Arabian Monotheism before Islam: Some Notes on the Mushrikūn of the Qurʾan

Image: the ʿAbd-Shams paleo-Arabic inscription from the Northwest of Ḥijāz. Photograph: M al-Mughadhawī نوادر الآثار والنقوش Twitter Account

A few years ago the Saudi inscriptions enthusiast account nawādir al-āthār wa l-nuqūsh posted a fascinating inscription that reads:

بسمك اللهم أنا عبدشمس بن المغيرة يستغفر ربه

“In your name, O Allāh, I am ʿAbd-Shams, son of al-Mughīrah, seeking the forgiveness of his Lord”

The inscription appears to belong to the Paleo-Arabic category that brackets Arabic inscriptions from the late fifth century CE and possibly surviving into the early Islamic period. The categorical neologism was first coined by Christian Robin, ʿAlī al-Ghabbān, and Saʿīd al-Saʿīd in their 2014 article Inscriptions antiques de la région de Najrān (Arabie Séoudite méridionale): nouveaux jalons pour l’histoire de l’écriture, de la langue et du calendrier arabes.

There are two main giveaways in the text that allows us to date the inscription to the period before Islam. First, the appellation of ʿAbd-Shams is pre-Islamic and appears to point to the astral worship practices of Arabs in the epochs before the rise of Islam. Indeed, if the sources are to be believed, some of the Arabs before Islam worshipped the sun (shams) and other heavenly bodies. We read that the shams was honoured and afforded a sanctuary by some Arabian tribes. While the ʿabd-Shams described the worshipper of the sun, other related appellations related to the sun included ʿAbd-Shāriq (worshipper of the rising sun) and ʿAbd-Muḥarriq (worshipper of the burning sun).

Astral worship among the ancient Arabs is attested in Qurʾan 53.49 where there is a reference to Sirius or shiʿrā, colloquially known as the Dog Star which sits in the Canis Major constellation in the southern celestial hemisphere.

Two, in a recent article al-Jallad and Sidky have argued that the inscription is monotheistic and datable to the pre-Islamic Arabian monotheistic variety whose worldview and monotheistic commitment bears the imprint of non-Rabbinic form of Judaism.

The presence of Arabian monotheisms inflected by a yet to be fully determined form of late antique Judaism is unchartered territory in the studies of Islamic origins. In my current project on monotheism and paganism in the Qurʾan I explore the religious worldview of the so-called pagans or mushrikūn who appear in the Qurʾan as the Prophet Muḥammad’s main interlocutors and religious rivals in the Ḥijāz. My preliminary findings have led me to believe that there were indeed a variety of Arabian paganisms on the eve of Islam, around the late fifth and early sixth century CE. The so-called pagans of the Ḥijāz, like ʿAbd-Shams, son of al-Mughīrah, are a far cry from the uncouth and theologically-illiterate idol-worshippers portrayed in the Islamic tradition. While idol-worship is explicitly mentioned and condemned in the quranic diction of monotheism, the references appear to speak of the distant biblical pasts, with one possible exception in Qurʾan 4.50.

The late Patricia Crone called attention to this little-explored aspect of Islamic origins when she said,

“…there is something amiss. The Qurʾan never as much as hints at the existence of idols in the Abrahamic sanctuary; it never mentions Hubal; with the possible exception of 4.50, relating to Medina, it never mentions any pagan religious personnel; it never mentions pagan shrines or other pagan objects among the Messenger’s contemporaries, not does it threaten destruction of such things or tell of their destruction after the Messenger’s victory.”

I find this quite fascinating and a worthy line of research to pursue. While the Quran speaks only of a handful of religious communities, for example the Jews, Christians, Sabians(?), and Zoroastrians, it as matter of fact tells much more about the other religious groups contemporaneous with Muḥammad, namely the mushrikūn. It gives the reader a great many clues (I have counted over 400 verses) to help understand shirk and mushrikūn who emerge as the chief adversaries of Muḥammad, and perhaps the most-mentioned theological interlocutors during his career.

Should we speak of the so-called pagans or the mushrikūn as a religious group? Did they belong to a particular religion or religious orientation? This is a difficult question to answer. But it would help a great deal if we consider the ancient context and the epistemic spaces of late antiquity to better understand the conceptual meanings of “religion” (دين).

The Arabic dīn is similar to the Hebrew-Syriac DYN, “to judge”. In Hebrew דן (dān) refers to judgement, while דין (dīn) describes legal religion, or law. Similarly, in Syriac ܕܝܢܐ (dīnā) is also judgement, while ܕܝܢܐ (dayyānā) is a judge and ܕܐܝܢ (dēn) is religion (though the latter occurs rarely, only in reference to the “religion” of the Persians as Salam Rassi kindly pointed out).

In its quranic usage dīn denotes obligation and submission. Some German orientalists suggested a Middle Persian connection linked to the word den which denotes revelation. I’m more interested in the semitic etymology which appears closer to the quranic conception of dīn. But could the semitic meaning of the term dīn apply to the “pagans” of the Quran in a meaningful way so as to capture and elucidate their religious and philosophical commitments?

