Shattering the Mirage of Murajah
Ml Mohammad Taha Karaan
28 February 1999
The art of fictional narration can be traced back to the earliest civilisations, and has assumed various different appearances over the centuries. The fact that it is fictitious was never really used to discredit literary fiction, since the lessons the author of Aesop’s Fables, for example, wished to impart, did not depend upon whether his animal characters could or did really speak. Similarly, Shakespeare, in his quasi-historical works, does not attempt to convey to the reader the notion that the words or actions he ascribes to his characters were really said or done by them. It is only when the author of the fictional narrative tries to overstep the bounds of fiction and confer upon his work the appearance of historical authenticity, that his work loses the respectable designation “literary fiction”, and earns for itself the ignominous epithet “literary hoax”.
The book al-Muraja‘at by ‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf ad-Din al-Musawi was first published in Sidon, Lebanon in the year 1355/1936. Since its first impression it is claimed to have gone through more than a hundred editions in Arabic.[i] It is further claimed to have been translated into nothing less than twenty languages.[ii] In the English translation of Muhammad Amir Haider Khan it carries the title The Right Path, and is published by a number of publishing houses. The most common edition of this translation is the one published by Ansariyan Publications of Qum in Iran. For the benefit of those who are as yet unacquainted with the Muraja‘at and its author, we devote the first few pages to an introduction to both.
1. ‘Abd Al-Husayn Sharaf Ad-Din Al-Musawi [iii]
He was born in Kazimiyyah, a city situated to the north-east of Baghdad in ‘Iraq, in 1290/1872. His father, Yusuf, is not known for any sort of academic pursuit, but his fourth ancestor Sharaf ad-Din, to whom the family owes its name, was reputed as a man of learning. The eponym “al-Musawi” denotes him to be of the progeny of Musa al-Kazim, the seventh Imam in the line recognised by the Twelver Shi‘ah.
For his education he attended the seminaries in Kazimiyyah and Najaf, where he studied under scolars like Shaykh Muhammad Kazim al-Khurasani, Shaykh Hasan al-Karbala’i and Shaykh Fathullah al-Isfahani. At the age of 32 he moved to Jabal ‘Amil in the south of Lebanon, from where his family hailed originally. He is reported to have become involved in the struggle for independence against France, for which he forced into temporary exile from his home, that was later burnt down by the French occupation forces. The hardship of an unsettled existence between Damascus and Palestine later forced him to leave his family scattered over different locations in the region and depart for Egypt in1337/1919.
This visit, it is said, was not his first visit to Egypt. Eight years earlier, in 1329/1911 he is supposed to have come to Egypt on a visit that he later claimed brought him into contact with Shaykh Salim al-Bishri, the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar. A quarter of a century later he publishes the book al-Muraja‘at, the subject matter of which is a series of 112 correspondences between al-Bishri and himself, in which an attempt is made “to explain, justify and uphold the raison d’etre of Shi‘ism”. The book concludes with the Shaykh al-Azhar’s admitting the correctness of the Shi‘i faith, saying:
I bear witness that you believe in the same basic principles of faith and observe the same religious rites as did the Imams in the posterity of Muhammad (S.A.W)… Before the truth dawned upon me, I was in great confusion and obscurity due to what I had heard about your religion from the mischievous and unjust spreaders of disconcerting news about your religion. When Allah brought kindly brought us together, I followed you till I came under the flag of guidance and the lamp in darkness, and when I departed from you I was prosperous and successful. Oh, what a great blessing Allah has bestowed upon me through you. What a great benefit has accrued to me through you.[iv]
This, in effect, is nothing less than clear acceptance of Shi‘ism by Shaykh Salim al-Bishri. How much historicity the book contains is a subject for later discussion. At the moment we continue with our biographical sketch of its author.
The city of Tyre in southern Lebanon had for centuries been a stronghold of the Shi‘ah. Yet when ‘Abd al-Husayn settled there there was no masjid in the area. He bought a house and donated it to be used as a masjid. Later he built a spacious masjid. He also established a school that carried Islamic subjects in its curriculum.
