ʿALĪ KANĪ, MOLLĀ (1220-1306/1805-88), an influential and wealthy moǰtahed of Tehran who played a decisive role in obtaining the cancellation of the Reuter Concession in 1873. Born to a religious scholar, Qorbān-ʿAlī, in the village of Kan about twelve km northwest of Tehran, he studied first in Tehran and then, according to some accounts, in Isfahan. Too poor to proceed to the ʿatabāt to embark on advanced religious studies, he had to wait until the task of conveying the body of a certain Ḥāǰǰ Moḥsen to Karbalā for burial presented him with the opportunity to travel. Once in Karbalā, he began studying oṣūl with Āqā Sayyed Ebrāhīm Qazvīnī, the author of al-Żawābeṭ, and with Šarīf-al-ʿolamāʾ Māzandarānī. He also spent some time in Naǰaf, studying feqh with the author of al-Jawāher, Shaikh Moḥammad Ḥasan Sedehī Naǰafī, who awarded him a certificate of eǰtehād in 1262/1846 (Figure 1).

On his return to Tehran, which took place in the same year, Mollā ʿAlī Kanī was again faced with penury, but the gift of a disused irrigation canal that he swiftly restored to operation put him on the road to prosperity. The water from his canal was eagerly bought because of its supposedly unusual fertilizing properties, and with the money he obtained, Kanī began to acquire further canals and also land. At the same time, the Šarīʿa court he established gradually became the most influential of its kind in Tehran, earning for him the title of raʾīs al-moǰtahedīn (“chief of the moǰtaheds”). Thanks to the efforts of a certain Sayyed Bāqer Jamārānī Neẓām-al-ʿolamāʾ, he recruited so many friends and agents in the bureaucracy that all Šarīʿa cases concerning the government were referred to him for judgment. One consequence of the influence he thus acquired was that deeds of ownership would be sent to him from places as far distant as Shiraz, Isfahan, and Khorasan; the seal that he affixed to them, for a fee, guaranteed landowners security of tenure. His standing with the government also enabled him to obtain the temporary imposition of the ǰezya on Jews and Christians resident in Tehran.

Kanī appears to have been on friendly terms with Qāǰār princes such as ʿAbbās Mīrzā Molkārā (see Molkārā, Šarḥ-e ḥāl, ed., ʿA. Navāʾī, Tehran, 1325 Š./1946, pp. 58-59) and Farhād Mīrzā Moʿtamad-al-dawla (see Moʿtamad-al-dawla, Hedāyat al-sabīl, Tehran 1294/1877, p. 1). Despite these ties to the state, he clashed decisively with its authority on the important issue of the Reuter Concession. Objecting to the comprehensive surrender of Iranian resources proposed in the concession, he persuaded a number of provincial ʿolamāʾ such as Sayyed Jawād of Qom, Mīrzā Maḥmūd of Borūǰerd, and Mīrzā Jawād Āqā of Tabrīz to join him at the shrine of Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm in a collective protest (bast). From there he wrote a letter to Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah, severe and uncompromising in its tone, demanding the rescinding of the concession, as contrary to Islam, and the dismissal of the two persons chiefly responsible for its having been granted: Mīrzā Ḥosayn Khan Sepahsālār, the chief minister, and Mīrzā Malkom Khan, his adviser. He was particularly adamant on the necessity of removing Malkom Khan from all governmental positions, describing him as a “sworn enemy of religion” on account of his Masonic activities (the full text of Mollā ʿAlī Kanī’s letter is given in E. Teymūrī, ʿAṣr-e bīḵabarī yā tārīḵ-e emtīāzāt dar Īrān, Tehran, 1336 Š./1957, pp. 124-26). In addition, he issued a fatwā declaring the dismissal of Mīrzā Ḥosayn Khan to be wāǰeb (religiously incumbent). A court faction hostile to Mīrzā Ḥosayn Khan lent its support to the campaign that Mollā ʿAlī Kanī had inaugurated; in September, 1873, Mīrzā Ḥosayn Khan was dismissed and two months later the concession he had promoted was abolished.

