What is Fihrist? Why Fihrist?
Most readers will possess a rudimentary understanding of Rijal (or Ilm al-Rijal), the discipline in which the status of a narrator is studied in order to evaluate whether his reports should be accepted or not.
Much less is known about the Faharis (sing. Fihrist) – the name given to works composed by early Shi’i scholars in which they listed the titles of the books (mostly of Hadith) they possess in their libraries, as well as recording how they came to possess said books by giving the transmission paths linking them back to the original authors.
The earliest works of this kind, now lost, seem to have served as personal bibliographies, but representatives of a more mature stage of the genre – the Fihrist of Tusi (d. 460) and Najashi (d. after 463) – do survive and exhibit a broader concern.
A study of their contents reveals an attempt to document most of the authors in the Shia world, highlight some personal details about them, provide an evaluation of their status as narrators, list the titles of books attributed to them, and give chains to these last.
The overwhelming majority of the titles listed in these two Fihrist do not survive, and later scholars have typically scoured them just to find an explicit declaration of Tawthiq (strengthening) or Tadh’if (weakening) of those mentioned therein. That has been the sum all of its utility in authenticating Hadiths. Until now …
The Bahth al-Fihristi
A novel approach to the authentication of Shia Hadiths is the one espoused by a leading contemporary scholar in Qum i.e. Ayatullah Sayyid Ahmad Madadi and called the Bahth al-Fihristi. Its proponents claim to have uncovered the previously misunderstood methodology of the Qudama (early scholars) in dealing with the Hadith, which if we are to pursue today will require us to place the Fihrist at center-stage (hence the name).
The Bahth al-Fihristi approach takes as its starting point the historical difference between Sunni and Shi’i transmission of Hadith. While Sunni Hadith had a long period where Hadiths were transmitted orally, Shi’i Hadith and from its inception has always been written in nature, with transmission involving the passing down of books of Hadith.
It is because of this, proponents argue, that much effort was expended by early Shi’i scholars to collect critical information about the authors of these books and the books themselves in works entitled Fihrist, with the aim of distinguishing between the books of Hadith that were reliable from those that were not.
Proponents of this approach see this genre to be the real Shi’i innovation, noting that Sunni activity in this regard is quite late. The oral nature of early Sunni Hadith transmission meant that they concentrated on individual narrators (i.e. Rijal) instead of books (i.e. Fihrist).
Shia Hadith transmission proceeded with a student going to an author (a companion) who has written down what he heard from the Imam in a book, and copying the book for themselves, before hearing the contents from the author (Sima’a) or reading it back to them (Qira’a) to safe-guard against errors. The student then obtained a licence (Ijaza) from the author to further transmit the book to the next generation (where the process was repeated).
The result of this process was that the authors of the later standard compilations (such as the Four Books) had true-copies of the original copies of these earlier books (sometimes multiple true-copies of the same work which they obtained via different routes) when they sat down to compose their own books by selecting, rearranging and subsuming the contents found in what came before.
In other words, when dealing with Shia Hadith as found in later standard compilations (such as the Four Books) we are actually dealing with reports that originate from earlier ‘books of Hadith’, such as those authored by the companions of the Sadiqayn (1st generation works), companions of al-Kadhim and al-Ridha (2nd generation works), and pre-canonical compilations (3rd generational works). This means that we can, even today, isolate and partially reconstruct the earlier generation works before they were subsumed into later standard compilations.
Bahth al-Fihristi seeks first to identify which earlier book a particular Hadith (in the form accessible to us) originates from. The next step is to determine whether the earlier book from which the Hadith derives was widely accepted and became ‘famous’ or not. This is done by referring to descriptive statements by Tusi and Najashi about the book in their respective Fihrist where one can find allusions to whether the book was widely transmitted or not.
The crux of the Bahth al-Fihristi approach is the assertion that a particular individual strand to a book becomes superfluous (loses its significance) if the book is ‘famous’. This is because the widespread transmission of a famous book makes the book’s contents textually stable (unalterable). The rationale being that a copyist with sinister motives who transmits an altered version of a ‘famous’ book will be caught out because there are numerous alternative transmissions strands to the same book whose contents have become fixed (the diabolic copyist cannot alter all the ‘versions’ of the book out there).
