From Taqleedi Ilm al-Rijal to Ijtihadi Ilm al-Rijal

What follows is a translation of some of the conclusions reached by Sheikh Haider Hobbollah in his Rijāli discussions whereby he discusses the obstacles in reaching intellectually sounds conclusions in this field and thus proposes a paradigm shift in how we look at the claims of early Rijāli scholars.

Our Opinion: From Taqleedi ‘Ilm al-Rijāl to Ijtihādi ‘Ilm al-Rijāl

The previous discussions that we have mentioned focused on delineating the theoretical framework for the epistemic and conventional value of ‘Ilm al-Rijāl and its historical reliability. It has become clear that this science and its historical and documentary data does not hold any value unless the level of certainty and assurance (itmi’nān) is not reached regarding its conclusions, in accordance with the method of gathering indications and evidence (jam’ al-qarā’in) which are conducive for building up the degree of probability (tarākum al-quwwa al-ihtimāliyya) here and there.

The previous discussions have led us to satisfactorily say that the words of a Rijāli scholar alone usually does not give us certainty. This means that the words of a Rijāli scholar – regardless of whether he is from the older (mutaqqadimīn) or later generations (muta’akhkhirīn) – on its own can not be used as an independent valid proof (hujjah). This forces us to close the door of imitation (taqleed) in ‘Ilm al-Rijāl.

This is a great transformation that will occur in this science whereby we will remove it from the sphere of taqleed of Najāshi, Tūsi, Rāzi, Bukhāri, Aqīli, Ibn Hajr and others, to the sphere of taking their results and verdicts of reliability [of narrators] as raw data which we then complement with other information with the goal of gaining certainty about the states of narrators through such cumulative work. As for just the saying of Tūsi or Ibn Hajar that so and so is reliable (thiqa) and therefore he becomes reliable and the chapter is closed, the previous discussions do not allow us the possibility of sufficing with this, based on the view we have chosen in the discussion of the binding force (hujjiyyah) of the words of a Rijāli scholar and the necessary corollaries of it.

This situation necessitates the following question: Has ‘Ilm al-Rijāl stopped at the conclusions of the older scholars or is the door of ijtihad still open? Has the subject of Jarh and Ta’dīl (weakening and affirming someone) stopped at the efforts of the scholars of the first century or is the door still open for us to practice efforts identical to theirs and perhaps reach different conclusions?

This question – opening the door of Jarh and Ta’dīl for us – has been raised by more than one scholar and researcher on two fronts:

The first: within the context of modern Salafis this question was raised about whether the affirming or weakening of people has stopped and is no longer permitted and it was only the responsibility of scholars of the past, but today I cannot affirm the reliability of someone who is my contemporary and therefore we must stop the methods of Jarh amongst people?

The various views of the Salafi scholars and others were that the process of Jarh and Ta’dīl is continuously ongoing and will continue until the day of judgement in light of what judges and courts need with regards to affirming and weakening witnesses, in addition to the necessity of having ‘adālah as a condition in many matters and posts, all of which necessitates Ta’dīl. Furthermore, the intellectual and theological deviations that have taken place in the Ummah necessitates weakening the upholders of such views from amongst the people of innovation and others.

This means that the discipline of Jarh and Ta’dīl is not specific to narrators only but includes others as well, and thus there is no need for calls to close this door after the era of the narrations.

This claim is correct for a start, regardless of its conditions, tools, measures and scope, but clearly this is not the topic relevant to us here.

The second: it evaluates ‘Ilm al-Rijāl by asking the following question: After the first century, did our understanding of the narrators become just taqleed of the past scholars or was it ijtihād and assessing their words and other than their words, in a way that we could oppose them even if they were in unanimous agreement? If it was just doing their taqleed then this means that ijtihād in ‘Ilm al-Rijāl really just means ijtihād in order to reach their tawtheeqāt [confirmations of reliability of narrators]. And our methodology in interacting with them would just be, for example, did Qummi authenticate the narrators of his tafseer? Is the extant copy of Ibn Ghaḍa’iri correctly attributed to him so that we can act upon it? What are the principles of ta’weedh al-sanad? What is the source of the validity of the words of a Rijāli scholar? And other such topics. However, if Tūsi authenticates a narrator without any opposing view then according to the contemporary scholars the effort of Rijāli assessment is over and they must accept the words of Tūsi or the most we can say is they must accept the view of Tūsi in this narrator so long as no mistake is found in it.

