GONĀBĀDI ORDER, an offshoot of the Neʿmat-Allāhi Sufi order, still active in Persia. The designation Gonābādi refers to the Gonābād (q.v.) region of Khorasan, where Bidoḵt, the place of residence of the founding figure, Mollā Solṭān Moḥammad Solṭān-ʿAlišāh, and subsequently center of the order, is located. The order is sometimes known also as the Mollā-Solṭāniya or Solṭān-ʿAlišāhiya with reference to him, or as the Ṭāʾusiya, by way of allusion to the sobriquet of his master, Saʿādat-ʿAlišāh Ṭāʾus-al-ʿOrafāʾ.

History. When Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin Raḥmat-ʿAlišāh, the last master to enjoy more or less universal acceptance among the Neʿmat-Allāhis of Persia, died in 1278/1861, three claimants to his mantle arose, resulting in a trifurcation of the order into the branches that subsequently crystallized as the Gonābādi, Ṣafi-ʿAlišāhi, and Ḏu’l-Riāsatayn lines. Of the three rivals, Hājj Moḥammad-Kāẓem Ḵorāsāni Tāʾus-al-ʿOrafāʾ (so nicknamed by Moḥammad Shah, an afficionado of the Sufis, because of the opulence of his clothing), with the ṭariqat name of Saʿādat-ʿAlišāh, counts as the immediate ancestor of the Gonābādis. An Eṣfahāni tobacco merchant by origin, he had been first initiated into the Neʿmat-Allāhiya by Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin Širvāni Mast-ʿAlišāh (d. 1253/1837-38), the master of Raḥmat-ʿAlišāh, but, despite his lengthy involvement in the order, he faced considerable opposition from the other two claimants to the succession to Raḥmat-ʿAlišāh, Ṣafi-ʿAlišāh and Monawwar-ʿAlišāh (Homāyuni, 1979, p. 207). Furthermore, he had to confront the hostility to Sufism that had long been nurtured by the ulama, which, although less intense than in the early years of the recrudescence of the Neʿmat-Allāhiya in early 13th/late 18th century Persia, was still unrelenting. He therefore lived a life of seclusion in Isfahan, emerging only for discreet biweekly gatherings of ḏekr in the city and pilgrimages to Mašhad before moving to Tehran in 1280/1863; there he died nine years later, roughly at the age of seventy, and was buried near the shrine of Emāmzāda Ḥamza (Homāyuni, 1979, p. 208).

Mollā Solṭān Moḥammad Solṭān-ʿAlišāh emerged from Saʿādat-ʿAlišāh’s small band of followers as the principal initiatic heir. Born at Bidoḵt in 1251/1835, he lost his father, Mollā Ḥaydar Moḥammad, at an early age when he either died or disappeared (as a result of abduction by Turkman raiders, according to one account). He embarked on religious studies at the age of seventeen, first in Mašhad, then in Sabzavār (where he benefited from the instruction of the illustrious Mollā Hādi Sabzavāri), and finally in the shrine cities of Iraq. Returning to Persia, he organized a teaching circle in Tehran, which he was obliged to abandon precipitately because of alleged Bābi tendencies (Gramlich, 1965, p. 65). While traveling from the capital to Khorasan, he crossed paths in Sabzavār with Saʿādat-ʿAlišāh, who was en route at the time to the shrine of Imam Reżā. He followed Saʿādat-ʿAlišāh to Mašhad and thence to Isfahan, where he was initiated by him shortly before the master’s departure for Tehran. Two years later, he was appointed Saʿādat-ʿAlišāh’s representative in Khorasan and returned definitively to Bidokòt. On the occasion of a return visit to Saʿādat-ʿAlišāh while returning home from the ḥajj in 1284/1867, he allegedly received from him a letter of appointment as his successor. The authenticity of the document has been doubted, not least because Saʿādat-ʿAlišāh was illiterate while the letter is couched in an ornate and convoluted language that is hardly accessible to the unlettered (Homāyuni, 1979, p. 209), but this in no way hindered Solṭān-ʿAlišāh’s successful, although stormy, career of thirty-four years at the head of an order that now became exclusively associated with him. His following came greatly to exceed that of his master, in large part thanks to the efforts of his chief recruiter, Ḥājj Shaikh ʿAbbās-ʿAli Manṣur-ʿAlišāh (better known as Kayvān-e Qazvini), a gifted preacher who drew large crowds to his sermons at the Masjed-e Šāh and Masjed-e Sepahsālār in Tehran; no fewer than 3,000 people are said to have pledged their loyalty to the Gonābādi order as a result of his suasion. With the gifts of devotees, wealth also began to accumulate in Bidoḵt (Gramlich, 1965, p. 66).

