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Several meanings for akhund, a Persian word meaning “religious scholar” or “leader,” have been proposed by Iranian, Turkish, and Western writers. One states that the prefix a is actually a corrupted form of agha, meaning “lord” or “master.” Focusing on the khund, another source states that this is derived from the Persian khdndan, meaning “to read.” However, Iranian scholar `Ali Akbar Dihkhuda states that khund is an abbreviation of Khudavandigar, (Almighty God). The Turkish researcher, Ahmed Zeki Velidi Togan, rejects all Persian etymologies. Instead, he argues that akhund is a transposition of the Greek arkun (or argun), which was a common title for the Nestorian priests in pre-Islamic Asian regions.These etymological discrepancies point to the fact that no agreement exists as to the derivation of this term; what can be stated with certainty is the fact that it connotes a title given to religious personalities. (Among the Chinese Muslims, the imam in the mosque is also called ahung.)

The first usage of akhund in Iran can be traced to the Timurid period (1409-1506), when personalities of distinguished accomplishments were called akhund. A Timurid prince by the name of Amir `Alishah Nava’i refers to his mentor Mawlana Fasih al-Din Nizami (d. 1513) as akhund for his broad knowledge of traditional and contemplative sciences. Nizami also directed madrasahs (seminaries), which again may explain the usage of this word for religious scholars or leaders. We can state with certainty that akhund was used as an honorific reserved for scholars of distinguished accomplishments during the Timurid period. The word maintained this connotation during the Safavid period (1501-1722) as well. Two great philosophers of this period, Mulla Sadra (d. 1640), and Mulla Nasr Allah Hamadani (d. 1632), were referred to as akhund.

In the Qajar period (1796-1925), the usage of akhund became more frequent, and the term was used interchangeably with mullah. Even teachers of the old fashioned elementary schools (maktabkhanahs) were sometimes referred to as akhunds. In spite of this wider usage, the term still continued to have an elevated honorific meaning, and the most distinguished religious scholar of the Qajar period, Kazim Khurasani (18391911), was called akhund. Akhund Khurasanl’s books are still required readings in the madrasahs of Iran and Iraq. His Kifdyat al-usul has been endorsed by over a hundred leading mujtahids. However, according to Hamid Algar (Encyclopaedia Iranica), the expanded application of the term resulted in a “devaluation, and came gradually to signify not a religious leader, but on the contrary one who had failed to reach the degree of ijtihad and whose competence was restricted to the leading of prayers and the teaching of children.”

During the Pahlavi period (1925-1979) the usage of akhund as a pejorative term was encouraged by the monarchy, whose distaste for the religious hierarchy was anything but subtle. The secular antireligious forces gave a contemptuous ring to the term. In the government-sanctioned press, the term was applied to those who were anachronistic and opposed to “modernization.” The legacy of this has been the entry of several pejorative derivations of akhund into the Persian language. These are akhundzadah (one whose father is an dkhund), akhundbazi (those who commit illegal acts), and hukumat-i akhundha (rule of the clergy). Aside from these, one can use the term akhund to simply mean a religious leader.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Algar, Hamid. “Akund.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 1, pp. 731732.London, 1982-.

Da’irat al-ma’drif–i buzurg-i Islami (The Great Encyclopaedia of Islam). Edited by Kazim Musavi Bujnurdi.Tehran, 1988-. The most comprehensive use of original sources in Persian and Arabic. Dihkuda, `Ali Akbar. Lughat’namah.Tehran, 1947- Well-known etymological reference for the Persian language.

Qazvini, Muhammad. Yad’dasht’ha-yi (Notes of Qazvini). Edited by Iraj Afshar.Tehran, 1953- Contains several references to certain religious scholars as akhund.

BAHMAN BAKTIARI

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/akhund/
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  • writerPosted On: October 7, 2012
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