Background. The communities of learning (ḥawzāt ʿelmiya) in the shrine cities (ʿatabāt-e ʿāliyāt) of Najaf and Karbalāʾ emerged as the most important centers of Twelver Shiʿite learning during the 19th century. The system of learning in the ʿAtabāt (q.v.) was the culmination of the Muslim madrasa (pl. madāres) system, which originated in the 11th century, as far as the mode of teaching, the process of professionalization, and the centrality of patronage as a social bond were concerned. Najaf first emerged as a center of learning following the flight from Baghdad of Shaikh al-Ṭāʾefa Moḥammad b. Ḥasan Ṭūṣi (d. 1067) in 1056 following the Saljuq conquest of Baghdad. At the beginning of the 14th century, Ebn Baṭṭuṭa mentioned in his description of Najaf a madarasa near the tomb of Imam ʿAli (q.v.) which hosted both students and sufis (cited in Ḵalili, II, p. 117).
While the Shiʿite centers of learning shifted later to Ḥella, Aleppo, and Isfahan, the ʿAtabāt re-emerged as major centers during the 18th century. The 1717 Omani invasion of Bahrain, which was aided by Sunnite tribes and, more importantly, the collapse of Safavid rule in Persia in 1722 and the ensuing period of political instability prompted a large number of Shiʿite ulema to emigrate from Persia and Bahrain to Iraq. At that time, the weakness of the government in Ottoman-administrated Iraq provided the ulema of the ʿAtabāt with sufficient latitude to build important centers of study without government interference.
In neighboring Persia, the Oṣuli school of Twelver Shiʿism had argued that the belief in the return of the hidden Twelfth Imam was compatible with cooperation with a temporal state ruled by a Shiʿite monarch. Oṣuli scholars had been holding preeminent positions in the Safavid state and, thus, the fall of the Safavids dealt a serious blow to Oṣuli supremacy. The dominant jurisprudential and teaching doctrine in the ʿAtabāt, however, was Aḵbārism (see AḴBĀRIYA), which had existed as the opposing tradition to the Oṣuli school since the Buyid era. Aḵbārism was revitalized by Mollā Moḥammad Amin Astarābādi (d. 1624 or 1627; see ASTARĀBĀDI, MOLLĀ MOḤAMMAD AMIN). The differences between Oṣulism and Aḵbārism revolved around three major issues: (1) the sources of law, (2) the means of attaining knowledge, and (3) the authority of the ulema as “heirs to the Imams” and their knowledge. In contrast to the Oṣulis, Astarābādi had argued that the most important sources of law are the Traditions of the Prophet and the Imams. The central idea underlying the Aḵbāri view was the denial of any essential difference between the legal state of the Shiʿite community before and after the Occultation (ḡayba, q.v.) of the Twelfth Imam. According to the Aḵbāris, the Imams made certain that all major questions that might arise in the future would be addressed by the Traditions alone. Consequently, Aḵbārism rejected the exercise of independent judgement (ejtehād, q.v.), and with it the extension of the Imam’s authority to the ulema. When the Persian refugees came to the ʿAtabāt, they adopted the Aḵbārism of their local hosts. The most prominent Aḵbāri scholar in the 18th century was Shaikh Yusof Baḥrāni (1695-1772) of Karbalāʾ. He pursued moderate Aḵbārism, adopting a more selective approach towards the Traditions, and came close to adopting the Oṣuli position on the role of the jurist.
The first person openly to challenge the dominance of Aḵbārism in the ʿAtabāt was Āqā Moḥammad Bāqer Eṣfahāni Behbahāni (d. 1793; see BEHBAHĀNI, ĀQĀ SAYYED MOḤAMMAD-BĀQER), upon his return to Karbalāʾ from Behbahān in the mid-1760s. He began teaching Oṣuli texts in secret due to the great Aḵbāri hostility toward Oṣulis, and set out to refute Aḵbārism and prove the validity of ejtehād in his writings. Possibly because of financial support by merchants in Persia, he could attract the majority of students by providing them with stipends to live on.
Due to its rigidity, Aḵbārism failed at first to achieve supremacy. For Behbahāni and his disciples the first priority was to use deductive reasoning to draw conclusions applicable to practical needs. The political changes and the crisis of legitimacy during the post-Safavid period favored such an approach, which also provided the ulema with the necessary means to extend their influence to the temporal realm.
While the Aḵbāri disregard for such needs may have suited the small and isolated scholarly community of the shrine cities up to the 18th century, Oṣulism was better suited for the establishment of a network of ulema with divergent constituencies throughout the entire country. Aḵbāri denial of the authority of the ulema to conduct Friday prayers and to collect and disburse the ḵoms (“the fifth”) and zakāt (alms) taxes, conflicted with the previous historical development of Shiʿite doctrine. In the long run, to paraphrase Robert Michels’ characterization of an “iron law of oligarchy” (Michels, pp. 353, 365), no religious establishment would reject a system or a doctrine that provides it with power. The passing of a generation of leading Aḵbāris during the 1770s without leaving successors points to a major weakness with regard to the question of authority even within their own ranks. Henceforth, Oṣulism was to dominate Twelver Shiʿism to the present day. Its precepts enabled the ulema to assume and exercise a greater religious and communal role.
The ʿAtabāt retained their own unique features as centers of learning for two major reasons. First, the continuous development of the methodology of ejtehād in Twelver Shiʿism helped shape a structure of learning and a system of certification different from that existing in contemporary Sunnite centers of learning. Second, as Shiʿite centers within a Sunnite state, the ʿAtabāt did not enjoy government patronage from either the Ottomans or from the Shiʿite Qajars of neighboring Persia, a fact that had an important impact on their internal organization and financial foundations. In addition to this, the ḥawzāt or religious study centers in the ʿAtabāt were not subject to governmental pressures to reform, and remained largely immune to the growing Western challenge in the region affecting their internal life. In this, they differed markedly from many other centers of Islamic higher learning during the 19th century.
