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Uṣūlīyah

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

Uṣūlīyah

A school of law relying on a series of rational processes, the Uṣūlīyah has been almost universally accepted by Shīʿī Muslims for the past two centuries. The name, derived from the expression uṣūl al-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence), does not appear before the mid-twelfth century, but there can be little doubt that the application of rational methods to the deduction of the specific ordinances of the law from its sources was known already during the lifetime of the imams. Clearly rationalist in tendency was Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 1022), who rejected with great polemical vigor the view of his traditionist opponents (the forerunners of the Akhbārīyah) that traditions narrated by only one line of transmission were acceptable sources of law. His positions were developed, with some modification, by Shaykh al-Ṭāʿifah al-Ṭūsī (d. 1067), Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī (d. 1277), and ʿAllāmah al-Ḥillī (d. 1326). The last took the crucial step of recognizing the principle of ijtihād (disciplined reasoning based on the sharīʿah) that was to become central to the Uṣūlīyah; he is therefore sometimes regarded as the first Uṣūlī sensu stricto. This gradual clarification of the bases of rationalist jurisprudence in Shiism owed much to earlier developments in Sunnī law, something that did not go unnoticed by the Akhbārī adversaries of the Uṣūlī doctrine.

When the ṣafavids set about propagating Shiism in Iran, creating for the first time the conditions for the application of Shīʿī law in a major Islamic society, representatives of the Uṣūlī position—such as ʿAlī al-Karakī (d. 1534) and Muḥaqqiq Ardabīlī (d. 1585)—were initially in the ascendant. In the mid-seventeenth century, however, there was a late blossoming of the Akhbārī school under the auspices of Mullah Muḥammad Amīn Akhbārī (d. 1624). It succeeded in gaining the loyalty of many of the major intellectual figures of the day and came to enjoy nearly complete control of the ʿatabāt (shrine cities) in Iraq by the mid-eighteenth century. The supremacy of the Uṣūlīyah was definitively reestablished toward the end of the century by āqā Muḥammad Bāqir Bihbahānī (d. 1791) by vigorous public debate in the madrasahs of Karbala and by the composition of treatises on uṣūl al-fiqh. His numerous associates and students consolidated this triumph in both Iraq and Iran, and the Uṣūlī positions were from that time virtually coterminous with Shīʿī law.

Bihbahānī not only reasserted the legitimate or even obligatory nature of ijtihād but also made it incumbent on all who had not attained the qualifications for ijtihād to follow, in matters of religious law, those who had. This process is known as taqlīd (imitation), and the scholar practicing ijtihād who is selected for imitation is called the marjaʿ al-taqlīd (source of imitation). The structuring of the Shīʿī community that this implied—with obedience to a practitioner of ijtihād made a matter of religious duty—greatly elevated the status of the religious jurists and had a profound impact on Iranian history and society; it paved the way for the political activism of the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and may even be regarded as an ancestor of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1978–1979.

The principles of the Uṣūlī school were further refined by Shaykh Murtadā Anṣārī (d. 1864), who stressed the necessity of choosing as marjaʿ al-taqlīd the most learned jurist available, and by ākhūnd Muḥammad Kāẓim Khorāsānī (d. 1911). The doctrine of wilāyat al-faqīh (the viceregency of the jurist), according to which a jurist may claim full governmental powers, may be regarded as a radical but nonetheless logical working out of the implications of Uṣūlī doctrine; in elaborating it, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989) was able to cite indications scattered in the works of earlier Uṣūlī scholars.

See also AKHBāRīYAH; ʿATABāT; ḤILLī, ʿALLāMAH IBN AL-MUṭAHHAR; IJTIHāD; MARJAʿ AL-TAQLīD; TAQLīD; ʿULAMāʿ; UṣūL AL-FIQH; and WILāYAT AL-FAQīH.

Bibliography

  • Algar, Hamid. “Religious Forces in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Iran.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 7, From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic, edited by Peter Avery et al.Cambridge, 1991. See pages 710–714.
  • Cole, Juan R. I.“Shīʿī Clerics in Iraq and Iran, 1722–1780: The Akhbārī-Uṣūlī Conflict Reconsidered.”Iranian Studies18, no. 1 (Winter 1985): 3–34.
  • Gurjī, Abū al-Qāsim. “Nigāhī bā taḥavvul-i ʿilm-i uṣūl.” In Maqālāt va barʿrasīhā, pp. 13–16. N.p., 1973.
  • Scarcia, Gianroberto. “Intorno alle controversie tra Ahbārī e Uṣūlī presso gli Imamiti di Persia.”Rivista degli Studi Orientali33 (1958): 211–250.
  • Tabātabāʿi, Hossein Modarressi. An Introduction to Shīʿī Law. London, 1984. See pages 40–58.
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