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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 5

The Nineteenth Century

Political Developments under Fath 'Ali Shah and Muhammad Shah

      The Qajars were one of the Turkoman tribes who supported Isma'il, the first Safavid monarch, in his conquest of Iran. They were rewarded by being given extensive fiefdoms and, on this basis, became one of the most important elements in Iran until, in 1794, Agha Muhammad defeated the last of the Zand dynasty and two years later was crowned as Shah. His reign was only to last for one further year before he was assassinated by two of his servants whom he had condemned to death on the following day. He had by that time, however, consolidated his rule over all Iran and had recaptured Georgia. The reign of his nephew and successor, Fath 'Ali Shah (d. 1834), was marked by two disastrous campaigns against Russia in 1804-13 and 1828 in which Iran lost all its Caucasian provinces. Apart from Russia, Iran also came into close contact during this period with other European powers such as England and France.

      Fath 'Ali Shah deferred greatly to the Shi'i ulama. This was probably partly due to genuine piety and partly due to the Qajar dynasty's need to establish its own legitimacy (see p. 194). Fath 'Ali Shah, apart from numerous pilgrimages to Qumm and Mashhad, spent much money on the repair and embellishment of these shrines as well as those in Iraq. As well as making large disbursements to the ulama, he built a number of mosques and religious colleges (madrasas) and, in particular, he rebuilt the Madrasa Faydiyya, the foremost college at Qumm. The Qajars had made Tehran their capital and Fath 'Ali Shah tried to induce some of the prominent ulama to come and take up residence there in order to give the new capital prestige. However, Tehran never became an important religious centre in the way that Isfahan had been in Safavid times. This fact is probably a reflection of the changed relationship between the government and the ulama (see below).

      Fath 'Ali Shah, the progenitor of a record number of offspring, was succeeded by his grandson, Muhammad Shah (reigned 1834-1848). After suppressing a number of contenders for the throne, Muhammad Shah had an unremarkable reign during which he was dominated by his Prime Minister, Hajji Mirza Aqasi. Muhammad-Shah was much attracted to Sufism and Hajji Mirza Aqasi was his Sufi guide. There was a sharp reversal of policy during this reign in that Muhammad Shah favoured Sufis and expended money on their shrines, neglecting the ulama.

      Much more important during the Qajar era was the emergence of the Shaykhi movement. Shaykh Ahmad ibn Zaynu'd-Din al-Ahsa'i (1753-1826), the founder of the Shaykhi movement, was a prominent Shi'i scholar of al-Ahsa, who had studied under Bahru'l-'Ulum, Kashifu'l Ghita and the other prominent ulama of Iraq. In the second decade of the 19th century, Shaykh Ahmad looked set to become the leading Shi'i scholar of his generation, and as he travelled around Iran he was accorded the highest honours by princes, ulama and even the Shah. Shaykh Ahmad, however, had a number of views which were considered heterodox by some of the ulama. A fuller description of Shaykhi doctrine is given elsewhere in this book (see pp. 225ff.), but for the purposes of this chapter it will suffice to describe Shaykh Ahmad's views as being in the tradition of the Hikmat-i Ilahi of the School of Isfahan (see pp. 2 1719). Had Shaykh Ahmad lived two centuries earlier, his ideas would have been included in the corpus of that school and no movement separate from the main body of Twelver Shi'ism would have resulted. However, in the intervening period, figures such as Majlisi and Bihbahani had considerably narrowed the field of Shi'i orthodoxy. And so, when Shaykh Ahmad came into conflict with some of the ulama, they responded as Bihbahani had done with the Akhbaris, by pronouncing takfir (declaration of being an unbeliever) against him. This takfir was first pronounced in 1822 by Mulla Muhammad Taq Baraghani of Qazvin (he was later killed by a Shaykhi in 1847). After this other ulama confirmed the pronouncement but it is interesting to note that none of the contemporary ulama of the first rank such as Mulla Ahmad Naraqi, Shaykh Musa the son of Kashifu'l-Ghita, Mulla 'Ali Nuri, Haul Muhammad Ibrahim Kalbasi and Haul Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Shafti supported the takfir.[18] Indeed, it was not until after Shaykh Ahmad's death in 1826, under his successor, Sayyid Kazim ibn Qasim Rashti (d. 1259/1843), that any real separation can be said to have occurred between the Shaykhis and the main body of Twelver Shi'is. Certainly it was not the wish of Shaykh Ahmad or Sayyid Kazim to create a separate movement, but Twelver Shi'ism was no longer a sufficiently broad church to retain them. Indeed, the ulama used the Shaykhi controversy to further refine and narrow the orthodox position.

