The presence of contradictions between Ḥadīth (reports) attributed to the Imams within the Shīʿa corpus is an undeniable problem. One that requires explanation. This is especially so because the problem has a long back-history of being weaponised by detractors seeking to expose the inconsistency between it and the theological doctrine of the inerrancy of the Imams.
How can the words of those who are considered to be the authoritative promulgators of a unified Divine Law contradict each other? Wasn’t following the Imams supposed to be the means of avoiding the differences that affected the other schools? Weren’t the Shīʿa different from those who had to accept the legitimacy of a plurality of answers since their authorities were admittedly resorting to fallible Ijtihād?
Most Shīʿa scholars delve into the problem within the wider subject of Uṣūl al-Fiqh (legal theory). This is because a jurist is often confronted with a situation where he has to choose between contradictory reports. Unfortunately, such discussions are technical in nature on top of being in a language that is inaccessible to the vast majority of an English-speaking audience.
The most innovative and comprehensive treatment of the causes that lead to the problem, in my view, is the one given by the contemporary Marjaʿ Sayyid ʿAlī al-Sīstānī in his Baḥth al-Khārij (advance lessons). What follows is a translation of the relevant section from Shaykh Muḥammad Taqī Shahīdī’s lecture-notes, in which he presents a useful summary of the Sayyid’s discussion. I have tried to remain faithful to the thrust of the text while making changes for ease of understanding and the sake of readability. Comments that begin with ‘I say’ are by myself.
Why Do Shīʿa Ḥadīth Contradict?
Some contradictions are caused by narrators of Ḥadīth, while others can be sourced to the Imams themselves, however there is a third category which we must discuss first.
A. Mistaken Presumption of Contradiction
It should be known that a number of instances where one presumes the presence of a real contradiction between Ḥadīth are, in actuality, cases of mistaken presumption. That is to say, there seems to be a contradiction but that is not so. This comes about because of several reasons:
1. Personal vs. Universal
The Imam’s reply may sometimes be given in consideration of the questioner’s circumstances and personal condition which the Imam would normally come to know of.
Consider the report of Muʿāwiya b. Ammār:
I said to Abū ʿAbdillāh: Do I make up a (lapsed) day-time prayer by night whilst on a journey? He said: Yes.
Ismāʿīl b. Jābir said to him: Do I make up a (lapsed) day-time prayer by night whilst on a journey? He said: No (i.e. you have to make it up by day).
So he (Muʿāwiya) said: But you had said ‘Yes’ (to me)! He (the Imam) said: That one (i.e. Ismāʿīl) has the strength for it while you do not
And in the report of Abī Ayyūb from Salama b. Muḥriz:
He (Abī Ayyūb) said: Salama b. Muḥriz narrated to me that he was performing the Tamattuʿ (one form of Hajj), until it was the Day of Sacrifice (i.e. when pilgrims slaughter) so he made the Ṭawāf around the House and between Safa and Marwa before returning to Mina without performing the Ṭawāf āl-Nisāʾ, then he went on to have intercourse with his wife.
He mentioned this (mistake) to his companions who said: So-and-so had done like that and asked Abā ʿAbdillāh (what to do) so he (the Imam) ordered him to sacrifice a camel (as expiation).
Salama said: I went to Abī ʿAbdillāh and asked him. He said: There is nothing upon you.
I returned to my companions and informed them of what he had said to me. They said: He has done Taqiyya with you and given you (a reply) from a contaminated spring.
So I returned to Abī ʿAbdillāh and said: I met my companions and they said ‘He has done Taqiyya with you, so-and-so had done like what you did and he ordered him to sacrifice a camel’?
He (the Imam) said: They speak the truth. (However) I did not do Taqiyya with you, rather so-and-so had done that deliberately in spite of knowing, while you did it without knowing. Had that (requirement of performing Ṭawāf āl-Nisāʾ) reached you? He (Salama) said: I said: No by Allah, it had not been conveyed to me. So he said (again): There is nothing upon you.
