Life and Times of Sheikh Murtadha Ansari

Shaykh Murtada bin Muhammad Amin Ansari was a descendent of the Holy Prophet’s (S) noble companion, Jabir bin `Abdullah Ansari. He was born on 18th Dhul Hajj (the day of `Id ul-Ghadir) 1214/1799 in Dizful, Iran. For 20 years, he studied in Iran before leaving for Iraq. After a brief stay there, he returned to Iran. In 1249/1833 he decided to visit the holy shrines of Iraq, but this journey was destined to be final, for here he started his own classes in Najaf which made him world famous.

Shaykh Murtada bin Muhammad Amin Ansari was a descendent of the Holy Prophet’s
(S) noble companion, Jabir bin `Abdullah Ansari. He was born on 18th Dhul Hajj
(the day of `Id ul-Ghadir) 1214/1799 in Dizful, Iran.

For 20 years, he studied in Iran before leaving for Iraq. After a brief stay
there, he returned to Iran. In 1249/1833 he decided to visit the holy shrines of
Iraq, but this journey was destined to be final, for here he started his own
classes in Najaf which made him world famous.

He studied under Sharif al-`Ulama’ Mazandarani in Karbala, Mulla Ahmad Naraqi in
Kashan and Shaykh Musa and Shaykh `Ali Kashif al-Ghita in Najaf.[1]

After the death of Shaykh Muhammad Hasan Najafi (author, Jawahir al-Kalam) in
1266/1849, Shaykh Ansari emerged as the undisputed marja` of the Shi’is. He was
to become the most distinguished jurisprudent of the Shi`ite world in the
nineteenth century.

He died in Najaf in 1281/1864 at the age of 65 years.

Shaykh Ansari’s Personal Qualities

Shaykh Ansari was famous for his retentive memory, speedy resolution of
intellectual problems and his innovative teaching methods.

Amongst these novel teaching methods was the style known as mas’ala sazi, which
involved constructing hypothetical legal problems and then discussing all the
possible ramifications and resolutions of the problem.[2]

His personal character was beyond reproach and he has been described as
extremely pious, leading a simple lifestyle. He possessed a fair and just
character. His aversion to the accumulation of wealth is demonstrated by his
practice of immediately distributing bequests to the needy and the students of
religion.[3] At his death he is reported to have left only 70 qaran (GBP £ 3.00
approx) [4]

The Appointment of Shaykh Ansari

At his deathbed, the sole Marja` of the time, Shaykh Muhammad Hasan Najafi,
introduced Shaykh Ansari as his successor. The appointment of the 52 year old
Shaykh Ansari indicated the absence of any scholar in the holy cities (`Atabat)
who could match his competence, knowledge, reputation and influence.

Initially, Shaykh Ansari invited his former classmate from Karbala, Mulla Sa`id
Barfurushi Sa`id ul-`Ulama’ (d. 1270/1854) to assume the leadership in Najaf on
the grounds that he was more knowledgeable in the law. However, the latter
declined, arguing that although he had indeed been more knowledgeable during
their studies, he had subsequently been mostly engaged in public affairs, while
Shaykh Ansari had been teaching and writing, and was therefore, more qualified
for the role.[5]

Shaykh Ansari’s success in establishing his pre-eminence was due to his personal
qualities as well as his background. Coming from Dizful, a region with a mixed
Persian-Arabic culture, he could teach in both languages and bridge the ethnic
divide between the Arab and Iranian `Ulama’.[6]

His Developments in Usul-al Fiqh [7]

While most Mujtahidin mastered one scholarly field, Shaykh Ansari excelled in
both usul and fiqh. He introduced major developments in the principles of
jurisprudence that remain current to the present day. His most important
contribution was in deriving a set of principles to be used in formulating
decisions in cases where there is doubt. In this regard he provided a new scope
to the discourse on fiqh. He divided legal decisions into four categories:

1. Certainty (qat`). This represents cases where clear decisions can be obtained
from the Qur’an or reliable Traditions (ahadith).

2. Valid Conjecture (zann mu`tabar). This represents cases where the probability
of correctness can be created by using certain rational principles.

3. Doubt (shakk). This refers to cases where there is no guidance available from
the sources and nothing to indicate the probability of what is the correct
answer. It is in relation to the cases that Shaykh Ansari formulated four
guiding principles which he called Usul al-`amaliyya[8] (practical principles).
His most important work, al-Rasa’il (Fara`id al usul) is taken up explaining

4. Erroneous Conjecture (wahm). This refers to cases where there is a
probability of error; such decisions are of no legal standing.

The effect of the developments instituted by Shaykh Ansari was far-reaching.
Previously the Mujtahidin had confined themselves to giving rulings where there
was the probability or certainty of being in accordance with the guidance of the
Imams (A). However, the rules developed by Shaykh Ansari allowed them to extend
their jurisdiction to any matter where there was even a possibility of being in
accordance with the guidance of the Imams (A). This effectively meant that they
could issue edicts on virtually any subject. Shaykh Ansari’s own strict exercise
of caution (ihtiyat) severely restricted this freedom, but some other Mujtahidin
allowed themselves a freer hand.

Differing Ideologies and the Political Backdrop to the Period of Leadership
of Shaykh Ansari

Towards the end of the lifetime of Shaykh Muhammad Hasan Najafi, the major
concerns of the `Ulama’ were the conclusion of the Usuli-Akhbari conflict, the
appearance of the Shaykhi and Babi movements and contending with the Qajar and
British rule.[9]

1. The Akhbari School. Although a part of the mainstream Twelver Shi’ism from is
earliest days, this school crystallised into a separate movement following the
writings of Mulla Muhammad Amin Astaraabadi (d. 1033/1623). It achieved its
greatest influence during the late and post-Safavid periods but was crushed by
the `Usuli Mujtahidin at the end of the Qajar era.

