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«by Zackery M. Heern A dissertation submitted to the faculty of The University of Utah in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of ...»

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Zackery M. Heern

A dissertation submitted to the faculty of

The University of Utah

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

Department of History

University of Utah

August 2011

Copyright © Zackery M. Heern 2011

All Rights Reserved The University of Utah Graduate School


The dissertation of Zackery M. Heern

has been approved by the following supervisory committee members:

, Chair Peter von Sivers 6/28/11 Date Approved, Member Peter Sluglett 7/15/11 Date Approved, Member Bernard Weiss 6/28/11 Date Approved, Member Robert Gleave 6/28/11 Date Approved, Member Michel Mazzaoui 7/12/11 Date Approved, Member Shireen Mahdavi Date Approved and by, Chair of James R. Lehning the Department of History and by Charles A. Wight, Dean of The Graduate School.


Broadly speaking, this is a study in early modern socio-intellectual history. It seeks to trace the inception and development of one of the most powerful Islamic movements of the modern period: Usuli Shi‘ism. I also hope to contribute to a better understanding of the ideology and practice of the Usuli branch of Shi‘i Islam. My underlying argument suggests that the recent ascendancy of Shi‘i Islamis the culmination of a process incepted by Vahid Bihbihani (1706-1792) and his disciples, who revived a rationalist school of Islamic thought in the eighteenth century, which has become known as Usulism. Largely as a result of the Usuli reformation, the Shi‘i clerical establishment has gained unprecedented social, political, and economic power, especially in Iran, where high-ranking clerics (ayatollahs) have established a theocratic government since 1979. I argue that the Usuli revival and reform of Shi‘ism was part of a larger eighteenth century Islamic reformation that resulted from the decentralization and collapse of the early modern Islamic empires (i.e., Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal).

Taking this process of political decentralization into account, most historians have argued that the early modern Middle East is best viewed as a period of decline. Rejecting the decline thesis as Orientalist, recent scholars have argued that an Islamic Enlightenment was taking place during this watershed period. Seeking to contribute to this debate, I employ a comparative approach to suggest that Sunni, Sufi, and Shi‘i Muslim scholars revived and reformed their traditions in direct response to the political destabilization of the Islamic world and directly contributed to the establishment of new kingdoms in Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran respectively. I also argue that early modern reform movements, including Usulism, Wahhabism, and neo-Sufism, eventually evolved into organizations associated with Islamism or political Islam. This study, then, can be viewed as a case study in the field of modern Islamic movements.

My findings are largely based on the writings of the leaders of the Usuli movement, which are primarily written in Arabic and are mostly works in the field of Islamic law. Additionally, I have studied the Arabic and Persian biographical (tabaqat) literature written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which extols the founders of the Usuli movement.

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Historiography of Shi‘ism

Historiography of Early Modern Islam

Summary of Chapters

Political Landscape of the Early Modern Islamic World

Islamic Movements and the Decline-Enlightenment Debate


Transformations in Shi‘ism during the Safavid Period

Rationalists and Traditionists

Post-Safavid Interregnum and Shi‘ism

Vahid Bihbihani and the Usuli Shi‘i Revival

A Biography of Vahid Bihbihani

Vahid Bihbihani’s Career in Bihbihan

Vahid Bihbihani’s Move Back to Karbala

Real and Imagined Importance of Vahid Bihbihani

Why Usulism Prevailed



Leadership of Vahid Bihbihani’s Students in Iraq

Bahr al-‘Ulum

Kashif al-Ghita’

Mirza Muhammad Mihdi Shahristani

Sayyid ‘Ali Tabataba’i (Sahib al-Riyadh)

Leadership of Bihbihani’s Students in Iran

Mirza Abu al-Qasim Qummi (Sahib al-Qawanin)

Mulla Ahmad Naraqi

Muhammad Ibrahim Kalbasi

Aqa Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Shafti Isfahani




Periodization of Shi‘i Thought

Collection of Hadith and Kashf from the Imams:

c. 700-1000

Establishment of a Rationalist School: c. 1000-1200

Mysticism and New Ijtihad: c. 1200-1600

Usuli Revival and Shaykhis: 1800-present

Recent Resurgence of Kashf




Bihbihani’s Conception of Legalistic Knowledge (‘ilm)

Four or Five Sources of Usuli Shi‘i fiqh?

The Qur’an (First Textual Source)

Traditions (hadith, Second Textual Source)

Consensus (ijma‘)

Reason (‘aql)

Transference (ta‘diyya) vs. Analogy (qiyas)

Authority of Mujtahids




Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and the Wahhabi Movement

Ibn Idris and Neo-Sufism

Political Influence of the Reformers

Knowledge and Authority

Opponents of the Reformers

Primary Concerns of the Reformers




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This project and my entire graduate experience are the result of the generosity and assistance of numerous professors, friends, scholars, and institutions. I feel fortunate to live in a society and at a time in which education and the pursuit of knowledge are valued. The members of my PhD committee have been immensely gracious in guiding me along the path of academia. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Professor Peter von Sivers, my advisor and my mentor in matters beyond the pursuit of knowledge. Bernard Weiss, Peter Sluglett, and Peter von Sivers exemplify what it means to be a true scholar and they have given me the courage to pursue my dream. I will never be able to repay the countless hours they have spent imparting knowledge, sharing wisdom, and writing letters of recommendation. I am ever-grateful to Robert Gleave for guiding in the course of this project, including me in the Clerical Authority in Shi‘i Islam Project, and for lending me countless books. I am also thankful to Michel Mazzaoui. The following scholars have also been of great assistance: Todd Lawson, Vanessa Martin, Hussein Modarressi, Moojan Momen, and Roy Mottahedeh.

