The Biographies of the Infallibles and Theological Presuppositions

This is a summary of a presentation given by Dr. Ahmad Pakatchi on January 25th, 2017 at a workshop organized by the History, Sīrah and Islamic Civilization Department of Madrassah Imam Khomeini in Qom.

One of the discussions that always occupies the minds of scholars is the relationship between the sīrah of the infallibles and theological beliefs. These theological presuppositions could be beliefs that we hold as Muslims, or specifically as Imāmī Shī‘a. Sometimes a person who wishes to study history, the biographies and sīrah of the infallibles, falls into a paradox because on the one hand they may have a lot of love for the infallibles and admire them, but on the other hand they do not want their presumptions and biases to misconstrue the facts of history. Furthermore, at times the person comes across certain situations and issues in their study of the history of the infallibles that puts their theological presuppositions under scrutiny and challenges them.

This has always been an issue for any Muslim or Shī‘ī historian because on the one hand, you are at risk in constructing a historical narrative that suits your own ideals and presuppositions and that can take you really far away from reality, but on the other hand, you are at risk of belittling the sanctity and dignity of the infallibles, particularly if you accept certain incidents and events as transmitted in history. In this light, it is a good idea to present an overview of certain theological beliefs that play an important role in how you write and study the biographies of the infallibles and what you can extract, understand and interpret from their lives.I don’t intend on solving or answering any questions, rather the purpose is to highlight some of these presuppositions that anyone who is interested  in studying history and the sīrah should be attentive towards.

1. Classical Theological Presuppositions

When studying and discussing issues of belief, particularly in relation to the sīrah, it is natural to first refer to issues of theology that have classically existed amongst the Shī‘ī school. Many of these theological beliefs are such that have always existed in the works of Imāmī theology and would also perhaps be included in books written for students.

A. Miracles

One of the theological beliefs which is agreed upon by all Muslims is the existence of miracles for the Prophet (p), and that these miracles can be extended to the Imams (a) as well. A miracle, as defined classically, is something that is unnatural and extraordinary; it is not something ordinary that can be replicated by the masses. Belief in miracles means that you acknowledge that though on a day-to-day basis life moves on in accordance with known causes and effects, but that if something unusual and abnormal occurs, it is not inherently impossible.

One of the differences between two historians where one believes in the possibility of miracles and the other does not, is that the latter from the very get-go will be inclined to interpret and understand everything in a normal way, that anything unusual and abnormal is not a miracle, rather it must be explained in some way that we are accustomed and familiar with, or that the report itself will be cast aside.

B. Infallibility

One of the issues both Shī‘ī and Sunnī scholars have discussed at length in their classical works of theology is protection from sins, mistakes and errors. Some scholars offer a rational argument that if a Prophet (p) or Imam (a) commits a sin or an error, while as per the Qurān and traditions they have been presented as role models and guides, people will take their errors as reference points and ideal behaviour. There are other arguments as well, but we do not intend on going over these arguments. Most of the arguments revert back to the general premise that if they were not infallible, this would harm the very purpose of Prophethood or Imāmate; it would defeat the purpose of sending them.

For this reason, there exists a discussion on whether this infallibility exists for the Prophets and Imams during their entire life, from birth till their demise, or are they only protected after they become Prophets or Imams. Those who believe they are protected during the entire span of their lives have had to resort to other arguments because the previous argument was not applicable for their lives before Prophethood or Imamate. Generally, these arguments revolve around the fact that Prophets and Imams have to be void of any blemish and deficiencies even before they are officially appointed as Prophets or Imams because these acts generally push people away from those who commit or possess such blemishes.

A further discussion revolves around the extent of these sins and mistakes. While scholars agree that major sins cannot be committed, but does it include detested (makrūh) acts, or abandoning a better act for an act that is lower in quality (tark al-awla)? There are many narrations on this topic, and most theologians do not believe tark al-awla is problematic.

When it comes to mere errors or mistakes that are not sins or detested acts, there once again exists a discussion and dispute amongst scholars. For example, can the Prophet (p) forget something or not? Amongst classical scholars, there was a very clear dispute on this matter, as reflected in the works of Shaykh Ṣadūq and Shaykh Mufīd. Some scholars did not believe this discussion harms infallibility, while others believed infallibility ensures that the Prophet (p) and Imams (a) do not forget anything either.

