Posted by on Apr 25, 2015 in Blog, Reflections | 6 comments

This is Part Four of our seven-part series of reflections on the life, influence, and philosophical foundations of the cosmology of Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Zayniddīn al-Aḥsāʾī. Here we focus on the phenomenon of Shaykhism.

Contents of the seven parts of this series:

  1. Life, Travels, Character and Charisma
  2. Works: Opera Majora and Minora
  3. Legacy and Influence I: Students, Close Disciples, Licensees, and Other Contemporaries
  4. Legacy and Influence II: Shaykhism
  5. Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad I: Preliminary Considerations
  6. Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad II: Objective Logic and Dialectics
  7. Major Arcs in the Philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad III: Dialectical Metaphysics and the Project of Illuminationism.

With this post, the biographical and historical portion of our survey is complete. In the next three parts of this series we turn to a discussion of some key themes in the philosophical foundations of Shaykh Aḥmad's metaphysics and cosmology, inshāʾa Ãllãh.


Shaykh Aḥmad Ibn Zayniddīn al-Aḥsāʾī: Biography, Impact, and Philosophical Essay (Part 3.ii)
The spark ignited by Baraghānī and his associates inexorably led to a polarization within the scholastic establishment between the supporters of Shaykh Aḥmad and his detractors. Despite the best attempts of some of the students of Shaykh Aḥmad and companions of Sayyid Kāẓim such as Mīrzā Ḥasan Gawhar and Shaykh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd ʿAlī Āl Jabbār to effect a reconciliation with official circles of the establishment (especially within the ʿAtabāt), the growing consensus of the leaders of that establishment gradually leaned much more towards the detractors of the Shaykh than towards his supporters. Indeed, even some scholars who genuinely admired Shaykh Aḥmad became opposed to the further elaborations of his thought on the part of Sayyid Kāẓim. Those who remained fiercely devoted to the teachings of Shaykh Aḥmad and Sayyid Kāẓim came to be known as the
There is a consensus amongst historians and researchers that Shaykh Aḥmad himself never had any intention of starting a unique division or distinct community within Tashayyuʿ. In the view of this author this is something of a half-truth. Yes, the Shaykh absolutely abhorred fame and position, strongly preferring to live the life of a recluse divorced from the immediate phenomenal world. He never had any intention of standing out from others, let alone effecting any division within the larger Shīʿī community. He went to great lengths to ensure that both the exoteric and esoteric aspects of his cosmological meditations locked together in respectable if not perfect harmony with the general consensus of Shīʿī tradition. At the same time, there is hardly anything more certain than that the Shaykh was also very much aware of the iconoclastic nature of some of his views and methods, particularly within philosophy. He would not have been averse to seeing his cosmological meditations and praxis, as expressed in his teachings and books, accepted as a philosophical and theological tradition within the larger Shīʿī community, as a viable alternative to the trends of the time. Even further: Without the slightest shred of pride or ambition on his part, it is clear that he did have a certain sense of mission, that there was an ordained role for him to play in the historical movement of Tashayyuʿ. At the same time, he never tried to force this in any egotistical or political manner:
Become not one who interferes
as Imām Ḥasan 
emphasized to him in his early visions (see page 2).
Unfortunately, the mischief of the Shaykh’s enemies brought the discussion of his high cosmological meditations down to the
a circumstance bitterly lamented by Henry Corbin (1993, p. 356). Shunned by the officialdom of the scholastic establishment, the most devoted followers of Shaykh Aḥmad began to coalesce with their families into a sub-community within the larger Shīʿī community. This community, which came to be known as that of the
– from
’, the most common title of Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī – developed in three directions:
As we’ve already alluded above, figures such as Mīrzā Ḥasan Gawhar, Mīrzā Muḥammad ‌Shafīʿ, and Shaykh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd ʿAlī did their utmost to situate the teachings of Shaykh Aḥmad within the perimeters set by the scholastic Uṣūlī establishment. Although they were never fully successful in this effort, they did achieve a fair degree of tolerance. Particularly within the fields of jurisprudence and the philosophy of law, the scholars produced by this branch generally studied with the same major scholars as the rest of the community.
