Analysis of Traditions on the Birth of the Mahdi (a) – 1

The following are notes from a mubāḥatha (study-session) with Br. Yusuf Alsalhi and myself.

الْحُسَيْنُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ الْأَشْعَرِيُّ، عَنْ مُعَلَّى بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ، عَنْ أَحْمَدَ بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ، قَالَ:

خَرَجَ عَنْ أَبِي مُحَمَّدٍ عَلَيْهِ السَّلَامُ حِينَ‏ قُتِلَ‏ الزُّبَيْرِيُ: «هذَا جَزَاءُ مَنِ افْتَرى‏ عَلَى اللَّهِ فِي أَوْلِيَائِهِ، زَعَمَ أَنَّهُ يَقْتُلُنِي‏ و لَيْسَ لِي عَقِبٌ‏، فَكَيْفَ رَأى‏ قُدْرَةَ اللَّهِ؟» وَ وُلِدَ لَهُ و لَدٌ سَمَّاهُ «م‏-ح-م-‏د» سَنَةَ سِتٍّ و خَمْسِينَ‏ وَ مِائَتَيْنِ

Al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad al-Ash’arī from Mu’alla b. Muḥammad from Aḥmad b. Muḥammad who said:

When (the) Zubayrī was killed, a letter from Abī Muḥammad (a) was released saying: “This is the recompense for the one who fabricates upon Allah regarding His (swt) appointed people. He thought he would will kill me and I will not have anyone to succeed me. How does he feel about the Power of Allah?” A son was born for him and he named him M-Ḥ-M-D in the year 256.

The tradition appears in the following works:

1) Usūl al-Kāfī, vol. 1, pg. 329

2) Usūl al-Kāfī, vol. 1, pg. 514

3) Kamāl al-Dīn wa Tamām al-Ni’mah, vol. 2, pg. 430

4) al-Irshād, vol. 2, pg. 439

5) Taqrīb al-Ma’ārif, pg. 426

6) al-Ghaybah of Ṭūsī, pg. 231

7) I’lām al-Wara bi-A’lām al-Huda, pg. 441

All the traditions are essentially the same tradition with the same chain of narrators. Every book other than al-Kāfī is quoting from al-Kāfi, except Kamāl al-Dīn of Shaykh Ṣadūq for which there is a slightly different path to the tradition. Its chain of narrators is as follows:

حَدَّثَنَا جَعْفَرُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ مَسْرُورٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا الْحُسَيْنُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ عَامِرٍ عَنْ مُعَلَّى بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ الْبَصْرِيِّ قَالَ

Ja’far b. Muḥammad b. Masrūr (r) narrated to us (Shaykh Ṣadūq) saying, Al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad b. ‘Āmir (al-Ash’arī) from Mu’alla b. Muḥammad al-Baṣrī who said…

This chain does not mention the final narrator who is Aḥmad b. Muḥammad.

Chain of Narrators

1) Al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad b. ‘Amir al-Ash’arī: There is no doubt regarding his trustworthiness. He was the teacher of Shaykh Kulaynī.

2) Mu’alla b. Muḥammad al-Baṣrī: There is a difference of opinion on this narrator.

Najāshī says about him:

مضطرب الحديث و المذهب، و كتبه قريبة

His ḥadīth and religion are muḍṭarib, and his books are close.

Ibn Ghaḍāirī says:

يعرف حديثه و ينكر، و يروي عن الضعفاء، و يجوز أن يخرج شاهدا

His ḥadīth are accepted and rejected, and he narrates from the weak, and it is allowed to use them as a witness.

A number of scholars, such as Māmqānī, Sayyid Khūī, Āyatullah Ṭabrīzī, Jawād Zanjānī, have tried to strengthen Mu’alla. The gist of the arguments is as follows:

a) He is from the Shaykh al-Ijāzah which frees him from requiring any explicit tawthīq. If this does not prove he is trustworthy (thiqa), then at the very least it can be said that his condition is good (ḥasan).

