Like all other schools, Shiite school has been encountering extremist groups that are called by different names such as ghulāt (exaggerators), muqassera and nawasib and which have, in the course of history, created difficulties for Shiites and their Imams. Shiite Imams made continuous efforts to protect Shiites from the dangers posed by these deviant currents. By clarifying their position and recommending moderation in all affairs and by repelling corrupt agents and exposing their true personality and their real purposes they tried to consolidate original Shiite beliefs among Muslims especially their followers. While demonstrating miraculous acts and some distinct traits for Imams, Shiite scholars excommunicated the ghulāt and explained the mistakes in their extremist ideas.
Ghulāt lit. "extremists", the adjectival form of ghulū, is a term used in the theology of Shia Islam to describe some minority Muslim groups who either ascribe divine characteristics to figure of Islamic history -- mostly, but not always a member of Muhammad's family (Ahl al-Bayt) -- or hold beliefs deemed deviant by Shi'i theology. The issue of "exaggeration" about religious leaders has been one of the most important roots of deviation in divine religions. Exaggeration always is accompanied with and entails a large defect which is the destruction of the foundation of religion i.e. monotheism, therefore Islam has been very strict about ghulāt introducing them as the worst disbelievers in "theological" and "jurisprudential" books.
Exaggeration in religion translates into rejection of religion since its damage is not less than the damage done by rejection of religion. Sometimes exaggeration in religion makes many people abandon religion because their pure nature does not accept the impurities and interpolations of exaggeration. Then along with the rejection of those impurities the body of religion is also rejected. For instance, Christians who made exaggerations about Jesus (AS) caused learned and educated people escape from Christianity and reject the prophecy; because they realized by their pure nature that the belief in a human God is foolish. Therefore they preferred paganism to this foolishness not putting themselves into hardship to separate superstitions from the reality of religion.
By studying different religions we can find out extremist ideas in them. The holy Quran makes reference to such issues on certain occasions urging humans to refrain from exaggeration.
Islam like other divine religions has suffered this dangerous disease. Following the demise of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) the first extremist remarks about his character emerged in Muslim community. In different ages, different groups have appeared among Muslims promoting extremist ideas. Their primary effort was to give ascribe divine characteristics to political and religious figures and leaders. These efforts emanated from different motivation some of which will be mentioned in the following lines.
1-By the rise of Umayyad government and their rigorous animosity with the Prophet's household, a group of Muslims appeared in the political disputes and religious arguments by their support. This group carried extremist ideas about their leaders on one hand, and did not, on the other hand, avoid expressing animosity toward Shiite Imams especially Imam Ali (AS); they were bent on cursing them. This extremist current called nawasib by Sunni scholars caused reactions on the part of Shiites. Among these reactions some followers of Imams took extremist action putting forth remarks in defense of Imams mostly under the influence of non-Islamic ideas depicting a supra human image of Imams.
2- The ambitiousness of some individuals who were in Imams' company caused these people to resort to ascribe divine characteristics to Imams to earn themselves a social position; That is, they deified Imams to be their representatives and appointees.
3-By putting forth many regulations and rules, the luminous religion of Islam created certain restrictions for some individuals interested in endless freedoms. Obtain such freedoms would require them to abandon the frameworks of these regulations, therefore exaggeration about some people and ascribing divine attributes to them paved the ground for nullification of Shari'ah and justification of indulgence.
Also wrong defense of religion, making money, extreme love, creating mischief in religion and opposition of the then governments with Shi’ism can be considered as the reasons behind the emergence of exaggeration. Among the methods used by ghulāt to achieve their goals was to forge traditions and attribute them to Imams. For this end, they would benefit from special methods. One of these methods was dass i.e. creating some traditions and entering them into Shiite tradition sources by some tricks. Among the ghulāt applying this method was Mughaira bin Saeed, Imam Baqer's (AS) student. After mentioning the trick this person played to interpolate extremist traditions in the books authored by the companions of Imam Baqir (PBUH), Imam Sadiq (AS) cursed him.
Imam Reza (AS) makes references to the fabrication of some traditions by ghulāt such as Abolkhattab. After cursing Abolkhattab, Imam (AS) advises his followers not to accept such traditions.
