Imam Ja'far As-Sadiq (a) Part II [Lecture 11]

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Hamid Algar

Rajab 29, 1422 2001-10-16

Occasional Paper

by Hamid Algar


-Nass and 'Ilm in the successorship of the Imams [AS]

-The Categories of knowledge of the Imam [AS]

-Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] and the transmission of Hadith

-Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq's [AS] role as the eponym of Shi'ah fiqh and in the crystallisation of the Shi'i School of Law

-Alchemy and the science of letters ('Ilm al-huruf)

-The doctrine of taqiyyah

-The claimants to the Imamate after the death of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]


Last time looked at Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] the sixth of the twelve Holy Imams [AS]. His accomplishments in general and then with particular regards to the development of Shi’ism. Broke off with the consideration of the doctrine of Nass – the insistence that each Imam [AS] must have been nominated by his predecessor – in a witnessed nomination and preferably set down in writing. This process was retrospectively claimed by Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] to have occurred with each of the Imams [AS], and if in the case of Imam Ali [AS] the First Imam [AS] this had not occurred then it is because of the denial of the request of the Prophet [sAW] on his deathbed that writing implements be brought forth in his presence. It may be assumed or it is assumed by Shi’i authors for him to dictate once again his intentions for Ali [AS] to succeed him as the Imam [AS].

Nass and 'Ilm

None of the other contemporary claimants to the Imamate may advance similar claims. That is none of them claimed to have been nominated by a predecessor. This therefore enabled Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] to stand out from the majority of other claimants. The other claimants lay emphasis upon a more general consent dispensed from the now departed Imam [AS], and upon the necessity as they saw it of immediate insurrectionary action. Those two factors constituted their claim to the imamate. Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] by contrast introduced the principle of Nass as being decisive, of far greater importance than taking immediate revolutionary action. Going closely together with the principle of Nass is the reaffirmation of knowledge as central to the function and definition of the Imamate. This is as already mentioned – one of the traditions that is cited by Shi’i Muslims since the birth of the doctrine of the Imamate and the successorship of Imam Ali [AS] - is that in which the Prophet [sAW] is reported to have said:-

‘I am the city of Knowledge and Ali is it’s gate’

In other words by means of Imam Ali [AS] and by implication his successors access is uniquely to be had of a special body of knowledge transmitted from the Prophet [sAW]. This emphasis on knowledge is quite essential and definitive for the Imamate and also tends to undercut the claims of rivals, who made no such similar claim to having an inherited body of knowledge and who also did not manifest the same erudition and versatile talent in learning and teaching as Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]. These two key principles Nass and ‘Ilm are implicit in one of the traditions coming from the Prophet [sAW] on which he laid heavy emphasis. The tradition has been cited at the very beginning of these set of lectures the Prophet [sAW] was reported to have said:-

‘Whomsoever dies and does not recognise the Imam [AS] of his time has died as if he died in the period of ignorance.’

The period of ignorance is of course the period before the coming of Islam in which the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula were deprived of revealed religions. Why is this particularly significant in the time of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] and how is it connected to these two key principles of Nass and ‘Ilm? Firstly one may say that all that this Hadith calls for if you look at it closely and analyse it’s wording is a recognition of the Imam [AS], not coming forth in insurrection not espousing openly the claim of the Imam [AS] to legitimate political rule but simply recognising him, the knowledge of the Imam [AS] – this is seen as key. Why should the knowledge of the Imam [AS], the recognition of the Imam [AS] be decisive for salvation and for dying in a state of true Islam, because precisely of our second principle of knowledge. In other words to recognise the Imam [AS], to recognise who is the Imam [AS] of the age the heir in one’s own period to the knowledge of the Prophet [sAW] and to act accordingly this is enough for dying as a Muslim. This hadith placed the context of the time of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] undercuts both the insurrectionary tendency of other claimants to the Imamate by laying stress on simply the recognition of the Imam [AS] and secondly it reemphasises the essentiality of the Imam [AS] to a correct knowledge and therefore practise of Islam. Therefore this hadith although pre-existing and attributed reliably to the Prophet [sAW] receives renewed emphasis with these implications in the time of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS].

