In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Shaykhism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliography
  • Countries and Regions

Islamic Studies Shaykhism
Farshid Kazemi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0188


The Shaykhīs (Shaykhīyya) or the Shyakhī school (also called the Kashfiyya), is a movement that emerged within Twelver Shīʿī Islam (Ithnā ʿasharī) in 19th-century Iran and Iraq, and derives its teachings from the charismatic philosopher and mystic Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī (d. 1826 [AH 1241])), and his successor Sayyid Kāẓim al-Rashtī (d. 1844 [AH 1259]). Shaykhī thought is a critical confluence of various intellectual currents, which include, inter alia, the school of Isfahan (Mullā Ṣadrā, et al.), Akbarian Sufism (Ibn al-ʿArabi), Illuminationist philosophy (Suhrawardi), Ismāʾīlī and bāṭinī motifs, Islamicate alchemy and occult sciences, Shīʿī gnosis (ʿīrfān) and messianism, and an Akhbārī veneration and valorization of the Imāms. After the conflict of the Akhbārīs and the Uṣūlīs subsided, the Uṣūlīs found a new opponent in the Shaykhīs, who differed with them on the principles or pillars of Shīʿī Islam. In the early Shaykhī period (al-Aḥsāʾī and al-Rashtī), the five pillars of Shīʿī belief (divine unity, prophethood, Imamate, resurrection, and justice) were in a radical gesture reduced to four, by joining divine unity with justice, and prophethood with resurrection, and by adding the controversial doctrine of the “fourth support” (al-rukn al-rābiʿ) or “the perfect Shīʿī.” With this doctrine al-Aḥsāʾī and al-Rashtī were directly challenging the ideology and authority of the Uṣūlī clerical establishment who claimed that the ʿulamāʾ were collectively the true representatives of the Imam in his occultation (ghayba). Among other controversial doctrines of the Shaykhīs that brought them into conflict with the more legally minded ʿulamāʾ of the time was their complex hermeneutics of the resurrection body in the imaginal world of hūrqalyā, the supra-sensible existence of the Hidden Imam in that realm rather than the physical world, the prophet Muḥammad’s ascension (miʿrāj) as a journey in his subtle hūrqalyāʾī body, rather than physical body, the theophanic status of the Shīʿī Imams, and an emphasis on visionary experience and intuitive knowledge (kashf), rather than imitative (taqlīd) knowledge. After al-Rashtī’s death, the Shyakhīs turned toward two fundamentally different directions: a group turned toward messianic expectations, which they found in the Bābī movement (See Bābīs); while other groups directed their efforts to the continuation and routinization of Shaykhī authority and leadership. The most successful of these groups were the Kirmānī Shaykhīs who rallied around the figure of Ḥājj Mīrzā Karīm Khān Kirmānī as the next Shaykhī successor. At various times during their history, the Shaykhīs were branded as heterodox by the Uṣūlī clerics who established themselves as the normative orthodoxy. The Shaykhīs have negotiated their identity and legitimacy on the margins of Twelver Shīʿīsm, and live in various countries and regions, with perhaps the largest enclave of Shaykhī votaries in Kerman, Iran. It is estimated that there are about 400,000 Shaykhīs living in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Kuwait, and the oasis of al-Ahsāʾ in Saudi Arabia.

General Overviews

In many respects, research into the vast and complex phenomenon of the Shaykhīyya still remains a desideratum, but some important and significant strides have been made in the past century. The first scholarly interest in the Shaykhīyya appeared in the 19th century with the work of such Orientalists as the French scholar A. L. M. Nicolas (Nicolas 1910–1914). After a prolonged period of neglect, work on the Shaykhīs resumed by another French scholar, Henry Corbin (Corbin 1972), who coined the term: “The Shaykhī school” (l’école Shaykhie). There are now some important studies available on the Shaykhīs. Scholl 1987 are both excellent academic summaries of the Shaykhīyya. MacEoin 1988, is an overview of the Bālāsarīs, a term of derision applied to the rest of Twelver Shi’is by the Shaykhis. Bayat 1982 is a social and intellectual history of both the early and later Shaykhīs. Rafati 1979 is a valuable scholarly analysis of the thought and philosophy of the Shaykhīyya and Eschraghi 2004 is a rigorous and insightful study in German of the philosophical and metaphysical doctrines of the early Shaykhīs. Ṭaliqānī 1999 is a valuable monograph on the history and doctrines of the Shaykhīs in Arabic.

