryan's book comprises six chapters that consider four central texts associated with al-Mufaḍḍal such as Kitāb al-haft, al-aẓilla (usually conflated as one text), Kitāb al-ṣirāṭ (recently edited by Capezzone), and Kitāb al-ashbāḥ (edited by Asatryan), their textual milieu and their reception, not least the somewhat blurring of identities and textual affiliations in Syria in the 10th century. In one recent study on the Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawis, Yaron Freidman has already shown how the nascent Nuṣayrī thinkers of Syria in the 10th and 11 centuries often wrote recensions of texts for their own community and a ‘taqiyya’ version for the wider Imāmī community that led to the adoption of ghulāt texts into the mainstream of the Imāmī tradition; the most obvious example of this is the Kitāb al-hidāya al-kubrā of Ḥusayn al-Khaṣībī popular among the hierocracy in Najaf (and widely available on Shiʿi online libraries such as here). A brief appendix follows that traces fragments of ghulāt texts extant. Asatryan’s thesis is that the mature Imāmī tradition, especially from the period of the occultation of the Twelfth Imam, made a sharp distinction between the moderates and the extremists and excised much of the material of the latter from their tradition albeit with some elements remaining. Once defined, the ghulāt corpus was othered and put into sharp contrast with the emergence of an Imāmī ‘orthodoxy’, not least as the latter made its peace with the wider ʿAbbasid society. The Ghulāt, on the other hand, remained oppositional, socially disruptive and rebellious.
Chapter one on the Kitāb al-haft wa-l-aẓilla, earlier studied by Heinz Halm, is a philological and structural examination of the 67 chapters of the text, comparing at times with known doctrines rejected in the Imāmī mainstream tradition as extreme and with other doctrines that were acknowledged. The real problem is one of dating and recension. In that sense, one faces a similar problem to the study of the work often regarded as the earliest Shiʿi compilation, the so-called Kitāb al-saqīfa or Kitāb Sulaym b. Qays, which probably underwent various redactions as well from Imāmī to twelver. The Kitāb al-haft may also have undergone such transformation from a broadly Shiʿi text to a ghulāt (precisely: Nuṣayrī) one, even though the most widely available edition came from Ismaili manuscript collections.
The other work to which it can be compared is the Ismaili Kitāb al-kashf attributed to Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr al-Yaman. The general source critical problem that we have with texts from the classical Islamic period is precisely being about to pinpoint completion dates, dissemination and the form that the circulated text took since it does seem variations were common in narrative, hadith and doctrinal works (a later example from philosophy are the variants of the elements of Ibn Sīnā's Kitāb al-inṣāf known as al-Taʿlīqāt or al-Lawāḥiq and the other work al-Mubāḥathāt). The themes of the text are clear enough: there is a cosmic drama in which the forces of God and his friends are arraigned in a conflict with the forces of evil. The true friends of God are never extinguished - Ḥusayn and Jesus in this docetist account did not actually die. The material world, and the unfolding of history, is somewhat illusory. The Shiʿi problem of the light of the truth being swamped and set aside by evil in the course of history is overcome by a denial of the reality of history, which in many ways is just a more exaggerated manner of resolution that one finds in the counter-history of the Imāmī tradition. The chapter that follows then examines how al-Mufaḍḍal and some of his associates were othered by the heresiographical literature, especially by al-Najāshī, and contains a section on the aẓilla group of texts (which perhaps should have been a separate chapter). One of the points that Asatryan makes is that ghulūw is a construction whereby the Imams attempted to retain control of far away developments in Kufa. The themes in the textual cycle can be seen in existing Imāmī texts: the cosmogony of the archetypal friends of God and their enemies, the manifestation of the light of God and the shadows, the seven Adams and a nod to cyclical history, spiritual entities and the lights of the throne. There is clearly a common Shiʿi patrimony that then splintered and took on stricter doctrinal meaning and differentiation. One should perhaps see texts such as Kitāb al-haft alongside al-Ihlījīyā, kitāb al-tawḥīd, the Umm al-kitāb, various more theological of the uṣūl, Kitāb Sulaym, and even Kitāb al-mahāsin and Baṣāʾir al-darajāt as constituting a common pool or drawing on a common pool of texts. One could argue that this was the mature Safavid position as exemplified in the collection that is Majlisī's Biḥār al-anwār; a recent series of publications of the sources of this compilation include the Kitāb al-tawḥīd and al-Ihlījīyā attributed to al-Mufaḍḍal. Following Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Jalālī of Chicago, we should maybe call this pool the 'turāth ahl al-bayt'.
Chapter three examines the intra-Shiʿi polemics around this patrimony and focuses on certain key themes: the notion of privileged door-keepers or gates to the doctrine of the Imams, the debate over tafwīḍ and whether it constituted a delegation of divine authority or an arrogation through the divinisation of the Imams, antinomianism and the status of the law, and the nature of written transmission which was significant in Imāmī circles. Chapters four and five shift to the reception of ghulāt ideas among the Nuṣayrīs. The former looks at the role of Khaṣībī, Ḥasan al-Ḥarrānī and Muḥammad al-Jillī in the formation of a Nuṣayrī tradition, as well as their marginal role in Imāmī literature - Ḥarrānī’s Tuḥaf al-ʿuqūl in particular remained a popular hadith collection in Imāmī circles in the middle period as attested by the many manuscripts. The second of these chapters is on the Kitāb al-ṣirāṭ and ghulāt cosmogony. The main point is to show that crystallised divergence of what became characterised as ghulāt material from cosmogonic material in the Imāmī tradition. The primary distinction in the final chapters between the true rejectors and the true believers and between the light that is unappreciated and the darkness remained a binarism that did not disappear from Imāmī texts. Asatyran does a good job of showing how the divergence came about and how the problem of dating makes it well nigh impossible to carefully determine what was always considered ‘extreme’. What I would have liked to see is how the themes and ideas that remained in what was in the 10th century recognised as ghulūw could also be found in the texts of the Imāmī tradition that retained authority into the middle period and beyond.
We live at a point in time in which sectarianism and anti-Shiʿi bigotry is rampant, and in which the Nuṣayrīs and the Imāmīs are conflated for political reasons, especially because of the civil wars in Syria. What Asatryan’s study shows is that the process of heretication is fluid. That process and the means of heretication today need to be understood. How are issues of commonality the same as points of divergence? Just as the category of Muslim is a label of commonality and gens the question of distinction, such also is the case with Shiʿi. In the current context, no Shiʿi would want to be characterised as being among the ghulāt or associated with the Nuṣayrīs but nor do they necessarily want to be subsumed into an Islam, a Sunni supremacy that fails to recognise their distinction. This is not a new problem. The entire vocabulary of faith is at stake in such a rethinking of tradition. Islam needs to be rethought in Shiʿi terms – and then ghulūw rethought once again. By allowing ghulūw to be characterised historically and normatively in terms of criteria determined by Sunni normativity (such as divinisation of the Imams, rejecting the counter-narrative that is opposed ‘to what really happened’, the law and its discontents), we cannot account for what the Shiʿi tradition understood to be ghulūw and the limits of the ontological status of the Imāms, the cosmos and the nature of human history. Contexts also shift and transform meanings. In an age in which taqiyya remains a political reality in many places but need not hinder the pen, what is the meaning of ghulūw?