Occasionally, historical figures transcend the limited planes of their earthly life to become symbols around whom communities polarize and legends grow. One such figure from early Islam is Salman the Persian.
Those with an esoteric persuasion (deemed Ghulat or ‘extremists’ by their opponents) were prone to exaggerate his status, seeing in him an archetype for the possessor of true gnosis. A counter-reaction to this from traditionist scholars (deemed Muqassira or those who ‘fall-short’ by their opponents) was to acknowledge the high status of Salman, as an early companion of the Prophet and a foremost supporter of Ali, but modulate what they saw as undue mystical speculation about him.
I hope to demonstrate (with the aid of the example below) how the status of Salman was contested by different streams within Shi’ism and how this trend developed over time.
Muhaddath or not?
There exist reports, such as the one below, affirming the status of Salman as a Muhaddath – a term usually applied to the Imams.
جبريل بن أحمد، قال حدثني الحسن بن خرزاذ، قال حدثني الحسن بن علي بن فضال، عن ثعلبة بن ميمون، عن زرارة، عن أبي جعفر عليه السلام قال: كان علي عليه السلام محدثا و كان سلمان محدثا
It is in interpreting how exactly he was a Muhaddath that differences arose. Ghulati circles propagated the belief that this meant that Salman could hear the talk of angels just like the Imams.
نصر بن صباح البلخي أبو القاسم، قال حدثني إسحاق بن محمد البصري، قال حدثني محمد بن عبد الله بن مهران، عن محمد بن سنان، عن الحسن بن منصور قال: قلت للصادق عليه السلام: اكان سلمان محدثا؟ قال: نعم، قلت: من يحدثه؟ قال: ملك كريم، قلت: فإذا كان سلمان كذا فصاحبه أي شيء هو؟ قال: أقبل على شأنك!
Nasr b. Sabbah al-Balkhi Abu al-Qasim – Ishaq b. Muhammad al-Basri – Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Mihran – Muhammad b. Sinan – al-Hasan b. Mansur who said: I said to al-Sadiq عليه السلام: Was Salman a Muhaddath? He said: Yes. I said: Who was speaking to him? He said: A gracious angel. I said: If this is how Salman was (i.e. if this was his status) then his man (i.e. his Imam – Ali) – what thing is he? He said: Pay mind to what concerns you!
The most telling sign of Ghulati origin for this report is the theme of concealed knowledge. The questioner asks about the distinction between Salman and Ali, if both can hear angels, and is essentially told that he is not at the level to understand it.
Note also the awkward phrasing of the questioner when he asks: ‘what thing is he?’, that is to say, ‘what must Ali be?’, opening the door for non-human origins. The silence of the Imam in response has an undeniable hint of the “mysterium tremens”: that which causes you to tremble and be awed by the divine unfathomable (Who can speak of what Ali is !). The mystery is thus quite deliberate and meant to be just that: a mystery which causes a ‘shudder’ and defies translation into words, normally expected when in contact with the divine.
A direct response by the traditionist school to this idea was to cleverly re-interpret the meaning of Salman being a Muhaddath in such a way as to preclude it being used by the Ghulat. This was done by restricting the ability to listen to angels to the Imam alone.
طاهر بن عيسى الوراق الكشي، قال حدثني أبو سعيد جعفر بن أحمد بن أيوب التاجر السمرقندي، قال حدثني علي بن محمد بن شجاع، عن أبي العباس أحمد بن حماد المروزي، عن الصادق عليه السلام أنه قال في الحديث الذي روي فيه أن سلمان كان محدثا، قال: إنه كان محدثا عن إمامه لا عن ربه لأنه لا يحدث عن الله عز و جل إلا الحجة
Tahir b. Isa al-Warraq al-Kashshi – Abu Sa’id Ja’far b. Ahmad b. Ayyub al-Tajir al-Samarqandi – Ali b. Muhammad b. Shuja’ – Abi al-Abbas Ahmad b. Hammad al-Marwazi – al-Sadiq عليه السلام: That he (the Imam) said about the Hadith in which it is narrated that ‘Salman was a Muhaddath’: He (Salman) was a Muhaddath (made to hear) from his Imam, not from his Lord, for no one is made to hear from Allah Mighty and Majestic except the Hujja.
The fact that such a response was needed, and that the apologetic polemic was placed in the mouth of no less an authority than the Imam al-Sadiq عليه السلام himself, shows how much of a hot-button topic this had become.
It comes as no surprise then to find that this report is transmitted by figures significant in the Ghulat movement.
A break-down of the narrators follows:
(a) Nasr b. al-Sabbah
يكنى أبا القاسم، من أهل بلخ، لقي جلة من كان في عصره من المشايخ والعلماء وروى عنهم، إلا أنه قيل: كان من الطيارة، غال
His Kunya is Aba al-Qasim. Among the residents of Balkh. He met all the significant Hadith masters and scholars who were in his time (contemporary to him) and transmitted from them. Except that it is said (about him): He was from the Tayyara. Ghali.
