Authentication of the Four Canonical Books

By Syedwajee Ul Hasan Shah, student at Imam Mahdi Hawzah of Birmingham

This essay will attempt to tackle the question of the authentication of every hadith within the Four Canonical books of the Shi’a by first providing the definitions of the key terms ḥadīth and khabar, whilst also introducing the reader to what content consists within the Four Books. Following on from this, a discussion will unfold on the method favoured to prove that all the narrations in the Four Books are authentic; this will be done by examining the use and need of mass authentication via general statements of prominent Shi’a scholars and the use of inferential deduction. Subsequently, highlighting the consequences of this method by providing criticisms and counter arguments to the ideas of inferential deduction and showing the need for Ilm al-Rijāl and ḥadīth categorisations.

Some Shi’a scholars proclaim that the technical definition of a ḥadīth is: “whatever is related of the words, deeds, or tacit approval of an Infallible.”[1] Furthermore, Al-Shahīd II says that “ḥadīth and ‘report’ (khabar) are synonymous.”[2]

“Imam Jaffar Sadiq’s teachings were collected in 400 usul (foundations), which were written by his students and encompass Hadith, Islamic philosophy, theology, commentary of the Quran, literature, and ethics. After a period of time, some scholars categorised these 400 usul in four books, which are the main sources of Hadith for the Shia. They are: Usul al-Kafi by al-Kulayni[3], Man La Yahduruh by al-Saduq[4] and al-Tadhib[5]and al-Istibsar[6] by al-Tusi.”[7] This reveals to us how the four canonical books were formed and what they entailed.

Furthermore, “the rijāl expert and theologian, Ibn Shahrāshūb, relates the following statement from Shaykh al-Mufīd: In the time from the Commander of the Faithful (A) to Abū Muhammad al-Hasan al-‘Askarī (A), the Imāmiyyah composed four hundred [books] called u̇sūl”[8]

The need for mass/blanket authentication:

“Whilst the Akhbāri’s debated the probative force of the Qur’ān, they were in agreement in regard to the authenticity and henceforth the probative force of the Akhbār. Akhbārī writers after Astarābādī deliberated ideas at how and why the akhbār can be established to be authentic. That the akhbār were the only legitimate legal source as the believer could gain customary certainty that they were saḥīḥ.”[9] This highlights to us the importance the Akhbāri’s have placed on the Akhbār, its authenticity and the need for them in conjunction to the Qur’ān.

In developing the arguments for the reliability of the akhbār,

“later Akhbārīs pursued two principal approaches: one historical and the other isnād-critical. For the first, there was a development of the historical account of how the 400 usul formed the primary source for the “Four Books” … It was argued that the collectors of the Four Books had screened the akhbār before inclusion. For the second defence, there was an eagerness to outline methods of authentication which challenged the dominant methodology of the Usūlis. By devising alternative methods of ḥadīth classification, Akhbārī writers tried to demonstrate, not only that the Four Books were authentic in toto, but also that individual ḥadīths, maligned by the Usūlis, could be reclassified and form a sure foundation for legal judgement.”[10]

From this we can see how there was a debate with the Akhbārīs on the use of the Qu’rān on deriving Islamic rulings. They wanted a systematic method to prove the validity of the narrations within the Four Books. This systemisation would then allow them to show how the aḥadīth which were deemed weak and not reliable by Usūli scholars can be used in deriving Islamic laws and considered authentic.

Gleave then goes on to state that,

“The former is an attempt to demonstrate that the science of ḥadīth classification is superfluous since a particular historical account of ḥadīth collation guarantees authenticity. The latter is a proposed reform of the science, enabling more akhbār to be considered sound, and therefore widening the material available for deducing legal rulings.”

This implies that there is no need to partake in a historical approach of authentication of ḥadīth as they have already been scrutinised before they were included in the 400 usul. The isnād-critical view allows the Akhbārīs to now use a wider range of hadith, this maybe because of their belief on the probative force of the Qur’ān and whether or not Muslims could interpret it – this could fill the wide gap that is left when not using the Qur’ān to derive Islamic laws.

To illustrate the previous point made in regard to scholars not using certain hadith as they believed them to be unreliable Gleave declares,

akhbār alwāhid cannot be used to elucidate the law, and indeed this was a position held by early Shi’i jurists… this epistemological rigour caused some problems in the practical derivation of the law was clear to jurists. The majority of aḫbār transmitted from the Imams, and found in the four books of canonical Sh’ii ḥadīṯ, were inevitably ḫabar al-wāḥid. To lose these as potential sources of the law would reduce the law’s legitimacy. Hence, much exegetical effort was expended to demonstrate that God, the Prophet and the Imams had sanctioned the use of ḫabar al-wāḥid.[11]

This signifies the fact that because many narrations were essentially solitary narrations, ‘khabār al-wāhid,’ which previous scholars deemed unworthy to use in deriving Islamic law – this would mean that majority of narrations cannot be used. Hence, the need for mass authentication by asserting that the law giver/s have actually sanctioned their use. Without the use of these one can argue that we would lose the majority of the content within the four books and the laws which have been derived from these narrations would have to be disregarded.

