The Sacred Door Project

Much like the majority Sunni school of Islam, one of the major sources from which Twelver Shi’a Muslim derive their theological beliefs and jurisprudential rulings is the extra-Qur’anic source referred to as Hadith. The Twelver Shi’a Muslims consider Hadith as an important source for religious guidance and have historically had their own corpus which differs from that of their Sunni counterparts. It is important to note that several assumptions can sometimes be made when drawing parallels and therefore it is useful to attempt to understand the corpus and position of Twelver Shi’a Hadith in their own organic setting and context as opposed to conflating categories and imposing the Sunni understanding of their Hadith corpus onto the Shi’a experience and approach to their corpus. This is important to highlight prior to analysing or presenting Al-Kafi since there is often a tendency for non-Shi’as (both Muslim and non-Muslim) to assume that by referring to a work as the most important or the most authentic Hadith work in the Twelver community would necessitate that it is considered to be entirely or primarily dependable and equivalent to the Sunni community’s engagement with the Two Sahih works (Bukhari and Muslim) or even the Ibadi engagement with Musnad Rabi’.

The Compiler of Al-Kafi and his historical background

Muhammad b. Ya’qub al-Kulayni (d. 328 or 329) was born in Kulayn, a village in the city of Rayy which is now located in the Southern suburbs of Tehran, the capital city of Iran. Naturally, this explains the appellations of al-Razi (being from Rayy) and al-Kulayni (given the specific village’s name was Kulayn). No specific death date has been recorded for the Shaykh but there are several facts which allow one to posit a rough medium for when the Shaykh would have been born.

Amongst the contextual evidences cited by Hubbullah to posit a rough birth date for al-Kulayni are the following:

i) The fact that al-Kulayni is cited as being a reviver of the sect at the beginning of the third century and that someone recognised to be a reviver of the sect is not conventionally bestowed upon someone under the age of forty. Hubbullah argues that minimally this would place his birth at around 360 A.H

ii)  The fact that al-Kulayni has transmitted on the direct authority of prominent scholars who had passed away prior to the year 300 A.H such as Al-Saffar al-Qummi (d. 290), Abu al-Hassan al-Jawani (d. 291) and Al-Hashimi al-Baghdadi (d. 291) strengthens the earlier assumption that he was not a young man or teenager around the point of his recognition as a Reviver (Mujadid).

iii) Al-Kulayni is recorded to have been amongst the most prominent of the Shi’a scholars during his stay in Rayy by al-Najashi, the prominent scholar of bibliographical entries for the transmitters and scholars of Hadith. Given the large number of Imami scholars in Rayy during his time and the fact that we know he migrated to Baghdad from Rayy by the year 310, Hubbullah interprets this to give us confidence that his age in Rayy must have been roughly fifty years of age (or a few years short) in order to have achieved this recognition, thus placing his birth roughly around 360 A.H.

The Intellectual Pursuit of Al-Kulayni.

In his pursuit of the traditions of the Ahl al-Bayt, al-Kulayni found himself seeking knowledge from numerous different sources and minimally this was pursued in Rayy, which was considered the intellectual centre of Iran and Persian scholarship during the time of al-Kulayni. It is therefore uncertain as to whether or not al-Kulayni sought knowledge in different regions or if the scholars of those regions had made their way to Rayy and were therefore accessible to the Shaykh. From amongst the direct transmitters of traditions that the Shaykh had access to, he benefitted from scholars of numerous different regions amongst them Qummis such as Ahmad b. Idris, Sa’d b. ‘Abdullah al-Ash’ari al-Qummi, also scholars from Samarqand such as Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Ja’fari, scholars from Nishapur such as Muhammad b. Isma’il al-Nisaburi and scholars from Hamdan such as Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Ibrahim al-Hamadani amongst others. During al-Kulayni’s time in Iraq, he likewise benefitted from Baghdadi scholars of tradition and even Kufan scholars such as Abu al-’Abbas al-Razzaz al-Kufi. According to the biographical entry of Ibn ‘Asakir al-Dimashqi, al-Kulayni even ended up in Baalbek where he was engaging in hadith transmission after his time in Iraq.

al-Kulayni’s works:

It is unfortunate that with the exception of Kitab al-Kafi, none of the original works of al-Kulayni have been transmitted to us, in fact all such works have become extinct. Yet even with the available list of works which are mentioned by early Shi’a bibliographical entries, al-Kulayni authored relatively few works in comparison to other Imami giants of scholarship and near contemporaries such al-Mufid, al-Saduq and others.

