Rafed English

Meaning of Hadith & Traditions

by : Seyyed Hossein Nasr

In works on Islam the word hadith usually refers to the sayings or traditions which have been transmitted from the Prophet. Muslims hold these to be the most important source of Islamic teachings after the Quran. Numerous works have been written in Western languages on the role of the hadith literature in Islam  and a number of important translations have been made.  But almost all Western studies have been limited to the point of view of Sunni Islam and based on Sunni sources and collections. Practically no one has paid any serious attention to the different nature of the hadith literature in Shiism and the different sources from which the hadiths are derived.

The fundamental distinction to be made between Shiite and Sunni hadiths is that in Shiism the traditions are not limited to those of the Prophet, but include those of the Imams as well. As important and basic as this point is, it has not been understood even in such standard reference works as the new Encyclopedia of Islam. There the author of the article Hadith is aware that there is some difference between Shiism and Sunnism on the question of which hadiths are included, but he thinks that it lies in the fact that the Shiite collections accept only traditions traced through Alis family. But this is incorrect, since numerous traditions are also transmitted through other sources. What the author fails to mention is that the hadith literature as understood by Shiites is not limited to the sayings of the Prophet, but includes those of the Imams as well.
In short, collections of hadiths in Sunni Islam, such as those of al-Bukhari and Muslim, contain only sayings transmitted from and about the Prophet. But the Shiite collections, such as that of al-Kulayni, also contain sayings transmitted from and about the twelve Imams. Naturally the Shiites make a distinction among the hadiths, so that those transmitted from the Prophet are of greater authority, but nevertheless all traditions are listed together according to subject matter, not according to author.

The most famous and authoritative collections of Shiite hadiths are four works which, in terms of their importance for Shiism, correspond to the Six Correct Collections in Sunni Islam. These are al-Kafi fi ilm al-din (The Sufficient in the Knowledge of Religion) by Thiqat al-Islam Muhammad ibn Yaqub al-Kulayni (d. 329/940), Man la yahduruhu al-faqih (For him not in the Presence of Jurisprudent) of Shaykh al-Saduq Muhammad ibn Babuyah al-Qummi (d. 381/991), Tahdhib al-ahkam (Rectification of the Statutes) by Shaykh al-Taifah Muhammad al-Tusi (d. 460/ 1068) and al-Istibsar fi ma ukhtulif fihi min al-akhbar (Reflection upon the Disputed Traditions) also by al-Tusi.

The Present Collection

The sermons, sayings, prayers and writings translated here present a cross section of Shiite religious thought with an emphasis upon that which is most basic for the religion itself and most universal and hence understandable in the eyes of non-Muslims. As Allamah Tabatabai points out in his foreword, in making these selections his aim was to emphasize the three basic dimensions of the Shiite tradition: I. The profession of Unity (altawhid), or the metaphysical and theological principles of the faith [2]. The political, social and moral teachings. 3. The inward, spiritual and devotional life of the community. Hence the selections stress the principles and fundamentals (usul) of Islam, while they tend to ignore the branches and secondary aspects (furu). In other words, little is said about the concrete ramifications of the principles in terms of the details of the application of the Divine Law (al-Shariah) to everyday life. Nevertheless, the secondary aspects are clearly reflected in Alis Instructions to Malik al-Ashtar and to a lesser degree in the prayers.

Although it is well known that the first pillar of Islam is the profession of faith, which begins with a statement of the Divine Unity, Western scholars have tended to explain the Islamic belief in Gods Oneness as a relativity simple-minded affirmation of the existence of only one God. Perhaps one reason the Nahj albalaghah and the Shiite hadith literature in general have been neglected or simply branded as spurious is that their very existence flatly contradicts the commonly accepted idea of a simple bedouin faith with few philosophical or metaphysical overtones. In these writings we see that already in the first centuries of Islam the Divine Unity was affirmed in terms reminiscent of the subtlety of later theosophical Sufism, but still completely steeped in the peculiar spiritual aroma of the revelation itself.

