Authority and Khums in the Absence of the Imām: Reflections of Two Safavid-era Jurists

By Mohammad Sagha

This post examines how two Ṣafavid-era jurists, Ḥussayn b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽĀmilī (d. 985/1577-8),[1] and Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī (d. 1111/1698) conceptualized the authority to collect and spend the portion of khums[2]allocated for the Imām’s discretion (sahm al-Imām)[3] during the period of occultation.[4] Shīʽī legal reasoning regarding the allocation of khums is important as it resulted in the largest source of funding for the contemporary Shīʽī clergy and is the financial foundation for the marjaʽīyya institution today, in which all non-mujtahid Shīʿīs (i.e. those not qualified to deduce Islamic laws themselves) must emulate from a most learned Grand Ayatollāh.[5]

I argue that Shīʽī juristic discourse pertaining to khums (as well as zakāt) following the occultation of the Twelfth Imām from 260/874 until the present day constitutes a key arena in which broader political and religious thought is expressed by Shīʽī jurists. The absence of an accessible Imām in 260/874 resulted in Shīʿī jurists to formulate complex legal reasoning to adapt to the wide-ranging implications of how occultation would affect religious doctrine and practice. Al-ʽĀmilī and Majlisī express this political and religious thought in two key arenas: the status of the akām (religious injunctions), and the locus of delegated authority over definitions and implementation of Islamic law after the Imāms are no longer present to actively guide the Shīʿī community.

As for sources of this study, I focus on al-ʽĀmilī’s work entitled Maṣraf Ḥaq al-Imām in which he discusses the status of khums collection in the absence of an accessible Imām. I also focus on Bīst o Panj Risāleh-ye Farsī of Majlisī, who was perhaps the foremost jurist of his time. His writing reflects the consolidation of the view that khums should be given to a just jurist (mujtahid ʽādil). By focusing on the writings of these two eminent Ṣafavid-era jurists, I hope to capture a historical moment in which a religiously inspired post-occultation Imamī Shīʽī government comes to power for the first time.

Al-ʽĀmilī begins his treatise by outlining the various positions on the status of khums collection that jurists before him argued were obligatory during the occultation.[6]  These positions include burying khums contributions;[7] throwing them into the sea; placing them in perpetual trust; considering them to be part of the anfāl (war spoils)[8] for which Shīʽī use is permissible, that is neither prohibited nor encouraged (mubā); and finally using the khums to provide for needy descendants[9] of the Prophet’s Family.[10] Al-ʽĀmilī considers the first two—burying of khums or its throwing into the sea as completely wasteful. Likewise he regards placing khums contributions in perpetual trusts as equally inefficient and risky given the lack of trustworthy people, especially as time progresses and keeping track of the money becomes increasingly difficult.[11] Writing over half a millennium after the beginning of the major occultation, he rhetorically asks: where is any of the khums money that were placed in trusts now?

Instead, al-ʽĀmilī posits that best route of action is that Muslims give khums contributions to the needy members of the Family of the Prophet.[12] Al-ʽĀmilī states that all of the latter generations of Shīʽī scholars and most of the earlier generations of Shīʽī scholars believed that the best way to spend khums money was on the needy family members of the Prophet in spite of the fact that ḥadīth reports supporting distribution to them are weak (ḍaʽīf). Al-ʽĀmilī further explains that this is the most sensible route because the other options are either wasteful (such as burying the khums) or legally neutral, whereas to spend it on the needy members of the Family of the Prophet is more in line with precedent and therefore defensible.[13]

After arguing that believing Shīʽīs should donate khums contributions to the needy members of the Prophet’s Family, al-ʽĀmilī makes the case for jurists (mujtahids) to be the recipients of the khums contributions in order to appropriately distribute it. For him, the “jurist is both the agent (wakīl) and deputy (nāʼib) of the Imām. Therefore he completes his duty on behalf of the Imām” whether the Imām is present or not.[14] Interestingly, al-Āmilī considers “just believers” (ʽudūl al-muʼminīn) as having the right to exercise collection and expenditure of khums contributions in lieu of an available jurist in their communities.[15] For support, al-ʽĀmilī cites al-Shahīd al-Awwal’s (d. 786/1385)[16] opinion that just believers can forcibly take zakāt and khums from those who are inexcusably not paying their obligation, in order that it may be spent legitimately.[17] The emphasis here is not on the authority of the jurists, but rather on interpreting the most legitimate application of legal principles in various circumstances. In other words, the concern of al-ʿĀmilī and like-minded thinkers was not necessarily to raise the profile of the jurists as a superior class, rather the concern was in regards to implementing the laws of God which must be upheld in society whether a jurist be accessible or not.

