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Ākhūnd

By:
Bahman Baktiari
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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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Ākhūnd

Ākhūnd, a Persian word meaning “religious scholar” or “leader,” is of uncertain etymology. (Among Chinese Muslims, the imam in the mosque is called ahung, presumably a borrowing from ākhūnd.)

The first use of ākhūnd in Iran can be traced to the Timurid period (1409–1506), when it was used of distinguished and accomplished scholars. The Timurid prince Amīr ʿAlīshāh Navāʿī refers to his mentor Mawlānā Faṣīḥ al-Dīn Niẓāmī (d. 1513) as ākhūnd for his broad knowledge of traditional and contemplative sciences. Niẓāmī also directed madrasahs (seminaries), which may also help explain the use of ākhūnd for religious scholars or leaders. The word maintained this connotation during the Ṣafavid period (1501–1722) as well. Two great philosophers of this period, Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1640), and Mullā Naṣr Allāh Hamadānī (d. 1632), were called ākhūnd.

In the Qājār period (1796–1925), the use of ākhūnd became more frequent, and the term was used interchangeably with mullah. Even teachers of the old-fashioned elementary schools (maktab-khānahs) were sometimes referred to as ākhūnds. In spite of this wider usage, the term continued to have an honorific meaning, and the most distinguished religious scholar of the Qājār period, Kāẓim Khurāsānī (1839–1911), was called ākhūnd. Ākhūnd Khurāsānī 's books are still required reading in the madrasahs of Iran and Iraq. His Kifāyat al-uṣūl (That Which is Sufficient for a Foundation) has been endorsed by over a hundred leading mujtahids. According to Hamid Algar (Encyclopaedia Iranica), however, the expanded application of the term resulted in a “devaluation, and came gradually to signify not a religious leader, but on the contrary one who had failed to reach the degree of ijtihād and whose competence was restricted to the leading of prayers and the teaching of children.”

During the Pahlavi period (1925–1979), the use of ākhūnd as a pejorative term was encouraged by the monarchy, whose distaste for the religious hierarchy was anything but subtle. The secular antireligious forces gave a contemptuous connotation to the term. In the government-sanctioned press, the word was applied to those who were anachronistic and opposed to “modernization.” Several pejorative derivatives of ākhūnd have entered the Persian language: ākhūndzādah (one whose father is an ākhūnd), ākhūndbāzī (those who commit illegal acts), and ḥukūmat-i ākhūndhā (rule of the clergy). The term ākhūnd may, however, still be used in the older sense of “religious leader.” See also MULLAH.

Bibliography

  • Algar, Hamid. “Ākūnd.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 1, pp. 731–732. London, 1982–.
  • Dāʿirat al-maʿārif-i buzurg-i Islāmī (The Great Encyclopaedia of Islam). Edited by Kāẓim Mūsavī Bujnūrdī.
  • Tehran, 1988–.The most comprehensive use of original sources in Persian and Arabic.
  • Lambton, Anne K. S.“Khudāwand.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by P. Bearman, et al. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2008.
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