A claim that has been made in recent years is that the Shī’ī ḥadīth corpus has been heavily infiltrated with Isra’iliyyat. This paper seeks to investigate the truth of this claim, and that even if such a claim is true, whether the corpus has been effected to the extent that claimants make it out to be.
In order to address this question, we first need to define what Isra’iliyyat are. In the most general sense, Isra’iliyyat are Jewish and Christian stories, beliefs or laws that have been transmitted and reflected within the Islamic tradition through ways that will be later mentioned in this paper. This simple definition of Isra’iliyyat does not allow us to make any judgement on the veracity or invalidity of these stories or beliefs, and therefore it is not correct to say that any Jewish or Christian belief that also happens to have been transmitted in the Islamic tradition is necessarily false.
Since a mere tradition being classified from the Isra’iliyyat – as defined above – does not entail it being true or false, these traditions need to be looked at from three different perspectives:
1) Some Isra’iliyyat happen to speak about stories of past Prophets (p) or theological beliefs, while they are in accordance with what we know through the Qurān or the words of the infallibles. There is absolutely no problem with such traditions, and them merely existing in the Jewish or Christian tradition does not mean they are to be rejected.
2) Some Isra’iliyyat happen to be in clear contradiction with the Qurān, the words of the infallibles or even the rational conclusions of the intellect. There is no doubt that these traditions are to be rejected.
3) Some Isra’iliyyat are neutral in the sense that they do not explicitly go against anything within the teachings of the Qurān or the words of the infallible, but there may not be an independent way to verify whether they are in accordance with the Islamic teachings either. The only way to determine their veracity is through subjugating these traditions to a critical examination as is usually done with all traditions when wanting to determine their reliability. It is usually these set of traditions where scholars have held differences of opinions.
To give an example for the third category, consider the Christian belief that after the birth of Adam and Eve’s children, the world was further populated through incestuous relationships between siblings. This belief is reflected in certain ahādīth where some reports affirm this as a historical fact and there are some other traditions which reject it. As a result of this contradiction, Shī’ī scholars have also differed in their opinion on the matter. The reason why this tradition can be argued to fit in the third category is because though incest is prohibited in Islam and as well as the other Abrahamic religions, there is nothing which suggests it must have been prohibited during the time of Adam and Eve for us to consider this historical point to be from the false Isra’iliyyat beliefs that crept into the Islamic tradition.
Another example is the belief that Eve was created from one of Adam’s ribs. There are a number of traditions which mention this, but these traditions are not against any Qurānic verse nor against any theological principle, but at the same time one cannot say they are in accordance with any specific verse or intellectual principle either. Hence, scholars have discussed such traditions at length and like the previous example, have arrived at a difference of opinion on the matter.
In both aforementioned examples, the tradition on face-value could possibly be correct just as equally as it could possibly be incorrect. It is these types of traditions that we wish to address and whether the Shī’ī ḥadīth literature has been affected by these types of traditions to such an extent that one is unable to distinguish the false traditions from the true ones.
 See for example, al-Mīzān by ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī, vol. 4, pg. 144 where he accepts the opinion that the children of Adam married one another.
In order to verify whether a certain Isra’iliyyat tradition is an authentic reflection of Islam’s position on a subject, there are a number of steps that would need to be taken. As already highlighted above, if the tradition happens to be against the Qurān or clear words of the infallible, or even intellectually proven principles, then such traditions are most definitely wrong and are to be rejected. On the contrary, if there are traditions which are in accordance with the Islamic belief system, then these traditions are to be accepted and there is no issue with Christians and Jews also believing the same matter.
However, when it comes to traditions that are not as clear cut, we need to establish whether such traditions were even uttered by an infallible to begin with. This is usually done by investigating the narrators who are transmitting the tradition and as well as considering various other alibis. Once the tradition is proven to be reliable, then the second step would be to determine whether the infallible Imams (a) could have possibly uttered these words in the state of dissimulation. This is because one will sometimes find apparently contradictory reports from the Imams (a) on a topic related to Isra’iliyyat, where many a times the report which happens to be inline with the Isra’iliyyat has been narrated due to dissimulation. This is an important matter to consider and one needs to be sure that an Imam (a) was not in the state of dissimulation.
