Did the Imams praise Abu Bakr and Umar?

ما على وجه الارض شئ أحب إلي من التقية

There is nothing on the face of the Earth more beloved to me than Taqiyya[1]

– Imam al-Sadiq



This paper will be considered by some as belonging to the genre of Shi’i-Sunni polemics, but this would be a mis-characterization. It is mostly directed at Shia laymen. It is the culmination on my part, of a long period of studying our own Shia sources (something there is a definite lack of)[2], and of bringing together several threads of research, to come up with internally consistent answers to three challenges:

  • Why do we find reports in the Sunni books of our Imams praising Abu Bakr and Umar?
  • Why do we find reports in the Shia books of some of the greatest companions of the Imams, like Zurara, being cursed by the Imams themselves?
  • Why do we find reports in the Shia books of a controversy between different companions of the Imams, who can be seen to be really going after each other?

All these, as my reader will acknowledge, are difficult questions, which our opponents have levelled against us, with differing levels of sophistication. It is only he/she who will make the judgment of whether I succeed in giving satisfying solutions to them in this contribution.


The Key to Unlock it All

The essence of Shi’ism is accepting the Wilaya of Ali and his sons as the most rightful of persons to lead the Umma after the death of the Prophet, and to disassociate from those who snatched this right away.

The crux of this can be seen in the formula of the Bay’a that an early companion gave Ali.

أبايعك على أن الأمر كان لك أولا و أبرأ من فلان و فلان و فلان

I pledge allegiance to you (with the condition) that the matter was for you from the first instance and I disassociate myself from Fulan, and Fulan, and Fulan[3].

Having said this, many contemporary Shia hold a misguided notion of the socio-historic context of those times. They assume that the Imams openly declared their Imamate and worked miracles to challenge their opponents and convince skeptics. In fact, the doctrine of Taqiyya was so pervasive as a result of the repressive atmosphere, that Shi’ism had to become a concealed body within a body – fully sealed from outsiders[4].

The incident of one Hammad al-Waqid[5], a butcher in Madina, can be cited as a representative example of the lengths at which care had to be taken to avoid open association with the ‘Aimma.

This Hammad ran into Imam al-Sadiq in one of the roads of Madina but turned his face away and did not show any signs of recognizing the Imam. He later got the opportunity to secretively visit the Imam at his home and gave this apologetic explanation:

جعلت فداك إني لالقاك فأصرف وجهي كراهة أن أشق عليك

May I be made your ransom, I sometimes meet you – but turn away my face disliking that I burden you (i.e. put you in difficulty by showing my recognition of you).

The Imam was pleased with this and said:

رحمك الله ولكن رجلا لقيني أمس في موضع كذا وكذا فقال: عليك السلام يا أبا عبدالله، ما أحسن ولا أجمل

May Allah have mercy on you. But a man met me yesterday in such and such place so he (i.e. the man) said (loudly): ‘Peace be upon you O Aba Abdillah’. He (i.e. that man) did not do well nor good.


‘So What is My Fault!?’

Taqiyya meant that the Imams would not even identify themselves as the Imams whose obedience was obligatory.

When two Zaydis came to visit Imam al-Sadiq[6] and demanded to know whether there was ‘among you (i.e. the Ahlulbayt) one whose obedience is obligatory (i.e. a divinely mandated Imam)?’

The Imam replied:

ما أعرف ذلك فينا

I do not know of such a one among us.

The men pressed arguing:

بالكوفة قوم يزعمون أن فيكم إماما مفترض الطاعة، و هم لا يكذبون أصحاب ورع و اجتهاد و تمييز، فهم عبد الله بن أبي يعفور و فلان و فلان

In Kufa there is a group who claim that among you (i.e. the Ahl al-Bayt) there is an Imam whose obedience is obligatory. They are not of those who lie. They are people of righteousness, striving (in worship), and discernment. Among them is Abdallah b. Abi Ya’fur, and so and so, and so and so.

The Imam replied:

ما أمرتهم بذلك و لا قلت لهم أن يقولوه فما ذنبي

I did not order them that, nor did I say to them to say it[7], so what is my fault!

The narrator who witnessed this comments that the Imam’s face then ‘reddened, and he became intensely angry, so when they both saw the anger in his face, they stood up and left’. (How much of this anger was a ploy to chase these two smart alecs away?).

