Shi'a ulama and the Qajar state
Plus Emergence of Babi &
Baha'i Faiths

(prepared by Maziar Behrooz)


Although Shi'as are a minority in the Moslem world (10%) "Twelver" Shi'as (Inthna'ashari in Arabic) or Imami Shi'as are
a majority among them. Imami Shi'as comprise majorities in Iran, Iraq, Republic of Azarbayjan, Bahrain, and southern Lebanon.
They are called "Twelvers" because they follow twelve Imams in the line of Ali and from the House of the Prophet Muhammad. 
Opposite are the names of the twelve.

1)Ali ibn Abi Talib (600-661)
2)Hasan ibn Ali (624-.669)
3)Husayn ibn Ali 626-680)
4)Ali ibn Husayn al-Sajjad (Zayn al-Abedin-658-713)
5)Muhammad ibn Ali al-Baqir (676-743)
6)Ja'far ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq (702-765)
7)Musa ibn Ja'far al-Kazem (745-799)
8)Ali ibn Musa al-Reza (766-818)
9)Muhammad ibn Ali al-Javad (811-835)
10)Ali ibn Muhammad al-Hadi (628-868)
11)Hasan ibn Ali al-Askari (846-874)
12)Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Montazir (b.869)

He is the Mahdi or the Lord of the Age. He went into "lesser occultation" in 874 and since 941 has been in "greater occultation."


Status of Shi'i Ulama (1700s-1800s):
Usuli vs.Akhbari

After the Afghan invasion, the Shi'i ulama moved to Attebat-e Alieh in Iraq and made it their center of activity (until 1940s); this development gave them both political and financial independence from the Iranian state; in this their case was very different than the Sunni ulama. 

By the end of the 1700s, a conflict between two contending schools of Shi'i jurisprudence (feqh) [a conflict dating back to the Safavid period] was resolved as the Usuli school won against the Akhbari school; this development sharply increased the independent power of the ulama; the fight was conducted in the Shi'i centers of learning and was among the ulama and, therefore, did not involve the public per se. 

The Akhbaris argued that in the absence of the Mahdi, each Shi'a individual could interpret the traditions (akhbar-hadith) of the Prophet and the Imams; hence, this school saw a less active and determining role for the ulama.

The Usulis, the winning school, held that mujtahids were needed to interpret the foundations or principles (usul) of the faith.

Akhbari argument suggested:

"In the absence of the Hidden Imam it was not permissible for a religious scholar (alim) to engage in the use of his reason to enact a certain judgement, to apply the principles of the law to a specific problem or situation.  What had to be done was merely to have recourse to hadith [akhbar] and on [this] basis... to arrive at a conclusion, given any particular problem." (Algar)

That every alim should be a scholar of akhbar, that he had no legitimate competence beyond that; just ruling belong to the Mahdi only.

The Usulis held that even in the absence of the Mahdi, it was permissible to engage in independent reasoning with respect to legal questions, based on the sources of law as defined by the Shi'i ulama.

According to the Usulis, there are a certain number of principles (usual) of law (or sources of law) which could be applied and expanded through the use of the individual reasoning of the qualified scholar mujtahid; this is he who exercises his reasoning powers on the basis of the principles of the law to arrive at a certain decision concerning a given problem.

The mujtahid, according to the Usulis, is not merely a legal authority (i.e. one who gives an expression of opinion concerning a problem of Islamic law); he is also a person whose view must be followed; in the absence of the Hidden Imam, the community is divided between a minority who has the necessary power of comprehension of the law and independent reasoning to attain that state (the mujtahids) and those who do not (the people-the majority); the latter must necessarily follow the guidance of the former; this following is called Taqlid (imitation or emulation) with a technical meaning of following the guidance of a qualified religious scholar.

Were it not for the victory of the Usuli position in the 18th century and on the eve of the Qajar takeover, there would have been no mujtahids as we know it and the position of religious scholars would have been extremely marginal; their job would have been limited to sifting of the hadith, the narrations and traditions of the Prophet, with no ability to provide living and continuous guidance for the affairs of society and politics in at large; the ulama led 1979 revolution in Iran would have been unthinkable without this triumph.

Institution of Marjaiyat:

In the mid-19th century, from the usuli school gradually developed the institution and concept of marja'iyat; accordingly, each believer must chose a marja' al-taqlid (source of imitation or emulation) from among able and trusted mujtahids and to follow his ruling on complex problems of the faith and to pay him his religious due.  The mujtahid who becomes a marja' (source) acts as a guide to ordinary faithful, is fallible (unlike shi'a Imams); is accepted as the one, or one of the most knowledgeable mujtahis of is time. 

