The Philosopher of the Era
), more popularly known as
“the Most Unparalleled Shaykh”
); Aḥmad the son of Zaynuddīn, was born in Rajab, 1166
(in or near the month of May, 1753
) in the village of al-Muṭayrafī of the then emirate of al-Aḥsāʾ, located towards the Eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. This region was adjacent to that of Baḥrayn, and is sometimes included by historical geographers as part of the latter. The tribe into which Shaykh Aḥmad was born originally belonged to the ʿĀmmah; his family on his father’s side converted to Tashayyuʿ five generations earlier. According to Shaykh Aḥmad’s testimony in his own spiritual autobiography (Aḥsāʾī 2009, Vol. 8, pp. 457–466), al-Muṭayrafī in particular had become something of a backwoods, an oasis far removed from major population centers and largely devoid of significant scholars or resources for Islāmic learning.
Shaykh Aḥmad appears to have been gifted with a precocious memory; after recounting in detail a devastating flood that hit al-Aḥsāʾ when he was two years of age, he says that he remembers the event. As a boy, he was given to contemplation and reflection, even when playing with his friends. He especially meditated upon the ruins and historical monuments of past kingdoms of his region. He would contemplate the transitoriness that characterized the mighty rulers and kingdoms of times bygone and of the present, including the contemporary rulers of Aḥsāʾ; then he would cry as he reminisced of the former inhabitants of once flourishing cities. He was also perturbed by the general ignorance within his community of the laws and norms of Islām. He was impatient with their indulgence in merry- making and festivity, and disturbed by his own inclinations towards joining them.
After noticing an interest in grammar on the part of his son, Shaykh Zaynuddīn sent him to a nearby village to study with a local scholar. At some point during his studies there, young Aḥmad began having visions and dreams in which a young man would teach him the meanings of Qurʾānic
). Then he began to visit strange worlds and climb over mystical mountains that no one else from amongst the masses could ascend. Finally, he saw three of the Twelve Imāms of Ahlulbayt
in a vision: the second
al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib
, the fourth
ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib
, and the fifth
Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn
. The high point of this vision is when Imām al-Ḥasan places his mouth over that of young Aḥmad, who is lying flat on his back, letting him taste the Imām’s saliva. Then the Imām places his hand on Aḥmad’s face, then his chest, sending a profound coolness through his heart.
After some conversation, young Aḥmad finally asked the Imām,
“My Master! Inform me of something such that, whenever I recite it, I can see you all.”
Then Imām Ḥasan
replied with the following hemistiches:
Become a shunner of your affairs;
Entrust all affairs to the Decision.
Thus tight spaces will often widen;
And open spaces will often get tight.
Often a matter which is tiresome
In its ends, for you there lies Riḍā
Allāh will do whatever He Wishes;
Become not one who interferes.
Allāh habituated you to the beautiful;
So do compare with what has passed.
Then the Imām
added the following:
A matter over which the
) has tightened;
Often there comes to her [the ego] from Allāh relief.
Become not a despairer of the arrival of a breeze;
So often indeed are those impediments dispelled.
All the while a man is despondent in deathly illness;
Yet Allāh comes to him with a breeze and a relief.
For months young Aḥmad recited the two poems every night without result. Then he realized that the Imām meant for him to not merely repeat the verses, but to embody their inner meanings. So in the following months, young Aḥmad began focusing on the cultivation of
) in his devotions, increasing his recitation of the Qurʾān, spending late night to dawn in seeking forgiveness and in meditation, as well as deepening his contemplations on the world at large. The intensity of his visions increased until finally the gate of vision of Ahlulbayt
opened and he would see some of them most days and nights. Eventually he reached a point where he could see the Imāms
and the Prophet
almost at will, and ask difficult questions of them. He could even choose which of them he wanted to see and speak to. This continued for decades, he says, throughout his studies and scholarly career. At one point (around 1208
) he had a vision wherein the tenth
ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad al-Hādī
passed him twelve
) from each
Throughout his studies and researches, Shaykh Aḥmad did his utmost to maintain a low profile and to live as secluded a life as possible, despite the devotion of a growing number of admirers. Eventually, during his fateful journey to Iran, his fame reached a point where he could no longer live as secluded a life as he preferred, and involvement with
became unavoidable. At that point, our Shaykh tells us, distraction from his
) led to the closure of that door that had been opened continuously for so long. Afterwards he continued to see members of the Ahlulbayt
, but only intermittently.
