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Verifying Shī’ī Tradition: An Overview of Approaches

One of the most commonly thrown around slogans in the rhetorical inventory of Muslim thinkers is the idea that much of tradition is inauthentic and a perversion of the original course of those religious doctrines. This is hardly novel thinking and yet nor is the concept uncommon given that we as Muslims certainly believe that there was a corruption in the understanding of the previous revelations which went to the previous believing nations and more importantly in light of the numerous theological and jurisprudential schools within contemporary Islam itself, there must have been some area of error. The problem of religions straying away from their original intended path therefore is not alien to intellectual religious discussions; what might be more important therefore is to discuss the scope of how such claims are to be understood and more importantly how any of us could verify or even falsify such claims as have been deployed by some very articulate and intelligent individuals.

From the beginning of this paper, it is crucial for the reader to distinguish between the valid origin of a point and how much validity the problem statement has and to remain carefully observant about the problem statement prior to being offered a solution or version of religion which is equally as problematic as that which has been criticised.

When one finds that slogans are being thrown around which sound akin to “80% of the traditions are fabricated” or “the majority of the religion has no roots in the time of the Prophet Muḥammad (p), be it Sunnī or Shīʿī,” one needs to be careful in unpacking these terms since they can ultimately lead to confusion in regards to what is being said.

This therefore can sometimes fall into the problem of the Fallacy of Equivocation, where a term is being used in a very general way which confuses people due to the specific application, the fallacy is described in the following way:

Equivocation: The fallacy occurs when a key term or phrase in an argument is used in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one portion of the argument and then another meaning in another portion of the argument.


I have the right to watch "The Real World." Therefore, it is right for me to watch the show. So, I think I'll watch this "Real World" marathon tonight instead of studying for my exam.

Therefore, one must be extremely careful in how one engages with such usage of the words “fabrications” and terms like “nothing to do with the time of the Prophet”. Imagine for example, we said quite confidently in a gathering that “intiẓār (actively awaiting) the relief and the reappearance of the Imam has nothing to do with the time of the Prophet”, it would not be absurd to assume that the vast majority of scholars would rationally have no objections to this claim, yet that being said; they would also point out that the sources of legislation have never been restricted exclusively to the time of the Prophet Muhammad according to the Imāmīyyah.

Demarcation of Criteria

Often what can seem frustrating in gatherings of discussions pertaining to reform and revising the infiltration of non-historical practices in the religion is a tendency to highlight numerous issues without an ability to commonly engage in the necessary discussions at hand whilst also leaving the deceptive impression that there is a monolithic science universally utilised in all genres to examine the authenticity of the evidence at hand. These discussions not only leave the lay observer confused in regards to what is meant by terms like “fabricated” or “not authentic” but also go one step further in leaving the audience to believe that a person who utilises such a standard in areas of conflict, will consistently use these standards in all of their discourse. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Let us branch this problem out to a degree in which the problem will become far clearer. When a term like “authentic” is thrown around, it leaves one with the impression that there is a science to grade narrations which is dependable and universal, which overlaps into all the varying sciences and can be used as a singular governing measuring stick to judge the authenticity of anything.

What demonstrates this claim to be false would be the usage of claims like “80% of Sunnī and Shīʿa Islam is false and has no origin in the time of the Prophet” - what would be the angle used to judge this? Shīʿī Rijāl standards perhaps? If so, then perhaps finding such a science and its expansion in the time of the Prophet (p) would also be expected if that would be the science used to judge this claim.

Take as another example the study of history:

There are generally three methodologies which one could utilise when analysing Islamic history or indeed any historical reports which have reached us through written documentation. They are categorised as follows:

1. To accept all historical reports which exist in every single documented historical work, to accept such reports and believe in them wholeheartedly and consider them reliable.