In accordance with the conclusions we reached in the previous discussions, the result is not the opening of the door of investigation and ijithād in ‘Ilm al-Rijāl and Jarh and Ta’dīl. Rather, it is the necessity of such an investigation. This is because the mutaqqadimīn, those before the 5th century, were – as we mentioned – in some cases, looking at the narrations of the narrator and were analyzing them and pondering over them including those scholars who were contemporary to the narrator. And this can also be done by us today. In fact, even in a better manner in some ways due to the advancement of IT which we have at our disposal and so it is possible for us to look at the narrations of the narrator together with what the scholars have said about him and carry out ijtihād and by preferring one side over the other, reach a conclusion. So then if we were to oppose Najāshi or the school of Qum in their understanding of the phenomenon of ghuluw then we are rightful in hesitating in taking their weakening of some narrators and the opposite is also true whereby if we are in agreement with Najāshi or the school of Qum, then it is rightful for us to weaken Muhammad ibn Sinān and his likes if we see his narrations are fraught with ghuluw tendencies which we understand as false, even if the previous scholars had deemed him to be reliable because they did not understand those narrations to be as such. In the same way, when they give a verdict about a narrator while mentioning the reason for it, it is rightful for us to investigate that reason and critique it and scrutinize it and thus accept or reject it.

This matter is not just limited to the narrations of the narrator. Rather, our situation today is better than some of the mutaqqadimīn because we possess a massive corpus of efforts of Rijāli studies, critique and methodology which the mutaqqadimīn were not privy to. So, by comparing the words of scholars and their cumulative studies till today about each narrator, and by comparing their words with documents presented to us by the sciences of Hadith, history, biographical studies, heresiography and others, it is possible that we may reach conclusions that would make us lose assurance in the words of the previous Rijāli scholars in assessing this narrator or that or it could strengthen our assurance in their words.

It is our belief – based on the previous discussions – that the method of doing taqlīd of the mutaqqadimīn, let alone taqlid of the muta’akhkhirīn like Ibn Hajr, Dhahabi, Hilli, etc, does not give ‘Ilm al-Rijal an epistemic foundation and nor does it give the words of a Rijāli scholar any hujjiyyah and therefore the correct opinion is what has been opted by several of the muta’akhkhirīn i.e. the opening of the door of ijtihād in ‘Ilm al-Rijāl in this sense, however, the result would be initiating extensive studies about the state of narrators.

And the last question here: Is it possible – based on what was previously said – for us to gain reliable results through this Rijāli ijtihād? And how?

The answer: This is possible, regardless of the magnitude of such a possibility and its odds of happening in reality. We do not come up with theories to justify the reality we desire, rather, theories reflect our reading of reality as we have said many times before.

As for how it is possible to provide an opportunity to gain assurance about the state of narrators, then this is through a collection of elements and conditions, of which we mention some of the most apparent ones:

  1. That all Sunni and Shia Rijāl scholars unanimously deem a narrator reliable or unreliable or ascribe to him a specific description, especially if we add to them what some historians have mentioned about this narrator and we do not find any contradiction from the words of the other Rijāli scholars and neither from the narrations of this narrator, and we also do not find any shared point that could have been a source of error for everyone, so in such a situation it is generally possible to gain assurance of a high degree. And the more a narrator is ascribed – along with what was mentioned – with descriptions of popularity (shuhra), excessive narrating, and his occurring in paths and chains and others, all this increases the odds of acquiring the verdict of his reliability.This is what makes us call out again for a renewed invitation for what we have called out many times, about the formation of a general Islamic ‘Ilm al-Rijāl because the general Islamic Rijāli corpus gathers together all the previous and later Rijāli texts regarding narrators from all the different sects and this has the potential of helping an ‘Ilm al-Rijāl that is based on the method of assurance (itminān) and certainty where the words of the Rijāli scholars can be weighed, and their sources can be critiqued and comparisons can be made between approaches to this narrator across differing earlier intellectual and sectarian schools that are known in the Islamic world. In this way, for the researchers, the data about the narrator and his name and his father’s name and his teknonym and others gains further support.
  2. The reliability or weakening of the narrator is mentioned by more than one Rijāli scholar from one sect and without any contradictory words from any other scholar from his sect or any other sect even if they don’t mention the narrator at all, but with the condition that those who deem the narrator reliable are not known to be excessive in their tawthīq. Similarly, those who deem a narrator weak should not be counted as those who are excessive in weakening. All this is with the condition that there are no signs of lying or doubts in the narrations of this narrator and we also do not find any shared point that could have been a source of error for these scholars. Bringing together the testimonies from such personalities without any contradiction can usually give us assurance about the state of a narrator or his description.
  3. The narrator has only been mentioned by one scholar. If he authenticates or weakens the narrator in a strong and clear language which gives certainty to the Rijāli scholar and his expressions indicate that this matter is abundantly clear and this Rijāli scholar is famous for his expertise and is balanced, it is possible in some situations to gain assurance from his words if there is no contradictory evidence, and we see the soundness of his narrations and we do not see a point that could be a source of error. An example would be if Najāshi or ibn Ghaḍāirī says [about some narrator]: “thiqa, thiqa, ayn” or “jaleel min ashābina, thiqa” and the likes.
  4. If the narrator is deemed reliable from one or more people, and there are many or a decent number of traditions praising him, which include authentic traditions, but no contradictory ones, then in such a case it is possible to generally attain assurance about the status of the narrator. All this is based on the condition that his narrations are sound and there is no contradictory stance towards him, and similarly, if the case was about weakening the narrator. Rather, if only many narrations praising him are reported about him, with barely any opposition or none at all, and they reach a large number in terms of paths and chains, it is then possible to gain certainty as well – let alone if there was a tradition citing a clear Qur’anic verse in praise of him.
  5. Looking into the narrations of the narrator and evaluating them by presenting them to the Qur’an and established Sunnah and historical truths or the reality or the state of the books of chains and teachers of a transmitter, and publishing independent extensive studies about the state of every narrator and his chains while carrying out comparisons about what has been said about the narrator and contrasting them with each other. All this can support – in addition to what has been presented by the Rijāli scholars – in gaining recognition about the state of narrators. And here we emphasize on analytical and contextual indicators because they play a big role as well, such as the excessive narrating of the great companions from him, and the relying of the famous views on his narrations when he is alone in narrating them, and the lack of his tarnishing amongst the famous scholars, and others.

Based on this, when we study a narrator, we put forward several indicators of his reliability or weakness, to evaluate the cumulativeness of these indicators with each other with the intention of gaining certainty about the state of a narrator.

Output of ‘Ilm al-Rijāl: From Certainty to Weighted Probability

In my opinion – and this is a very important point – even if ‘Ilm al-Rijāl cannot give us certainty about the state of many narrators, but gives us dhann, then this is still very beneficial because the narrations that this narrator, whose truthfulness is speculated, narrates, holds a good probability, stronger than the probability of a narrator who’s lying is speculated or has been discredited or is unknown. Therefore, based on the approach of the binding force of narrations whose issuance is assured (hujjiyyat al-khabar al-mawthūq bi-sudūrihī), this affects how fast or slow one gains certainty about the issuance of the narration itself when added alongside narrations that share similar content. Hence, our goal is certainty about the issuance of the narration and assessing the narrators is only a means towards this goal.

These are in my view the most apparent sources of objectively gaining information about the state of reliability of the narrators, though there still remain other varied sources, which differ based on the differing circumstances and the evaluation of the researcher through his evaluating the nature of the verdicts of reliability that has reached him. What is important here is that the researcher before initiating his Rijāli study, must prepare himself beforehand psychologically, intellectually and mentally so that he may enter the discussions about the chain of narrations in a balanced manner in terms of his presuppositions.