views updated


Shaykhiyya was a nineteenth-century Iranian, mystical, sectarian movement within Shi˓ism that was inspired by Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa˒i, an eighteenth-century cleric who originally came from the Arabian peninsula. It was more popular with the common people, who found it more accessible and vital than its rival Shi˓ite schools, Usulism and Akhbarism. It emphasized gaining gnostic knowledge through the love of God, in addition to the dry, legalistic study of the Qur˒an and hadiths and rigid traditionalism advocated by the other two schools. Shaykhiyya espoused the concept that the twelfth imam (descendant of the prophet Muhammad) of Shi˓ite Islam had gone into hiding from humankind and remains in "occultation" until he returns shortly before the end of the world. The "Fourth Principle" of Shaykhiyya (rokn-e rabi˓) envisaged a "perfect Shi˓a," the only person on Earth who could become aware (through mystical intuition) of the Hidden Imam while he was in occultation. Shaykh Ahmad did not claim this role for himself, but the followers of his chief successor, Sayyid Kazim Rashti, believed that Rashti was the perfect Shi˓a of his time. Rashti formed much of the basic organization of Shaykiyya as a school of thought.

Shaykh Ahmad (1753–1826), one of the last great Muslim philosophers before the influx of European thought, was a gentle man of paradox who enjoyed both the patronage of the court of the Qajar Shah in Tehran and the love of the masses, yet refused an official position for fear that he might lose touch with the common people. Originally from Bahrain, he spent the last twenty years of his life in Iran. He considered himself an orthodox Shi˓ite who was hostile to Sufism, yet inspired a movement that incorporated many elements of Sufi thought. Shaykh Ahmad emphasized the necessity for a religious leader to combine mystical revelation with traditional jurisprudence. His philosophy, influenced by visions of the prophet Muhammad, numerology, rigorous study of Muslim law, and the religious thought of his native Bahrain, inspired the movement that bore his name after his death. The movement was influenced heavily by its founder's fascination with myth and gnostic thought (˓irfan). Though Ahmad was a mystic, and held many beliefs similar to the Sufis', he attacked them as anti-Shi˓ite Sunnis with pantheistic tendencies and criticized them for claiming authority that only the imams should have, though the ultimate authority belonged to the prophet Muhammad. After Ahmad's death, his followers used the Sufi ideal of the Perfect Person to formulate the concept of the Perfect Shi˓a. This person could be used as an authority because he had received mystical knowledge from God, in addition to his study of Muslim law. In a way, Shaykhiyya later became a form of Sufism untouched by Sunni influence, eventually inspiring Babi and Baha˒ism. The Perfect Shi˓a did not take precedence, however, over the imams, who were exalted to a higher degree than in the past. This reflected the chaos in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Shi˓ism, caused by external forces, and which created an increased need for tradition and a central authority to follow. Instead, Shaykhiyya, like its founder, attempted to strike a balance between the dry legalism of pure jurisprudence and the uncontrolled (in their eyes) individualistic esotericism of the Sufis, though it did not always succeed. Two branches of Shaykhiyya have survived in Tabriz and Kerman. The activities of the Shaykhis of Kerman were suppressed under the Islamic Republic of Iran.

See alsoShi˓a: Early ; Shi˓a: Imami (Twelver) .


Cole, Juan R. I. "The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i." Studia Islamica 80 (1994): 1–23.

Paula Stiles

About this article


Updated About content Print Article