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Shaykhism (Arabic: الشيخية) is a Shi'a Islamic school founded by Shaykh Ahmad[1] in early 19th-century Qajar Iran. While grounded in traditional Twelver Shiʻi doctrine, Shaykhism diverged from the Usuli school in its interpretation of key ideas such as the nature of the end times and the day of resurrection, the source of jurisprudential authority, and the proper hermeneutic to be employed in interpreting prophecy through the mystical writings of the Twelver Imams. These divergences resulted in controversy and ongoing accusations of heresy from Usulis and Akhbaris.[2]

It has been described as a mystical strand of Twelver Shi'a Islam.

As of 2001, there remained a following in Iran, Iraq,[3] Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Pakistan.[4]

Shaykhí teachings[edit]


The primary force behind Ahmad's teachings is the belief in the occultation of the Twelfth Imam. Believers in this doctrine, hold that the last divine ordained leader, or Imam, lives in occultation and will reappear as the promised Mahdi. Following the Mahdi's appearance, Ahmad teaches that the Imam Hussain ibn Ali will return to re-conquer the world and that Ali and Muhammad will kill Satan. Al Raj'a (meaning "the return" in English) was heavily emphasized by Ahmad and is more important in Shaykhism than in the Usuli school of Islam.

Shaykh Ahmad's perspectives on accepted Islamic doctrines diverged in several areas, most notably on his mystical interpretation of prophesy. The sun, moon and stars of the Qurʼan's eschatological surahs are seen as allegorical, similar to Ismaili doctrine,[5] where common Muslim interpretation is that events involving celestial bodies will happen literally at the Day of Judgment.


In an effort to "harmonize reason and religion" and "explain some doctrines of Islam that appear contrary to reason" and the laws of the natural world, Shaykh Ahmad, postulated an intermediary world between the physical and spiritual worlds that he called hurqalya.[6] Everything in the physical world would have counterparts in hurqalya, and events and concepts of Islamic doctrine that did not make sense in the physical world -- heaven, hell, resurrection from the dead, Muhammad's Isra' and Mi'raj, the long life of the Twelfth Imam and the two cities "he is supposed to live" in, Jabulqa and Jabulsa -- all would exist in the realm of hurqalya.[6] Consequently, everyone would have two bodies, one in the natural world and one in hurqalya. It was this concept of hurqalya, "more than anything else" that led to Shaykh Ahmad's conflict with the ulama. [6]

Mystical interpretation[edit]

In other writings, Shaykh Ahmad synthesizes rather dramatic descriptions of the origin of the prophets, the primal word, and other religious themes through allusions and mystical language. Much of this language is oriented around trees, specifically the primal universal tree of Eden, described in Jewish scripture as being two trees. This primal tree is, in some ways, the universal spirit of the prophets themselves:

The symbol of the preexistent tree appears elsewhere in Shaykh Ahmad's writings. He says, for instance, that Muhammad and the Imams exist both on the level of unconstrained being or preexistence, wherein they are the Complete Word and the Most Perfect Man, and on the level of constrained being. On this second, limited plane, the cloud of the divine Will subsists and from it emanates the Primal Water that irrigates the barren earth of matter and of elements. Although the divine Will remains unconstrained in essential being, its manifest aspect has now entered into limited being. When God poured down from the clouds of Will on the barren earth, he thereby sent down this water and it mixed with the fallow soil. In the garden of the heaven known as as-Saqurah, the Tree of Eternity arose, and the Holy Spirit or Universal Intellect, the first branch that grew upon it, is the first creation among the worlds.[7]

Prominent Scholars[edit]

Shaykh Ahmad[edit]

Shaykh Ahmad, at about age forty, began to study in earnest in the Shiʻa centres of religious scholarship such as Karbala and Najaf. He attained sufficient recognition in such circles to be declared a mujtahid, an interpreter of Islamic Law. He contended with Sufi and Neo-Platonist scholars, and attained a positive reputation among their detractors. He declared that all knowledge and sciences were contained (in essential form) within the Qurʼan, and that to excel in the sciences, all knowledge must be gleaned from the Qurʼan. His leadership style and approach to interpretation draw both on traditional and theosophical methods, attempting to harmonize these two streams of Shiʻia thought in unprecedented ways, and emphasizing the validity of intuitive knowledge for religious thought.[8] Rather than relying entirely on Ijtihad, or independent rational justification, Shakyh Ahmad claimed to derive direct guidance from the Imams. Relying entirely on individual justification for religious guidance had, he suggested, led to the introduction into Shiʻa belief of erroneous views of particular scholars. By emphasizing the role of a charismatic leader whose work was suggested to share in the infallibility of the Imams, Shakyh Ahmad suggested that the diversity of rulings promoted by the ulama could be replaced with a singular set of doctrines-this view would later find widespread support in the Ayatollah system of modern Usulism.[8] His views resulted in his denunciation by several learned clerics, and he engaged in many debates before moving on to Persia where he settled for a time in the province of Yazd. It was in Isfahan that most of this was written.[citation needed]

Sayyid Kazim Rashti[edit]

