This study will delve into certain critical episodes in the lives of a number of very different men, men who may have subscribed to wildly different beliefs, lived in different time periods, and came from different places, yet are all interconnected by having an association of some sort with the famed Hadith scholar ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī who is the common thread around whom I construct my narrative.
In doing this, I hope to illuminate some important features of Sunni Hadith transmission and criticism as practiced in the early period so as to draw conclusions on the respective strength and weakness of this fallible human enterprise.
We begin our journey in Baghdad with one Abū ʿAlī b. Hammām.
Who was Abū ʿAlī b. Hammām (d. 332)?
If a time-traveller were to reach Baghdad at the turn of the fourth century Hijrī (i.e. a few decades before or after the year 300) and ask to be taken to the chief Shīʿī scholar of this capital city he would most likely be directed to one Abū ʿAlī Muḥammad b. Hammām.
This is how al-Najāshī (d. 450 or after 463) describes him:
The Shaykh of our fellows and the one given precedence among them, he had a great status, very prolific in Hadith
Ṭūsī (d. 460) says:
Highly esteemed, Thiqa, he was very prolific in transmission
And how could it be otherwise when we note the extraordinary circumstances of his birth.
Abū ʿAlī b. Hammām recounts:
My father wrote to Abī Muḥammad al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī al-ʿAskarī عليه السلام informing him that he had not got a male child, and informing him that his wife was expecting, and asking him to supplicate to Allah that the child be healthy and safe, and that He (i.e. Allah) make him (i.e. the child) a noble male from among their followers.
So he (i.e. the Imam) wrote (in the space) at the heading of the (same) parchment (the letter) and in his own hand ‘Allah has done that’, consequently the pregnancy was carried to term and (the off-spring) was male.
Abū ʿAlī b. Hammām’s primary student, the famous al-Tallaʿukbarī (d. 385), comments:
Abū ʿAlī b. Hammām showed me the parchment and the hand-writing, and it was authenticated
Najāshī records Abū ʿAlī b. Hammām’s birthday as:
Monday, 6th Dhū al-Ḥijja, the year 258
Both Najāshī’s and Ṭūsī’s entries speak of his prolific activities as a Hadith transmitter and this can be confirmed by observing the number of times he occurs in the chains of these two scholars to different books (numbering in the hundreds). It is no exaggeration to say that he was a central node transmitting down most of the books authored by previous generations of Shīʿī authors to the next generation of Shīʿī novices.
The only book that he is said to have authored personally is Kitāb al-Anwār fī Tārīkh al-Aimma whose subject is the biography of the Twelve Imams. This book survives in a Muntakhab (abridgment) that was available to ʿAllāma Majlisī who made use of it as one of his sources in the encyclopedic Biḥār al-Anwār
Abū ʿAlī b. Hammām was important enough to merit an entry in al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī’s (d. 463) annals which records the history of Baghdad and its famous residents. After describing him as one of the ‘Scholars of the Shia’ and giving a few names of his teachers and students he concludes by saying:
I read (written) in the handwriting of Muḥammad b. Aḥmad b. Mahdī al-Iskāfī (the following):
The Story behind Abū ʿAlī b. Hammām’s conversion to Shīʿīsm
The name of Abū ʿAlī’s great-grandfather (as given above) betrays the family’s Persian ancestry. It is perhaps not too surprising that the family converted to Islam since there was a steady rate of Persian conversion post-conquest, but what needs explanation is how they came to affiliate themselves to the extreme minority that was Imāmī Shīʿīsm.
Fortunately we have an account from Abū ʿAlī himself as translated below:
Aḥmad b. Mābandādh narrated to us (the following): My father (i.e. Mābandādh) was the first to convert to Islam from my family, he left Zoroastrianism, and Allah guided him to the truth (i.e. Tashayyuʿ).
Then he (i.e. Mābandādh) began calling his brother Suhayl to his Madhhab but he (i.e. Suhayl) would say to him: ‘O my brother, I know that you are not remiss in giving me counsel, but the people (i.e. Muslims) are divided, each of them claims that the truth is with him, I do not wish to choose to enter into something except upon certainty’.
Some time passed after that and Suhayl went on Hajj. When he returned from Hajj he said to his brother: ‘That which you were calling me towards is the truth!’
He (i.e. Mābandādh) said: ‘How did you come to know that?’
He (i.e. Suhayl) said: ‘I encountered ʿAbd al-Razzāq b. Hammām al-Ṣanʿānī during my Hajj and I have not seen anyone like him, so I said to him in private (i.e. when it was just the two of them) ‘We are a people of non-Arab descent, our entrance into Islam is quite recent, and I see its people (i.e. the Muslims) divided in their creeds, Allah has placed you in knowledge (in such a position) such that there is no parallel to you in this age nor an equal. I want to make you a Ḥujja (proof) in that which is between me and Allah Mighty and Majestic – so if you deem it (proper) to clarify for me that which you have chosen for yourself of religion I will follow you and conform (to it)’ so he (i.e. ʿAbd al-Razzāq) manifested for me the love of the family of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه و آله and their veneration, disassociating from their enemies, and subscribing to their Imāma (i.e. the family of the prophet).
Abū ʿAlī said: My father (i.e. Hammām) took this Madhhab from his father (i.e. Suhayl) from his (i.e. Hammām’s) paternal uncle (i.e. Mābandādh).
I (i.e. Abū ʿAlī) took it from my father (i.e. Hammām)
Figure 1: Abū ʿAlī b. Hammām’s Family Tree
Note: The similarity in name between Abū ʿAlī’s father and ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s father is merely a coincidence as they are not related.
ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s Shīʿīsm
As a recent convert to Islam, Suhayl is understandably perplexed about the sectarian divide he finds within his new-found faith. He feels sure that he doesn’t have the ability to tell ‘truth’ from ‘falsehood’ in the face of such a medley of confusing voices.
Suhayl’s path crosses that of ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī, a man he knows by reputation to be a great scholar, and whose personal character he has had chance to witness at close-quarters during their shared Hajj and which must have impressed him greatly.
It would also have helped that ʿAbd al-Razzāq was similarly a descendant of Persian converts to Islam and thus Suhayl would have seen in him a kindred spirit.
Suhayl decides to let ʿAbd al-Razzāq make this momentous decision for him, committing himself to follow whatever ʿAbd al-Razzāq will point him towards. The latter sets him on course to the school of the Ahl al-Bayt.
How credible is this account speaking from a historical perspective?
ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 211) is not a new name of course, he was already world-renowned as a great Hadith scholar in his own life-time, with students from all over the Islamic word, including a young Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, flocking to Yemen to study under him. Authoring the Muṣannaf means that his legacy is also secure in posterity.
But would ʿAbd al-Razzāq direct a new-convert who consults him in private towards Shīʿīsm?
There is every reason to believe that he would do so.
You see, ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s sympathies to Shīʿīsm is a fact noted in all our earliest sources.
al-ʿIjlī (d. 261) says:
ʿAbd al-Razzāq b. Hammām. Yemenite. Thiqa. His Kunya (agnomen) was Abā Bakr. He would Shiize
Ibn Ḥibbān (d. 354) says:
He was of those who collected, authored, memorized, and discussed (i.e. Hadith). He would make mistakes when narrating from memory in addition to a Tashayyuʿ that was in him
Ibn ʿAdī (d. 365) says:
ʿAbd al-Razzāq b. Hammām has a number of works (to his name) and a lot of Hadith. The Thiqāt among the Muslims and their Imams journeyed to him and wrote down from him and did not see any problem in his Hadith except that they attributed him to Tashayyuʿ …
Thus we find al-Dhahabī (d. 748) beginning his entry as follows:
The great Ḥāfiẓ, the scholar of Yemen, Abū Bakr al-Ḥimyarī, their client, al-Ṣanʿānī, the Thiqa, the Shīʿī
What Kind of Shīʿī?
Of course the term ‘Shīʿī’ was not well-defined or being used in a uniform manner. It is more appropriate to think of it as an ‘umbrella’ term that subsumed different currents under it. It is only right, therefore, to ask about the specific contours of ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s Shīʿīsm.
Some relevant pieces of evidence found in the sources are given below:
- Do not Pollute our Assembly!
Makhlad al-Shaʿīrī reports that a man mentioned Muʿāwiya in ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s presence and the latter interjected:
Do not pollute our assembly with the mention of the son of Abī Sufyān!
- The Question of Tafḍīl
One way to discern someone’s sectarian inclination was to question them on their preferred ranking of the early Caliphs.
ʿAbd al-Razzāq narrates that his teacher Maʿmar asked his teacher al-Zuhrī who was better between ʿUthmān and ʿAlī.
As is expected from someone in Umayyad employ, Al-Zuhrī (d. 124) responds:
The blood! The blood! ʿUthmān is the better of the two!
A student who has just heard this from ʿAbd al-Razzāq takes the opportunity to ask him what his personal opinion was.
But he refused to inform me
There can only be one reason why ʿAbd al-Razzāq did not wish to answer this loaded question. ʿAbd al-Razzāq must have known that he held an opinion on it that was considered ‘heretical’ in the eyes of the Aṣḥāb al-Ḥadīth and letting this out would have consequences.
But ʿAbd al-Razzāq was not always this guarding of his views and there were times when his true feelings for even the Shaykhayn leaked out.
- The Idiot!
ʿAlī b. ʿAbdallāh b. al-Mubārak al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 288) says:
Zayd b. al-Mubārak attached himself to ʿAbd al-Razzāq and increased from him (i.e. obtained a lot of Hadith from him), then he destroyed his books (in which he had written ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s Hadith) and attached himself to Muḥammad b. Thawr (instead).
This was put to him (i.e. Zayd was questioned about this) so he said: We were at ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s and he narrated to us the Hadith of Maʿmar from al-Zuhrī from Mālik b. Aws b. al-Ḥadathān – the long Hadith, so when he read the words of ʿUmar to ʿAlī and ʿAbbās ‘So you came to seek your inheritance from your nephew, and this one came to seek the inheritance of his wife from her father’ ʿAbd al-Razzāq commented: ‘Look at this idiot, he says ‘You seek your inheritance from your nephew and this one seeks the inheritance of his wife from her father’ couldn’t he have said ‘The Messenger of Allah?!’
Zayd b. al-Mubārak said ‘so I stood up and did not return to him and I will not narrate a Hadith from him ever!’
The long Hadith Zayd is referring to can be read here: https://sunnah.com/muslim:1757c
That ʿAbd al-Razzāq did indeed narrate this Hadith from Maʿmar from Zuhrī from Mālik b. Aws b. al-Ḥadathān is confirmed by Muslim who records this identical chain for it in his Ṣaḥīḥ: https://sunnah.com/muslim:1757d
ʿAbd al-Razzāq calling ʿUmar an idiot was intolerable in the eyes of Zayd. He had heard enough. Such flippancy about ʿUmar no less! He packed his bags and left in a huff.
Zayd would later have this to say:
ʿAbd al-Razzāq is a liar, he steals (Hadith)
With His Fingers in His Ears
If it were up to Zayd b. al-Mubārak then his colleagues among the Aṣḥāb al-Ḥadīth would have totally abandoned ʿAbd al-Razzāq just as he had done!
If this didn’t happen then it was in large part due to those two rising stars of the Hadith circuit who went on to become the two most-influential Hadith critics of their generation, even assuming positions of leadership within the Ahl al-Ḥadīth movement: Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn (d. 233) and Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 241).
But how could Aḥmad, in particular, that self-appointed ‘champion of orthodoxy’ bear hearing such comments from ʿAbd al-Razzāq without reacting?
Or was ʿAbd al-Razzāq on his best behaviour with Aḥmad – who while ultimately only a student was already a prominent one – such that his real views never leaked out to him throughout their long engagement?
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal was later asked about this, of course, by his own son no less.
ʿAbdallāh b. Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal says:
I asked my father saying: ʿAbd al-Razzāq would Shiize and exceed the bounds in Tashayyuʿ?
He (i.e. Aḥmad) said: As for me then I did not hear anything from him in this regard, but he was a man who was infatuated by the reports of the people.
Aḥmad claims not to have heard anything that would implicate ʿAbd al-Razzāq. In his opinion, ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s only flaw was his propensity for gathering and narrating whatever he could get his hands on (without applying judicious censorship).
But other reports give a more complete picture of what used to happen in those Hadith sessions.
Ibrāhīm the brother of Abān b. Ṣāliḥ reports:
I was Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal’s colleague at ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s and we would hear (the Hadith) together. So when ‘those’ Hadiths would come in which ‘there was what there was’ – Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal would stand, withdraw to a corner and say ‘what do I do with these’, it is only when ‘those’ Hadiths were over that he would come back, sit down, and resume hearing
Ibrāhīm is being vague, but the Hadiths in question that Aḥmad was ducking were those that belonged to the genre of the Mathālib (‘shortcomings’ or ‘flaws’), that is, Hadiths that showed the companions in a bad light, as is made clear in the report below.
