Course Outline

Esoteric knowledge in the Islamic tradition is most often associated with Sufism (tasawwuf); however, Sufism developed as a culture only around the ninth century CE during the period of the latter Imamates.  A large proportion of the teachings that began to be circulated by certain figures that claimed their authorship can actually be found in the much earlier hadīth collections and writings of the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt (as). In addition, there is evidence that the Imams dissociated themselves, both physically and verbally, from the emerging mystical movements that ignored the fundamental matter of the walāya of the Ahl al-Bayt (as).

This course opens with an introduction to the definition of esoteric knowledge in various cultures, leading up to that of Islam.  It then examines the lesser known speeches of Imam ʿAlī ibn Abī Tālib (as). The course also gives an overview of the spiritual hierarchy of the elite Shīʿa; the schemas of a number of cosmic hierarchies from different religious traditions, and explores the phenomena of external time (zamān āfāqī) and internal time (zamān anfūsī). Finally, the practices of asceticism (zuhd), remembrance of God (dhikr) and love for God (mahābba) are discussed in light of the Qur’ān and hadīth of the Ahl al-Bayt (as).


Week One:    The Definition of Esoteric Knowledge

Week Two:    The esoteric speeches of Imam ʿAlī ibn Abī Tālib

Week Three: Critiques of Hasan al-Basrī and Husayn ibn Mansūr al-Hallāj by the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt (as)

Week Four:   Walāya and al-Hākim al-Tirmidhī

Week Five:    The spiritual hierarchy

Week Six:      Cosmic hierarchies

Week Seven:  The principle of zuhd (asceticism)

Week Eight:   The principle of dhikr: sitting with the Beloved


Summarised bibliography

al-‘Āmilī, Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Hurr. Combat with the Self. Trans. Nazmina Virjee (London: ICAS Press, 2003).

Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali. The Spirituality of Shi‘i Islam (London, New York: IB Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2011).

ar-Rāzī, Ash-Shaykh Abū Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Ya‘qūb ibn Ishāq al-Kulaynī. Al-Kāfī (Tehran: WOFIS, 1987).

As-Ṣādiq, al-Imām Ja‘far Ibn Muhammad. Lantern of the Path. Trans. Fadlallah Haeri (Qum: Ansariyan Publications, 2007).

Corbin, Henry. En Islam iranien, Aspects spirituels et philosophiques, Vol. 1 Le shî’isme duodécimain (Éditions Gallimard, 1971).

Corbin, Henry. History of Islamic Philosophy. Trans. Liadain Sherrard (London: Kegan Paul International, Part One: 1964; Part Two: 1974).

Corbin, Henry. Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam. Trans. Leonard Fox. (Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation, 1995).

Henry, Corbin. En Islam iranien, Aspects spirituels et philosophiques. (Éditions Gallimard, 1971), Vol. 1 Le shî’isme duodécimain.

Ibn al-Husayn, Imam Zayn al-‘Abidīn ‘Alī. The Psalms of Islam, al-Sahīfat al-Kāmilat al-Sajjādiyya. Trans. and introduction by William C. Chittick. Foreword by S.H.M. Jafri (Qum: Ansariyan Publications, 2001).

Majlisī, ‘Allāmah Muhammad Bāqir al-. The Book of Occultation: Kitāb al-Ghaiba (Bihār al-Anwār, Volume 51). Trans. Hassan Allahyari (Qum: Ansariyan Publications, 2007, second ed.), pps 456-459.

Masterton, Rebecca. ‘A Critical Comparison of the Manifestation of Cosmic Hierarchies in Christian and Islamic Mystical Theology’, Journal of Shī‘a Islamic Studies (London: ICAS Press, Autumn 2009), Volume II, No. 4, pps 401-422, extracts.

Masterton, Rebecca. A Comparative Exploration of the Spiritual Authority of the Awliyā’ in the Shi‘ī and Sūfī Traditions, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, Winter 2015), Vol. 32, No. 1, pps 49-74, extracts.

Mourad, Suleiman Ali. Early Islam between Myth and History: Al-Hasan al-Basrī (d. 110 H/728 CE) and the Formation of His Legacy in Classical Islamic Scholarship (Leiden: Brill, 2006).

Qummi, Sheikh Abbas al-. Supplications, prayers, and Ziarats: Call on Me, I answer you [Mafātih al-Jinān] (Qum: Ansariyan Publications, 2004).

Shaibi, Kamil al-, Sufism and Shiism (Surrey: LAAM, 1991).

The Scale of Wisdom, A Compendium of Shi‘a Hadith, compiled by M Muhammadi Rayshahri, trans. N Virjee, A Kadhim, M Dasht Bozorgi, Z Alsalami, A Virjee, ed. N Virjee (London: ICAS Press, 2009), p. 238.


To critically examine the generally accepted narrative of the emergence of the Sufi tradition.

To explore the metaphysical foundations of the Shīʿī tradition and how they have been utilised in the Sufi tradition.

To examine the basis of asceticism and dhikr (‘remembrance’) in the Qur’ān and hadīth collections.


This course is at the level equivalent to a Batchelor’s degree. The rate is standard for a non-accredited short course in the Humanities.

Course date and time

Choose which date and time suits you.

Full course option £130/$160: The full course consists of eight 90-minute live on-line classes. Once you have booked, you will be sent eight Reading Packs in pdf format, mp3 Recordings that guide you through each Reading Pack, and a Syllabus. You will need to provide your Skype ID. Classes are recorded. A certificate of completion is provided on the completion of an optional essay. To book the course, please click on the button below.


Half-course option £65/$80: You can book the first half of the course with four 90-minute live on-line classes. To book, please click on the button below.


Self-study option £50/$65: You will receive a Syllabus, eight pdf Reading Packs and an mp3 Recording to guide you through each Reading Pack. Study in your own time by reading the pdf Reading Packs and listening to the accompanying recorded lectures; write to the tutor with any questions and arrange for one live tutorial. To book, please click on the button below.


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