ABU’L-ḤASAN EṢFAHĀNĪ, ĀYATALLĀH (1284-1365/1867-1946), an Iranian moǰtahed who was a leading religious authority in the Shiʿite world for more than thirty years. He was born in a village near Isfahan into a family of Behbahānī origin that had traditionally produced religious scholars. His grandfather, Sayyed ʿAbd-al-Ḥamīd, had been a prominent student of Shaikh Mūsā b. Jaʿfar Kāšef-al-ḡeṭāʾ early in the 19th century. After his elementary education, he moved from his native village to Isfahan, completing there the soṭūḥ and dars-e ḵāreǰ stages of the traditional madrasa curriculum. His major teacher in Isfahan was Shaikh Moḥammad Kāšī (or Kāšānī), a master of philosophy and mathematics as well as the religious sciences. In either 1307/1889-90 or 1308/1890-91, Eṣfahānī went to Naǰaf, where he joined the circle of one of the principal moǰtaheds of the day, Mīrzā Ḥabīballāh Raštī, pursuing the study of feqh under his guidance until the latter’s death in 1312/1894. He then became one of the closest associates of the celebrated Āḵᵛond Mollā Moḥammad Kāẓem Ḵorāsānī, assisting him in both his scholarly and political activities until he passed away in 1329/1911. Thereupon Eṣfahānī became a religious authority in his own right, although for many years he shared the position of leadership with another student of the late Ḵorāsānī, Mīrzā Ḥosayn Nāʾīnī (q.v.), and an Iraqi moǰtahed, Shaikh Aḥmad Kāšef-al-ḡeṭāʾ. Shaikh Aḥmad passed away in 1344/1925, and Nāʾīnī a little more than ten years later; thereafter, until his own death in 1365/1946, Abu’l-Ḥasan was virtually the sole marǰaʿ-e taqlīd (q.v.) of the Shiʿite world, with an extensive following in Iraq, Lebanon, and India, as well as in Iran.
Āyatallāh Eṣfahānī exercised a political role of some importance at different stages of his career. As a follower of Āḵᵛond Ḵorāsānī, he belonged to the group of Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ that supported the Iranian constitutional movement; and he participated actively in the movement of protest against the Russian invasion of Iran that Ḵorāsānī organized from Kāẓemayn in December, 1911. His role was, however, more marked in the militant opposition of the Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ to the imposition on Iraq of the British mandate and the Hashimite monarchy. Early in 1922, Eṣfahānī and Nāʾīnī together invited the major leader of the Iraqi Shiʿites, Shaikh Moḥammad Mahdī Ḵāleṣī, to a meeting in Karbalā in order to coordinate anti-British activity. The meeting resulted in a protest demonstration in Karbalā by about 300,000 people. Soon after, the three religious leaders issued fatwās prohibiting participation in the forthcoming elections to the Iraqi constituent assembly. In June, 1923, Ḵāleṣī was deported to the Ḥeǰāz, and Eṣfahānī, together with Nāʾīnī and a number of other Iranian ʿolamāʾ, was constrained to leave for Iran. En route to Tehran, Eṣfahānī and his party were enthusiastically received in Kermānšāh, where they exchanged friendly telegrams with Aḥmad Shah and his minister of foreign affairs, Dr. Moḥammad Moṣaddeq (then Moṣaddeq-al-salṭana). They took up residence in Qom, where Shaikh ʿAbd-al-Karīm Ḥāʾerī was engaged in restoring the religious teaching institution, and began offering courses in feqh at his invitation. Negotiations with King Fayṣal of Iraq made it possible for the deported leaders to return to Naǰaf, but shortly before their departure, on 26 March 1924, they had a meeting in Qom of some significance with Reżā Khan, the later Reżā Shah, who was the minister of war (sardār-e sepah) at that time. They asked him to quell rumors of the impending substitution of a republic, under his auspices, for the Qajar dynasty, republicanism being regarded with abhorrence because of its association with secularism it had acquired in neighboring Turkey. Reżā Khan complied soon after, in a telegram he addressed to the ʿolamāʾ of Tehran. In October, 1924, a fatwā was published over the signatures of Eṣfahānī and Nāʾīnī declaring obedience to Reżā Khan a religious duty for all Shiʿite Muslims. Since the alleged fatwā contains the misquotation of a Koranic verse, doubts have been cast on its authenticity; but neither Eṣfahānī nor Nāʾīnī repudiated it, and it is probable that they agreed with its contents. In any event, after returning to Naǰaf, the two men had a further meeting with Reżā Khan, in which they renewed their support for him. According to one account, their support was conditional on Reżā Khan’s implementation of the provision in the constitution that called for the establishment of a supervisory committee of five moǰtaheds (Moḥammad Ḥerz-al-dīn, Maʿāref al-reǰāl I, p. 49). There is no record of political activity on the part of Āyatallāh Eṣfahānī after the establishment of Pahlavi rule.
