Sayyid Muḥammad ʻAlī b. Waḥīd Bihbahānī known as Aqa Muhammad Ali Kirmanshahi was a Shia influential scholar of fiqh, usul and rijal (biographical evaluation) in 12th/18th and 13th/19th centuries. It is said that Aqa Muhammad Ali reached the level of Ijtihad upon his maturity, as he said that he did not follow anyone in religious rulings.
Muhammad Ali Bihbahani was born in Karbala in 1144/1731-2. His father, Aqa Muhammad Baqir Bihbahani was known as Wahid and his mother was the daughter of the great faqih Aqa Sayyid Muhammad Tabataba’i (d. before 1168/1154-55), the grandfather of ‘Allama Bahr al-‘Ulum (d. 1212/1797).
He was the elder son of Wahid Bihbahani. He received most of his educations from his father in Behbahan and benefited from him so much that he was known the best and most knowledgeable student of Wahid. He went to holy shrines in Iraq with his father in 1159/1746. His other teachers were: Sayyid Husayn b. Abu al-Qasim Musawi Khwansari (d. 1191/1777-78); great grandfather of the author of Rawdat al-jannat, who was among those who gave permission [of narrating hadith] to Aqa Muhammad Ali; al-Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani (d. 1186/1772); Aqa Husayn Khwansari (d. 1198/1687); son of Aqa Jamal Khwansari (d. 1125/1713-14).
Aqa Muhammad Ali reached the level of Ijtihad upon his maturity and said that he did not follow anyone in religious rulings.
According to Aqa Ahmad Khwansari, Aqa Muhammad Ali taught in Karbala. With the spread of plague in Karbala, Najaf and surrounding areas, he went to Kadhimiya and from there, due to strict order of his father, went to Kermanshah and was warmly welcomed by its people and ruler.
After a while teaching in Kermanshah, he went to Rasht and attracted people, so that he became a scholarly authority for the scholars of the city.
He then went to Qom and stayed there for three years until he returned to Kermanshah following repeated requests of Allah Quli Khan Zangina. Aqa Muhammad Ali was always respected and honored by the rulers of Kermanshah.
Muhammad Baqir Wahid Bihbahani, His Father;
Sayyid Husayn b. Abu al-Qasim Musawi Khwansari (d. 1191/1777-78), great grandfather of the author of Rawdat al-jannat, who was among those who gave permission [of narrating hadith] to Aqa Muhammad Ali;
Al-Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani (d. 1186/1772);
Aqa Husayn Khwansari (d. 1198/1687), son of Aqa Jamal Khwansari (d. 1125/1713-14).
Most famous pupils of Aqa Muhammad Ali were:
‘Allama Bahr al-‘Ulum;
al-Sayyid ‘Ali al-Tabataba’i; author of Riyad al-masa’il;
Shaykh Taqi Mulla Kitab;
Mulla ‘Abbas’ali Kazzazi Kirmanshahi.
His Position in Kermanshah
Scientific and cleric position of Aqa Muhammad Ali was honored by Aqa Muhammad Khan Qajar (d. 1211/1797), so that when he was in Tehran in 1205/1790-91, he asked Bihbahani to study with him. When Muhammad Ali Khan Sham Bayati Qajar became the ruler of Kermanshah (1212/1797-98) began to object to Aqa Muhammad Ali and his actions. Thus, Fath’ali Shah (ruling 1212/1797-98 – 1250/1834-35) who respected Aqa Muhammad Ali and his influence, dismissed Muhammad Ali Khan and appointed Fath’ali Khan Qajar, son of Mirza Muhammad Khan, Biglarbeygi of Tehran in his place who respected Aqa Muhammad Ali until the end of his life.
His Competence in Sciences
Aqa Muhammad Ali was competent in most sciences so that scholars of his time praised his knowledge. He was knowledgeable in fiqh of the four schools and when he travelled to Mecca in 1186/1772-73, stayed there for two years and began teaching fiqh there following the manner of some early scholars so that scholars there benefited from his lessons. In these days, he wrote Risalatayn fi tarikh al-Haramayn about the geography of Mecca and Medina where he located venues and positions there. They considered the mentioned work a sign of his accuracy and knowledge.
He was a master in Persian and Arabic literatures. His Persian prose was somehow ornate and flowery, which shows his competence in this language.
Family of Āle- Āqā
Children and descendants of Aqa Muhammad Ali Kirmanshahi Bihbahani, some of whom were Shia scholars of fiqh, were known as Āle- Āqā. Most distinguished names in their family were:
- Sayyid Ahmad Bihbahani
- Aqa Muhammad Isma’il b. Muhammad Ali Bihbahani (d. about 1280/1863-64);
- Aqa Mahmud b. Muhammad Ali Bihbahani (d. 1269/1852-53 or 1271/1854-55);
- Aqa ‘Abd Allah b. Muhammad Ja’far b. Muhammad Ali Bihbahani (d. 1289/1872);
- Aqa Muhammad Taqi b. Muhammad Ja’far b. Muhammad Ali Bihbahani (d. 1299/1882).