In summary, if we find any Isra’iliyyat in Shī’ī works from the Imams (a), then as long as the reliability of these traditions is affirmed and we know they were not said under a state of dissimulation, and they are not against other established religious principles then there is no issue with accepting such a tradition.
How Isra’iliyyat Entered the Islamic Tradition
After defining Isra’iliyyat and providing a cursory glance of a verification method, before we answer whether the Shi’ī ḥadīth corpus has been afflicted by them, we will mention a few different ways Isra’iliyyat entered into the Islamic tradition.
When we look at the Islamic works, we find that Isra’iliyyat are primarily found in the works of tafsīr, particularly when discussing the details on the stories of the Prophets (p). Through historical reports, we know that Arabs had a keen interest in folklore and storytelling and there were storytellers whose popularity in society was linked to the creativity of their tales. During the lifetime of the Prophet (p) and after him, storytelling was discouraged to an extent and storytellers were not welcomed in the mosques if they were going to use the space for narrating tales. This was because some of these stories were conveyed in such a way that despite their strange contents, the laity would not be able to differentiate truth from falsehood.
Due to the discouragement storytelling had garnered, some individuals had found a new genre for storytelling within the Jewish and Christian tradition after the demise of the Prophet (p) and the beginning of ḥadīth transmission. Their transmissions comprised of very detailed stories about the Prophets (p) which Islam had also alluded towards, but unlike the Qurān whose stories were very brief and to the point, Jewish and Christian narratives were detailed enough to be retold as lengthy stories. These individuals took from the works of the Jews and Christians and presented these stories as historical facts about the lives of the Prophets (p) and often attributed them to companions of the Prophet (p) or even the Prophet (p) himself.
Another reason why Isra’iliyyat entered into the Islamic ḥadīth and tafsīr corpus was because Arab society after the rise of Islam saw nobility in the amount of knowledge one possessed, and one way to build nobility for yourself was by spreading your knowledge. Given this, certain individuals like ‘Abdullah b. ‘Amr b. Ās - who had gotten his hands on a few books of the Jews and Christians after the battle of Yarmouk - would narrate from their works. This is while the laity would not always be able to determine their veracity. This however did give these individuals a lot of credibility and respect in society.
Another major reason for the presence of Isra’iliyyat were the converts to Islam who were previously Jews or Christians. When they converted to Islam, at least some of them would continue to narrate some of their previously held theological beliefs and opinions on historical and legal matters, and this would often get presented as the view of Islam. Individuals like Ka’b al-Aḥbār, ‘Abdullah b. Salām or Wahb b. Munabbih would generally fit this description.
 Al-Isrā’īlīyyāt fī al-Tafsīr wa al-Hadīth, Dr. Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Dhahabī, pg. 26-27
Do Isra’iliyyat Exist in Shī’ī Works?
Given our broad definition of Isra’iliyyat, we can definitely say that certain laws, theological beliefs and even certain details of Prophetic stories exist in the Shī’ī ḥadīth corpus that happen to be the same as what exists in the Jewish and Christian traditions. However, as explained above, the mere presence of such reports in the Islamic tradition does not entail their falsehood, rather they would only be deemed problematic if they do not meet the criteria laid out in the beginning of the article.
The question that concerns us and the one which we should be addressing is whether the Shī’ī ḥadīth corpus was massively infiltrated with Isra’iliyyat that does not meet the criteria. In other words, is the Shī’ī corpus filled with false Isra’iliyyat traditions which the Shī’ī scholarship has remained unaware of and instead has used them to construct a theological and legal system?
The brief response to this question is no. The Shī’ī ḥadīth corpus has not been harmed by a mass infiltration of incorrect Isra’iliyyat that happens to convey nothing but falsehood, and neither is the ḥadīth corpus a reflection of such false beliefs and stories. In order to understand this response, a number of points need to be explained:
Foremost, unlike certain individuals - like Ka’b al-Aḥbār or Wahb - who have been accused by Muslim scholars of having brought Isra’iliyyat into the Islamic ḥadīth corpus, there is no prolific Imami narrator who has been accused of doing such a thing. During the lifetime of the Imams (a), the practice of their followers was to go to them (a) and ask them (a) questions regarding such matters since they (a) were considered the only reliable source of knowledge. There was never a need for the Imami companions to narrate Isra’iliyyat in order to fill up gaps in law, theology or historical descriptions, since the Imams (a) were accessible to them. If an Imami wanted to know about a certain matter regarding a previous Prophet (p) or certain Jewish or Christian beliefs, or even regarding Isra’iliyyat that were spread around in the Muslim community and were accepted by some members of the community, they would have gone to the Imams (a) who were accessible.
