Whether a man called Abdallah b. Saba existed historically or not has become a fraught question in light of the latter’s relevance in polemics against the Shia. After all, it is this supposed former Jew from Yemen who stands accused of single handedly causing an irreparable schism among early Muslims by originating the heretical doctrine of Rafd.
It is not surprising in the face of this for modern Shias to have grabbed onto the revisionist theory – famously propounded by Allama Murtada Askari – denying the historical existence of Abdallah b. Saba. This conveniently allows them to neutralize the charge against them in one fell swoop and consign the heretic to a mere product of Sayf b. Umar’s fevered imagination.
However, the great weakness of this revisionist theory is that it does not take into account evidence for the existence of Abdallah b. Saba in Shi’i sources themselves. Statements reliably attributed to the Imams not only confirm his existence but shed more light onto his fate as will be shown in this article.
A Historical Personality
There are several reliable-in-chain narrations found in the Shia Hadith corpus – especially in an early and authoritative work containing information on the companions of the Imams called Rijal al-Kashshi – that attest to Abdallah b. Saba’s existence. Proponents who claim otherwise have not been able to explain these away, that is, if they are even aware of them
Abu Hamza al-Thumali quotes Imam al-Sajjad as saying:
May Allah curse the one who lies about us! I remembered Abdallah b. Saba – so all the hair-lets in my body stood up (in apprehension). He had claimed a grave matter. What is (wrong) with him?! May Allah curse him! Ali was – by Allah – a righteous slave of Allah …
Aban b. Uthman reports that he heard Imam al-Sadiq say:
May Allah curse Abdallah b. Saba! He claimed divinity for the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلامو, while the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام was – by Allah – an obedient slave of Allah …
Abdallah b. Sinan quotes Imam al-Sadiq as saying:
We are a household of truthful ones but do not lack a liar lying against us and eroding our truthfulness by his lies against us amongst the people … The Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام was the most truthful of men created by Allah after the Messenger of Allah, and the one who used to lie against him and work in negating his truthfulness and forging lies upon Allah was – Abdallah b. Saba …
In fact, past Imami scholars never rejected the existence of a man by the name of Abdallah b. Saba. Their response when faced with the ancient charge of ‘Abdallah b. Saba the former Jew as originator of Shiism’ was limited to distancing themselves from him and denying any link between his doctrine and theirs.
Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 460) has an entry on him in his Rijal work stating:
Abdallah b. Saba – the one who returned to disbelief and manifested Ghulu
This was the unanimous consensus of Shia scholars throughout the ages before the modern period.
Abdallah b. Saba’s Fate
We have reports that explicitly state that Imam Ali went on to burn Abdallah b. Saba after giving him a chance to repent for the crime outlined above.
Imam al-Baqir is quoted as saying:
Abdallah b. Saba used to claim prophethood and assert that the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام is God – Far Exalted is He from that.
That reached the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام so he called him and questioned him, whereupon he (i.e. Abdallah b. Saba) acknowledged that and said ‘Yes, you are Him, it used to be cast into my thought that you are God and I am a prophet’.
So the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام said: ‘Woe be upon you! The devil has mocked you, recant this (position) – may your mother be bereft of you – and repent!’
But he refused.
So he (i.e. Ali) imprisoned him and gave him a chance to repent for three days, but he (i.e. Abdallah b. Saba) did not repent, thereafter he burned him with fire and said: The devil beguiled him, he used to come to him and cast that in his thought
Hisham b. Salim reports that he heard Imam al-Sadiq say while ‘relating to his companions the affair of Abdallah b. Saba and his claim of the divinity of the Commander of the Faithful Ali b. Abi Talib’:
When he (i.e. Abdallah b. Saba) claimed that about him (i.e. Ali) – the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام gave him a chance to repent but he refused to repent so he burnt him with fire
Allamah Hilli (d. 726) accepts this when he states:
Abdallah b. Saba was an accursed Ghali. The Commander of the Faithful burnt him with fire. He used to assert that Ali was god and that he was a prophet
‘I kindle my fire and call for Qanbar’
Indeed this is not the only recorded instance of the Commander of the Faithful burning those who ascribed divinity to him.
Another incident is recounted by Sharik:
While Ali عليه السلام was at the place of a woman from the Anaza (i.e. a tribe) – and she was (called) Umm Amr – Qanbar came to him and said: There are ten persons by the door who claim that you are their Lord.
He (i.e. Ali) said: Let them in.
He (Sharik) said: So they entered upon him.
He said: What do you say?