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn reports:
They would be at ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s: Aḥmad, Khalaf, and another man. So when the Hadiths of Mathālib would come Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal would put his fingers in his ears for a long time, until some of the Hadiths had been completed, then he would remove them (i.e. his fingers), then he would return them (i.e. if they were still being read out) until all the Hadiths (of such nature) pass
A Hadith-master is wont to comment on the contents of a Hadith while relaying it (as we saw in the ‘idiot’ quip above), and it is exactly in this context, while relaying the Hadiths of Mathālib, that students could potentially have gauged ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s true views about the companions and the early controversies in Islam, if he allowed them to surface, that is.
This image of a man huddled in a corner of the room, with his fingers in his ears, not prepared to hear anything that would shatter his ideal conception of the companions may be comical for some and speak to Aḥmad’s unsurpassed piety for others, but what it tells us is that it was not so much that Aḥmad did not hear anything incriminating from ʿAbd al-Razzāq, but quite literally, did not want to hear anything incriminating from him!
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn Confronts His Master
If Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal didn’t want to hear it, his life-long friend Yaḥyā, who was always bolder in this regard, kept his ears open and once even confronted his Shaykh about this.
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn says:
I heard some words from ʿAbd al-Razzāq one day by which I inferred (the truth of) what was being said about him in regards Madhhab (i.e. that he was a Shīʿī) – so I said to him: ‘Your teachers from whom you took (Hadith) were Thiqāt, all of them were Aṣḥāb Sunna – Maʿmar, Mālik b. Anas, Ibn Jurayj, Sufyān, al-Awzāʿī – from whom, then, have you taken this Madhhab?
ʿAbd al-Razzāq responds:
Who was Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān al-Ḍubaʿī (d. 178)?
ʿAbd al-Razzāq may have been impressed by his teacher Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān but this was not a feeling shared by everyone.
And this was enough reason for some in the earliest generation of the nascent Ahl al-Ḥadīth movement to reject his Hadith.
Aḥmad b. al-Miqdām al-ʿIjlī narrates:
We were in the study-circle of Yazīd b. Zurayʿ when he announced: The one who has gone to Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān al-Ḍubaʿī and ʿAbd al-Wārith al-Tannūrī should not draw near to me!
al-Tannūrī was being attributed to Iʿtizāl while Jaʿfar was being attributed to Rafḍ
It is Jaʿfar’s Madhhab which led the two Basrans ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Mahdī (d. 198) and Yaḥyā b. Saʿīd al-Qaṭṭān (d. 198), widely considered to be the first Hadith critics, to take issue with Jaʿfar’s Hadith.
Aḥmad b. Sinān al-Qaṭṭān says:
I saw that ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Mahdī was not pleased with the Hadith of Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn states:
Yaḥyā b. Saʿīd would not write the Hadith of Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān nor would he narrate from him and he would weaken him
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal’s own attitude to Jaʿfar was ‘lukewarm’ commenting that there was ‘no harm’ in taking from him. When he was told that Sulaymān b. Ḥarb prohibits Jaʿfar’s Hadith from being written down he cited the precedent of another Basran critic, Ḥammād b. Zayd, who did not prohibit Jaʿfar’s Hadith from being written down.
Aḥmad makes explicit what their problem with Jaʿfar was:
He (i.e. Jaʿfar) would Shiize. He would narrate Hadiths on the merit of ʿAlī and the people of Basra are extremist against ʿAlī
But Aḥmad was perhaps unaware of the full extent of Jaʿfar’s ‘crimes’, for it was not just a matter of narrating ʿAlī’s merits but full-blown Rafḍ.
Jarīr b. Yazīd b. Hārūn questioned Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān:
It has been conveyed to us that you abuse Abā Bakr and ʿUmar?’
As for abuse then no, but a hatred as much as you like (with no end)!
This leads Jarīr to comment:
Then he is Rāfiḍī like a donkey!
Ibn Ḥibbān rightly concludes on the basis of this report that ‘He (i.e. Jaʿfar) used to hate the Shaykhayn
Now hating Abū Bakr and ʿUmar is as Rafiḍī as you can get, but Jaʿfar also appears in the chains of Hadiths found in the canonical books like Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim and the Four, so this raises the conundrum of having a ‘Thiqa Rafiḍī’ which needed to be solved.
One approach is to take out the sting in Jaʿfar’s words as the Basran Hadith scholar al-Sājī (d. 307) attempts in a very imaginative way:
As for the incident which has been narrated about him, then he (i.e. Jaʿfar) meant two neighbours of his who used to disturb him, one of them had the Kunya Abā Bakr and the other was called ʿUmar, now he was asked about them so he said ‘I do not abuse but a hatred as much as you like’ – he did not mean the Shaykhayn
If someone chooses to believe al-Sājī’s explanation then I have got a bridge to sell them!
Al-Dhahabī’s alternative short-cut approach is to throw away this report by weakening its chain. But he only considered the one chain (in Ibn Ḥibbān) whereas there are numerous chains attributing the same statement to Jaʿfar – some of which are Ṣaḥīḥ!
Two examples of reports that ʿAbd al-Razzāq received from his teacher Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān are given below:
(i) ʿAbd al-Razzāq – Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān – ʿAwf al-Aʿrābī  – Abī Rajāʾ al-ʿUṭāridī – ʿImran b. Ḥuṣayn:
The prophet صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ died whilst hating three tribes/clans: Thaqīf, Banī Ḥanīfa, Banī Umayya
(ii) ʿAbd al-Razzāq – Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān – ʿAlī b. Zayd – Abī Naḍra – Abī Saʿīd:
The prophet صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ said: If you see Muʿāwiya on my pulpit then kill him!
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal’s Attitude
What would Aḥmad’s reaction to the above Hadiths have been?
We don’t know because we have already seen how carefully he avoided ‘those’ Hadiths of ʿAbd al-Razzāq.
When Aḥmad was once asked about the status of ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s father, who happened to be a minor narrator, he replies that the father has correct Hadith when he narrates from Wahb b. Munabbih.
The questioner proceeds to ask about the Hadith ‘he narrates from Mīnā’.
Aḥmad does not know who this Mīnā is and makes a very revealing statement for why he does not know:
I did not scrutinize the Hadiths of ʿAbd al-Razzāq concerning the flaws of the companions of the prophet.
Do you think Mālik b. Anas remained safe from the people for any other reason than his abandonment of these Hadiths that bequeath rancor in the heart!
