Sayyid Murtada’s Treatise on Who is Responsible for an Imam’s Ghusl al-Mayyit

What follows is the translation of a very short treatise written by Sayyid Murtaḍa (d. 436/1044) on who is responsible for an infallible Imam’s ghusl after their demise. This became a significant issue after the martyrdom of Imam al-Kāẓim (a), when the Wāqifīyya began casting doubt on the Imamate of Imam al-Riḍā (a) by saying that a sign of an Imam (a) is that he washes the dead body of the previous Imam and prays on it. According to the Wāqifīyya, Imam al-Riḍā (a) therefore could not have been an Imam since he was in Medina while Imam al-Kāẓim (a) was poisoned in Baghdad, and buried by the locals there.

This issue also exists in the case of Imam al-Ḥusayn (a) whose body remained in Karbala and historical reports tell us he was buried by Banū Asad, Imam al-Sajjad (a) according to a report where he asks one of his slave-concubines who mothered a child (umm walad) to wash his body,1 and in the case of Imam al-Riḍā (a) himself whose son was in Medina at the time of his martyrdom.

Shaykh Ṣadūq in his Kamāl al-Din, when responding to a third argument raised by the Zaydis, cites a narration in which Imam al-Ṣādiq (a) orders the washing for his son Ismā‘īl, and uses it as evidence against the Imamate of Ismā‘īl. The evidence Ṣadūq is highlighting here is that if Ismā‘īl was indeed an Imam, then it would have been obligatory for Imam al-Ṣādiq (a) to give the ghusl as Ismā‘īl’s death happened in his presence. Ṣadūq writes:

Another point derived from this narration is that the Imam said: ‘I ordered that the funeral bath be given to him’ and he did not say: ‘I gave him the funeral bath myself’. And this tradition also mentions that which disproves the Imamate of Ismā‘īl. None other than Imam can give a funeral bath to an Imam, in his presence.

In ‘Uyūn al-Akhbār, Ṣadūq also cites another tradition2 against the Wāqīfīyya and makes a comment regarding it at the end:

Muḥammad b. Ṣadaqa al-‘Anbarī said:

“When Abū Ibrāhīm Mūsa b. Ja‘far (a) passed away, Hārūn al-Rashīd gathered together all the elders of the progeny of Abū Ṭālib and Abbasid clans, and other people from the country including the judges. He brought in the corpse of Abū Ibrāhīm Mūsa b. Ja‘far (a) and said, “This is Mūsa b. Ja‘far who has died naturally. There was nothing between us for me to ask God for forgiveness – that is murdering him. Look at him. Do you see any injuries or signs of being choked on him?”

Seventy of the Shī‘a went there and looked at him (a). They did not find any traces of injury or signs of being choked on his body. There were signs of Henna on his feet. Then Sulaymān b. Abī Ja‘far performed the major ritual ablutions for the dead, covered him in his shroud, and followed the corpse with bare feet and without wearing a turban.”

The author of this book (Shaykh Ṣadūq) says:

I have included these traditions here in this book in order to refute the Wāqifīyyah who consider Mūsa b. Ja‘far (a) to be alive and deny the divine authority of Imam al-Riḍā (a) and the other Imams (a) who came after him. Once the demise of Mūsa b. Ja‘far (a) is established, their sect will be invalidated. Regarding these traditions they say, “Indeed al-Ṣādiq (a) said, ‘Only a divine leader performs the major ritual ablutions for the dead when a divine leader passes away.’ They argue that if our claim that al-Riḍā (a) is a divine leader was true, then al-Riḍā (a) should have done the major ritual ablutions for the dead when Mūsa b. Ja‘far (a) died, while according to this tradition someone else did that.

Their reasoning is not acceptable for us since al-Ṣādiq (a) has admonished that people other than the divine leaders should not perform the major ritual ablutions for the dead. Thus, if someone who is not a divine leader does this act which is admonished against, the divine leadership of the subsequent divine leader is not violated. Imam al-Ṣādiq (a) has never said that whoever performs the major ritual ablutions for the dead for a divine leader will be the next divine leader. Therefore, they have no case to present using this tradition.

