Are Shia Hadiths Reliable?

Originally posted on Shiitic Studies.


One of the claims made by those seeking to weaken confidence in our Hadith corpus1 is that many of the books of the companions of the Imams were affected by the hidden hand of the Ghulat, who were inserting reports into these books, before distributing the tainted material among an unsuspecting Shia.

It is this historical phenomenon that is seen as the cause of the presence of fabrications in the Imami Hadith corpus to this day, with some going so far as to say that we should abandon the Hadith legacy in its entirety, seeking to re-build our epistemological foundations on firmer ground.

This article looks at the justification for such a claim and whether it stands up to scrutiny.

Evidence for the Claim

A key piece of evidence for the claim is the report below:

حدثني محمد بن قولويه و الحسين بن الحسن بن بندار القمي، قالا حدثنا سعد بن عبد الله، قال حدثني محمد بن عيسى بن عبيد، عن يونس بن عبد الرحمن، أن بعض أصحابنا سأله و أنا حاضر، فقال له: يا أبا محمد ما أشدك في الحديث و أكثر إنكارك لما يرويه أصحابنا فما الذي يحملك على رد الأحاديث؟ فقال: حدثني هشام بن الحكم: أنه سمع أبا عبد الله عليه السلام: يقول لا تقبلوا علينا حديثا إلا ما وافق القرآن و السنة أو تجدون معه شاهدا من أحاديثنا المتقدمة، فإن المغيرة بن سعيد لعنه الله دس في كتب أصحاب أبي أحاديث لم يحدث بها أبي، فاتقوا الله و لا تقبلوا علينا ما خالف قول ربنا تعالى و سنة نبينا صلى الله عليه و آله فإنا إذا حدثنا قلنا قال الله عز و جل و قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم، قال يونس: وافيت العراق فوجدت بها قطعة من أصحاب أبي جعفر عليه السلام و وجدت أصحاب أبي عبد الله عليه السلام متوافرين فسمعت منهم و أخذت كتبهم، فعرضتها من بعد على أبي الحسن الرضا عليه السلام فأنكر منها أحاديث كثيرة أن يكون من أحاديث أبي عبد الله عليه السلام و قال لي: إن أبا الخطاب كذب على أبي عبد الله عليه السلام لعن الله أبا الخطاب و كذلك أصحاب أبي الخطاب يدسون هذه الأحاديث إلى يومنا هذا في كتب أصحاب أبي عبد الله عليه السلام

Muhammad b. Qulawayh and al-Husayn b. al-Hasan b. Bundar al-Qummi – Sa’d b. Abdallah – Muhammad b. Isa b. Ubayd – Yunus b. Abd al-Rahman.

He (Muhammad b. Isa b. Ubayd) said: One of our companions asked him (i.e. Yunus) while I was present – he (i.e. the companion) said to him (i.e. Yunus): O Aba Muhammad – how stringent you are in the matter of Hadith and how excessive is your rejection of what is narrated by our companions – what leads you to reject the Hadiths? So he (i.e. Yunus) said: Hisham b. al-Hakam narrated to me that he heard Aba Abdillah عليه السلام saying:

Do not accept a Hadith attributed to us, except that which agrees with the Qur’an and the Sunna, or, you find for it a corroboration from our past Hadiths2, for al-Mughira b. Sa’id, may Allah curse him, has interpolated into the books of the companions of my father Hadiths which my father did not narrate.

I traveled to Iraq and found therein a small number of the companions of Abi Ja’far عليه السلام (remaining), and I found a large number of the companions of Abi Abdillah عليه السلام. I heard from them and took their books. Then I presented these to Abi al-Hasan al-Ridha عليه السلام at a later time after that – so he rejected a lot of the Hadiths from them, (denying) that they could possibly be the Hadiths of Aba Abdillah عليه السلام, and he (i.e. al-Ridha) said to me: Verily Aba al-Khattab had lied upon Abi Abdillah عليه السلام – may Allah curse Aba al-Khattab, and likewise, the companions of Aba al-Khattab do interpolate these (forged) Hadiths into the books of the companions of Aba Abdillah عليه السلام to this day of ours3

Mughira b. Sa’id (d. 119) and Abu al-Khattab (d. 138) were two of the most notorious heresiarchs in Islamic history. They managed to gather a committed following among the Shia and rose in rebellion against temporal rulers. Their teachings included the divinity of the Imams as supported by Batini (esoteric) Ta’wil (interpretation) of verses of the Qur’an.

This is the question posed: If they were able to accomplish their diabolic plan, and if this is the state of the books of the companions, then how can we rely on them?