The existence of such an extremist group was a good pretext in the hands of governments that opposed Imams allowing them to resort to these remarks and accuse Shiites of disbelief and polytheism to pressurize Imams and suppress Shiites.
By understanding the prevailing conditions of the society, Imams (AS) also urged Shiites not to follow such ideas; they always fought this phenomenon and tried to prevent them from deviating the original and mainstream Shiite group using different methods such as scolding and cursing and distancing themselves from them, however sometimes this confrontation between Imams and ghulāt would lead to a point where the Imams commanded the killing of some ghulāt. As an example, Imam Hadi's (AS) ordered Faris bin Hatam to be killed and he guaranteed a place for the killer in heaven. It should be noted that exaggerated beliefs about leaders in other religions and denominations have emerged for different reasons and in different forms. Extremist viewpoint about the second caliph and putting forth the issue of phenomenon of matching or muwafeqat Umar [verses that were revealed
and happened to correspond to matters Umar had wished or inclined towards.] and his superiority over Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his family) brought up in Sunni sources are among the instances of ghulu (exaggeration).
Imams' Viewpoint about Ghulāt
If we search authentic Shiite traditions and contemplate on Imams' speeches about this deviation we will realize that no one has spoken of their deviation and has fought them as much as Imams. Amirul Mo'meneen, Imam Ali (AS) says: "I keep away from ghulāt as Jesus (AS) kept away from Christians. Oh God despise them for ever and never make any on them triumphant." About ghulāt and their mindset, Imam Sadiq (AS) says: "Beware of your youth lest they should be corrupted by ghulāt. They are truly the most evil among God's creatures. They belittle God's glory and deify God's servants."
He also says: "The smallest thing that takes a person out of the pale of religion is sitting in the company of an exaggerator and listening to him and acknowledging his remarks." Then he says: "My father has narrated from my grandfather, he from my great grandfather that the Holy Prophet (S) said: "Two groups out of my nation have no understanding of Islam, ghulāt and Qadariya".
In a tradition from Imam Reza (AS) he has been asked about ghulāt and mofavvedha and he says:" Ghulāt are pagans and mofavvedha are polytheists; anyone who sits with them or eats food x and drinks with them or marries his daughter to them or marries their daughters … or supports them with even a word, has gone out of God's wilayat and that of the Pprophet and his household."
Shiite scholars' Viewpoint about Exaggeration
To figure out Shiite scholars' viewpoints and ideas about ghulāt, it would suffice us to consult Shiite books on biography of hadith narrators such as Rijal Kashshi, Najjashi, Allama Helli, Gadha'eri etc. to find out how Shiite scholars have treated this deviant group.
Sheik Mufid ,one of the greatest Shiite scholars, explains the meaning of exaggeration and tafvidh in his commentary on Sheik Sadooq's Aqa'ed: "Ghulāt who pretend to be Muslims have deified Imam Ali (AS) and his descendants (AS) and have said so much about their authority in worldly affairs and religion that have exceeded the limits. These people are pagans and deviant and Amirul Mo'meneen (AS) has ordered them to be killed and incinerated and Imams (AS) have ruled that they are pagans and that they have stepped out of Islam."
In their jurisprudential and books and treatises, Shiite scholars have mentioned ghulāt along with nawasib and khawarij considering them as impure in their discussions regarding topics such as purity..
Regarding what have been said and in view of some of the traditions already mentioned, traces and the effects of extremist thinking about Imams (AS) and deifying them throughout history have remained among Muslims and in some sources. However, the existence of such traditions has never been acknowledged by Shiite scholars. For this reason, when dealing with such traditions scholars hold any tradition speaking of an Imam being deity contrary to the Quranic verses; they term such traditions from Imams as inauthentic and consider their narrators as ghulāt.
The holy Quran and traditions emphasize on prophets and Imams being God’s creatures
On different occasions, the holy Quran reminds us of the prophets being humans urging us not to exaggerate about them. They stress that prophets creatures and humans like other regular human beings.