Moreover, the promulgation of Akhbārī ideas led to the accumulation of vast amounts of ḥadīth collections by the likes of Hurr al-‘Amili, Mulla Muhsin al-Fayd al-Kashāni, and Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi. This renewed interest in the status of hadith reporters.[12] However, this had more to do with preservation of hadith, not more to do with the fact that they were Akhbārī. Likewise, they would try to authenticate and weaken certain aḥadīth too. This is demonstrated by Majlisi’s Mirat al-Uqool, where the book of authentication for al-Kāfī goes through the asanīd and provides commentaries on authentic and weak traditions.

Method of Mass Authentication

As mentioned earlier the method of mass authentication to show that everything within the four books was authentic came from the statements of the three sheikhs. The process employed and developed by the later scholars/muta’khkhirun was that they took general statements from scholars such as Najashi, Kulaynī, Tūsī, Ali Bin Ibrahim al-Qummī and Ibn Qawlawayh amongst others to demonstrate the authenticity of the narrations within the Shi’a books. This is an argument specifically from an Akhbāri point of view, although not unique to them, as Syed al-Khu’i also adopted this view for a short period until his inevitable retraction which came later.

Another argument is that Al-Kulaynī would have presented his book to people of authority and knowledge, namely one of the four deputies to get it verified. “It has been said that everything in al-Kāfī is authentic and credible, Shaykh al-Nūrī attempts to prove this in his book al-Mustradak, fourth fā’idah… Al-Kulaynī was contemporary to the four deputies, and it is highly unlikely that he did not present his book to one of them, especially in that al-Kulaynī had compiled the book in order for it to be a reference for the Shi‘a, as he clearly mentions in his introduction… the purpose for the claim of presenting the book to one of the noble deputies is to achieve a level of assurance (iṭmi‘nān)”[13] Shaykh al-Nurī’s argument here is that there is a high possibility of al-Kulaynī getting the content of his book verified and authorised by one of the four deputies. If this was the case, then we can say that everything in al-Kāfī is authentic this would then give his book validity and give the Shi’as confidence in using his book.

General Statements

The use of these general statements aided the scholars greatly in establishing a foundation of why and how they believed the authenticity of everything within the Four Books. “The most important and weightiest reasons for the authentication of the traditions in the Four Books are the statements that the three sheikhs themselves have made in the prefaces of their books, asserting their belief that all the traditions contained therein are traditions that have been narrated on the authority of the Imams (A)”.[14]

They used inference from previous scholars’ and authors’ general statements about their sources, paths and cited these as proofs for the veracity of thousands of transmitters. This was prevalent during the time of Hurr al-Amili[15] as in the era he lived in marked the beginnings of this employed method. The main examples which can be listed are: Kamil al-Ziyarat by Ibn Qawlawayh, Tafsir al-Qummi and Najāshī’s statements.

From the introduction in Kamil al-Ziyarat[16] “Shaykh al-Ḥurr understood from this that the author intended to classify all of his shuyūkh as reliable”.[17] Interestingly, “according to this view, it would establish the reliability of three hundred and eighty-eight narrators”.[18]

As well as the Tafsir introduction[19] “al-Āmilī has used this statement to classify as reliable anyone mentioned in this Tafsīr, on the account that its chain ends in an infallible”[20]

Here he is stating that because the chain for this particular hadith is reliable, therefore, on this basis all the narrators mentioned in this book are also reliable. Syed Khu’i concurred with this view.[21] The problem that arises from Syed Khu’ī’s line of thinking is that; if all these people are authenticated unless Najāshī says otherwise – for some people Najāshi has given blanket authentication to, he has not given us sufficient evidence as to why he says a certain group are all trustworthy. For example he says: “The family of Abu Shu‘ba have a house in Kufa and all of them are thiqa.”[22] Furthermore, when considering the veracity of a Muhammad b. al-Hasan b. Abi Sara, Najāshī states, “The people of al-Rawasi (which Muhammad belonged to) are all thiqa.”[23] He does not cite his reasons or the sources for his appraisals, which becomes problematic because it authenticates groups of people with no real reason/evidence, which has no hujjiyah[24] for us. Moreover, there can be a real possibility that it was based on ḥads/guesswork and not qarāʾin/contextual indicators.