For this would mean that there is a high probability that the Four Hundred Usul (notebooks of the Imam’s companions) – which are the basis of our present Hadith corpus – were corrupted, and we cannot sift the truth from the falsehood in this poisoned cake and have to abandon it all out of  precaution4.


There is a valuable report which explains how exactly this ‘interpolation’ by Mughira b. Sa’id (into the books of the companions of al-Baqir), and we can infer that the same was being done by the companions of Abi al-Khattab (into the books of companions of al-Sadiq, even into the time of al-Ridha), was supposed to have worked:

Hisham b. al-Hakam quotes al-Sadiq as saying:

كان المغيرة بن سعيد يتعمد الكذب على أبي، ويأخذ كتب أصحابه وكان اصحابه المستترون بأصحاب ابي يأخذون الكتب من أصحاب أبي فيدفعونها الى المغيرة، فكان يدس فيها الكفر والزندقة، ويسندها الى ابي ثم يدفها الى اصحابه ويأمرهم ان يبثوها في الشيعة، فكلما كان في كتب اصحاب أبي من الغلو فذاك ما دسه المغيرة ابن سعيد في كتبهم

al-Mughira b. Sai’d used to foist lies on my father deliberately. He (Mughira) used to take the books of his (Mughira’s) companions, and his (Mughira’s) companions – who were undercover (indistinguishable) among the (genuine) companions of my father – used to take the books from the (genuine) companions of my father, and hand them over to al-Mughira, so he (Mughira) used to interpolate into them ‘disbelief’ and ‘heresy’ and attribute it to my father, then order them (his companions) to establish (spread) these (interpolated books) amongst the Shia. So whatever is in the books of the companions of my father of Ghulu, then that is what was interpolated by al-Mughira b. Sa’id into their books5.

A Relatable Example

Assume that there are two sets of students in the classroom. The genuine students of the true teacher and the pretend students (who simulate genuineness to hide their evil intention).

A pretend student can ‘take’ the note-book of a genuine student. ‘Taking’ here does not mean acquiring the original note-book of a genuine student and inserting material into it. This is too risky because it will be detected by the genuine student when the original is returned to him.

Rather, the pretend student makes a copy of the genuine student’s original note-book, claiming, for example, that there are notes he had not written. It is this copy of the original note-book that he takes to his false teacher, and the false teacher adds stuff from his own pocket.

Now that the pretend student has an interpolated copy (an authentic base with fabricated sprinklings on top), he starts to claim that this is the notes of what he heard directly from the true teacher, and spreads it among the unsuspecting students he gathers to himself.

Or he claims that this is the accurate copy of the genuine student’s original note-book, and begins teaching it to unsuspecting students who come to him. He may even ask them to eliminate his name in the chain and transmit it directly on the authority of the genuine student from the true teacher (to mask his role in the artifice).

A Way Out?

Let one think carefully over this scenario, and realize that there is a way out of the conundrum.

Not all the note-books have been tampered with. Only the ones that the pretend students are spreading.

The solution is to only take a note-book from the genuine student, whose original note-book is untampered with. Not from the pretend student, who has a tampered note-book.

And if there are differing sets of notebooks all attributed to the same genuine student out there, study the transmission history of each and note the variants, so as to decide which strand is bringing down the accurate copy and which the tampered version.

It is for telling a genuine student of the Imam from the pretend student that Ilm al-Rijal was born, and the narrators were evaluated.

It is for telling whether a genuine student’s note-book has been tampered with or not that Ilm al-Fihrist was born, and the different versions of the same book were evaluated6.

Yunus in Iraq

When Yunus traveled to Iraq, he went indiscriminately to a few companions who were all claiming to be the genuine companions of al-Baqir, and indiscriminately to many companions who were all claiming to be genuine companions of al-Sadiq, but in this flock, there were wolves in sheep’s clothing. So of course al-Ridha is going to find tampered material in this collection.

The Dawn of the Age of the Nuqqad

Such was the state of play, at the time of al-Ridha, with the Ghulat ascendant and the corpus out there, a mixture of the sound and the defective. Some perceptive minds had already discovered this fact independently, noticing exaggerated Mutun (contents of Hadiths) that outright contradict the Qur’an being attributed to the Imams, or the existence of variants, wherein the same Asl would have Ikhtilaf (discrepancies) in it (i.e. addition and deletion), depending on the transmission strand bringing it down.

They realized that much of this was being caused by the Ghulat who were tampering with the Usul. This material was further spread by sincere students who gullibly believed that they were transmitting accurate copies.

It is at this point, specifically, the generation of the students of Yunus, to which we can date the beginnings of an even greater, more sophisticated consciousness about Hadith transmission and preservation, among some scholars of Hadith7.

