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Published on 6th June, 2002

The Authenticity of Nahj al-Balagha

By Ayatullah Dr Sayyid Fadhel Milani
School of Oriental & African Studies, London, England.

Ayatullah Dr Sayyid Fadhel Milani

Today we are going to discuss five different ways in which Imam Ali ('a) taught the community, about life and about religion:

The first of these was via spiritual teaching and practice.  By spiritual I refer to the ways in which he encouraged righteousness, piety and fear of Allah. His own practice remains a lasting example of unconditional humility and submission to his Lord’s Majesty and Might.

 

A second access was afforded by sermons pertinent to the contemporary affairs of the Muslim nation of the time.

 

Thirdly, he communicated with various governors of the Islamic state.  A prime example of this is his letter to Malik al-Ashtar, Governor of Egypt.

 

In addition, there was the correspondence with people such as Muawiyah who refused to accept Ali ('a) as their Imam, or to concede that it was the people who had elected him to be their Caliph.

There were too, deeper and more intimate communications by which he transferred subtle and concealed knowledge to his close disciples such as Kumayl bin Ziyad al-Nakhaai and Maytham al-Tammar.

Clearly, his means of communication differed from one group to another.

.

The Authenticity of Nahj al-Balagha  

.
Many cast doubt on the authenticity of the chain of transmission, or isnad, of this work and claim that it is really the work of the compiler.  However, those familiar with al-Radhi’s writings can easily identify differences between his and Imam Ali’s styles.

 

In his book, the great scholar of Najaf, Sayyid Abdul Zahra Husayni introduces, from authors who lived and died a long time before Sharif al-Radhi, 114 references for most of the sermons included in Nahj al-Balagha.  As an example, he mentions that Sermon 3, which elaborates on the issue of the Prophet Muhammad’s succession, was attributed to Imam Ali ('a) long before Sharif al-Radhi compiled Nahj al-Balagha.

 

This sermon begins with the following statement:


"By Allah, the son of Abu Quhafah donned the mantle of succession in the clear knowledge that my position in relation to that was analogous to that of an axle in relation to a hand mill."

 

Those references include the following attributions of this sermon to Imam Ali ('a):

  1. Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman, Ibn Qubbah al Razi, a Mu’tazilites who later turned to the twelve Imams, in ‘Al-Insaaf’.

  2. Abul Qasim al-Balkhi, who died in 317 AH.

  3. Al-Hasan bin Abdullah al-Askeri.

  4. Al-Sadouq in ‘Ma’ani al-Akhbar’ pp. 360 & ‘Ilal el-Sharaye’ pp. 150

  5.  Ibn Abd Rabbah al-Maliki who died in 328 AH

  6.  Sheikh Mufid, Sharif al-Radhi’s teacher, in ‘Al-Irshad’.  This book has been translated into English by Professor Haward.

  7. Qadi Abd al-Jabbar Mu’tazili who died in 415 AH

  8. Abu Saeed Al-Aabi who died in 422 AH

  9. Sharif Al-Mortada in ‘Al-Shafi’

  10. Ibn Maytham Bahrani in Vol.1 page 252 of his commentary on Nahj al-Balagha, comments that he had found that sermon in two books, both written before the birth of Sharif al-Radhi.  The first, was ‘Insaaf’, written by Abu Jaafar bin Qubbah, a great Mutazilite who died before Sharif al-Radhi was born.  The second, a manuscript dated 64 years prior to the birth of Sharif al-Radhi, by Abul Hasan Ali bin Muhammad bin Furat, Vizier to the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir Billah.  

Such evidence serves to remove all doubt on the authenticity of that particular sermon.

.

Ibn Abi al-Hahdid

.

Furthermore, the great mutazilite commentator of Nahj al-Balagha, Ibn Abi al-Hahdid, records in Vol. 1 page 205, ‘My teacher al-Wasiti, reported that in year 603 he had had the following conversation with his teacher, Ibn Khashab:

 

When I asked him if the above sermon had been fabricated he replied, ‘No, by Allah I know that it is from Imam Ali ('a) as clearly as I see you before me now.’

