Why did disputes occur after the death of some of the Imams such that the main-body of Imami Shi’is splintered into groups – with each group backing a different candidate as Imam?
How can we reconcile between this undeniable historical phenomenon with the presence of Nass reports (in which the Imam names his successor) as found in the Shia Hadith corpus today?
The solution is simple. The identity of the Imam next-in-line was not public knowledge even among the Ashab, what to say of the common Shia masses, let alone the non-Shia general public.
We make a fundamental error when we look at history from our own vantage point after all the disputes have died out and the winner selected. We read the reports as we find them now, the finished article, neatly arranged as they are in successive chapters supporting the Nass of each Imam, and wonder why our predecessors were confused at all.
What we need to do instead is put ourselves in the shoes of those who were living in those times, when the back-drop of Taqiyya was writ large on the canvas, and recognize that the reports we are reading now were at one time privileged information, a secret Nass in the safe-keep of a few companions so that flame of truth does not die out, as far as the majority were concerned, the succession was not a foreclosed matter, but to be decided by general principles as applied by fallible individuals.
A Genuine Instance of Taqiyya
It is often forgotten (because of the modern situation we find ourselves in) that the very existence of an ‘Imam’ (in the way we understand it) was a tightly-kept secret limited to the Shias already in the know. This secret was only to be shared with non-Shias who showed signs of openness to such guidance.
In other words, the Imams were presenting themselves as mere ‘scholars’ in public, and attempting to keep the existence of a community which pledged absolute allegiance to them as the sole divinely-appointed authorities on Earth and which rejected the temporal rulers as illegitimate pretenders (a clear instance of rebellion if there ever was one) – a secret.
Even when the existence of such a community started coming to light, the Imams always had the option of washing their hands off of them and denying that they are the ones who asked the community to see then in such light.
But the authorities had their suspicions, and were keeping an ever-closer watch, and with this context in mind, what could have been more self-defeating than clarifying the succession in advance. So sensitive was this information that the Imams could not risk to publicize the identity of the next-in-line even among their own Ashab. For this was just the piece of information the authorities were on the look-out for to finally reveal the grand conspiracy in all its glory.
This explains why it is only very few companions were given such a privileged information as Nass i.e. the exact specific name, while most had to get-do with general principles to identify the Imam.
The General Principles
The general principles are found in a chapter Kulayni appropriately entitled ما يجب على الناس عند مضي الامام ‘What is incumbent on the people when the Imam passes away’ and in which he includes three critical reports.
All three reports imply that the successor (next Imam) is not known i.e. his identity has not been publicized.
The First Report
In the first report, a companion called Ya’qub b. Shuayb asks Imam al-Sadiq ‘what the people should do’ if an Imam dies.
The Imam responds that a search-party or delegation has to set out to seek the identity of the Imam (citing Q. 9:23) and continues:
هم في عذر ما داموا في الطلب وهؤلاء الذين ينتظرونهم في عذر، حتى يرجع إليهم أصحابهم
They (the delegation that has gone out to seek) are excused as long as they are in the process of searching, and these who are waiting for them are also excused until their associates (the delegation) returns back to them (with the answer)
This means that there is a period of time where someone remains a believer despite not knowing the exact identity of the Imam so long as he is on the search or waiting for the return.
Ya’qub b. Shuayb does not ask the natural question – How will the delegation identify the Imam when they get to Medina?
The Second Report
In the second, a companion called Abd al-A’la asks Imam al-Sadiq whether it is excusable for Shias living far-away (in Khurasan) not to know the identity of the new Imam once the previous one has died.
The Imam says that they are not excused, rather, they must send a delegation from that far-away land to the town where the former Imam was living so as to find-out the identity of the new Imam once the news of the death of their former Imam reaches them.
Abd al-A’la asks how it will be if the delegation reaches the Imam’s home-town and finds the new Imam has ‘closed his door’ and ‘pulled the curtain around himself’, the Imam ‘does not call them to himself’ (i.e. announce his Imama publicly) nor is there ‘anyone who can point them to him’.
Al-Sadiq responds that an Imam is known from three things:
(a) He is the foremost of people in relation to the one who precedes him (i.e. the male son of the former Imam)
(b) He is the former Imam’s Wasi (legatee)
(c) With him are the Weapons and the Testament of the Messenger of Allah
Abd al-A’la ignores (a), likely because it is still general (the Imam can have more than one male son), and asks what if ‘that (i.e. the Weapons and the Testament) is hidden in fear of the Sultan (i.e. authorities)’, in other words, the Imam can’t go about brandishing his regalia which prove his Imama to all and sundry.