This is not something which any rational mind would ever say, because naturally historical works are themselves filled with contradictory accounts and clear opposing accounts. One does not find many historical accounts of pre-modern history except that we likewise find an opposing claim and varying account of its circumstances in another historical work. There is no doubt that histories have been written by the victors of history, that governments and dominant parties have traditionally played a role by rewriting history and constructing it in a way which suited the trajectory that they wished to move forward into. Much like the books of hadith, history works have also witnessed fabrication, individuals would work alongside the rulers of their era and praise individuals who led the way for these tyrants as righteous, governments have always played a crucial role in rewriting such history and distorting our true understanding of history.

Therefore, it makes no sense that one would ever be able to accept such an uncritical methodology in approaching any history, let alone Islamic history.

2. Rejection of all historical reports, to close off the ability to historically research.

Whilst this approach has been adopted by both individual as well as historical and religious groups, particularly in regards to certain generations and what occurred between them, this again is not a feasible method and to argue agnosticism on all historical events would strip history and all its lessons of all meaning, hence invalidating the very study of history. Clearly, advocating this position is neither rational nor fruitful.

3. To judge and make preferences critically between historical reports, namely, to attempt to use historical filtration between what might be deemed accurate in history and what would be considered a fabrication and to accept the former and reject the latter.

This methodology requires one to ponder upon what might be considered the most important question put forward throughout this entire paper, namely how does one perform the act of filtering and preferring a particular report within Islamic history?

Some have argued that in order to do this one ought to use a very popular method utilised in deriving jurisprudential rulings namely find a reliable chain of narration by jurisprudential authenticity standards. They would argue just as one analyses the chain of narration for jurisprudence, one ought to do it for history as well, in order for this report to be considered a binding authority, therefore they would argue that a report depends upon our understanding of the reporters veracity according to the science of judging the reporters for the purpose of jurisprudence.

This approach is one which is controversial. It is far from being rational and consistent with the approach of classical scholars and the giants in their respective fields of approaching reports.

Anyone familiar with Uṣūl al-Fiqh or the science studied by jurists in order to determine the difference between a clear cut and final jurisprudential ruling will know that the demand met by such a science is certainty in order to claim that this is the command of Allah and make such a ruling incumbent upon the practitioner of the religion.

Our scholars have generally followed suit in the same way in regard to how they engage with historical reports, they clearly distinguish between jurisprudential authenticity and historical authenticity. We shall cite several examples to demonstrate this approach.

Al-Shaykh Kāshif al-Ghiṭā’:

“Yes, the report of Zayd b. Arqam and Ibn Wakīda both of which have been transmitted in some reliable books - and what is meant here by reliable is historical reliability, not reliability around which the derivation of Divine law is based upon, such as the division of reports into ṣaḥīḥ, ḥasan, muwaththaq. Rather, it is from those types of reliability like when we say Tārīkh al-Ṭabarī and Tārīkh Ibn al-Athīr are both reliable.

It is sufficient for someone like the author of al-Biḥār, and al-Ṭurayḥī in al-Muntakhab to transmit a report and for this definition of reliability to be established, let alone for it to be transmitted by al-Sayyid b. Ṭā’ūs in al-Luhūf, or by al-Shaykh al-Mufīd in al-Irshād and so on.”

ʿAllāmah al-Sayyid Muḥsin al-Amīn al-ʿĀmilī:

“Nahj al-Balāgha is not a source of divine law for there to exist a need to investigate its chains and to establish their connection to ʿAlī (a). It is a selection of his statements concerning admonitions, counsel and types of speech that preachers adopt to convey their message across. The intent of its compiler was nothing besides collecting some of his (a) previous statements that fit within the field of eloquence and rhetoric, similar to what others have compiled from the words of the eloquent ones from the Jāhilīyyah period or from the Muslims, companions or otherwise, with a chain or without a chain. We do not see you objecting against anyone who transmits a sermon or a statement without a chain when it appears in a book that exceeds the required conditions, except Nahj al-Balāgha. This is nothing but the presence of something in the soul, especially when the majority of what is in it is transmitted with chains in famous and well transmitted books.”