This last reveals that there was a degree of expedient calculation in Aḥmad’s decision. If Aḥmad wanted to remain safe from critique and gain widespread acceptability he would have to do as Mālik did and similarly exercise caution with what he narrates.
Indeed, Aḥmad’s guiding principle in these matters can be summed up in his own words:
We do not say about the companions of the Messenger of Allah except good!
He stuck to this principle for the rest of his life!
Thus when his famous student Abū Bakr al-Marrūdhī puts to Aḥmad that a group write down ‘these repulsive Hadiths’ about the companions of the Messenger of Allah and justify themselves by quoting Aḥmad as saying ‘I do not consider it wrong for a Ṣāḥib Ḥadīth (i.e. Hadith narrator) to write down these Hadiths in order to be aware of them’
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal repudiates this very strongly:
False! I seek refuge from Allah! I do not consider it to be wrong?!
If these reports were concerning the ordinary people I would prohibit it so what about the companions of Muḥammad!
I do not write down such Hadiths
Similarly, when Aḥmad was asked about a man who narrates a Hadith in which there is ‘something’ against the companions of the Messenger of Allah and goes on to excuse his actions by saying ‘I narrate it just as I heard it’.
I do not like it for a man to narrate a Hadith in which there is ‘something’ against the companions of the Messenger of Allah.
He reveals his own practice when he says:
When his nephew Ḥanbal asked Aḥmad if could write down such Hadiths he was told:
Do not even look at them!
What do these reports contain of knowledge?!
Upon you is the Sunan, the Fiqh and what is beneficial for you!
Personally avoiding such Hadiths was one thing, but we know that Aḥmad went a step further in actively opposing their circulation by weakening those who narrate them.
After all, his perception of those who narrated such Hadiths is clear.
When a man presented to him a book in which such ‘objectionable Hadiths about the companions of the Messenger of Allah’ were gathered – he looked at it and commented:
No one gathers these except an evil man!
Elsewhere, Aḥmad predicts that a man who seeks out ‘such’ Hadiths and inquires after them, Hadiths in which there is a ‘mention of ʿUthmān, ʿAlī, Muʿāwiya and other than them from the companions of the prophet’ will have ‘an evil end’
Perhaps the harshest comment is reserved for when Abū Bakr al-Marrūdhī asks him whether the one who writes down and collects ‘these repulsive Hadiths’ should be avoided.
Yes. The narrator of these repulsive Hadiths is worthy of stoning!
With this back-ground in mind – is it any surprise that Aḥmad did with ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā al-ʿAbsī what he did?
Who was ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā al-ʿAbsī (d. 213)?
Al-Dhahabī calls ʿUbaydallāh ‘The Imam, the Ḥāfiẓ, the worshipper’ before confirming his status as:
The first one to author a Musnad arranged according to companions in Kufa the way Abā Dāwūd al-Ṭayālisī was the first to author a Musnad among the Basrans
The sources are unanimous in depicting ʿUbaydallāh’s overwhelming piety and expertise in the Qur’an.
He was a companion of the Qur’an, a leader in it, possessed of a heart-rending recitation.
Abū Muslim narrated to us on the authority of his father who said: I never saw ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā raising his eyes to the sky (i.e. out of humility) and I never saw him laughing ever!
But ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā had a Madhhab-problem just like Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān.
As Abū Dāwūd al-Sijistānī (d. 275) says:
al-Fasawī (d. 277) says:
ʿUbaydallāh was a Shīʿī, and if someone were to say ‘a Rāfiḍī’ then I would not argue with him
Ibn Saʿd (d. 230) reveals that it is his Madhhab together with finding the Hadiths he narrated to be objectionable, a purely subjective judgment, which led to his ‘weakening’:
He (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) would Shiize and narrate Hadiths in Tashayyuʿ that were Munkar (objectionable) so he was weakened because of that in the eyes of many
One of these ‘many’ was Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal.
Aḥmad’s Problem with ʿUbaydallāh
When Muhannā asks Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal his view of ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā – Aḥmad responds:
I do not like to narrate from him
Muhannā asks why and is told:
He narrates Hadiths in which there is a diminishing of the companions of the Messenger of Allah!
We have seen how Aḥmad would refer to such Hadiths that portray some of the companions negatively as ‘evil’ and ‘repulsive’ and he uses the same adjectives in some of his statements about ʿUbaydallāh.
Abū al-Ḥasan al-Maymūnī relates that when ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā was once mentioned in Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal’s presence he could tell from Aḥmad’s reaction that the latter disapproved of him.
Aḥmad had this to say:
He (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) was prone to Takhlīṭ (lit. ‘confusion’ or ‘mixing’) and narrated ‘evil’ Hadiths.
He took out those ‘Balāyā’ (lit. calamities) and narrated them.
When Aḥmad is asked to compare him to another narrator called Ibn Fuḍayl, he replied:
He (Ibn Fuḍayl) was not like him (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh), he (i.e. Ibn Fuḍayl) was more guarding than him, as for him (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) then he took out those ‘repulsive’ Hadiths
Abū Dāwūd al-Sijistānī heard Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal saying:
ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā who?! Every Baliyya (calamity) comes from (on the authority of) ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā!
When Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Ṣāʾigh wanted to head out to Kufa he paid a visit to Aḥmad to bid him farewell whereupon the latter said to him:
I have a request of you O Abā Muḥammad (i.e. Ismāʿīl) – do not go to ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā (i.e. to take Hadith from him) for Ghuluww has been conveyed to me from him
This Ghuluww that Aḥmad says was conveyed to him is probably the one given below.
Muḥammad b. ʿUbaydallāh b. Yazīd al-Munādī says:
We were in Mecca together with ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā in the year 209. He (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) began narrating Hadiths while on the road and passed by a Hadith on the authority of Muʿāwiya at which point he cursed Muʿāwiya and cursed the one who does not curse him.
Ibn al-Munādī says that he informed Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal of this and Aḥmad declared:
He is an aggressor then!
The same report continues with Ḥubaysh b. Sindī relating that a Hadith of ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā was quoted in the presence of Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal to which Aḥmad commented:
I do not consider him (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) worthy of being narrated from.
He engages in criticism of the companions of the Messenger of Allah!
A man from among our companions who I hope was truthful (i.e. Ibn al-Munādī) related to me in days past that he was with him (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā) on a road of Mecca, so he (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) narrated a Hadith in which he cursed Muʿāwiya saying ‘Yes, may Allah curse him and curse the one who does not curse him’ so such a one is worthy of being narrated from?!
