Muhammad b. Sinan: A Controversial Narrator (I)

By Ammaar Muslim – Originally posted on Shiitic Studies.


Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. Sinan (d. 220) was a descendant of Zahir the Mawla (client) of Amr b. al-Hamiq al-Khuzai, a close companion of Ali who was murdered by Mu’awiya.

His grandson, Abu Isa Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Sinan explains that his actual name was Muhammad b. al-Hasan b. Sinan but his father al-Hasan died while he was still a child and he was consequently brought up by his grandfather Sinan. This explains the truncation common in his name.

Muhammad b. Sinan is listed as a companion of the Imams al-Kadhim, al-Ridha and al-Jawad. He was a prolific narrator with no less than 797 narrations under his name in what survives of the corpus. His status is a subject of controversy as there exists both praise and censure for him.

Weakened in Hadith

Hamduwayh b. Nusayr says that Ayyub b. Nuh (fl. 3rd Century) sent him a notebook with the narrations of Muhammad b. Sinan and said:

إن شئتم أن تكتبوا ذلك فافعلوا، فإنّي كتبت عن محمّد بن سنان، ولا أروي لكم أنا عنه شيئا

If you wish to write that then do it, for I too wrote (narrations) from Muhammad b. Sinan, but I do not transmit anything on his authority to you.

The reason given for this is that Muhammad (b. Sinan) said to Ayyub before his death:

كلّ ما احدثكم به لم يكن لي سماعا و لا رواية إنّما وجدته

Whatever I narrate to you is not by Sima’a (I did not hear it from my sources) nor Riwaya (formal transmission i.e. licensed to it) rather I just found it (Wijada).

I say: We know that the Qudama did not give equal credit to all the Hadith material in circulation but exercised discretion in what to accept. Consequently, a book ‘found’ via undefined means with no transmission back-history was considered suspect.

They also differentiated between recording narrations from someone, which could be done for various reasons e.g. the narrations of liars were sought and written down as proof of his lies, and formally transmitting it, which gives it legitimacy as something deemed viable.

Since the contents of Muhammad b. Sinan’s books were discovered, based on his own admission, not to have come down to him through formal transmission, they were not deemed to be viable for further transmission, though they could be written down.

It must be for the same faulty Hadith practice that al-Fadhl b. Shadhan (d. 260) had recorded in one of his books:

إنّ من الكاذبين المشهورين ابن سنان و ليس بعبد اللّه

Among the infamous liars is Ibn Sinan and he is not Abdallah.

Lying here is not necessarily literal i.e. speaking falsities.كذب  can also cover narrating from Wijada without making this clear (i.e. making it to appear to be a formal transmission) as Muhammad b. Sinan is accused of doing.

For this reason Fadhl said:

لا أحل لكم أن ترووا أحاديث محمّد بن سنان عنّي ما دمت حيّا

I do not permit you that you transmit the narrations of Muhammad b. Sinan on my authority so long as I am alive!

و أذن في الرواية بعد موته

But he permitted in the transmission after his death.

I say: This last is a parenthetical comment by al-Kashshi and not something that is traceable back to al-Fadhl. al-Kashshi takes the emphatic statement of al-Fadhl to have nothing to do with Muhammad b. Sinan all his life and subverts it.

al-Fadhl had refused his students to transmit on his authority what he had collected from Ibn Sinan, but since al-Kashshi came across narrations of al-Fadhl from Muhammad b. Sinan he reconciled this by claiming that al-Fadhl had banned transmission of the narrations of Muhammad b. Sinan on his authority while he was alive but must have allowed it after his death.

Proof that this is what al-Kashshi had in mind is that he follows the above by naming the Thiqa individuals who transmitted from Muhammad b. Sinan and begins his list by al-Fadhl.

و قد روى عنه الفضل و أبوه، و يونس، و محمّد بن عيسى العبيدي، و محمّد بن الحسين بن أبي الخطّاب، و الحسن و الحسين ابنا سعيد الأهوازيّان ابنا دندان، و أيّوب بن نوح و غيرهم من العدول و الثقات من أهل العلم

For both al-Fadhl and his father have transmitted from him, and so have Yunus, Muhammad b. Isa al-Ubaydi, Muhammad b. al-Husayn b. Abi al-Khattab, al-Hasan b. Sa’id al-Ahwazi and al-Husayn b. Sa’id al-Ahwazi, the two sons of Dandan, Ayyub b. Nuh and others among the Udul and the Thiqat from the people of Knowledge.

