ḠOLĀT (lit.: exaggerators, sing. ḡāli), an Arabic term originally used by Twelver Shiʿite (eṯnā ʿašariya) heresiographers to designate those dissidents who “exaggerate” the status of the Imams in an undue manner by attributing to them divine qualities. This kind of heresy is generally, though inaccurately, called ḥolul (incarnation) of a divine essence into a human body. In fact, the ḡolāt considered Imam ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb and the other Imams as manifestations of God, whose “bodies” were not corporeal but mere illusion. The main tenet of ḡoluw (exaggeration) was that Imam ʿAli had been the manifestation of God and that it was he who had sent Moḥammad as a prophet. Other distinguishing features of ḡoluw rejected by mainstream Shiʿites were belief in metempsychosis (tanāsoḵ) and the allegorical exegesis (taʾwil) of the text of the Koran, often combined with a latent or patent antinomianism (ebāḥa, q. v.), that is, the disregard of the Islamic law (šariʿa) and its ordinances.
The first heretic who is said to have idolized ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb is ʿAbd Allāh b. Sabaʾ who preached that ʿAli was God (al-elāh), whereupon ʿAli had him banned from Kufa to Madāʾen (old Ctesiphon, q.v.). After ʿAli’s death he is said to have declared that a devil in ʿAli’s appearance had been murdered whereas ʿAli himself had ascended to heaven and that his return (rajʿa) was imminent (Ašʿari, Maqālāt, p. 15; Baḡdādi, Feraq, pp. 233-35).
During the Omayyad caliphate a certain Bayān b. Semʿān Tamimi, who acted as a prophet on behalf of the idolized Imams, was burned in Kufa in the year 119/737 on the order of the governor Ḵāled Qasri. Bayān is said to have preached the existence of two gods: the first one, the “eternal God” (al-elāh al-azali), being in heaven and consisting of pure light, and the second one on earth, probably the creator of the material lower world. The Twelver Shiʿites hand down a letter by which Bayān is said to have summoned the deified fifth Imam Moḥammad Bāqer to acknowledge him as his prophet (Ṭabari, II, pp. 1619-20; Nawbaḵti, pp. 25, 30-31; Qomi, pp. 33-35; Baḡdādi, Feraq, pp. 236-37).
A new set of ḡoluw doctrines enters the scene with ʿAbd-Allāh b. Sabaʾ Ḥarb Madāʾeni, who acted on behalf of the anti-Omayyad rebel ʿAbd-Allāh b. Moʿāwia (q.v.), a descendent of ʿAli’s brother Jaʿfar b. Abi Ṭāleb, who in the last days of the Omayyad caliphate founded an independent state in Kufa (127/744) and was later killed by the ʿAbbasid propagandist Abu Moslem Ḵorāsāni (q.v.) in Herāt (131/748-49). According to ʿAbd-Allāh b. Ḥarb’s doctrine, the prophet Moḥammad as well as ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb and his descendants, the Imams, were gods (āleha); the Holy Ghost (ruḥ al-qodos) was transferred successively from Moḥammad to ʿAli, then to Imam Ḥasan and Imam Ḥosayn, then to ʿAli’s third son Moḥammad b. Ḥanafiya and his son Abu Hāšem, and finally to Ebn Ḥarb’s master, ʿAbd-Allāh b. Moʿāwia. Ebn Ḥarb seems to be the originator of the myth of the preexisting “shadows” (aẓella), the first creatures whose hubris and blindness entail their fall and the creation of the material world. The transmigration of souls (tanāsoḵ fi’l-arwāḥ) is a punishment for those of the “shadows” who do not recognize the true Imam of their respective epoch as God (Nawbaḵti, pp. 32-34; Qomi, pp. 44-46; pseudo-Nāšeʾ, p. 37).
This myth, probably of pre-Islamic gnostic origin, together with the deification of the Imams and the doctrine of metempsychosis, henceforth becomes the hallmark of the Iraqi (especially Kufan) ḡoluw and is the central theme of two original ḡoluw books of probable Iraqi origin. The first is entitled Omm al-ketāb and is handed down to us only in a Persian translation, with marks of a subsequent Ismaʿili adaptation, by the Ismaʿilis of the Pamir region and the Northern Areas of Pakistan; it was discovered by Russian scholars at the end of the 19th century. The book claims to be a secret revelation by the fifth Imam Moḥammad al-Bāqer to his disciple Jāber Joʿfi. It contains an ample version of the myth of the “shadows” (aẓella) who, as a result of their unbelief in the divinity of the Creator (who is masked by the phantoms of the different Imams), are thrown down again and again, creating by their fall the seven heavens and the sublunar world and are finally imprisoned in human bodies. The doctrines of the Omm al-ketāb present many characteristic details which the Arabic heresiographers ascribe to the sects of the Moḵammesa, ʿAlyāʾiya, and Maʿmariya, which are all said to have been subsects of the Ḵaṭṭābiya (see below).
