Does He Have a Methodology?
Kulayni does not give us the Manhaj (methodology) he follows when selecting reports for inclusion in al-Kafi. The only thing we have to work with is a critical passage towards the end of the Khutba (preface) where he outlines three principles that should be followed in the face of contradiction between reports, for this was the greatest concern of the unnamed contemporary who prompted the authoring of the book.
A cross-search looking for key words found in this passage within our corpus reveals that all three are derived from a single report which Kulayni himself transmits in al-Kafi. This is the report called the Maqbula (accepted report) of Umar b. Handhala. The latter was a companion of al-Sadiq whose report was deemed extremely relevant by later scholars for resolving cases where variant positions are attributed to the Imams.
The fact that Kulayni’s Usul (principles) when dealing with Ta’arudh (contradictory reports) are wholly Naqli (textual-based) confirms our presentation of Kulayni as a traditionist (not someone who gives a free reign to the intellect in over-ruling reports). He declares as much when he begins said passage by saying:
فاعلم يا أخي أرشدك الله أنه لا يسع أحدا تمييز شئ مما اختلف الرواية فيه عن العلماء عليهم السلام برأيه
Know then O brother, may Allah guide you, that it does not befit anyone to prefer any one thing (position over another) in that (matter) which the reports from the Scholars (the Imams) have opposed (each other) using his personal opinion.
إلا على ما أطلقه العالم بقوله عليه السلام: اعرضوها على كتاب الله فما وافق كتاب الله عز وجل فخذوه، وما خالف كتاب الله فردوه
Except (on the basis of) that which the Scholar (Imam) عليه السلام had stated in his words: “Compare it with the Book of Allah, so that which is consistent with the Book of Allah Mighty and Majestic then take it, and that which opposes the Book of Allah then repudiate it”
و قوله عليه السلام: دعوا ما وافق القوم فإن الرشد في خلافهم
And his عليه السلام words: “Abandon that which is in agreement with the group (i.e. the Sunnis), for the truth is in opposing them”
وقوله عليه السلام: خذوا بالمجمع عليه، فإن المجمع عليه لا ريب فيه
And his عليه السلام words: “Take that which is united upon, for there is no doubt in that which is united upon”.
These three are principles to be followed when there is a contradiction between reports, but which reports are to be admitted in the first place? Or are we to assume that Kulayni accepted the credibility of all the material in circulation and was not aware of fabrications in the corpus?
Since we know that the Maqbula looms large in Kulayni’s thinking, so much so that he quotes verbatim and also paraphrases principles derived from it in his Khutba, it would be fitting to delve deeper into it, perhaps we will find a clue to solve the puzzle.
Analyzing the Maqbula
The Maqbula begins with Umar asking the Imam al-Sadiq whether it would be allowed for two Shia who have a dispute between them about a debt or inheritance (financial matter) to go to the Sultan (temporal rulers) and the Qudhat (judges) to obtain a ruling from them.
The Imam likens this to submitting to the authority of the Taghut (authorities apart from Allah), and whatever gain issues from the ruling to be illegitimate (even if one was in the right). Rather, they should seek out from among the Shia one who was ممن قد روى حديثنا ‘of those who has transmitted our (i.e. the Imams’) Hadith’, نظر في حلالنا وحرامنا ‘has looked into our (i.e. the Imam’s teachings on) Halal and Haram’ and عرف أحكامنا ‘has known our rulings’, and submit to his judgment, for the Imam officially appoints such a one as judge over them.
Umar asks what should be done if the contending parties agree between themselves to each appoint a candidate who meets the above criteria to look into the issue, and the two come to opposing judgments, basing their difference on divergent reports attributed to ‘you’ (i.e. the Imams).
The Imam declares that the ruling to be followed is the one pronounced by
أعدلهما وأفقههما وأصدقهما في الحديث وأورعهما
The A’dal (more morally upright of the two), the Afqah (more learned), the Asdaq (more truthful) in speech, and the Awra’ (more pious)
Umar asks what is to be done when both candidates are equally matched in these areas.
قلت: فإنهما عدلان مرضيان عند أصحابنا لا يفضل واحد منهما على الآخر؟
I said: (What if) they (the two candidates) are both Adl (morally upright) and Mardhi (acceptable) in the estimation of our companions (fellow Shia) such that no one of them has precedence over the other?