Response: This argument was made by Māmqānī and goes back to his view that if a scholar is a Shaykh al-Ijāzah, they are to be considered trustworthy. This is not a popular view amongst scholars, and Māmqānī was known for his lenient views in strengthening narrators. Simply being a teacher who gives permission to narrate a tradition does not signify they are trustworthy.

b) He appears in the chains of the book Kāmil al-Ziyārāt.

Response: This view is dependant on whether one accepts the general tawthīq of narrators that appear in Kāmil al-Ziyārāt. Sayyid Khūī accepted this principle during the course of his life, however, he changed his opinion near the end. Some other scholars have said that if in a given chapter of Kāmil al-Ziyārāt a narrator appears in all of its traditions, then that narrator is to be considered trustworthy. Mu’alla does not fall in this latter category either.

c) The words of Najāshī do not indicate that Mu’alla himself is weak. Someone whose ḥadīth have problematic content does not necessitate that they themselves are untrustworthy. Furthermore, someone whose school of thought is problematic also does not necessitate that they are untrustworthy. This can be reconciled with the statement of Ibn Ghaḍāirī who says that some of what he reports can be accepted and others are rejected. This implies that he was trustworthy as a person, though the content of what he narrates should be approached with caution. In addition, the fact that Najāshī further adds that his books are close – with respects to what is true – and Ibn Ghaḍāirī also permits us to narrate from him as an witness, indicates that the person himself cannot be characterized as unreliable.

Response: The reconciliation with Ibn Ghadāirī’s words only make sense if one accepts the work to be correctly attributed to him. Even if it is correctly attributed to him, the statement of Ibn Ghaḍāirī is merely a descriptive statement about his narrations, not about him as a person. Likewise, with the words of Najāshī, while it is true that it is difficult to suggest Najāshī is weakening the personality of Mu’alla, but rather only casting doubt on what he narrates and as well as his beliefs, one cannot extract tawthīq for him from the words of Najāshī.

d) He is from those narrators who narrates a tremendous amount (kathīr al-riwāyah).1 In Shī’ī books there are over 700 narrations from him. The fact that there is an absence of any doubt being cast on him by scholars itself serves as evidence that this narrator is trustworthy. This is tantamount to what we have in the discussion of muqaddimah al-ḥikmah in the discussion of linguistics in legal theory, where when the words of a speaker have the capacity to be restricted by conditions, but a speaker does not restrict his or her speech by any condition then it is to be presumed that they intended absoluteness (iṭlāq) from it.

Another example of this is in establishing the probative force of the practice of the common people. An infallible does not have to explicitly and verbally affirm that certain practice is probative. Rather, absence of any negative remark by an infallible against a practice that people in society engaged in on a daily basis is itself evidence for its probative force.

Yet another example of it in jurisprudence is in certain cases where silence implies affirmation.

Response: Generally speaking, the principle that someone who narrates a tremendous amount and scholars have all relied on his traditions is most likely trustworthy, is not an incoherent principle. However, this would hold true if there was nothing at our disposal that would cast doubt in our judgement. In the case of Mu’alla we have the words of Najāshī and as well as Ibn Ghaḍāirī which at the very least cast doubt on the personality and narrations of Mu’alla, not permitting us to apply this principle.

3) Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. ‘Abdillah b. Marwān al-Anbārī: This individual is completely unknown to us.

Analysis of Chain of Narrators

All of Mu’alla’s traditions are transmitted by al-Husayn b. Muḥammad al-Ash’arī (Shaykh Kulaynī’s teacher). On the contrary, Aḥmad b. Muḥammad has roughly 27 traditions in Shī’ī books, 24 of which are transmitted by Mu’alla. Of the other three traditions, in one of the cases it is possible that there is a narrator dropped by the scribe, in the second instance it is possible that it is a scribal corruption of the text, whereas in the third instance it is difficult to justify that it could possibly be Mu’alla, rather it is Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. ‘Īsa narrating from him.

