Discussions on the Use of Ahadith in Tafasir | The Authority of Akhbar al-Ahad (Solitary Narrations)


The Hujjiyat (Authority) of Akhbar al-Ahad (Solitary Narrations)


Although Qur’anic exegetical literature has not always been rampant amongst Twelver Shiʿis, the last century has experienced an explosion of commentaries and works in the field of Qur’anic tafsīr. As such, the field has developed considerably alongside usūl al-tafsīr which can be translated as the principles of exegesis. This field of study encompasses Qur’anic hermeneutics which is the science of interpreting the Qur’an’s language. Usūl al-Tafsīr and/or qawa’id al-tafsiriyyiah are principles and rules by which we can interpret the Qur’an and understand its meanings. The process by which we can interpret the Qur’an is of utmost importance when entering the exegesis of the Qur’an. For a believer, the Qur’an, as the immutable, unchangeable, miraculous book of God, should be considered and commentated on with care. It is a source of guidance and as such, the believer tries to understand where God is trying to guide them through the words of the Qur’an. Indeed, for those who consider the Qur’an the word of God, misinterpreting or twisting His words is a grave sin, and something that the Qur’an itself has warned people against (see Q.3:7). The idea of tafsir bi al-ra’y (commentary according to one’s opinion) has been strongly condemned and a famous tradition with a reliable chain of narrators in Usul al-Kafi states that the Rasulullah (s), the Prophet of God, once said:

وَ مَنْ جَعَلَهُ أَمَامَهُ قَادَهُ إِلَى اَلْجَنَّةِ وَ مَنْ جَعَلَهُ خَلْفَهُ سَاقَهُ إِلَى اَلنَّار

Whoever puts it [the Qur’an] in front of them, it will lead them towards Jannah.

And whoever puts it behind them, it will drive them towards the fire…[1]

With this in mind, it is crucial for any exegete of the Qur’an to interpret its words with care, applying a fair hermeneutics to understand the intent of the speaker i.e. God. Historically speaking, exegetical literature has taken different forms among Twelver-Shi’is. Closer to the time of the Prophet (s) and the twelve Imams (a), tafsīr literature often consisted of collecting and compiling the narrations that had to do with the verses of the Qur’an. These works simply quoted the discussions and saying of those considered to be in a position of religious authority i.e. the fourteen infallibles. Few commentators commented on their contents or analyzed them in an analytical method. As time passed, verses that were analyzed and dealt with closely, were the verses that had to do with Islamic laws—roughly 500 or so verses (of the 6,000+ in the Qur’an). With the field of usūl al-fiqh¸ the principles of jurisprudence, ways to deal with seeming contradictions between the ʼahādīth and the Qur’an were dealt with significantly, as were methods to interpret these verses that law had to be extrapolated from.

Dealing with the Qur’an in a holistic manner and exploring their meanings as a field of its own, was less explored until more recent times. This is not to say that there have been no contributions to exegetical literature, but rather that it is scant in comparison to fields like Islamic law. The field of hermeneutics in particular has more recently been explored with only a few books exploring the topic of methodologies in the interpretation of the Qur’an. One of the topics in Qur’anic interpretive tools where discussions in usūl al-fiqh overlap, is in the issue of whether or not solitary narrations, i.e. khabar al-wāhid, can be used to definitively interpret the Qur’an. A solitary narration is a tradition classified on the basis of the number of its narrators, which has not reached a level of tawatur i.e. attested through so many chains that it is indisputable. As such, a khabar al-wahid is often narrated through a single narrator in one or all of its levels of transmission (hence known as solitary or one i.e. al-wahid) and therefore considered weak. When there are not enough unique narrators in one or all levels of its transmission such that the tradition will have reached the status of tawatur, it is classified as solitary. The number of narrators required at all levels to classify it as tawatur (or well-attested) is not agreed upon by all. The term ‘solitary narration’ can sometimes be a misnomer, as it includes non-tawatur traditions and may include narrations with a few narrators at each level. These types of narrations make up the bulk of ahadith literature and as such (approximately 95%)[2], and their authority and use in both law and fields outside of law is a crucial discussion in usul. Since they have only been narrated through one chain, these types of traditions are not 100% certain and do not bring about certainty that they are indeed sourced in the infallibles. The discussion of their usage has been explored in considerable depth within the fields of jurisprudence, and solitary narrations are one of the major sources of Islamic law. In modern times, with the vast majority of Twelver Shi’is being usuli, their usage in the field of Islamic law is no longer a discussion that is controversial and their use is widely accepted—although this was not the case at one point in history. The contention about solitary narrations lies in its ḥujjiyat or its validity as a proof, i.e. its probative force in fields outside of Islamic law, where certainty is arguably a necessary prerequisite. Solitary narrations do not bring about certainty or knowledge, so what do we do with them? The strength of the argument for the probative force of solitary narrations in Islamic law, lies with the idea that we have a responsibility to act on what we know, and if something has reached us from a reliable source, it is a proof and while it may not be 100% certain and is a type of conjecture (dhanniyyat), it is something that we have been told to use. It is argued that its probative force has been established through verse 6 of Surat al-Hujarat.