The Sources

In making the selections Allamah Tabatabai utilized four works: the Nahj al-balaghah, al-Sahifat al-sajjadiyyah, Bihar al-anwar and Mafatih al-jinan. The first two works are discussed in Dr. Nasrs introduction. Bihar al-anwar (Oceans of Lights) is a monumental encyclopedia of hadiths which attempts to collect all Shiite traditions in a single work and which classifies them by subject matter. It was compiled in the Safavid period by the famous theologian Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (d. 1110/1698-9 or 1111/1699-1700). The importance the work has possessed since its compilation as the standard reference work for all Shiite studies can hardly be overemphasized. One indication of its popularity is that, despite its enormous size, it was published twice in lithographed form in the nineteenth century. The modern edition of the work fills 110 volumes of approximately 400 pages each.

Majlisi collected his traditions from numerous earlier sources. As examples, we can mention a few of the works from which he derived the hadiths in the present collection, works which have been independently published in modern times. Shaykh al-Saduq, the author of one of the four basic works on Shiite hadiths referred to above, compiled dozens of authoritative hadith collections, each of which usually follows a particular theme. His al-Tawhid collects traditions which illustrate the profession of Gods Unit. His Uyun akhbar al-Rida gathers together everything that has been related about Imam Ali al-Rida, the eighth Imam, whose tomb in Mashhad is the holiest site of pilgrimage in Iran. The work contains such things as descriptions of the Imams mother, explanations of the reason his name was chosen, all the sayings which have been recorded from him, and traditions concerning his death and the miracles which have occurred at his tomb. Shaykh al-Saduqs al-Khisal demonstrates the importance of numbers in the traditions. In twelve long chapters he records all the hadiths which mention the numbers one to twelve. The author of al-Ihtijaj, Abu Mansur Ahmad ibn al-Tabarsi (d. 599/1202-3), rejects the views of certain of his contemporaries who had claimed that the Prophet and the Imams never engaged in argumentation. He collects together traditions in which their discussions with opponents have been recorded.

The fourth work from which Allamah Tabatabai made his selections is Mafatih al-jinan (Keys to the Gardens of Paradise), a standard collection of Shiite prayers compiled from Bihar al-anwar and other sources by Abbas Qummi (d. 1359/1940-1). It includes prayers to be recited daily, prayers for special occasions such as religious holidays and days of mourning, litanies and invocations for different moments in ones life, instructions for making a pilgrimage to the tomb of the Prophet or any one of the Imams and prayers for every other conceivable occasion as well.

The Translations

A note needs to be added about the method of translation. Because of the sacred nature of the texts and their fundamental importance as sources for the Shiite branch of Islam, I have attempted to translate them in a strictly literal manner so that the least amount of personal interpretation will have been made. There are definite disadvantages to this method, but the necessity for an accurate translation would seem to outweigh them all. After all, the Quran has been translated dozens of times. Others who may feel that the present translation does not do justice to the literary qualities of the text may try their own hand at rendering it into English.

The necessity for a literal translation is all the greater because a good deal of the material translated here-in particular those parts which derive from the Nahj al-balaghah-has also been translated elsewhere and on the whole has been misrepresented. Before such interpretive translations are made and held to reflect the thought of the Imams, literal translations are of paramount importance. In order to maintain a faithful translation, I have added notes wherever I deviate from a strictly literal translation or wherever there are questionable readings in the original.

Because no standard translations exist for many technical terms, I have felt it necessary to add the Arabic original in brackets for the benefit of scholars and Arabic speakers. This is especially true in the most difficult and metaphysical section of the book, Part I On the Unity of God. Although the Arabic terms will prove a distraction to most readers, they represent the only practical way of tying the present texts into the readers knowledge of the Arabic language.

