Skip to main content



WALĀYAH , or wilāyah, an Arabic verbal noun derived from the root wly, carries the basic meanings of "friendship, assistance" and "authority, power." A fundamental notion of Islamic social and spiritual life, the term is used with a complex variety of meanings related to the function, position, authority, or domain of authority of a walī (pl., awliyāʾ; "next of kin, ally, friend, helper, guardian, patron, saint"); a mawlā (pl., mawālī; "cousin, close relation, ally, client, patron, master"); or a wālī (pl., wulāh; "administrator, governor, ruler"). It appears in Persian as valāyat, vilāyat, and in Turkish as vilayet.

A distinction is often made between walāyah and wilāyah, with the latter form generally preferred to convey the meaning of "power," "authority," or "domain of authority" (e.g., a political subdivision of a country). However, the vocalization is not normally indicated in the texts, and the classical Arab lexicographers are not unanimous on this point.

Qurʾanic Usage

Although the verbal noun al-walāyah, thus vocalized according to the standard text, occurs only twice in the Qurʾān (surahs 8:72 and 8:44), other derivatives of the root wly are found in more than two hundred instances. Most frequently, the verbal forms wallā and tawallā are used, in the sense of "turning" either one's back or faceproperly or metaphorically speakingtoward somebody or something (e.g., a hostile army, a sacred place, a prophetic message; God himself "turns to" or "takes care of" the pious, as in 7:196 and 45:19).

The nominal forms walī and mawlā are used, without apparent distinction, for the two partners of a close social relationship, such as kinship and alliance, but also for those of the God-human relationship. A walī or mawlā can claim certain rights of inheritance and has certain duties or responsibilities to assist an ally against enemies, in such cases as the retaliation for unjust killing of kinsmen (wilāyat al-dam; see 17:33). Inheritance and assistance expected of a walī may also be of a spiritual kind, as in the Qurʾanic version of the birth of John the Baptist, which seems to echo a messianic idea implicit in the Judeo-Christian background of that theme: Zacharias, having no (natural) son and fearing therefore the claims of his mawālī (secondary heirs, perhaps priest colleagues), asks God to give him a "noble offspring" (3:38), a "walī from thee, who will be my heir and will inherit [prophethood?] from the family of Jacob" (19:56).

Similarly in 4:75, but without the notion of kinship and inheritance, the oppressed (Meccan Muslims), left alone after the prophet Muammad's emigration, ask God to bring them out of "the city of the unjust" and to provide for them "a walī from thee and a helper [naīr ] from thee" (see also 17:80). According to 41:2831, the enemies of God will dwell forever in the fire, whereas the angels will descend upon the righteous as their "friends [awliyāʾ ] in this life and the next," so that they shall have no fear; indeed, according to 10:62, the "friends of God [awliyāʾ Allāh, i. e., the pious] shall have no fear"a verse frequently quoted in ūfī manuals.

God's unique position as the most powerful friend and helper (walī naīr) is one of the major themes of Qurʾanic preaching, and several verses make it clear that those who "turn away" (e.g., 9:74) and/or "are lead astray by him" (e.g., 18:17) have no walī (42:8) or mawlā (47:11), that is, no one to turn to for help or guidance. The same message is also conveyed by the parable of the rich but impious owner of the two gardens and his poor but godfearing companion (18:32ff.), which closes with one of the two Qurʾanic verses in which al-walāyah actually occurs: it is the rich man who ends up the loser in spite of the prosperity of his gardens and the power of his clan, for, "Ultimately, the walāyah belongs to God, the Truth!" (18:44).

While this verse gives an idea of the prophet Muammad's attitude during the early stages of his career as a religious "warner" at Mecca, the other verse in which al-walāyah occurs (8:72) reflects the situation immediately after his emigration (Hijrah) in 622 ce from Mecca to Medina, where he began to organize his new community. The verse defines the relationship between three groups of believers (Muslims) in terms of walāyah : (1) those who emigrated and "fought on the path of God," (2) those who gave them asylum (in Medina) and helped them, and (3) those who did not emigrate. The first two groups, who came to be known later as the emigrants (muhājirūn) and the helpers (anār) the nucleus of the future Muslim community (ummah) are, according to this verse, allies or friends of each other (awliyāʾ); but "as for those who believed but did not emigrate, you have no walāyah with them [or: you should disregard their walāyah ] until they emigrate!"