Now the status of the lower intermediaries in the chain of the Hadith (as found in the standard compilations) becomes irrelevant and can be bypassed in any Rijali discussion, since they are in reality just Mashayikh al-Ijaza (passive transmitters) of a ‘famous’ book that is guaranteed to be going back to its author (an early companion). The end result is that a lot of reports that are technically considered Dhaif will become Sahih.
The most cogent argument in favour of Bahth al-Fihristi, framed within the context of reconstructing the practice of the Qudama, is given by one of Madadi’s students in a key paper which I translate below before proceeding to critique some of its postulations.
The Methodology of the Qudama in Acting on the Reports and the Role of the Faharis in that
We must give an exposition of the methodology of the Qudama (early scholars) in how they dealt with the reports so that it becomes clear for you the reason behind the authoring of the Faharis by our fellows (i.e. the Imamiyya).
So I say – and from Allah Mighty and Majestic do I seek succour:
The Shaykh (al-Tusi) said about the methodology of our fellows – the Imamiyya – and their practice:
If one of them gives a Fatwa (ruling) which they do not recognize, they would ask him – from where did you say this?
So if he directs them to a well-known book and a famous Asl, and if its narrators are Thiqa (trust-worthy) whose Hadith is not rejected, they remain silent and submit to that, accepting his words.
This has been their norm and practice from the time of the prophet and those who came after him from the ‘Aimma, and (especially) from the time of al-Sadiq Ja’far b. Muhammad, on whose authority knowledge became widespread and from whom much has been transmitted.
He says in another place:
If one of the transmitters narrates a report by Sima’a (having heard it from his source) or Qira’a (heaving read it back to his source) while the other narrates it by Ijaza (merely obtains a license to transmit without Qira’a or Sima’a) then it is incumbent to favour the transmission of the Sami’ (hearer) over the Mustajiz (licensee).
Unless the Mustajiz (licensee) is transmitting via his Ijaza (license) a well-known Asl or a famous book in which case this precedence is dropped.
It becomes evident from this that their practice was not to act upon the contents of any report, rather, on a report which appears in a well-known book or a famous Asl, and an additional condition is added to this, which is the Wathaqa (trust-worthiness) of the author of the book or the Asl (and the intermediaries between him and the Imam if any).
If this proves anything it is that a critical attitude towards chains with regard to famous books is unwarranted.
al-Tabrisi (d. after 558) said:
We will not attach a chain to most of the reports we include … except what I include on the authority of Abu Muhammad al-Askari – peace be upon him – for it is not equivalent to the rest (of what I include) in terms of fame … this is why I have given its chain …
al-Kaf’ami (d. 905) said:
I have collected it (i.e. the contents) from books whose authenticity is assured, (books) which have been made incumbent on us to hold on to because of the firmness of their handle. The recurrence of the successive eras has not altered them nor the passage of day and night
Ibn al-Ghadhairi said about al-Hasan b. Muhammad b. Yahya also called Ibn Akhi Tahir:
He was a liar. He used to fabricate Hadith openly, claim (to narrate from) strange authorities who are not recognized and depend upon uknown narrators who are not mentioned.
The hearts are not assuaged by his transmissions except what he transmits from the books of his grandfather which are also transmitted from him (i.e. his grandfather) by other than him, and also (what he transmits) from one whose authored books are famous.
He said about Sahl b. Ahmad b. Abdallah b. Sahl al-Dibaji:
He was weak. He used to fabricate Hadiths and narrate from the Majahil (unknown).
He said about al-Hasan b. Asad al-Tafawi al-Basri:
He narrates from the weak (narrators) and they (i.e. the weak) narrate from him. He was corrupt in belief. I do not know of him having something in which he has done well except his transmission of the book of Ali b. Ismail b. Shuayb b. Maytham, and this (book) has been transmitted from him (i.e. Ali) by other than him (i.e. al-Hasan).
Allama Hilli (d. 726) says in the entry on Ahmad b. Hilal al-Abartai:
Ibn al-Ghadhairi held back from accepting his Hadith, except what he narrates from al-Hasan b. Mahbub in his Kitab al-Mashyakha and Muhammad b. Abi Umayr in his Nawadir, for a large number of the Ashab al-Hadith heard these two books (from Ahmad) and depended on him for them.
