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An Introduction to Shi'i Islam:
The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism

by Moojan Momen

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Chapter 10


    Shi'i Jurisprudence and the Religious Hierarchy

Shi'i Islam can be said to have three facets in its
religious expression: the popular religion of the masses,
the mystical religion of the Sufis and the scholarly
legalistic religion of the clerical classes (the ulama). Of
these three, it is undoubtedly the last which has dominated
the others in terms of the respect and influence it enjoys.
Although there are other schools of jurisprudence in Shi'i
Islam (see Chapter 12), it is the Usuli School which
predominates and which will be considered in this chapter.
  When Twelver Shi'i Islam first emerged as a distinct
entity separate from other Shi'i groups at the turn of the
2nd-3rd Islamic centuries (8th/9th centuries AD), it was
principally the ulama who took the lead in defining its
doctrines and evolving its polemics. In Sunni Islam the
Caliph was looked upon as the symbolic head of the community
even when he had ceased to exercise any political power. But
in Shi'i Islam, during the Occultation of the Imam, the
Shi'is tended to look to the most learned of their ulama,
such figures as Shaykh al-Mufid and Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa, as the
heads of the community.

In most of its legal and juristic forms and practices,
Twelver Shi'ism was two centuries or more behind Sunni Islam
and tended to follow the latter very closely. Thus the
canonical books of Traditions (hadith) were written towards
the end of the 4th/10th and during the 5th/11th centuries by
Kulayni, ibn Babuya and Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa (see p. 174) and it
was not until the 8th/14th century that 'Allama al-Hilli
systematised the methods for organising and evaluating the
hadith literature.

It used to be stated that Shi'i Islam came to follow Sunni
Islam so closely in legal matters that its jurisprudence
does not differ more from the four schools of Sunni
jurisprudence than they differ among themselves. But a
recent writer has postulated that, although they use the
same methods and terminology, Sunni and Shi'i law are
fundamentally different in that Sunni law is based on the
assumption that the Islamic revelation only modified the
existing customary tribal law while Shi'i law assumes that
Islam represents a fundamental break and a new legal system
based on the 'nuclear family'.[1]


The Development of the Principles of Jurisprudence (Usul al-

The mainstream of Twelver Shi'i Islam is called the Usuli
School because it adheres to certain principles (usul) of
jurisprudence (see pp. 223-4). Historically, it would appear
that among the earliest Shi'i ulama, such as Kulayni and ibn
Babuya, the most important activity was transmission of
hadith. Thus the Traditions related by these scholars often
praised the transmitters of hadith (see the Maqbula of ibn
Hanzala and other Traditions cited in the section 'The
Theoretical Basis to the Ulama's Authority' later in this
chapter). The proud boast of the Shi'a at this time was
that whilst Sunni law had to rely on such fallible methods
as qiyas (analogical reasoning) and ijtihad (innovative
exegesis using independent judgement), Shi'is were able to
obtain knowledge directly from the Traditions of the Imams.
  However, as time progressed and the complexities of life
threw up problems that could not be solved in such a simple
manner, the discipline of fiqh or jurisprudence grew up to
cover that part of the Shari'a (religious law) for which
there were no certain answers. Simultaneously as the
Mu'tazilite School began to influence Shi'ism during the
lifetime of Shaykh al-Mufid and his successors and the use
of reason became increasingly important in the development
of theology, so this had an effect in the sphere of
jurisprudence. The use of deductive reasoning based on the
Qur'an and the Traditions became increasingly important.
Eventually Shi'i jurisprudence came to be based on four
pillars; the Qur'an, the hadith, ijma' (consensus) and 'aql
(reasoning or intelligence).
  As for the hadith, initially the Shi'is collected all
Traditions uncritically. It was 'Allama al-Hilli who
established the methodology and terminology of the critical
study of the hadith literature (diraya) closely modelled on
the Sunni methods. It is interesting to note that the two
Shi'i scholars who made the greatest contribution to
starting the systematic study of hadith in Shi'ism, 'Allama
al-Hilli and Shahid ath-Thani, were also almost the only two
ulama of this period who are specifically recorded as having
studied, under Sunni as well as Shi'i teachers.[2] Further
confirmation that there was no real analytical study of the
hadith in Shi'ism prior to this time comes from the
statement that Shaykh 'Ali ibn Sulayman al-Bahrani (d.
1064/1653), a contemporary of Shahid ath-Thani, was the
first to introduce the study of the hadith in Bahrain.[3]

