The Seven Pillars of Islam: The Esoterics of Walāyah

“Islam is based upon seven pillars: walayah – and this is the most excellent; through it and through the walī (the Imām), the true knowledge of the pillars can be obtained: ṭaharah (purification), ṣalah (prayerzakah (purifying dues), ṣawm (fasting)hajj (pilgrimage), and jihād (striving).”

– Imām Muḥammad al-Bāqir,
(Qādi al-Nu‘man, Da‘ā’im al-Islām, Prologue, 2)

In the present time, many people have sought to reduce the entire meaning of Islam to the practice of the so-called ‘Five Pillars of Islam’.  In doing so, they flatten and hollow out the theological and intellectual depth of the faith.  As Islam has developed historically, the Pillars have never constituted the entirety of religion.  The Pillars ( belong to a grander and more comprehensive religious framework which includes both theological truths and ritual practices.  This framework traditionally consists of the Roots of Religion (Uṣūl al-Dīn) and the Branches of Religion (Furū‘ al-Dīn) and is articulated using the Qur’ānic metaphor of a tree:

Alam tara kayfa ḍaraba’llāhu mathalan kalimatan ṭayyibatan kashajaratin ṭayyibatan aṣluhā thābitun wa far‘uhā fī’l-samā’i tu’tī ukulahā kulla ḥīnin bi-idhni rabbihā wayaḍribu’llāhu’l-amthāla la‘allahum yatadhakkarūna

“Have you not seen how God sets forth the example of a Good Word like a Good Tree? Its Root firmly set and its Branch in heaven.  Giving its fruit in all seasons by the permission of its Lord.  And God sets forth examples for mankind so that they may remember.”

Holy Qur’ān 14:24

Uṣūl al-Din and Furū‘ al-Dīn:

The Uṣūl al-Dīn consist of the fundamental theological truths of Islam.  The word uṣūl (singl. aṣl) means “roots”.  The Uṣūl al-Dīn are to religion what the roots are to a tree.  The roots originate and sustain the entire tree but they are hidden from plain view.  Similarly, most people in a particular religious tradition do not fully comprehend its theological truths.  In Shi‘ī Islam, the Uṣūl al-Dīn are Tawḥīd (the oneness of God), ‘Adl (Justice), Nubuwwah (Prophethood), Imāmah (Imamate), and Qiyāmah (Resurrection).  The book Ismaili Tariqah by Al-Wā‘iẓ Abualy Aziz confirms this schema as based on an earlier book by Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh called Uṣul wa Furū‘-i Dīn (Bombay, 1894).

The Furū‘ al-Dīn consist of the core religious practices and rituals. The word furū‘ (singl. far) means ‘branches’.  The Furū‘ al-Dīn are to religion what the branches are to the tree.  The branches are above the ground, exposed to the environment and bear the fruits of the tree.  Similarly, the ritual practices of Islam are subject to the change and developments of human history and culture while serving as as a means of spiritual elevation for the community.

The Furū‘ al-Dīn are what people today call the “Pillars of Islam”.  But the Pillars do not suffice in themselves – they must be accompanied by the knowledge of the Uṣūl or theological truths to bring spiritual benefit.

The Uṣūl are fundamental truths which are changeless although their articulation evolves from generation to generation.  The Furū‘, on the other hand, like branches of a tree, are subject to changes in form and method in order to adapt to the historical and social circumstances.  Thus, the Furū‘ evolve in their appearance and may even be abrogated if and when the conditions require it.  In this sense, the Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh has clearly stated the following:

“Not only non-Muslims but some Muslims, appalled by the extent and variety of the non-essentials (Furū‘āt) have followed the example of the man who in emptying the waste from the tub threw out the baby with it out of the window.  They have almost thrown out the Uṣūlāt (essentials).  If Islam is ever to fulfill its mission it must have universality not only in space, namely, throughout the earth, but in time, namely, as long as mankind exists on this globe…  If, rightly, the Muslims have kept till now to the forms of prayer and fasting at the time of the Prophet, it should not be forgotten that it is not the forms of prayer and fasting that have been commanded, but the facts, and we are entitled to adjust the forms to the facts of life as circumstances changed.  It is the same Prophet who advises his followers ever to remain Ibnu’l-Waqt (i.e. children of the time and period in which they were on earth), and it must be the natural ambition of every Muslim to practice and represent his Faith according to the standard of the Waqt or space-time.”

– Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III,
(Foreword to Muhammad: A Mercy To all the Nations by Al-Hajji Qassim Jairazbhoy, Click Here to Read

The Furū‘ are the external manifestations of the Uṣūl.  Religious rituals are expressions of theological truths.  It is only the latter which are immutable in a real sense.  Ritual practices serve as the means whereby the believer can attain an inner comprehension of the theological truths or realities of faith. The Ismā‘īlī Dā‘ī’ Sayyidnā ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Shahrastānī explains the relationship between the Uṣūl al-Dīn and the Furū‘ al-Dīn:

“The final revealed law, which is the noblest of revealed laws, has included rulings which do not change, being the Usūl al-Dīn, occupying the same position as the foundation of the house and the essence for the form… And it has [also] included rulings which do change and they are the Furū‘ al-Dīn, occupying the same position as the branches for the tree and the forms for the essence, and they are the ambiguous ones among the verses, which ‘God erases and establishes as He wills’.  He only erases for a perfection it has resulted in, and He only establishes for a new beginning which it heading toward some perfection.”

– Sayyidnā ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Shahrastānī, (Keys to the Arcana, 112)

The Three Levels of the Pillars:

Each Pillar among the Furū‘ al-Dīn has three layers of meaning and practice.  The first layer is the exoteric form (ẓāhir); the second layer is the esoteric meaning (bāṭin); the third layer is the esoteric of the esoteric (bāṭin al-bāṭin) which is the inner reality (ḥaqīqah).  These three levels are also known as sharī‘ah (the law), ṭarīqah (the path), and ḥaqīqah (the reality).  Alternatively, they are called islām (submission), imān (faith), and iḥsān (beauty).  This means that every Pillar, such as fasting (ṣawm) for example, exists in three states: ẓāhirī ṣawm, bāṭinī ṣawm, and ḥaqīqī ṣawm.

“Our affair contains an exoteric (ẓāhir), an esoteric (bāṭin), and an esoteric of the esoteric (bāṭin al- bāṭin).”

– Imām Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq,
(al-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shi‘i Islam, 270)

The exoteric form (ẓāhir) is available to everyone in any religious tradition.  The esoteric meaning (bāṭin) is only available to the initiates (murīds) of the spiritual paths (ṭurūq – plural of ṭarīqah) – and in our context, pertains directly to the Ismā‘īlī da‘wah or ṭarīqah of Islam.  The inner reality (ḥaqīqah) – the esoteric of the esoteric (bātin al-bāṭin) – is universal but only directly perceived by the mystics, sages and saints among the great religions.  This ḥaqīqah is one and the same for all faiths – it is “God’s Religion”, the “Religion of Truth” or the religio perennis which is manifest in the particular religions.  In the example of ṣawm (fasting), the zāhirī ṣawm is part of the Islamic sharī‘ah and only practiced by Muslims; the bāṭinī ṣawm is part of the Islamic ṭarīqahs and only practiced by their murīds; the ḥaqīqī ṣawm is indirectly practiced by people of all religions as it constitutes the esoteric essence of all faiths.

It must be remembered that there are two levels of the esoteric: 1) the intermediate esoteric (bāṭin) which is particular to and “coloured” by a formal religion (i.e. Christian esoterism, Jewish esoterism, Islamic esoterism, etc. including the Ismā‘īlī ṭarīqah and its bāṭini ta’wīl), and 2) the supreme esoteric (bāṭin al-bāṭin) which is “colourless”, universal and timeless.

“There is indeed a (higher) bāṭin of this (lower) bāṭin; it is the very highest of stations, more extensive than this (lower) bāṭin in its power and more perfect than it as a guide.  For it is the goal of all the signs pointing to the way of salvation…So the pair of the ẓāhir, which is (like) the name, and the bāṭin, which is (like) the distinctive characteristic, together point to God’s knowledge and to God’s Religion – and that is the bāṭin al- bāṭin.”

– Sayyidnā Ja‘far ibn Mansūr al-Yaman, (The Master and the Disciple, 92-94)

Each point or arc of points on the Circumference of the Circle represent the zahir (exoteric) and literal words (tanzil) of the Qur'an. Every radius represents an expression of the esoteric (batin) and intermediate levels of ta'wil of the Qur'an. The Centre represents the esoteric of the esoteric (batin al-batin) and the supreme ta'wil of the Qur'an.
Each point or arc of points on the Circumference of the Circle represent the zahir (exoteric) and literal words (tanzil) of the Qur’an. Every radius represents an expression of the esoteric (batin) and intermediate levels of ta’wil of the Qur’an. The Centre represents the esoteric of the esoteric (batin al-batin) and the supreme ta’wil of the Qur’an.