It is these Nuqqad (critical scholars), themselves active participants in the transmission of Hadith, who set certain conventions and popularized them in the Ta’ifa (among the narrators of Hadith), as a reaction the challenge of fabricated material in the Hadith corpus.

The Conventions

There were two main conventions:

(a) Identify the genuine students. Since the Nuqqad knew that there were fabricators mixed in among the companions of the Imams, who were authoring tampered books under their own name, they did not give equal credit to the works of all the companions of the Imams.

Towards this end, the Nuqqad looked back at the three key generations before them, that is, the generation of the senior students of al-Baqir and al-Sadiq, the generation of the students of al-Sadiq alone, and the generation of the students of al-Kadhim and al-Ridha, and came to a consensus about the top students in each of these generations.

The Top students were those who were unmatched in their piety and understanding, close to the Imams and advertised by the latter as the repositories of their knowledge. Their personal reputation was etched into the collective memory of the sect. These are the Ashab al-Ijma.

Best practice was to give priority to the works of the Ashab al-Ijma over that of all the other students.

In this way you could be confident that the companion was accurately reflecting what the teacher was saying.

(b) Make sure you have an accurate copy of the genuine student’s work. Since the Nuqqad knew that there were gullible transmitters who were unknowingly transmitting tampered books which were being attributed to genuine students.

Towards this end, they ruled that one should not obtain something by Wijada and then gloss over this fact (a form of Tadlis).

This is when you obtain a copy of a work from the Suq (market), or the Warraqin (papiers), or the Kuttab (copyists/scribes), but do not disclose how you obtained the work, believing unknown sources when they tell you it is the Asl of a Fulan companion, and then go on to transmit it with the general Ijaza (license) you have to the works of that companion8.

Best practice was to obtain the copy through the superior method of Sima’a, where you sit in the study-circle of your master, listen to him going over the book he is transmitting, and the master also had Sima’a, where he sat in the study circle of his master and so on, in two or three intermediaries, to the Fulan companion whose Asl it is.

In this way you could be confident that you have in possession a copy that has not been tampered with.


If at each stage, a most Thiqa student goes directly to his most Thiqa master, copies directly from his master’s original, hears his master going over it to eliminate errors, gets his masters valuable commentary on many Hadiths, gets an Ijaza from his master, and this his master had done the same with his most Thiqa master, and so on, until the Imam, where is the interpolation going to enter from?

In addition to this, if a later compiler does not give equal credit to all the material in circulation out there, but exercises discretion in what to accept, predominantly limiting himself to the  works of the Ashab al-Ijma, which were already given priority before him, and therefore transmitted by so many strands that they had became textually stable much earlier. That is to say, an interpolator might affect one copy of the work and bring it into circulation, but cannot alter all the copies of the work in circulation out there, because the work is Mashshhur (widely known), and changes would be detected by Nuqqad who made it their duty to have as many chains to the same work9, where is the interpolation going to enter from?

Indeed, the only reason that books like al-Kafi and al-Faqih10 gained widespread acceptability among the Nuqqad is that they preserved a reliable core of Hadith that we can be confident of11.

All this is not to say that fabrications have not ended up in our books, since a human enterprise is bound to be fallible, and there is gap between the ideal theory and practice12. However, one must not gloss over the protective mechanisms that were set up by our Qudama in order to safe-guard against infiltration13.

The level of confidence we can have in our corpus must be determined by someone who has studied the Manhaj of the Qudama in-depth, something that is lacking unfortunately. As a result we end up with Sunni Rijal glorification and an inferiority complex, when I would argue that our corpus is in much better shape.

I would like to acknowledge my indebtedness to Ali al-Nawfali. Many of the ideas above crystallized in my discussions with him as a direct result of his exemplary insight. May God benefit us through him.


  1. See for example, Sayyid Kamal al-Haydari’s repeated use of this point in his Kharij lessons. He understands the ease with which chains could be fabricated as implying a collapse of the whole Rijali edifice, without considering the practical safe-guards that were put in place to avoid just such a scenario.
  2. As can be seen, the Imam is not asking them to look at the Qur’an alone, rather he is asking them to look at the Qur’an together with the established Sunna. Another option is to find for the Hadith in question a support from the ‘past Hadiths’. This in itself shows that there were ‘past Hadiths’ which were unaffected by interpolation. These were the reliable note-books from the senior students of al-Baqir, before the proliferation of Ghulati interpolation. Here is the principle of corroboration in its rudimentary form.
  3. Rijal al-Kashshi No. 401. The chain is reliable.
  4. Thus the proposal that we should return to the Mihwariyya (supremacy) of the Qur’an, whatever that means on a practical case to case basis where the Qur’an is silent about an issue!
  5. Rijal al-Kashshi No. 402. The chain is reliable. We must consider this a part of the report No. 401 above before it was broken up.
  6. The importance of the fact that Shia Hadith transmission – which began in an organized way in the generation of al-Baqir and al-Sadiq – was of a written nature from its very inception, cannot be stressed enough. This explains why the Fihrist genre was the innovation of the Shia and does not have a parallel in the Sunni tradition i.e. narrators who came later were mostly interested in documenting the different versions of a book belonging to a certain companion and their personal strands of obtaining it.

