I am often asked the question: How could the Rijālī authors like Ṭūsī and Najāshī pronounce verdicts on men who came much earlier than them – separated as they are by a chasm of a century or two?
The answer lies in how we can speak of men who lived in the past in the first place i.e. what makes the ‘genre’ of historical biography possible.
After all, men are not solitary islands, they interact both with their contemporaries and the environment around them. Do not men leave works that continue being read after them? Indeed, we even come across their very flesh and blood, off-spring who are intimately aware of family lore and can hopefully keep their legacy alive. Are men easily forgotten by the collective memory of their communities? Indeed, we find anecdotes about them surviving long after their death.
This is especially the case when we speak of a rarified professional guild like that of Shīʿa Hadith narrators, which was limited to a small circle, in many cases relations by blood, composed of figures who formed teacher-student relationships: met each other, lived together for long-periods of time, and endlessly discussed matters both professional and mundane in sessions that continued day after day.
The written record of those sessions – the Hadith available to us – are not the only artefact of their interactions, for it can hardly be countenanced that they did not also generate in these sessions a ‘meta-narrative’ about how they saw themselves and the different big-names in their field whom they knew both by acquaintance and reputation. This last is what came to be codified in the works of Rijāl available to us today.
The Case of al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl (Ibn Faḍḍāl Sr.)
al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl is a prolific narrator in the Shīʿa Hadith corpus. He occurs by this name some 297 times in the Four Books
This is how al-Ṭūsī describes him under his entry in the Fihrist:
He was a Faṭḥī who used to believe in the Imāma of ʿAbdallāh b. Jaʿfar (before al-Kāẓim), then he reverted to the Imāma of Abī al-Ḥasan (al-Kāẓim) (without interruption) on his death-bed.
He died in the year 224.
He was the descendant of al-Taymulī b. Rabīʿa b. Bakr the Mawlā of Taym-Allāh b. Thaʿlaba
He reported from al-Riḍā and was especially close to him.
He was held in high esteem and possessed a lofty status.
He was a renunciant (avoiding the world) and known for piety.
He was Thiqa (trustworthy) in Hadith and in his transmissions.
He authored a number of books. Among them: Kitāb al-Ṣalāt and Kitāb al-Diyyāt.
Ibn al-Nadīm added Kitāb al-Tafsīr, Kitāb al-Ibtidāʾ wa l-Mubtadāʾ and Kitāb al-Ṭibb.
Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. al-Walīd mentioned Kitāb al-Bishārāt and Kitāb al-Radd ʿalā al-Ghāliya
How could Ṭūsī have known all this about someone who died approximately two centuries before him (Ṭūsī dies in 460)?
The answer is that Ṭūsī constructs the main pillars of this entry based on information that has reached him from earlier-sources and even eye-witness reports from contemporaries as I attempt to demonstrate below.
To Meet a Living Legend
How does Ṭūsī know that Ibn Faḍḍāl was ‘a renunciant (avoiding the world) and known for piety’?
Ṭūsī possesses an eye-witness report from al-Faḍl b. Shādhān giving us a window into this aspect of Ibn Faḍḍāl’s personality.
Faḍl b. Shādhān (d. 260) is not someone who needs introduction for anyone who has even the slight acquaintance with Shiism. Apart from going on to become the most prominent Shīʿī theologian of his time he was also a prolific narrator in his own right, someone whose name keeps cropping up again and again for anyone reading the chains of al-Kāfī for example.
In the report in question, Faḍl vividly describes how al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl came into his life as follows:
I was in the district of al-Rabīʿ in the Masjid al-Zaytūna learning the Qur’an from a Muqriʾ (Qur’an teacher) called Ismāʿīl b. ʿAbbād.
One day I saw a group in the Masjid conversing among themselves. One of them said ‘In the mountain there is a man who is called Ibn Faḍḍāl. He is the greatest worshipper I have ever seen or heard of. He ventures out into the desolate desert and prostrates a long prostration such that a bird comes and lands on him (i.e. his back). Anyone would consider him (Ibn Faḍḍāl prostrating) to be a piece of cloth or a rag (because of how stationary he is). A wild beast hunts for food near him and does not flee from him because of having gotten used to him. A marauding band of robbers happens to come across him on their way to raid or attack a caravan but when they glimpse his figure they scatter all over the land, going where they cannot see him, nor he them!’
