The Usuli-Akhbari Contest
The Akhbari school of jurisprudence offered another ideological alternative to Usulism within the Shi‘i community, though the influence of the originally stronger Akhbaris declined in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The Akhbaris, basing their approach to law on a strict construction of the Imami oral reports and disallowing rationalist interpretations, challenged Usulism in its fundamentals. As with the Usuli-Sufi struggle, the ideological debate reflected social conflicts. Yet no one social group or class among Shi'is could be wholly identified with Akhbarism or Usulism; rather, groups in conflict often adopted one ideology or the other as a weapon, sometimes depending on which system of thought a rival had already chosen. Beyond these factors, it might be asked whether there was an "elective affinity," in Weberian terms, between a religious ideology and the interests of a social group.
Akhbari ulama began by being the great majority among Awadh's Shi‘i clerics. The Akhbari Mulla Muhammad ‘Askari had been brought to Faizabad by Shujacu'd-Dawlah, and his students remained influential. Chief Minister Hasan Riza Khan patronized Akhbari ulama, one of whom, Sayyid Murtaza, in 1788 wrote a book for him on "prayer of the heart." This scholar argued, as an Akhbari, that the Qur'an could not be understood without reference to the oral reports from the Imams. While many immigrant ulama from Kashmir who fled Sunni Afghan and then Sikh rule adhered to the Usuli school, some supported Akhbarism. Mulla Muhammad Muqim Kashmiri arrived in Lucknow in 1786 as a refugee, attaining a reputation as an Akhbari and a miracle-worker. In outlying cities like Banaras, Akhbaris such as Sharafu'd-Din Banarasi wrote, though he directed his polemics more at Sunnis than Usulis.
Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali had to accept Akhbari students at first, in hopes of persuading them to adopt Usulism. Some of his students, however, remained
committed Akhbaris, employing the knowledge of Usuli principles of jurisprudence gained with him to refute their teacher. Thus, Mawlana Sayyid Murtaza Lakhnavi studied with Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali and then wrote against the use of legal analogy (qiyas ), an Usuli principle. He later emigrated to Hyderabad, Deccan, perhaps because of the declining popularity of Akhbari scholars in nineteenth-century Awadh.
On returning from the Iraqi shrine cities in 1781, Nasirabadi set out to refute the Akhbari school, to which he had himself adhered only two years earlier. The resulting work. entitled Asasal-usul (Foundation for the Principles of Jurisprudence), stated the Usuli position and briefly refuted Astarabadi's seventeenth-century Akhbari manifesto, Al-fawa'idal-madaniyyah . The treatise, rapidly copied out and spread about, produced fierce controversy. Nasirabadi's prestige as Lucknow's prayer leader after 1786 enabled him to teach the work as a textbook to many students, having one of them translate it from Arabic to the easier Persian. He discussed the main issues in jurisprudential method between the two major schools, giving both rational and traditional proofs for the stances he took. Here we will treat points dealing with the role of the ulama in interpreting the Law.
Nasirabadi wrote that the most noble of sciences after the study of God's unity (tawhid ) are the principles of jurisprudence, and to forsake them is a sin. Beyond the Qur'an and the Imami oral reports, Usulis accepted two other sources of law, consensus and ijtihad . The authority of the ulama to interpret the law lay in these two principles. Opposers of consensus as a proof in law insisted that all the jurists whose opinions made up the consensus would have to be known to be truthful, something impossible to ascertain. Nasirabadi, however, argued that consensus is often an indispensable way of knowing the judgment of the Imam indirectly. Akhbaris rejected this principle as arrogant, insisting that if a hundred jurists disagreed with the Imam, his word would still be true, whereas if a hundred jurists agreed with him, their views would be superfluous.
