Towards a Theory of Baha’i Jurisprudence By: Cynthia C. Shawamreh

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Towards a Theory of Baha’i Jurisprudence


By: Cynthia C. Shawamreh

Wilmette Institute - Islam Course

September 10, 2003



Law can be defined as a body of rules which governs and regulates the behavior of societies and individuals as component members of those societies. Common understanding of the scope and source of those laws differs among cultures and over time. Analysis of the process of systematic determination of what those rules are is what, for purposes of this paper, I am calling jurisprudence. Islamic jurisprudence is an extremely complex and sophisticated field of study which has developed over many centuries. It’s basic system was well-established by the late ninth century (C.E.). In this paper I intend to review some of the very basic elements of Islamic jurisprudence. From this review I hope to develop and offer some preliminary concepts towards a theory of Baha’i jurisprudence. This theory is offered in the spirit of pondering the future role of assemblies as the governing administrative institutions of the Baha’i community, as that community continues to grow and develop. The usefulness of developing such a theory at this stage of community development may be questioned, but it is my hope that progressing the theoretical will assist in the systematic development of practical implementation. The guidance provided in the Baha’i Writings with respect to governance is substantial, and yet these very Writings explicitly state that many questions will have to be determined over time. Fixed rules on certain points are intentionally left for future consideration. It is then, the nature of the process of determination of those rules which this paper will consider. The Islamic precedent, a well-developed heritage showing a religious community’s struggle with many of these same questions, has much to offer as a reference point for how Baha’i jurisprudence may evolve into the future.

Classical Islamic jurisprudence considers law an expression of the divine will. Theoretically, divine command is considered fixed and immutable, and not subject to change over time or through societal circumstances.1 The purpose of Islamic jurisprudence is for humans to obtain an ever-clearer understanding of precisely what that divine will intends. The scope of Islamic law is immense. Not only does Islamic law regulate areas such as criminal law, civil law, business transactions and family law, but it also regulates personal religious behavior in meticulous detail, including but not limited to details of prayer and fasting. In theory, no distinction is made between religious law and government, although in practice the combination of temporal and spiritual authority this implies has always been controversial. No single authority has been universally recognized within the Muslim community since the days of the Prophet Muhammad Himself during the period of His rule in Medina (622-632 C.E.). Islamic law, then, is a comprehensive system which regulates every detail of an individual’s private and public life, as well as the life of the community as a whole.

After the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 (C.E.), the community was ruled successively by the Caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman. Although the word Caliph itself implies the combination of temporal and spiritual authority, Shi’i Islam recognizes none of these first three Caliphs as legitimate rulers. For Shi’i Muslims, Abu Bakr usurped the rightful leadership role of Ali ibn Abu-Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, chosen by the Prophet Muhammad Himself as His successor. Ali himself stood aside to preserve the unity of the Muslim community, and was finally chosen by consensus as the fourth Caliph upon the death of Uthman in 656 (C.E.). Ali was assassinated in 661 (C.E.), bringing to a permanent end the fragile unity of the Muslim community. Thereafter Mu’awiya, a relative of Uthman, successfully asserted his position as Caliph, founding the Ummayyad dynasty which ruled from Damascus. The majority of the Muslim community, known as Sunnis, acknowledged his rule, while that minority today known as Shi’is maintained that authority remained vested in the descendants of Ali and Fatimih, the daughter of the Prophet. Followers of the Imams, as these descendants were called, consider the Imams to be divinely appointed, and their words and actions to be divinely inspired and guided. Sunni Muslims, in contrast, considered the succession of Caliphs as authorities subject to the consensus of the community, deriving their authority from the will of that community. These historical events and this different understanding of the role and nature of leadership had a profound impact on the distinction in substance and theory between Sunni and Shi’i jurisprudence. Because the Baha’i Faith stems from a heritage of Shi’ism which recognizes the authority of a series of twelve of these Imams, I will consider the perspective of what is commonly referred to as Twelver Shi’ism in this paper along with the majority Sunni views.

