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Were all the Imams (a) Killed?


Were all the Imams (a) of the Ahl al-Bayt (a) killed? The origins of this debate can be traced back to the words of Shaykh Ṣadūq and Shaykh Mufīd. When addressing the phenomenon of exaggeration (ghuluw) with respects to the status of the Prophet (p) and the Imams (a), Shaykh Ṣadūq critiques[1] those exaggerators who believed some of the Imams did not die. Certain groups believed the Imams were replaced by someone else who resembled them, similar to the case of what the Muslims believe regarding Prophet ‘Īsa’s (a) crucifixion. In this context, Shaykh Ṣadūq writes:

Our belief concerning the Prophet is that he was poisoned during the expedition of Khaybar. The poison continued to be noxious to him until it cut his aorta and then he died from its effects.

And the Prince of Believers, on whom be peace, was murdered by 'Abd al-Raḥmān bin Muljam al-Murād, may Allah curse him, and he was buried in Ghari.

And Ḥasan b. ‘Alī, on both of whom be peace, he was poisoned by his wife Ja'da bint Ash'ath of Kinda, may Allah curse them both, and he died on account of that.

And Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī was slain at Karbala. His murderer was Sinān b. Anas al-Nakha'ī, the curse of Allah on them both.

And 'Alī bin Ḥusayn, the Sayyid Zayn al-‘Ābidīn, was poisoned by Walīd bin 'Abd al-Malik, may Allah curse him.

And Muḥammad al-Bāqir b. 'Alī was poisoned by Ibrahīm b. al-Walīd, may Allah curse him.

And Ja'far al-Ṣādiq was poisoned by Abū Ja'far al-Manṣūr al-Dawāniqī, may Allah curse him.

And Mūsa al-Kaẓim b. Ja'far was poisoned by Hārūn al-Rashīd, may Allah curse him.

And 'Alī al-Riḍā b. Mūsa was poisoned by Ma'mūn, may Allah curse him.

And Abū Ja'far Muḥammad al-Taqī b. 'Alī was poisoned by Mu'tasim, may Allah curse him.

And 'Alī al-Naqī b. Muḥammad was poisoned by Mutawakkil[2], may Allah curse him.

And Ḥasan al-'Askarī b. ‘Alī was poisoned by Mu'tamid, may Allah curse him.

And our belief is that these events actually occurred, and that there was no doubt in the minds of the people regarding the Imams' affairs, as some of those who exceed the bounds (of belief) allege. On the contrary the people witnessed their murder really and truly, and not by conjecture or fancy or doubt or false allegation. He who asserts that some person or persons were substituted for one of the Imams, or some of them, is not of our religion and we have nothing in common with him.

And verily the Prophet and Imams, on whom be peace, had informed people that they would all be murdered.

In the same context, while Shaykh Mufīd also critiques those who exaggerate the status of the Imams, he is not convinced all the Imams (a) were definitely killed as Shaykh Ṣadūq insists. Rather he believes some of them died a natural death. In his response[3] to Shaykh Ṣadūq he writes:

As for what Abū Ja‘far (Shaykh Ṣadūq) mentions of the death of our Prophet and the Imams by poison or murder, some of this is confirmed as fact and some not. What is confirmed is that the Commander of the Believers, Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, peace be upon them, departed from this world by murder, none of them died a natural death. Mūsa b. Ja’far, peace be upon him, was killed by poison.

It is highly probable that Riḍā (‘Ali ibn Musa) was poisoned, yet this cannot be confirmed. As for the others, there is no justification for the claim that they were either poisoned or murdered or killed through persecution, since the reports concerning this matter are extremely confused, and there are no means of proving it definitely.

These comments made by Shaykh Mufīd seem to have only been restricted to him and we are not aware of any significant Shī’ī scholar who held the same position. Nevertheless, given the significance of Shaykh Mufīd and his impact on Shī’īsm, it behooves to investigate his opinion and see whether all the Imams were indeed killed, and if so, then what is the evidence for it?