Certain events in his life give the impression that he was dedicated to Sunni-Shi‘i unity. It was his habit to celebrate Mawlid an-Nabi on the 12th of Rabi‘ al-Awwal, and not the 17th, as the Shi‘ah do. This was because Sunnis observe this celebration on that date. Moreover, he delivered many lectures on this issue, some of which was published by Sayyid Rashid Rida in the journal al-Manar. His book al-Fusul al-Muhimmah was written specifically to bridge the gap between the Ahl as-Sunnah and the Shi‘ah. Yet when seen in a broader context, this devotion to Sunni-Shi‘i unity seems to spring not so much from an inherent belief in the necessity of such unity, as from the realisation that the Shi‘ah are but a minuscule part of the Ummah. As an activist against French colonialisation he must have realised the hopelessness of the Shi‘ah tackling colonial powers on their own. Furthermore, by creating or endeavouring to create platforms for such unity the way would be prepared for another long term objective of the Shi‘ah that would in itself be a solution to the problem of being an almost insignificant minority in the Muslim world: propagation of the Shi‘i faith, for which purpose he wrote the book al-Muraja‘at.
His work al-Fusul al-Muhimmah, in which he attempts to give a blueprint of how to achieve unity between the Ahl as-Sunnah and the Shi‘ah, reveals no readiness to distance himself from heterodoxical elements within Shi‘ism. It is nothing but an attempt to convince the Ahl as-Sunnah to accept that the Shi‘ah also believe in the essential tenets of faith, and for that reason they too, must be accepted as Muslims. Yet in this book too, his beliefs as a Shi‘i prevent him from giving the Ahl as-Sunnah the assurance that they will share salvation in the hereafter with the Shi‘ah. In the fifth chapter he quotes a number of ahadith from Sunni sources to the effect that all believers in the essential beliefs of Tawhid and Risalah will attain salvation in the hereafter. In the last paragraph of the chapter he turns around to say:
We (the Shi‘ah) too, have in our possession authentic narrations which we received from our Twelve Imams, whose words constitute the Sunnah that follows the Book, and the shield that protects from punishment. I present them to you in Usul al-Kafi and other sources, where they announce glad tidings for those who believe in Allah, His Messenger (SAW) and the Last Day. But they render the general purport of the (Sunni) narrations that you have heard, specific with the belief in the Wilayah of the Family of the Messenger, whom the Messenger (SAW) joined to the Book, whom he made the leaders of intelligent men, about whom he categorically stated that they are the ships of salvation amidst raging turmoil, the security of the Ummah in times of calamities, the stars of guidance in the darkness of error, the door of Hittah, where none but those who enter it will be forgiven, and the firm handhold that never breaks.[v]
In other words, while Sunnis are compelled to accept the Shi‘ah as Muslims by ahadith in their reliable collections that speak of salvation for all who believe in the oneness of Allah and the prophethood of Muhammad (SAW), the Shi‘ah will vouch for the salvation of only those who believe in their Twelve Imams. Thus the essence of ‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf ad-Din’s idea of unity between the Ahl as-Sunnah and the Shi‘ah is a unity that is limited to the achievement of objectives of this world. In the hereafter he, as a dutiful Shi‘i, believes, by virtue of narrations from the Twelve Imams documented in al-Kafi and other Shi‘i sources, that salvation is exclusively for the Shi‘ah.
Something else which throws light upon his attitude towards Sunni-Shi‘i unity is his authorship of a book entitled Abu Hurayrah—a book which amounts to nothing less than a character assassination of that venerable companion of Rasulullah (SAW). Dr. Mustafa as-Siba‘i, leader of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Syria in the fifties and the sixties, and one of those ‘ulama who personally took up weapons against the French as well as against the Zionists in Palestine, relates about himself that he was at one stage very enthusiastic about bringing the Ahl as-Sunnah and the Shi‘ah closer to one another. The idea occurred to him that it would be very helpful if Sunni and Shi‘i ‘ulama started visiting one another. He visited the residence of ‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf ad-Din, whom he found as enthusiastic and responsive as himself towards the idea of bringing Sunnis and Shi‘is closer to one another. They mutually agreed to hold a conference between ‘ulama of the two groups for this purpose. Some time later he was surprised by ‘Abd al-Husayn’s publication of his book Abu Hurayrah, in which he casts various aspersions against the character of that Sahabi, and eventually arrives at the conclusion that he was a kafir (unbeliever) and a munafiq (hypocrite) about whom the r had foretold that he will be of the inmates of Hell. Expressing his astonishment at such a turnabout from ‘Abd al-Husayn, as-Siba‘i says: “I was dumbfounded at this position of ‘Abd al-Husayn, in both his words and his book, a position which reveals a complete lack of sincerity for forging closer ties and forgetting the past.”[vi]
‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf ad-Din died on the 30th of December 1957, and was buried at his own request in one of the rooms surrounding the grave claimed to be that of Sayyiduna ‘Ali radiallahu ‘anhu at Najaf in Iraq.