However, I reject this bifurcation that al-Kashshi attributes to al-Fadhl for it does not make any sense in terms of Hadith scholarship. Why would al-Fadhl reject something to be done while he is alive and can partially oversee the process, but allow it when he is dead and has not control whatsoever?

Some have suggested that Fadhl wished to avoid the controversy of associating with Muhammad b. Sinan while alive, and to show his real view of the man – that he has no problems with him – after his death. But this is not believable, for Fadhl was not new to controversy (being associated with the school of Hisham and Yunus), furthermore, there are very critical statements against Muhammad b. Sinan sourced to him and no retraction found.

Furthermore,  al-Fadhl is said to have declared:

ردوا أحاديث محمد بن سنان عني

Repudiate the narrations of Muhammad b. Sinan from me.

That is, do not accept any narration in which you see me narrating from Muhammad b. Sinan as this could be originating from the time before the truth about him was known, or it is not a formal transmission.

Traces of Ghulu

Accusations of Ghulu have long dogged Muhammad b. Sinan and were already voiced by some of his contemporaries.

Abdallah b. Muhammad b. Isa (Bunan) said: I was in a house in Kufa with Safwan b. Yahya (d. 210) when Muhammad b. Sinan came in, Safwan said:

هذا ابن سنان لقد همّ أن يطير غير مرّة! فقصصناه حتّى ثبت معنا

This Ibn Sinan wished to fly away more than once! But we cut-off his wings until he stabilized with us.

يطير ‘fly away’ is a euphemism for Ghulu. Exaggerating the status of the Imams and considering them super-human was seen as taking flight from reason and the grounded position.

Al-Najashi comments:

و هذا يدلّ على اضطراب كان و زال

This evidences a deviation which existed but then abated.

Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Isa similarly recounts that they were at Safwan b. Yahya’s place when the latter mentioned Muhammad b. Sinan and said:

إن محمد ابن سنان كان من الطيارة فقصصناه 

Muhammad b. Sinan was of the Tayyara (fliers) but we cut-off his wings.

الطيارة ‘fliers’ was a name given to a particular strand of the Ghulat.

Consistent with this, we have evidence that Muhammad b. Sinan avoided mundane Fiqhi narrations and specialized on the esoteric.

Bunan says:

كنّا ندخل مسجد الكوفة و كان ينظر إلينا محمّد بن سنان و قال: من كان يريد المعضلات فإليّ، و من أراد الحلال و الحرام فعليه بالشيخ يعني صفوان بن يحيى

We used to enter the Masjid of Kufa so Muhammad b. Sinan used to look at us and say: Whoever wishes the Mu’dhilat (complicated narrations that make the heart wonder) should come to me, and whoever wishes the Halal and the Haram should go to the Shaykh, meaning Safwan b. Yahya.

There is also evidence that the Ghulat considered him as one of their pillars.

رأيت في بعض كتب الغلاة و هو كتاب الدور عن الحسن بن عليّ، عن الحسن بن شعيب، عن محمّد بن سنان قال: دخلت على أبي جعفر الثاني عليه السّلام فقال لي: يا محمّد كيف أنت إذا لعنتك و جعلتك محنة للعالمين أهدي بك من أشاء و اضلّ بك من أشاء؟ قال، قلت له: تفعل بعبدك ما تشاء يا سيّدي إنّك على كلّ شي‏ء قدير! ثمّ قال: يا محمّد إنّك عبد أخلصت للّه إنّي ناجيت اللّه فيك فأبى إلّا أن يضلّ بك كثيرا و يهدي بك كثيرا

al-Kashshi says: I saw in one of the books of the Ghulat, and it is the book of Dawr (Cyclic Reincarnation) from al-Hasan b. Ali from al-Hasan b. Shuayb from Muhammad b. Sinan who said: I entered upon Abi Ja’far the Second عليه السلام so he said to me: O Muhammad how will you be if I curse you and make you a trial to the people. I guide through you whom I wish and misguide through you whom I wish? I (Muhammad b. Sinan) said to him: Do with your Slave what you wish O my master for you are powerful over every thing! Then he (the Imam) said: O Muhammad, you are a slave who have made yourself wholly sincere to Allah. I have conferred with Allah so he refused (anything else) except that He misguide through you many, and guide through you many.