C. Blamelessness of Prophets and Imams

One of the discussions that exist in some books of theology is the issue of the blamelessness of Prophets (p) and Imams (a), in a far more expansive meaning than what Sayyid Murtaḍa does in his book Tanzi al-Anbiyā wa al-Ā’immah, where he tries to prove that the Imams (a) and Prophets (p) were free of any sins and mistakes. However, in some books written in later centuries, the discussion of blamelessness was expanded. Consider the book al-Nāfi‘ Yawm al-ashr fī Shar al-Bāb al-ādī ‘Ashar by Fāḍil Miqdāḍ, which is a commentary on ‘Allāmah Ḥillī’s Bāb al-ādī ‘Ashar, and was an official book taught and studied in the seminaries.

In his book, he expands on five particular matters regarding prophethood, where the fifth matter is regarding the blamelessness of the Prophet (p). Over there the commentary says, “it is necessary for the Prophet (p) to be free from all that which it is necessary to be far removed from, be it related to him such as his male ancestors not being disbelievers, innovators, or engaging in a lowly profession like knitting.”1 In other words, the discussion was expanded to such an extent that if someone is a prophet, it is not possible for any of their ancestors to be tailors because it is considered a lowly profession, or for any of their female ancestors to have been an adulteress, or for any of their ancestors to have been disbelievers.

It appears these are not theological beliefs that were held by all scholars throughout the centuries, and rather it seems these views and items were added on to the list of things that the Prophets or Imams had to be free from.

D. Knowledge of the Prophet and Imams

Alongside discussions on miracles and infallibility, the classical books of theology also contain a discussion on the knowledge of the Prophets and the Imams. This is also an issue that plays a significant and serious role in how we understand the lives of the infallibles.

If our theological belief is that the Imams (a) knew everything about every incident that occurs before it even occurs, then we have to explain their decisions and behaviour in a certain way, whereas if we believe the Imams did not know about many of the matters that would occur in their lives and lived their lives like normal humans, not knowing what the very next moment holds for them, then our understanding of their lives will be very different.

As an example, when we inquire why Imam Ḥusayn (a) took his and his companions’ womenfolk and children with him to Karbala, our response will differ. Someone who believes the Imam (a) knew exactly what is going to happen in Karbala from before, their response will differ greatly from someone who denies that the Imam (a) possessed such knowledge. Knowing what our stance is on the knowledge of the Imams (a) is a very significant matter.

We generally have three trends regarding the knowledge of the Imams (a) and the Prophet (p). One view is the famous view of the Shī‘ī theologians, which is reflected in the book Bāb al-ādī ‘Ashar. When ‘Allāmah Ḥillī wants to describe and define the Prophet (p), he writes: “The Prophet is a man who brings a message from Allah – the Highest – without the mediation of any human being.”2

This is a classical definition of a Prophet – a man who brings a message without the help and mediation of any other human being. When Fāḍil Miqdāḍ gives his commentary on the phrase “without the mediation of any human being”, he says that with this condition the 12th Imam (a) and the other Imams are excluded because they bring a message from Allah (swt) but with the mediation of the Prophet (p) or the previous Imam (a). This is a classical view that was held by most of the Imāmī scholars of the past, who did not believe that the knowledge of the Imams (a) is also without mediation because that would have resulted in a dilemma when it came to the discussion on the finality of Prophethood.

However, within this discussion, we also have two other views on both sides of the spectrum. For example, on the one side, you have someone like Faḍl b. Shādhān, from the contemporaries of Imām Riḍā (a) and a theologian in his own right, who believed that the knowledge of the Imams was limited. He believed:

That the Prophet had brought forth a perfect religion and had conveyed all that which Allah had ordered him to do so, and he strived in His path and worshiped him until his demise. He appointed a man to occupy his position after him and taught him the knowledge which God had revealed to him, the lawful and the unlawful, the interpretation of the Book, and unmistakable judgement. Likewise, in every age there must be someone who knows that. It is an inheritance from the Apostle of God which they inherit by transmission. None of them know anything of the matter of religion except from the knowledge which they inherited from the Prophet. He (al-Faḍl) rejects waḥī after the Apostle of God.3

According to this view, the Prophet (p) taught Imam ‘Alī (a), who taught the subsequent Imam and so on, and there is no concept of any direct revelatory knowledge being given to the Imams (a). The knowledge of the Imams (a) was in fact inherited knowledge, from the previous Imam (a) going all the way back to the Prophet (p) whose knowledge was through direct revelation. This notion of direct unmediated revelation was important because that is how the finality of Prophethood was understood and defined.

