Shaikh Bahai

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Arsalan Rizvi
For months now, the Roman emissary had been spreading confusion and doubt among the people of Isfehan. Nothing was hidden from him, he claimed. People would ask him the most intimate questions about their lives, and he would answer instantly. Many had become deeply confused; others were considering leaving the folds of Islam. And then the fateful day arrived. A large crowd had gathered, as the greatest scholar of Isfehan had finally agreed to take the emissary's challenge. He put forward his closed fist, and asked a simple question: what am I holding in my hand? For what seemed like the longest time, the emissary stared at the scholar's clenched fist, and then a look of awe overcame him. "Why isn't your magic working now?" someone in the crowd retorted. "My magic is working," the emissary replied. "But what I can't determine is how this ordinary man came to possess this incredible item that is in his hand." As the crowd took on a look of confusion, the emissary continued, "What this man has hidden in the palm of his hand is the soil of heaven! But how could a mortal come in possession of it?!" Hidden from the crowd's sight, the scholar slowly opened his fist and showed the emissary what he was holding. The latter looked at it, and a look of defeat mixed with reverence instantly overcame him. Having seen the people of Isfehan frequently use it, he knew exactly what it was. "If my magic says that this object is from the soil of heaven," he thought to himself, "then these people are truly following the Path of God." To the crowd's utter shock, he instantly fell at the scholar's feet and said, "I bear witness that there is no god but God, and Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) is the messenger of God." And then, the scholar opened his palm and showed the crowd what he was holding, instantly drawing tears and sobs of awe from everyone present. Clutched in Shaikh Bahai's hand was a rosary made of the soil of Karbala.

He was born Muhammad ibn Hussain al-Harithi Amili Bahai in 953 AH in Jabal Amil in southern Lebanon. After acquiring early education in his hometown from his father Shaikh Hasan, a noted scholar himself, he moved on to Iran, where he studied under several notable scholars of the time. He authored many groundbreaking works in Shia jurisprudence, including Urwat al-Wuthqa, Habl al-Mateen, and Jaama-e-Abbasi, as well as the first Persian-language jurisprudence manual aimed at the layman. He also trained several great scholars, including Mulla Sadra and Mulla Faiz Kashani. Upon the demise of Muqaddas Ardabili in 993 AH, he was recognized as the Marja Taqleed (supreme religious authority) of the Shia world.

Iran under the Safavid dynasty had a system of clerical guardianship, where a jurist was given supreme authority over the law. This post had first been occupied by the esteemed Muhaqqiq al-Karki. He was followed by Shaikh Ali Minshar, who was Shaikh Bahai's father-in-law. Upon his death, Shaikh Bahai became the Shaikh al-Islam of Iran.

In addition to acquiring religious knowledge, Shaikh Bahai was also a noted architect, mathematician, geographer, astronomer, and poet. He traveled around the world as far east as Ceylon, as far west as Egypt, and as far north as Azerbaijan, learning new arts and sciences. He penned several books on mathematics, architecture, and astronomy, as well as several famous works of Persian poetry. Not since the time of Shaikh Naseeruddin Tusi had the Shia world seen a religious leader who was so well-rounded in so many other fields as well.

In addition to his religious and political contributions in Iran, he also left behind several architectural marvels. Much of Isfehan's landmarks today were designed by him. The most famous of these was a bath called Hammam-e-Bahai (the bath of Bahai). Regardless of the time of the year, the water in the bath was always lukewarm. In their curiosity to find out how it worked, the British destroyed the bath several centuries later. To their surprise, they discovered only a small candle burning below the water reservoir, which had somehow managed to keep the water temperature steady for over 250 years! He also designed the famous Chehel Sotun (the mosque with forty pillars), as well as the famous bridges of Isfehan. Shah Abbas had extended his reign over parts of Iraq, and Shaikh Bahai also began construction on the mausoleum of Imam Ali (peace be upon him) in Najaf.

This polymathic leader and guardian of the Shia world departed from this world in 1031 AH. He was buried in the shrine of Imam Ridha (peace be upon him) in Mash'had.


EDITOR'S NOTE: These articles are adaptations of lectures delivered by Maulana Sadiq Hasan in Karachi, Pakistan, during the 1980s on the lives of the great scholars of Islam. The Urdu lectures can be accessed at Hussainiat.com. For previous articles in this series, please look under the History section.

Our valuable member Arsalan Rizvi has been with us since Monday, 07 January 2008.

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