Aqa Muhammad Ali wrote 37 scientific works. His most significant works were:
- Maqami’ al-fadl,which is a collection of 1192 questions. In this book, some secondary issues in fiqh have been mentioned in details so that each of them make an independent treatise. Maqami’ is organized in form of question and answer.
- Khayratiyyah dar ibtal tariqat Sufiyya is among the most important and most comprehensive works in rejection of Sufism, which Aqa Muhammad Ali wrote in 1211/1796-97 (equal to Abjad number of “Khayrat”) at the peak of his fights with Sufis.
- Sunnat al-hidaya li hidayat al-Sunna is a theological work in Persian, written in 1227/1812 (equal to Abjad number of the title of the book). The topic of this book about proving the rightfulness of Imamiyya and rejecting other sects regarding caliphate and imamate.
- Al-Zara’if or al-Ragha’id on rejection of Judaism and Christianity.
Aqa Muhammad Ali had works in rijal which were admired and referred to by researchers of rijal such as Abu Ali Ha’iri and Mirza Hosayn Nuori.
Fighting with Sufism
The fame of Aqa Muhammad Ali was mostly due to his serious and broad fight with Sufism. Before him, scholars of hadith and fiqh had disputes with Sufis. Following the fights of scholars, some rulers began exiling Sufis from cities and in some cases killed or harassed them. At that time, since Aqa Muhammad Ali was the religious authority in Kermanshah, it was among the best cities of Iran regarding implementation of religious rules and social security. When Sufis arrived in Kermanshah in their journeys to different cities, the mujtahid of Kermanshah considered their movement a deviance and opposition to shari’a and suppressed them.
Before the emergence of Ma’sum Ali Shah, Aqa Muhammad Ali did not seriously stand against Sufism and even in Maqami’ al-fadl did not consider cursing Sufis absolutely permissible. In his view, Sufism was an ideological deviance and thus after it spread in the form of a social movement, he fought with it. He had a serious emphasis on establishment of religious manners and traditions in Kermanshah and thus, Sufi movement, which according to Bihbahani, did not follow shari’a in ideology and practice, could not be ignored by the mujtahid of Kermanshah.
Arresting and Killing Ma’sum Ali Shah
After Ma’sum Ali Shah began inviting Sufis to Kermanshah, Aqa Muhammad Ali ordered to arrest him in 1211/1796-97 and placed him under house arrest. Haji Ibrahim Khan Shirazi, the prime minister, received the news about arresting Ma’sum Ali Shah and thus a correspondence was made between Ibrahim Khan and Aqa Muhammad Ali. In these letters, Aqa Muhammad Ali reported about the beliefs and practices of Sufis in details, described about Ma’sum Ali Shah and his followers and about the trial of Ma’sum Ali Shah and mentioned his lack of knowledge about simple rulings and corruption of beliefs. Even though he was a Marja’ and the religious authority in Kermanshah, asked the scholars and religious authorities of the holy shrines and sent their rulings and statements with his last letter to the prime minister. Finally, after seeing the letter of Aqa Muhammad Ali and the mentioned statements, Haji Ibrahim Shirazi rejected Sufism and, with great respect and honor, approved the ruling of Mujtahid of Kermanshah about the house arrest and apostasy of Ma’sum Ali Shah.
That was when Aqa Muhammad Ali wrote Khayratiyyah on rejection of Sufism and sent it to Fath’ali Shah and Hajj Ibrahim Khan Shirazi and received their approval about suppressing Sufis once again.
After Aqa Muhammad Ali asked Ma’sum Ali Shah to repent and he did not accept, ordered to kill him and to throw his body to Qarasu river.
Arresting other Leaders of Sufism and the Title of “Sufi-Kush”
Following the advice of Aqa Muhammad Ali and the help of Haji Ibrahim Khan Shirazi, in 1213/1798-99, Fath’ali Shah ordered to arrest Muzaffar Ali Shah, Murid Nur Shah and some other Sufis and sent them to Kermanshah. Muzaffar Ali Shah was under house arrest in the house of Aqa Muhammad Ali until he died mysteriously in 1215/1800-801. Some sources attributed the death of Muzaffar Ali Shah to Aqa Muhammad Ali.
Although, only the killing of Ma’sum Ali Shah is confirmed to be done by the order of Aqa Muhammad Ali, since the death of Ma’sum Ali Shah is mentioned in Sufi sources as “martyrdom” and a painful tragedy and Aqa Muhammad Ali is often considered the one who ordered to arrest and kill some Sufis in Tehran and other cities, he was titled as “Sufi-Kosh” and his name was mentioned notoriously.
Aqa Muhammad Ali Kirmanshahi Bihbahani passed away in Kermanshah on the Eid al-Mab’ath in 1216/1801. His burial according to his will, known as “Sar Qabr Aqa”, is in Kermanshah on the way of visitors of Iraq holy shrines.