2. The Authenticity of al-Muraja‘at
In the Arabic editions of al-Muraja‘at the actual contents of the book is preceded by an author’s preface, in which he mentions the following:
These are pages that were not written today, thoughts that were not born of recent. Instead, they are pages composed more than a quarter of a century ago. At that time it almost saw the light as it is today seeing the light, except that events and disastrous calamities obstructed its course, forcing it into hiding and seclusion. Thus it remained, awaiting an opportune moment in time to gather its scattered fragments, and to repair the deficiencies that crept into it.[vii]
After this introduction he goes on to fill two pages with an account of how perturbed he was at the disunity amongst Muslims. These sentiments took him to Egypt at the end of 1329AH, where he claims that his “good fortune brought him into contact with one of the learned men [of Egypt], distinguished by his broad mind, pleasant character, animated heart, vast knowledge, and high position; who quite deservedly occupied the office of its religious leadership”. Strangely, he does not give the name of this person, neither in this introduction nor at any other place in the book. Anyway, he goes on to describe how the two of them started exchanging the correspondences that he would later publish as al-Muraja‘at. Describing its development, he makes the following interesting, and indeed revealing, remark:
I do not claim that these pages are confined to the texts that were composed between us back then, nor [do I claim] that any pen other than my own wrote a word of these Muraja‘at.[viii]
In The Right Path, which is the English translation of al-Muraja‘at, this entire introduction has been completely omitted, for very obvious reasons. The passages quoted above contain the secret of the origin of al-Muraja‘at. This book is not the record of correspondence between ‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf ad-Din and Shaykh Salim al-Bishri. It is the sole enterprise of ‘Abd al-Husayn, and Shaykh Salim al-Bishri’s involvement in the evolution of al-Muraja‘at is pure fiction, as will be conclusively proven here. The discussion will centre around the following axes:
- The lapse of time between the supposed exchange of correspondence, and the publication of al-Muraja‘at.
- The reluctance of ‘Abd al-Husayn to give the name of his correspondent.
- Elements within the structure of al-Muraja‘at that constitute grounds for impugning its authenticity.
The time lapse
‘Abd al-Husayn states the time of the exchange of correspondence to have been in 1329/1911. Yet it is published for the first time in 1355/1936, a quarter of a century later—and, which is even more significant, twenty years after the death of his supposed correspondent Shaykh Salim al-Bishri, who died in 1335/1916! Which “events and calamities” could have been so disastrous as to delay the publication of a book as epoch-making as this one? There is this vague suggestion in ‘Abd al-Husayn’s words,[ix] which appears more palpably in the writings of his biographers,[x] that it was his involvement in the resistance against French rule—that resulted in the burning of his library in Tyre, together with nineteen unpublished manuscripts—that prevented immediate publication. However, this reason is not supported by a precise chronology of events. Colonialist supremacy in the Levant (the geographical region comprising Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) started only in 1918, when the British and the French assisted the Arabs to wrest Damascus from Ottoman control. When the British withdrew in 1919 the French were left in control, and it was only in the following year, 1920, that the League of Nations granted France a mandate over Syria and Lebanon.[xi] If the exchange of correspondence between ‘Abd al-Husayn and al-Bishri did in fact take place in 1911, he had almost an entire decade—from 1911 to 1919—to publish his book. Why would he have to wait twenty five years?