Now ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā’s hatred for Muʿāwiya was legendary.
Ibn Manda (d. 395) says:
He (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) was famous for Rafḍ. He would not let anyone with the name Muʿāwiya enter his house.
It is said that Muʿāwiya b. Ṣāliḥ al-Ashʿarī entered upon him once so he (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) asked: ‘What is your name?’ He replied: ‘Muʿāwiya’. He (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) said: ‘I swear by Allah that I will not narrate to you nor will I narrate to a group of which you are one!’
But does this justify Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal instigating the people against him?
After all, what was ʿUbaydallāh’s crime?
There is no one who claims that he was a liar who was fabricating these ‘evil’ and ‘repulsive’ Hadiths. What was ʿUbaydallāh’s fault if he chose to believe in the reports that came down to him and did not buy into Aḥmad’s approach of turning a blind-eye to them and censoring them?
Be that as it may, Aḥmad was bent on getting the Aṣḥāb al-Ḥadīth to abandon ʿUbaydallāh and he tried to get Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn on board.
The answer he got stumped him.
Abū Zakariyyā the ghulām (disciple) of Aḥmad b. Abī Khaythama relates how he was sitting in the Main Masjid of Ruṣāfa and Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn was also there, laying down to rest after having completed the Ẓuhr prayer, when a messenger from Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal arrives and says to Yaḥyā:
Your brother Abū Abdallāh Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal sends salutations of peace to you and says to you: ‘It’s like this – you narrate a lot of Hadith from ʿUbaydallāh al-ʿAbsī while you and I have both heard him speaking bad of Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān – I have abandoned narrating from him!’
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn raises his head and asks the messenger to convey the following message to Aḥmad:
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn sends salutations of peace to you and says to you: ‘You and I have both heard ʿAbd al-Razzāq speaking bad of ʿUthmān b. Affan so abandon narrating from him for ʿUthmān is better than Muʿāwiya!’
We don’t know what Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal’s reaction was when the messenger made his way back to him as no response is recorded in the sources, but then none is needed, for Aḥmad could tell when he was beaten. Yaḥyā had called him out on his double standards. If ʿUbaydallāh was to be cancelled for Tashayyuʿ then so should ʿAbd al-Razzāq.
In another report, Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn has this to say when it was put to him that Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal says ‘ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā’s Hadiths are to be rejected because of Tashayyuʿ’
I swear by Allah other than whom there is no god – ʿAbd al-Razzāq was more extreme in that (Tashayyuʿ) than him (i.e. ʿUbaydallāh) a hundred times (more).
I heard from ʿAbd al-Razzāq many, many times more what I heard from ʿUbaydallāh
You see, Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn knew ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā’s personally and had this to say about him:
A man of truthfulness, there is no harm in (taking from) him, he had exemplary conduct, intelligence and dignified restraint
This being the case, he was not ready to blindly follow Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal in his judgment.
Too Big to Fail
Yaḥyā was also certain that Aḥmad would not abandon ʿAbd al-Razzāq and explains the reason in a more complete version of the report above.
I swear by Allah other than whom there is no god, the knower of the hidden and the manifest, I heard from ʿAbd al-Razzāq in this regard (i.e. Tashayyuʿ) more than what ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā says, but Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal fears that his journey to ʿAbd al-Razzāq will be in vain
According to Yaḥyā, the reason Aḥmad was not willing to apply the same rule to ʿAbd al-Razzāq that he was so quick to apply to ʿUbaydallāh is that he would stand to lose thousands upon thousands of those precious Hadiths he had gathered from ʿAbd al-Razzāq thus making his whole journey to Yemen futile.
In fact, ʿAbd al-Razzāq was so important a narrator that Yaḥyā makes a very dramatic statement.
Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Ḍirārī says:
News reached us while we were in Ṣanʿāʾ, studying under ʿAbd al-Razzāq, that our associates (i.e. fellow Aṣḥāb al-Ḥadīth) Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal and other than them had abandoned the Hadith of ʿAbd al-Razzāq and rejected them.
This cause intense grief in us and we said: ‘We have spent so much, journeyed so far and tired ourselves out (i.e. to come to study under ʿAbd al-Razzāq in Yemen and it is all for naught).
I remained in grief because of this until the time of Hajj, then I set out to Mecca and met Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn (there) so I said to him: ‘O Abā Zakariyyā, no greater thing (i.e. disaster) descended on us than what reached us from your direction concerning ʿAbd al-Razzāq!’ He said: What’s that? I said: It reached us that you have abandoned his Hadith and preferred others to him.
Yaḥyā said to me: O Abā Ṣāliḥ – even if ʿAbd al-Razzāq were to apostate from Islam we would not abandon his Hadith!
A Glitch in the Matrix
Someone might argue that whatever early criticism there may have been of such figures because of their Madhhab – their Hadith did ultimately end up in the canonical books.
So, for example, we find that the Hadiths of ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā and ʿAbd al-Razzāq are to be found in all the six canonical books, while Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān appears in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim and the Four.
Doesn’t the fact that they took from such truthful narrators in spite of their Madhhab speak to the objectivity of the Sunni Hadith-system?
The answer is that there was a delicate balancing act at work between the two sides: ‘Sectarian’ narrators were censoring themselves in what they would narrate and to which audience in order not to cross a line and get totally abandoned (as many were), while at the same time, the Aṣḥāb al-Ḥadīth, who were in need of the Hadiths of some ‘sectarians’, were careful to filter out those Hadiths they found objectionable, while making sure not to blame the sectarian for any ‘fabrication’. In other words, what we find in the canonical works is not all the Hadiths of the ‘sectarian’ but only those that were deemed unobjectionable.
This can be best demonstrated in the fascinating example discussed below.
Abū al-Azhar al-Naysābūrī (d. 263) came to Baghdad and narrated this Hadith from ʿAbd al-Razzāq from Maʿmar from al-Zuhrī from ʿUbaydallāh b. ʿAbdallāh from Ibn ʿAbbās:
The prophet looked at ʿAlī and said: ‘O ʿAlī – you are a Sayyid in the world, a Sayyid in the hereafter. Your beloved is my beloved, and my beloved is beloved to Allah. Your enemy is my enemy, and my enemy is the enemy of Allah. Woe be upon the one who hates you after me’
This report caused a major scandal in Hadith circles.
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn, in particular, rejected it outright.