Usulis gave the fourth source of law as reason (caql ). Nasirabadi argued that the goodness and badness of voluntary actions can be perceived rationally, a stance that he said Muctazilis, Imamis, and Hindus agreed on, but that Sunni Ashcaris rejected. Usulis counted syllogism (qiyas ) an important rational device for determining the law, but accepted only two kinds as valid. In the first, the scriptural text, by the nature of the prohibition or com-
mand, implied the common term between two cases. Thus, if the Qur'an ordered believers not to abuse someone verbally, they could not go beyond that and beat him up. In the second, legitimate sort of analogy, the scripture actually mentions the common term (cillah ). Where date wine is forbidden explicitly because it causes people to lose their senses, grape wine could be prohibited oh the same grounds. But Usuli mujtahids were forbidden to speculate as to the reason for a law and to create an analogy on the basis of their own judgments.
Nasirabadi defined ijtihad as the expenditure of effort in seeking a considered opinion concerning the provisions of the holy Law so as to remove any possibility of guilt deriving from a failure to be thorough. Drawing on ‘Allamah al-Hilli, he said that ijtihad is a legal ruling in a case that lies beyond things that can be conclusively proven, such as the need to pray five times a day, and where no certain proof (dalilqalci ) exists. Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali affirmed that before the mujtahid exerted himself, God already had a ruling on any issue, which he merely sought to find. Nasirabadi said that God has always indicated the correct judgment, but that since He does not impose duties on his servants beyond their ability to perform them, the mujtahid is excused if he errs. The Akhbari school insisted that anyone giving a fatwa that went beyond citing scripture was responsible before God should he err.
Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali described the two sorts of mujtahid, absolute and partial. An absolute mujtahid can derive every theoretical subsidiary legal ruling from the holy text, whereas a partial one can derive some rulings but not all. Some denied the right to practice ijtihad to the partial mujtahid. Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali held that the partial mujtahid could practice ijtihad where he was competent, since he would otherwise have to emulate another jurisprudent, which was forbidden to mujtahids. One might note that since India in the early 1780s had hardly any absolute mujtahids, the Usuli school could spread only by allowing partial mujtahids to derive judgments. He quoted oral reports from the Imams, taking them as a traditional charter for the prerogatives of the mujtahids. He explained that the mujtahid had to practice according to his conclusions, and should he find two possible rulings equally persuasive, he had a duty to choose between them. Nasirabadi saw the interpretation of the law as dynamic and as inhering in the person of the jurist, not in his rulings. If a mujtahid gave a ruling without mentioning his reasoning, then forgot how he derived it, he had to exert himself on it all over again.
If his conclusions the second time differed From the first, the second ruling had to be followed.
Lay believers were to emulate a jurist on subsidiary religious matters. Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali defined emulation (taqlid ) as practicing according to the word of someone else without proof. Reference to the sayings of the Prophet and the Imams, he said, was not emulation, because they performed miracles to prove their authority and because Qur'an verses uphold the need to Follow their sayings. Quoting ‘Allamah al-Hilli, he affirmed that laymen could lawfully emulate mujtahids in subsidiary matters of the law. Even educated persons must do so if they are not trained in jurisprudence. Nasirabadi gave several reasons for this emulation. First, not everyone in the community was commanded to learn Islamic law and the principles of jurisprudence. If every member of the community spent years training to become a mujtahid, the social order would disintegrate. Nor could a layman take up studies only when an occasion called for him to know something. Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali argued for the existence of a specialized class of clerical professionals to whom all laymen, even the literate notables, owed absolute obedience. Only in matters of dogma could believers investigate for themselves, so long as they arrived at the correct answers.
Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali then discussed the characteristics of the Shi‘i jurisconsuit (mufti ), perhaps in hopes of promoting the office. He said that a mufti must have two characteristics, the ability to perform independent legal reasoning (ijtihad ) and piety (warac ). He should be chosen by the general acclamation of the believers. He said that people could know who was learned enough to fill the post without being themselves experts in the law, just as they were capable of recognizing a great merchant without knowing anything about commerce.