  • Bayat, Mangol. Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1982.

    Bayat provides an excellent overview of the social and intellectual history of the Shaykhīs. A significant contribution of the volume is its conceptual periodization of the Shaykhīs into the radical early Shaykhīyya (Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī and Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī), and the socialization of the later Kirmānī Shaykhīs (Karīm Khān Kirmānī) in Qajar, Iran.

  • Corbin, Henry. En Islam Iranien, Aspects spirituels et philosophiques. Vol. 4, L’Ecole d’Ispahan, L-Ecole shaykhie Le Douzieme Imam. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.

    The fourth volume of Corbin’s magnum opus, En Islam Iranien, contains a chapter on “The Shaykhī school” (see pp. 205–300). It is in three sections: on Shaykh Aḥmad Aḥsā’ī (pp. 205–231), his successors (pp. 232–255), and some Shaykhī doctrines (pp. 256–300). However, Corbin did not appreciate some of the conceptual breaks between the early Shaykhīs, and the later Kirmānī Shaykhīs.

  • Eschraghi, Armin. Frühe S̆aiḫī- und Bābī-Theologie: die Darlegung der Beweise für Muḥammads besonders Prophetentum: (ar-Risāla fī it̲bāt an-nubūwa al-khāṣṣa). Leiden, The Netherlands: Boston, 2004.

    The first section of this groundbreaking scholarly study––ostensibly a semi-critical edition and discussion of an early work of the Bāb––contains an insightful discussion of Shaykhī theology, cosmogony, ontology, epistemology, prophetology, and imamology. Eschraghi problematizes some of the unwarranted assertions and assumptions in the academic literature on the Shaykhīs.

  • MacEoin, Denis. “Bālāsarī.” Encyclopædia Iranica 3 (1988): 583–585.

    An article on the development of the term Bālāsarī, in the Shaykhī lexicon, which refers to Shiʾites in general, and the history of their often antagonistic relations with the Shaykhīs and in particular the Kirmānī Shaykhīs.

  • Nicolas, A. L. M. Essai sur le Chéikisme. 4 vols. Paris: Paul Guethner and Ernst Leroux, 1910–1914.

    These four volumes by the French Orientalist are still an indispensible resource for the study of the early Shaykhīs. Volumes 1 and 2 contain lists of al-Aḥsāʾī and al-Rashtī’s works. Volume 3 is on the doctrines of Shaykhīs, and Volume 4 on Shaykhī theology.

  • Rafati, Vahid. The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi’i Islam. PhD diss., University of California–Los Angeles, 1979.

    This was a pioneering work and remains one of the important studies on the philosophical thought of the Shaykhī school, with a focus on ontology and eschatology. Unpublished.

  • Scholl, Steven. “Shaykhīyah.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 2. 2d ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 8307–8309. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 1987.

    A brief overview of the life and thought of al-Aḥsāʾī and the development of the Shaykhī School. Sajjad H. Rizvi revised Scholl’s work with some new additions especially in the Bibliography in 2005.

  • Ṭaliqānī, Muḥammad-Ḥusayn. al-Shaykhiyya: nashʾatha wa-tatawwurha wa-masadir dirasatha. Beirut, Lebanon: al-Amal li-l-Matbuʿat, 1999.

    An important Arabic overview of the Shaykiyya, its emergence, development, and sources of studies.

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