Another criticism which can be labelled against this approach of the later scholars of mass authentication is that it leads to authenticating weak, extremists and unknown narrators. An example of this is a person by the name of ʿAbdallah ibn Qasim al-Ḥārithi – Najāshī has deemed him weak and an extremist[25], however he appears in in Kamil al-Ziyarat. Here we can see several problems that blanket authentication causes. The ramifications of this can be seen within Usūl, if you are basing a legal ruling upon a narrator who is weak and an extremist, the law which is extrapolated where this sort of narrator is mentioned in the chain has no basis and holds no weight. A ḥadīth with this person in the chain will not lead to “certainty”, therefore have no value.

Additionally, this is further proof that inferential deduction of mass authentication of hundreds of narrators, if they have not been substantiated and checked, will lead to the authentications of many liars, unknown and extremists within Ilm al-Rijāl. This demonstrates to us how crucial the study of ilm al-rijāl is.[26]

The question one must ask is: whether or not the statements of the three eminent scholars constitutes a testimony from them to us. Can we accept that all the narrations are authentic within these books based on these general statements. Or is it merely their own ijtihād, from their own methodologies, which then means that this only has hujjiyah for the authors themselves?[27]

If all the aḥadīth within the four canonical books were authentic there would be no need for scholars to devise ḥadīth categorisations in order for us to distinguish whether it truly has been corresponded to us by an infallible. The categorisations of ḥadīth are as follows: Ṣaḥīḥ – authentic, Ḥasan – Good, Muwaththaq – Dependable Ḍa’īf – weak.[28] If scholars deemed everything to be authentic then they would not devise a ḥadīth categorisation system. These categories show the readers the work put in by scholars to signify which aḥadīth we can and cannot take based on Ilm al-Rijāl.

One of the factors which highlights the major problem with mass authentication in relation to showing that all narrators within the Four Books were reliable is Syed Khu’ī’s retraction[29]. Syed Khu’i has highlighted the need and importance of critical evaluation of ilm al-rijāl without this we could accept mass authentication and not realise the dangers of doing this by merely blindly following general statements.

Another indicator of why the content of the Four Books are not fully authentic is the fact that there were contradictions within Tūsī and Kulaynī’s works. in his Rijal work, Tusi states that Salim b. Mukrim is da‘if, but on another occasion, he states that he is thiqa. Similarly, Tusi contradicts himself in his appraisal of Sahl b. Ziyad (n.d.), an important source for Kulayni’s traditions. He considers him to be da‘if in his Fihrist but thiqa in his Kitab al-Rijal.[30]

In conclusion, there is a very strong argument to show that not everything within the Four Books is authentic. Shaykh Nurī highlights this even though he was arguing for the opinion that everything in al-Kafī is authentic, he said that it was highly unlikely that Kulaynī would not have got his work verified by one of the four deputies. He did not mention specifically and with certainty that this is in fact what Kulaynī actually did. So, the question of authenticity of al-Kafī remains. The contradictions that arose in analysing narrators from Tūsī and Najāshī expose us to the fact that with these lingering doubts we can never say that the content in these books are fully authentic. Additionally, the method employed of mass authentication brings up many problems and without careful examination this can lead to big consequences in derivation of Islamic law and how Muslims should live their daily lives. The motives behind Astrabādi and his school of thought on demonstrating how everything in the Four Books is authentic can be respected, but for scholars to adopt and apply his teachings is not possible, as shown in the case of his method we would be accepting from liars and extremists. Although today we are bound by time in the fact that we have no access to the early scholar’s methodologies and the material they had available to them. We must by default accept their methods of mass authentication if there are no external factors suggesting otherwise from thorough analysis of Ilm al-Rijāl. This was demonstrated via the Ijtihād of Syed Khu’ī as we saw through his analysis on how he changed his views and critiqued narrators throughout his life.