Having demonstrated the unreliability and uncertainty of
much of the hadith, 4 'Allama al-Hilli reorganised Shi'i
jurisprudence so as to make reasoning ('aql) its central
feature. Thus the Shi'i jurist uses 'aql, usually supported
by the other three sources of law (the Qur'an, the Hadith

consensus), to arrive at legal decisions and this process is
called ijtihad. Thus ijtihad may be defined as the process
of arriving at judgements on points of religious law using
reason and the principles of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh).
The aim of ijtihad may be thought of as uncovering (through
knowing transmitted sources as well as through rational
processes) knowledge of what the Imams would have decided in
any particular legal case. Although theoretically the
process of ijtihad may appear to give mujtahids a great deal
of latitude for innovative thinking, in practice the
concurrent attitude of ihtiyat (prudence and caution, lest
one stray from the path of the Imams) has severely limited
any initiatives outside traditional avenues of thought and
  The question of differences of opinion (ikhtilaf) among
the ulama poses something of a problem since it would
obviously be difficult for the ulama to be impugning the
views of each other and still consider themselves to be
collectively the Na'ib al-'Amm (see next section of this
chapter) of the Hidden Imam and the purveyors of the Imams'
traditions. This difficulty was overcome by arguing that if
the truth lay in only one of two opposing views and this
could not be discerned through the techniques of usul al-
fiqh, then it would be obligatory for the Hidden Imam to
manifest himself and give a decision. If he does not
manifest himself, the truth must lie with both parties and,
indeed, as long as the Hidden Imam remains in occultation,
the Shi'i community can be sure it has produced no ruling
that is in error.
  In addition, any decision agreed upon by a consensus
(ijma') of the whole community must include the opinion of
the Hidden Imam and thus also be correct. Thus for any major
point of law or doctrine, individual Shi'i mujtahids come to
various differing opinions (ikhtilaf) through use of
ijtihad. From considering these varying opinions, the
community finally arrives at a consensus (ijma') which is
the truth.
  Although much of the theoretical basis of Shi'i
jurisprudence had been laid by such figures as 'Allama al-
Hilli, Shahid al-Awwal and Shahid ath-Thani in the 14th-16th
centuries AD there was then a hiatus while the Usuli-Akhbari
controversy was debated. It was not until Bihbahani, at the
end of the 18th century, completed the Usuli victory that
much of this theory was put into practice. It was from this
time on that the term mujtahid, one who exercises ijtihad,
became synonymous with the term faqih, one who is an expert
in jurisprudence, and the importance of the Shari'a
(religious) courts began to increase greatly at the expense
of the Urfi (common law) courts. Indeed, Bihbahani has been
named in some sources as the founder (mu'assis) of the Usuli

The next major development in the principles of
jurisprudence was brought about by Shaykh Murtada Ansari and
this also represents the formulation of this branch of the
religious sciences that remains current


to the present day. Shaykh Murtada Ansari's most important
contribution was in deriving a set of principles to be used
in formulating decisions in cases where there was doubt.
Shaykh Murtada Ansari and his successors who developed this
school of law divided legal decisions into four categories:
a. Certainty (qat'). This represents cases where clear
decisions can be obtained unambiguously from the Qur'an or
reliable Traditions and there is no need to involve
reasoning (although, since the laws embodied in the Qur'an
and reliable hadith are derivable from reason, this method
could be used).

b. Valid Conjecture (zann). This represents cases where the
probability of correctness can be created by using certain
rational principles to arrive at individual binding norms.

c. Doubt (shakk). This refers to cases where there is no
guidance obtainable from the sources and nothing to indicate
the probability of what is the correct answer. It is in
relation to these cases that Shaykh Murtada Ansari
formulated four guiding principles which he called usul al-
'amaliyya (practical principles); most of Shaykh Murtada's
important work ar-Rasa'il is taken up with expounding these.
They consist of: al-bara-'a (allowing the maximum possible
freedom of action); at-takhyir (freedom to select the
opinions of other jurists or even other schools of law if
these seem more suitable); al-istishab (the continuation of
any state of affairs in existence or legal decisions already
accepted unless the contrary can be proved); and al-ihtiyat
(prudent caution whenever in doubt).

