The following translation is part of a talk given by Dr. Sayyid Hossein Modarressi Tabataba’i in 1977, which was later published as an article in the book Tārīkhīyyāt.1 In the Q&A after the talk, the late Dr. Zaryab Khu’i inquired, in relation to the issue of slavery, about taking into consideration the conduct of the Prophet (s) and the first generation of Muslims, as their actions are a general elucidation of the Qur’ān. Dr. Sayyid Modarressi responded as follows:
I believe that the only criterion is the practical conduct of the purified Imāms and that which they have transmitted about the conduct of the Prophet (s). The way that the biography (sīra) of the Prophet (s) has been recorded in books such as the Sīra of Ibn Hishām is not trustworthy at all. This is also true of the things transmitted about Imām ʿAlī, and even Abū Bakr and ʿUmar, in the histories and ḥadīth collections of Ahl al-Sunna.
In the prolonged reign of their government, the Ummayads would attribute whatever they wished, and whatever corresponded to their carnal desires and own deeds, to the conduct and life of the Prophet (s) and his companions, and put words in their mouths to justify their own actions. There were many wicked people who would fabricate and circulate these things in society. The general Islamic sources, of which 99% is written by the majority (jumhūr)—i.e. supporters of the caliphs—is replete with supporting evidence for this claim.
In fact, when you [Dr. Zaryab Khu’i] yourself were talking on the radio some years ago during the days of the martyrdom of the Commander of the Faithful (a) in Ramaḍān, you mentioned that the image that historical works depict of the Khawārij is, to a large extent, the official governmental depiction of the first century, and that many historical transmissions in this regard should be viewed with skepticism and caution.
For an impartial observer, in fairness, even the mindset and practical conduct of the second generation of Muslims is not authoritative, let alone later generations. That is to say, one cannot be assured that even the second generation of the people of Madīna had an unaltered and uncontaminated image of the past. The Umayyad factory of sīra-fabrication and ḥadīth-forgery was at work in full force, and attributed whatever it wanted to the actions and mouths of others.
The only non-Umayyad channel of information about the Prophet (s), his speech, and his way of life, was his household, who never submitted to the powers of the day, and did not alter the reports of the life and teachings of their forefathers to the desires and interests of those in power, transmitting and preserving it generation after generation. Therefore, they were always under pressure and pursuit. The traditional institution subordinate to the caliphs cautioned the people not to refer to and listen to the Sunna of the Prophet (s) from them, so that it could construct Islam in the way it wants, not the way that Prophet’s (s) message and practical way of life was. The later generations of Muslims believed these things and did not know why they were not supposed to listen to the words of the Ahl al-Bayt of the Prophet (s). Even a learned person such as Shāfiʿī—from whom I saw just a few days ago in Kitāb al-Umm—in the section on the guarantee of a craftsman (for example, if you gave fabric to a tailor, they are the guarantor), narrates from Imām al-Ṣādiq from Zayd from the Commander of the Faithful ʿAlī (a) and then says:
This is narrated from a path [of transmission] which is not authenticated by the people of ḥadīth.