At age twenty, young Aḥmad went to the centers of the Shīʿī scholastic establishment, in southern Iraq to continue his studies. The holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, containing the graves of the first
ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib and the third
Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī respectively, were at that time under Ottoman rule, though semi-autonomous and under strong Iranian influence. The chief figure of this establishment at the time of young Aḥmad’s arrival was Āqā al-Waḥīd Bāqir Bihbahānī (d. 1205
). Through the sometimes severe efforts, both mental and political, of the Āqā, the
) or analytic school of jurisprudence and philosophy of law and language became the dominant one in the scholastic establishment; from there it spread to the point where the overwhelming majority of Shīʿī scholars today follow the analytic school. Losing this fight was the
) school, who generally confined the theory of jurisprudence to a more or less critical discussion of traditions attributed to the Imāms
. While it appears certain that young Shaykh Aḥmad attended the Āqā’s lectures, the latter was fifty years his senior and politically active. So it is doubtful that he developed much of a relationship with the Āqā.
The Shaykh also attended the lectures of many of the most prominent students of Āqā al-Waḥīd, including Shaykh Jaʿfar ibn Khiḍr al-Najafī (d. 1228
), also known by the honorific title
Unveiler of Mysteries
); and Sayyid Muḥammad Mahdī ibn Murtaḍā al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1797), better known by the honorific
Sea of Knowledge
). Baḥr al-ʿUlūm was also known as a great
), viz., someone who had reached some of the higher stages of prehension generally associated with mysticism. Shaykh Aḥmad was to receive
) from these and other prominent and important scholars of his day, all of which contain comments praising his erudition and piety in the highest terms. Baḥr al-ʿUlūm even goes so far as to call Shaykh Aḥmad, a full generation junior to the former, a
) of the
There does not appear to have been a prominent school of Falsafah in the ʿAtabāt during Shaykh Aḥmad’s time. That was to be found in Isfahan, Iran. On the other hand, the scholars of Najaf and Karbala routinely employed Avicennan logic; and the Uṣūlī school emphasized a critical, analytic approach to the problems of philosophy of law, jurisprudence proper, and theology. The works of the great mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and theologian Naṣīruddīn Ṭūsī (d. 672
) and his successors in the Kalām were widely available, read, taught, and studied. The numerous libraries of Najaf and Karbala were among the best in Muslim civilization, and the treasures of Falsafah were put to use in the development of theology and the philosophy of law.
The metaphysics of Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1050
) and its application to theology by his most famous student, the traditionist Mullā Muḥsin Fayḍ Kāshānī (d. 1091
), was well known by the leading scholars of the ʿAtabāt, although they generally discouraged the public dissemination of this particular school in very strong terms. Many saw in Mullā Muḥsin especially, who was otherwise a well respected scholar of
), an unwelcome attempt to introduce the panentheistic doctrine of the non- and even anti-Shīʿī mystic Ibn ʿArabī into standard theology. Shaykh Yūsuf ibn Aḥmad al-Baḥrānī (d. 1186
), the last great Akhbārī jurisprudent and theologian, a compatriot of Shaykh Aḥmad, and a wielder of great influence even upon the leading analytic scholars, considered all of the
) to be unbelievers, criticizing even his coreligionist Naṣīruddīn Ṭūsī. He reserves some of his harshest criticism for his fellow Akhbārī, Mullā Muḥsin. It was two years after Shaykh Aḥmad had first left for the ʿAtabāt that Shaykh Yūsuf passed away. Surely the strength of the anti-Mullā Ṣadrā, anti-Mullā Muḥsin sentiment of many scholars was not lost on him.