The three levels (ẓāhir, bāṭin, ḥaqīqah) of the Pillars of Islam correspond to the three faculties of knowledge in the human being.  The ẓāhir is perceived by the external senses of the physical body (jism).   The bāṭin is known and conceptualized through the internal faculties (memory, imagination, reflection, reason, etc.) of the rational soul (al-nafs al-nāṭiqah).  The ḥaqīqah is perceived and envisioned through the intellect (‘aql) which resides in the heart (i.e. center) of the rational soul.  Thus, to practice the ẓāhirī form of the Pillars is to worship God physically with the body; to practice the bāṭinī forms of the Pillars is to worship God psychically and rationally with the soul; to practice the ḥaqīqī forms of the Pillars is to worship God spiritually and intellectually with the heart-intellect.

The Seven Pillars of Islam:

According to the teachings of the Shi‘ī Imāms there are actually Seven Pillars of Islam and not merely five:

“Islam is based upon seven pillars: walayah – and this is the most excellent; through it and through the walī (the Imām), the true knowledge of the pillars can be obtained: ṭaharah (purification), ṣalah (prayer)zakah (purifying alms)ṣawm (fasting)hajj (pilgrimage), and jihād (striving).”

– Imām Muḥammad al-Bāqir,
(Qādi al-Nu‘man, Da‘ā’im al-Islām, Prologue, 2)

The foundation of all the Pillars of Islam is walāyah.  The word itself means “closeness, sanctity, friendship, love, authority, governance, saintship”.  In Shi‘ī Islam, the meaning of walāyah is threefold:

“…applied to the imāms of different prophets, walāyah refers to their ontological status or their sacred initiatory mission; the walī-imām is the ‘friend’ and the closest ‘helper’ of God and His prophet; he is the ‘chief’, the ‘master’ of believers par excellence… Applied to the faithful of the imāms,walāyah denotes the unfailing love, faith and submission that the initiated owe to their holy initiating guide.”

– Mohammad Amir-Moezzi, (The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism, p. 159)

1.  The walāyah (sanctity, closeness, friendship) of the Prophets and Imāms refers to their spiritual status before God.  The souls of the Prophets and Imāms possess sanctity due to their proximity or closeness to the Divine.  In this context, walāyah refers to an exalted spiritual station – due to which the souls of the Prophets, Imāms and saints are pure and in turn reflect the radiance of the Divine Names and Attributes.

Walāya also denotes the essential nature of the figure of the imām, his ontological status.  Now, the imām/walī in the ultimate reality of his being, is the locus for the manifestation of God (mazhar, majla), the vehicle of the divine Names and Attributes. ‘By God’, Imam Ja‘far is said to have declared, ‘we (the imāms) are the Most Beautiful Names (of God).’  The imam reveals God, he provides access to what may be known of Him, the Deus Revelatus, the zahir of God.”

– Mohammad Ali Amir Moezzi, (The Spirituality of Shi’i Islam, p. 249)

In this sense, Ibn al-Arabi and others have said that walāyah is superior to the functions of prophecy and messengership because it is the pre-requisite for these functions.  While prophecy and messengership come to an end with Muḥammad, the station of walāyah does not come to an end.  Each Imām is the walī (friend) of God due to the spiritual sanctity of his soul:

Know that walāyah is the all-encompassing sphere, thus it never comes to an end … When you observe the Prophet saying things which relate to what is outside the law-giving function, he does so as a walī and a knower (ārif).  Thus his station as a knower and a walī is more complete and more perfect than as a messenger or as a legislative prophet.”     

– Ibn al-‘Arabi, (Reza Shah-Kazemi, The Other in the Light of the One, 177)

2. The walāyah of the Imams also refers to the authority they possess over the believers.  The Qur’ān bears witness to this in the verse – “The Prophet has more authority (awla) over the believers than their own souls.” (33:6) and the Prophet made reference to this verse when he declared the walāyah of Imām ‘Alī ibn Abi Ṭālib:

“Truly, ‘Alī is from me and I am from him, and he is the walī of every believer after me.”

– Prophet Muhammad,
(Ahmad al-Nasā‘ī, Khasā’is Amīr al-Mu’minīn, 129)

3. The walāyah of the believers refers to the love, devotion, and loyalty which the faithful have for the Imām.  This love for the Imām is far greater than one’s love for wealth, family, and even life itself.

“Nobody amongst you can be termed a believer (mu’min) until and unless he loves me more than his father or his son or other people.”