His other work al-Fusul al-Muhimmah, was published for the first time in 1327/1909, two years prior to his alleged trip to Egypt. A second edition was published in 1347/1928 with additions by the author. This shows that the author was not so preoccupied by his resistance activities that he was unable to write or prepare works for publication. Furthermore, if circumstances in Lebanon did not allow him to publish al-Muraja‘at there, he could have had it published in Egypt, which he visited again in 1337/1919. The author of his biography published in the The Right Path, the English translation of al-Muraja‘at, writes:
In Egypt his speeches were extremely influential in turning public sentiment against the British colonialists there. At that time Sayyid Rashid Rida published in the journal al-Manar most of his speeches that dealt with the Lebanese people facing French colonialism.[xii]
It is well known that Sayyid Rashid Rida was at that time an arch-proponent of Sunni-Shi‘i unity, and devoted pages from his journal al-Manar to it. If the transcripts of al-Muraja‘at were at that time in existence, why did ‘Abd al-Husayn not publish it in al-Manar? Even a mere mention of the exchange of correspondence between ‘Abd al-Husayn and al-Bishri would have meant alot. Yet, despite ‘Abd al-Husayn’s obvious access to publication in a journal as devoted to Muslim unity against the colonial powers as Sayyid Rashid Rida’s al-Manar, we are at a loss to find a single mention, even in passing, of ‘Abd al-Husayn’s alleged correspondence with Shaykh Salim al-Bishri.
Suddenly, twenty five years later, when al-Bishri has been dead for two decades, when most of those who may have remembered the events of a quarter of a century ago have already died, ‘Abd al-Husayn surprises the Muslim world with a book comprising the records of correspondence he claims to have exchanged with al-Bishri; correspondence at the end the end of which the Shaykh al-Azhar admits the correctness of the faith of the Shi‘ah, and in fact accepts Shi‘ism, as shown earlier.
The publishers of the English translation of al-Muraja‘at, entitled The Right Path, were alert enough to note the indictment of the book’s authenticity contained in the opening remarks of the author’s introduction. Accordingly, they took the “prudent” step of completely omitting it, and in their own foreword they gloss over the lapse of a quarter century between the completion of the correspondence and the publication of the book in the following words:
After the correspondence had been completed, the Sayyid [‘Abd al-Husayn] … eventually published it under the title al-Muraja‘at in 1355AH/1936AD.[xiii]
The identity of the correspondent
What seems very unusual is that ‘Abd al-Husayn does not reveal the identity of his correspondent, neither in the introduction nor in the course of the book. It is true that the letters of this mysterious correspondent are all signed with the letter sin, in the Arabic, which appears as an “S” in the English translation. ‘Abd al-Husayn comments upon this cryptic device in a footnote, saying:
The subtlety and appropriateness of this signature is not unclear.
We can see that here too, like earlier in his introduction, he does not state the name of his correspondent. The English translator, however, allowed himself the liberty of translating the above footnote as follows:
It may also be noted that the letter “S” denotes both his name (which is Salim) and faith, which is Sunni.[xiv]
Where on the one hand ‘Abd al-Husayn consistently maintains this secrecy about the identity of his correspondent, he gives enough cryptic clues that point towards Shaykh Salim al-Bishri. Besides the signature, there is also the year he mentions as the year of his visit to Egypt: 1329/1911. This co-incides with al-Bishri’s second tenure as Shaykh al-Azhar, which lasted from 1327 upto his death in 1335. A person described as having “occupied the position of religious leadership of Egypt”—as ‘Abd al-Husayn describes his correspondent—in the year 1329 can be none other than Shaykh Salim al-Bishri. With such clues to the identity of his correspondent, why does he still refrain from explicitly stating his name?
It seems that when ‘Abd al-Husayn first published al-Muraja‘at in 1355/1936 he was still somewhat apprehensive that despite the passing of twenty five years, there might still be people living who were close enough to Shaykh al-Bishri to know that ‘Abd al-Husayn’s claim to have exchanged correspondence with the Shaykh is an infamous lie.[xv] He preferred therefore to leave his correspondent unnamed, thereby keeping an avenue of escape open in the event he was accused of dishonesty. At the same time he gives cryptic clues to the identity of the correspondent, so that if his forgery remains undetected, and people come to accept Shaykh Salim al-Bishri’s involvement in the evolution of al-Muraja‘at as a fact, future publishers would need to have no qualms in associating the Shaykh’s name with al-Muraja‘at. This is exactly what happened. Today every edition of the book carries a foreword in which the story of ‘Abd al-Husayn’s meeting with Shaykh al-Bishri is recounted as the origin of al-Muraja‘at. Some editions even carry a picture and a short biographical of the Shaykh, alongside with a picture and biographical sketch of ‘Abd al-Husayn.