A ḥawza (pl. ḥawzāt) denotes a communal whole that encompasses scholarship, interpersonal and social bonds, and relevant organizational and financial aspects. The term ḥawza is also used to describe circles of learning or a wider complex of study, headed by a mojtahed, but we will not be concerned with this meaning here. Unlike other centers of religious learning in the Muslim world, the ḥawzāt in the ʿAtabāt were not set up or sustained on a regular basis by political elites in order to provide them with legitimacy and juridical manpower. Therefore, they did not serve primarily as an arena for stipendiary posts (manṣab, pl. manāṣeb), in which notables exploited knowledge primarily as a form of capital in order to acquire social and political distinction. Instead, they grew “from below” by the efforts of the ulema themselves, serving primarily as centers for teaching and scholarship. They were sustained chiefly by the canonical ḵoms and zakāt taxes, and by donations from faithful, rather than by landed endowments (awqāf). This had significant ramifications for many other aspects of life there, ranging from the structure of leadership to the relations between teachers and students. Consequently, the Shiʿite study centers lacked a formal and centralized organization or religious hierarchy that had a bearing on the curriculum of studies, finance, and administration. This contrasted strikingly with the situation of the Ottoman learned establishment and with the situation of the ulema in Persia. To sum up, teaching and scholarly production, rather than the administration of justice or political/communal leadership, were the hallmarks of the communities of Shiʿite ulema in the ʿAtabāt.
In the absence of formal bureaucratic positions, social hierarchy and status in the ʿAtabāt were based on scholarship and acumen in building networks of patronage, and, to a certain extent, on charisma. In other words, meritocracy and openness to newcomers played a greater role in the ʿAtabāt than in other Muslim centers of learning in the Middle East. In many of these features, the ḥawzāt in the ʿAtabāt were closer to Jewish rabbinical seminaries (yeshivoth) than to other Muslim centers, as both systems of learning and religious leadership grew from below and were therefore more oriented toward the communities of believers than toward the state. Consequently, the pattern for Shiʿite religious leadership was different from the Sunnite model, being more amorphous and decentralized but at the same time more attuned to the communities of believers than to state influence.
Even without a formal organization and hierarchy, we can speak of a process of institutionalization in the ʿAtabāt, in the sense of certain patterns of behavior that crystallized and persisted over the course of time. Thus, the regularization of the curriculum or of the certification system was based on certain conventions and customs. The latter were sometimes imposed harshly, rather than deriving from formal decisions made by elected or appointed bodies. In extreme cases, various ulema resorted to “excommunication” (takfir) or even violence against those among themselves who presented a serious challenge to their collective authority or basic tenets of belief. This situation stood in contrast to the hierarchical Ottoman learned establishment, whose structure and mode of operation were largely determined by the state.
The ḥawzāt centered on individual mojtaheds, who delivered their lectures in person and sometimes supported financially the lower levels of teachers by giving them allowances from their own resources. As in the medieval period, the madrasas in the ʿAtabāt, which served mainly for housing and which ensured an endowed income to one teacher, were part of a larger community of learning and intellectual activity. Most classes were given in mosques, in the courtyards of shrines, and in the mojtaheds’ private homes. Students were regarded as disciples of a specific mojtahed and not of the madrasa as an institution.
Structure of learning. The informal nature of higher Muslim learning has often been contrasted with the formal structure of the medieval European university. It has always been linked with the “personalistic nature” of Middle Eastern society, whose complementary component, suggested both as its cause and effect, was the system of patron-client relationships, which dominated almost all aspects of life in the ḥawza. The influence of past centuries, during which Shiʿite scholarship was developed by individual mojtaheds independently of state intervention, reinforced its informal nature.
The process and precise period in which a fixed curriculum of study was established in higher Muslim learning are a matter of debate among historians. According to Makdisi (Rise of Colleges, pp. 171-80), such a curriculum was in place by the 12th century, while Chamberlain (p. 72) rejects its existence as late as the 14th century. A similar uncertainty applies to Shiʿite learning, but already by the 18th century a three-staged Shiʿite curriculum was in practice in the ʿAtabāt. The great resemblance between this structure and the one described by Makdisi (1981, pp. 171 ff.) for the medieval madrasa suggests that it had been established much earlier.
The subjects and modes of study in Shiʿite learning were heavily influenced by the archetype of the Sunnite institutions of learning, being divided into “transmitted” or “revealed sciences” (ʿolum-e naqliya), which were founded on the Qurʾan and the Hadith, and “rational sciences” (ʿolum-e ʿaqliya), which were based on observation by the senses and deduction. There were, however, several basic differences between the Sunnite and Shiʿite applications, as the latter gave prominence to the study of the principles of jurisprudence (oṣul al-feqh), due to the central role of ejtehād in Shiʿism.
The first two stages of learning, the preliminaries (moqaddamāt) and “surfaces” (soṭuḥ) which usually lasted six to twelve years, are probably an adaptation of the first two levels of study in the medieval madrasa: beginner (mobtadi) and intermediary (motawasseṭ). These stages started from the introductory level of Arabic grammar (ṣarf wa-naḥw) and proceeded through basic and advanced introductions to jurisprudence (feqh) and the principles of jurisprudence (oṣul al-feqh). Teachers at this level were either senior students or experts in specific fields, such as Arabic grammar or mathematics, who rarely advanced in the ulema hierarchy.
The emphasis at the moqaddamāt stage was on acquiring a firm knowledge of the Arabic language and its grammar, as well as of basic concepts of logic (manṭeq) and rhetoric (balāḡa). Students also studied some arithmetic, belles-lettres, and poetry, the last two in order to deepen their knowledge of Arabic. Significantly, most books that dealt with general topics, where there was no need to present the specific Shiʿite point of view, were taken from the Sunnite madrasas and remained unchanged for centuries. Among those books studied by Shiʿite students for grammar were: Alfiyat Ebn Mālek (also known as Šarḥ al-Ḵolāṣa) by Moḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh b. Mālek Ṭāʾi (d. 1273-74); al-Ḥāšiya by Mollā ʿAbdallāh b. Šehāb-al-Din Ḥosayn Yazdi (d. 981), or al-Moṭawwal and al-Moḵtaṣar by Masʿud b. ʿOmar Taftazāni (d. 1390). By contrast, books dealing with feqh and oṣul al-feqh were written by Shiʿite scholars.