Nasirabadi wrote that once a layman began emulating a mujtahid in a matter, he should not go to another one for a ruling on the same issue. On other questions, however, he was free to seek rulings from another jurist· A layman should not emulate a dead mujtahid, as Imamis sought to attain an ever stronger considered opinion, which only a living mujtahid could do. In conclusion, Nasirabadi quoted oral reports from the Imams in an effort to show that ijtihad did not originate with ‘Allamah al-Hilli (d. 1326), as Akhbaris charged, but went back to companions of the Imams. (In fact, ijtihad in the technical sense was not accepted by Imami jurisprudents before the thirteenth century A.D., and the Akhbaris have the stronger case on this point historically.)
Nasirabadi's Usuli stance met opposition from many Shi‘i notables in
Awadh, and from the Akhbari ulama. The strong support given to him and other prayer leaders by the chief officials of the government, however, protected them from their foes and gave them a platform to spread their own ideas. Since Akhbaris in North India opposed the very holding of Friday congregational prayers, which the nawabi government supported, they could not compete with Usulis for such official posts. State-sponsored Friday prayers acted as an engine to drive the Usuli advance.
Nasirabadi's most colorful enemy from the ranks of the Akhbari ulama, Mirza Muhammad Nishapuri Akbarabadi (1764-1817) of Agra, became involved in politics everywhere he went, in North India, Iraq, and Iran. One of the more brilliant minds India produced in the late eighteenth century, and one of the last great Akhbari scholars, he wrote in numerous fields. His father, Mirza ‘Abdu'n-Nabi of Khurasan, conducted long-distance trade with North India, having had, according to his detractors, a rather limited capital in Iran of only five or six thousand rupees. Doing well in Agra, he married the daughter of Macsum ‘Ali Khan, a revenue official under the Mughal first minister, Najaf ‘Ali Khan. Mirza. ‘Abdu'n-Nabi did some trading in Allahabad, where his son Muhammad spent part of his youth.
At about the age of twenty, in 1784 or so, Mirza Muhammad Akbarabadi, an Akhbari, went to the Iraqi shrine cities, where he studied with the leading Usulis, finding the same atmosphere there as had Nasirabadi only a few years earlier. He did not reveal that he was an Akhbari while in Iraq. A few years later he returned to Awadh, where his fame reached the ears of Asafu'd-Dawlah and Hasan Riza Khan. Meeting with the nawab, he slowly began cursing all dialectical theologians (mutakallimun ) and mujtahids as the hosts of Satan, creating a suspicion of the Usuli ulama in the minds of Asafu'd-Dawlah and his chief minister.
Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali already had tense relations with Hasan Riza Khan over his attacks on the chief minister's Sufi favorites, and was not in a strong position to reply to Akbarabadi. His biographer claimed that Nasirabadi refrained from responding to the Akhbari's polemics because he was a guest and a traveler. He did, however, send some of Akbarabadi's treatises back to the shrine cities to inform Sayyid ‘Ali Tabataba'i of his Akhbari views. It is difficult to believe that Nasirabadi did not move behind the scenes to undermine Akbarabadi's position at court, considering the threat he posed. His biographer simply wrote that Mirza Muhammad's extreme positions repelled most of the believers. At length the Akhbari left the Awadh court,
where he had failed to dislodge Usulis like Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali, and returned to Karbala.
Known in Iraq as an Akhbari, he came into strong conflict with the dominating Usuli elite and emerged as a formidable debater. He constantly moved his opponent into different fields until he found one on which he was more knowledgeable. Only Sayyid ‘Ali Tabataba'i could best him in open debate. He was at length forced, apparently on threat of violence, to flee the shrine cities with his family, for Iran, where he spent time in Fars, Khurasan, and Gilan provinces. In 1792 he wrote a biographical dictionary in Luristan, stressing Akhbaris. In largely Usuli Iran, Mirza Muhammad provoked the ire of powerful local mujtahids, which obliged him to move about constantly.