For some scholars however, the validity of using this type of hadith does not extend to fields outside of Islamic law, where an action on our part is not required, like beliefs and theology, where the evidence should be more certain and firm in standing. It is a topic that has warranted much debate, especially in more modern times with the increased acceptance of the probative force and the usage of these solitary narrations in fields outside of Islamic law.


With this in mind and with the development of Usul al-Tafsir, we have decided to explore the subject of the probative force of solitary narrations, specifically in the field of tafsīr. We are hoping to explore a brief history of the subject, followed by the discussions that a few contemporary scholars have had on the topic, with a particular focus on those that have accepted the probative force of these narrations and their use in Qur’anic exegeses. Of those that have accepted its probative force in some way, we will explore the opinions and discussions of Ayatullah Abu al-Qasim Al-Musawi Al-Khui (d.1992), Ayatullah Fadhil Lankarani (d.2007), his son, Muhammad Jawad Lankarani and Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi (b. 1935).  As to those contemporary scholars who have rejected the probative force of solitary narrations, we will summarize and briefly note the influential views of a few of them, most notably Allamah Tabatabai (d.1981) and the well-known Lebanese scholar, Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (d.2010).  While the discussions rejecting the probative force of solitary narrations will be summarized briefly, we will not enter these discussions in detail due to space constraints. We hope that by the will of God, this can be explored in another paper and expanded on.  Although many of the scholars discussed have reached similar conclusions, the methods and reasons which they use differ significantly, and as such, we have found it worthy to explore their explanations in a summarized form for each of these scholars.  It is important to note that the subject of the probative force of solitary narrations in the field of fiqh are extensive and outside the scope of a paper of this length.[3] As such, we will only be exploring the differences of opinion with regards to the probative force of these traditions that are relevant in the field of tafsīr, and why it is argued that these proofs do or do not extend to outside of the fields of fiqh. As a final note, we realize that there are many more contemporary scholars that have discussed the general probative force of solitary narrations outside of the field of tafsīr. We have focused our discussion on those scholars who have specifically discussed their probative force in the field of tafsīr in order to limit the scope of our discussion.[4]

A Brief History of the Discussion

The probative force of solitary narrations has been a lively debate amongst theologians and jurisprudents for many centuries. Over time, the debate has developed and so have perspectives leaning towards the increased role that solitary narrations play, both in areas of law and belief.  Some like Sayyid Murtada (d.1044) were even hesitant to say that solitary narrations could be used in the fields of Islamic law. On a completely different angle, Shaykh al-Saduq (d.991) used many of these solitary narrations to establish beliefs and aqeedah outside of the scope of law. Other scholars, like Shaykh al-Mufid (d.1022) accepted the probative force of solitary narrations in a limited capacity, only in the field of law. Their argument was that these solitary narrations did not constitute knowledge, but rather only conjecture. Further to this, Mufid argued that using conjecture as proof in matters of belief, especially in terms of the Qur’an was impermissible.[5] Shaykh al-Tusi (d.1067), the author of one the most influential commentaries of the Qur’an, Tafsir al-Tibyan, did not believe these ahadith could be used to definitively interpret the Qur’an, but could be noted as possibilities.[6] Moreover while he accepted that it was permissible to use them in law, he did not consider it mandatory to do so even there.  The distinction between law and action is important here as matters of belief include most non-legal discussions like those related to God, prophethood, infallibility and also generally include the interpretation of the Qur’an which is classified as a matter of belief, not law. This inclusion obviously excludes verses of the Qur’an that deal with Islamic law, as their probative force is generally established through their apparent meaning (dhawahir) with usuli scholars and is a different discussion altogether. Shaykh al-Saduq is one of the more influential classical scholars who went as far as to accept the probative force of these in matters of belief. Many contemporary scholars have come to increasingly accept its validity in all fields, whether in law or belief, including the likes of Sayyid al-Khui (d.1992), Ayatullah Lankarani (d.2007), and Ayatullah Hadi Ma’rifat (d.2007). This is in marked contrast to those who reject it like Allamah Tabatabai (d.1981), known for his ground-breaking Tafsir al-Mizan.