      The reign of Muhammad Shah saw the start of the Babi movement. In 1844 Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad of Shiraz, who took the title of Bab (Gate, 1819-1850), began to put forward his claims (see p. 231). At first he commanded his followers to observe the Muslim Shari'a and there was little conflict with orthodox Islam. But in 1848, shortly before Muhammad Shah's death, the Bab declared that the Qur'an and Muslim Shari'a were abrogated and a new religious dispensation with a new holy book and a new Shari'a had begun. This was to result in conflict between his followers and the ulama and government during the next reign.

      Throughout the course of the 18th century, Sufism had reasserted itself in Iran and remained a major preoccupation of the ulama for the first few decades of the 19th century. The thrust against Sufism begun by Bihbahani at the close of the 18th century was continued vigorously. Bihbahani's son, Aqa Muhammad 'Ali, even became known as Su-S-kush (Sufi-slayer) on account of the number of Sufis he caused to be killed; these included Ma'sum 'Ali Shah and Muzaffar 'Ali Shah, two of the leading Ni'matu'llahi Sufi Shaykhs.

      There was a marked change in the relations between the ulama and the state during the reign of Muhammad Shah who, as noted above, had a predilection for Sufism. Indeed, the revolt of Husayn 'Ali Mirza, Farman-Farma, in Isfahan at the start of this reign received the support of Hajji Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Shafti, probably because Farman-Farma had no such pro-Sufi proclivities and supported the ulama.9 During this reign, it was no longer possible for the ulama to persecute the Sufis as they had during the previous reign. But although Sufism made progress among the royal family and government circles, it failed to make any significant headway among the people.

      The most important development of this period was, however, the emergence of the ulama into the political sphere. Although prominent members of the ulama had been influential at the local level since Safavid times and had, on occasions, even caused the dismissal of a Governor, and although the ulama of the late Safavid period exercised a remarkable degree of independence and even defiance of the government, it was not until the reign of Fath 'Ali Shah that the ulama entered the field of politics at the national level. Fath 'Ali Shah's marked deference to the ulama and his need of them to underpin the legitimacy of his dynasty no doubt contributed to this.

      There was a marked change in the relations between the state and the ulama in the Qajar period compared with the Safavid era. The Safavids had claimed authority on the basis of being both the 'Shadow of God on Earth' (the ancient Iranian concept of kingship, i. e. temporal authority) and the 'representative of the Hidden Imam' (i.e. spiritual authority), while the leading ulama of the Safavid period had all been incorporated into the state apparatus. The Qajars, however, only claimed the title of 'Shadow of God on Earth' and left the claim of being the 'representative of the Hidden Imam' to the ulama. The major ulama of this period were not only outside the state apparatus, but also most of them resided in Iraq outside the state's jurisdiction. Even when the ulama were appointed to state positions, such as Hajji Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Shafti who was Shaykh al-Islam of Isfahan, they acted independently and often in defiance of the government.

      The most marked instance of the political involvement of the ulama during this period was in the case of the Russo-Iranian Wars. During the first war, 1804-13, Mirza Buzurg, Qa'im-Maqam, the Minister of 'Abbas Mirza, the crown Prince, who was conducting the war, wrote to the ulama of Iraq and Isfahan to obtain fatwas declaring the war against Russia to be jihad (holy war). Many of the prominent ulama, such as Shaykh Ja'far Kashifu'l-Ghita and Mulla Ahmad Naraqi, responded to this request and issued such fatwas. This first Russo-Iranian War ended in defeat for Iran and the Treaty of Gulistan in 18 13 stripped her of all her Caucasian provinces.