Secondly, the Imams (a) themselves pointed out false Isra’iliyyt and campaigned against beliefs that were incorrect. For example, one of the false Isra’iliyyat that was widespread in certain Muslim communities at the time of the Imams (a) was the story of David (p) and Uriah the husband of Bathsheba. The Bible contains a story which depicts David (p) committing multiple sins and it appears that this story crept into certain Muslim communities and was accepted by them. Below is an account of Imam Riḍā (a) severely rejecting this story:
The Imam (a) said, “And regarding David (p), what do the people on your side say about him? ‘Alī b. Muḥammad b. al-Jahm said, “They say that David (p) was in his praying niche when Satan appeared in front of him in the form of a very beautiful bird. David (p) stopped praying and stood up to go catch the bird. The bird left the room and went into the courtyard. Then it flew up to the top of the house. David (p) climbed up to the roof looking for it. Then the bird flew into the house of Uriah b. Ḥannān. David (p) followed the bird with his eyes, and suddenly saw Uriah's wife who was making major ritual ablutions. Once he looked at her, he fell in love with her. As for Uriah, he had been sent to a battle. David (p) wrote to his commander, “Place Uriah in front of the coffin.” Thus he was placed in front of it. Uriah defeated the pagans. That was hard on David, so he wrote to his commander again and ordered him to place Uriah ahead of the coffin. Then Uriah was placed ahead of it and was killed. Then David (p) married his wife.”
The narrator added, “Riḍā (a) hit himself on the forehead and said, ‘From God we are, and unto Him is our return! You have ascribed neglecting prayers and going out and looking for the bird’s tracks, fornication and killing to one of the Prophets of God.’” ‘Alī b. al-Jahm said, “O son of the Prophet of God! Then what was his sin?” The Imam (a) said, “Woe be to you! David (p) thought that the Honorable the Exalted God had not created anyone more learned than himself. Therefore, the Honorable the Exalted God sent two angels towards him who climbed up the walls of the prayer niche and said, ‘…Fear not: we are two disputants, one of whom has wronged the other: Decide now between us with truth, and treat us not with injustice, but guide us to the even Path. This man is my brother: He has nine and ninety ewes, and I have (but) one: Yet he says, 'commit her to my care,' and is (moreover) harsh to me in speech.’
Then David (p) turned to the one against whom a claim was made and said, ‘He has undoubtedly wronged thee in demanding thy (single) ewe to be added to his (flock of) ewes…’ He did not turn to the claimant to ask him for any evidence. Thus, this was just a fault in the way he judged, not a fault in the way you think about it. Have you ever heard that the Honorable the Exalted God said, ‘O David! We did indeed make thee a vicegerent on earth: so judge thou between men in truth (and justice): Nor follow thou the lusts (of thy heart), for they will mislead thee from the Path of Allah. for those who wander astray from the Path of Allah, is a Penalty Grievous, for that they forget the Day of Account.’
He said, “O son of the Prophet of God! What was behind the story of Uriah?”
Riḍā (a) said, “When a woman’s husband died or got killed during the time of David (a), she never married again. The first man who was permitted to marry a widow whose husband was killed was David (a). He married Uriah’s wife when after Uriah’s wife got killed and after her waiting period was over. This was what was hard on the people regarding Uriah.”
Thirdly, what we find in some Shī’ī tafsīr works in particular is the presence of certain non-Imami narrators who were known for transmitting Isra’iliyyat. To give an example, consider the case of Ka’b al-Aḥbār whose traditions exist in a number of important Shī’ī tafsīr works such as al-Tibyān of Shaykh Ṭūsī, Majma’ al-Bayān of Shaykh Ṭabrasi and Rawḍ al-Jinān of al-Rāzī. What should be known regarding many classical tafsīr and historical works is that their authors would often cite any relevant tradition on the subject they were writing about, as these books also served as compilations for such traditions. A vast majority of such traditions were taken from previous works written by non-Imamis, such as Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī and are not Shī’ī traditions to begin with. The mere presence of a non-Shī’ī tradition in a Shī’ī work did not mean that the author necessarily accepted it, and rather making such a claim would depend on one’s knowledge of the methodology employed by the author in their respective work.
