In the most important collection of Shi‘ite hadīths, the imams’ pivotal role emerges already from the choice to report not only the traditions ascribed to Muhammad, but also those attributed to his successors

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:57:33

In the most important collection of Shi‘ite hadīths, the imams’ pivotal role emerges already from the choice to report not only the traditions ascribed to Muhammad, but also those attributed to his successors. Not a few of these sayings concern the need for an infallible guide inspired by God. This cannot consist solely in the Qur’an, the object of divergent and conflicting interpretations: a “keeper” is needed, just as sense organs need a heart.


The Need for an Imam-Proof

2. From Mansūr Ibn Hāzim. One day I said to Ja‘far al-Sādiq [the sixth imam], “God is too majestic and lofty to know things in His creatures: it is creatures that know things in God.” “You have spoken truly”. “But those who know that they have a Lord must also know that the Lord is either pleased or angered [by human actions] and that it is possible to know whether he is pleased or angered only through a revelation i.e. a messenger. Those who have not received a revelation must set about seeking messengers and when they find them they will know that they are the Proof and that they owe them obedience. [Having made these preliminary remarks] I asked people, “Do you know that God’s Messenger was the Proof of God for his creatures?” “Of course.” “But when God’s Messenger passed to the other life, who remained as God’s Proof for his creatures?” 


“Of course.” “But when God’s Messenger passed to the other life, who remained as God’s Proof for his creatures?” “The Qur’an.” “I have examined the Qur’an and, behold, the Murjite and the Qadarite and the heretic who does not believe (zindīq)[1], all dispute its meaning, to prevail in debate. [Seeing this spectacle] I understood that the Qur’an can only be a Proof if there is a Keeper (qayyim) who speaks solely the truth about it. Who is the Qur’an’s Keeper, therefore?” “Ibn Mas‘ūd knew something about it and so did ‘Umar and Hudhayfa.”[2] “Knew something about it or knew it?” “No, they knew something about it.” “I have not found anyone of whom it may be said that he knew the whole of the Qur’an, but ‘Alī. Whenever a question arose and the others[3] had to acknowledge their ignorance, he always had the answer. I therefore testify that ‘Alī was the Qur’an’s Keeper, that obedience was owed to him, that he was the Proof for the people after God’s Messenger and that everything he said about the Qur’an is true.” And Ja‘far exclaimed approvingly, “May God have mercy on you!”


3. From Yūnus Ibn Ya‘qūb.[4] One day, several of Ja‘far al-Sādiq’s companions were sitting at his house. Amongst them was […] Hishām Ibn al-Hakam,[5] who was still a young man at that time. Ja‘far asked him, “Why don’t you tell me of how you dealt with ‘Amr Ibn ‘Ubayd[6] and the questions you asked him?” “O son of God’s Messenger, my tongue becomes tied in your presence out of the great reverence I feel for you.” “If I order you to do something, do it!” “News reached me of what ‘Amr Ibn ‘Ubayd and his companions were doing in the mosque at Basra. It weighed on me and I decided to go and meet him. I entered Basra on Friday, went straight to the mosque and found myself in the middle of a great crowd. ‘Amr Ibn ‘Ubayd was at the centre, wearing a double-layered cloak – the outer part was of coarse black wool – and the people around him were asking him questions. I made my way through the crowd and settled on my knees, at the furthest point from him. Then I said to him, ‘O wise man, I am a stranger; may I ask you a question?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you have an eye?’ ‘My son, what kind of a question is this? What is the sense in asking something that you can see?’ ‘This is my question.’ ‘My son, your question is stupid, don’t you have another?’ ‘Answer me!’ ‘Come on, ask me another question!’ ‘I have already asked you my question, do you have an eye?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And what do you do with it?’ ‘I use it to see colours and figures.’ ‘And do you have a nose?’ ‘Yes.’  ‘What do you do with it?’ ‘I use it to smell smells.’ ‘And a mouth?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What do you do with it?’ ‘I use it to taste food.’ ‘And an ear?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What do you do with it?’ ‘I use it to hear sounds.’ ‘And a heart?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What do you do with it?’ ‘I use it to discern all the sensations that come from these organs and senses.’ ‘What? You need a heart, aren’t these organs enough?’ ‘No.’ ‘And yet they are healthy and without defect.’ ‘My son, if the organs have a doubt about something they have smelled, seen, tasted or heard, they refer it to the heart. In this way, Certainty emerges and Doubt is dispelled.’ ‘So God has set up the heart to resolve the organs’ doubts?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And without the heart, the organs would not be able to reach Certainty?’ ‘Exactly.’  ‘Abū Marwān, the Most High – may He be blessed – has not left your organs without creating an imam for them, who confirms what is true to them and who brings them Certainty regarding that which had left them in doubt. Well then, how would He have left all these creatures in uncertainty, doubt and dissent without raising up an imam for them to whom they may address their doubts and perplexities, when he has created an imam for your organs to which you can refer when you are confused?!’ ‘Amr Ibn ‘Ubayd fell silent and was unable to make any answer.


