The Four Books (i.e. al-Kafi, Man La Yahdhuruhu al-Faqih, Tahdhib al-Ahkam, al-Istibsar fi ma-khtalafa min al-Akhbar) are rightly considered to be the bed-rock of Twelver Imami Hadith.
Despite the recognition they have achieved in Shi’i discourse, many commit the error of treating them under the same rubric, without considering the vastly different motivations and methodologies of their respective authors, the three Muhammads (Muhammad b. Ya’qub al-Kulayni, Muhammad b. Ali al-Saduq, Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Tusi). This series of articles seeks to shed more light on these aspects.
We begin with the first and earliest of the trio (i.e. Kulayni) and his famous book (i.e. al-Kafi). The paper combines a close reading of the work itself, together with an analysis of the relevant sections from the Khutba (opening preface), where one would expect to find answers to such questions.
Details about the life of Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. Ya’qub b. Ishaq al-Kulayni al-Razi (d. 328/329) are scanty. We know of some incidental details, like the fact that he was one-eyed (الأعور), but do not know of other key ones, like what year he was born in (most likely early in the Ghaybat al-Sughra). What we can tell from the geographical Nisba (descriptor) attached to his name is that his ancestral home was Kulayn or Kulin (he may have even been born there), a small town in the district of Rayy (to be found within the confines of present day Tehran).
A major influence on Kulayni would have come from the scholarly pedigree found within his immediate family. al-Najashi says about his maternal uncle, Allan al-Kulayni al-Razi, that the latter was a trustworthy narrator (ثقة) and a notable figure (عين). Kulayni took the first steps towards his education in his home town under the tutelage of the aforementioned uncle among other native scholars
Beyond this, whoever knows him, or tries to make him known to us, does so on the back of his magnum opus al-Kafi. It is the latter on which his legacy rests. The book, when studied closely (looking especially at the names of his direct authorities), tells the story of a long and arduous journey for the sake of acquiring the Hadith.
Kulayni would have gone to Qum first, which is closest to Rayy, and by this time, the most prominent center for Fiqh, Hadith and general scholarship. A stay in Naysabur would have followed, with his travels possibly culminating in Kufa (Iraq), the ancient seat of Imami Shi’ism and the epicenter of its earliest proponents.
It is on his return from these travels, and at the prompting of one of the Ashab (a fellow Shia whose name he does not give), that he started authoring al-Kafi. al-Najashi says:
صنف الكتاب الكبير المعروف بالكليني يسمى الكافي في عشرين سنة
He authored the big book called al-Kafi – for which al-Kulayni is famous – in (a period of) twenty years.
A contemporary scholar contends that Kulayni composed most of the book in Qum, choosing to reside with his old Shaykh Abi al-Hasan Ali b. Ibrahim b. Hashim al-Qummi (alive in 307). The latter, who went blind towards the end of his life, would no longer have been active in Hadith transmission in terms of leading oral study sessions, but could have allowed the former access to his library. A library which was full of the Usul and other authored works, both ancient and contemporary, going back to the time when his father Ibrahim b. Hashim had returned to Qum and began spreading the Hadith of the Kufans and Baghdadis there for the first time.
This is supposed to explain why Ali b. Ibrahim is a much more prolific source for Kulayni than conventionally expected. Kulayni transmits from Ali almost a third of what is in al-Kafi, a book containing about 16,000 Hadiths. Most of this is from Ali from his father Ibrahim b. Hashim from his sources in Kufa, Baghdad and elsewhere.
It must be pointed out that all this falls within the realms of speculation. What we know for sure is that he returned to his native Rayy at some point, and perhaps this last is the safest best for where he composed the book, for this is where he made his mark as a scholar.
Al-Najashi says in his entry on Kulayni that he was:
شيخ أصحابنا في وقته بالري ووجههم
The Shaykh of our companions (i.e. the Shia) in Rayy in his time, and their preeminent one.
It is only towards the end of his life that Kulayni relocated to Baghdad and resided in the Darb al-Silsila (Chain Road) which was by the Kufan Gate. There he began finalizing his book, re-checking the chains and correcting the texts (of the Hadith). For the Baghdadi scholars (whose guest he had become) were well known for their rigour and meticuluousness in this regard.