From the works listed by the Bibliographical Entries, al-Kulayni had authored the following:

i) Kitab Ta’bir al-Ru’ya/Kitab Tafsir al-Ru’ya, this work was evidently a work which focused upon correct dream interpretation, an indicator that this was an interest of al-Kulayni is the fact that his Rawdah section of al-Kafi includes numerous reports on the discipline.

ii) Kitab al-Radd ‘ala al-Qaramita, the book in refutation of the Qaramita. The Qaramita were a militant sect within the Muslim community which posed a great threat after their initial emergence in the mid-third century. Ultimately they would go on to even steal the black stone from Makkah and cause turmoil to the Muslim community through their militant activities. Given their role in theological disputes, it makes sense that al-Kulayni had written against them as they had some influence in Kufa. The title of the work suggests that it was a work of theological polemics.

iii) Kitab Rasa’il al-A’immah, the book of the letters of the Imams. This book appears to be a compilation of letters authored by the Shi’a Imams to their contemporaries and family, it had reached Ibn Tawus in his famous library and according to Hubbullah, may very well have been extant during the time of the renowned Philosopher Mulla Sadra who cites it in his commentary on Usul al-Kafi. The author of the bibliographical dictionary Ma’alim al-’Ulema, Ibn Shahr Ashub al-Mazandarani mistakenly lists the work as “Kitab al-Wasa’il” but this is evidently a slip of the pen and a scribal error.

iv) Kitab al-Rijal, The book of transmitters of Hadith. The name of the work suggests a dictionary pertaining to entries of the transmitters of Hadith, this would have either focused upon their generational placing as contemporaries of Imams (tabaqah) or questions pertaining to their dependability or lack thereof as transmitters of hadith. The presence of a work of Rijal amongst the works of al-Kulayni delineates that he was by no-means alien to the field of hadith authentication and its concerns and therefore was not merely a compiler.

v) Kitab Ma Qil fi al-A’immah min al-Shi’r. The book of What has been said of Imams (A) of poetry. This work which is lost minimally highlights how well versed and grounded Shaykh al-Kulayni would have been in Arabic literature and poetry.

vi) Kitab Khasa’is al-Ghadir. The book of the uniqueness of al-Ghadir, this work has been mentioned by the near-contemporary scholar, ‘Abd al-’Aziz al-Tabataba’i as a work of al-Kulayni, however, Hubbullah has challenged the veracity of this claim stating that it is a unique claim of al-Tabataba’i which remains unsubstantiated. Unfortunately given that the book is not extant, it is difficult to assess the claim of the work’s attribution.

The immediate sources of al-Kulayni in his al-Kafi:

The term Mashayikh (direct teachers) can be confusing as it is assessed in many contemporary studies of al-Kafi as it gives the erroneous impression that the relationship between al-Kulayni and all the individuals he direct transmits reports from, was one of a teacher and a student in a discipleship. This however is not necessarily the case and one ought to distinguish between individuals that the Shaykh evidently had as teachers and individuals whom he happened to meet and transmit on the authority of. Amongst all of those whom al-Kulayni does transmit from directly, the following are those named:

1- Ali b. Ibrahim Al-Qummi

2- Muhammad b.  Yahya Al-Attar Al-Qummi

3- Humayd b. Ziyad Al-Kufi Al-Ninuwi

4- Ahmad b. Idris Al-Ash’ari Al-Qummi

5- Al-Husayn b. Muhammad Al-Ash’ari Al-Qummi

6- Muhammad b. Isma’il Al-Nisapuri

7- Muhammad b. Ja’far Al-Razzaz Al-Kufi  

8- Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Ahmad Al-Kufi

9- ‘Ali b. Muhammad b. Bindar Al-Barqi

10- Ahmad b. Mihran

11- Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Al-Salt Al-Qummi

12- Al-Hasan b. Ali Al-Hashimi

13- Al-Husayn b. Ali Al-Alawi

14- Al-Husayn b. Ali Al-Husayni

15- Al-Husayn b. Al-Hasan Al-Alawi

16- Al-Hasan b. Khafif

17- Abu Dawud

18- Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Ja’far Al-Himyari Al-Qummi

19- Ahmad b. Abdullah

20- Abu Abdullah Al-Ash’ari

21- Ali b. Musa Al-Kamindani

22- Muhammad b. Ali b. Ma’mar

23- Ali b. Muhammad b. Ali b. Abbas

24- Ali b. Al-Husayn Al-Mu’dib

25- Al-Qasim b. Al-Ala’ Al-Azerbijani

26- Muhammad b. Aqil

27- Muhammad b. Al-Hasan

28- Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Sa’id b. Uqdah Al-Kufi

Amongst those individuals, if one were to filter them to the primary direct teachers of al-Kulayni from whom he has depended upon for a substantial amount of traditions and thus had a direct relationship with beyond acquiring a few traditions on their authority, then the list would be reduced to the following individuals:

-Ali b. Ibrahim al-Qummi (Qum)

-Muhammad b. Yahya al-`Attar (Qum)

-Ahmad b. Idris al-Qummi (Qum)

-Al-Hussain b. Muhammad b. Amir (Qum)

-Muhammad b. Isma`il an-Nisapuri (Nishapur)

-Ali b. Muhammad `Allan al-Kulayni al-Razi (Rayy)

-Humayd b. Ziyad (Kufa)

– Ali b. Muhammad b. `Abdullah b. `Imran (Qum)

-Ahmad b. Muhammad al-`Asimi (Kufa)

-Muhammad b. al-Hasan at-Ta’i al-Razi (Rayy)

-Muhammad b. Ja`far al-Asadi al-Kufi (Kufa)

-Ahmad bin Mihran

Unique qualities of al-Kulayni’s compilation

Al-Kulayni differs substantially in the approaches followed by both al-Saduq and al-Tusi in their respective books which form the other three works in the canonical four books of classical Shi’a narrations. One finds that whilst the latter two have a tendency to truncate their chains of authority through which they transmit their traditions and have listed their sources of transmission in independent works entitled the books of Mashayikha (lists of authorities), al-Kulayni on the other hand has a tendency to mention with surprising levels of detail the numerous sources for the traditions that he has gathered in work. In doing so, al-Kulayni will often highlight where a tradition has several transmitters in any given generation and thus demonstrates the fame of the given traditions (when applicable).

Another distinct feature of al-Kafi which distinguishes it amongst the four books of hadith is the useful practices of al-Kulayni in the area of the text itself. al-Kulayni assists the reader and scholar with several unique practices observed from studying al-Kafi from amongst them:

i) precision in listing Qur’anic Ayat cited by the Imams in the traditions of al-Kafi, this has been most fruitful in the area of what are termed Ayat al-Ahkam or verses of the Qur’an pertaining to legal rulings, for according to Hubbullah, the vast majority of such verses have been included with relevant traditions in Furu’ al-Kafi (the second section of al-Kafi) which contributes to helping us understand an important source of the teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt in such areas.

ii) Occasionally al-Kulayni will offer a few words in commentary to help explicate some texts which may be ambiguous and unclear to the eyes of a non-scholar.

iii) Occasionally al-Kulayni will even offer some insight into filtering between areas of conflict in the very texts that he has gathered, al-Kulayni will occasionally highlight such areas of conflict, offering his own resolution and highlighting where the scholastic community has acted contrary to even texts which seemingly are transmitted with impeccable chains of transmission

iv) the occasional commentary of al-Kulayni in the first section of al-Kafi itself (al-Usul) where he will occasionally make a reference to one of his own theological views.

v) the occasional addition of al-Kulayni’s jurisprudential view to an important chapter on a jurisprudential matter.

