Some Notes on the Status of Salman in Early Shi’ism (Pt. 1)

By Ammaar Muslim – Originally posted on Shiitic Studies.

أدرك سلمان العلم الاول والعلم الاخر، وهو بحر لا ينزح، وهو منّا أهل البيت

Salman attained the knowledge of the First and the Last, and he is a sea which does not drain, and he is from us the People of the House

– Attributed to Imam al-Sadiq عليه السلام


Occasionally, historical figures transcend the limited planes of their earthly life to become symbols around whom communities polarize and legends grow. One such figure from early Islam is Salman the Persian.

Story-telling about such figures should not always be seen as exact records of actual historical events, but rather, encoded conversations put into the mouth of archetypes1, either to convey a message to outsiders or make a statement which resonates within the community from which the story originates. There are many examples of such fictional ‘dramas’ in the literature of Late Antiquity and the audience were expected to be capable enough to decode them.

I hope to demonstrate (with the aid of the example below) that Ghulati groups developed story-telling in Hadith in order to encapsulate their belief-systems. Unfortunately, many scholars fail to recognize what is going on in these reports because of making a categorical error (mistaking the genre).

Salman and Abu Dharr as Archetypes

Consider the report below:

جبريل بن أحمد، قال حدثني أبو سعيد الآدمي سهل بن زياد، عن منخل، عن جابر، عن أبي جعفر عليه السلام قال: دخل أبو ذر على سلمان و هو يطبخ قدرا له، فبينا هما يتحدثان إذا انكبت القدر على وجهها على الأرض فلم يسقط من مرقها و لا من ودكها شي‏ء، فعجب من ذلك أبو ذر عجبا شديدا، و أخذ سلمان القدر فوضعها على حالها الأول على النار ثانية، و أقبلا يتحدثان، فبينا هما كذلك إذا انكبت القدر على وجهها، فلم يسقط منها شي‏ء من مرقها و لا من ودكها، قال: فخرج أبو ذر و هو مذعور من عند سلمان، فبينا هو متفكر إذ لقي أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام على الباب، فلما أن بصر به أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام قال له: يا أبا ذر ما الذي أخرجك من عند سلمان و ما الذي أذعرك؟ قال له أبو ذر: يا أمير المؤمنين رأيت سلمان صنع كذا و كذا فعجبت من ذلك، فقال أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام: يا أبا ذر إن سلمان لو حدثك بما يعلم لقلت رحم الله قاتل سلمان، يا أبا ذر إن سلمان باب الله في الأرض من عرفه كان مؤمنا و من أنكره كان كافرا، و إن سلمان منا أهل البيت

Jibril b. Ahmad – Abu Sa’id al-Adami Sahl b. Ziyad – Munakhkhal – Jabir – Abi Ja’farعليه السلام who said: Abu Dharr entered upon Salman while he (the latter) was cooking in a utensil of his. While they were conversing the utensil overturned up-side down on the earth but nothing fell out of it, neither the broth nor the fat. Abu Dharr was greatly shocked by that. Salman took the utensil and returned it to its previous state and (put it) back on the fire a second time. They continued conversing. While they were in the middle of that, the utensil overturned (again), and nothing fell out of it, neither the broth nor the fat.

He (Abu Ja’far) said: Abu Dharr came out from Salman’s whilst terrified. While he was still pondering (over the incident) he encountered the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام at the door, when the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام saw him he said: O Abu Dharr what is making you depart from Salman’s? What is it that has terrified you? Abu Dharr said to him: O Commander of the Faithful, I saw Salman doing such and such, so I became shocked because of that. The Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام said: O Aba Dharr, if Salman were to reveal to you what he knows you would have said ‘may Allah have mercy on the killer of Salman’.

O Aba Dharr, Salman is the Door of Allah on Earth. Whoever recognizes him is a believer, whoever rejects him is a disbeliever, verily Salman is from us the people of the House2.

The Matn

It is my contention that the report tells us less about factual details in the life of the historical personages – Abu Dharr and Salman, instead, it encapsulates the world-view and emotions of the Esoterics in the face of those they would look down on as Exoteric opponents. The story is meant to typify the dichotomy between the uninitiated masses (represented by Abu Dharr) and the possessors of true gnosis (represented by Salman).