Yet these are not merely the conclusions derived by Shīʿī traditional scholarship, Princeton scholar and doctorate holder, Nebil Huseyn similarly has argued the following:

“Many of these factions (including the Kharijites in Basra) were geographically separated from each other during the seventh century, leaving room for the independent development of various traditions. The fact that all of these groups agreed on the Prophet’s birth in Mecca, death in Medina, revelation of the Qur’an and commands to worship, fast, give alms and perform the pilgrimage indicate those items to have been part of a collective memory before fragmentation occurred in the community. The only period in which those Companions were united lies before the conquests and the first intra-Muslim conflicts. Since conflicts erupted at the death of the Prophet, it is likelier these collective memories are rooted in the lifetime of the Muhammad himself. The alternative would be to suggest a post-conquest development in proclaiming the sanctity of all of these items amongst each rival, independent, and geographically distant group. Defending such an alternative requires a few implausible elements like (1) an unreasonably short amount of time, (2) an absolute religious authority in the Umayyad era whom all unanimously obeyed, (3) the wealth and means to spread a new belief to all corners of the empire, (4) the abrogation of contradictory pre-existing beliefs without any surviving dissent and (5) the absence or suppression of any traces of such a project or shift in people’s beliefs. It would be absurd to believe such a shift could occur without dissent, since we have records of Muslims rejecting caliphal orders in the first/seventh century. For example, a famous Shīʿī text that has survived the first Islamic century, the Kitāb Sulaym ibn Qays, lists the legal practices attributed to the first three caliphs and rejects them. Sunnī condemnations of some Umayyad practices are also well known.”

The principle is clear, namely that the study of history would be one which ventures far beyond the standard discussions of ‘Ilm al-Rijāl, and the authenticity of chains, rather like any other historical event, we can assess the validity of such claims based upon a general agreed upon narrative from all Muslims. This is why the books of the most sceptical and rigid reformists shall often be full of narrations which when it comes to history are not authentic from a juristic perspective.

When Muslims agree on so many principle points about history but differ in the interpretation of motive and the nature of the historical actors, it is difficult to claim that the books of Islamic history are merely superstitious nonsense with no common origin. Yet a large portion of hadith pertain to historical reports.

Likewise, when it comes to the authenticity of supplications, it is clear for all that the standards utilised even by the most rigorous sceptic also do not apply in the assessment of supplications such as the supplication of Kumayl.

There are several principles which also affect how one acts upon non-compulsory acts or non-forbidden acts such as The Principle of Leniency in Evidences for Non-Obligatory Acts and the Principle of Hope for the Desired Outcome which are minimally offered forward as legitimate principles (particularly the latter) by the vast majority of Shīʿī scholars.

Another commonly levelled objection by those who adopt a narrative of mass-infiltration of fabricated practices into the religion is to attack rituals of a cultural basis and to claim that such practices do not have a basis within the historical Islam of the Ahl al-Bayt (a) as was practiced by the Ahl al-Bayt (a). Whilst there is a need to recognise that one ought not to venture into the extreme polarisation of such a discussion, one must not venture into extremes on either end of the discussion. One extreme view would be that of some ignorant laity who would project their own cultural practices into the concrete and necessary model of Islamic practice; it should be fairly clear to all that the Ahl al-Bayt (a) did not historically practice the Baḥraynī, Karbalā’ī or Iranian forms of chest beating nor did they parade a horse dressed up on the 10th of Muharram. Anyone who believes they did is historically uneducated. At the same time, one cannot therefore dismiss all such practices as innovation which are prohibited, for the Ahl al-Bayt (a) have never prohibited the usage of cultural ways of carrying out Islamic principles.

There are numerous narrations which are popularly cited in the books of Ijtihād and Taqlīd and in the books of Uṣūl al-Fiqh in which the Imams (a) have highlighted the need to branch out the principles that they have established. Therefore, if the community feels that 10 or 14 days of mourning for Imam Ḥusayn (a) in principle yield a large amount of benefits in terms of educating and preserving the principle of mourning for Imam Ḥusayn (a), it is irrelevant if the early Shi’i community had traditionally only observed one.