This proves that even though a narrator may be weak, corrupt in belief, a fabricator of Hadith, but if he is transmitting one of the famous books, then that is accepted from him, and he is not repudiated in that relay.
This does not mean that there is no role for Rijal at all, as the need for a Rijali evaluation to do with the author of the book and likewise the intermediaries between the author and the Imam remains. The is moreso for books that are not famous (where the transmission path to the book becomes as critical as the upper chain).
After all, this is exactly how we deal with the Four Books today. Because they are famous books, any Rijali discussion to do with them is limited only to the narrators between the authors (i.e. Kulayni, Saduq and Tusi) to the Imam (and not the chain from us to the authors).
A supporting evidence for this is that the Shaykh (Tusi) may sometimes quote a report from al-Kafi, and the report as found al-Kafi has two chains, one of them is weak as per the terminology of the Muta’akhirin (modernists) while the other is Sahih, so the Shaykh quotes the report with the weak chain. There is no convincing explanation for this other than what we have proposed.
Another evidence for this is that when we study the ‘books of Rijal’ we find that the majority of the Tawthiqat (strengthening) and Tadh’ifat (weakening) pertain to authors and compilers.
If you consider Rijal al-Tusi for example, you will find that approximately 75% of the Tawthiqat and Tadh’ifat have to do with authors. In fact, you will not find the word ‘Thiqa’ before the period of Imam al-Baqir, that is to say, before the beginnings of authorship among the Shia. Likewise, approximately 90% of the Jarh and Ta’dil found in Rijal Ibn al-Ghadhairi has to do with authors.
It is because of this that we do not find Tawthiq or Tadh’if for a large number of narrators who were not authors of any books, and whose sole role was as passive transmitters of books authored by others. An example of such a one is Ahmad b. Muhammad b. al-Hasan b. al-Walid from whom Shaykh al-Mufid transmits a lot. Similarly, Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Yahya al-Attar from whom Shaykh al-Saduq transmits prolifically. Another figure is al-Husayn b. al-Hasan b. Aban.
The author of al-Ma’alim (d. 1011) said:
Them not being referred to in the books of Rijal is not an allusion to a lack of reliance upon them, for the reasons behind that could be manifold, the most evident being that they did not author any books, while most of the books authored by our earlier scholars on the Rijal were limited to discussing authors and providing chains to the transmission of their books.
In any case, the utility of this approach (i.e. Bahth al-Fihristi) is to be found in scenarios where a chain to a book is weak as per the technical terminology of Rijal but the book itself is famous, so while the Hadiths in the book are considered Dha’if (weak) as per the methodology of the moderns, what becomes apparent from the approach of the Qudama (early ones) among our scholars – upon whom revolves Jarh and Ta’dil and the acceptance of Hadith and repudiation – is that they are considered Sahih (authentic).
Muhaqiq al-Majlisi (d. 1070) said:
There is no harm in Wijada (i.e. quoting from a book to which one does not have a chain) if the attribution of the book to its author is established.
His son the Allama al-Majlisi (d. 1110) said:
The manifest position (with regards to Wijada) is the permissibility of acting upon the famous and well-known books whose attribution to their respective authors is certain, like the Four Books and the other famous books (i.e. even if the chain to those books is weak or unavailable).
Fadhil al-Khwajui (d. 1173) said:
The weakness of the path to the author of a book or an Asl does not harm because of their (i.e. the book’s or the Asl) fame at the point at which someone is quoting from them.
The author al-Hadaiq (d. 1186) said in relation to a report quoted by Ibn Idris in the Mustatrafat of his Sarair:
The report of Ibn Abi Nasr is Sahih because it is taken (directly) from a famous Asl without intermediary.
It is because of this that you will find the Qudama deeming the reports in their books to be Sahih and basing this judgment on the fact that they (i.e. the reports) are taken from famous books.
al-Saduq says in the preface to Man La Yahdhuruhu al-Faqih:
I did not intend (to include) in it as per the intention of the (typical) authors of including all that which they transmit, rather, I intend to include (only) that which I give Fatwa by (i.e. on its basis), and rule as to its Sihha (correctness), and believe to be a Hujja (proof) in that which is between me and my Lord – sanctified is His mention and elevated is His power.