d. Erroneous Conjecture (wahm). This refers to decisions
where there is a probability of error; such decisions are of
no legal standing.
  The effect of the development instituted by Shaykh Murtada
al-Ansari was far-reaching. Whereas previously the mujtahids
had restricted themselves to ruling on points where there
was the probability or certainty of being in accordance with
the guidance of the Imams, the rules developed by Ansari
allowed them to extend the area of their jurisdiction to any
matter where there was even a possibility of being in
accordance with the Imam's guidance. This effectively meant
that they could issue edicts on virtually any subject.
Ansari's own strict exercise of ihtiyat (prudent caution)
severely restricted this freedom but other mujtahids allowed
themselves a freer hand.

Thus, in summary, although God is, of course, the ultimate
source of law, he has created reason ('aql) as the means of
divining the law. The authority of the Shari'a derives from
its consistency with 'aql. Only decisions that are in
conformity with 'aql, as derived through the process of
ijtihad, are legally valid. Once an individual mujtahid has
arrived at a conclusion, he must act according to his own
conviction even if other


mujtahids have reached different conclusions about the same
problem. Therefore, originally it was considered
theoretically not permissible for one mujtahid to follow the
opinions of another whether living or dead (i.e. taqlid
between mujtahids was not permissible). But during the 18th
and 19th centuries it became increasingly common for
mujtahids to defer to the decision of whomever was
considered the most knowledgeable among them and so the
concept of the marja' at-taqlid evolved.
  It should be kept in mind, however, that despite very
considerable differences in the principles of jurisprudence
between Shi'ism and all four of the Sunni schools of law,
there are fewer differences in the practical application of
jurisprudence to ritual observances and social transactions.

Each age has had its own important works on fiqh
(jurisprudence) and usul al-fiqh (principles of
jurisprudence). The following is a list of a selection of
the most important works from each period of history:

Period              Fiqh (jurisprudence)     Usul al-Fiqh
(principles of jurisprudence

Buyid and      Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa,        Shaykhu't-Ta'ifa,
'Uddat al-Usul
and Seljuq     an-Nihaya (The                (The Instrument
of Usul)

Mongol    Muhaqqiq al-Hilli,       'Allama al-Hilli, Tahdhib
and       Shara'i al-Islam (The    (The Rectification of
Timurid        Laws of Islam);
               Shahid al-Awwal,
               al-Lum'a ad-Dimashqiyya
               (The Gleam from Damascus)

Safavid   Shahid ath-Thani              Shaykh Hasan
               Rawdat al-Bahiyya (The   al-Ma'alim fi'l Usul
(The Guide-
               Glorious Paradise);           posts on Usul)
               Mahaqqiq al-Karaki,
               Jami' al-Maqasid (The
               Compilation of
               Intentions); Shaykh Bahá'í,
               al-Jami' al-'Abbasi (The
                    Compilation of [Shah] Abbas)

Qajar          Shaykh Muhammad          Mirza-yi Qummi
Qawanun al-
               Hasan an-Najafi,         Usul (Rules of
Usul); Shaykh
               Jawahir al-Kalam (The    Murtada al-Ansari,


               Jewels of Utterance);    (The Epistles);
               Shaykh Murtada al-       Khurasani, al-Kifaya
fi'l Usul
               Ansari, al-Makasib            (The
Sufficiency of Usul)

Twentieth      Sayyid Muhammad          Shaykh Muhammad
Century        Kazim Yazdi,             Na'ini, Taqirat (The
               'Urwa al-Wuthqa          Stipulations);
Ayatu'llah Khu'i,
               (The Firmest Handle)     Ajwad at-Taqrirat
(The Best of

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:

