BĀṬENĪYA, a generic term for all groups and sects which distinguished the bāṭen and the ẓāher of the Koran and the Islamic law (Šarīʿa). The Arabic word bāṭen (inner, hidden, q.v.) was used to denote non-literal meanings of Koranic verses and Islamic legal commands and prohibitions, its opposite, the Arabic word ẓāher (outer, visible), to denote literal or obvious meanings presented by the wording of the texts or the implementation of the laws. This distinction was fundamental to the thinking of a number of mainly Shiʿite sects, whose origins are traceable to 2nd/8th century Iraq. Christian, Jewish, and Gnostic influences on their thinking cannot be ruled out but are hard to prove in particular cases.
The first Islamic sect which professed to find allusions to the imamate of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb and his descendants in certain verses of the Koran was the Kaysānīya (q.v.), who expected ʿAlī’s third son Moḥammad b. al-Ḥanafīya (d. 81/700) to come forth as the Mahdī. In particular, one branch of this sect, under the leadership of Moḥammad b. Ḥarb at Madāʾen, based its teachings on this type of Koranic exegesis (e.g., 95:1; see Qomī, p. 30). During the 2nd/8th century the Shiʿite radicals (ḡolāt, sing. ḡālī) in Iraq switched their allegiance to the imams of the line of Ḥosayn, the second son of ʿAlī, and they credited these imams with ability to impart secret knowledge, holding that the Prophet Moḥammad only transmitted the outer (ẓāher) wording of the divine revelation (tanzīl), whereas ʿAlī as his heir and executor (waṣī) possessed knowledge of its inner (bāṭen) meaning. It was also believed that ʿAlī’s successors, i.e., the imams, kept possession of the knowledge of the bāṭen and that they entrusted the interpretation (taʾwīl) of the outer working to only a small number of initiates. The word pair tanzīl taʾwīl was first used in this sense by the Kufan ḡālī Abū Manṣūr ʿEjlī, who claimed to be the plenipotentiary of the fifth imam, Moḥammad al-Bāqer (d. 114/732 or 117/735; Nawbaḵtī, pp. 34f.; Qomī, pp, 46f.).
Two literary sources, both originally written at Kūfa, show how the Kufan ḡolāt identified their own secret doctrines with what they took to be inner meanings of the Koran. One is the Omm al-ketāb, preserved only in a Persian translation. The other is the Ketāb al-haft wa’l-aẓella, written probably by Moḥammad b. Senān, a Kufan ḡālī contemporary with the imams ʿAlī al-Reżā (d. 203/818) and Moḥammad al-Jawād (d. 220/835). In these texts the interpretation (taʾwīl) or unveiling (kašf) of the bāṭen is not an achievement of scholarly effort and human exegesis but a divine disclosure made known by the imams to a small number of initiates. Both texts therefore belong to the genre of apocalyptic literature. In the Omm al-ketāb the imam Moḥammad al-Bāqer tells secrets of the bāṭen to a select group of pupils; in the Haft wa’l-aẓella the imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq initiates his confidant Mofażżal Joʿfī into hidden meanings.
For the Kufan ḡolāt, perception of the bāṭen usually implied complete neglect of the ẓāher. The outer commands and prohibitions of the Šarīʿa had no importance for a person acquainted with their inner meanings. Such a person therefore ceased to be bound by them and became exempt from all the ritual and legal obligations of the religion. Antinomianism (ebāḥa) of this type was expressed in a widely repeated saying that Koranic commands and prohibitions are really “men who must be followed or avoided” (e.g. Qomī, p. 47), i.e., that they are only allusions to imams and enemies of imams, their literal meanings being unimportant. This argument entered into the teachings of the Kufan ḡālī Abu’l-Ḵaṭṭāb (put to death ca. 138/755), who based it on the Koranic verse (4:28): “God wishes to make (burdens) lighter for you” (Qomī, p. 52). The Ḵaṭṭābīya described Moḥammad, the bringer of the ẓāher, as “speaking” (nāṭeq) and ʿAlī, the keeper of the bāṭen, as “silent” (ṣāmet; Qomī, pp. 50-52; for examples of Ḵaṭṭābīya taʾwīl, see pp. 54f.).
The ḡolāt sects in Iraq encountered strong opposition from the Twelver Shiʿites and at the end of the 3rd/9th century split into two groups: the Esḥāqī (named after Esḥāq al-Aḥmar, d. 286/899 at Baghdad) and the Noṣayrī (named after Moḥammad b. Noṣayr). The latter still survives. The sect’s teachings were carried by wandering shaikhs to the coastal mountains of Syria, where its adherents today call themselves ʿAlawīs (q.v.). They are the only remaining heirs to the centuries-old legacy of the Kufan ḡolāt. It is by them that the Ketāb al-haft wa’l-aẓella has been handed down. As initiates acquainted with the bāṭen, they consider themselves exempt from all ritual obligations and therefore refrain from formal prayers, pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting in Ramażān, etc. (see Halm, 1982, pp. 315ff.).
Beside, but apart from, the extreme Bāṭenīs of the ḡolāt sects, who believed the ẓāher to be invalidated by the bāṭen, stood the moderate Bāṭenīs of the Ismaʿili sects, whose missionary activity (daʿwa) began in Iraq in the middle years of the 3rd/9th century. The distinction between ẓāher and bāṭen was likewise central to Ismaʿili doctrine, according to which six “speakers” (nāṭeq) in the course of human history successively brought a Šarīʿa (i.e., a combined system of religion and law). The six were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Moḥammad. Assigned to each of these was an “heir-executor” (waṣī; also termed asās “foundation”), respectively Abel (or Seth), Shem, Ishmael, Aaron (or Joshua), Simon Peter, and ʿAlī. Only a small circle of initiates knew the secret of the bāṭen —which was identical with the Ismaʿili doctrine of the Mahdī and his coming (qīāma)—and the few knowers were bound by their initiatory oath (mīṯāq) to keep the bāṭen secret and to adhere strictly to the ẓāher, i.e., to the commands and prohibitions of the Šarīʿa. Believers would not be exempted from this obligation (talkīf) until the last day (yawm al-qīāma), when the Mahdī would come forth, order abolition (rafʿ) of the Šarīʿa, and reinstate the original religion of Adam, namely pure monotheism (tawḥīd) without laws, commands, and prohibitions.