Types of knowledge of the Imam [AS]

As for the details of the knowledge – what precisely constitutes the knowledge? This has been touched upon in general terms. One can divide the knowledge of the Imams [AS] or of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] in particular into two – an exoteric knowledge and an esoteric knowledge. The esoteric knowledge (the inward knowledge) is that which is peculiar to the Imams themselves and is not revealed by them. This goes back to their inheriting a series of books which although not revelation, in other words not revealed by the Quran – contain within themselves a particular body of knowledge which is peculiar to the Imams [AS] and not revealed by them. Primary among these texts as already referred to is the Mushaf of Bibi Fatima [AS] which is said to be a scroll three times longer than the Quran itself containing a detailed prediction of future events and also regulation pertaining to what is permissible and what is impermissible, the halal and the haram. As for the origin of this book it was said that it was sent to Bibi Fatima [AS] after the death of her father the Prophet [sAW] as some kind of consolation to her and then transmitted as a book in other words in tangible form from one Imam [AS] to the next. It is said that as part of the material possessions of the Imamate it has also gone into occultation with the Imam [AS] [the 12th Imam [AS]]. When he returns then the books will also be returned and presumeably their contents will be revealed. Also amongst the books attributed to the Imams [AS] forming part of their special knowledge is another book called quite simply al-Jami’ah – the comprehensive i.e. it includes within itself a variety of necessary matters. It is said to have been dictated by the Prophet [sAW] to Imam Ali [AS] and to contain with it detailed judgments on legal matters. So here we are dealing with two texts which have no visible sign but which have tangible reality.

Again in the province of what might be called reserve esoteric knowledge – is knowledge of what is called the supreme name of God ‘al-‘Ism al-A’adham’. The Supreme Name of God is a subject of speculation amongst all segments of the Muslim community. We find a great deal of speculation being given to this topic above all by the Sufis. What is meant by the Supreme Name? Not any of the well known names not even the name Allah (SWT) which is held to be coterminous with the Divine Essence, the name of the Divine Essence - it contains within itself within the implicit form all of the other names and attributes – but rather a name other than that. It is s Supreme Name – it is a name above all other names including even according to most understandings the name Allah (SWT) itself. A name that transcends all verbal and phonetic forms. It is a name that does not exist as a word. The knowledge of this name is not simply a question of intellectual perception or of theological insight because knowledge of the name it is held implies in turn a knowledge and a precise understanding of the entirety of creation. Which makes sense in that all of the Divine Names are correlated with different aspects of creation. All of the names are manifested in different aspects of creation. Therefore the Supreme Name ‘al-‘Ism al-A’adham’ by definition must embrace the entirety of creation, and be the key to the knowledge and understanding of the entirety of creation in detail not in the general form, not in terms of universals but in terms of particulars. And this name it is held is also part of that knowledge that is exclusive to and transmitted by the Imams [AS] from one to the other. Although al-‘Ism al’A’adham might appear to be the ultimate name beyond which there is no other name there is in fact in Shi’i terminology yet another name beyond even the Prophet [sAW] and the Imams [AS] themselves this is known as ‘al-ism al-musta’atham’ which can be roughly translated as the reserved name by this it is meant the Name the knowledge of which is reserved by Allah (SWT) for Himself, He does not communicate it to even the Prophets or the Imams [AS]. In keeping with the principle that ultimately only Allah (SWT) knows Himself, only He knows Himself in a comprehensive and all-embracing fashion. There is therefore beyond al-Ism al ‘A’adhamal-‘Ism al-Musta’atham the reserved name. Although mentioned in this context, this is not part of the knowledge of the Imam [AS] i.e. the esoteric knowledge inherited and transmitted by the Imam [AS] and the Prophet [sAW]. But the existence of this Name, the fact that there is a Name reserved by Allah (SWT) to Himself, i.e. that there is that about Allah (SWT) that is ultimately only knowable to Him this is indeed part of the teachings of Shia Islam and does not have and does not have a precise analogue in the teachings of Sunni Islam including Sufism.

Finally in what might be called the esoteric knowledge in the religious sphere of the Imams [AS] – the esoteric interpretation of the Quran. At the very outset it has been tried to emphasise the relationship between the Imams [AS] and the Quran. There is that hadith of the Prophet [sAW] attested in both Sunni and Shia sources:-

‘I (the Prophet [sAW]) will leave you two entities of great value one of which is the Quran and the other of which is my Descendants’