The Imam then proceeds to ask the companions with him:

أتعرفون الرجلين؟

Do you know the two men?

I conclude from this example that it was the practice of the Imams to present two faces dependent on the audience. They would consciously speak of these things to those who were ‘in on it’, and deny it to strangers whose intentions they could not ascertain. This happened in the presence of the companions who were aware of the ‘game’.


Fearing the Curse

The Imam’s companions were also sworn to the same secrecy[8].

Consider the incident of Hisham b. Salim below[9]:

Hisham was one of the few companions who were allowed to debate with opponents (more about these below), but they were still required to stay clear of divulging the whole thing. Once he was debating a man from the tribe of Makhzum in Madina about the general theological principle of the need for an Imam when the man asked a more incisive question:

فمن الإمام اليوم؟

So who is the Imam today then?

Hisham blurted out the name ‘Ja’far b. Muhammad’

The man pounced immediately and declared the dramatic step of going to ask Ja’far himself if all this were true or if his name was being used by unscrupulous characters like Hisham. We forget that Ja’far was their neighbour in Madina after all, living a double life, where most of its residents saw him as a highly learned and respected descendant of the prophet and nothing more!

Hisham describes the emotions he felt at this turn of events:

فغمني بذلك غما شديدا خوفا أن يلعني أبو عبد الله أو يتبرأ مني

He made me to grieve greatly due to that (threat of his), for I was afraid that Abu Abdillah would curse me and disassociate from me (i.e. for divulging the secret of the Imama in the heat of the debate).

In the event, our story had a happy ending. When the Makhzumi entered upon al-Sadiq and quoted to him the words of Hisham the Imam asked:

أفلا نظرت في قوله فنحن لذلك أهل؟

Have you not considered his (i.e. Hisham’s) words – are we not deserving of that (i.e. the Imama)?

The man was stumped and did not know what to say. He was convinced by this and accepted Shi’ism. Hisham was relieved when this news made its way back to him. (He must have been diplomatically avoiding the Imam all this time).

Hisham’s fear indicates that the Imams would have no qualms in repudiating true information, or even cursing the bearer, if it was disclosed unduly and made its way back to them. The report also provides us with evidence for the range of the Imams’ authority as far as Taqiyya is concerned. They cannot be questioned as to their dealings with the non-Imami public. They were fully autonomous in judging whom to disclose the secret to and whom to push away. Sometimes they would do one and at other times the other.


A Woman Has to Ask

Taqiyya also mean that they would generally conceal their views of the usurping Caliphs.

Even someone like Umm Khalid, a righteous and eloquent lady, who possessed love for the Ahl al-Bayt, and had had her hand cut-off for supporting Zayd’s uprising was screened from the truth!

She came to Imam al-Sadiq and[10]:

فسألته عن فلان و فلان

asked him about Fulan and Fulan

This is how the two names, Abu Bakr and Umar, are usually censored in our Hadiths for reasons of Taqiyya.

The Imam replied:


Consider them your leaders.

The woman pushed just to make sure.

فأقول لربي إذا لقيته إنك أمرتني بولايتهما؟

So I can say to my Lord when I meet Him that you ordered me to consider them my leaders?

The Imam replied:



She explains the reason for her misgivings.

فإن هذا الذي معك على الطنفسة يأمرني بالبراءه منهما، و كثير النواء يأمرني بولايتهما فأيهما أحب إليك؟

For this one who is with you on the rug (i.e. this was Abu Basir, who was seated with the Imam) orders me to disassociate from them, while Kathir al-Nawwa (a leader of the Batris) orderes me to associate with them. So which one is more beloved to you (of the two)?

The Imam gives a reply which hints at his true view:

هذا و الله و أصحابه أحب إلي من كثير النواء و أصحابه

This one (i.e. Abu Basir) and his companions are more beloved to me than Kathir al-Nawwa and his companions.

If Umm Khalid were a discerning lady she must have understood what was afoot. How could the Imam love Abu Basir and his companions more if they had got something so wrong as disassociating from Abu Bakr and Umar.

The Imam confides to Abu Basir after the woman had left:

إني خشيت أن تذهب فتخبر كثيرا فيشهرني بالكوفة

I feared that she will go and inform Kathir (if I would have answered her to disassociate from the two directly) who would then make this infamous about me in Kufa.

Have the Imams ever expanded on their thinking? Have they come close to justifying this practice of theirs?


