Answering Objections: Zayd and Imamah

A reply was written by Muhammad Sharifi, a Zaydi brother, to my recent article on Zayd b. Ali (peace be upon them). I am happy to see intellectual exchange take place, but etiquette should always be observed. Offensive language against figures of the Imamī tradition, highly respected companions such as ‘The Believer of al-Ṭāq’ (al-Aḥwal), who he dubbed as the “The Satan of al-Ṭāq”, and ʿAlī b. Yaqtīn, who he labelled a murderer, is both unnecessary and lacks the maturity required for a fruitful interfaith dialouge. Disagreement with the Imāmīs on the veracity of these individuals does not justify disrespecting them in this way. Moving on from that, let’s tackle the academic content at hand.

I would like to remind the dear reader that I originally set out to explore a report in al-Kāfī that has been used by some to claim that Zayd was unaware of the Imamah of his father. Accordingly, the first section will focus specifically on Sharifi’s objections as far as they relate to the original endeavor. Subsequent sections will provide basic insight into the Imāmi view on some of the other historical matters he raised. This is to help the reader contextualize the original discussion so that the problems with Sharifi’s contentions can become more apparent. As such, I will not enter, too deeply or at all, into matters beyond the scope of my initial piece.

The report

Let’s review the explanations I provided for this report in a summary:

1. Sayyid al-Khoei understood from Zayd’s (p) comments that he had privately obtained permission from Imam al-Sādiq to revolt, and was trying to communicate this matter to al-Aḥwal without explicitly spelling it out. His caution was due to fear of the information tracing back to the Imām in Medina, and subsequently putting his life in danger.

2. ʿAllāmah Shaʾrānī understood that Zayd did not have permission from the Imām, but assumed it legitimate given its noble cause of enjoining the good, forbidding the evil and restoring power to the Ahlulbayt.

Both explanations emphasize that the conversation between Zayd and the companion is regarding the legitimacy of his uprising. There is no indication in the report about a disagreement on the Imāmah of Imam al-Sajjād, the father of Zayd, or the Imāms after him. Whether Zayd actually had permission from the Imām but was performing taqiyyah or did not have permission but assumed he was doing the right thing, does not change the fact that the two are talking about the legitimacy of his revolt.

Sharifi ignores this critical point in the explanations and goes to great lengths in criticizing Sayyid al-Khoei’s suggestion of taqiyyah. He failed to understand that it is not the assumption of taqiyyah that proves our claim and renders his reading as unlikely, but that the matter of disagreement between Zayd and al-Aḥwal is on the legitimacy of his revolt, not the positions of the Imāms. To demonstrate our claim more patiently this time, I will break down the conversation, summarize and comment on each relevant segment. I will shorthand the names with Z(ayd) and A(l-ahwal) for the sake of brevity:


Z: Will you join an uprising if a member of the Ahlulbayt calls for it?


A: If it had been your brother (al-Bāqir) or your father (al-Sajjād), I would have done so.


Because a revolution is legitimate if an Imām leads it or approves of it.



Z: I wish to revolt, join me!



A: I will not do so. If there is an Imām/Ḥujjah (which is not you) then those who follow him (in not joining you) will be the saved ones, and if there is no Imām on this earth, then whether I join your or not, no difference is made with regards to my salvation.


Once again emphasizing that I am not joining because you have no legitimacy in your actions. You are not the Imām, therefore, I have no obligation to join your cause.



Z: My father taught you the religion but did not teach me despite his incredible love for me?


The assumption that “religion” here denotes the Imāmah of his father is an unnatural interpretation in the context of what is being spoken about. Prior to this, the exchange was in regards to the revolt and its legitimacy. How did it move to the Imāmah of his father?


Rather, it is more natural to interpret this segment as Z sarcastically reminding A that he was raised with immense love by his father; how can he, out of all people, be unaware of the matters of religion? How can he not know the difference between an illegitimate uprising and legitimate one? How can he not know the role an Imām plays? A companion knows, but someone of the caliber of Zayd does not?!


This implies he is aware of the conditions of a legitimate revolt and the importance of the Imām with respect to it.