On the other hand, with a few exceptions, one does not find a very high degree of
development within this branch. The theology propounded by this branch of the Shaykhiyyah does indeed possess a considerable spiritual depth, especially with regards to the cosmological status of the Ahlulbayt 
. But these insights are largely (though not exclusively) framed within close proximity to the perimeters of the very scholastic framework that Shaykh Aḥmad sought to overcome.
The scholastic branch of the Shaykhiyyah community survives up to this day, especially in the Persian-Gulf lands of Eastern Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwayt.
No one did as much to mine and develop the raw
potential latent within the writings of Shaykh Aḥmad and Sayyid Kāẓim as did one of the latter’s most important students,
Āqā Muḥammad Karīm Khān Kirmānī
(d. 1288
). A powerful and iconoclastic personality, the mark he left on the Shaykhī community was so great that, even today, Shaykhism as such is often identified with the work of this man and with the sub-branch of the Shaykhī community that he established.
Āqā Muḥammad Karīm was a member of the Qājār royal family. This provided him with a certain limited (but by no means absolute) degree of protection to pursue his projects. In response to the persecution of Sayyid Kāẓim by the scholastic establishment, Āqā Muḥammad Karīm made the fateful decision to break off from it entirely and to establish a semi-independent community. With indefatigable energy, he set out to single-handedly recreate the entire curriculum of Shīʿī Islāmic studies from the ground up.
Uṣūl al-fiqh
philosophy of law
) as scholastically conceived was cast off, to be replaced with a kind of neo-Akhbārī framework which sought to make the average educated Shīʿī independent of recourse to the traditional
Although he claimed to be nothing except an expositor of the teachings of Shaykh Aḥmad and Sayyid Kāẓim, Āqā Muḥammad Karīm has to be considered an original thinker in his own right. Most significantly, the Āqā, via the focused application of his own genius, distilled much of the cosmological meditations of Shaykh Aḥmad and Sayyid Kāẓim into a new form intended for both the common man and experts alike: This distillation especially emphasized concepts such as the high metaphysical stations of the Ahlulbayt 
and the cosmogony of the intermediary universe of subtle matter, space, and time;
. A particularly controversial doctrine developed by the Āqā is the doctrine of the
Fourth Pillar
al-Rukn al-Rābiʿ
), pertaining to the need of the Shīʿī community at any given time for the existence of at least one especially enlightened cognizant within their midst. These and other doctrines distilled from higher cosmological meditations on the Prophetic sources, via a loving spiritual connection with the Ahlulbayt 
, constitute what we call Āqā Muḥammad Karīm’s
. This is in contrast to the scholastic establishment’s traditional method, which involves the distillation of
scholastic theology
from the Prophetic sources via (in large measure) the dry and dispassionate application of traditional Aristotelian logic.
In the course of his project to establish a semi-independent Shaykhī community in the spirit of Shaykh Aḥmad and Sayyid Kāẓim, Āqā Muḥammad Karīm penned nearly 280 books and treatises covering a wide array of disciplines and sciences. The Āqā is keenly aware of the importance of the dialectical and objective-logical aspects of the thought of Shaykh Aḥmad – see for example his
Risālat al-
Treatise on the Red Hyacinth
). Indeed, one area of philosophical thought where he makes an important contribution is in the
objective logic
of (natural) science and (theosophical) religion. However, the dialectical movement of the cosmos and its consciousness that is so critical to the
of Shaykh Aḥmad becomes somewhat ossified in the
of Āqā Muḥammad Karīm. His theosophy and associated praxis are, in an important sense,
. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to compare Āqā Muḥammad Karīm’s interpretation of the teachings of Shaykh Aḥmad with the then contemporary phenomenon of Right-Hegelianism in Europe. Space does not allow us to say more at the moment.
The theosophical school of Shaykhī thought still has many adherents: The main sub-branch, led until recent times by the descendants of Āqā Muḥammad Karīm, is centered in Kerman and Basra. A smaller sub-branch of theosophical Shaykhism, founded by one of Āqā Muḥammad Karīm’s top students,
Mīrzā Muḥammad Bāqir al-Hamadānī
(d. 1319
), is still active in such cities as Mashhad, Isfahan, and Tehran.
