Muhammad b. Abi Umayr: The Trial of Faith

كان واحد أهل زمانه في الأشياء كلّها

He (Ibn Abi Umayr) was the Unique One of his Age in all things

– The Basran polymath al-Jahiz



The name Muhammad b. Abi Umayr should not be foreign to those who peruse Shi’i books of Hadith. This is because his appearance in the chains is ubiquitous. A rough estimate counts 645 instances of this name in the Four Books. And there exist many hundreds more if the search is widened to other variants of his name like Ibn Abi Umayr and Muhammad b. Ziyad.

To get a measure of the status of the man, it is enough to say that a scholar like Ibn Fadhal the younger had this to say when comparing two giants of the Madhhab:

حدثني علي بن الحسن قال: ابن أبي عمير أفقه من يونس و أصلح و أفضل

Ibn Abi Umayr was more knowledgeable than Yunus (b. Abd al-Rahman), more righteous and better.



This is how al-Tusi introduces him:

كان من أوثق الناس عند الخاصّة و العامّة و أنسكهم نسكا و أورعهم و أعبدهم، و قد ذكره الجاحظ في كتابه: «في فخر قحطان على عدنان» بهذه الصفة التي وصفناه … أدرك من الأئمّة عليهم السّلام ثلاثة أبا إبراهيم موسى بن جعفر عليه السّلام و لم يرو عنه، و روى عن أبي الحسن الرضا و الجواد عليهما السّلام و روى عنه أحمد بن محمّد بن عيسى كتب مائة رجل من رجال أبي عبد اللّه عليه السّلام و له مصنّفات كثيرة ذكر ابن بطّة: أنّ له أربعة و تسعين كتابا

He was one of the most trustworthy of people both in the eyes of the Khassa (Shia) and the A’mma (non-Shia), the most abstinent (from worldly pleasures), the most cautious (against sins) and the most worshipful. al-Jahiz mentioned him in his book ‘The Superiority of Qahtan over Adnan’ with these same characteristics which we have described him by …

He met three of the ‘Aimma عليهم السلام – Aba Ibrahim Musa b. Ja’far عليه السلام from whom he did not narrate, he narrated however from Abi al-Hasan al-Ridha and al-Jawad عليهما السلام.

Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Isa transmitted from him the books of a 100 of the companions of Abi Abdillah عليه السلام.

He himself authored many works. Ibn Butta mentioned that he authored 94 books.

al-Najashi takes issue with al-Tusi’s claim that Muhammad b. Abi Umayr did not narrate from al-Kadhim and says:

بغدادي الأصل و المقام، لقي أبا الحسن موسى عليه السّلام و سمع منه أحاديث كنّاه في بعضها فقال: يا أبا أحمد

Muhammad b. Abi Umayr was Baghdadi in origin (he was born there) and in residence (he continued to live there). He met Aba al-Hasan Musa عليه السلام and heard Hadith from him. The Imam referred to him with an agnomen in some of them (i.e. narrations) saying: ‘O Aba Ahmad’


A Higher Degree of Worship

Fadhl b. Shadhan narrates the following anecdote:

سمعت أبا محمد الفضل ابن شاذان يقول: دخلت العراق فرأيت واحدا يعاتب صاحبه و يقول له: أنت رجل عليك عيال و تحتاج أن تكتسب عليهم، و ما آمن أن تذهب عيناك لطول سجودك، فلما أكثر عليه قال: أكثرت على، ويحك! لو ذهبت عين أحد من السجود لذهبت عين ابن أبي عمير، ما ظنك برجل سجد سجدة الشكر بعد صلاة الفجر فما رفع رأسه إلا عند زوال الشمس

I entered Iraq and found someone censuring his companion – saying to him: You are a man who has a family, and you need to spend upon them (i.e. meet their expenses), Indeed I do not rule out the possibility of you losing your eye sight because of the length of your prostrations!

So when he had increased upon him (i.e. lengthened in censuring him) – he (the censured man) said: You have exceeded (talking) about me. Woe be upon you! If anyone was to lose his eye sight because of his lengthy prostrations then it would have been Ibn Abi Umayr. What is your view of a man who prostrates the prostration of thanksgiving after the morning prayer and does not raise his head until the turning of the over-head sun (i.e. Zawal)!?