During the rule of the first three Caliphs, what is known as the Islamic expansions took place. From being a small, self-contained community in Medina and eventually most of the area of Arabia known as the Hijaz, the Muslim community rapidly conquered vast territories. The main powers in the region at the time of the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad were the Sassanian empire ruling over Persia and Iraq, the Byzantine empire ruling over Turkey, Egypt, Palestine and Syria, and the Abbysinian empire ruling over Ethiopia.2 Each of these great empires had competing vassal states in the area, including influence in Yemen and Arabia. Byzantium and the Sassanians at this period fought a series of wars during which territory, particularly in Iraq, kept passing between them. As a result, their armies were exhausted and weakened, and rapidly fell to the Islamic conquests. The Muslim armies managed to conquer virtually all of the Sassanian empire and substantial portions of the Byzantine empire. Only the Abbysinian empire remained intact against the Islamic expansion. Suddenly vast territories including significant non-Muslim communities came under Muslim rule. These territories contained sophisticated urban populations with long traditions of administration and law of their own. The first three Caliphs, during whose rule these expansions took place, then were faced with the dilemma of how to rule huge foreign territories. Muslim governors were dispatched to various parts of the new empire, as were missionaries to teach the Islamic faith. Conversions were not forced, and in some places may have even been discouraged by Muslim soldiers reluctant to share the spoils of conquest for which they had fought, and for which they had a specified legal right, with the newly converted. Non-Arab converts were known as “mawali” and complained of discrimination under the Ummayads.3 Immediate questions of law centered around ownership of land and property taken in the conquest.

During the Ummayad period the rudimentary elements of Islamic administration over a large empire began. Having no experience in such an endeavor, the Ummayads drew on certain of the Byzantine and Sassanian practices which had preceded them.4 At this time practical administrative concerns dominated the development of law, and no theory of jurisprudence had as yet developed. Among the large corps of Ummayad administrative officials, judges known as “qadis” were appointed in various areas as delegates of the local governors. The practical concerns of administration went beyond the guidance that the Qur’an as a source of law indisputably provided. Cases for which no clear Qur’anic answer appeared began to multiply, and the qadis would decide cases based on local law, tribal custom or their own personal opinion, known as “ra’y.” Politically, Ummayad rule was widely considered to be decadent and corrupt, and many reform movements advocating a return to the fundamentals of the Islamic faith developed as a reaction to the Ummayad Caliphs. When the Abbasids managed to wrest power from their Ummayad predecessors in 750 (C.E.), the stage was set for a new phase in the development of Islamic jurisprudence. Although the Abbasid Caliphs, ruling from Iraq, alternately persecuted and protected the Shi’i Imams, in many ways their early rule was a high point of Islamic civilization. The famous “Dar-al-Ilm” or “al-Bayt al-Hikma” (House of Learning) was established in Baghdad, attracting the greatest minds in science and philosophy from across the empire.5 Medicine, science, philosophy and architecture all flourished under the early Abbasids. This vibrant society was the setting for the establishment of classical Islamic jurisprudence, known as “usul-al-fiqh,” which was sponsored by the Abbasid rulers.
Development of Sunni Jurisprudence.