Abū al-Azhar sets the scene for us:
I came to Baghdad and was in the Majlis (Hadith-session) of Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn. I quoted this Hadith to a man (in the Majlis) but he rejected it, so it kept being forwarded (to other students present) until it was referred back to Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn himself.
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn shouted aloud: ‘Who is this liar who narrates this on the authority of ʿAbd al-Razzāq?!’
Abū al-Azhar must have been terrified of being called out in this manner, but he gathered his nerves, for he had to defend the truth:
So I stood up in the middle of the Majlis and announced: ‘I narrate this Hadith on the authority of ʿAbd al-Razzāq’
A contemporary who was in the same Majlis reports the incident like this:
When Abū al-Azhar al-Naysābūrī narrated his Hadith from ʿAbd al-Razzāq in the Faḍāʾil (merit of ʿAlī), Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn was informed of that, so while he (i.e. Abū al-Azhar) was with him (i.e. Yaḥyā) in a group of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth – Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn declared (suddenly): ‘Who is this lying Naysābūrī who narrated this Hadith from ʿAbd al-Razzāq?!’
Abū al-Azhar stood up and said ‘It is I’.
So Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn smiled and said: ‘As for you then you are not a liar’ and he (i.e. Yaḥyā) wondered at its lack of defect and said: ‘the sin (i.e. onus) is on other than you in this Hadith’
There was price to be paid for not abandoning or cancelling a narrator like ʿAbd al-Razzāq which is that such narrators could sometimes come up with surprises that are difficult to deal with.
I believe Yaḥyā’s smile to be one of embarrassment, the ‘lying Naysābūrī’ he spoke of was present and ready to defend himself. The accusation was not going to stick in any case for everyone knew that Abū al-Azhar was not a liar nor was there any hint of him being a Shīʿī.
Still, Yaḥyā could just not get himself to accept the Hadith, his unease must have been due to the contents of the report, but the Aṣḥāb al-Ḥadīth always claimed not to judge Hadiths based on the Matn, yet there was no one to blame in the chain, they were all Thiqa and had met each other (the chain is not disconnected)!
Of course, the criteria for a report to be Ṣaḥīḥ is broader than this, and to be fair to Yaḥyā, he puts a very logical question to Abū al-Azhar (as found in a variant of this same incident):
When Abū al-Azhar came up from Ṣanʿāʾ and quoted this Hadith to the residents of Baghdad Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn objected to it, so when it was the day of his public Hadith session – he (i.e. Yaḥyā) said towards the end of the session: ‘Where is this lying Naysābūrī who quotes this Hadith on the authority of ʿAbd al-Razzāq?!’
So Abū al-Azhar stood up and said: ‘It is I’.
Whereupon Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn laughed because of his (i.e. Abū al-Azhar’s) (bold) words and his standing up in the session, then he (i.e. Yaḥyā) drew him (i.e. Abū al-Azhar) near (to himself) and said to him:
How did ʿAbd al-Razzāq narrate this to you and not narrate it to other than you?
Abū al-Azhar replies:
Know O Abā Zakariyyā (i.e. Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn) that I reached Ṣanʿāʾ only to find that ʿAbd al-Razzāq had left for a remote village of his. I came out seeking him despite being sick. So when I found him he asked me the news of Khurāsān and I informed him of it. I then wrote (Hadiths) from him and left with him (accompanying him) to Ṣanʿāʾ. So when I was bidding him farewell he said to me: ‘It has become obligatory on me to pay you your due (i.e. in return of your service), I shall narrate to you a Hadith that no one has heard from me except you’. It is at this point that he – I swear upon Allah – narrated this Hadith to me word for word
We are told that after hearing this, Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn ‘believed him and apologized to him’
This should not be understood to mean that he accepted the report, of course, just excused Abū al-Azhar of any blame over it.
But now that the reason for the Tafarrud (i.e. lack of corroboration) of the Hadith has been explained away, shouldn’t the report be accepted? After all, ʿAbd al-Razzāq is not a liar is he? He got this Hadith from Maʿmar didn’t he?
Not so fast, you see there was a final hurdle that a Hadith whose Matn was objectionable had to escape, these are the ʿIlal (hidden flaws) that, like a rabbit out of a hat, could be pulled out when need be.
In our case, the Hāfiẓ Ibn al-Sharqī, a student of Abū al-Azhar, attempts to save the day:
This Hadith is false. The reason behind it is that Maʿmar had a nephew who was Rafiḍī, and Maʿmar would give him access to his books, so this Hadith was added to it. Now Maʿmar was an awe-inducing man, no one would be able to question him or seek clarification from him, thus ʿAbd al-Razzāq heard this Hadith from the writing of the nephew of Maʿmar
Now this ‘attempt’ at a solution raises more questions than answers:
Who is this phantom Rafiḍī nephew of Maʿmar whom no one seems to have known except Ibn al-Sharqī – for he is never mentioned by anyone else and does not appear in any other context except this one?
How did Ibn al-Sharqī come to know of this truth which was hidden to Maʿmar’s own students including ʿAbd al-Razzāq, and to ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s students including Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn, Abū al-Azhar and others?
More importantly, if this is accepted then what does it mean for the integrity of the Maʿmar > Zuhrī link which appears hundreds of times in the canonical works and been described as one of the strongest?
Be that as it may, this Hadith was rejected by all early (it is not found in the six works) and later scholars – with the sole exception of al-Hākim in his Mustadrak who has this to say about it:
It is Ṣaḥīḥ per the condition of the two Shaykhs (i.e. Bukhārī and Muslim). Abū al-Azhar is unanimously Thiqa, and if a Thiqa is the sole one to narrate a Hadith then it is per their original principle Ṣaḥīḥ (i.e. unless the opposite can be demonstrated)
This (report) and even if all its narrators are Thiqāt yet it is Munkar, not far-off from being fabricated, otherwise why would ʿAbd al-Razzāq narrate it in secret and not have the boldness to mouth it to Aḥmad, Ibn Maʿīn and the large number who journeyed to him?!
I say: The reason for ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s fear is clear, he could imagine what their reaction would be were he to narrate it, and his fear was more than justified seeing what the reaction of Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn to Abū al-Azhar was!
Moreover, the same al-Dhahabī comes closest to revealing what the real issue with the report was when he says:
The heart bears witness that it is false
Will the Real ʿAbd al-Razzāq Please Stand Up
There is no evidence to say that ʿAbd al-Razzāq’ was an Imāmī in hiding, but If ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s teacher, Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān, the one who influenced ʿAbd al-Razzāq to subscribe to the Madhhab was someone who freely admitted to hating the Shaykhayn, if ʿAbd al-Razzāq could flippantly call ʿUmar an ‘idiot’ in a Hadith session one time, if Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn says that ʿAbd al-Razzāq was a ‘hundred times’ more extreme than ʿUbaydallāh in his Shīʿīsm, keeping in mind that this ʿUbaydallāh can be credibly deemed a Rafiḍī, then it is right to think that ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s Shīʿīsm has been underplayed by Sunni critics.
