BEHBAHĀNĪ, ĀQĀ MOḤAMMAD-ʿALĪ B. MOḤAMMAD-BĀQER (1144-1216/1731-1801), Shiʿite mojtahed celebrated primarily for his ferocious hatred of Sufis. He was a son of the celebrated Āqā Mo­ḥammad-Bāqer Behbahānī who was also his first teacher. He was born and received most of his training in Karbalāʾ, but he is said also to have spent two years in Mecca. Returning from Mecca to Karbalāʾ, he was dissuaded from settling there by an outbreak of the plague, and he took up residence in Kermānšāh, which remained his home for the rest of his life. In his learned attainments and determination to exert the juridical prerogatives of the mojtahed, he proved a worthy successor to his father, who is related, however, to have denounced him for excessive worldliness (Moḥammad b. Solaymān Tonokābonī, Qeṣaṣ al-ʿolamāʾ, Tehran, n.d., p. 200). According to a Sufi and therefore possibly prejudiced source Āqā Moḥammad-ʿAlī was extremely rich and “gave much attention to pomp and adornment” (Zayn-al-ʿĀbedīn Šīrvānī, Rīāż al-sīāḥa, ed. A. Ḥ. Rabbānī, Tehran, 1339 Š./1960, p. 834). He was able to hold his own with Āḡā Moḥammad Shah, the first Qajar king: when he tried to expel Behbahānī from the shrine of Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm, in order to avenge a slight he had offered him some years earlier, Behbahānī successfully defied him, and Āḡā Mohammad Shah ended by paying him a deferential visit in his lodgings (Qeṣaṣ al-ʿolamāʾ, p. 200). Behbahānī also had great influence with Āḡā Mo­ḥammad Shah’s successor, Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah. Sir John Malcolm, who was acquainted with Behbahānī and acknowledged his great learning, wrote that in 1800 “he enjoyed the highest respect and confidence of the king” (History of Persia, London, 1829, II, p. 271). The most important consequence of this royal trust was the freedom with which Behbahānī was able to go about the persecution of the Sufis.

The first victim of Behbahānī’s hostility to the Sufis was Maʿṣūm-ʿAlīšāh, the celebrated renewer of the Neʿmatallāhī order in Iran. With the cooperation of the secular authorities, Behbahānī had Maʿṣūm-ʿAlīšāh arrested in Kermānšāh in 1211/1795, and then publicly interrogated him on vital points of doctrine. Finding his answers incriminating, he had him poisoned and his body secretly disposed of (Šīrāzī, III, p. 175). Nūr-ʿAlīšāh, a close associate of Maʿṣūm-ʿAlīšāh, was permitted to leave Kermānšāh in safety, but he was poisoned in Mosul the following year, possibly by emissaries of Behbahānī, although he denied all responsibility (Pourjavady and Wilson, p. 130). A third prominent Neʿmatallāhī, Moẓaffar-ʿAlīšāh, was arrested in Kermān at the behest of Behbahānī and sent to Tehran to be viewed as a living specimen of heresy by Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah. The monarch sent him under escort, to Behbahānī in Kermānšāh, who had him put to death in 1215/1800. Behbahānī also encompassed the death of numerous lesser Sufis, such as Āqā Mahdī and Mīrzā Mahdī, who had been spreading the Neʿmatallāhī way in Hamadān, but the total number of his victims is not known: he is reputed to have remarked to a colleague, Shaikh Jaʿfar Najafī, “I am constantly obliged to carry out various sentences of execution and corporal punishment (ḥadd)” (Qeṣaṣ al-ʿolamāʾ, p. 199).

Āqā Moḥammad-Bāqer Behbahānī expounded the reasons for his hostility to the Sufis in the Resāla-ye ḵayrātīya, a collection of letters exchanged by him with various notables between 1211/1794 and 1214/1797 on what he viewed as the menace posed by the Neʿmatallāhīs. They had no concern for ritual purity, he claimed; considered permissible the use of narcotics, regarded themselves as exempt from the need to pray; and—worst of all—designated Maʿṣūm-ʿAlīšāh as their maʿbūd (object of worship), prostrating themselves before him (Šīrāzī, III, pp. 176-82).