The four schools of classical Sunni jurisprudence, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali, were all fully developed by the early ninth century (C.E.). Abu-Hanifa (d. 767 C.E.) was a jurist in the city of Kufa. Kufa was a military garrison town in Iraq established during the Islamic expansions. It had grown into an important city, and is famous among Shi’is as the town which promised support for the third Imam Husayn, and then failed to come to his rescue when his party en route to Kufa was besieged and mercilessly slaughtered at the nearby plain of Karbila under the authority of the Ummayad Caliph Yazid. During the Abbasid period Kufa had many prominent scholars and intellectuals. The school of law which developed around the person and through the students of Abu-Hanifa represented a consensus of the customs and practices which had developed in Kufa. Malik ibn-Anas (d. 796 C.E.) was a jurist in Medina. The Maliki school of law which bears his name developed at the same time as the Hanafi school, and shared the belief that the Qur’an and a rapidly growing body of Traditions known as “Hadith” (sayings or actions which were ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) were valid sources of law. They differed primarily in that the Maliki school incorporated the customs and practices of the community in Medina, which it considered to be the practices of the Prophet Himself, since he had lived in that community, while the Hanafis generally incorporated the customs and practices of Kufa. These two important schools took a major step forward when an outstanding scholar and jurist named Muhammad ibn-Idris ash-Shafi’i (d.820 C.E.) took the stage. Reasoning had become a more consistent part of jurisprudential practice as the Hanafi and Maliki schools developed, but the Islamic world was still plagued by the inconsistencies inherent in the application of “ra’y” (individual judicial opinion). Tribal custom and local practice, combined with the differences of opinion among various judges left an arbitrary and incoherent system in place. Shafi’i’s concern was to systematize the jurisprudential process.

Shafi’i’s famous work, known as al-Risala (the Treatise) was composed in Cairo sometime during the five years before his death in 820 (C.E.). This landmark work sets forth the scheme of jurisprudence which crystallized the classical understanding of usul-i-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence). According to Shafi’i, there are four major sources or “roots” (usul) of law. These four are 1) Qur’an, 2) Traditions (Hadith), 3) consensus (ijma), and 4) reasoning by analogy (qiyas). Any jurist, then, anywhere in the Muslim world, would be expected to systematically turn to these sources of law in order to determine the proper result in any given case. The use of human reason in determining the law is known as “ijtihad” (putting forth an effort), with qiyas being one portion of the ijtihad necessary to determine a case.6 Shafi’i’s impact in systematizing Islamic legal administration was tremendous. Systematic, regulated analogical reasoning cut differences of opinion to a minimum and helped stabilize and standardize law across the empire. The Sunna, or practice of the Prophet Muhammad (as reflected in the Traditions) became recognized as a source of law second only to the authority of the Qur’an itself, and human reasoning became clearly established as a subsidiary and complementary component of understanding the divine will in determining the law.

The end of the ninth century (C.E.) saw considerable activity in trying to determine the scope and validity of authentic Hadith (Traditions). Several compilations of Hadith were produced, and it became extremely important to sift authentic Hadith from Traditions which were simply forgeries. Spurious Hadith invented for personal or political gain were a terrible blight on the community. A man named Ibn Abi-al-Awja confessed before being executed that he had made up at least four thousand Hadith!7 Scholars took seriously the task of authenticating Traditions by examining the “isnad,” or chain of transmission, of each Hadith, and weighing it against conflicting guidance in other established Hadith. Isnad was the chain linking the Tradition as heard by one individual from another individual all the way back to the days of the Prophet or His Companions. The reliability of each party in a chain of transmission was considered, and many Hadith were dismissed due to the impossibility of one transmitter and another having overlapped in time or place. Sunnis generally accept nine collections of Traditions, two of which are considered the most authentic and reliable. The compilation of Al-Bukhari (d. 875 C.E.) is considered the most important. Bukhari is said to have sifted 600,000 Traditions down to 7,275 authentic Hadith, of which only 2,700 are non-repetitious.8 Bukhari’s student, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 875 C.E.) compiled the second most important collection of Hadith, sifting 300,000 Traditions down to just 4,000.



With Shafi’i’s four roots (usul) now widely accepted as the sole source of law, the fourth main school of Sunni classical jurisprudence arose. Ahmad ibn-Hanbal (d. 855 C.E.) took an extremely strict view of the binding nature of Traditions as a source of law. The Hanbali school held that every legal rule could find authority in either the Qur’an or the Hadith, minimizing the importance of ijma (consensus) and qiyas (analogical reasoning). Hanbal himself is said to never have eaten watermelon simply because he was not in possession of any Hadith showing affirmatively that the Prophet ate watermelon.9 The sharpness of the differences between the four schools however, have gradually faded. Today the four schools primarily represent geographic diversity, and differ only in minor and subtle ways. The Hanafi school, which permits the greatest scope of analogical reasoning, is dominant in the former Ottoman territories such as Turkey, Palestine and Egypt, and in India. Hanafis recognize the principle of “istihsan,” or preference of the individual jurist.10 The Maliki school, which emphasizes the Traditions of the Companions of the Prophet, dominates in West Africa. Malikis recognize the principle of “istislah,” or consideration of the public interest.11 The Shafi’i school is prominent in Indonesia. The Hanbali school, which remains the most literalist, is dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.12