Traditional interpretation of this verse refers to a ceremonial "brothering" (muʾākhāh) supposed to have taken place between the emigrants and their Medinese helpers. This event was to cancel the old ties of walāyah linking the emigrants to their blood relations back in Mecca; this radical measure was, however, later abrogated or modified through verses 8:75 and 33:6, which state that blood relations are "closer [awlā ] in the Book of God." Regarding this "brothering," W. Montgomery Watt suggests that "Muammad was prepared to use the kinship principle to increase the cohesion of his religious community in Medina" ("The Charismatic Community in Islam," Numen 7, 1960, p. 84). However, since it is not clear who "those who believed but did not emigrate" were in the first place, the ties of walāyah, to be ignored "until they emigrate," may have been those of friendship or alliance rather than kinship, as is also suggested by the parallel passage 4:89.

At any rate, emigrants and helpers were the "true believers" (8:74), and "those fighting" (mujāhidūn) were definitely placed in a higher rank than "those sitting" (at home), according to 4:954:96. Clearly, the new charismatic community of true believers was an alliance of those following the Prophet and was directed against his opponents. Further, it should be noted that these opponents were also seen as forming such an alliance of "awliyāʾ of each other," whether they were "the disbelievers" (8:73), "the hypocrites" (9:6772), "the unjust" (45:19; 6:129), or "the Jews and Christians" (5:51). As is well known, the new Muslim community was patterned after the model of the nation of Abraham, but with Abraham as neither Jew nor Christian (see 3:6468). The Jews in particular are frequently challenged in the Medinese surahs, notably to prove their claim to be "the exclusive friends of God" (awliyāʾ Allah min dūn al-nās, 62:68; 2:9495).

Walāyah as a socioreligious concept seems indeed exclusive: one turns either to the right or to the wrong side, and the two sides are always engaged in battle: "Those who believe fight on the path of God, while those who disbelieve fight on the path of al-āghūt; thus, fight against the awliyāʾ of Satan!" (4:76). (Al-āghūt, perhaps derived from Ethiopic āʻōt, "idols," is used for Satanic powers and often applied to tyrants or unlawful rulers, especially in Shīʻī interpretations.)

God and his antagonist(s) lead their respective allies or friends their way: God as the "walī of the believers" leads them from darkness to light, whereas the disbelievers, who have al-āghūt as awliyā ʾ, are led by them from light to darkness (2:257). The world seems to be divided into two antagonistic groups: the party of God (izb Allāh, 5:56) and the party of Satan (58:19), but the party of God, that is, "whoever turns to [or follows, yatawallā ] God and his messenger [the prophet Muammad] and those who believe," is winning (5:56), while "whoever takes Satan rather than God as walī is surely going to lose!" (4:119). As though the divine walāyah were spread among the charismatic community, verse 5:55 states that "Your walī is only God, his Messenger, and those who [truly] believe, who perform the prayer and give alms, bending the body." Thus, unlike the purely God-oriented walāyah of the "poor companion" of Mecca, the Medinese walāyah seems to be the charisma of the party of God, in which the person of the Prophet himself plays the central role. Though never elevated to divine status, this role of the Prophet is stressed in the later parts of the Qurʾan generally; it culminates in the solemn pledge of allegiance (mubāyaʿah) made to him in lieu of God in 628 at al-udaybīyah (surah 48:910). The ceremonial contract of allegiance (bayʿah) made with his successorscaliphs, imams, and later also ūfī shaykhsall of whom would claim wilāyah of a certain kind, was to reiterate this charismatic basis of Islam symbolically.

Legal Usage

A trace of the pre-Islamic kinship principle may be seen in the fact that the Qurʾanic commandments preserve the blood feud in restricted form, namely, as a right of the victim's walī to kill the murderer personally (17:33). In Islamic law, this particular right of the walī, which is known as wilāyat al-dam or "wilāyah of blood," is one among other forms in which the requital (qiā) may be exercised.

Sunnī laws of inheritance, which were elaborated in the second Islamic century by the jurist al-Shāfiʿī (757820), generally follow Arab tradition. The primary heir is the walī as the nearest male agnate in descending or ascending order (ʿaabah); but shares (farāʾi) are also provided for secondary heirs in accordance with the Qurʾanic dispositions in surah 4:7ff. Under certain conditions, the inheritance of a manumitted slave goes to his former owner, who has become his patron (mawlā) and is counted as such among the agnates according to Shāfiʿī law. A similar kind of legal kinship was presumed in the early Umayyad period between non-Arab converts to Islam and their Arab patrons, who "adopted" them as clients (mawālī).