 

I then said that many people claim that sermon to be Sharif al-Radhi’s. He responded by saying that neither Sharif al-Radhi nor anyone else was capable of producing such an eloquent sermon.  He continued by saying, ‘We have studied Sharif al-Radhi’s writings and are familiar with his style.  There is no similarity between the two works.’

 

He also said, ‘By Allah, I found this sermon in books written two hundred years before Sharif al-Radhi was born.’  

.

Allamah Amini

.

Allamah Amini, the author of ‘Al Ghadir’, the most authentic and seminal reference on the issue of Immamah - published in 11 volumes, gives 28 references for the above sermon in volume 7 pp 82.

 

It follows that no other book is able to provide more authentic references than Nahj al-Balagha.

 

Let us now look at the following arguments regarding the authenticity of Nahj al-Balagha in total.

 

The first is that Sharif al-Radhi comments briefly, at the end of certain sermons, to present his own feelings and ideas about them.  Sometimes he explains words which he thought necessary to insert in certain places.  The content of those comments, in close proximity to the words of those speeches themselves have made it very easy for anyone with knowledge of Arabic literature, to realise that the author of the comments cannot possibly be the author of the speeches.  

.

Brilliant Jewel

 

If we compare the Qur’anic commentary of Sharif al-Radhi, ‘Haqeeq ul-Tanzil’ in which he says that although Imam Ali’s eloquence is superhuman, when a Qur’anic ayah is included in a speech, it stands out as a brilliant jewel among pebbles.  We can use the same comparison to illustrate the difference between Imam Ali’s sermons and Sharif al-Radhi’s comments.

 

The second is that Sharif al-Radhi was not an unknown during his own lifetime.  He occupied secular and religious positions of note in a period during which both religion and literature blossomed.  He lived in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire which was at that time the world centre of civilisation and culture.  Indeed, Sheikh Mufid, Sharif al-Radhi’s teacher, was alive while Nahj al-Balagha was being compiled and survived long after Sharif al-Radhi had already passed away.  Having said this, we also have before us books by other scholars of that period.  These do not contain, even in the slightest form, anything similar to Nahj al-Balagha.

 

The third is that the speeches of Imam Ali ('a) were well known to scholars before Sharif al-Radhi was ever born.  For example, the historian Masoudi, who died in 340 AH, that is 66 years before Sharif al-Radhi’s death, writes in his book Murouj al-Thahab Vol 2 pp. 431, and I quote, ‘More than 480 speeches of Ali ibn Abu Talib ('a) have been memorised by numerous people.  These were delivered in an extempore manner and people frequently quoted them as being the words of Imam Ali ('a)'.

 

It is clear that if 480 speeches were collected, they would make a book bigger than Nahj al-Balagha.  This serves to explain Sharif al-Radhi’s sub- title for Nahj al-Balagha ‘A Selection from the Sermons, Letters and Sayings of Amir al-Mu’minin Ali ibn Abu Talib’.

 

In his commentary on Nahj al-Balagha, Ibn Abi al-Hahdid includes the statement by the prominent secretary of the last Umayyd Caliph, Abdul Hamid bin Yaya, who died in 132 AH., ‘I have memorised 70 speeches of Ali ibn Abu Talib ('a) and have benefited much from the advantages and blessings they bestowed on me.’

 

Allamah Hasan al-Nadobie, in his commentary on Al-Bayan wal Tabyeen, wrote, ‘Most probably Ibn al-Muqaafa derived his powerful expressions from Amir al-Muminin Ali Ali ibn Abu Talib ('a).  This is no doubt why he frequently said that, ‘he had drunk his fill from the springs of Imam Ali’s speeches.’

 

Ibn Nabata, who died in the year 374 AH said, ‘I have memorised a treasury of speeches, the blessing of which multiplies by the number of times it is taken advantage of.  I have identified a hundred varieties of different sermon from Imam Ali ('a).’   

.

Zayd ibn Ali ibn Husayn

.

Al Kishi, in ‘Al-Rijal’, a compilation of biographies of the transmitters of ahadith, reports that Zayd ibn Ali ibn Husayn l used to regularly listen to the speeches of Imam Ali ('a).  Abu al-Sabah al-Kinani confirmed this saying:

 

"Zayd used to listen to me reciting Imam Ali’s speeches."
 

