Why Al-Nawbakhti is Not the Author of Firaq al-Shi’a

This is a translation of an article written by Hasan Ansari – originally published here: چرا فرق الشيعه از نوبختي نيست . The book Firaq al-Shī’a has been translated by Abbas Kazim and published by The Islamic College. It can be purchased here.

Based on the discrepancies seen in what is transmitted from Firaq al-Shī’a of al-Nawbakhtī in al-Fuṣūl al-Mukhtārah with the current manuscript of Firaq al-Shī’a, ‘Abbās Iqbāl Āshtīyānī in his invaluable work Khandān Nawbakhtī says that Firaq al-Shī’a cannot be Ḥasan b. Mūsa al-al-Nawbakhtī’s. On the contrary, he says that the currently available text of Firaq al-Shī’a must be from Sa’d al-Ash’arī. He arrives at this conclusion based on the reports of Sa’d al-Ash’arī regarding the various sects as found in al-Rijāl of Kashī and al-Ghaybah of Shaykh Ṭūṣī. 

Ever since the manuscript of al-Maqālāt wa al-Firaq of Sa’d b. ‘Abdillah al-Ash’arī was located and edited by the Dr. Muḥammad Jawād Mashkūr, Iqbāl’s opinion is considered incorrect. Though it is true that Sa’d al-Ash’arī’s book was being utilized by Kashī and Shaykh Ṭūsī, and it has a lot of resemblance with Firaq al-Shī’a, but nevertheless, it is very clear today that the book is a completely independent work from Firaq al-Shī’a of al-Nawbakhtī.

As such, the text which was first published under the title of Firaq al-Shī’a of al-Nawbakhtī has been considered to be his since then. In the magazine Turāthunā, Āqā Jalālī has written an article where he agrees with the opinion of Iqbāl and claims that the resemblance of both these texts is itself evidence that the opinion of ‘Abbās Iqbāl is correct. Therefore, one of these texts should be considered the primary text while the latter should be deemed another version of it.

Though he agrees that al-Maqālāt wa al-Firaq belongs to Sa’d al-Ash’arī, he claims that the resemblance between the text of Firaq al-Shī’a and Sa’d’s work is itself evidence that the book attributed to al-Nawbakhtī is not his, rather it is simply a summarized and altered version of Sa’d al-Ash’arī’s work which was compiled after Sa’d. Āqā Jalālī was unaware of the important research conducted by Wilferd Madelung on these two works. In fact, many years ago Madelung provided another explanation for the resemblance of these two works while still accepting that each of these works is attributed correctly to their own respective authors.

According to Madelung, al-Nawbakhtī’s work was written before Sa’d al-Ash’arī’s and al-Ash’arī had Nawbkhatī’s book with him while writing his own and would add points and further information to the work in order to update it. Based on the information these two authors give regarding the Qarmatians, Madelung gives an approximate date for when these two works were written. As far as the great resemblance of these two works is concerned, Madelung believes that al-Nawbakhtī’s book is mostly based on other earlier texts. He believes that major parts of the book are copied exactly from a work titled Ikhtilāf al-Nās fī al-Imāmah written by Hishām b. al-Ḥakam. Even though Sa’d al-Ash’arī had the book of al-Nawbakhti with him, he was unaware of the latter’s sources, and at times would use other sources or his own knowledge in different parts of al-Nawbkhatī’s work in order to update the information.

Upon investigation of these two works attributed to al-Nawbakhtī and Sa’d al-Ash’arī, it becomes apparent that the differences in these two texts are such that the main content from al-Nawbakhtī’s work was completely reconstructed in al-Asharī’s work. Although, extra pieces of information or important traditions have been added throughout the work. This also shows that at the very least, Sa’d al-Asharī himself had access to some of the sources used in the compilation of the book attributed to al-Nawbakhtī.