Sayyid ʿAlī Muḥammad al-Shīrāzī
(d. 1265
) attended the lectures of Sayyid Kāẓim for about two years. After the passing of the latter in 1844
, this young man announced his own mission as the
) to the awaited twelfth
of Tashayyuʿ, al-Ḥujjah ibn al-Ḥasan 
. This was the beginning of that 19
-century revolutionary movement known as Bābism.
Although most of the early disciples of the Bāb came from a Shaykhī background, Bābism itself is best described as
. Three points stand out. First, Bābism was radically theosophical: The Bāb would eventually claim a semi-divine status for his position. Second, Bābism was quite Gnostic in the classical sense: The age of the Islāmic
legal and ritual dispensation
) was now coming to an end, to be replaced in the new, post-legalist era. The sources of Bābism are replete with examples of antinomian practices. Finally, Bābism culminated in a revolutionary, egalitarian fervor that actually tried to overthrow the Iranian monarchy. In these three aspects we see that Bābism may, in all fairness, be considered as constituting both a Gnostic and a millenarianist movement, much like certain phases in the history of Ismāʿīlism.
The relationship of Bābism to Shaykhism is also analogous to the relationship of Marxism to Hegelianism. Just as Marx famously
“turned Hegel’s dialectic on its head”
, replacing objective idealism with materialism; in Bābism the vertical dialectic of Shaykh Aḥmad is aggressively mapped to the horizontal plane of the phenomenal world of historical time. During the rebellion against the monarchy, followers of Bābism (if not the Bāb himself) promoted a
praxis which may be positively compared with socialism or even communism. Bābism was to Shaykhism as the Hegelian Left was to Hegelianism.
The leaders of Shaykhism proper, from both the scholastic and theosophical communities, vigorously opposed Bābism. On the theosophical side, the Bāb and Āqā Muḥammad Karīm Khān became bitter enemies. On the scholastic side, Mīrzā Muḥammad ‌Shafīʿ of Tabriz played an important leadership role in trying and, after a curiously long wait, finally condemning Sayyid ʿAlī Muḥammad for spreading corruption in the earth.
Later Trends
The failed but ferocious Bābī rebellion in Iran reinforced the burgeoning anti- Shaykhī sentiment throughout the scholastic establishment. Any public teaching of the works of Shaykh Aḥmad was largely banned. Although his admirers and followers from amongst the Shaykhiyyah have continued to vigorously defend him from false accusations and to preserve his writings (as well as those of Sayyid Kāẓim), the exposition and further development of the
of the Shaykh proper went into a very steep decline from which it has not yet recovered.
At the same time, the effects of the powerful phenomenon of Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī could never be erased. Even in the current centers of the scholastic establishment such as Qum and the ʿAtabāt, certain senior scholars have privately continued to read and to benefit from him, although they would never admit this publicly. As I have mentioned elsewhere (Hamid 2003b, pp. 121–126): Despite being followers of Mullā Ṣadrā in philosophy and, to a degree, Ibn ʿArabī in mysticism; there is reason to believe that mystical philosophers and cognizants such as Mīrzā Muḥammad ʿAlī Shāhʾābādī (d. 1363
), as well as his most famous student Imām Sayyid Rūḥullāh al-Khumaynī (d. 1409
), were under the influence of Shaykh Aḥmad in a significant way. It was bad enough that they were philosophers in the tradition of Mullā Ṣadrā (a tradition that was barely tolerated by the establishment at that time); to acknowledge the additional influence of the Shaykh with even a whisper would have spelled professional suicide.
Even during the latter part of his lifetime it became somewhat commonplace for scholars to refer to Shaykh Aḥmad without explicitly mentioning his name. Perusing works by mainstream scholars over the past two centuries one will find locutions such as
‘some of the cognizants have said
’, followed by a quotation from the Shaykh. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is provided by Shaykh Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī al-Baḥrānī al-Najafī (ca. 1275?