Long ago, the Japanese Islamicist Toshihiko Izutsu (d. 1993) stated rather audaciously that the quranic pagan understanding of God was surprisingly close to the Islamic concept. This seems odd at first. The Muslim tradition identify the mushrikūn (مشركون) as pagans, that is, idol-worshippers. Muḥammad identified his God as the God of Moses and Jesus. The God of Abraham and Moses is a deity who revealed Himself to particular people at particular times. So how does this square with the pagan concept of a deity which is anchored in anthropomorphised notions of god? Was Izutsu wrong?

Originally “paganism” was used as pejorative term by Christians against the non-Christian Roman religions, as well as the religious peasantry. The Latin paganus defines the countryside, peasants, or rustic settings. The pagans against whom the early Christians polemicised were not necessarily idol-worshippers. They sometimes included what we would might now call monotheists (the term monotheism is a seventeenth-century construct), polytheists, henotheists, or kathenotheists.

The pagans of ancient times were indeed misunderstood or misconstrued, and mutatis mutandis so are the pagans of the Qurʾan. The Qurʾan accuses of them of the gravest sin in Islamic theology: shirk (شرك). This in mind, is “paganism” then the most apposite rendering of shirk? I don’t think so. I prefer “associationism”. While the shirk of the quranic associationists earned them the wrath of God and Muḥammad, it should be noted that there is a difference between shirk and kufr (كفر). It is wrong to think of the mushrikūn as disbelievers or infidels. The “pagans” of the Qurʾan accept that Allāh is the God of the Jews and Christians (and of Muḥammad). Moreover, a number of verses in the Muslim sacred text tell us that Muḥammad and his pagan opponents worshipped the same God, the Sovereign God of the Quran.

The Qurʾan’s main charge against the mushrikūn is the invention of lies about Allāh, as 18.15 states quite clearly:


This charge is repeated throughout in 6.21, 7.37, 10.17, 11.18, 29.68, 61.7, for example. So what were the lies invented by the mushrikūn? Qurʾan 10.68-69 mentions the main lie:

“They say, ‘God has begotten offspring’ … Say: those who attribute a falsehood to God will never prosper. Say, “Indeed, those who invent falsehood about Allah will not succeed.”

Whatever we make of these verses, one thing is certain: The Qurʾan does not consider the mushrikūn deniers of God nor does it relegate them to disbelief. The mushrikūn are believers in the sense of admitting the existence of God and his role as creator of the heavens and the earth.


In Qurʾan 39.38, 31.25, 43.9, for example, the mushrikūn are described as upholders of (i) God’s existence; (ii) believers in God’s creative agency; and (iii) committed to the doctrine that God is the originator of the cosmos. Closely related to the invention of lies that are ascribed to God, the quranic animus towards the mushrikūn is also predicated on their belief in lesser deities beside Allāh. These deities were not always called gods, however.


In Qurʾan 19.81, 21.21, 36.23, 18.15, 36.74, 21.43, 21.22, 17.42, for example, the verses underscore this belief of the mushrikūn as another reason behind the hostility towards them. The Qurʾan is quite specific in stating that the mushrikūn believed in Allāh but — and this is the punchline — they took lesser deities beside Allāh (مع الله).


Does the Qurʾan mention the names or appellations of these lesser deities? “Ask the messengers whom we Sent before you: have We set up gods to be worshipped apart from al-Rahman?” Qurʾan 43.45 says. The names are rarely mentioned, except in a few places, such as Qurʾan 37.125 where Baʿl (بعل ) is identified as one such of the lesser deities. Baʿl (Hebrew: בעל) is an old Semitic term for “master” or “owner.” It was widely used to refer to the “local god” (fertiliser of the soil). In other instances, the Qurʾan names celestial objects taken by mushrikūn as lesser deities beside Allāh (such as the above-mentioned shiʿrā).

It is possible, I believe, to go a few steps farther in order to reconstruct the “religion” or religious outlook of the so-called pagans of the Qurʾan by utilising a number of Late Antique sources. The sources we have at our disposal include Syriac hagiographies, Christian-Pagan polemics, and South Arabian inscriptions, Nabataean, Safaitic, and inscriptions in Ḥimyar between 380 and c. 530 CE. These sources are auxiliary sources and do not necessarily guide my investigation. The primary works I rely on are the sīrah material, early ḥadīth corpora, pre-Islamic poetry, and Arabic antiquarian accounts.

As useful as these early Islamic and non-Islamic source material are, nothing surpasses the Qurʾan in historicity and remarkable accuracy with which it describes the so-called pagans (the mushrikūn). Yes, the Qurʾan does polemicise against the pagans — and sometimes unfairly. However, the details that emerge from a carefully reconstructed view of the four hundred or so verses offer us the best insight, in my view, into the life of the seventh century Arabian mushrikūn.

In what follows I share some of my tentative findings.