Reconciling Theology and History

This discussion is a prime example of reconciling theological conclusions and historical reports. In essence, Shaykh Ṣadūq has derived a theological premise from narrations which point towards a principle that all the Imams were to be killed – either by sword or by poison – hence he presents it as a creedal matter. Thereafter, any other historical report that describes the killing of any of the Imams (a) is simply used as evidence to identify who the killers were. In other words, after having accepted the theological principle, even if there were no reports saying that a certain Imam was killed by a certain caliph, or some reports were fabricated indicating that the Imam was not killed but rather replaced by someone who resembled him, it would not concern Ṣadūq – he would still believe that the Imams were definitely killed, but simply claim he is not sure of who killed them. Of course, as can be seen in Ṣadūq’s writings, he has either relied on certain reports to identify who killed each of the Imams (a) or he has made a scholarly presumption that many of the Imams were killed on the orders of the caliphs contemporary to each of those Imams.

On the contrary, Mufīd definitely does not accept this theological principle. Subsequently, he describes the historical reports discussing the details of how some of the Imams (a) were killed not very clear and not strong enough to prove anything with certainty.

Given this backdrop, we will first discuss whether we can establish a theological principle through the traditions that say every Imam (a) is to be killed and that they will not die a natural death. If this principle can be established, then whether there are any reports or not specifically mentioning the details of the martyrdom of any given Imam or even if there are reports but they happen to be weak, it would still be enough to claim that all the Imams were killed.

However, if this theological principle cannot be established, it would not mean all the Imams were not necessarily killed, rather it would simply mean there is no theological reason to believe so. Nevertheless, we will then have to conduct a historical investigation of the sources to see if there are any historical reasons to believe all the Imams were killed.

Theological Principle

To begin with, we will first investigate the narrations that are used by scholars to establish the theological principle that all the Imams were killed and that they did not die a natural death.

Ḥadīth #1

مَا مِنَّا إِلَّا مَسْمُومٌ‏ أَوْ مَقْتُولٌ‏

When Imam Ḥasan (a) was poisoned, he is reported to have said during this last moments: “There is none amongst us except that they are poisoned or killed.”[4]

Ḥadīth #2

وَ لَقَدْ حَدَّثَنِي جَدِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ص أَنَّ الْأَمْرَ يَمْلِكُهُ اثْنَا عَشَرَ إِمَاماً مِنْ أَهْلِ بَيْتِهِ وَ صَفْوَتِهِ مَا مِنَّا إِلَّا مَقْتُولٌ‏ أَوْ مَسْمُومٌ

When Imam ‘Alī (a) is killed by Ibn Muljam, Imam Ḥasan (a) addresses the people and tells them about what has transpired. In this context he quotes the Prophet (p) as having once said, “There is none amongst us except that they are killed or poisoned.”[5]

Ḥadīth #3

حَدَّثَنَا أَحْمَدُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنِ الْحُسَيْنِ بْنِ سَعِيدٍ عَنِ الْقَاسِمِ بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنْ عَلِيٍّ عَنْ أَبِي بَصِيرٍ عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ع قَالَ: سُمَّ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ص يَوْمَ خَيْبَرَ فَتَكَلَّمَ اللَّحْمُ فَقَالَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ص إِنِّي مَسْمُومٌ قَالَ فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ ص عِنْدَ مَوْتِهِ الْيَوْمَ قَطَّعَتْ مَطَايَايَ الْأُكْلَةُ الَّتِي أَكَلْتُ بِخَيْبَرَ وَ مَا مِنْ نَبِيٍّ وَ لَا وَصِيٍّ إِلَّا شَهِيدٌ

In another tradition attributed to Imam Ṣādiq (a) he is reported to have said: “There is no Prophet or a Prophet’s successor except that he is martyred.”[6]

We argue that this tradition can be trusted even though two individuals – namely Qāsim b. Muḥammad and ‘Alī b. Hamzah – are Wāqifīs and even if the classical scholars did not explicitly vouch for their trustworthiness. Before expounding on the reason for this tradition’s reliability, consider this example:

