Sunday, November 2, 2014

Thou Shalt Emulate the Most Knowledgeable Living Cleric: Redefinition of Islamic Law and Authority in Usuli Shi‘ism


Zackery M. Heern. “Thou Shalt Emulate the Most Knowledgeable Living Cleric: Redefinition of Islamic Law and Authority in Usuli Shi‘ism,” Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies. Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer 2014, pp. 323-346.

Islamic law, Islamic authority, Usuli Shi‘ism, Murtada Ansari, usul al-fiqh, marja‘ al-taqlid


To ensure that the actions of Shi‘is are in conformity with God’s will, Usuli scholars argued that all Shi‘is must emulate (taqlid) the rulings of the most knowledgeable (a‘lam) living mujtahid, who is the exemplar, or ‘source of emulation’ (marja‘ al-taqlid) for the Shi‘i community. Marja‘iyyah is the concept that a living mujtahid has leadership over the Shi‘i community. As Linda Walbridge puts it, the marja‘ is ‘the representative of the “general deputyship” of the Imam’ and ‘enjoys the dual role of chief legal expert and spiritual model for all Shi‘a.’ Although theories of marja‘iyyah have their roots in the pre-modern period, it is only since the nineteenth century that the concept has achieved traction among a sizable portion of the Shi‘i community in practice. In the contemporary Shi‘i world, marja‘s have become pope-like figures, who should theoretically be emulated (taqlid) by the Shi‘i community in matters related to the all-encompassing system of Islamic law.

The theoretical underpinnings for the Shi‘i concepts of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqti) and marja‘ al-taqlid were redefined by Shaykh Murtada ibn Muhammad Amin Ansari (1799-1864), who was one of the most influential Muslim scholars of the nineteenth century. Ansari systematically overhauled much of the socio-legal framework of modern Usuli Shi‘ism. Ansari’s supporters have referred to him as the ‘seal of the mujtahids’ as well as the ‘the Imam’s Chosen One and the Caliph in truth over all men in all judgments concerning what is permitted or forbidden, the Exemplar of both the experts and laymen.’ In his monumental work, The Mantle of the Prophet, Roy Mottahedeh rightly argues that ‘leadership in Shiah learning... found its highest expression in Sheikh Mortaza Ansari,’ and ‘more than that of any mullah leader of the past two centuries, his leadership celebrated his learning.’ Indeed, Ansari reached a pinnacle of both Shi‘i scholarship and leadership, achieving an unprecedented status in Shi‘i history as the widely recognized sole supreme exemplar (marja‘ al-taqlid al-mutlaq) of the global Shi‘i community.

In addition to redefining central theories of Shi‘i law and authority, Ansari modeled his new approach to Shi‘ism during his lifetime. Scholars debate whether Ansari was the first or second supreme marja‘ al-taqlid in Shi‘i history Regardless of who deserves the title of first marja‘, the concept of marja‘ al-taqlid did not exist in practice prior to the nineteenth century, even though the theory had been developed prior to this time. However, largely as a result of Ansari’s efforts, the marja‘ became a fixture of Shi‘i authority in the twentieth century. Ansari’s acceptance as leader of the Shi‘i community also greatly contributed to the establishment of Najaf as the dominant international centre of Shi‘i learning and authority until the mid-twentieth century when Qum emerged as a leading Shi‘i centre.

Abbas Amanat questions whether the notion of ‘marja'-i taqlid kull (supreme source of emulation)’ existed during Ansari’s time given that ‘the first explicit reference to Ansari’s supreme authority’ only appears in the twentieth century. Whether or not Ansari’s contemporaries viewed him as such, no other scholar has come to exemplify the office of marja‘ al-taqlid more than Ansari. He became the prototype and the icon on which the institution was built. Marja‘iyyah continues to be a defining feature of contemporary Shi‘i societies, even if no single marja‘ has obtained the same widespread support that Ansari once enjoyed.

The remainder of this paper argues that Ansari’s redefinition of key concepts related to Islamic legal theory and clerical authority increased the power of Shi‘i mujtahids. Ansari’s work was instrumental in establishing Usuli clerics as intermediaries between lay members of the Shi‘i community and traditional sources of Shi‘i authority. Ansari systematized the process of issuing and disseminating legal judgments. His conception of marja‘ al-taqlid required lay Shi‘is to emulate the judgments of the most knowledgeable living jurist. In fact, Ansari argued that following a mujtahid is legally binding in Islam...