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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 9

The Shaykhi School

      Whereas the Akhbari School differed from the Usulis principally in the field of jurisprudence or the furu-' (peripheral elements) of the religion, the Shaykhi School, founded by Shaykh Ahmad ibn Zaynu'd-Din al-Ahsa'i (1166/1753-1241/1826) differed principally in the field of doctrines and the usul (fundamental principles) of the religion. Although Shaykh Ahmad disagreed with Mulla Muhsin-i Fayd on a number of points, the Shaykhi School may be regarded, on the simplest level of analysis, as a further development of the Hikmat-i Ilahi of the School of Isfahan (see pp. 216-19). The doctrines of Shaykhism require a great deal more research but, pending that, the following is a brief outline of the major themes, emphasising those aspects where Shaykhism differs from the orthodox position:

      A. On God: In order to have knowledge of something, there must be some similarity between the knower and the known. Since there is no similarity whatsoever between God and man, man can never know God's Essence. Any knowledge that man has of God is only a creation of his own imagination. At most it relates to an image or reflection of God but can never attain His reality. From God issues forth His Will and it is this which is the cause of creation. This view of God essentially negated the Sufi concept of wahdat al-wujud (existential unity) and the mystical union with God.

      One aspect of Shaykh Ahmad's views about God which brought him into conflict with the mainstream of Twelver Shi'i thought was his view regarding the knowledge of God. Shaykh Ahmad considered that God had two types of knowledge, an essential (dhati) knowledge which is inseparable from His Essence; and a created (muhdath) knowledge which comes into being when God acts within creation. This same division may be applied to all of the attributes of God.

      B. On the Prophets: The prophet stands as an intermediary between man and God. There is no similarity between God and the prophet nor between man and the prophet. The prophet is not merely a man whom God has chosen to become the recipient of his revelation but is unique and possessed of capabilities and attributes beyond the reach of even the most perfect man. In this, Shaykh Ahmad is denying the Sufi idea that man can by purifying himself achieve the station of prophethood.

      C. On the Imams: Shaykh Ahmad considered that the first creation issuing forth from God's will was the light of Muhammad (an-Nu-r al Muhammadiyya). From this light the light of the Imams came into being. From the light of the Imams the light of the believers came into being, and so on. Thus the Imams are the instruments of the creation of the world. They are also the ultimate cause of creation since God has created the world for their sake. They are the intermediaries through which man can obtain some comprehension of God and God's bounties can reach man.

      It was Shaykh Ahmad's conception of the Imams that drew from the orthodox camp the accusation of tafwid (attributing God's attributes to someone other than God).

      Another result of Shaykh Ahmad's extreme veneration of the Imams was that, when visiting the shrines of the Imams, who were buried as is Muslim custom with their heads pointing towards Mecca, Shaykh Ahmad would pay his respects at the foot of the Imam and never approached the head because he considered it disrespectful and because he did not wish, when the time for prayers came, to have to turn his back on the Imam, when he turned towards Mecca. This way of visiting the shrines of the Imams became characteristic of the followers of the Shaykh who became known as Pusht-i Saris (behind-the-headers) while the orthodox Shi'is were Bala-Saris (above-the-headers). In the conflict between the Shaykhis and their orthodox opponents that occurred from time to time, the two sides were often referred to as Shaykhis and Bala-Saris.

      D. On the Nature of the World: Between the physical world and the spiritual world, there exists an intermediary world, the world of Hurqalya (or Huvarqalya — variously stated to be Hebrew, Greek or Syriac in origin) or the world of archetypal images ('Alam al-mithal). This is identified as the barzakh (isthmus or purgatory) of orthodox Islamic eschatology. 3 Everything in the physical world has its counterpart in the world of Hurqalya. Each individual human being has two bodies, one of which exists in the physical world and one in Hurqalya. The occulted but living Twelfth Imam and the cities of Jabulsa and Jabulqa, where he is supposed to live, all exist in the realm of Hurqalya.

      E. Eschatology: It was the consequences of Hurqalya, more than anything else, that led to Shaykh Ahmad's conflict with the orthodox ulama. For the Shaykh's chief endeavour was to harmonise reason and religion and he used the concept of Hurqalya to explain some of the doctrines of Islam that appeared contrary to reason.

      For Shaykh Ahmad, the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam did not mean that a living physical Imam was in hiding somewhere on earth but rather that, although direct physical contact with the Imam was no longer possible, the Imam lived on in the world of archetypal images, the realm of Hurqalya, and, for those who strive to reach him in that world, he is still able to perform the key function of the Imam, that of initiating the seeker into the divine mysteries (walaya).

      With regard to the phenomenon of resurrection, Shaykh Ahmad also regarded this as an event that occurs to man's subtle body in the world of Hurqalya. Similarly, heaven and hell are the results of men's actions which create the situation of either heaven or hell in each individual's personal life in Hurqalya.