That hadith of course in itself implies a connection, in fact the Prophet [sAW] says that they shall not separate from each other until the hereafter. One way in which the Quran and the lineage of the Prophet [sAW] is connected is through the discipline of ta’wil. In order to explain what is involved in this there are two words used for the exegesis of the Quran – tafsir and ta’wil. Tafsir means laying out in detail – the lexical meaning, the original meaning, means to lay out in detail. In other words when there is a matter in the Quran which requires detailed explanation this is the task of tafsir. For example if it is useful to know the occasion of particular circumstances under which a verse of the Quran was revealed then this is the task of tafsir, if there was an unusual word occurring in a verse of the Quran or a familiar word used in an unfamiliar sense again this is the task of tafsir. However what is involved in ta’wil is something different. Ta’wil is connected with the root Awwal ‘first’ – therefore Ta’wil is a movement towards that which is first or primary. In other words the outer sense of the verse is viewed as technically that which is first or primary to which the exegete leads us back to the inner sense. To put it more succinctly and clearly ta’wil is the interiorising or esoteric interpretation of the Quran. A movement away from the outer sense of the verses which is held to be secondary although it is that which we first encounter when we read the Quran. So ta’wil presupposes a duality between Zahir and Batin between outer sense of the Quran and inner senses. There is an important clarification to be made here when speaking of the outer and inner senses of the Quran in the tradition of Shi’i exegesis. It should not be imagined that the outer meaning of the Quran is as it were simply a kind of metaphor which is then dissolved and loses it’s validity once one understands the inner meaning. For example when there is a clearly legislative verse of the Quran enjoining any of the basic acts of worship then indeed the verse means what it says – in fact in all cases the verse means what it says. The inner meaning is not one that dissolves or contradicts the outer meaning – it is an additional meaning. A meaning that is elucidated or elicited from a careful consideration of the verse and that which it implies. This is an important distinction to make because sometimes the word ta’wil in the usage of other schools of thought and traditions in Islam does have that sense. And particularly the Ismaili offshoot to Shi’ism to which it will be necessary to refer however briefly does engage in that kind of ta’wil. That is to say it dissolves the clear outer meaning of verses in favour of what is presumed to be the true inner meaning. So for example verses concerning pilgrimage are in the Ismaili understanding of things, are dissolved they lose all their legislative clarity and definition and become an injunction to some inward imaginary movement in the direction of the Divine Presence, not the clear injunction to make an actual journey to an actual structure, regarding an actual city – Makkah.

The outer and inner meaning are both valid, simply however they refer to different levels of understanding. It is owed to Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] precisely a delineation of four separate levels of Quranic meaning. Ibara – the outward global meaning, a meaning that is accessible to anyone who has a knowledge of the Arabic language and the general modes of expression of the Quran, Then beyond that we have the Ishara which literally means the indication or the allusion i.e.that which is implicated by the outer verbal meaning but lies at one step of interiorisation. Then there is latifah – subtlety that which lies at a greater distance from the Ibarah then the haqiqah which in this context means the ultimate truth or the ultimate essence of meaning which is contained in each ayah of the Quran. Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] had delineated these four separate categories of meaning. The Haqiqah is that knowledge which is accessible only to the Prophet [sAW] and the Imams [AS], in other words the Ma’sumin – this is logical enough when thought through if the premise is accepted that the Prophet [sAW] and the Imams [AS] are Ma’sum – protected of all error of judgment or of act, they will therefore have access to that ultimate truth contained within each verse.

In addition to delineating these four categories, or four layers of meaning Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] is reliably reported to have written a commentary on the Quran. However no complete text of this commentary survived, fragments of it are preserved in a number of Quran commentaries not only those written by Shi’i authors but also significantly enough a number of the earliest Sufi commentaries upon the Quran also contain extracts from the commentary of the Imam [AS]. For example if you look at the tafsir of Qushairi (lata’if al-isharah), it is relatively brief, written in an attractive an eloquent language contains extensive interpretation from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]. Therefore with respect to the radiation of his knowledge beyond the Shi’ah community narrowly defined we find that he plays an important part in the origins of Sufi commentary upon the Quran. These are some aspects of the inner knowledge of the Imam [AS] as exemplified and asserted by Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS].