Mollā ʿAlī Kanī has had a mixed reputation. The judgments he delivered in his Šarīʿa court were generally held to be honest (see S. G. W. Benjamin, Persia and the Persians, London, 1887, p. 441), but he was often accused of venality and rapacity. For example, his archenemy, Mīrzā Ḥosayn Khan, charged him with hoarding the grain produced on his extensive land holdings and then selling it at extortionate prices, thus contributing materially to the famine of 1288/1871 (see his letter to Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah dated 28 Raǰab 1290/20 September 1873, quoted in Teymūrī, ʿAṣr-e bīḵabarī, p. 44). Kanī is also said to have annually expelled the prostitutes of Tehran from the city so that the chief of police and the governor of the city might extort money from them before permitting them to return (see M. Ḥ. Eʿtemād-al-salṭana, Waqāyeʿ-e rūzāna-ye darbār, Tehran, n.d., p. 110). All such accusations of greed and dishonesty have recently been disputed by Āyatallāh Maṛʿašī Naǰafī, who, basing himself on family lore, has asserted that Kanī was, on the contrary, a charitable and kindly man who supported numerous orphans and widows and regularly provided the poor with free medicine (see anon., “Yādvāra-ye Ḥāǰǰ Mollā ʿAlī Kanī,” Payām-e enqelāb, no. 71, 22 Ābān 1361/13 November 1982, pp. 44).

Despite the great influence Kanī wielded in Tehran, he does not appear to have trained any pupils of significance. Shaikh Moḥammad Bāqer Naǰmābādī, Sayyed Moḥammad Lavāsānī, and Āqā Sayyed Moḥammad Ḥayāṭšāhī are, however, recorded to have studied with him. Some of his writings are well-regarded, especially al-Qażāʾ wa’l-šahāda, a book on the duties and qualities of a judge and the rules of evidence that compares favorably with his own teacher’s al-Jawāher (see al-Ḏarīʿa III, pp. 482-83). Tawżīḥ al-maqāl fī ʿelm ad-derāya wa’l-reǰāl, a handbook of the science of tradition to which he appended a brief autobiography (see al-Ḏarīʿa IV, p. 497); and Talḵīṣ al-masāʾel, a book on forūʿ (an apparently complete list of Kanī’s writings is given in M. ʿA. Modarres, Rayḥānat al-adab, Tabrīz, n.d., V, p. 98)

Mollā ʿAlī Kanī died on 27 Moḥarram 1306/3 October 1888, and was buried three days later at Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm. He left behind three sons, Ḥāǰǰ Shaikh ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn, Ḥāǰǰ Shaikh Jaʿfar, and Shaikh Moḥammad-Taqī; two daughters; and a fortune estimated at 1.5 million tomans (see Eʿtemād-al-salṭana, Rūz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt, ed. Ī. Afšār, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966, pp. 680-81).


See also H. Algar, Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The Role of the ʿUlama in the Qajar Period, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969, pp. 172-74, 176-77, 179-80.

Bāmdād, Reǰāl II, pp. 349-52.

M. ʿA. Moʿallem Ḥabībābādī, Makārem al-āṯār dar aḥwāl-e reǰāl-e dawra-ye Qāǰār, Isfahan, 1337 Š./1958, III, pp. 696-99.

Al-Ḏarīʿa I, p. 137; III, pp. 482-83; IV, p. 498; IX, p. 145.

ʿA. Eqbāl, “Šarḥ-e ḥāl-e marḥūm Ḥāǰǰ Mollā ʿAlī Kanī,” Yādgār 4, 1326 Š./1947, pp. 72-78.

Eʿtemād-al-salṭana, Rūz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt, p. 228.

Idem, Waqāyeʿ-e rūzāna-ye darbār, pp. 46, 76, 114.

Moḵber-al-salṭana, Ḵāṭerāt va ḵaṭarāt, Tehran, 1329 Š./1950, p. 20.

M. F. Moʿtamad, Mošīr-al-dawla Sepahsālār-e aʿẓam, Tehran, 1326 Š./1947, pp. 108, 116.

Qazvīnī, Yāddāšthā VIII, pp. 198, 213.

Ḵ. M. Sāsānī, Sīāsatgarān-e dawra-ye Qāǰār, Tehran, 1338 Š./1959, I, p. 81.

E. Teymūrī, ʿAṣr-e bīḵabarī, p. 121.

(H. Algar)

Originally Published: December 15, 1985

Last Updated: August 1, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 8, pp. 865-866

Cite this entry:

H. Algar, “ʿALĪ KANĪ,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/8, pp. 865-866, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ali-kani (accessed on 30 December 2012).