Muhammad Hussain Kashef al-Gheta’ was born in Najaf in 1877.
His Education and Teachers
He benefited from instruction by all the luminaries of the day resident there. With Mirzā Ḥosayn Nuri (d. 1903), he studied Hadith; with Mollā Reżā Hamadāni (d. 1904), kalām (theology); with Mirzā Ḥussain KHalili (d. 1908), jurisprudence; and, from 1894 onward, with “the two Kāẓems,” Akhund Muhammad Kazem Khorasani (d. 1329/1911) and Sayyed Moḥammad Kāẓem Yazdi (d. 1919), again, jurisprudence. He was particularly attached to the last-named, who towards the end of his life would often refer problems to him for solution. According to Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ’s own account, he went beyond the limits of the conventional curriculum by studying the works of Mollā Ṣadrā and Ibn Arabi and learning Persian well enough to acquaint himself with the writings of Rumi, Jami, and Shabestari and to translate into Arabic the Safar-nāma of Nāṣer-e Khosrow.
It was a work of entirely non-traditional nature that marked his entry into the political sphere. The precise title and contents of the book are difficult to discern. According to his own account, it was called al-Din wa’l-Eslām, with the subtitle al-Daʿwat al-Eslāmiya elā maḏhab al-Emāmiya (“An Islamic invitation to the Imami School”). The first part had already been published and the preparation of the second was underway when the Ottoman authorities, on the orders of Nāẓem Pasha, governor of Baghdad, raided the Dār al-Salām printing press and confiscated all copies of both parts. Other sources give the title as al-Din wa’l-Eslām aw al-Daʿwat al-Eslāmiya, with the crucial mention of the Imāmi [= Shiʿite] school omitted. If the original title of the book was indeed that mentioned by Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ himself, it is perhaps understandable that the Ottoman authorities should have found it objectionable, even though for Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ—like others after him—conveying an accurate understanding of Shiʿism was essential to Sunni-Shiʿite rapprochement. It is also possible that after the misadventure in Baghdad, he modified the title and perhaps even the contents when he had the work published outside of Iraq. The gist of the book is said to be that Muslims should overcome their divisions in the face of the political and cultural threat posed by Europe, and that the scholars in particular should extend their aid to the “just ruler”—by whom, under the circumstances, the Ottoman sultan must be intended.
Ayatollah Sayyed Mohsin Hakeem
Ayatollah Muhammad Javad Maqniya
Ayatollah Qazi Tabatabaei
In 1911, Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ went on the Hajj, traveling by mule from Kāẓemiya to Damascus and then on by train to Medina.
Travel to some Arab Countries and Held Meetings with Scholars
Instead of returning to Iraq immediately after performing the pilgrimage, he spent a total of three years in Damascus, Beirut, Sidon, and Cairo, making the acquaintance of a number of scholars, Sunni and Shiʿite alike, as well as Amin al-Rayḥāni, a Maronite proponent of Arab nationalism. In Cairo, he met with Salim al-Beshri, the rector of the Azhar, discussing with him in friendly fashion the salient differences between Sunni and Shiʿite Islam, particularly with respect to matters of law. Less harmonious were the debates Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ held with the Christian missionaries who gathered every night at an American church in Cairo: he put into writing the arguments he made in refutation of the trinity and the crucifixion in a short book, Tawżiḥ fi bayān mā howa al-Enjil wa mā howa al-Masiḥ. Especially important during his three year absence from Iraq was a sojourn in Sidon. Two years before his arrival there, a local Shiʿite scholar, Aḥmad ʿĀref al-Zayn, had established a publishing house called al-ʿErfān, which published a journal of the same name. He agreed to print Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ’s al-Din wa’l-Eslām, and Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ thereafter contributed regularly to the journal, as well as marrying a cousin of its publisher.
Return to Najaf
In late 1913, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ returned to Najaf. In common with other Shiʿite scholars, he regarded the defense of Ottoman Iraq against the British to be an instance of jehād, and in 1917 he went to Kut al-ʿAmāra to participate in person in the attempt to ward off an advancing British force; he was accompanied by, among others, Sayyed Moḥammad Yazdi, son of Sayyed Moḥammad Kāẓem Yazdi. Not long after the end of the war, Yazdi the senior died, and Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ inherited part of his following, initially in tandem with his own brother, Aḥmad, who died in 1926.
