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Shaykhism (Arabic: الشيخية‎) is an Islamic religious movement founded by Shaykh Ahmad[1] in early 19th-century Qajar Iran. While grounded in traditional pure 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 orthodox members of the Shiʻi ulama.

Today Shaykhi populations retain a minority following in Iran, Iraq[2] Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Pakistan.[3]

In the mid-19th century, many Shaykhis converted to Bábism and Baháʼí Faith, which regard Shaykh Ahmad and his successor Kazim Rashti highly.[4][5]

Shaykhí teachings[edit]


The primary force behind Ahmad's teachings is the belief in the occultation of the Twelfth Imam. Believers in this doctrine, known as Twelvers, 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 the Imam Ali and prophet Muhammad will kill Satan. Al Raj'a (meaning "the return" in English) was heavily emphasized by Ahmad and is more important in Shaykhism in than in the Usuli school of Islam.

The source of knowledge and certainty[edit]

Shaykhi teachings on knowledge are similar in appearance to that of the Sufis, save that where the Sufi "wayfarer" arrogates to himself the role of interpreting and adjudicating truth, Shaykh Ahmad was clear that the final arbiter for interpretation and clarity was the 12th Imam.

For Shaykh Ahmad, then, the Shiʻite learned man is not simply a mundane thinker dependent on nothing more than the divine text and his intellectual tools for its interpretation. The Learned must have a spiritual pole (qutb), a source of grace (ghawth), who will serve as the locus of God's own gaze in this world. Both pole and ghawth are frequently-used Sufi terms for great masters who can by their grace help their followers pursue the spiritual path. For Shaykh Ahmad, the pole is the Twelfth Imam himself, the light of whose being is in the heart of the Learned. The oral reports, he notes, say that believers benefit from the Imam in his Occultation just as the earth benefits from the sun even when it goes behind a cloud. Were the light of the Imam, as guardian (mustahfiz), to be altogether extinguished, then the Learned would not be able to see in the darkness."[6]

Mystical symbology and the origin of the Prophet[edit]

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 Ismailis,[7] where common Muslim interpretation is that events involving celestial bodies will happen literally at the Day of Judgment. 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 the Prophet 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.[8]

This notion of beings with both divine and ephemeral natures presages a similar doctrine of the Manifestation in Bábism and the Baháʼí faiths, religions whose origins are rooted in the Shaykhi spiritual tradition.

Leadership of the movement[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.[9] 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 shared 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.[9] 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]

Shaykh Ahmad led the sect for only two years before his death. His undisputed[10] successor, Kazim Rashti, also led the Shaykhís until his own death (1843).

Kazim did not explicitly appoint a successor. Rather, convinced that the Mahdi was in the world, he encouraged his followers to seek him out.[11] Many of the Shaykhis expected Mullá Husayn, one of his favorite pupils, to take on the mantle. Mullá Husayn, however, declined the honor, insisting on obedience to Sayyid Kazim's final commands to go out in search of the Mahdi. Many of the followers of Shaykh Ahmad spread out as did Mullah Husayn. By 1844, two perspectives had emerged and camps arose based on the differing claims of two individuals.

Mullah Husayn and Siyyid Alí-Muhammad (The Báb)[edit]

On May 23, 1844, during his search for the Mahdi, Mullá Husayn encountered a young man in Shiraz named Siyyid Alí-Muhammad. Ali-Muhammad had visited some of Siyyid Kazim's classes, and later tellings assert that Siyyid Kazim implied a connection between his own predictions about the Mahdi and this Alí-Muhammad attending his class. Ali-Muhammad, in that same May 23 meeting, took the title of the Báb and claimed to be the gate between the Shiʻa and the hidden Twelfth Imam. He only claimed to be the Imam in person a short time before his death in 1850. Mullá Husayn accepted this claim, as did many leading Shaykhi students. Most of these went on to become the earliest Bábís. The Báb was labeled a heretic, thrown into prison and was executed July 9, 1850. Most of the Bábís turned to the well known Bábí community leader Baháʼu'lláh who founded the Baháʼí Faith in claiming that he was the one prophesied by the Báb. Both Babís and Baháʼís regard Shaykhi thought as a precursor to their own religious traditions. A full account of Shaykhi-Babi links and the influence of Shaykhi thought on the Bab may be found in The Messiah of Shiraz by Denis MacEoin. A firsthand account of the history and relationship between Siyyid Kazim, Mullah Husayn and the Báb from a Bábí perspective is can be found in Nabíl's Narrative (also known as "The Dawn-Breakers") by Muhammad-i-Zarandí (surnamed Nabíl-i-Aʻzam).

