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The term "usuliyya" applies to those who adhere to the principles in law that, in Twelver Shi˓ism, came specifically to mean the principles of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh). The notion of principles was at first imbued with the theological doctrines of the Mu˓tazila in the works of al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1022) and his students, al-Sharif al-Murtada (d. 1044) and al-Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 1067), who exposed the imami conception of usul al-fiqh. However, the methodology for extrapolating legal norms (ahkam) from the sources had not yet been thoroughly incorporated into jurisprudence to the extent seen in later periods. The ulema of the tenth and eleventh centuries viewed themselves more as rational-theological jurists rather than as followers of the Usuli tradition.

After Tusi, Shi˓ite jurisprudence stagnated for a century and a half, during which Sunni law flourished more creatively. Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), an Andalusian of the Zahirite school, presented an unusual combination of theology, linguistics, logic, and epistemology in his al-Ihkam. He defends logic and reasoning on the grounds that all thinking, even "the tradition," should be verified by reason. A contemporary of Ibn Hazm was Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 1085) who combined a strong Ash˓arite tendency with a certain measure of logic and rationalist epistemology in the introduction to his usul work al-Burhan.

One of Juwayni's students, Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111), gave a new structure to Islamic legal methodology that inspired Shi˓ite Usulis. In al-Mustasfa, he proposed a horizontal scope for usul al-fiqh which differed from the hierarchical classification of the sources of legal knowledge as initiated by al-Shafi˓i. Ghazali's approach to usul al-fiqh impressed such subsequent Sunni legal authors as Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d. 1233) and Ibn al-Hajib (d. 1248). These scholars focused on the method of drawing out legal norms rather than on the categorization of the legal sources, as pre-Ghazali authors had done. Amidi dedicated a chapter to syllogism under the title of istidlal (evidentiary proof; 1967, 104–120), including his brief epistemo-theological introductory remarks whose elaboration he presented in another work Abkar al-anwar. Amidi defined istidlal in its specific sense, as syllogistic reasoning which is not necessarily based on the four classical Islamic legal sources.

The Shi˓ite school of Hilla, which flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, did not disregard the rationalist Usuli achievements of its Sunni counterparts. This school historically begins with Ibn Idris al-Hilli (d. 1202) who, benefiting from the growing rationalist tendency among the Twelvers, made a more detailed exposition of Shi˓ite jurisprudence in his al-Sara'ir. In refuting the traditionalists, Ibn Idris negates the validity of isolate traditions, and explicitly identifies the human rational faculty (˓aql) as the fourth source of law in deducing legal norms.

The Usuli doctrinal movement truly began with al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli (d. 1277), who was the first to open a chapter of ijtihad and qiyas (analogy) in Shi˓ite jurisprudence. Like Ghazali, Muhaqqiq defines ijtihad in such a way that, by making a distinction between the speculative component (zann) on the one hand, and qiyas and unrestricted reasoning on the other, ijtihad is legitimized on the basis of valid zann. He challenges Mufid on the question of qiyas by claiming that the ratio legis (˓illa) in certain kinds of qiyas are discernible and may be applied to new cases under the pretext of tanqih alminat (scrutiny of criterion). It is noteworthy that the initiation of ijtihad is regarded as the major source of dynamism in Shi˓ite law since the thirteenth century, when the claim of "closure of the gate of ijtihad" began to circulate in the Sunni milieu. Moreover, Muhaqqiq tried to redefine the Shi˓ite conception of ˓aql by restricting it to three applications: (i) verbal inferences such as the tone (lahn) of religious discourse, (ii) what is implied in God's address (fahwa al-khitab), and (iii) the reason for the address (dalil al-khitab). Only the second is considered to be referring to the human conception of good and evil.

Muhaqqiq's nephew, al-˓Allama al-Hilli (d. 1327), advanced this Usuli position by not only upholding ijtihad, but also by distinguishing the status of the mujtahid as a necessary office for Shi˓ism. From the vantage point of knowledge of jurisprudence, he divided the community into two groups: mujtahids and their followers. In his Tahdhib, ˓Allama legitimized two kinds of qiyas: i) al-mansus al-˓illa in which the leges ratio is designated in the Qur˒an and Sunna, and ii) al-hukm fil-far˓ aqwa, wherein the minor case has more applicability to law than its premise.

By the middle of the Safavid era (the seventeenth century), the Usuli trend suffered a temporary setback due to the Akhbari (traditionalist) resurgence that seriously challenged the Usuli way of resorting to qiyas and ijtihad instead of relying on the imams' traditions. The founder of the neotraditionalist trend was Mulla Muhammad Amin Astarabadi (d. 1626), who had been educated by Usuli masters. Astarabadi succeeded in turning Akhbarism into a legal school with distinct methods of jurisprudence. Among his formulas was the principle of "customary certainty" (al-yaqin al-˓adi or alqat˓ al-˓adi), which proposed that the Shi˓ites should content themselves with "the general certainty" (al-qat˓ al-ijmali) that the contents of imams' traditions convey to them. According to Astarabadi, these traditions are compiled in the four canonical collections of Shi˓ite traditions as well as other early Shi˓ite compilations.