Āqā Moḥammad-ʿAlī Behbahānī died in 1216/1801, according to Neʿmatallāhī legend as the result of the imprecations of a dervish called Bodalā, whom he had put to death the previous year. Of the four sons he left behind, the youngest, Āqā Maḥmūd, is said to have totally contradicted his father’s predilections and become a Neʿmatallāhī initiate himself (Šīrāzī, III, p. 182). In general, too, the violent hostility to Sufism that Behbahānī had practiced found few imitators after his passing, and Neʿmatallāhī Sufism became estab­lished in Iran as a subordinate form of religious expression.



One of Behbahānī’s sons, Āqā Aḥmad, wrote a lengthy autobiography including mention of his father (Merʾāt al-aḥwāl, BM ms. add. 24.052).

See also concerning his career Sir John Malcolm, History of Persia, London, 1829, II, pp. 271-99; Rieu, Persian Manuscripts I, pp. 33-34; Moḥammad b. Solaymān Tonokābonī, Qeṣaṣ al-ʿolamāʾ, Tehran, n.d., pp. 199-201; Moḥammad-Bāqer Ḵᵛānsārī, Rawżāt al-jannāt fī aḥwāl al-ʿolamāʾ wa’l-sādāt, Tehran, 1304/1887, p. 660; Zayn-al ʿĀbedīn Šīrvānī, Rīāż al-sīāḥa, ed. A. Ḥ. Rabbānī, Tehran, 1339 Š./1960, p. 834; idem; Bostān al-sīāḥa, ed. S. ʿA. Mostawfī, Tehran, 1315 Š./1897, pp. 88, 234, 494; Maʿṣūm-ʿAlīšāh Šīrāzī, Ṭarāʾeq al-ḥaqāʾeq, ed. M. J. Maḥjūd, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966, III, pp. 174-­82, 196, 207-08, 469-71, 591; Moḥammad Ḥerz-al-­Dīn, Maʿāref al-rejāl, Najaf, 1384/1964, II, pp. 309-­10; Javād Nūrbaḵš, introd. to Nūr-ʿAlīšāh, Jannāt al-weṣāl, Tehran, 1348 Š./1969, pp. xii-xiii; Hamid Algar, Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969, pp. 39-40, 43, 63; Moḥammad Šarīf Rāzī, Ganjīna-ye dānešmandān, Tehran, 1354 Š./1975, VI, pp. 355-58; Nasrollah Pourjavady and Peter Lamborn Wilson, Kings of Love, Tehran, 1978, pp. 128-131; ʿAlī Davānī, Āqā Moḥammad-Bāqer b. Moḥammad Akmal Eṣfahānī maʿrūf be Waḥīd-e Behbahānī, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1362 Š./1983, pp. 275-331; Moʿallem Ḥabībābādī, Makārem al-āṯār, 2nd ed., Isfahan, 1362 Š./1983, II, pp. 561-69.

Behbahānī’s Resālā-ye ḵayrātīya appears never to have been published. Extracts from it have been printed in Maʿṣūm-ʿAlīšāh, Ṭarāʾeq al-ḥaqāʾeq III, pp. 176-82, and Saʿīd Nafīsī, Tārīḵ-e ejtemāʿī wa sīāsī-e Īrān dar dawra-ye moʿāṣer, Tehran, 1344 Š./1965, II, pp. 43-44, and a quite full account of the work is given in Malcolm, History of Persia II, pp. 271-87.

Another work in refutation of Sufism has been attributed to Behbahānī: Qaṭʿ al-maqāl fī radd ahl al-żalāl, but this may be simply a different title for Resāla-ye ḵayrātīya. For lists of Behbahānī’s other writings, many of them polemical in nature, see Qeṣaṣ al-ʿolamāʾ, pp. 200-01, Maʿāref al-rejāl II, p. 309, and Makārem al-āṯār, II, pp. 562-65; these include a treatise on the permissibility of being simultaneously married to two female descendants of the Prophet, written in refutation of Shaikh Yūsof Baḥrānī (d. 1186/1773), the well-known Aḵbārī scholar.

(Hamid Algar)

Originally Published: December 15, 1989

Last Updated: December 15, 1989

This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 1, pp. 96-97

Cite this entry:

Hamid Algar, “BEHBAHĀNĪ, MOḤAMMAD-ʿALĪ ,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, IV/1, pp. 96-97, available online at (accessed on 30 December 2012).