(1261-1336), famous mystic of the Il-khanid period, opponent of the growing influence of Ebn ʿArabī in Iran.


ʿALĀʾ-AL-DAWLA SEMNĀNĪ, ROKN-AL-DĪN ABU’L-MAKĀREM AḤMAD B. ŠARAF-AL-DĪN MOḤAMMAD B. AḤMAD AL-BĪĀBĀNAKĪ (b. Ḏu’l-ḥeǰǰa, 659/November, 1261, d. 21 or 22 Raǰab 736/5 or 6 March 1336), famous mystic of the Il-khanid period, opponent of the growing influence of Ebn ʿArabī in Iran. He stemmed from a family of wealthy landlords at Semnān (ca. 200 km east of Tehran). Through his grandmother he was related to the ʿAlid aristocracy; she had been the daughter of a descendant of Ḥosayn Aṣḡar, the son of Zayn-al-ʿābedīn (cf. Ebn ʿEnaba, ʿOmdat al-ṭāleb, Naǰaf, 1380/1961, p. 317.13ff.). His great-grandfather Żīāʾ-al-dīn Bīābānakī had been one of the five or six vice-regents appointed by Sultan Moḥammad Ḵᵛārazmšāh in 614/1218, shortly before his defeat by Jengiz Khan. In spite of this, the family gained strong influence at the Mongol court during the Il-khanid period. ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla’s paternal uncle, Jalāl-al-dīn, became vizier of the crown-prince Arḡūn and, at the accession of the latter, in 683/1284, first minister of the empire. His maternal uncle, Ṣāʾen-al-dīn, held the office of qāżī-e ǰomla-ye mamālek and was executed in 700/1300 because of his participation in a conspiracy against Ḡāzān’s vizier Ḵᵛāǰa Rašīd-al-dīn Fażlallāh. In 687/1288 his father, Šaraf-al-dīn, became for a short time ṣāḥeb-e dīvān (minister of finance and civil governor) of Iraq and in 694/1295, again only for a short period, vizier under Ḡāzān with the title uluḡ bitikči.

ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla himself, of approximately the same age as Arḡūn, entered government service at the age of fifteen. This meant that, like his older relatives, he had to practice religious compromise; the il-khans had not yet been converted to Islam, and Buddhist monks (baḵšī, i.e. bhikṣu) had a strong position at the court. This seems to have driven him into a religious crisis; at the age of twenty-four, when accompanying Arḡūn in a campaign against one of his uncles in 683/1284, he experienced near Qazvīn a vision of the other world. Stricken by a serious disease which held him in Tabrīz for two years, he turned more and more toward mainstream Sunnism and a moderate kind of Sufism. In 685/1286 he quit his service and returned to Semnān. He separated from his wife and son and built several convents which he endowed with waqfs from his own property. But he did not attach himself to a shaikh; he practiced the taʿlīm bi’l-ketāb advocated by many Sunni mystics and trained himself through books like Abū Ṭāleb al-Makkī’s Qūt al-qolūb. The ideal he wanted to follow was Ebrāhīm Adham, the legendary prince who had turned into an ascetic.

Shortly afterward, however, he met Aḵī Šaraf-al-dīn Saʿdallāh b. Hannōya Semnānī, a disciple of Nūr-al-dīn ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān b. Moḥammad Kaserqī Esfarāyenī (639-717/1242-1317), who had been keeping a Sufi circle at Baghdad for more than ten years. Aḵī Šaraf-al-dīn taught him the type of ḏekr which had been introduced by Naǰm-al-dīn Kobrā (q.v.) and perfected in his school by Esfarāyenī (cf. R. Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens II, Wiesbaden, 1976, pp. 401ff.). ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla tells us that during the very first night that he performed this spiritual exercise, which was characterized mainly by swift movements of the head, it induced a vision of flames rising from his chest to heaven. This is why he decided, as he says, to put on the Sufi dress and to visit the master himself at Baghdad. But he was acting without Arḡūn’s consent: On his way (early in 686/1282) he was arrested at Hamadān and brought back to Šarūyāt, where the il-khan was just founding the city of Solṭānīya, the future capital of Ölǰäytü and his successor, Abū Saʿīd. Here he was again confronted with the presence of Buddhist monks who had come from Tibet and Kashmir, etc.; and in a series of disputations he proved himself a true defensor fidei.