  1. The mushrikūn (which I break into 4 overlapping currents) believed in one Supreme God, in the supernatural, and lesser deities. These lesser deities were considered peers of Allāh (انداد). They had creative powers. Some pagans practised astrolatry. Others ancestral worship. All pagans believed in intercession and conceded to the existence of jinns and demons.
  2. The Arabian mushrikūn (or “pagans”) had a crude legal outlook, too. They believed in a measure of ḥalāl and ḥarām, in the sacrosanctity of crops, hallowed food, and adhered to dietary restrictions motivated by their religious commitments.
  3. We even find traces of theology-like commitments and arguments, such as belief in determinism, in the probativeness of clear poof and miracles, and in the different modulations of worshipping Allāh. They believed in the doctrine of prophecy as well.
  4. Their prayers and rituals were not too dissimilar to religious dispensations of the Late Antique religions. They believed in sacred space, performance of prayer, in ḥajj rituals, in animal/votive sacrifice, in the consecration of first fruits of agriculture, in the slitting of cattle ears, and in the prohibition of some cattle for ploughing. In fact, like many of the Islamic ḥajj rituals, many devotional parts trace back to ancient pre-Islamic times. The talbiyah (تلبية) invocations, marking the moments when the pilgrim enters the state of temporary consecration (احرام), have a pre-Islamic past. The pre-Islamic Meccans read talbiyahs before entering the state of iḥrām in a variety of ways. The practise was probably introduced into the Meccan pilgrimage by Quṣayy b. Kilāb, the religious reformist ancestor of the Prophet Muḥammad.
  5. They practiced child-killing as an act of religiosity, and made vows and performed prayers for healthy children.
  6. The mushrikūn extended their legal behaviour to ancestral pietism and followed the ways of their ancestors, as well as their legal customs.
  7. A group of the mushrikūn were avid believers in physicalism while others believe in otherworldliness. Some held a nonchalant attitude towards eschatological reckoning, a few dared not to question it.
  8. A fair bunch of them in Mecca spoke of the children of Allāh, they worshipped female deities, which they believed were deified humans, while others resorted to angel worship.
  9. The belief in Allāh on the part of the mushrikūn entailed the a set of religious commitments, namely that Allāh is the creator of the heavens and the earth, that is he is the sender of rain, the law-giver, and the source of strength and protection, who answers the prayers of those who call unto him.

This a quick and basic summary of how the project is going so far. I will share more updates as they come along.


A Medieval Shiʿi Encyclopedia from Jabal ʿĀmil

There is no doubt that the post-classical period of Islamic intellectual and religious history witnessed the most thriving epochs of scholarly production. In the centuries after the demise of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), the learned of traditions of Islam entered something like a golden age, especially the rational disciplines of falsafah and kalām. We are now a long distant away from the hackneyed claims of decline and intellectual inactivity. That the post-classical period represents the best of Muslim intellectualism is attested in the hundreds of yet unexplored Arabic Islamic manuscripts shelved in Iranian and Turkish libraries (and to a lesser extent in the unchartered territories of the Iraqi collections).

Of relevance to the above is the discovery of the Ḥadīqat al-nufūs, a little-known work by the medieval Lebanese Shiʿi thinker and famed littérateur Taqī al-Dīn Ibrāhīm b. ʿAlī al-ʿĀmilī al-Kafʿamī (d. 1499). A fair bunch of al-Kafʿamī’s writings have been edited and published (available in PDF format here). These include his al-Maqām al-asnā, a work of Shiʿi tafsīr, and the Muḥasabat al-nafs, a work of theology and spiritual psychology. Perhaps the best known work of al-Kafʿamī is the widely popular Miṣbāḥ given its focus on devotional piety and supplicatory prayers.

Modern scholarship knows virtually nothing about the Ḥadīqat al-nufūs, however. We have known about the work for a long while, thanks to the standard biographies of al-Kafʿamī (perhaps the lengthiest treatment is that of al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī in his Amal al-āmil fī ʿulamāʾ Jabal al-ʿĀmil). It was only in recent times, however, that the manuscript of the Ḥadīqat al-nufūs has become available for study. To the best of my knowledge — and I could be wrong, of course — the work is extant in unicum at the Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi in Istanbul (MS 897). As far as I know the work has not been edited.

So what is the Ḥadīqat al-nufūs about? Luckily I am now in possession of the complete manuscript which I suspect is quite early, and which was probably copied during the author’s lifetime. In fact, the Istanbul MS could very well be the personal copy of al-Kafʿamī himself, given that a small note on the front matter explicitly suggests the ex libris attributed to al-Kafʿmī is a holograph of our author. The work is a wonderful hodgepodge of everything and anything in Islamic studies, close to being a mixture between an encyclopaedia and compendium of learned traditions. There are over 150 chapters (the total number of folios is more than 800). It includes chapters on the following:

  • Kalām principles
  • Wisdom literature
  • Devotional prayers
  • Lengthy tafsīr of various quranic passages
  • Moral aphorisms
  • Lengthy quotations of Shiʿi ḥadīth texts such as the Ghurar al-ḥikam
  • Geographical information
  • Local histories (such as the local history of Basra)
  • Legal dictums
  • Numerology
  • Abridgements of known works of Arabic literature, such as the Nuzhat al-albāʾ fī ṭabaqat al-udabāʾ by Abū l-Barakāt al-Anbārī (d. 1181)
  • Theodicy
  • Animal fables
  • Philosophical anthropology
  • The classification of the sciences
  • Astrology
  • On canals and wells
  • On plagues
  • The tools of tafsīr
  • Gemstones
  • Celestial movement
  • Human anatomy
  • Arabic adorations
  • Biographies and bibliographies of famed Shiʿi scholars
  • On the nature of speech
  • On the means of arriving at a legal decision in Islam
  • On the soul

These are but representative examples from the variegated chapter headings of the Ḥadīqat al-nufūs. I enclose a few images of the manuscript penned in a beautiful hand with plenty of rubrications.