The process of choosing a marja' is ambiguous, but it has a certain criteria:  Shi'a ulama agree that the candidate must meet the following six conditions: maturity (bulugh); intelligence (aql); being of male sex (dhukurat); faith (iman); justice (adalat); legitimate birth (taharat-i maulad).

There may be a number of marja's at any one time; incase of any conflicting ruling (fatva) it is left to the believer to decide which marja' to follow; the existence of more than one marja' at any time makes Shi'i clerical hierarchy decentralized (cardinals but no pope).

Sometimes, rarely, there may appear a marja' who had gained more respect than the others; this person is known as marja'-e kol or `alam; he is considered first among equals but the extent of his authority does not include overriding other marja's.

[Terms such as ayatollah and grand ayatollah are of more modern background referring to mujtahids and marja's respectively]

Shaykhi School:

Followers of Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa'i (1754-1826) from Bahrain (an Arab) who had a more philosophical and mystical element in his thought than mainstream and orthodox Shi'i ulama; he rejected physical resurrection (ma'ad-e jesmani) and qayyba and gave a more spiritual interpretation of resurrection and the relationship between Shi'a believers and the Hidden Imam.

He suggested that in every age there is a man in the world who is capable of interpreting the will of the Hidden Imam; this person he named the One Complete Shi'a (yek shi'a-ye kamel). 

The notion of One Complete Shi'a gave an alternative to the mainstream Shi'a usuli theology which viewed the mahdi's occultation as physical and biological but discouraged flesh-and-blood image of the Hidden Imam [the Lord of the Age], relegating his return to the timeless oblivion of a never-coming future and replacing his authority with the general deputyship of the mujtahids. 

Shaykh Ahsa'i (who viewed himself as the Complete Shi'a of the age) rejected the physical and biological aspects of the occultation and suggested that the withdrawal of the Mahdi (during the Greater Occultation) has been spiritual and not physical; he then extended his argument to suggest that the Complete Shi'a was able to make visionary (spiritual/mystical) contact with the Mahdi; this development allowed contact with the Hidden Imam on regular basis and paved the way for his eventual reappearance into the world of material existence.

exoteric=zahir  and esoteric=batin

Hence, according to Ahsa'i, a Complete Shi'a can have an encounter with the Mahdi in a state of meditation (hear heavy influence by Isma'ilism and Sufism apparent) and act as a gate or deputy and intermediary between the Imam and the material world.

 This perception of the Shaykhi school was in contrast with the accepted doctrine of mainstream Shi'i theology which viewed the occultation of the Mahdi chiefly on the possibility of the Imam's invisible existence in a prolonged biological life; but since the Mahdi was in occultation and the chances of any regular contact were remote, the mainstream Shi'i ulama insisted that the responsibility of guiding the believers, until the return of the Mahdi, rested upon the ulama. [this is why Imamis follow the mention of the Mahdi's name with ajjal allah-o ta'ala farajja sharif "may God speed his return"]

 [to be sure, the mainstream Shi'i attitude did not dismiss the possibility of mystical encounter; part of the Shi'i literature on occultation is devoted to this subject in order to prove that 1) it is possible to provide evidence for the abiding presence of the Imam throughout history; 2) to allow mystical experience with in the body of Shi'a orthodoxy.  But these orthodox mystical experiences did not go very far and indeed Shi'i literature on occultation implies greatest obstacles to the materialization of any of the prophecies that were the basis of the Imami theory of the return (Raj'a) of the Imam [e.g. prohibition on setting a date for the reappearance (Zuhur); prohibition on identifying any name for the Imam; etc.] 

The Babi Movement:

After Ahsa'i death (1826) the position of Complete Shi'a went to his disciple Hajj Sayyed Kazem Rashti (d. Jan. 1844) a Persian speaking religious leader who, like Ahsa'i, resided in Najaf (attabat)

Sayyed Kázem spread his teachings and philosophy through an oral network. His death in Jan. 1844 occurred as he left no apparent heir, or leader. Several of the more prominent and leading disciples began fighting over succession. These disputes resulted in the shattering of former Shaykhism unity, and doctrinal and individual disputes eventually lead to the dissipation of the movement.

The emergence of the Bab and the Babi movement happened once the Shaykhi movement's structure and unity had collapsed in 1843/44.

Sayyed Ali Mohammad Shirazi, also known as the Bab (or the gate-Oct. 20 1819 to July 1850) came from the city of Shiraz where his family had lived for generations.