In regards to al-Kafi’s structure as a text, it is divided into three sections.

The first section is entitled al-Usul, namely principles pertaining to doctrinal matters. Within al-Usul, al-Kulayni has gathered eight books pertaining to doctrines and subdivided into a further four hundred and ninety-nine and chapters.

The second section is entitled al-Furu’ which encompasses jurisprudential rulings and legal matters, it is further divided into twenty six books and a further one thousand, seven hundred and forty four chapters.

The final section is entitled al-Rawdha and is not divided into books or chapters.

In total, al-Kafi contains 15,508 narrations, of which one can give the conservative statistics traditionally cited by modern Shi’a scholarship 9,485 narrations are considered to be unreliable in terms of falling short of having an authentic chain of transmission.

Did al-Kulayni believe that all of his work al-Kafi was reliable and therefore something to be depended upon entirely?

Some scholars have depended upon al-Kulayni’s introduction to the work al-Kafi to assume that al-Kulayni compiled the work to be depended upon in its entirety and for each tradition to be individually depended upon and considered authentic. There are certainly several prominent scholars of the Shi’a sect who have argued this to be the stance of al-Kulayni during certain points of history. One of the most rigorous discussions on this question is put forward by Sayyid Abu al-Qasim al-Khu’i in his encyclopedia entitled Mu’jam Rijal al-Hadith in which he discusses these points and their validity, concluding that this understanding cannot be held. However in short it would seem to be impossible to argue that given al-Kulayni’s occasional qualifications, commentary and preference given to certain traditions that he considered everything to be sound both in terms of transmission and in turns of dependability or worthy of acting upon.

Stated in other words, one will first have to demonstrate that the reading of al-Kulayni’s introduction to al-Kafi demonstrates that al-Kulayni did indeed hold the understanding that everything contained in al-Kafi was reliably transmitted from the Imams. Furthermore, even if one were able to achieve that task, something which remains disputed amongst Shi’a scholars until today. One would thereafter have to be able to demonstrate that al-Kulayni was able to successfully live up to the task that he set out for himself (assuming one has a correct understanding of his introduction), something which is impossible to do since al-Kulayni’s work contains reports which fall short of the promise made in the introduction (in that he reports traditions which do not even reach an Infallible).

Did Imam al-Mahdi approve the entirety of the contents of al-Kafi?

One popular myth which circulates even in some scholarly circles is the attributed story that Imam al-Mahdi had actually stated “al-Kafi is sufficient for our Shi’a”, whilst there is no precise dating for the origin of this story, there is no reliable source for its origin. Therefore there is no reason to accept this belief, however there are several contextual proofs which firmly falsify the claim.

  1. Muhammad Amin al-Astarabadi, the head of the Akhbari jurists firmly denies the validity of the story

  2. Al-Kulayni never reports directly on the authority of any of the four deputies of the Imam.

  3. Al-Kulayni reports from two of the deputies of the Imam but only via an intermediary and in those cases, the number of traditions he reports from them is so scarce that it is difficult to believe that he had access to them in any meaningful way. Hence any contact with the Imam would have been impossible let alone for the Imam to vindicate an entire compilation of hadith by al-Kulayni.

Commentaries upon al-Kafi

Much like other giant compilations of hadith from other schools of Islam, one finds that the engagement of the scholars with Kitab al-Kafi demonstrates that it has never been intended to be utilised as a resource detached of scholarly commentary, in fact, one finds that most scholars would probably caution that one could get extremely confused approaching a work like al-Kafi without recourse to several necessary tools required to interpret and understand the traditions contained therein. The most famous commentary upon al-Kafi thus far has been the commentary entitled Mir’at al-’Uqul fi Sharh Akhbar Aal al-Rasul by the renowned Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi (d. 1191 A.H) which remains a popular resource amongst scholars until today.