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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 8

The Evolution of the Role of the Ulama

      Initially during the Buyid period it was considered by the Twelver ulama that since the Imam had gone into occultation and there was no longer present his special representative (Na'ib al-Khass), the four Babs during the Lesser Occultation (see p. 164), all the functions invested in the Imam had lapsed (saqit). The principal functions of the Imam were considered to be:
  1. Leading the Holy War (jihad)
  2. Division of the booty (qismat al-fay)
  3. Leading the Friday Prayer (salat al jum'a)
  4. Putting judicial decisions into effect (tanfidh al-ahkam)
  5. Imposing legal penalties (iqamat al-hudud
  6. Receiving the religious taxes of zakat and khums

      This doctrine of lapse of the functions of the occulted Imam was almost certainly very convenient politically at first, since it established the Twelvers as being non-revolutionary in sharp contrast with the Isma'ilis who, with their Imam-Caliph present in Cairo and their active propaganda, were threatening to destabilise and overthrow the Buyids. Indeed, this consideration may have been one of the principal reasons for the evolution of the doctrine of Ghayba, the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam.[5]

      However, it soon became apparent that the situation caused by the concept of the lapse of functions of the Hidden Imam was extremely impractical and left the Twelver community at a great disadvantage with no leadership, no organisation and no financial structure. Therefore, as early as the 5th/11th century, Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa was reinterpreting the doctrine so as to allow delegation of the Imam's judicial authority to those who had studied fiqh (jurisprudence, these are called the fuqaha), although he implies in his writings that this function should only be undertaken by the ulama if there is no-one else to do it (i.e. that it was a somewhat distasteful task). Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa considered the ulama as the best people to act as agents of the donor in distributing the religious taxes since they knew to whom it should be distributed; but nevertheless individuals were free to do this themselves if they wished. He allowed the fuqaha to organise the Friday prayers in the absence of the Imam or his special representative.6 This last point remained controversial with such figures as 'Alamu'l-Huda, ibn Idris and 'Allama al-Hilli disagreeing.

      By the 7th/13th century, Muhaqqiq al-Hilli (d. 676/1277) was able to advance these concepts very considerably. He extended the judicial role of the ulama to iqamat al-hudud (the imposition of penalties, i. e. by the ulama themselves rather than the temporal authorities). In his writings it is possible to see the evolution in his thinking whereby the fuqaha-develop from being deputies of the donor for the distribution of religious taxes in his early writings to being the deputies of the Hidden Imam for the collection and distribution of the taxes in his later works.[7]

      Thus up to the time of Shahid ath-Thani, the ulama were gradually evolving the theoretical basis of their authority. But the Safavids were too strong and maintained too close a control over the ulama to enable them to put much of this into practice. It was left to the Qajar period, after the victory of the Usulis over the Akhbaris (see p. 127), before the ulama were able to bring most of these theoretical functions into practice. The end of the Safavid dynasty brought about the weakening of the state system of courts with government-appointed judges (qadis) and the mujtahids were able to replace these with Shari'a courts of their own to which people came in increasing numbers, thus enabling the ulama to assert their judicial authority. Thus, one by one, the lapsed functions of the Hidden Imam were being taken over by the ulama. However, there was as yet no claim by the ulama to political authority.

      In summary, it may be said that over some nine centuries, by a process of exegesis and innovative interpretation, the ulama were able to effect a very considerable theoretical consolidation of their authority but in such small stages as to make the process scarcely discernible to each generation and thus to give the impression of there having occurred no change at all. This is not meant to imply, however, that this was a conscious process among the ulama. They were merely responding to social and economic pressure and particularly the advent of the Shi'i Safavid and Qajar states, in such a manner as to maximise both the benefit to themselves and the consolidation of their authority, while at the same time justifying and explaining the social and political realities around them.

The Ulama's Attitude Towards Political Authority

      Sunni Islam developed its constitutional theory in the presence of a Sunni state. Thus the political sphere was incorporated into the doctrine of the religious sphere and religion became one of the main supports of the state. Obedience to the ruler became a religious obligation even if the ruler were unjust, for that was preferable to anarchy. Conversely the judgement of one of the ulama appointed as judge (qadi) would be considered competent only because of his appointment by the government and regardless of his ability, knowledge or sense of justice.

      The development of Shi'i Islam, on the other hand, took place for much of the time with the Shi'is a persecuted minority in a Sunni state. Thus the Shi'is, during their early period, had no need of someone like Mawardi, who in Sunnism integrated the political sphere into the religious sphere.