When one wishes to establish the truth of Shī’ism and the merits of the Ahl al-Bayt (a), a general tactic is to refer to the traditions found in the books of the Ahl al-Sunnah. As a matter of fact, it is appropriate to resort to traditions on their (a) merits even if they are narrated by the worse of their enemies, i.e. the Nāṣibīs. While one may be tempted to say such an argument when put forth for the Ahl al-Sunnah using their narrators is simply a tactic to win an argument and does not lead us to the truth of the transmission since it is being narrated by a Nāṣibī whose trustworthiness is rejected. However, this is far from the case and on the contrary, the use of such a tradition can be classified as an instance of a valid argument which leads us to arriving at the truth of the content.

The reason for arriving at this certainty is due to the general practice of an opponent not having any motivation to fabricate, let alone report and transmit, a tradition which goes against their established beliefs. In our scenario above, the greater the enmity of a narrator is established, the more reason would exist to trust the report mentioning the merits of the Ahl al-Bayt (a) because a Nāṣibī has no motive to fabricate their merits.[7]

In this same light, we say that given the Wāqifīs believed Imam Kāẓim (a) was not killed and went into occultation, they would have had no reason to fabricate, let alone transmit a tradition which would go against their established beliefs.

Ḥadīth #4

حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ مُوسَى بْنِ الْمُتَوَكِّلِ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا عَلِيُّ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ بْنِ هَاشِمٍ عَنْ أَبِيهِ عَنْ أَبِي الصَّلْتِ عَبْدِ السَّلَامِ بْنِ صَالِحٍ الْهَرَوِيِّ قَالَ: سَمِعْتُ الرِّضَا ع يَقُولُ وَ اللَّهِ مَا مِنَّا إِلَّا مَقْتُولٌ‏ شَهِيدٌ فَقِيلَ لَهُ وَ مَنْ يَقْتُلُكَ يَا ابْنَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ قَالَ شَرُّ خَلْقِ اللَّهِ فِي زَمَانِي يَقْتُلُنِي بِالسَّمِّ ثُمَّ يَدْفِنُنِي فِي دَارٍ مُضَيَّقَةٍ وَ بِلَادِ غُرْبَةٍ أَلَا فَمَنْ زَارَنِي فِي غُرْبَتِي كَتَبَ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى لَهُ أَجْرَ مِائَةِ أَلْفِ شَهِيدٍ وَ مِائَةِ أَلْفِ صِدِّيقٍ وَ مِائَةِ أَلْفِ حَاجٍّ وَ مُعْتَمِرٍ وَ مِائَةِ أَلْفِ مُجَاهِدٍ وَ حُشِرَ فِي زُمْرَتِنَا وَ جُعِلَ فِي الدَّرَجَاتِ الْعُلَى فِي الْجَنَّةِ رَفِيقَنَا

Shaykh Ṣadūq narrates from Abu Ṣalt al-Harawī who said, “I heard al-Riḍā (a) say, by Allah there is none amongst us except that they are killed and martyred.” The Imam then goes on to describe the qualities of the individual who will kill him.[8]

This is an authentic and reliable tradition.

A Fifth Report

وَ أَخْبَرَنِي جَمَاعَةٌ عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ أَحْمَدَ الصَّفْوَانِيِ‏ قَالَ حَدَّثَنِي الشَّيْخُ الْحُسَيْنُ بْنُ رَوْحٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ‏ أَنَّ يَحْيَى بْنَ خَالِدٍ سَمَّ مُوسَى بْنَ جَعْفَرٍ ع فِي إِحْدَى وَ عِشْرِينَ رُطَبَةً وَ بِهَا مَاتَ وَ أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ وَ الْأَئِمَّةَ ع مَا مَاتُوا إِلَّا بِالسَّيْفِ‏ أَوِ السَّمِّ وَ قَدْ ذُكِرَ عَنِ الرِّضَا ع أَنَّهُ سُمَّ وَ كَذَلِكَ وَلَدُهُ وَ وَلَدُ وَلَدِهِ‏

There is a fifth report which Shaykh Ṭūsī transmits, however it is not a direct ḥadīth of an infallible. It is a statement from Ḥusayn b. Rūh, the third deputy of the 12th Imam (a) who says that the Prophet and the Imams (a) did not die except by the sword or poison.[9]

This generic statement by Ḥusayn b. Rūḥ does imply that this was understood as a theological principle and that if there was ever any discrepancy or confusion it would generally relate to identifying the individual who killed the Imams – perhaps that is why in the report above, Ḥusayn b. Rūḥ is identifying the name of the person who poisoned Imam Kāẓim (a).