In any case, even though these two scholars were contemporaries, and in fact Sa’d al-Ash’arī even passed away a bit before al-Nawbakhtī, the former’s book is more up to date, precise and more complete than al-Nawbakhtī’s. If Sa’d al-Ash’arī had access to al-Nawbakhtī’s sources, then why did he use his work as a basis and why did he not come up with his own structure based on the content of those sources? If the content of al-Nawbakhtī’s work is based on just two or three specific works, the resemblance of these two works is only explainable if we say that al-Ash’arī used al-Nawbakhtī’s work as a basis for his own work.

In that case, why did Sa’d al-Ash’arī – who was not a specialist in theology, especially not on the topic of religious communities and creeds, unlike al-Nawbakhtī – decide to structure his book in such a way that it was not just a mere transfer of those two or three sources, but had additional information, whereas al-Nawbakhtī who was a leading specialist in this subject did not have the opportunity to do so?

When observing al-Ash’arī’s work and the transmission of al-Nawbakhtī’s work alongside further additions from the original sources used in al-Nawbkhatī’s work, it becomes clear that al-Ash’arī’s work is a lot more precise and organized. This could be in part due to the fact that Sa’d al-Ash’arī had direct access to al-Nawbakhtī’s sources and he decided to add further details with more precision. If this is the case, then why didn’t al-Nawbakhtī do the same thing, even though he was a specialist in this field? Instead, we see that he simply transmits the content from those original sources without making any changes to it and suffices. The research conducted by Madelung does not address this question.

If we consider Firaq al-Shī’a to be al-Nawbakhtī’s work, apparently there is no explanation and response to our question. However, if we propose that the work Firaq al-Shī’a is not the work of al-Nawbakhtī, then in that case two possible responses can be given to our question:

1) Firaq al-Shī’a was just the first draft and Sa’d al-Ash’arī’s work was a second more complete version of it and it just so happens that both these works exist. The fact that Firaq al-Shī’a was a first draft should not be doubted. Unlike the opinion of Jalālī, Firaq al-Shī’a is simply an incomplete draft and not based on work of Sa’d al-Ash’arī. As Madelung has explained, it is known that Firaq al-Shia – no matter whose book it happens to be – was written before al-Maqālāt wa al-Firaq and the information that exists in Sa’d al-Ash’arī’s work, especially in the section of the Qarmatians and even in the section discussing the disputes that took place after the death of Imam al-‘Askarī, shows that the changes occurring at that time were used to add further information to the information that existed in Firaq al-Shī’a.

Therefore, the issue is not just a matter of Sa’d’s work being considered an abridged version of Firaq al-Shī’a, rather on the contrary his work was written using the work attributed to al-Nawbakhtī as a basis. This is not a far-fetched possibility, because it is possible that Sa’d had written two drafts for his work, where the second draft was similar to the first but with additional information. Hence in this case it must be said that it was Sa’d al-Ash’arī himself who used certain sources – and as Madelung suggests, while transmitting the exact content from those sources – to compile both Firaq al-Shī’a and after that al-Maqālāt wa al-Firaq.

2) The second possibility is that Firaq al-Shī’a was written by another Imāmī scholar who lived a bit earlier than Sa’d al-Ash’arī which was then used by Sa’d for his work al-Maqālāt wa al-Firaq. In this case we would not know the name of the author of Firaq al-Shī’a, however, it is possible that he was not a specialist on the subject of communities and creeds. All he would have done is taken material from two or three sources and transmit them in his work.

It is far-fetched for someone like al-Nawbakhtī who was a leading specialist on the topic of communities and creeds, and as a leading theologian even had a number of works on sects (the most important of them being al-Ārā wa al-Diyānāt), to have just copied content from two or three sources without bothering to update it and suffice with the information in those earlier sources. Unlike something like that being expected from his contemporary Sa’d al-Ash’arī who was not an expert, and rather was a scholar of ḥadīth like many others in those days who were present in Qom or Baghdad. This is further true when we see that al-Nawbakhtī could have added a lot of first-hand information to some parts of his books but refrained from it. If this possibility is true, then what Sa’d al-Ash’arī did was that he took a book of a contemporary, who himself was not an expert in this field, and made it a basis for his own work in order to complete and add to it. Interestingly, Sa’d al-Ash’arī in his work Nāsikh al-Qurān wa Mansūkha does essentially the same thing, where he takes the work of another author and reconstructs it in his own style with further explanations. Hence, what he did in al-Maqālāt and al-Firaq would not have been without precedent.