Al-Jurjānī (13391413) defines walāyah as legal kinship (qarābah ukmīyah) resulting from either manumission or "adoption." Wilāyah, on the other hand, he defines as the legal power "to carry through a decision affecting another person, whether the latter wishes or not." The notion of wilāyah as legal power is not, as such, Qurʾanic but was probably developed from the early second century ah onward in two different, though not unrelated, social spheres: family law and political thought.

Family law

The Qurʾanic laws of inheritance are laid down in 4:1ff., together with general rules and indications concerning marriage and the gift of the bridal dower to the brides (or wives), as well as the protection of the goods of orphans and fair treatment of the mentally weak (safīh), who should be represented by their walī in legal matters (2:282). A number of specific legal responsibilities of a walī regarding brides, orphans, minors, and otherwise legally incompetent persons (safīh) were eventually defined as a kind of guardianship or trusteeship. Among these, the most important socially is undoubtedly the "guardianship of marriage" (wilāyat al-nikā), the office of the bride's nearest relative, her walī, who must give her in marriage by contractual agreement with the bridegroom. The walī may refuse consent or, as walī mujbir, force his ward into marriage under certain circumstances. According to Joseph Schacht, the wilāyat al-nikā was not, as a legal institution, "originally as self-evident as it became later," and "marriage without a legal walī continued the easygoing practice of the pre-Islamic Arabs" during the early Islamic period (Schacht, p. 182f.).

Political thought

Wilāyah in the sense of political authority and sovereign power refers first of all to the authority of the "successor of the Messenger of God" (khalīfat rasūl Allāh), that is, the caliph, who is to be obeyed (muā ʿ) as leader or guide (imām) of the Muslim community and as "commander of the faithful" (amīr al-muʾminīn). Although there is fundamental disagreement between Sunnī and Shīʿī Muslims concerning the nature and scope of this authority, and the persons invested with it, both refer to the same locus classicus to justify their claims: "Obey God and the Messenger and 'those in command' [ūlī al-amr] among you!" (surah 4:59); it is therefore called wilāyat al-amr. This usage of wilāyah should be seen in relation to the development of the charismatic alliance of those who "follow [yatawallā ] God, the Messenger, and the [true] believers," or the party of God (5:5556).

The question of who "those in command" were and how the alliance was to be preserved after the death of the Prophet was, perhaps not surprisingly, the primary concern of the early opposition parties. Among these, there were notably those who sided with Muammad's paternal cousin (mawlā) and son-in-law through Fāimah, ʿAlī ibn Abī alib (d. 661), known as the party of ʿAlī (shīʿat ʿAlī), later simply known as the Shīʿah, and those known as the dissidents (khawārij, Khārijīs). The early Shīʿah seem to have assumed that ʿAlī was entitled to inheritance from the Prophet not only as his kin but also as his "emigrant brother"; his preeminent position is thus unique.

But the kinship principle alone was evidently not sufficient to guarantee ʿAlī's exclusive right to what came to be known as wilāyat al-amr: it had to be completed by the principle of designation. This was made possible thanks to an inherent ambiguity of the term mawlā. According to a famous adīth (prophetic tradition), the Prophet had made the following declaration at a solemn meeting after his last pilgrimage to Mecca and shortly before his death: "Am I not closer [awlā ] to the believers than they are to themselves? He whose mawlā I am, ʿAlī is his mawlā! God, befriend the one who befriends him [wālī man wālāhu ], and treat as an enemy the one who treats him as an enemy!" (see also surah 33:6). The earliest sure evidence for an interpretation of this adīth as asserting ʿAlī's wilāyah or right to be obeyed is found in the Hāshimīyāt of the pro-ʿAlid poet of Kufa, al-Kumayt ibn Zayd al-Asadī (680743). ʿAlī, however, was elected caliph only after the assassination of ʿUthmān, the third of the four Rāshidūn ("rightly guided") caliphs in Sunnī Islam. ʿAlī's caliphate was overshadowed by civil war, and he was himself assassinated by a Khārijī.