      F. The Night Ascent of Muhammad (Mi'raj): One of the key events in the life of the Prophet was the night that, according to orthodox Muslim belief, he was transported bodily to a place near Jerusalem and then ascended to heaven. Shaykh Ahmad asserted that the Mi'raj took place with Muhammad's subtle body and not with his physical. G. The Fourth Support: This key doctrine of the Shaykhis was developed not so much by Shaykh Ahmad himself as by his successors. Orthodox Shi'is believe in five supports or principles of the religion (usul ad-din, see pp. 176-7). Shaykh Ahmad considered that two of these, the unity of God and the justice of God could be put together as one, knowledge of God. Also, the resurrection, as part of the prophetic teaching, could be put under that heading and did not need to exist by itself. This left three supports to which a fourth was added. In the time of Sayyid Kazim and among the early writings of Karim Khan Kirmani, the Fourth Support (ar-Rukn ar-Rabi') appears to mean the continuing presence in the physical world of a Perfect Shi'i (ash-Shi'i al-Kamil, cf. the Sufi concept of the Perfect Man) who is able to act as the intermediary between the Hidden Imam and the world. The Hidden Imam inspires this intermediary who thus comes to represent the will of the Hidden Imam. This Perfect Shi'i stands at the head of a hierarchy of figures, nujaba and nuqaba, who are each able to impart some of the Imam's knowledge and authority. The term ar-Rukn ar-Rabi' (or in its Persianised form Rukn-i Rabi') is sometimes applied to the Perfect Shi'i alone and sometimes to the whole hierarchy. It is reasonably clear that the early Shaykhis regarded Shaykh Ahmad and Sayyid Kazim as each being successively the Perfect Shi'i, the Fourth Support, the gate to the Hidden Imam. 4 At a later stage in the evolution of Shaykhi doctrine, when the Shaykhis were trying to be less controversial doctrinally, the term ar-Rukn ar-Rabi' came to be applied to the body of the ulama as a whole and indeed came to resemble the Na'ib al-'Amm concept.

      However, underlying the bitter opposition of many mujtahids to the Shaykh's doctrines was undoubtedly a fear that the Shaykh's preference for intuitive knowledge, which he claimed to obtain directly by inspiration from the Imams, would seriously undermine the authority of their position which was based on knowledge derived by the rational processes of ijtihad. Shaykh Ahmad's preference for the intuitive uncovering of knowledge (kashf) led his school to be called Kashfi by some.

      In matters of jurisprudence Shaykh Ahmad appears to have taken an intermediate position between the Usulis and the Akhbaris. He did not deny the validity of ijtihad but considered it desirable to remain within the area demarcated by the Traditions of the Imams.

      These doctrines of Shaykh Ahmad inevitably brought him into conflict with the more fundamentalist ulama. The first matters that became the subject of conflict were the questions of the night ascent of Muhammad and the resurrection which the Shaykh's opponents considered to have occurred or were to occur with the physical body. There was also the question of tafwid (see above) and of the knowledge of God. 5 Later numerous other points were added to the list of differences.

      Shaykh Ah. mad, during his lifetime, had appointed Sayyid Kazim as his trustee and successor. During Sayyid Kazim's time, the conflict with orthodoxy intensified. At his death in 1259/1843, Sayyid Kazim failed to appoint a successor and the Shaykhis, apart from those that went on to become Babis (see next section), split into three main factions: one led by Mirza Hasan Gawhar in Karbala, one led by Hajji Mirza Shafi', Thiqatu'l-Islam and Mulla Muhammad Mamaqani Hujjatu'l-Islam in Tabriz and one led by Hajji Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani in Kirman.

      At Karbala many of the Shaykhis followed Mirza Hasan Gawhar (Mulla Muhammad Hasan Qarachadaghi) although two other figures, Mirza Muhammad Husayn Muhit Kirmani and Sayyid Kazim's son, Ahmad (killed 1878), had considerable influence. Leadership of this group was assumed after Gawhar's death by Mulla Muhammad Baqir Usku'i (d. 1301/1883). After him leadership passed to his son, Mirza Musa, and now rests with his grandson, Mirza 'Ali Ha'iri, who is resident in Kuwait. They are known as Usku'is.