– Prophet Muhammad,
(Sahih Bukhari, Book 1, Kitāb al-Imān, p. 12)

“Indeed, Allah is too Supreme, Mighty, Glorious, and Unreachable that He could be oppressed. But He has intertwined us with Him, and so oppression of us is oppression of Him, and the love (walāyah) of us is the love of Him.”

– Imām Muḥammad al-Bāqir,
(Usūl al-Kāfi, Vol. 1, p. 144)

Walāyah is depicted as the “trunk” within the Tree of Religion because of its spiritual significance.  All the Pillars of Islam revolve around walāyahwhich is the soul of Religion.

In the realm of the ẓāhir, the walāyah is symbolized by the Shahādah.  Anyone who recites the Shahādah is a Muslim and belongs to the ummah of Prophet Muḥammad – regardless of how they actually practice or what they believe theologically.  This verbal testification is an act of the physical body and need not even be accompanied by intention – this is how many tribes joined the Islamic community during the first century.

In the realm of the bāṭin, walāyah is to recognize the spiritual authority and sanctity of the Prophet and the Imām after him.  The recognition of this spiritual bond with the Imām is by means of the rational soul and is formalized in the rite of bay‘ah or mithāq (covenant) after which one formally becomes a murīd of the Imām and enters into the realm of ṭarīqah.  In this realm, the believer’s response to the recognition of the Imām’s walāyah is his or her undying love, allegiance and loyalty to the Imām – which is also called walāyah.

In the realm of the ḥaqīqahwalāyah is witnessed through spiritual vision (liqā, dīdar) – in which the intellect (‘aql) of the believer witnesses the Divine Light manifested through the Imām.  This amounts to a real “witnessing” (shāhadah) of God which is promised to the believers in Paradise but it can be realized in this world by virtue of the intellect in man.

“The first [pillar] is the shahādat, which implies knowing God through the Imām of the time.”

– Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, (Shi‘i Interpretations of Islam, 41)

“Eyes see Him not through sight’s observation, but hearts see Him through the realities of faith.”

– Imām ‘Alī ibn Abi Ṭālib,
(Reza Shah-Kazemi, Justice and Remembrance, 29)

Over the next few weeks, Isma‘īlī Gnosis will be posting an article on each of the Seven Pillars of Islam and explain their exoteric (ẓāhirī), esoteric (bāṭinī), and real (ḥaqīqī) meanings in relation to sharī‘ah practices, ṭarīqah rituals, and universal spirituality. Read the following to learn about the esoteric meaning or ta’wil of the Pillars of Islam:

The Esoteric Meaning of Prayer

The Esoteric Meaning of Pilgrimage (Hajj)

The Esoteric Meaning of Fasting (Sawm)

14 thoughts on “The Seven Pillars of Islam: The Esoterics of Walāyah

  1. Zahir and batin are exoteric and esoteric in traditional Shia theosophy, going back to Imam Jaffar-e-Sadiq. Ismaili dayees have provided have explained zahir and batin as digits, like 1s and 0s, on a quantum continuum of (universal) intellect (aql-e-kul). All reality, all visible and dark matter and energy, in essence, reside in batin, but manefest through intellect. There are four stages the continuum of intelect: sharia, tariqa, haqiqa and marifa.

  2. Can anyone explain what is the difference between the words “belief” and “faith”?

    A dictionary search suggests the two words are used interchangably as if they are one and the same.

    But my understanding of the two words locates the word “belief” before one exerts effort to acquire information on a subject area, then acquires working experience within that subject area before one aquires knowledge of that particular subject area. A clarification is needed here for the term “working experience” as in the successful outcome of efforts made to resolve a vast set of problems within a given subject area.

    It is only after one has information, working experience, and knowledge within a given subject area that one can then use the word “faith” when confronted with a problem within that subject area. In other words, if one has the information, experience, and knowledge on how to diffuse an hurricane, one can then say one has “faith” that they will be able to diffuse an oncomming hurricane.

    Without the information, working experience, and knowledge, one can only have theories on resolving a problem and therefore would be limited to the word “belief” in any statements on the resolution of a problem. At that stage, no matter how much one prays, the “belief” will be of no use in resolving the problem if the theories at hand do not “cover” the nature of the problem.

    There is a common question that is generally asked when making predictions on weather: “How can one predict the weather when one dosen’t know how the weather works?” Using statistics on a historical data set to make predictions on some future event will be of no use if that future weather event behaves outside of the data set!

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