Finally I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who asked me to undertake this work many years ago and has guided me in every stage of it, although of course I remain completely responsible for any inaccuracies which may remain in the translations and notes. Peter Lamborn Wilson and William Shpall also read the manuscript and made valuable suggestions. And without the kindness and encouragement of Wg. Cdr. (rtd.) Husayn and the Muhammadi Trust, the work may never have been completed and published.

Despite the vast amount of scholarship carried out by Western orientalists since the nineteenth century and the analyses and translations made of various Islamic sources, very little attention has been paid thus far to the collection of religious sayings, sermons, prayers, proverbs and didactic expositions which comprises the corpus of Hadith as understood by Twelve Imam Shiite Muslims. It is of course true that much of the substance of the Shiite hadith collection resembles the Sunni collection, [1] and to the extent that the latter has been studied the former has also been dealt with in an indirect manner. But in as much as Shiite hadiths possess a form, style and perfume of their own, no indirect treatment of their substance and content can replace the direct translation and analysis of this collection itself.

It is in fact rather amazing that despite the extreme importance of Shiite Hadith for the development of Shiite law and theology as well as many fields of the intellectual sciences (al-ulum al-aqliyyah), not to speak of its role in piety and the spiritual life, the sayings of the Imams of Shiism have not been rendered into English until now. Nor have they been studied as a whole and as a distinct body of religious writings of an inspired nature within the general context of Islam itself. The present volume represents, therefore, a pioneering effort to present a sample of this extensive body of writings to the English speaking world.

The Shiite hadith literature includes all the sayings of the Prophet of Islam accepted by Shiites as well as the traditions of the twelve Imams from Ali ibn Abi talib to the Mahdi. This collection is thus considered to be, after the Holy Quran, the most important body of religious texts for Shiites. As in Sunni Islam, so in this case: the Hadith forms along with the Revealed Book the basis of all the religious sciences, including of course the Shariah as well as religious life in both its intellectual and devotional aspects. No aspect of the life and history of the Shiite community would be comprehensible without a consideration of this body of inspired writings.
What is particular to this collection, however, is that although it is a part of the foundation of Islam as seen by Shiism, its composition stretches over a period of more than two centuries. In Sunni Islam, Hadith is limited to the sayings of the Blessed Prophet. In fact to use the term hadith in Sunnism is to refer to his sayings and not to anyone elses. In the case of Shiism, however, although a clear distinction is made between prophetic Hadith (al-hadith al-nabawi) and the sayings of the Imams (al-hadith al-walawi), the two are included in a single collection. This means that from a certain point of view the apostolic age of Islam is seen by Shiism to stretch way beyond the relatively short period usually associated with apostles in various religions.

The reason for this perspective lies of course in the Shiite conception of the Imam. 2 The term imam as used in a technical sense in Shiism differs from the general usage of the term in Arabic, where it means leader, or in Sunni political theory where it means the caliph himself. As used technically in Shiism the term refers to the person who contains within himself the Muhammadan Light (al-nur al-mahammadi) which was handed down through Fatimah, the daughter of the Blessed Prophet, and Ali, the first Imam, to the others, terminating with the Hidden Imam who is to appear again one day as the Mahdi. [3] As a result of the presence of this light, the Imam is considered to be sinless (masum) and to possess perfect knowledge of the esoteric as well as the exoteric order.

The Imams are like a chain of light issuing forth from the Sun of Prophecy which is their origin, and yet they are never separated from that Sun. Whatever is said by them emanates from the same inviolable treasury of inspired wisdom. Since they are an extension of the inner reality of the Blessed Prophet, their words really go back to him. That is why their sayings are seen in the Shiite perspective as an extension of the prophetic Hadith, just as the light of their being is seen as a continuation of the prophetic light. In Shiite eyes, the temporal separation of the Imams from the Blessed Prophet does not at all affect their essential and inner bond with him or the continuity of the prophetic light which is the source of his as well as their inspired knowledge.