Structural elements in al-Muraja‘at
There are elements in the structure of al-Muraja‘at which throw light upon its true origin. Three of these are:
- the lack of documentary evidence about Shaykh al-Bishri’s involvement;
- the similarity between the linguistic styles of the letters ascribed to Shaykh al-Bishri and those ascribed to ‘Abd al-Husayn;
- the picture of the Shaykh al-Azhar as lacking in knowledge of basic precepts, and of being unacquainted with fundamental Sunni sources of reference, suggested by a number of the letters ascribed to him.
In a work like al-Muraja‘at one would expect to find some type of corporeal evidence of Shaykh Salim al-Bishri’s involvement. There would at least have to be something like a reproduction of one of his original letters to ‘Abd al-Husayn. Yet, no edition of al-Muraja‘at has ever carried anything that provides tangible proof of his involvement. The only available evidence seem rather to suggest his complete non-involvement. In the foreword to the English translation by Muhammad Amir Haider Khan published by Ansariyan Publications, Qum, it is stated that ‘Abd al-Husayn published the book “with the permission of the Shaykh”. This is blatantly untrue. When was this “permission” given? Twenty years after the Shaykh’s death? The Arabic editions of al-Muraja‘at published during the life of ‘Abd al-Husayn and thereafter are completely silent about this “permission”. The publisher of the English translation too, is incapable of producing documentary evidence of the supposed permission. Just like in the case of the omission of the author’s own introduction, the myth of Shaykh al-Bishri’s permission had to be invented to deceive the unwary Sunni reader.
Readers of the original Arabic text of al-Muraja‘at will be struck by the resemblance between the literary styles of two supposedly different persons. A cursory glance at any of ‘Abd al-Husayn’s other works—like al-Fusul al-Muhimmah, an-Nass wal-Ijtihad and Ajwibat Musa Jarullah—will convince anyone who possesses a literary appreciation of the Arabic language that the style of “both correspondents” in al-Muraja‘at belongs to none other but ‘Abd al-Husayn himself. As for Shaykh Salim al-Bishri’s literary style, if his extant writings—like Wadh an-Nahj, his commentary on Ahmad Shawqi’s Nahj al-Burdah—are anything to go by, it is a far cry indeed from the flamboyance and verbosity of expression ascribed to him by the author of al-Muraja‘at.
Ignorance of the “Shaykh Al-Azhar”
Al-Muraja‘at is set at a time when the post of Shaykh al-Azhar was occupied not by govermental appointment, but by virtue of knowledge and erudition. ‘Abd al-Husayn himself bears testimony (unwittingly, perhaps) to this fact where he describes his correspondent as a man “distinguished by his vast knowledge”. However, in more than one of his letters the picture the reader gets of his learning is quite disparaging. Here follow a few examples:
Letters 12, 13 and 14:
In Letter 12 “Shaykh al-Bishri” requests ‘Abd al-Husayn to present proof of the status of the Ahl al-Bayt from the Qur’an. ‘Abd al-Husayn proceeds to enumerate over fifty verses from the Qur’an that, he claims, refer to the Ahl al-Bayt. The majority of these verses are bent out of context by purely esoteric (batini) interpretation, and those that can acceptably be said to refer to the Ahl al-Bayt have been the subject of much debate in Sunni works on tafsir. The “Shaykh”, seemingly ignorant thereof, praises ‘Abd al-Husayn profusely, and says: “You have produced clear and powerful verses of the Qur’an, and cited everlasting proofs. Therefore, you have accomplished the task which you undertook to perform. It would be a folly to contradict you because you have exposed the folly of the ignorant.”
Letters 13 and 14:
In Letter 13 the “Shaykh” brings up the issue of accepting the traditions of narrators with known Shi‘i proclivities, whereupon ‘Abd al-Husayn practically teaches him the methodology of the muhaddithun of the Ahl as-Sunnah on this point, producing a list of 100 such narrators whose traditions appear in major Sunni works. The “Shaykh” is pictured ignorant of a simple point of hadith methodology, which ‘Abd al-Husayn has to teach him.
Letters 21, 22 and 23:
In Letter 21 the “Shaykh” disputes the authenticity of a hadith on grounds of the fact that it is not in the collections of al-Bukhari and Muslim. Any scholar worth his salt knows that the Sahihayn are not the exclusive repositories of authentic hadith, and therefore this argument from the “Shaykh” is puerile. In al-Muraja‘at ‘Abd al-Husayn has to prove the authenticity of the hadith to the Shaykh al-Azhar, and refers him to Musnad Ahmad. In Letter 23 the “Shaykh” comes back in amazement to confirm that he actually found the hadith in Musnad Ahmad, and that ‘Abd al-Husayn’s authentication of the hadith is correct.