The Imam replies:
فقال: ينظر إلى ما كان من روايتهم عنا في ذلك الذي حكما به المجمع عليه من أصحابك فيؤخذ به من حكمنا ويترك الشاذ الذي ليس بمشهور عند أصحابك فإن المجمع عليه لا ريب فيه
It is looked for (that report) – out of their (respective) transmissions on our authority (i.e. reports attributed to us) about that (matter) on the basis of which they rule – (the one) which is ‘united upon’ by your companions (fellow Shia), and it is taken to be a part of our rulings, while the Shaadh (isolated report), (which is) the one that is not Mashhur (famous) with your companions, is abandoned. For there is no doubt in the ‘united upon’.
قلت: فإن كان الخبران عنكما مشهورين قد رواهما الثقات عنكم؟
What if both reports from you are Mashhur and narrated by the Thiqat from you.
What is going on in this conversation, as should have become clear, is a companion of the Imam upping the ante in an attempt to probe what is to be done when the Imam’s initially proposed solution cannot break the dead-lock.
The above quoted statement is key, because it is a restatement of said companion’s understanding of where we stand so far in the decision tree: What if both reports are transmitted by those matched in their trustworthiness (الثقات), on top of which, none of the reports are ‘united upon’, that is, both reports (and the positions they advocate) are equally famous and widely accepted (مشهورين) by a significant proportion?
These are the two principles given by the Imam so far.
It is in answer to this that the Imam introduces an additional principle saying:
قال: ينظر فما وافق حكمه حكم الكتاب والسنة وخالف العامة فيؤخذ به ويترك ما خالف حكمه حكم الكتاب والسنة ووافق العامة
It is looked into, so that (report) whose ruling is consistent with the ruling of the Book and the Sunna and opposes the A’mma then it is taken, and that (report) whose ruling opposes the ruling of the Book and the Sunna and is in agreement with the A’mma is abandoned.
This principle is a joint one with two related variables – consistency with the Qur’an and the Sunna while at the same time deviation from the practice of the A’mma. Many have misunderstood this and treat each independently. Opposition with the A’mma only becomes a factor when a consistency test against Qur’an and the Sunna cannot break the dead-lock.
Umar is aware of this fact and neutralizes the first variable by asking what is to be done when both of the Faqihs (knowledgeable scholars referred to) buttress their position from the Qur’an and the Sunna, and one of the reports (and its purport) matches with the position of the A’mma while the other does not. In other words, none of the reports can be said to be opposing the Book and the Sunna, and the only distinction that can be drawn between them is how they stack up with the practice of the A’mma.
Only then does the Imam instruct him to favour:
ما خالف العامة ففيه الرشاد
That which opposes the A’mma – for in it is (found) the correct guidance (i.e. position).
Umar proceeds to the scenario when both positions match the practice of the A’mma. The Imam answers that one should abandon the one that ‘their’ rulers and judges are إليه أميل ‘more inclined towards (closer to)’.
Umar’s final question is what to do if one can’t choose between the reports in all these different aspects. Everything being the same, the Imams asks him to ‘return the matter’ until ‘you meet your Imam’
فإن الوقوف عند الشبهات خير من الاقتحام في الهلكات
for halting in the face of doubts is better than rushing headlong into manifold destruction
The Hidden Principle
If Kulayni mentions three of the principles found in the Maqbula in his Khutba:
(a) First, (عرض على كتاب الله (والسنة ‘comparing with the Book of Allah (and the Sunna)’ to look for ما وافق ‘that which is consistent‘ with these sources.
(b) Second, taking that which خالف العامة ‘opposes the A’mma’
(c) Looking for the مجمع عليه ‘united upon‘ or consensus position, alternatively, the مشهور ‘famous report’ that is widely accepted.
What is the principle he has left out?
The Imam’s initial response: Preferring the reports of those who were extremely pious (أورع) and truthful (أصدق) companions of the Imams, acceptable to all (مرضي), and were scholars in of themselves (أفقه), in preference to the contradictory reports of those who were not at the same level of reliability. What Umar succinctly puts as ما رواه الثقات ‘that which which is transmitted by the Thiqat‘
This is essentially Ilm al-Rijal and that too inspired directly from the words of the Imam. For it falls under the domain of this science to evaluate the narrators based on these criteria.
I believe that this was the preliminary principle in Kulayni’s selection of reports for his book. He cannot have overlooked it, rather, this principle goes unmentioned because it is assumed i.e. he already factors this in when selecting Hadith for inclusion.
After all, the Imam’s responses are sequential in nature, it is only when the reports of the narrators, who are equally matched in their reputation, contradict each other does he instruct us to apply other dead-lock breakers. Beginning by looking at the Shuhra (which position is more united upon) and isolating the Gharib (rare position), before proceeding to the two remaining principles.
Did the Qudama care about Rijal?