      All political authority for Shi'is is theoretically vested in the Imam. However, the Imam of the age is occulted and thus his political authority has lapsed. This tendency to depoliticise the Imamate, which was important for the Shi'is in the 4th/10th century, was reinforced during the Ilkhanid and Timurid period when, under the influence of Isma'ili and Sufi thought, the Imam became seen more in terms of a religious saviour, interceding in Heaven with God for men, rather than as a veiled earthly figure. Thus the concept of the Imamate became removed from consideration in the sphere of political authority and became a theological concept. As a result of this, Shi'i Islam did not at this stage evolve any real political theory and the ulama came to regard politics as outside their realm of concern.

      Since legitimacy could not be given nor withheld from any government, temporal authorities came to rely on the pre-Islamic Sassanian Iranian concept of kingship as the basis of their authority and the title 'Shadow of God on Earth' which was adopted by the kings is an expression of that.

      The Shi'is saw themselves as an 'elect' (al-khassa) living among the generality (al-'amma) of the Muslims. The Sunnis were and still are acknowledged as Muslims but only Twelver Shi'ism confers true belief (Iman) and makes one a true believer (mu'min). For Shi'is, the sacred community consisted of the believers with the ulama at their head guiding and directing their actions. All political, administrative and economic matters not directly concerned with the Shari'a and therefore not under the control of the ulama, were outside the concern of the sacred community.

      Thus, whereas Sunnis lived their lives in a system where political affairs were integrated into the sacred community, Shi'is lived simultaneously in two different systems, the sacred community and the profane community. Since the ulama and the political leaders of the community were in fact rivals for the leadership of the people, this not infrequently meant that Shi'is were living in two communities between which there was rivalry and tension.

      For the ulama there were three possible ways of relating to the state. All three are, of course, justified by their proponents through exegesis from the Qur'an and hadith:

1. Political Co-operation.

      The ulama can co-operate with the state and provide it with recognition. They can accept appointment to official positions in the state. This can be justified by the contention that the state is preventing anarchy and only where there is order can the provisions of the Shari'a be fully implemented. It is permissible to co-operate with a state that is enforcing the Shi'i Shari'a and the ruler of which is just. Cooperation with a non-Shi'i or unjust government is only permissible under compulsion on the pain of death or grave loss when the provisions of taqiyya (religious dissimulation, see p. 183) come into play.

      Theoretically, even when they accept a state's appointment (as judge or some other post), this is not the sole source of the Shi'i ulama's authority. Their authority derives also by virtue of the concept of their being the Na'ib al-'Amm (general representative) of the Hidden Imam.

      Many of the leading ulama of the Safavid period took this view, but, in later periods, ulama who took posts identified with the government were looked upon with some disdain by their colleagues.

2. Political Activism.

      The ulama can actively involve themselves in politics, seeking to bring the temporal authorities into line with the Shari'a. Thus if the government complies with them they dominate it (as happened during parts of the Safavid period and also in present-day Iran). Or else they oppose the government. This attitude can be justified since all government is usurping (ja'ir) the authority of the Hidden Imam and the ulama as the Na'ib al-'Amm of the Hidden Imam and as experts in the Shari'a are the best persons to guide the government. Western scholars have tended to make a great deal out of this political option (even to the extent of disregarding the others), and it cannot be denied that there have been a few dramatic occasions, such as the agitation against the Tobacco Regie in 1891-2, the Constitutional movement in 1905-9 and the 1979 Revolution in Iran, when this option has been taken up by the majority of the ulama with dramatic political effect. But this should not obscure the fact that this has not been the attitude of the majority of the ulama for most of the time. For example, Mirza Muhammad Hasan, Mirza-yi Shirazi, the foremost Shi'i mujtahid of the late 19th century, spent most of his life politically aloof. However, for a very short period of time he chose to take a political initiative and opposed the state over the question of the Tobacco Regie.

3. Political Aloofness.

      The ulama can remain totally aloof from all political matters. This has always traditionally been the attitude of the majority of the ulama. Indeed, it has usually been considered that only ulama who have remained aloof from all other activity and concentrated on furthering the Shari'a can rise to the highest ranks (this did not apply, however, during Safavid times nor does it in present-day Iran).