In the late 1790s Akbarabadi settled in Tehran, gradually acquiring a reputation for learning and Indian-style divination. From 1797 Fath-‘Ali Shah Qajar ruled, and Akbarabadi increasingly ingratiated himself with the court, just as he had earlier sought to influence Asafu'd-Dawlah in Awadh. His correct prediction of the imminent demise of the Russian military leader Tsitsianov at Baku greatly enhanced his prestige. But his increasing influence over the shah aroused the jealousy of many notables at court, and the apprehension of powerful Usuli ulama Shaykh Jacfar an-Najafi in this period wrote a refutation of Mirza Muhammad's Akhbari ideas, in which he declared him an unbeliever and pronounced his blood and property lawful to whoever wished to take them. With notables and Usuli ulama working against him, Fath-‘Ali Shah came to perceive him as a danger to the state and expelled him.
He lived subsequently in Baghdad and Kazimayn, where a mob killed him in February 1817. Shirvani, who knew Akbarabadi personally, said that fanatical Usuli ulama instigated the riot against him. Mirza Muhammad perhaps thought of returning to Awadh shortly before his death. In early 1814 he dedicated to Nawab Sacadat ‘Ali Khan his refutation of Nasirabadi's work on the principles of jurisprudence, probably in hopes that he would find favor with the ruler and be called to Lucknow.
Akbarabadi originally wrote his attack on Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali's work in 1792 in Iran, when he was smarting from his successive failures in Lucknow and Karbala. He objected that Nasirabadi said the principles of jurisprudence were the greatest science after that of the unity of God, asserting that Qur'an commentary and jurisprudence (fiqh ) itself surely took precedence. As an Akhbari basing himself as closely as possible on the oral reports from the Prophet and the Imams and the Qur'an, Akbarabadi felt scripture commentary to be infinitely more important than other sciences. Usulis magnified the importance of the principles of jurisprudence, the ideological basis of the authority of the mujtahids.
Akbarabadi denounced such Usuli principles as appeal to consensus, analogical reasoning, and the ranking of oral reports as sound or weak. Akhbaris, as conservatives, uncritically thought sound all oral reports attributed to the Imams in the four standard collections. He also rejected dependence on considered opinion (zann ) in deriving legal judgments, maintaining that certain knowledge (cilm ) could be gained from the text of the Imami oral reports. Surprisingly, he took Nasirabadi to task for his criticisms of India. Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali complained about the ignorance and unbelief in that country, whereas Akbarabadi insisted that among the Hindus were brilliant scholars and ascetics working in a great non-Islamic intellectual tradition, and that Indian Sunnis and Isma'ilis counted among them men of great erudition. Even the tiny Imami community had extremely learned men. Akbarabadi's intense pride in his Indian heritage provides a clue to why he clung so fiercely to Akhbarism, whereas Nasirabadi deferred to Iraq and Iran.
In Awadh, as in Iran, Usulism gradually won out as the ideology favored by the high ulama and the state. Many of Nasirabadi's students attempted to rebut Akbarabadi. But into the nineteenth century some ulama favored Akhbarism, and important notable families, such as the Kanbuh Barelavis, including administrators Subhan ‘Ali Khan and Taju'd-Din Husayn Khan, continued to adhere to Akhbarism. Such notables employed Akhbarism as a means of stressing their intellectual independence from the Usuli ulama, whom they saw as sons of petty landholders greedy for power over laymen. These Akbharis held high office in the Awadh state and received political support even from notables who attended Friday prayers. In 1823 Chief Minister Agha Mir Muctamadu'd-Dawlah granted patronage to Husayn ‘Ali Khan Barelavi to write a theological work in support of Shi‘ism, wherein he attacked Usulism and blamed the Caliph ‘Umar for introducing the ille-
gal practice of ijithad . He may have gotten patronage from so eminent a source because his cousin Subhan ‘Ali Khan was deputy chief minister.
