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Notes:
Paper delivered at the Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University.

Mirrored with permission from www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/ahsai1.htm.


Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i on the Sources of Religious Authority

by Juan Cole

1993-10
When Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i wrote, there was no Shaykhi school, which only crystallized after his death. He saw himself as a mainstream Shi`ite, not as a sectarian leader. Yet he clearly innovated in Shi`ite thought, in ways that, toward the end of his life, sparked great controversy. Among the contentious arenas he entered was that of the nature of religious authority. He lived at a time when his branch of Islam was deeply divided on the role of the Muslim learned man. Was he an exemplar to be emulated by the laity without fail, or merely the first among equals, bound by a literal interpretation of the sacred text just as was everyone else? Or was he, as the Sufis maintained, a pole channeling the grace of God to those less enlightened than himself? How may we situate Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i with regard to these contending visions of Shi`ite Islam? What, in short, did he understand to be the structure of authority in Shi`ism?

As these questions demonstrate, Shaykh Ahmad, a native of Eastern Arabia educated in Iraq who came to Iran in 1806, remains a figure of paradox and enigma whose place in Iranian history and in Shi`ite thought has by no means been settled. He was given patronage by members of the Qajar ruling house, but refused the shah's invitation to reside at court in Tehran on the grounds that he would sooner or later come into conflict with his sovereign over issues of justice. He was widely acclaimed by his contemporaries among the Shi`ite scholastics, but at the very end of his life suffered an embarrassing excommunication at the hands of a lesser clergyman. He often employed concepts drawn from Sufis such as Muhyi'd-Din Ibn `Arabi, but excoriated the latter as a "murderer of the Faith." He helped revive and comment on key philosophical works of the Safavid-era School of Isfahan, by figures such as Mulla Sadra Shirazi, Mir Damad, and Mulla Muhsin Fayz Kashani. Yet he sharply criticized Mulla Sadra and Mulla Muhsin Fayz for what he saw as pantheistic tendencies. Still, he was capable of preferring philosophical definitions and doctrines to those of the Shi`ite jurists. My question here is how to understand these apparent contradictions in the career of one of modern Iran's more important religious and mystical thinkers.

Fath `Ali Shah's reign, beginning in 1798, saw a wholesale restoration of the Shi`ite clergy to positions of influence, after their eclipse and displacement with the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1722. This monarch was famed for highly valuing the seminary-trained clergy, for showering them with grants and perquisites, and giving them authority. The clergy played a role in authorizing the disastrous Russo-Iranian war of 1810-13, as a holy war against infidels, and in forcefully agitating for the even more calamitous Russo-Iranian war of 1826-28, in both of which Iran lost substantial territory and suffered other humiliations.

The rise to prominence of Shaykh Ahmad and his esoteric ideas took place against this backdrop of domestic political centralization and imperial encroachment, as well as of two major religious struggles in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century. The first of these, the battle between the previously influential Akhbaris and their Usuli opponents, concerned the shape of clerical religious culture and the relationship of the clergy with the laity. The second, the rancorous contest between the formally trained clergy on the one hand, and Sufi pirs or leaders of the Ni`matu'llahi and other mystical orders, exemplifies the conflict between traditional and rational bases of religious authority versus more charismatic styles of leadership. From the 1760s, the Usuli school began to win out in the strategic Shi`ite shrine centers of Iraq, Najaf and Karbala, led by Muhammad Baqir Bihbahani. He and his disciples trained a new generation of Shi`ite clerics, many of whom went on to gain influence or office in the new Qajar state that began congealing around 1794. The Akhbaris, dominant in Karbala and some other intellectual centers, believed that only the Imams were worthy of being emulated or blindly followed. They allowed the laity to employ a literalist understanding of the sayings of the Prophet and the Imams as a guide to proper religious conduct, and they saw these sayings, along with the Qur'an, as the only valid sources of Islamic law. Their eighteenth-century paragon, Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani, disapproved of theology and philosophy, and on the whole the movement had a literalist, anti-rationalist bent and a somewhat egalitarian ethos. The Usulis, on the other hand, allowed trained clerics to employ some rational tools to derive the law from scriptural texts, as well as appealing to the consensus of such jurisprudents. They insisted that the laity emulate or follow without question the rulings of a trained cleric. Their approach was thus characterized by scholasticism and a clericalist elitism.