The earliest Ismaʿili literature consists mainly of taʾwīl works in which justification is found in verses of the Koran for every detail of Ismaʿili doctrine: e.g., the Ketāb al-rošd wa’l-hedāya, ascribed to the missionary (dāʿī) Ebn Hawšab Manṣūr al-Yaman (d. 302/915), or the Ketāb al-kašf, a collection of six tracts from the first phase of the Ismaʿili daʿwa said to have been compiled by Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr Yaman. Inner meanings of sets of words or chapters of the Koran and prescribed rituals are expounded in numerous Ismaʿili monographs bearing titles such as Taʾwīl ḥorūf al-moʿjam, Taʾwīl al-basmala, Taʾwīl Sūrat al-nesā, Taʾwīl al-ṣalāt wa’l-ṣawm, Taʾwīl al-zakāt (Poonawala, pp. 73, 144, 317, 331). Nevertheless the “outer” Šarīʿa was always binding on Ismaʿilis. For them, ẓāher and bāṭen were inseparable, as shown for example in the two chief works of the Fatimid jurist Qāżī Noʿmān (d. 363/974), namely his great compendium of law Daʿāʾem al-Eslām (ed. A. A. Fyzee, 2nd ed., Cairo, 1963-67), which is the foundation of Ismaʿili jurisprudence, and the subsequent Taʾwīl al-Daʿāʾem (ed. Mohammad Aʿẓamī, Cairo, 1968-72). In Egypt the Fatimid caliphs, in their role as imams of the Ismaʿilis, always strictly applied the Šarīʿa. This is confirmed by their readiness to build mosques (al-Azhar, al-Ḥākem, and others) at Cairo and by their concern for the holy places at Mecca and Medina. They only allowed the bāṭen to be explained by a dāʿī to oath-bound initiates at weekly teaching sessions (majāles al-ḥekma; Maqrīzī, Ḵeṭaṭ, Būlāq, 1853, I, p. 391). Several written accounts of such sessions are known (Poonawala, index, p. 509, s.v. majāles). Only on rare occasions did the inherent antinomianism of the Ismaʿili doctrine lead to heretical adjuration of the law, as in the disturbances of the Druzes at Cairo in 408-11/1017-21 during the Fatimid caliph al-Ḥākem’s reign, or the proclamation of the qīāma at the fortress of Alamūt in 559/1164.
Polemics against the Bāṭenīs and their methods came not only from Sunnites such as Ḡazālī (d. 505/1111) but, above all, from Shiʿites such as the Jaʿfarī (Twelver) authors Nowbaḵtī and Qomī in their books on sects and the Zaydite author Moḥammad b. Ḥasan Daylamī (who wrote ca. 707/1308).
Nawbaḵtī, Feraq al-Šīʿa (Die Sekten der Schiʿa), ed. H. Ritter, Istanbul, 1931.
Saʿd b. ʿAbd-Allāh Qommī (Qomī), Ketāb al-maqālāt wa’l-feraq, ed. J. Maškūr, Tehran 1342 Š./1963.
Omm al-ketāb, ed. W. Ivanow, Der Islam 23, 1936, pp. 1-132; Italian tr. (Ummu’l-kitāb) by P. Filippani-Ronconi, Naples, 1966.
Ketāb al-haft wa’l-aẓella, ed. M. Ḡāleb, Beirut, 1964; ed. ʿĀ. Tāmer and I. A. Khalifé, Beirut, 1970.
Ḥasan b. Faraj b. Hawšab Manṣūr al-Yaman, Ketāb al-rošd wa’l-hedāya, ed. Moḥammad Kāmel Ḥosayn, in Collectanea of the Ismaili Society, Cairo, 1948, pp. 185-213.
Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr al-Yaman, Ketāb al-kašf, ed. R. Strothmann, London, 1952; ed. M. Ḡāleb, Beirut, 1404/1984.
Al-Majāles al-mostanṣerīya, ed. Moḥammad Kāmel Ḥosayn, Cairo, n.d.
Ḡazālī, Fażaʾeḥ al-Bāṭenīya (Streitschrift des Ġazālī gegen die Bāṭinijja-Sekte), ed. and tr. I. Goldziher, Leiden, 1916.
Moḥammad b. Ḥasan Daylamī, Bayān maḏhab al-Bāṭenīya wa boṭlāneh (Die Geheimlehre der Batiniten), excerpt from Qawāʿed ʿaqāʾed āl Moḥammad, ed. R. Strothmann, Leipzig and Istanbul, 1939.
H. Halm, “Das Buch der Schatten. Die Mufaḍḍal-Tradition der Ġulāt 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.
Idem, Kosmologie und Heilslehre der frühen Ismāʿīlīya, Wiesbaden, 1978.
Moḥammad b. Mālek Ḥammādī Yamanī, Kašf asrār al-Bāṭenīya, ed. Moḥammad Zāhed Kawṯarī, 2nd ed., Cairo, 1375/1955.
I. K. Poonawala, Biobibliography of Ismāʿīlī Literature, Malibu, 1977.
Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: December 15, 1988
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 8, pp. 861-863