During the soṭuḥ stage, which lasted from three to six years on average, feqh and oṣul al-feqh were the two main topics, aside from higher-level studies of logic and grammar. In addition, students could attend courses in exegesis of the Qurʾan (tafsir); critical study of the Hadith [q.v.] (derāya); biographies of transmitters of Hadith (ʿelm al-rejāl); ethics (aḵlāq); theosophy (ḥekma), and history (tāriḵ). Each subject had its own specific books, which had become universally accepted texts for that stage, and which were read successively. Unlike the moqaddamāt stage, new books were introduced at the soṭuḥ level during the 19th century, reflecting the development of these areas. Thus Qawānin al-oṣul by Abu’l-Qāsem Qomi was superseded by Kefāyat al-oṣul by Āḵūnd Ḵorāsāni, which was later supplemented by Moḥammad Reżā Moẓaffar’s Oṣul al-feqh.
The highest stage of learning, the dars al-ḵārej or baḥṯ al-ḵārej, which paralleled the medieval terminal (montahi) level, aimed at the attainment of the level called ejtehād. Courses at this level were given by senior mojtaheds on topics in oṣul or feqh of their own choice. The teaching of this course also served as a status symbol, demonstrating the teacher’s senior rank and aspiration for religious leadership. The teacher did not use specific books but discussed various questions and issues, citing opinions of different ulema and adding his own comments and criticism.
The mode of teaching in the ʿAtabāt, with its heavy emphasis on memorization and oral recitation, did not differ from the practices of other places and times in the Muslim world. Present-day Shiʿite sources still use such terms as “read [a certain book] aloud to” (qaraʾa ʿalā) the teacher, “engaged in study” (eštaḡala), or “graduated” (taḵarraja) from his teacher in the same contexts and meanings as do the medieval sources. This continuity was not due to the belated introduction of printing in the ʿAtabāt, but rather to the continuous cultural emphasis on the intensive, personal interaction of the student with his teacher, which still remained in effect in the 20th century.
Modern Shiʿite writers praise the free atmosphere in classes, which was expressed in lively debates and disputations between students and teachers. Legal disputations (monāẓara, or majāles al-jadal) among students and mojtaheds or among the students themselves, both inside and outside class, has always played an important role in Islamic higher education. It appears that these disputations played a greater role in the Shiʿite system than in the Sunnite madrasas due to the importance of ejtehād, which required of the student more independent thinking than simple memorization as in study of feqh. The monā-ẓara served an important social and educational role by providing the student with the opportunity to prove his eligibility as a scholar, and at the same time enabled mojtaheds to assess his achievements.
Public disputations also served as a means of elucidating doctrinal and legal questions as well as for establishing an informal ranking among mojtaheds. When Moḥammad Bāqer Waḥid-e Behbahāni (d. 1793 or 1796) felt sufficiently confident in his new oṣuli methodology, he challenged Yusof Baḥrāni (see BAḤRĀNI, YUSOF), the leading Aḵbāri scholar at the time, to a public monāẓara on the tenets of the two legal schools.
Ideally, students could raise questions and objections to their teachers’ statements, provided they behaved according to the ethical code of the profession, that is, they neither challenged the teacher’s authority or status nor questioned basic or essential religious truths. Mortażā Anṣāri (d. 1864; see ANṢĀRI, SHAIKH MORTAŻĀ), the model scholar and teacher in mid-19th-century Najaf, at the height of his prominence reportedly said that he listened very carefully to whatever his students said, since experience had taught him that some of his own ideas had been refuted by them. Day-to-day practice, however, did not encourage independent thinking and originality. On several occasions, teachers reacted unfavorably towards students who dared to argue too much, even going as far as expelling them from their classes. Supporters of Sayyed Moḥammad Rażavi Hendi (d. 1905-06), for instance, explained Anṣāri’s preference for Mirzā Ḥasan Širāzi (d. 1896) over Sayyed Moḥammad by the fact that the former used to raise many objections (ʿerāżāt) during Anṣāri’s lectures. Širāzi, on the other hand, raised only very few, and when he did, it was by way of a question. Though this may simply have been the excuse of a frustrated mojtahed, the claim does imply a preference for students who knew how to demonstrate deference to their teacher, as opposed to those who showed originality.
The professionalization of the ulema, both in the Sunnite and Shiʿite communities, had started during the late medieval period and was accompanied by a narrowing of their cultural horizons, which in the past had included non-šarʿi sciences. By the 19th century, the education acquired by students in the ʿAtabāt focused mainly on feqh and oṣul, although it did include arithmetic and Greek astronomy. Indeed, when an “expert” (ʿālem) specialized in one of the non-conventional fields such as astronomy or mathematics, this circumstance was emphasized in the biographical dictionaries, suggesting that it was an uncommon phenomenon. This narrowing also affected the attitude of the ulema toward heterodox groups that emerged from their own ranks. Concurrently, many Shiʿite ulema demonstrated a thorough knowledge of Sunnite teachings.
In contrast to the Sunnite centers, the philosophical tradition in Shiʿism remained unbroken well into the 19th century, and philosophy was taught in the ʿAtabāt, probably because of its relevance to the practice of ejtehād. However, as guardians of orthodoxy whose primary task was the training of jurists (foqahāʾ), the ulema of the ʿAta-bāt often maintained a hostile attitude toward the teaching of philosophy. Tonakāboni, for instance, recounts the tension between Shaikh Jaʿfar Āl Kāšef al-Ḡeṭāʾ and Mollā ʿAli Nuri (d. 1830-31), the great master of philosophy from Isfahan. In one case, Shaikh Jaʿfar allegedly solved with great ease a complicated problem in philosophy by relying on the Traditions (aḵbār). Even if apocryphal, this anecdote was intended to prove the superiority of the jurists over the philosophers. Another example of this hostility is the story about Mollā Moḥammad Kāẓem Hezārjaribi, a prayer-leader (emām jamāʿa) in Karbalāʾ, who was famous for his public cursing of the four heterodox groups: the Aḵbāris, the Sufis, the Šayḵis, and the philosophers or theosophists (ḥokamāʾ).
As a result of this inconsistent approach, teachers of both subjects—philosophy and theosophy—did not enjoy a high status in the ʿAtabāt. Shaikh Moḥammad Bāqer Eṣṭehbānāti, for instance, the leading teacher of philosophy in Najaf at the turn of the 20th century, used to complain that, by teaching the rational sciences, he had acquired the reputation of a “philosopher” (ḥakim), which is associated with irreligiosity and a lack of learning. Consequently, he had been suffering from “seclusion, poverty, afflictions, and debts,” while teachers of oṣul and feqh were universally respected. Frustrated, he eventually left Najaf and settled in Shiraz. Indeed, the leading Shiʿite philosophers of the 19th century remained in Persia, and students who wanted to specialize in philosophy did not study in the ʿAtabāt. Concurrently, the continued tradition of ejtehād and philosophy was one reason for the relatively greater tendency among Shiʿite ulema, compared with their contemporary Sunnite counterparts, to incorporate new political ideas, such as constitutionalism, within their Islamic teachings.