‘We are Few and our Enemies are Many’

As I was pondering this question I came across the report[11] below which is full of keys insights when read between the lines.

Fudhayl b. Uthman relates that he entered upon Imam al-Sadiq in a group of companions. When they had sat down the Imam asked him about Sahib al-Taq (i.e. Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. Ali al-Ahwal). After he replied that al-Ahwal was of sound health the Imam asked him:

أما إنه بلغني أنه جدل و أنه يتكلم في تيم قذر؟

It has reached me that he (conducts) debates and that he speaks bad about Taym (i.e. Abu Bakr)?

The Imam does not mention the First Caliph by his name but alludes to him by the name of the clan he belonged to. This is another common censoring found in our Hadiths.

Fudhayl replies:

أجل هو جدل

Yes (it is true). He has debated.

The Imam continued:

أما إنه لو شاء ظريف من مخاصميه أن يخصمه فعل

Verily if a witty one among his opponents wishes to defeat him he can.

When Fudhayl queried how that would be the Imam explains:

يقول أخبرني عن كلامك هذا من كلام إمامك فإن قال نعم كذب علينا و إن قال لا قال له كيف تتكلم بكلام لم يتكلم به إمامك

He (the opponent) says (to Sahib al-Taq) ‘inform me about these words of yours (disparaging Abu Bakr) – are they the words of your Imam?’ If he (Sahib al-Taq) says ‘yes’ he has lied upon us, and if he (Sahib al-Taq) says ‘no’ he (the opponent) will say to him ‘how can you speak something which your Imam has not spoken’.

If Sahib al-Taq says that the Imam is the source of these  negative views of Abu Bakr then he would have lied, either because the Imam would never be caught directly espousing these views without an elusive cover, even when he is alone with his most intimate companions, or more accurately, because he had forbidden the companions to attribute these views back to him.

Note also that Taqiyya had different levels. depending on context. Sahib al-Taq could introduce to this opponent the argument for the ‘need for an Imam’ and even admit that he has an Imam, but not attribute those negative views to that Imam.

The Imam’s next statement is the most stunning documentary evidence for the policy of the Imams towards this sensitive subject that I could find. It is notable for how candid the Imam is in revealing his thought-process.

إنهم يتكلمون بكلام إن أنا أقررت به و رضيت به أقمت على الضلالة، و إن برئت منهم شق علي، نحن قليل و عدونا كثير

They (Note the plural form) speak words (express beliefs) if I were to acknowledge them and agree to it (publicly) I would have stood on error (as a result), and to disassociate from them (repudiate them) is difficult for me. We are few and our enemies are many.

The last clause is the key. The ultimate priority of the Imams was to preserve the Ta’ifa (sect). It would be a strategic error for the Imams to openly acknowledge that they share the same criticisms of these highly idolized figures for it would expose them and their followers to danger.

What we learn from this that the Imam had no objections to the criticisms levelled at Abu Bakr. Implicit in the narration is his approval of these. What he has an issue with is attributing these to the Imams. What he did not want is these negative views of Abu Bakr and Umar sourced back to him. This meant that the Imams will, when put on a tight spot, repudiate anything linked back to them about this. Perhaps even go a step forward and praise the First Two to throw off the scent?


Did the Imams praise Abu Bakr and Umar? Possibly

The Sunnis have corroborated reports, for which they claim Tawatur, of the Imams rejecting the abuse of Abu Bakr and Umar or praising them. It is my argument, for which all that has come before serves as a preamble, that we have to be open to the possibility that at least some of these were really said by the Imams and can be explained away by reasons of self-preservation demonstrated herein[12].

It is significant that there are no traces of this ‘praise’ in our books. This must be because our early scholars and Hadith narrators knew what was truly happening in these instances and could just set these instances aside.


‘Difficult for me’

It was not always difficult for the Imam to curse or disassociate from their companions. Sometimes it was easy because the companion in question may have gone against Taqiyya and purposely divulged the secret, putting the survival of the Imams and thereby the Madhhab at risk.

The Imam declares openly[13]:

إني لأحدث الرجل الحديث فينطلق فيحدث به عني كما سمعه فاستحل به لعنه والبراءة منه

If I narrate a Hadith to a man, and he goes and narrates it on my authority the same way as he had heard it (without exercising discretion), then he becomes deserving by that of (my) curse and (my) disassocation from him.