), a well- respected mainstream scholar of the ʿAtabāt: He wrote a very influential book in spiritual wayfaring,
al-Ṭarīq ila Allāh
(Baḥrānī 2002). Sayyid Muḥsin al-Amīn (d. 1371
), author of the biographical encyclopedia
Aʿyān al-Shīʿah
, has an entry on him (Amīn 1983, Vol. 6, p. 119). Sayyid Muḥsin’s negative attitude towards Shaykh Aḥmad is exemplified by an extraordinarily prejudiced entry on the latter that arguably crosses the line into scholarly misconduct (Amīn 1983, Vol. 2, p. 569). Now this sayyid gives both Shaykh Ḥusayn and his book unqualified high praise. Yet Chapter Nine of
al-Ṭarīq ila Allāh
constitutes, in virtually its entirety, a commentary on the very verses received by Shaykh Aḥmad from Imām Ḥasan 
in his early visions! Again, Shaykh Aḥmad’s name is not mentioned explicitly.
As far as this author can tell, attitudes towards Shaykh Aḥmad within the scholastic establishment are slowly but inexorably relaxing with the continued passage of time. There is still a considerable way to go. On the other hand, despite the increasing availability of his works – one can now find them sold semi- openly even in Qum – profound, critical philosophical examination and further development of the cosmological meditations of the Shaykh remain in a sorry and lamentable state.
See, e.g., Ṭāliqānī (2007, p. 197); Algar (1969, pp. 68–69) .
Indeed, throughout the history of this branch its adherents have been known by their colleagues in the scholastic establishment for an extra-special degree of spirituality and devotion to the Ahlulbayt 
Even Henry Corbin considered Āqā Muḥammad Karīm to be the only genuine successor of Sayyid Kāẓim. This is not surprising since, of the three sub-branches of the Shaykhī community, the theosophical sub-branch was the most amenable to Corbin’s over-arching project of gnosis.
In a different context, Hamid Algar points out that the cities of Kerman and Hamadan were among the last bastions of Akhbārī praxis in Iran around the turn of the nineteenth century (Algar 1969, p. 66). The thesis that Āqā Muḥammad Karīm’s philosophy of law was influenced by the then recent Akhbārī presence in his homeland is worthy of investigation.
A number of Western scholars, such as Mongol Bayat (1982), have erroneously treated the thought of Āqā Muḥammad Karīm Khān Kirmānī as though it is identical to that of Shaykh Aḥmad. That is, they commit the fallacy of reading the theosophical distillations made by the Āqā and then assuming that their content, context, and intentions are identical to those contained within the cosmological meditations of Shaykh Aḥmad himself. This has contributed to severe misunderstandings and misreadings of the Shaykh’s own socio-historical context as well as of the raw philosophical foundations and intentions of his thought. In part for this reason, a major portion of Chapter 2 of Bayat’s
Mysticism and Dissent
, which discusses Shaykh Aḥmad and his teachings, is worthless.
Often mispelled
’ by Corbin and others; however, Shaykh Aḥmad has explicitly vocalized it as
’ (Aḥsāʾī 2009, Vol. 5, p. 129).
We will say more on objective logic in Section 4. This author has written a paper,
“Towards an Objective Logic of Science and Religion”
, delivered as a keynote lecture at Utah Valley University in October of 2013. The paper remains unpublished at the time of writing this chapter.
The Bāb was executed on June 9, 1850. Algar (1969, Ch. 8) and Bayat (1982, Ch. 4) provide standard scholarly accounts of the history and doctrine of the Bābī movement.
In the Arab lands of the Persian Gulf, including Eastern Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwayt, the open teaching of the theology of the Shaykh was, despite some troubles, much more tolerated and widespread. Until very recent times some of the most powerful scholars of the scholastic establishment in that region were Shaykhī. Today, even among non-Shaykhī scholars, Shaykh Aḥmad is generally looked upon with a certain fondness and pride in this region from which he hailed; the attempts to have the Shaykh treated as an unbeliever there never made much headway.
See page 2.