Ordinarily, passage from one stage of learning to another depended upon completing the study of the required textbooks. Students, however, could leave a teacher before completing their study. No fixed number of years for education was prescribed, and students could continue their studies for as many years as they chose. The politician and Iraqi prime minister Fāżel al-Jamāli likened Najaf to a great “fountain to which anybody could go and drink of its learning as much as he could and as long as he cared. No one required him to drink if he did not choose to, and no amount of drinking was required or prescribed” (Jamali, p. 17).
The culmination of the process of learning in the madrasa was the attainment of a certificate of authorization (ejāzat ejtehād, see EJĀZA) from one or more mojtaheds. Usually the student prepared a treatise on a specific topic in feqh or oṣul and presented it to the master. The ejāza (pl. ejāzāt) authorized the student to exercise independent judgement (ejtehād) in producing specific legal rulings, similar to the two medieval ejāzāt for teaching (al-tadris) and for issuing judgements (fatwas; al-eftāʾ) that are mentioned by Makdisi (1981, pp. 270-72). The Shiʿite ejāzat ejtehād resembled the practice in medieval Damascus in which teachers granted ejāzāt to their disciples, not for a specific book, but when they deemed the disciples ready to represent a body of knowledge in a variety of fields, and to exemplify it to other carriers. The idea of an ejāzat ejtehād was to prevent the situation of some ulema in Cairo’s al-Azhar University who, according to Eccel, “memorized and became familiar with only a few medieval books” and were “unable to discuss anything beyond them without becoming foolish” (Eccel, p. 148). Some students attained an ejāzat ejtehād at the age of twenty or even younger, although students of a much older age were not an uncommon phenomenon.
Similar to the practice in Sunnite Islam, in the Shiʿite scholarly world the ejāza was a personal matter between master and student, and not between the madrasa as an institution and the student. Consequently, the higher the prestige of the teacher, the greater the value of his ejāzāt in helping students to attain recognition and positions, which prompted students to seek ejāzāt from as many teachers as possible. This was particularly important in the absence of a formal leadership structure, where, as in the Jewish case, a scholar’s status was based on his prestige and reputation rather than on a formal position.
There were no standard academic prerequisites for the attainment of the ejāza, nor did it depend on the number of years a student had spent studying under his teacher. Present-day Shiʿite sources praise the traditional schooling, compared with Western systems of education, for achieving academic excellence without recourse to examinations or other coercive means. They explain that the evaluation of students took place over a long period and was based on their performance in the numerous disputations that they had held with their teachers and colleagues. Such a system, they assert, prevented cheating or favoritism through kinship or friendship.
Still, the informal system in the ʿAtabāt had its faults. Moḥsen al-Amin, who studied in Najaf at the end of the 19th century and exhibited some reformist tendencies, complained that the Shiʿite learning system depended too much on the students’ self-discipline and integrity. Many students rushed too fast to the dars al-ḵārej stage skipping some of the soṭuḥ level courses in order to attain the rank of mojtahed as soon as possible. Consequently, they retained very little from the lectures. Teachers could not prevent unqualified students from attending their classes because of the lack of examinations or other formal checks and because they competed for students among themselves. Nor could the system completely eliminate the problem of plagiarism, when some students presented earlier works as their own in order to obtain the ejāza.
Non-Arabs were not, as a rule, sufficiently proficient in spoken Arabic, which was a serious handicap considering the importance of that language in Islam and the fact that all textbooks were written in Arabic. Such a problem, however, was not unique to non-Arabs or to the ʿAtabāt. Many non-Arabs excelled, nevertheless, in classical Arabic grammar. Within the Sunnite context, Eccel cites the problem of students from rural areas who came to al-Azhar and for whom learning classical Arabic was as difficult as studying a foreign language (Eccel, pp. 152-53). Consequently, there were even shaikhs who “possessed little knowledge of Arabic.” According to Egyptian critics, the al-Azhar system, which emphasized memorization and orality, produced students whose writings were lacking in quality. A similar situation must have obtained with young boys of tribal origin or from remote Persian villages, who arrived at the ʿAtabāt.
Ḥāji Pirzāda, a sympathetic outsider, criticized the ʿAta-bāt students for specializing too narrowly in one field to the exclusion of other fields of knowledge. Being a devout Sufi, he complained that most of them studied only for worldly leadership (reyāsat) and to advance their careers rather than for the sake of knowledge and religion and were, therefore, ignorant of the knowledge of spirituality (ruḥāniyat) and the struggle of the soul (mojāheda-ye nafs). The sometimes dry and technical nature of feqh studies was among the reasons pushing students to Shiʿite heterodox movements. “Not one warm-hearted man (ahl-e del) has ever come out of a madrasa,” Mollā Ḥosayn Bošruʾi (q.v.), one of the earliest Bābi activists once declared (Amanat, p. 169). These abuses notwithstanding, for most students studies in the ʿAtabāt were an arduous process that lasted many years, during which most students languished in poverty. Even after obtaining the long-sought ejāza, they still had to labor hard in order to gain recognition, status, or wealth.
The Muslim ejāza system in general, and the Shiʿite ejāzat ejtehād in particular, played an important role in the professionalization of the Shiʿite ulema in several ways. The restriction of practicing ejtehād to holders of the ejāza, the sharp distinction between mojtaheds and ordinary believers, and the subordination of the followers to the mojtaheds served as a strategy that was designed, among other things, “to limit and control the supply of entrants to an occupation in order to safeguard or enhance its market value” (Parkin, p. 54). In other words, the ulema of the ʿAtabāt followed the universal tendency among professions to raise the minimum standards of entry as increasing numbers of potential candidates attained the formerly scarce qualifications. Indeed, only a small minority of students attained the coveted ejāza. The majority ended their studies somewhere along the way and returned home to serve as low-level ulema. When the number of mojtaheds grew to several hundred at the end of the 19th century, other means of restriction were adopted, such as the use of the titles Ḥojjat al-Eslām (q.v.) and Ayatollah (see ĀYATALLĀH), to denote senior mojtaheds.