The Imam states:
لا يكون في ستر إلا وله حجة ظاهرة
He is not in Sitr (seclusion) except that he has a manifest Hujja (proof)
This manifest proof goes back to (b).
al-Sadiq cites the precedent of how his own father when he was about to die called four prominent residents of Medina who were non-Shi’i (including Nafi the Mawla of Ibn Umar) and dictated his Will to his son Ja’far in their presence, thereby identifying him as his Wasi.
Al-Sadiq reports that when the witnesses had departed, he asked his father why he did this, and al-Baqir replied:
إني كرهت أن تغلب وأن يقال: إنه لم يوص، فأردت أن تكون لك حجة فهو الذي إذا قدم الرجل البلد قال: من وصي فلان، قيل فلان
I did not want you to be vanquished (by other pretenders), and that it be said ‘so-and-so did not will’, so I wanted it to be a Hujja (proof) for you (i.e. in support of you) – and that (i.e. the Hujja) is when someone comes to a town and inquires ‘who is the Wasi of so-and-so’ it is said ‘so-and-so’
Al-Baqir purposely calls four non-Shi’is because he wants this to become public information.
In other words, when a tired delegation of Shias reaches Medina they could ask any of its inhabitants ‘Who is the Wasi of Muhammad b. Ali?’, the non-Shia respondent would take this innocuous question as pertaining to the identity of the Legatee named in al-Baqir’s Will, a non-controversial practice which every Muslim is recommended to abide by, he will respond ‘Ja’far b. Muhammad’ and promptly forget the whole business, but to the Shi’i who knows the true significance of these few words (and to the community waiting back home) – it is the difference between salvation and damnation.
Is this a full proof solution? Have all possible eventualities been taken care of?
Fortunately for us, Abd al-A’la was not your average narrator, at one point in the conversation the Imam asks him:
أراك قد تكلمت في هذا قبل اليوم
I see that you have debated this issue before today
To which Abd al-A’la simply responds ‘yes’, and it shows, because he wants to eliminate all possibilities and narrow it down further, and the Imam lets him, for the Imam always answers according to someone’s abilities, if you prod him more (but you have phrase it in the right way) you get more.
Abd al-A’la asks:
فإن أشرك في الوصية؟
What if he (i.e. the Imam) wills to more than one?
The Imam says in the final statement of the report:
تسألونه فإنه سيبين لكم
You question him (the candidate) – for it will become clear for you
Why do we question you may ask? And how does it become clear?
We shall see.
The Third Report
In the third report, Muhammad b. Muslim – and who was like Muhammad b. Muslim among the companions – pleads with Imam al-Sadiq that news of the Imam’s illness had reached them and they were worried at this, so if only the Imam
فلو أعلمتنا أو علمتنا من؟
Could inform us ‘who?’
As in, who ‘is it going to be after you’
The Imam does not give a specific name, not even to Muhammad b. Muslim, and the latter knows enough not to push!
The Imam opts instead to state the following truism:
إن عليا عليه السلام كان عالما والعلم يتوارث، فلا يهلك عالم إلا بقي من بعده من يعلم مثل علمه أو ما شاء الله
Ali was an Alim (scholar i.e. Imam), and the Ilm (sacred knowledge) is inherited (from father to son), so an Alim does not perish except there remains after him one who knows like his (his predecessor’s) knowledge, or whatever Allah wills …
Muhammad b. Muslim asks if it is excusable for the people not to know the new Alim when the former one dies?
The Imam replies with an answer which is totally consistent with what Ya’qub and Abd al-A’la had been told.
أما أهل هذه البلدة فلا – يعني المدينة – وأما غيرها من البلدان فبقدر مسيرهم
As for the people of this town – that is Medina – then No. As for the towns other than it then depending on the distance of the journey (to it).
In other words, they have to send delegations to find out and are excused in the interim.
Muhammad b. Muslim asks how they will come to know their ‘man’ when they make it to Medina.
The Imam answers:
يعطى السكينة والوقار والهيبة
He (i.e. the true Imam) is given tranquility, dignity, and awe
In other words, this is the effect that the Imam can produce in others.
How does this work in practice?
We shall see.
The Situation after al-Sadiq’s Death
It is said that after the death of Imam al-Sadiq ‘the generality of the Mashayikh (elders) of the Isaba (sect) and its Fuqaha (scholars)’ inclined to the Imama of his son Abdallah al-Aftah, these were called the Fathiyya.
One may ask, did not al-Sadiq leave a Will which would be a manifest Hujja in support of his successor as his own father al-Baqir had done for him?
