Shaykh al-Islām (Arabic: شیخ الاسلام) was the highest ranking Shiite position in the Safavid period until the Pahlavi period. Shaykh al-Islam was in charge of hisba affairs, removing and appointing judges, attending coronation ceremonies, and issuance of permissions and scholarly certificates. In addition to the capital city, other big cities also had their own shaykh al-Islam. Some prominent and influential shaykh al-Islams include Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi in Isfahan, al-Hurr al-'Amili in Mashhad, and Mulla Muhammad Tahir al-Qumi in Qom.
Although shaykh al-Islam was selected by the king, people's opinions were also effective in their selection. In Zand and Qajar periods, the title, shaykh al-Islam, was given to influential scholars as they had a special role in the government, but in the Pahlavi period, with political developments and the establishment of modern courts, the position was forgotten by Shiite scholars.
The title, shaykh al-Islam, was first used in the late 4th/10th century as a religious position in Khorasan. In the 5th/11th century, Isma'il b. Rahman gave the title, shaykh al-Islam, to the head of Shafi'i faqihs (or jurisprudents) in Khorasan. In the 6th/12th century, the title was given to popular faqihs in Egypt and Syria. The title, shaykh al-Islam, was given by Sunni Muslims to prominent scholars, including Fakhr al-Din al-Razi in the 6th/12th century.
Shaykh al-Islam, in the sense of the main governmental mufti (issuer of fatwas) and the head of scholars, was first used in the Ottoman government. Their official sect was Hanafi Sunni Islam. In the Ottoman government, a shaykh al-Islam was in charge of issuing fatwas and legal verdicts on the basis of the Islamic jurisprudential rulings. Around the 10th/16th century, holders of this position in the Ottoman government had views independent from, and sometimes opposing to, those of the central government. This independence gradually faded into full agreement with the Ottoman emperor. Near the end of the Ottoman government, their influence completely faded out.
Although the title, shaykh al-Islam, was common in Iran since the 4th/10th century, it was first used to refer to the highest ranking religious position in the capital and other big cities of the country in the Shiite government of the Safavids. Shaykh al-Islam was usually appointed by the king.
In addition to Iran and the Ottoman territories, the position of shaykh al-Islam was in place in other parts of the Islamic world as well, such as India. Ibn Battuta reported that the Mogul emperor of China appointed a shaykh al-Islam in his governmental system.
Tasks and Authorities
According to some sources, the shaykh al-Islam sat below the King's throne and after the chancellor. This reveals the importance of this position in the Safavid government, although he was supervised by the chancellor. Other sources take shaykh al-Islam—as a religious position—to be equal to the position of chancellor—as an administrative position. Sometimes both positions—chancellor and shaykh al-Islam—were occupied by one person, such as al-Shaykh al-Baha'i in Isfahan.
During the Safavid period, the position of shaykh al-Islam underwent a lot of changes and developments. In the 11th/17th century, shaykh al-Islams played a significant role in the religious structure of the Safavid government. For example, they were in charge of reciting the announcement of a new king's coronation.
Shaykh al-Islam was the highest ranking religious position of the capital and other big cities and was appointed by the king. There are different accounts of a shaykh al-Islam's tasks and authorities in various sources. They include:
- Settling judicial disputes, such as divorces, at homes, rather than courts.
- Judicial affairs and all civil disputes and related issues.
- Hisbiyya affairs, settling disputes, supervising the property of orphans, missing persons, and wards.
- Appointing and removing prosecutors and judges.
- Personal affairs, enforcing religious rulings, receiving khums and zakat, inheritance, and issuing, signing and stamping documents.
- Attending coronation ceremonies.
- Engagement ceremonies of the king's wives.
- Administration of Islamic seminary schools throughout the country and issuance of scholarly certificates and permissions.
- Performing Friday prayers.
During the last years of the Safavid government, shaykh al-Islams were very powerful and influential. According to some sources, in this period, they would sometimes abuse their religious and administrative power to advance their personal interests.
During the Zand and Qajar periods, shaykh al-Islam remained powerful, but in the Pahlavi period, shaykh al-Islam was no longer an official position and it was replaced by modern courts.
Well-Known Shaykh al-Islams
The first person who occupied the position of Shaykh al-Islam in the Safavid government is said to be al-Husayn b. 'Abd al-Samad al-Harithi al-'Amili. The following are some scholars who occupied the position during the Safavid period and afterwards:
- Al-Husayn b. 'Abd al-Samad al-Harithi al-'Amili: Shaykh al-Islam of the capital, Qazvin in the era of Shah Tahmasp I.
- Al-'Allama al-Majlisi: Shaykh al-Islam of the capital, Isfahan, in the period of Shah Sulayman and Sultan Husayn.
- Al-Shaykh al-Hurr al-'Amili: Shaykh al-Islam of Khorasan in the period of Shah Sultan Sulayman al-Safavi.
- Al-Shaykh al-Baha'i: Shaykh al-Islam of Herat in the period of Shah Tahmasp and Shaykh al-Islam of the capital (Isfahan) in the period of Shah Ismail II.
- Mir Muhammad Salih Khatunabadi: Shaykh al-Islam of the capital, Isfahan, in the period of Sultan Husayn al-Safavi.
- Mir Muhammad Husayn Khatunabadi: Shaykh al-Islam of the capital, Isfahan, in the period of Shah Sultan Husayn through the end of the Safavid dynasty.
- Ahmad Qumi: Shaykh al-Islam in Thailand.
- Al-Muhaqqiq al-Karaki: Shaykh al-Islam of the capital in the period of Shah Tahmasp al-Safavi.
- The material for this article has been mainly taken from شیخ الاسلام in Faris WikiShia.