The next stage of development in Islamic jurisprudence is known as the “closing of the door of ijtihad”in the early tenth century (C.E.).13 Ijtihad, or the exerting of human effort to determine the right result, gave way to the doctrine of “taqlid” or imitation. The theory was that the principal figures of the early schools were masters, and that all scholastic activity was to simply elaborate on the analysis which had already been provided in sufficient detail. The principle of ijma (consensus) had been extended to mean that all precedent had been set for any possible scenario. The duty of a jurist, then, was limited to knowing the body of law as it already existed and simply applying it to the case before him. Detailed analysis of abstract theoretical problems extracting meaning from already established principles was as far as commentaries could go. An exception came with Al-Ghazzali’s (d. 1111 C.E.) important work reconciling Sufism (Islam’s mystical tradition) and classical Islamic jurisprudence, which helped balance the letter of the law with it’s animating spirit. A kind of stagnation represented the close of the classical Abbasid era after 945 (C.E.), the Abbasid Caliphate went into decline and lost hold of significant portions of the empire, until eventually the Mongols sacked Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid Caliph in 1258 (C.E.), who had long since ceased to exercise real power over the Islamic world.

The next major thinker in Sunni jurisprudence was the Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 C.E.) who argued to revive the theoretical right of ijtihad on the basis that the consensus which had closed the door of ijtihad was not legitimate, since no true consensus had ever occurred after the generation of the Prophet’s Companions.14 Ibn Taymiyya argued for a literal interpretation of the Qur’an, and attacked (among others) Sufis, philosophers, and the cult of saints and pilgrimages to the tombs of saints which had developed among the populace. Another important thinker in the Sunni world prior to the modern era was Ibn Abdu’l-Wahhab, another Hanbali reformer in the18 century (C.E.) advocating a stricter application of Islamic law in place of lax customary practices which he felt had grown away from the fundamentals of the faith. Wahhabism is the sect which currently dominates Saudi Arabian law, and variations of it have spread through the Deobandi sect increasingly popular in Pakistan and which set the ideology of the Taliban in Afghanistan.th The next major influence on Islamic jurisprudence has resulted from the clash of colonialism, and the forcible imposition of Western law on Islamic societies in the modern era. The Muslim world is still grappling with how to come to terms with the lingering results of this clash and the fundamental difference in approaches to law that it represents.
Development of Shi’i Jurisprudence.

There are several key ways in which Shi’i jurisprudence differs from Sunni jurisprudence in theory, although in many respects the developments have been quite similar in practice. Twelver Shi’i Islam primarily differs from Sunni Islam in the disagreement over the nature and identity of the successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Since Shi’i’s maintain that the Twelve Imams beginning with and descended from Ali were divinely guided and infallible, naturally the sayings and the Traditions reported through them are given particular importance as a source of law. Conversely, the authenticity of Traditions which were reported through the enemies of the Imams (Aisha, the wife of the Prophet who later opposed Ali is a particularly good example, since she transmitted many Hadith) are by nature suspect. Generally speaking, however, Shi’i jurisprudence today follows very closely the lines of Sunni jurisprudence in both form and substance, and Shi’i jurisprudence is often not considered to differ more from Sunni jurisprudence than the four orthodox schools of Sunni jurisprudence differ among themselves.15