Ayatullah Al-Khui (d. 1992)

Ayatullah Al-Khui (d.1992) is arguably one of the most influential scholars of the past century and his work in various fields has proven to make a significant contribution to modern Islamic thought. In addition to being a marja al-taqlid, he was well-versed in hadith, and even published a “multivolume study known as Mu’jam alRijal (Biographical Dictionary of the Narrators of the Traditions)” where “he proposed a new method of ascertaining the reliability of traditions that were questioned”.[7] His expertise was in the legal field, and he explored much to do with Islamic law. However, he is also known for his seminal work in the field of Qur’anic sciences, known as Al-Bayan fi Tafsīr al-Qur’an, which literally means “The Elucidation of the Exegesis of the Qur’an.”[8] This is a work of tafsīr, in which Ayatullah Al-Khui expands on the Qur’anic sciences in the beginning of it, before he enters his commentary on the text of the Qur’an itself. Here, he goes through various issues associated with the interpretation of the Qur’an, its miraculous nature, its reliability, its collection, possibilities of abrogation, and principles of exegesis. The original work in Arabic also contains the exegesis of the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatiha; the English translation by Sachedina omits this.

The section of the book relevant to our discussion, is in Chapter 12, titled ‘The Principles of Exegesis’ i.e. Usul al-Tafsīr. He begins the chapter by outlining his position: “Al-tafsīr (the exegesis) is the clarification of God’s purport in His Book, the Qur’an. It is therefore improper to rely in this clarification on conjectures and the application of personal discretion. Nor is it proper to depend on a thing which is not established as being a proof derived from the intellect (‘aql) or from revelation (shar’), for it is prohibited to follow conjecture and to ascribe a thing to God without His permission.” He goes on to quote two verses of the Qur’an:

 ‘Say, Has God permitted you, or do you invent a lie concerning God?’ (Q.10:59).

‘Do not follow that whereof you have no knowledge’ (Q.17:36).

Although he establishes that it is improper to act on conjecture, he maintains that the khabar al-wāhid al-thiqa are not purely conjecture, and rather, are a method to achieving certainty, albeit with a slight margin of error. As such, in his opinion, it is completely valid for a solitary narration to particularize (takhsis) verses of the Qur’an as they are simply expounding on the meanings of that verse; they are not in contradiction with it. It is important to note here, that this is what he believes for the khabar al-wāhid al-thiqa, i.e. solitary narrations that are considered to be reliable in their chain of narrators and are not questionable. It is specifically these types which he sees no problem in following. He says:

Indeed, the crucial factor that is taken into consideration in a reliable tradition, and in other acceptable methods [of transmission] is that they should meet all the conditions of evidentiality. One of these is that a tradition should not be known to be false, for it makes no sense to give a false tradition in the status of evidentiary proof. Accordingly, the traditions that are contrary to the consensus, or to the well-established sunna, or to the Qur’an, or to a sound rational conclusion, cannot qualify for admission as evidential documentation, even if they meet all the remaining conditions that are taken into consideration, in establishing sound evidence. In this regard, it makes no difference whether or not traditions explain a legal ordinance. An underlying consideration in admitting a document as evidence is that the narrator, no matter how trustworthy, is not immune from reporting something different from the facts… Therefore, one needs to cling to the criteria of evidentiary proof to eliminate this possibility, and to assume it to be almost nonexistent….. The same applies to the accepted methods, other than the traditions, that assist a researcher in discovering the truth of a matter.[9]