Some Notes on Early Shiʿi Literature: The Treatise of Rights

Both the Twelver Shiʿah and the Zaydiyyah lay claim to a corpus of supposedly early writings of spiritual dictums and supplicatory devotional prayers that purport to be utterances delivered by ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn (d. 94/713), the fourth Imām of the Twelvers, and his son Zayd b. ʿAlī (d. 122/740), the principal figure of the Zaydiyyah.

ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn was more widely known by his epithet Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn (The Ornament of the Worshippers), owing to his ascetic character and dutiful spiritual practice. For a study of his life and reception in Sunni and Shiʿi historical memory I would recommend the excellent encyclopaedic entries by Wilferd Madelung, in the Encyclopedia Iranica, and Etan Kohlberg, in the Encyclopedia of Islam, second edition, both of which supply the reader with a great many references to medieval works that recount his ascetic views and short reports attributed to him (the lengthiest treatment is found in the Tāʾrīkh madīnat Dimashq by the Sunni historian and “veritable goldmine of information”, as James Lindsay described him in a 2001 study).

In the Twelver Shiʿi literature ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn is identified as the author of a rather lengthy manual (atypical for the early period) of doxologies and pithy statements of rights (حقوق) known as Risālat al-ḥuqūq (The Treatise on Rights). The text typically contains 51 or so short formulations adumbrating a range of rights to be afforded to God, parents, leaders, prayers, bodily limbs, and etc. The full text survives in fourth hijri century works of Shiʿi authors, such as the Tuḥaf al-ʿuqūl of Ibn Shuʿbah al-Ḥarrānī and the Khiṣāl of al-Shaykh al-Ṣadūq.

Hossein Modarressi aptly observes that, generally speaking the style and religious outlook of the Risālat al-ḥuqūq bears the unmistakable imprint of ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn who was known for his ethical demeanour and pensive and spiritual mode of seeing the world. It is highly unlikely, however, that the full text goes back to early second hijri century. In my view, it is more probable that an original core of pithy ethical instructions emerged from the Shiʿi circles associated with ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn in the late Umayyad period (typically characterised by politically-inconspicuous religious discourses and less theologically-charged missives). Later the original short text (the earliest layer of the Risālah) would have received accretions and underwent editorial elaborations to serve the needs of the Shiʿi faithful as they grappled with the socio-political landscape of religious persecutions at the hands of the ʿAbbasids.

The transmission route of the full text is also problematic by both traditional and academic standards: the common link in most of the isnāds is Ismāʿīl b. al-Faḍīl (or b. al-Faḍl as some other sources know him), from whom al-Shaykh al-Ṣadūq claims to report in the Khiṣāl (while some Shiʿi ḥadīth critics take issue with another transmitter, ʿAlī b. Aḥmad b. Mūsā). Ismāʿīl was a companion of al-Bāqir (d. 114/732) and al-Ṣādiq (d. 148/765) at a time when the Shiʿi legal and theological corpus was vast and growing in considerable volume. The circles of al-Bāqir and al-Ṣādiq produced quite a number of uṣūl or short legal maxims and ethical instructions, such as the aṣl of Zayd al-Zarrād, which is suffused with aphorisms and short precepts on human conduct (of the 400 mentioned in the literary sources, only sixteenth are extant; see here).

It would be more apposite to place the earliest layers of the Risālat al-ḥuqūq in the milieu of the al-Ṣādiq in the middle of the second/eighth century. It is hardly likely that fifty or so rights that constitute the complete version from the fourth hijri century was preserved from the first hijri era. Hossein Modarressi points out that the purportedly original transmitter of the treatise, Abū Ḥamzah al-Thumālī (died mid-second century hijri) described the wording of ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn in terms that would suggest the original was a short letter sent to his close disciples. It was only in the post-occultation period (circa early fourth century hijri) that Shiʿi authors begin to refer to the short letter as the Treatise of Rights.

Another reason to suspect a later provenance for the Risālat al-ḥuqūq has to do with the intra-Shiʿi polemic that intensified in the late third and early fourth hijri centuries. Based on the polemical exchanges and titles of books aimed at refuting the theological excesses or shortcomings of the the other, it appears that the Imāmī Shiʿis and Zaydis were at loggerheads. A close reading of the early fourth century Shiʿi ḥadīth canon al-Kāfī is sufficient to demonstrate the point. Bearing this context in mind, we find that the Zaydī literature attributes a similarly titled work of rights, the Kitāb al-ḥuqūq (كتاب الحقوق), to Zayd b. ʿAlī.

The Zaydī version is almost half the size of the Twelver one. While the Twelver version contains 51 chapters or rights, the Zaydī has 23 that stem from two broad rights: the rights of God and the rights of humans (aptly rendered rights of souls). The similarities between the two are quite remarkable. The editor of the Zaydī version, Muḥammad Riḍā al-Jalālī, notes with good reason that the Zaydī recension appears to be an abridgement of the Twelver text. The opposite scenario, however, that the Zaydī is the original while the Twelver is an expanded version, cannot be ruled out. Either way, the two texts in question — given their similarities — are to be located in the same milieu. The most plausible period of provenance is the late third and early fourth hijri centuries, mainly because it was during this tumultuous epoch that we witnessed a Twelver-Zaydī rivalry played out in religious polemics.