The earliest developments in specifically Shi’i jurisprudence date back to the fifth and the sixth Imams.16 The sixth Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq (d. 765 C.E.) was a particularly important source for the transmission of Hadith, usually known in Shi’ism as “Akhbar.” Imam Jafar as-Sadiq was a prominent person in his own lifetime, and his circle of students and followers contained many important thinkers who were certainly not considered Shi’is. For example, both Abu-Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi school of Sunni law, and Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki school of Sunni law, were reported to have been his students. Imam Jafar as-Sadiq lived during a time of momentous change in the Muslim world, his life spanning the fall of the Ummayads and the rise of the Abbasids. The Abbasids made a specific effort to attract Shi’i support for their rebellion against the Ummayads, despite the fact that after taking power many of the Imams were persecuted and harassed. Dr. Moojan Momen in An Introduction to Shi’i Islam17 offers the insight that the rise of the Abbasids can be viewed in light of the ancient rivalry between Byzantium (now geographically represented by the Ummayads, ruling from the former Byzantine territory of Syria) and the Sassanians (represented geographically by the Abbasids in Iraq and Iran). The Abbasids had their beginnings in Khurasan (eastern Iran and formerly Sassanian) and their appeal included promoting the status of the mawali, disaffected non-Arab converts to Islam from the former Sassanian territories. The sixth Imam himself was allowed to live and teach relatively free from molestation under the Ummayads, but was harassed by the Abbasids and eventually is reported to have been poisoned by the Abbasid Caliph Mansur.18 During his lifetime the sixth Imam tried to bring Shi’i thought closer to what is currently Shi’i orthodoxy, refuting some of the extremist (“ghuluww”) views that were prominent at the time. One of the more interesting examples of this was his excommunication of followers who insisted on his divinity in an anthropomorphic sense, as opposed to his status as a divinely guided human.19

In 874 (C.E.) the “lesser occultation” began, with the twelfth Imam disappearing from the view of the community, and communicating only through a series of four successive gates (each called a “Bab”). In 941 (C.E.) the “greater occultation” began, and the line of communication with the twelfth Imam ended, giving rise to the doctrine of the continued existence of the Imam as the “Hidden Imam” somehow continuing to physically live in this world hidden from view. This is a key doctrine in understanding the fundamental underpinnings of Shi’ism, and the evolution of the role of the ulama (the learned) in the absence of the physical presence of an Imam to guide the community. From this time forward, Shi’i scholars have debated the appropriateness of leadership in the community in the absence of the Imam, who is expected to eventually return and manifest himself to the community, assuming his rightful place as spiritual and temporal head.

The compilation of Shi’i Traditions began even before the beginning of the greater occultation. There are four collections of Traditions generally considered canonical by Shi’is. The four were compiled by three men known as the “three Muhammads,” Kulayni (d. 939 C.E.), Ibn Babuya (d. 991 C.E.) and Shaykhu’t-Ta’ifa (d.1067 C.E.). Ibn Babuya was an important scholar responsible for helping to crystallize the views of Shi’is into less extremist (ghuluww) positions. Shaykhu’t-Ta’ifa was one of a trio of prominent ulama in the late 10 and early 11th centuries (C.E.) who moved Shi’i jurisprudence along considerably. His work was dominant in Shi’i thought for several hundred years.