In summary, if there is no sound reason to reject the reliable tradition (ex. contradiction with the Qur’an or another definitive reason) then there is no reason that a solitary narration with a reliable chain of narrators should not be used in exegeses, and it can be evidence and have probative force even in the field of tafsīr. This is because, these types of narrations are not simply conjecture, but rather a form of knowledge that (1) has been established in obedience to the law-giver[10] because of an injunction that they have made that it is a valid way to ascertain knowledge. This injunction is why solitary narrations have probative force; its probativity has not been established through reason or mental knowledge. As such, it is not “an opinion formed without certainty.” Further, he says, (2) “this is corroborated by the practice that is common among rational persons,” i.e. the sireye uqala. In other words, the general way of people is that they would treat all of this knowledge as knowledge even if the impact of that knowledge might be different in different scenarios (i.e. even if some knowledge necessitates actions in the field of Islamic law and the other doesn’t, knowledge is still classified as knowledge).[11] Here, he gives the example of a hand being a symbol of ownership. As such, one will attribute and treat what someone is holding to be in the ownership of said person, and generally, nobody will reject this as a weak form of knowledge.

Overall, Sayyid al-Khu’i believes in the probative force of solitary narrations, as they are to be treated as knowledge, be it in the field of fiqh, where action is required, or in fields outside of it, where action may be unnecessary.

Ayatullah Lankarani (d.2007)

Ayatullah Lankarani in his work on Qur’anic Sciences, titled Madhkhal al-Tafsīr, which heavily resembles Al-Khui’s Al-Bayan, enters the discussion on whether or not the solitary narrations have probative force within the field of tafsīr. Here however, he does not enter the discussion in much depth.  In Madhkhal, the primary reason that he cites with regards to the probative force of the akhbar al-ahad is that it is the sireye uqala i.e. the average person does not differentiate between types of knowledge that necessitate and do not necessitate action—they will still believe in the validity if it comes from a trusted source, even if that is just one trusted source.[12] His son clarifies what he means here (we will explore his son’s views in the next section):

He did not want to say that the general rational people consider solitary narrations to have the status of knowledge. No, his point was that the general rational person also enforces the same effects of knowledge in these cases (of conjecture). It’s because of this that conjecture also has this effect. As such, the general rational person in their actions according to solitary narrations, do not place a difference between types of information that have the effect of action or not. In the same way that they act on certainty, in places where solitary narrations have standing, they will also act on them. The law-giver has also signed off/explicitly approved this general way of the rational person and as such, the law-giver must give probative force to solitary narrations in all areas.[13]

Ayatullah Muhammad Jawad Lankarani (b. 1962)

The son of Ayatullah Fadhil Lankarani, Muhammad Jawad (from here on, we will refer to him as MJ Lankarani and his father as Lankarani), has explored this issue in detail in his darse kharij lessons. Here, he enters the discussion in considerably more-depth, analyzing the words of the more contemporary scholars like Sayyid al-Khui his father, Ayatullah Fadhil Lankarani and Allamah Tabatabai, and furthermore, classical scholars like Shaykh Tusi and Shaykh Mufid. He also provides a heavy critique of these scholars and brings forth his own opinions. As such, we found it valuable to include much of his discussion here.

He begins by saying that there is no controversy over using the words of the infallibles if they are mutawatir i.e. from several chains or even if they are solitary narrations but that have been confirmed by other indicators to the point where they are considered to be confirmed narrations (khabare wahid mahfuf be qarinah) due to the mutawatir tradition of thaqalayn which establishes the probative force of the words of the infallibles.  These have probative force even if they go against the apparent nature (the dhahir) of the Qur’an (which is classified to be a non-definitive form of knowledge, though strong). However, these definitive types of traditions are not our concern; the discussion at hand concerns the traditions and narrations that cannot be confirmed in any way and that only bring about conjecture, not knowledge. In a concise manner, he then succinctly analyzes the reasons of those who reject the probative force of khabar al-wāhid, and then his own thoughts and opinions. The summary that he provides is clear and breaks downs the arguments with precision and clarity.

In the discussion, he goes through various scholars and their opinions of the rejection of the usage of these ahadith. With regards to the reason that Shaykh Mufid cites for the rejection of solitary narrations, i.e. that one must have certainty in the commentary of the Qur’an, he says the following:

What reason do we have for saying that commentary of the Qur’an definitively requires knowledge and certainty? A good retort against the words of Shaykh Mufid is that: Isn’t it that we say that the apparent nature (dhahir) of the Qur’an has probative force? The apparent nature of the Qur’an is like other dhawahir, which have probative force; and the apparent nature of something is a form of conjecture and is not certain. You are saying as your general premise that every apparent form (dhahir) has probative force (hujjah) and one of the examples of apparent-ness is the apparent nature of the Qur’an. This apparent meaning is conjecture and is a conjectural method, and with this apparent nature, one does not find certainty to the intent of the speaker. So how can we consider the apparent nature of the Qur’an as reliable?