We are handicapped by the the fact that the Qudama as a whole did not author works setting out the theoretical underpinnings of their activity. What can be reconstructed from clues scattered in their works, however, is that there were already (pre-existing) conventions (checks and balances) that the Nuqqad (scholars of Hadith with critical abilities) had put in place to deal with the problem of fabrications in Hadith. Central to this effort was Rijal
This meant that there were certain things expected of a compiler in Kulayni’s time which either made a book or broke it.
First was the personal reputation of the compiler in terms of his honesty and accuracy in quoting from different sources (without mixing stuff up).
Najashi says about Kulayni:
وكان أوثق الناس في الحديث وأثبتهم
He was the most trusted of people in Hadith and the most accurate
Second were a compiler’s practices as an author.
At the basic level, a compiler was required to give all his sources, recording the transmission back-history of each in complete manner.
This can be brought into relief by comparing al-Kafi to the case of another earlier attempt at a comprehensive compilation of Hadith, a Kafi before the Kafi if you will, two generations before Kulayni. I speak of the Nawadir al-Hikma, and its author Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Yahya b. Imran al-Ash’ari al-Qummi.
Nawadir al-Hikma achieved fame in Qum and had become a reference work for the masses seeming to contain everything they would ever need. Because of this it was popularly referred to as Dabbat Shabib after a seller of grain-seeds called Shabib who had a massive oil container (Dabba) in Qum with several compartments يعطي منها ما يطلب منه من دهن ‘from which he would give whatever is asked of him of any kind of oil’.
Despite this, Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Yahya was criticized by the Nuqqad for يعتمد المراسيل ‘depending on the Marasil’, that is, giving weight to disconnected chains. Ibn al-Walid (d. 343), a junior contemporary of Kulayni even went through the whole work and culled out instances where Ash’ari has in the chain عن رجل ‘from a man’ or عن بعض أصحابنا ‘from one of our companions’ – without identifying him, or where he says casually وروي ‘it is narrated’ without giving a chain, or وجدت في كتاب ‘I found in a book’ – a book which he did not receive in the accepted manner (i.e. preferably Sim’a or Qira’a in each teacher/student pairing).
The fact that Kulayni’s practice is to give his sources (intermediaries) in almost all the statements attributed to the Imams in the book is the clearest evidence that he followed these conventions and was sensitive to avoid pitfalls. This meticulous recording of chains is not decorative or for the sake of blessing as is the case in the modern era. They indicate a desire to document the origins of each report.
But what made a compilation stand out above the rest is the judicious selection of sources. In other words, it was not expected for a compiler to treat all that which is out there identically but to sift through them. Ash’ari was criticized for لا يبالي عمن أخذ ‘not caring from whom he takes’. For the Nuqqad had begun identifying those whom a narrator should seek out, and red-flagging those who should be abandoned.
No one could avoid the weak totally, but it was noted when someone did not have any filters at all (as above) or narrated from them disproportionately, at which point they would go to the measure of saying about someone يروي عن الضعفاء ‘he narrates from the weak’. Ibn al-Walid excised the reports of about 23 sources from the book. The fact that this is not said about Kulayni means that he did not reach a level where it had become concerning.
The clearest argument in favour of Kulayni abiding by these conventions is the positive reception of the book (i.e. how favourably it was accepted). Thus he is described by Tusi as:
Expert in the field of Akhbar (reports)
A term he only uses for Kulayni and which would not have been forthcoming if Kulayni had exhibited shoddy scholarship.
How He Did It
As has been argued above, Kulayni’s selection would revolve mainly around the guiding principle of Rijal to select the Sahih.
In the first instance, he would have shared in the collective knowledge concerning the identity of a number of highly reputed Thiqa, widely-acknowledged as the elite companions of the Imams (Ashab al-Ijma plus others), as well as the books they authored which are to be sought after.
On the other side of the coin, he would have shared in the collective knowledge concerning the identity of a number of castigated Ghulat and liars whom the Imams had cursed e.g. Abu al-Khattab etc, as well as the fabricated material they were circulating which was to be avoided.
In addition to this, he would have internalized specialized knowledge current in Hadith circles. Details from his teachers based on their experience of interacting with different narrators and comparing different transmissions of the same book.
This would have led him to have a pyramid view of the material in front of him (in terms of decreasing strength).
He began with those reports that are found in the famous primary sources (Usul), authored by highly reputed companions of the Imams (esp. the Sadiqayn), which had been accepted by the Ta’ifa, and on which belief and practice of the sect were historically based (they were the references). There was an element of trusting the judgment of these highly competent companions (who were scholars in their own right) when they chose to include a report from someone (whom we do not necessarily know).