Right around the time of Shaykhu’t-Ta’ifa occurred what is commonly known as the “Shi’i century,” where the Shi’i Buyids took power while maintaining the Abbasid Caliph as a puppet, the Shi’i Hamdanid dynasty took power in Syria and Lebanon, the Shi’i Fatimid dynasty took power in Egypt, the Shi’i Idrisids held power in part of North Africa, and the Shi’i Zaydis held power in Yemen and Southern Arabia. This period of unprecedented political ascendence ended with the coming of the Seljuq Turks, who suppressed Shi’ism in the former Abbasid territories, and the fall of the Fatimids in Egypt to the Ayyubid dynasty established by Salah ad-Din. Shaykhu’t-Ta’ifa himself lived through the coming of the Seljuqs, and was forced to relocate to Najaf, where the Shrine of the Imam Ali is located and which has remained a major center of Shi’i learning to the modern age. The Crusaders pitted Sunni and Shi’i against each other, sometimes persuading oppressed Shi’is to side with them against their Sunni rulers, and when the Sunni Mamlukes of Egypt finally drove the Crusaders out of the area, they ruthlessly suppressed Shi’ism. The Mongols, by contrast, made no distinction between Sunni and Shi’i, and while the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258 (C.E.) and the execution of the last Abbasid Caliph was devastating to Sunni Islam, the town of Hilla (a main center of Shi’i learning near Baghdad) submitted to the Mongols and was spared general massacre.th The Mongols were generally quite tolerant of different beliefs, so long as they posed no political resistance, and so the position of Shi’ism arguably improved under the Mongols and their descendants the Ilkhanids. During the Ilkhanid period the next major development in Shi’i jurisprudence occurred. Allama al-Hilli (d. 1325 C.E.) began the process of systematic analysis of the Shi’i Traditions, which had previously been uncritically accepted as authentic. When the Timurids, also descended from the Mongols, came to power in Central Asia and Iran in the 1300's (C.E.), they once again persecuted Shi’ism. The development of Sufi orders among Sunnis and Shi’is next culminated in the coming to power of the enormously important Safavid dynasty, which despite it’s origins as an extremist (ghuluww) Shi’i Sufi order, managed to establish orthodox Twelver Shi’ism as the official State religion of Iran.

The Safavid dynasty developed a magnificent court in Isfahan which attracted Shi’i scholars and thinkers from all over the Islamic world. The School of Isfahan (Hikmat-i-Ilahi) further developed Shi’i theology, fusing philosophy, mysticism and orthodox beliefs. During the late Safavid period, Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (d. 1699 C.E.) vigorously rooted out philosophy and mysticism from Shi’i belief, leaving a lasting legacy in Shi’ism. When the Safavids collapsed in 1722 (C.E.), seventy-five years of chaos ensued, without any major dynasty in place. Nadir Shah, who took power briefly, tried to root out the Shi’ism from Iran and reimpose Sunnism on the population, but he was unable to reverse the inroads made by the Safavids. Interestingly, Nadir Shah tried to bring Shi’ism into the Islamic mainstream by eliminating it’s status as a separate sect and adding it as a fifth to the four schools of Sunni law discussed above as the “Jafari” school.20

Within Shi’i jurisprudence a controversy arose during this period which lasted from around the 17 to the 19thth centuries (C.E.). Known as the Usuli-Akhbari controversy, this doctrinal confrontation has left an important mark into the modern era. The Usuli approach ultimately triumphed, and is the dominant approach in Shi’ism today. When the Safavid dynasty collapsed in 1722 (C.E.) the chaos in Iran caused many Shi’i scholars and student to flee to the Atabat (the shrine cities in southern Iraq of Karbila and Najaf). Vahid Bihbahani (d. 1790 C.E.) was a student in Isfahan who fled to the Atabat as a young man, and is generally considered the founder of modern Usulism.21 The Usulis (from “usul-i-fiqh,” principles of jurisprudence) argued for an increased use of reason and rational thought in jurisprudence. Akhbaris (akhbar being the Shi’i word for the Traditions) argued that the only valid sources of law were the Qur’an and the Traditions. The staunchest Akhbaris accepted uncritically all the Traditions, while the Usulis were more particular about establishing authenticity. Usulis consider the sources of law to be the following: 1) Qur’an, 2) Traditions, 3) consensus (ijma), and 4) reasoning or the intellect (aql).22 Ijtihad (the exerting of human effort) is permitted by Usulis to come to legal conclusions, which permits a much wider scope of jurisdiction than would be accepted by the Akhbaris. Akhbaris argued that absent a specific Tradition on point, no decision could be reached, since no certainty could exist that the outcome would be in accordance with the intent of the Imams. Akhbaris also emphasized intuitive knowledge and non-rational understanding such as visions or dreams. Although the Usulis eventually decisively prevailed theologically over their Akhbari counterparts, some of the need for intuitive understanding and spiritual qualities accompanying the dry, legalistic approach of the Usulis was recognized and incorporated through attributing those qualities to leading Usuli scholars.