Another understanding is on the other side of the spectrum, held by the likes of ‘Allāmah Majlisī. In his work al-‘Aqā’id he says the Imams were greater than all the previous prophets and angels, and that they knew the knowledge of all the prophets, they possessed the knowledge of the past and the future until the day of judgement. In our books of ḥadīth, there are some reports that allude to these type of concepts, and this is reflected in the works of Majlisī who believed the Imams (a) knew everything or had knowledge of all languages and forms of speech.

These two views stand in stark contrast to one another since Ibn Shādhān’s belief is that the knowledge of the Imams (a) was taught and inherited, whereas according to Majlisī the knowledge of the Imams (a) is a sort of spiritually inspired knowledge regarding all things which they continually possessed at all times. In other words, we can say that in classical theology, we have the views of the likes of Fāḍil Miqdād, ‘Allāmah Ḥillī in the middle, and on the one hand of this view were the beliefs of someone like Ibn Shādhān, and on the other hand the view of someone like ‘Allāmah Majlisī. This shows that there is a wide range of discussion on the extent of the knowledge of the Prophet (p) and the Imams (a), where a part of it is relatively well accepted by all Imami scholars, and another part of it is highly disputed.

E. Authority Over the Cosmos

One of the views that has remained a matter of dispute in classical theology amongst the Imami scholars is whether the Imams (a) have been granted power and authority to dominate (taṣarruf) the cosmos. The belief in this authority can be held in a very extreme manner at which point it is essentially the views of the Mufawwiḍa who believed God has created the skies and the earth, and then He has delegated complete authority and control to the Imams (a). For those who believe in this view, the ability to dominate and control the cosmos is a very normal and natural occurrence in the lives of the Imams (a).

Those who reject this extreme view of delegation, they argue and differ on the extent of control and authority that has been given to the Imams (a) and the Prophet (p). An aspect of this discussion is also related to the discussion on miracles because miracles are also a type of domination within the cosmos. Although we find that in the Qurān whenever a miracle is mentioned, it is linked with phrases and notions of them occurring because of the “permission of Allah” or other similar phrases, in order to dispel any misconception that it is the Prophet (p) himself changing a staff into a snake or reviving a dead. This is a common theme in the Qurān.

This discussion altogether is linked to the concept of Wilāyah Takwīnī, and this is a term that has become rather prevalent in the works written over the last century. Wilāyah Takwīnī stands in contrast to Wilāyah Tashrī‘ī.  What was the view of the Imami scholars and theologians on this particular matter? The classical books of theology do not independently discuss this matter, except through the perspective of miracles. When we look at work Tajrīd al-I‘tiqād of Khwājah Naṣīr al-Dīn and ‘Allāmah Ḥillī’s commentary and as well as other commentaries, we do not find this discussion at all.

During the Safavid dynasty, the issue of domination of the cosmos becomes more vibrant, especially in the books of theology, or those books that incline towards being very ḥadīth-centric or mystical. Even when it comes to the maqātil literature concerning the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn (a), we see certain types of reports really becoming widespread, for example, reports such as the earth speaking to the Imam (a) and asking for permission to swallow all of Yazīd’s army, but the Imam (a) does not grant the earth this permission. This and other similar reports reflect the relationship between one’s belief in Wilāyah Takwīnī and these historical reports.

However, one advantageous point that can be mentioned here for one studying the sīrah is that other than certain specific miracles, we do not find any specific event where one of the infallibles supposedly used their Wilāyah Takwīnī to change the course of history. Given that we do not practically find references to any such event where a historical event is tied in a knot with the belief or disbelief in Wilāyah Takwīnī, then believing in this authority or not, or determining the limits of this authority over the cosmos, does not seem to have any significant impact at least on historical analysis and study. It is merely a personal belief regarding the authority of the Imams and we are fortunate that it does not lead to any significant challenges in resolving and analyzing the sīrah of the infallibles.