Faḍl, who was only a child at this point (evident from the fact that he is still learning the Qur’an), comments:
I thought that this man must have been in ancient times
Faḍl must have forgotten about this – when – as he relates:
Not long after, and while I was seated in the district of al-Rabīʿ with my father – may Allah have mercy on him – a Shaykh (old man) with a pleasant face and goodly bearing, wearing a Narsī long-shirt and outer-cloak, and sandals which are narrow-in-the-middle upon his legs, came and greeted my father. My father stood up for him, welcomed him and treated him with honour.
When he (the Shaykh) walked away seeking Ibn Abī ʿUmayr – I said (i.e. to my father): ‘Who is this old man?’ He said ‘al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl’ I said to him ‘this is that meritorious worshipper?!’ He said ‘that’s him’ I said ‘that’s not him!’ He said ‘that’s him’ I said ‘Isn’t that one on the mountain?’ He said ‘that’s him, he used to be on the mountain’, I said ‘that can’t be him!’ He said ‘How foolish you are for a lad!’
So I reported to him what I had heard about him from that group (i.e. conversing in the Masjid) and he said ‘that’s him’.
Then he (al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl) used to come often to my father.
Faḍl would have the opportunity to get to know Ibn Faḍḍāl better in time – as he reports himself:
Later I set out to him (i.e. Ibn Faḍḍāl) in Kufa (in pursuit of Hadith), so I heard from him the book of Ibn Bukayr and others apart from that among the books of Hadith.
He used to carry his book (the master-copy) and come to my room so as to read it out (the Hadith) to me
This was strange behavior from Ibn Faḍḍāl, since the etiquette of Hadith study dictated that it is the student who goes to the teacher, indeed, a teacher was held in utmost veneration and a lowly youth beginning his study would have been expected to be the wholly subservient one in this relation.
Faḍl can perhaps be forgiven for harbouring a suspicion that Ibn Faḍḍāl was doing this because of his family’s position. His father Shādhān b. Khalīl was a Khurasānī notable and perhaps Ibn Faḍḍāl was seeking to ingratiate himself to the family, but he got to know the truth – as he relates:
When the son-in-law of Ṭāhir b. al-Ḥusayn made the Ḥajj – and the masses considered him great because of the esteem, status, and position he had in relation to the Sultān (i.e. his father-in-law) – al-Ḥasan did not go to meet him even though he (i.e. al-Ḥasan) had been described to him (i.e. the son-in-law).
So he (i.e. the son-in-law) sent to him ‘I would like you to come to see me for it is not possible for me to come to see you’ but al-Ḥasan refused.
Our companions talked to him about that (i.e. trying to persuade him to go), but he said ‘What do I have to do with Ṭāhir and the family of Ṭāhir! I do not draw them near, there isn’t between me and them any common work or purpose’
It is only after this happened that I realized that his coming to me while I was merely a youth and he was a Shaykh was not except with the best of intentions
I say: The secret that explains this strange behaviour of Ibn Faḍḍāl is that he had glimpsed something in Faḍl which made him want to make an extra effort in shaping this student to become who he came to be. This is a purity of intention that can only be found in a rare mentor who is both sincere and pious.
Faḍl finishes this report by giving us some intimate details about Ibn Faḍḍāl:
His Muṣallā (prayer-spot) was in the Masjid in Kufa, adjacent to the column which is called al-Sābiʿa (the Seventh), it is also called the column of Ibrāhīm – peace be upon him.
He (i.e. Ibn Faḍḍāl), Abū Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh al-Ḥajjāl and ʿAlī b. Asbāṭ would often gather together. Al-Ḥajjāl used to claim proficiency in Kalām (theology) and was most prolific in debate, so Ibn Faḍḍāl used to instigate between me and him so that we debate in Maʿrifa (status of the Imams).
He (i.e. al-Ḥasan) used to love me very much
A Death-bed Confession
What about Ibn Faḍḍāl turning away from the belief in ʿAbdallāh al-Afṭaḥ as the Imam between al-Ṣādiq and al-Kāẓim – How did Ṭūsī come to know that?
Ṭūsī possesses the report of an eye-witness ʿAlī b. al-Rayyān given below:
We were in the funeral procession of al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl when Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh b. Zurāra b. Aʿyan turned towards me and Muḥammad b. al-Haytham al-Tamīmī and said to us: ‘Do I not give you the good news!’