The Zaydī text is based on a small codex held at the Great Mosque of Sanʿa in Yemen. To the best of my knowledge there exist two editions: the already-mentioned Jalālī edition and the one in the collection of Zayd b. ʿAlī’s writings (مجموع كتب و رسائل الإمام زيد بن علي) edited by Muḥammad Yaḥyā Sālim ʿAzzān. If we work with the assumption that the Zaydī version is the original and the Twelver derivative, then the full Zaydī text mumutatis mutandis is most probably not from the time of Zayd, but more plausibly an elaborated edition of an original core of a handful of short statements that mutated into a larger body of text after the late third and early fourth hijri century (that is, the tenth and eleventh centuries common era).

In which case and irrespective of the precise date of composition, the Twelver and Zaydī version contain lucidly worded and sophisticated formulations about rights and spiritual messaging that sheds light on a little-known current of medieval Islam where the rights of God and the rights of humans enter public religious discourses. A close reading of the Arabic and English translation would not go amiss.

The Tafsīr of Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 67/687)

Known as the Targum of the Qurʾan (ترجمان القران) and regarded highly in Muslim scholarship and historical memory, Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 67/687), the close companion of the Prophet Muḥammad, is said to have composed a tafsīr of the sacred Muslim scripture. But what do we know about this supposed work of exegesis (arguably the first attested attempt to explicate the Muslim revelation)?

Whether Ibn ʿAbbās committed his exegetical-lexical views to writing is difficult to say. If the sources are to be believed then there is little doubt that Ibn ʿAbbās was a learned reader of the Qurʾan who was intimately familiar with its linguistic and theological features. But writing is a loaded term especially in the context of the first century of Islam, that forever elusive period of formative history. A more probable scenario in my view is the argument that the students and later disciples of Ibn ʿAbbās did in fact compose an exegesis that invoked the authority of his views. The possibility that these later exegetical remarks contain direct quotations of the historical Ibn ʿAbbās is less likely. More likely is that these later views ascribed to Ibn ʿAbbās were, to quote Herbert Berg, “tendentially shaped” exegetical formulations “by various factions seeking legitimacy in Islam’s turbulent past shaped”. In the later period these interpretive perspectives of the Qurʾan most likely coalesced into exegetical corpora forming the earliest layers of the medieval tafsīr literature and exegetical source materials. Naturally, Ibn ʿAbbās occupied a role of central prominence as one of the principal progenitors and foundational figures of the tafsīr tradition that developed later. Interpretative readings of the Qurʾan that agreed with those of Ibn ʿAbbās were highly regarded and probative. Even better were those that were ascribed to him as direct expressions of his tafsīr.

Perhaps the earliest contender of the early exegetical corpora carrying views ascribed to Ibn ʿAbbās is the ṣaḥīfat ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah fī l-tafsīr (صحيفة علي بن أبي طلحة في التفسير) by ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah al-Hāshimī (d. 120/737). In 1991 Rāshid ʿAbd al-Munʿim al-Rajjāl collated and edited the views of ʿAlī b. Ṭalḥah which were published in a single volume bearing the subtitle Ibn ʿAbbās Exegesis of the Noble Qurʾan (في تفسير القران الكريم عن ابن عباس).


The collected and published material occupied circa 500 pages. It is a reconstruction based on thirty or so medieval citations of the so-called tafsīr of Ibn ʿAbbās from the transmission of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah. A number of later authorities claimed to have cited directly the tafsīr of Ibn ʿAbbās as transmitted by ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah. Among them were Bukhārī, Ṭabarī, and the Egyptian philologist and Qurʾan specialist Abī Jaʿfar al-Naḥḥās (d. 338/950).

It was al-Naḥḥās who narrates the famous praises of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal:

بمصر صحيفة في التفسير رواها علي بن أبي طلحة ، لو رحل رجل فيها إلى مصر قاصدا ما كان كثيرا

[Translation: In Egypt there is a ṣaḥīfah of exegetical material transmitted by ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah. If a man were to travel to Egypt to seek (its content) that would not be much (i.e., a wasted journey).]

There is two takeaways from the laudatory sentiment of Ibn Ḥanbal: one, the tafsīr of Ibn ʿAbbās was somewhat popular, or widely known in the second-third/eight-ninth century. And two, copies and recensions of the work had travelled all the way to Egypt, and beyond Ḥimṣ in Syria, that is, where ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah lived before his death.

Despite the readiness of medieval authorities to accept the tafsīr of Ibn ʿAbbās (e.g., Bukhārī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim (who received it from Ibn Abī Ṣāliḥ kātib al-Layth), some ḥadīth critics cast aspersions on person of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah, accusing him of weak transmission, for instance. One in particular accused him of harbouring Shiʿi views (وفيه تشيّع). That said, Bukhārī’s reliance on the ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah corpus was confined to the genre of gharīb al-Qurʾān (غريب القران), or difficult lexical terms. The Bukhārī citations of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah were collated and edited by Muḥammad Fuʾād ʿAbd al-Bāqī in 1950.


