BAḤR-AL-ʿOLŪM, SAYYED MOḤAMMAD MAHDĪ (1155/1742-1212/1797), a Shiʿite scholar who exercised great influence both in Iraq and in Iran through the numerous students he trained. He began his studies in Karbalā, first with his father, Sayyed Mortażā, a descendant of the Majlesī family, and then with Shaikh Yūsof Baḥrānī. Later he proceeded to Najaf to study with Shaikh Moḥammad-Mahdī Fotūnī (d. 1183/1769) and Shaikh Moḥammad-Taqī Dawvaraqī (d. 1187/1773), who became his two chief teachers. He returned to Karbalāʾ only briefly to study under the celebrated Moḥammad-Bāqer Behbahānī before settling definitively in Najaf to embark on his own career of teaching. Great polemical skills are attributed to Baḥr-al-ʿOlūm: he is said to have converted many Jews to Shiʿite Islam by his arguments, and such was the mastery of Sunni feqh that he acquired in debate with Sunni ʿolamāʾ that he taught the subject in Mecca for two years without his Shiʿite identity being detected. By contrast with many of his colleagues, he was not, however, unconditionally hostile to Sufism, for he refused to declare the celebrated Neʿmatallāhī Sufi, Nūr-ʿAlīšāh, an unbeliever, and he even facilitated his safe departure from Karbalā at a time of danger. Baḥr-al-ʿOlūm’s biographers report that he was favored by miraculous communication with the Prophet and the imams, especially the Twelfth Imam. He wrote little of substance, but was so highly regarded for his learning that he became the leading scholar in the whole Shiʿite world after the death of Behbahānī. His posthumous influence was also great, especially in Iran, where pupils of his such as Mollā Aḥmad Narāqī, Moḥammad-Bāqer Raštī and Ḥājj Ebrāhīm Kalbāsī were often able to impose their will on secular authority.
Moḥammad b. Solaymān Tonokābonī, Qeṣaṣ al-ʿolamāʾ, Tehran, n.d., pp. 168-74.
Moḥammad-Bāqer Ḵᵛānsarī, Rawżāt al-jannāt fī aḥwāl al-ʿolamāʾwa’l-sādāt, Tehran, 1304/1887, p. 677.
Ḥājj Mīrzā Ḥosayn Nūrī, Mostadrak al-wasāʾel, Tehran, 1321/1903, III, p. 384.
Moḥammad-ʿAlī Modarres, Rayḥānat al-adab, Tabrīz, n.d., I, pp. 234-35.
Moḥammad Ḥerz-al-Dīn, Maʿāref al-rejāl fī tarājem al-ʿolamāʾwa’l-odabāʾ, Najaf, 1384/1964 (see index, III, p. 396 under “Moḥammad-Mahdī Baḥr-al-ʿOlūm” for references to his students).
Javād Nūrbaḵš, introduction to Nūr-ʿAlīšāh, Jannāt al-weṣāl, Tehran, 1348 Š./1969, pp. v-vi; Hamid Algar, Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969, pp. 57, 59, 66, 69.
A treatise on mysticism attributed to Baḥr-al-ʿOlūm has been published under the title Resāla-ye sayr o solūk-e mansūb be Baḥr-al-ʿOlūm, ed. S. M.-Ḥ. Ṭehrānī, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981.
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Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: August 24, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 5, p. 504