Despite this, Najaf and Karbala were by no means monolithic, and one cannot discount the likelihood of there having been private teachers of Falsafah proper, including that of Mullā Ṣadrā. Indeed, in the early philosophical works of Shaykh Aḥmad dating from the period spent in Iraq and eastern Arabia – many of which were responses to the questions of other scholars –, we see references to the doctrines of Mullā Ṣadrā and Mullā Muḥsin, among others. In some cases it is the questioner who is asking about the interpretation of some of the teachings of the latter two. It is thus certain that the works of these authors, as well as that of other philosophers and mystics, were available and intently studied by some scholars, whatever official attitudes may have been.
It cannot be emphasized enough that opposition to the doctrines of Ibn ʿArabī and Mullā Ṣadrā on the part of the leaders of the scholastic establishment did not necessarily constitute an opposition to mystical wayfaring per se, especially when privately practiced. On the contrary, we find numerous instances of a prominent jurisprudent such as Baḥr al-ʿUlūm opposed to Sufism and Ibn ʿArabī while also being both a mystic and known as a great mystic. Books on mystical wayfaring (
), that is, the ethical and practical discipline through means of which one is supposed to advance in closeness to God – as opposed to Sufi doctrine – were also studied or even written by prominent scholars such as Baḥr al-ʿUlūm. What was generally opposed was organizational Sufism and the pantheistic/panentheistic interpretation of mystical experience; both these ran directly counter to explicit teachings of the Shīʿī Imāms as well as undermined the authority and political stability of the scholastic establishment.
We do not know whether or not Shaykh Aḥmad attended formal lectures in the Falsafah of Mullā Ṣadrā or other philosophers. The Shaykh does make reference to a prominent philosopher in Basra (Ibrahimi n.d., p. 183) but either the Shaykh or the reference does not mention his name. We do know that, in addition to his studies in the standard curriculum including prophetic traditions, philosophy of law and language, jurisprudence, ethics, and the Kalām; he pursued and delved deeply into other sciences such as mathematics and astronomy, alchemy and chemistry, mineralogy, the occult Hermetic arts (such as numerology and letter-based hermeneutics), and even medicine. He had a special attraction towards alchemy, which the first Imām, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, had once called
“the sister of prophecy”
. The Shaykh by all accounts attained a profound mastery of that science and did what appears to have been original research in the field. Some of these disciplines, such as alchemy and other Hermetic arts, were only taught privately and secretly, and we do not know who his outward teachers were in these fields, if any. What we do know is that he was associated with a certain obscure alchemist and Hermetic philosopher Shaykh ʿAlī ibn ʿAbdillāh ibn Fāris, upon some of whose works Shaykh Aḥmad wrote commentaries; he apparently lived in the utmost seclusion. Shaykh Aḥmad also extols Shaykh ʿAlī with a kind of praise he bestows upon few other scholars.
Despite his multifarious interests, Shaykh Aḥmad did not neglect jurisprudence, and eventually became a
within the Uṣūlī school. That is, he joined the ranks of those able to deduce by oneself, using the
) of philosophy of law and language, the laws of jurisprudence from the prophetic sources, viz., the Prophet of Islām, his daughter Fāṭimah, and the Twelve Imāms
. This was a very difficult rank to obtain, and it was not uncommon for one to take twenty years or more of difficult study to reach it. He also wrote a number of advanced works in the fields of jurisprudence and the philosophy of law and language. In the field of
) he attained an uncanny mastery. Yet, after his intense focus upon the Qurʾān and the traditions of the Ahlulbayt
, it appears he devoted the major portion of his energies to the critical study of Falsafah and the Kalām; especially, though not exclusively, the existentialist branch of the
) school of Mullā Muḥsin and of the latter’s master, Mullā Ṣadrā.