It is unlikely that ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥā heard directly from Ibn ʿAbbās, leading some Muslim scholars to speculate about the identity of the intermediary sources. Mujāhid b. Jabr (died in Mecca in 102/720), the Successor most closely associated with the Qurʾan, is mentioned as the most likely intermediary between Ibn ʿAbbās and ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah. Al-Rajjāl, the editor of the صحيفة علي بن أبي طلحة في التفسير, repudiates medieval authorities critical of the route of transmission of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah’s corpus, who pointed out a supposed defect in one of the transmitters, namely Muʿāwiyah b. Ṣāliḥ. Unsatisfied with the condemnatory nature of the medieval critics, al-Rajjāl turns to the famous Arabic editor and textualist Aḥmad Muḥammad Shākir (d. 1958), echoing the latter’s repudiations of those who rejected the ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah corpus, accusing them of being motivated by sectarian bias against the supposed Shiʿi proclivities of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥah. This being so despite Shākir stating that ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭalḥā, while reliable in transmission, did not however hear directly from Ibn ʿAbbās.


Different Senses of ʿAql in Early Islam

In the parlance of Islamic studies, the Arabic عقل is oftentimes rendered “reason” or “intellect”. While these translations are not inaccurate, they are however restrictive, as well as being indifferent to the variegated senses in which ʿaql was used and understood by different groups and in different contexts in early Islam.

I can think of at least six different contexts where ʿaql carries meanings not shared with the other.

First, in the context of the Qurʾan. The terms ʿaqalah and yaʿqilu, as cognates of ʿaql, appear over fifty times in the Qurʾan. They are employed as conceptual equals to tafakkur (تفكر) and tadhakkur (تذكر). In the quranic discourse, the term ʿaql, and its conceptual cognates, reflects a plethora of interconnected concepts associated with meditative reflection of the divine and the remembering of godly bounties bestowed on humanity which is in turn closely tied to assent and submission to divine authority (as Amir-Moezzi argued in his Early Divine Guide).

SECOND, in the context of traditional Shiʿism (before the fifth/eleventh century). The opening chapter of the ḥadīth compendium of al-Kāfī, by Muḥammad b. Yaʿqūb al-Kulāynī (d. 329/940), is devoted to ʿaql and jahl, aptly entitled Kitāb al-ʿaql wa-l-jahl (which contains 36 traditions). The traditions cover four interrelated themes and concepts (addressed in detail in the Early Divine Guide).

Theme 1: ʿAql as cosmic morality that guides the faithful in his or her quest to overcome impiety and ignorance. In a tradition attributed to the sixth imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 148/765), ʿaql is said to consist of 75 traits (described as جنود) that include faith, justice, soft-headedness, knowledge, mercy, restraint, munificence, etc. Each trait (or jund) is contrasted with its opposite (for example, simple-mindedness is contrasted with comprehension).

Theme 2: ʿAql as ethical and epistemological tool that helps the believer arrive at sound judgments and informed decisions. The ethical and epistemological dimension of ʿaql can be developed by studious education, the traditions state, that is rooted in the teachings of the imams.

Theme 3: ʿAql as metaphysical mean to perceive and comprehend the divine. The traditions describe ʿaql as a type of interior vision (بصر) that brings the believer to recognise the “signs of God”.

Theme 4: ʿAql as soteriological dimension that guarantees salvation, conceptually encapsulated by the famous ḥadīth of al-Ṣādiq (responding to the question, “what is ʿaql?”), “It is that by which the Merciful is worshipped and through which Paradise is attained” [العقل ما عبد به الرّحمن و اکتسب به الجنان].

THIRD, in the context of traditional Sunnism. Traditional Sunnism split into two camps over the concept of ʿaql with one camp rejecting the traditions of ʿaql as of dubious attribution, while the other considered a number of these traditions as consisting of sound meaning. Two figures stand out as the salient representatives of the rejectionist camp: Ibn Ḥibbān al-Bustī (d. 354/965), the famous Shāfiʿī traditionist and evaluator of rijāl and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d. 751/1350). In his Rawḍat al-ʿuqalāʾ wa-nuzhat al-fuḍalāʾ, Ibn Ḥibbān writes critically of the purported ʿaql traditions attributed to the Prophet Muḥammad, dismissing them as unsound and lacking in veracity. The lack of scriptural provenance notwithstanding, Ibn Ḥibbān goes on to adumbrate the qualities of the one who possess ʿaql (the opposite of the ignorant, the jāhil), defining the essence of ʿaql as yearning to achieve refined ethical behaviour and to dispel ill-manners.

Similarly, Ibn al-Qayyim, in his al-Manār al-munīf fī l-ṣaḥīḥ wa-l-ḍaʿīf, dismisses all the traditions about ʿaql as fabrications that have no basis in the Sunnah.

Representing the second camp in traditional Sunnism and adopting a less dismissive attitude than those before and after him, was Ibn Abī l-Dunyā (d. 281/894), the famed littérateur and tutor of several ʿAbbasid princes. In his Kitāb al-ʿaql wa-faḍluh, Ibn Abī l-Dunyā records 102 traditions about ʿaql highlighting the ethical dimension of ʿaql as well as its ability to caution against foolhardiness. A few traditions recounted have Shiʿi isnāds, such as the tradition tracing back to the Kufan Shiʿi traditionist Abū Ḥamza al-Thumālī (d. 149/766). For the accommodationist camp among traditional Sunnis, ʿaql is a means to cultivate good ethical conduct and to avoid bad habitual traits.