Despite the acquisition of a following in various parts of Persia (administered on his behalf by four shaikhs in addition to Kayvān-e Qazvini), Solṭān-ʿAlišāh had to contend with substantial enmity in Khorasan itself. The reasons for this hostility are not entirely clear. Maʿṣum-ʿAlišāh (d. 1344/1926), son of Raḥmat-ʿAlišāh, who conceived a high regard for Soltān-ʿAlišāh in the course of several months spent with him at Bidokòt and a journey they made together from Batum to Mecca, denounced all his adversaries as motivated by pure malice (Maʿṣum-ʿAlišāh, III, p. 542). According to others, the hostility to Solṭān-ʿAli-shāh was due to his alleged hoarding of grain at a time of famine (Miller, p. 345), and, more significantly, to doctrinal considerations. For he went beyond the conventional claims made by Sufis on the loyalty and obedience of their followers–claims already extensive enough to arouse the hostility of the ulama-to exalt the status of the qoṭb (leader of the order) to unprecedented heights. He asserted that “the sending of Messengers, the revelation of scriptures, the efforts of the Prophets, the sufferings endured by the Imams—all of this was for the sake of erādat” (the devotion of the morid to the qoṭb; Solṭan-ʿAlišāh, p. 138), and that the qoṭb, as the means of creation of all things, “may legitimately be called creator” (ḵāleq; ibid., p. 11). He also hinted that he was himself—in an undefined sense—the Imam of the Age, and proclaimed that “whoever knows his own imam does not need to wait for the appearance of the Hidden Imam” (haẓrat-e qāʾem; Solṭan-ʿAlišāh, p. 269). Ṣafi-ʿAlišāh (d. 1316/1899)—admittedly a rival for supremacy in the world of the Neʿmat-Allāhis—had already accused Solṭān-ʿAlišāh’s master of concocting a mixture of Shaikhism and Babism, flavoring it with some of his own notions, and attempting to substitute it for authentic Neʿmat-Allāhi tradition (Divān, p. 14), and it was comprehensible that accusations of straightforward heresy should now be raised against Solṭān-ʿAlišāh himself (Gramlich, 1965, p. 66).

Solṭān-ʿAlišāh had also to contend with dissidence in his own household. His own son, Ḥājj Mollā ʿAli, born in 1284/1867, was initially opposed to Sufism in general and to his father’s order in particular, and he expressed his opposition publicly, preaching against the Gonābādis from the pulpit. After studying for a while in Mašhad, he embarked in 1300/1882-83, without seeking his father’s permission, on a seven-year journey that took him to Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, and the Arab lands. So profound was his alienation from Solṭān-ʿAlišāh at this time that when the two of them happened to be on the ḥajj pilgrimage in the same year after a lengthy separation and Hājj Mollā ʿAli glimpsed his father from afar, he pretended not to notice him. Finally Solṭān-ʿAlišāh sent one of his shaikhs, Ḥājj ʿAbd-Allāh Ḥāʾeri, to look for his errant son in the shrine cities of Iraq. The mission was successful, and Ḥājj Mollā ʿAli came home, to be reconciled both with his father and with Sufism (Gramlich, 1965, p. 67). Now Solṭān-ʿAlišāh determined to make him his own successor, despite his initial aversion to Sufism and his relative youthfulness. Some of the dervishes made their objections known, but when Solṭān-ʿAlišāh fell sick in Ramażān 1314/February 1897 and thought his death imminent, he proceeded with the appointment, at the same time giving his son the ṭariqat name Nur-ʿAlišāh (he is sometimes designated in the literature of the order as Nur-ʿAlišāh II, Nur-ʿAlišāh I (d. 1212/1797) having been a pioneer in propagating the Neʿmat-Allāhiya in Persia, newly reintroduced at the time from the Deccan). Solṭān ʿAlišāh unexpectedly recovered, and lived on for another thirteen years to direct the affairs of the Gonābādis, but the resentment he had aroused persisted, particularly among the dervishes in Tehran. His end ultimately came by assassination in 1327/1909, when he was cut down (or, according to one account, strangled) by assailants one morning when making ablutions for the dawn prayer in front of his house; the killers are said to have been incited by a certain Mollā Ḥājj Abu Torāb (Modarresi Čahārdehi, 1981, p. 284).