Another important aspect of professionalization is the determination of the jurisdiction of the profession, or in other words, the scope and boundaries of the issues with which it deals. The development and flourishing of oṣul al-feqh during the 19th century made it possible to expand Shiʿite law to include new fields and seek answers to problems unheard of in the past. Perhaps the best example of this process is Mortażā Anṣāri’s groundbreaking work, Farāʾeż al-oṣul, which enabled mojtaheds to extend the area of law to any matter where there was even a possibility (and not just a probability) of being in accordance with the hidden Twelfth Imam’s guidance. Anṣāri himself demonstrated the application of his methodology in his feqh book al-Makāseb (“The Book on Earnings,” known also as Ketāb al-matājer), which dealt with commercial law.
An additional aspect of this process was the development of a code of ethics (aḵlāq) of the group, which also became a subject of study and was supposed to guide the conduct of the aspiring mojtaheds. The ejāza also signaled that the student would abide by the professional ethics of the ulema, such as piety, asceticism, and justice.
The tendency of fathers to grant ejāzāt to their sons at an early age has often been described as the corruption of the Muslim system of learning. Chamberlain denies the notion of corruption, arguing that this practice was designed as an essential strategy by the elite in order to reproduce itself (Chamberlain, pp. 18, 62, 82-84). Such phenomena as described by Chamberlain were not absent from the ʿAtabāt and the Persian religious establishment. Moreover, various mojtaheds granted ejāzāt with lenience, as part of their effort to build networks of patronage in their bid for leadership. However, as far as the available sources indicate, the purchasing of ejāzāt with money by unqualified persons, which plagued the Ottoman religious establishment, did not exist in the ʿAtabāt.
While serving the interests of the elites, these irregular practices were frowned on by contemporaries, who saw them as an abuse of the intended goals of religious education and as harmful to the ulema’s prestige among their constituencies. They also led to growing tensions between members of the elite and lower ranking ulema, both in the Ottoman empire and in Persia. Hence, their usefulness is not beyond question.
Unlike the Sunnite tradition, which recognized three levels among the mojtaheds, Shiʿite tradition initially distinguished between a “partial” mojtahed (mojtahed motajazziʾ), who was qualified to express authoritative opinions on the specific subject of his expertise, and an “absolute” mojtahed (mojtahed moṭlaq), who was authorized to issue rulings on all aspects of the law. However, from the beginning of the 19th century onwards, there was a growing tendency to deny the validity of the “partial” ejtehād and to restrict the validity of ejtehād to the “absolute” mojtahed, thereby obliterating formal stratification among the mojtaheds. Prohibiting the emulation (taqlid) of dead mojtaheds theoretically enabled the Shi-ʿite mojtaheds to deal with the roots or principles (oṣul) of the law and not just with its branches (foruʿ), in which their Sunnite counterparts engaged. Likewise, the institutionalization of emulation, which laymen were obliged to practice, gave them greater religious and social authority.
The consensus emerging in the 19th century that the attainment of the status of mojtahed required recognition by other mojtaheds, in addition to the ejāzat ejtehād, corroborates the idea of an elite that regulated entry into its ranks. This could also be seen, however, as an attempt to remedy a possible abuse. The need for recognition by peers enabled senior mojtaheds to bar the entry of their personal rivals or of undesirable upstarts into their ranks. Likewise, an ejāza given by a renowned mojtahed had a greater likelihood of being recognized by other mojtaheds as the first step toward joining the elites. Concurrently, this same practice inhibited the entry of mediocre sons of distinguished fathers into the elite, as was sometimes the case in the more bureaucratized Ottoman system and even in al-Azhar. In fact, there were quite a few cases where mediocre sons of distinguished fathers left the ʿAtabāt for Persia after having failed to establish themselves as teachers and scholars, while students of humble origins rose to the top of the religious hierarchy, thanks to their scholarly achievements.
The relative openness of the community of learning in the ʿAtabāt, the rise of immigrants and mojtaheds from low social origins, and eventually the proliferation of mojtaheds in the course of the century indicate that the Shiʿite elite did not wish to bar entry into its ranks. Religious studies, much more so in the ʿAtabāt than in contemporary centers in Persia itself, thus served as an important channel for upward social mobility.
The absence of an overall regulatory body and the relative scarcity of endowments (awqāf) to sustain the ḥawzāt in the ʿAtabāt had important ramifications for the proliferation of classes and for the quality of teaching. Historically, founders of the madrasas stipulated the teacher and his salary, and the control of appointments provided them with a valuable form of patronage. Rulers, in particular, enjoyed a special prerogative in the appointment of professors to paid teaching positions, a situation that raised the fear that political or other mundane considerations beyond purely academic ones influenced their choice. The competition among medieval Sunnite and, particularly, Ottoman ulema for teaching positions, stipendiary posts in madrasas, or positions in the judicial and administrative hierarchy focused their attention on their political patrons much more than on their students or lay followers.
The financial and social security that endowed chairs provided to teachers in medieval Sunnite madrasas or in the state-supported Ottoman system was in some respect harmful to the quality of teaching. Berkey mentions scholars who held chairs in several madrasas, in addition to those who sought to secure positions for their sons even when they were still babies! (Berkey, p. 127). Citing criticism of al-Azhar during the 19th century, Eccel writes that “too often the shuyuḵ did not prepare adequately,” because they enjoyed secure positions (Eccel, p. 155).
It seems that such abuses were less frequent in the ʿAtabāt, as was the case in the Jewish yeshivoth. Since there were no positions in an official religious bureaucracy and very few endowed chairs for teaching, the ulema of the ʿAtabāt were less dependent on lay rulers or lay founders of endowments. Competition for prestige and influence was manifested in attracting greater numbers of students and lay-followers and in the publication of legal treatises, particularly collections of judgements (fatwās). Mojtaheds had to attract students by virtue of their merits as scholars, teachers, and benevolent patrons. Most mojtaheds arranged their own classes and became independent teachers (eštaqalla beʾl-tadris), usually after their own teacher had died. They did not need approval or nomination by superiors, as was the case in al-Azhar, or the backing of a lay notable, but rather sufficient reputation to attract students and donations from the faithful. In other words, academic considerations played a more important role in determining their status than did their ties to a lay elite.
