By Dr. Hassan Ansari | Originally published on his Telegram channel
Unlike what is commonly assumed, Shī‘ī scholars did not pay as much attention to Nahj al-Balāgha in the past as one would hope. The earliest commentaries on it were written by the Mu‘tazalis and other scholars of the Ahl al-Sunnah. One finds them, particularly the Mu’tazlis of Khorasan, paying more attention to the work than the Shī‘a. Of course, Shī‘ī Imāmi scholars did also pay attention to the work, but not to the extent that we witness amongst the Ahl al-Sunnah in the past. The number of commentaries written by Imami scholars before the Safavid era was not much, although during and after the Safavids, much more attention was paid to it by them.
The most important commentary written on Nahj al-Balagha, without a doubt, is by Ibn Abī al-Hadīd, a Mu’tazali, whose commentary has many benefits. This book is an entire corpus of theology, history, and literature, and I wish students of religion would study this book at the intermediate level and make it a subject of their discussions. It would be great if students read this book and became acquainted with the words and arguments of classical non-Shī‘ī scholars on the topic of Imamate and as well as explanations given by them, as expressed by a Mu’tazali, as it would allow for greater understanding of each other’s schools of thought.
Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd was a very fair man and his theological views on monotheism are the same as the Shi’a. Regarding Imamate, he believed in the superiority of Imam Ali, but did not accept the existence of explicit designation. Likewise, he explains away the caliphate of the first three caliphs as a matter of ijtihād and communal election. However, his defense of Imam Ali in all three civil wars is extremely well written and showcases his attention to detail in historical sources and his distance from prejudice and sectarian bias.
In the 20th century, further attention was paid to Nahj al-Balāgha, firstly, due to the efforts of Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), the famous Egyptian reformist scholar. The book was published through his efforts and as well as other Sunni scholars of Egypt and al-Azhar or Lebanon and thus became a catalyst for a greater understanding of Sunni scholars regarding Nahj al-Balāgha. Further, due to the great literary qualities of the book, it was noticed by Sunnis and even Arab Christians at the time. Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd’s commentary was also published by the Egyptians, particularly during an era when discussions on proximity between the sects were taking place. Also, note that the book on the Battle of Siffin by Naṣr b. Muzāḥim was also published by the Egyptians and was also another step towards proximity in the mid-20th century. In my opinion, the commentary of Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd can become an important basis for discussions on proximity. Unfortunately, in the last 2-3 decades, there has been very little attention paid to it, even though Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd is a rare and one of the most ingenious scholars of the Islamic world.
After the Persian Constitutional Revolution, the political dimensions of Nahj al-Balāgha became a point of attention and were showcased as an example of the Prophetic and ‘Alawi teachings. In Nahj al-Balāgha, Amir al-Mu’minin is presented as an exceptional role model for all, and a product of the training and education given to him by the Prophet (p). The political thought of the Imam in this book became important and influential for Muslim thinkers in the past few decades, and in particular, enlightened religious thinkers and reformist scholars have benefited a lot from it. Unfortunately, in the past 30-40 years, despite organizing large conferences and academic seminars, and publishing tens if not hundreds of books regarding Nahj al-Balāgha, analyzing its contents through a political, sociological, and ethical lens, it has yet to be utilized in jurisprudential discussions. Even when it is used, its interpretation is completed altered or misunderstood. Those who feel uneasy regarding some matters in it begin to doubt its originality and authenticity. As such, unfortunately, Nahj al-Balāgha has not been used as a source for deriving law in Shi’i jurisprudence throughout the centuries, even though it contains some very pertinent and important discussions useful for jurists, particularly those working within the domain of political and sociological jurisprudence.
The Hanbalis and the Aṣḥāb al-Ḥadīth amongst the Ahl al-Sunnah had no alternative in front of the greatness of Nahj al-Balāgha except to undermine its authenticity altogether or say that it was not authored by Sharīf Raḍī rather his brother Sharīf Murtaḍa. Many of them said that its sermons and statements were not authentic, or were written by Sharīf Raḍī himself. Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd himself addresses some of the doubts of the Ahl al-Sunnah regarding some of the contents, such as the sermon of Shiqshiqīyyah, and says he has seen them in works written before the birth of Sharīf Raḍī.
Today, given our access to many of the sources Sharīf Raḍi utilized for his work, it is very much established that he used sources that pre-date him. Many of the sermons and letters are recorded in Tārīkh al-Ṭabarī, Ansāb al-Ashrāf, or other works. Alas, the Wahhābīs and Salafī’s simply cannot relate to Nahj al-Balāghah and its transcendent thoughts.
What is for certain is that Nahj al-Balāgha represents the intellectual thought and religious guidance of the greatest student of the Prophet (p), Imam Ali (a) who was the best role model and teacher of the Prophetic teachings. Peace be upon him, the day he was born, and the day he was martyred, and the day that he is raised up to life.