I say: While it is doubtful that this report which contains explicit Kufr actually goes back to the historical Muhammad b. Sinan – it does show how polarizing his legacy had become. The Ghulat claimed him for themselves and set him up as a stumbling block for the Muqassira, those they saw as uninitiated masses ignorant of the true nature of the Aimma, who are said to become misguided by their very rejection of him. It is logical that there would be a back-lash against him from the Traditionist opponents of the Ghulat.

It is known that material under his name were circulated by the Ghulat. Two instances of this are adduced below:

(a) The Ashbah (Phantoms of Light or Silhouettes)

While there are a number of narrations which mention the Ashbah, it became a typical trope of the Ghulat who developed the concept further to refer to the notion that the physical bodies of the ‘Aimma were apparitional forms, and that in reality they were luminous spiritual entities created before the rest of creation. At first Allah created Azilla (Shadows) which worshipped him and then cast his Divine Light, producing Ashbah (Silhouettes), temporarily outlined in the Divine emenation, exempted from the generation and corruption of suffering and death.

Al-Mufid (d. 413) says about this in his Masail al-Sarawiyya:

إنّ الأخبار بذكر الأشباح تختلف ألفاظها و تباين معانيها، و قد بنت الغلاة عليها أباطيل كثيرة و صنّفوا كتبا لغوا فيها، و أضافوا ما حوته الكتب إلى جماعة من شيوخ أهل الحقّ و تخوّضوا في الباطل باضافتها إليهم من جملتها كتاب سمّوه «كتاب الأشباح و الأضلّة» نسبوه في تأليفه إلى محمّد بن سنان، و لسنا نعلم صحّة ما ذكر في هذا الباب عنه، فإن كان صحيحا فانّ ابن سنان قد طعن عليه و هو متّهم بالغلو، فإن صدقوا في إضافة هذا الكتاب إليه فهو ضلال لضلاله عن الحقّ، و إن كذبوا فقد تحمّلوا أوزار ذلك

The reports which mention the Ashbah differ in wording as well as in implication (meaning). The Ghulat have built upon them (used them as their foundation) a lot of falsities and have authored books in which they have written much nonsense. They have attributed what the books contain to a number of the Shuyukh of the people of truth and have fallen in falsehood by attributing these to them.

Among these is a book which they called ‘the book of Ashbah (Phantoms) and Azilla(Shadows)’ whose authorship they attribute to Muhammad b. Sinan, we are not sure of the correctness of that which has been quoted from him in this regard.

If it is true then Ibn Sinan has been criticized, and he is accused of Ghulu, so if they are truthful in attributing this book to him then it is an instance of his misguidance because of his deviation from the truth, and if they have lied then they have borne the burden of that.

al-Mufid is not sure whether the book does in fact go back to Muhammad b. Sinan or it is the Ghulat who have falsely attributed this to him. However, the bare fact that the Ghulat latched onto his name is enough to proceed with caution. Especially as he had a period where he dabbled in Ghulu.

(b) The Fitrus Legend

The legend of the fallen angel was particularly popular in Ghulat circles and does not have reliable corroboration.

حمدويه، قال حدثنا أبو سعيد الآدمي، عن محمد بن مرزبان، عن محمد بن سنان قال: شكوت إلى الرضا عليه السلام وجع العين فأخذ قرطاسا فكتب إلى أبي جعفر عليه السلام و هو أقل من نيتي، فدفع الكتاب إلى الخادم و أمرني أن أذهب معه، و قال: اكتم فأتيناه و خادم قد حمله، قال: ففتح الخادم الكتاب بين يدي أبي جعفر عليه السلام، فجعل أبو جعفر عليه السلام ينظر في الكتاب و يرفع رأسه إلى السماء و يقول: ناج، ففعل ذلك مرارا، فذهب كل وجع في عيني، و أبصرت بصرا لا يبصره أحد، قال: فقلت لأبي جعفر عليه السلام: جعلك الله شيخا على هذه الأمة كما جعل عيسى ابن مريم شيخا على بني إسرائيل قال: ثم قلت له: يا شبيه صاحب فطرس قال: و انصرفت و قد أمرني الرضا عليه السلام أن أكتم، فما زلت صحيح البصر حتى أذعت ما كان من أبي جعفر عليه السلام في أمر عيني، فعاودني الوجع