a. Leading the Holy War (jihad)
b. Division of the booty (qismat al-fay)
c. Leading the Friday Prayer (salat al jum'a)
d. Putting judicial decisions into effect (tanfidh al-ahkam)
e. Imposing legal penalties (iqamat al-hudud)
f. 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]
  Muhaqqiq al-Karaki (d. 940/1533) was the first to suggest,
arguing from the hadith of 'Umar ibn Hanzala (see below),
that the ulama were the Na'ib al-'Amm (general
representative--as distinct from the four Babs who were each
the Na'ib al-Khass, the special representative) of the
Hidden Imam. But he restricted his application of this
argument to the assumption of the duty of leading Friday
  It was Shahid ath-Thani (d. 966/1558) who took the concept
of Na'ib al-'Amm to its logical conclusion in the religious
sphere and applied it to all of the religious functions and
prerogatives of the Hidden Imam. Thus the judicial authority
of the ulama now became a direct reflection of the authority
of the Imam himself. It was now obligatory to pay the
religious taxes directly to the ulama as the trustees of the
Imam for distribution, and the donor who distributed these
himself was considered to obtain no reward. Furthermore,
Shahid ath-Thani extended the range of those eligible to
receive money from the zakat (poor tax) to include the
tullab (religious students) and the ulama themselves, who
thus became the recipients of the money as trustees and were
also able to expend the money on themselves and their circle
of students. Even in the field of defensive jihad (defending
the realms of Islam against attack by an infidel), Shahid
ath-Thani identified a role for the ulama. Only in the field
of offensive jihad did he allow that the role of Hidden Imam
had lapsed pending his return.[9]
  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.
  During the first Russo-Iranian War (1804-13), Fath 'Ali
Shah's son and heir, 'Abbas Mirza, who was conducting the
campaign, turned to the ulama and obtained from Shaykh
Ja'far Kashifu'l-Ghita (d. 1227/1812) and other eminent
clerics in Najaf and Isfahan a declaration of jihad against
the Russians, thus implicitly recognising their authority to
issue such a declaration--one of the functions of the Hidden
Imam. Furthermore, Kashifu'l-Ghita used the opportunity to
extract from the state acknowledgement of the ulama's right
to collect the religious tax of khums.[10]
  During the same period, another eminent mujtahid, Sayyid
Muhammad Baqir Shafti (d. 1260/1844), was asserting the
right of carrying out the penalties imposed in his religious
court (iqamat al-hudud). He is said to have executed some
seventy persons. "
  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
  One of the key statements in the Qur'an around which much
of the exegesis on this issue has revolved is the verse: 'O
believers! Obey God and obey the Apostle and those who have
been given authority [ula al-amr] among you' (Qur'an 4:59).
For Sunnis, ula al-amr (those who have been given authority)
are the rulers (Caliphs and kings) but for Shi'is this
expression refers to the Imams.
  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
  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
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

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. For example Shaykh Ja'far
Kashifu'l-Ghita, as already mentioned, gave a fatwa-(legal
decision) declaring jihad on the Russians and authorising
Fath 'Ali Shah to fight them. This gave some derived de jure
legitimacy to the Qajar government.

It was ulama like Mirza Abu'l-Qasim Qummi (d. 1231/1816)
and, more particularly, Sayyid Ja'far Kashfi (d. 1267/18
50), who produced a fully-developed Shi'i political theory
which justified the Qajar dynasty. 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. "
  Through this means, Sayyid Ja'far not only satisfied the
Qajar dynasty's need for justification but also obtained
from the Qajars their recognition of the ulama's claim. It
was work such as this that created the theoretical framework
which was to remain the norm in Iran until the 1979
Revolution. Within this framework those ulama who wished to
could collaborate with the state and those who wished to
could remain aloof.
  In the period immediately preceding the 1979 Revolution,
groups of ulama can be identified who clearly fall into the
three patterns of response to government delineated above:

i. Ulama who co-operated with the state; this group included
the Imam Jum'a of Tehran, Dr Hasan Imami, 'Allama Vahidi and
ii. The activist ulama who sought to reform the temporal
authorities; this group was represented by Ayatu'llahs
Khumayni, Muntaziri and Mahallati-Shirazi.
iii. Ulama who avoided any interference with political
matters; this group included most of the religiously-
important ulama and especially the maraji' at-taqlid,
Ayatu'llah Burujirdi and his successors, Ayatu'llahs
Shari'atmadari, Gulpaygani and Mar'ashi-Najafi.
  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 1963 Khumayni was exiled following his opposition to the
Shah's reforms. After this, in his addresses to the
religious students at Najaf, he began to take a new line.
His addresses, were published in 1971 in a book entitled
Hukumat-i Islami (Islamic Government). In this book