He was the only child of Sayyed Muhammad Reza who died early in his life. Guardianship over 'Ali Muhammad was given to his uncle where he would be able to receive formal training in order to eventually enter the family business.

Bored by the commercial trade and his family's cloth business at the Shiraz bazaar, 'Ali Muhammad turned to religion. He extensively studied Shi'a Islam and quickly became quite knowledgeable, even though he had had no formal training in theology.

His lack of formal training would be an added source of friction between his and the ulama.  To be considered learned in Islam, it was considered necessary to have received formal religious training.  Hence, the Babi movement’s conflict with the Shi’i establishment was not simply because the Bab's religious status and beliefs.

By 1839 or 1840 'Ali Muhammad closed the doors of his office for good, and religion became the top priority in his life.

His first pilgrimage was to the shrine cities of Iraq (attabat) and Mecca, and he returned to Shiraz after a year's long voyage. Once back in his natal city, 'Ali Muhammad married, and seemed to be settling down much to the delight of his family who were not supportive of his religious zeal and passion.

Shortly after his marriage in 1843, however, 'Ali Muhammed experienced a series of divine visions and he said of them: "The mysteries of His revelation unfolded before my eyes in all their glory." (Smith, 14)  He became convinced that these were coming from God.  At this point he was 24 years old.

The Bab would begin his more public preaching after meeting another prominent religious figure of the time, Mullŕ Husayn Bushru'i (1814-1849), a Shaykhi, who had just returned from a retreat during which he was searching for divine guidance following the death of his master Sayyed Kŕzem. In many ways, Mulla Husayn Bushu'i complemented the Bab's "knowledge and spiritual potency" (Smith, 14) Because of Mulla Husayn’s Shaykhi connection, the first disciples of the Bab were former Shaykhis.

On May 22 1844, Ali Muhammad began claiming, to his close followers, that he was the successor to the Shaykhi claim that he was the Bab.  He first revealed himself as the Bab, the gate, to Mulla Bushru'i who was able to help spread the word of the emergence of the Bab.

In his early writings, the Bab described himself as the "seal of the gate" and made it clear that he had been sent by the Hidden Imam to prepare men for his imminent advent.  As time went by his claim became more potent in content.  Soon he claimed to be, a deputy (na'eb) to the Hidden Imam and in 1848 he claimed to be the Hidden Imam and announced the abrogation of the laws of Islam: the Qur'an and the Shari'a. 

Organizationally, the Babi movement was headed by Mulla Bushru'i (1814-1849) who was one of the prominent students of the late Sayyed Kanem Rashti.

He encouraged many former Shaykhis to reject the claims to leadership by former disciples of Sayyed, and instead to direct themselves towards the Bab.

This was a difficult task considering that the Bab was unknown in the Iranian religious sphere, and had not received a formal religious education.

The Bab originally claimed legitimacy to power solely on his esoteric and messianic status as the Bab, the gate or guardian of the Twelfth or Hidden Imam.

Essentially, his claim was that it was through him that the general public will have access to the Twelfth Imam or the mahdi who had had disappeared almost 1000 years before Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad proclaimed himself to be the Bab.

As the Gate/Bab he was viewed as the person who communicates on behalf of the Hidden Imam, in essence, the gate is his "mouthpiece".

His ability to spread the word of his relation with the 12th Imam was limited due to his frequent stays in prison, and to the fact that he was forced in 1845 by city officials in Shiraz to "make public and written recantations." (Arjomand, 222)

These imprisonments and recantations did not prevent the Bab to continue making his claims of being the "true guardian", the "great remembrance" and the "measure of cognition".

His was imprisoned off an on between 1843 and 1850, which is why the Mulla Bushru'i's leadership role was so important. He was tortured, beaten, and imprisoned with hopes that he would renounce his "role" as the Bab. His threat to the clergy and ulama was too great though, and he was ordered to be executed in 1850 in Tabriz, close to the Turkish border, far away from Shiraz and his followers.

Many of the first of the Bab's followers were former Shaykhists introduced to his teachings by the Mulla Bushru'i. Others came from the "'Ali-worshiping Ahl-e Haqq communities of Northeastern Iran, among whom many of the extremist beliefs of the early Safavids had survived." (Arjomand, 223). These were some of the Bab's most "enthusiastic" converts.