The second book, entitled Ketāb al-Haft al-Šarif (or Ketāb al-aẓella, or Ketāb al-Haft wa’l-aẓella), poses as a revelation of the sixth Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq. The book is handed down by the Ismaʿili communities in Syria but its content has nothing to do with the well-known doctrines of Ismaʿilism. Its author seems to have been the Kufan ḡāli Moḥammad b. Senān, who died in 220/835, in the same year as the eighth Imam ʿAli al-Reżā. Here again the myth of the hubris and fall of the “shadows,” i.e., the preexisting human souls and their final imprisonment into the human bodies is given in its full length.
From the time of the fifth Imam Moḥammad al-Bāqer (d. 114/732 or 117/735) onwards the Kufan ḡoluw is as inseparable from the Emamiya as a shadow. The most prominent ḡolāt who appealed to al-Bāqer were Moḡira b. Saʿid, executed in 119/737, and his disciple Jāber b. Yazid Joʿfi (Ašʿari, Maqālāt, pp. 6-8; Qomi, pp. 43-44).
During the imamate of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (d. 148/765) the most prominent champion of the Kufan ḡoluw was Abu’l-Ḵaṭṭāb Moḥammad b. Meqlāṣ, a client (mawlā) of the Banu Asad tribe, who was killed in the mosque of Kufa together with seventy of his followers during the governorship of the ʿAbbasid prince ʿIsā b. Musā (132-47/749-764). The activity of Abu’l-Ḵaṭṭāb seems to have given birth to a whole bunch of ephemeral Ḵaṭṭābiya sects such as the Moḵammesa, Maʿmariya, ʿAlyāʾiya, and others (Nawbaḵti, pp. 38-41, 58-60; Qomi, pp. 50-63, 81-83; Kašši, pp. 290; 293-94, 296, 398-400; Ašʿari, Maqālāt, pp. 12-15; Šahrastāni, p. 134).
One of the most prolific propagators of ḡoluw traditions allegedly revealed by Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq was the Kufan Mofażżal b. ʿOmar Joʿfi, the teacher of Moḥammad b. Senān mentioned above. He is also the author of a third ḡoluw book, the Ketāb al-ṣerāṭ.
During the imamate of the tenth Imam ʿAli al-Hādi (d. 254/ 868) we find in Qom the ḡālis ʿAli b. Ḥasaka and Qāsem b. Yaqṭin (Kašši, pp. 516-19). Around the same time there appears in Baghdad the ḡāli Esḥāq Aḥmar (d. 286/899), who left communities of followers (al-Esḥāqiya) in Baghdad, Madāʾen, and the villages of southern Iraq; the geographer Yāqut (d. 626/ 899) in his Moʿjam al-boldān (Beirut, III, pp. 334) mentions the Esḥāqi sectarians in the district of Šorṭa between Baṣra and Wāseṭ. Esḥāq’s Ketāb al-ṣerāṭ seems to be lost (if it is not identical with the book of the same title attributed to Mofażżal Joʿfi). The sect seems to have disappeared after the Mongol conquest of Iraq in 1228 (Taʾriḵ Baḡdād VI, p. 380; Šahrastāni, pp. 143-45).
From the Esḥāqiya split the Noṣayriya, a group founded by Moḥammad b. Noṣayr Namiri, who is said to have been cursed by the tenth Imam for having propagated the doctrine of the divine nature of the Imams (Nawbaḵti, p. 78; Qomi, pp. 100-1; Kašši, pp. 520-21; Baḡdādi, Feraq, pp. 255-56; Šahrastāni, pp. 143-45). The Noṣayriya is the only sect of the ḡolāt in the sense proper which has survived to this day and which preserves the tradition of the Kufan ḡoluw in its original form.
In its Iraqi homeland, the Noṣayri sect completely disappeared after the Mongol conquest, except perhaps at the little town of ʿĀna on the Euphrates, where a Noṣayri community is still recorded in modern times (Ṭawil, p. 522). According to the literature of the Noṣayris (accessible in manuscripts and in several printed editions), the creed of the sect, including the myth of the fall of the “shadows,” is largely identical with the doctrines of the Kufan ḡolāt; the peculiarities of the Noṣayri doctrine are due to an alleged special revelation by the eleventh Imam al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskari to his disciple Moḥammad b. Noṣayr. The connection of the sect with its Iraqi forerunners is corroborated by the chain of transmitters whom the Noṣayris claim to be their spiritual masters: Ebn Noṣayr (d. ca. 250/864), Moḥammad b. Jondob, ʿAbd-Allāh Jannān Jonbolāni (d. 287/900), Ḥosayn b. Ḥamdān Ḵaṣibi (d. 346/957), Moḥammad b. ʿAli Jelli (d. after 384/994), and Sorur b. Qāsem Ṭabarāni (d. 426/1034-35).
