SHAYKHĪYAH . Shaykhīyah was a controversial school of theology within Twelver or Imāmī Shiism, originally inspired by the teachings of Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ahsāʾī (1753–1826), a leading scholar of the early Qājār period, and his immediate followers. His thought is a creative synthesis of considerable merit and complexity, selectively drawing from the mystical philosophy (ḥikmat-i ilāhī ) of Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (1579–1641) and other famous Shīʿī heretics, from certain elements of the Akhbārī school of Shīʿī scholarship with its emphasis on the exclusive authority of the words of the imāms, and apparently from Ismāʿīlī eschatological theories. Though advancing several criticisms of the ḥikmat tradition and of Sufism, the Shaykhīyah may be regarded as the most powerful expression of spiritual dissent from the theology and claims to authority of the dominant Uṣūlī ʿulamāʾ of Iran and Iraq during the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. As a strong movement toward the charismatic individual and his or her access to direct inner revelation from the imāms, the early movement was originally called the Kashfīyah. The condemnation of their doctrines as heretical and splits within the movement alongside the development of Bābism from its midst led to a variety of responses, most of which led to the two main branches of the Shaykhīyah reconciling themselves to the dominant theology and jurisprudence of Twelver Shiism.
Shaykh AḤmad: Life and Thought
Shaykh Aḥmad was born in the eastern Arabian province of al-Aḥsāʾ in 1753. From an early age he showed an inclination toward learning and an ascetic form of spirituality. In his autobiography he relates how as a child and a young man he experienced a series of initiatory dreams and visions in which certain of the twelve Shīʿī imāms and the Prophet Muḥammad taught him esoteric knowledge. These visionary experiences later became central in the formation of his philosophical and religious teachings on the nature and functions of the imāms in creation (al-Aḥsāʾī, 1957).
In the early 1790s Shaykh Aḥmad left his native country for Iraq. There he came into close contact with the controversies then stirring among the Twelver ʿulamāʾ. In religious debates dominated by questions of juristic authority, the ʿulamāʾ were largely divided into two camps: Uṣūlīyah and Akhbārīyah. The Uṣūlī triumph of the eighteenth century (the result of a mixture of power politics, rational argument, and intimidation) successfully raised the Uṣūlī mujtahid s (the preeminent jurists) to a dominant position within Shiism through their doctrine of taqlīd, which dictated that the Shīʿah must follow the rulings of a living mujtahid on all matters of ritual practice. For their part the Akhbārīyah held that only the now-hidden twelfth imām is infallible, immune from sins, and therefore worthy to be followed; all persons, including learned scholars, are to follow the imām. Consequently they held that the Qurʾān and traditions reveal the will of God and provide sufficient guidance for the practice of Shiism; in the absence of explicit proof texts, the believer must forgo judgment on a ruling.
Shaykh Aḥmad remained uncommitted to either party. In Iraq he studied under leading representatives of both schools, but his philosophical worldview kept him aloof from identification with either Uṣūlī rationalism or Akhbārī conservatism. He quickly established a reputation for piety and learning and attracted a large following of students and admirers. In 1806 he ventured to Iran, where he gained increasing fame not only among the clerics but also with a large number of Qājār royalty, including Fatḥ ʿAlī Shāh, and powerful merchants.
In Iran Shaykh Aḥmad wrote his most important works dealing with the spiritual exegesis of Shīʿī traditions, discussing al-Ziyārah al-Jāmiʾah (1861), and critiques of the philosophical systems of Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī, al-Mashāʾir and al-ʾArshīyah (1861), and of Muḥsin Fayḍ Kāshānī, al-Risālah al-ʾilmīyah (1856). His writings appear to have been widely circulated and commented on. Although he expressed his views cautiously and frequently resorted to taqīyah (pious dissimulation of one's true beliefs), his growing popularity and seeming unorthodox beliefs soon made him the target of fierce attacks from certain mujtahid s.