Essentially the Akhbari school accepted Qur’an and Sunna in matters of doctrine
and law, while rejecting consensus (ijma` ) and intellect (`aql).The
contribution of Shaykh Ansari in strengthening the `Usuli position is well

2. The Shaykhi School. Whereas the Akhbari school differed from the `Usulis
principally in matters of furu`, the Shaykhi School, founded by Shaykh Ahmad ibn
Zaynu’d-Din al-Ahsa’i (d. 1241/1826), differed principally in usul. There is
evidence that Shaykh Najafi made attempts to marginalize their role, but there
is no information about Shaykh Ansari’s direct confrontation against them.

3. The Babi movement started when Sayyid `Ali Muhammad Shirazi (d. 1263/1850)
took the title Bab and in time declared that the Shari`a was abrogated and
brought a new religious book. Shaykh Ansari reacted by enhancing religious
awareness in the smaller towns by setting up religious schools funded by Khums

4. Shaykh Ansari largely ignored both Qajar and British influences, and appeared
apolitical. Although he reached an agreement in 1852 with the British consul
Rawlinson on the distribution of bequest funds in Najaf, he subsequently
withdrew from the distribution in 1860, when he suspected that the bequest was a
British ploy to buy influence amongst the `Ulama’.[10]

After the Death of Shaykh Ansari

Shaykh Ansari did not introduce a successor to his position although he was well
aware of the capability of his students. He may have preferred the practice of
choice (tarkhis) in selecting the marja` [11]. After his death no single figure
immediately assumed his position. For a period of at least ten years, the
Shi’ite leadership was divided between the more capable Mirza Hasan Shirazi (d.
1313/1895) and his seniors Mirza Habibullah Rasti (d. 1312/1894) and Sayyid
Husayn Kuhkamara’i (d. 1299/1882), who was popular among the Turkish speaking
Shi’is. Only after the death of Sayyid Kuhkamara’i and the withdrawal of Mirza
Rashti did Mirza Hasan Shirazi emerge as the sole supreme source of emulation
for a period of twenty-one years.

The Lasting Impact of the Work of Shaykh Ansari

Shaykh Ansari provided the groundwork for the `Ulama’ to issue fatawa (edicts)
on virtually any legal problem by giving a new scope to the application of legal
theory, especially that of al-`usul al-`amaliyya – discussed earlier. He also
introduced the notion that it was necessary for the community to follow the
opinion of a Mujtahid.[12]

This idea was transformed subsequently by Tabataba-i Yazdi (d. 1337/1919) into
an initial prerequisite for every Shi’i reaching the age of responsibility (taklif).
Eventually, it became a commonly held view that the performance of Islamic
duties (such as prayer and fasting) are void without doing the taqlid
(emulation) of a marja`.[13]

This has indeed contributed to the authority of the `Ulama’ not only in the
juridical but also in the political sense.


Shaykh Ansari was a genius of extra ordinary calibre. In Usul and Fiqh, his
originality and analytic mind enabled him to blaze a new path, a path which has
been adopted and followed by all the subsequent Fuqaha. His two great works, al-Rasa’il
in Usul and al-Makasib in Fiqh are an inalienable part of the curriculum in
modern Hawzas.

He established conclusively the dominance of the Usuli position against the neo-Akhbari
Traditionism and completed the work started by Muhammad Baqir Vahid al Bihbihani
(d. 1205/1791) in this regard.

Amongst the Shi’i Fuqaha, the figure of Shaykh Murtada Ansari towers high. He
certainly is the most famous marja` of the pre-Modern Age, and is rightly known
as "Khatimul Fuqaha wal Mujtahidin" – the Seal of the Mujtahidin.[14]

Further Reading

Jaffer, Asgharali M.M., Fiqh and Fuqaha, World Federation of K.S.I.M.C., London,

Litval, Meir, Shi`i scholars of nineteenth-century Iraq, Cmbridge University
Press, 1998.

Momen, Moojan., An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, Yale University Press, London,

Moussavi, Ahmad Kazemi. Religious Authority in Shi’ite Islam, International
Institute of Islamic Thought, Kuala Lumpur, 1996.


[1] Asgharali M.M. Jaffer, Fiqh and Fuqaha, p. 38

[2] Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, p. 202

[3] Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Yazdi, al `Urwatu’l Wuthqa, p.4

[4] Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, p. 311

[5] Meir Litval, Shi`i scholars of nineteenth-century Iraq, p. 71

[6] Meir Litval, Shi`i scholars of nineteenth-century Iraq, p. 71

[7] Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, p. 186,187

[8] Briefly, the Usul al-`amaliyya consist of

1. al-bara’a: Allowing the maximum possible freedom of action.
2. al-takhyir: freedom of selecting the opinions of other jurists or even other
schools of law.
3. al-istishab: the continuation of any state of affairs in existence, or legal
decisions already accepted unless the contrary can be proved.
4. al-ihtiyat: prudent caution whenever in doubt.

[9] Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam, p. 135

[10] Meir Litval, Shi`i scholars of nineteenth-century Iraq, p. 71

[11] Ahmad Kazemi Moussavi, Religious Authority in Shi’ite Islam, p. 204

[12] Murtada Ansari, Sirat al-Najat, p. 1

[13] Commentaries by a number of contemporary `ulama’ on Yazdi’s al-`Urwa, pp

[14] Asgharali M.M. Jaffer, Fiqh and Fuqaha, p. 39

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