The ideal average companion in the eyes of the Imams then, were those who kept a low profile, concealed their knowledge, and shared only generalities to the masses whilst keeping the sensitive stuff only for fellow Shia[14].

At other times it was difficult on the Imams to do this. Why?

I argue that this is because these were their most promising companions, whom they had allowed to debate with the opponents and who sometimes slipped up.

Abu Ja’far al-Ahwal Sahib al-Taq was one of these who were allowed to debate within certain bounds. See below.

Can You Fly and Land Again?

This bifurcation of companions, between those who were allowed to speak (debate) and those who were not allowed to speak can be seen in the report of Abi Khalid al-Kabuli[15]:

He says that he saw this same Aba Ja’far Sahib al-Taq seated in the Rawdha (i.e. in the Masjid of the prophet), with the people of Madina tiring him out, crowding him from all sides, asking him questions, while he is diligently engaged in answering them, ‘and they keep on asking him more’.

He sneaks up to him and whispers:

إن أبا عبد الله ينهانا عن الكلام

Aba Abdillah عليه السلام forbids us from speaking!

Al-Ahwal asks:

أمرك أن تقول لي؟

Did he he order you to tell me this?

Abu Khalid explains:

لا و الله و لكن أمرني أن لا أكلم أحدا

No, by Allah he did not, but he has ordered me not to speak with anyone.

Al-Ahwal then dismisses him by saying:

فاذهب فأطعه فيما أمرك

Depart then and obey him in what he has ordered you to do.

When Abu Khalid goes to the Imam and asks for clarification of al-Awhal’s behaviour we told that:

فتبسم أبو عبد الله عليه‌ السلام وقال: يا أبا خالد ان صاحب الطاق يكلّم الناس فيطير وينقض، وأنت ان قصوك لن تطير

Abu Abdillah smiled and said: O Aba Khalid, verily Sahib al-Taq speaks with the people, so when he takes flight he can land again, as for you if they cut off your wings (i.e. rebutt your argument) you will not take flight again.


Allowed to Speak

Who were these who were allowed to speak?

I have dubbed them the Traditionists cum Rationalists. This is not a name that we find in the classical sources but a modern invention to conveniently label that cross-section of the Imam’s companions who were prominent both in passing down material from the Imams and also engaged in independent thinking within the guidelines provided by the Imams. They were called Mutakallimun (theologians) in the sources to reflect this latter aspect.

An exclusive feature of such companions was the permission they had to engage in polemical debates (theological disputations) which was forbidden to others being seen as too risky. We saw this in the case of al-Ahwal above. The permission to debate was given to these few because of their superior abilities (they could adapt to the thrust and parry of debates without always needing to resort to the Imams). Other names who fall within this group are Zurara, Muhammad b. Muslim, and Hisham b. al-Hakam.

They were conceived of as a vanguard, trained by the Imams to preserve the authentic kernel of Islam. They could debate and introduce Shi’i ideas into the wider Ummah, while walking the tight-rope of not giving up the whole game and causing damage to the Imams or the Ta’ifa.

However, if they slipped up in the heat of the moment, as in the case of Hisham b. Salim above, then the Imams had no other choice than making a public show of cursing these men[16]. But it does not mean that the Imam was in reality angry with them.

We have evidence of this last in our books of Hadith. Consider this statement attributed to al-Sadiq free of any context:

لعن الله بريدا ولعن الله زرارة

May Allah curse Burayd and may Allah curse Zurara[17]

Despite the presence of such reports, the Ta’ifa as a whole, parallel to how they dealt with the praises for the First Two by the Imams, went on to ignore these negative comments of the Imams. Imams whom they would ordinarily dare not contradict. They even come to a consensus as to their greatness, nay, their indisputable greatness, because, again, they knew what was truly happening in these instances.  Thus we find that both Zurara and Burayd, ostensibly accursed by the Imams[18], go on to be considered by the unanimity of the whole sect (Ijma’) to be the greatest companions of al-Baqir and al-Sadiq.

اجتمعت العصابة على تصديق هؤلاء الأولين من أصحاب أبي جعفر عليه السلام و أبي عبد الله عليه السلام و انقادوا لهم بالفقه، فقالوا: أفقه الأولين ستة زرارة و … بريد و … قالوا: و أفقه الستة زرارة

The whole sect is unanimous in deeming truthful the following foremost ones amongst the companions of Abi Ja’far عليه السلام and Abi Abdillah عليه السلام, and yielding to them in matters of Fiqh, so they said: The most Afqah (knowledgeable) of the foremost ones are six: Zurara … Burayd … They also said: The most knowledgeable of the six is Zurara …[19]

To be continued …



[1] al-Kafi, Vol. 2. Pg. 313.