Letters 27, 28 and 29:
In letter 27 the “Shaykh” invokes Sayf ad-Din al-Amidi as his authority for disputing the authenticity of a hadith. No self-respecting scholar of hadith would ever refer to al-Amidi, who was an exponent of usul al-fiqh, in a question of hadith authentication. It is just as ridiculous as referring a legal matter to a dentist! This had to be pointed out to the “Shaykh” by ‘Abd al-Husayn. In Letter 29 the “Shaykh” admits al-Amidi’s incompetence to judge the authenticity of a hadith, saying: “Amidi has committed a blunder, which indicates his knowledge of traditions and traditionists.”
In this mediocre picture painted by ‘Abd al-Husayn of a man whom he himself describes as “distinguished by his vast learning” the discerning reader cannot fail to detect clear signs of the mendacity ‘Abd al-Husayn has made himself guilty of in ascribing half of the letters in al-Muraja‘at to the Shaykh al-Azhar, Shaykh Salim al-Bishri.
Debate between the Ahl as-Sunnah and the Shi‘ah is an age-old phenomenon that has given rise to a specific genre of polemic literature. This genre of literature was by nature unilaterally critical. This means that these works were usually one-sided attacks on the beliefs of the opponents. The closest they ever came to being bilateral was when refutations or counter-refutations would be written to earlier works, like in the case of Minhaj as-Sunnah, Ibn Taymiyah’s refutation of Ibn al-Mutahhar al-Hilli’s Minhaj al-Karamah, or Nuzha-e Ithna ‘Ashariyyah, Hakim Mirza Muhammad Kamil’s response to Tuhfa-e Ithna ‘Ashariyyah by Shah ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. But the bilateralness of such refutations could still not generate the placidity and dispassionateness found in dialogue, as opposed to the vehemence of polemical debate. The participants in dialogue, unlike debate, are supposed to be free from bigotry, fanaticism and preconceived notions. Dialogue, it is supposed, takes place in a spirit of neutrality and open-mindedness. The results yielded by such dialogue, therefore, would be vastly more objective—and convincing—than those of the polemical debate.
The author of al-Muraja‘at knew this only too well. Fired with the zeal to propagate his faith—like most of the ‘ulama of the Shi‘ah are—he knew that no polemical discourse could ever do a tenth of what a dialogue could. The problem lay in getting that dialogue off the ground, and securing a Sunni participant with sufficient esteem in the Sunni world to lend credibility and authority to the dialogue.
‘Abd al-Husayn’s solution was ingenious. He was well aware of the importance of al-Azhar in the Sunni world. He would never find a more distinguished “correspondent” than the Grand Shaykh of that institution. Should he actually seek dialogue with the Shaykh al-Azhar of his time? That would be too precarious, because the living Shaykh al-Azhar could turn out to be too well versed in Sunni-Shi‘i polemics, which would mean that he would be ready with a whole array of answers to ‘Abd al-Husayn’s questions, as well as an arsenal of disturbing questions of his own. The dialogue therefore would have to be fictitious, but garbed in a cloak of reality. Fortunately he would not have to be troubled by his conscience over this deception, because as a Shi‘i he enjoyed the privilege of practising taqiyyah, or dissimulation. In other words, his faith allowed him to twist the truth or invent his own version of it, provided such means finds justification in the end, and what justification could be more weighty than the propagation of “the true faith”?
There now remained one last question: Which past occupant of the office of Shaykh al-Azhar will be given the honour of being his “correspondent”? It would have to be someone who died long ago, so that not too many question would be asked. He chose Shaykh Salim al-Bishri, whose death, as we have seen, preceded the publication of al-Muraja‘at by a full twenty years. Even then too, he was cautious, and did not go to the extent of explicitly identifying his correspondent by name, as we have seen.