In the heresiographical literature the Khārijī movement is associated with the doctrine that anyone, "even an Abyssinian slave," could serve as imam as long as that person was found to be a true believer. As may be seen from the earliest available Khārijī (Ibāī) texts (of uncertain date, between ah 70 and 150), a distinction between the "imams of truth" and the "imams of error" was essential to their doctrine, with the understanding that the first were to be obeyed as "awliyāʾ of the believers" and the second to be fought as unbelievers. The Khārijīs also developed the principle of walāyah in the sense of "associating with" or "following" (muwālāh, tawallī) prophets and "true believers," and its correlative, "dissociating" or "freeing oneself" from the opposite powers (barāʾah, tabarruʾ). Exactly the same double principle (later known in Persian as tawallā and tabarrā ) was adopted by the Shīʿah, but with the essential difference that the true believers to be followed were necessarily ʿAlī and subsequent imams issuing from his "holy family" (ahl al-bayt, āl Muammad).

The assassination of ʿAlī, far from helping the Khārijī cause of Muslim "integralism," led to its very opposite. The successful Umayyads established the dynastic principle in the Sunnī caliphate and introduced the practice of the designation of the heir apparent (walī al- ʿahd) by the reigning caliph. Although the authority of an Umayyad caliph was hardly religious in nature, he was considered not only "successor of the Messenger of God," but also "representative of God" on earth (khalīfat Allāh), a Qurʾanic phrase that refers specifically to David as God's "viceroy among men" (38:26) and that continued to be applied to the caliph well into the Abbasid period.

The dissatisfaction of the religious community with Umayyad worldliness, as well as the hopes of the Shīʿah, helped, among other factors, to bring about the so-called Abbasid Revolution in the Eastern caliphate. The descendants of Muammad's paternal uncle al-ʿAbbās were presented as members of the "providential family"; they showed, once in power, a marked zeal for religious affairs. The ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars) were now elaborating a Sunnī doctrine of wilāyat al-amr in close collaboration with the caliph. Harūn al-Rashīd is addressed by the jurist Abū Yūsuf (d. 798), a disciple of Abū anīfah, as "khalīfah of God on his earth," to whom God has "delegated the command" (tawliyāt al-amr) and "given a light" to guide the subjects through clarification of the law and its enforcement. At the same time, Abū Yūsuf also strikes a ūfī note. He exhorts the caliph to fulfill the duties of his high office and expresses the hope that God will not "abandon him to himself" (i. e., to his human weakness); that he will, rather, take care (yatawallā) of him as he takes care of his friends (awliyāʾ), "given that he is the [ultimate] walī in the matter."

During the later Abbasid period, when the real power was no longer exercised personally by the caliph, he was still considered the representative or guardian of the law (walī al-sharʿ). According to al-Māwardī (9751080), it is the religious law itself that requires entrustment of all matters or delegation of general authority (wilāyah ʿāmmah) to the elected or designated imam from the Quraysh, that is, the Abbasid caliph. The caliph in his turn delegates authority (tawliyah) to viziers, military commanders, governors, and judges, so that all public functions (wilāyāt) emanate in theory from the authority entrusted to him and are legally validated by it. But al-Ghazālī (10581111), recognizing that the caliph has no longer the military power (shawkah) to defend religion, justifies the transfer of this legal authority to the Seljuk sultan or king (pādishāh). Al-Ghazālī argues, with traditional Persian wisdom, that "religion [dīn ] and kingship [mulk ] are twin brothers in need of each other"; in effect, non-Arab sultans and kings were now to play the role of the "shadow of God on earth."

ShĪʿĪ Concepts

Contrary to the Sunnī acceptance of wilāyah as a state-building idea, the mark of Shiism is walāyah as devotion to ʿAlī and "the imams from the house of the Prophet," that is, descendants of ʿAlī who are considered imams. Despite several unsuccessful ʿAlid attempts to seize power, or perhaps because of themthe martyrdom of ʿAlī's second son usayn (d. 680) is an important aspect of Shīʿī Islamimams of various lines of descent became the focus of a veneration that went far beyond the charismatic alliance of surah 5:5556, from which "orthodox" Shīʿī doctrine nevertheless takes its pedigree: in effect, it became the apotheosis of the imam. In this process, through which Shiism became the major receptacle of messianic hopes and gnostic ideas in Islam, converts (mawālī), especially those of Iraq, seem to have played an essential role.

