ĀḴŪND (or ĀḴOND), a word of uncertain etymology with the general meaning of religious scholar. Various Persian origins have been proposed for the word. According to Pūrdāvūd (quoted by Moʿīn in the supplementary notes to Borhān-e qāṭeʿ I, p. 21), it is composed of the prefix ā- and -ḵūnd (< ḵᵛānd, from ḵᵛāndan, to read or to study), thus yielding the sense of learned. Moʿīn also connects -ḵūnd with ḵᵛānd, but regards the latter as the contraction of ḵodāvand (lord, master) that is found in certain proper names of the Timurid period (e.g., the historian Mīrḵᵛānd). W. Radloff proposes that -ḵūnd is equivalent to ḵāvand, another contraction of ḵodāvand current in Timurid times (Versuch eines Wörterbuches der Türk-Dialecte, St. Petersburg, 1889, I, p. 135). Dehḵodā similarly derives -ḵūnd from ḵodāvand, further suggesting that the prefix ā- may be a corrupted form of āḡā (Turk., lord, master), a prefatory title before being absorbed into the word itself (I, p. 49). Although none of these etymologies is entirely satisfactory, semantically, they are plausible, for the word āḵūnd combines the senses of learning and authority.

Rejecting all Persian etymologies for the word—above all because of the unexplained prefix ā-, which does not exist as an active element in New Persian—Zeki Velidi Togan sought to connect it with arḡūn (or arḵūn), the designation applied to Turkish Nestorian priests in pre-Islamic Semirech’ye (“Ahund,” İA I, p. 228). Arḡūn is said in turn to be of Greek, Armenian or possibly Arabic origin (see Togan, “Ahund,” and M. Qazvīnī’s notes to his edition of Jovaynī, III, pp. 300-01). This attempt to find an extra-Iranian origin for āḵūnd must be regarded as unconvincing. Conversely, however, the word has passed into a number of Turkic languages: Čaḡatāy, where it designates a learned man or teacher (Shaikh Soleymān Efendi, Loḡat-e Čaḡatāy va Torkī-e ʿOṯmānī, Istanbul, 1298/1881, p. 6); Ottoman, where it has the same sense (Redhouse, Turkish and English Lexicon, Constantinople, 1890, I, p. 47, records the spelling āḵᵛānd, to be read āḵānd); Kazan Tatar, where it is applied to a religious functionary of high standing (Radloff, Versuch I, p. 135); and New-Uyḡur, in the form of aḵnīm, as a general term of polite address (Togan, “Ahund”). Radloff also regards Kirgiz akīn (bard, minstrel) as deriving from āḵūnd (Versuch I, pp. 98-99), but this is semantically and phonologically unlikely. By contrast, there can be little doubt that ahong, the Chinese term for the imam of a mosque, is derived from āḵūnd (d’Ollone, Recherches sur les musulmans chinois, Paris, 1911, p. 439).

Irrespective of its etymology, the word first enters currency in the Timurid period, as an honorific applied to a scholar of unusual accomplishment. For example, Mawlānā Faṣīḥ-al-dīn Neẓāmī (d. 919/1513) was known as āḵūnd because of the broad range of his knowledge and his ability to direct simultaneously three madrasas in Herat (Ḥabīb al-sīar [Tehran] IV, pp. 352-53, where the form āḵᵛānd appears). The word evidently maintained its elevated quality throughout the Safavid period, being applied in particular to the practitioners of ḥekmat: Mollā Naṣrallāh Hamadānī (d. 1042/1632), a student of Mīr Dāmād, was popularly known as Āḵūnd Naṣrā, and Mollā Ṣadrā (d. 1050/1640) was sometimes known, tout court, as āḵūnd (M. ʿA. Modarres, Rayḥānat al-adab, Tabrīz, n.d., vol. I, p. 41). In Qajar times, āḵūnd became more widely used, often as part of the complex of titles by which numerous religious scholars were known, and frequently in combination with the nearly synonymous mollā (e.g., Āḵūnd Mollā ʿAbd-al-Karīm Īravānī, mentioned in Moḥammad Tonokābonī, Qeṣaṣ al-ʿolamāʾ, Tehran, 1304/1887, p. 10). The inclusion of āḵūnd in the appellation of well-known scholars continued down to the early years of the twentieth century: Moḥammad Kāẓem Ḵorāsānī (d. 1329/1911), one of the constitutionalist moǰtaheds of Naǰaf, was known as Āḵūnd Ḵorāsānī. In general, however, as the word was more loosely and widely applied, it underwent a devaluation, and came gradually to signify, not a religious scholar of high accomplishment, but on the contrary one who had failed to reach the degree of eǰtehād and whose competence was restricted to the leading of prayers and the teaching of children. More recently, in the mouths of secular and anti-religious elements, the word āḵūnd has acquired a pejorative and even contemptuous ring, and is commonly used as a term of abuse directed at all strata of the religious institution (see Āyatallāh Ḵomeynī’s reference to this use of the word in Ḥokūmat-e eslāmī, Naǰaf, 1391/1971, pp. 11, 25). The pejorative interpretation of āḵūnd has inspired the coining of the terms ākūndbāzī “recourse to means permitted by the letter of the law (ḥīal-e šaṛʿī) in order to frustrate its obvious intent” (Dehḵodā, I, p. 49) and, in the aftermath of the revolution of 1357 Š./1978-79, āḵūndīzm (i.e., the allegedly inappropriate assumption by religious scholars of a directive role in the affairs of state).

Bibliography: Given in the text.


(H. Algar)

Originally Published: December 15, 1984

Last Updated: July 29, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 7, pp. 731-732

Cite this entry:

H. Algar, “ĀḴŪND,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/7, pp. 731-732; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/akund-religious-scholar (accessed on 13 May 2014).