Moreover, we read in some traditions that al-Riḍā (a) did perform the major ritual ablutions for the dead when his father Mūsa b. Ja‘far (a) was killed. However, this was done in hiding and only a few people are aware of it. The Wāqifīyyah do not deny that the divine leaders can be permitted by God to travel long distances in no time.

Sayyid Murtaḍa in his al-Fuṣūl al-Mukhtārah cites the opinion of his teacher Shaykh Mufīd as well3 where he alludes that Shaykh Mufīd was of the opinion that an Imam is responsible for the ghusl and prayers of the previous deceased Imam only if there is no other barrier or necessity preventing him from taking on that responsibility. This also seems to be the view of Shaykh Ṭūsī who in his al-Ghaybah cites a tradition in which Imam al-Kāẓim asks al-Sindī to let his (a) freed-slave give him the ghusl.4

Sayyid Murtaḍa, like his teacher Mufīd, also did not believe this was a responsibility of an Imam if he was at a distant location; rather it was only obligatory for an Imam to take care of the ghusl and burial if they were present and physically capable of doing so.

What is interesting about this treatise is how swiftly Sayyid Murtaḍa first devalues the few traditions on this topic which seem to indicate the obligation of an Imam to wash the previous deceased Imam, by simply classifying them as solitary reports upon which one cannot build an entire theological belief. The rest of the treatise is Sayyid Murtaḍa responding to possible explanations given by those who do accept these traditions but have tried to use supernatural ways to explain how an Imam who was months away from the deceased Imam was able to wash the body of an Imam in a different city.

Sayyid Murtaḍa is not easily convinced with these supernatural explanations, given the significance of reports transmitted through eye-witness testimonies – or the lack thereof – and uses this widely transmitted historical narrative as a cornerstone for the rejection of other far-fetched explanations. If an Imam in Medina really did wash the body of an Imam in Baghdad or Tus, then Sayyid Murtaḍa asks why were they never seen by anyone? Murtaḍa even responds to possible explanations that perhaps the Imam could have flown to a different city with wings, by arguing that if that was the case, it would have taken him longer than a bird, as a human flying with wings is heavier and slower.

For those interested in a direct refutation of Sayyid Murtaḍa’s treatise, do check out Maṣābīḥ al-Anwār of Sayyid ‘Abdullah Shubbar, vol. 2, pg. 250. The English translation of that refutation can be read here.

In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

Issue: Who is responsible for the washing of the previous Imam and praying upon him? Is this dependent on the subsequent Imam, or is it permissible for someone else to take care of this responsibility?

Response: The Shī‘a Imāmīyyah have narrated that the washing of the Imam and praying upon him is dependent on the subsequent Imam as he is in charge of these responsibilities. The Shī‘a Imāmīyyah were overburdened by these reports given what apparently occurred is contrary to these reports. Narrations on this topic are all mentioned with solitary paths, which do not result in knowledge, and one does not gain certainty with their likes.

It is also not far-fetched that these reports – if they are true – were intending a case of what occurs most of the times, when [physical] possibility and capacity exist. This is because we have seen the opposite of these reports, as Mūsa b. Ja‘far (a) died in Medina al-Salām,5 and the Imam after him ‘Alī b. Mūsa al-Riḍā (a) was in Medina; or ‘Alī b. Mūsa al-Riḍā died in Tus and the Imam after him, his son Muḥammad was in Medina. It is not possible for one who is Medina to take charge of the affairs of the washing of someone who passes away in Tus, or Medina al-Salām.6

Some of our companions have been burdened by these reports and have said: It is not impossible for Allah to transport the Imam from a vast place, in the quickest of times, by folding the far-away place for him.7 Hence it is possible for the Imam to go from Medina to Baghdad and Tus at one instance of time.

Response to this: We do not deny the exhibition of miracles and supernatural events for the Imams (a), but supernatural events happen with matters that are possible, not impossible. A person cannot be moving to a far-away place, except in a specific time-span, but that he moves to a far-away land without change in time is impossible.8 The distance between Medina, Baghdad and Tus cannot be covered by a body except in time which does not allow for a person who is in Medina to take charge of the washing of someone who is in Baghdad.