2. Theological Presuppositions Related to Classical Theology

A. Imamate Without a Gap

There are some discussions that are related to matters discussed within classical theology. For example, after the discussion on Imamate in classical theology, there is a discussion on the specific Imamate of Imam ‘Alī (a) which argues that he had the right of obedience immediately after the Prophet (p). This topic was addressed in all Imami theological works and is one of the main beliefs of the Imami Shī‘a. In light of this belief, naturally there exist discussions and opinions regarding the events of Saqīfa and the caliphs that ruled after the Prophet (p). These beliefs have an impact on one’s understanding and interpretation of historical events, especially when we see that the Imami Shī‘a came to be recognized as a school that did not see the caliphs in a good light.

Given that the caliphs play a significant role in the early history of Islam, the opinion you hold regarding them plays a direct role in how you interpret and explain their decisions and the early events that unfolded after the Prophet (p). There is a difference between someone looking at the events of Saqīfa and saying that the first two caliphs were worried about the state of the Muslim community and had to ensure the political situation is taken care of, as opposed to someone – like the Shī‘a – saying that this was a coup against the orders of the Prophet (p) and a usurpation of the caliphate. The interpretation of this event is very closely linked to one’s theological beliefs.

Another event where this specific theological belief plays a direct role in one’s understanding of events is in the case of Fadak. The issue of Fadak has been a debating point for 14 centuries between the Shī‘a and the non-Shī‘a. In fact, even amongst the non-Shī‘a, such as ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz (d. 101 AH) or Abū Bakr Aḥmad b. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Jawharī (d. 323 AH) in his al-Saqīfa wa Fadak – we find some figures whose opinions were similar to that of the Shī‘a. On the contrary, there were some amongst the Shī‘a who held a view similar to that of the Ahl al-Sunnah. This is a perfect example of a historical event that is closely tied to one’s theological beliefs and presuppositions.

B. Marriage of Umm Kulthūm with ‘Umar

Another historical event that is tied to some aspects of theology is the marriage of Umm Kulthūm the daughter of Imam ‘Alī (a) with ‘Umar the second caliph. This event has also remained a subject of debate. Mīr Nāṣir Hindī in his work Ifām al-A‘dā’ wa al-Khuṣūm bi-Takdhīb Mā Aftarū ‘Ala Sayyidtinā Umm Kulthūm refutes the view that such a marriage took place. This is while, the only time this marriage will come across as problematic is if they have a certain understanding of the relationship of Imam ‘Alī (a) with the second caliph, only after which they will derive the conclusion that it is impossible for such a marriage to have taken place as the Imam (a) would never give his own daughter to the second caliph.

This inclination goes back to one’s theological understanding of what the Imam (a) would have done or could not have done, and this rejection of the historical event is rooted in this presumption. This is while if someone does not hold any presuppositions which would make them believe the Imam (a) could not have done such a thing, then it would be possible for them to accept the occurrence of such a marriage. This is because in the grand scheme of things, this marriage is similar to many other marriages where one companion of the Prophet (p) gives their daughter to another companion of the Prophet (p) – this was a very common practice during those times.

3. Novel Theological Presuppositions

There are some theological beliefs that have become widespread and well accepted, but we do not find any real discussion on them in the classical works of theology nor elsewhere in the words of the scholars. These are views that have become immersed amongst the religious people, consciously or subconsciously, but generally speaking there no elaborate deductive arguments are seen for these beliefs in the works of theology written by scholars.

This is similar to the phenomenon of certain narrations that are transmitted and relayed amongst the masses, only for scholars – both Shī‘ī and Sunnī – to point out that certain statements that are so famous and well known amongst the masses are not really narrations from the infallibles. Certain theological beliefs are of the same nature, they are so widespread and reiterated amongst the masses that one begins to think these are beliefs one must hold if they are Shī‘a. We will mention a few of these beliefs.

A. No Difference Between the Imams and Their Personalities

One of the views that we find the Shī‘a repeatedly mentioning when it comes to historical analysis and the biographies of the infallibles, is that there is absolutely no difference between the Imams and their personalities and that each of them would do the exact same thing as the other had they been in their position. This requires us to take all the Imams collectively and consider them to possess a single personality that does not differ in any way.

