In recent years, the hegemony of the philosophical school of Mullā Ṣadrā in the ḥawza has been challenged from two intersecting directions, both now associated with the maktab-i tafkīk: first, there is still a traditional hesitation and distrust of philosophy associated with the ḥawza of Najaf which has been imported to Qum and Mashhad – the teachings of the Ahl al-bayt are far more significant than alien ‘Greek’ learning. Second, there is a critical attitude towards the Sadrian school and the need to engage with a new method of philosophy which is more authentically derived from scriptural reasoning within the Shiʿi tradition. Both of these tendencies have important precursors in the Imāmī intellectual tradition at least in the Safavid and Qajar periods: one may cite Qāḍī Saʿīd Qummī (d. 1696) and Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī (d. 1826) as examples of critics of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā who struck an independent path of intellectual inquiry often focused upon a meditation of the sayings of the Imams.
In the early period, the school was known as the school of the teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt (maʿārif-i ahl-i bayt) and was found by a triumvirate of scholars, the first two were both trained in Najaf but never met and the third was an important student of theirs: Sayyid Mūsā Zarābādī (d. 1353/1934), Mīrzā Mahdī Gharavī Iṣfahānī (d. 1365/1946), and Shaykh Mujtabá Qazvīnī Khurāsānī (d. 1386/1966). Zarābādī and Iṣfahānī had studied in Najaf and were closely associated with the major jurists of the period such as Ākhund Muḥammad Kāẓim Khurāsānī (d. 1329/1911), Mīrzā Muḥammad Ḥusayn Nāʾinī (d. 1355/1936), Sayyid Muḥammad Kāẓim Ṭabāṭabāʾī Yazdī (d. 1925??), and Shaykh Fażlullāh Nūrī (d. 1327/1909). Zarābādī entertained an interest in philosophy and studied with prominent students of Mullā Hādī Sabzavārī (d. 1289/1873) of the philosophers of Tehran, namely Mīrzā Ḥasan Kirmānshāhī (d. 1336/1918), Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn Shīrāzī (d. 1320/1902), and Shaykh ʿAlī Nūrī Ḥakamī (d. 1335/1917); he also wrote glosses on the famous philosophical text of Sabzavārī, Sharḥ-i manẓūma. Later he settled in his hometown where he taught until his death and was much appreciated with well-known philosophers such as his townsman Sayyid Abū-l-Ḥasan Rafīʿī Qazvīnī (d. 1975). Iṣfahānī was more mystically inclined and associated with the teachers of ethics and mysticism such as Sayyid Aḥmad Karbalāʾī (d. 1332/1914), Shaykh Muḥammad Bahārī Hamadānī (a student of the famous Ḥusayn-Qulī Hamadānī), and the renowned Sayyid ʿAlī Qāḍī Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1366/1947). He settled in Mashhad where he taught and established the centre of the school, perpetuated by Qazvīnī. The work of Iṣfahānī, particularly his Abwāb al-hudá, and Qazvīnī’s compendious set of intellectual meditations upon the Qurʾān established the foundations of the school. These were then developed by their students such as Shaykh ʿAlī Akbar Ilāhiyān Tunkābunī (d. 1380/1960), Sayyid Abū-l-Ḥasan Ḥāfiẓiyān (d. 1360 Sh/1981), Mīrzā ʿAlī Akbar Nawqānī (d. 1370/1950), Shaykh ʿAlī Namāzī Shāhrūdī (d. 1405/1985), Shaykh Muḥammad Bāqir Malakī Miyānjī (d. 1377 Sh/1998), Mīrzā Javād Āqā Tihrānī (d. 1368 Sh/1989), Sayyid Kāẓim al-Mudarrissī (d. 1414/1994), Mīrzā Ḥasan ʿAlī Marvārīd (d. 1425/2004), and Shaykh Muḥammad Riḍā Ḥakīmī. It was the latter, Ḥakīmī, who supposed coined the term maktab-i tafkīk and his book of that name which has undergone over eight printings and editions remains the manifesto of the school. In the contemporary ḥawza both the students of Shaykh Vaḥīd Khurāsānī (who had apparently studied with Iṣfahānī) and the Shīrāziyya have allied themselves in Iran with the maktab-i tafkīk to express their distaste for philosophy. Prominent contemporary polemicists and thinkers of the school include Sayyid Jaʿfar Sayyidān and ʿAlī Riżā Raḥīmiyān.
One approach to understanding tafkīk is to understand it as a fideist movement. Fideism has a venerable history back at least to the Church father Tertullian (d. 230) and articulates the view that the intellectual jurisdictions of faith and reason are quite distinct and can even be hostile (although the hostility is not acknowledged in the school). In particular and in contrast to natural law and theology’s approach to presenting types of apodictic proofs for the existence of God, ontological, cosmological and teleological, fideists insist that religious belief in the divine does not depend on rational justification and draw upon philosophers who insist upon the unknowability of reality and truth, ‘evidential ambiguity’, and the limits of human reason such as Soren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein. More recently, a number of Protestant theologians and philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and William Alston have argued for a reformed epistemology which in a sense provides a rational justification for fideism although they resist the term.
The school of tafkīk separates out the language and discourses of scripture, philosophy and mysticism and deliberately opposing the synthetical approach of the Sadrian school reflecting in the teaching of ḥikmat and ʿirfān in the Sadrian school dominant in the ḥawza. However, the proponents are clear that this does not entail a hermeneutics of suspicion with respect to the text or reality or truth and that tafkīk is not a fideist form of Derridean deconstruction.
The school also distinguishes between one legitimate form of intellectual inquiry that is described is rooted in revelation (waḥyānī), and two man-made forms of inquiry that represent the ‘deviations’ of philosophy and mysticism, namely the rational (ratiocinative) philosophical method (al-manhaj al-falsafī al-ʿaqlānī) and the intuitive, gnostic approach (al-manhaj al-ʿirfānī al-kashfī).