An Encounter with the Great Man

Meeting Ibn Abi Umayr was a noteworthy occurrence. al-Fadhl recounts his first encounter:

 أخذ يوما شيخي بيدي و ذهب بي إلى ابن أبي عمير فصعدنا إليه في غرفة و حوله مشايخ يعظمونه و يبجلونه، فقلت لأبي: من هذا؟ قال: هذا ابن أبي عمير، قلت: الرجل الصالح العابد؟ قال: نعم

My Shaykh (i.e. his father) caught me by the hand one day and took me to Ibn Abi Umayr. We climbed up to him in a room – and around him were Mashayikh (masters of Hadith) esteeming him and revering him. I said to my father: Who is this? He said: This is Ibn Abi Umayr. I said: the righteous worshipper? He said: Yes.


Trial of Faith

What is even less well known about Muhammad b. Abi Umayr is the personal tragedy that affected his life. This trial of faith was so severe that it had personal, financial and scholarly ramifications.

al-Fadhl b. Shadhan reports:

سعى بمحمد بن أبي عمير و اسم أبي عمير زياد إلى السلطان أنه يعرف أسامي عامة الشيعة بالعراق، فأمره السلطان أن يسميهم فامتنع، فجرد و علق بين العقارين و ضرب مائة سوط

It was reported to the Sultan that Muhammad b. Abi Umayr – and the name of Abi Umayr was Ziyad – knew the names of most of the Shia in Iraq. So the Sultan ordered him to give them up but he refused. He was stripped bare, suspended between two date-palms and whipped a hundred lashes.

Ibn Abi Umayr himself says:

لما ضربت فبلغ الضرب مائة سوط، أبلغ الضرب الألم إلي فكدت أن أسمي، فسمعت نداء محمد بن يونس بن عبد الرحمن يقول: يا محمد بن أبي عمير اذكر موقفك بين يدي الله تعالى! فتقويت بقوله فصبرت و لم أخبر، و الحمد لله

When I was beaten and the lashes reached a hundred, the beating caused so much pain to the extent that I was about to name the names. Then I heard a call from Muhammad b. Yunus b. Abd al-Rahman saying: ‘O Muhammad b. Abi Umayr – recall your standing before Allah the Exalted’. I got strength because of his statement and bore it patiently and did not inform. All praise belongs to Allah.

Fadhl’s father, al-Shadhan b. Khalil al-Naysaburi,  goes into detail about the incident saying:

ضرب ابن أبي عمير مائة خشبة و عشرين خشبة أيام هارون لعنه الله، تولى ضربه السندي بن شاهك على التشيع و حبس، فأدى مائة وواحدا و عشرين ألفا حتى خلى عنه

Ibn Abi Umayr was hit one hundred wooden sticks and (later) twenty sticks in the days of Harun – may Allah curse him, and the one who oversaw the administering of them was al-Sindi b. Shahik – this was because of his Tashayyu. He was also imprisoned and had to give one hundred and twenty one thousand (Dirhams) so that they could leave him (as ransom for his freedom).

Fadhl asked:

و كان متمولا؟

Was he wealthy?

His father replied:

نعم كان رب خمسمائة ألف درهم

Yes. He was the owner of five hundred thousand Dirhams (silver coins).


Irrecoverable Loss

What must have been more painful than bodily harm and imprisonment was the loss of precious works of Hadith that transpired as a result.

al-Najashi says:

وقيل إن أخته دفنت كتبه في حالة استتارها وكونه في الحبس أربع سنين، فهلكت الكتب، وقيل بل تركتها في غرفة فسال عليها المطر، فهلكت، فحدث من حفظه، ومما كان سلف له في أيدي الناس، فلهذا أصحابنا يسكنون إلى مراسيله

It is said that his sister buried his books when she went into hiding while he was in prison for a period of four years, thus the books were destroyed. It is also said that she abandoned them in a room and the rain fell on them, which destroyed them. He began narrating from memory, and what he could find (of his narrations) in the hands of the people (copied from before). This is the reason why our companions have confidence in his Marasil (disconnected narrations where he does not mention his authorities).

Nasr b. al-Sabbah says:

و ذهبت كتب ابن أبي عمير فلم يخلص كتب أحاديثه فكان يحفظ أربعين جلدا فسماه نوادر فلذلك يوجد أحاديث متقطعة الأسانيد

The books of Ibn Abi Umayr were lost (because of this) and he could not complete his books of Hadith. He used to memorize about fourty volumes which he called Nawadir (and began narrating depending on that). It is because of this that there exist narrations with disconnected chains.

Muhammad b. Abi Umayr died in the year 217 AH.

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