Transmission of Hadith

If one turns to the outer knowledge – the more familiar accessible forms of knowledge then in the first place one could mention ahadith that is to say ‘traditions’. Hadith in the first place of course means the traditions of the Prophet [sAW] but it must be remembered that in the usage of Shi’ah Islam precisely because the Imams are Ma’asum the word hadith is applied to the sayings and traditions of the Imams [AS] themselves. Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] is important from the point of view of hadith in two ways because firstly he himself transmitted hadith from others. In the first place from his father Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS]. And of course the hadith transmitted from Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS] are in turn in part traditions transmitted from the entire line of the Imams [AS] leading back to the Prophet [sAW]. In addition to that we know that Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] in Madinah, Madinah at that time although being on the fringes of political history was an important centre of learning, in addition to that Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] transmitted hadith from a large number of hadith authorities that were living in Madinah at that time including those who one would classify as Sunni as well as shi’i. According to one account Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] transmitted hadith from more than 4000 people a figure that might appear to be excessive or exaggerated but is within the realms of possibility given the fact that this was for both the nascent Shi’i community and the broader Sunni community a period of intense activity in the collection and codification of hadith. In fact one finds traditions from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS], that is to say traditions that he had received from others and in turn transmitted to the hadith scholars of his time – one finds them in all the six books of Sunni tradition. Sunni Islam has six collections of traditions from the Prophet [sAW] which are regarded as having a high degree of authority and authenticity. Traditions from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] are to be found in all six of these books with one exception the Sahih al-Bukhari which is regarded by Sunni Muslims as the foremost of all the collections of Prophetic traditions. The question arises that why amongst all the six books there should be no hadith from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] in the Sahih al-Bukhari, it cannot be that Bukhari regarded the traditions as in and amongst themselves unacceptable because we do find a significant number of hadith from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] in another collection of Bukhari ‘Al Adab Al Mufrad’. This book is shorter than the Sahih but also compiled by Bukhari. It can be said therefore that although Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq’s [AS] hadith are absent from Sahih al-Bukhari still Bukhari did regard him as an authoritative transmitter of hadith. More importantly possibly than his transmission of hadith was the fact that his own pronouncements, which of course count from the Shi’i point of view as hadith constitute the great bulk of traditions found in the Shi’i books. A precise statistic is not known but it is certain that there are more hadith narrated in Shi’i tradition from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq than from any of his predecessors in the line of the Imams [AS] and more than from the Prophet [sAW] himself. When it is said that there are more hadith transmitted from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] than even from the Prophet [sAW] it is important to bear the following in mind, that very frequently Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] says that my ancestor says such and such. In other words my ancestor the Prophet [sAW] said such and such. This counts however as a tradition of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] because there is no chain of transmission leading back from him to the Prophet [sAW] – no specified explicit chain of transmission leading back to the Prophet [sAW]. And this from the Shi’i point of view is not necessary precisely again because of the principle of ‘Ismah. That if an Imam [AS] says that my ancestor the Prophet [sAW] said such and such then because the Imam [AS] is ma’sum – he is Divinely protected against error then certainly this is the case, there is no need for the procedure of establishing a chain of transmission and examining it’s reliability. So there are a very large number of hadith transmitted from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]. The fact that there is this numerical preponderance of his hadith in Shi’i tradition is in part due to the relative length of his Imamate. He exercised the Imamate for longer than any of the other 12 Imams [AS]. It can added to that also his own personal inclination to learning the time and place in which he was living, Madinah in this particular period and it was easy to understand why this should be the case.

Jurisprudence and the crystallisation of the schools of law

Closely linked to the cultivation of hadith at this time was the discipline of jurisprudence (fiqh). This linkage between hadith and fiqh is again a phenomenon shared by Sunni and Shi’i Islam, one sees that with the two apparently opposed processes underway at the time. On the one hand a gradual separation between Shi’is and the rest of the community through the formation of distinct schools of law, jurisprudence and so forth but on the other hand a similarity even a parallelism in the processes by which the religious sciences are formed. One can say that for both Sunnis and Shi’is and even now the words are a little anachronistic because the full formation of these two groups has not yet taken place, there is a linkage between the two. Why, because – whether you conceive of it in the narrow sense espoused by Sunnis i.e. the hadith of the Prophet [sAW] or in the broader sense the hadith of the Prophet [sAW] and the Imams [AS] provides the essential material for elaborating Islamic Law. The Quran by itself of course it has it’s legislative verses, those legislative verses are not enough by themselves to constitute the basis of a fully fledged legal system. And more overly interpretation of those verses is in many cases dependent on elaboration, clarification by hadith, again the hadith of the Prophet [sAW] and/or the hadith of the Imams [AS]. And therefore one finds going together in this period the formation of the schools of law and the codification of the body of hadith. This is a phenomenon to be encountered both among Sunnis and amongst Shi’ahs. It is therefore easily explicable that Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] should stand at the origin of Shi’i jurisprudence, Shi’i fiqh - as it’s eponym. This is not to say of course that distinct legal provisions setting apart Shi’i tradition from what was becoming Sunni tradition did not exist beforehand, particularly as the immediate predecessor Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS], as has been suggested had distinctive positions on some legal questions. This important development was taken further by Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] to the extent that Shi’i Islam in it’s legal dimension became known after him as the Ja’ffari Madhdhab. Therefore He [AS] stood at the origin of the Ja’fari School of law and at the same time contributed to the Hanafi School of law through his contacts with Imam Abu Hanifah.