Al-Aḥsāʾī was accused of holding that the imāms are the creators and sustainers of the cosmos (the notion of delegation, or tafwīḍ ), a charge that arose from his understanding of certain traditions of the imāms dealing with ontology and the mystery of the emergence of being. Shaykh Aḥmad advanced a strict apophatic theology in which God remains forever beyond human comprehension and indeed beyond being as the essential divine ground (kunh al-dhāt ). Yet other traditions and Qurʾanic verses indicate that the very purpose of human existence is to know and love a God who is closer to one than one's life vein. The bridge between the transcendence and immanence of God is the primordial Muḥammadan reality (ḥaqīqah muḥammadīyah ), which is, for Shaykh Aḥmad, none other than the pleroma of the Fourteen Immaculate Ones (chahārdah-i maʾṣūm, namely Muḥammad, Fāṭimah, and the twelve Shīʿī imāms ). Here the imāms are held to be eternal spiritual realities who, in their unity, are the creative primal will of God and the means through which God is known to persons. In Shaykh Aḥmad's hierarchy of being, the Fourteen Immaculate Ones are also designated as the "Light of Lights" (nūr al-anwār ). It is only through the imāms in their reality as the primal will that a manifestation (maẓhar ) of God occurs. On this point al-Aḥsāʾī differs with the Ishrāqī school of Shīʿī Neoplatonism, which sees the Light of Lights as the originating source of being.
Shaykh Aḥmad maintains that the imāms ' nature as spiritual beings demands, in contrast to the dominant theology of Shiism, that the imāms exist within spiritual bodies situated in the visionary, mediate realm of Hūrqalyā, an intermediate world of archetypal figures (ʿālam al-mithāl). Within this imaginal world, the soul encounters the imāms and is transformed through a divine anthropomorphosis designated as a second or spiritual birth (al-walādah al-rūḥānīyah ). It is in this archetypal region of being that the night journey (miʾrāj ) of the Prophet and the final resurrection occur, a belief that undermines the insistence upon the physicality of these experiences in the dominant theology of Shiism (see Corbin, 1977, chaps. 9–11, for translations of Shaykhī texts on this theme).
Shaykh Aḥmad's rejection of the mujtahid s' claims to authority also caused conflicts. As with the Akhbārīyah, Shaykh Aḥmad denies that believers must submit to the rulings of some mujtahid. Instead, he advances his doctrine of the Fourth Support (al-rukn al-rābiʾ ). Shaykh Aḥmad logically reduces the traditional five bases of Shiism to three: the unity of God, prophethood, and the imamate. In addition there must always exist the "perfect Shīʿah": Shīʿī saints who serve as intermediaries between the imāms and believers. The perfect Shīʿah partake of the grace of the imāms through spiritual vision and not through the fallible discursive reasoning of the mujtahid s. Consequently their knowledge of religious truths is immune from error by virtue of their intimacy with the imāms. Although Shaykh Aḥmad did not specifically claim to be the "bearer" of this Fourth Support, his description of the attributes of the perfect Shīʿī appears to be a self-portrait. Thus he distinguishes himself from earlier philosophers and theologians by asserting that he is at variance with both these groups because of his unique spiritual relationship with the imāms. Unlike the former, he "does not speak without being guided by the imāms " (al-Aḥsāʾī, 1957, p. 14).
In about 1822 an undistinguished mujtahid from Qazvin, Mullā Muḥammad Taqī Baraghānī, accused him of the heresies of tafwīḍ and the denial of bodily resurrection. Most of the leading ʿulamāʾ and philosophers remained sympathetic or neutral toward Shaykh Aḥmad, and it was not at this point that his close followers were considered to be heretics outside Shiism. Nevertheless this controversy prompted the shaykh to leave Iran for Iraq. There too Shaykh Aḥmad found himself at the center of debate with many ʿulamāʾ antagonistic to his views. Deciding that it was wiser to move once more, he set out for Mecca but died in 1826 at the age of seventy-three before he reached the holy city.
The ShaykhĪ School
Al-Aḥsāʾī designated Sayyid Qāʿim Rashtī (d. 1843) as his successor. Under Rashtī's leadership, the Shaykhī school emerged as a separate and organized movement within Shiism. Rashtī clearly formulated the Shaykhī doctrine of salvation history and the evolutionary cycles of revelation that had been ambiguously expressed by his master (al-Aḥsāʾī, 1956, vol. 1, p. 103). Possibly influenced by Ismāʾīlī ideas, Rashtī held that there are two ages of the dispensation of Muḥammad: the period of outward observances (ẓawāhir ) and perfection of the shariʿah, followed by the period of inward realities (bawāṭin ) and the disclosure of esoteric truths. The first age ended at the close of the twelfth Islamic century (eighteenth century ce), and Shaykh Aḥmad is held to be the first promulgator of the new age of inward realities. These views, not widely circulated but well known among Rashtī's closest followers, heightened a sense of millenarian hope among some Shaykhīyah for the full disclosure of the new age through the guidance of the perfect Shīʿah or possibly even the long-expected return of the Hidden Imām.