The transfer of wilāyah from Muammad to ʿAlī was understood as part of a more general Heilsgeschichte, a universal process of revelation to be completed by the imams as inheritors of the hidden (bāin) substance and knowledge of previous prophets, Arab and non-Arab, or as a process of transmigration (tanāsukh) that leads up to the final revelation of truth and justice with the coming, or return, of "the one who stands up" (al-qāʾim, probably the gnostic hestōs ). Despite the repudiation of the more extremist ideas of their enthusiastic followers (ghulāt) by the imams themselves, and although the imams are not placed above Muammad's law according to standard Shīʿī doctrine, its major dogma insists that only the transfer of wilāyah from Muammad to ʿAlī and subsequent imams makes Islam the "perfect religion" (surah 5:3). In fact, walāyah, as adherence to the imams and as recognition of their mission as the true "holders of the [divine] Command" (ūlī al-amr) and the exclusive possessors of the true meaning of the Qurʾan and the "knowledge of the hidden" (ʿilm al-ghayb), remains the key to salvation, without which no pious act of obedience to God (āʿah) is truly valid. It is for these reasons that walāyah, and not the profession of monotheism (tawīd) as in Sunnī Islam, appears as the principal "pillar of Islam" in the classical collections of Shīʿī traditions, both those of the Ithnā ʿAsharīyah, or Twelvers (e.g., al-Kulaynī, d. 940), and those of the Fatimid Ismāʿīlīyah (e.g., Qāī al-Nuʿmān, d. 974), who follow a common line of imams up to Jaʿfar al-ādiq (d. 765).

The concrete meanings and functions of walāyah, however, were quite different in the two cases. Contrary to the generally quietist or neutral attitude of the Twelvers, the Ismaʿīlīyah were politically active and succeeded in establishing, by the end of the third century ah, a Shīʿī counter-caliphate in North Africa and later in Egypt that constituted a serious challenge to the Abbasid order. For the function of walāyah in this process, it seems significant that the Fatimid campaign in North Africa is seen in Ismāʿīlī sources (Qāī al-Nuʿmān) as a parallel to the prophet Muammad's emigration (Hijrah) from Mecca to Medina: just as the Qurʾanic emigrant fighters are placed above those sitting at home, the front fighters of the Fatimid agent Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Shīʿī (d. 911) are distinguished as awliyāʾ from the ordinary (Ismāʿīlī) believers (muʾminūn). The Fatimid caliph, referred to as walī Allāh and imam "of the time," was evidently seen in the role of the Prophet himself. He was not only the political head of a counter-caliphate, but also the spiritual center of an esoteric hierarchy, the da ʿwah (lit., the "call" or "mission"), initiation into which was expected to provide gradual access to gnosis (ʿilm) a cause that al-Ghazālī feared would undermine Islam from inside.

From the point of view of an Ismāʿīlī missionary (dāʿī) such as Qāī al-Nuʿmān, wilāyah was indeed much more than the legal foundation of the imamate: standing esoterically (bāin) for the true knowledge (aqīqat al-ʿilm) bestowed primordially on Adam and inherited by prophets and imams, it is the very foundation of the sacred history of prophecy itself and its necessary fulfillment in the imamate. According to the grand dāʿī al-Muʾayyad fī al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (d. 1077), prophets and imams, each in their time, are the examples of "absolute human being" (al-insān al-mulaq, the gnostic Anthrōpos). As the prophet Muammad is the Seal of the Prophets (surah 33:40), so the final (?) imam of resurrection (qiyāmah) is the Seal of the Imams (khātam al-aʾimmah).

The idea of the imam in Twelver Shiism, by contrast, is marked by the "occultation" (ghaybah) or absence of the twelfth imam, believed to have "disappeared" in ah 260 (873/874 ce); at his return (rajʿah) at the end of time he will "fill the earth with justice as it is now filled with injustice." In the absence of the imam, the ʿulamā' assumed authority in theological and juridical matters much like their Sunnī counterparts before; they insisted, however, on the presence of the infallible (maʿūm) Hidden Imam as a "grace necessary upon God" (luf wājib) that would validate their consensus (ijmāʿ). Gnostic Shiism, alien to the rationalism of the ʿulamāʾ, reappears within Twelver Shiism by the fourteenth century in a ūfī form. Sayyid aydar Āmulī (d. after 1385) interprets Ibn ʿArabī's doctrine of the "two seals of walāyah " in terms of Twelver Shīʿī imamology, with ʿAlī as the "seal of absolute walāyah " and the twelfth imam as the "seal of particular Muammadan walāyah "; walāyah itself is both the "inner dimension of prophethood" (bāin al-nubūwah) and the transcendental vocation of humankind, or the trust offered (al-amānah, sūrah 33:72).