But this was only possible because ʿAbd al-Razzāq played along and was always on his guard (as al-Dhahabī puts it). A motive of self-preservation can explain why the full extent of ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s Shīʿīsm did not come to light beyond a few hints. For if there was one great fear that ʿAbd al-Razzāq had all his life it was his Hadiths being abandoned.
ʿAbd al-Razzāq himself narrates how he once travelled to Mecca and the Hadith students came to him for the first two or three days before ceasing to do so. He went to the great Mosque in desperation and took hold of the curtains of the Kaʿba before wailing in agony:
What is my fault?! Am I liar?! What am I?!
He returned home and the Hadith students turned up the next day.
Another report has him pessimistically summarizing the career of a Hadith narrator:
May Allah dishonour a commodity that cannot be sold except after one grows old and becomes weak, only when one turns a hundred do they write (Hadith) from him, then it might be said ‘A liar’ and they invalidate his knowledge, or it might be said ‘A man of Bidʿa (i.e. a Shīʿī)’ and they invalidate his knowledge – how few are saved from this fate!’ 
This can also explain why one wouldn’t be able to tell of ʿAbd al-Razzāq’s Shīʿīsm by simply studying the Muṣannaf which remains non-controversial when it comes to the subject of the companions.
There also exist statements attributed to ʿAbd al-Razzāq that clear him of any accusations of Shīʿīsm or Rafḍ.
Salama b. Shabīb narrates hearing ʿAbd al-Razzāq say:
I swear by Allah that my breast has never thought of preferring ʿAlī over Abū Bakr and ʿUmar!
May Allah have mercy on Abā Bakr! May Allah have mercy on ʿUmar! May Allah have mercy on ʿUthmān! May Allah have mercy on ʿAlī!
The one who does not love them is not a believer!
The most dependable of my actions is my love of them – may Allah’s pleasure and mercy be upon them all
Abū Bakr b. Zanjawayh narrates that he heard ʿAbd al-Razzāq say:
The Rafiḍī is a Kafir
ʿAbd al-Razzāq doth protest too much, methinks (if these statements are even authentic from him in the first place)
A critical historian would, in any case, give more weight to accumulating circumstantial evidence that is incidental and transcends sectarian boundaries over clear-cut apologetic statements devised to negate culpability.
It should have become evident that a narrator’s doctrine did indeed matter to to the early proto-Sunni Ahl al-Ḥadīth movement which later came to define orthodoxy for the majority of Muslims. A narrator’s doctrine came to light either through self-admission or by looking at the contents of the reports that the narrator chose to transmit.
The acceptance or rejection of any given report did not solely depend on the supposedly ‘objective’ measure of considering the ‘truthfulness and precision’ of its narrators but also on its contents which was being judged against pre-conceived standards of ‘what could be true or false’ and ‘what was for the greater good’ e.g. anything attacking the companions is automatically ‘false’ and if not then it is ‘useless’ or even ‘harmful’. This inescapably results in the problem of ‘epistemological bias’.
The way the Ahl al-Ḥadīth controlled membership, imposed discipline within its ranks, and regulated what was being circulated ‘out there’ is not through any brute enforcement (they did not wield political power) but by marginalizing those narrators who were judged to be ‘heretical’ and proceeding to abandon their ‘problematic’ material. They were able to accomplish this because they formed a small, tightly-knit clique of like-minded Hadith afficianados who acted collectively under the directives of a few widely-respected and autonomous ‘experts’ (the premier critics).
All this is to say that Zayd b. al-Mubārak would have been right to have felt aggrieved when his stance was ignored, wasn’t this how it was all supposed to work: You go to a narrator and if you discern that he holds ‘heretical’ doctrines (e.g. reviling the companions) and narrates Manākīr (what you deem to be objectionable content in favour of his heresy) you abandon him.
But there are always exceptions, ʿAbd al-Razzāq was one such exception, his prolificness and elevated link (Maʿmar from Zuhrī in particular) meant that ‘a blind eye’ could be turned to his doctrinal problems, after all, most of his reports were ‘clean’, and those that were ‘problematic’ could always be taken care of by those ‘convenient’ ʿIlal.
Appendix 1: The Presence of Sectarian Narrators in the Sunni Hadith Corpus – Is there any Criterion?
It has become clear that the earliest critics did not have a uniform response to sectarian narrators with acceptability depending on a narrator’s importance among other factors.
Later scholars attempted to find a method to the randomness and two approaches are documented below.
Ibn Ḥibbān says in the entry on Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān al-Ḍubaʿī:
Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān was from among the Thiqāt and precise ones in transmission (of reports) albeit he had an affinity for the Ahl al-Bayt, but he was not a caller to his Madhhab.
And there is no disagreement between the Imams of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth that a truthful and precise narrator if there is a Bidʿa (heresy) in him (e.g. Tashayyuʿ) but he does not call to it (i.e. propagate it) then using his reports as proof is permissible, but if he calls to his Bidʿa (heresy) then using his reports is impermissible.
It is for this reason that they abandoned the Hadith of a large group (of narrators) who used to subscribe to Bidʿa and call towards it – although they were Thiqa, while at the same time they made use of another group of Thiqāt whose allegiance (to Bidʿa) was identical to the former group in every way, except that these used not to call (others) to what they subscribed to.
The belief of a man is between him and his Lord, if He wishes He punishes him and if He wishes He forgives him, while for us is the acceptance of their reports if they are Thiqāt, as per what we have mentioned in more than one place in our books
According to Ibn Ḥibbān, the critical factor that made all the difference in whether a sectarian narrator’s Hadiths were accepted or not is whether he was a proselytizer (narrating reports that supports his Madhhab and inviting others towards that) or not, thus a proselytizer could be at the same level of Wathāqa and precision as a non-proselytizer but they rejected the former’s Hadith while accepting the latter.
But this criterion seems arbitrary, how would one define a ‘caller’ as opposed to a ‘non-caller’? More importantly, the criterion is not logically coherent, after all, if the proselytizing narrator is Thiqa then he would not be fabricating reports to support his Madhhab would he?