Such a reading is supported by a close-analysis of the contents of the report (form-criticism) which reveals esoteric themes typical in pre-Islamic Syro-Mesopotamian Gnostic cosmologies3. These include:

(a) The emphasis on ‘knowledge’ which is ‘secret’, and cannot be revealed to anyone.

(b) Possibility of wonder-working by one who possesses this secret knowledge.

(c) The notion that the uninitiated cannot tolerate being exposed to the knowledge of the initiated and would even be ready to kill them as a result. This is a code for the historical persecution the Ghulat were facing from the traditionist scholars.

(d) The concept of Babhood, which is usually defined as a non-Imam (usually considered to be a ‘prophet’ in the Ghulati cosmology) becoming the interface to the Imam (usually divine man, either infused with the divine spark, or in some cases, absolute incarnation of the divinity), but in this instance we have Salman become a ‘door’ to God himself.

(e) The recognition (Ma’rifa) of the true status of the Bab becomes the criterion for belief and disbelief. This is the seed behind the idea encapsulated in the widely attested Ghulati credal statement: ‘know and act as you wish’ i.e. antinomiansim. The notion that the outward Sharia is a scourge for the uninitiated masses and can be transcended by the possessor of secret knowledge.

(f) The identification of Salman as one of the Ahl al-Bayt. Whilst this identification was common to all stripes of Shi’is4, it was used as a template by Ghulati circles for their belief that spiritual ties (between members who are initiated) are the real bond while blood ties are insignificant. This is a common hermeneutical inversion promulgated by such circles, where the inner meaning (allegory) is taken to be essential and the surface meaning (literal) trivial. Thus Salman becomes a forebear to their communities and their members of the saved family i.e. the Ahl al-Bayt.

The Isnad

It comes as no surprise then to find that the narrators of this report have all been accused of Ghulu. Indeed, it is the transmission of this report, and others like it, by one of them (i.e. Munakhkhal b. Jamil) from the controversial Jabir b. Yazid, which must have factored into the decision by Rijal scholars to weaken him. This gives us a window into the thinking of Rijali scholars5. Let us look at what has been said about each narrator individually:

(a) Sahl b. Ziyad al-A’dami


كان أحمد بن محمّد بن عيسى يشهد عليه بالغلوّ و الكذب، و أخرجه من قمّ إلى الريّ

Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Isa used to bear testimony concerning his Ghulu and practice of lying. He exiled him from Qum to Rayy.

Ibn al-Ghadhairi:

كان ضعيفا جدّا، فاسد الرواية و الدين … نهى الناس عن السماع منه و الرواية عنه

He was very weak. Corrupt in Riwaya (transmission practices) and in religion (i.e. because of Ghulu) … He (i.e. Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Isa) forbade the people from hearing from him and narrating on his authority.

(b) Munakhkhal b. Jamil al-Asadi

al-Ayyashi asks his teacher Ali b. al-Hasan b. Fadhal about him and receives the reply:

هو لا شيء، متهم بالغلو

He is nothing. Suspect of Ghulu.

Ibn al-Ghadhairi:

ضعيف، في مذهبه غلو

Weak. In his Madhhab there is Ghulu

(c) Jabir b. Yazid al-Ju’fi

Jabir was seen as one of the pillars of Ghulu. At the very least he was claimed by the Ghulat as one of their own. A lot of esoteric material is attributed to him.


روى عنه جماعة غمز فيهم و ضعّفوا، منهم: عمرو بن شمر، و مفضّل بن صالح، و منخل بن جميل، و يوسف بن يعقوب. و كان في نفسه مختلطا. و كان شيخنا أبو عبد اللّه محمّد بن محمّد بن النعمان رحمه اللّه ينشد أشعارا كثيرة في معناه يدلّ على الاختلاط، ليس هذا موضعا لذكرها. و قلّما يورد عنه شي‏ء في الحلال و الحرام … و يضاف إليه رسالة أبي جعفر إلى أهل البصرة و غيرها من الأحاديث و الكتب، و ذلك موضوع، و اللّه أعلم