And all that which is in it (i.e. my book al-Faqih) is taken from famous books, on which we (the whole Ta’ifa) rely and to which we refer, such as the book of Hariz b. Abdallah al-Sijistani …
He says in al-Muqni:
I have authored this book of mine and have entitled it ‘al-Muqni’, so that the one who reads what is in it can be sufficed (from the root q–n–a) by it. I have deleted the chains (to the reports in it) so that carrying it (i.e. the book) does not become burdensome, its memorization does not become difficult, and its reader is not distracted, since what I elucidate in it is found in the Usul (original note-books), (which are) manifestly present (transmitted) on the authority of the Mashayikh, the Ulama, the Fuqaha, the Thiqat – may Allah have mercy on them
This is the intent behind the saying of many of our scholars ‘mentioning the chain and paths is only for the sake of benediction and blessing’
Muhaqiq al-Majlisi said:
What is evident from them (i.e. the practice of the Qudama) is quoting from reliable and famous books. So if the author of the book is Thiqa – the report is considered Sahih. Because giving the chain to a book that is famous and Mutawatir is clearly only for benediction and blessing. Especially if it (the quoting) is from a group who are famous like Fudhayl b. Yasar and Muhammad b. Muslim – may Allah be pleased with them. A defect in the chains to them both does not detract.
Shaykh Ahmad Al Ta’an al-Bahrani (d. 1315) said:
The pivot of the Qudama, especially the authors of the Four Books, was upon the famous books and reliable Usul. The giving of the chain was for benediction by mentioning the series of narrators and so that no one can presume a disconnection in the report.
Perhaps this same is alluded to by Shaykh Tusi also when he says at the beginning of the Mashyakha:
And now since Allah the Elevated has facilitated the completion of this book (i.e. Tahdhib al-Ahkam), then we will mention the chains through which we transmit these Usul and Musannafat, and we will mention them as briefly as possible, so that the reports can exit the bounds of the Marasil (disconnected) and join up with the category of the Musnadat (fully chained)
Then he says at the conclusion:
I have presented a number of transmission paths to these Musannafat and Usul. A detailed account of which will require a lengthy commentary, and it is given in the Faharis that have been authored in this regard by the Shuyukh. Whoever wants it takes it from there – if Allah wills. We ourselves have given them comprehensively in the book Fihrist al-Shia.
At this juncture we ask: What is the sense in directing (his readers) to look for the transmission path of a book from which the Shaykh narrates in both the Faharis of the Ashab and the Fihrist of the shaykh himself in equal measure?!
We promptly answer: This is in the sense that the books the Shaykh is quoting from are famous, and the mentioning of the transmission paths to them is only for them (i.e. the reports in them) to be considered among the Masanid (fully-chained reports).
It is from this that one recognizes why we need the Faharis – because it is only through them that we are able to identify the well-known Usul and the famous books.
If one were to ask: How can we distinguish the well-known Usul and the famous books (from those that are not) using the Faharis?
To answer this question one must acquire an understanding of the statements used by the Shaykh and al-Najashi in their respective Fihrists. For you will find in them – and especially in Fihrist al-Najashi – phrases from which one can discern the fame of a book, in fact some of them are explicit in that regard.
We will mention some of these phrases by way of example:
(a) He has a book with a lot of transmitters
(b) He has book. A large number transmit it from him
(c) He has a book. It is transmitted by a number of our companions
(d) He has a book with numerous transmissions
(e) He has a book. Large numbers of people (or companions) have transmitted it
(f) He has a book. More than one has transmitted it
(g) The transmitters of this book are many
(h) He has a book. Transmitters (of it) on his authority are many
In the same way, there are certain phrases from which one can discern the lack of fame (of a book). Among them: ‘He has a book. No one transmits it except so-and-so’
Be that as it may, the Qudama among our Ashab before the Shaykh and al-Najashi had eight Faharis:
(i) Fihrist of Sa’d b. Abdallah al-Ash’ari (d. 301)
(ii) Fihrist of Abdallah b. Ja’far al-Himyari (d. circa 305)
(iii) Fihrist of Humayd b. Ziyad al-Naynawai (d. 310)
(iv) Fihrist of Muhammad b. Ja’far b. Butta (d. 330)
(v) Fihrist of Muhammad b. al-Hasan b. al-Walid (d. 343)
(vi) Fihrist of Ibn Qulawayh (d. 368)
(vii) Fihrist of Shaykh al-Saduq (d. 381)
(viii) Fihrist of Ibn Abdun (d. 423)
These Faharis, and despite their fame, did not reach us unfortunately. Nevertheless, the Shaykh and al-Najashi authored their respective Fihrists and mentioned therein a lot of the books of the Qudama among our Ashab in addition to giving the transmission paths to them.