Then he turned towards me and said to me, ‘You are Hishām Ibn al-Hakam!’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you one of his companions?’ ‘No.’ ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘I am from Kufa.’ ‘You must be he!’ Then he beckoned me to approach him, made me sit in his place and uttered not a single word until I got up to leave.” Laughing, Ja‘far commented, “But who taught you these things, Hishām?” “I took them from you and I developed them.” “This, by God, is written in the ‘Scrolls of Abraham and Moses’ (Qur’an 87:19).”



The Difference between Prophet, Messenger and Muhaddath


1. Some of our Companions […] from Zurāra.[7] I asked Muhammad al-Bāqir [the fifth imam], “In the divine word ‘and [Ishmael] was a Messenger, a Prophet’ (Qur’an 19:54), what does ‘messenger’ mean and what does ‘prophet’?” “The prophet has visions in his sleep, he hears the voice but he does not see the angel; the messenger, on the other hand, hears the voice, has visions in his sleep and sees the angel.” “And the imam?” “He hears the voice, but he neither has visions nor sees the angel.” Then he recited the verse, “We sent not ever any Messenger or Prophet or muhaddath before thee”[8] (Qur’an 22:52).



Only the Imam is Proof of God for His Creatures


4. From Abān Ibn Taghlib.[9] Ja‘far al-Sādiq said, “The Proof exists before creatures, with creatures and after creatures.”



The Earth Cannot Remain Without a Proof


1. Some of our Companions […] from al-Husayn Ibn Abī l-‘Alā’. I asked Ja‘far al-Sādiq whether the earth could subsist without an imam and he answered, “No.” “And could two imams exist at the same time?” “No, unless one of them remains silent.”[10]


3. From Kirām.[11] Ja‘far al-Sādiq said, “Were humankind to be reduced to only two men, one of them would be the imam.” And he added, “The imam would be the last to die, so that no one can complain to God to have been left without a divine Proof.”



The Imam’s Knowledge and the Act of Relying on Him


7. Some of our Companions […] from Ja‘far al-Sādiq. God has not wanted things to be without a Reason (sabab). And for each thing he has made a Reason and for each Reason an Explanation and for each Explanation a Science and for each Science a Speaking Gate. He who knows it, knows it and he who ignores it, ignores it. It is God’s Messenger and it is Us.



The Imams are God’s Light


1. From Abū Khālid al-Kābulī.[12] I questioned Muhammad al-Bāqir about the divine word “Believe in God and His Messenger, and in the Light which We have sent down” (Qur’an 64:8). He answered me, “Abū Khālid, by God, the imams from Muhammad’s Family are the light, until the day of resurrection. By God, they are God’s light come down [to the world]. By God, they are God’s light in the heavens and on earth. By God, Abū Khālid, the imams’ light in the hearts of believers is more luminous than the radiant sun of day, because, by God, they illumine the hearts of believers. God hides the imams’ light from those he chooses so that their hearts may lead them to perdition. By God, Abū Khālid, no servant can love us and swear loyalty (walāya) to us without God appearing in his heart. And God does not appear in the heart of any servant until he acknowledges us and entrusts himself to us. And if he entrusts himself to us, God will protect him from the terrors of judgment and will preserve him from the tribulations on the great day of resurrection.”