Shaykh Aḥmad’s life was characterized by a certain dynamism and mobility. After leaving al-Aḥsāʾ for the ʿAtabāt, he returned a few years later due a plague that ravaged southern Iraq. He married and settled down in Al-Aḥsāʾ for some years; during the first conquest of Aḥsāʾ by the Wahhabis (ca. 1208
) the Shaykh escaped to Baḥrayn. After staying in Baḥrayn for four years, he visited the ʿAtabāt for a time and then settled with his family near Basra. In large part to escape the adulation of an increasing number of admirers and to avoid distraction from his
) (see page 3), he moved from one suburb of Basrah to another numerous times. In 1221
he made the fateful decision to go on pilgrimage to Mashhad, in Eastern Iran, to visit the tomb of the eighth
. Along the way he passed through Yazd, where the famous Shaykh Jaʿfar Kāshif al-Ghiṭāʾ, who had previously given Shaykh Aḥmad a license (see page 3), was temporarily residing. The scholars and scientists of the city, coming from various fields of learning, quickly became enamored of Shaykh Aḥmad to the point where they heavily lobbied and begged him to remain with them and to settle in their city.
The Shaykh promised to spend time with the people of Yazd after finishing his pilgrimage to Mashhad. So once he completed his visitation of Imām ʿAlī al- Riḍā
, Shaykh Aḥmad settled in the Iranian city of Yazd. There he gave lectures and wrote many treatises in response to the dozens of difficult questions presented to him in philosophy, alchemy, esoteric traditions of the Ahlulbayt
, and so forth. Already a
, within a short time, he became a major
source of jurisprudential emulation
), as well as the most important theologian on the Iranian scene. Eventually he attracted the attention of the then reigning monarch, Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shāh Qājār (r. 1797–1834
). The king began a correspondence with the Shaykh, and tried in vain to induce the latter to visit Tehran. Shaykh Aḥmad politely but pointedly refused, citing his strong dislike of intermingling with the opulent, let alone emperors.
The Shāh replied very politely and respectfully; at the same time he made it clear that, if the Shaykh didn’t come to Tehran, then the king would have to go to Yazd, with a standard royal entourage of at least 10,000 men, which the people of Yazd would then be responsible for hosting. Shaykh Aḥmad, by all accounts, was aghast and in complete distress at the prospect of getting dragged into the agendas of the rulers, so much so that he attempted to return to Iraq. But the scholars and leaders of Yazd persuaded him that, even if he were to escape to Iraq, they would still face the king’s wrath (as accomplices in the Shaykh’s escape). When it became clear that leaving or staying would cause extreme hardship upon the people of Yazd, he finally relented and did in fact visit Tehran in 1223
According to ʿA Aḥsāʾī (n.d., p. 15) and other sources: After the arrival of Shaykh Aḥmad in Tehran, there was an earthquake that affected the southern suburb of Rayy and its environs. Afterwards, Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shāh had a dream wherein someone came to him and said,
“If it weren’t for the presence of the respected Shaykh Aḥmad in your city, the earthquake would have destroyed all of its people!”
Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shāh became even more enamored of the Shaykh and tried to convince him to stay. Indeed he was so self-effacing in the process that some historians have concluded that
“the Shah was convinced that obedience to the Shaykh was obligatory, and opposition to him constituted unbelief”
(Algar 1969, p. 67).
During his stay in Tehran Shaykh Aḥmad wrote at least one treatise in response to some of the king’s eschatological questions (
). The king asked the Shaykh to settle in Tehran. However, bluntly citing the incompatibility of the oppressive and tyrannical nature of monarchic regimes with his own dignity (Algar 1969, p. 67), the Shaykh refused and asked for permission to return to Yazd, which was granted. About six years later, following a command from Imām ʿAlī
received in a vision, he decided in 1229
to head back towards the ʿAtabāt, despite the desperate attempts of the people of Yazd to convince him to remain. Upon his arrival in the Iranian city of Kirmanshah – by way of Isfahan, where he stayed for forty days and debated Mullā Ṣadrā’s doctrines with the
of that town – the eldest son of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shāh persuaded him to spend some time in that city. He settled his family there and continued his journey to the ʿAtabāt, where he spent some time before returning to Kirmanshah. Aside from other pilgrimages and travels (including one
to Mecca), he remained in Kirmanshah until 1239
. The bulk of Shaykh Aḥmad’s five most important and mature philosophical works were written during his sojourn here. During 1238
the Shaykh made one last pilgrimage to visit Imām Riḍā
, spending a few months in Yazd and then Isfahan along the return journey. In 1239
he left Iran and settled his family in Karbala, where he apparently intended to spend the last of his earthly days.
