AMI Research Seminar: “Sufism and Shi’ism or Shi’i Sufism” by Dr. Alessandro Cancian (The Institute of Ismaili Studies)


AMI’s second research seminar, of the current academic year, proved to be yet another resounding success. The virtually convened event saw Dr. Alessandro Cancian, of London’s Institute of Ismaili Studies, present a paper entitled Shi’i Sufism: Early Modern Mystical Exegesis.  

The history of Shiʿi Sufism is yet to receive the attention it deserves. While relations, interactions and commonalities between Shiʿism and Sufism have been widely explored, it seems that little or no scholarly attempt has been made so far to assess if, when, how and to what extent a fully-fledged ‘Twelver Shiʿi Sufism’ came into existence, and how it negotiated its legitimacy and identity vis-à-vis both exoteric Shiʿi ʿulamā and non-Sufi Shiʿi esotericism. 

Dr Cancian’s  paper primarily focused on one particular exegetic work: Tafsīr Bayān Al-Saʿādah  Maqāmāt Al-ʿIbādah. The work is attributed to Sultan Ali Shah Gonabadi, who identified as a Twelver Shia whilst also identifying as a Sufi. The presentation elaborated on Sulṭān ʿAlī Shāh’s understanding of religious and spiritual authority, and his use of Qur’anic exegesis as a multi-layered tool, working on the spiritual and mystical level (tafsīr as a means of spiritual advancement) as well as the social one (tafsīr as a statement of collective identity). 

Dr. Cancian’s talk went on to highlight the contentions between mainstream Shiism and those identifying as Sufi, especially since reported narrations from the Shi’i Imams tend to condemn Sufism and its practices. The informative presentation concluded with Dr. Cancian expounding on some of the arguments used by modern Sufis in deflecting the aforementioned criticisms.  

As always, the presentation was followed by a lively Q&A session


Alessandro Cancian is a Senior Research Associate in the Qur’anic Studies unit at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. He completed a PhD at the University of Siena in Anthropology, concentrating on the Cultural Anthropology of Muslim Societies and the Anthropology of Religion. His dissertation was on the Shi‘i theological colleges (hawza, ilmiyyas) in Syria. He is a review editor for the Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies, has edited and published articles and papers, contributed book chapters and encyclopaedia entries, and delivered numerous lectures. Dr Cancian’s areas of interest and expertise are the intellectual history of Shi‘ism, Shi‘i Sufism in early modern times and the anthropology of Islam, and Shi‘ism and modern Iran. He is currently working on Shi‘i mystical exegesis of the Qur’an, its influences and reception in modern times, and is writing a monograph on Sultan Ali Shah’s Tafsir Bayan al-sa’aada