The Usuli methodology found a new momentum in the Shi˓ite seminaries during the second half of eighteenth century, when the leading Akhbari-oriented jurist of the shrine cities of the ˓Atabat, Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani (d. 1772), incorporated the key elements of Usuli principles, including the ijtihad, in his comprehensive work on Shi˓ite law, al-Hada˓iq al-Nadira˒. Bahrani, moreover, allowed his Usuli opponent Baqir al-Bihbihani (d. 1791) to flourish in the ˓Atabat by encouraging his own students to attend Bihbihani's lectures, and still more, by assigning Bihbihani to lead the funeral prayer at his death.

Bahrani's goal, which was to reduce the differences between the two parties, was viewed as having been defeated by later Usulis, since they awarded Bihbihani victory over the Akhbaris. Enjoying his family connections and ability to support his students, Bihbihani succeeded in re-establishing Usulism in the shrine cities. However, he wrote more polemical treatises such as Risalat al-ijtihad wal-akhbar, rather than works on Usuli legal methodology. Despite Bahrani's aspiration, the Usuli-Akhbari conflict continued, and eventually climaxed into personal refutations and even bloody clashes between supporters of the two groups during the nineteenth century.

The re-establishment of the Usuli position not only increased the authority of the ulema, but also placed the doctrine of ijtihad and taqlid at the heart of the Shi˓ite juristic structure upon which the subsequent institution of marja˓ altaqlid had to be built. The juridical office of marja˓ al-taqlid appeared as an independent institution when the Usuli ulema of the ˓Atabat began to acknowledge the superiority of one or several senior mujtahids in expounding legal opinions, and in some cases in pronouncing final and binding verdicts.

The institution was manifested more completely when Shaykh Muhammad Hasan Isfahani was singled out as the sole supreme mujtahid in Najaf in 1846, and he formally took charge of paying the stipends of the students of other seminaries in the shrine cities of the ˓Atabat. In view of the considerable socio-political roles performed in the modern period by this institution and by the ulema in general, it is suggested that the consolidation of the independent Shi˓ite "hierocracy" resulted in a duality within the structure of authority during the Qajar reign in Iran.

Another consequence of Usuli dominance was the reformulation of the doctrine of juristic mandate (velayat-e faqih) with a methodical argumentation. The idea of the juristic mandate still contained at its heart the concept of the imam as deputy, but it came to include as well an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of qualified jurists to succeed the all-embracing authority of the imam, due to the work of an Usuli jurist of the Qajar court, Molla Ahmad Naraqi. The executive force of this doctrine is taqlid or the unquestioned mass following.

Concurrent with the increase of the mujtahid's social prestige, the Usuli legal methodology reached another peak with Shaykh Murtada Ansari (d. 1864), who shifted the emphasis of the contents of usul al-fiqh from the semantics of the Qur˒an and traditions to what he termed "the rational practical principles" (al-usul al-˓amaliyya). Ansari defended the use of syllogism in legal methodology, and he applied it in parts of his work. Ansari rejected the application of "juristic mandate" beyond religious matters, but he advocated the necessity of a mujtahid for approbation of Muslim actions. Ansari's discourses were compiled and circulated among Shi˓a in the form of the juridical manual (risala-ye ˓amaliyya) that were issued by the supreme exemplar of the community.

The notion of unquestioned following taqlid was further corroborated by Sayyed Mohammad Kazem Yazdi (d. 1919), who maintained that the actions of Muslims would be void without emulating a mujtahid. Yazdi set the problem of taqlid as the opening issue of Shi˓ite law. The last bolster of taqlid, in its Usuli context, was made by Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989). He claimed that the object of taqlid was not limited to sheer "following," but was intended to mean complete obedience to the qualified jurist's commands.

The centrality of taqlid in some of the Usuli works should not be taken to mean that the Usulism of the contemporary era was actually reduced to taqlid and its corollary ijtihad to enhance the mandate of jurists; but rather that several genuine attempts were made to present the Shi˓ite Usuliyya in its best methodical form. The most successful work in this vein belongs to Shaykh Mohammad Reza Mozaffar (d. 1963), who dedicated half of his book to discussions of "rational entailments" and "the practical principles." He expounded the Shi˓ite conceptions of "independent rational inducements" (al-mustiqillat al-˓aqliyya), rational proofs, and the presumption of continuity of the past.


Arjomad, Said Amir, ed. Authority and Political Culture inShi˓ism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Kazemi Moussavi, Ahmad. Religious Authority in Shi˓ite Islam. Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1996.

Ahmad Kazemi Moussavi