Yes he did. But there was a snag. You see the authorities had got wind of what the game was and were waiting to know whom al-Sadiq would identify in his Will.
Abi Ayyub al-Nahwi reports how Abu Ja’far al-Mansur (the Abbasid Caliph) once sent for him in the middle of the night. Abi Ayyub answers the summons and finds the Caliph seated on his Chair with a candle in front of him reading a letter in his hand. After Abi Ayyub salutes him the Caliph throws the letter at him whilst crying saying:
هذا كتاب محمد بن سليمان يخبرنا أن جعفر بن محمد قد مات، فإنا لله وإنا إليه راجعون – ثلاثا – وأين مثل جعفر؟
This is the letter of Muhammad b. Sulayman (i.e. the governor of Medina) informing us that Ja’far b. Muhammad has died – verily we belong to God and to him we return (repeating it three times) – who is like Ja’far?
Then the Caliph dictates to Abi Ayyub the following letter to his governor in Medina
إن كان أوصى إلى رجل واحد بعينه فقدمه واضرب عنقه
If he has willed to one man in specific then bring him out and cut off his neck!
Acknowledging the status of Ja’far does not mean the Caliph would hesitate to do the dirty business!
The reply comes back:
أنه قد أوصى إلى خمسة واحدهم أبو جعفر المنصور ومحمد بن سليمان وعبد الله وموسى وحميدة
He has willed to five, one of them is Abu Ja’far al-Mansur (the Caliph himself!), Muhammad b. Sulayman (the governor!), Abdallah, Musa and Hamida (al-Sadiq’s wife)
In a variant, the Imam wills to ‘Abi Ja’far al-Mansur, Abdallah, Musa, Muhammad b. Ja’far, and a Mawla of Abi Abdillah’
At this point the Caliph has no option but to declare:
ليس إلى قتل هؤلاء سبيل
There is no way to kill all these
By mentioning multiple individuals in his Will the Imam had side-stepped a massive trap of that tyrant!
But this meant that even that trusted mechanism of looking at the one the Imam names in his public Will (with the Amma considering it an innocuous appointment, and the Shia understanding its true significance) could not decide the matter decisively.
Now Imam al-Sadiq had not publicized his true successor (i.e. al-Kadhim) to the Taifa (sect) apart from imparting this privileged information to a few trusted confidants who knew not to divulge this except when instructed.
These few men to whom the Nass was given had no doubts about the identity of their Imam and would come forward when called upon to provide testimony. They were a guarantee that the whole Taifa would not become misguided and the truth would eventually ‘come to light’ once the ‘storm had passed’.
But the majority of the Ashab (and the masses of the Shia who would go where the influential Ashab would go) who had not been given a name found themselves caught in the ‘eye of the storm’ and had no option but to resort to the general principles given to them to identify their Imam.
So why did a majority of the Ashab coalesce around Abdallah?
I quote directly from Hisham b. Salim who was a contemporary of the incident:
كنا بالمدينة بعد وفات أبي عبد الله عليه السلام أنا وصاحب الطاق والناس مجتمعون على عبد الله بن جعفر انه صاحب الامر بعد أبيه، فدخلنا عليه أنا وصاحب الطاق والناس عنده وذلك أنهم رووا عن أبي عبد الله عليه السلام أنه قال: إن الامر في الكبير ما لم تكن به عاهة
We were in Medina after the death of Abi Abdillah, me and Sahib al-Taq, and the people were united upon Abdallah b. Ja’far that he is the Master of the Affair after his father.
So we entered upon him (i.e. Abdallah), me and Sahib al-Taq, and the people were around him, and that is because they narrated from Abi Abdillah that ‘The Affair is in the elder provided there is no flaw in him’
This report gives us the sole basis for their acceptance of Abdallah. It was definitely not because one of them had heard al-Sadiq naming Abdallah as his successor or because they were aware of any Nass (report of appointment) identifying him as the Imam (even the Will was indecisive), rather, their only justification was a resort to a general principle (which I call the seniority principle) i.e. Abdallah was elder to Musa
But anyone who studies the statement of al-Sadiq (from which this principle is derived) realizes that it is not absolute, rather the Imam has made it conditional in so far as the elder has to be free of flaw.
What ‘flaw’ is the Imam talking about?
This is where we need to turn to the final exchange in Abd al-A’la’s report in which the Imam had given us one last card to play – one has to ‘question him’ (i.e. the pretender) when all else fails
Putting these two reports together means we end up with the following: We ‘question’ to test out the ‘elder’ candidate so as to be sure there is no ‘flaw’.