      In the years after the war, reports began to reach the ulama of ill-treatment by the Russians of their newly-conquered Muslim subjects. The ulama began to agitate for jihad. Fath 'Ali Shah was reluctant but when, in 1826, he set out for his summer residence in Sultaniyya he was followed there by Aqa Sayyid Muhammad Tabataba'i of Karbala (a son of Sayyid 'Ali Tabataba'i), Mulla Ahmad Naraqi, Mulla Muhammad Taqi Baraghani of Qazvin and a number of other prominent ulama, who demanded that Fath 'Ali Shah declare war on Russia. The ulama were in fact threatening to take control of the affairs of government and launch the jihad themselves if Fath 'Ali Shah would not do this. They issued fatwas declaring the jihad to be obligatory and opposition to it a sign of unbelief (kufr). Fath 'Ali Shah was pressured into acquiescing. The outcome of the second Russo-Iranian War was as disastrous as the first. Although the ulama supported the troops in battle initially, after the first reverses they withdrew and it was indeed one of their number, Mir Fattah, who betrayed Tabriz into the hands of the Russians.[20] As the result of the treaty of Turkomanchay, 1828, further territory and a large indemnity were ceded by Iran.

      The importance of the second Russo-Iranian War from the point of view of the ulama, however, was their emergence as a force capable of shaping national policy. This was, indeed, the first of a chain of episodes where the ulama were to have a marked influence on the course of Iranian history. The subsequent links in this chain were to include agitation against Husayn Khan Sipahsalar in 1873, the opposition to the Tobacco Regie in 1891-2, the involvement of the ulama in the Constitutional Movement 1905-9, and culminating in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Political Developments under Nasiru'd-Din and Muzaffaru'd-Din Shahs

      The long reign of Nasiru'd-Din Shah, from 1848 to 1896, was marked by several important events. It began with a bloody suppression of the Babi movement in the years 1848-52 under Nasiru'd-Din Shah's first Prime Minister, Mirza Taqi Khan (executed 1852). There were a number of attempts at reforming and modernising Iran, the most notable of which were undertaken by Mirza Taqi Khan until his downfall in 1851 and Husayn Khan Sipahsalar in 1871-3. Hand-in-hand with modernisation came increasing penetration of Iran by Europeans. The Shah, desperate for revenue, farmed out many of the resources of the country in the form of concessions to European consortiums. The most extensive of these was the Reuter concession of 1872 which granted the monopoly of the working of the nation's mines, construction of railways and the national bank to Julius de Reuter, a naturalised British subject. This concession, which became an embarrassment to the British government, was eventually annulled over a minor technicality, but another concession, the monopoly of tobacco production and sale in 1890-52, aroused great public indignation and will be dealt with later in this chapter. The last years of Nasiru'd-Din Shah's reign saw an increasing political ferment among Iranians with many issues such as nationalism, Pan-Islamism and modernisation being the focus of attention. It was an adherent of Sayyid Jamalu'd-Din Afghani's Pan-Islamism who ended Nasiru'd-Din Shah's reign with an assassin's bullet in 1896. Nasiru'd-Din Shah does not appear to have inherited his father's Sufi proclivities and showed himself to be religiously devout in an orthodox way although somewhat fond of an excessive display of ceremony and ostentation in respect to religious occasions, which was frowned upon by the ulama. He went on pilgrimages to Mashhad and the shrines in Iraq and paid for the gilding of the domes of the shrines at Qumm, Shah 'Abdu'l-'Azim, Karbala and Samarra. He was not, however, subservient to the ulama in the way Fath 'Ali Shah had been but rather pursued an independent line that on occasions brought him into conflict with the ulama.