5. From Sālih Ibn Sahl al-Hamdānī.[13]  Ja‘far al-Sādiq said [in relation to the Verse of Light, Qur’an 24:35], “God is the Light of the heavens and of the earth and His Light is as a Niche – Fātima – wherein is a Lamp – al-Hasan – and the Lamp is in a Glass – al-Husayn – and the Glass as it were a glittering Star – Fātima is a star glittering amongst the women in the world – and the Lamp burns oil from a Blessed tree – Abraham – an Olive tree that is neither of the East nor of the West – neither Jewish nor Christian – whose oil well-nigh would shine – whose knowledge is about to overflow – even if no fire touched it. It is Light upon Light – imam after imam – and the Lord God guides to His light whom He will – God guides to his imams whom He will – and God tells parables to men.”



On the Imam’s Excellence and His Distinguishing Features – a Valuable and All-embracing Chapter


Words spoken by al-Ridā [the eighth imam] one Friday in the mosque at Merv. […] The imamate occupies the place of prophecy and is bequeathed by the chosen ones. The imamate is the caliphate of both God and His Messenger; it is the office of Alī, commander of the faithful, and the legacy of Hasan and Husayn; the imamate is the religion’s reins and the Muslims’ order, it is prosperity in this world and the glory of believers; the imamate is the root from which Islam grows and its loftiest branch and only with the imam can prayer, almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage and jihad, distribution of booty and offerings (sadaqāt) be fully performed; with him, the punishments prescribed in the Qur’an (al-hudūd) and the norms are carried out and with him, borders and provinces are defended. The imam declares licit what God has made licit and illicit what He has made illicit, he carries out the punishments established by God, he protects God’s religion and calls people to the way of his Lord with wisdom, good preaching and eloquent Proof. The imam is like the nascent sun that illuminates the world with its light as it stays on the horizon, where neither hand nor gaze can reach it. The imam is the bright full moon, a luminous lamp, a dazzling light, a star that shows the way amidst dark shadows […].



The Imams are Heirs to the Esoteric Knowledge of the Prophet, and of All the Prophets and the Chosen Ones who Preceded Them


4. From Durays al-Kunnāsī.[14] I was at Ja‘far al-Sādiq’s house and Abū Basīr[15] was there with him. Ja‘far said, “David inherited the Knowledge of the prophets, Solomon inherited it from David, Muhammad inherited it from Solomon and we have inherited it from Muhammad. We have Abraham’s Scrolls and Moses’ Tablets.”  Abū Basīr commented, “This truly is the Knowledge!” “No, Abū Muhammad, this is not the Knowledge. The true Knowledge is that which is communicated night and day, day after day and hour after hour.”[16]



Only the Imams have Collected the Qur’an in its Entirety and Know it Fully


1. From Jābir.[17] I heard Muhammad al-Bāqir say, “Those who claim to have collected all the Qur’an, just as it came down, are liars. Only ‘Alī Ibn Abī Tālib has collected it and memorized it in the form in which it came down from the Most High, and the imams after him.”


2. From Jābir. Muhammad al-Bāqir said, “No one except the chosen ones can claim to possess all of the Qur’an in its entirety, in its outward and hidden dimensions.”



The Portion of the Supreme Name That Has Been Given to the Imams


1. From Jābir. Muhammad al-Bāqir said, “God’s Supreme Name is composed of 73 letters. Āsif[18] possessed only one of them and when he uttered it, the earth that separated him from Bilqīs was swallowed up so that he could touch her throne with his hand; then, in less than the twinkling of an eye, the earth went back to its previous state. We [the imams] possess 72 of the letters in the Supreme Name. The last letter is with the Most High and he has reserved it for the knowledge of the Mystery that abides with Him. There is no power nor strength except in God, the Supreme One, the Magnificent.”



The Prophet’s Weapon is Like the Ark of the Israelites


1. From Sa‘īd al-Sammān.[19] I heard Ja‘far al-Sādiq say, “The weapon that we possess[20] is like the Ark amongst the Israelites. Amongst the Israelites, the family that found the Ark in front of their door received the prophecy. [In the same way], the one amongst us to whom the [Prophet’s] weapon passes, receives the imamate.”



Allusion and Investiture[21] of the Lord of the Dwelling-Place


5. From Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd Allāh.[22] Allusion that issued from the mouth of al-Hasan Ibn ‘Alī [the eleventh imam] when the cursed Zabirite[23] was killed. “This is the reward of the person who has dared to fight God in his Friends, of the person who has dared to say that he would kill me and that I would have no descendants. How could he have thought that God would support him?” And he begot a son that he called M.h.m.d.[24], in the year 256 (i.e. 869-870).