FOURTH, in the context of major kalām traditions, such as the Muʿtazili, Ashʿari, and rational Shiʿi. Starting with the Muʿtazilis, there was a broad agreement among their early and later proponents that ʿaql (used interchangeably with fikr, contemplative reflection) is an epistemological tool of discovery that precedes the probative authority of scripture (الفكر قبل ورود السمع). In this sense, ʿaql is a means of discovering good and evil (الحسن و القبح), and a tool of reasoning that confirms the existence of the Creator, as explained in detail by the famous Muʿtazili theologian al-Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025) in his Sharḥ al-uṣūl al-khamsah:

For the Ashʿaris, ʿaql is that which leads to discovery of new knowledge after reflective and discursive thinking. The agent possessing ʿaql (العاقل) must distinguish between sound and distorted reflection (النظر). The former is where the conclusion follows necessarily from the premise, while the latter is its opposite. The primary objective of ʿaql is to arrive at the knowledge that the world was created in time, as explained by the renowned Ashʿari theologian Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085) in his Kitāb al-irshād:

The rational Shiʿi view of ʿaql is presented by al-Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 412/1022) in his credal summary Awāʾil al-maqālāt, where he describes ʿaql as a tool of investigation and demonstration that must act in tandem with scripture, and not independently of it. For al-Mufīd, ʿaql is a tool that operates alongside scripture in order to arrive at new knowledge, such as knowledge of God, good and evil, and the necessity of the Imam.

FIFTH, in the context of early Arabic philosophy as exemplified in the peripatetic tradition. In his Risālah fī l-ʿaql (رسالة في العقل), the towering Arabic philosopher Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (d. 338/950) assigns multiple senses to the intellect (al-ʿaql) following the division found in Aristotle’s De anima, where intellect has the sense of potential, actual, acquired, and active. The potential intellect is the part of the soul that is disposed to abstract quiddities and forms. The active intellect, writes Fārābī, renders the thing that was potential intellect an actual intellect. The acquired intellect is the sense where all or most of intelligible thoughts are known to the agent. The last, namely the active intellect, is the cause of human thought. The active intellect relies on concepts to enable the human intellect to think by abstracting the forms that it emanated into matter.

SIXTH, in the context of Ismaʿili Shiʿism. The Neoplatonic Ismaʿili philosopher and theologian, Nāṣir-i Khusraw (d. 480/1088), in his little-studied Persian work Jāmiʿ al-ḥikmatayn, proffers a definition of ʿaql in line with the teachings of the Shiʿi imams (whom he calls ahl al-taʾyīd), defined here as a simple substance through which human beings form concepts of things. The ʿaql is the guardian of rational soul and that which gives the soul its noble status and possibility of self-awareness. Knowledge, he says, is the activation of the intellect. The intellect is bestowed to humans by God.

This, then, is a brief summary of the main senses in which the term ʿaql was employed and understood in the early centuries of Islam and among different groups, ranging from the traditionalists, theologians, philosophers, and in the text of the Qurʾan. To the best of my knowledge a dedicated monograph that studies and investigates the conceptualisations of ʿaql in early Islam is yet to materialise. There are however a few dedicated studies which deal with ʿaql in specific and restrictive contexts, such as the Arabic philosophical tradition of the peripatetics, but these studies fail to take into account doctrinal developments of the concept and the intra-religious debates surrounding the scope and purview of ʿaql after the move towards canonisation in the third/tenth century.

Mufawwiḍah and Ghulāt: What’s the Difference?

The death of ʿAlī al-Riḍā in 202/818 was a turning point in the history of Imāmī Shiʿism. The eighth imām of the Shiʿa left behind his seven-year-old son, later known as Muḥammad al-Jawād (d. 220/835), as the only viable candidate to inherit the mantle of the Imamate. The Shiʿi community was divided over the candidacy of al-Jawād, disagreeing over whether or not a child of seven was qualified to lead the faithful in matters of law and theology. Eventually the mainstream of the Imāmīs settled on the leadership of al-Jawād when a number of rationales for a child-imām were put forward. Perhaps the most widely-accepted was the view that compared al-Jawād to the qurʾanic Jesus and John the Baptist, who, according the Qurʾan, were recognised as prophets from their childhood. The Shiʿi faithful saw in al-Jawād a candidate who, in order to become an Imām, did not need to acquire knowledge by learning the content of the books left behind by his forefathers – nor did he need to learn the precepts of religious law in order to arrive at new legal positions through the process of rational reasoning (which the Shiʿis of the third/ninth century called qiyās, but unlike the qiyās of the Ḥanafī rite) – rather, the dominant view maintained that the seven-year-old al-Jawād was an Imām appointed by God and was given perfect knowledge of the sharīʿah.

It has been noted by the standard historical accounts about third/ninth century Imāmī Shiʿism that the post-Riḍā milieu witnessed the popularisation of extremists ideas concerning the nature of the Imāms, chief among them is the doctrine that elevated the position of the Imām to the supernatural and cosmological while adopting a dim view of the political and legal dimension of the office of the Imamate.