For example, is it possible for us to say that Imam Ḥasan (a) was more lenient and less persistent compared to Imam Ḥusayn (a) who was a bit more aggressive and persistent? If you believe there was no such difference in personality traits, then it is easier to say that had Imam Ḥusayn (a) been in Imam Ḥasan’s (a) position, he would have also done a truce with Mu‘āwīyah, and had Imam Ḥasan (a) been in Imam Ḥusayn’s (a) position, he would also have refused to give allegiance to Yazīd. This presupposition plays a very important role in interpreting the events and biographies of the Imams (a).

On the contrary, one may argue that every human has their own unique characteristics, personality traits and psychological states, which causes difference in behaviour and decision making, without this being considered a blemish in a person. For example, two righteous and pious scholars could be sitting with one another, but one has a lot of energy to debate and discuss, while the second does not possess this energy. This does not mean that the first scholar is greater and better than the second scholar, or vice-versa, rather this simply shows that humans are different in their personalities and characteristics – a very normal phenomenon.

The evidence we saw in classical books which argued for the blamelessness of the infallibles was that if they possessed a certain blemish or trait which would lead people to be deterred from them, then the infallibles could not possess such a trait or disposition. However, it seems such an argument does not prove that the infallibles could not have had different personalities because merely different personality traits and characteristics do not deter people away from anyone. We do not have a theological argument to prove that the personalities of all the Imams (a) must follow one very specific ideal. To say that Imam Riḍā (a) would have followed the exact same method of Imam Ḥusayn (a), there appears to be no theological basis for this claim and such a discussion does not exist in the books of theology either. This is more so a belief that exists amongst the Shī‘ī masses, and theologians have not discussed and debated this anywhere.

To clarify, what we are saying is that the Shī‘a laity believes this, but to say that they can actually offer a theological argument for this belief or that Shī‘ī theologians have argued and discussed this matter in their books, this is not true. However, we do have narrations in our books of ḥādīth that can possibly be used to extract some of these ideas and beliefs, but our discussion here is concerned with theological arguments and not the raw ḥādīth material. The question is whether our theologians have offered any rational or textual evidence for this belief.

B. All the Imams Intended to Do an Uprising

Another belief that has also become widespread is that all the Imams (a) had the intention to do an uprising (qiyām) as soon as their situation allowed them. In other words, we may believe that the reason why Imam Ṣādiq (a) did not do an uprising is that his situation and context did not allow him to do so. Imam Jawād (a) did not do an uprising because the situation was not suitable for him (a).

Our theologians have not discussed such a matter in their books. This view has evidently become more widespread in the last few decades. The idea that we consider this to be the fundamental premise, that every Imam (a) must do an uprising unless there is an exception, is not a view that has been discussed anywhere nor its arguments laid out or elaborated.4 On the contrary, maintaining such a belief would result in saying that most of the Imams were in exceptional circumstances and hence why they did not revolt. In any case, the evidence for this belief needs to be presented and reflected upon, and this is not a belief that was held by classical Shī‘ī theologians.

C. The Shī‘a Recognized All the Imams 

Another discussion concerning Imamate and history is whether every Shī‘a knew about each of the 12 Imams (a) or not. Over and over again we find in the books that detail the existence of different sects and movements, that after some of the Imams, their followers ended up following another figure and chose them to be their leader. After Imam Ṣādiq (a), some of his followers took ‘Abdullah b. Afṭaḥ to be the next Imam.

Someone can say, weren’t all the Imams (a) already mentioned by name in the famous narration of Jābir and the tablet? If so, then why were people so confused after many of the Imams (a)? What response should we give to these types of questions? This is a good example of those matters where theological belief is on one side, and factual historical events are on the other side. Factual history shows us that these groups did indeed exist; we are not referring to just one group, rather there were many such groups who disputed on who the Imam (a) is. Even someone like Zayd b. ‘Alī apparently claims a type of Imamate for himself, while he is the son of Imam Sajjād (a).