Even as the Usulis were decisively winning out over their Akhbari rivals in shrine cities such as Karbala, a popular religious movement arose that challenged the monopoly over religious authority claimed by the mujtahids or Usuli jurisprudents. The Ni`matu'llahi Sufi order, which had originated in Iran and then been established also in South India in the sixteenth century, and which had survived there during the anti-Sufi persecutions of Shah `Abbas and his successors, now decided to proselytize in the order's homeland. Shah Tahir and Mast `Ali Shah were sent to Iran by the then leader of the order in the Nizamate of Hyderabad, Riza `Ali Shah Dakkani, in the 1770s. These emissaries met both popular success and official persecution. Karim Khan Zand (r. 1763-1779) ostracized Ma`sum `Ali Shah from the then capital, Shiraz, and in 1797 he was executed in Kermanshah at the order of the Usuli jurisprudent Muhammad `Ali Bihbahani. The new leader of the Ni`matu'llahis, Nur `Ali Shah, nevertheless managed to attract thousands of followers in Kerman, and the order attained successes in Shiraz, Isfahan, Hamadan and Tehran into the early nineteenth century, as well. The Ni`matu'llahi Sufis argued that the legalist clerics lacked a "divine faculty" that would enable them truly to become "heirs of the prophets," and that only Sufi clerics could aspire to such a station.

The competing poles of authority in Twelver Shi`ism in this period therefore lie at the extremes of scripturalist literalism versus rationalism, elitism versus egalitarianism, and spirituality versus legalism. By spirituality here, I mean a self-conscious insistence that religion involves a rich emotional life of the spirit, that it prepares the way for the attainment of alternative states of consciousness and progress toward moral perfection--in other words, that it contain an element of mysticism. As a cultural motif, spirituality or mysticism in this sense may be usefully contrasted to legalism, the conviction that religious duties are fulfilled by exact attention to the carrying out of detailed legal prescriptions. These two poles are not, of course, entirely in opposition, insofar as one could have an observant mystic. But one could also have an observant believer, fixated upon legalistic minutiae, who saw mysticism as pernicious.

It has been suggested by some that Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i had Akhbari, or literalist, leanings. Despite Shaykh Ahmad's conservatism on some issues, there are many reasons for thinking of him rather as a cautious and mystical Usuli. It is true that many important Shi`ite clerics in Bahrain, including Yusuf al-Bahrani, adopted the conservative Akhbari school in the eighteenth century, though their forebears during the Safavid period were largely Usulis. Yet even in Bahrain, the old capital of Bilad al-Qadim (Manama) remained an Usuli outpost till the late eighteenth century. We know virtually nothing of the eightenth-century religious culture of Eastern Arabian cities such as Hufuf and al-Mubarraz, where Shaykh Ahmad resided much of his first forty years. Shaykh Ahmad dwelt briefly in the shrine cities of Iraq in 1772-1773, but had to leave without finishing his seminary studies because of the outbreak of plague. When he succeeded in finally pursuing higher studies in Iraq early in the 1790s, he brought along with him a commentary he had written on a work by the pioneering medieval Usuli thinker, `Allamah al-Hilli. He subsequently studied with great Usuli figures such as Sayyid Mihdi Bahr al-`Ulum Tabataba'i (d. 1797), from whom he received diplomas qualifying him to interpret Islamic texts and law. When he returned to Bahrain, 1795-1798, he interacted with a range of scholars, including the Akhbari Shaykh Husayn Al-`Asfur. In a revealing incident, Al-`Asfur teased Shaykh Ahmad by sending over to him some questions posed by his father (Al-`Asfur senior) that were critical of Usulism, and suggesting he try to defend the latter school. Although Husayn Al-`Asfur was a die-hard Akhbari, he was apparently pleased to teach the sayings of the Imams to Shaykh Ahmad, an Usuli, and was humane enough about the differences between them to treat them playfully.