An additional problem that he brings forth is that he says that Shaykh Mufid has drawn a false analogy (i.e. qiyas) between beliefs and the commentary of the Qur’an. While certainty is required in the field of beliefs (and this is self-evident by the very nature of beliefs), this does not necessarily extend to the commentary of the Qur’an. He goes onto say that there is no commentator that says the commentary of a verse in a definitive way with certainty. Due to this, he says, we can put aside Shaykh Mufid’s reasoning.

The second reason against the probative force of solitary narrations can be explained in two ways. The first way to explain it is that the reasoning behind solitary narrations having probative force are for those that necessitate action. However, in places where action is not necessitated, obedience to that is meaningless. The second way to explain it is by saying that when we have a reason to bring forth the probative force of solitary narrations, the conclusion is that the probative force of it means to follow through with the effects and impact of that statement. i.e. In the same way that if you were to find certainty that God had made something obligatory over you, how you would follow through with the effects of that certainty is the same way that you should follow through with this. This type of following through on the effects of a statement only have relevance when it is related to a verdict or Islamic law. If the statement is that such an event took place x days ago, it doesn’t make sense to say to follow through or ‘act’ with the impact of holding that as true. Along with Allamah Tabatabai, this is also the opinion of Muhaqqiq Na’ini.[14]

With regards to this second reason, M.J. Lankarani brings forth the response from Sayyid Al-Khu’i that we discussed earlier when discussing his views. This was the idea that according to Khu’i, the meaning of probative force is that the law-giver has determined and indicated that certain types of conjecture are a path to knowledge and as such, should be treated as knowledge. So, these types of conjecture are treated as knowledge out of obedience to the law-giver (i.e. ta’abudi). This way of thinking does not differentiate between verses that have to do with Islamic law or verses that don’t have to do with Islamic law, it is all-encompassing (i.e. mutlaq). This is also the way of the normal rational person i.e. sireye uqala, which we also explained earlier. However, MJ Lankarani does not see eye to eye with Al-Khui on everything that he says. First, he rejects that the law-giver has put anything conjectural on the same wavelength as knowledge, and that we treat it as knowledge is out of obedience. He says that:

The reasons that there is probative force for the amarat, whether through the sireye uqala or another reason, it is never said that we should put something other knowledge in the place/status of knowledge. In the discussion on the apparent nature of things (dhawahir), it is the way of the average rational people (sireye uqala) that gives probative force to acting on the apparent nature of things. However, those that act on this apparent nature, don’t come and say that we act on this based on knowledge. The reasons for solitary narrations, none of them indicate that something other than knowledge should be given the status of knowledge. As such, we do not accept this, and we have rejected this on several different occasions.

The second problem that MJ Lankarani brings forth, is that even if one were to accept this probative force due to an obedience to the law-giver and the law-giver’s designation of certain types of conjecture as knowledge—this would not necessitate that this conjecture should have probative force in all arenas. It is very possible that the law-giver only gave it probative force in the fields of law. After all, what does it mean to ‘obey’ when it comes to matters like information on history, where there is nothing to obey in terms of action? Those like Muhaqqiq Na’ini accept that this is a type of ilme ta’abudi, but he does not accept that it has any application outside of Islamic law.

The third issue that MJ Lankarani brings up is that Khu’i claims that there is a difference between his way and the way of the author of Kifayah (i.e. Akhund Khorasani). He says that his path is that of ilme ta’abudi (where one gives probative force to conjecture out of obedience to God and servitude), whereas the path of Shaykh Ansari is munajaziyat and muadhariyat. However, MJ Lankarani claims that this is just a matter of semantics and places where we have defined the meaning of hujjiyat. It is possible that in the field of fiqh, we take this probative force to mean munajaziyat and muadhariyat, but in the field of tafsīr, we define it as something else.[15]

With regards to his own opinion, he says that he disagrees again with Sayyid al-Khui and also his father, that the way of the general rational person is to treat the effects of knowledge and conjecture in the same way is proof of its probative force.  He says that the “law-giver can only approve of the ways of the general rational person when it comes to matters of law.” This would include law in various areas including in the Qur’an and in the narrations—but only limited to law, not matters of history, etc.  As such, according to the sireye uqala, it is only to this degree that the probative force of solitary narrations can be approved. As such, one needs to return to the discussion of the probative force of the solitary narrations entirely—what are the implications of this probative force and does it exist? By looking at several verses and traditions, he says that they seem to indicate probative force in the field of actions, but not law. However, he also doesn’t accept the opinion that entirely rejects the probative force of these narrations.