In any case, whether one considers Mu’alla to be reliable or not, as long as Aḥmad b. Muḥammad is in the chain, who is completely unknown to us, the chain will still remain weak.

However, it is possible to argue for the strength of this chain by relying on the chain of Shaykh Ṣaḍūq in his Kamāl al-Dīn which ends with Mu’alla and does not have Aḥmad in it. If this chain is correct and it can be established that Aḥmad b. Muḥammad is simply an erroneous addition in the chain of al-Kāfī, then this tradition can be considered reliable (if we say Mu’alla is reliable).

A tradition exists in Baṣāir al-Darajāt that can demonstrate such additions could have taken place by mistake:

حَدَّثَنَا الْحُسَيْنُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ عَامِرٍ عَنْ مُعَلَّى بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنْ أَحْمَدَ بْنِ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ عَنْ عَلِيِّ بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ النَّوْفَلِيِّ عَنْ أَبِي الْحَسَنِ الْعَسْكَرِيِّ ع

Al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad b. ‘Āmir narrated to us from Mu’alla b. Muḥammad from Aḥmad b. ‘Abdillah from ‘Alī b. Muḥammad al-Nawfalī from Abī al-Ḥasan al-‘Askarī (a).

Given Mu’alla was a contemporary of Imam ‘Askari (a) and hence able to even narrate from him (a) directly, how it is that in the aforementioned tradition he is narrating from Imam ‘Askarī (a) through two mediums? This seems far-fetched for someone who is contemporary to the Imam.

Response: This is not far-fetched at all, especially given the historical context of Imam ‘Askarī (a) which was a life of persecution, secrecy and dissimulation. Access to the Imam was limited and very few individuals were allowed to visit the Imam, some having to do so in secret and without making it known that they are companions of the Imam. As such, it is not far-fetched that a contemporary to Imam ‘Askarī (a) would have had one or even two mediums between themselves and a tradition or a letter of the Imam.

In addition to that, Shaykh Ṭūsī explicitly mentions Mu’alla is a narrator who never narrated from the Imam, despite being his contemporary. Furthermore, we have numerous other additions where Mu’alla narrates from Aḥmad b. Muḥammad and to implicate that this one instance is an addition is far-fetched.

Response: What Shaykh Ṭūsī mentions regarding Mu’alla never narrating from an Imam is incorrect, because we have a tradition from him where he is narrating from the Imam directly.

الْحُسَيْنُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنْ مُعَلَّى بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ قَالَ: سُئِلَ الْعَالِمُ ع كَيْفَ عِلْمُ اللَّه‏

Al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad from Mu’alla b. Muḥammad who said: An ‘ālim (a)2 was asked, what is the nature of Allah’s knowledge…

This tradition shows that Mu’alla has narrated from the Imam directly.

Response: Putting together all of the contextual evidence at our disposal, it seems far more likely that the narrator Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Anbārī has been dropped from this chain of narrators and hence what Shaykh Ṭūsī has said remains true. We have one other tradition in which Aḥmad b. Muḥamad is present in front of Imam ‘Askarī (a) further strengthening the view that he was Mu’alla’s main source to the Imam’s tradition. The tradition is as follows:

الْحُسَيْنُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنْ مُعَلَّى بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنْ أَحْمَدَ بْنِ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ مَرْوَانَ الْأَنْبَارِيِّ قَالَ: كُنْتُ حَاضِراً عِنْدَ مُضِيِّ أَبِي جَعْفَرٍ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ عَلِيٍّ فَجَاءَ أَبُو الْحَسَنِ ع فَوُضِعَ لَهُ كُرْسِيٌّ فَجَلَسَ عَلَيْهِ وَ حَوْلَهُ أَهْلُ بَيْتِهِ وَ أَبُو مُحَمَّدٍ قَائِمٌ فِي نَاحِيَةٍ فَلَمَّا فَرَغَ مِنْ أَمْرِ أَبِي جَعْفَرٍ- الْتَفَتَ إِلَى أَبِي مُحَمَّدٍ ع فَقَالَ يَا بُنَيَّ أَحْدِثْ لِلَّهِ تَبَارَكَ وَ تَعَالَى شُكْراً فَقَدْ أَحْدَثَ فِيكَ أَمْراً