Despite opposition, the Shaykhīyah attained its greatest successes under Rashtī's leadership. Indeed the Shīʿah in Karbala became divided into Shaykhī and Uṣūlī factions. When Rashtī died without designating a successor, the movement splintered into several antagonistic parties, of which the three most important were the conservative Tabrīzī Shaykhīyah led by Mīrzā Íasan Gawhar (d. 1849), the Kirmānī Shaykhīyah led by the powerful Qājār notable Ḥājj Muḥammad Karīm Khān Kirmānī (1810–1870), and the Bābī movement led by Sayyid ʿAlī Muḥammad Shīrāzī (1819–1844), known as the Bāb.
The Tabrīzī Shaykhīyah later led by the Māmaqānī family played a central role in the trial and execution of the Bāb and reached a reconciliation with the Uṣūlīs. Henceforth they remained undistinguishable in outward practice and appearance from the rest of the Shīʿī community. Their only distinguishing feature was their championing of the character and thought of Shaykh Aḥmad.
The Bābī movement's millenarian fervor and eventual rejection of Shīʿī orthodoxy forced Karīm Khān to adjust Shaykhī teachings in order to distance himself and his party from the Bābīs. In contrast to the Bābīs, he emphasized the continuing role of the imāms and accepted the Uṣūlī legal method. Karīm Khān denied that either Shaykh Aḥmad or Sayyid Kāẓim was to be regarded as the Fourth Support of their day, for this is a general category of guides consisting of all Imāmī ʿulamāʾ (Kirmānī, Al-rukn al-rābiʾ, Kirman, 1949). Eventually the Kirmānī Shaykhīyah returned to the more mystical position that the Fourth Support is an unnamed spiritual hierarchy of saints who, like the Hidden Imām, remain unknown to the general populace. The Kirmānī Shaykhīyah came to regard themselves as an elite minority within Shiism, preserving and deepening the esoteric dimensions of Shiism through the guidance of their shaykhs (see Corbin, 1972). The leadership of the school remained in the Ibrāhīmī family, descendents of Karīm Khān. After the assassination of Shaykh ʿAbd al-Riḍā Khān Ibrāhīmī in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979, the school moved to Basra, where it is led by Sayyid ʿAlī al-Mūsawī. Kirmānī Shaykhī groups are found in the early twenty-first century in Iran and Iraq (particularly in Basra). Tabrīzī Shaykhīs (although unlike the Kirmānīs they never use the term) relocated to Karbala at the beginning of the twentieth century to rekindle the original Shaykhī community there under Rashtī. They are well integrated in the Twelver scholarly community (their leader is described as a marjaʾ, a source of emulation using the Uṣūlī term) and are based in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Karbala, and Damascus, led in the early twenty-first century by Mīrzā ʿAbd Allāh Íāʾirī Iḥqāqī.
A useful summary of Shaykhī teachings is in chapter 2 of Mangol Bayat's Mysticism and Dissent (Syracuse, N.Y., 1982), which attempts to link the Shīʿī traditions of philosophical dissent to late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century anticlerical, secular nationalists. On the relationship between the Shaykhīyah and the Bābīs, see Abbas Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal (Ithaca, N.Y., 1989); and Denis MacEoin's "Early Shaykhī Reactions to Babism," in Studies in Babi and Bahaʾi History, vol. 1, edited by Moojan Momen (Los Angeles, 1982) and "Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy in Nineteenth Century Shiism: The Cases of Shaykhism and Babism," Journal of the American Oriental Society 110 (1990): 323–329. Both Bayat and Amanat suffer from a Whiggish approach to Shaykhī history as a moment in the historical development of the Bahaʾi faith. A number of studies have appeared on Shaykh Aḥmad, including Juan Cole's "Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī and the Sources of Religious Authority," in The Most Learned of the Shiʿa, edited by Linda Walbridge, pp. 82–93 (New York, 2001), and "The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī," Studia Islamica 80 (1994): 145–163. Idris S. Hamid's "The Metaphysics and Cosmology of Process" (Ph.D. diss., State University of New York, Buffalo, 1998) is a valuable study of the philosophical method and system of Shaykh Aḥmad. A useful modern biography is Muḥammad Isbir, al-ʾAllāma al-Jalīl Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Zayn al-Dīn al-Aḥsāʾī fī dāʾirat al-ḍawʾ (Beirut, Lebanon, 1993).