Khumayni argues that Islam is not just an ethical religion
but has all the laws and principles necessary for government
and social administration. Therefore, true Islamic
government is a constitutional government with the Qur'an
and the Traditions as its constitution. Although there is no
specific provision in the Qur'an or the Traditions for
designating a ruler during the Occultation, social order is
necessary for the Shari'a to be enforced. The Islamic ruler
needs to be just (which, as mentioned above, means acting in
accordance with the Shari'a) and therefore needs to have an
extensive knowledge of the Shari'a in order that his actions
may be determined by it. These conditions are fulfilled only
by the faqih, the expert in Islamic jurisprudence.
Therefore, he is the person most fitted to rule an Islamic
society--the Vilayat-i Faqih, governance by the
jurisprudent. The faqih as ruler has the same authority and
can carry out the same functions as the Imam, although he is
not of course equal to the Imam in station. In all this
there is no place for kings or other temporal rulers. These
Khumayni now regards as historical aberrations who, since
the death of the Imam 'Ali, have by their very existence
blocked the way to the emergence of the true Islamic
  It is interesting to note that Khumayni cites Mulla Ahmad
Naraqi (d. 1245/1829) and Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Na'ini (d.
1936) as two previous authorities who held a similar view to
himself regarding the political prerogatives of the ulama.
These two clerics, even if they did hint at this in their
writings, did not make it the central theme of their
political theory as Khumayni does. The most that previous
Shi'i writers have claimed is that kings and rulers should
be guided in their actions and policies by the Shi'i faqih
(a concept embodied in the 1906 Constitution of Iran).
Khumayni, on the other hand, asserts that the faqih should
supplant the ruler and rule in his place. Where highly
technical matters may need to be dealt with which are beyond
the knowledge of the faqih, these tasks may be delegated to
those with that type of knowledge, but superintendency of
all social and political matters must remain in the hands of
a just faqih.

Khumayni decries those of the ulama who refuse to involve
themselves in social and political matters. He considers
that these have betrayed the trust and the mission delegated
to them by the Imams. Even worse than these, however, are
the 'ulama of the court' (Akhund-ha--yi Darbari, i.e. those
who have sided with the Shah and accepted posts under the
government). These are the enemies of Islam and must be
expelled from their posts.

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.


The Theoretical Basis to the Ulama's Authority

Since the concept of the ulama being the general
representative (Na'ib al-'Amm) of the Hidden Imam became the
basis of their authority and influence, the theoretical
basis of this concept, and the concept of Vilayat-i Faqih
which is related to and dependent on it, is of some
  In fact, there is not a very strong or clear basis in the
Shi'i Traditions for the Na'ib al-'Amm concept. Indeed, had
there been such a basis, the whole Akhbari-Usuli controversy
would never have occurred. Most of the Traditions on this
subject are called by the technical term 'weak' (da'if),
which means that they are transmitted by persons considered
unreliable or have other flaws.
The only Tradition relating to this concept that is accepted
as reliable by Shi'i scholars is called the Maqbula of 'Umar
ibn Hanzala (the term Maqbula meaning a Tradition which is
accepted as reliable). This Tradition, which is cited on the
authority of 'Umar ibn Hanzala, states:

     I asked Abu 'Abdu'llah (Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq) for
     his opinion concerning two of our companions
     between whom there was a dispute concerning
     matters of debt and inheritance and they took the
     case before the temporal ruler and the courts. He
     said: 'Whoever has sought their arbitration,
     whether he be in the right or in the wrong, has
     sought the arbitration of a false god (Taghut) and
     whatever is judged his (in this manner), he will
     have taken illegally, even if it is established
     that he is right, for he will have taken it by the
     ruling of a false god. For that is an action that
     God has decreed should be disallowed when He has
     said: "They wish to seek the judgement of a false
     god when they have been ordered to disavow it."' I
     said: 'And so what should they do?' He said: 'They
     should look for someone from among them who has
     transmitted our Traditions and has examined what
     is permitted by us and what is forbidden and has
     learned our laws . . . then let them agree to
     having him give judgement for I have made such a
     person judge (hakim) over you."[13]