This entail three possibilities, none of which relate to a lack of knowledge about his father’s position or subscription to it:


  1. He actually had permission from Imām al-Ṣādiq (the living Imām)
  2. He assumed it was legitimate because it was for the right reasons
  3. He considered himself the current Imām (as opposed to al-Ṣādiq)



A: The Imam’s closeness and love to you does not mean everything was relayed to you.


‘A’ wishes to dismantle the idea that being close to the Imām automatically equates to comprehensive knowledge of the religion and prevents one from making mistakes. Your position as an immediate family member does not inevitably lead to correct understanding and decision making.


It is interesting that this reply silences Zayd. He was either defeated in argument or chose to stay silent for other reasons. Given what is known of Zayd’s (p) brave and upfront character, the first possibility is more likely. The likes of Sayyid al-Khoei, however, have been more generous and sided with the idea that his silence was for greater wisdom.



‘A’ narrates the conversation to Imam al-Ṣādiq who applauds his ability to silence ‘Z’ in the debate.


The Imam’s reaction does not complement Sayyid al-Khoei’s interpretation as strongly as it does that of ʿAllāmah Shaʿrānī’s. Consequently, I personally favor a reading that does not require taqiyyah in the context of this particular report.


Having said that, Sayyid al-Khoei’s suggestion is not entirely without merit either, in particular in the context of other reports that clarify the approval of Imām al-Ṣādiq with Zayd.

For the sake of exploration, some justifications can be posited. The Imām may have allowed Zayd to carry out this uprising, but at the same time did not directly wish to promote it for greater concerns such as preserving the lives and welfare of his followers. As such, permitting Zayd to revolt does not necessarily equate to encouraging others to join him, as Sharifi thinks.

This is not uncommon amongst leaders. They will sign off on certain courses of actions and projects that their inferiors insist on executing, but they do not necessarily assign large amounts of resources to it. Al-Aḥwal, the Believer of al-Ṭāq, was a senior companion, so it is not unlikely that the Imām did not wish him to join the revolt and eventually be killed, even if he may have permitted Zayd to carry out the revolt he so passionately wished to do so.


Whatever the case may be, it is difficult to interpret the exchange as one concerning Zayd’s knowledge of the Imāmah of his father/brother and his denial of it.



As far as the apparent meaning of the report is concerned, the above should suffice for Sharifi’s objections. But to seal the matter, we can go further. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the presented explanation and that of Sharifi are equal in plausibility. If there are two equally competing readings of a text, and neither can be favored over the other, both readings are deemed unauthoritative. Put in technical terms, the dalālah (signification) of the report becomes mujmal (vague) and consequently is ignored.

We can go even further. We will assume that Sharifi’s reading has superiority over ours. In that case, it simply reduces to a case of conflict of reports (تعارض الاخبار). On the one hand, we have an abundance of reports in our corpus praising Zayd. Their large number has allowed some scholars to ignore the credibility of each report. On the other hand, we have an authentic report which for argument’s sake indicates Zayd’s denial of Imāmah. Any beginner student of the tradition will understand that the singular report is cast aside in the face of the multiplicity of opposing reports.

This is exactly how the famous commentator of al-Kāfī, al-Māzandarānī, presented his final opinion on Zayd. Initially he asserts that the report discredits Zayd. The justification he presents is not one that relates to his denial of Imāmah, rather, his decision to revolt without seeking the permission of the Imām. However, he goes on to contend that such an understanding cannot be sustained in the light of the many reports that sing of Zayd’s praise, worth and virtues.[1]

This conclusion is the natural result of a sincere academic evaluation in the context of the Imāmi tradition. If some wish to cherry pick reports and interpret it beyond their apparent meaning to aid their cause, then no amount of discussion will bear fruit. 

Situating the discussion

Sharifi enumerated other figures from the progeny of the Prophet and claimed that they also denied the Twelver Imāms. I will not indulge in answering these claims in this writing, however, I will mention some points in passing.

