A Study of Matn Criticism Amongst the Imamiyyah

Originally written in Arabic by Shaykh Dr. Haider Hobbollah, to read the original click here.1 Translated by Salim Salhab 

From the very first centuries, the Shīʿī Imāmī Ḥadīth movement engaged in Matn criticism, with a primary focus on doctrinal and historical literature, and less so with regards to the milieu of narrations and traditions belonging to the genre of jurisprudence, law and ethics. The Qummī school in the 3rd/9th and 4th/10th centuries represented one of the most active movements when its comes to Matn criticism since they had an increased emphasis on rejecting and razing literature that emboldened Ghulū, taking harsh stances on the narrators of reports that contained these themes and its likes.

This phenomenon remained apparent, alongside the rational Imāmī movements in the second half of the 4th/10th century and first half of the 5th/11th century. This was conducted under the auspices of individuals such as: al-Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 413/1022), al-Sayyid al-Murtaḍā (d. 436/1044), Ibn al-Ghaḍāʾirī (d. circa 5th/11th c.) and others. However, this was before the decline of Matn criticism after the era of al-Shaykh al-Ṭūsī (d. 460/1067)- and this era is one that spans the time of a century and a half after him- where we begin to see an increased emphasis on the critique of the isnād of traditions, based off of the Rijālī works which were written in the first five centuries after the Hijra.

Yet, the Matn criticism that existed was not one that was cultivated with strength, nor active amongst the Muḥadiththīn, however we find that the jurists and scholars of legal theory were those who were more active with regards to studying Ḥadīth amongst the Imāmiyyah. Thus attempting to acquire knowledge about Ḥadīth sciences when investigating the Imāmī school and its feats in conducting Matn criticism is going to differ when contrasted with others; because the majority of the Isnād and Matn investigations appeared within their books on jurisprudence and legal theory, in juxtaposition to singular works written on such a subject. This phenomenon remained as such until the beginning of the 14th/19th century, where Ḥadīth criticism had become more common, allowing for a revision of the books of Ḥadīth and to reconsider the narrations and traditions that had priorly been accepted en-masse.

There are a number of possible reasons for the trajectory of the movement conducting Matn criticism amongst the Imāmiyyah, the most important of them being:

Firstly: The matter of comparing the Ḥadīth to the Qurʾān. This is because Ḥadīth criticism was heavily reliant on the tradition’s contradicting of the Qurʾān. It is not the case that the Imāmiyyah reject the traditions and narrations regarding the ordering of comparing the Ḥadīth to the Qurʾān, in fact it is on the contrary, for according to their opinion they are Mutawātir (mass-transmitted) in terms of the meaning that is conveyed. Rather, it is because what they deemed to be contradictory to the Qurʾān was fulfilled only when there was a complete discrepancy between the two (Tabāyun Tām), or a partial discrepancy from an angle (Tabāyun Juzʾī bi al-ʿĀm min Wajh) according to some, such as if a Ḥadīth hypothetically were to say: “Do not pray”, whilst the Qurʾān says: “Pray”. And it is extremely clear that this type of discrepancy, with such clearness is not widespread in the sources of Ḥadīth.

Save for the fact that in the last half of this century, we see that there has been an important shift- amongst the Imāmīyyah- in this domain, which opens up the horizons for a larger capacity to critique the Matn of various Ḥadīth based on the principle of comparison to the Qurʾān. Of those who adopted such an approach are al-Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr, whose position was also shared by individuals such as al-Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍlallah, and al-Sayyid ʿAlī al-Sīstānī. For they agreed that contradiction to the Qurʾān is not constrained to its contents but also to its “general spirit”, and rejection of what is also not resembling or analogous to what is in it.