This metaphysical conception is the reason that Shiites incorporate traditions stretching over two centuries into a single whole with those of the Blessed Prophet himself. It also distingiushes the Shiite conception of Hadith from that held in Sunnism. Otherwise, the actual content of Hadith in Sunni and Shiite collections is very close. After all, both kinds concern the same spiritual reality. Of course the chain of transmission accepted by the two schools is not the same. But despite this difference in the authorities who have handed down the prophetic sayings, the actual hadiths recorded by Sunni and Shiite sources have overwhelming similarities. The major difference is the Shiites consideration of the extension of an aspect of the being of the Blessed Prophet in the Imams and therefore their addition of the sayings of the Imams to the strictly prophetic Hadith.

The sayings of the Imams are in many ways not only a continuation but also a kind of commentary and elucidation of the prophetic Hadith, often with the aim of bringing out the esoteric teachings of Islam. Many of these hadiths deal, like those of the Blessed Prophet, with the practical aspects of life and the Shariah. Others deal with pure metaphysics, as do certain prophetic hadiths, especially the sacred hadiths (hadith qudsi). Still other sayings of the Imams deal with the devotional aspects of life and contain some of the most famous prayers which have been recited over the ages by both Sunnis and Shiites. Finally some of the sayings deal with the various esoteric sciences. They thus cover a vast spectrum ranging from the mundane problems of daily life to the question of the meaning of truth itself. Because of their innate nature and also the fact that like Sufism they issue from the esoteric dimension of Islam, they have intermingled over the ages with certain types of Sufi writings. [4] They have also been considered as sources of Islamic esotericism by the Sufis, because the Imams of Shiism are seen in the Sufi perspective as the spiritual poles of their age. They appear in the spiritual chain (silsilah) of various Sufi orders, even those which have spread almost exclusively among Sunnis. [5]

Because of the nature of their contents, these sayings have influenced nearly every branch of Shiite learning as well as the daily life of the community. Shiite jurisprudence (fiqh) bases itself directly upon this corpus in addition to the Holy Quran. Shiite theology (kalam) would be incomprehensible without a knowledge of these sayings. Shiite Quranic commentaries draw heavily upon them. Even sciences of nature such as natural history or alchemy were developed with reference to them. And finally these sayings have surfaced as sources for meditation of the most sublime metaphysical themes over the centuries, and some of the most elaborate metaphysical and philosophical schools of Islam have issued to a large extent from them. Later Islamic philosophy as associated with the name of Sadr al-Din Shirazi, would in fact be inconceivable without recourse to the Shiite hadith collection. [6] One of Sadr al-Dins greatest metaphysical works is his unfinished commentary upon a portion of the most important of the four basic Shiite collections of Hadith, the al-Kafi of al-Kulayni. [7]

Within the collection of Shiite hadiths are certain works which need to be mentioned separately. There is first of all the celebrated Nahj al-balaghah (The Path of Eloquence) of Ali ibn Abi talib assembled and systematized by the fourth/tenth century Shiite scholar Sayyid Sharif al-Radi. Considering the enormous importance of this work in Shiite Islam as well as for all lovers of the Arabic language, it is remarkable how little attention has been paid to it in European languages. [8] After all, many of the leading writers of Arabic such as Taha Husayn and Kurd Ali claim in their autobiographies to have perfected their style of writing Arabic through the study of the Nahj al-balaghah, while generation after generation of Shiite thinkers have meditated and commented upon its meaning. Moreover, the shorter prayers and proverbs of this work have spread very widely among the populace and have entered both the classical and folk literature of not only Arabic but also Persian, and through the influence of Persian, several other languages of the Islamic peoples, such as Urdu.

The Nahj al-balaghah contains, besides spiritual advice, moral maxims and political directives, several remarkable discourses on metaphysics, especially concerning the question of Unity (al tawhid). It possesses both its own method of exposition and a very distinct technical vocabulary which distinguish it from the various Islamic schools which have dealt with metaphysics.