There is some ambiguity in the last phrase of this Tradition
since the word hakim can be translated bath as judge and
ruler. On the face of it, this Tradition sets out the
procedure for solving disputes. It forbids taking the case
to the law courts of the land but rather enjoins recourse to
one of the Shi'i ulama that is acceptable to both parties.
However, such Shi'i writers as Muhaqqiq al-Karaki and Shahid
ath-Thani argued from this Tradition, and particularly from
the last phrase in it: 'I have made such a person
judge/ruler over you', that this in fact represented the
Imam Ja'far's delegation of authority to them, the Na'ib al-
'Amm concept, while Khumayni has taken the same argument to
its logical extension and stated that only government by a
faqih is permissible, the Vilayat-i Faqih.
  Khumayni has cited a number of other Traditions in
connection with his concept of Vilayat-i Faqih but with
these there is either a potential


ambiguity which makes the meaning controversial or the
Tradition is considered 'weak' by virtue of its

i. The Prophet when asked 'Who are your successors
(khulafa)?' replied: 'Those who come after me, transmit my
hadith and sunna and teach it to the people after me.'[14]
However, this can be held to refer to the Imams, who are
often referred to in the Traditions as the khulafa of the
Prophet. Another problem with this hadith is that although
it is found in several sources through different chains of
transmitters, in those sources which are considered most
reliable the last phrase 'and teach it to the people after
me' is omitted. On the face of it this may not appear an
important difference but, to Khumayni, it is of vital
importance since he is concerned to establish that the
vicegerency (niyabat) of the Hidden Imam rests not just with
the ulama who undertake the socially-passive activity of
transmitting Traditions but rather with the more socially-
active role implied in the phrase 'and teach it to the
people after me'. Thus Khumayni writes at length to
establish the case that the correct form of this Tradition
includes the last phrase.[15]
ii. The Seventh Imam, Musa al-Kazim, stated: 'The fuqaha
(jurists) who are believers (mu'min, i.e. Shi'i) are the
citadels of Islam.'[16] Khumayni interprets this Tradition
as meaning that the fuqaha--are entrusted with preserving
Islam which in turn means, for Khumayni, an active social
role for the ulama. This Tradition, although entrusting the
ulama with a mission, cannot be said to delegate authority
to them.
iii. The Prophet is reported as having said: 'The fuqaha--
are the trustees of the prophets . . . as long as they do
not . . . follow the Sultan . . .'[17] Khumayni interprets
this Tradition as meaning that the fuqaha--are entrusted
with all the authority that the prophets themselves had.
iv. The Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq, said: 'Beware the
government! For government belongs to an Imam who is
knowledgeable in the just administration of the law among
the Muslims, to a prophet or a prophet's trustee.'[18] This
Tradition appears to refer to the Imam but Khumayni argues
that since it clearly states that only someone knowledgeable
in Islamic law and just is authorised to govern, in the
situation of the Occultation of the Imam this condition is
best filled by the fuqaha.
v. The Hidden Imam, in answer to a question posed to him
through the second of the four agents of the Lesser
Occultation, Muhammad ibn 'Uthman al-'Amri, is reported to
have replied: 'And as for events that occur, refer them to
those who transmit our Traditions, for they are my proof to
you and I am God's proof.'[19] Khumayni interprets this
Tradition as making the ulama the point of reference for
contemporary social problems as well as points of law.
vi. The Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq said: 'The ulama are the
heirs of the


prophets. The prophets did not leave a single dinar or
dirham for an inheritance. Rather they left knowledge as an
inheritance and whosoever takes from it, has taken an
abundant share'[20] Khumayni argues that this Tradition does
not merely mean that the ulama are the inheritors of the
knowledge left by the prophets, but also they inherit the
Prophet's authority and rule.

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
  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 course at a madrasa is composed of three levels, and
as each level is completed the student (talib, plural
tullab) goes on to the next level. Table 6 shows the
subjects taken and books studied at each level.

a. Muqaddamat (the preliminary level). At this level the
emphasis is on obtaining a good grasp of Arabic, which is
vital to all further studies. Usually, groups of students
will gather around a teacher who will go through the texts
with them in lessons lasting between one-and-a-half and two
hours. Teachers at this level are usually senior students or
assistants of the principal mujtahids.

b. As-Sutuh (the externals). At this level the teachers are
usually mujtahids who have only recently obtained their
authority of ijtihad and are seeking to build up their
reputations. A number of these will announce lectures based
on the main texts and the students are free to choose which
lectures to attend. Students can at the same time develop a
special interest by attending lectures in one of the
optional subjects but their progress to the next level is
dependent on their obtaining a thorough grasp of the main
texts in the two principal subjects, fiqh and usul al-fiqh.

