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Akhbārīyah

By:
Hamid Algar, Najam I. Haider
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Akhbārīyah

Akhbārīyah is an emphatically traditionalist school of Imāmī Shīʿī jurisprudence with roots in the early eighth and ninth centuries CE The name is derived from the Arabic word akhbār (information, reports), which refers in Shiism to traditions of the Twelve Imams. It was opposed by a competing school that emphasized the use of rational methods in legal interpretation and came to be known as the Uṣūlīyah.

Rationalism and Traditionalism.

In the eighth century, the Shīʿī imams were considered infallible interpreters of the Qurʿānic text and the sole bearers of legitimate legal authority. Rationalist interpretation (by non-imams) was deemed problematic as it introduced the possibility of human error into the articulation of Godʾs law. While the imams remained in close contact with their followers and possessed the latitude to act freely, they were the exclusive arbiters of legal authority. The situation began to change in the early ninth century with the imprisonment of many imams at the orders of the ʿAbbāsid caliphs in Baghdad and Sāmarrāʿ. Although the imams increasingly delegated interpretive authority to trusted deputies, they remained the ultimate guarantors of the sanctity of the law through their connection with God. After the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam in 874, the nascent Imāmī community was divided between those who remained committed to an exclusive reliance on the traditions and sayings of the imams (centered primarily in Qom) and those permitting rationalist methods of interpretation (centered primarily in Baghdad). At the core of the dispute was the question of whether the imams had left the community sufficient traditions to account for the myriad of situations that might arise in the future.

Ultimately, it was the rationalists who came to dominate Imāmī jurisprudence. Early advocates of the rationalist position included Ibn Abī ʿAqīl (first half of the tenth century) and Ibn al-Junayd (d. 991), but the debate was won primarily through the efforts of al-Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 1022), al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā (d. 1044), and Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Ṭūṣī (d. 1067).

The first classification of these competing views as ʿAkhbārī and ʿUṣūlī dates from the twelfth century in ʿAbd al-Jalīl al-Qazwīnīʾs Kitāb al-naqḍ and al-Shahrastānīʾs Kitāb al-milal wa al-niḥal (book of sects and creeds). The two groups were characterized not only as fiercely antagonistic toward one another but also as riven by competing internal factions. The first systematic refutation of the Akhbārī position was articulated by Ibn Idrīs al-Ḥillī (d. 1202) in his Sarāʿir al-ḥāwī li- taḥrīr al-fatāwī (comprehensive secrets or rationales toward the clarification of juristic opinions). Although the Akhbārī view declined in importance in subsequent centuries, its influence was felt through the incorporation of many traditions of an esoteric or ghulāt (extreme) nature in the larger Imāmī collections.

Akhbārīyah Since the Sixteenth Century.

The modern Akhbārīyah reemerged late in Islamic history, its positions formulated systematically for the first time by Mullah Muḥammad Amīn Astarābādī (d. 1624). He rejected the teachings of most jurisprudents after the tenth century, insisting that they were using rationalist methods of legal interpretation that were unacknowledged borrowings from Sunnī jurisprudence. According to Astarābādī, the akhbār were the most important source of law, taking precedence over both the apparent meaning of the Qurʿān and the traditions of the Prophet, because the imams were the divinely appointed interpreters of the law. Indeed, the permissibility of a given action depended on the availability of a tradition from an imam sanctioning it; in the absence of such a tradition, the action was dubious and best not taken. This contradicted the principle, found in both Uṣūlī and Sunnī jurisprudence, that every action was licit unless expressly forbidden. The heavy reliance on akhbār had as its corollary a simple division of all imamic traditions into ṣaḥīḥ (sound), if they were likely to have originated with an imam, and ḍaʿīf (weak), if the doctrinal reliability of the individual transmitters was suspect. Traditions were accepted even in cases where they were only preserved in unique isolated chains of transmission (āḥād). The more numerous and precise categories used by the Uṣūlīs were denounced as another borrowing from Sunnism. A consequence of Astarābādīʾs position was the idea that believers with a strong grasp of Arabic and nominal religious training were capable of deriving guidance from the textual tradition without need for intermediaries with special juristic training (mujtahids).

Among prominent Akhbārīs of the seventeenth century were two figures who combined Ṣūfī proclivities with the strict traditionalism of their legal school, Muḥammad Taqī al-Majlisī (d. 1660) and Mullah Muḥsin Fayd Kāshānī (d. 1680); the compiler of a vast collection of the traditions of the imams, al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1693); and the jurist Sayyid Niʿmat Allāh Jazāʿirī (d. 1700). During much of the eighteenth century, Akhbārī scholars, principally from Bahrain, dominated the ʿatabāt, the shrine cities of Iraq, which were the chief centers of Shīʿī learning after the collapse of the Ṣafavid dynasty (1501–1722) in Iran; such was their power, it is said, that adherents of the Uṣūlī school did not dare show their books in public. The situation was reversed through the efforts of the Uṣūlī scholar Āqā Muḥammad Bāqir Vaḥīd Bihbahānī (d. 1793), who was able by argumentation and by vehemence of conduct to overcome his chief Akhbārī rival, Yūsuf Baḥrānī (d. 1772), whose adherence to the Akhbārīyah was in any event less dogmatic than that of his predecessors. The completeness of Bihbahānīʾs triumph enabled him to declare the Akhbārīs nonbelievers. The last Akhbārī of note was Mīrzā Muḥammad Akhbārī (d. 1818), who is said to have gained a promise of support from the Iranian ruler, Fatḥ ʿAlī Shāh (r. 1797–1834), in exchange for his contriving by magical means the death of a Russian commander besieging Baku. The Shah broke his word and forced Mīrzā Muḥammad to leave for the ʿatabāt, where died in a riot in 1818. The eclipse of the Akhbārīs is ultimately attributable to the greater flexibility and realism of the Uṣūlīs, whose tenets enabled them to offer the Shīʿī community a living source of guidance in the continued absence of the Twelfth Imam.

Today, Akhbārīs are to be found only in Khūzestān and in the Shīʿī communities of Bahrain and the southern littoral of the Persian Gulf. See also UṣūLīYAH.

Bibliography

  • Cole, Juan. “Shīʿī Clerics in Iraq and Iran, 1722–1780: The Akhbārī-Uṣūlī Conflict Reconsidered.”Iranian Studies18, no. 1 (1985): 3–34.
  • Kohlberg, Etan. “Akhbārīya.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 1, 716–718. London and New York, 1982–.
  • Kohlberg, Etan. “Aspects of Akhbārī Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” In Eighteenth-Century Renewal and Reform in Islam, edited by Nehemia Levtzion and John O. Voll, pp. 133–160. Syracuse, N.Y., 1987.
  • Madelung, Wilferd. “Akhbāriyya.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., Supplement, fasc. 1–2, pp. 56–57. Leiden, 1960–.
  • Modarressi, Hossein. Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shiʿite Islam. Princeton, N.J., 1993.
  • Modarressi, Hossein. An Introduction to Shīʿī Law. London, 1984.
  • Modarressi, Hossein. “Rationalism and Traditionalism in Shīʿī Jurisprudence.”Studia Islamica59 (1984): 141–158.
  • Scarcia, Gianroberto. “Intorno alle controversie tra Aḫbārī e Uṣūlī presso gli imamiti di Persia.”Rivista degli Studi Oientali33 (1958): 211–250.
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