Western scholars refused for a long time to accept the authenticity of the authorship of this work and attributed it to Sayyid Sharif al-Radi, although the style of al-Radis own works is very different from that of the Nahj al-balaghah. In any case as far as the traditional Shiite perspective is concerned, the position of the Nahj al-balaghah and its authorship can best be explained by repeating a conversation which took place some eighteen or nineteen years ago between Allamah Tabatabai, the celebrated contemporary Shiite scholar who is responsible for the selection of the present anthology, and Henry Corbin, the foremost Western student of Shiism. Corbin, who himself was as far removed from historicism as possible, once said to Allamah Tabatabai during the regular discussions they had together in Tehran (in which the present writer usually acted as translator), Western scholars claim that Ali is not the author of the Nahj al-balaghah. What is your view and whom do you consider to be the author of this work ? Allamah Tabatabai raised his head and answered in his usual gentle and calm manner, For us whoever wrote the Nahj al-balaghah is Ali, even if he lived a century ago.
The second notable work in the Shiite collection of Hadith is the al-Sahifat al-sajjadiyyah (The Scroll of al-Sajjad of the fourth Imam Zayn al-Abidin), also called al-Sajjad. A witness to the tragedy of Karbala-which must have left an indelible impression upon his soul-the fourth Imam poured forth his inner life in a symphony of beautiful prayers which have caused the Sahifah to be called the Psalms of the Family of the Holy Prophet. These prayers form a part of the daily religious life of not only Shiites but also Sunnis, who find them in many of the prayer manuals most popular in the Sunni world. [9]

Also notable in the Shiite collection of Hadith are the sayings of the fifth, sixth and seventh Imams, from whom the largest number of traditions have been recorded. These Imams lived at the end of the Umayyad and beginning of the Abbasid dynasties when, as a result of the changes in the caliphate, central authority had weakened and the Imams were able to speak more openly and also train more students. The number of students, both Shiite and Sunni, trained by the sixth Imam Jafar al-Sadiq has been estimated at four thousand. He left behind a vast body of sayings which range from the field of law to the esoteric sciences.

The sayings of the Holy Prophet and the Imams have been of course a constant source of meditation and discussion by Shiite men of learning throughout the ages. But it is especially in the later period of Shiite history beginning with Sayyid Haydar Amuli, leading to the great masters of the Safavid period such as Mir Damad and Mulla Sadra and continuing to the present day that these sayings have served as a distinct source for metaphysics and philosophy as well as the juridical and Quranic sciences. The commentaries of Mulla Sadra, Qadi Said al-Qummi and many others on these collections of Shiite Hadith are among the great masterpieces of Islamic thought. [10] Later Islamic philosophy and theosophy in fact could not be understood without them. [11]

The present volume represents the second in a series of three which was planned many years ago with the help and support of Professor Kenneth Morgan, then of Colgate University, with the aim of presenting Shiism to the Western world from the point of view of Shiism itself. The first volume in the series appeared in English as Shiite Islam by Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai edited and translated by the author of these lines. [12] The second volume, called The Quran in Islam (Quran dar islam), was also written by Allamah Tabatabai and its Persian version printed in Tehrarn. Most of it was also translated by us into English, but the translation was not completed. The events of the last year in Iran have made the manuscript of what we have already translated inaccessible to us so that there is no possibility at the present moment to produce the English translation as planned.

The present volume is the third and final one in the series. After a long period of study and deliberation, Allamah Tabatabai made the present selection from the vast collection of Hadith, a task which would have been bewildering for anyone not possessing his knowledge of this inspired literature. Once this selection was made, Dr. William Chittick, who was then residing in Tehran and working with us on various scholarly projects, undertook the arduous task of translating the very compact and difficult Arabic texts into English. Because of the lack of precedence for rendering these writings into European languages and the nature of the texts themselves, Dr. Chittick was faced with a formidable task. It was only his intimate knowledge of Arabic, Persian and the subject matter combined with great patience and meticulous scholarship that made it possible for him to succeed in such a laborious and exacting undertaking. He should be congratulated in every way for having successfully concluded this colossal task.