c. Dars al-Kharij (or Bahth al-Kharij, graduation-classes).
It will usually have taken students about ten years to reach
this stage and thus most will


  Table 6: Subjects taken and books studied at each level of

Subjects            Books                         Authors


Nahw (Syntax)       al-'Awamil                    Mulla Muhsin al-Qazwini
                    ibn Malik's Alfiyya           Commentary by Suyuti
                    Sharh Qatran-Nada             Ibn Hisham
                    Mughni al-Labib               Ibn Hisham
                    Hidaya                        Zamakhshari
Sarf (Grammatical   Sarf-i Mir                    Mir Sayyid Sharif
   Inflections)                                   Jurjani
                    Sharh-i Tasrif                Taftazani
                    Sharh an-Nizam                Nishaburi
Mantiq (Logic)      Hashiya                       Mulla 'Abdu'llah
                    Sharh ash-Shamsiyya           Qutbu'd-Din Razi
Balagha (Rhetoric)  al-Mutawwal                   Taftazani

Optional Subjects include: Literature, Mathematics, Astronomy and
often some introductory fiqh working from one of the Risala Amaliyya
(Tracts on Practice) of one of the contemporary maraji' at-taqlid


Usul al-Fiqh        Ma'alim fi'l-Usul             Shaykh Hasan
  (Principles of
   Jurisprudence)   Qawanin al-Usul               Mirza-yi Qummi
                    Rasa'il                       Shaykh Murtada
                    Kifayat al-Usul               Akhund Khurasani
                    Usul al-Fiqh                  Muhammad Husayn
                    (The last has replaced the first two at Najaf)
Fiqh                Sharh al-Lum'a                Shahid ath-Thani
  (Jurisprudence)   Shara'i' al-Islam             Muhaqqiq al-Hilli
                    al-Makasib                    Shaykh Murtada
                    al-'Urwa al-Wuthqa            Sayyid Muhammad Kazim

Optional Subjects include: Tafsir (Qur'an Commentary or
Exegesis), Diraya (Critical study of the Hadith), Rijal
(Biography of transmitters of Hadith), Kalam (Theology),
Falsafa (Philosophy), Hikma (Theosophy),
'Irfan (Gnosis), Ta'rikh (History) and Akhlaq (Ethics).


There are no set books at this level; the student refers to
whichever books he needs either in following up lectures and
debates or in writing his 


be in their mid-twenties. At this level the teaching is done
by the principal mujtahids themselves. Each mujtahid will
announce a time and place for his teaching session and the
students are free to pick and choose whose lectures they
will attend. The subjects are usually fiqh and usul al-fiqh.
If a popular or very eminent mujtahid is giving a session,
several hundred students (and even other mujtahids) may be
gathered around him. Each mujtahid's method of teaching is
of course different, but in general there is a tendency to a
dialectical involvement of the audience. One favourite style
of teaching is known as mas'ala-sazi (constructing
hypothetical examples) and is said to have been introduced
by Shaykh Murtada Ansari in the 19th century. This consists
of posing a hypothetical legal problem and then discussing
all the possible ramifications and resolutions of the
problem. At the teaching sessions the more senior students
are encouraged to argue points with the teacher and thus
most students, by the time they complete their studies, are
skilled in the art of abstract discursive argumentation.
  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:

a. Maturity.
b. Being of the male sex (this is the subject of some
controversy).[22] c. Being of legitimate birth.

d. Faith.
e. Intelligence. f. 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

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.
  There is no formal organisation or hierarchy among the
ulama. Rather the situation has been described as a
hierarchy of deference. 24 The lowest ranks of the ulama,
the village mulla, the rawda-khan, the pishnamaz of a small
mosque, will defer to one or all of the locally-prominent
mujtahids, and these in turn will defer to the eminent
mujtahids at the main centres of Najaf, Qumm and Mashhad.
But since every mujtahid has the obligation and right to
exercise independent judgement, this acts to counter any
building up of a hierarchy and limits the degree of cohesion
and hierocratic order that can be achieved.
  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.
  However, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries this
situation changed radically. One of the consequences of the
Usuli triumph over the Akhbaris (see p. 127) was the
consolidation of the concept of ijtihad and the rise in the
importance of the position of the mujtahid. Following on
from this it was argued that since only someone who has
expended the time and effort to become a mujtahid could
possibly know all the details of religious observances and
law, it was obligatory for anyone who was not himself a
mujtahid to follow the rulings of a mujtahid (otherwise they
were liable to err). The Shi'i world was thereby divided
into mujtahid (those who could follow their own independent
judgement and muqallid (those who had to follow the rulings
of a mujtahid).[25]
  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