      The writings of Shi'i ulama through the ages have shown elements of all three of these attitudes and thus it cannot be said that any coherent Shi'i theory of political legitimacy or any unified stance by the ulama towards the state has existed. Even individual ulama have changed their attitude at different periods in their lives according to circumstances, as the above example of Mirza-yi Shirazi shows.

      Up to the time of the Safavids, the question of a political theory in Shi'i Islam did not arise, for up to that time the ulama had existed in the milieu of a strongly Sunni state (or, as in the case of the Buyids, a Shi'i state that made no concessions to the ulama).

      The early Safavid monarchs rested their power base on a Shi'i claim that was closer to the ideas of the 'extremists' ghulat) than of Twelver Shi'is. They were venerated as divine figures by their troops. The late Safavids emphasised their claimed descent from the Seventh Imam, Musa al-Kazim, as the source of charismatic religious authority. Although they gave the ulama a free hand in teaching Twelver doctrines to the people, they were sufficiently dominant to inhibit the ulama from trespassing into the field of political theory. The ulama, however, did come to regard themselves as guardians of public morals and towards the end of the Safavid period did not hesitate to speak out if they felt that the king was straying from the path of the Shari'a. The Safavid dynasty can thus be seen as a period which saw a certain degree of separation between church and state but with the state exercising a degree of authority over the religious field through its pseudo-religious charismatic claims and its political control.

      The Qajar dynasty claimed no hereditary charisma in the same way as the Safavids did and so it turned to the ulama for justification of its rule. The ulama were prepared to grant this but used the opportunity to consolidate their position and affirm their independence. Sayyid Ja'far considered that the Imam held both the religious and political leadership in the community. With the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam, however, his functions have been divided and devolve upon two groups who are the Na'ibs (representatives or vicegerents of the Hidden Imam: the ulama who are charged with the religious vicegerency and the rulers who have political vicegerency. If these two co-operate then the affairs of the community run smoothly since the ulama cannot apply the Shari'a unless the ruler establishes order, while the ruler needs the ulama without whose guidance he will stray towards injustice and tyranny. "

      Although the ulama had, since the Safavid and Qajar periods, claimed to be the Na'ib al-'Amm of the Hidden Imam, they had refrained from the obvious next step of claiming the political authority and temporal rule implicit in their vicegerency. Indeed, Sayyid Ja'far Kashfi and others had specifically denied the ulama such a role. Initially, Ayatu'llah Khumayni went along with this view. In his earlier writings such as the Kashf al-Asrar he attacked the Shah's government on the grounds of its injustice and tyranny and because of its secularisation programme. But at this stage Khumayni's aim was only to exert pressure on the Shah and government to reform itself. He still allowed the legitimacy of the temporal authorities provided they acted justly, which is defined as acting in accordance with the Shari'a. Khumayni's view, at this time, was that monarchy is a divine privilege entrusted ta the king by the people. Thus it is necessary for every king to obtain his mandate from the people. In summary, Khumayni has taken the Na'ib al-Amm concept to its logical conclusion by asserting the right of the faqih as the deputy of the Imam to superintend all religious, social and political affairs — the Vilayat-i Faqih.

Other Sources of the Ulama's Authority and Social Prestige

      The Hidden Imam is thought to be among the body of the Shi'is incognito. Since he must undoubtedly be accounted as one of the learned, there is always the possibility that one of the ulama may indeed be the Hidden Imam. In addition, numerous stories exist of the Hidden Imam manifesting himself to prominent members of the ulama. This feeling that the ulama, and particularly the great mujtahids, are in close contact with the Hidden Imam undoubtedly contributes greatly to their prestige and authority among the ordinary people. Their standing is further bolstered by the attribution to them of miracles (karamat).

      During the Qajar period it became normal for the prominent ulama in any town to surround themselves with a band of the town's ruffians, known as lutis, to their mutual benefit. The ulama had a ready band who would take to the street and create agitation when it suited the ulama to call them out, and many a governor in nineteenth-century Iran was withdrawn because of such agitation. The lutis, in turn, had a protector with whom they could take refuge if the government moved against them. The tullab (religious students) attached to the religious colleges were used by the ulama in much the same way in the larger towns. This type of behaviour came to the fore once more in the 1979 Revolution in Iran. Since the Revolution, essentially the same group of persons, now called Hizbu'llahis (the Party of God) are providing support for the radical ulama at the street level. Some of these elements have been incorporated into the Revolutionary Guards.