The irony is that Ibn Ḥibbān considers Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān to not have been a ‘caller’ allowing for his reports to have been accepted, but we have seen how ʿAbd al-Razzāq explicitly states that it was Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān who was the reason for him joining ‘this’ Madhhab.
Al-Dhahabī must have seen the pitfalls in Ibn Ḥibbān’s criterion and comes up with his own:
If someone were to say: How was it appropriate to give Tawthīq to a Mubtadiʿ (i.e. someone having heretical beliefs) while the definition of a Thiqa is ʿAdāla (moral uprightness) and Itqān (preciseness in relaying Hadith)? So how can a Ṣāḥib Bidʿa (believer in heresy) be ʿĀdil (morally upright)?!
Its answer is that Bidʿa is of two types: A minor Bidʿa like extreme Tashayyuʿ or a moderate one without extremism and deviation, now this (type) was found among a lot of the Tābiʿīn and those who came after them, coupled with religion, righteousness and truthfulness.
So if the Hadith of these ones were to be repudiated then a large number of the prophetic reports would be sidelined. And this is a clear-cut Mafsada (damage to the religion).
Then there is major Bidʿa, like total Rafḍ and extremism in it, belittling Abī Bakr and ʿUmar, and calling others to that, then this type are not made use of in any way!
In addition, the name of even a single man of this latter type who was also truthful and trustworthy does not come to mind at the present, rather, lying is their slogan, Taqiyya and hypocrisy their cover, so how can the narration of the one whose state is like this be accepted?! By no means whatsoever!
Thus, the Ghālī (extreme) Shīʿī in the age of the Salaf and their usage was one who spoke against ʿUthmān, Zubayr, Ṭalḥa, Muʿāwiya and the others who waged war against ʿAlī, and made Sabb of (i.e. reviled) them.
As for the Ghālī (extremist) in our age and usage it is the one who accuses these leaders of disbelief and dissociates from the Shaykhayn as well. Then such a one is a misguided who causes to stumble.
Now Abān b. Taghlib was not someone who criticized the Shaykhayn at all, although he may have believed that ʿAlī was better than them both
Al-Dhahabī’s alternative approach is to divide the heresy that is Shīʿīsm into two categories: ‘major’ and ‘minor’. Even the most extreme Shia of the early period were guilty merely of minor heresy (reviling some companions who fought ʿAlī) and could thus be taken from.
Much can be said about this passage, including how al-Dhahabī admits that there were many Shīʿīs among the Tābiʿīn and that the Hadiths of Shīʿī narrators are indispensable!
But just one observation is enough to upend his carefully constructed edifice: What if some early Shīʿī narrators were not letting out their true feelings and were in reality major heretics (after all, ‘Taqiyya was their cover’ as he puts it) leading to their Hadiths getting accepted that way?! What could be a defense against that?
The irony is that he proposes this in the entry on Abān b. Taghlib, and we the Imāmiyya who know Abān better would claim he was doing just that!
Appendix 2: The Tafḍīl of the Shaykhayn in Kufa – Myth or Reality?
The criterion al-Dhahabī formulates above means that there cannot be a ‘Thiqa Rafiḍī’ since that would be a paradox.
Following from this, al-Dhahabī is very careful to demonstrate that the Shīʿī narrators whose Hadiths were accepted did not fall under ‘major heresy’ (we have seen how he erroneously weakens the report which has Jaʿfar b. Sulaymān hating the two).
One strategy he uses to accomplish this is by including report(s) whose contents favour Abū Bakr and ʿUmar over ʿAlī being narrated by the narrator in question, the implication being that the narrator would not transmit such a report if they were a Rafiḍī and thought that ʿAlī was the ‘best of creation’ after the prophet.
For example, in the entry on ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā al-ʿAbsī he includes the following report (with ʿUbaydallāh in the chain):
ʿAlī – may Allah be pleased with him – said: The best of us after our prophet is Abū Bakr and ʿUmar
Is narrating this report conclusive evidence that ʿUbaydallāh saw Abū Bakr and ʿUmar as better than ʿAlī?
While researching this question I came across a critical piece of evidence that is undeniably authentic speaking from the historio-critical perspective (since it sticks out against the massive weight of the established narrative) and is also superior on logical grounds since a personal testimony (where the narrator is speaking is giving his own view) is stronger than extrapolating intent from a narrator transmitting a report (where motive could just be prolificness, as Aḥmad claimed for ʿAbd al-Razzāq).
Ibn Muḥriz (d. 236), who was a student of Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn, has a poorly known Sūʾālāt work which preserves his teacher’s answers to questions about different narrators and other random observations as the one given below:
I heard Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn say: A man came to ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā and said to him: ‘Who was better – ʿAlī or Abū Bakr and ʿUmar?’
So I heard ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā saying: ‘No one used to entertain doubt that ʿAlī was better than Abi Bakr and ʿUmar!’
Of course, Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn is quick to add his own opinion.
I heard Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn say: ‘The one who prefers Abā Bakr and ʿUmar (over ʿAlī) then he is correct! And the one who withholds (judgment) about ʿAlī and ʿUthmān is (also) correct!
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn said: We prefer ʿUthmān to ʿAlī
Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn’s opinion reflects the trend among the Ahl al-Ḥadīth, but in quoting his teacher ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā’s answer he is giving us a window into the general attitude of Kufa a generation earlier. ʿUbaydallāh’s answer depicts preferring ʿAlī over the Shaykhayn as so obvious there that it was not even controversial.
Another report in the same work emphasizes the same.
I heard Yaḥyā b. Maʿīn say: Salama b. ʿAffān asked Yaḥyā b. Ādam: ‘Do you believe in the permissibility of armed rebellion?’
He (i.e. Yaḥyā b. Ādam) said: ‘I do not believe in raising the sword against anyone from the Umma of Muḥammad, but I have not encountered anyone from the residents of this town (i.e. Kufa) who does not prefer ʿAlī over Abū Bakr and ʿUmar except Sufyān al-Thawrī!’
Now this report is very useful to us because if this was the general Kufan attitude in the early years of both ʿUbaydallāh b. Mūsā (d. 213) and Yaḥyā b. Adam (d. 203) before a sea-change in attitudes occurs then we need to look again at the so-called Mutawātir report that has ʿAlī declaring on the Kufan pulpit the superiority of Shaykhayn and vowing to penalize anyone who favoured him over them.
Were the masses of the Kufans ignorant about ʿAlī’s clear statement? Or did they understand there was more to ʿAlī’s declaration? Or was this report even widely recognized as being from ʿAlī in the first place?