Hamduwayh from Abu Sa’id al-A’dami from Muhammad b. Marzuban from Muhammad b. Sinan who said: I complained to al-Ridha عليه السلام about an ailment in the eyes. So he took a paper and wrote to Abi Ja’far عليه السلام and it (the paper) was less (in size) than (to contain) my intention (request), so he handed the letter to a servant and ordered me to go with him and he said ‘keep it secret’ so we came to him and the servant was carrying it. So the servant opened the letter in front of Abi Ja’farعليه السلام  and Abu Ja’far عليه السلام (who was only a child at the time) began looking at the letter and glancing at the sky, and saying ‘Naj’ (childish noises), he did this a number of times, so the ailment totally left my eye, and I could see with a vision that no one possesses. He (Muhammad b. Sinan) said: I said to Abi Ja’far عليه السلام: May Allah make you a leader over this Umma as He had made Isa b. Maryam a leader over the Children of Israel. He (Muhammad b. Sinan) said: then I said to him: O the resembler of the companion of Fitrus. He (Muhammad b. Sinan) said: I left and al-Ridhaعليه السلام had ordered me to keep it secret, so I continued having perfect vision until I divulged what was done by Abi Ja’far عليه السلام in the matter of my eyes, so the ailment returned back.

قال: قلت لمحمد بن سنان: ما عنيت بقولك يا شبيه صاحب فطرس؟ فقال: إن الله تعالى غضب على ملك من الملائكة يدعى فطرس، فدق جناحه و رمي في جزيرة من جزاير البحر، فلما ولد الحسين عليه السلام بعث الله عز و جل جبريل إلى محمد صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم ليهنئه بولادة الحسين عليه السلام، و كان جبريل صديقا لفطرس فمر به و هو في الجزيرة مطروح، فخبره بولادة الحسين عليه السلام و ما أمر الله به، فقال له: هل لك أن أحملك على جناح من أجنحتي و أمضي بك إلى محمد صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم ليشفع لك؟ قال: فقال فطرس: نعم، فحمله على جناح من أجنحته حتى أتى به محمدا صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم، فبلغه تهنية ربه تعالى ثم حدثه بقصة فطرس، فقال محمد صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم لفطرس: امسح جناحك على مهد الحسين و تمسح به، ففعل ذلك فطرس فجبر الله جناحه و رده إلى منزله مع الملائكة

He (Muhammad b. Marzuban) said: I said to Muhammad b. Sinan, what did you mean by your words ‘O resembler of the companion of Fitrus’? He said: Allah the Exalted got angry at one of the angels called Fitrus. So his wings were chopped off and he was thrown into an island of the sea. When al-Husayn عليه السلام was born, Allah Mighty and Majestic sent Jibril to Muhammad صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم to congratulate him over the birth of al-Husayn. Jibril was a friend of Fitrus, so he passed by him while the latter was cast away on an island, so he informed him of the birth of al-Husayn عليه السلام and what Allah had ordered him to do. He (Jibril) said to him: Would you agree that I carry you on a wing from among my wings and take you to Muhammad صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم so that he can intercede on your behalf. Fitrus said: Yes. So he carried him on a wing from among his wings until he brought him to Muhammad صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم. He (Jibril) conveyed to him the good-wishes of His Lord the Exalted and then recounted for him the story of Fitrus. Muhammad صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم said to Fitrus: Rub your wings on the cradle of Husayn and rub them on him. Fitrus did that so Allah repaired his wings and returned him to his station among the angels.

On the other hand, it seems that any Ghulu that Muhammad b. Sinan is accused of did not entail anti-nomianism i.e. the belief that ‘knowing the Imam’ is enough to abrogate the Sharia and everything becomes licit as a result.

Ibn Tawus (d. 664) preserves a rare report in his Falah al-Sail which is otherwise not found in any sources before him:

بإسناده إلى التلّعكبري، عن محمّد بن همام، عن الحسين بن أحمد المالكي: قلت لأحمد بن مليك الكرخي عمّا يقال في محمّد بن سنان من أمر الغلوّ، فقال: معاذ اللّه! هو و اللّه علّمني الطهور و حبس العيال و كان متقشّفا متعبّدا

Via his chain to al-Talukbari from Muhammad b. Hammam from al-Husayn b. Ahmad al-Maliki (who said): I mentioned to Ahmad b. Maliyk al-Karkhi about that which is said of Muhammad b. Sinan regarding (his) Ghulu. He said: I seek refuge in Allah! He is by Allah the one who taught me purification (before worship) and confining the wives (sexual propriety), and he was and ascetic and a worshipper.

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