Al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad from Mu’alla b. Muḥammad from Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. ‘Abdillah b. Marwān al-Anbārī: I was present when Abi Ja’far Muḥammad b ‘Ali3 passed away, and Abū al-Ḥasan (a) came in. A chair was placed for him and he sat on it. His family was around him, while Abu Muḥammad (a)4 was standing at one end. When he (Abū al-Ḥasan) was done with Abī Ja’far’s responsibilities,5 he looked towards Abī Muḥammad (a) and said: O my son, renew thanks to Allah – tabāraka wa ta’āla – for he has just granted you the affair.

This tradition clearly shows the presence of Aḥmad b. Muḥammad in the house of Imam Hādī (a) and that he had seen Imam ‘Askarī (a). In other words, it is more likely that the name of Aḥmad has been dropped by mistake in the chain mentioned in Kamāl al-Dīn, rather than Aḥmad being an accidental addition to the chain of al-Kāfī.

In conclusion, the chain of narrators as it exists in Al-Kāfī is the correct one. Shaykh Ṣadūq’s chain is missing the name of Aḥmad, possibly due to a scribal mistake or otherwise, making us having to consider Aḥmad b. Muḥammad as the medium between the tradition and Mu’alla. Since Aḥmad is a completely unknown person, the narration would be considered weak by the standards of Dirāyah.

Analysis of the Content

There are two possibilities on who the term Zubayrī is referring to. Either it is someone from the progeny of Zubayr who had enmity towards the Imam, or it could be referring to Naṣr b. Aḥmad al-Zubayrī who was killed in the year 256. The latter is more likely.6

The report is not a direct tradition that Aḥmad b. Muḥammad is quoting, rather it is a text of a letter from Imam ‘Askarī (a). It concludes with Aḥmad’s own words where he says that a son was born to Imam ‘Askarī and that it was the year 256 AH. All extant manuscripts of this tradition mention the year 256 and so it is very difficult to suggest that scribal corruption has taken place for 255 (which is what is popularly held to be the year of the birth of Imam Mahdi today).

There are a number of different dates given for the birth of the Mahdī (a). In the reports, the most popular figure appears to be 256 AH. This is also what many scholars themselves accepted, such as Shaykh Ṭūṣī in his al-Ghaybah. ‘Allāmah Majlisī attempts to explain the number 256 in this tradition by saying that it was the year that the report of Zubayrī’s death was released, or perhaps the number has been rounded up to 256 since the Imam (a) was born after the first half of the year 255. Muḥaqqiq Shūshtarī responds to him by arguing there is no contradiction between the reports that mention 256 and 255, because the reports mentioning 255 are only two, as opposed to five that mention 256.7 In addition, the reports mentioning 255 are from Kitāb al-Raj’ah which has been falsely attributed to Faḍl b. Shadhān, but in actuality we do not know if the book belongs to him or not.


  1. This is primarily how Āyatullah Jawād Ṭabrīzī strengthens Mu’alla.
  2. Depending on the context, the word al-‘ālim can refer to an infallible Imam in Shī’ī traditions, like it is the case here.
  3. This was one of the sons of Imam Hādī and brothers of Imam ‘Askarī.
  4. Imam ‘Askarī (a).
  5. Most likely referring to the washing and shrouding of the body.
  6. See: History of al-Tabari Vol. 36, The: The Revolt of the Zanj A.D. 869-879/A.H. 255-265; The Events of the Year 256 – The Caliphate of Ibn al-Wāthiq; pg. 98.
  7. Risālah fī Tawārīkh al-Nabī wa al-Āl, pg. 24.

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