Muḥammad Baqīr Majlisī’s work Bīst o Panj Risāleh-ye Farsī,[18] written approximately two generations after al-ʽĀmilī’s treatise is important for several reasons: (1) Majlisī was the foremost Shīʽī jurist of the time, thus his opinions were influential, and (2) Majlisī can be compared to al-ʽAmilī as a writer living under the Ṣafavid domains. Majlisī’s work in this sense reflects the growing self-identity through which Shīʽī jurists viewed themselves as the legitimate inheritors of the duties of the hidden Imam, perhaps due to the sustained patronage they received from the Safavid state. In Bīst o Panj Risāleh-ye Farsī, Majlisī agrees with al-ʽĀmilī and states that in the time of the major occultation (ghayba), half of the khums contributions which are designated for the Family of the Prophet must be given to a just Imāmī scholar (ʽālim-i ʽādil) so that he may give it to the needy descendants of the Prophet.[19] Additionally, he opined that the share of the Imām (the other half of the khums contributions)[20] should also be given to the just scholar so that he may allocate it towards the needy descendants of the Prophet in case there is a shortcoming in funds. If there is an excess in funds, he concluded that a scholar must entrust the excess to another upright scholar in case the need arises to provide for a needy Family member of the Prophet (sayyid) in the future.[21]

Majlisī then incorporates historical and sociological context to his legal argument. He states that during the time of the minor occultation (260/874 – 329/941), the entirety of the khums contributions was donated to the deputies (ʼibān) of the Imām who distributed the funds with direct orders from the hidden Imām. Apparently, he continues, the general deputies (nāʼib-i ʽāmm) included ḥadīth transmitters, “holy scholars” (ʽulamāʽ-ye rabbānī) and general “carriers of knowledge” who collected khums and distributed it to the descendants of the Prophet.[22] Given that the Shīʽa were historically forced to give their khums in a state of fear and dissimulation (taqiyya) due to repression of tyrannical rulers, Majlisī reasons, what is the excuse for Shīʽīs not to pay their khums now, especially since so many of the descendants of the Prophet are in destitute financial conditions? Implicit in his statement is reference to the security that the Ṣafavid state ensured. There, the Shīʽa did not have to fear a sectarian crackdown based on association with doctrinal beliefs at odds with that of a Sunnī majority. At the same time, he recognized that there was a network of general representatives collecting funds on behalf of the hidden Imām during the minor occultation.

These two scholars—al-ʽAmilī and Majlisī—represent an important historical moment in which a Shīʽī state is established in Iran that provides generous patronage and space for the jurists to function. The legal reasoning advanced by al-ʽĀmilī and Majlisī argue that the absence of the Imām does not mean that Islamic law (akām or sharīʽa) no longer apply, but rather that the authority of the Imām must be delegated in the most appropriate manner. For them, the legitimate inheritors of the Imām’s authority are the jurists, and even if the jurists are unavailable in a certain geographic area, the enforcement of divine law is still incumbent upon believers. In contrast to those jurists who argue for khums contributions to be buried or thrown into the sea, al-ʽĀmilī and Majlisī do not accept quiescence in the face of uncertainty. Instead, when it comes to khums they believe that the absence of the Imām cannot provide a barrier to the realization of sharīʽa.


[1] A scholar in his own right, Ḥussein b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽĀmilī is famously known as the father of Bahā al-Dīn al- ʽĀmilī.  For disambiguation, I use al-ʽAmilī in this paper to refer to the father, not the son. Al-ʽĀmilī was a student of the famous al-Shahīd al-Thānī (d. 965/1558). Following his teacher’s execution by Ottoman authorities, al-ʽĀmilī fled with his family to Ṣafavid domains and served in the court of Shah Tahmasp (d. 1576). The introduction to his treatise on khums is devoted to the Shah, for whose government he prays lasts until the day of judgement; Ḥussein b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽĀmilī, Masraf Ḥaq al-Imām 191 (pr. 1426H/2005). Also see: Kohlberg, Bahāʼ-al-Dīn ʽĀmelī (1988) for further biographical details.

[2] For more details on Khums see post one in this series.

[3] As discussed in my first commentary, khums is divided into two portions: the portion of the Imām (sahm al-Imām) and the portion for the sadāt or descendants of the Prophet Muḥammad’s family.