See how neatly words of the Imam fit together like hand in glove.
Thus I propose that the Ashab had only coalesced around Abdallah because he was the ‘elder of the two’ and had made a declaration of some sort in regards his Imama (seated himself in his father’s seat) while his younger brother was in Sitr (seclusion) because of the heightened state of fear such that he could not dispute with his brother openly and call the people to himself
But the initial commitment to Abdallah on the part of the Ashab was not absolute. It was a temporary measure that was based on a general principle which had the potential turn out to be permanent if no flaw was revealed. In other words, since there is no publicly known Nass for Abdallah, there was always a possibility of his ‘flaw’ becoming revealed in the face of ‘questioning’, and some of the Ashab knew just what they had to do.
And this is exactly what happened. Abdallah was tripped up by simplest of questions in the Halal and Haram which he could not answer.
How Hisham Came to Know His Imam
It had all begun so well for Abdallah, before those two men entered upon him to ask him that pesky question, that is.
When Hisham b. Salim and Sahib al-Taq enter upon Abdallah and ask him at what amount Zakat becomes Wajib, he correctly answers that for 200 Dirhams you give 5.
But this was only a setup and there followed a trick question.
What about for 100 Dirhams?
Abdallah answers 21/2 Dirhams.
But not even the the Murjia (who were famous for giving ‘human reason’ a greater role in the Law) say this – Hisham and Sahib al-Taq exclaim in unison!
Abdallah tries to salvage the situation by claiming not to know what the Murjia say, but this only makes it worse, since the Imam should be aware of the positions of all the different groups out there.
In fact, there was no Zakat below 200 Dirhams, and for a supposed Imam to go against the Established Sunnah and the teachings of the Sadiqayn on the Nisab based on human reasoning (if it is 5 for 200 then it must be 2.5 for 100) caused an immediate red-flag to be raised against Abdallah and re-opened the question of who the Imam is.
Abdallah had been found out! Things would never be the same for him and he knew it.
He would later get back at Hisham by stationing a few thugs in the streets of Medina to beat him up.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. That comes later in the story.
Hisham reports that when they left Abdallah’s house he and Sahib al-Taq were in a state of utter disappointment and confusion.
It as this juncture that he saw an old man gesturing at him to follow him.
Hisham describes his thought-process:
فخفت أن يكون عينا من عيون أبي جعفر المنصور وذلك أنه كان له بالمدينة جواسيس ينظرون إلى من اتفقت شيعة جعفر عليه السلام عليه فيضربون عنقه
I feared that he (i.e. the old man) would turn out to be a spy from among the spies of Abi Ja’far al-Mansur (i.e. the Abbasid Caliph). That is because he (i.e. the Caliph) had many spies in Medina trying to find out around whom do the Shia of Ja’far coalesce so that they can strike off his neck (i.e. kill him).
Hisham follows the old man, seeing no other option, and asks Sahib al-Taq to flee since he was not being called.
It turns out that the old man had in fact been sent by al-Kadhim.
When Hisham goes in to see al-Kadhim, a man he had not accepted as Imam yet, there is a subtle dance of words that goes on between them, a deeper analysis of which I leave for another occasion. But in the middle of this conversation in which Hisham is trying to get al-Kadhim to admit that he is claiming the Imama, he (i.e. Hisham) realizes that he has not been getting the wording of his questions right (they were too blunt), after the former repeated failed attempts he now reframes it as follows:
جعلت فداك عليك امام؟
May I be made your ransom – is there an Imam over you?
The Imam replies with only one fateful word
This turns out to be key that opens a hitherto locked door, and in that singular moment of recognition – the world changes and rearranges itself for Hisham.
He says in his own words:
فدخلني شئ لا يعلمه الا الله اعظاما له وهيبة أكثر ما كان يحل بي من أبيه إذا دخلت عليه
There entered into me something that none knows except Allah in terms of a reverence for him and an awe, more than what used to come upon me (inhere in me) in the presence of his father (al-Sadiq) when I used to enter upon him
Hisham has no words to describe this experience and where could he find them?
Hayba (which I render as ‘awe’) may be better translated in this context as that which give rise to goose-bumps and even a “shudder”. Or else we might call it the “mysterium tremens” – that which causes you to tremble when awed by the divine unfathomable at the exact moment when a previous mystery becomes manifestly clear.
Isn’t this what Muhammad b. Muslim was told would happen when you are in the presence of the true Imam as a way to recognize ‘your man’?
Hisham must have been aware of this principle, and he immediately proceeds to another principle so that his heart can attain rest.