At the same time, ūfī orders such as the afawīyah and the Kubrawīyah gradually turned Shīʿī, possibly as an indirect result of the Mongol invasions. The afawīyah, supported by Türkmen "tribal Shiism" and claiming descent from the imams, became even "extreme Shīʿī"; once its leaders assumed rule of Iran (with Shah Ismaʿīl I in 1501), they introduced Twelver Shiism, in a form hardly compatible with "orthodox" Shīʿī doctrine, as state religion; their prayer carpet (sajjādah), symbol of the dignity of the ūfī shaykh, or ūfī wilāyah, became the symbol of the quasi-divine throne of Persia (qālīčah-i salanat). Their success also brought about, perhaps paradoxically, the establishment of a real Shīʿī "clergy" and its eventual politicization. For the first time in Twelver Shīʿī history, the rationalist (Uūlī) school of the clergy formally acknowledged in 1817/1818 a division of labor between the ʿulamāʾ and the rulersa long-established Sunnī practiceclaiming general viceregency (wilāyah ʿāmmah) of the Hidden Imam for themselves, against the more traditionalist ideas of the Akhbārī school, and against the ūfīs.

The very complex religious, social, and political situation in nineteenth-century Iran is also highlighted by the tensions between the majority of the clergy and the Shaykhī school, who developed a mystical concept of the "perfect Shīʿah" on the basis of Akhbārī traditionalism and the philosophy of Mullā adrā (d. 1640). In the Shaykhī scheme, the imam presides over the realization of an individual's vocation in the realm between matter and spirit, or the mundus imaginalis (ʿālam al-mithāl), not over the realization of a political project.

It should be noted that the leader of the Islamic Revolution of 19781979, Ayatollah Khomeini, made a fundamental, albeit theoretical, distinction between two kinds of wilāyah: that of the learned jurist (wilāyat al-faqīh), called relative wilāyah (wilāyah iʿtibārīyah) and that of the traditional imams of the prophetic house, called real or creative wilāyah (wilāyah takwīnīyah).

ŪfĪ Concept

Walāyah/wilāyah is also a key concept for Sufism; indeed, it is the very principle of Sufism itself according to al-Hujwīrī's eleventh-century systematic exposition of its doctrine, the Kashf al-majūb (Unveiling of the Veiled). Yet once again, two notions appear to be involved. To use the typological distinction made above between "Meccan" and "Medinese" walāyah, one might suggest that the spiritual attitude of early Sufism, with its ideal of poverty (faqr, darvīshī) and reliance upon God (tawakkul), is more in line with the former. The Khorasani saint Ibrāhīm ibn Adham (d. 776), quoted by the reputed teacher of most of the Baghdad ūfīs, the theologian al-Muāsibī (d. 857), puts it succinctly this way: "If you wish to be God's friend [walī ] and care that he loves you, then leave this world and the next and do not heed either; free yourself from both and turn your face to God, so that he turns his face to you!"

A number of prophetic traditions, often in the form of adīth qudsī (non-Qurʾanic "words of God" transmitted by a prophet), suggest that there are indeed such friends of God. As with the Qurʾanic notion of awliyāʾ, there is a certain ambiguity as to whether these friends of God are human or angelic beings. "Approaching [God] and approached by him," they have reached such a stage that God says: "I am his ear by which he hears, his eye by which he sees, his tongue by which he speaks, his heart by which he understands"; even the prophets will envy them at the Day of Resurrection. No tradition refers to them by name; indeed, according to a famous tradition, they are hidden "under God's tents, unknown to anyone but him." On the other hand, they are reminders of God for people and stand under his special protection: whoever turns against them, turns against God. "Marvelous is their story, and they know marvelous stories. The [heavenly] Book stands through them, and they stand through it; the Book speaks through them, and they speak through the Book."

Many of the traditions regarding these "friends of God," the first comprehensive collection of which is found in Abū Nuʿaym al-Ibahānī's ilyat al-awliyāʾ, are attributed to pre-Islamic prophets, especially Yayā ibn Zakarīyāʾ (John the Baptist) and Jesus. This may suggest a gnostic origin; some are clearly of a mythological nature. According to the tradition known throughout the ūfī literature as the adīth of ʿAbd Allāh ibn Masʿūd, there are 355 or 356 such figures, upon whom life and death of all nations depends: 300 "whose heart is after the heart" of Adam; 40 who are in the same relationship to Moses (or Noah); 7 to Abraham; 5 (or 4) to the angel Gabriel; 3 to Michael; and one to Seraphiel (Isrāfīl, the angel of resurrection). If one of them dies, God substitutes for him one of the next lower class. The substitutes of the lowest class (the 300) are taken from the common people (al-ʿāmmah). The single one is commonly called the "pole" (qub) or the "rescue" (ghawth), while terms such as abdāl (usually for the 40 or the 7) and iddīqūn (see surah 4:69) refer either to a class, or to saints generally, like awliyāʾ.