The University of Utah, especially its History Department and the Middle East Center, have provided all the means necessary for a successful graduate career. The History Department was a great home from which to pursue a PhD. It has prepared me to embark on a career of researching and teaching. My program of study and research would have been impossible without the Middle East Center, with its outstanding faculty and staff, especially June Marvel.

My entire course of study would have remained a dream without generous fellowships and grants from multiple donors and institutions. I thank the University of Utah History Department for the three-year Burton Teaching Assistant Fellowship, the Middle East Center for five Foreign Language Area Study Fellowships, the Graduate School for the Marriner S. Eccles Graduate Fellowship in Political Economy and two University Teaching Assistantships. I am appreciative to the Middle East Center and the Graduate School for multiple conference travel grants. I am also grateful to the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London for its generous Dissertation Scholarship. I am likewise thankful for the Reza Ali Khazeni Memorial Scholarship for Graduate Study Abroad.

Further, I thank the British Academy, the British Institute for Persian Studies, and the British Society for Middle East Studies for funding the Clerical Authority in Shi‘i Islam Project, from which I have benefited greatly.

Research for my dissertation was the result of countless library hours. I am grateful for the tremendous Aziz S. Atiya Middle East Library (my home away from home) as well as the help of Leonard Chiarelli. I am also thankful to the University of Cologne for granting me unlimited access to its lithograph collection in the SchiaBibliothek. Additionally, Firestone Library at Princeton University, The Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and the Research Library at UCLA were of great help.

My family and friends have been an immovable support system throughout this arduous journey. Thank you first and foremost to my wife, Mona Kashani Heern, for being a constant source of hope and encouragement. I hope to follow in the footsteps of my first teachers, Bobette and Jim Heern, who instilled within me a love for learning and teaching me the value of hard work. I thank my brothers, Jamie and Shon Heern, for

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Nikakhtar, Sonlla, Justice, and Chase Heern, Hoda and Babak Sapir, Labib and Esmat Shahid, Sam Aronoff, Shokoufeh Shirmohammadi, Ahab Bdaiwi, Robert Riggs, and Omid Ghaemmaghami.

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This study traces the initial development of one of the most powerful Islamic movements of the modern period, namely Usuli Shi‘ism. In the second half of the eighteenth century, a debate between Traditionist (Akhbari) and Rationalist (Usuli) scholars played out in southern Iraq in the Shi‘i strongholds of Karbala and Najaf. At its core, the Usuli-Akhbari dispute was a religio-intellectual debate in which the highest echelons of Shi‘i scholars argued over proper methodologies for textual exegesis, the permissibility and limits of interpreting the texts with the aid of reason (ijtihad), and the overall authority of Shi‘i scholars themselves. Although Akhbarism had been on the rise in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Usulis emerged victorious by the late 1700s and have reigned supreme ever since. The impact of this debate has produced farreaching results over the past two hundred years, illustrating that ideas have immense power. Naturally, the tenor of Shi‘i scholarship has changed as a result of Usuli success.

Usulism has also greatly influenced the social and political fabric of the Shi‘i world.

This study focuses primarily on the establishment and early development of Usulism, which occurred during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In other words, my discussion on the Usuli movement as a socio-intellectual movement is largely limited to the founder of modern Usulism, Vahid Bihbihani (1704-1791), and his

–  –  –

history. Therefore, I do not delve deeply into political or economic trends. However, I hope to provide enough political background to give the reader a general context for the topic at hand.

Scholars have recently proclaimed that a revival of Shi‘i Islam in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere has been underway for the past thirty years.1 The most obvious reason for such a claim is the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran that brought Usuli Shi‘i clerics to power. Shi‘i Muslims have also played a more central role in Iraqi society and politics since the 2003 American invasion and subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Additionally, Shi‘is, including Hezbollah, have played an increasingly important role in Lebanon, the current president of Syria (Bashar al-Assad) is a Shi‘i, and Shi‘i resistance has been steadily growing over the past few years in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Marshall Hodgson referred to the tenth/eleventh century as the “Shi‘i century.” Only future historians will be able to assess whether the nineteenth/twentieth century, a millennium later, can also be considered a Shi‘i century.

Certainly, Shi‘i influences in the Islamic world over the past three decades elicit mixed reviews at the moment. Additionally, many Shi‘is can still be considered under the rubric of a persecuted minority in the Islamic world. It is clear, though, that Shi‘ism is on the rise in the Islamic world.

Shi‘ism, like any other religion, is not monolithic. Shi‘is simply share a common tradition. At its core, this tradition is concerned with reverence to the Imams, whom Shi‘is believe are the rightful, infallible (ma‘sum) successors of Muhammad, the prophetfounder of Islam. The majority of Shi‘is (Imamis or Twelvers) claim that there are a total

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