On the Occultation


2. ‘Alī Ibn Ja‘far[25] from his brother, Mūsā al-Kāzim [the seventh imam]. The latter said, “When the Fifth from the son of the Seventh will be lost, my God, pay attention to your religion so that no one divert you from it! My son, the Master of this Cause will have to conceal himself until the one who preached this Cause returns from it. It is a test from God through which he examines his creatures. If your fathers and your forefathers had known a better religion than this, they would have followed it.” I asked him, “Lord, who is the Fifth from the son of the Seventh?” “My son,” he answered, “your minds are too small to receive this knowledge and your intellects cannot bear it. But if you live, you will understand.”


3. From al-Mufaddal Ibn ‘Umar.[26] I heard Ja‘far al-Sādiq say, “See that you do not spread these things openly but, by God, your imam will absent himself for some years of your time and you will be tested until people say, ‘He died, he was killed, he is no longer here, where on earth has he disappeared?’ The eyes of believers will be deprived of his sight and they will be tossed like ships amidst the waves of the sea. Only those with whom God has made his Pact will be saved, on whose hearts he has inscribed the faith and whom he has supported with a Spirit coming from himself. Then twelve standards resembling each other, indistinguishable amongst themselves, will be raised.” I burst into tears and said, “What will we do?” Then Ja‘far looked hard at a sunbeam coming in through the portico and said, “Abū ‘Abd Allāh, can you see this sun?” “Yes.” “By God, our Cause is brighter than this sun.”



He Who Dies Without an Imam…


1. From al-Fadīl Ibn Yasār.[27] One day we went to see Ja‘far al-Sādiq and he, anticipating our question,[28] said to us, “God’s Messenger stated that he who dies without an imam dies a pagan death.” “God’s Messenger said that?” “By God, precisely that!” “So then, whoever dies without an imam, dies a pagan death?” “Yes.”



That the Sayings of the Imams are Arduous and Difficult


1. From Jābir. Muhammad al-Bāqir said, “God’s Messenger stated that the sayings of Muhammad’s Family are arduous and difficult; only one of the cherubim[29] or a prophet-messenger or a servant whose heart God has assayed for faith can believe in them. Accept those sayings (hadīths) about Muhammad’s Family that have reached you and towards which your hearts incline and that are well known to you. As for those words that arouse terror in your hearts and that you would wish to reject, refer them to God and His messenger and to the initiated wise man (al-‘ālim) from Muhammad’s Family. Woe betide you if one of you were to say, after receiving words that he could not manage to bear, ‘By God, it cannot be; by God, it cannot be.’ Because rejection is unbelief.”


Al-Kulaynī, Al-Usūl min al-kāfī, edited by ‘Alī Akbar al-Ghaffārī, part 1, Dār al-kutub al-islāmiyya Morteza Akhwandi, Tehran 1388h (= 1968 a.D.), kitāb al-hujja, pp. 168-401 passim. The numerals at the beginning of the paragraphs refer to the number of the hadīths in the Arabic edition.


Texts selected and translated into Italian by Martino Diez. English translation by Catharine de Rienzo. The translation has been revised on the Arabic original by M.  Diez.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Names of theological schools dating to the first centuries of Islam. The Murjites maintained the need to defer judgment on the sinner until the end of the world, the Qadarites were supporters of free will and the term zindīq, which originally denoted the Manicheans, was quickly extended to indicate all kind of heretics.

[2] These were three famous Companions of Muhammad. To Ibn Mas‘ūd (d. 652), we owe a recension of the Qur’an; ‘Umar was the second caliph (634-644) and Hudhayfa (d. 656) was one of the leading figures in the conquest of Persia.

[3] The reference here is to the just-mentioned Ibn Mas‘ūd, ‘Umar and Hudhayfa.

[4] A disciple of Ja‘far al-Sādiq, he was a deputy (wakīl) of the seventh imam, Mūsā al-Kāzim.

[5] He died around 795. He was one of the sixth imam’s principal disciples but was repudiated by him, after being accused of anthropomorphism. See Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le guide divin dans le shî‘isme original (Verdier, Lagrasse, 2007 [new edition]), pp. 139-140.