      Also closely involved in the power structure of the religious classes are the Sayyids. These are persons who claim descent from the Prophet through Fatima and the Imams. Their prestige in the community is based solely on this heredity. As a class they lay no claim to religious learning (although as individuals many of them do undertake religious education and become ulama as well) but, according to the religious law, they are entitled to part of the khums religiouS tax (see p. 179) and they are highly regarded by the ordinary people. Thus this group are often asked to bless a newborn child and a marriage into a Sayyid family is regarded as highly advantageous. The Sayyids and the ulama are often closely inter-related by marriage and are mutually supportive socially.

      Two social groups that usually provide the ulama with support are: the Bazaar (the complex net of merchants, bankers and craftsmen who make up the heart of the traditional Islamic city) an element-which has a tradition of being conservative and 'religious';[21] and the Zur-Khanas which are combined gymnasia and wrestling schools (historically these are evolved from the futuwwa, see p. 90, and are linked to the lutis mentioned above).

Education of the Ulama

      Prior to the establishment of a modern school system in Iran, elementary education was provided in the villages and towns by the maktab, a school which was usually run by a minor member of the ulama. These gave their pupils a basic literacy but concentrated on memorising passages of the Qur'an (which being in Arabic was unintelligible to the pupils), teaching religious duties (such as obligatory prayers, etc.) and usually also some Persian poetry (Sa'di, Hafiz, Rumi, etc.). From the maktab students would go on to a madrasa (religious college) which would be situated in the larger towns. In the present day, at about the age of fifteen those aiming to become top-ranking ulama will head for the most important centres of religious learning which are, at present, Qumm, Mashhad and Najaf, and will enrol in the madrasas there.

      The culmination of the student's endeavours is the receipt of an ijaza (permission or authorisation) from a recognised mujtahid. The student usually prepares a treatise on fiqh or usul al-fiqh and presents it to the mujtahid. If the mujtahid considers the student himself and the work worthy of it, he issues an ijaza which in effect states that the recipient is in his opinion, capable of exercising ijtihad and thus can be called a mujtahid. The more eminent the mujtahid, the more prestigious is the ijaza that he signs and any student wanting to achieve recognition will usually try and obtain ijazas from all of the most eminent mujtahids at his centre of learning. It is uncommon to obtain an ijaza before the age of thirty and not uncommon for forty-and fifty-year-olds to be still students.

      The formal preconditions for being considered to be able to give legal opinions (ifta) and thus to be a mujtahid are:

  1. Maturity.
  2. Being of the male sex (this is the subject of some controversy).[22]
  3. Being of legitimate birth.
  4. Faith.
  5. Intelligence.
  6. Justice (integrity).
      The concept of justice is not, however, the usual Western view of that word but rather it implies one whose words and deeds are strictly controlled by the Shari'a, refraining from all its prohibitions and performing all of its obligations.

      There are no fees for studying at the madrasas and indeed the students are given their room and an allowance for their essential needs. This allowance is almost always just enough for subsistence and those students from a poor background who receive no additional funds from home usually lead a very harsh, spartan existence.[23]

The Hierarchy of the Ulama

      The clerical class constitutes a fairly distinctive entity in Iran and to a lesser extent in other Shi'i communities. The terms most usually used for a member of this class in Iran is mulla or akhund. But since these two expressions have acquired a somewhat pejorative connotation, in recent years a third term, ruhani (spiritual) has been promoted especially by the clerical class itself.

      Only a small percentage of those who enter a madrasa succeed in obtaining an ijaza. Most students leave at some stage before this either out of financial or personal considerations or because they do not have the intellect and perseverance to last the course. Most of those that leave the madrasa at an early stage consider themselves members of the ulama, although many will go to other occupations such as merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen. Often a village or town will petition one of the mujtahids to send them a teacher for the maktab or a pishnamaz (a prayer-leader), or a position as a mutawalli (custodian) of a shrine or endowment will become vacant and the mujtahid will appoint one of his students who obviously does not have the capacity to complete the course to this position. Others will leave the madrasa with the intention of becoming a wa'iz (travelling preacher) or rawda-khan (narrators of the Karbala tragedy), although these latter need not have attended a madrasa at all.

