The Forerunner to The Bab – The Shaykhi Sect


             The genesis of the Babi Faith lies in the doctrines of the Shaykhi sect originally expounded by Shaykh Ahmed ibn Zaynud Deen Al Ahsai (1166 AH – 1241 AH) and then by his student Seyyed Kazim Rashty (1205 AH – 1259 AH). One needs to go back in history to understand their unique beliefs to appreciate how the thought process of the Bab was fashioned. While discussing the Shaykhi sect,… I have relied extensively on the work “The Introduction to Shi’i Islam” by Moojan Momen – a leading contemporary Bahai author. While much is available on the doctrines of Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai and Seyyed Kazim Rashty in Arabic and Persian texts, Mr. Momen has put these down in his book in a fairly lucid manner. Both Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai and Seyyed Kazim Rashty seem to be followers of the Shiah Ithna Ashari sect.
This is clear from their beliefs on the concept of Imamate. The reason why I have initiated my discussion with this aspect of their belief is to show that the Shaykhis and subsequently the Babis believed in the 12 Imams after the Holy Prophet. This viewpoint is important to appreciate the significance of some of the writings of the Bab in future articles. Shaykh Ahmed considered that the first creation issuing forth from God’s will, was the light of Mohammed (an Nur al Mohammadiyya). From this light, the light of the Imams came into being. From the light of the Imams, the light of the believers came into being, and so on. Thus the Imams are the instruments of the creation of the world.
They are also the ultimate cause of creation since God has created the world for their sake. They are the intermediaries through which man can obtain some comprehension of God and God’s bounties can reach man. (Introduction to Shi’ites Islam, Moojan Momen, p.226) The Shaykhis differed greatly in some fundamental concepts about God and on the nature of the world which caused a conflict with Muslim scholars. These concepts expounded by Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai had no precedent – either in the Quran, traditions or even beliefs of other groups which arose in Islam. The Bab – both in personality and thought rose out of the Shaykhi sect and some of its unique principles. Moojan Momen writes on page 231, “It was the Shaykhi teachings which paved the way for the Bab and it is doubtful if the Bab would have attracted so many adherents if it had not been for Shaykhi doctrines.
“In this article, we will focus on those concepts which have relevance to our discussion. Here are some of these concepts: On the nature of this world The Shaykhis believed, that between the physical world and the spiritual world, there exists an intermediary world called Hurqalya (from the Greek word Huvarkalya) or the world of archetypal images (Alame’ Mithal). Everything in this world has its counterpart in the world of Hurqalya. Each individual being has two bodies – one of which exists in the physical world and one in Hurqalya. The occulted, but living Twelfth Imam and the cities of Jabulqa and Jabulsa, where he is supposed to live, all exist in the realm of Hurqalya. (Introduction to Shi’i Islam, Moojan Momen, p.227)
He (Shaykh Ahmed, founder of Shaykhism) believed that the body of man was compounded of parts derived from each of the nine heavens and the four elements that the grosser elemental part perished irrevocably at death; and that the more subtle celestial portion would appear at resurrection. This subtle body, he named as ‘Jism-e-Hurqalya – the word Hurqalya being supposed to be of Greek origin (Herculean). He regarded Imams as creative forces, quoting in support of this view, the expression “God, The Best of Creators” occurring in Quran Surah 23, verse 14; ‘for said he ‘if God be the best of creators.’ He cannot be the sole creator (Traveller’s Narrative, E. G. Browne, pp.236-7) It is clear that these concepts have no place in Islam.
There is no concept of any city of Jabulqa or Jabulsa for that matter and definitely no mention of Hurqalya in the either the Quran or its exegesis by the Holy Prophet (pbuh) and the Holy Imams (as). These were obviously a figment of the imagination of Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai. In the same book on page 236, we find that the leading Shiite cleric of the time, Haji Mullah Mohammed Taqi having examined the beliefs of Shaykh Ahsai declared him a heretic.
The occultation of Imam Mahdi (as) For Shaykh Ahmed, the occultation (ghaybat) of Imam Mahdi (as) did not mean that a living physical Imam was in hiding somewhere on this earth but rather that, although physical contact with the Imam was no longer possible, the Imam lived in the realm of Hurqalya, and for those who strive to reach him in that world, he is still able to perform the key functions of the Imam. (Introduction to Shi’i Islam, Moojan Momen, p.227) The Baha’is, led by Bahaullah have found this a convenient way to justify the disappearance of the Imam and explain the sudden appearance of the Bab. Bahaullah too fell trap to the concocted and twisted beliefs of Hurqalya propounded by Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai. Pay attention to the words of Bahaullah: “All that thou hast heard regarding Muhammad the son of Hasan – may the souls of all that are immersed in the oceans of the spirit be offered up for His sake – is true beyond the shadow of a doubt, and we all verily bear allegiance unto Him. But the Imams of the Faith have fixed His abode in the city of Jabulqa, which they have depicted in strange and marvelous signs.
To interpret this city according to the literal meaning of the tradition would indeed prove impossible, nor can such a city ever be found. Wert thou to search the uttermost corners of the earth, nay probe its length and breadth for as long as God’s eternity hath lasted and His sovereignty will endure, thou wouldst never find a city such as they have described, for the entirety of the earth could neither contain nor encompass it. If thou wouldst lead me unto this city, I could assuredly lead thee unto this holy Being, Whom the people have conceived according to what they possess and not to that which pertaineth unto Him! We have chosen here to be brief in our elucidation of the meanings of Jabulqa, but if thou be of them that truly believe, thou shalt indeed comprehend all the true meanings of the mysteries enshrined within these Tablets.” (Gems of Divine Mysteries (Jawahirul Asaar), Bahaullah pp.36-37)
Needless to say, Bahaullah too “chose to be brief in his elucidation of Jabulqa” for obvious reasons. There is no such Jabulqa and Jabulsa – except that which existed in the realms of the mind of Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai. Physical resurrection With regards to the phenomenon of resurrection, Shaykh Ahmed also regarded this as an event that occurs to man’ subtle body in the world of Hurqalya. Similarly, heaven and hell are the results of men’s actions which create the situation of either Heaven or Hell in each individual’s personal life in Hurqalya. (Introduction to Shi’i Islam, Moojan Momen, p.227)
This belief too is totally contrary to the Islamic concept of the belief of the Day of Judgment, Heaven and Hell. The Baha’is too have lifted this concept of the Shaykhi resurrection and added their own flavor to it indicating that reward and punishment are spiritual in nature. God willing, I hope to explain the fallacy of this belief at a later stage.
The Fourth Support or Rukne’ Rabe’ This key doctrine of the Shaykhis was developed not so much by Shaykh Ahsai as much as his followers. Shiites believe in five roots of religion or Usule’ Deen (Unity of God, Justice of God, Prophethood, Imamate and the Day of Judgment). Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai altered these in this own fashion to form 3 roots of religion – Knowledge of God, Prophethood and Imamate. To this he added the Fourth Support – the need for an intermediary between the Imam and the populace. The concept makes it appearance at the time of Sayyed Kazim Rashty and the early writings of Karim Khan Kirmani (one of the claimants of successorship to Seyyed Kazim).
The Fourth Support appears to be the continuing physical presence of a Perfect Man who acts as an intermediary between the Hidden Imam and the world. The Hidden Imam inspires this intermediary who thus comes to represent the Will of the Hidden Imam. (Ref: Introduction to Shi’i Islam, Moojan Momen, page 227-228) Most of the Bab’s leading disciples and many of the rank and file had previously been Shaykhis, that is followers of the Ithna-‘Ashari school or sect founded by Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa’i (d. 1826) (29). In contradiction to the claims of many mujtahids to authority in the absence of the Imam, the Shaykhis believed that there must always exist in the world a perfect Shi’i (Shi`iy-i-Kamil) who acts as the intermediary (na’ib, bab) between the Imam and the faithful and hence is the legitimate authority; by implication the Shaykhi leaders might be considered that authority. (The Routinization of Charisma? By Peter Smith;Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Bahai Studies, Vol. 2, No. 6, November, 1998)