[4] The occultation refers to the physical disappearance and inaccessibility of the Twelfth Imām following the death of his father, the previously accepted Imām among the Shīʽī community. Given the doctrinal adherence of the Shīʽīs to the Imām as the sole legitimate leader and religious guide of the Muslim community, the occultation (ghayba) confronted the Shīʽīs with unprecedented challenges both doctrinally and socially. For a detailed study on this subject, see: Hossein Modarressi, Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shiʻite Islam (1993).

[5] Linda Walbridge, Thread of Mu’awiya: The Making of a Marja’ Taqlid, Ch. 1 (2014).

[6] For a more in-depth discussion on the details of the various positions, see Abdulaziz Sachedina, Al-Khums: The Fifth in the Imāmī Shīʽī Legal System 286-288 (1980), and post two in this series.

[7] As the editors of the work mention, Shaykh al-Ṭāʼifa Ṭūsī states in his work niḥāyah that the belief behind the burying of the khums is that the ground in which the money/goods are buried will reveal itself when the Twelfth Imām re-emerges from occultation; Ḥussein b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽAmilī, Masraf Ḥaq al-Imām 192 (pr. 1426/2005).

[8] Mohammad Javad Hojjati Kermani, Anfāl, Encyclopedia Islamica.

[9] Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī states that a seyyed (descendent of the Prophet, alternatively sadāt) is someone who can trace their lineage back to ʽAbd al-Muṭṭalib through their father’s line; Bist o panj risaleh-ye Farsī 354 (pr. 1416 H/1995).

[10] Juristic discussions regarding the needy descendants of the Family of the Prophet represent an important aspect of the discussion on khums since during the time of the present Imāms, the descendants were not entitled to zakāt donations in Shīʽī jurisprudence, but were rather are entitled to portions of khums; Ḥussayn b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽAmilī, Masraf Ḥaqq al-Imām 192 (pr. 1426/2005).

[11] Ḥussayn b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽAmilī, Masraf Ḥaqq al-Imām 194 (pr. 1426/2005).

[12] Ḥussein b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽAmilī, Masraf Ḥaqq al-Imām 194 (pr. 1426/2005).

[13] Ḥussein b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽAmilī, Masraf Ḥaqq al-Imām 193 (pr. 1426/2005).

[14] Ḥussein b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽAmilī, Masraf Ḥaqq al-Imām 196 (pr. 1426/2005).

[15] Al- ʽAmilī cites al-Shahīd al-Awwal in supporting this opinion, stating that the Shahīd even goes further in positing that just believers inherit all the responsibilities of the inaccessible jurist save for judgement between parties with legal complaints. Later al-ʽĀmilī cites Ibn Fahd Ḥillī (d. 841H) as even accepting that a just believer could judge between opposing parties; Ḥussein b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽAmilī, Masraf Ḥaqq al-Imām 183, 197 (pr. 1426/2005).

[16] Abū ʽAbdallāh Muḥammad b. Jamāl al-Dīn Makkī al-ʽAmilī “al-Shahīd al-Awwal” was an important Shīʽī jurist from the same ancestral area of Lebanon as Ḥussein b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽAmilī. Al-Shahīd al-Awwal wrote many influential works including al-Lumiʽa al-Damishqīya which is still used as an instructional Islamic jurisprudence text in Shīʽa seminaries to this day.

[17] Ḥussein b. ʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-ʽAmilī, Masraf Ḥaqq al-Imām 198 (pr. 1426/2005).

[18] This work, as the title indicates, contains 25 treatises on various issues written in Persian, most likely meant to be read by a non-specialist audience (in addition to specialists who happened to know Persian). I focus on his treatise #14 entitled, Risaleh-ye zakāt va khums va iʽtikāf.

[19] Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī, Bist o Panj Risaleh-ye Farsī 354 (pr. 1416/1995).

[20] Both writers agree that during the time of the present Imāms, khums was divided by the Imām into two categories: the portion of the needy descendants of the Prophet, and the portion of the Imām. The Imām spent the former as charity, and the latter spending was at his complete discretion.

[21] The author however mentions the unlikelihood of such an event, since the “needy descendants of the Prophet are many and khums contributors few”; Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī, Bist o Panj Risaleh-ye Farsī 355 (pr. 1416/1995).

[22] Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī, Bist o Panj Risaleh-ye Farsī 356 (pr. 1416/1995).

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