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Khoʾi, Abol-Qāsem al-

By:
Joyce N. Wiley, Elvire Corboz
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world through thematic examination of the major topic areas of political science as they relate to the Muslim world.

Khoʾi, Abol-Qāsem al-

was one of the most influential and widely followed Shīʿī ʿulamāʾ in the second half of the twentieth century. He was born into a sayyid family (and thus descended from the Prophet Muḥammad) in the city of Khoʾi in the province of West Azerbaijan, Iran. Following an early education in his birthplace, he entered formal religious training in the ḥawẓah (center of religious learning) of Najaf, Iraq. He later studied at the highest level of the religious curriculum with Shaykh Fatḥ Allāh (al-Sharīʿah) al-Iṣfahānī and the theoretician of constitutionalism Shaykh Muḥammad Ḥusayn Nāʾīnī, among others. Khoʾi remained in Najaf, becoming a renowned teacher of jurisprudence and theology, writer, and spiritual leader of millions of Shīʿī Muslims in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere.

With the death of Ayatollah Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm in 1970, Khoʾi became the most widely followed Shīʿī marja ʿ al-taqlīd (supreme juridical authority). He maintained contact with believers through a well-organized network of local representatives, using the abundant religious tithes (khums) given to him to help the poor, provide stipends to seminary students, and establish religious, educational, and social projects worldwide. He also distributed humanitarian relief aid to the victims of the many conflicts and natural disasters that hit Middle Eastern and South Asian countries during his time as a marjaʿ. He remained politically neutral during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–1988, trying to provide equal assistance to civilians on both sides and prevent Tehran and Baghdad from politicizing his humanitarian work. In 1989, the Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation was set up in London in his name to centralize the administration of his religious funds and charitable services, an initiative that had no precedent in the history of the marjiʿīyah.

Khoʾi's scholarly legacy lies in great part in his role as a teacher. His direct and indirect students numbered in the thousands and included mujtahids (interpreters of law) who rose to prominence after him, such as Sayyid ʿAlī al-Sīstānī and Shaykh Muḥammad Isḥāq al-Fayyāḍ in Iraq and Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍl Allāh (d. 2010) in Lebanon, as well as several clerics with political profiles such as the Iraqi Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr (d. 1980); Sayyid Mūsā al-Ṣadr (d. 1978) and Sayyid Mahdī Shams al-Dīn (d. 2001), successive heads of Lebanon's Higher Islamic Shīʿī Council; and Sayyid ʿAbd al-Karīm Mūsavī Ardabīlī, former chief justice of Iran. Among Khoʾi's ninety books and manuscripts are al-Bayān fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān (Exegesis in Qurʾānic Commentary), al-Masāʾil al-muntakhabah (Selected [Religious] Questions), and Minhāj al-ṣāliḥīn (The Path of the Righteous), a two-volume work on religious practices and law. The scholar also specialized in the field of ʿilm al-rij ā l (the science of the biographies of those who transmit tradition).

In his theology, Khoʾi was traditional and scholarly, in his personal life, austere. In the political sphere, he advocated clerical aloofness from state affairs, yet he occasionally interfered in politics in defense of Islam. In the early 1960s, he joined Ayatollah Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm, the most widely followed mujtahid of the time, in his condemnation of communism in Iraq. In the same period, Khoʾi denounced the un-Islamic reforms of Iran's White Revolution and what he perceived as Bahāʾī and Zionist domination of society and government in the country. He also actively mediated the release of Khomeini and other Iranian clerics following the attack of March 1963 by the Imperial Guard on the Fayz̤īyah School in Qom, Iran, and the crushing of the 15 Khordād demonstrations in June of that year. Khoʾi generally privileged a diplomatic approach to the Iranian monarchy in order to advise it, not foment popular opposition against it. As such, he failed to provide unconditional support to the Iranian revolution of 1978–1979. If he initially displayed signs of solidarity with the protesters by canceling his class in Najaf, he made the unforgivable move, in the eyes of revolutionaries, of receiving Queen Farah Diba of Iran in November 1978.

For this, Khoʾi was subjected to severe criticism from Khomeini's followers. Moreover, he disapproved of Khomeini's interpretation of an all-encompassing vilāyat-i faqīh (guardianship of the jurist). Methodologically, the doctrine was problematic to him, in that it referred to traditions with a weak chain of transmission. The jurists could only exercise limited authority in the affairs of the community—the control of the observance of Islamic principles, the authority to issue legal decrees, and the capacity to act as guardian for the orphans, minors, and the insane—not assume leadership in political matters. After the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Khoʾi called into question Khomeini's claim to vilāyat-i faqīh—which was theoretically the prerogative of a marjaʿ—by addressing him in a telegram with the low-rank title of ḥujjat al-Islām. Afterwards, relations between Khoʾi and the Iranian leadership remained cool, without, however, turning into open animosity on either side.

Khoʾi's relationship with the Iraqi Baʿth regime was also tense. In the early 1980s, his funds were confiscated, and his students and relatives were arrested, tortured, or killed. In spite of this, Khoʾi held to his refusal to give Baghdad its much-wanted endorsement of the Iraqi war effort against Iran. In 1990, he implicitly condemned Iraq's invasion of Kuwait with his fatwa forbidding Shīʿīs to purchase goods brought from Kuwait, on the grounds that the goods were stolen. As another affront to the regime, Khoʾi issued two religious edicts during the March 1991 Shīʿī uprising, the latter providing for the creation of a committee of clerics to supervise public, religious, and social affairs in Najaf. In retaliation, the regime forced Khoʾi to appear on state television with President Saddam Hussein, before putting him under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Khoʾi is justly remembered more for his legacy as a religious scholar and philanthropist than for his role in state affairs, but his political record illustrates that the traditional categorization of quietism cannot be understood in a restrictive sense: political aloofness and activism are not two definitive positions Shīʿī clerics choose to endorse, but rather options to be used according to circumstance.

[See also AL-KHOEI BENEVOLENT FOUNDATION.]

Bibliography

  • Khoʾi, Yousif al-. “Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qassim al-Khoʾi: Political Thought and Positions.” In Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologies: State, Religion, and Social Movements in Iraq, edited by Faleh Abdul-Jabar, pp. 223–230. London: Saqi, 2002.
  • Sachedina, Abdulaziz A. “Translator's Introduction: Al-Khūʾi and the Twelver Shīʿites.” In The Prolegomena to the Qur’an, by Abū al-Qāsim ibn ʿAlī Akbar Khūʾī, translated by Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, pp. 3–22. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Walbridge, Linda S. The Most Learned of the Shiʿa: The Institution of the Marjaʿ Taqlid. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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