Karim Khan[edit]

Karim Khan Kermani (1809/1810-1870/1871) became the leader of the main Shaykhi group that did not follow the Bab. He became the foremost critic of the Bab, writing four essays against him.[12] Baha'u'llah in turn described Karim as "foolishness masquerading as knowledge"[13] Karim 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-Rida Khan Ibrahimi who was a leader until his death.[14]

Muhammad Baqir Sharif Tabatabae[edit]

Mirza Muhammad Baqir Sharif Tabatabaei was born in a village named Qehi in the vicinity of Isfahan. His father, Mulla Muhammad Jafar was an admirer of Sheikh Ahmad Ahsaei.[15]

After learning the basics from his father, Mirza Muhammad Baqir travelled to Isfahan to continue his education, and resided in Nimavard School where he studied different sciences for several years. Then he met one of the admirers of Haj Muhammad Karim Kermani, (who was also known as “Badr”). Since Kermani was on a pilgrimage to Imam Reza's shrine in Mashhad through Yazd, he travelled to Yazd in the hope of visiting the great man in 1261 Hijri year.[15]

Since the path was dangerous, and Kermani had to return to Kerman, Mirza Muhammad Baqir accompanied him to Kerman, and resided in Ibrahimieh School, studying Islamic theology.[15] He soon reached a level where he could teach the lessons of his grand master.

After several years, the date of which is not known, Kermani sent him to the city of Naein for preaching and guidance, where he spent some years preaching and proselytizing. Mirza Muhammad Baqir immediately gained the attention and respect of the Sheikhieh members of Naein, Anarak, Jandaq, Biabanak and the surrounding cities.

Then he returned to Kerman, Until Kermani left for a pilgrimage to Karbala in 1283 Hijri year. When Kermani arrived in Hamedan, because of the great number of Sheikhieh adherents, and also lack of great leaders after the demise of Mullah Abdulsamad Hamedani, he appointed Mirza Muhammad Baqir as a leader in his absence, and continued his pilgrimage to Karbala.[16]

Mirza Muhammad Baqir stayed in Hamedan since his mentor had mandated it. He engaged in preaching, proselytizing and teaching Islamic principles for 32 years. He was a great leader and protector for the Sheikhieh members after the demise of his mentor, until 1315 Hijri.[15]

In Eid al-Fitr of 1315, when the riots of Hamedan occurred, he migrated to Jandaq village and stayed there for the rest of his fruitful life, teaching Islamic principles and preaching.

Mirza Muhammad Baqir died on the 23rd of Shaʼban 1319, at the age of 80. After Maqrib and Isha prayer.

This great man was buried in the same village, but after two years, his body was moved to Mashhad, to be laid to rest in Imam Reza's shrine, next to his Imam. He has left more than 190 manuscripts and almost 2000 sermons and teachings.[15]

Relationship to Bábism and the Baháʼí Faith[edit]

Bábis and then Baháʼís see Shaykhism as a spiritual ancestor of their movement, preparing the way for the Báb and eventually Baháʼu'lláh. In this view Shaykhism has outlived its eschatological purpose and is no longer anymore relevant.[17]

Modern Shaykhism[edit]

The current leader of the Shaykhiya is Zein al-Abedin Ebrahimi from Iran which become the leader of Shaykhiya 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.[18] 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.[19]

Shaykhi amongst Shia islam


  1. ^ MacEoin, D.M. "SHAIKH AḤMAD AḤSĀʾĪ". Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  2. ^ "The Encyclopedia of World History". 2001. Retrieved 2006-10-10.
  3. ^ "SHAYKHISM (ŠAYḴIYA), a school of Imamite Shi'ism founded at the beginning of the 13th/19th century". Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition. Retrieved September 7, 2020.
  4. ^ Amanat, Abbas (1989). Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 174, 261–272.
  5. ^ Effendi, Shoghi (1944). God Passes By. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Baháʼí Publishing Trust. p. 92. ISBN 0-87743-020-9.
  6. ^ Cole, Juan (September 1997). "Individualism and the Spiritual Path in Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i". Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies. 4.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Cole, Juan (1994). "The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i". University of Michigan - Studia Islamica 80 (1994):1-23.
  9. ^ a b MacEoin, Denis (June 1990). "Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy In Nineteenth Century Shiʻism". Journal of the American Oriental Society. American Oriental Society. 110 (2): 327–328.
  10. ^ Nabíl-i-Zarandí (1932). Shoghi Effendi (Translator) (ed.). The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl's Narrative (Hardcover ed.). Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Baháʼí Publishing Trust. p. 16. ISBN 0-900125-22-5.
  11. ^ Nabíl-i-Zarandí (1932). Shoghi Effendi (Translator) (ed.). The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl's Narrative (Hardcover ed.). Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Baháʼí Publishing Trust. p. 47. ISBN 0-900125-22-5.
  12. ^ Scholarship on the Baha'i Faith, Moojan Momen
  13. ^ See Kitab-i-Aqdas, 170
  14. ^ Henry Corbin History of Islamic Philosophy, Vol. II; page 353
  15. ^ a b c d e "Aghayed". Nafahati Az Eghlim Hashtom. Archived from the original on 2017-02-24.
  16. ^ Tabeshi Az Aftab. IRAN. 1998.
  17. ^ Smith, P. (1999). A Concise Encyclopedia of the Baháʼí Faith. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications. pp. 216–217 & 312. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ The Candidate Lists Are Out: Basra More Fragmented, Sadrists Pursuing Several Strategies?, Historiae, 2008-12-12

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]