Al-Ahsa'is most prominent student, Kazim Rashti, was given the authority to teach on his behalf in Karbala and became his undisputed successor.[2][9]

Abbas Amanat notes that, in contrast to other religious schools in Iran where students came from families of high-ranking clerics, "the majority of the students in Rashti's circle, with the exception of a few, were alike in their humble origins".[10]

Karim Khan[edit]

Al-Rashti had hundreds of students and several of his leading students claimed to be the true successors to his scholarship.[2] The two main currents of Shaykhism since then came to be known as the Kermani and Tabrizi Schools.[2]

Karim Khan Kermani (1809/1810-1870/1871) became the leader of the main Shaykhi group. He became the foremost critic of those that formed a new religion, writing four essays against them.[11] He repudiated some of the more radical teachings of Ahsai and Rashti and moved the Shaykhi school back towards the mainstream Usuli teachings. Karim Khan Kirmani was succeeded by his son Shaykh Muhammad Khan Kirmani (1846–1906), then by Muhammad's brother Shaykh Zaynal 'Abidln Kirmani (1859–1946). Shaykh Zayn al-'Abidin Kirmani was succeeded by Shaykh Abu al-Qasim Ibrahimi (1896–1969), who was succeeded by his son 'Abd al-Reza Khan Ebrahimi who was a leader until his death.[12]

Modern Shaykhism[edit]

The current leader of the Shaykhiys is Zein al-Abedin Ebrahimi from Kerman, Iran who became the leader of the Shaykhiys when the last leader Mr. Ali al-Musawi died in Iraq.

Ali al-Musawi was the man who heads a community with followers in Iraq - mainly Basrah and Karbala - Iran and the Persian Gulf. Basrah has a significant Shaykhi minority, and their mosque is one of the largest in the city holding up to 12,000 people. The Shaykhiya were resolutely apolitical and hence were allowed relative freedom under Saddam Hussein. Since the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and subsequent Iraqi Civil War they have been targeted by Iraqi nationalists who accused them of being Saudis on the grounds that Ahmad al-Ahsai was from present-day Saudi Arabia[citation needed]. They responded by creating an armed militia and asking all local political groups to sign a pact allowing them to live in peace. This was done at the al-Zahra conference in April 2006.[13] In a move away from their traditional apolitical stance, a Shaykhi political party stood in the Basra governorate election, 2009; they came third, winning 5% of the votes and 2 out of 35 seats.[14]

Shaykhi amongst Shia Islam

Reception in other religions[edit]

Bábís and then Baháʼís see Shaykhism as a spiritual ancestor of their movement, preparing the way for the Báb and eventually Baháʼu'lláh. According to this view, Shaykhism has outlived its eschatological purpose and is no longer relevant.[15] There are many connections between Bábism and Shaykhism. The Báb met with Siyyid Kazim several times[10] and more than half of the 'prominent' converts to the Bábí Faith in its first four years were Shaykhis according to Moojan Momen and Peter Smith.[16] One key similarity between Shaykhism and the Bábí and Baháʼí Faiths is their shared emphasis on a symbolic and allegorical understanding of religious scripture.[17]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ MacEoin 1984.
  2. ^ a b c d Matthiesen 2014.
  3. ^ "The Encyclopedia of World History". 2001. Retrieved 2006-10-10.
  4. ^ Hermann 2017.
  5. ^ Esoteric Apocalypse (Qiyamah): Isma‘ilī Muslim Perspectives on the “End of the World”
  6. ^ a b c Moment, Moojan (1985). An Introduction to Shi'i Islam. Yale University Press. pp. 227–228.
  7. ^ Cole, Juan (1994). "The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i". University of Michigan - Studia Islamica 80 (1994):1-23.
  8. ^ a b MacEoin, Denis (June 1990). "Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy In Nineteenth Century Shiʻism". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 110 (2). American Oriental Society: 327–328. doi:10.2307/604537. JSTOR 604537.
  9. ^ Zarandí 1932, p. 16.
  10. ^ a b Amanat, Abbas. The early years of the Babi movement. Diss. University of Oxford, 1981.
  11. ^ "Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani (1810-1871) - Some Biographical Notes. | Hurqalya Publications: Center for Shaykhī and Bābī-Bahā'ī Studies". Retrieved 2020-10-16.
  12. ^ Henry Corbin History of Islamic Philosophy, Vol. II; page 353
  13. ^ Where Is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine, International Crisis Group, 2007-06-25, accessed on 2007-07-03
  14. ^ The Candidate Lists Are Out: Basra More Fragmented, Sadrists Pursuing Several Strategies?, Historiae, 2008-12-12
  15. ^ Smith, P. (1999). A Concise Encyclopedia of the Baháʼí Faith. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications. pp. 216–217 & 312. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
  16. ^ Smith, Peter. The Babi Movement: A Resource Mobilization Perspective in Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History, Volume 3. Kalimat Press. p. 60.
  17. ^ Momen, Moojan (2004). Shaykh Ahmad Al-Ahsai: Holy people of the world: a cross-cultural encyclopedia. Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 25–26. ISBN 9781576073551.


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