Much of his time and energy during the last two decades of his life was consumed by the giving of fatwās in answer to the numerous requests he received; it has even been estimated that his correspondence with Shiʿites throughout the world accounted for half of the incoming and outgoing mail of Naǰaf every day (Aʿyān al-šīʿa III, p. 50). Possibly the most controversial subject on which he ruled was the traditional self-flagellation and mutilation practiced during Moḥarram. He denounced the custom as impermissible, but found himself in the minority; and such were the passions aroused by the issue that at one point even his physical safety was endangered in Naǰaf, despite all the prestige he enjoyed.
A vast amount of revenue, deriving from zakāt and ḵoms payments that totaled as much as 20 or 30,000 Iraqi dinars a month, passed through his hands. Much of the money was spent on providing a bread allowance for students at the madrasas of Naǰaf as well as for the poor throughout Iraq, particularly during the period of near-famine that occurred during the Second World War.
Āyatallāh Eṣfahānī died in Kāẓemayn on 9 Ḏu’l-ḥeǰǰa 1365/4 November 1946, and he was buried in Naǰaf next to his master, Āḵᵛond Ḵorāsānī. His death occasioned universal mourning throughout the Shiʿite world; in Tehran, the bazaar was kept closed for three days.
S. Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran, New York, 1980, pp. 27, 67.
Aʿyān al-šīʿa III, pp. 47-59.
Sayyed Moḥsen al-Amīn, Reḥlāt, Beirut, n.d., pp. 92-94.
Malek-al-šoʿarāʾ Bahār, Tārīḵ-e moḵtaṣar-e aḥzāb-e sīāsī, Tehran, 1323 Š./1944, I, pp. 354, 359.
W. Ende, “The Flagellations of Muharram and the Shiʿite ʿUlama,” Der Islam 57, 1978, pp. 26, 33-34.
A. Hairi, Shiʿism and Constitutionalism in Iran, Leiden, 1977, pp. 64-65, 129-32, 142-46.
Moḥammad Ḥerz-al-dīn, Maʿāref al-reǰāl fī tarāǰem al-ʿolamāʾ wa’l-odabāʾ, Naǰaf, 1383/1964, I, pp. 46-49.
ʿA. Kafāʾī, Margī dar nūr: zendagānī-e Āḵūnd Ḵorāsānī, Tehran, 1359 Š./1980, pp. 104, 125, 352, 405.
J. al-Ḵalīlī, Hākaḏā ʿaraftohom, Baghdad and Beirut, 1381-89/1963-72, III, pp. 214, 229.
Ḥ. Makkī, Tārīḵ-e bīstsāla-ye Īrān, Tehran, 1323 Š./1944, III, pp. 343-44.
ʿA. Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendagānī-e man, Tehran, 1321 Š./1943, III, pp. 601-02.
M. Š. Rāzī, Āṯār al-ḥoǰǰa, Qom, 1332 Š./1953, I, pp. 131-35.
Idem, Ganǰīna-ye dānešmandān, Tehran, 1352 Š./1973, I, pp. 216-23.
Mīrzā Moḥammad ʿAlī Modarres Tabrīzī, Rayḥānat al-adab, n.d., II, p. 142.
Āḡā Bozorg Ṭehrānī, Aʿlām al-šīʿa, Naǰaf, 1373/1953, I/1, pp. 41-42.
Originally Published: December 15, 1983
Last Updated: July 21, 2011
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Vol. I, Fasc. 3, pp. 302-303