An example of this: The viewpoint of al-Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍlallah regarding the attributes of the Prophets, Imams and their perfection; this issue is one that constitutes one of the most important doctrinal discussions in the Islamic Kalāmī intellectual heritage, specifically with respect to the Imāmiyyah. al-Sayyid Faḍlallah rejected the notions proposed by streams of Imāmī thought which claim that the Prophets and Imams from the Ahl al-Bayt have knowledge of the unseen (ʿIlm al-Ghayb), and that they are the Mediums of Divine Emanation (Wāsiṭat al-Fayḍ al-Ilāhī), and that have Configurational Authority over the world (al-Wilāyah al-Takwīniyyah ʿalā al-ʿĀlam), in the sense that they are the ones who manage the affairs of the universe entirely, and that Imamate is an essential component of the universe’s existence- not one that is simply a element of human civilisation from both an organisational and religious perspective-; or that Imāmah is the Bāṭin (esoteric layer) of Prophethood, or that the Imams are a manifestation of al-Insān al-Kāmil in the mysticism of Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn ʿArabī, which is the human that privileges the cosmos with his existence. Faḍlallah severely rejected the bifurcation of the personalities of the Prophets and Imams into human and divine natures, deeming these ideas to be a sort of Ghulū, which the Shīʿa and Ṣūfiyyah both equally fell into.

The explication of Faḍlallah’s analysis is not of importance here, neither is discussing its accuracy and whether his arguments were correct or not. What is to be focused on is its analysis from the angle which pertains to the criticism of Ḥadīth by means of Matn evaluation and assessment. In the majority of cases when Sayyid Faḍlallah comes across traditions and aḥādīth that are transmitted in the books of the Imāmiyyah on this topic- he does not critique them by means of evaluating the isnād, but rather assesses them and begins his criticism from the standpoint of comparing them to the Qurʾān. However, this is not because there is a clear-cut verse that negates the doctrines of the Perfect Man or the Medium of Divine Emanation in a plain manner- in accordance with the theoretical adherents of complete discrepancy (al-Tabāyun al-Kullī). But in fact, because the general image that is depicted to us by the Qurʾān in tens of verses regarding the Prophets and Saints is an image of mortal humans that live mortal lives, who do not know the secrets behind everything, and that they are capable of falling into transgression of God’s boundaries. The Qurʾān thus does not paint the Prophets as being a necessary configurative part of the cosmos and existence in a manner that is any different to other humankind, save that their attributes of perfection, which are material and spiritual caused them to be chosen as the guides for the rest of the people. This general illustration of the Prophets in the Qurʾān then becomes one of the fundamental axioms of Sayyid Faḍlallah when he critiques the divine natures that are ascribed to the Prophets and Imams within Shīʿī Kalāmī thought. This topic returns to his analysis and understanding of what constitutes contradicting the Qurʾān, thereby extending the capacity to critique the Matn of various Ḥadīth according to this new viewpoint.

I believe that this new understanding of contrasting narrations to the Qurʾān is more correct, which is what empowers the Muslim scholarship to critique the Matn of a number of traditions in a balanced academic manner, regardless of whether the scholars who adopt this viewpoint have employed this tool in a precise manner.

Secondly: Stepping aside from the question of comparison to the Qurʾān, there was also the notion of Taqiyyah (Dissimulation). One should not overlook the sizeable footprint that the concept of Taqiyyah has on the Imāmiyyah with regards to Matn criticism; since many of the Shīʿa hold that the Imams of the Prophetic household lived in extremely harsh and unrelenting circumstances in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, subsequently causing them to have to practise Taqiyyah. However, the conception of Taqiyyah amongst the Imāmiyyah is that many a time, the Ahl al-Bayt would be the source of or teach religious rulings that were incorrect and not correspondent to the real rulings in pursuit of removing themselves from differing accusations against them, or to defend themselves and their communities. This then means that according to Imāmiyyah, there are indeed reports that are sourced from the Ahl al-Bayt that are in opposition to the truth- knowing that this is the case- which were said for various time-specific interests that they viewed to fulfill the narrating of said statement. Which entails that the mere contradiction of a Ḥadīth to reality, or the the rational faculty, or to other axiomatic principles does not necessitate the lying of a narrator; due to the report having been uttered out of Taqiyyah. This is a matter that caused many scholars to deem various traditions’ origin as authentic, yet simultaneously not acting on its contents. This also resulted in some Imāmī scholars’ reluctance to consider certain traditions as fabrications, specifically once more in the case of the Imāmiyyah, because the narrator here is not necessarily concocting the Ḥadīth, in fact despite its incorrectness it’s entirely possible that the Imam had indeed expressed this whilst not truly believing in its purport since they were forced to do so in a state of Taqiyyah. This is a possible reason as to why perhaps the Imāmiyyah have not authored much in the field of Ḥadīth fabrication as Ahl al-Sunnah have done, due to the difficulty of indeed demonstrating that the Imam could never have possibly uttered such a thing- despite the fact that they would then proceed to cast it away and state that this was the reason it existed in the first place. Whilst also bearing in mind the fact that the bounds of Taqiyyah according to the Imāmiyyah is not simply restricted to dissimulation from the state authorities, but in fact subsumes the general public opinion too. As a consequence, the Imāmiyyah do not find a necessary cause to belie certain narrators when their own transmissions contradict, or to weaken certain traditions or their Asānīd (Chains of Transmission), because according to them there are many possible reasons as to why Ḥadīth would contradict without resorting to classifying them as fabrications, but rather to the circumstances that were present when the Ḥadīth was relayed from the Imam. This is whilst I personally have a stricter understanding of the bounds and limits of this conception, which has been adopted by the Imāmiyyah.