Under such circumstances, a teacher’s social origins or descent from an illustrious father were less important than the proper academic and interpersonal qualifications. The student’s allegiance to his master was personal and exclusive to him. Once the master had died, this allegiance did not necessarily extend to his entire family or sons, who did not bestow knowledge upon the students unless they had earned it as teachers in their own right. Consequently, an unqualified holder of an ejāza could not attract students or serve as a source of emulation for ordinary believers. Aside from the Arab Āl Kāšef al-Ḡeṭāʾ clan, sons of mojtaheds rarely managed to hold their fathers’ position. The story of the Baḥr al-ʿOlum and the Ṭabāṭabāʾi clans of Najaf and Karbalāʾ, respectively, demonstrates this point. Members of these families maintained a position of social leadership in both towns, largely thanks to their control over 40 years of the Oudh Bequest, which served as a major source of revenue for the ulema after 1850 (Litvak, “Money”), but their position as scholars and teachers was significantly below that of their colleagues.
The freedom enjoyed by students in choosing their teachers encouraged competition among teachers. Tonak-āboni (Qeṣaṣ, pp. 94-95), for instance, explains the shift of students from ʿAbd-al-Karim Erāvāni’s class to that of Šarif-al-ʿOlamāʾ Māzandarāni (d. 1831) by the fact that the former was considered merely modaqqeq (meticulous), while the latter was truly moḥaqqeq (investigative). Šarif-al-ʿOlamāʾ, he says, arranged the introduction for every question of the oṣul with depth and utmost precision, and from that introduction he clarified all problems.
At the same time, one could also argue that the preoccupation of many mojtaheds in the ʿAtabāt with securing funds might have been at the expense of teaching and scholarly work. This concern also required them occasionally to compromise their intellectual integrity in some of the things they preached in public, because they feared alienating their constituencies. In addition, the teacher’s scholarly qualifications were not always the decisive factor in determining the student’s choice. As with institutions of higher learning in the West, more mundane considerations sometimes played an important role in their preferences, similar to the pursuit of stipends by students in earlier periods or the ease with which they could acquire ejāzāt. Qučāni, for example, complained that students too often preferred teachers who could ensure them income and future connections. Moḥammad Kāẓem “Āḵund” Ḵorāsāni (d. 1911), for one, resented this tendency among the students. According to his admiring disciple Qučāni, he refused to distribute money among his students for the first three years of his independent career in order to ascertain that they had indeed come to his classes for the sake of learning alone.
Students, even when residing at a madrasa, were affiliated and identified with the study circle of a specific mojtahed. The unique characteristics of the structure of learning in the ʿAtabāt, and particularly the absence of formal bureaucratic positions for establishing status and hierarchy, increased and highlighted the centrality of the networks of patronage that teachers had to forge throughout their careers in order to gain a popular following. Students, particularly former ones who functioned as ulema among the various lay communities, spread their teacher’s fame and played a crucial role in mediating and linking these communities to the mojtaheds. Consequently, teachers exerted considerable efforts to attract and keep as many students as they could. The Persian intellectual Ḥāji Sayyāḥ (q.v.), who visited Najaf during the 1880s, noted that seminarians were “found in every house of a known ʿālem as students, servants, and dependents.” Ḥasan al-Ṣadr stated that the students and ulema that were supported by Mirzā Ḥasan Širāzi “were all as family to him in all their affairs” (Ṣadr, Takmila, pp. 22, 394) Moḥsen al-Amin (Ayʿān XXXII, p. 72) asserts that, in contrast to most centers of learning in Persia, teachers in Najaf cared more for their students and used to inquire about their personal situation, their food, housing, debts, whether they had received letters from home, their dreams for the future, and the like. These descriptions by insiders, as well as critics, portray the mojtahed’s network as something of a “scholarly version” of an Ottoman household.
Intellectual and scholarly production. Scholarly writing in the community of ulema, as in modern Western universities, had two goals: first was the specific development of Shiʿite law within the context of a general increase of knowledge; second was a more subtle agenda of establishing the scholar’s status and fame among his peers. For an institution that enshrined continuity and tradition, the Shiʿite ḥawzāt in the 19th century witnessed an outburst of scholarly production, thanks to the combination of two major factors: (1) The reinstatement of Oṣulism as the dominant school of law in Shiʿism by the mid-18th century, which made it possible to extend Shiʿite law to new areas. The absence of governmental intervention, which forced the Ottoman or Egyptian clerical establishments to grapple with the introduction of Western legal systems, gave the ulema in the ʿAtabāt a free hand to expand Shiʿite law. (2) Written works, which were a major criterion for determining some sort of hierarchy among ulema due to the informal nature of Shiʿite religious leadership. Naming a scholar by a book he had written was one of the most respectable of honors. The most famous mojtaheds were often identified by their book rather than by their names, as was the case in the Jewish rabbinate. An even greater honorific was naming entire families after the founder’s book, such as the Āl Kāšef al-Ḡeṭāʾ or Jawāheri clans.
Feqh and oṣul were the two major fields of study, and most mojtaheds tended to specialize in one of them. An analysis of the subjects of the works written by sixty-nine leading mojtaheds of the ʿAtabāt during the 19th century shows that feqh works constituted 62.3 percent of the titles in the survey and oṣul works 22.5 percent, altogether amounting to 84.8 percent. Scholarly works in eleven other fields, which served mainly as auxiliary sciences, constituted only 15.2 percent.
Most legal works appeared in two forms: commentaries (šarḥ, pl. šoruḥ) and glosses (ḥāšia, pl. ḥawāši) on important earlier works. Before the 16th century, commentaries served mostly to clarify vague words or passages. After that, however, they were elaborated to lengthy interpretations and criticism. Many other works appeared as compilations of lecture notes (taqrirāt), which students wrote and the mojtahed polished. Such practices went as far back as the 10th century and continued well into the 20th century. The reliance on lecture notes as the basis for books might have added to the difficulties of producing clear texts. Hence the need for repeated commentaries and glosses to clarify the texts.
It is possible that the condensed style of juridical works was also influenced by the difficulties in reproducing written works in the pre-printing age, although a major reason for that style was to make their memorization easier. Quite a few commentaries and glosses achieved fame as leading works in their own right. Perhaps the most prominent is Jawāher al-kalām fi šarḥ šarāyeʿ al-eslām by Moḥammad Ḥasan Najafi (d. 1850), which he completed after more than twenty-five years of work. It was recognized as the most popular work of reference in feqh during the 19th century. Many other similar works may have been a relatively easy means to obtain the much sought-after ejāzat ejtehād without the student having to prove exceptional brilliance.