Ḵaṣibi seems to have founded a community in Karḵ, the Shiʿite suburb of Baghdad. Later on he lived a restless vagrant life and made propaganda for his doctrines at the Shiʿite courts of the Buyids in Iraq and western Persia and of the Hamdanids in Mosul (Mawṣel) and Aleppo (Ḥalab). His pupil and successor Moḥammad Jelli came from Jelliya at the mouth of the river Orontes (Nahr al-ʿāṣi) in northern Syria; he lived to see the Byzantine reconquest of Cilicia and Antioch by the emperor Nicephoros Phocas in 358/969 and of the Syrian coast by the emperor Johannes Tzimisces in 363/975. In 423/1032 Jelli’s successor Ṭabarāni settled down at Latakia (Lāḏeqiya; ancient Laodikeia) on the Syrian coast, whence he seems to have missionized the mountainous hinterland where the sect was able to get a firm footing during the epoch of the Crusaders and to survive up to this day.
Pio Filippani-Ronconi, “Note sulla soteriologia e sul simbolismo cosmico dellδ Ummu’l-kitāb,” AION 14/1, 1964, pp. 111-34.
Heinz Halm, “‘Das “Buch der Schatten’: Die Mufa ḍḍal-Tradition der Ḡulāt und die Ursprünge des Nuṣairiertums,” Der Islam 55, 1978, pp. 219-66; 58, 1981, pp. 15-86.
Idem, Die islamische Gnosis: Die extreme Schia und die ʿAlawiten, Zurich and Munich, 1982.
Marshall G. S. Hodgson, “Ghulāt,” EI2 II, pp. 1093-95.
Wladimir Ivanow, “Notes sur l’"Ummu’l-kitāb” des Ismaëliens de l’Asie Centrale,” REI 6, 1932, pp. 419-81.
Abu ʿOmar Kašši, Maʿrefat aḵbār al-rejāl, ed. Ḥasan Moṣṭafawi as Eḵtiār Maʿrefat aḵbār al-rejāl, Mašhad, 1348 Š./1969.
Ketāb al-Haft al-Šarif, ed. ʿĀref Tāmer and E. ʿAbdoh Ḵalifa Yasuʾi, Beirut, 1960, 2nd rev. ed., Beirut, 1970; ed. Moṣṭafā Ḡāleb, Beirut, 1964; part. Ger. tr. by Heinz Halm in idem, Die islamische Gnosis, pp. 240 ff.
Mofażżal b. ʿOmar Joʿfi, Ketāb al-ṣerāṭ, ed. Leonardo Capezzone, in Rivista degli studi orientali 69, 1996, pp. 295-416.
Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, Syracuse, N. Y., 1987.
pseudo-Nāšeʾ al-Akbar, ed. Josef van Ess in Frühe muʿtazilitische Häresiographie: Zwei Werke des Nâshiʾ al-Akbar, Beirut, 1971.
Omm al-ketāb, fasc. ed. Wladimir Ivanow, Der Islam 23, 1936, pp. 1-132; Ital. tr. by Pio Filippani-Ronconi, Ummu’l-Kitāb, Naples, 1966; Ger. tr. of passages by Heinz Halm in idem, Die islamische Gnosis, pp. 125-94.
Saʿd b. ʿAbd-Allāh Qomi, Ketāb al-maqālāt wa’l-feraq, ed. Moḥammad-Jawād Maškur, Tehran, 1963.
ʿAbd-Allāh S. Sāmarrāʾi, al-Ḡoluw wa’l-feraq al-ḡālia, Baghdad, 1972.
Moḥammad Amin Ḡaleb Ṭawil, Taʾriḵ al- ʿAlawiyun, 3rd ed., Beirut, 1979.
William F. Tucker, “Bayān b. Samʿān and the Bayāniyya: Shīʿite Extremists of Umayyad Iraq,” Muslim World 65, 1975, pp. 241-53.
Idem, “Rebels and Gnostics: al-Muġīra ibn Saʿīd and the Muġīriyya,” Arabica 22, 1975, pp. 33-47.
Idem, “Abu Manṣur al-ʿIjlī and the Manṣuriyya: A Study in Medieval Terrorism,” Der Islam 54, 1977, pp. 66-76.
Idem, “ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muʿāwiya and the Janāḥiyya: Rebels and Ideologues of the late Umayyad Period,” Stud. Isl. 51, 1980, pp. 39-57.
Originally Published: December 15, 2001
Last Updated: February 9, 2012
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Vol. XI, Fasc. 1, pp. 62-64