Because of the importance of these Usul, they were usually transmitted by the most distinguished narrator (pillars) in every generation, one from the other, and these best Turuq form the core of al-Kafi. Indeed, because of the wide-spread transmission of these sources, the status of some narrators in individual chains could become irrelevant, because the sources themselves had become textually stable (contents could not be changed), and were guaranteed as going back to their authors (early companions).
Kulayni’s biggest tool when dealing with the sources that are not at the same calibre as the above is to look for corroboration between their reports and those of the primary sources. Once a basic meaning has been established to be true then the Qudama saw all the Riwayat (variant transmissions) which have the same meaning to be Sahih (equally valid) regardless of the conditions of individual chains.
Many times we find Kulayni beginning the Bab (chapter) with the strongest report he has for a matter (i.e. from the primary sources), and then includes other weaker reports that he has in support of the central report. He sees in this multiple attestation and mutual re-enforcement an indication that all the narrators were being accurate in these instances. Looking for corroboration was also useful for him in demonstrating the Shuhra of a certain position in opposition to the Gharib position (in cases of conflicting reports).
Kulayni would have excised the material from the earlier works by authors of lesser repute which present a contradictory picture to that which is found in the primary works.
When there is no position to be found in the primary sources, then he can cast the net wider and tap into secondary (lesser known) material. Multiplicity of chains in these secondary sources could engender confidence. Of course if a solitary report is bringing something exceptional, the reputation of the transmitters became key. Otherwise there is evidence that he could accept the report of the narrator about whom nothing negative is known (even if his Wathaqa has not been established) provided there is no disqualifying flaw (e.g. a stronger report contradicting it).
These standards were loosened for reports whose subject matter are non-essential, non-controversial and self-evident such as the Mustahabbat, Duas, Ta’rikh (historical issues), Akhlaqi (moral and ethical) precepts, and common-sense wisdom and advice, where chain-based analysis is somewhat superfluous.
The Three Principles Revisited
Now we can return to Kulayni’s three principles, but keeping in mind that they only come into play between reports that are equally matched in terms of Rijal. It is not clear whether Kulayni complies with the sequencing that I have argued is key to the Maqbula. He does not give them in the same order as the Imam does, but perhaps this can be explained away by him depending on recall when writing the Khutba.
First is going with the report that is more consistent with the Qur’an. Kulayni does not pair the Qur’an with the Sunna (i.e. the established one) as the Imam does in the Maqbula. The logic behind this is that the true words of the Imams are supposed to match to a high degree with the Qur’an, both being aspects from the same divine stream. But the Qur’an is silent one way or another about a lot of rulings.
Second is going against the report that is in conformity with the Sunnis. The logic behind this was to reveal the statements uttered by the Imams under Taqiyya because of the repressive atmosphere against them. There were times where the Imams answered in accordance to the position of the authorities (majority), to safeguard detection as being divergent, and expose themselves and their Shia to danger. The true position is opposite of that said in Taqiyya. The issue is that ‘Amma themselves are divided over many issues such that one can’t say what opposing them would entail in specific cases.
Third is that which is backed up by the majority of the companions. This was the first dead-lock breaker given by the Imam (after looking at Rijal). The logic was that the Imams would have made it so that the majority of their intimate companions (with whom there was no Taqiyya) had united upon the true position. The problem is that it is difficult to identify what the Mashhur position of the companions was in specific cases.
No wonder that we have a revealing statement by Kulayni that he does not find these principles to be decisive enough to resolve the state of affairs in most cases:
ونحن لا نعرف من جميع ذلك إلا أقله
But we do not know of all that (i.e. that comes under this) except a minority (i.e. these principles are not efficacious in most cases).
The fall-back position (when dealing with reports of matching strength) is to ‘return the true knowledge of all that to the Scholar (Imam)’, in other words, make Tawaqquf (suspend judgment). Hold up our hands and admit our failure to understand the true position, which only the Imam knows.
We then take advantage of the leeway we have been given of making Takhyir, that is, whatever report one chooses to act upon (in cases of dead-lock), as long as it is attributed to them, then it suffices us (Allah will accept from us), by virtue of our sincerity in following the only legitimate authorities.
He encapsulates this notion by saying:
ولا نجد شيئا أحوط ولا أوسع من رد علم ذلك كله إلى العالم عليه السلام وقبول ما وسع من الأمر فيه بقوله عليه السلام: بأيما أخذتم من باب التسليم وسعكم
(Thus) we do not find anything more precautious and wide-reaching (i.e. a principle that covers most cases) than returning the true knowledge of all that to the Scholar (Imam) عليه السلام, and accepting the broadness there is in the matter – (as found) in his words عليه السلام: “Whichever you take if done in submission (to us) covers you”.
To be continued …