The popularity of commentaries on previous works established the continuity of law, as each generation built upon its predecessor’s work. In addition, in a society that honored tradition it was easier for a scholar to present his contributions or even innovations in the form of a commentary on his predecessors’ works rather than as a purely original work.
As a subject dealing with the methodology of law, oṣul was regarded as a difficult field that targeted a limited audience, that is, that of the ulema themselves. By contrast, works on feqh had greater applicability to a larger audience such as students, low-ranking ulema, and merchants. Consequently, mojtaheds who aspired to a position of leadership and a large following preferred to produce more works in feqh than in oṣul. This may have been the reason why Arab mojtaheds, whose constituencies consisted mostly of tribesmen, did not venture into this field during the second part of the 19th century, and Persian ulema monopolized it.
Recent scholarship has shown that Sunnite ulema continued to practice ejtehād well into the 18th century. However, the Sunnite methodology of practicing ejtehād remained largely unchanged from the late medieval period. Consequently, new books in oṣul al-feqh were not added to the curriculum of the major Sunnite institutions of learning. In addition, the scope of ejtehād actually practiced by Sunnite ulema at the time appears to have been narrower than that of the Shiʿites. At the same time, the Shiʿite study of oṣul al-feqh was systematically revised and reconstructed by Mortażā Anṣāri, whose book Farāʾeż al-oṣul (or al-Rasāʾel) practically founded the new school of oṣul that dominates the Shiʿite legal learning even today.
Most works in oṣul after Anṣāri were devoted to the elucidation and elaboration of the principles he had established. More than eighty-four interpretations were written on Farāʾeż al-oṣul, rendering it one of the most commented upon works in Shiʿite law. The most advanced work on oṣul, which developed Anṣāri’s initial work to its highest level, was Kefāyat al-oṣul by Aḵund Ḵorāsāni, which still serves as the standard text of the soṭuḥ level. Hitherto, the “sources of feqh,” that is, the Qurʾan, Hadith, consensus (ejmāʿ), and reason (ʿaql) were regarded as the subject matter of oṣul. Ḵorāsāni extended it to any general topic related to any of oṣul’s individual problems by further developing procedural principles (al-oṣul al-ʿamaliya).
Unlike oṣul al-feqh, there was a large increase in the production of works on moʿāmalāt (a feqh category concerned with worldly affairs), from fourteen during the period up to Anṣāri, to forty-four thereafter, an increase of 214 percent. Nine of these works were commentaries on Anṣāri’s al-Makāseb, which, similar to his writing in the field of oṣul, broke new ground in commercial law. The growing integration of Persia into the world economy raised new problems for Persian merchants and required new rules of conduct. The attention Anṣāri paid to the links between trade and questions of ritual purity, that is, pertaining to dealings with new commodities or with non-Muslim foreigners, were probably intended to find the suitable legal answers to these new circumstances. Al-Makāseb and the upsurge in books on moʿāmalāt probably reflected an awareness on the part of the ulema of the needs of their constituencies. Responding to the demand for works on commercial law was a good way for aspiring mojtaheds to establish their reputation among the bazaar community and thereby expand their base of support.
The reinstatement of Oṣulism also left its mark on the curriculum in the ḥawzāt, whereby two out of the four major texts in oṣul studied at the soṭuḥ level, and three out of the seven major works in feqh were written during the 19th century. This phenomenon, which demonstrated the vitality of the Shiʿite learning system, contrasted with the more conservative curriculum of al-Azhar, which remained unchanged during that period.
The incorporation of new books also demonstrates the relationship between the absence of regulatory bodies and the consolidation of norms and conventions. As there were no formal decisions on teaching materials, former disciples of mojtaheds introduced and taught their teacher’s new books in their own classes. Thus popular teachers had their books disseminated by a large number of former students in various centers of learning, thereby instituting a new consensus. One such example is Šarif al-ʿOlamā Māzandarāni, who brought to Karbalāʾ the Qawānin al-oṣul, which his teacher Abu’l-Qāsem Qomi had written in the early years of the 19th century. His predominance as a teacher ensured the book’s wide circulation among his own students and consequently throughout the Shiʿite world.
Perhaps the best example is the spread of Farāʾeż al-oṣul by Mortażā Anṣāri, which came to dominate the madrasa curriculum in his own lifetime. Only a few Arab mojtaheds, most notably Faqih al-ʿErāq and Shaikh Rāżi Najafi, refused to use it and adhered to the older Oṣuli approach and texts. Their reluctance was motivated more by conservatism than by factional considerations, as shown by the fact that the younger members of the Āl Kāšef al-Ḡeṭāʾ family studied under Anṣāri and adopted his book.
Polemical literature was not a popular subject among the mojtaheds, as only seventeen such works were written, six of them by one man, Moḥammad Ḥosayn Šahrestāni (d. 1897-98) of Karbalāʾ. The topics of polemical works changed according to the challenges that the ulema faced in each period. Refutations of Aḵbārism, written at the beginning of the 19th century, gave place to refutations of Šayḵism, the other important ideological challenge of that time. Interestingly, four works, almost a quarter of all polemical writings, were devoted to polemics against Sunnite arguments. At this late stage of Shiʿite history, when Western ideas had begun to penetrate Persia and pose a challenge to the ulema’s authority, the mojtaheds of the ʿAtabāt regarded Sunnite Islam as the more important target. This was probably due to their encounters with the Sunnite Ottoman government and the Sunnite ulema of Baghdad, and because of their efforts to convert the Arab tribes to Shiʿism.
The fact that only one work was written against Western ideologies, Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Šahrestāni’s refutation of the Naturiya—the modernist approach formulated by the Indian scholar and cleric Sayyed Aḥmad Ḵān that sought to reconcile the interpretation of the Qurʾan with the Western-inspired laws of nature and science (see “Sayyid Aḥmad Khān,” in EI2) demonstrates the apolitical nature of the scholarly community of the ʿAtabāt. In early 19th century Persia, on the other hand, more than eight treatises were written specifically against the British missionary Henry Martyn, who came to Shiraz in 1811. Presumably, the ʿAtabāt were less exposed to Western ideas than were Persian political centers, and the ulema there were less alarmed by the new challenge. It is also possible that, due to the particular nature of the ʿAtabāt as centers of legal learning, the ulema there concentrated more on law than on polemics and political theory. Analysis of themes in the legal writings of the ulema of the ʿAtabāt is beyond the scope of this entry. However, since this sample has dealt only with titles, it is conceivable that discussions or refutations of Western ideas were integrated into broader discussions of various aspects of law and theology. Moreover, political issues, such as the crucial question of the authority of the ulema, were often discussed as part of a debate on seemingly apolitical juridical points on the leadership of the Friday prayer.