More importantly, viewing the historical reports about Imam Ḥusayn’s (a) martyrdom and its impact upon the psyche of the Ahl al-Bayt (a), we find historical reports such as the following:

قال امام الرضا عليه السلام: كان أبي صلوات اللّه عليه إذا دخل شهر المحرم لا يرى‏ ضاحكا و كانت الكآبة تغلب عليه حتّى يمضي منه عشرة أيام، فإذا كان يوم العاشر كان ذلك اليوم يوم مصيبته و حزنه و بكائه، و يقول: هو اليوم الذي قتل فيه الحسين عليه السلام

Imam al-Riḍā (a) said, "With the advent of the month of Muharram, my father Imam al-Kāẓim (a) would never be seen laughing; gloom and sadness would overcome him for (the first) ten days of the month; and when the tenth day of the month would dawn, it would be a day of tragedy, grief and weeping for him and He would say, "This is the day on which Imam Ḥusayn (a) was killed".

Such reports show that we cannot try to reduce the observation of grief to a blind legalistic one. None would argue in favour of restricting such mourning to only Arabic speeches, yet such is what was historically observed by the Ahl al-Bayt (a). One has to recognise that each community will demonstrate and observe grief in a way which is optimal to their own preservation of Ḥusayn’s memory.

The Difference Between Weak and Fabricated Hadith

In Shīʿī Hadith sciences, there are generally three tiers of what are considered reliable narrations namely:

Ṣaḥīḥ - Namely, a fully connected chain of transmission consisting of honest Imāmī narrators.

Ḥasan - Namely a full connected chain of transmission consisting of praised narrators who are all Imāmī.

Muwaththaq - Namely a full connected chain of transmission consisting of dependable narrators who are not all from the Imāmī creed.

Anything which falls short of the above three criteria is according to conventional ‘Ilm al-Dirāyah (the science of assessing a chain of narration) considered ‘weak’ but that does not take into consideration the varying degrees of weakness. To give a prominent example, imagine there was a fully connected chain of narration which consisted of individuals considered fully veracious and Imāmī by most Rijāl scholars, but due to a difference of opinion on one narrator between Najāshī and Ṭūsī, it was opted to rule indifferently upon that one narrator; this narration would now be considered ‘weak’ and yet this is the same name given to a chain which consists of five people universally considered liars amongst all sources of Rijāl.

In the end both traditions would be referred to as “weak” and yet furthermore, some today utilise “weak” as a synonym for “fabricated”, a practice unknown to the previous scholars who were hesitant to dismiss something for the sole reason that it had not been transmitted with a reliable chain of narration.

Methodological Considerations for Furthering Dialogue in Such Issues

When assessing such issues, one ought to ensure that the following criteria are being met by anyone who makes grandiose claims about the accuracy and reliability of traditions and particularly narrations:

  1. Have the terms being used been explained adequately (i.e. can we seriously attempt to avoid the problem of equivocation).

  2. Are the claims being thrown out even capable of falsifying or verifying (i.e. can we judge a claim which throws out random percentages to judge the amount of distortions being thrown out).

  3. If we can falsify or verify such stats, have the tools and litmus tests for doing such been explained accurately?

  4. Do the individuals throwing out such claims successfully apply their own rigorous standards of authentication? (It would be worth carrying out a brief inductive assessment of such movements and their proponents’ own lectures, lessons and dialogues and seeing how many traditions utilised are as authentic as is demanded of everything else).

  5. What alternative is being proposed in place of the corrupted and polluted version of Islam that such reformist groups have rigorously opposed and does that alternative always avoid practices with zero origin.

Without doubt in a world in which many cultural practices and superstitious beliefs and attitudes possessing zero grounding in the original source literature for the religion have become dominant and even untouchable for some, it is difficult to chastise or view as malicious any genuine sincere call for reform and filtering the practices and beliefs held by the community. However, in this process, we must make sure that what is being advocated is one grounded in both stability and the certainty that they themselves have lamented the current absence of. Ultimately such discussions belong in the realm of scholarly exchanges and not in the forums of the community where both the average proponent and opponent are incapable of assessing the validity of claims made.

Article reviewed by Sayed Ammar Nakshwani, Sheikh Nuru Mohammed and Islamic Education Team of The World Federation of KSIMC.

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