It is often the case that academic and traditional studies of Shiʿism overlook important nuances when terms such as ‘extremism’ and ‘unorthodox’ are invoked in order to contrast the post-Riḍā trends with the outlook of the circles of Muḥammad al-Bāqir (d. 114/732) and Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 148/765), the fifth and sixth Shiʿi Imāms respectively. The terms most-oft invoked are Ghulāt and Mufawwiḍah. Together they have become bywords for post-Riḍā Shiʿi extremism. There was little attempt, however, to distinguish the two in modern scholarship about Shiʿi Islam. It seems that even the third/ninth century Shiʿi scholars of ḥadīth in Qum could not easily separate ghuluww from tafwīḍ.

What exactly then is the difference between the Ghulāt and the Mufawwiḍah? I will refer to one incident recounted by al-Najāshī (d. 450/1058) (about whom I will write an entry in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE) in his rijāl work Fahrasat asmāʼ muṣannifī al-shīʻah (but popularly known as Rijāl al-Najāshī) that aptly highlights the difference between ghuluww and tafwīḍ, at least as the issues were understood in the third/ninth century.  

The account in al-Najāshī describes the moment when the folk of Qum, considered the leading seat of Imāmī learning in the third/ninth century and its ḥadīth scholars the most ardent critics of extremism, decided to kill a certain Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Ūrama al-Qummī after suspecting him of harbouring the extremist ideas of the Ghulāt.

We are told by al-Najāshī that the Qummīs halted their the plan to kill Muḥammad b. Ūramah after they found him engaged in prayers through the night. The performance of prayers – ritually or otherwise – was presumably a telltale sign that someone was not from the Ghulāt.

But why did the Qummīs suspect Muḥammad b. Ūramah in the first place? The matter is further complicated when we learn that our suspected extremist is reported to have penned a rebuttal of the Ghulāt, as al-Najāshī notes in his entry. The clue to the difference between ghuluww and tafwīḍ lies in the mention of a work of exegesis that was attributed to Muḥammad b. Ūramah where he supposedly espouses bāṭinī views about the cosmic role of the Imāms, based on al-Najāshī’s reference to takhlīṭ (that is, mixing ‘orthodox’ with ‘unorthodox’ views), a byword for extremism in the early Shiʿi corpora.

The case of Muḥammad b. Ūramah brings the ghuluwwtafwīḍ distinction into sharp focus. The Shiʿi sources describe the Ghulāt as recognisable by their dereliction of religious duties such as prayer and fasting. An account in al-Kashshī, the fourth/tenth century Shiʿi scholar of ḥadīth and rijāl, tells us as much, stating that in the earlier centuries when a Shiʿi failed to observes the daily prayers he would branded a member of the Ghulāt. The performance of ritual prayers was clear proof that someone was not from the Ghulāt; that is because the Ghulāt did not uphold the legal precepts of the sharīʿah which they considered unbecoming of a true devotee of the Imāms. The seemingly esoteric (bāṭinī) ideas suspected of Muḥammad b. Ūramah seem closer to tafwīḍ than they are to ghuluww.

The Mufawwiḍah, who appeared on the scene at the end of the second/eighth century, while holding on to extremist notions like the cosmic role of the Imām, did not however abandon the legal duties of the sharīʿah nor did they elevate the Imāms to the divine rank of gods, although they did speak of the Imāms as possessing cosmic powers of elevated status.

The Mufawwiḍah share a number of commonalities with the Ghulāt, the belief in the cosmic role of the Imāms and their supernatural qualifies is one prime example. The Ghulāt, however, abrogated the sharīʿah owing to their belief (according to the sources) that adherence to the legal duties imposed on Shiʿi and non-Shiʿi Muslims is a limitation that betokens intellectual inferiority and failure to grasp the true nature of the Imāms. For, according to the Ghulāt (as the sources describe them), when one learns the Secrets of the Imāms and their cosmological nature, legal rituals such as prayer and fasting become superfluous.

The close disciples of the Imāms were oftentimes the target of verbal attacks by the Ghulāt and the Mufawwiḍah. As one would expect, the disagreements revolved around issues of theology and how one should come to understand the role of the Imāms after the Prophet. A representative example showing the chasm between the theological views of the close learned disciples of the Shiʿi Imāms, on the one hand, and the Ghulāt and Mufawwiḍah detractors, on the other, is the case of Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh b. Abī Yaʿfūr al-ʿAbdī (d. 131/749), arguably the closest of Jaʿfar al-Ṣadiq’s associates. According to al-Kashshī, a disagreement broke out between Ibn Abī Yaʿfur (al-ʿAbdī) and Muʿallah b. Khunays of the extremists.

Speaking on the nature of the Imāms, Ibn Abī Yaʿfūr described the Imāms as pious and learned scholars (ʿulemāʾ abrār atqiyāʾ). Khunays disagreed. In his view, the Imāms were prophets. When the matter was brought to Jaʿfar al-Sādiq he sided with Ibn Abī Yaʿfur, urging Muʿallah to abandon his extremist opinions. There is little here to help us identify the precise theological orientation of Khunays, that is, whether he belong to the Ghulāt or the Mufawwiḍah. We are in a better position to discern religious inclination when we consider the practice or abandonment of mandatory rituals. The Ghulāt did not care for the legal rituals of Islam such as prayer and fasting, whereas the Mufawwiḍah considered themselves duty bound to follow the finer points of law, even if they maintained extremist theological positions (at least as portrayed in the sources).

A useful summary of intra-Shiʿi debates and chronology of the main events leading up to the rationalist-turn after the fourth/tenth century could be found in Hossein Modarressi’s Crisis and Consolidation.