At the same time he started a correspondence with Esfarāyenī, who advised him to give up the rigid fasting he had begun to perform. Three months later, he escaped without notice, together with a Sufi called Ḥāǰǰī Āmolī, whom his two uncles, in agreement with the il-khan, had selected to distract him from Esfarāyenī’s influence. But when his companion revealed his mystical creed, which consisted in a kind of ontological tawḥīd similar to that of Ebn ʿArabī, ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla reacted violently and even tried to have him killed by a Turk, to whom he described him as an infidel. For two years he stayed in Semnān, from where he kept up his contacts with Esfarāyenī, asking for explanations of his visions and receiving through Aḵī Šaraf-al-dīn a ḵerqa as a sign of further encouragement. It seems that here he had his first disciples. A change of political scenery, the dismissal of his father as governor of Baghdad and the removal and subsequent execution of his uncle Jalāl-al-dīn, made him go to Baghdad, where he met Esfarāyenī for the first time in Ramażān, 688/September, 1289. He performed the ḥaǰǰ and saw his shaikh again for one month after his return in Moḥarram, 689/February, 1290. But then, out of devotion to his mother, he went back to Semnān.

We are so well informed about ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla’s spiritual development because he describes it (with certain inconsistencies) in several autobiographical reports which may be found in his Ketāb mašāreʿ abwāb al-qods (dated 711/1312), Ketāb al-ʿorwa le-ahl al-ḵalwa (finished in 722/1322), and Ketāb ṣafwat al-ʿorwa. The second part of his life, until his death in 736/1336, seems to have been much less dramatic. Released from all political commitments, he lived at Semnān, surrounded by an increasing number of students, at first in the Ḵānaqāh-e Sakkākī which he had restored, and then in a monastery which he had founded himself near Semnān, called Ṣūfīābād-e Ḵodādād. His inherited possessions brought him a yearly income of about 90,000 dirhams. He visited Baghdad rather frequently. We know that he saw Esfarāyenī in 696/1296 and again in late 702 or 703/mid-1303. But he also studied Hadith in Baghdad with Rāšed b. Abi’l-Qāsem Baḡdādī, the most renowned expert of this discipline in Iraq (cf. Ebn Ḥaǰar ʿAsqalānī, al-Dorar al-kāmena, Cairo, 1385/1966, II, p. 202, no. 1721), and with ʿAbdallāh b. ʿOmar al-Fārūṯī, a Shafeʿite jurist who died in 706/1306 (cf. ibid., II, p. 386, no. 2190). He suffered under the political and religious situation in Iran and several times played with the idea of emigrating to Syria. His relationship with Ölǰäytü (730-16/1304-16) was strained; like Arḡūn, Ölǰäytü frowned upon ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla’s contacts with Esfarāyenī. This is striking, since Ölǰäytü was a Muslim, in contrast to Arḡūn; the Baghdad Kobrawī school seems to have been in opposition to the Mongol court. In 705/1305 ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla became reconciled with the il-khan; Ölǰäytü built an academy (ʿemārat) at Solṭānīya on this occasion (cf. Ḵᵛāfī, Moǰmal-e Faṣīḥī, ed. M. Farroḵ, Mašhad, 1339 Š./1960, II, p. 14.8ff.). But when the il-khan turned to Shiʿism in 710/1310, ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla did not conceal his criticism for the people at the court. Under Ölǰäytü’s successor, Abū Saʿīd, he enjoyed a high spiritual reputation and had contacts with the vizier Ḡīāṯ-al-dīn, the son of Rašīd-al-dīn.