ʻAbd al-Hādī Faḍlī, Nazmina A Virjee, and Zayn al-Dīn ibn ʻAlī Shahīd al-Thānī, Introduction To Ḥadīth. London: ICAS Press, 2011

Abū al-Abbās Ahmed bin Alī bin Ahmed Ibn al-Abbās al-Najāshī al-Asharī al-Kufī, Rijāl Najāshī, Beirut, Alaalami Library, First Edition 2010

‘Abd Allāh Māmqānī, Miqbās al-Hidāyah fī ‘Ilm al-Dirāyah, ed.Muḥammad Riḍā Māmqāni Qum: Mu’assasat Āl al-Bayt li-Iḥyā’ al-Turāth, 1411 AH

Abul-Qasim Jafar b.Mohammad b. Jafar b.Musab Qulawayh Qumi Bagdadi Kāmil al-Ziyārah,  Najaf, 1938

Al-Ri’āyah fī ‘Ilm al-Dirāyah n.p., n.d.

al-Sayed Abū al-Qāsim al-Musavī al-Khu’ī, Mu’jam Rijāl al-Hadith, Dār al-Zahra, 1983, Beirut, Third Edition

Ayrawānī, Bāqir, and Zaid Alsalami.. Introduction To Rijāl Studies. London: ICAS Press. 2017

Gleave, Robert. “Modern Discussions On Habar Al-Wahid: Sadr, Humayni And Hui”. Istituto Per L’oriente C. A. Nallino no. 1(2002) : 182.

Gleave, Robert. Scripturalist Islam. Leiden: Brill, 2007

Mahdavirad, Muhammad, and Alexander Khaleeli. 2017. History Of Hadith Compilation. London: ICAS Press.

Maranlou, Sahar. Access To Justice In Iran: Women, Perceptions, And Reality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015

Muhammad al-Mahdi Bahr al-`Ulum, Al-Fawa’id al-Rijaliyah Najaf: 1965

Nasiri, ‘Ali. An Introduction To Hadith History And Sources. London: MIU Press. 2013

Takim, Liyakat. 2007. The Origins And Evaluations Of Hadith Transmitters In Shi`I Biographical Literature. Ebook. Colorado: The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. Accessed June 26 2018.

End Notes

[1] ‘Abd Allāh Māmqānī, Miqbās al-Hidāyah fī ‘Ilm al-Dirāyah, ed.Muḥammad Riḍā Māmqāni (Qum: Mu’assasat Āl al-Bayt li-Iḥyā’ al-Turāth, 1411 AH), 57.

[2] Al-Ri’āyah fī ‘Ilm al-Dirāyah (n.p., n.d.), 50.

[3]Al-Kāfī is the first and most comprehensive book from among the Four Books (Kutub Arba’ah) which contains 15,176 traditions on beliefs, jurisprudence, and morality” ‘Ali Nasiri, An Introduction To Hadith History And Sources. (London: MIU Press, 2013), 235.

[4] “Man Lā Yaḥḍuruhu l’-Faqīh which literally means “Every Man His Own Lawyer” is the second comprehensive Shī’ah collection of ḥadīth from among the Four Books which contains the jurisprudential views of Shaykh al-Ṣadūq… it contains 5,920 traditions and its sections (abwab) are arranged according to the subjects in jurisprudence from ritual purification to indemnity for bodily injuries (diyāt). The high academic status of the author and his emphasis in his introduction that he tried his best to collect only the reliable traditions in the book have added credibility to this work.” Ibid., 257.

[5]Tahdhīb al-Aḥkām is a treatise of decisive ijtihad in which Shaykh al-Ṭūsī has embarked on understanding, scrutinising and reconciling seemingly contradictory narrations” Ibid., 262.

[6] Al-Istibṣār fī mā Akhtalafa al-Akhbār was written in three volumes. The first two volumes deal with “acts of worship” while volume three pertains to contracts and transactions (‘uqūd wa iyqāt) and other topics in jurisprudence. Ibid., 277.

[7] Sahar Maranlou, Access To Justice In Iran: Women, Perceptions, And Reality. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 57.

[8] Muhammad Mahdavirad, and Alexander Khaleeli. History Of Hadith Compilation. (London: ICAS Press, 2017), 323.

[9] Robert Gleave, Scripturalist Islam. (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 245-246.

[10] Ibid., 245 -246.

[11] Robert Gleave, “Modern Discussions On Habar Al-Wahid: Sadr, Humayni And Hui”. (Istituto Per L’oriente C. A. Nallino 1: 2002), 182,

[12] Takim Liyakat.. The Origins And Evaluations Of Hadith Transmitters In Shi`I Biographical Literature. (Ebook. Colorado: The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 2008) 41.

[13] Bāqir al-Irawānī, and Zaid Alsalami, Introduction To Rijāl Studies. (London: ICAS Press, 2017), 167 – 168.

[14] ʻAbd al-Hādī Faḍlī, Nazmina A Virjee, and Zayn al-Dīn ibn ʻAlī Shahīd al-Thānī, Introduction To Ḥadīth, (London: ICAS Press, 2011), 211.

