AḴYĀR (pl. of Arabic ḵayyer), “the chosen” (Persian, bargozīdagān), a category sometimes encountered in accounts given by Sufi writers of the unseen hierarchy known as reǰāl al-ḡayb (“men of the unseen”). The number of the aḵyār and the functions they are supposed to fulfill differ according to various sources. Hoǰvīrī numbers them at three hundred and says they are “among the officers of the divine court and the people of loosening and binding;” that is, they are the agents of destiny (Kašf al-maḥǰūb, tr. R. A. Nicholson, London, 1911, p. 214). Four centuries later, ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Jāmī adopted a view on the subject identical to that of Hoǰvīrī (Nafaḥāt al-ons, ed. M. Tawḥīdīpūr, Tehran, 1336 Š./1947, p. 20). In the popular Sufism of North Africa, the three hundred aḵyār are sometimes identified with the noqabāʾ (“the lieutenants”), who are more commonly treated as a separate category of the reǰāl al-ḡayb (E. Dermenghem, Le culte des saints dans l’Islam maghrébin, Paris, 1954, p. 21).

A number of later Persian sources identify the aḵyār with still another category of the reǰāl al-ḡayb, the abrār (“the virtuous”). Sometimes this identification is combined with a retention of the figure three hundred (in, for example, the Kašf al-loḡāt wa’l-eṣṭelāḥāt of Shaikh ʿAbd-al-Raḥīm Sūrbahārī, quoted in Dehḵodā (s.v. aḵyār) and Shaikh Moḥammad Aʿlāʾ Tahānawī, Kaššāf eṣṭelāḥāt al-fonūn, ed. M. Waǰīh, ʿAbd-al-Ḥaqq, and Ḡ. Qadīr, repr., Beirut, 1966, II, p. 421). Generally, however, those who identify the aḵyār with the abrār fix their number at seven; see, for example, the Moʾayyed al-fożalāʾ of Shaikh Moḥammad Dehlavī, quoted in S. J. Saǰǰādī, Farhang-e moṣṭalaḥāt-e ʿorafāʾ va motaṣawwefa, Tehran, 1339 Š./1960, p. 24. According to the Ḵolāṣat al-aṯar of Ḵaṭīb Baḡdādī (quoted in Dehḵodā, s.v. aḵyār), the seven aḵyār are constantly traveling throughout the world, fulfilling the divine missions entrusted to them. This activity of the aḵyār, together with the fixing of their number at seven, suggests a further identification, with the group known to popular Sufism and folklore as the haft tan (“the seven”); (see, for example, Moʾayyed al-fożalāʾ as quoted by Saǰǰādī). The haft tan are sometimes equated with the ahl al-kahf (i.e., the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus; see Koran 18:22), but more generally they are regarded as an anonymous group of ubiquitous and immortal saints (see Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿīn, p. 2344). It may also be remarked that an identification of the aḵyār with the abrār is implicit in the title of a celebrated compendium of Češtī hagiography, Aḵbār al-aḵyār fī asrār al-abrār by Shaikh ʿAbd-al-Ḥaqq Dehlavī.

In his detailed enumeration of the different classes of awlīāʾ, Ebn ʿArabī—the chief authority on this matter—does not assign any number to the aḵyār. He mentions a category numbering seven, but they are the abdāl (“the substitutes”; see al-Fotūḥāt al-Makkīya, Cairo, 1329/1911, II, p. 7), and another numbering three hundred, but they are described as “those who are formed according to the heart of Adam;” i.e., they receive all the forms of divine knowledge that were bestowed on Adam (al-Fotūḥāt al-Makkīya, II, p. 9). He insists that the aḵyār are subject to no numerical limitation; they are a group of men and women fluctuating in number but always present on earth. As for the sense of the designation aḵyār, he connects it to its occurrence in Koran 38:47: “Verily they (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) are in Our presence among the elect and the chosen (al-moṣṭafīn al-aḵyār).” Those intended here by al-aḵyār are the same as those mentioned in Koran 9:88: “To those belongs superabundance (ūlāʾeka lahom al-ḵayrāt).” The superabundance enjoyed by the aḵyār is a kind of divine knowledge bestowed exclusively on them in a form only they can perceive. Among the aḵyār are some who can communicate this knowledge to other men, and others who cannot; the former group is superior to the latter, and necessarily includes all the prophets (al-Fotūḥāt al-Makkīya, II, p. 36).

In the Koranic commentary attributed to Ebn ʿArabī but composed by ʿAbd-al-Razzāq Kāšānī, the term aḵyār as occurring in Koran 38:47 is explained as “those exempt from evil, contingency, non-being and origination” (Tafsīr al-Qorʾān al-karīm, Beirut, 1387/1967, II, p. 362). This interpretation was taken up by the Turkish Sufi Esmāʿīl Ḥaqqī Brosevī in his commentary on the Koran, Rūḥ al-bayān (Istanbul, 1389/1970, VIII, p. 47).

Bibliography: Given in the text.

(H. Algar)

Originally Published: December 15, 1984

Last Updated: July 29, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 7, pp. 740-741

Cite this entry:

H. Algar, “AḴYĀR,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/7, pp. 740-741; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/akyar-pl (accessed on 14 May 2014).