Names of disciples are given by Jāmī (Nafaḥāt al-ons, pp. 444ff.). Through one of them, ʿAlī Dūstī (d. 734/1334), who was perhaps the most outstanding, he influenced ʿAlī Hamadānī. There is a tradition that Ḵᵛāǰū Kermānī (d. 753/1352 or 762/1361) attended his circle in Ṣūfīābād (Dawlatšāh, ed. M. ʿAbbāsī, Tehran, 1332 Š./1943, p. 277). Some of his pupils bore the title aḵī. This may point to certain connections with fotūwa ideas.

Works. Only a few of ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla’s works have been edited or analyzed up to now. There is first his correspondence with his spiritual master Esfarāyenī, which continued until the latter’s death in 717/1317. It was edited by H. Landolt (Correspondence spirituelle échangée entre Nuraddin Esfarayeni et son disciple ʿAlaoddawleh Semnani, Tehran, Bibliothèque Iranienne 21, 1972). Three letters of the second period of his life date from 693/1294, a fourth one from 705/1306, and a fifth one from 717/1317. Another letter, which is earlier and can probably be dated to the year 689/1290, was published separately in Mélanges offerts à Henry Corbin (Tehran, 1977, pp. 279ff.). The correspondence demonstrates, according to Semnānī’s categories, the suprasensual communication which should exist between master and disciple in the Kobrawī tradition. Maǰd-al-dīn Baḡdādī, a disciple of Naǰm-al-dīn Kobrā, had talked in this connection of the ḵāṭer al-šayḵ, the “inner voice” coming from the shaikh. ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla sometimes mentions Maǰd-al-dīn in his selsela, but normally he traced himself back to Kobrā through Esfarāyenī, then Aḥmad Gūrpānī (d. 669/1270) and Rażī-al-dīn ʿAlī Lālā (d. 642/1244). His Kobrawī outlook manifests itself in his emphasis on visions and hallucinations; in his Ketāb fażl al-ṭarīqa (written in 712/1313) he tries to categorize these phenomena. He strongly believed in the omnipresence of Ḵeżr; this is why he recommended always speaking of him with respect as “Ḵᵛāǰa Ḵeżr.”

Another correspondence links ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla with ʿAbd-al-Razzāq Kāšānī (d. 736/1335, half a year before ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla himself), the author of the so-called Tafsīr-e Ebn ʿArabī. The two letters (one by each) have been translated and commented upon by H. Landolt in Der Islam 50, 1973, pp. 29ff. They deal with the evaluation of Ebn ʿArabī’s mystical philosophy. It is possible that ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla’s unconcealed antipathy toward the šayḵ al-akbar is related to the fact that he sensed traits in common with the Buddhist (Vajrayāna) doctrines preferred by the monks at Arḡūn’s court (cf. M. Molé in REI 29, 1961, pp. 92ff.). But the main reason lies deeper. ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla is profoundly convinced of God’s transcendence. He takes over the notion of taǰallī (“theophany”), but he stresses its different degrees of realization rather than the fact that everything participates in the Supreme Being. In contrast to Ebn ʿArabī’s static concept of absolute Being, he advocates a more dynamic type of mysticism which centers around becoming and which sees in divine Being not so much God’s essence as the “act of giving existence” (feʿl al-īǰād). God cannot be identical with absolute Being, because the potential Being is separated from its origin through the ontological limit of divine action, i.e., creation. In this respect Semnānī anticipates certain lines of thought followed by Shaikh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī, the founder of the Šayḵīya, in his reaction against Mollā Ṣadrā Šīrāzī. To a lesser extent, he foreshadows some ideas proffered in the Indian school of waḥdat-e šohūd, e.g., by Shaikh Aḥmad Serhendī (d. 1035/1626; cf. Landolt, loc. cit.; also his article “Simnānī on waḥdat-al-wujûd,” Collected Papers on Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism, ed. M. Mohaghegh and H. Landolt, Tehran, 1971, pp. 93ff.).