[6] One of the first Mu‘tazilite theologians and a disciple of Hasan al-Basrī. He died in 761. He had ascetic tendencies (as demonstrated by the story’s detail of the coarse wool cloak in which he was wrapped) and remained neutral in the struggle between the Abbasid caliph, al-Mansūr (d. 775), and the Alid pretender, Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (d. 762).

[7] Zurāra Ibn A‘yan, who died in 767, was another disciple of Ja‘far al-Sādiq. Shi‘ites consider him to be one of the most reliable authorities on hadīth.

[8] The muhaddath is he to whom a celestial Word (hadīth) is addressed i.e. none other than the imam. See Moezzi, Guide divin, p. 176. The expression “or muhaddath” is not found in the Qur’an’s ordinary recension.

[9] A disciple of the fourth, fifth and sixth imams and an authority in the field of Qur’anic recitation and exegesis, he is considered reliable also by the Sunnis. He died in 758.

[10] The silent imam designates the imam’s successor while he is still alive.

[11] Nickname of the traditionist ‘Abd al-Karīm Ibn ‘Amr Ibn Sālih al-Khath‘amī, a native of Kufa and a figure of secondary importance.

[12] Known by his nickname, Kankar, he was a native of Kabul and a disciple and close companion of the fourth imam.

[13] A native of Kufa and one of Ja‘far al-Sādiq’s disciples, he is considered to be an extremist and is suspected of having spread false hadīths.

[14] Durays Ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, a secondary transmitter.

[15] There are three disciples of Ja‘far al-Sādiq’s who bear this nickname (see Moezzi, Guide divin, pp. 86-87, note 182). Here, however, the reference is to Abū Basīr al-Asadī, who had the teknonym of Abū Muhammad and was a renowned transmitter.

[16] The sentence is unclear. Fayd Kashānī (a mystic and philosopher who died in 1680) suggests this paraphrase: “The Knowledge is not that which is obtained by listening to a master or by studying books and memorizing them, because this is blind imitation (taqlīd). The Knowledge is that which spills over from God into the believer’s heart day after day and hour after hour, through which are revealed the realities that give repose to the soul, relief to the breast and light to the heart and of which the Wise becomes certain as if he were seeing them with his own eyes.”

[17] Jābir Ibn Hayyān (who died around 815) is a figure of primary importance in the Islamic scientific tradition. A chemist, alchemist and occultist, he was one of Ja‘far al-Sādiq’s disciples. An enormous corpus of works is attributed to him.

[18] King Solomon’s minister. Taking Qur’an 27:40 as its starting point, Islamic tradition turns him into a magician capable of transporting the throne of Bilqīs, the Queen of Sheba, to Solomon’s court.

[19] Sa‘īd Ibn ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-A‘raj al-Sammān, a native of Kufa.

[20] This is the famous double-pointed sword (Dhū l-faqār) that Muhammad gave to ‘Alī. See Moezzi, Guide divin, p. 233.

[21] Nass means “written investiture” of the imam: see Moezzi, Guide divin, p. 189.

[22] I have been unable to identify this reporter.

[23] This might possibly be a descendant of the Companion al-Zubayr (d. 656) who is said to have threatened the eleventh imam, or (and more probably) can be a veiled allusion to the Abbasid caliph al-Muhtadī (869-870). In this case, the text ought to read “az-Zabīrī” meaning “catastrophic”.

[24] The letters are written separately in the Arabic text, in observance of the prohibition against pronouncing the name of the awaited imam.

[25] Known as ‘Alī al-‘Uraydī, he was Ja‘far al-Sādiq’s youngest son. He died around 825. He is also cited (under the name of al-Tirmidhī) by Sunni authors.

[26] A very charismatic disciple of Ja‘far al-Sādiq, suspected of having belonged to the extremist sect of the Khattābiyya. The latter advocated abolition of sharia for initiates.

[27] A native of Basra and an intimate friend of Ja‘far al-Sādiq.

[28] In technical Shi‘ite vocabulary, the verb ibtada’ (literally “to begin”) indicates the imam’s ability to read the minds of his faithful. See Moezzi, Guide divin, p. 234, note 488.

[29] Muqarrab, lit. “made near” [to God]. But the Qur’anic phrase retains an echo of the Hebrew term “cherubim”. Hence the present translation.

To cite this article

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Text by al-Kulaynī, “The Imam as Divine Proof”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 92-99.

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