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Twelvers / Ithna Ashari Islamic Schools of Thought

The 17th Century Akhbari/Usuli controversy was directed towards establishing the 'Ulama' as regents of the Imam in social and political matters. Usuli [variants: Usooli] was a religious movement by Persian Shiite Muslims in 17th century Iran that was opposed to the Akhbari. The Usuli-Akhbari controversy resulted in the victory of rationalism and upheld the role of the ulama, but it would be wrong to assumed that all Akhbari `ulama' were reactionary and all Usuli `ulama' were progressive.

The dominant Usuli (from "usul-i-fiqh," principles of jurisprudence) school is more liberal in its legal outlook than the Akhbari. It allows greater use of interpretation (ijtihad) in reaching legal decisions, and considers that one must obey a mujtahid (learned interpreter of the law) as well as an Imam. The Iranian religious center at Qom was the focal point of Usuli Shiism, and from the 1760s, the Usuli school began to win out in the strategic Shi`ite shrine centers of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. By the establishment of the Qajar dynasty in 1785 (CE) the Usuli ulama had emerged as a force to be reckoned with across Iran, with it's leadership emanating from the Atabat (Karbila and Najaf in Iraq).

Usuli Shiism produced the politically active caste of priests that is a distinctive feature of Iranian Shiism. Usuli rationalists insisted that the consensus of scholars and independent reasoning (ijtihad) can be a basis for activism. Usuli Shiism provided the religious legitimacy for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution of 1979 and the subsequent theocratic state. But the na'ib-i-amm concept -- that the ulama acted in "general deputyship" in the absence of the Hidden Imam - expanded only slowly over time. Most ulama were politically inactive. The concept was developed to its logical conclusion in Ayat'ullah Khumayni's construct that that government is rightfully administered by Islamic jurists in the absence of the Imam.

In mainstream Usuli Shiite jurisprudence it is illegitimate to continue following the controversial rulings of a dead jurisprudent. Laypersons must adopt a new, living jurisprudent in such circumstances. The practice of taqlid al-mayyit [following dead jurisprudents] is permited in the Akhbari school.

Akhbari (or communicators of tradition, akhbar being the Shi'i term for the Traditions) was a religious movement by Arab Shiite Muslims in 17th century Iraq that was opposed to the Usuli. Akhbari Shiism did not promote political control, and held that clerics should advise political leaders but not govern themselves. The shrine cities of Ottoman Iraq -- Najaf (tomb of `Ali) and Karbala (tomb of Husayn) -- were the center of Akhbari scholars. The Akhbari school restricted to the Qur'an and oral reports of the Prophet and the Imams. They held that, during the ghaiba (occultation) of the Twelfth Imam, religious scholars were not permitted to use reason (ijtihad) to apply law to a specific situation. They also insisted that laymen can equally emulate the 12 Imams -- that is, Akhbaris supported in the ability of all believers to interpret the Traditions of the Imams.

This school crystallised into a separate movement following the writings of Mulla Muhammad Amin Astaraabadi (d. 1033/1623). Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani, a refugee from Afghan slaughter in Iran in 1724, rejected the legitimacy of holy war (jihad) during the occultation of the Imam. The school achieved its greatest influence during the late and post-Safavid periods but was crushed by the `Usuli Mujtahidin at the end of the Qajar era. Shaykh Murtada bin Muhammad Amin Ansari [b 1214/1799 , d 1281/1864] established conclusively the dominance of the Usuli position against the neo-Akhbari Traditionism.

There is some confusion as to the present adherence to the Akhbari school. Many sources claims that Iraqi Shi'ism is Akhbari while Iranian Shi'ism is Usuli. Other reports characterized Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was killed by a rampaging mob soon after he returned to Iraq from emigration in London, and as Akhbari. This may overstate matters, though "some residual influence of the Akhbari position still persists not only in Iran but to a much greater degree among the Shi'i ulama of Iraq, India, Pakistan and Bahrain and among their followers." [source]

Other sources report that both Iraqi and Iranian are Shi'ia are Usulis, and that Iraq is fully part of the marja' (source or religious leader) system. Thus, Grand Ayatullah as-Sayyid Ali al-Hussaini as-Seestani is Marja Taghlid (source of emulation). Sharia is updated, interpreted and relayed by a Mojtahed (supreme religious leader) or a Marja Taghlid (source of emulation). According to this view, Akhbaris are today a small group which only survives in any numbers in Bahrain, where the majority of Shiites are Akhbaris. They are also found around Basra in southern Iraq as well as around Khorramshahr in Iran. Akhbari Shi'ism also has a few adherents in other Gulf regions.

After the defeat of the Akhbaris, the primary doctrinal challenge to Usuli jurisprudecne came from the Shaykhi school. This movement was founded on the teachings of Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsa'i (d. 1825 C.E.) and his successor Siyyid Kazim-i-Rashti (d. 1844 C.E.). Whereas the Akhbari school differed from the `Usulis principally in matters of furu`, the Shaykhi School, founded by Shaykh Ahmad ibn Zaynu'd-Din al-Ahsa'i (d. 1241/1826), differed principally in usul. There is evidence that Shaykh Najafi made attempts to marginalize their role. There remains a strong Shaykhi movement in Pakistan

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:59:40 ZULU