Unfortunately the jealousy of some less senior establishment theologians created problems for the Shaykh. One prominent and proud
in Qazvin, Mullā Muḥammad Ṭaqī Baraghānī (d. 1263
), apparently felt slighted because Shaykh Aḥmad did not immediately call upon him during his stopover in that town as he was making his way to Mashhad for his last pilgrimage (Ṭāliqānī 2007, p. 97). During the Shaykh’s time in Qazvin Baraghānī declared the Shaykh an unbeliever in Islām; he accused the Shaykh, ironically, of being a follower of Mullā Ṣadrā in eschatology and in the latter’s alleged denial of physical resurrection. This sparked a more general reaction on the part of other segments of the scholastic establishment. Although few, if any, senior scholars concurred with Baraghānī’s pronouncement – at worst some demured or remained non-committal – concern in different quarters began to be expressed about Shaykh Aḥmad’s unique, iconoclastic, and non-scholastic approaches to theology; as well as to the potential effects of his teaching and leadership on the traditional establishment.
By the time the Shaykh finally settled himself and his family in Karbala, the atmosphere in the ʿAtabāt had been poisoned by the propaganda of Baraghānī and his associates to the point where there were, among other intrigues, even attempts to get him into trouble with the Ottoman authorities in Baghdad. Finally, the Shaykh decided to go to Mecca, ostensibly to make pilgrimage for the Ḥājj, and to perhaps even go into exile there. But there are indications that he was aware that his time in this world was coming to a close; as in the case of his decision to leave Yazd, it appears he had been commanded by his inward masters to make this move. In Damascus he fell ill, and he passed away just outside of Medina on the 21
of Dhū al-Qaʿdah, 1241 (June 27, 1826), at age seventy-three (seventy-five in lunar years). His entourage buried him in the cemetery of al-Baqīʿ in Medina, at the feet of the very same three
he had seen in his first visions, and who had initiated him into the profundities of the
) of Ahlulbayt
Gnostic and gnosis are only loaded when they are defined under the exclusive rubric of the Hellenistic Gnosticisms of antiquity. This is not the only sense in which Corbin uses it to gloss ma’arifa (he also glosses it with a capital ‘G’ when he is referencing the late Hellenistic schools and with a small case ‘g’ whenever glossing ma’arifa and ‘irfan), and he goes out of his way throughout his works to underscore this point. Plato also uses the root of the noun “gnosis” in the form of noesis and derivatives without any connotation of any dualism therein. Given this, I am not sure your point is entirely an accurate one vis-a-vis Corbin.
Bismi Rabbi al-Zahra (S)
Many thanks for the constructive feedback and critique. It does not appear to this writer that your point is inconsistent with Note 14. Among other things, lower- and upper-case ‘g’ and ‘G’ are used in that note (and elsewhere) about just as Corbin (and you) used them. A couple of things:
1. Words, as you are already keenly aware, have literal, historical, technical, connotative, cultural, and other uses. For example: It is obvious that Plato and other Hellenic philosophers used their native word ‘gnosis’ in ordinary and technical ways with little-to-no hint of certain later Hellenistic developments.