Ghali (Exaggerator) in his Madhhab.
(b) Ishaq b. Muhammad al-Basri
al-Kashshi comments on these same two narrators i.e. Nasr b. al-Sabbah > Ishaq b. Muhammad al-Basri in three instances in his book:
- In a report about Salman (No. 42):
نصر بن الصباح و هو غال، قال حدثني إسحاق بن محمد البصري و هو متهم …
Nasr b. al-Sabbah, and he was a Ghali, he said: narrated to me Ishaq b. Muhammad al-Basri, and he is accused …
- While grading a report about Jabir b. Yazid al-Ju’fi (No. 347) in whose chain our two narrators appear:
هذا حديث موضوع لا شك في كذبه ورواته كلهم متهمون بالغلو والتفويض
This Hadith is fabricated, there is no doubt about its falsity. All its narrators are accused of Ghulu and Tafwidh.
- In a report about Mufadhdhal b. Umar al-Ju’fi (No. 584):
حدثني أبو القاسم نصر بن الصباح و كان غاليا، قال حدثني أبو يعقوب بن محمد البصري و هو غال ركن من أركانهم أيضا …
Narrated to me Abu al-Qasim Nasr b. al-Sabbah, and he was a Ghali, he said: Narrated to me Abu Ya’qub (i.e. Ishaq) b. Muhammad al-Basri, and he was Ghali, a pillar from among their pillars as well …
(c) Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Mihran
محمد بن عبد الله بن مهران الكرخي، أبو جعفر غال، ضعيف، كذاب، له كتاب في الممدوحين والمذمومين، يدل على خبثه وكذبه
Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Mihran al-Karkhi. Abu Ja’far. Ghali. Weak. Liar. He has book about the ‘praised’ and ‘rebuked’ (narrators) whose contents evidence his wickedness and his lies.
أبو جعفر الكرخي، من أبناء الأعاجم، غال كذاب، فاسد المذهب والحديث، مشهور بذلك، له كتب، منها: كتاب الممدوحين والمذمومين، كتاب مقتل أبي الخطاب، كتاب مناقب أبي الخطاب، كتاب الملاحم، كتاب التبصرة، كتاب القباب، كتاب النوادر وهو أقرب كتبه إلى الحق، والباقي تخليط، قاله ابن نوح
Abu Ja’far al-Karkhi. Of Persian ancestry. Ghali. Liar. Corrupt in Madhhab and Hadith. Notorious in that. He had a number of books, among them: The book of the Praised and Rebuked, The book of the Killing of Abi al-Khattab, The book of the Virtues of Abi al-Khattab (!), The book of the Tribulations (of the end of times), The book of Insight, The book of the Domes, The book of Miscellenia. And this (last) is the closest of his books to the truth, while the rest are just confused. This was said by Ibn Nuh.
I say: You will find in al-Kashshi many narrations with the chain (Nasr b. al-Sabbah > Ishaq b. Muhammad > Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Mihran). Most if not all of these are probably taken from ‘The book of the Praised and Rebuked’ of this Ibn Mihran, whose status you have known.
al-Najashi also notes that the great Rijali scholar Ibn al-Walid targetted the reports of this Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Mihran when he attempted to clean up the book Nawadir al-Hikma by Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Yahya b. Imran al-Ash’ari al-Qummi of weak authorities:
وكان محمد بن الحسن بن الوليد يستثني من رواية محمد بن أحمد ابن يحيى ما رواه عن … محمد بن عبد الله بن مهران …
Muhammad b. al-Hasan b. al-Walid used to excise from the narrations of Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Yahya what he would narrate on the authority of … Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Mihran …
Another great critic – Abu al-Abbas b. Nuh comments on this:
وقد أصاب شيخنا أبو جعفر محمد بن الحسن ابن الوليد في ذلك كله، وتبعه أبو جعفر بن بابويه – رحمه الله – على ذلك، إلا في محمد بن عيسى بن عبيد …
Our Shaykh Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. al-Hasan b. al-Walid was correct in all of that (excising the reports of the weak individuals), and he was followed in this by Abu Ja’far b. Babawayh, may Allah have mercy on him, except in the case of Muhammad b. Isa b. Ubayd …
Thus we see that Ibn Nuh did not have an issue with the excision of Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Mihran and agreed with it (i.e. he shared a negative view of Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Mihran with Ibn al-Walid and al-Saduq).
(d) Muhammad b. Sinan
I will not go into much detail about him because a comprehensive treatment has already been given before. It suffices to note what was said by his contemporary Safwan b. Yahya:
إن محمد ابن سنان كان من الطيارة فقصصناه
Muhammad b. Sinan was of the Tayyara (fliers) but we cut-off his wings.
Even if this flirtation was short-lived, for al-Najashi comments:
و هذا يدلّ على اضطراب كان و زال
This evidences a deviation which existed but then abated.
But the damage was done, for the Ghulati circles after him considered him as a pillar of their sects and attributed many of their material to him.