The queries from Al-`Asfur raised questions about the procedure, enjoined by Usulism, wherein a trained jurisprudent derives a legal ruling on the basis of rational argumentation, coming to a considered opinion (zann) about the best judgment. The questioner attempts to paint considered opinion as a sort of whimsy (another possible meaning of zann), and to suggest that Usulis actually formed some considered opinions on the basis of others, thus creating an infinite regress, a tissue of unsubstantiated guesses masquerading as Islamic jurisprudence. Can, he wants to know, one considered opinion negate another? The Akhbari interrogator, of course, believed that only a literalist appeal to Qur'an verses and sayings of the Imams could properly form the basis for a legal ruling.

Shaykh Ahmad vigorously defends the validity of a jurist using reason to arrive at a considered opinion. He demolishes the idea that every issue can be confidently settled with reference to a literalist interpretation of a saying from one of the Imams, since these texts are themselves, he says, often ambiguous (mutashabih). He also denies that the Usuli position implies that the real, correct judgment can change over time. The real judgment is that of God, and it is unvarying. What changes is only the form it takes in this world. It shifts because of the different manner in which the illumination (ishraq) from the heart of the Imam is refracted in the hearts of diverse jurisprudents of greatly varying character. He also establishes that considered opinion can be located along a spectrum, from a conjecture (rujhan), to a very strongly grounded conclusion. He avers that a firmly based considered opinion can outweigh a conjecture, so that the Usuli system does not dissolve into a welter of competing guesses but retains some epistemological rigor. He points out that reason cannot be used to establish an Islamic legal ruling all by itself, but the jurist may employ reason in conjunction with the Qur'an, the oral reports about sayings and doings of the prophet and the imams, and past consensus, to arrive at a considered opinion.

Shaykh Ahmad presents a syllogism proving the validity of considered opinion, arguing that if the jurisprudent tests his views by considering these conjectural pieces of evidence and reaches a considered opinion, and if he is among those whose considered opinion is recognized as valid (by consensus], then his considered opinion is valid. Perhaps to fend off charges of tautology, Shaykh Ahmad insists that both premises can be proven in their own right. He avers that the minor premise (that a jurisprudent may in fact come to a considered opinion after reviewing the facts and the law) is intuitional (wujdani), whereas the major premise (that some jurisprudents have the sort of training and authority that renders their considered opinion a valid ruling) is based on consensus. The conclusion reached in this syllogism, he says, is surely true and not a matter of considered opinion, since the Qur'an promises believers they will not be burdened beyond what they can bear. The jurisprudent who strives for a certainly valid judgment but achieves only a considered opinion will not be punished by God, since he has done all he could. Here he refers to the similar conclusion reached by the Safavid-era Usuli thinker Baha'u'd-Din `Amili. He concludes by saying that considered opinion, remains considered opinion as long as its basis in the Qur'an and other sources is valid, and cannot be reduced to mere doubt unless something is found to be wrong with its foundations.

Although Shaykh Ahmad defends scholastic rationalism against Akhbari literalism, and employs a Greek syllogism to do so, it is revealing of the tenor of his thought that he also appeals heavily to intuition as an underpinning of the jurisprudent's authority. He not only has the tools of his seminary training at his disposal, but receives illumination (ishraq) in his heart from the Hidden Imam. This overt appeal to the language of Suhravardi in the midst of a technical treatise on the principles of jurisprudence is not something I have encountered elsewhere in Usuli writings, and it marks Shaykh Ahmad's jurisprudential theories as being unusually mystical. Indeed, his position, on the need for both ratiocination and illumination in a Shi`ite scholar, sounds remarkably similar to that of the clerics who deserted unadorned legalistic Usulism for the Ni`matu'llahi Sufi order in the nineteenth century.