The different degrees of cosmic theophany are perceived by subtle organs (laṭāʾef) which form part of the spiritual body. In describing their relationship to each other, ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla built up an entire system of parallelisms and structural analogies. The laṭāʾef are seven in number (e.g., al-laṭīfat al-qalbīya, al-laṭīfat al-rūḥīya, etc.); the mystical experiences they create manifest themselves as visions in seven different colors, which may be understood as the veils behind which God hides Himself. They also correspond to seven different meanings concealed in each verse of scripture; the Koran is, like the seven worlds, a locus of constant theophany. Historically, these seven different meanings were unfolded by the seven great prophets from Adam to Moḥammad; through the subtlety of his own anthropological structure, the mystic is able to grasp their deepest intentions. ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla expounds this doctrine in a rudimentary form in one of his letters to Esfarāyenī (cf. H. Landolt in Mélanges offerts à Henry Corbin, pp. 279ff.). Its main ideas are rooted in Kobrawī tradition, but the term laṭīfa goes back as far as ʿAyn-al-qożāt Hamadānī (d. 525/1131). The theory is fully developed in the introduction of ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla’s Tafsīr, which forms a continuation of the unfinished commentary of the Kobrawī Naǰm-al-dīn Dāya Rāzī (d. 654/1256) and starts therefore only with Sūra 52. The crucial text has recently been edited by P. Nwyia (al-Abhath 26, 1973-77, pp. 141ff.; see also H. Corbin, “L’Interiorisation du sens en herméneutique soufie iranienne,” Eranos-Jahrbuch 26, 1957, pp. 57ff., especially pp. 137ff.; revised version in En Islam iranien, Paris, 1972, III, pp. 275ff.; idem in Sayyed Haydar Amoli, La Philosophie Shiʿite, Tehran, 1969, intro., pp. 50ff.).

A fourth text by ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla is a short appreciation of ʿAlī’s role in early Islam, written in 713/1313 and entitled Manāẓer al-moḥāżer li’l-monāẓer al-ḥāżer (ed. and tr. M. Molé, Bulletin d’études orientales 16, 1961, pp. 61ff.). Basing himself on the Nahī al-balāḡa, ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla insists on ʿAlī’s preeminence with respect to the other Companions, especially the first “Sunni” caliphs; ʿAlī not only possessed the rank of ḵelāfa, but also of walāya and warāṯa. ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla calls him “our imam;” he also shows deep reverence for the ahl-e bayt. But he was no Shiʿite, at least not in the Eṯnā ʿašarī sense; he disapproved of any polemics against ʿĀʾeša. He included the Twelfth Imam among the abdāl; and he believed that, as such, he had been raised to the rank of qoṭb (“axis, chief”) during his ḡayba (“disappearance”). But he asserted that this ḡayba had lasted only for nineteen years and that Moḥammad b. Ḥasan ʿAskarī had died afterwards; for him, the ḡayba was only another way of expressing the unrecognizability of the qoṭb, and the Twelfth Imam was only one “pole” in an uninterrupted invisible hierarchy.

This individual rearrangement of theological elements midway between Sunnism and Shiʿism is characteristic for the Kobrawīya of the period (cf. M. Molé, “Les Kubrawîya entre Sunnisme et Shiisme aux huitième et neuvième siècle de l’hégire,” REI 29, 1961, pp. 61ff., especially pp. 94ff.). But ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla stands in a specific situation. He came from a family which had, for at least two generations, entertained contacts with moderate Shiʿism; in some places, his “compromises” may be explained as a Sufi transformation of Zaydī ideas (cf. Molé, op. cit., pp. 138ff. and the critical remarks by H. Cordt, Die Sitzungen des ʿAlāʾ ad-dawla as-Simnānī, Ph.D. thesis, Basel [Zürich, 1977], pp. 17ff.). His wealth made him vulnerable toward political intervention; this may have induced him during Ölǰäytü’s reign to temper his Sunnite convictions and to “reinterpret” Shiʿite concepts. And there was, above all, the experience of his formative period; through Sufism, the unity of Islam could be emphasized against a non-Muslim government.