[15] “al-A‘milī in the sixth appendix of his book (al-Wasā’il Vol.XX p.61) speaks about the attestation of a large group of our scholars as to the authenticity of the four books… have come down from the ma’ṣūms’. Then he quotes what the three shaikhs said about their conviction that everything they had quoted in their books was authentically from the Ahl al-Bayt (A). In the ninth appendix, he mentioned 22 proofs of the decisive origin of the traditions in the Four Books… written by our classical scholars on the authority of Ahl al-Bayt (A). Fadli Introduction To Ḥadīth, 211-212.

[16] “We know that we are not aware of everything that has been narrated from them [infallibles] in this regard [in visitation] or in other areas. However, we mention only from what we have come across from amongst the reliable of our companions… and we have not mentioned here any tradition narrated from irregular [al-shidhādh] narrators” Abul-Qasim Jafar b.Mohammad b. Jafar b.Musab Qulawayh Qumi Bagdadi Kāmil al-Ziyārah,  (Najaf, 1938), 4.

[17] Wasāil al-Shī’ah, vol 20, fā’idah no. 6.

[18] Irwani, Introduction To Rijāl Studies, 125.

[19] “We are mentioning and informing what we have received, and it is what our masters and reliable sources have mentioned, from those whose obedience and following Allah has made incumbent [i.e. the infallibles].” Ibid., 122.

[20] Irwani, Introduction To Rijāl Studies, 122.

[21] Affirming that they were reliable unless proven to be otherwise by Najashi or others. al-Sayed Abū al-Qāsim al-Musavī al-Khu’ī, Mu’jam Rijāl al-Ḥadīth, (Dār al-Zahra, Beirut, Third Edition, 1983), vol. 1, 49.

[22] al-Sayed Abū al-Qāsim al-Musavī al-Khu’ī, Mu’jam Rijāl al-Ḥadīth, (Dār al-Zahra, Beirut, Third Edition, 1983), vol. 11, p. 77.

[23] Abū al-Abbās Ahmed bin Alī bin Ahmed Ibn al-Abbās al-Najāshī al-Asharī al-Kufī, Rijāl Najāshī, (Beirut, Alaalami Library, 2010), First Edition, 310.

[24] Probative force/authoritativeness.

[25] Abū al-Abbās Ahmed bin Alī bin Ahmed Ibn al-Abbās al-Najāshī al-Asharī al-Kufī, Rijāl Najāshī, (Beirut, Alaalami Library 2010), First Edition, 217.

[26] There are some unusual traditions to be found in al-Kāfī that would be deemed reliable had we not definitely proved that they have not originated from ma‘ṣūms. Therefore, how can the allegation be true that all the traditions in al-Kāfī are definitely authentic and from the ma‘ṣūms… this is supported by the fact that Sadūq did not believe them to be so… nor did his teacher. Fadli, Introduction To Ḥadīth, 216.

[27] A contrasting opinion held by some scholars is that it is not permissible to accept whatever has been authenticated as sound from the reports of the aṣḥāb al-ijmāʿ. One of the proponents of this view is al-Sayyid al-Khūʾī, in his book Muʿjam Rijāl al-Ḥadīth… he said that the consensus conveyed by al-Kashshī was not the legal consensus but was a unanimous agreement based on the existence of certain proofs that led the scholars so to conclude, he believes that since the beginning of the Major Occultation, these associated proofs began to disappear, such that it was no longer possible for later scholars to accept what earlier scholars had accepted. This was because they had had certain pieces of evidence at their disposal, which had aided their investigations and to which later scholars no longer had recourse. In light of what we have seen so far, this issue is a matter of personal judgement, in which the proofs and the extent of their capacity for extrapolation of rulings must be examined carefully. Ibid., 207.

[28]Fadli Introduction To Ḥadīth, 10-12.

[29] “After examining the traditions of the book and investigating its isnads, it appears that it [the book] contains many traditions – maybe more than a half [of the traditions in the book] – which do not accord with his [Ibn Qawlawayh’s] description in his introduction [that the work contains reliable transmitters only]. Moreover, the book contains many traditions whose isnads are not complete or which do not culminate in a ma‘sum. Persons who are not from our companions also occur in the isnads. Some figures who are not cited in our biographical works at all are also mentioned, others who are known to be weak like Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allah al-Mihran are also cited. Therefore, there is no alternative but to alter [our stated position] and to maintain that only his [Ibn Qawlawayh’s] mashayikh (teachers) from whom he reports directly (bila wasita), are reliable.” al-Sayed Abū al-Qāsim al-Musavī al-Khu’ī, Fiqh al-Shia, (Najaf), vol. 3, 27.

[30] Muhammad al-Mahdi Bahr al-`Ulum, Al-Fawa’id al-Rijaliyah (Najaf: 1965), 3:253.

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