      The Tabriz Shaykhis quickly suppressed all external evidence of heterodoxy. Thus, for.example, in the field of jurisprudence, they unreservedly adopted the Usuli School. This did not, however, save them from the animosity of the populace. During the last half of the 19th century there were frequent anti-Shaykhi riots and, indeed, the splitting of the city into Shaykhi and Bala-San quarters came to replace the Ni'mati-Haydari division of other Iranian cities (see p. 215). Leadership among the Tabriz Shaykhis came to lie in two families. At first it was the Hujjatu'l-Islam family that was predominant. Mulla Muhammad Mamaqani Hujjatu'l-Islam (d. 1269/1852) led the prayers in the Hujjatu'l-Islam Mosque and became one of the prominent religious leaders of Adharbayjan. His three sons, Mulla Muhammad Husayn (d. 1303/1885), Mulla Muhammad Taqi (d. 1312/1894) and Mirza Isma'il (d. 1317/1899) and Mulla Muhammad Husayn's son, Mirza Abu'l-Qasim (d. 1362/1943) each in turn took the title Hujjatu'l-Islam and became the leader of prayers in the Hujjatu'l-Islam Mosque. After the last-named, however, the family died out. The second family was the Thiqatu'l-Islam family. Hajj Mirza Shafi' Thiqatu'l-Islam (d. 1301/1884) was, like Mulla Muhammad Mamaqani, a student of Shaykh Ahmad and Sayyid Kazim. He was succeeded in turn by his son Shaykh Musa (d. 1319/1901) and grandson Mirza 'Ali, each of whom successively took the title Thiqatu'l-Islam. During the lifetime of Mirza 'Ali, the Thiqatu'l-Islam family overtook the Hujjatu'l-Islam family in importance and became the leader of the majority of the Tabriz Shaykhis. Mirza 'Ali became a national hero when he was hanged by the Russians in 1912 for resisting the occupation of Tabriz. A large number of the writings of Shaykh Ahmad were lithographed in Tabriz during the 19th century. (Tabriz also had a group of Shaykhis who followed Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani and these were centred on the Kazimi Mosque.)

      The most important group of Shaykhis, however, was that led by Hajji Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani (1810-71) who was a member of the ruling Qajar family (his mother was Nasiru'd-Din's great-aunt and he was the maternal uncle of the mother of Muzaffaru'd-Din Shah). After his death leadership of this group of Shaykhis went successively to members of his family who.were each known by the title 'Sarkar Aqa' (His Lordship). For a while there was a dispute over the leadership between Muhammad Karim Khan's two sons, Hajji Muhammad Rahim Khan and Hajji Muhammad Khan. Then in 1878 there was a violent Shaykhi-Bala-Sari conflict in Kirman which lasted for over a year. At the end of this time Muhammad Rahim Khan was expelled by the Governor and the leadership crisis was thus resolved in favour of Hajji Muhammad Khan. Most of the followers of Muhammad Rahim Khan rejoined the main group after a while. A more serious split was caused by Hajji Mirza Muhammad Baqir Hamadani (d. 1901) who objected to the leadership becoming hereditary and considered himself more learned than Ha]il Muhammad Khan. His residence was in Hamadan until 1897 when a Shaykhi-Bala-San riot forced him to move to Na'in. His followers, known as Baqiris, are most numerous in Hamadan, Na'in and Isfahan. Muhammad Khan's followers were known as Natiqis or Nawatiq.

      Hajji Muhammad Khan died in 1906 and was succeeded by his brother Hajji Zaynu'l-'Abidin Khan (d. 1941) who in turn was succeeded by his son Hajji Abu'l-Qasim Khan Ibrahimi (d. 1969) and grandson Hajji 'Abdu'r-Rida Khan Ibrahimi. The latter was killed during the disturbances following the Iranian Revolution on 26 December 1979 in Kirman. After this leadership of the movement went out of the Ibrahim family and the new leader is Sayyid 'Ali Musawi who is resident in Basra in Iraq.

      Under Muhammad Karim Khan and his successors Shaykhism underwent a phenomenon that might be called doctrinal drift. By this is meant that each successive Shaykhi leader expounded the doctrines of the school in such a way as to bring them more and more closely into line with orthodoxy. The culmination of this process occurred in 1950 when Aqa Muhammad Taqi Falsafi (acting on behalf of Ayatu'llah Burujirdi) put twenty-five questions to Hajji Abu'l-Qasim Khan Ibrahimi on matters of doctrine. These were answered (in the Risala-yi Falsafiyya) in so completely orthodox a manner that Falsafi was left wondering why the Shaykhis chose to call themselves by a separate name.

      Shaykhis have remained a small minority in the Shi'i world, numbering perhaps 200,000 in Iran and 300,000 in Iraq and the Gulf. They are to be found in most cities but ate most numerous in Kirman, Tabriz, Khurramshahr, Abadan, Tehran, Abada, Marvdasht, Rafsanjan, Shiraz and Zunuz as well as in Basra in Iraq. At Kirman the Shaykhis have a small religious college, the Madrasa Ibrahimiyya, with some 30 or 40 students, and a publishing house and press. There is also a religious college in Basra.

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