On this question of law the crystallisation of the school of law clearly depends not only on detailed provisions it must also include the clarification of a certain methodology, this is at least as important as the detailed provisions which in some cases relate to minor and peripheral matters. And with respect to Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] it is important to note that together with emphasis on the authority of the Imam [AS] for all of the reasons that have been mentioned he encouraged and in fact demanded of his followers that they also engage in mental exertion in order to clarify the law. For example one of his important hadith in this respect is the following he said:-

‘it is our (the Imam’s [AS]) concern to put forward the principles and it is your task to extract from them the branches.’

The ‘you’ that he is addressing here are certain of his learned companions. It is important to understand that on the one hand certainly the Imam [AS] in law and in virtually every other area has indeed supreme authority because of the reasons that are mentioned. However this should not be taken to mean that acceptance of the authority of the Imam [AS] excludes recourse to rational thought and deduction on the contrary even in the field of law as can be seen by this pronouncement by Imam Jaffar al-Sadiq [AS], the Imam [AS] not simply authorizes but demands of his followers that they exert themselves in order to deduce rulings from general principles. We know also that Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] institutionalized the appointment of Muftis. Mufti means one who gives a fatwa that is to say a judgment on a matter of religious law. And from the earliest times in other words from the Imamate of Imam Ali [AS] we know that the Imams [AS] appointed, persons who under their overall authority were permitted to issue judgments on matters of law. Of course the institution of the Mufti and of giving fatwahs as we know from recent times from people in caves in Afghanistan issuing very curious fatwahs, the phenomenon of the Fatwah and the Mufti is a widespread one but it’s particular significance in the evolution of Shi’ah Islam is the following – firstly that the process of issuing a fatwah presupposes mental acuity and knowledge of the relevant texts and sources. In other words the appointment of Muftis – persons to give fatwahs by Imam Ali [AS] and his successors among the Imams [AS] is in itself an indication that within the Shi’i school of law from the outset there was a heavy emphasis upon the responsible use of reasoning going together with acceptance of the overall authority of the Imam [AS]. The second point that is worth mentioning that is particularly relevant to Shi’ism is that the Imams [AS] as we have seen lacked access to their immediate following apparently of course because of the primitiveness of communication but increasingly also because of the pressures to which they were subject. It will be seen in fact that there was a considerable degree of the devolution of authority from the Imam [AS] to his appointed nominees in a number of areas. This tendency grows from the time of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] onwards when the later Imams [AS] become subject to pressure and isolation and house imprisonment by the Abbasid Caliphs. This circumstance which was imposed by necessity had it’s root also in the earlier period when we see that the Imams [AS] did indeed appoint people to give fatwahs and fulfill other functions. Whilst on this topic that is to say the encouragement of rational reflection with recourse to reason it may also be pointed out that the period of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] was one in which the origins of Kalam in Shi’ism are to be found. Kalam can be translated as theology although the word theology in the English language has become somewhat vague any kind of academic scholary concerned with religious matters gets incorporated under the heading of theology in present day English usage. What is meant by Kalam is the rational coherent exposition of the religious doctrine - taking the doctrines to be true in the first place but vindicating them in terms of religious argument and truth, addressing important problems such as for example free will versus predestination, how are these harassing puzzling problems to be addressed, the status of the sinner – in other words may the sinner be accounted a Muslim in good standing, what is his status within the community, how is to be understood the multiplicity of Divine Names to Divine Attributes contained in the Quran, how is that multiplicity of Divine Names to be reconciled with the Unity of the Divine Essence – matters of this nature are discussed in Kalam. One finds an intense cultivation of kalam throughout the entirety of the Muslim community in the time of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] and specifically within the Shi’i community these questions are under discussion also. Some of the same authorities that under the overall supervision of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] are active in the areas of jurisprudence are also active in the area of Kalam – that is to say the organised rational discussion of religious doctrines. These are some of the ways in which the particular knowledge of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] manifested itself. These have been classified and categorised in the lecture – inner esoteric matters, which remain exclusively within the preserve of the Imam [AS] and others that are a function of their guidance and activity within the community.