A great number of ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla’s statements and reminiscences were collected by a certain Eqbāl b. Sābeq, a person of some political importance in Seǰestān who visited him as a Sufi in 724/1324 (and for some time afterwards) and left two notebooks, entitled Čehel maǰāles and Fawāʾed, which were fused later on into a common redaction (cf. the edition by ʿA. Ḥaqīqat, Tehran, 1358 Š./1979, and the German summary by H. Cordt, op. cit., pp. 51ff.). For further works, see GAL2 II, p. 263, S. II, p. 281; with corrections and additions by F. Meier in EI2 I, p. 347 and in Fawāʾīḥ, p. 2, n. 1, and p. 245; by M. Molé, op. cit., pp. 76ff., n. 58, p. 138, n. 220, p. 141, n. 222; and by H. Landolt in Correspondance, pp. 47ff., n. 68, and in Der Islam 50, 1973, pp. 40ff., n. 50. Cf. also the anonymous treatise edited by H. L. Fleischer in ZDMG 16, 1862, pp. 235ff. (“Über farbige Lichterscheinungen der Sufi’s”), which consists mainly of sayings by Semnānī. The authenticity of the Fotūwat-nāma (ed. By A. Gölpınarlı, Iktisat Fakültesi Mecmuası 11, 1949-50, pp. 173ff., 296ff.) is not yet secure (see pp. 109ff.).



See also Ebn al-Fowatī, Maǰmaʿ al-ādāb fī moʿǰam al-alqāb, ed. M. Jawād, Damascus, 1962ff., I, pp. 994ff., no. 1472.

Ṣafadī, al-Wāfī bi’l-wafayāt, Istanbul, 1931ff., VII, pp. 356-57.

Idem, Aʿyān al-ʿaṣr, ms. Aya Sofya 2962, fol. 109a.

Ebn Ḥaǰar, al-Dorar al-kāmena I, p. 266 no. 663.

Jāmī, Nafaḥāt, pp. 439ff.

Dawlatšāh, Taḏkerat al-šoʿarāʾ, pp. 280ff. and index.

Ḵᵛāfī, Moǰmal-e Faṣīḥī II, p. 45.8ff.

Ḥabīb al-sīar II, p. 101.14ff.

Šaraf-al-dīn Khan Bedlīsī, Šaraf-nāma, St. Petersburg, 1860-62, p. 486. 1ff.

Soštarī, Maǰāles al-moʾmenīn, Tehran, 1375/1955, II, pp. 134ff.

Reżā-qolī Khan, Taḏkera-ye rīāż al-ʿarefīn, ed. M. ʿA. Gorgānī, Tehran, 1344 Š./1965, pp. 168ff.

S. M. Ṣadr, Šarḥ-e aḥwāl o afkār o āṯār-e šayḵ ʿAlāʾ-al-dawla Semnānī, Tehran, 1334 Š./1955.

M. Valiuddin in Islamic Culture 25, 1951, pp. 48ff.

F. Meier, Die Fawāʾiḥ al-ğamāl wa-fawātiḥ al-ğalāl des Nağm ad-dīn al-Kubrā, Wiesbaden, 1957, index.

Idem in EI2 I, pp. 346-47 (extremely informative article and pioneer study with further bibliographical material).

H. Corbin, “Physiologie de l’Homme de Lumière dans le soufisme iranien,” Ombre et Lumiére, Académie Septentrionale I, Paris, 1960, pp. 137ff., especially pp. 238ff. (also in separate ed. under the title L’Homme de Lumière dans le soufisme iranien, Paris, 1971, pp. 179ff. and index).

Idem, En Islam iranien I, pp. 176ff.

R. Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens II, Wiesbaden, 1976, pp. 111ff., 401.

H. Algar, “Some Observations on Religion in Safavid Persia,” Iranian Studies 7, 1974, pp. 287-93.

P. Nwyia in Annuaire, Ēcole Pratique des Hautes Ētudes, section V, 86, 1977-78, pp. 273ff.

(J. Van Ess)

(J. van Ess)

Originally Published: December 15, 1984

Last Updated: July 29, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 7, pp. 774-777