Of the names he mentions is  Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Hassan. Famously known as al-Nafs al-Zakiyyah, he is one of the Imāms of the Zaydīyah. Other names on the list, predominantly from the Hassani line, are also the pillars of the Zaydi creed. To use these individuals as points of evidence against the Imāmis is begging the question. It goes without saying that the Zaydi perspective on these figures will at least partially conflict with ours.

Here I am not claiming that all these individuals were followers of the Imāms. If evidence suggests that some of these individuals, no matter their vicinity to the Ahlulbayt, did not subscribe to their leadership, we are not uncomfortable or shy to state that. Sharing a blood line does not guarantee complete submission to the truth, and history has proven this fact time and time again.

This is a highly relevant point with regards to Zayd b. Ali (p) as well. The original piece set out to demonstrate that the report in discussion cannot be used to prove Zayd’s ignorance or denial of the Imāmah of his father and brother. The fact that he directs the companion to inquire from Imām al-Ṣādiq about the fate of his uprising, is strong indication that he finds religious legitimacy from his words and believes in his predictions. Having said that, Zayd’s submission, partial or absolute, to the authority of the Imāms requires investigation beyond this one report. I will present the Imāmi views on Zayd in the coming section.

Going back to Muhammad b. Abdullah, in short the dear reader should know that Imām al-Ṣādiq did not give allegiance to Muhammad nor officially/publicly support his uprising. Different reasons have been cited for this decision. Suffice to say, perhaps the strongest deterrent for Imām al-Ṣādiq and his followers was the introduction of this individual as the Mahdī.[2] Many throughout history and until today have attempted to use this title to gain a following and exert influence. Although some may try to justify the use of this title for Muhammad, any sensible Shīʿī could see the problem with that attribution. The other was the Imām’s deep understanding of the political climate and knowledge of the eventual failure of these uprisings, as history has evidently demonstrated. 

Opinions on Zayd (p)

Finally, to clarify the Imāmi position on Zayd (p) and help the reader contextualize the explanations provided for the report in al-Kāfī which will in turn reveal some of the shortcomings of Sharifi’s objections, the following is a bullet point summary of the opinions held about Zayd by Twelver scholars.

It is noteworthy that although most of the reports that have reached us with respect to Zayd praise him, there are a number of reports, predominantly weak in authenticity, that raise questions about his acceptance of Imāmah and the nature of his uprising. How we deal with the latter group of reports determines how positive our opinion towards Zayd becomes.

Shaykh al-Ṣadūq (d. 380) writes that Zayd was a man of great virtues and to prove this matter he lists numerous reports from the Imāms. He claims this to be the consensual belief of the Imāmiyyah.[3] The first report he quotes in this chapter is from Imām al-Riḍā narrating from his father who narrates from Imām al-Ṣādiq that Zayd had seeked counsel from him before the revolt.

Shaykh al-Mufīd, who is known not to shy away from disagreement with al-Ṣadūq, surpasses him on this matter and claims:

“Many of the Shīʿa believed him as an Imām because he rose with the sword while calling for “The chosen is to be from the progeny of Muhammad (p)” الرضا من ال محمد. People assumed he considered himself to be the chosen one, but he did not intend this. He knew of his brother’s (al-Bāqir) precedence and right to Imāmah, and his final will to transfer it to al-Ṣādiq (peace be upon them all).”[4]

This is perhaps the most optimistic account of Zayd’s relationship with the Imāms. Sayyid al-Khoei, amongst others, is of the same opinion by relying on the narrations that mention Zayd’s testimony to the position of the Imāms.[5] Although not all of the reports in this category are of the same level of credibility, their sheer number builds sufficient conviction for these scholars to be convinced of Zayd’s faith.

Al-Istarābādī, the notable Akhbārī scholar, also adds his elaborate admiration and respect for Zayd, writing that he was killed in the path of God and His obedience .[6]

Afandī (the author of al-Riyāḍ) opines that Imam al-Bāqir did not explicitly prohibit Zayd from uprising. Rather, he informed Zayd of the fate of his actions if he chose to revolt. The Imām placed Zayd between the choice of the hereafter/sacrifice and the dunya/comfort. Zayd chose the former.[7]

(Note that the conversation between al-Bāqir and Zayd shows that the latter had intentions to cause political disruption long before he actually succeeded.[8])

Al-Majlisī considers it more appropriate to give benefit of doubt to Zayd (p) and avoid disparaging his status. He extends this judgment to all direct offsprings of the Imāms, except in cases we have clear cut proof that they deviated from the path, as was the case with Jaʿfar al-Kaththāb.[9] As mentioned previously, he writes that he has not witnessed an opposing opinion from the Imāmis.