Alchemy and the science of letters ('Ilm al-huruf)

There is a third category of knowledge that should at least be mentioned here. The origin of certain occult sciences within the Islamic sphere is also ascribed to Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]. By occult here it is meant something other than inward. The clearest example of what is meant here is Alchemy. Alchemy is the transmutation of base metals into gold, it did have a fairly long life in Islamic civilization and of course it existed before Islam and had something of a cultivation within Islam also. The most important of the early Islamic Alchemists Jabbir Ibn Hayyan is said to have been a follower and an intimate of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]. Whether or not this is the case is a little hazy in the same way that the discipline of alchemy itself you might regard as a little hazy but there is a particular understanding of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq’s [AS] knowledge as being so complete as to embrace also this recondite topic, it should be said in kind of hesitant tentative defense, alchemy under some interpretations, the science is conceived of as not in the first place as the transmutation of base metals into gold but a moral and spiritual purification of the heart which in it’s unredeemed state is analogous with the base metals into the pure gold of moral purity and into deeper awareness of God. It is said the outer process is simply seen to be the support of the manifestation of the inner process of moral, spiritual purification. Along the same lines somewhat more reliably – Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] is said to have originated the science of the letters. By which of course it is meant the letters of the Arabic Alphabet – to them is ascribed a numerical value and also a particular symbolic significance. The science of the letters is of course sometimes taken to greater extremes both within marginally Shi’i movements and in movements that are to be ascribed more to Sufism. The point underlying ‘Ilm al-Huruf (The science of letters) is that the Quran as the Divine word is not simply in it’s meaning and in it’s sound but also in the very letters which put the Divine message onto paper – Divine. In other words the letters themselves have a significance beyond being phonetic markers. That being the case the letters maybe examined for that inward meaning that they possibly can convey.

The doctrine of Taqiyyah

One more thing still to be said on the knowledge – there is one further important matter with respect to the contribution of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] to be mentioned that is the doctrine of Taqiyyah – for which must be used a rather cumbersome translation of prudential dissimulation. Dissimulation that is to say hiding the truth, or at least refraining from it’s open pronouncement and prudential that is for reasons of prudent concern. The principle of taqiyyah in it’s basic sense means the concealment of ones allegiance to the Imams [AS] under conditions that will produce either danger to oneself, to the Shi’i community or most important of all to the Imam [AS] himself. It has to be understood that the position of the Imams [AS] even after their choice of political quietism from the time of Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] onwards was fraught with danger insofar as the caliphs recognized that the Imams [AS] if followed by a sufficient number of people, having a large following devoted to them might indeed constitute an insurrectionary danger and therefore the fewer followers that an Imam [AS] might appear to have the safer will be his position or the position of the institution of the Imamate with respect to the caliph and therefore there was a pragmatic reason for concealing the number of followers. Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] went as far as to say that:-

‘Taqiyyah is the religion of my forefathers, whoever has not taqiyyah has no religion’

In other words he is emphasizing here that taqiyyah is not something that he has arbitrarily introduced, but something rather that was present from the time of Imam Ali [AS] onwards. In fact retrospectively one of the uses of taqiyyah is to explain how Imam Ali [AS] despite the proclamation of successorship by the Prophet did not come forward during the caliphate of the first three caliphs to claim the Imamate, retrospectively it can be said that this is by way of taqiyyah. When I say retrospectively I don’t mean that this is a false explanation of events but rather that the term itself was not used by Imam Ali [AS]. ‘…and whoever has no taqiyyah has no religion.’ – this does not mean to say that whoever does not recognize or practice the principle of taqiyyah is to be dismissed as a non-Muslim rather what is meant here is a strong emphasis upon the necessity of taqiyyah under the circumstances under which the Imams and their followers were exposed. In fact one can say that through emphasizing the necessity of taqiyyah Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] prepared the Shi’i community for the trials for which it was to be subject in the time of the Abbasids when the relative freedom under which he had operated was severely curtailed and intense persecutions of the followers of the Imams [AS] that succeeded each other. And of course the necessity of taqiyyah one can say relates to later times also it is not simply related to the lifetimes of the Imams [AS] when the persons of the Imams [AS] might be endangered by the realization that they had a large and potentially rebellious following. It is a legitimate application of taqiyyah to conceal one’s identity as a Shi’ah Muslim under circumstances when disclosing it might lead to death or to persecution. Unfortunately we have contemporary examples of such circumstances – one example is in the country of Malaysia which on the face of it appears to be a laid back and easy going country in fact has a law which prohibits the practise of Shi’ism and makes it an illegal offence, and in fact people have been jailed and lost their jobs because of the profession of Shi’ism. Therefore it does have an ongoing applicability. But polemically it is sometimes said by those who are intent on the wholesale rejection of Shi’ism that taqiyyah is a license to as it were lie on the part of the Shi’ah. One of the most famous polemical items is of course the claim that Shi’ah Muslims regard Imam Ali [AS] as superior to the Prophet [sAW]. This is indeed a belief that has been held by marginal groups in Islamic history a position however that has been thoroughly refuted by the Imams [AS] themselves, however you readily find it being excavated and attributed to Twelver Shi’I Muslims by some of their opponents. The argument goes that when the claim is refuted then the opponents say that how can we believe you because you may be practicing taqiyyah – this is not a question of taqiyyah because taqiyyah relates only to those particular circumstances that have been mentioned. Moreover although the word taqiyyah does not occur in the Quran it does have a certain Quranic basis in (16:106)