Wilāyah, then, is the special charismatic quality of a ūfī, that which enables him to be the subject of miracles or, more precisely, charismata (karāmāt). The classical ūfīs, especially the Khorasani school, were divided over the question of whether awliyāʾ should themselves be aware of their sainthood and whether the charismata should become public knowledge. For Bāyazīd al-Basāmī (or Bisāmī, d. 875 or earlier), the awliyāʾ should be hidden like the "brides of God"; he was extremely critical of public shows. By contrast, Tirmidhī al-akīm (ninth century), the reputed founder of the ūfī doctrine of wilāyah, dismissed such restraint as a subtle form of self-consciousness. According to the definition of Timidhī's contemporary and disciple Abū ʿAlī al-Juzjānī (which became more or less authoritative), a walī is "in oblivion [fanāʾ ] of himself but subsisting [baqāʾ ] in contemplation." Other well-known definitions distinguish an "active" from a "passive" aspect (al-Qushayrī), or a walāyah of "lordship" (sūrah 18:44) from a wilāyah (?) of "love" (al-Hujwīrī).

Typical connotations of ūfī wilāyah are "insight into the hidden" (al-ʿilm bi-al-ghayb, Tirmidhī) and control of souls (taarruf), psychognostic and pedagogic abilities, and the power to drive Satan away. Medieval ūfī "saints" are famous for having the power to help the Muslim armies, and to intercede (shafāʿah) on behalf of the sinners. In postclassical ūfī texts, walāyah or wilāyah generally refers either to the highest mystical stage that may be attained or to the authority exercised by a ūfī master, or to both at the same time. Najm al-Dīn Kubrā (d. 1221) identifies its highest stage with the experience of divine creative power (takwīn). By contrast, his followers in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, receptive to Shīʿī ideas but not yet themselves Shīʿah, notably ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah al-Simnānī (d. 1336), emphasize the double experience of the prophet Muammadhis walāyah or mystical experience and his nubūwah or prophetic authorityas a necessary model for their own double experience of mystical attainment and ūfī authority.

One of the major theoretical problems discussed in ūfī circles from the beginning was the exact nature of the relationship between the awliyāʾ and the prophet Muammad, that is, between the ūfī and the prophet Muammad. The imam Jaʿfar al-ādiq is quoted by Abū Nuʿaym as follows: "Whoever lives in the 'outward' [āhir ] of the Messenger [Muammad] is a Sunnī, and whoever lives in the 'inward' [bāin ] of the Messenger is a ūfī." In the Qurʾanic commentary of the ūfī Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 896 in Basra), the heart or spiritual reality of Muammad is seen as the divine element enshrined in him and the source for the illumination of human hearts; his pre-Adamic Light-nature (nūr Muammad) is the source of the prophetic ancestors of humankind, and of "those desired [by God]," that is, awliyāʾ.

Divine walāyah, on the other hand, is conferred directly on the elect, who are also those who have the right understanding of God and of the Qurʾān, according to al-Tustarī. The fact that the Prophet is "the walī of the believers" (surah 5:55) means only that he was notified (in this world) by God to befriend those whom God had befriended (or elected) in the first place. There does not seem to be an essential distinction in al-Tustarī's view between prophets generally and awliyā', although iddīqūn occupy a lower rank; the charismata of the awliyā' are signs (āyāt) of God's power, and al-Tustarī himself claims to be the "proof of God" (ujjat Allāh). The Baghdad ūfī Abū Saʽīd al-Kharrāz, (d. 890/891), on the other hand, polemizes against "certain ūfīs" who "place the awliyāʾ above the prophets." For al-Kharrāz, prophecy is a grace additional to wilāyah, since prophets are awliyāʾ before they become prophets. The awliyā' are always placed under a prophet known by name, on whose behalf they call people to God, and their charismata are clearly of a secondary nature in comparison with the signs that are given exclusively to prophets.