Thirdly: Another matter that influences the manner in which the Imāmiyyah conduct Matn criticism is the question of the role of the Imams vis-a-vis Tashrīʿ (Legislation). This is because there has been a difference of opinion amongst themselves with regards to this issue, what some have supported has been rejected by others. According to this division, if there were to be a Ḥadīth that has come from the Ahl al-Bayt where they have not relayed it from the Prophet, in addition to its contents being far-removed from what would have been discussed in the time of the Messenger of Allah- even if one were to suppose that the Ahl al-Bayt had the right to Tashrīʿ, viewing that it is as authoritative as the Prophet’s Tashrīʿ- then the possibility to critique the Ḥadīth would not exist. On the other hand, if one were to reject this notion wherein they are given the right of Tashrīʿ, then the possibilities open up. Either one could reject the Ḥadīth, or attempt to give it a Taʿwīl (re-interpretation) by stating that it is merely a governmental ruling that was time-limited that had been issued in order to run the affairs of society and those who are loyal to them, since they are the ones who have been designated this obligation. Which is exactly akin to certain time-based governmental rulings that are not deemed to be from the actual religion’s Tashrīʿ. This means that the position that we take with regards to capacity for the Ahl al-Bayt and authority of Tashrīʿ has a large impact on a number of traditions which could not have possibly been discussed in the Prophetic era.

I have researched the topic regarding the [Ahl al-Bayt’s] capacity to do Tashrīʿ (Revise my book: Ḥujjiyat al-Sunnah Fī al-Fikr al-Islāmī, Qirāʾah wa Taqwīm: pg. 517-569), where it has become apparent to me that in according to the Uṣūl of the Imāmiyyah there is no proof that the Ahl al-Bayt have the capacity to legislate independently from the Qurʾān and Prophetic Sunnah. I have agreed in this matter with some of the large scholars, such as: al-Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr, al-Sayyid al-Gulpaygānī, al-Shaykh Muḥammad Jawād Mughniyyah and others. Perhaps it is due to this position that some of the later Shīʿī scholars explain the issue of Khums on profits made from transactions in the Imāmī jurisprudence – stating that it is not a ruling that is from the religion in essence, had it been so then the Prophet would have been the one that ordered it in the same way that he ordered the Zakāt, but it is a levy that the Imams enforced on those who were loyal to them; so that they may support each other, after the official state authorities would repel from them financial aid, Zakāt, and the general Bayt al-Māl of the Muslims – which was a consequence of their (i.e. the Imams’) political stance, that then placed them under circumstances of

Fourthly: Another factor that influences the way the Imāmiyyah engages in Matn criticism is the concept of the esoteric dimensions of the Qurʾān (Buṭūn al-Qurʾān), which is an idea that many Shīʿī scholars lean towards. In fact, the Shīʿa are accused of propagating this idea in order to actually demonstrate their doctrinal beliefs whilst avoiding the strict principles of hermeneutical significations. We do not wish to discuss this accusation here; because it is beyond the scope of this investigation. However, what we want to emphasise on is that this conception has played a large role in reversing the movement propagating Matn criticism in the Imāmī literature, especially in the last five centuries.