Hisham requests the Imam:
أسألك عما كنت أسأل أباك؟
Can I ask you about that which I used to ask your father about?
سل تخبر ولا تذع، فان أذعت فهو الذبح
Ask, you will be informed (of the answer) but do not misplace (give the answer to the wrong people), for if you misplace then it will be slaughter!
Hisham states that he:
فسألته فإذا هو بحر
Asked him (i.e. the Imam) (all sorts of questions) and found him to be an ocean (that cannot be exhausted)!
Isn’t ‘questioning him’ what Abd al-A’la was told would make it ‘become clear for you’?
Disappointment turns to delight and confusion to clarity for Hisham had his man!
It will be Slaughter!
Hisham’s main concern immediately shifts to the guidance of the flock who have not been able to identify their shepherd.
شيعتك وشيعة أبيك ضلال فألقي إليهم وأدعوهم إليك فقد أخذت علي بالكتمان
Your Shia and the Shia of your father are upon misguidance! Do I present it to them and invite them to you (i.e. your Imam) for you have imposed secrecy on me?
The Imam responds:
من آنست منه رشدا فالق إليه وخذ عليه الكتمان فإن أذاعوا فهو الذبح – وأشار بيده إلى حلقه
If you detect in someone the signs of intellectual maturity then convey to him (the truth), but take an oath of secrecy from him first, for if they divulge it then it will be slaughter – and he pointed with his hand to his throat
From the fact that al-Kadhim does not throw out those who come to him (already in the life-time of Abdallah) and allows Hisham to proceed with a clandestine call we learn that while he could not challenge his brother in public, he was not letting Abdallah’s claims go totally unanswered. His major concern was for strict confidentiality to be maintained, since if the succession dispute becomes public it would have adverse consequences for himself and the Shia.
What was the result of this clandestine call?
فخرجت من عنده فلقيت أبا جعفر
I came out from his place (i.e. the Imam’s presence) and met Aba Ja’far (Sahib al-Taq).
The latter asks Hisham ‘what is behind you?’ – as in, what had transpired after they had separated since Hisham wanted to follow the old man by himself and not risk Sahib al-Taq if he turned out to be a spy.
Hisham responds with one word:
Then the duo (Hisham and Sahib al-Taq)
ثم لقينا الفضيل وأبا بصير فدخلا عليه وسمعا كلامه وساءلاه وقطعا عليه بالإمامة
Met al-Fudhayl (sic. Mufadhal) and Aba Basir, so they both entered upon him (i.e. al-Kadhim) and heard his speech and asked him questions and became certain of his Imama.
ثم لقينا الناس أفواجا فكل من دخل عليه قطع إلا طائفة عمار وأصحابه وبقي عبد الله لا يدخل إليه إلا قليل من الناس
We began meeting the people in groups, so whoever enters upon him (i.e. al-Kadhim) believes in him, except the faction of Ammar (al-Sabati) and his group, and Abdallah remained by himself, no one would enter upon him except very few among the people
See how the general principle of the Imam were just as effective as Nass such that the truth was found out and the bogus fallible Ijma of the Ashab vanished into thin air already in the life-time of Abdallah!
Of course, there were still those who did not know he had been found out and remained upon their belief, but this also soon changed when he went to die seventy days later and they also re-assessed their position except for the Shudhadh (extreme minority) that Kashshi speaks of.
In fact, the public claim of Abdallah followed by his untimely death was a blessing in disguise since it acted as a decoy which caused the authorities to concentrate on him in the aftermath of the death of al-Sadiq while the true candidate (i.e. al-Kadhim) remained in seclusion. The latter would later emerge when the ‘coast was clear’ after those few intense months when the surveillance was at its peak to find a flock that already recognized him.
I hope to have demonstrated how disputes in the aftermath of the death of an Imam can be best explained in the context of Taqiyya which meant the Nass had to be kept secret in the hands of the few with the majority having to resort to fallible judgment in the application general principles.
There must be a reason why it is only the Twelvers who withstood the test of time with other splinter groups dying a natural death. The Twelvers can boast of coalescing around the correct candidate each time and there is no need to re-fight old succession battles anew. Who can match those 12 pure personalities after all?
In a future part II we are going to deal with the claim that, in fact, instead of the analysis given above, all these different sects (those who believed Ismail was appointed an Imam, Musa was the Qaim etc.) were actually created by the Imams as a smoke-screen mechanism to confuse the authorities and hide the truth i.e. the Imams were creating sects in Taqiyya by issuing false Nass and were raising the morale of their followers by making false-predictions.
We will see that this claim is not new as it seems but actually goes back to one very early writer contemporary to Kulayni …