In the case of Ka’b, what we find in at least some of these tafsīr works is that if his traditions did not contain any problematic content, the silence of some of the authors could imply their agreement with it, particularly when the same content would then be corroborated by similar Shī’ī traditions by these scholars. Other times they would cite his traditions and explicitly or implicitly reject it, at times offering their own opinions on the matter using Shī’ī traditions as evidence. In other words, despite some scholars collecting a number of true and false Isra’iliyyat in their tafsīr works, the scholars were not necessarily effected by these false traditions. In fact, these false Isra’iliyyat had no significant impact on their worldviews and legal conclusions.
In addition to what has been said above, it should also be pointed out that within the tens of thousands of traditions in the Shī’ī ḥadīth corpus, the number of Isrā’iliyyat that can clearly be established as false are only a handful, a vast majority of them having no legal Shar’ī consequences. For example, within 8 significant tafsīr works, namely Tafsīr al-Qumī,Tafsīr Furāt al-Kūfī, al-Tibyān, Majma’ al-Bayān, Mafātīḥ al-Asrār, Rawḍ al-Janān and al-Muntakhab fī Tafsīr al-Qurān, there are approximately 97 traditions from Ka’b al-Aḥbar - which are not all false - an insignificant number when compared with the large quantity of traditions in these works. Such a number would hardly give merit to the claim that the Shī’ī ḥadīth corpus is a reflection of the Isra’iliyyat heritage.
 ‘Uyūn al-Akhbār, Shaykh Ṣadūq, English translation by Peiravi & Morgan, vol. 1, pg. 178-180  Jāy-e-gāh Marwīyāt Ka’b al-Aḥbār dar Tafāsīr Shī’e tā Awākhir Qarn Shishum, by Sayyidah Waḥīdah Raḥimī and Saḥr Yūsufī, in Taḥqīqāt ‘Ulūm Qurān wa Ḥadīth, year #14, issue #4, winter 1395 SH, pg. 110.  There is an extensive discussion on the attribution of this tafsīr work to ‘Alī b. Ibrāhīm al-Qumī and many scholars have cast doubt on this attribution.  Jāy-e-gāh Marwīyāt Ka’b al-Aḥbār dar Tafāsīr Shī’e tā Awākhir Qarn Shishum, by Sayyidah Waḥīdah Raḥimī and Saḥr Yūsufī, in Taḥqīqāt ‘Ulūm Qurān wa Ḥadīth, year #14, issue #4, winter 1395 SH, pg. 113.
This paper sought to address the concern of Isra’iliyyat in the Shī’ī ḥadīth corpus. What it has demonstrated is that unlike some exaggerated claims, the Shī’ī ḥadīth corpus has not been infiltrated by a large amount of false Isra’iliyyat, such that Shī’ī scholars themselves did not recognize this and that this led to the development of a false worldview and legal system. No prolific Imami narrator, those who made up the group of core transmitters, were accused of narrating Isra’iliyyat. This is natural because they had no need to resort to the Jewish and Christian tradition to seek answers, given the Imams (a) were accessible to them.
Furthermore, though some Shī’ī works of tafsīr in particular have narrated a number of Isra’iliyyat, their mere presence and the author’s silence does not always mean the author agreed with them. Every author has a specific methodology in compiling their work, and in the cases where we understand their methodology, we know that if a scholar disagreed with a certain Isra’iliyyat and believed it was false, they would ensure to point this out, either explicitly or implicitly. All in all, the number of Isra’iliyyat – true or false – are an insignificant number in contrast to the tens of thousands of traditions in the corpus. Hence, the claim that the Shī’ī ḥadīth corpus has been heavily infiltrated with Isra’iliyyat, to such an extent that it has impacted our worldview and laws, is an unjustified claim.
Article reviewed by Sayed Ammar Nakshwani, Sheikh Nuru Mohammed and Islamic Education Team of The World Federation of KSIMC.