As I have mentioned earlier, the only time one of these possibilities can be taken seriously is if we do not consider Firaq al-Shī’a to be al-Nawbakhtī’s work. In reality, there is nothing in the text of the work that indicates that the work was written by al-Nawbakhtī. He did have a work titled Firaq al-Shī’a discussing Shī’ī sects. We know this based on the bibliography of his works, but it is not known whether the text extant today is that very same work. On the other hand, apparently, all manuscripts of the extant Firaq al-Shī’a go back to the manuscript of Ibn al-‘Awdī, which is a very late manuscript, a few centuries after the author himself.

Since al-Nawbakhtī had written a book titled Firaq al-Shī’a and he was popularly known to be a scholar who studied the development of sects, it is not impossible that a later manuscript had been accidentally attributed to him. However, what makes the attribution to al-Nawbakhtī even more doubtful are a number of passages being quoted from his work in other extant sources, while these passages are not found in the present version of Firaq al-Shī’a. At times, some of these statements are even contrary to what is present in the current version of Firaq al-Shī’a. I must specifically point out the book al-Fuṣūl al-Mukhtārah which was mentioned earlier and ‘Abbās Iqbāl had also been attentive towards it. But other than those transmissions, even al-Mughnī of Qāḍī ‘Abd al-Jabbār and Talkhīṣ al-Muḥaṣṣal of Khwājah Ṭūṣī have the same issue.

Taking a closer look at the transmissions of the latter two works, we see that what is being transmitted from Firaq al-Shī’a or from al-Nawbakhtī, differs from what is present in the extant version of Firaq al-Shī’a. For example:

1) Al-Mughnī fī Abwāb al-Tawḥīd wa al-‘Adl, vol. 20, pg. 182:

Al-Ḥasan b. Mūsa has mentioned that the sect which believed that Muḥammad b. Ismā’īl b. Ja’far is dead and that the Imāmah belongs to his son are the Qarmatians who exist in our times today. Previously they were known as al-Maymūnīyyah due to their leader who was called ‘Abdullah b. Maymūn al-Qaddāḥ.

2) Al-Mughnī fī Abwāb al-Tawḥīd wa al-‘Adl, vol. 20, pg. 185:

It has been reported from al-Ḥasan b. Mūsa that Jābir al-Ju’fī was a proponent of…the Zaydīyyah say that the Imām after the Prophet – upon him be peace – was ‘Ali, but he appointed Abū Bakr, then ‘Umar, then ‘Uthman until what appeared from him appeared and ordered for his killing. This narrator has also mentioned that Sahl b. Nawbkhat went towards this view as well. We have previously addressed them on where there is a difference of opinion, because they do not dispute the explicit designation of ‘Ali (a), due to the meanings signified in the transmitted reports and in fact that position is established, but they dispute in how the Imām is legally appointed.

3) Talkhīṣ al-Muḥaṣṣal, famously known as Naqd al-Muḥaṣṣal, pg. 412-413:

And I have seen a treatise from some of the Nawbakhtīs who are from the predecessors of the Shī’a, and they have mentioned that the popular view is that the nation will split into seventy-odd sects. The Shī’a have already split into these number of groups, in addition to others. For the Zaydīyyah ten sects have been mentioned, for the Kaysānīyyah twelve sects, for the Imāmīyyah thirty-four sects, and for the Ghulāt eight sects, and for the Bāṭinīyyah eight or nine sects. However, some of these sects are outside the folds of Islam, like the Ghulāt and some of the Bāṭinīyyah. And Allah knows best about the reality of affairs.

These passages show that the text being referenced here is – to a high degree of speculation – the book Firaq al-Shī’a of al-Nawbakhtī, and it has differences with the currently published Firaq al-Shī’a.

