Let’s Return Back to a Balanced and Principled (Usuli) Shia’ism

By Dr. Hassan Ansari1

From the very beginning, Shi’ism has always experienced two dimensions or perspectives: one is an emotional and epic aspect, and the other is a rational and theoretical one. Both have sometimes complemented each other, paving the way for the historical growth of Shi’ism, and each has served Shi’ism well in its own right. Like every religion and creed, emotional and sometimes superstitious aspects often appear on the periphery of the rational and theoretical core of the religion. These, at times, mushroom in growth, which is natural and can even protect the inner core from the interference of non-scientific, emotional, and sometimes superstitious masses. Therefore, the presence of superstitious aspects in a religion doesn’t mean the absence of theoretical aspects. The problem begins when the weight and significance of these two aspects stray from their natural and historical form. Throughout Shi’ism’s history, especially during certain eras, the weight of emotional aspects has become heavier for various reasons, exceeding its natural and logical limits. It’s natural that if the inner and rational core doesn’t respond appropriately, or doesn’t seek to renew its theoretical foundations, the emotional and sometimes superstitious layers threaten the function of the rational core. There’s often an attempt to replace the shell with the core, or the rational core seeks to justify and adapt to external growths.

Throughout history, several prominent figures have particularly represented the rational core of Shi’ism, such as Shaykh Mufid, Sharif Murtadha, Khwaja Nasir al-Din, ‘Allama Hilli, and many others, including the late Ayatollah Motahhari.

Abdul Jalil Qazwini 2 refers to a balanced line of Shi’ism as ‘Usuli Shi’a’. Usuli Shi’a represents the balanced Shi’ism against tendencies like the Ghulat (extremists), Mufawwidha (delegators), and Akhbaris. The Ghulat, Mufawwidha, and Akhbaris typically emphasized emotional and peripheral aspects of Shi’ism. The core of Shi’ism should be sought in the legacy of Usuli Shi’ism. As Abdul Jalil Qazwini introduces in his book, Usuli Shi’ism doesn’t believe in the distortion, omission, or addition in the Quran. It opposes the Ghulat and Mufawwidha. While it believes in a divine mandate for Imamat and criticizes the logic of Saqifa, it opposes disrespect to the Prophet’s companions and wives. It holds monotheistic views in theological thoughts and is against determinists. When transmitting hadiths, it adheres to the principles of critique and doesn’t follow the Akhbari approach. It respects the jurisprudential efforts of other schools, even if it has jurisprudential criticisms, and sees them within the framework of jurisprudential differences. These are some of the characteristics Abdul Jalil Qazwini mentioned as markers of Usuli Shi’ism.


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  2. There is an excellent paper on the terms Akhbari-Usuli as used by Abdul Jalil Qazwini, that I edited for Dr. Hadi Gerami, which is a must-read: The Socio-Political Aspect of Religious Terminologies in Medieval Iran: The Case of “Akhbārī-uṣūlī” in Kitāb al-Naqḍ Written by ʿAbd al-Jalīl Qazwīnī Rāzī (d. 560/1165).