The result of the Usuli doctrinal victory was profound. The convergence of chaotic political conditions and doctrinal development which permitted an expanded scope of jurisprudential authority resulted in a much stronger and active role for the ulama in society. By the emergence of the Qajar dynasty in 1785 (C.E.) the Usuli ulama were an organized, powerful force to be reckoned with all across Iran, with it’s voices of leadership emanating from the Atabat (Karbila and Najaf in Iraq). Akhbari thought made one last stand at revival through the efforts of Mirza Muhammad Nishapuri, known simply as Akhbari (d. 1817 C.E.). During a territorial conflict between the Qajars and the Russians (1805 - 1813 C.E.), Akhbari offered to place the head of a Russian commander at the feet of the Shah through supernatural means, if Fath Ali Shah would then move to diminish the powers of the Usulis.23 Although the head of the commander was indeed received by Fath Ali Shah, he chose not to confront the powerful Usuli ulama. The Usulis eventually issued a fatwa (legal determination) that condemned Akhbari to death, and he was killed by the mob in Kazimayn (near Baghdad) in 1817 (C.E.). Interested in numerology, Akhbari was said to have predicted the date of his own death.24



After the Akhbari defeat, the main doctrinal challenge to the Usuli establishment came from the Shaykhi movement. Centered on the teachings of Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsa’i (d. 1825 C.E.) and his successor Siyyid Kazim-i-Rashti (d. 1844 C.E.), Shaykhism blended Usuli jurisprudence with intuitive knowledge, taking an intermediary position between the Usulis and the Akhbaris.25 With it’s emphasis on the return of the Hidden Imam, many of the Shaykhi doctrines were unacceptable to the Usulis, who fought the Shaykhis vigorously. After Siyyid Kazim’s death, the Shaykhis split, with the majority becoming followers of Siyyid Ali Muhammad, who proclaimed Himself as the “Bab” in 1844 (C.E.) and became one of the twin Prophet-Founders of the Baha’i Faith. The tremendous impact and upheaval caused by the Babi movement in Iran is beyond the scope of this paper.

The Usuli victory consolidated the position of an organized Shi’i ulama in Qajar Iran. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19 century, however, that the concept of a marja’ at-taqlid was fully developed and applied to the figure of Shaykh Murtada Ansari (d. 1864 C.E.). The marja’ at-taqlid was the “source of emulation” or “imitation,” recognized as the most knowledgeable among the ulama and therefore the one whose legal decisions all other ulama were bound to follow. This centralization of hierarchical authority centered around one charismatic figure was a dominant feature of the late 19thth century (C.E.), and Ansari’s student Mirza-yi-Shirazi (d.1894 C.E.) followed him as the recognized marja’ at-taqlid. Ansari further widened the scope of permissible jurisprudence by establishing a system of principles for allowing decisions in cases with uncertainty.26 Ansari’s successor, Mirza-yi-Shirazi27, generally retained the approach of the ulama that direct involvement in political affairs was inappropriate, with the exception of his active opposition to the Tobacco Regie in 1891-2 (C.E.). The Shah was eventually forced to terminate the tobacco concessions he had made to a British company when Mirza-yi-Shirazi issued a fatwa declaring smoking illegal. This extraordinary example of the power of the ulama raises the question of the nature of the relationship between government and the religious establishment. The “na’ib-i-amm” concept that the ulama acted in “general deputyship” as community leaders in the absence of the Hidden Imam expanded over time and in scope slowly, with most ulama taking a politically inactive role. It is only the modern era which has seen the development of this concept to the logical conclusion in Ayat’ullah Khumayni’s writings that government itself is rightfully administered by the Islamic jurists in the absence of the Imam.


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