When the book was completed, he presented it to the Ashab and read it over to a number of them. This was in the last year of his life.
al-Tusi records this date while giving one of his chains to al-Kulayni in the Mashyakha of Istibsar:
وأخبرنا به أيضا أحمد بن عبدون المعروف بابن الحاشر رحمة الله عليه، عن أحمد بن أبي رافع وأبي الحسين عبد الكريم بن عبد الله بن نصر البزاز بتنيس وبغداد عن أبي جعفر محمد بن يعقوب الكليني جميع مصنفاته وأحاديثه سماعا وإجازة ببغداد بباب الكوفة بدرب السلسلة سنة سبع وعشرين وثلاثمائة
Reported it (i.e. the book al-Kafi) to us also: Ahmad b. Abdun, famously known as Ibn al-Hashir, the mercy of Allah be upon him, from Ahmad b. Abi Rafi and Abi al-Husayn Abd al-Karim b. Abdallah b. Nasr al-Bazzaz in Tinnis (in Egypt) and Baghdad from Abi Ja’far Muhammad b. Ya’qub al-Kulayni – all his authored works and Hadiths – via Sima’a (in oral sessions) and Ijaza (general license) in Baghdad, by the Kufan Gate, on the Darb al-Silsila (Chain Road), in the year 327.
It is as though Kulayni was not able to read out the book to them in its totality, for we have the invaluable testimony of a direct student of his and a transmitter of al-Kafi from him. This is Abu Ghalib al-Zurari (d. 368) in his Risala to his grandson (when laying out for him what he possesses in his library):
و جميع كتاب الكافي تصنيف أبي جعفر محمد بن يعقوب الكليني روايتي عنه بعضه قراءة و بعضه إجازة و قد نسخت منه كتاب الصلاة و الصوم في نسخة و كتاب الحج في نسخة و كتاب الطهر و الحيض في جزء و الجميع مجلد و عزمي أن أنسخ بقية الكتاب إن شاء الله في جزء واحد ورق طلحي
The whole of the book al-Kafi authored by Abi Ja’far Muhammad b. Ya’qub al-Kulayni. My transmission (directly) on his authority. A part of it (is that which) I read out to him and a part of it (is by way of) license (from him to me). I have copied down from it (in my own handwriting) the Chapter on Salat and Sawm in a (single) Nuskha (manuscript), the Chapter on Hajj in a (single) Nuskha (manuscript), and the Chapter on Purity and Menstruation in a Juz (fascicule). The whole (work i.e. al-Kafi) is Mujallad (leather bound volume). It is my intention to copy the rest of the book if Allah wills in a single Juz of Talhi paper.
There is no doubt that a prolific narrator like Abi Ghalib, who was resident in Baghdad, would have wanted to complete a full reading of a book like al-Kafi if the author was presiding over live sessions with his students. The fact that only a part of the book was transmitted in this manner is considered by some to be evidence that al-Kulayni died before going over the whole book and the transmitters had to rely on a general Ijaza for the remaining part.
It is also fair to say that Kulayni was relatively unknown in his lifetime, and that his fame in Baghdad (and the Shia world as a whole) grew posthumously, when the scholars came to realize how comprehensive, well arranged, and suitably chosen the book al-Kafi was.
al-Najashi recollects his own early years:
كنت أتردد إلى المسجد المعروف بمسجد اللؤلؤي، وهو مسجد نفطويه النحوي، أقرأ القرآن على صاحب المسجد وجماعة من أصحابنا يقرأون كتاب الكافي على أبي الحسين أحمد بن أحمد الكوفي الكاتب، حدثكم محمد بن يعقوب الكليني
I used to frequent the Masjid famously known as Masjid al-Lu’lu’i (the Masjid of the pearl merchants), and it is the Masjid of Niftawayh the Grammarian (d. 323), so as to learn the Qur’an at the hands of the caretaker of the Masjid, (and would find) a group of our companions reading out the book al-Kafi to Abi al-Husayn Ahmad b. Ahmad al-Kufi the Scribe, (and he would say) ‘Muhammad b. Ya’qub al-Kulayni narrates to you’.