    There was a small core of specialist Rijal who were transmitting these books, and there was no interest to establish the Wathaqa (status) of the vast majority of narrators who had a Hadith here or there which they had heard orally. This explains why such a small percentage of Rijal in Rijal al-Tusi for example have Tawthiq, yet we have thousands of Mu’tabar-by-chain narrations in our corpus.

  7. It is no mere coincidence that there is no listing of Ashab al-Ijma for the generation after the companions of al-Kadhim and al-Ridha. I believe that it is the rise of the Nuqqad in this very generation (Tabaqa 7), Nuqqad who came to an agreement about the top students of the previous three generations, which explains this fact.

    Another point in favour of this dating is that we can trace the beginning of formal Rijali opinions and practices to authorities in Tabaqa 7 such as Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Isa, Ali b. al-Hasan b. Ali b. Fadhal and Fadhl b. Shadhan.

  8. An average transmitter might not be able to identify the signs of tampering himself, but had to aid the Nuqqad by giving an accurate back-history of how he came to possess a book and not obfuscate its origins, otherwise the Nuqqad would have to rely on corroborative technique in their arsenal to isolate frauds. They would do this by comparing different copies of the same book to isolate the interpolated material.
  9. The glimpses that the genre of earlier surviving Fihrists give us into the minds of the Nuqqad, their practices, and the state of the Hadith corpus at that time – is revealing. We find in such works an author laboriously laying out the contents of his personal library, chronicling how he came to possess each copy, laying out the multiple Turuq he has to the same book, that is to say, he acquired the same book via alternative routes and compared these ‘editions’ to study their variation.

    All this leads us to accept the dictum that some of the earlier Hadith books (they use as sources) were almost at the level of Tawatur to them, in the same way the Four Books are at the level of Tawatur to us. No one today gives his chain to al-Kulayni before quoting him in al-Kafi as the text has become fixed and unalterable.

  10. I do not include Shaykh Tusi’s two works, because unlike Kulayni and Saduq who were aiming to filter and include what they deemed reliable, Tusi purposely re-introduces Shaadhi reports to serve the polemical agenda of demonstrating harmony in the Shii Hadith corpus, preferring to reconcile contradictory reports however far-fetched his interpretation, instead of throwing out these reports as Shaadh (because of their weakness).
  11. We look at chains and see only names which re-appear time and time again having lost the significance of this. But the most common Turuq in the Four Books, which repeat over and over again (showing they were not oral transmissions, but strands bringing down books), are composed of a minority of very reliable narrators (the Ashab al-Ijma, in different Tabaqat), and the Nuqqad, accepted these strands as the core of the Madhhab.
  12. I believe that one of the greatest reasons for the entrance of fabrications in al-Kafi for example, was Kulayni taking from those whose weakness had not yet been uncovered. That is, their Wathaqa had not been established, but at the same time, Kulayni knew nothing bad about them (this is because their Mutun were not raising a red-flag with him).

    Since Kulayni was not all that in having the critical ability to judge the reliability of Hadith based on Matn alone, or was hesitant to do so (because of his unwarranted precaution), safety for him should have come in taking only from those who were known to be Thiqa, and at a superior level of understanding (e.g. the Ashab al-Ijma etc.). Taking only from those well-known second generation compilations that were textually stable and garnered acceptance among the Nuqqad. In this way he could be confident of getting the words of the Imam. But he did not limit himself to this. He also took (in an effort to be comprehensive) from those who were Majhul to him (in our technical language today), and gave some weight to their reports. This opened him up to mistakes.

  13. I disagree strongly with this notion of the Qudama as simpletons. Smug modernists wrongly believe that they could be easily caught out. Assuming that a book ‘found’ via undefined means and with no transmission back-history could be introduced whole-sale into circulation without arousing suspicion, or that a report from an anonymous companion would be accepted at face-value, betrays a lack of understanding of their methods.

1 thought on “Are Shia Hadiths Reliable?”

  1. Salam, thank you so much for this article. Do we know how many traditions from the Ashab al-Ijma ended up in the four books? Meaning, are the four books made up mostly of traditions protected by the Ashab al-Ijma or is it just a minority of traditions like 10% from them?

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