A Practical Demonstration
Consider the report from al-Kafi reproduced below:
عدة من أصحابنا، عن سهل بن زياد، عن أحمد بن محمد بن أبي نصر، عن داود ابن سرحان قال: سمعت أبا عبدالله عليه السلام يقول: أربع لا يخلو منهن المؤمن أو واحدة منهن، مؤمن يحسده وهو أشدهن عليه، ومنافق يقفو أثره، أوعدو يجاهده أوشيطان يغويه
A number of our companions – Sahl b. Ziyad – Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Abi Nasr – Dawud b. Sirhan who said:
I heard Aba Abdillah عليه السلام saying: A believer is not free of four things or (at least) one of them: A fellow believer who is jealous of him – and this is the hardest of them all on him, a hypocrite who stalks him, an enemy who strives to oppose him, or a devil who tries to deceive him.
The conventional approach would consider the report to be weak because of Sahl b. Ziyad in the chain.
Bahth al-Fihristi may come to a different conclusion. It begins first by identifying the earlier book from which the report originated. The most intiutive answer would be Dawud b. Sirhan, the primary narrator from the Imam.
In order to confirm this one needs to look up the entry of this Dawud b. Sirhan in the two Fihrist available to us to establish whether he had a book in the first place or not.
Tusi says simply:
داود بن سرحان، له كتاب
He has a book.
The next step would be to establish whether this report was originally part of this book or not.
There are two evidences that can be adduced towards this end:
(i) The same chain (i.e. A number of our companions > Sahl b. Ziyad > Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Abi Nasr > Dawud b. Sirhan) occurs 22 times (apart from the report under discussion) in al-Kafi, spread across different chapters (mostly Fiqhi in nature such as Sawm, Nikah, Talaq etc). This indicates that this is a chain to a book and not instances of oral transmission.
(ii) Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Abi Nasr is one of the transmitters of Dawud’s book which is totally consistent with the evidence in al-Kafi. Consider the chain that Tusi gives in his Fihrist to Dawud’s book:
أخبرنا به ابن أبي جيد عن ابن الوليد، عن الحسن بن متيل، عن محمد بن الحسين بن أبي الخطاب، عن أحمد بن محمد بن أبي نصر، وابن أبي نجران، عنه
Reported it (i.e. the book) to us Ibn Abi Jayyid from Ibn al-Walid from al-Hasan b. Matil from Muhammad b. al-Husayn b. Abi al-Khattab from Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Abi Nasr and Ibn Abi Najran from him (i.e. Dawud b. Sirhan).
The next step would be to establish whether this book was ‘famous’ or not. When we go to the entry of Dawud b. Sirhan in the Fihrist of Najashi we find the following:
داود بن سرحان العطار: كوفي، ثقة، روى عن أبي عبد الله، وأبي الحسن عليهما السلام، ذكره ابن نوح، روى عنه هذا الكتاب جماعات من أصحابنا رحمهم الله
Dawud b. Sirhan the Perfume-seller
Kufan. Thiqa. He narrated from Abi Abdillah and Abi al-Hasan عليهما السلام. This was mentioned by Ibn Nuh. Large numbers of our companions – may Allah have mercy on them – have transmitted this book on his authority.
Bahth al-Fihristi argues that since the report comes from the ‘famous’ book of Dawud b. Sirhan then any chain to this book is just for ‘benediction and blessing’ and the weakness of Sahl b. Ziyad does not harm the transmission. This is because the book would have long been textually stable even before Kulayni’s time, and the latter could safely quote from his copy of it. Therefore 23 reports in al-Kafi which were previously considered Dhaif will now be considered Sahih.
I hope to have presented an accessible primer to the Bahth al-Fihristi in the English language. Despite this, I myself have serious reservations about this approach and hope to publish a critical rejoinder to it in a future post – God willing.