Then he gives Kulayni’s death year:
ومات رحمه الله أبو جعفر الكليني ببغداد سنة تسع وعشرين وثلاثمائة، سنة تناثر النجوم، وصلى عليه محمد بن جعفر الحسيني أبو قيراط، ودفن بباب الكوفة، وقال لنا أحمد بن عبدون: كنت أعرف قبره، وقد درس
Abu Ja’far al-Kulayni, may Allah have mercy on him, died in Baghdad, in the year 329, the year of the scattering of the stars (i.e. there was a meteor shower), and Muhammad b. Ja’far al-Husayni Abu Qayrat prayed over him, and he was buried at the Kufan gate. Ahmad b. Abdun said to us: I used to know the (location) of his grave, but it has become effaced.
Tusi gives two different death years in his two books. In his Fihrist he says:
وتوفي محمد بن يعقوب سنة ثمان وعشرين وثلاثمائة ببغداد ودفن بباب الكوفة في مقبرتها، قال ابن عبدون: رأيت قبره في صراة الطائي وعليه لوح مكتوب فيه اسمه واسم أبيه
Muhammad b. Ya’qub died in the year 328 in Baghdad and was buried by the Kufan Gate in its graveyard. Ibn Abdun said: I had seen his grave in the Tai bridge and on it was a tablet in which was written his name and the name of his father.
While in the Rijal he says:
مات سنة تسع وعشرين وثلاثمائة في شعبان في بغداد ودفن بباب الكوفة
He died in the year 329 in (the month of) Sha’ban in Baghdad and was buried by the Kufan Gate.
What we can tell from a critical passage in Kulayni’s introduction is that he authored the book in response to the request of an unnamed contemporary who acknowledged his inability to decide which report to follow in the face of contradictory reports.
Kulayni paraphrases the latter’s request as follows:
وذكرت أن أمورا قد أشكلت عليك، لا تعرف حقائقها لاختلاف الرواية فيها، وأنك تعلم أن اختلاف الرواية فيها لاختلاف عللها وأسبابها، وأنك لا تجد بحضرتك من تذاكره وتفاوضه ممن تثق بعلمه فيها
… you mentioned that matters have become confused for you. You cannot tell the truth of it (a matter) (from the falsehood) because of differences between the reports about it (a matter).
You understand that differences between the reports about it (a matter) is because of differences in their (i.e. the reports’) circumstances and sources, but you do not find in your presence one whose knowledge of it (i.e. the reports) you trust – with whom you could discuss and defer to.
Because of this, the unnamed contemporary wants Kulayni, whose ability in Hadith he trusts, to author a comprehensive collection of reliable reports (across all subjects), from which he can take, in the confidence that he is following the Imams and without fear of contravening them.
وقلت إنك تحب أن يكون عندك كتاب كاف يجمع [فيه] من جميع فنون علم الدين، ما يكتفي به المتعلم، ويرجع إليه المسترشد، ويأخذ منه من يريد علم الدين والعمل به بالآثار الصحيحة عن الصادقين عليهم السلام والسنن القائمة التي عليها العمل، وبها يؤدي فرض الله عز وجل وسنة نبيه صلى الله عليه وآله
Thus you said that you desire to have with you a ‘sufficient’ book, which gathers [in it] all the divisions of the knowledge of religion.
(A book) which a student can suffice himself with.
(A book) to which a seeker (of truth) can make reference.
(A book) from which can take – the one who desires (to acquire) the knowledge of religion and acting upon it (the religion) – based on the reliable reports from the Sadiqin (truthful ones i.e. Imams), peace be upon them, and the established Sunan (precedents), on which action is (supposed to be) based, and by which the obligation of Allah Mighty and Majestic and the Sunna of His prophet, blessings of Allah be upon him and his family, is fulfilled.
The title Kulayni chose for the book i.e. الكافي ‘The Sufficient’ is directly related to the unnamed contemporary’s appeal for a كتاب كاف ‘sufficient book’ above i.e. a book with which no other book is needed. Kulayni’s motivation to make al-Kafi comprehensive is a key point to take from this passage and had its ramifications (as will be explained).