In fact, sometimes the question of the questioner seems to have to do with an abstract case, but the Imam realizes by one way or another that the questioner means himself, and proceeds to answer him on what his obligation is (what he has to do) phrasing it (the answer) in the same abstract manner (but tuning it relative to his circumstances and personal condition).
Consider for instance the report of Khālid the seller of head-gear:
He (Khālid) said: I asked Abā ʿAbdillāh about a man who has intercourse with his wife while he still has to perform Ṭawāf āl-Nisāʾ? He (the Imam) said: Upon him is a camel.
Then another came to him (with the same question) so he said: Upon you is a cow. Yet another came to him so he said: Upon you is a sheep.
I (Khālid) said to him after they had left: May Allah set you aright, how did you say (at first) ‘upon him is a camel’? So he said: You are wealthy and upon you is a camel, and upon the middling (of average wealth) a cow and upon the poor a sheep.
Or a variant transmission of Salama b. Muḥriz’s report (encountered above):
He (Salama) said: I asked Abā ʿAbdillāh about a man who has intercourse with his wife before performing the Ṭawāf āl-Nisāʾ? He said: There is nothing upon him.
I (Salama) went out to our companions and informed them (of the Imam’s reply) so they said: He has done Taqiyya with you, this Muyassir had asked him the like of what you had asked him so he (the Imam) said to him ‘upon you is a camel’.
He (Salama) said: I entered in to see him (once more) and said: May I be made your ransom, I informed our companions of your reply (to me) so they said ‘He has done Taqiyya with you, this Muyassir had asked him what you had asked him so he said to him – upon you is a camel’?
He (the Imam) said: It (i.e. knowledge of its requirement) had reached that one (i.e. Muyassir knew of it) but had it reached you? I said: No. He said: There is nothing upon you.
However, in such cases a Qarīna (circumstantial clue) must be found to substantiate it (i.e. to establish that this is what has occurred), as is the case in the two reports (above).
I say: One presumes there to be a contradiction when encountering a Ḥadīth containing the Imam’s universal answer and a differing Ḥadīth containing the Imam’s personal answer which he mistakenly universalizes.
In the examples above we could discover that the Imam was giving a personal answer because the companions caught out the seeming contradiction and asked the Imam for an explanation.
The difficulty comes from the fact that the Qarīna indicating the Imam’s reply to be personal in nature may have been lost in many Ḥadīth, and one must consider them prima facie universal when that is not the case all the time. Especially because the Imam may be giving a personal answer in abstract terms as we have seen.
2. Time-bound vs. Timeless
A statement of the Imam may have been issued in light of the historical circumstances specific to that time (and then mistakenly applied to all time).
Consider the report of Muʿāwiya b. Ammār from Abī ʿAbdillāh that the latter said:
Do not remove anything of the meat of the sacrifice (from Mina)
And there are other reports with a similar import.
But it has come in the report of Muḥammad b. Muslim from Abī ʿAbdillāh:
He (Muḥammad) said: I asked him about taking the meat of the Aḍḥā sacrifice out of Mina (i.e. leaving with it so as to be eaten later)?
He (the Imam) said: We used to say no one leaves it (i.e. Mina) with anything (of meat), because of the (prevailing) need of the people for it (i.e. to encourage its immediate distribution to the many in need of it), as for today then the people (with wealth) have increased so there is no harm in taking it out
The first impression one gets when reading Ḥadīth is that they are to be applicable for all time. This is also the implication of the Sīra al-Mutasharriʿiyya (practice of the religious-ones) as well as the reports that have come encouraging the preservation of the Ḥadīth and their spread them amongst the Shīʿa. However, this may not always be the case as we have seen in our example in which the Imam’s ruling was time-bound.
3. Conditional vs. Absolute (Importance of Context)
Sometimes a Ḥadīth is conditional not absolute even if it seems to be so, but that (i.e. it seeming to be absolute) is only because the Imam is not in the context of detailing the aspect (of the law) that the jurist wishes to infer from it, but he (the jurist) considers it to be absolute, and then finds a contradiction (when encountering another Ḥadīth that specifies conditions to what he considered to be absolute).