2. There are at least three answers to your comment: ẓāhir (outward), bāṭin (inward), and taʾwīl (symbolic, paradigmatic). We could have a debate here in cyberspace on the outward and inward nuances and subtleties of Note 14; but then the nūr/light could get lost and the larger opportunity to raise the issue to a higher level would be missed. This brings us to
3. At the level of taʾwīl: This faqīr is interested in the development of a new paradigm shift (a la Thomas Kuhn) in Islamic philosophy and mysticism. The half-century-old paradigm and meta-language of Corbin and Nasr et al. has served the cause well in many respects. However, it has reached its limits and it’s now time to move on. From gnosis let’s move to a more comprehensive scientia. Both words have the same literal meaning (in Greek and Latin respectively), viz “knowledge”. But in our meta-language there is an important nuance of difference, differences reflected in the historical, technical, connotative, cultural, and other uses of these words. Using our meta-language, we may say that this move from gnosis to scientia is critical for a proper understanding of the Shaykh (S).
The above is perhaps too brief and abstract to convey the full picture of what this faqīr is expressing in this response; it needs a commentary 🙂 Over the coming days and weeks it will be expanded and get more clear, in shāʾa Ãllāh.
Thanks again for the comment!
Asalaam alaykum Shaykh Samawi. Thank you so much for such a wonderful introduction to Shaykh Aḥmad, it is very insightful, especially the footnotes. I look forward to the next instalments with excitement and especially to your forthcoming publication about Shaykh Aḥmad.
I wondered if it is possible for you to include the arabic of the hemistiches of Imam Hasan (a) and the following verses of Imam Ali (a), possibly as an additional footnote? May Allah continue to assist you in your endeavours of this great service to the Shaykh, The Ahlul Bayt and to the deen of Islam that you are engaged in, ameen!
Salam Alaykum, I’ve left a comment on facebook, but I came to put ut here upon your request.
I have personally read many books in regards to that topic, and I have nothing to add, but I’d like to point out a point which is that there is almost a consensus among researchers that the opposition against the Shaykh started with the Takfir led by Mulla Baraghani.
But, recently during my readings I’ve noticed something else wherein a scholar from Yazd is said to be the first one to start the opposition the Shaykh when he was settling there, but his opposing, evidently, failed to defame the great position the Shaykh had in the community of Yazd during that time. I’ve read that in a lesser-known scholarly biographical compilation, entitled Mir’at al-Sharq (مرآة الشرق).
The opposition of that scholar, whose name is Sayed Ahmad Ardakani Yazdi, probably played no role in the Shaykh’s later life, thus that man is forgotten in the studies about the Shaykh’s life, and even in the works written by the Shaykh himself as well as his pupils who wrote about his biography.
Wa 3alaykum salaam wr
Thanks for the comment, and for the kind words: Much appreciated!
I wondered if it is possible for you to include the arabic of the hemistiches of Imam Hasan (a)
Your wish is granted, may Allah Bless you 🙂
Wa 3alaykum salaam wr
Sayyid Ahmad Ardakani Yazdi is mentioned in more famous sources as well, such as طبقات أعلام الشيعة. Before Baraghani, Shaykh Ahmad, like numerous other great scholars, faced opposition and disagreements in certain quarters; there was nothing unusual about that in scholarly circles.
One example stands out: At a much earlier time, one of the grand-nephews of Shaykh Yusuf Bahrani had a serious disagreement with al-Awhad during his stay in Bahrayn and gave our Shaykh a hard time. That night he saw Imam Hadi (S) and complained to him of how he was being treated by “the people.” The Imam said,
“Ignore them and stay as you are.”
Then Imam Hadi (S) gave Shaykh Ahmad the aforementioned twelve licenses (ijāzāt), one license from each imām.
On the other hand, the accounts do not tell us that the Shaykh was declared a kafir by his opponent. Similarly, just because Sayyid Ardakani Yazdi did not join the rest of his colleagues in giving Shaykh Ahmad a warm welcome as did other scholars of Yazd, it doesn’t mean that he declared the Shaykh a kafir.
So we have to distinguish between scholarly disagreements or personal animosity, on the one hand, and takfīr on the other.
Thank you very much for your comment and constructive contribution to the discussion!
Asalaam alaykum Shaykh!
Thank you so much! May Allah bless and protect you in all of your endeavours, ameen!