      Nasiru'd-Din Shah was succeeded by his son, the mild and inoffensive Muzaffaru'd-Din Shah. Muzaffru'd-Din, while Crown Prince in Tabriz, had been suspected of being under the influence of the Shaykhis but once on the throne he does not appear to have shown any outward heterodoxy. The principal event of his reign was the build-up of increasing pressure for a constitutional government. The ulama became leading voices in this movement.

The Ulama during the Reigns of Nasiru'd-Din and Muzaffaru'd-Din Shahs

      The years of Nasiru'd-Din Shah's reign saw important hierarchical developments among the ulama. Najaf remained at first the undisputed centre of the Shi'i world and it has already been noted that Shaykh Muhammad Hasan NajafI had almost succeeded before his death in 1850 in concentrating in himself the authority of marja' at-taqlid for the entire Shi'i world.

      It was also during this period that a number of the ulama of Iran became extremely wealthy. Apart from their income from donations and pious benefactions, some of these ulama were not averse to such practices as hoarding grain during famines and then selling them at vastly inflated prices to a starving populace. In these ways, such figures as Mulla 'Ali Kani of Tehran and Aqa Najafi of Isfahan became very rich.[23]

      The second half of the 19th century saw the ulama coming more and more into political issues. Their principal concerns now became identified with national issues. These included the response to the Babi movements and Shaykhism, increasing involvement in criticising the running of the government, increasing concern with the penetration of Iran by Europeans, and the issues of Pan-Islamism, modernisation and the Constitutional Movement.

      Although both Shaykhism and the Babi movement began in previous reigns, the most violent opposition to these movements began in Nasiru'd-Din Shah's reign and continued on into the 20th century. It was the ulama who took the lead in condemning the Bab and his followers. In Baghdad in 1845 the Governor, Najib Pasha, convened a court of some of the most prominent Sunni and Shi'i ulama who issued a joint fatwa declaring the Bab's writings to constitute unbelief (kufr). In Kirman, Hajji Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani, the Shaykhi leader, was one of the first to voice his opposition to the Bab and, in Qazvin, Mulla Muhammad Taqi Baraghani, who had been the first to condemn the Shaykhis, now also preached against the Babis.

      In two of the major armed conflicts between Babis and the government troops (at Shaykh Tabarsi in Mazandaran in 1848-9 and at Zanjan in 1850), it was the ulama who initiated the conflict by preaching against the Babis and rousing the population against them. However, it was the government who undertook the responsibility of carrying out the attempt to suppress the new religion. Following an attempted assassination of the Shah in 1852 there was a particularly brutal suppression of the Babis. The movement was driven underground but was to re-emerge decades later as the Bahá'í religion under the leadership of Bahá'u'lláh (1817-92). Throughout the rest of the 19th century the ulama, in particular, initiated sporadic outbursts of persecution against the Bahá'ís. Particularly active in this respect were Shaykh Muhammad Baqir, a mujtahid of Isfahan (d. 1883) and his son Shaykh Muhammad Taqi, known as Aqa Najafi (d. 1914). Thus in Isfahan between 1864 and 1914 there were thirteen violent episodes of persecution. Adharbayjan, Tehran, Khurasan, Fars and Yazd saw other major persecutions against the Bahá'ís. It was principally due to Aqa Najafi, but instigated by the Imam-Jum'a of Yazd, that a particularly violent outbreak of persecution of the Bahá'ís occurred in Yazd in 1903, leaving over a hundred Bahá'ís dead. These persecutions continued into the 20th century and have intensified since the 1979 Revolution.

      The Shaykhis too were subjected to persecution at the instigation of the ulama during this period. The major disturbances occurred in Kirman in 1878 and 1904-5, in Hamadan in 1897 and in Tabriz in 1848, 1868 and 1903.

      Nasiru'd-Din Shah's first Prime Minister, Mirza Taqi Khan, was too strong and single-minded to allow the ulama to interfere too much in the processes of government, but under his successors the ulama resumed their gradual encroachment onto the field of national politics. In 1873 the ulama played a leading role in overthrowing the Prime Minister, Mirza Husayn Khan, whose European-inspired modernisation they both feared and resented.