Shaykh Ahmad's rationalism went far beyond the limited syllogisms and dialectical theology practiced by the Usulis, to an embrace of important elements of demonstrative logic and Greco-Islamic philosophy. Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani, the Akhbari leader of eighteenth-century Karbala, it should be remembered, forbade the study of dialectical theology and of philosophy. Let us consider just one example of Shaykh Ahmad's complex attitude to the philosophers. In his essay on the sinlessness (`ismah) of the Imams, he begins by considering three definitions of sinlessness. These derive from the predestinationist Sunni Ash`arite school, fom a classical Shi`ite text, and from unnamed "philosophers." After considering the merits of each in turn, he accepts the definition put forward by the philosophers, after qualifying it slightly, and sees it as in conformity with (but presumably more rigorous than) the Shi`ite definition. I would argue that this willingness to employ philosophical definitions even in so important an area of Shi`ite theology as the sinlessness of the Imams indicates a thoroughgoing rationalism in Shaykh Ahmad's work. At one point, in a discussion of metaphysics, Shaykh Ahmad indicates that the illuminationist (Ishraqi) position is closest that of the Imams (ahl al-`ismah). Elsewhere, he quotes the Illuminationist philosopher Mir Damad (d. 1631) as an authority on issues such as whether the Deity can have a change of mind (bada').

Of course, even though he is in positive dialogue with philosophers such as Avicenna, Qutbu'd-Din Shirazi, Mulla Sadra, and Mir Damad, and even though he often adopts their positions on important issues, Shaykh Ahmad demonstrates not the least hesitancy in harshly criticizing some philosophical positions, for instance the pantheism he felt was implied by Mulla Sadra's idea of "the simplicity of reality" (basit al-haqiqah). But note that Mulla Sadra had in this stance departed from that of Suhrawardi and Mir Damad, so that Shaykh Ahmad's attack on it is simply an insistence on the original, ontologically pluralist, position of Illuminationist philosophy. His jealous independence and his willingness to lambaste philosophers such as Mulla Sadra on some issues has helped mask his debt to both the peripatetic and illuminationist schools. Sometimes he rejects philosophical doctrines on rational grounds, but he is also capable of appealing against them to the sayings of the Imams. The point here is that he accepts both Usuli scholasticism and philosophy (the latter often depending on demonstrative logic), as means of deriving religious juridical and theological positions, and therefore as sources of authority. He does not, however, subordinate everything else to demonstrative logic, as did, say, Averroes, and so he remains a philosophical theologian rather than becoming a philosopher, though he is perhaps best classed as a theosopher. His methods are in any case far removed from the scriptural literalism of his Akhbari contemporaries in the Gulf.

As I hinted above, rationalism is only one element in Shaykh Ahmad's approach to religious authority. It coexists with the authority of Shi`ite scriptural texts on the one hand, and with mystical illumination on the other. His emphasis on visions, on the impact of the divine light on the heart of the believer, on the attainment of spiritual perfections, and on the authority of the more gnostic texts in the Imami scriptural corpus, gave Shaykh Ahmad's thought its distinctiveness. Let us consider, then, the mystical or spiritual dimension in Shaykh Ahmad's experience and thought. When Shaykh Ahmad was a young man, he frequently dreamt dreams and saw visions of the holy figures of Shi`ism. As his disciple Sayyid Kazim Rashti tells the story,

He saw our Lord Hasan in a dream, and the Imam put his tongue in his mouth and shared with him his saliva, which was sweeter than honey and more fragrant than musk, but burning hot . . . His longing grew so extravagant, his love so overwhelming, that he forgot to eat or drink, imbibing just enough to stay alive. He left of mixing with the people, and his heart continually oriented itself toward God . . . Then he had a true vision of the Messenger of God, who gave him to drink of his saliva, which tasted and smelled like that of the Imam, but was icy cold. When he regained consciousness, the flames within him had subsided, and loving-kindness descended upon him. He learned from them knowledge and enigmas, and dawning rays of light shone over the horizon of his heart. The new knowledge did not derive solely from his visions, but rather when he awoke he began finding evidence for it in the Qur'an, and in the sayings and deeds related of the Prophet and of the Imams.

Sayyid Kazim is careful to insist that the Shaykh's visions were congruent with the holy Law and scripture, yet it is inescapably the case that a good deal of his charismatic authority derived from these visions rather than simply from his mastery of the textual sources of Shi`ism. These and other visions reported of the Shaykh are powerful in their symbology. The two here derive some of their potency from homoerotic imagery (though note that the Shaykh was much-married and emphatically heterosexual himself). The oppositions are clear. Broadly speaking and from a male point of view, mystical ecstasy is coded as male and oral, in implicit contrast with carnal ecstasy, which is female and genital. Within the mystical visions, there is another opposition. The lesser figure, the Imam Hasan, inspires through his burning saliva a spiritual restlessness and asceticism, whereas the higher figure, the Prophet Himself, bestows by means of his icy cold saliva a radiant acquiescence and mystical gnosis. The effect of the imagery in these visions, of bodily intimacy with the fluids of exalted and holy personages, is to highlight Shaykh Ahmad's special link with the next world in an audacious and concrete manner.