He never attained the position of foremost marjaʿ al-taqlid (source of emulation) for the entire Shiʿite world, being in this respect overshadowed by Abu’l-Ḥasan Eṣfahāni (d. 1946), but he had a demonstrably large number of followers in India, Persia, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatif, and East Africa. His influence was most marked, however, in Iraq itself, not only in Najaf but among the Shiʿite tribes of the mid-Euphrates; he counted, indeed, as the most prominent Arab mojtahed throughout the period of the Iraqi monarchy. He worked tirelessly for a representation of the Shiʿite community in government organs reflecting its majority status, an issue which became particularly acute in 1935. Sunni opposition groups led by Rāshed ʿAli Gaylāni had encouraged tribes along the mid-Euphrates to revolt in order to advance their own purposes; the summons was followed by some of their number, while others remained loyal to the government.
Both groups appealed to Kāshefal- Ghetāʾ for his guidance, and he made use of the occasion to press for increased rights for the Shiʿite community as a whole. On 23 March 1935, assisted by a group of Shiʿite lawyers from Baghdad, he drew up a list of twelve demands, submitted it to the government, and, at the end of the month, issued a Fatwa calling on all Shiʿites to sever their connections with the political parties. The government proved unresponsive to the demands, and in May a tribal revolt began, leading to bombardment of the region by the Iraqi air force. Appeals by Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ and his colleagues for negotiation were ignored until the uprising threatened to spread more widely; it was only then that the government declared its readiness to engage in discussions. At the same time, however, the Iraqi military succeeded in suppressing the tribes of Rumaytha, seriously weakening the revolt, with the result that Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ found it advisable to call on tribes still fighting to desist. Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ himself summarizes his role in the events of 1935 by recalling that he spent six months attempting, day and night, to restore security and stop bloodshed along the mid-Euphrates.
By contrast, when Gaylāni came out in open revolt against the Iraqi government in 1941, Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ issued a fatwā in support of the movement.
His exertions on behalf of the Shiʿite community in Iraq were complemented by an effort to correct misunderstandings of Shiʿite beliefs and history widespread not only in Iraq but elsewhere in the Arab world. In 1928, the Egyptian historian Aḥmad Amin (d. 1954) published in Cairo his Fajr al-Eslām (“The dawn of Islam”), a widely read work in which, inter alia, he denounced Shiʿism as a Persian conspiracy designed to exact vengeance on the Arabs for the overthrow of the Sasanid empire; it served, he claimed, as the receptacle for remnants of various pre- Islamic beliefs—Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and even Hinduism—that were being insidiously propagated in the early Muslim community in order to corrupt its faith.
The book was at one and the same time an expression of Sunni particularism, Arab nationalism, and receptivity to the theories of orientalists such as Carl Brockelmann and Gotthelf Bergsträsser.
Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ had acquired some familiarity with the mentality informing Aḥmad Amin’s work during his three years in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, and the book caught his attention immediately after its publication. In 1931, it so happened that Sāṭeʿ al-Ḥoṣri, Iraqi prime minister of the day, invited a delegation of professors from Cairo University to visit Iraq, and Aḥmad Amin was one of their number. This provided Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ with the opportunity to upbraid the visitor in person for his errors of fact and analysis and to debate with him, in front of a large audience in Najaf, the questions of ejtehād as varyingly interpreted by Sunni and Shiʿite jurists and the ʿeṣma (inerrancy) of the Twelve Imams. More importantly, the encounter with Aḥmad Amin impelled Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ to write one of his most lastingly influential works: Aṣl al-SHiʿa wa oṣulohā (“The origin of Shiʿite Islam and its principles”). Constantly reprinted and translated into a wide variety of languages, the book opens with a lament concerning the general ignorance of Shiʿism among Sunni Arabs before taking issue with Aḥmad Amin’s portrayal of Shiʿism as subversive: he identifies as Shiʿite or proto-Shiʿite numerous members of the first two generations of Islam, the Companions and the Followers, and stresses the role played by Shiʿite scholars and statesmen in serving Islam precisely during the period examined by Aḥmad Amin. Then comes a vindication of the principle of the imamate, based on Traditions found in Sunni sources, and an exposition in turn of the oṣul al-din (creedal bases) of Shiʿism: tawḥid (the divine unity), nobowwat (prophethood), imamate, ʿadl (the inherent justice of all divine acts), and maʿād (resurrection and judgement). The longest section of the book details Shiʿite rulings on major topics of law, and its conclusion explains the belief in badāʾ (the appearance of change in the divine will) and the practice of taqiya (prudential dissimulation). In a separate work, al-Āyāt al-bayyenāt (“Clear signs”) Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ also took issue with what he called “al- Omawiya,” i.e., the tendency of Aḥmad Amin and his like to idealize the Omayyad period as the apex of both ʿoruba (Arabism) and Islam; Baha’ism, Wahhabism, and materialism (al-ṭabiʿiya; meaning in this case Darwinism) also come under attack in the same work.