From this quick survey, it is clear to see that important Imāmi scholars have held a favorable opinion about Zayd. The baselessness of Sharifi’s allegation that Imāmi scholars “realized” they could not vindicate Zayd becomes plainly evident. Someone as early as al-Ṣadūq has the highest of regards for Zayd(p), yet, Sharifi thinks we have had a change of heart with Sayyid al-Khoei’s intervention.

Final words

The level of Zayd’s submission to the Imāms of his time is a matter that requires separate inquiry and investigation into the reports that have reached us. Whether we become as generous as the likes of Shaykh al-Mufīd and Sayyid al-Khoei believing in Zayd’s absolute acceptance of the Imāmah of al-Bāqir and al-Ṣādiq (peace be upon all of them), or adopt a partial position, will depend on extensive review of all the evidence. By a partial position I intend acceptance of Zayd’s virtuous character, bravery and genuine intentions, but not the assumption of his absolute submission to the Imāms in all domains of life. There is strong evidence he considered his brother and nephew as Imāms of religious knowledge and superior to him in that dimension, but whether he adhered to their political stances and counsel, is an area of dispute.

I do not intend to make further contributions to this exchange. I believe sufficient information has been provided for the dear reader to make his own mind. I pray for the best for brother Sharifi.

و الحمد لله رب العالمين

[1] al Māzandarānī, Sharḥ Uṣūl al Kāfī, vol.5, pg.107

[2] Iṣfahānī, Maqātil al-Ṭālibīyīn, 141 (Link)

[3] al-Ṣadūq, عيون أخبار الرضا, vol2, p226 (Link)

 قال محمد بن على بن الحسين مصنف هذا الكتاب رضى الله عنه: لزيد بن على فضائل كثيره عن غير الرضا احببت ايراد بعضها على اثر هذا الحديث ليعلم من ينظر في كتابنا هذا اعتقاد الامامية فيه.

[4] al-Mufīd, al-Irshād, vol2, p172 (Link)

واعتقدَ فيه كثيرٌ منَ الشِّيعةِ الإمامةَ ، وكانَ سببُ اعتقادِهم ذلكَ فيه خروجَه بالسّيفِ يدعو إِلى الرِّضا من الِ محمّدٍ فظنُّوه يرُيدُ بذلكَ نفسَه ، ولم يكن يُريدُها به لمعرفتِه باستحقاقِ أَخيه للإمامةِ من قبلِه ، ووصيّتهِ عندَ وفاتِه إِلى أَبي عبدِاللهِ

[5] al-Khoei, Muʿjam Rijāl al Ḥadīth, vol.7, pg.355

[6]  al Māzandarānī, Sharḥ Uṣūl al Kāfī, vol.5, pg.107

[7] Afandī, al-Riyāḍ, P353 (Link)

بل يمكن أن يقال: يظهر من فحوى بعض الاخبار أن الباقر عليه السلام لم ينهه صريحا، اذ أقصى ما يدل عليه أنه عليه السلام أخبر زيدا بما يئول اليه أمره بل هو عليه السلام خير زيدا بين اختياره الآخرة و القتل و ايثار الدنيا و الحياة و الراحة، و زيد اختار الاول على الثانى.

[8] al-Masʿūdī, مُروجُ الذَّهَب, vol3 p206

[9] al-Majlisī, مرآة العقول في شرح أخبار آل الرسول, ج4 ص120 (Link)

الحاصل أن الأنسب حسن الظن به وعدم القدح فيه ، بل عدم التعرض لأمثاله من أولاد الأئمة عليهم‌السلام إلا من ثبت الحكم بكفرهم والتبري منهم كجعفر الكذاب وأضرابه