Published on 6th
Authenticity of Nahj al-Balagha
Sayyid Fadhel Milani
School of Oriental &
African Studies, London, England.
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
Thirdly, he communicated with various
governors of the Islamic state. A prime example of this is
his letter to Malik
al-Ashtar, Governor of
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.
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.
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
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
"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
Those references include the following
attributions of this sermon to Imam Ali ('a):
Muhammad bin Abdul
Rahman, Ibn Qubbah al Razi, a Mu’tazilites
who later turned to the twelve Imams, in ‘Al-Insaaf’.
al-Balkhi, who died in 317 AH.
Al-Hasan bin Abdullah
Al-Sadouq in ‘Ma’ani
al-Akhbar’ pp. 360 & ‘Ilal el-Sharaye’
Ibn Abd Rabbah
al-Maliki who died in 328 AH
Mufid, Sharif al-Radhi’s teacher, in ‘Al-Irshad’.
This book has been translated into English by Professor Haward.
al-Jabbar Mu’tazili who died in 415 AH
Al-Aabi who died in 422 AH
Al-Mortada in ‘Al-Shafi’
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
Such evidence serves to remove all doubt on
the authenticity of that particular sermon.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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).’
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
"Zayd used to listen to me reciting Imam Ali’s
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
– The Adornment of Sages
Shaikh al-Tusi d.460
Al Amidi in his book
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.
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.
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.
I now quote from Professor Muhammad
Muhyidin, erstwhile Professor of Arabic Literature at Al-Azhar
"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."
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
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
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.
Sayyid Fadhel Milani
Photographer/Illustrator: Photo provided by
Chief Editor: Hj Nurzaynab El-Fatah
Production: Hj S. Abidin
Published on 6th
Modification Date: 11th
Publication ID: 02alBalagha.
Authenticity of Nahj al-Balagha
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