I say: Consider the leeway in praying with a certain amount of blood in your clothes as found in the report below:
They (i.e. al-Bāqir and al-Ṣādiq) said: There is no problem for a man to pray in clothes in which blood is dispersed like the effusion of sweat, even if the man had seen it before that (i.e. starting to pray), there is no problem in that as long as it is not collected together the size of a Dirham (coin)
Now a jurist who considers this report to be absolute in nature will presume it to be contradictory with other reports which specify that even the tiniest amount of blood of Ḥayḍ (menstruation), or animal who is Najis al-ʿAyn (like the pig and the dog), or an animal who is not eaten makes the Ṣalāt void.
But this mistaken assumption arises from overlooking the context of the Imam’s reply. That is, the Imams in the report above were not in the context of detailing the different types of blood and the distinction between them as far as Ṣalāt in them is concerned, rather, they were concerned with determining the amount of (permitted) blood which should not be exceeded.
In other words, one cannot use the absolute nature of the Imam’s reply within a particular context and extend it across all contexts.
4. Loss of Qarīna
A Ḥadīth can only be understood sometimes when paired with a certain Qarīna, such as being seen in light of the context of the prevailing Fiqhī milieu. But the narrator did not see the need to express this, maybe because of its obviousness at the time. Until the Ḥadīth happens to be written down in the books of Ḥadīth without this crucial meta-text, while the Qarīna continues to become obscure with the passage of time and is finally lost.
This leads the jurist who looks into the Ḥadīth at a later date to take it at face-value, either because of overlooking the possibility of the existence of such a Qarīna, or because of applying default principles such as the principle of a presumption of lack of a Qarīna as is the famous position (unless evidence to the contrary comes to light), or the principle of acting on the apparent meanings of reports. This can lead to a seeming contradiction with other reports when there is none in actuality.
I say: Sayyid al-Sīstānī gives the example of the report of Muʿāwiya b. Ammār to demonstrate this:
He (Muʿāwiya) said: I asked Abā ʿAbdillāh about the Mayyit? He said: Direct him with the bottom of his feet facing the Qibla
The report is not free of ambiguity, for it is not clear at what stage is this direction to be employed. Is it during Iḥtiḍar (pangs of death), or Ghusl, or burial or other than that?
However, by considering the Fiqhī milieu of that time, it becomes apparent that the question has to do with the stage of Iḥtiḍar, because this was the subject of controversy between Shīʿa narrators and other proto-Sunnī groupings back then.
Now a jurist who does not take this into consideration as the back-ground for the report will deem it to be general in nature and believe it to be contradicting other reports which specify different directions at different stages.
5. Evolution of Terminology
The conventional usage of certain terms changes with the passage of time such that a Ḥadīth conveys a different meaning when read today than the meaning it conveyed in the earlier era of legislation.
Sayyid al-Sīstānī gives an example with the word Ḥarām. For what this word denotes currently is wider than what it denoted in the age of the Imams.
Ḥarām was used in those times to refer to that which is established by the Book and in the certain Sunna. This can be seen in the statements of some early non-Shīʿa scholars as well.
For example, al-Shāfiʿī documents in the book al-Umm that referring to something which has not been mentioned in the Qur’an as Ḥalāl and Ḥarām was counted as arising out of a deficiency in piety.
He quotes Abū Yūsuf as saying:
How grave is al-Awzāʿī’s saying ‘this is Ḥalāl from Allah’. I encountered our teachers disliking to say ‘this is Ḥalāl and that is Ḥarām’ except what is clearly found in the Book of Allah Mighty and Majestic without need for elaboration.
It is obvious that al-Shāfiʿī agrees with the words of Abū Yūsuf for it was his practice to rebut him (i.e. Abū Yūsuf) in the instances where he does not agree with his words (which he does not do here).