      The obtaining of an ijaza, although a considerable achievement and entailing a degree of prestige, does not automatically result in recognition as a mujtahid. For the status of mujtahid can only be achieved by public recognition. In other wards, the possessor of an ijaza, although considered by his teacher to be worthy of being a mujtahid, does not in fact become one until he gathers among the public a following who are prepared to acknowledge him as such and refer to him on legal matters. The patronage of one of the eminent mujtahids obviously assists greatly in achieving recognition as a mujtahid, but prestige among one's fellow students, family connections and the ability to preach and communicate with the people are also important. There are many who having obtained an ijaza fail to achieve recognition as mujtahids and these are sometimes referred to as mujtahid muhtat (mujtahid in abeyance).

      Once recognition as a mujtahid has been achieved, movement upwards towards pre-eminence among one's fellow mujtahids is once again dependent on public acclaim of one's piety and learning and also, to a certain extent, the natural result of the death of more prominent mujtahids.

      Historically, the ulama initially had no hierarchical structure. Members of the ulama would choose to specialise in different fields such as philosophy or theology and would not suffer any loss of prestige thereby, although by far the greatest number studied jurisprudence (fiqh) since this was the field for which there was the greatest need in the towns and villages of the Shi'i world.

      One result of this division was that those ulama who had not concentrated on jurisprudence in their studies and were thus not considered eligible to be mujtahids fell sharply in the hierarchy of deference and henceforth only mujtahids could aspire to the highest ranks of the ulama.

      The practice of following or emulating a mujtahid is called taqlid and thus the mujtahid became the marja' at-taqlid (reference point for emulation).

      Up to the middle of the 19th century there were very few mujtahids (three or four) anywhere at any one time. Probably due to the new emphasis on the position of mujtahids there was, after this, a sudden explosion in the numbers of mujtahids so that several hundred existed by the end of the 19th century.

      At all times it was considered obligatory to seek the most knowledgeable person available to give legal opinions. During the 19th century, improving communications made it increasingly easy for important or controversial questions to be referred to the eminent mujtahids at Najaf both by ordinary Shi'is and local mujtahids. In this way a small number of eminent mujtahids in Najaf became regarded as being the marja' at-taqlid for a particular area. Shaykh Muhammad Hasan Najafi almost succeeded in consolidating the function marja' at-taqlid in himself but there seems general agreement that either Shaykh Murtada Ansari towards the end of his life or Mirza-yi Shirazi were the first to become sole marja' at-taqlid (marja' at-taqlid al-mutlaq) for the entire Shi'i world. After Mirza-yi Shirazi there developed a pattern whereby on the death of each marja' at-taqlid, there would either be an obvious successor or there would be a small group of mujtahids of equal renown. In the latter case, the group would share the leadership until, as one after another died, only one would be left and he would become the sole marja ' at-taqlid. The situation continued until the death of Ayatu'llah Burujirdi in 1961 (for developments after this see p. 248).

      In recent years several lists of maraji' at-taqlid going back to the time of Kulayni at the start of the Greater Occultation have been produced.[26] But this is a practice of dubious historical authenticity since the concept of marja' at-taqlid originated in the 18th century, possibly with Bihbahani.

      In addition there has been a tradition in Islam that at the beginning of each Islamic century there would arise a great figure who would revitalise the religion. This figure is called the Mujaddid (Renewer). Although there is general consensus for who this figure was in some centuries, there is not for others. Table 7 shows a provisional list.

      The local mullas and the great mujtahids are mutually interdependent. The local mullas are the main means of spreading public recognition of a mujtahid's piety and learning since the common people are not considered able to discern such things (piety being a question of how closely one's actions conform to the norms laid down by the Shari'a; this, naturally, can only be assessed by a member of the ulama). Thus the great mujtahids need the local mullas for recognition and the income that that ultimately entails. Local mullas need the great mujtahids since they tend to bask in the reflected glory of the mujtahid that they follow.

      Prefixed designations such as 'Ayatu'llah' are a relatively new phenomenon. In the 19th century a number of the most prominent mujtahids such as Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Shafti and Mirza-yi Shirazi were referred to as 'Hujjatu'l-Islam' (the proof of Islam). Then in the 20th century, the title 'Ayatu'llah' (the sign of God) became customary for designating a marja' at-taqlid.27 In recent years, and particularly after the 1979 Revolution, there was a vast proliferation of individuals calling themselves 'Ayatu'llah', thus effectively degrading the title. At present three levels of prefixed designations appear to be in use: 'Ayatu'llah al 'Uzma' (the greatest sign of God), designates a marja' at-taqlid; 'Ayatu'llah', used for any established mujtahid; and 'Hujjatu'l-Islam' for aspiring mujtahids.[28]

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