Also of note is that the book was targeted at the متعلم (i.e. the student), the مسترشد (i.e. the novice looking for guidance), and any lay believer (Shia) who wants to acquire knowledge from the legitimate sources (the Imams), and fulfill his obligations under the Law by following the rightful exemplars.
The nature of this audience explains why Kulayni does not delve into technical detail in the book, or elaborate on the strengths and weaknesses of arguments made by previous scholars who had taken different positions about a matter, before giving justification for his own personal preference.
Kulayni ends the passage by encapsulating the fervent hope the unnamed contemporary had for the book:
وقلت لو كان ذلك رجوت أن يكون ذلك سببا يتدارك الله [تعالى] بمعونته وتوفيقه إخواننا وأهل ملتنا ويقبل بهم إلى مراشدهم
You said – if that were to happen (i.e. if you were to author such a book) then you hope that it becomes a cause (for) Allah [the Elevated] to meet up with our brethren and co-religionists, by His assistance and facilitation, and proceed with them to their salvation.
Did Kulayni include only the Sahih?
There is no explicit declaration in Kulayni’s words (speaking in the first voice) to the effect that ‘there is nothing but the Sahih in my book’. Such a delimitation would have made answering the question in the heading very easy.
What is undeniable, however, is that Kulayni attempted to compose the book as was requested of him. He says towards the conclusion of the Khutba which was evidently written after he had finished composing the book:
وقد يسر الله – وله الحمد – تأليف ما سألت، وأرجو أن يكون بحيث توخيت فمهما كان فيه من تقصير فلم تقصر نيتنا في إهداء النصيحة، إذ كانت واجبة لإخواننا وأهل ملتنا، مع ما رجونا أن نكون مشاركين لكل من اقتبس منه، وعمل بما فيه في دهرنا هذا، وفي غابره إلى انقضاء الدنيا، إذ الرب عز وجل واحد والرسول محمد خاتم النبيين – صلوات الله وسلامه عليه وآله – واحد، والشريعة واحدة وحلال محمد حلال وحرامه حرام إلى يوم القيامة، ووسعنا قليلا كتاب الحجة وإن لم نكمله على استحقاقه، لأنا كرهنا أن نبخس حظوظه كلها
Allah, may He be praised, has simplified the authoring what you requested. I hope that it is as you had envisioned. Whatever deficiency there may be in it then (rest assured that) there was no shortage in our intention to present goodly counsel (through it). For that is obligatory (on us) towards our brothers and co-religionists. Besides our hope that we be a partner (in the reward) of whoever is guided through it, and acts based upon what is in it, in this present age of ours, and in the future, until the end of the world.
For the Lord Mighty and Majestic is One, and the Messenger Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets, blessings of Allah and His peace be upon him and his family, is One, and the Divine Law is One. The Halal of Muhammad is Halal and his Haram is Haram up to the Day of Judgment.
We lengthened the Kitab al-Hujja (i.e. the section on the Imams) somewhat, even if we did not complete it in the way it deserves, because we disliked to fall further short in giving it all its due.
There is a hint in the next passage that Kulayni had in mind an even greater project, but alas, destiny intervened:
إن تأخر الأجل صنفنا كتابا أوسع وأكمل منه، نوفيه حقوقه كلها إن شاء الله تعالى وبه الحول والقوة وإليه الرغبة في الزيادة في المعونة والتوفيق
If the appointed term (i.e. death) is delayed then we shall author a book that is more comprehensive and complete than it, wherein we will fulfill all its dues, if Allah the Elevated wills.
By Him is might and power, and in Him does our hope lie for addition in assistance and facilitation.
Now since the unnamed contemporary had requested a practical book for acquiring religious knowledge and acting upon it in day to day life بالآثار الصحيحة عن الصادقين عليهم السلام ‘based on the reliable reports from the Sadiqin (truthful ones i.e. Imams), peace be upon them’, and since Kulayni responds in the affirmative and authors a book that he hopesيكون بحيث توخيت ‘is as you had envisioned’ then there is no doubt that Kulayni’s aim was to collect the reports that are Sahih in his eyes. In other words, he excises what he considers to be irredeemably false.