Participate in General Islamic Congress in Jerusalem
In 1931, Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ traveled to Jerusalem to participate in the General Islamic Congress that was intended to foster unity among Muslims, address the threat of Zionism, and discuss methods of educational reform. The speech he delivered in the twelfth session of the congress calling for Muslim solidarity in the face of imperialism, the defense of Palestine, and the disregard of sectarian differences was enthusiastically received, and its text was printed and distributed by the organizers. At least equally significant was the fact that he was chosen, on the suggestion of ʿEyāż Esḥāqi, a delegate from Kazan, to lead congregational prayers at the Masjed al-Aqṣā on the night of 27 Rajab 1350 (6 December 1931), the anniversary of the date on which the Prophet had departed from that location on his night journey to the heavens. In addition to the 150 delegates to the congress, some 25,000 Palestinians also participated in the prayer, according to Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ’s own reckoning. This was certainly the largest gathering of predominantly Sunni Muslims ever to have been led in prayer by a Shiʿite scholar, and Kāshefal- Ghetāʾ said of the occasion, “the seed of Islamic unity had been planted.”
Controversies, however, persisted in the immediate aftermath of the prayer and beyond. Rashid Reżā (d. 1935), the well-known disciple of Muhammad ʿAbdoh who had chaired one of the committees of the congress, found himself at odds with ʿAbd al-Ḥosayn Nur al-Din, a Lebanese Shiʿite scholar who took him to task with some vehemence in the pages of al-ʿErfān for his critical attitude to Shiʿism. Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ distanced himself from his Lebanese colleague, but not, in the view of Rashid Reżā, decisively enough, who also condemned him for alleged arrogance in claiming to be the pioneer of Islamic ecumenism (Brunner, pp. 99-102). Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ nonetheless continued his involvement in efforts for Sunni-Shiʿite rapprochement. In 1938, he even gave his cautious approval to a chimerical scheme for a renewal of the caliphate, modified to accommodate Shiʿite sensibilities, while warning that the project might well be an imperialist-inspired attempt to divert Muslims from the supreme cause that was Palestine (Brunner, p. 113, n. 119). His devotion to that cause inspired an invitation to Ḥāj Amin al-Ḥussaini, the mofti of Jerusalem, to deliver a sermon during Moḥarram at the shrine of Imam ʿAli at Najaf, a development as remarkable and unprecedented as had been his leading of Sunnis in prayer at the Masjied al-Aqṣā.
Kashef al-Gheta’ and Islamic Unity
The year 1947 witnessed the foundation in Cairo of the Jamāʿat al-taqrib bayn al-maḏāheb al-Eslāmiya (“Society for rapprochement of the Islamic schools of thought”), an attempt to provide an institutional basis for Sunni-Shiʿite dialogue. Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ welcomed the initiative, became a corresponding member of the society, and, beginning in 1949, contributed frequently to its organ, Resālat al-Eslām. He gave further evidence of his devotion to Islamic unity when he attended the Islamic Congress held in Karachi in 1952, giving numerous speeches that focused, again, on Palestine and the need for a united front against Anglo- American imperialism. After its conclusion, he gave lectures in Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Muzaffarabad.