Then he quotes the words of Rabīʿ b. Khaytham refusing the use of such address and refers to him as the ‘best of the Tābiʿīn’
Then he quotes Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʿī, one of the major early jurists:
As for saying ‘this is Ḥalāl and that is Ḥarām’ then how grave is that
Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya in his book Iʿlām al-Muwaqqiʿīn quotes Mālik as saying:
It was not the custom of people, nor of those who came before among our predecessors, nor did I come across anyone whom I follow – saying about something ‘this is Ḥalāl and that is Ḥarām’
This meaning of Ḥarām is also apparent from a number of our reports.
Consider for instance the report of al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Abī Ḥamza from his father from ʿAlī b. Yaqṭīn who said:
al-Mahdī (the Abbasid Caliph) asked Abā al-Ḥasan about wine – ‘is it Ḥarām in the Book of Allah? For the people know of the Nahī (prohibition) against it but do not know of the Taḥrīm for it …’
The weakness of the chain by al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Abī Ḥamza and his father does not detract (from using it to build our case), for even if we grant that it is fabricated by al-Ḥasan, it still signifies a distinction between the terms ‘Ḥarām’ and ‘Manhī ʿanhu’ in those times.
And in the Ṣaḥīḥ report of Muḥammad b. Muslim from Abī Jaʿfar that:
He (the Imam) was asked about predatory birds and wild beasts until the hedgehog, bat, donkey, mule and horse were mentioned to him – so he said: Ḥarām is not but that which Allah made Ḥarām in His Book. The messenger of Allah Nahā (prohibited) the eating of the meat of the donkey on the day of Khaybar. Nahāhum (He prohibited them) (i.e. to eat) because of their (i.e. donkey’s) backs (i.e. they were a means of transport) lest they finish them all. But donkeys are not Ḥarām …
And in the report of Abī al-Ḥasan al-Laythī from Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad who said:
My father was asked about the meat of domestic donkeys so he said: The messenger of Allah Nahā (prohibited) from eating it because it was a carrier of people in those days. Indeed the Ḥarām is that which Allah made Ḥarām in the Qur’an
And in the report of Abī Baṣīr al-Murādī who said:
I heard Abā Jaʿfar saying: The people ate the meat of their moving animals on the day of Khaybar so the messenger of Allah ordered them to refrain from their cooking pots and Nahāhum ʿanhā (prohibited them from it) but did not make it Ḥarām
And in the report of Abī Baṣīr from Abī ʿAbdillāh who said:
It was disliked to be eaten among land animals the meat of the rabbit, lizard, horse and mule, but it is not Ḥarām like the Taḥrīm of caracass, blood and the meat of the pig
It becomes apparent through studying the reports therefore, that the term Ḥarām was specific for that which was made Ḥarām by Allah in His Book or made Ḥarām by His messenger as per a certain proof.
As for the term Manhī ʿanhu then the Nahī (prohibition) in it can be Tanzīhī (i.e. making it undesirable but not out-right unlawful), or it can be time-bound in consideration of a certain transient public-good, or the Nahī (prohibition) in it can be Taḥrīmī (making it unlawful) but its unlawfulness (in this case) does not reach the level of that which is Ḥarām in the absolute sense.
It is because of upholding this (i.e. definition of Ḥarām) that he (i.e. Sayyid al-Sīstānī) considered what has come in the Muwaththaq report of Ibn Bukayr with the import
Ṣalāt in everything that is Ḥarām to be eaten is invalid
to not be covering except Ṣalāt in (i.e. while wearing) the parts of a pig, because it is what Allah made Ḥarām in His Book, as well as in the parts of predatory animals, because it is what was made Ḥarām by the messenger of Allah. He did not consider it to be extending to all that which is prohibited in the reports, such as the animal who consumes human feaces, or one who has been penetrated (by a human i.e. bestiality), and the like.
In sum, one cannot impose a later definition of a term onto the reports which are earlier, instead, one must make a thorough study of how a term was used by the Imams themselves and their contemporaries to understand what they intended by it.