As such, he brings a new reason forth to accept the probative force of solitary narrations. When we enter the field of tafsīr, we see that there are numerous traditions from the infallibles with regards to the Qur’an. We even have some commentary which would only exist if it were for these narrations, like commentaries that are primarily tradition-based. If there is no probative force for these solitary narrations, then that would render the work of all of these scholars throughout time as completely futile. He goes on to say that “Even more than this, the infallibles should not have said anything about the commentary, or if they had said something, they should have said that: ‘Only if you hear something directly from us, it has probative force, and not from others.’”  However, we see that numerous verses of the Qur’an have been commentated on and as such, we have to say that these narrations have probative force. In his opinion, this is a ‘strong and independent reason’ for the probative force of solitary narrations.

Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi (d. 2021)

Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi’s take on the probative force of these types of hadith is slightly different. This piece was not written directly by himself, but rather is an edited transcription of some of his classes. It was then published under his name in the journal Marifat.[16] Here, he goes through the discussion and instead of engaging in the usual arguments or places of contention, he attempts to reframe the conversation. He asks a few questions, like how can hadith have probative force in a field like tafsīr in the first place? What is this definitive hujjiyat and is that relevant for these discussions in tafsīr?  If we are taking probative force to mean the necessary evidence required to entail action, as would be the case if we define definitive hujjiyat/probative force to be munajiziyat (inculpatoriness, or a level of knowledge that does not excuse one from blame if one doesn’t act according to it) and muadhariyat (exculpatoriness, or a type of excuse that removes one from blame if one acts according to it),[17] then how does this relate to a field like tafsīr in terms of taking action where action is not often necessitated? Which actions are involved? He agrees that we cannot use a weak tradition that only brings about conjecture and then definitively attribute that to the Prophet (s) or the Imams (a). However, scholars do not do this in the field of tafsīr. Instead, they always give the possibility of error and are careful never to attribute a tradition like this by saying that they are 100% sure that this tradition came from the said-infallible without any doubts. However, just because ahadith, like a khabar al-wāhid doesn’t give one certainty, that doesn’t mean that one should negate these narrations entirely or that they don’t have any type of impact, or that one cannot use them at all. These narrations can still influence and push a person to think in a certain way. He also goes through the idea that what one means by yaqin (certainty) is an urfi type, a general understanding that one is sure, not to the effect that somebody is 100% sure. This is to say that it doesn’t necessarily mean there is absolutely no room for error; but rather that one is convinced to such a degree that it is enough for them to trust it. With regards to this he says:

This yaqini ‘urfi (general certainty) is to say that it is a type of certainty where one says ‘I know’ and the uqala (general population) would accept this and not doubt it. They would not protest and say ‘No, you didn’t know, because here you gave a one in one thousand chance that it was not as such.’[18]

Reading these hadith, even if one does not arrive at certainty with them, but reaches some level of conjecture and then, looking at various other ‘signs’ qarai’n, a true scholar will attempt to put these connections together in an attempt to get closer to the truth. This does not mean that they claim they have the truth, or that they know what it is, or that they should attribute something they’re not sure about to the infallibles; however, these akhbar al-ahad in and of themselves by virtue of being solitary narrations should not stop these scholars from working towards ascertaining the truth either. It is important to note that here, Yazdi does not differentiate between the thiqah, i.e. reliable solitary narrations and the unreliable ones. In fact, he says:

Definitely, narrations that have been transmitted are not only those that have reached the level of tawatur (multiple chains) and those that have a strong apparent meaning (dhuhur), rather, even the narrations that are the weakest from the perspective of their chains of narrators and their meanings/implications have an effect of creating something in the minds of people. The existence of narrations where the chain of narrators is not reliable, and their meaning is also conjecture, are not the same as their complete lack of existence….. [19]

