Sunday, April 15, 2012


            During the eighteenth century the Islamic world saw many changes to the established way of life.  By the mid-eighteenth century, the three great Islamic empires (Safavid, Ottoman, and Mughal) had begun to decentralize or had collapsed. With the instability of the political powers Muslim scholars began to rethink the socio-political role of Islam.  The process led to the rise of three Islamic movements (Usulism, Wahhabism, and Neo Sufism).  I will focus on the how the decline of the Safavid Empire allowed the rise of Usulism in Iran and Southern Iraq, how Muhammad Baqir “Vahid” Bihbihani (referred to as Bibhihani) came to change the culture of the region, and how Usuli Shi’ism differed from the traditional Shi’a school of thought that was prevalent at the time.  

            The rise of Usulism is directly correlated with the decline of the Safavid Empire, which ruled the Shi’a areas of modern day Iran from 1501-1722.[i]  The first Safavid emperor was Isma’il I (1487-1524).[ii]  The rule of the Safavids changed from promoting the mystical Sufism to Shi’ism.  At first the Safavids promoted the Usuli doctrine in part because the use of rational thought along with the Qur’an and the hadith allowed for rulings on new matters that are not settled in the foundational texts.  As the Safavid Empire grew and centralized its power, the need for the creation of new mujtahids lessened.  As the rulings on such matters, tobacco, gun powder, and coffee had already become precedent in the eyes of the ulama.[iii]  By the start of the seventeenth century the Traditionist (Akhbari) perspective became the more dominant school of Shi‘i thought.  The Akhbaris focused on using the Qur’an and the hadith as well as precedent (taqlid) for their rulings.  The Usuli movement had become all but obsolete by the time of Bihbihani’s birth.  In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Safavid Empire began to wane and weaken under the rule of Shah Sultan Husayn Safavi (1694-1722).[iv]  In 1722 the Safavid Empire fell to Afghani Sunni invaders[v].
            During the time between the fall of the Safavid Empire and the creation of the Qajar Empire in 1794, there was much instability and turmoil in the Shi‘i world.[vi]  These were the perfect conditions for a change in the religious and social establishment.  When Isfahan (the capital city of the Safavid Empire) fell to the Afghanis in 1722 a young scholar, Vahid Bihbihani, and his family relocated from Isfahan to Southern Iraq.  The area known as the Atabat with the major cities of Karbala and Najaf became the main learning centers of the Shi’a world.  Here Bihbihani developed his education and established his political, social, and economic connections.  During this period the Akhbaris continued to dominate Shi’a religious and legal thought.  In fact, Usulis were beaten up by thugs if they were caught with Usuli texts.
Bihbihani was taught primarily by Akhbari teachers, however, he chose to follow the Usuli path and view the Akhbaris as heretics.  He moved from Bihbihan (a small town in western Iran, from where he adopted his name) in 1760 to Karbala because he felt that if he was going to change the religious culture of Shi’ism, he would have to do it there as it was the center of Shi’a thought.
Bihbihani used his connections to slowly turn the peoples’ favor against the Akhbaris by gaining the protection of the local gangs.  He and his followers lucked out by relocating temporarily to Iran in 1772 while a plague devastated Karbala.  That year also marked the death of the greatest Akhbari leader of the time, Yusuf al-Bahrani.  Bihbihani’s influence had grown so much by this point that he preceded over al-Bahrani’s funeral.  There he declared the Akhbaris as infidels, thus putting an end to the control of the Akhbaris over Karbala.

            Key Figures:
            As previously mentioned the foremost leader of the Usuli movement in the eighteenth century was Vahid Bihbihani.  Bihbihani was born in Isfahan around 1704 or 1706.  His father was a Shi’a scholar who learned from one of the greatest scholars of the seventeenth century Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi (Majlisi II).[vii]  When Isfahan fell to the Afghanis in 1722, the family relocated to Bihbihan in southern Iraq and adopted the name of the town as their own.  During this time he learned the Akhbari teachings from his father.  When his father died, Bihbihani learned under a Usuli scholar in Najaf and later learned under an Akhbari teacher.  Bihbihani being well versed in both Shi’a traditions had a choice to make, he was passionate about Akhbarism, but chose Usulism.  He returned to Bihbihan in 1732.
            During his studies, he managed to secure some valuable connections that would help him in his later life.  His first wife was the daughter of his Usuli teacher in Najaf.  In Bihbihan, he married a merchant’s daughter who helped patronize him in teaching students.  He also married the village leader’s daughter gaining another alliance.  With these three marriages, Bihbihani gained influence back in Najaf, economic power, and political strength in Bihbihan allowing him to move up the social ladder. 
            With Bihbihani’s powerful connections intact, he moved to Karbala in 1760 with enough power and money to pay off the local gangs and change their allegiance from the Akhbaris to Bihbihani and the Usulis.  The Usulis could start changing people’s minds towards the Usuli school of thought.  When al-Bahrani died, he allowed Bihbihani to conduct the prayer at his funeral as a sign of good faith to Bihbihani and to try and unite the two factions.[viii]