Of the eight items comprising Solṭān-ʿAlišāh’s literary legacy, two—Welāyat-nāma and Bašārat al-moʾmenin—are of some interest for the doctrines and practices of the order he founded, but it is Bayān al-saʿāda, his Arabic commentary on the Koran, completed in 1311/1893 and first printed three years later, that has attained the greatest fame. The celebrity of the work is due in part to the charges of plagiarism that have been made against Solṭān ʿAlišāh. Decisive, perhaps, is the testimony of the great Shiʿite bibliographer Āqā Bozorg Ṭehrāni (q.v.). Āqā Bozorg reports that when alerted to parallels between Bayān al-saʿāda and a commentary written by an Indian scholar, Makòdum ʿAli Mahā’emi Nawā’eti (d. 835/1432), Tabsir al-raḥmān wa taysir al-mannān, he compared the two texts and found the similarities so close and numerous as to admit of no explanation but wholesale plagiarism (al-Ḏariʿa, III, pp. 181-82; see also Monzawi, Nosḵahā I, p. 8 and Ḥabibābādi, Makārem IV, p. 1385, n. 1).

Despite the misgivings his appointment had aroused, Nur-ʿAlišāh proved able to gain the confidence of the Gonābādi dervishes and, with the aid of five shaikhs, some of them inherited from his father, to rebuild the membership of the order. In addition, he began constructing a large mausoleum for Solṭān-ʿAlišāh, thereby making of Bidokòt a center of pilgrimage. He was nonetheless plagued with hostility of the type his father had faced, and he found it prudent to leave Bidoḵt. He went first to Tehran and then, at the invitation of his devotees, to Arāk and Kāšān. While in Kāšān, in 1337/1918, Nur-ʿAlišāh sought in vain to bring about the reformation of a local bandit, Māšā-Allāh Khan, who enraged by his homilies tricked him into drinking a cup of poisoned coffee. He died in Kahrizak on the road to Tehran before his life could be saved, and was buried next to the tomb of Saʿādat-ʿAlišāh near the shrine of Emāmzāda Ḥamza. The work he wrote in defense of his father, Rojum al-šayāṭin, initially withheld from distribution because, according to Maʿṣum-ʿAlišāh (III, p. 542), it contained “inappropriate material,” was published in Tehran in 1315/1898; it is unclear whether the offending passages had been excised. He also wrote a number of treatises and an introduction to the tafsir his father claimed to have written (Homāyuni, 1979, p. 223).

Nur-ʿAlišāh’s eldest son, Moḥammad-Ḥasan Ṣāleḥ-ʿAlišāh, the next qoṭb of the Gonābādis, had been born in 1308/1891 and initiated into the order at the age of twenty-one. He enjoyed a longer and more tranquil tenure than either his father or grandfather, presiding in 1928 over a following of some 10,000, 4,000 of whom lived in the Gonābād region with the rest scattered throughout Persia (Miller, p. 346). His period as qoṭb is said, however, to have been marked by a certain stagnation, despite his recruitment of high-ranking personages such as Aḥmad Qawām (Qawām-al-Salṭana), who served as prime minister under Aḥmad Shah and Moḥammad-Reżā Shah. This loss of momentum may be attributed in part to the departure from the order in 1345/1926 of Kayvān Qazvini, who had not only won it many adherents but also assisted both Solṭān-ʿAlišāh and Nur-ʿAlišāh in writing their books. Himself a prolific author, Kayvān wrote six books after his defection, using his detailed knowledge as an insider of longstanding to denounce the practices and beliefs of the Gonābādis and to argue for a replacement of the traditional authoritarian structure of all the Sufi orders with what he regarded as true Sufism (for a list of his writings, see Gramlich, 1965, p. 69, and Homāyuni, 1979, p. 233). As for Ṣāleḥ-ʿAlišāh, he wrote only a slim pamphlet, Pand-e Ṣāleḥ, which was read at the gatherings of his followers, and his principal achievement appears to have been the completion of his grandfather’s mausoleum at Bidokòt and the construction of a library adjacent to it. He died in 1386/1966, and was buried in Bidoḵt.