They said: You are our Lord, you are the one who created us, and you are the one who provides us with sustenance.
He said to them: Woe be upon you! Do not do this. Indeed I am just a created one like you.
But they refused to desist.
He said to them: Woe be upon you! My Lord and your Lord is Allah. Woe be upon you! Repent and return!
They said: We will not return from our professed belief! You are our Lord who provides us with sustenance, and you have created us.
So he said: O Qanbar – get me some workers (i.e. labourers).
Qanbar came out and brought him ten men bearing sacks and shovels. He ordered them to dig for them in the ground. When they had dug a deep pit he ordered for some fire-wood (to be brought) and a fire (to be started), then he cast (i.e. the fire-wood) into it (i.e. the pit) until it became a fire kindled.
Then he said to them: Woe be upon you! Repent and return! But they refused and said: We will not return. So Ali عليه السلام tossed some of them (first), then he tossed the rest of them in the fire.
Then Ali عليه السلام said (i.e. a poetic line):
When I see something reprehensible * I kindle my fire and call for Qanbar
In other reports, the method described is perhaps more accurately described as suffocation by smoke.
Consider Hisham b. Salim’s report found in Kulayni’s al-Kafi which describes ‘a group’ who:
Came to the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام and said ‘Peace be upon you O our Lord’. So he gave them a chance to repent but they did not. Then he dug for them a pit and kindled in it a fire. He dug another pit to its side and connected the two. So when they refused to repent he cast them in a pit and kindled fire in the other pit until they died
Note that the men are not killed by burning directly as the fire is started in the ‘other pit’ which was not occupied by anyone. This method could perhaps be extended to all cases in our sources where Ali is described as ‘burning’ heretics, for ‘burning’ could be a shorthand used by some narrators and expanded upon by others.
A more detailed report in Rijal al-Kashshi speaks of ‘seventy men from the Zutt’ who are said to have declared Ali as their god to his face at which point he suffocates them.
Imam al-Baqir said: When Ali عليه السلام had finished fighting the people of Basra (in the Battle of the Camel), seventy men from the Zutt came to him, saluted him and spoke to him in their language. He replied to them using their own language and said to them: I am not as you say, I am a created slave of Allah.
But they refused to accept this from him and said: ‘You are (who) you are – Him’.
So he said to them: If you do not return from what you have said about me and repent to Allah the Exalted – I will kill you!
But they refused to recant and repent.
Thereupon he ordered that pits be dug for them, these were dug, then he pierced a hole in between them (connected the pits via a narrow passage), then he divided them into them (the pits), then he covered their openings (i.e. of the pits), then he kindled a fire in a pit among them in which there was no one, so the smoke entered upon them (through the connecting passage) and they all died
The seventy men say to Ali أنت أنت هو (‘You are You are Him’) and while this is an awkward construction in Arabic I contend that it is probably an echo of the Hebrew phrase in Exodus 3:14 ‘I am who I am’ by which God introduced himself to Moses at the burning bush. A similar phrasing ‘I am’ is attributed to Jesus in John 8:58 and used by some to argue that he was identifying himself as divine.
It is not clear if the ‘seventy men’ from this report are the same ‘group’ spoken of in the preceding report and whether both of these and the ‘ten persons’ from first report (in the section) were connected in any way to Abdallah b. Saba or not.
To Burn or not to Burn?
The echo of these incidents is found in Sunni sources who also know of Ali burning some heretics. We find, for instance, in Sahih al-Bukhari:
Ikrima (the Mawla of Ibn Abbas) said: Some Zanadiqa (heretics) were brought to Ali and he burned them.
This (i.e. news of it) was conveyed to Ibn Abbas so he said: If it were me I would not have burnt them because of the prohibition of the Messenger of Allah (against burning), rather I would have killed them (in some other way) because of the statement of the Messenger of Allah ‘whoever changes his religion then kill him’
The supposed prohibition of the prophet against burning goes back to a few reports such as the one of Abu Hurayra who narrates the following:
The Messenger of Allah sent us on an expedition and said ‘If you come across so-and-so and so-and-so then burn them with fire’. Then the Messenger of Allah said when we wanted to set out ‘I had ordered you to burn so-and-so and so-and-so, but the Fire no one punishes with it except Allah, so if you come across them then kill them (by other means)’
In some variants one find the catchier phrasing:
No one punishes with the Fire except the Lord of Fire
Most contemporary Shia scholars would deny the historical authenticity of Ikrima’s account and consider it to be a fabrication. How could Ibn Abbas know more of the prophetic Sunna than Ali who was with the prophet for longer? The case is further strengthened when we consider Ikrima’s religio-political affiliation and possible animus against Ali.