Thus, without a doubt, narrations create the groundwork for a type of understanding and beliefs within us. As such, we cannot just cast aside narrations; even if they are extremely weak in what can be understood from them (dha’if al-dilalah).  Rather, they must be kissed and put over our eyes (i.e. respected), because perhaps they are the words of the infallibles and perhaps the meaning is such. As such, their lack of probative force is not such that we cast them aside altogether such that their existence is the same to us as their lack of existence.[20]

Allamah Tabatabai

Thus far, we have explored those that accept the probative force of the solitary narrations. With some detail, we also explored the views of those who reject this probative force when they were in conversation with those who accept it, for example, we discussed the likes of Shaykh Mufid and Shaykh Tusi in MJ Lankarani’s discussion. Of the contemporary scholars, the most influential scholar that has rejected the probative force of solitary narrations in tafsīr¸ is none other than Allamah Tabatabai, the author of Al-Mizan fi Tafsīr al-Qur’an, which is arguably one of the most influential extant Shi’i commentaries in contemporary Twelver Shi’ism.

As our discussion for this paper is primarily concerned with those who accept the probative force of the solitary narrations, we will only briefly summarize the views of Allamah Tabatabai. Here, we have again benefitted from the lessons of MJ Lankarani, who in his lengthy discussion, also notes Allamah Tabatabai’s analysis of the topic. He cites Allamah Tabatabai saying, “In our previous discussions, we discussed how in matters not related to law, we do not rely on solitary narrations.”[21] Further, he says that even if a narration is sahih¸ in matters outside of law, there is no probative force for them.[22]  In summary, what Allamah Tabatabai says as his reason for rejecting the probative force in the field of tafsīr is different than his predecessors like Shaykh Mufid and Shaykh Tusi. He says that the law-giver can only make something that is conjectural (dhanni) to have probative force where an action is necessitated and that this is not something the law-giver can give probative force to in areas of belief. So, if conjecture has probative force in the field of law because of obedience to the law-giver, then that only has an effect where actions are necessitated. If not, then it’s not even possible for it to have this type of probative force. Is it possible to say that something conjectural should have probative force in their beliefs when it is just conjecture? i.e. How do you force someone to believe something that is conjecture? It’s an odd question to ask, and not possible.[23]

It is important to note here that while Allamah Tabatabai has included a section on traditions in Tafsir al-Mizan  after his commentary on verses, these are not used as his basis in interpreting the Qur’an. He often mentions the traditions to strengthen what he has already concluded using his method of doing tafsir of the Qur’an with the Qur’an. They are used to accent his understanding from the Qur’an alone but do not play a crucial role in his interpretation of the verses.

Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah

Sayyid Fadlallah is arguably one of the more influential and controversial clerics in modern times. Particularly infamous for his role in the Lebanese resistance, he was also one of the more widely followed marja for the Shias of Lebanon. He penned many Islamic books, one of the less commonly known works that he penned, was a Qur’anic exegesis of the entire Qur’an called ‘Min Wahy al-Qur’an’. Dr. Nahlah Gharavi Na’ini and Muhammad Najafi have analyzed this tafsir and brought forth several examples from the tafsīr itself in order to show the viewpoints of Sayyid Fadallah.[24] Throughout his tafsīr, his viewpoints on the probative force of solitary narrations can be understood, and it is particularly obvious and said many times explicitly that he rejects the probative force of such narrations, similar to Allamah Tabatabai. Of particular importance, Na’ini and Najafi cite Fadlallah explicitly rejecting the probative force of solitary narrations in his commentary of verse 96 in Surah Taha: “This hadith is a solitary narration that does not have probative force in tafsīr. In matters that are information like those which are concerning the heavens and the earth or historical events, there is no existent reason to have confidence in solitary narrations.”[25] In this article, there are various instances cited where Fadlallah is shown to have an active and critical discourse with narrations, rejecting them for their weakness in meaning or in their chain of narrations.