The first 18 of the Bab's disciples were called "Letters of the Living" and were mainly converts from traditional Islam. Important to the Babist movement is the fact that these disciples were from wealthy families. At least 12 of the original 18 disciples were Shi'a clerics, and three were the sons of clerics. The Babi movement had penetrated the religious leadership of Shi'a Iran.

The Bab's followers suffered great persecution for their beliefs, because the strength of the Babist movement threatened the existing religious and political norms. After the Bab's beatings and imprisonment in 1843/4, the numbers of Babis continued to increase. But as numbers grew, so did the persecution.

There were several Bab rebellions throughout the mid to late 1840's, like those in Nairiz, Tabarsi and Zanjan. They were often lead by clergymen or the clergy participated alongside the Babis. The Bab had a difficult time truly leading his movement due to his frequent imprisonments.

Consequently, his followers were more radical than him, because they were in the middle of society. It was they who survived the daily persecution and oppression. On such follower was the female poet and rebel leader Tahereh Qorrat al-`Ayn who allegedly is the first woman to take off the veil in the Moslem world.

Before his execution (July 1850), he claimed not only to be the Mahdi but a divine manifestation of god, empowered to reveal a new Shari'a, the basic outline of which may be found in his Persian and Arabic book the Bayan.

The Babi movement found support mostly among townsmen (merchants; discontented traders; artisans; low-ranking ulama), plus some enlightened nobles and even some peasants.  It was opposed by the Qajar state and the Shi'i ulama; the movement was put down militarily accompanied with savage massacres and pogroms.  It was particularly strong in the Caspian region (Barforush-Babol); and Zanjan. 

The Bab's message preached the need for social reforms and elimination of corruption in high places; the purging of immoral ulama; legal protection for merchants; legalization of money lending (usury); improvement in the status of women: education for both sexes; monogamy.



 Baha'i Faith (Baha'i vs. Azali):

The 1852 attempt on the shah's life resulted into more attacks on the Babis and the arrest and trial of two notable half brothers, the older Hosein Ali Nuri (Baha` Allah/1817-1892); and the younger Mirza Yahya (Sobh-e Azal/1831-1912).  they were found innocent and sent to exile in the Ottoman empire (first in Iraq, then Istanbul and Edrin); it seems that the Bab had appointed (1850) Azal as his successor and leader of the Babi community; the Bab had also spoken of the advent of another messianic figure "he whom God shall make manifest" (man yozheroh Allah)        

In 1863 Baha'allah claimed to be the messianic figure and between 1863-1868 while in Edrine, Baha'allah wrote letters to Babi followers in Iran, openly proclaiming himself to be the spiritual "return" of the Bab.  In 1867 a break between the two brothers and as Azal refused to accept Baha'allah's claim; Babis were forced to choose and the vast majority eventually accepted Baha'allah's message and became Baha'is; they consider Baha'allah the manifestation of God (mazhar-e allahi).  In 1873 Baha'allah wrote the Aqdas, which was meant to supersede both the Qur'an and Bab's book of law, the Bayan.


Sobh-e Azal


Unlike Azal, Bah'allah seems to have been active and was able to provide effective leadership for his community; he solved the problem of leadership of a persecuted religion; while he remained the paramount leader, he asked Baha'is to form local leadership committee to take care of local affairs.

1892 after Baha'alla's death, his son Abbas Effendi (Abd al-Baha) became the leader of the community until 1921; in 1913 he asked the Baha'is to disassociate themselves from politics.


Read more on Shi'a ulama and the Babi movement:

Algar, Hamid Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906.
Amanat, Abbas Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850.
Bayat, Magol, Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran.
Browne, Edward Material for the Study of the Babi Religion.

Attebat-e Alieh is a collective term used to refer to Shi'a centers of learning built around tombs of Shi'i Imams in Iraq.  Each of these tombs or shrines are distinguishable by a golden dome (as against blue domes for mosques) and have a seminary or madrassa included in the complex.  Iraqi cities which are included in the Attebat are: Najaf (near Kufa in southern Iraq where the Shrine of Imam Ali is located); Karbala, (near Najaf where the shrines of Imam Hosein and his cousin Hzrat-e Abbas are located); Kazemein (or Kadhimain near Baghdad where the shines of the sixth and seventh Shi'i Imams, Ja'far al-Sadeq and his son Musa al-Kzem, are located); and Saamarra (in northern Iraq where the shrines of the tenth and eleventh Shi'i Imams, Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari, are located).  See picture below.









Shrine of Hosein ibn Ali, the third Shi'a Imam, in Karbala

The shrine the 10th & 11th Shi'a Imams in Saamarra (above)