The Shaykh, like the Ni`matu'llahi Sufi leaders referred to above, insisted on the spiritual experiences of the heart as a legitimation of religious authority, rather than accepting the mere mastery of legal details as in mainstream Usulism. Can he, then, be seen as a Sufi pir of sorts? I believe this question to be more complex than it might appear on the surface. Let us begin by examining the Shaykh's attitude to the great Sufi thinker Ibn `Arabi, of thirteenth-century Andalusia. It is clear that Shaykh Ahmad accepted in its broad outline much of the metaphysical scaffolding erected by Ibn `Arabi. He at one point quotes a commentary on the latter's Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikam) about the imaginal world and other metaphysical realms, and suggests only minor corrections to the view presented. The one point at which he grows vituperative is when, in Meccan Revelations, Ibn `Arabi discusses the authority of the Sufi leaders as spiritual poles (aqtab, sing. qutb) channeling the grace of God into the world. For Shaykh Ahmad, this is damnable blasphemy, since only the Shi`ite Imams can play such a role.

Yet, what Shaykh Ahmad ultimately appears to propose is that while the divine grace is funnelled into this plane via the Imams, they have their contact-points in the person of mystics like Shaykh Ahmad himself. That is, once the Imams are restored to their proper place as sole bearers of inspiration, then it is permissible to speak of a contemporary Perfect Person arising to reflect the light of the Prophet's family into this world. Shaykh Ahmad's conception of moral perfection and the overflowing of grace in those who attain it are homologous with Sufi thought, but differ in their strong grounding in esoteric Shi`ite symbols and texts. If the Ni`matu'llahis, with their pirs and their rootedness in the Persian mystical tradition, constituted the bestowal of a Shi`ite veneer on Sufism, Shaykhism might rather be seen as the embellishment of occult Shi`ism with selected Sufi motifs.

For Shaykh Ahmad, then, the Shi`ite learned man is not simply a mundane thinker dependent on nothing more than the divine text and his intellectual tools for its interpretation. The learned must have a spiritual pole (qutb), a source of grace (ghawth), who will serve as the locus of God's own gaze in this world. Both pole and ghawth are frequently-used Sufi terms for great masters who can by their graces help their followers pursue the spiritual path. For Shaykh Ahmad, the pole is the Twelfth Imam himself, the light of whose being is in the heart of the Learned. The oral reports, he notes, say that believers benefit from the Imam in his Occultation just as the earth benefits from the sun even when it goes behind a cloud. Were the light of the Imam, as guardian (mustahfiz), to be altogether extinguished, then the learned would not be able to see in the darkness.

This use of terminology such as pole and ghawth implies no accommodation on his part to mainstream Sufism, which he excoriates. When a Shi`ite Sufi questioned Shaykh Ahmad about the benefits of following a Sufi master or pir, Shaykh Ahmad replies by questioning the very premise that Sufi pirs possess any valuable or true knowledge about God. He heaps scorn on those who claim the ability to write voluminous volumes filled with divine secrets, but say that they forbear to do so because the people could not accept the truth. He insists that since the seeker knows that the pir is not divinely protected (ma`sum) from sin, the seeker should accept from him only what does not contravene the revealed Law. In each instance, the seeker should find out from the pir what his reasoning was in giving any judgment, and should examine the reasoning closely to see if it accords with Islam. All this is in regard to the great, central principles (usul) of religion, upon which there is general agreement. On the level of subsidiary (furu`) or secondary law, which addresses disputed matters through the principles of jurisprudence, it is necessary for the pir to be a qualified jurisprudent in order for him to rule authoritatively on any matter, and he may not depart from the consensus of the Shi`ites without strong evidence. Should he not possess this jurisprudential expertise, Shaykh Ahmad implies, his legal advice would be worthless, and he explicitly says that it is impermissible for the seeker to obey his pir simply because he is attached to him. While it is allowed unquestioningly to obey someone like an Imam, who is divinely protected, it is not allowed to give such unthinking obedience to a mere mortal. Thus, the pir in making any pronouncement must offer his seeker evidence that the seeker finds well-grounded and convincing.