6. Influence of the Vernacular
The Imam may speak in the vernacular of his direct interlocutor which differs from the vernacular of others listening in. Each one will understand the Imam’s words to mean what is common among them.
For instance, if a Meccan comes to the Imam and asks him about the quantity of Kurr then the Imam may answer him according to his vernacular that the Kurr is 600 Raṭl (a unit of volume) but when an Iraqi asks him the same question he answers that the Kurr is 1200 Raṭl. The Imam refers in the former answer to the Meccan Ratl which is half of the Iraqi Ratl.
Now the one who is not aware of this possibility may presume contradiction between two reports.
7. Effect of Interpolation
The narrator or compiler may append his own words at the bottom of a Ḥadīth which is later mistakenly considered to be a part of the Ḥadīth. Some instances of this phenomenon of interpolation are encountered in the book Man lā Yaḥḍuruhu al-Faqīh since it is a book of Fatwā (legal verdicts) as the author himself states explicitly in the prelude. Other times a wholly different report is given immediately after an initial report which leads some to wrongly presume that they are all parts of the same unified report.
Majlisī I points out the occurrence of this in the Ṣaḥīḥ report of Jamīl b. Darrāj from Zurāra found in the chapter on the Ṣalāt of the traveller in al-Faqīh:
I asked Abā Jaʿfar about Taqṣīr (shortening the prayer during travel) so he said: (It is performed when one covers) A Barīd (a unit of distance) going and a Barīd coming. The messenger of Allah used to shorten (the prayer) when he reaches Dhubāb. Dhubāb is at a distance of a Barīd and he (the messenger) used to do that because if he returns back his journey becomes two Barīd, that is, eight Farsakh
As the words beginning ‘The messenger of Allah used to …’ are either the words of al-Ṣadūq or a separate report that is Mursal (given without chain).
Similarly, al-Waḥīd al-Bihbahānī, the author of Miftāḥ al-Karāma, and Sayyid al-Burūjirdī point out the occurrence of this in another report of Zurāra in the same book:
I said to him: On how many does the Friday prayer become Wājib? He said: It becomes Wājib on seven individuals among the Muslims (who come together). There is no Friday prayer for less than five among the Muslims one of them being the Imam. So if seven gather and they do not fear (are not in Taqiyya) one of them leads them and gives the Khuṭba (address)
For the words beginning ‘so if seven gather …’ if not earlier at ‘There is no Friday prayer …’ are most probably the summation of al-Ṣadūq, representing his verdict based on an understanding of all the reports in this regard.
According to Shaykh al-Bahāʾī in his book al-Dirāya, this confusion has occurred in some reports of al-Tahdhīb as well, whereby Shaykh al-Ṭūsī mistakenly interpolates the words of Shaykh al-Mufīd in al-Muqniʿa into the report, seeing as though al-Tahdhīb is a commentary on that former work. This is in addition to instances where his own words (i.e. those of al-Ṭūsī) are later interpolated into the main body of the reports (by those who come after him).
For instance, consider the statement that appears after the Ṣaḥīḥ report of al-Ḥalabī in al-Tahdhīb as given below:
al-Ḥalabī from Abi Abdillah the like of that (i.e. the previous report). And he (i.e. al-Ḥalabī) added in it (quoting the Imam): If he makes a Waṣiyya (will) that a (certain) man should make the Ḥajj on his behalf then let that man make the Ḥajj.
And if he makes a Waṣiyya that the Ḥajj of Islam be made on his behalf while his wealth (that he left behind) is not enough for that then the Ḥajj should be made on his behalf (beginning) from one of the stations (i.e. that is closer to Mecca)
Now the authors of al-Madārik, al-Jawāhir and al-Mustamsak mistakenly presumed the bolded to be a continuation of the Ṣaḥīḥ report of of al-Ḥalabī when in fact they are the words of al-Ṭūsī without any doubt, since he says after them:
This was narrated by Mūsā b. al-Qāsim
And proceeds to give the report supporting his statement.