The question that we have to address here is that what is the evidence and source for this idea that each of the 12 Imams (a) had been mentioned by name explicitly and that they were known to people? When we look at the works of theology, we find that such a belief is not mentioned or discussed, but rather it is something we find in the ḥadīth literature. If we say that as Shī‘a we believe that the names of the 12 Imams (a) were recorded in the tablet, the Prophet (p) knew about them, the Imams (a) knew about them and even their followers knew who would be the next Imam (a), then when we come across certain sects being formed we may incline towards the opinion that there were malicious people who would use the demise of an Imam (a) as an opportunity for their own agendas.

However, even if we accept this, we are still left with certain reports where it appears that some of the closest companions were not aware of who the next Imam (a) was. For example, someone like Zurārah sent his son to Medina to determine who the next Imam (a) is after Imam Ṣādiq (a). Therefore, this is a discussion that plays a significant role in our analysis of history; how well aware were the Shī‘a regarding the Imams that were to come afterwards? Do we assume that the next Imam was very clearly known by the Shī‘a and that this matter was as clear as day? If so, then how do we respond to reports in our own books which are used to prove the imamate of some of the Imams and the very discourse in these narrations is that of doubt and ignorance. For example, someone goes to Imam Jawād (a) and asks him (a) who they should be following after him (a), and the Imam (a) says you should follow my son Ḥasan (a). We would have to ask; didn’t this person know this from before? Weren’t the names already known to the Shī‘a? If they already knew the names, then why did this person ask this question? Didn’t Lady Fāṭima (s) already inform Jābir about all the names on the tablet and that this was a well-known matter?

Before we deem this to be an established historical fact, that the Shī‘a all knew the names of the 12 Imams (a) and then interpret and analyze historical events through this lens, there must be a further investigation done on this matter.

D. Conspiracy Theory

There is an approach to history that reads matters through the belief that there were certain conspiracies and plots planned by certain figures. Some of the reports where this is reflected are those which say all the companions apostatized after the Prophet (p) except a handful. This is while practically and apparently speaking, the Shī‘a and the followers of the Imams (a) do not appear to have dealt with the Muslim community or even the companions of the Prophet (p) as apostates.

Another narration that exists says that all of us will either be murdered or poisoned, while another version says all of us will be poisoned or martyred. These reports fit well within a lens that looks at the lives of the Imams (a) as constantly surrounded by plots and conspiracies planned by the government and enemies. This leads to the belief that none of the Imams (a), and in fact, not even the Prophet (p) left this world naturally.

In some reports the Prophet (p) himself, or Imam Ṣādiq (a) and even some other Imams (a) say that they will most certainly be martyred. These reports have put historians into a dilemma because it is difficult to prove this historically for some of the infallibles. However, these reports exist in some of our works such as Kifāyah al-Athar of Khazzāz Qumī (d. 400 AH), Kashf al-Ghumma of Irbilli (d. 692 AH), and al-Ṣirā al-Mustaqīm of Bayāḍī (d. 877 AH).

On the contrary, look at how a theologian like Shaykh Mufīd deals with this matter in his Taṣī al-I‘tiqādāt when responding to Shaykh Ṣadūq who believed all the infallibles were either poisoned or killed by the sword:

As for what Abu Ja‘far mentions of the death of our Prophet and the Imams by poison or murder, some of this is confirmed as fact and some not. What is confirmed is that the Amīr al-Mu’minīn, al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn, peace be upon them, departed from this world by murder, none of them died a natural death. Mūsa b. Ja‘far (a) was killed by poison.

It is highly probable that al-Riḍā (‘Alī b. Mūsa) was poisoned, yet this cannot be confirmed. As for the others, there is no justification for the claim that they were either poisoned or murdered or killed through persecution, since the reports concerning this matter are extremely confused, and there are no means of proving it definitely.5


  1. Al-Bāb al-ādī ‘Ashar ma‘ Sharayh al-Nāfi‘ Yawm al-ashr wa Miftā al-Bāb, pg. 177
  2. Ibid., pg. 170.
  3. Ikhtiyār Ma‘rifah al-Rijāl (Rijāl al-Kashshī), #1026.
  4. Translator’s Note: In fact, this is the theological belief of the Zaydīs, and they rejected the Imamate of the later Imams (a) of the Twelver Shī‘a because they did not do an uprising with the sword.
  5. Source