Although many commentators of the Twelver Shi’i School of Thought tend to accept the validity of using the solitary narrations outside of Islamic law in fields like tafsīr and accept their probative force, many others are cautious in regards to them and go through a rigorous process before accepting them or using them to interpret the Qur’an. These scholars are extremely sensitive to those who accept the narrations without due process and worry about becoming careless in their acceptance of these hadith. There have been many discussions on the negative consequences of the historical periods wherein commentators would simply narrate whatever traditions they had on the verse, even if they were completely against rationality. In a move against this trend, many of them are extremely cautious in accepting any type of narration when it comes to the book of God. This being said however, many of these commentators continue to accept the validity of using these traditions in some capacity in exegesis, even if they do not accept it as independently probative. Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi, a student of Allamah Tabatabai argues that nobody generally commentates on the Qur’an definitively, claiming that they are 100% correct, so there’s no problems in speculating what the meanings might be according to traditions that may be weaker.  While he doesn’t reject the probative force of these narrations, he also does not wholeheartedly accept them. There are a few that have gone entirely against the status quo, like Allamah Tabatabai and Sayyid Fadlallah. In the modern world of Qur’anic exegesis and hermeneutics, the role that solitary narrations should or shouldn’t play continues to grow as the healthy debate surrounding their usage and probative force continues to unfold. Worthy of further research is the impact that the usage of solitary narrations has had on the beliefs of Twelver Shi’is in terms of aqeedah and tafasir literature, and ways in which Shii scholarship can move towards engaging with these ahadith in a healthy manner, taking into consideration both the strengths and weaknesses of our exegetical traditions.


[1] Kulayni, al-Kafi, v. 2, pg. 598

[2] “An Introduction to Hadith: History and Sources” Ali Nasiri, trans. Mansoor Limba, p. 29

[3] For a brief discussion on the probative force of the khabar al-wahid used in jurisprudence outlining the various reasons and proofs used by three contemporary scholars, including Shahid Sadr, Imam Khomeini and Sayyid al-Khu’i, see Robert Gleave, 2002, “Modern Šīʿī Discussions Of “Ḫabar Al-Wāḥid”: Ṣādr, Ḫumaynī And Ḫūʾī” (Oriente Moderno 21 (82) (1), Istituto per l’Oriente C. A. Nallino), 179–94, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25817819.

[4] For example, we wanted to discuss Imam Khomeini’s views on the matter, but since he does not explore this topic specifically in his works in-depth, we have chosen to omit his perspective. A summary and analysis of his views can be found in (Bidgali and Kuhi 1390)

[5] Shaykh al-Mufid, Musnafat, 123. Cited in Muhammad Jawad Fadhil Lankarani, 1388. Hujjiyat Khabare Wahid dar Tafsīre Quran: Jalese 86-89. http://www.fazellankarani.com/persian/lesson/2892/.

[6] Shaykh Al-Tusi, Al-Tibyan, Volume 1, 6. Cited in Muhammad Jawad Lankarani, Hujjiyat Khabare…

[7] Ayatullah Sayyid Abu Al-Qasim Al-Musawi Al-Khu’i, trans. Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, The Prolegomena to the Qur’an, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 15.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Al-Khu’i, 263-264.

[10] ‘ Law-giver’ is a term used in usul al-fiqh to describe the giver of laws i.e. God through his designated Prophets/ Imams

[11]  Ibid.

[12] Muhammad Fadhil Lankarani, Madkhal al-Tafsīr. (Tehran: Matba’ al-Haydari, 1396), 173-176.

[13]  Muhammad Jawad Lankarani, Hujjiyat Khabare Wahid…

[14] Ajwad Al-Taqrirat, Volume 22, 106

[15] He also brings up a fourth issue with regards to the rewards of actions, but we decided to omit for the sake of brevity and because we didn’t feel like it added considerable depth to the topic at hand.

[16] This is the definition of hujjiyat posited by Akhund Khorasani. Ayatullah Taqi Misbah Yazdi, “Hujjiyat Khabare Vahed dar Tafsīr Qur’an.” Marifat 1389. (152): 5-14. http://www.noormags.ir/view/fa/articlepage/578717.

[17] These are two terms discussed in usūl al-fiqh¸ see Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr, trans. Roy Mottahedeh, Lessons in Islamic Jurisprudence (England: Oneworld Publications, 2003), 59.

[18] Yazdi, 7.

[19] Yazdi, 7.

[20] Yazdi, 10

[21] Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai, Al-Mizan fi Tafsīr al-Qur’an, Volume 6, 59.

[22] Ibid, Volume 14, 206.

[23] Muhammad Jawad Lankarani, Hujjiyat Khabare Wahid…

[24] Nahlah Gharavi Na’ini, and Muhammad Najafi. 1388. “Barresi Royekarde Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah be Revayat Tafsīri dar Tafasir Min Wahy al-Qur’an.” Tahqiqat Ulume Qur’an va Hadith (11): 25-48. http://www.noormags.ir/view/fa/articlepage/90038.

[25] Na’ini, 30.