[2] My approach is to perform a close-reading of the historical reports, found predominantly in Rijal al-Kashshi, a book I argue is a crucible that contains residue of a rich vein of information that can allow us to reconstruct the socio-historic context of times contemporary to the Imams, before later systemization and official history writing obscured some facts. I have found that when this is done it becomes very easy to answer these challenges because the key to unlock the puzzle has survived. I would like to thank Ali al-Nawfali for helping me with a discussion of these sources and coming up with some original thoughts.

[3] Rijal al-Kashshi No. 166. The report is reliable.

[4] Times have changed and everything is in the open today. Perhaps this is what causes us to underestimate the centrality of the doctrine embedded in words such as: “Taqiyya is nine-tenths of the Religion. He has no Religion the one who does not have Taqiyya. Taqiyya is in everything except in Nabidh (intoxicant drink) and wiping over the Khaff (leather sandals)”

[5] al-Kafi, Vol. 2, Pgs. 314-315.

[6] Rijal al-Kashshi No. 802. The report is reliable.

[7] This is an instance of a form of Taqiyya called Tawriya. The Imam is saying: ‘I did not order them that (i.e. to divulge it), nor did I say to them to say it (i.e. to everyone)’. But the two Zaydis must have understood it as: ‘I did not order them that (i.e. to follow me as the Imam whose obedience was obligatory), nor did I say to them to say it (i.e. spread this doctrine)’

[8] For this general directive of Kitman (secrecy), see all 12 reports in the 1st Chapter of Ghaybat al-Nu’mani (Pgs 39-43) which are instructive. Some representative statements: “The one who misplaces our (secret) Hadith is comparable to the one who opposes us in our Right”; “This affair (Shi’ism) is not just Recognition of the Authority until you conceal it from the one who is not deserving of it”; “May Allah bless the servant who attracts the love of the people to me and and to himself by narrating to them what they know (accept) and hiding from them that which they find strange (i.e. for it will cause them repulsion against the Imams and add them in misguidance)” and “Do you wish Allah and His messenger to be considered liars!? Talk to the people what they know”

[9] Rijal al-Kashshi No. 501. The report is reliable.

[10] Rijal al-Kashshi No. 441. The report is reliable.

[11] Rijal al-Kashshi No. 333. I deem this report reliable for all its narrators are Thiqa apart from Ali b. Muhammad al-Qummi who is technically Majhul. However, this does not harm for he is merely a Shaykh al-Ijaza for al-Ayyashi to access al-Ash’ari’s works.

[12] I am not arguing that all these instances of ‘praise’ of Abu Bakr and Umar do actually go back to the Imams. A lot of such reports are fabrications, with the Sunni opponents of the Shia trying to portray the Rawafid as liars, who are falsely attributing concocted beliefs to the pious scholars of the Ahl al-Bayt. However, the fact that we do not have any Sunni records of even the most rabid Nasibi opponents of the Imams, who would have no qualms in  recording and popularizing the Imams’ statements of censure against the First Two (the most offensive of sins in their eyes), implies that the Imams never made these statements publicly. We ultimately have only two explanations for this undeniable fact. Either, the Sunnis are right in considering all these claims of the Rawafid  as fabrication, or there was Taqiyya practiced by the Imams. I favour this last, but this is not the place to convincingly argue for it.

[13] Ghaybat al-Nu’mani, Hadith No. 7.

[14] Imam al-Baqir is quoted as saying in a reliable report: “The most beloved of my companions to me are those who are the most restrained (against sins), the most knowledgeable, and the most guarding of our Hadith”  (See: al-Kafi, Vol. 2, Pg. 223).

[15] Rijal al-Kashshi No. 327.

[16] There is yet another reason why the Imams cursed the companions closest to them. See my forthcoming article: Did the Imam Curse Zurara?

[17] Rijal al-Kashshi No. 237. The report is reliable.

[18] It is noteworthy that we do not find the same treatment for minor names, showing that there was something going on when the leading companions became the target for this.

[19] Cited by al-Kashshi No. 431.


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