A number of weak and censured individuals narrate from him. They include – Amr b. Shimr, Mufadhdhal b. Salih, Munakhkhal b. Jamil and Yusuf b. Ya’qub. He was in himself a ‘syncretist’ i.e. introduced estoreic material into our corpus. Our Shaykh Abu Abdallah Muhammad b. Muhammad b. al-Nu’man (al-Mufid) – may Allah have mercy on him – used to cite a large number of poems (by Jabir) whose contents evidence ‘syncretism’. This is not the place to mention them (the poems). Very rarely does there come something from him (a narration) concerning the Halal and the Haram (i.e. he was not interested in jurisprudence but esoterica)6 … It is attributed to him the treatise by Abu Ja’far to the people of Basra, and other reports and books, and all that is fabricated (attributed falsely). Allah knows best.

Ibn al-Ghadhairi:

ثقة في نفسه، و لكن جلّ من روى عنه ضعيف فممّن أكثر عنه من الضعفاء: عمرو بن شمر الجعفي، و مفضّل بن صالح السكوني، و منخل بن جميل الأسدي و أرى الترك لما روى هؤلاء عنه و الوقف في الباقي، إلّا ما خرج شاهدا

Thiqa in of himself. However, most of those who narrated from him are weak. Examples of those weak (narrators) who narrated excessively from him include: Amr b. Shimr al-Ju’fi, Mufadhdhal b. Salih al-Sakuni, Munakhkhal b. Jamil al-Asadi. I deem (it appropriate) to abandon that which is narrated by these from him and to suspend judgment about the rest, except that (narration) which can be removed (from the bounds of this general principle) by having corroboration.

Whereas Ibn al-Ghadhairi, unlike al-Najashi7, rules out the possibility of Jabir being personally responsible for disseminating esoterically corrupt material, he concedes, however, that weak narrators made use of his name to spread spurious material.

We must also consider a number of reports from the proto-Sunnis which record Jabir’s claims to having abundant secret knowledge that should be hidden from the ‘masses’. There is an irony here. Jabir’s claims were so grandiose that they became notorious and were even noted by outsiders, something counterproductive to the Taqiyya that Batini (esoterics) claim to so cherish. A representative narration of this motif is provided from a no less authoritative work of Hadith among the Sunnis, the canonical Sahih Muslim:

وحدثني حجاج بن الشاعر حدثنا أحمد بن يونس قال: سمعت زهيرا يقول: قال جابر أو سمعت جابرا يقول: إن عندي لخمسين ألف حديث ما حدثت منها بشيء قال: ثم حدث يوما بحديث فقال هذا من الخمسين ألفا

Zuhayr says: I heard Jabir saying: I have fifty thousand Hadith with me. I have not narrated anything from them (i.e. kept it to myself). He (Zuhayr) said: Then he narrated a single Hadith one day and said: This is one of the fifty thousand8.


  1. Symbolic representatives of ideas claimed by different factions, who may or may not have actually existed.
  2. Rijal al-Kashshi, Hadith No. 33.
  3. For a summary of the Gnostic cosmologies that have a striking resemblance to the list provided here, see the, by now, classic text: Gnosis – The Nature and History of Gnosticism (Kurt Rudolph); also: Is Ghulāt religion Islamic Gnosticism? Religious transmissions in Late Antiquity (Mushegh Asatryan).
  4. I ascribe the popularity of this identification among the masses to an aspiration by the lowly Mawali, many of whom were non-Arabs and consequently marginalized from political power, to overcome the bane of genealogy and be admitted (through their devotional attachment) to the holy bloodline, which stood even higher than the mundane tribal aristocracies.
  5. It is clear that the Nuqqad among the Rijali scholars looked at the contents of the reports to determine the affiliation of a narrator by studying whether his reports have indications of ‘syncretism’ or not.
  6. al-Najashi is including this tidbit to allude to the fact that the Ghulat saw themselves as the elite who transcended the need for outward ritual.
  7. In this, as indeed other cases, it is al-Najashi who must be seen as depending on the analysis of his contemporary and friend Ahmad b. al-Husayn al-Ghadhairi, though he usually chooses to modulate the strong views of Ibn al-Gadhairi into less severe language, this case being an exception.
  8. Introduction to Sahih Muslim, Hadith No. 63.

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