Fourthly, other scholars contemporary to Sharif al-Radhi, also collected the work of Imam Ali ('a).  A few include material in the supplements of their books such as:

  • Ibn Maskawaih d.421 AH in his ‘Tajarib al-Umam’ – The Experiences of Nations

  •  Hafiz Abu Na’im al-Isphahani d.430 AH in his ‘Hilyat al-Awliyaa’ – The Adornment of Sages

  • Shaikh al-Tusi d.460 AH

  • Al Amidi in his book "Ghorar al-Hikam"

 

The Source of the Doubts

.

It is surprising that for almost 250 years, no voice was raised to question the authenticity of Nahj al-Balagha.  Indeed, many Sunni scholars wrote commentaries on it.  For example: Abul Hasan al-Baihaqi d. 565 AH, Ibn Abi al-Hahdid d. 655AH and Taftazani and others.

 

It may be that because of the above commentaries, Nahj al-Balagha became known throughout the Islamic world.  However, since its contents cover the issue of Khilafah it drew extreme reaction from followers of the School of Khilafah.  They, determined to deter general readership and did all they could to cast doubt of its authenticity. Thus, it was that Ibn Khallakan d. 681AH, who made the first attempt to question its authorship.

When we look into Ibn Khallakan’s actions, it is clear that he was fond of Yazid ibn Muawiyah.  He admits this, ‘In the year 633, when I was in Damascus, I memorised the whole collection of Yazid’s poems because I was extremely fond of him.  I was thus able to recognise his authentic poems from those of fabricators.’  See Wafayat al-Ayan Vol 1 pp. 507. It is apparently due to this fondness that Ibn Khallakan felt he should attack all those whom Yazid had disliked. Yazid is notable for being the worst ever enemy of Ahl al-Bayt.

One may wonder why in over 250 years, no controversial voice was raised from centres such as Baghdad within the heartlands of Islamic learning, and why it finally arose in Cordoba or Kairawan, the provincial home of Umayyad influence.  

.

Professor Muhammad Muhyidin

.

I now quote from Professor Muhammad Muhyidin, erstwhile Professor of Arabic Literature at Al-Azhar University Cairo:

 

"Nahj al-Balagha is a selection of utterances of Amir al-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abu Talib ('a) adopted by Sharif al-Radhi Abul Hasan Muhammad bin Hasan al-Mousawi. It contains distinguished rhetoric and the finest examples of eloquence, and that is fitting that it contains the expressions and utterances of the person, after the Prophet, who was the greatest master of word and reason. The person with the greatest facility in Arabic literature.  

 

I studied Nahj al-Balagha from early youth and loved it from an early age.  I saw my father read it often and discovered that my eldest uncle spent long hours pondering over it, in appreciation of its clarification and in admiration of its style."

..

Tuhaf al-Uqouol

.

Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Shu’ba al Harrani who died in 320 AH, that is 86 years before Sharif al-Radhi died, included in his book ‘Tuhaf al-Uqouol’, sections entitled ‘The Maxims of the Prophet ('s)’, ‘The Maxims of the Imams’ and ‘Allah’s Confidential Talks with Musa and Isa ('a)’. 

 

In the section of Imam Ali’s maxims he writes that, ‘The reports which relate long maxims and words of wisdom of Imam Ali ('a) need a volume specifically dedicated to the subject of monotheism.  We however, refer to only one sermon on monotheism before we move to more common sermons and sayings appropriate to the topics included herein.’

 

You will find that the sermon on monotheism included by al-Harrani is identical to that included in Nahj al-Balagha.  Also identical in both is the advice given by Imam Ali ('a) to his son Imam Hasan ('a).

 

Lastly, despite Harrani’s manuscript not being available to Sharif al-Radhi while he compiled Nahj al-Balagha, the letter from Imam Ali ('a) to Malik al-Ashtar, his governor in Egypt, is essentially similar in both works.

 

END

Author: Ayatullah Dr Sayyid Fadhel Milani
Photographer/Illustrator: Photo provided by A.G.Karim
Chief Editor: Hj Nurzaynab El-Fatah
Production: Hj S. Abidin
Published Date: Published on 6th June, 2002

Modification Date: 11th December, 2008
Publication ID: 02alBalagha. The Authenticity of Nahj al-Balagha
Copyright: © Victory News Magazine, 2008

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