In total there are 4 direct traditions from the infallibles: one from the Prophet, one from Imam Ḥasan, one from Imam Ṣādiq and one from Imam Riḍā – peace be upon them all – alongside a statement by Ḥusayn b. Rūḥ the third deputy of the 12th Imam (a). The traditions from Imam Ṣādiq and Imam Riḍā are authentic, while the other two do not meet the conditions of reliability from the perspective of their chains of narrators – of course, this does not mean these two reports are false and lies. In addition, these reports are found in a variety of sources, such as Baṣā’ir al-Darajāt, al-Faqīh and Kifāyah al-Athar, and with multiple different chains of narrators.

Looking at the overall picture we see there are different traditions from different Imams (a), transmitted by a variety of different narrators, recorded in different reliable primary sources, including two traditions which are authentic. Given all this, one can say to a degree of assurance that these words were uttered by the some of infallibles. In such a case, it suffices one to accept the theological principle: the Prophet (p) and the Imams (a) were all killed – either by sword or by poison.

The question remains, why did Shaykh Mufīd not accept this theological principle given these traditions? It is very much possible that some of these traditions did not pass down to Shaykh Mufīd, especially when one realizes that none of them are ever referenced in any discussion Shaykh Mufīd conducts in any of his extant works. It is also possible that perhaps some of the traditions did pass down to him but they were the ones that were weak and so he was personally not able to form a convincing theological opinion on the matter - and Allah (swt) knows best.

It should also be pointed out that despite this position being upheld by all other Shī’ī scholars and we do not know of anyone other than Shaykh Mufīd casting doubt on the matter, this belief is still not from the necessary pillars of the Shī’ī creed. In fact, it is from the theological matters that can be investigated and analyzed, so if someone does arrive at a contrary conclusion like in the case of Shaykh Mufīd, they are justified in holding this position.

Historical Discussion

After having established the theological premise that all of the Imams (a) were killed, the historical discussion benefits us in determining the details of their martyrdom – who killed them, when and how they were killed. However, we saw that Shaykh Mufīd did not believe in such a principle, hence the historical discussion in this case does not just benefit us in finding out the details of their martyrdom, but also as well as to establish the actual martyrdom of the Imams (a) to begin with.

For Shaykh Mufīd the martyrdom of the following Imams (a) was not established:

1) Imam Sajjād (a) – who died at 57

2) Imam Bāqir (a) – who died at 58

3) Imam Ṣādiq (a) – who died at 65

4) Imam Taqī (a) – who died at 25

5) Imam Naqī (a) – who died at 40

6) Imam ‘Askarī (a) – who died at 28

For those who accept the theological premise that all the Imams were killed, they would apply the principle on all of the 6 aforementioned Imams indiscriminately. As for those who do not accept the theological principle, establishing the martyrdom, let alone the details of it, is definitely harder since they are restricted to reliable historical documentation – which are scarce. If such documentation does not exist, they may have no other reason to believe any of the 6 Imams above were killed. Nevertheless, we can cite a number of alibis to suggest that the chances of all of the 6 Imams having been killed is much greater than them having died natural deaths.

Firstly, the ages of some of the Imams at the time of their demise itself raises doubts and suspicion for us as some of them were far too young to have died a natural death. Imam Taqi (a) at the age of 25, Imam Naqi (a) at the age of 40 and Imam ‘Askarī (a) at the age of 28. This is accompanied by the fact that these three Imams (a) were all forced to leave Medina and live in Sāmarra under the watchful eye of the caliphs. For someone living in the