We said: ‘What’s that?’
He said: ‘I attended to al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl before his death while he was in those pangs (that precede death), and with him was Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. al-Jahm, so I heard him (i.e. Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan) saying to him ‘O Aba Muhammad (i.e. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl) – give the Shahāda (testify as to your faith)!’
So he gave the Shahāda concerning Allah (i.e. bore testimony as to His oneness) before falling silent (could not continue). He (i.e. Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan) said to him a second time ‘give the Shahāda!’ so he gave the Shahāda and reached Abī al-Ḥasan (i.e. al-Kāẓim) (i.e. without naming ʿAbdallāh).
Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan said to him ‘Where is ʿAbdallāh?!’ so al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī (b. Faḍḍāl) said ‘We looked into the books and did not find for/from ʿAbdallāh anything!’
Najāshī receives the same report with a different initial chain and his variant has the following addition:
Then ʿAlī b. Asbāṭ entered (the room), so Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. al-Jahm informed him of the news (what had transpired) and ʿAlī b. Asbāṭ began blaming him
It is clear from this that Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. al-Jahm was a Faṭḥī himself and that is why he wanted Ibn Faḍḍāl to include ʿAbdallāh in the list of the Imams. The report also indicates that the same is true of ʿAlī b. Asbāṭ who began blaming Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan, holding him responsible in some way for what he saw as the debacle that had occurred.
Najāshī’s variant provides us with another ramification of this death-bed confession when Ibn Faḍḍāl’s son Aḥmad, who remained a Faṭḥī, was confronted with news of his father’s change of heart at that most sensitive of junctures.
ʿAlī b. al-Rayyān says:
I informed Aḥmad b. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl of what Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh had said, so he (i.e. Aḥmad) said: Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh has distorted upon my father!
ʿAlī b. al-Rayyān does not agree with this assessment commenting:
Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh was – by Allah – more truthful in speech as per my estimation than Aḥmad b. al-Ḥasan, for he was a meritorious and pious man
Let not the above lead you to think that there occurred an irreparable break between Aḥmad b. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl and Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh b. Zurāra, for Aḥmad’s younger brother ʿAlī b. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl was Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh b. Zurāra’s main student and he informs us that Muḥammad appointed his elder brother Aḥmad as sole executor of his will before his death, instructing him to sell-off all his properties and send their value to Imam al-Hādī which Aḥmad went on to undertake
Made It to the Big League (Almost)
What about the Tawthīq (authentication) that Ṭūsī gives Ibn Faḍḍāl when saying ‘He was Thiqa (trustworthy) in Hadith and in his transmissions’ – how can Ṭūsī tell?
The answer is that it had long been the practice of the scholars among the narrators to identify other narrators (who was who), arrange them chronologically (so as to tell which narrator narrated from which Imam), and grade their ‘levels’ so as to tell the ‘strong’ from the ‘weak’. This activity started already in the life-time of the Imams (without the Imams objecting) and the results were recorded in books generically entitled Kitāb al-Rijāl.
As al-Ṭūsī says:
We found the Ṭāʾifa (lit. sect) had already distinguished between the narrators who convey these reports.
So they gave Tawthīq to the Thiqāt (trustworthy ones) from among them and weakened the weak ones.
They distinguished between one whose narrations and reports can be depended on and between one whose narrations cannot be relied upon.
They praised the praised ones from among them and criticized the criticized ones.
They said: X is accused in his Hadiths. Y is a liar. Z is Mukhtalat (makes mistakes in his reports). B is contrary (to us) in his Madhhab (beliefs) and his doctrines. C is a Waqifi. D is a Fathi. And other than that from the criticisms which they have mentioned.
And they compiled books in that regard.
They excluded certain narrators from within the totality of works which they transmitted as recorded in their Fihrists.
To the extent that when one of them rejects a Hadith, he looked in its chain of narrators and weakens it due to its narrators.
This was their custom from the ancient times and has not ended
This critical passage is essential to understand the deep roots that Rijālī evaluation had within the sect. Anyone who denies Rijāl a role in the acceptance of the Hadith is therefore ignorant of the practice of the Ṭāʾifa which he claims to belong to.
And Ṭūsī is not exeggerating when he speaks of books having been authored in this topic (grading narrators).