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
  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
  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


             Table 7: Shi'i Mujaddids of each Islamic

Century        began AD  Mujaddid (Renewer)

  1        622      (Muhammad, as founder, cannot strictly
                    be considered as Renewer of the
  2        718      Imam Muhammad al-Baqir or Ja'far as-
  3        815      Imam ' Ah ar-Rida
  4        912      Muhammad al-Kulayni
  5       1009      Shaykh al-Mufid or 'Alamu'l-Huda
  6       1106      ?
  7       1203      ?
  8       1300      Hasan,'Allama al-Hilli
  9       1397      ?
 10       1494      'Ali, Muhaqqiq al-Karaki
 11       1591      Muhammad, Shaykh-i Bahá'í
 12       1688      Muhammad Baqir Majlisi
 13       1785      Muhammad Baqir, Vahid Bihbahani
 14       1882      Muhammad Hasan, Mirza-yi Shirazi
 15       1979      ?Ruhu'llah Khumayni

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]

The Finances of the Ulama

In Sunni Islam the khums (fifth) is generally confined to a
portion of war booty that was reserved for the Prophet and,
after him, the Caliphs. The zakat, a tax for the benefit of
the poor and the traveller, was rationalised as part of the
taxes raised by the state. Shi'i Islam, however, does not
acknowledge the right of the temporal government to collect
this tax. After the Prophet, the Imams were the legitimate
recipients of the zakat and of the khums.
  Initially after the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam it was
considered that half of the khums being the personal share
of the Imam (the sahm-i Imam) had lapsed or else should be
hidden in the ground pending the emergence of the Hidden
Imam, while the individual had the responsibility of
distributing the zakat. Gradually the ulama, as has been
described in a previous section of this chapter, through the
concept of


Na'ib al-'Amm came to assert their right to receipt of this
money which represents a considerable income and gave the
ulama financial independence from the government. With the
development of the marja' at-taqLId concept, financial power
was concentrated in the hands of one man or a small group of
men, to be distributed more or less as they saw fit. In
addition, the ulama were the natural choice to be
administrators of properties made over as religious
endowments (waqf) and this made further considerable funds
available to the leading mujtahids. A third source of income
for the ulama is fees for certification of land
transactions, marriages, etc.
  Although the ulama have given themselves the right to
collect these religious taxes (khums and zakat), their
actual ability to do so has varied during each period of
history and among the differing segments of the population.
The craftsmen and tradesmen of the Bazaar have always
strongly supported (and intermarried with) the ulama and so
income from this source has always been readily available,
but the income from villages has depended to a large extent
on the influence of lOcal mullas. In addition, the amount of
money coming to the ulama has depended on how much is being
taken by the government and thus the ulama have always had
more reason than one for opposing tyrannical governors and
  From these funds, the mujtahids run madrasas including
supporting the students at the madrasa; they have a
responsibility to support needy Sayyids (descendants of the
Prophet); in addition, they provide various social benefits
such as giving financial assistance to the poorest families
and setting up medical clinics.
  Although the religious taxes of khums and zakat give the
ulama an independence from the state not enjoyed by Sunni
ulama, there is a price to pay for this independence. In
some parts of the Shi'i world most of the ulama's income
derives from the Bazaar. Since the ulama have no way of
enforcing payment of these religious taxes, the payers of
the tax can, to a certain extent, express their approval or
disapproval of the actions of a particular Ayatu'llah by
their readiness to pay and the amounts they pay. In other
parts of the Shi'i world, the ulama are closely identified
with landed interests (either themselves owning land or
being closely allied to landowners). Both the Bazaar and
landed interests tend to influence the ulama in a
conservative direction. Thus the theoretical freedom of
innovative exegesis given to the ulama by the concept of
ijtihad is, in practice, negated by the restrictions imposed
by their financial basis.

The finances of the ulama in Iran have of course been
radically altered by the 1979 Revolution. As one popular
song has a mulla saying: 'My poor old mule died last week;
so to replace him I bought a Mercedes Benz.'
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