Ayatollah Majdeddin Mahallati: A Short Biography

The Holly Quran: Surah 35 (Fatir), Verse 23 “Thereafter We made the ones whom We elected of Our bondmen inherit the Book. Then, of them are (some) who are unjust to themselves, and of them are (some) who are moderate, and of them are (some) who are forerunners in charitable (deeds), by the permission of Allah. It is that (which) is the great bounty.”

On September 26th 1925, Ayatollah Majdeddin Mahallati was born in Najaf, Iraq to an Iranian family, which had more than three centuries of Islamic scholarship. His father, the Grand Ayatollah Bahaeddin Mahallati of Shiraz (1895 -1981) was a prominent scholar in Islamic jurisprudence and his mother, Baanu Seddiqeh Mahallati was the daughter of Ayatollah Mirza Abulfadl Mahallati, who was one of the leading progressive cleric in mid-20th century Shiraz. The family’s ancestor Akhund Mawla Mohammad Ali (1813-1876) came from Mahallat, a city in central Iran, when, based on his fame in scholarship and piety, he was invited to settle in Shiraz in 1844 to function as a chief religious scholar and leader in this ancient city. One of his sons, Ayatollah Mirza Abrahim Mahallati (born 1849) who was the leading spiritual leader of Shiraz during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 in Iran and Ayatollah Shaykh Jafar Mahallati (1864 -1939) (the grandfather of Ayatollah Majdeddin), who was a religious authority in Shiraz in early 20th century and is well remembered in Iranian modern history for his leadership in the popular march of volunteers from Shiraz to Borazjan in southern Iran to help the Iranian national resistance against the British colonizing forces during the First World War.
Coming from this background, Ayatollah Majdeddin Mahallati sought a combined course of modern academic and traditional seminarian education to prepare himself for an effective role not only to follow the legacies of his family, but more importantly to create educational, charitable, and spiritual institutions that could solidify and sustain those legacies in the future. Along with two other close friends and schoolmates, the late Ayatollahs Jalili of Kermanshah (d. 2013) and Imam Musa Sadr of Lebanon (disappeared in 1978), Ayatollah Majdeddin was one of the first three seminarian students in Qom who was a graduate of the law school of Tehran University. As a talented student of the Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi (d. 1961) and Allamah Tabatabai (d. 1981) in Qom, he was one of the first authors of a leading seminarian journal Makatab-e Islam The Islamic School of Thought) that was created to discuss theology in a new language, which was accessible for the public as well as non-seminarian scholars. His first article was on a scholarly study of the laws of war in Islam published in 1954. He highlighted the humanitarian spirit that defines the ethics and laws of war in Islam.
On his return to Shiraz around 1957, Ayatollah Majdeddin had a radical plan for creating a number of institutions in this city, which began, with the construction of the Wali Asr mosque in the heart of Shiraz. The mosque soon became a hub for young university students who dreamed of socio-political change and progress. Next, the foundations of a charitable medical clinic and other organizations were to be built in order to accommodate what was most needed among the poorest parts of the city. Meanwhile, he began teaching at the Khan Madrasah of Shiraz, where a number of talented seminarian students soon gathered around him.
During the Iranian Revolution and the increasing awareness of the emergence of extremism, Ayatollah Mahallati, along with his father the Grand Ayatollah Bahaeddin, became the main figures in the city to prevent violations of basic human rights, specifically those of religious minorities. By taking substantial risks to their lives, reputation, and institutions, they saved many lives and served the cause of justice and moderation. Ayatollah Majdeddin firmly believed that one of the most important functions of religion and Islam in particular is conflict resolution and promoting peace and friendship among people. He therefore spared no efforts to curb social violence and was indeed quite innovative in peacemaking. His conflict-resolution and friendship-making feasts are legendary in modern Shiraz history.
The building of the Imam Asr Seminary and its library that is one of the best non-governmental libraries in Shiraz was initiated by Ayatollah Mahallati a few years before the revolution and continued thereafter, provided an ideal academic space for numbers of resident students who studied under his guidance at an advanced level. During the Iranian Cultural Revolution when all universities were closed, Ayatollah Majdeddin began teaching university students in the Imam Asr seminary. Lectures continued with the re-opening of the universities at law school of Shiraz University for many more years.
In 1976, Ayatollah Mahallati visited Europe and United States for the first time. This was a historic visit in U.S.-Shi’ite history because no Shi‘ite cleric of his rank ever visited the U.S. before. His short stay was followed by numerous invitations for return visits, which he did thirteen times during his life. In addition to lectures he delivered in American academic and religious centers such as Princeton and Harvard Universities and the Islamic Education Center in Washington DC, he led prayer and preaching sermons in a number of Iranian institutions in the U.S., which brought him countless followers in various U.S. cities, especially Washington D.C. and New York City.
On June 11th of the year 2000, Ayatollah Mahallati passed away at the age of 75. His funeral brought thousands of mourners to the streets in tears, including members of religious minorities who benefited from his protection in the years of tumult and chaos during the Revolution. His monumental achievements are owed, not only to his hard work and high vision, but also to the magnanimous company and untiring help of his wife Mrs. Saleheh Mojahed, who was present during all the years of his service to the Iranian Shi‘ite and international communities. Ayatollah’s father-in-law, Shaykh Muhammad Hussein Mojahed Borazjani was the prominent leader of the Iranian resistance against the British colonial plans in southern Iran during the First World War.
Ayatollah Mahallati left behind four children: Mohammad Jafar (Amir) Mahallati, a professor of religion at Oberlin College in Ohio, Mohammad Hossein Mahallati, a businessman and philanthroper in New York City, Amineh Mahallati, a professor of Persian language at Princeton University and Ahmad Mahallati, a physician practicing at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, Washington. His five grandchildren, Taher, Matin, Amirata, Abrahim and Hana are all notable and achieved students in science, social science and arts all with promising future.
Ayatollah Mahallati lived not one, but indeed several productive lives. He proved that during the average life span of seventy-five years, a person of resolve, faith and dedication could create more than one monumental institution. His worldview was based on bounty and benevolence. He was born to demonstrate the possibility of a life based on giving and forgiving rather than getting and forgetting. He was a beacon of friendship. In his worldview, laws and ethics are supposed to serve human beings and advance their relationships to God and fellow humans. This is diagonally opposite to orthodox ideologies that sacrifice human beings for idols of legalism and literalism. He took life seriously and approached it with full enthusiasm and thorough appreciation. What he hated most was untruthfulness and disingenuousness. He treated the layman and the elite with the same respect and was never taken by any measure of unspiritual power or grandeur. His face is mostly remembered in smile and a charming twinkle in his charismatic eyes that conveyed a sense of love and compassion for all fellow humans.
He appreciated the material blessings of life but was never possessed by them. It was not surprising that a palm reader, who did not know him, once looked at his palms and described it as “a river bed that never reserves any water for itself.” It was such a strong sense of generosity that helped him build so many charitable institutions and fill so many hearts.
At the age of 75, his body could no longer handle the spiritual ambitions of a soul that knew no rest and no border in helping needy people. Close to the final months before his departure, a friend reminded him that compared to fellow clerics, the age of 75 is too soon for physical dysfunction. His response was, “if you only knew how much work I have forced upon my body.”
Ayatollah’s body rests in the heart of Madrasa Imam Asr which he build, under an orange tree that every spring bears an abundance of blossoms, caressing the soul of every passerby by its perfume. So was the legend of the blessed guest underneath the tree, who is remembered in Shiraz by thousands for his charity, charm, spirituality, wisdom and knowledge, all of which were given in abundance for half a century.

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