It remained for the Muhammadi Trust to bring the project to fruition and to make its publication possible. The credit for this volume and its effect in making Shiism better known must be given to a large extent to the Trust. As one who was responsible for this volume from its inception, I want to thank the Trust especially Wg. Cdr. (retd.) Q. Husayn, its very able secretary who with great love and devotion to the true cause of Islam, enabled us to complete this project. Dr. Chittick, also, has earned the gratitude of all students of Islam for his fine scholarship and devotion to the completion of a very difficult project.

This volume is particularly pertinent at the present moment, when volcanic eruptions and powerful waves of a political nature associated with the name of Islam in general and Shiism in particular have made an authentic knowledge of things Islamic imperative, lest ignorance destroy the very foundations of human society and the relations which make the discourse between various nations and religious communities possible.
At the dawn of this fifteenth century of the terrestrial existence of Islam, may this volume be an aid in bringing about an understanding of one of the fundamental sources of inspiration and knowledge for not only Shiism but Islam as such.

Notes :

1. There are six canonical collections in Sunni Islam which have been accepted by the whole community since they were first compiled in the second and the third Islamic centuries. These collections, referred to al-Sihah al-sittah, the Six Correct Collections, are associated with the names of great scholars of Hadith such as Bukhari, Muslim, etc. Of these, the most famous is that of Bukhari, which has been translated into English (Sahih al-Bukhari: Arabic-English, by Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Islamic University, Madina; second revised edition, Ankara, 1976). The vast concordance of Hadith by Wensinck, Mensing et al. (Leiden, 1936-69) is based on these six collections.

2. See Allamah Tabatabai, Shiite Islam, London-Albany, 1975, pp. 173ff.

3. As far as the continuity of the chain is concerned the Ismaili conception is of course different, since for the Ismailis the chain of Imams continues un-interrupted to this day.

4. On the relation between Shiism and Sufism See S. H. Nasr, Sufi Essays, London, 1972, pp. 104-20

5. A most interesting example of such interpenetration is to be seen in part of the famous prayer of the third Shiite Imam Husayn, also found in Shadhili prayers manuals. See W. Chittick, A Shadhili Presence on Shiite Islam, Sophia Perennis, vol. I, 1975, pp. 97-100

6. On this corpus as a source for the doctrines of Sadr al Din Shirazi see S. H. Nasr, Sadr al Din Shirazi and His Transcendent Theosophy, London-Boulder, 1978, chapter 4.

7. This monumental work was translated into French by H. Corbin, who taught it for many years in Paris, but it has never been published. See Corbin, En Islam iranien, Paris, 1971.

8. This work has been translated several times in part or wholly in the Indo-Pakistani sub-continent and in Iran, but none of these translations is completely adequate. A new translation as been prepared by S. H. Jafri which is supposed to be published soon and which, we hope, will fulfill the very difficult condition of doing justice to both the meaning and the literary beauty of the text.

9. Some of these prayers have been translated by C. Padwick in her Muslim Devotions, London, 1961

10. See H. Corbin, En islam iranien.

11. Not only Mulla Sadra, but also his students were deeply influenced by this collection. One of Mulla Sadras most famous students, Mulla Muhsin Fayd Kashani, who was at once theologian, gnostic and philosopher, was also an outstanding authority on Shiite Hadith. His al-Wafi is one of the most studied works on hadiths of the Shiite Imams and their lines of transmission.

12. In our introduction to that work we have dealt with the conditions under which these works were conceived as well as a biography of Allammah Tabatabai. Shiite Islam, was published by both Allen & Unwin in London and the State University of New York Press in Albany. The work has also just appeared in paperback in America. It is of interest to note that the original Persian version of this work, written specifically for this project and with a Persian Introduction by S. H. Nasr, has become one of the most widely read works on Shiism in Iran itself and has been reprinted many times.

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