A Kitāb al-Rijāl is attributed to the very narrator and companion we are discussing i.e. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl!
As Āqā Buzurgh al-Tihrāni has demonstrated – there were more than 100 small and large Rijālī works written in the period between al-Ḥasan b. Maḥbūb (d. 224) and al-Ṭūsī (d. 460), most of which would have been available to the latter when compiling his own grand summation.
A key product that emerged from this continuous activity of Rijālī evaluation that Ṭūsī speaks of was the scholars reaching a near unanimous agreement on who the top-most companions of the most prolific Imams (i.e. al-Bāqir, al-Ṣādiq, al-Kāẓim and al-Riḍā) were.
These were the Aṣḥāb al-Ijmāʿ (18 in number) and Ṭūsī knew their names from a tradition recorded by al-Kashshī:
Our Aṣḥāb (teachers and scholars) are agreed in deeming to be reliable that which is reliably attributed to these, and (are agreed) in considering them to be truthful, and have acknowledged their superiority in Fiqh and knowledge, and they are six other individuals apart from the previous six individuals whom we had mentioned among the companions of Abī ʿAbdillāh – peace be upon him – among them are:
Yūnus b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, Ṣafwān b. Yaḥyā the seller of Shāpūrī clothing, Muḥammad b. Abī ʿUmayr, ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mughīra, al-Ḥasan b. Maḥbūb and Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Abī Naṣr.
And some of them said in place of al-Ḥasan b. Maḥbūb it should be al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl …
Just being considered a spare option or an alternative candidate for the Aṣḥāb al-Ijmāʿ, even if not making the big six outright, means that there was no doubt as to al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl’s truthfulness.
After all, when we speak of the Aṣḥāb al-Ijmāʿ we are speaking of men who were considered to be exemplary over all others and at the very heights of knowledge and piety.
No surprise then that Ṭūsī can confidently record ‘Thiqa’ under his entry.
How did al-Ṭūsī come to know of the books that were authored by al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl?
Well, for one, these books were still in circulation and Ṭūsī had some in his possession (Ṭūsī gives his chains to them). In fact, the books of al-Ḥasan and his descendants came to attain such importance in the wider Shīʿa community that the Imam al-ʿAskarī had to be asked about what to do with the books of the Banī Faḍḍāl ‘for our houses are full of them’ while they belong to the Faṭḥī splinter group? The Imam replied ‘take what they narrate and leave what they believe’
How much more can one get to know an author if he has his works with him? Ṭūsī could have look directly into what al-Ḥasan authored – a privilege which we do not have today.
Additionally, a major source of information about the books out there were the Fihrist works that were written before al-Ṭūsī and which he made use of in his own Fihrist.
Fihrists were bio-bibliographical documents in which someone recorded all the books he had in his possession as well as detailing how he came to possess them (i.e. giving his personal chain of intermediaries to the respective authors). Entries were arranged according to author-name, and apart from containing the titles of works authored by each respective author would also inevitably include a lot of secondary information about the author.
Look at it this way, all this information about al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl that we are discussing (the original entry translated above) is from al-Ṭūsī’s Fihrist which we know is itself modelled on the earlier Fihrist works, so if he has included all this detail about Ibn Faḍḍāl in his Fihrist then they would have done the same, albeit in a less comprehensive manner.
And we know for a fact that he consulted these earlier Fihrist works because in this particular instance he explicitly cites two scholars who are known to have authored Fihrist works i.e. Ibn al-Nadīm (d. 380) and Ibn al-Walīd (d. 343). In other words, he must have looked up the entry of Ibn Faḍḍāl in their respective Fihrists to give us the titles of additional works authored by Ibn Faḍḍāl.
The Fihrist Ibn al-Nadīm survives of course, and the exact same three books that Ṭūsī attributes to Ibn Faḍḍāl via Ibn al-Nadīm (Kitāb al-Tafsīr, Kitāb al-Ibtidāʾ wa l-Mubtadāʾ and Kitāb al-Ṭibb) are also found in our copies of Ibn al-Nadīm under Ibn Faḍḍāl’s entry.