Shaykh Ahmad relies in this essay on the doctrines of Usuli Shi`ism, that formal jurisprudential training is necessary before someone can issue authoritative legal judgments, which the laity must obey. Usulis held, however, that in matters of the principles of religion and doctrine, everyone must come to the correct conclusions through his or her own reasoning and effort. Blind emulation of others in the sphere of belief is impermissible. From this point of view, Sufism looked entirely wrongheaded. Here we have pirs, often lacking in formal jurisprudential training, issuing opinions on matters pertaining to Islamic law and practice. We have seekers pledged to obey their pirs unquestioningly, even in matters that should be an individual responsibility, such as faith, practice and doctrine. Shaykh Ahmad thus rejects the authority structures of even Shi`ite Sufism, in favor of a three-fold combination of scholastic (Usuli) jurisprudence, of esoteric illuminationism, and of philosophical rationalism.

That Shaykh Ahmad, like the strict Usulis, makes a strong divide between the learned and the laity and puts religious authority entirely in the hands of the ulema is clear from his answer to a question raised by Mulla Muhammad Tahir in 1821. The mulla inquired about the meaning of the saying attributed to the Imams, "the learned (al-`ulama') are heirs of the prophets," and of a similar saying of Muhammad's, "the learned of my community are like the prophets of the children of Israel, and even better than they (wa khayru minhum)." Shaykh Ahmad replies that the meaning of the first saying is obvious. It refers to those who are learned in the texts and disciplines of revelation, who are manifestly the heirs of the prophets. For the prophets delivered the messages with which they were entrusted to their people. The religiously learned collect it, practice it, and preserve it for the communities founded by the prophets. This knowledge is the only bequest the prophets made, and so those learned in it are their heirs. By the ulema here is meant first of all the Imams, he says, but by extension it covers all the learned who meet the conditions specified. The second saying refers primarily to the Imams, he explains, who are like the prophets insofar as they must be obeyed by the laity. But it is permissible for the "learned" who are like the prophets of the children of Israel to include the Shi`ite ulema, since their knowledge derives from the Qur'an and the Sunnah (doings and sayings of the Prophet and the Imams), even if it is derived in subsidiary ways from the basic principles contained in the Book and the Sunnah. The duty of the common people (`awamm) to obey the ulema with regard to judgments about what is permitted and what is forbidden (ahkam al-halal wa'l-haram) is like the duty of obeying the prophets of the children of Israel for their communities. As for the last phrase of the Prophet's saying, which asserts that the learned are actually better than the Hebrew prophets, Shaykh Ahmad finds no difficulty in understanding this proposition if it concerns the Imams, for he maintains that they are obviously better than the prophets in innumerable ways. If the intent of the saying is the Shi`ite clergy, he allows, then the meaning of the word Arabic word khayr here would not be "better" in the sense of "superior to," but would simply indicate that in the ulema is much good insofar as they preserve the religion of the prophets. In this answer, Shaykh Ahmad establishes the duty of the common people to obey the Shi`ite clergy with regard to issues of right and wrong, and, in the passages discussed above, he locates the basic claim to authority of these ulema in their seminary training and jurisprudential knowledge. Within the corps of Shi`ite learned men, precedence appears to be established in his eyes not only by greater knowledge of jurisprudence, as among the strict Usulis, but also on the basis of the learned man's mystical insight (kashf), on the degree to which he has cast off the veils of the mundane world that interfere with perceiving the divine within each person.

Although I have here been primarily interested in the structures of religious authority in the thought of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i, one cannot leave aside his relationship to secular authority. This affiliation is complex. On the one hand, both in Yazd (1806-1814) and in Kermanshah (1815-1824) he received the patronage of Qajar princes and nobles. On the other, he showed a marked preference for these provincial towns over the capital, and a disinclination to become a truly national clerical authority by becoming attached to Fath `Ali Shah's court. This story is told both in Shaykhi sources and in court chronicles.