Ṣāleḥ-ʿAlišāh’s son and successor, Solṭān Ḥosayn Tābanda Reżā-ʿAlišāh, was a man of somewhat different stamp. Born in Bidoḵt in 1332/1914, he began his studies with his father, but later moved to Tehran, where he enrolled first in the Faculty of Theology (Dāneškada-ye maʿqul o manqul) and then in the Teachers’ Training College (Dāneš-sarā-ye ʿāli); his horizons were also broadened by travels in the Middle East and Europe. The content and format of Reżā ʿAlišāh’s writings reflected his duality of educational background. In addition to Nābeḡa-ye ʿelm o ʿerfān, a voluminous biography of Solṭān-ʿAlišāh designed to refute the various criticisms that had been made of him, he wrote on topics such as Neoplatonism (a revised version of his graduation thesis for the Dāneš-sarā-ye ʿāli) and the doctrine of human rights that could be extrapolated from Islamic law. He was formally appointed successor to his father in 1379/1959. Despite the doctrinal peculiarities that had marked the Gonābādi order, particularly in its early years, and the long record of friction with the ulama, Reżā -ʿAlišāh proclaimed his fealty to the Islamic Republic soon after the institution of the new order in 1979, in part by placing newspaper advertisements deploring the loss of such personages as Ayatollah Maḥmud Ṭālaqāni and Ayatollah Mortażā Moṭahhari. He died in 1371/1992, and was buried at Bidoḵt.

His successor, Ḥājj ʿAli Tābanda Maḥbub-ʿAlišāh, born in 1365/1946, had been initiated into the order by his grandfather, Ṣāleḥ-ʿAlišāh, at the age of eighteen, before going on to study at the Faculty of Letters of Tehran University. After graduation, he worked at the National Iranian Oil Company until his retirement in 1990, but remained involved in the affairs of the order, being nominated as successor by his father in 1986. His own tenure as qoṭb was short-lived, for he died suddenly early in 1997, whereupon the leadership of the Gonābādis passed to an uncle, Nur-ʿAli Tābanda Majḏub-ʿAlišāh. The pattern of hereditary succession was thereby broken, presumably because Maḥbub-ʿAlišāh lacked male offspring of sufficient maturity to assume the leadership.

Beliefs, ritual and organization. The Gonābādis have placed on bayʿat—the swearing of allegiance to the qoṭb-even greater emphasis than other Shiʿite Sufi orders in Persia. First articulated by Solṭān-ʿAlišāh himself, their view of its significance was restated several decades later in remarkably uninhibited terms by Darviš Hemmat-ʿAli, one of the shaikhs operating under the authority first of Ṣāleḥ-ʿAlišāh and then of Reżā-ʿAlišāh: “For a person’s faith to become firmly established, this swearing of allegiance must take place; only then will a light come from the Possessor of Sanctity (sāḥeb welāyat, i.e., the Occulted Imam). Once this has taken place, the light of the Imam will have manifested itself, and he will in effect have appeared” (Reżā-ḵāni, p. 482). Given this belief that bayʿat gives rise to a luminous parousia of the twelfth Imam, it is not surprising that the ceremony of initiation, centering as it does on the bayʿat, forms the most important part of Gonābādi ritual.

The aspirant (ṭāleb) is accompanied to the presence of the qoṭb (or, outside of Bidoḵt, the shaikh representing him) by a master of ceremonies known as pir-e dalil or simply as dalil. Both the ṭāleb and the dalil will have performed a complete fivefold ablution (ḡosl), the stages of which are designated as tawba (repentance), ḥājat (neediness), ziārat (pilgrimage or visitation), eslām (reaffirmation of faith in Islam), and jomʿa (the ablution made before attending Friday prayers). The ṭāleb brings with him to the ceremony five gifts for the qoṭb or his representative: a nutmeg symbolizing submission (sar sepordan) to be split in half by the recipient as an indication of the absolution of all sins committed by the aspirant before initiation; a ring inset with a precious stone; a coin, preferably gold or silver, indicating readiness to donate all one’s property to the order; a piece of sugar-candy, suggestive of the sweetness that the new initiate will exude; and a white cloth, in which all the foregoing are wrapped. It then remains for the aspirant to remove his socks, any headgear he happens to be wearing, and all his outer clothing; to undo the buttons of his shirt; and to bare his shoulders. Thus prepared, he hands the gifts to the dalil for presentation to the qoṭb or shaikh, places his right hand in the left hand of the dalil, and together with him performs two prostrations before the initiating figure, which are distinguished from the prostrations made in prayer by turning the palms of the hands upwards. Then the qoṭb or shaikh takes the right hand of the ṭāleb in his own in the ritual handclasp known as ṣafā and administers to him the bayʿat, which carries with it five undertakings: unconditional obedience to the order; benevolence to all men; keeping the secrets of the order; accepting to serve the shaikh as ordered for a period of twelve years; and preparing for his fellow dervishes the ritual meal known as digjuš whenever commanded to do so. Finally, the formula of the ḏekr to be recited is inculcated (talqin) into the new morid (Gramlich, 1981, pp. 75-77).