However, they would be acting rashly in dismissing the whole incident for it also appears in our sources as we have seen. A more eminent possibility, one that is backed up by the evidence as a whole, is that Ali did indeed burn the heretics, but this was because there was no prophetic prohibition against it!
This supposed prophetic prohibition against punishment by burning is not to be reliably found in our Shia Hadith corpus. In fact, punishment by burning is explicitly specified for some crimes such as sodomy by the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt. Something they would not do if the prophetic Sunna had prohibited it.
Malik b. Atiyya from Abi Abdillah عليه السلام who said: The Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام was in a group of his companions when a man came to him and said: O Commander of the Faithful, I entered upon (penetrated) a young lad so cleanse me. He (i.e. Ali) said to him: O you – return to your home, perhaps bile has stirred up in you (i.e. a sickness is making you say this).
So when it was the morrow he came to him again and said to him: O Commander of the Faithful, I entered upon a young lad so cleanse me. He (i.e. Ali) said to him O you – return to your home, perhaps bile has stirred up in you.
Until he did that thrice after his first time, so when it was the fourth time (confessing) – he (i.e. Ali) said to him: O you – the Messenger of Allah ruled for one like you three rulings, so choose whichever of them you want.
He said: What are they O Commander of the Faithful?
He said: A strike with the sword on your neck (reaching) as far as it can (reach) (i.e. hardest blow possible with the intention to kill), or being cast down from a mountain-top with your hands and legs bound together, or being burnt by fire.
He said: Which one is the most severe on me O Commander of the Faithful?
He said: Being burnt by fire.
He said: Then I choose that O Commander of the Faithful.
He (i.e. Ali) said: Make for that your preparation.
He said: Yes.
So he rose, prayed two units, then he sat in his Tashshahud and said: O Allah – I have done of sin what you know of, and I have become fearful because of that, so I came to the successor of your messenger and the cousin of your prophet and asked him to cleanse me, so he gave me to choose between three kinds of punishment, O Allah – verily I have chosen the most severe of them, O Allah – I ask you that you make that an expiation for my sins, and that you do not burn me with your fire in my hereafter
Then he stood up whilst crying until he sat in the pit that had been dug for him by the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام, and he could see the fire inflaming around him.
He (Abi Abdillah) said: So the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام began crying, and all his companions cried as well.
The Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام said to him: Arise O you, for you have made the angels of Heaven and the angels of Earth cry, Allah has forgiven you, so stand and do not repeat any of what you had done before
It is on the basis of this report that all our jurists are unanimous that one of the punishments that can be given to the sodomizer is death by burning.
Consider the Fatwa of Sayyid al-Khoei cited below as a representative example:
Issue No. 188
The Imam chooses between killing the married sodomizer … by striking him with a sword …, or burning him in the fire, or rolling him down, with his hands and legs bound, from a mountain-top or the like …
As for the sodomized then the Imam can choose between stoning him, and the three options aforementioned, and there is no difference between him being married or unmarried
At the same time, we infer from the report that if someone confesses and then repents the Imam is free to enact the Hadd or to let him go.
Issue No. 186
If the sodomizer repents before the testimony against him is established then the famous position is that the Hadd is dropped for him; and if he repents after that (testimony against him is established) then it is not dropped without any doubt; and if he confesses to it and there is no testimony, the Imam can choose between pardoning him or enacting it
So if punishment by burning has been prescribed and legally sanctioned for both the married sodomizer and the sodomized, then there should be no objection for it to have been applied to Murtads (apostates) who leave the religion after having entered it by committing clear-cut Kufr as was the case with Abdallah b. Saba and the others.
‘The Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated’
Despite the evidences presented above, we find in some sources the notion that Abdallah b. Saba was not killed in the life-time of the Commander of the Faithful.
Consider the earliest heresiographical work in our possession, attributed to the early Shia author al-Hasan b. Musa al-Nawbakhti (d. ca. 300-310), and in which we find the following:
When Ali was killed, the group that had remained firm on his Imama (i.e. in his lifetime) and considered it to be an obligation from Allah Mighty and Majestic and His Messenger – splintered and became three different sects.
A sect among these asserted that Ali was not killed nor did he die … and this sect is called the Saba’iyya, followers of Abdallah b. Saba, and he (i.e. Abdallah b. Saba) was one (of those) who publicly denounced Abi Bakr, Umar, Uthman, the companions, and disavowed them. He stated that it is Ali عليه السلام who ordered him to do that.