Tirmidhī goes a step further in elevating the status of Muammad the lawgiving prophet, while at the same time elevating his own status: on the one hand, awliyāʾ and ordinary prophets rank lower than lawgiving prophets, among whom Muammad is unquestionably the greatest. All parts of prophecy are united in him; he is perfect in this sense, and impeccable (maʿūm). But his being "the Seal of the Prophets" means just this, not that he was the last in time, Tirmidhī insists. There is also a mysterious "Seal of the Awliyāʾ, " to be sent by God at the end of time. Tirmidhī often uses Shīʿī (although not necessarily Ismāʿīlī) language, but clearly not with a Shīʿī intention: he explicitly denies that the "family of the Prophet" is the "kinship family." But the danger of a confusion with the Ismāʿīlīyah was evidently felt by al-Hujwīrī, who, writing in the mood of the "Sunnī Revival," omits the doctrine of the Seal from his summary of Tirmidhī's teaching. Yet it was brought to light again, and enriched with elements of a breathtaking complexity, by Ibn ʿArabī (11641240), the real master (shaykh akbar) of subsequent ūfī thought. Ibn ʿArabī summarizes his concept of the relationship between the two Seals with the following proposition: "The Seal of the Prophets, considered from the point of view of his own walāyah, is toward the One who seals the walāyah in the same position as all other prophets and lawgiving messengers are toward him, for he is walī, lawgiving messenger, and prophet." But walāyah itself is divided into two, and, accordingly, there are two Seals of Walāyah in the shaykh's doctrine: Jesus, Seal of "General Walāyah, and Ibn ʿArabī himself, or his spiritual reality, Seal of "the Particular Muammadan Walāyah. " This doctrine, provocative as it sounds, is, however, balanced by the self-evident necessity for both Seals of Walāyah to follow the law of the Seal of Prophecy; and everything is placed under the primordial "reality of Muammad," also called "reality of realities," or the logos.

See Also

Caliphate; Ghaybah; Imamate; Imah; Nubūwah; Ummah.


There is no single text in which all the aspects of walāyah are discussed in detail. For Qurʾanic usage of the term, the passages cited in the text should serve as a guide. Willi Heffening's "Wilāyah" in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 19131934) focuses on the legal usage; Joseph Schacht's The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (1950; reprint, Oxford, 1979), an invaluable work, contains much important information on the legal aspects of walāyah.

Walāyah in the sense of political authority is discussed in Dominique Sourdel's "L'autorité califienne dans le monde sunnite," in La notion d'autorité au Moyen Âge: Islam, Byzance, Occident, edited by George Makdisi et al. (Paris, 1982), pp. 101116. An assessment of al-Ghazālī's ideas on political authority can be found in Henri Laoust's La politique de Gazālī (Paris, 1970) and W. Montgomery Watt's "Authority in the Thought of al-Ghazālī," in La notion d'autorité au Moyen Âge, already cited, pp. 5768.

The Shīʿī concept of walāyah as a "pillar" of Islam is discussed by Henry Corbin in his En Islam iranien, aspects spirituels et philosophiques, 4 vols. (Paris, 19711972), a comprehensive work in which much valuable information on ūfī concepts can also be found. See also Uri Rubin's "Prophets and Progenitors in the Early Shīʿa Tradition," Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 1 (1979): 4166; Wilferd Madelung's "Authority in Twelver Shiism in the Absence of the Imam," also in La notion d'autorité au Moyen Âge, pp. 163173; Said Amir Arjomand's The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam (Chicago, 1984); Mangol Bayat's Mysticism and Dissent (Syracuse, N. Y., 1982); and, for recent developments, Murtaz̤a Muahharī's Wilāyah, translated by Yayā Cooper as The Station of the Master (Tehran, 1982).

Walāyah in Sufism is discussed in detail in al-Hujwīrī's eleventh-century Kashf al-majūb, translated by Reynold A. Nicholson as Kashf al-Mahjūb: The Oldest Persian Treatise on Sufism, 2d ed. (1936; reprint, Lahore, 1976). See also Tor Andrae's Die person Muhammeds in lehre und glauben seiner gemeinde (Stockholm, 1918); Ignácz Goldziher's "Saint Worship in Islam," in his Muslim Studies, vol. 2, translated by C. G. Barber and S. M. Stern (Chicago, 1973); Gerhard Böwering's The Mystical Vision of Existence in Classical Islam: The Qurʾānic Hermeneutics of the ūfī Sahl at-Tustarī (Berlin and New York, 1980), pp. 149ff.; Bernd Radtke's Al-akīm at-Tirmiī: Ein islamischer Theosoph des 3./9. Jahrhunderts (Freiburg, 1980), pp. 8586; and my Nûruddîn Isfarâyinî: Le révelateur des mystères (Paris, 1986).

Hermann Landolt (1987)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Walāyah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 21 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Walāyah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 21, 2018).

"Walāyah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.