The Basis and Nature of Ulama's Authority in Qajar Iran

This article elaborates on the status of the Shi'ite ulama in Qajar period and traces the development of their authority, both theoretically and in practice. According to the author, a new round of popular Shi'ism came to dominate the Shi'ite community at the expense of Sufi, Sunni and other Islamic sects. The religious folk rites, which were extensively encouraged by some of the ulama such as Mulla Mohammad Baqir Majlisi, centered on tomb visitations, and mourning processions. In the following century, the numerous groups of pilgrims and mourners not only changed the character of the Shi'ite holy cities but also affected the religious-moral attitude of the Iranians. The holy cities became the locus for payment of the alms and charity, particularly khums (share of the Imam). Since the tenth century, the ulama had doctrinally concentrated on khums as a special source of income for Shi'ite seminaries particularly through the folk rites.

Another element contributing to the rise of ulama's status and power in the Qajar period, was their claim to be the vicegerent of the Twelfth (hidden) Imam. In the course of time, this claim evolved from a simple stratagem for collecting khums into a full-fledged representation of the authority of the Imam. Gradually, the claim to Imam's vicegerency, coupled with the institution of ijtihad (religious interpretation) led the ulama to regard themselves as the locus of mass following. Hereafter, they began to formalize taqlid (emulation) as a basic obligation of every Shi'ite muslim to be bound by the rulings of a specific mujtahid (religious expert) in all matters pertaining to his or her religious duties. The enhancement of the status of ulama paved the way for the rise of the institution of marja' taqlid (source of emulation) in early Qajar era. Nevertheless, this office did not emerge fully until the middle of 19th century when Shaykh Muhammad Hasan Najafi Isfahani was singled out as the sole marja'.

On their part, Qajar rulers regarded ulama as one of their major sources of authority and political legitimacy. The founder of Qajar dynasty, Aqa Muhammad Khan, and his successor, Fath Ali Shah, actively engaged the ulama in a process of reciprocal legitimacy. It was, however, Fath Ali shah who allowed ulamas' widespread involvement in political and governmental affairs. By the end of Qajar period, the role of supreme mujtahid had increased to such a level that he had assumed the leadership of religious and/or political movements as they had managed to win the support of both the masses and the intellectuals.

Ahmad Kazemi Moussavi
Current Issue: 
Past Issue