Ali seized him and questioned him about this saying of his. He (Ibn Saba) acknowledged (doing) it. Thereupon he (Ali) ordered that he be killed.
The people cried out to him ‘O Commander of the Faithful will you kill a man who calls to love of you (pl.) the Ahl al-Bayt, submission to your (sing.) authority and disassociation from your (sing.) enemies!’ so he exiled him to Madain (instead) …
And when the news of the death of Ali was conveyed to Abdallah b. Saba in Madain he said to the one who had informed him of it ‘You have lied! If you had come to us with his brains (split from the blow on his head) in seventy bags, and if you brought forth seventy upright witnesses to testify to his killing we would still hold that he has not been killed nor will he die till he reigns over the earth!’
This account is explicit in that Abdallah b. Saba was exiled to Madain (not executed by Ali) and left free to continue his activities there. It is here where Abdallah b. Saba later went on to reject Ali’s death, claiming that Ali was the promised Redeemer who ‘will not die before reigning over the Earth’.
Was Abdallah b. Saba burnt in the lifetime of Ali or exiled?
Both cannot be true.
The first thing to note is that Nawbakhti does not give us the source for his account (it is wholly chainless), while the reports that confirm Abdallah b. Saba’s execution in the lifetime of Ali are direct quotations from the Imams which have come down to us with reliable chains.
Secondly, analyzing the Matn calls into question whether Nawbakhti takes the account from a Shia source in the first place. The crime of Abdallah b. Saba that leads to Ali arresting him and interrogating him is not his ascription of divinity to Ali but rather Ta’n (cursing) and Bara’a (disassociation) from Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and the companions!
But isn’t this what the true followers of Ali did anyway?
This may be a great crime on the part of those who hold a Sunni-Jamai conception of the early Sahaba, but the only crime on the part of Abdallah b. Saba in all this from a Shi’i perspective is ‘letting the cat out of the bag’ by revealing what Ali really felt about the First Three.
And would this crime of contravening Taqiyya be worthy of the execution that Ali wanted to impose?!
Indeed we are told that it is the companions of Ali who could see more clearly the injustice of executing someone who is at the end of the day only ‘a man who calls to love of you the Ahl al-Bayt, submission to your authority and disassociation from your enemies!’ leading Ali to relent.
Nawbakhti’s source seems to be embracing a harmonious view of Ali’s relation with the Sahaba, portraying him as exhibiting extreme zeal for defending their honour, while at the same depicting him as a hapless judge who requires his companions to lead him by the hand to a more fitting verdict.
The smoking gun which confirms our suspicion that this account originated in a proto-Sunni milieu is finding a very close parallel to it in the Khabar reproduced below:
Mughira from Umm Musa (the concubine of Ali) – she said: It reached Ali that Ibn Saba was considering him superior over Abi Bakr and Umar, so Ali desired to kill him, but it was said to him ‘Will you kill a man who only exalts you and gives you preference?!’ So he (i.e. Ali) said: There is no way – he will not reside with me in a land I am in.
Abdallah b. Khubayq said: I reported this to al-Haytham b. Jamil – he said: He (Abdallah b. Saba) was exiled to a land near al-Mada’in until the Hour
The similarity with Nawbakhti’s source’s account is striking in so far as both depict Abdallah b. Saba’s crime as exaggerating the status of Ali or demeaning the status of the other companions. Ali wishes to kill him for that. Someone intervenes pleading that this is an extreme over-reaction. Ali decides to exile him to Madain instead.
But what seals the deal is that the Mughira in the chain is Mughira b. Miqsam al-Dhabbi, a narrator greatly praised in Sunni biographical sources and whose reports can be found in all their canonical collections of Hadith.
It is only al-Ijli (d. 261) who provides a clue for wherein lies the problem when he says:
Kufan … An Uthmani … he used to attack Ali with some attacks
And who is that other infamous Kufan contemporary of Mughira who is also described as an Uthmani with a proclivity for inventing falsities about Ali?
Sayf b. Umar.
While there is no doubt that the early historian Sayf b. Umar – whose propensity for inventing fabulist stories is well documented in modern research and who is already accused of fabricating reports in traditional biographical works – must have played a part in embellishing the legend around the figure called Abadallah b. Saba, with the aim of using him as a convenient scape-goat to explain away difficult episodes in early Muslim history, for example, the reason why major companions fought against each other, this does not in of itself necessarily mean that Abdallah b. Saba was not a real historical personality as has become popular amongst contemporary Shia masses.