In 1818 Husayn ‘Ali Khan had issued a wide-ranging criticism of Usulism, in which he admitted that Usuli ideas had become widely accepted. He disparaged the division of the Imami community into expert mujtahids and a laity reduced to emulating them blindly, complaining of the rationalist thrust of Usulism, which led scholars to waste their lives studying dialectical theology, logic, and metaphysics and to import this misleading approach into their legal reasoning. He ridiculed Usuli doctrines, saying that since a mujtahid had to be the most perfect and knowledgeable of his contemporaries, there should logically be only one mujtahid in each age. In any case, be remarked drily, such a breadth of knowledge among Usulis was rare indeed in 1818. He rejected Usuli claims that the ulama represented the hidden Twelfth Imam, accusing mujtahids of love of high position and a desire to rule over others, even though only the Imams were worthy of obedience and emulation. Some Usulis, he said, went so far as to declare that even fasting and prayers were invalid except with the permission of the mujtahid of the age. He condemned the practice of putting religious donations (zakal , khums, sadaqal ) under the control of the mujtahids, citing it as another evidence of their greed. Elsewhere, he said that Usulis were seeking leadership through attacking Akhbaris and classing them with Sunnis and Sufis.
In 1825 Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi, Awadh's chief mujtahid, wrote a spirited defense of Usulism against Akhbarism, painting the controversy as one over whether the believer should emulate living or dead authorities. Usulis, he wrote, cmulate the living, while Akhbaris follow the dead Their insistence on deriving legal judgments only from the oral reports left Akhbaris with extremely narrow choices in their rulings Not even the greatest of the ulama could arrive at a decisive judgment on every matter on the basis of a clear scriptural text (nass ).
Sayyid Muhammad pointed out that if trained scholars found such a feat difficult, women and children could not perform it at all. How, he asked, could women and children themselves consult books of oral reports from the Imams such as al-Kulayni's Al-Kafi ? Obviously, he concluded, they would have to consult an Akhbari scholar—and what else was this but emulation (taqlid )? Since both Usulis and Akhbaris held that the laity had to consult religious experts, the dispute between them was purely verbal (lafzi ). Nasirabadi further argued that if Akhbaris truly gave rulings according to sure knowledge and decisive evidence (qalci ), they would not differ with one
another in their legal judgments. But in fact they often did so. lie said he knew an Akhbari who claimed that his judgments were based on positive proof (dalilqalci ), and who heaped abuse on mujtahids when they demurred. Since all judgments given by Shi‘i scholars of both schools were ultimately based on the (Qur'an and oral reports from the Prophet and the Imams, he said, it was not important if some (the Akhbaris) called that basis sure knowledge (cilm ) while others (the Usulis) called it considered opinion (zann ).
Sayyid Muhammad's opponents rejected his condescending dismissal of the Akhbari position as not all that different from the Usuli one. Husayn ‘Ali Khan Barelavi was asked why, since adherents of the two schools often gave the same judgments, there should be any conflict. In reply he denied the premise that the two schools gave the same rulings. He maintained that the judgments often greatly differed. After all, many of the same rules existed in Shi‘ism as in Sunnism. He thought the method of deriving judgments the crucial issue.
Another Akhbari thinker from the notable class, Mirza Muhammad Zaki Khan, pointed out that if a layman arrived at certainty about an Islamic legal judgment through an oral report from one of the Imams, Akhbaris allowed him to practice according to it even though he had not attained the level of a mujtahid. Usulis, he scoffed, disallowed this, making it incumbent on him to forsake his own certainty and to emulate the mere considered opinion of a mujtahid.