Garcia Scarcia's "Kirmān 1905: La 'Guerra' tra Seihī e Bālasarī," Annali del Instituto Universitario di Napoli 13 (1963): 186–203, discusses the Shaykhī-Uṣūlī division in Twelver Shiism. Denis MacEoin's "From Shaykhism to Babism" (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1979) is an excellent study on the role of authority claims and the interplay of charismatic versus legal authority in the rise of the Shaykhī and Bābī movements. Moojan Momen's "Uṣūlī, Akhbārī, Shaykhī, Bābī: The Tribulations of a Qazwin Family," Iranian Studies 36 (2003): 317–337, is a masterful microhistorical study of relations between these differing groups.
Henry Corbin presents a concise study of the Kirmānī Shaykhī school, with emphasis on philosophical issues, in L'école shaykhie en théologie shi'ite (Tehran, Iran, 1967), an expanded version of which appears in his En Islam iranien, vol. 4, bk. 6 (Paris, 1972). M. A. Amir-Moezzi's "An Absence Filled with Presences," BSOAS 64 (2001): 1–18, is a useful study of Shaykhī hermeneutics. Shaykhī ontology and eschatology are treated in Vahid Rafati's "The Development of Shaykhī Thought in Shīʿī Islam" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1979). A. L. M. Nicolas's Essai sur le cheikisme, 4 vols. (Paris, 1910–1914), is outdated but contains some valuable biographical information.
There are many primary sources for the history and teachings of the Shaykhīyah, including more than one hundred tracts by Shaykh Aḥmad. For a comprehensive catalog of Shaykhī primary sources, see Abū al-Qāsim Khān Ibrāhīmī's Fihrist-i kutub-i Shaykh Aḥmad Aḥsāʾī va sāʾir mashāyikh-i ʿiẓām, 3d ed. (Kirman, Iran, 1977); now abridged and translated by Moojan Momen as a Bulletin of Bahaʾi Studies Monograph (Newcastle, U.K., 1991). Among Shaykh Aḥmad's published works are his autobiography, Sīrat al-Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī (Baghdad, 1957); Jawāmiʾ al-kalim, 2 vols. (Tabrīz, Iran, 1856–1860), a general collection; Sharḥ al-Ziyārah al-Jāmiʾah al-kabīrah, 4 vols. (Tehran, 1850–1851), a vast commentary that provides a veritable summa of Shīʿī philosophy as a commentary on a famous supplication and visitation recitation of the tenth imām, ʿAlī al-Hādī; and other commentaries on the writings of Mullā Ṣadrā (Tabrīz, Iran, 1861–1862). Most of these works have been reprinted in Beirut since the late 1990s and are available on Shaykhī websites. A new institute, Muʾassasat al-Fikr al-Awḥad, based in Damascus and founded by the Tabrīzī and Karbalāʾī Shaykhīs, has been producing studies and editions of the works of Shaykh Aḥmad since 2001. Shaykhī texts on the theme of spiritual bodies are translated in Henry Corbin's Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (Princeton, N.J., 1977), chaps. 9–11.
The World Wide Web has become a major resource for Arabic texts and academic studies. A descriptive bibliography of the Shaykhīyah by Stephen Lambden is at http://www.hurqalya.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/SHAYKHISM/shaykhism-bib1.htm. Two academic sites affiliated with H-Net, with primary source materials in translation and studies, are "Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Bahaʾi Studies" at http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/bhpapers.htm and "Translations of Shaykhi, Babi and Bahaʾi Texts" at http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/trans.htm. The Kirmānī Shaykhīs have a site with an extensive library of texts at http://www.alabrar.info. There are also a number of Tabrīzī and Karbalāʾī Shaykhī sites, including http://www.awhad.com.
Steven Scholl (1987)
Sajjad H. Rizvi (2005)