Shi’ism in the Safavid Period

(a) Assess the impact of the Safavids on Twelver Shiism.

Safavid rule beginning from1501 A.D was characterized by a series of curious paradoxes and contradictions and this reflected in its relationship with Shi’a Islam. It has been noted that the earler version of Shi’ism professed by Shah Ismail seemed to have moved beyond ‘all respectable form of Shi’ism’ including those which indulged in the extremist (ghuluw) views. Inspite of the fact that Shah Ismail decreed for Shi’ism to be the state religion, it has been pointed out the he was not ‘a devoted Twelver Shia’ and his knowledge of Shi’ism has been described as ‘superficial’ and ‘distinctly ill-informed’. However the argument that he could have been practicing taqaiya to appease the Qizilbash, also seems quite credible because this group gave legitimacy to his government and also because he did not show such flexbility towards the religious outlooks of other groups. (Morgan) The arguments that he chose Shi’ism for the sake of political expediency given the hostility from the neighbouring Sunni rivals and that he ‘imported’ Shia ulema perhaps because he did not trust the Persian Sunnis seem a little superficial because he seems to have enforced Shi’ism with some measure of personal conviction and that too when at a time when it was clearly not an easy task to undertake within a Sunni majority population. It was most likely a confluence of both factors that led to his preference towards Shi’ism.

Initially the Safavid state controlled and appropriated the ulema’s religious hiearchy through creating the ‘top mullahs’ and confered ‘honor, wealth and power’ on the Shia ulema and during the Safavid rule the ulema seemed to have access to vast economic wealth from the religious endowments. (Mottahedeh).  Later events however energized the religious sphere and the ulema attained their greatest power during the reign of the last Safavid emperor, Shah Hussain. They seemed to have a firm power base within the region and to have felt secure enough to make an increasingly independent stand viz a viz the Safavid state. (Garthwaite) The ulema were seen as showing contempt for the immoral lifestyle of the Safavid rulers who were extravagantly interested in their harems and their winecellars. (Mottahedeh) The ulema were taking an increasingly prominent role in the affairs of the state. This process came to a head Under the leadership of Baqir Majlisi succeeded in created an official kind of Shi’ism which would define the future clerical roles of the ulema. This newly emerged religious institution however was ‘concerned with its own authority’ to survive. (Garthwaite) Majlisi was one of the most powerful and influential Shi’a alim and his policies and actions reoriented Twelver Shi’ism in the direction that it was to develop to the present day ,with the creation of a  distinct hierarchy of the community of mullahs. (Mottahedeh). In this sense the most significant development in Shi’ism during the time of the Safavids.

Majlisi produced his encyclopediac collection of hadith, the Bihar al-Anwar during this late Safavid era. He also played an extremely proactive socio- political role and significantly the Shah Hussain regime seems to have made almost no effort to control his activities. Majlisi exerted his influence towards the suppression of Sunnism, Sufism and philosphy while propogating what seems to be a very dogmatic legalistic form of Twelver Shi’ism. His attempts to counter and reverse the philosophical Sufi trend in Twelver Shi’ism seem to have been extremely successful, because such outlook seems to have survived till the present day given the current offical outlook of Twelver Shi’ism.

Such an outlook seems to have continued among Majlisi’s successors some of whom distinguished themselves as ‘persecutors’ and even ‘slayers’ of  Sufis. Earlier in the Seventeeth and Eighteenth century the Akhbari school also came to dominate religious politics with the campaign of Mohammed Amin Astarabadi who revolted against such established community of mullahs. Amongst his various complaints against such hiearchy was his disdain for the way such  mullahs had becom ‘cosy with the rulers’ to further their own aims. (Mottahedeh).

(b) Outline the primary differences between the Usulis and the Akhbaris.

The rationalist Usulis and the strict-constructionist Akhbaris constituted rival schools of jurisprudence during the Safavid era. The rationalist theologians employed cosmopolitan tools of Greek rationalism in Imami theology and came to be known as the Usulis , while those rejecting human reasoning in favor of a literalist adherence to the words of the Imams became known as Akhbaris.

The differences between the Usulis and the Akhbaris centered around two sets of issues, the first concerned the sources of law and the other the principles of jurisprudence. The Usuli’s accept four sources of authority in matters of doctrine and law,the Quran, Sunna traditions (akhbar), concensus (ijma) and the intellect(aql) but the Akhbaris restricting them to Quran and Traditions (akhbar) from the Prophet and the Imams. The usulis accept and use the literal meaning of the Quran and the Traditions claiming that it is possible to know the meaning of these through the use of the intellect(aql). However the Akbaris consider that the Quran and traditions can be understood only where their meaning has been made explicit by the commentary of the Imams(tafsir and tawil) of the Imams. For them rationalist interpretations made by non Imams create the possiblity of human error. (Algar,Haider) The Usulis consider the books of Traditions to contain many unreliable Traditions while the Akhbari’s consider them to be all reliable. The Usulis consider that the doctrines or legal decisions derived from transmitted sources cannot contradict what is derived from rational principles but the Akhbaris’s consider the transmitted sources to have precedence over what is derived from the use of reason. They also disagreed over the collections of the traditions available from the Imams, the Usulis  discrediting significant collections of traditions that were seen as credible by the Akhbari school. The Akhbaris considered all traditions to be credible.

The Usulis saw the consensus of the jursiprudents as another source of legal judgement, as they did the independent reasoning of the jurist. The Usulis divided all Shi’i into formally trained jurisprudents(mujtahids) and laymen, stipulating that the ordinary believers must emulate the mujtahids in matters of religious law.  They asserted that the mujtahids,as representatives of the Hidden Imam, could substitute for him in performing such tasks as giving legal judgements, implementing rulings, collecting and distributing alms or mandating defensive holy wars.  The Akhbaris although allowing for the relators of oral reports of Imams to perform judicial functions, often disallowed some or all of the other functions in the absence of an infalliable Imam. Akhbari’s further rejected any division of believers into laymen and mujtahid-exemplars, holding that all Shi’i must emulate the Twelve Imams. In practice however the Akhbaris also made interpretations but theybelieved in the human intellect as tool capable of understanding religion. In  sense then when the Imam’s were a conduit for intercession between man and God, the Usuli position further seems to have diluted such intercession by positing the mujtahids as some sort of an intercession between the Imam and the people.

Some Akhbaris went further and also rejected all the Mutazili basis of Shi’i doctrine, reaching an almost Ashari position in theology. Infact if the Akhbari’s had succeeded they would have brought Shi’ism very close to Sunnism. Ironically also the Akhbaris like Shahrastani accused the Ususli’s of borrowing the concepts of rationalistic interpretations from Sunni jurisprudence. The Akbari emphasis on the primacy of traditions seems a little contrived and inconvenient given their outlook that  in the absence of reliable traditions on subjects any action was ‘dubious and best not taken’. (Algar, Haider). This would place significant constraints on the freedom of individual human agency. Also the connection between the knowledge of Arabic language and the comprehension of textual traditions seems misplaced for non-Arab Shi’ites. In this sense the Akhbari school could not possibly hoped to have universal appeal in the world of Shi’ism which extends far beyond the Arab world. The Usuli doctrines on the other hand seem to have introduced great rigidity and inflexibility into Shi’ism and their efforts to declare the Akhbaris as heretics seem quite excessive  and overly aggressive.


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