      The most important example of the ulama's involvement in the political sphere during Nasiru'd-Din's reign was in the agitation leading up to the repeal of the Tobacco Concession in 1891. Whereas in previous confrontations between the ulama and the state, the nation as a whole had been largely uninvolved, in this episode the ulama became the leaders of the people in a protest that involved the entire nation. A tobacco monopoly concession was granted to a British syndicate in 1890 and the company began its work in 1891. Almost immediately there was an outcry against the company. The ulama led the protests but the people themselves bitterly resented the concession and rioted in support of the ulama's demands for its abrogation. Then in December 1891 a fatwa was distributed purporting to be from Mirza-yi Shirazi, the marja' at-taqlid the entire Shi'i world. This fatwa forbade the use of tobacco and was universally obeyed throughout the country. The concession thus became valueless and was eventually withdrawn by the Shah in order to quell the general agitation. The ulama had won this major confrontation with the Shah and now realized the full extent of their political power. The episode itself was to be but a prelude to the ulama's involvement in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-9.

      One other political issue that concerned the ulama during this period was the Pan-Islamic Movement. This was the proposal put forward most vigorously by Sayyid Jamalu'd-Din Afghani (Asadabadi, 1838-97) that the entire Muslim world unite under the Caliphate of the Ottoman Sultan and thus resist more effectively the encroachment of the West. Although this proposal occasioned lively debate, Afghani does not appear to have been successful in obtaining the support of any of the prominent Shi'i ulama and the whole question gradually subsided following Afghani's own death in 1897.

      With the increasing contacts with Europe during this period, the ulama became very concerned at the rate and degree to which Western ideas and technology were being introduced into Iran. Some of these ideas, such as the notion of a constitutional government, were in parallel with the ulama's aims and were pronounced to be compatible with (and even derived from) Islam. Even some of the new technology such as the telegraph which gave better access to the mujtahids in the shrine cities to Iraq, came to be accepted. But, for the most part, the ulama were against change and particularly Western ideas and technology. They resisted and resented the increasing European penetration of the country with respect to trade and with respect even to the administration of the country. They attributed this to the corruption and venality of the Qajars and therefore put their influence behind the movement to limit the Shah's authority by means of a constitution.

The Popular Religion

      The 19th century saw important changes in the popular religion for the generality of the Shi'a. It saw the ulama and particularly the mujtahids pushing their way more forcefully into the lives of the ordinary Shi'i through the doctrine of taqlid and the rise of the marja' at-taqlid. From being at the periphery of the life of the believer and only involved in such social transactions as marriage, death and inheritance, the ulama were able to thrust themselves into the centre of the life of the believer, insisting that even in the ordinary actions of everyday life it is necessary for a devout believer to turn to the marja' at-taqlid for advice and guidance and as a model to be imitated.

      In parallel with this development, the people began increasingly to look to the ulama as their leaders and their voice vis-d-vis the government. This role of the ulama, which had begun during the Safavid period, was greatly expanded in the Qajar era. The home of the mujtahid became a frequent place of sanctuary (bast) for persons being pursued by the authorities. When the populace wished to protest against an oppressive Governor or an unpopular government policy, it was to the ulama that they turned to voice their dissatisfaction. The ulama, being financially independent of the government and relatively immune from its pressure, were able to criticise it with impunity. This role of the ulama reached its climax in the opening years of the 20th century in the Constitutional Revolution.

      The religious fervour of the masses was fanned by the increasing use of Rawda-khani, the recital of Husayn's sufferings, and by the introduction of the ta'ziya, a highly-stylised enactment of the Karbala tragedy. The Qajars encouraged this development by the erection of buildings (takiyyas) for the performance of these plays which were put on during Muharram (see pp. 240-42). Several of the Shi'i Holy Days such as the birth of the Imam 'Ali, Imam Husayn and the Twelfth Imam as well as the commemoration of the day of Ghadir were declared as public holidays by Nasiru'd-Din Shah.

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