If it is said: Unless he moved like the birds who move from far-away places in a very short time.

We say: We do not deny that there is a difference of movement due to the changes in the form and structure of bodies. If you intend by your claim that the Imam was given wings by which he could fly, then that is not impossible, except that the flight of a heavy big body is not like the flight of a light small body. For this, the flight of a bird, like a wader and what resembles it in its body, is not like the speed of lighter birds. So if a bird with a lighter body cannot cover the distance of Medina to Tus in one day, then it is more suitable to say that it is not possible for a human to cover such a distance if they had wings.

And it is not possible to say: Allah makes the Imam non-existent here and then brings him into existence in a second state there.

For this is impossible from another perspective because the non-existence of part of the body9 does not happen except with an opposite,10 which is annihilation. The annihilation of some of the atoms (jawāhir) is the annihilation of all of them. It is not possible that some of the atoms are annihilated, while another set of atoms remain, as we have proven in many of our discussions, especially in our well-known book al-Dhakhīra.11

Except it is possible for those of our companions who went towards this opinion to defend their view by saying:

What is the issue with Allah transferring the Imam from Medina to Tus with strong wings, on which there is no limit to how severely Allah can make them move. What is the issue with saying that these winds that carried the Imam were so fast that they were faster than the speed of a quick light-weight bird, and he was transferred in the shortest of times.

That which invalidates these possibilities, if they are correct, or if some of them are correct, is that we know that the Imam, if he was transferred from Medina to Baghdad or Tus for the washing of the dead and prayers on the Imam, would have been seen at the place of ghusl and the ṣalāt. This is because he is a body, and a body has to be seen by anyone who has working eyesight. If he was seen, he would have been recognized and it would be known what he is doing, and the news of it would have spread, and it would not have remained hidden from those who were present with the body. How is this possible, while historical reports have been transmitted informing us about who washed these two Imams (a) and who prayed upon them, and they were named and seen.

All of this indicates that the matter is upon the view we have chosen.


  1. The report from Tahdhīb al-Aḥkām, vol. 1, pg. 444 is as follows:

    مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ أَحْمَدَ عَنِ الْحَسَنِ بْنِ مُوسَى الْخَشَّابِ عَنْ غِيَاثِ بْنِ كَلُّوبٍ عَنْ إِسْحَاقَ بْنِ عَمَّارٍ عَنْ جَعْفَرٍ عَنْ أَبِيهِ‏ أَنَّ عَلِيَّ بْنَ الْحُسَيْنِ ع أَوْصَى أَنْ تُغَسِّلَهُ أُمُّ وَلَدٍ لَهُ إِذَا مَاتَ فَغَسَّلَتْهُ

    ‘Alī b. al-Ḥusayn (a) made a will that his umm walad shall wash his body. When he died, she washed him.

  3. Al-Fuṣūl al-Mukhtārah, pg. 307.
  4. Kitāb al-Ghaybah, pg. 30.
  5. Baghdad was referred to as the City of Peace, constructed as a round and fortified city by the Abbasids.
  6. Sayyid Murtaḍa is arguing, that even if it was the case that it is obligatory on the Imam to wash the dead body of the previous Imam, this obligation is only present when it is possible for them to carry it out. This is similar to saying, it is obligatory for a person to fast from dawn till dusk in the month of Ramadan, but if the person is ill or are travelling, this obligation simply drops.
  7. This is a reference to the concept of Tayy al-Arḍ or thaumaturgical teleportation.‎
  8. The editor of the treatise critiques this argument of Sayyid Murtaḍa by citing [27:40] But the one who had knowledge of the Scripture said, “I can bring it to you in the blink of an eye.” So when Solomon saw it placed before him…”
  9. Note: Non-existence of a body in the words of the theologians is different to non-existence as defined by philosophers.
  10. That is, by the creation and existence of another thing.
  11. See pg. 145 onwards.