              It is through this concept that the Shaykhi sect opened the doors for Bab. The Shaykhis themselves (Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai and Seyyed Kazim Rashty) used the principle of the Fourth Support to propagate their beliefs under the garb that it was inspired by the Hidden Imam. This is further endorsed by the fact that he also propounded the intuitive uncovering (Kashf) of knowledge, which further gave him the license to propound his beliefs. Also pay attention to the following observation: The Shaykhis also believed in the imminence of the return of the Imam, a belief which led to a large number of them enthusiastically accepting the Bab in the years following his declaration in 1844. In contrast the ‘conservative” Shaykhis remained as a group in which the messianic motif was ‘de-emphasized’ and whose leaders were bitterly hostile to the Babis. (The Routinization of Charisma? By Peter Smith; Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Bahai Studies, Vol. 2, No. 6, November, 1998) Through their concepts of Hurqalya and the Fourth Support, the Shaykhis established concepts which paved the way for Bab and his own set of claims. Momen writes that it was reasonably clear that the early Shaykhis regarded Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai and Sayyed Kazim Rashty as each being the Fourth Support – or the intermediary of the Hidden Imam. It is using these principles that Bab was able to put forth his claims of being the door to the Hidden Imam.

           The first adherents to the Babi Faith were not surprisingly, the Shaykhis who rallied around the Bab as they had for Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai and Seyyed Kazim Rashty. Readers must appreciate the subtle, yet highly dangerous changes in fundamentals which were being propagated by the Shaykhis. We must clearly understand that the Shaykhis initiated concepts which had no precedent in Islam and no clarification either in the Quran and the traditions. Their beliefs caused them to be labeled heretics by the scholars of the era and rightfully so. Shaykh Ahmed Ahsai nominated Seyyed Kazim Rashty who died without appointing a successor. After him, the Shaykhis (except those who became Babis) split into three main factions – Mirza Gawhar Hasan in Karbala, one led by Haji Mirza Shafi and Mulla Mohammed Mamaqani in Tabriz and Haji Karim Khan Kirmani in Kirman. The very splitting up of this sect into faction underscores their fallacy.
Here we see how the Shaykhis regarded the founders to the Fourth Support and subsequently the sect being split into four factions all vying and claiming the same position for themselves. The Babis, led by Mirza Ali Mohammed Shirazi ultimately prevailed and became the dominant force amongst the Shaykhis. History narrates that the other Shaykhi sects ultimately died a silent death and each successive Shaykhi leader expounded the doctrines in such a way as to bring them more and more closely in line with mainstream Islam.

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