One of the points made in Firaq al-Shī’a that would interest a reader are the dates mentioned for the Imāms. This could not possibly have been the work of al-Nawbakhtī, who was a theologian and did not have any interest in recording historical details as such. However, Sa’d al-Ash’arī was a leading expert in that matter. As we have already shown in two previous articles in our series, Sa’d al-Ash’arī transmits a very similar text regarding the history of the Imāms, parts of which have also appeared in al-Kāfī. In his work al-Ḍiyā he does the same thing (I have written some points regarding this book a few years ago and published them – one can refer to them for further information[1]). Therefore, this itself is a contextual indicator which strengthens the first possibility – meaning that the text of Firaq al-Shī’a was simply a first draft of a book by Sa’d al-Ash’arī himself.

That being said, the attribution of Firaq al-Shī’a to al-Nawbkhatī is seriously problematic, and one of the two aforementioned possibilities regarding Firaq al-Shī’a and its relation to al-Maqālāt wa al-Firaq needs to be further investigated.

One additional point worthy of attention is the comparison between the work al-Zīnah of Abū Ḥātim Rāzī with Firaq al-Shī’a and al-Maqālāt wa al-Firaq. I hope to investigate this further in another article. However, I will suffice with this point that there is a great possibility that the work Firaq al-Shī’a (or al-Maqālāt wa al-Firaq) played a role in the overall structure of al-Zīnah. The section discussing sects in al-Zīnah shows that Abū Ḥātim Rāzi was attentive towards one these two works, or at the very least he was attentive towards one of its drafts or its sources.

On a final note, it is good if I mention one final point as well. It appears that Firaq al-Shī’a that was written by al-Nawbakhtī (the book whose text does not exist today) was written after the currently available Firaq al-Shīa and al-Ash’arī’s work. This point becomes even more clear when we see how the author’s statement about the hidden Imām reflects the historical changes much better in contrast to al-Maqālāt wa al-Firaq (that is if Shaykh Mufīd did not make any changes to the statement of al-Nawbakhtī himself). His remarks regarding this issue has been transmitted in al-Fuṣūl al-Mukhtārah (pg. 318 onwards) as follows:

(Chapter) Al-Shaykh (al-Mufīd) – may Allah assist him – has said: When Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥasan b. ‘Alī b. Muḥammad (a) passed away, his companions split into fourteen groups as per Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥasan b. Mūsa al-Nawbakhtī – may Allah be satisfied with him. Majority of them believed in the Imāmah of his son al-Qāim, the Awaited One. They proved his birth and authenticated the explicit designation for him and claimed that he has the name of the Messenger of Allah (p) and is the Mahdī for mankind. They believed that he has two occultations, one of them is longer than the other and the first one of them is shorter. In the shorter occultation, he had representatives and emissaries. They all narrate from a group of their scholars and their trustworthy ones that Abā Muḥammad al-Ḥasan (a) exposed and showed him to them personally. They dispute regarding his age at the time of his father’s death. Most of them say he was five years old because his father died in 260 and al-Qāim was born in 255. Some of them say that in fact his birth was in 252 and his age was therefore eight years old when his father died. They claim that his father did not die until Allah had perfected his intellect and taught him wisdom and decisive speech. He thus differentiated him from all of creation with these qualities because he is the seal of the binding proof and the trustee of all the Awṣīyā and the Qāim of the time. They establish evidence for this with rational evidence by which the impossibility of such qualities is eliminated and hence making it possible, by citing His (swt) words in the story of ‘Isa (a): [3:46] He will speak to the people in the cradle and in the story of Yaḥya (a): [19:12] And We gave him judgement while yet a boy. They say that the Ṣāḥib al-Amr (a) is alive, he has not died and will not die, even if he remains for a thousand years, until he fills the earth with fairness and justice like it had been filled with oppression and tyranny. At the time of his reappearance, he will be a young strong man, looking like a thirty-year old or so. They consider this to be one of his miracles and deem it to be from his proofs and signs…


[1] See: تاريخ الائمة سعد اشعری و کتاب الضياء او  – http://ansari.kateban.com/post/1237

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