Sayyid Kazim Rashti explains that the devotion and respect Shaykh Ahmad had earned in Yazd between 1806 and 1808, when he sojourned there, came to the ears of Fath `Ali Shah. The monarch appears to have been interested, like many ambitious rulers, in building up a coterie of court intellectuals and clerics so as to add to the splendor of his capital. He wrote to the governor in Yazd and instructed him to send Shaykh Ahmad to Tehran with all honor. When the governor laid these instructions before Shaykh Ahmad, he declined. The shah, on hearing of the theosopher's reluctance, renewed his pressure on the Yazd governorate to have him sent. Local officials, alarmed, went to al-Ahsa'i and said they feared the monarch would have them punished if they failed to carry out his command, and they pleaded with the Shaykh to acquiesce. (Among the threats was that the shah himself would come to Yazd, with a large contingent of troops, which would be billeted on the local population). Shaykh Ahmad at length acquiesced, and, according to Sayyid Kazim:

He then set out on the journey, and they sent to accompany him Mirza `Ali Riza, who continually served him on the way to the capital, Tehran. He met face to face with the shah, who greeted him with great honor and respect, acknowledging his high station, and gave him a chamber in the palace. All the accomplished clergy and seminary students in Tehran at that time sought interviews with him, showing him perfect reverence, and no two of them differed regarding him; not a single one spoke evil of him not did anyone seek in any way to injure him.

The warm welcome Shaykh Ahmad received in the capital is stressed so firmly here precisely because many (though not all) in the clerical establishment later turned against him. At this time, however, he was recognized by most clerics as one of their own, and was acclaimed by the Tehran high society.

Sayyid Kazim says that the shah next proposed that Shaykh Ahmad relocate permanently in the capital, bringing his family from Basra to Iran. Shaykh Ahmad agreed to settle in Iran, but declined to reside in Tehran. He is reported to have told the shah:

As for dwelling in the same city with you, no . . . For the shah is the center of the affairs of his subjects and the pivot of sovereignty. He cannot exist without confiscating and bestowing, cutting off limbs, taking and giving. When the people see your acceptance of me and the dignity you bestow on me they will seek me out for their needs and purposes. If I deny them, they will hate and detest me. If I give them what they want and lay before you their requests, you will have only two choices. Either you will accept my intercession and give them all that which they ask, or not. As for the first possibility, I think it unlikely, for you will say that it will destroy your sovereignty and disrupt the order prevailing in the kingdom. If you thus refuse, however, I shall be abased. It is therefore better for me and for you that I live in a distant city, and all these cities after all belong to you, and wherever I am I shall be with you.

The oppositions here are between honor and abasement, authority and power. Shaykh Ahmad, as long as he lived in Eastern Arabia and Iraq, had resided under the Sunni Ottoman government, which entirely lacked religious legitimacy for committed Shi`ites such as himself. The only valid religious authority for Shi`ites there was that of the Sayyids and clerics, so that naked power (the Mamluk government and its troops) contrasted with moral suasion (the sermons of the Imami clergy).

In coming to Iran, he left behind this condition of extreme alienation, wherein the practice of pious dissimulation was constantly enjoined upon him. He entered a Realm of the Shi`ah, where the monarch supported the faith of the Imams. Yet here, the relationship between power and authority was much more complex. The shah, as a secular ruler reigning in the absence of the Twelfth Imam, was still prone to act in a manner that Shi`ite scriptural norms would judge unjust. Yet because of his faith, he was willing to honor and promote Twelver clergymen. In so doing he threatened to embroil them in governmental affairs or make them accomplices to the tyranny of the tribal feudalism practiced by the Qajars. In matters that touched upon ethics, Shaykh Ahmad considered his authority as a prominent Shi`ite jurisprudent and illumined thinker paramount and his duty to represent the oppressed clear, and yet this realm overlapped with government spheres wherein the shah had competing authority or at least power. His solution was self-exile to the provinces, where he would be unlikely to come directly into conflict with the monarch, and where no one would expect him to be able to influence royal policies.