Akhbaris and Usulis not only conceived the law differently, they even differed on the idea of property. Shi‘is of both groups held that since Muslims conquered India, its land belonged to the Imam. Usulis thought that believers could nevertheless legally possess the land by buying it. Usulis charged that Indian Akhbaris disallowed human ownership of conquered land, saying it belonged only to God. Sayyid Muhammad sarcastically remarked that if Akhbaris proscribed land ownership, then anyone could legitimately usurp the property of the Akhbaris, warning that this doctrine would subject everyone's household to destruction. Most Akhbaris may have denied that their belief had the communistic implications Sayyid Muhammad suggested, though some artisans may have actually rejected the legitimacy of private property in land.
While the last years of independent Awadh saw an even closer relationship between the stale and the religious hierarchy, tensions remained between the mujtahids anti believers from a laboring-class background. Little evidence about popular-class Shi‘i sectarian movements survives, but an important manuscript letter draws back the curtain briefly. In 1841 a Shi‘i cleric named Muhammad an-Najafi wrote to Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi from the old Bengal center of Murshidabad. He complained that he originally came to India to travel, entering the lands of the infidels unwittingly, and being forced to spend most of his time with the ignorant.
After thus ungratefully describing the patrons he found in Murshidabad, an-Najafi reported two challenges to the authority of the Usuli ulama in the city. Mir Asad ‘Ali, the leader of the morticians and gravediggers, himself a washer of bodies, claimed leadership and ordained laws for the people, "forbidding the permissible and allowing the forbidden." An-Najafi said that most of the common people followed his commands, having gone astray. Some friends finally suggested that he appeal to the chief mujtahid in Lucknow to condemn the man, who had clashed with an-Najafi. He therefore sent a description of the body-washer's heresies to the merchant Aqa Ismacil Zand so that he might take it to the Awadh capital.
The other challenge came from an Azerbaijani Turk named Mulla Baqir, who had arrived in Murshidabad a few years earlier. Mulla Baqir adhered to the Akhbari school, vehemently denouncing whoever believed in ijtihad and emulation and endeavoring to attract the weak and common people to his religion. An-Najafi dismissed the Akhbari as a man devoid of erudition, a mulla fit to teach primary school. The Usuli from Iraq answered the Turk's polemics in Arabic, but said that the Akhbari seemed to know little of that tongue. An-Najafi therefore appealed to Sayyid Muhammad to respond to these two movements, for, he wrote, "the judgment of your Excellency is obeyed everywhere. It is incumbent upon you to strengthen religion, as you are the chief of Islam and the Muslims."
These last examples suggest a pattern of popular-class sectarianism that demonstrated opposition to the middle- and upper-class mujtahids and their patrons. The case of Mulla Baqir shows again that Akhbarism as an ideology could be put to various uses, having an appeal both to high notables who refused to accept the leadership of the middle landholding mujtahids and to laborers and artisans who resented the establishment of the nawab and his Usuli intimates. Such resentment can be seen in Awadh in an anecdote from the biography of Sayyid Husayn Nasirabadi. Once he fell ill on a Friday, and in the evening some laboring-class Shi‘is of rough appearance arrived and
asked him to say funeral prayers for their dead friend. He replied that he was ill. They muttered that if their friend had been one of the notables, he would have complied. Sayyid Husayn, stung, agreed to perform the prayers. The story inadvertently reveals that Shi‘i commoners often saw the mujtahids as lackeys of the rich.
The Usuli scholars, an ambitious and upwardly mobile group, advocated rationalism and a dynamic approach to law and social norms which allowed for new and independent judgments. They rejected the emulation of past authorities, insisting that even their notable-class patrons defer to them in matters of legal interpretation. Admittedly, these were the tenets of a centuries-old school of jurisprudence. But they also constituted a flexible ideology with great appeal to a rising status group that wished to influence the shape of society and saw increasing opportunities for doing so. The Usulis justified the need of believers to obey the professional jurisprudents by arguing that the structure of society would be destroyed if authorities allowed children, the bazaar classes, and common people to take legal judgments directly from the scriptural sources. Akhbari gentlemen scholars resisted longest the claim by Usuli ulama from the small and middle landholding classes to a monopoly on specialized knowledge of Shi‘i law.