The ḏekr recited by the Gonābādi dervishes at their regular meetings on Thursday evenings (šab-e jomʿa) is silent (ḵafi), a feature reminiscent of the Naqšbandi order, as is their practice of imagining the physical form of the shaikh while engaged in it. These similarities are remarkable, given the otherwise radically different orientations of the two orders. Less surprising are correspondences in ritual and terminology between the Gonābādis on the one hand and marginal groups such as the Ahl-e Ḥaqq (q.v.) on the other, correspondences which have led some scholars to classify the Gonābādis as “a heterodox Shiʿi sect” (Nikitine, p. 397), a somewhat exaggerated conclusion.



Texts: Nur-ʿAlišāh, Rojum al-šayāṭin, Tehran, 1315/1898.

Moḥammad Reżā-ḵāni, Parwāz-e ʿešq dar kahkešānhā, Tehran, 1378 Š./1999.

Ṣāleḥ-ʿAlišāh, Pand-e Ṣāleḥ, Tehran, 1318 Š./1939.

Solṭān Ḥosayn Tābanda Reżā ʿAlišāh, Nābeḡa-ye ʿelm o ʿerfān, Tehran, 1333 Š./1954.

Solṭān Moḥammad Solṭān-ʿAlišāh Gonābādi, Welāyat-nāma, Tehran, 1324/1906.

Idem, Bayān al-saʿāda fi maqāmāt al-ʿebāda, 4 vols., Beirut, 1988; ed. and tr. Moḥammad Reżā-ḵāni and Ḥ. Riāżi, I, Tehran, 1372 Š./1993.

Studies: Richard Gramlich, “Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens, erster Teil: die Affiliationen, AKM36/1, 1965, pp. 64-69; dritter Teil: Brauchtum und Riten, AKM, 45/2, 1981, pp. 39-40.

Masʿud Homāyuni, Tāriḵ-e selselahā-ye ṭariqa-ye Neʿmat-Allāhiya dar Irān az sāl-e 1190 hejri qamari tā sāl-e 1399 hejri qamari, London, 1358 Š./1979, pp. 207-38.

Idem, Tāriḵ-e seleselahā-ye ṭariqa-ye Neʿmat-Allāhiya dar Irān az sāl-e 1190 hejri qamari tā sāl-e 1412 hejri qamari, London, 1371 Š./1992, pp. 205-28.

Moḥammad-Maʿṣum Maʿṣum-ʿAlišāh Širāzi, Ṭarāʾeq al-ḥaqāʾeq, ed. Moḥammad-Jaʿfar Maḥjub, 3 vols., Tehran, n.d., III, pp. 540-43.

W. M. Miller, “Shiʿah Mysticism: The Sufis of Gunabad,” The Muslim World 13, 1923, pp. 343-63.

Nur-al-Din Modarresi Čahārdehi, Selselahā-ye ṣufiya-ye Irān, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981, pp. 264-307.

Idem, Sayr-i dar taṣawwof, Tehran, 1361 Š./1982, pp. 188-232.

Basil Nikitine, “Ṭāwusiyya,” in EI2 X, pp. 397-98.

Mirzā Ḥasan Ṣafi-ʿAlišāh, Divān, ed. Manṣur Mošfeq, Tehran, 1336 Š./1957.

(Hamid Algar)

Originally Published: December 15, 2002

Last Updated: February 14, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XI, Fasc. 2, pp. 122-126