The sort of authority propounded by Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i is therefore visionary yet rational, esoteric yet in accord with the literal text of scripture, and ethical in such a way as to put contemporary state practices inevitably under judgment. Among the factors that might help account for the undoubted and widespread popularity of Shaykhi ideas is their appeal to a sort of Shi`ite nativism and to a rich emotional life of the spirit. Akhbarism had the advantage of being firmly based on a literal interpretation of the Imam's own words, but the disadvantage of an intellectual inflexibility. Usulism overcame the rigidity of literalism but at the price of depending upon a dry legalistic scholasticism. Both lacked the "warm heart" that mystics and many among the popular classes sought. Ni`matu'llahi Sufis provided this affective dimension but only at the expense of offering the Sufi poles as sources of charisma beside the Imams.

Shaykhism, by appealing to the esoteric (batini) heritage, offered the "warm heart" of Sufism while reaffirming a Shi`ite nativism, exalting the Imams in an almost exaggerated manner. Shaykh Ahmad recognized the claims of the ulema to be obeyed by the laity, just as did the Usulis. But he saw the Shi`ite learned man as ideally a mystic and not just a jurisprudent. The Sufi ideal of the Perfect Person was transformed into the Shaykhi ideal of the Perfect Shi`ite. Shaykh Ahmad's acceptance of the authority of the trained jurisprudent implies, as well, an acceptance of the Usuli ideal that all should emulate the single most learned and upright mujtahid, an ideal that underpinned the rise of the marja` at-taqlid or over-all Exemplar for emulation in the nineteenth century (though no one has ever actually attained the unanimous acclaim of the entire Shi`ite community as the single Marja`). In short, the Perfect Shi`ite, as the notion developed in later Shaykhism, is a more mystically grounded version of the Usuli jurisprudential position that there could, ideally, exist a supreme source for emulation. In addition, the Perfect Shi`ite takes the place of the Sufi leader (sajjadah-nishin).

Shaykhism came into being and functioned as a homologue of the Shi`ite Sufi orders, like the Ni`matullahis, but without the liability of putative Sunni influence. It may be that this Shi`ite nativism gained popularity in part precisely because Shi`ism and Iran were under severe attack in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. An extreme exaltation of the Imams and an insistence on their having a visible representative in the form of the Perfect Shi`ite helped restore moorings that had been shaken by tsars, foreign kings and the house of Sa'ud. Shaykh Ahmad lived at a time when the Usuli notion of a single scholar holding the preponderance of authority (riyasah) within Shi`ism (especially with regard to the disposal of monies and religious taxes) had not yet been established, and when the idea of a single marja` at-taqlid or source for emulation was only a theoretical possibility. He probably was among six or seven major sources for emulation in Iran and Iraq during his heyday in Yazd and Kermanshah, and his special claims of esoteric knowledge appear to have created an unusual loyalty in his followers, such that after his death many of them joined his successor, Sayyid Kazim Rashti, in forming a new sect of Shi`ism distinct from the Akhbaris, the Usulis or the Ni`matu'llahis. Yet in the end it was the more rational Usuli doctrine, with its commitment to a professionalized clergy, that won out. In history, the claims of the exoteric Exemplars (Marja`'s) for emulation have proven stronger than those of the esoteric Shaykhi leaders who upheld the ideal of the Perfect Shi`ite. Shaykh Ahmad's religious authority rested on scripture, particularly the less-accepted esoteric sayings of the Imams, on scholastic reason, on Illuminationist unveiling, and on powerful visions of the Imams.

This authority, profoundly ethical, inevitably put Shaykhism at odds with the Qajar state, which routinely carried out illegal expropriations and levied illicit taxes--a contradiction that Shaykh Ahmad dealt with, not by rebellion, but by voluntary withdrawal from the political center. His spiritual project was one that could be carried out with less interference, and fewer secular complications, in the provinces, far from the seat of power. It may be that this very unwillingness to accommodate himself to the power realities of the capital, this devotion to principle, put Shaykh Ahmad at a crucial disadvantage in competing with the more worldly Usulis, who became the shah's favorites. If by disentangling himself from the court Shaykh Ahmad lost a great deal of worldly power, this move detracted nothing from, and indeed may have enhanced, his spiritual authority.
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