            The Usuli practice was not a new idea by the time Vahid Bihbihani came to power, but during the late Safavid period, Usulism was less favored to the Traditionalist (Akhbari) view.  The Akhbaris used the Qur’an and the hadith to derive legal precedent which gave equitable punishments in the eyes of the Safavids.  The problem with simply relying in precedent set down in the sacred texts is that the times changed and new inventions and discoveries came into play, so Akhbaris could not rule on those subjects.
            Bihbihani and the Usulis viewed the legal system differently, they agreed that the Qur’an and the hadith were the basis for all legal thought, but in the cases where the texts do not explicitly discuss the subject, rational thought is needed to render a verdict.  This is known as ijtihad.  According to Usulis ijtihad was necessary for the purpose of issuing judgments on new cases.[ix]  Bihbihani believed that every Shi’a needed to choose a living cleric to follow all their legal opinions.  This cleric is known as a mujtahid.  The mujtahids would fill the void of the Imams, on whose authority Shi ‘ism is built, since the twelfth Imam was still in hiding. 
            The mujtahids had the ability to declare takfir, which is to declare their opponents as infidels.  During Bihbihani’s time, he declared the Akhbaris as infidels which had not been done since the Middle Ages.

            Types of Activism:
            After the solidification of the Usulis as the dominate philosophy of the Shi’a faith, the followers of Bihbihani returned to Iran to spread the message of Usulism.  Usulism gained the favor of the Qajar Empire in the late eighteenth century and Shi‘ism was declared the state religion by Aqa Mohammad Khan Qajar in 1791.[x]  Though the Shi‘ism had become the state religion of the Qajar Empire, the Usulis faced turbulence from the remnants of the Akhbaris after the death of Bihbihani and during the nineteenth century.[xi]  The government would rely on the mujtahids to assist in its cause by declaring jihad upon the Russians as a basis for war.
            With religious unity in the Shi’a world during the early twentieth century, the Usulis would help lead a movement to create one of the first constitutions in the Islamic world.  When the Iranian revolution deposed the Shah in 1979, the conservative Usuli clerics gained control of the nation and have had near total authority since the revolution[xii].

            Annotated Bibliography:
Heern, Zachary. “Usuli Shi’ism: The Emergence of an Islamic Reform Movement in Early Modern Iraq and Iran.” PhD diss., University of Utah, 2011.
           This dissertation provided the basis for the majority of the research for the paper.  In Dr. Heern’s dissertation, he provides the history of the Usuli movement from a generalized understanding in the early chapters of the dissertation.  In the later chapters the dissertation goes into more detail about the actions of Vahid Bihbihani and how he came to oust the Akhbaris.

Momen, Moojan. “Usuli, Akhbari, Shaykhi, Babi: The Tribulations of a Qazvin Family.” Iranian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 317-337

            The majority of the article speaks about the hardships that Usulis experienced during the Qajar period after the death of Vahid Bihbihani.  In the nineteenth century, the Usulis had become the state religion of Iran, but still faced hardships from oppositional factions in the Qajar Empire.

Juan Cole. “Shi'i Clerics in Iraq and Iran, 1722-1780: The Akhbari-Usuli Conflict Reconsidered”
Iranian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1985), pp. 3-34
            This article gives a good understanding and additional information provided in the Dr. Heern’s dissertation.  Due to the age of the article, many of the concepts had already been used by Dr. Heern.
Ahmad Kazemi Moussavi. “Shi'ite Culture” Iranian Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3/4, A Review of the "Encyclopaedia Iranica" (1998), pp. 639-659
This article gives a good overview of important people and places that lived in the Shi’i world at the time of the Usuli movement.
Meir Litvak.  Continuity and Change in the Ulama Population of Najaf and Karbala, 1791-1904: A Socio-Demographic StudyIranian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1/4 (1990), pp. 31-60
            This article follows the life of Vahid Bihbihani and his disciples after his death.

[i] Zachary Heern, “Usuli Shi’ism: The Emergence of an Islamic Reform Movement in Early Modern Iraq and Iran” (PhD diss., University of Utah, 2011). 30
[ii] Heern, “Usuli Shi’ism.” 30
[iii] Heern, “Usuli Shi’ism.” 36
[iv] Juan Cole, “Shi'i Clerics in Iraq and Iran, 1722-1780: The Akhbari-Usuli Conflict Reconsidered
Iranian Studies.” 5
[v] Heern, “Usuli Shi’ism.” 20
[vi] Heern, “Usuli Shi’ism.” 30
[vii] Heern, “Usuli Shi’ism.” 37
[viii] Moussavi Ahmad Kazemi, Iranian Studies 650
[ix] Heern, “Usuli Shi’ism.” 31
[x] Litvak Meir, Iranian Studies 35
[xi] Moojan Momen. “Usuli, Akhbari, Shaykhi, Babi: The Tribulations of a Qazvin Family.” 337
[xii] Heern, “Usuli Shi’ism.” 36

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