At the beginning of the 20th century, political developments in Iraq and Persia, starting with the Constitutional Revolution, the spread of modern systems of schooling, and the emergence of modern national states or governments in Iraq and Persia following World War I, resulted in calls for reforms in the teaching systems of the ʿAtabāt.
In 1929, Moḥsen al-Amin, a former student in Najaf who later became the head of the Shiʿite community in Damascus, called in his Kaškul for a rationalization of the teaching in the ʿAtabāt in order to prevent the disorder (fawdā) generated by the total liberty the students had in choosing their teachers, subjects, schedules, and level of courses. He proposed a change of manuals, suggesting books that were more easily accessible to the students and adapted to their needs. His calls, however, produced no reaction in the clerical milieu.
By contrast, as Sabrina Mervin (p. 81) has shown, earlier appeals by the young Shiʿite scholar from Jabal ʿĀmel (q.v.) in Lebanon, Moḥsen Šarāra, a member of al-Šabiba al-ʿāmeliya al-najafiya, or ʿĀmeli-Najafi Youth Association, triggered an angry debate in Najaf that culminated in his being declared an infidel by some mojtaheds. The group called for an overhaul of the teaching systems and the coming of a “Shiʿite Moḥammad ʿAbdoh” to implement it. He also called for rationalizing the teaching and adapting it to modern times. Accordingly, he called for the introduction of modern subjects such as sociology, psychology, foreign languages, and the comparative study of religion into the curriculum of Shiʿite seminaries. In 1937 and 1939, ʿAli al-Zayn, another member of the group who resided in Lebanon, called in the reformist Lebanese Shiʿite periodical al-ʿErfān for a total reorganization of the studies, the religious institutions, and the cultural life in Najaf, but his project remained on paper.
In 1939, however, Moḥammad Reżā al-Moẓaffar opened a reformed religious school in Najaf, with programs, time tables, and classes that taught the students up to the end of the soṭuḥ level. It had about 150 students, among whom were the sons of prominent ulema families in Najaf, as well as Lebanese students. However, the school closed within a few years.
In 1958, the Montada al-našr association opened a higher religious teaching institution, Kolliyāt al-feqh, whose program, according to Fażli, followed the university model and whose diploma was recognized by the Iraqi state (Fażli, pp. 76-78). Beginning in 1974, the Kolliyāt al-feqh was linked to the University of Baghdad, but the Ba’th government closed it in 1991. To the traditional religious sciences and courses on comparative oṣul al-feqh it added subjects such as literary criticism, sociology, English, and psychology. The Kolliyāt al-feqh was the only religious Shiʿite school that had been integrated in the state system. Other religious schools such as the Madrasat al-Najaf, which was founded in 1957 by ʿEzz al-Din al-Jazāʾeri, and the Madrasat al-ʿolum al-eslāmiya, founded in 1963 by Ayatollah Moḥsen al-Ḥakim, retained the ḥawza model, despite their reformist tendencies. The purpose of these schools was to revise the contents of the curriculum by teaching modern topics such as economics and philosophy using the books written by Moḥammad Bāqer al-Ṣadr, in addition to Qurʾanic sciences. Their intent was to open the students’ minds to the world and make them into clerics capable of confronting modernity. They would also revive the “secondary sciences,” such as astronomy, geography, and medicine that had been taught in the past but which were later abandoned. They also sought to improve the teaching and introduce greater supervision over the students, but without fully adopting the Kolliyāt al-feqh model.
The new efforts encountered stiff resistance in the ʿAtabāt by conservative elements that abhorred formal organization and countered with the slogan, “If science organizes itself, it disperses, and if science disperses, it organizes itself (al-ʿelm eḏā tabaṯara entaẓama, wa iḏā entaẓama tabaṯara). As an alternative, they highlighted the benefits of “organized anarchy” (al-fawdā al-monaẓ-ẓama), which preserved the freedom given to students and guaranteed, in their view, the peculiar advantages of higher Shiʿite religious education, mainly based on meritocracy and independence from the state. At the same time, some critics of the new schools complained of the low level of non-religious sciences.
Moḥammad Bāqer al-Ṣadr also sought to reform the ḥawza and modernize the curriculum. He was particularly disturbed by the irregular attendance of students and their neglect of their studies. Ṣadr proposed new textbooks on the ground that the old ones were not written for students. He also sought to establish a Western-style university with regular exams. Due to the opposition in Najaf, however, in 1964 Ṣadr helped establish the Oṣul al-din College in Baghdad rather than in Najaf, and established its curriculum. He also wrote three textbooks on the Qurʾan, oṣul al-feqh, and Islamic economics.
The combination of conservative opposition and increased governmental repression led to the closure of Ḥakim’s Madrasat al-ʿolum al-eslāmiya in 1977. Following the 1991 Shiʿite uprising the government closed down many other schools, traditional and reformist. Kolliyāt al-feqh was completely merged into the state apparatus, while some of the more traditional circles were able to retain a precarious autonomous existence.
Apparently as a compromise between the two approaches, Ayatollah ʿAli Sistāni, the leading Marjaʿ taqlid in Najaf since 1993, introduced a new mode of teaching in the traditional baḥṯ al-ḵārej courses. According to his followers, Sistāni introduced concepts from modern philosophy and sociology into his oṣul al-feqh lectures, while employing a comparative approach to Sunnite and Western legal systems in his feqh courses. It is unclear, however, to what extent this new method has spread beyond his classes to the entire ḥawza ʿelmiya, following the fall of the Ba’th regime in the wake of the 2003 occupation of Iraq by a coalition of forces.
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Furthermore, useful information is to be found on the website www.sistani.org.
Originally Published: December 15, 2006
Last Updated: March 30, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. XIII, Fas.c 6, pp. 588-599