In fact, when Ṭūsī says al-Ḥasan was ‘especially close’ (خصيصا) to al-Riḍā then this wording is more than likely derived from Ibn al-Nadīm in his Fihrist who uses near-identical wording when he says:
And he (i.e. Ibn Faḍḍāl) was from the ‘especially intimate’ (خاصة) companions of Abī al-Ḥasan al-Riḍā
But these two are not the only Fihrist works which Ṭūsī consulted. It has been established that there were at least seven other Fihrist works that Ṭūsī and Najāshī are known to have regularly consulted, allowing them to at times step back three generations before their time. These are given below:
- The Fihrist of Saʿd b. ʿAbdallāh al-Ashʿarī (d. 301)
- The Fihrist of ʿAbdallāh b. Jaʿfar al-Ḥimyarī (d. 305)
- The Fihrist of Ḥumayd b. Ziyād al-Naynawāʾī (d. 310)
- The Fihrist of Muḥammad b. Jaʿfar b. Buṭṭa (d. 330)
- The Fihrist of Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad b. Qūlawayh (d. 368)
- The Fihrist of Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. Bābawayh (al-Ṣadūq) (d. 381)
- The Fihrist of Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Wāḥid (Ibn ʿUbdūn) (d. 423)
A Worthy Son
Even if none of the above was known about al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl, his legacy would have still been secure in the prominence that was achieved by his son ʿAlī (contemporary to the Imams al-Hādī and al-ʿAskarī).
Muḥammad b. Masʿūd al-ʿAyyāshī (d. 320 or 330), the famous author of the Tafsīr that has reached us, travelled to Baghdad to meet ʿAlī personally and this is how he describes him when asked about him by his student al-Kashshī:
As for ʿAlī b. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl then I have not seen of those whom I encountered in Iraq and the whole province of Khurasan one who was more knowledgeable or better than ʿAlī b. al-Ḥasan in Kufa.
There was no book on the authority of the Imams (i.e. containing reports attributed to the Imams) – may peace be upon them – of any type except that he had it with him (i.e. in his library).
He had the most mastery over Hadith (in memory, recollection and usage) among people.
Except (his only flaw was) that he was a Faṭḥī who believed in ʿAbdallāh b. Jaʿfar (as the Imam) before Abī al-Ḥasan Mūsā – peace be upon him.
He (i.e. Ali) was of the Thiqāt
So scrupulous was ʿAlī b. al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī b. Faḍḍāl in the matter of Hadith that he is quoted as saying:
I used to face him (i.e. my father) with his books (i.e. so that he could narrate them to me) while I was eighteen years of age, but I did not understand the reports at the time, so I do not permit myself to narrate them directly from him
You see, Ibn Faḍḍāl Jr. was from the old-school who did not consider a legitimate relay to have occurred if one party (i.e. the student) does not possess total understanding of the material being transmitted to him, and that is why he avoided narrating directly from his father, even though he had heard Hadith from him.
He chose instead to narrate them (i.e. the Hadiths of his father) via the intermediary of his elder brothers from whom he heard the content at a later stage in life at which point he had mastered the material, even though by doing this his chain would become lengthier (anathema to the Ahl al-Hadith who were always seeking the shortest chains).
Doesn’t the status of the son reflect on the father?
Wouldn’t ʿAlī have spoken about his father and kept his memory alive to his own students?
I hope to have demonstrated that Ṭūsī and Najāshī were not pulling the information they provide about narrators out of thin air but were in many cases summarizing material that was already available before them, be it in written sources such as the earlier Rijāl and Fihrist works, or tapping into the oral meta-narrative that would have been available to them as students in a living tradition.
I was only able to reverse engineer Ibn Faḍḍal’s entry because some of the written sources that were available to them survives today in some form (I speak primarily of Rijāl Kashshī), now I want the reader to consider the following scenario: What if Rijāl al-Kashshī would not have survived (as so many of our other earlier works)? Wouldn’t our hasty conclusions about Najāshī and Ṭūsī’s non-existent sources have mistakenly led us to treat the information they provide with undue suspicion?!
Thus I argue that even in cases where we do not have the raw-data to reverse-engineer the entries they have constructed we can still have Wuthūq (confidence) that they being the Ahl al-Khibra (professionals in the field) who had access to sources unavailable to us would still be preserving judgments about narrators that are binding upon us.
Of course, there remained a role for their personal Ḥadas (speculative inference) based on the raw-material available to them and the reports that is attributed to a narrator which I will discuss some other time …