Author:James W. Morris


For fairly obvious reasons, the multiple difficulties posed by the imposition of labels, paradigms, categories and stereotypes (‘heterodox’, ‘sectarian’, etc.) are a central and unavoidable issue in every field of religious studies, at every level of teaching and writing. And those generic difficulties are only aggravated whenever one is dealing with subjects (groups, individuals, periods) which are somehow popularly connected with ‘minority’, ‘sectarian’ or ‘heterodox’ positions, as is almost inevitably the case with anything remotely connected with the various branches and expressions of ‘Shi‘i’ Islam. In this paper, we would like to illustrate those wider problems with a few case-studies drawn from key figures in formative Ismaili Shi‘i thought, such as Ja‘far b. Mansur’s The Master and the Disciple; and then to consider briefly some practical antidotes to those misunderstandings which arise in Islamic Studies in general and in ‘Sufi’-‘Shi‘i’ relations throughout the Persianate cultural world in particular. Five most recurrent pitfalls have been identified and will be discussed:


  1. ‘Reading back’ particular modern theological, political, ideological, or communal labels (and their associated baggage) into other periods and settings.
  2. ‘Buying into’ any one particular scholastic account-whatever its source-of the ‘evolution’ of any contested Islamic intellectual field: philosophy, kalamusul al-figh, etc.
  3. Limiting the relevance of a particular thinker (writer, artist, etc.) to one particular ‘labelled’ domain, and assuming that the ‘label’ in question is both restrictive and adequately descriptive. (Particularly dangerous for the most original and influential figures.)
  4. Reducing the relevance of a particular figure to their significance for a particular political, social or intellectual context.
  5. Misplaced extrapolation from what is (relatively) ‘known’ to what is actually unknown in a different geographic, cultural, social or historical setting. (Note the notorious publishers’ tradition of applying ‘Islamic’ in book-titles to even the most narrowly specific studies of a particular city, group, tribe, ideologist, etc.)

Addressing each of the five pitfalls requires careful consideration of: (a) the writer’s own unconscious assumptions; (b) the relevant assumptions (scholarly, theological, etc.) of that writer’s originally intended audience; and (c) the typically quite different assumptions of wider, ‘uninitiated’ audiences. Anyone involved in teaching ‘introductory’ courses, whatever their subject, will know from experience how radically different those three dimensions may be. The antidotes to those common pitfalls, at any level (from everyday life to scholarly writing), are readily available in conscientiously applying the basic tests of reflexivity and comparison with more familiar cognate phenomena, whether from contemporary life or relevant historical situations.