By contrast, Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ declined an invitation to a conference held two years later at Bhamdun in Lebanon under the auspices of the American Friends of the Middle East, a propaganda organization founded in 1951 with financial support from the CIA and Aramco. The declared aim of the Bhamdun conference was to unite Muslim and Christian believers in solidarity against atheistic communism, in the hope that the Muslim world, laying aside all other issues, would align itself unconditionally with America in the Cold War. Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ was indeed disquieted by the appeal held by communism for many Iraqi Shiʿites, and he had condemned it in a fatwā as kofr, but he regarded the Bhamdun initiative as deceptive. He expounded his reasons at some length in a work entitled al-Moṯol al-ʿolyā fi’l-Eslām, lā fi Beḥamdun (“The supreme ideals are to be found in Islam, not at Bhamdun”). The essence of his argument was that the Arab and Muslim worlds were beset by three demons (ʿafārit)—communism, Zionism, and imperialism; of the three, it was imperialism and its offshoot, Zionism, that needed immediate attention, for it was their depredations that made communism—in itself a thoroughly empty creed—appear attractive to some Muslims. The American pretense to be concerned with spiritual values was simply a veil for deep-seated materialism.
Much of Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ’s attention was focused, then, on the Arab world and its problems; although ideologically distant from the Arab nationalists, even those of religious bent, he did not hesitate to invoke the concept of ʿoruba (Arabism) beloved of them.
He nonetheless took care to learn Persian, and visited Persia at least three times. He first went there in 1933, spending roughly eight months in the country, leading the prayers and delivering lectures and sermons—in Persian, he is careful to point out—in Tehran, Hamadan, Shiraz, and Mashhad. The leitmotiv was, as always, the need for Islamic unity and rejection of the decadent culture of the West. He paid return visits to Persia in 1947, 1948, and 1950.
It has been suggested that, within Iraq, Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ led a group of Arab mojtaheds that sought to dislodge Persian ʿolamāʾ resident in Najaf from their positions of pre-eminence. The evidence for this is slight; the most that may be said is that he was engaged in the politics of Iraq and other Arab countries to a considerably higher degree than his Persian colleagues. Virtually all of his teachers had been Persian, and he collaborated with Abu’l- Ḥasan Eṣfahāni, supreme marjaʿ al-taqlid of the day, on a variety of matters, primarily educational. One of his closest associates in Iraq was, moreover, a Persian scholar. Aqa Bozorg Tehrani(d. 1970), the great bibliographer of Shiʿite literature, first made the acquaintance of Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ in the circle of Mirzā Ḥosayn Nuri when he arrived in Najaf in 1895. After Nuri’s death, both men decided to study with Āḵund Muhammad Kāẓem Khorāsāni and Sayyed Mohammad Kāẓem Yazdi. They remained close friends until Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ’s death.
His legacy was twofold: a vast body of writings, only some of which appeared in his lifetime, and an example of militancy that was influential both in Iraq and in Persia. Foremost among those inspired by him in Iraq was Muhammad Bāqer al-Ṣadr, put to death by the regime of Ṣaddām Ḥussain in 1980. Two of his major concerns were taken up forcefully by Imam Khomeini: an emphasis on Islamic unity in the face of Western imperialism and a firm commitment to the struggle against Zionism. In his seminal work on Islamic government, Imam Khomeini cites Kāshef-al- Ghetāʾ as one of those who had preceded him in articulating the doctrine of velāyat-e faqih. It may also not be coincidental that one of the slogans of the Islamic Revolution, lā sharqiya, lā ḡarbiya, jomhuriya eslāmiya (“neither east nor west; Islamic republic!”) echoed a formulation of Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ, lā sharqiya, lā ḡarbiya, ommaton eslāmiya (“neither east nor west; Islamic nation!”).
Kāshef-al-Ghetāʾ’s exposition of the reasons for his refusal to attend the conference at Bhamdoun came to serve as his political testament. For soon after, he was hospitalized in Baghdad for a prostate infection, but fearing that for political reasons he would be denied adequate treatment, his relatives removed him from the hospital and took him to Karand in southern Persia. There he Passed away, on 19 July 1954. His body was taken first to Baghdad, and then, accompanied by a massive cortege, to Najaf for burial.