‘He who disbelieves in Allah after his having believed, not he who is compelled while his heart is at rest on account of faith, but he who opens (his) breast to disbelief-- on these is the wrath of Allah, and they shall have a grievous chastisement.’ (16:106)

This verse deals with those who effectively have apostasised. If under the pressure of persecution a verbal disavowal of Islam is made on condition that one’s heart remains true to the faith then this is a permissible course of action. These therefore are the important dimensions of the theoretical and practical contributions of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]. He died in 148 AH, 765 AD it is widely claimed that he was poisoned by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur and he was buried in the cemetery next to the Prophet’s [sAW] Mosque in Madinah. In other words in that same location where his predecessors had been buried. Imam Ali [AS] was buried in Najaf, Imam Hassan [AS] – Madinah, Imam Hussain – Kerbala, Imam Ali Zain al-Abidin [AS] in Madinah, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS] in Madinah. This graveyard in Madinah held the tombs of the Imams [AS] as well as the tombs of a large number of other personalities from the earliest history of Islam. Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] is the last of the Imams [AS] to be buried in Madinah, afterwards as it shall be seen the Imams [AS] through no choice of their own were forced to relocate to Iraq and are therefore buried at various locations in Iraq. As for the tombs of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] and his predecessors amongst the Imams [AS] as well as other early personalities of Islam these were destroyed by the Wahhabis when the conquered Madinah on the foundation of the Saudi Kingdom in 1925 and so that today although one knows approximately where they are buried there is no visible sign of their tombs there is simply an empty lot because of the Wahhabi superstition that the gravestones are somehow an invitation to idolatry they destroyed them all in keeping with their general destructive mentality.

Claimants to the Imamate after the death of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]