The Holy prophet (S) and Shiite Imams (AS) have always emphasized on them being created and their dependence on God. The Holy prophet (PBUH) says: "We are God's servants created by Him and reared by Him. We follow His commands and avoid what He has forbidden from."
In an account of his father's life, Imam Sadiq (AS) says: "I would spread my father's bed and would wait for him to come and sleep. When he would get in bed I would go to my own bed. One night I waited for a long time expecting him to arrive. I anxiously went to mosque and did not see anyone there. Everyone was asleep then. Suddenly I saw my father in a corner prostrating while he was crying and saying, "You are pure and sacred, You are my true God, I have prostrated myself in front of You, O’ my Lord, my deeds are little, O’ God increase my reward, O’ God when You shall resurrect Your servants from their graves on the Day of Judgment save me from hell fire, O’ God reconcile with me because You easily reconcile and you are compassionate."
Imam Sadiq (AS) in response to someone who thought of him as a deity said: “We are God's servants created by Him to worship Him." Elsewhere he says: “By Allah, we are servants created by Him and we have a God whom we worship. If we do not worship Him He would chastise us."
Taqseer about Imams (AS):
What has been said so far concerning exaggeration about Imams (AS) and the rejection of this thought was from the perspective of Imams and Shiite scholars. However, there is another viewpoint about the position and status of Imams (AS) known as taqseer (shortcoming). Those who subscribe to taqseer is called muqassera. Unlike ghulāt, the position and status of Imams (AS) in muqassera have been lowered so much that they have been considered equal to ordinary humans. Shiite Imams (AS) and scholars oppose this viewpoint as well. However they think the danger posed by ghulāt is greater.
In fact the Imams' (AS) enemies exploited exaggerated beliefs and taqseer about Imams (AS) and also made every effort to forge traditions to condemn their enemies in a bid to distort the real image of Shiites and their Imams (AS).
Original Shiite Viewpoint about Imams' (AS) position
Imams (AS) have always called on their Shiites and followers to be moderate in different affairs especially this issue. Some traditions guide us how to look at Imams' (AS) position and their distinct privileges. Based on logical reasons and evidence seen in narrations, Shiite scholars have proved some characteristics for prophets and Imams (AS) each of which is a necessity and a part and parcel of their status and position such as their infallibility or knowledge inspired by God which is supported by the holy Quran and traditions and also accepted by the intellect. In Shiite scholars' viewpoint, Imams can do acts of miraculous nature and enjoy some superiority over other humans. A part of these acts of miraculous nature has been mentioned in Shiite hadith (textual) sources. Sunni sources also mention these virtues and traits such as those enumerated by the Holy Prophet (PBUH) for Imam Ali (AS) and his household. A point which should be contemplated in the discussion about exaggeration is that we should pay attention to extremist beliefs and non-extremist beliefs i.e. what we hear or probably can't grasp it or is contrary to our thoughts should not be labeled as “exaggeration”. Many acts of miraculous nature may seem to be unreal at first glance but with a little contemplation, logical reasons and reasons through narrative sources, we can come to the conclusion that they originate in the Holy Quran and traditions. Therefore, it is prudent to avoid mixing extremist concepts about prophets and Imams (peace be upon them) with their acts of miraculous nature and their virtues and we should not indulge our biases and inclination when going through or coming across such things.
Based on this we should note that what keeps us away from exaggeration is attention to this point that the Imams (AS), despite having lofty divine positions, were still God's servants and that they had all of these virtues, acts of miraculous nature and positions by God's permission and His support. They depend on God in their essence as they depend on God in their attributes and are not independent of Him. Therefore proving these capabilities for them is not in contradiction with belief in divine unity; rather it is affirmation of divine unity.
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- Same, p.224, Mashad University Press, 1926
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- Quran 3:59
- Quran 18:110
- Hurr Ameli, Muhammad bin Hassan, Wasa'el ush-Shi'a, vol.4, p.302, Institute of Alul Bayt le Ehya ut-Turath , Qom, first print, 1987
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- For more information see: Tarkhan, Qasem, A Mystic, Philosophical and Theological Look at Imam Hussein's (AS) Personality and Uprising, Chelcherag, first print, 2009