The clearest evidence that this is what he had in mind is the fact that al-Kulayni, for the most part, presents a selection of coherent reports under every chapter of his book, allowing us to reconstruct his own position on the matter at hand
Only a Third of al-Kafi is Sahih!
A staple of contemporary anti-Shia polemics is that most of al-Kafi is Dhaif (weak). If Kulayni was aiming to collect the Sahih then how did we end up with this situation?
The exact number of Hadiths found in al-Kafi is subject to dispute (depending on how you count). Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani (d. 1186) quotes an unnamed scholar as giving the following breakdown باصطلاح من تاخر ‘in the terminology coined by those who came later’:
قال بعض مشايخنا المتأخرين: أمّا الكافي فجميع أحاديثه حصرت في ستّة عشر ألف حديث و مائة و تسعة و تسعين حديثا و الصحيح منها باصطلاح من تأخّر خمسة آلاف و اثنان و سبعون حديثا و الحسن مائة و أربعة و أربعون حديثا و الموثق مائة حديث و ألف حديث و ثمانية عشر حديثا و القوي منها اثنان و ثلاثمائة حديث و الضعيف منها أربعمائة و تسعة آلاف و خمسة و ثمانون حديثا
As for al-Kafi then the sum total of its reports is counted at 16,199 reports, 5072 are Sahih, 144 are Hasan, 1118 are Muwathaq, 302 are Qawi and 9485 are Dhaif.
This would mean that only about 31% of the book is Sahih and approximately 59% of the book is weak.
The above line of attack goes to show the level of ignorance there is out there on this subject. It is borne out of a lack of understanding the difference between Sihha as it has come to be defined by the Muta’akhirin (later scholars) and the Qudamai (early) understanding of the same.
The modern definition, which is highly specific, and based solely on the narrators in the chain (Rijal) of a report, is anachronistically back-projected to a period before it was in use, where the scope of Sihha was much wider.
Sihha for the Qudama (early scholars) meant a report in whose Matn (content) they had confidence in as originating from the Imam. Anything with a modicum of reliability over a spectrum of ever-decreasing strength above a certain threshold was considered actionable. This could be a report of the Thiqa, a weak-chained report whose meaning is established (i.e. corroborated), or even the report of narrator about whom nothing bad is known, even if his Wathaqa has not been established, provided there is no disqualifying factor. The closest parallel in modern terminology would be Mu’tabar (report to which you give some weight) when it is used in its linguistic sense.
In other words, Sihha as understood by the Muta’akhirin is a subset of that understood by the Qudama, and it also does not take into consideration other factors that were important to them. The glaring mistake/categorical error of judging a previous book with a standard developed later should be obvious to anyone.
However, even if we were to apply this modern standard to al-Kafi, the accusers would still be overlooking important aspects of Ilm al-Hadith as it is practiced today.
Why are they hiding behind the fact that a lot of diverse phenomenon is subsumed under the single category of Dhaif in the modern four-fold classification, without looking at the different shades of this, thereby equating the outright Mawdhu (fabrication) with the report of the Majhul (unknown)?
Why are they looking at each report in isolation – when the scholars of Hadith require all the strands of a particular report, together with all the reports having similar Mutun, be gathered and studied together?
Is there no concept of ‘li ghayrihi’, where a report whose chain is not fatally weak is upgraded when its contents are corroborated elsewhere?
If you study the 9000 or so weak-by-chain reports in al-Kafi, a large proportion of these are labelled Dhaif merely because they contain one or two Majhuls in the chain (with the chain being perfectly fine otherwise). These are narrators whose Wathaqa was not declared, but nor was there anything negative known about them, many of them would have been telling the truth. There are other ways of gaining confidence in their reports.
These accusers should come back to us after they have performed a corroborative analysis of the contents of al-Kafi and see how their statistics are altered because of this. What they will find is that a lot of the ‘weak’ reports in al-Kafi are backed up by other reports, presenting a coherent picture when taken together.
To be continued …