Despite the care that had been taken by Imam Jaffar al-Sadiq [AS] in clarifying the principle of Nass as the basis for succession we see that on his passing a division of opinion takes place within the community and in fact this is a phenomenon that to a greater or lesser degree that accompanies each Imam [AS] from one succession to another. In order not to increase the complexity not all of the divisions have been mentioned. Not all of the divisions are important and those who espouse other claimants virtually fade into history. But by way of illustration of ongoing complexity even after Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] establishes Nass as the basic principle of succession the varying ideas will be put forward that existed after his death in 148 AH. One group among the Shia had said that Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] had not in fact died that he was in a state of concealment and would return. This theme is a popular one from earlier times it made it’s first appearance in the movement of Mukhtar and his candidate for the Imamate Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah. It was said then that the Imam [AS] who had been killed in battle had not really been killed he was simply in a state of concealment and would return. Then another group said that Imam Jaffar al-Sadiq [AS] had indeed died and that he had died without having appointed a successor and that he was the last of the Imams [AS] and this is an option that is espoused subsequently on other occasions also. In saying this there is of course a problem from the point of view of Shi’i doctrine since Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] had described the Imam [AS] as the proof of God upon Earth and said that the earth would never be empty of a proof. The word proof here or evidence – Hujjah. What is meant here by designating the Imam [AS] as a hujjah? That his existence is a proof of the Divine Will to guide men. Alternatively if someone in the hereafter says that I was unaware of Divine Guidance or the necessity of following the Divine Guidance then the existence of the Imam [AS] will be advanced against him as an evidence as a proof of his guilt. There are other dimensions to the doctrine but what is crucial here is that, ‘The earth will never be without a Hujjah’. This being the case to assert that any of the Imams [AS] is the last of them with exception of course to the 12th [AS] to who special considerations apply - merely negates the whole logic of Shi’ism. Then a third group after the death of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] recognised as Imam a certain Abdallah al-Aftah – Al-Aftah meaning either flat headed or flat footed so since given the frequency of Abdallah as a name, it might have been gathered that to fix upon this physical peculiarity of his would specify him. He outlived Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] and was in fact the eldest surviving son and as such gathered a certain following around him but he died before long. Those that had followed him split three ways, there is no need to go into details but the complexity of the situation is being exemplified – some followed Imam Musa al-Kadim [AS] the 7th Imam [AS], some said not surprisingly that Abdallah had not died and that he was living in concealment and that he would return and others that he had a son but nobody knew quite where he was, but that son if he could be found would count as the legitimate Imam. Then most significantly we have those who grew gradually into the movement known as the Ismaili movement and important offshoot of Shi’ism. In his own lifetime Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] is generally recounted to have named his eldest son Ismail as his successor – however Ismail predeceased his father. However there were those who held that since Ismail had been nominated as the successor the Imamate in his absence passed to his son – Muhammad - Muhammad the son of Ismail the son of Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS]. In other words according to the views of this group there was a passage of the Imamate from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] to his grandson Muhammad ibn Ismail even though his son that had been nominated had died in the meantime. This groups that believed in the claim of Ismail persisted in Islamic history down to the present day, Ismaili Shi’ism is still with us in a variety of different forms and guises and in fact has an extremely complex history. The belief that the Imamate passed from Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] to Ismail then from him to his son Muhammad – it is important to draw attention to this not only because Ismailism has proved a lasting although by now a peripheral phenomenon in Islamic history also because of the theological issues it raises. If Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] nominated his son Ismail even though that son predeceased him and therefore never lived to exercise the Imamate how is this compatible with the quality of ‘Ismah – the quality of inerrancy. In other words did not Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] know that his elder son was going to die before him and therefore to nominate him as the Imam was simply pointless. So here the question of succession touches also upon one of the important attributes of the Imamate. There are basically two routes for answering this question one of which relates to the knowledge of the unseen, to know when a certain person is going to die is clearly knowledge of the unseen Imam Muhammad al-Baqir [AS] the 5th Imam [AS] when asked whether the Imams [AS] had ‘Ilm al-Ghaib the knowledge of the unseen said that when it is unfolded to us we do, when it is not unfolded to us we do not. In other words ‘Ilm al-Ghaib is not part of that body of knowledge which defines the essence of the Imamate. Knowledge of the unseen may be bestowed upon the Imams [AS] at a certain point but then it will be concealed from them. Therefore if Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq [AS] did not know that his son was going to die before him this does not detract from the quality of inerrancy because inerrancy does not presuppose knowledge of the unseen. Another more problematic path relates to the doctrine of Bada, Bada means essentially that that which is predestined to happen is changed in this connection (13:39) is cited:-

‘Allah makes to pass away and establishes what He pleases, and with Him is the basis of the Book.’ (13:39)

In other words with respect to destiny Allah (SWT) is free if He wishes to efface it. In other words destiny – the predestining of a certain event is not binding upon Allah (SWT) given the absoluteness of His Will – He may efface it or if He wishes He may affirm it. This verse is commonly cited with regards to the legal principle of abrogation. Islam as a whole, the law of Islam is said to have abrogated previously revealed Divine Laws also within Islamic Law in the Quranic Legislation certain verses are said to have abrogated preceding verses – but here it is a slightly different application of it to imply that what had been destined to happen was as it were now erased or effaced. There are some problems here in that the erasing of destiny or the revision of destiny implies a kind of change of mind, although this is an anthropomorphic term to use in this context - a change of mind on the part of Allah (SWT). That is that his Will has changed in response to certain external events. And clearly the Divine Knowledge is held to be absolute and not dependent upon or affected by external occurrences and the more common explanation put forward in answer to this question that is how and why did Imam Jaffar al-Sadiq [AS] nominate a son who is going to die before him is the other one that the knowledge of the Imam [AS] and his status as Ma’sum is not dependent upon consistent and immediate knowledge of the future.

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