Aside from this notion, there is yet another idea that played the very same role as Buṭūn al-Qurʾān, which was a popular view amongst the Akhbāri scholars of the Shīʿa, and not the Uṣūlī scholars- although it still has a weak presence in the contemporary period. It is the idea that says that the understanding of the Qurʾān is a matter that is limited only to the Ahl al-Bayt, that they are the ones who have been addressed by this book, and that any exegesis (Tafsīr) of the Qurʾān must be sourced from their words. In addition to the idea that the ones who explicate the Sunnah are the Ahl al-Bayt, and that there is no room for personal Ijtihād, which will result in many forms of personal Ijtihād as being outlawed.

As a consequence, if we were to adopt both of these ideas- or one without the other, we will find that it has a large influence in silencing some forms of Matn criticism; because the concept of Buṭūn al-Qurʾān in its most widespread form (although not limited to that understanding of the notion), postulates that there is an area that is concealed and cannot be engaged with in accordance to our apparent understanding of the Arabic lexicon and its composition. Therefore, any Ḥadīth text that we find explicating a Quranic text or conveying its meaning in a strange manner cannot be rejected; because it is possible that this is from what would be termed the Buṭūn of the Qurʾān of which we have no understanding, as the apparent Arabic language is not the criterion- according to the proponents of this idea- in understanding the Qurʾān in the first place.

In my opinion, I do not negate the theory of Buṭūn al-Qurʾān (Revise my book: Dirāsāt fī al-Fiqh al-Islāmī al-Muʿāṣir, Vol. 3, pg. 365-429), however I place the condition that the Buṭūn must be connected in some way to the apparent hermeneutical meanings of the text – in so that there would be a degree of correspondence between what the exoteric and esoteric layers of the Qurʾān are saying. However, if we were to accept this theory in the way it has popularly been accepted then it would not be possible to evaluate the truth of any Ḥadīth or to reject it on the basis of it contradicting the apparent primary linguistic meanings of the Qurʾān.

What becomes even more apparent is that if we were to accept the idea that the Qurʾān can only be understood by the Ahl al-Bayt; then it seems that it would not be possible to conduct a critique of a Ḥadīth’s Matn by contrasting it to the Quranic text. Since it is pertinent that we do not understand the Qurʾān, whereby we are incapable of evaluating it until we have a Ḥadīth explaining it.

These theories in specific- Buṭūn al-Qurʾān and Ikhtiṣāṣ (Restriction) of the understanding of the Qurʾān to the Ahl al-Bayt- if not organised by strict principles will cause great difficulty when it comes to the possibility of critiquing various Kalāmī, historical and exegetical narrations, limiting the capacity of a Muslim investigator to evaluate these reports by the means of the Qurʾān when attempting to conduct a criticism of the Matn of a Ḥadīth.

I believe that critiquing Matn of Ḥadīth is a process which requires a strong buttressing of fundamental principles, in addition to the availability of different conditions for it to be developed, such as the primacy of the Qurʾān, or the possibility of understanding it, and the like. All of which require an investigation into one’s organisation of various subjects that are doctrinal, historical and intellectual. So that they are capable of determining whether they have fomented the suitable conditions in order to conduct a critique of the Matn or not. I also believe that this claim is one that does not only address the Imāmī sect, but rather is one that is to be considered by all sects, who have not been addressed in these short pieces; due to it being beyond the scope of the investigation.


  1. The summary of an investigation that was discussed in the national conference entitled: “Matn Criticism Amongst the Various Islamic Schools”, which took place in Istanbul, Turkey- on the date: 11/12/2011. Which was published- in the means of a summary- subsequently in the 23rd Volume of the Journal “Majallat al-Ijtihād wa al-Tajdīd”, in the Summer of 2012.