Rafed English

The appearance of the Akhbaris in Shi'i Islam

Adopted from the book : "The Principles of Ijtihad in Islam" by : "Shahid Murtadha Mutahhari"

Here we must mention an important and perilous current which first appeared around four centuries ago in the Shi'i world over the question of ijtihad - Akhbarism. If a group of the 'ulama had not been forthright and challenged it, and had not taken a stand against this current and destroyed it, there is no knowing in what position we should be today. The actual school of the Akhbaris is no more than four centuries old. Its founder was a man by the name of Mulla Muhammad Amin al-Astarabadi [d. 1033/1624], who was, personally, a gifted man who found many followers among the 'ulama'. The Akhbaris themselves claimed that the original Shi'is, up to the time of the Shaykh al-Saduq20, were all followers of the Akhbari doctrine, but the truth is that Akhbarism as a school with basic postulates did not exist more than four centuries ago. These postulates were: the denial of the possibility of arriving at certainty through exercising reason ('aql); the denial of the validity and the proof (dalil) of the Qur'an on the pretext that the understanding of the Qur'an lay exclusively in the hands of the Prophet's ahl al-bayt, and that our duty is to consult the hadith of the ahl al-bayt [for its interpretation and understanding]; the assertion that ijma' was the innovation of the Sunnis; the assertion that, of the four valid proofs (adilla), i.e., the Book, the Sunna, ijma' and 'aql, only the Sunna is able to lead to certainty, the assertion that all the hadith that appear in the "four books"" are true and valid, and of categorical provenance [from the Imams] (qat'i al-sudur).

In his book, "Uddat al-Usul", the Shaykh al-Tusi mentions a group of former Shi'i scholars under the name of the "Muqallida", and adversely criticises them; but they had no school of their own, and the reason that the Shaykh called them "Muqallida" was that even in the fundamentals of dogmatics (usul al-din) they constructed their proofs with hadith. At any rate, the school of the Akhbaris took its stand against the school of ijtihad and taqlid. They denied the legal competence, jurisdiction and technical expertise that the mujtahids believed in; they considered taqlid of anyone else than the ma'sumin22 to be illegal. According to them, only the hadith are authoritative, and since there is no right of ijtihad or deriving of opinions, people must necessarily have recourse directly to the texts of the traditions and act upon them, no scholar calling himself a mujtahid or a marja' al-taqlid23 can act as an intermediary. Mulla Amin al-Astarabadi, the founder of this school, and personally a very gifted man, learned and well-travelled, wrote a book called "al-Fawa'id al-Madaniya" in which he went to war with the mujtahids with astonishing stubbornness. He particularly tried to refute the principle of the authority of 'aql. He claimed that it was only a proof in matters which had their origin in the senses, or which were related to sensory objects (such as in mathematics), and that in matters other than these it was inadmissible as a proof.24

It so happens that this idea was practically contemporary with the appearance of empirical philosophy in Europe. The latter denied the validity of pure reason, and al-Astarabadi denied its validity in religion. Now where did he get this idea? Was it his own original idea, or did he get it from elsewhere? We cannot say. I remember that in the summer of 1322 [Sh./1943] I went to Burujird, and at that time the late Ayatollah Burujirdi was still living there, not yet having come to Qum. One day, the talk was of this idea of the Akhbaris, and he criticised it, saying that the appearance of this idea among them was the effect of the wave of empiricism that had arisen in Europe. I heard this from him at that time. Afterwards, when he came to Qum, and his lessons in usul al-fiqh reached this topic, i.e., the validity of certainty as a proof (hujjat al qat'), I was waiting to hear this opinion again from him, but unfortunately he did not say anything about it. Now, I cannot say if this had only been a conjecture which he had voiced, or whether he had evidence, but I, myself, have not till now found any evidence for it, and I feel it is extremely unlikely that empirical thinking had then reached the East from the West. However, against this is the fact that Ayatollah Burujirdi never spoke without evidence. I now regret that I never asked him for an explanation at the time.

20. Abu Ja'far, Muhammad b. 'Ali b. al-Husayn b. Babawayh al-Qummi (d. 381/991).

21. These are: "al-Kafi" (see note 13); "Man la Yahdurahu l-Faqih " (ed. H. M. Khirsan, 4 vols, Najaf, 1957, by 1958-62), also by al-Tusi

22. The fourteen "impeccables": i.e., the Prophet, his daughter Fatimat al-Zahra, and the twelve Imams.

23. After the student of fiqh has mastered the necessary sciences, he may, if his teacher considers him to be capable of deriving his own legal opinions, receive a certificate authorizing him to do so; but he still cannot be followed by others in taqlid. For this to happen, he must rise to the final degree and become a marja' al-taqlid, where other qualities besides just his scholarship, e.g., his piety and conformity to the shari'a, cause him to be respected above other mujtahids, and thus to become a source of certainty to his muqallids that in following him they will not deviate from the shari'a.

24. This is a question of certainty (qat', yaqin): the evidence for the existence of a precept must be such as to leave no room for any kind of doubt in the mind of the person who models his behaviour according to it; in the case of proofs concerning sensory evidence, the very data themselves are only probabilistic, so no proof employing them can arrive at demonstrable certainty. Therefore, in such a proof, other probabilistic elements such as 'aql are admissible, but these cannot be used to derive the precepts of the shari'a.

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