Inventing his own correspondent held one crucial advantage: Like a puppeteer, ‘Abd al-Husayn would be able to make the “Shaykh al-Azhar” say whatever he wanted to. (This explains the apparent ignorance of the “Shaykh al-Azhar”.) The unwary Sunni reader who has already swallowed the bait, and actually believes that al-Muraja‘at is the record of a real dialogue between the Shaykh al-Azhar and ‘Abd al-Husayn, would be presented with a “Shaykh al-Azhar” who is unable to counter any of ‘Abd al-Husayn’s arguments, who lavishes praise upon him, who endorses his views and findings, and who ultimately admits the truth of Shi‘ism, and accepts it. By this masterstroke ‘Abd al-Husayn would vanquish not merely his fictitious “Shaykh al-Azhar”, but Sunnism at large.
And that is the story of al-Muraja‘at.
POLEMICAL FICTION IN SHI‘I LITERATURE
The style of writing adopted by ‘Abd al-Husayn in al-Muraja‘at has long been favoured by Shi‘i authors in polemical literature. They were quite aware that to actually engage the ‘ulama of the Ahl as-Sunnah in debate would considerably curtail their advantage, and therefore they resorted to the more convenient ploy of creating their own opponents, since by doing so they would be able to manipulate the “opponent’s” arguments to their own advantage. When ‘Abd al-Husayn chose this style of writing for the book he himself considered his magnum opus, he was not being original at all. He was merely imitating the precedent set by earlier Shi‘i writers like Abul Futuh ar-Razi and Radiyy ad-Din Ibn Tawus. Below we look at three works in this genre by these two authors.
A book by this title appeared during the latter half of the previous century, purporting to be the record of a debate that had taken place at the court of Harun ar-Rashid between Husniyyah, a slave girl owned by a merchant friend of Imam Ja‘far as-Sadiq, and the Imams Abu Yusuf and ash-Shafi‘i. This slave girl had supposedly stayed with Imam Ja‘far upto the age of twenty, and had acquired expertise in numerous branches of knowledge from him. In the book she publicly humiliates the two Imams, defeating their arguments and presenting them with “incontrovertible evidence” of the truth of the creed of the Shi‘ah.
The book is full of anachronisms. For one, ash-Shafi‘i came to Baghdad only after the death of Abu Yusuf, so it is impossible that they could ever have taken part together in any discussion. The book also speaks of a third learned man by the name of Ibrahim Khalid of Basrah, who was supposedly regarded by Abu Yusuf as “superior to them all.” When they themselves were unable to answer the arguments of Husniyyah, they referred the matter to this Ibrahim Khalid, but he too, was incapable of responding to her. History, however, has recorded nothing of a person by this name, and the effort to identify him with Abu Thawr, whose name was Ibrahim ibn Khalid, is futile, since Abu Thawr was a Baghdadi by birth and lived there all his life. Far from being regarded as ash-Shafi‘i’s superior, he was his student, and one of the four narrators of his qadim views. Even of Husniyyah herself, the annals of history and biography have recorded nothing at all. It is only in this belated document that mention is made of her existence.
Aqa Buzurg Tihrani, the eminent Shi‘i bibliographer, records in his bibliographical lexicon adh-Dhari‘ah that this booklet was originally found in the possession of a sayyid in Syria by Mulla Ibrahim al-Astarabadi when he returned to Iran from Hajj in the year 958/1551. He translated it into Persian, and it was first published in 1287/1870.[xvi] The Shi‘i biographer Mirza ‘Abdullah Effendi al-Isfahani has done us a favour by exposing the real author of the book Husniyyah, and his purpose in writing such a book. He writes in his book Riyad al-‘Ulama’:
Such a degree of learning and eminence is accorded to Husniyyah in this booklet, that it creates the impression of it being the fraudulent work of Shaykh Abul Futuh ar-Razi, written and forged by him. He ascribed it to Husniyyah in order to bring disgrace to the beliefs of the Ahl as-Sunnah, and to humiliate them by exposing their beliefs.[xvii]
The identification of Abul Futuh ar-Razi as the author of the booklet Husniyyah is supported by Sayyid Muhsin al-Amin, the author of A‘yan ash-Shi‘ah, one of the most authoritative contemporary biographical dictionaries of the Shi‘ah. He states categorically that this book “is the work of Abul Futuh ar-Razi”.[xviii]
Yuhanna the Christian
This same Shaykh Abul Futuh ar-Razi is credited with the authorship of another spurious polemical tract called Risalat Yuhanna an-Nasrani (the tract of Yuhanna [John] the Christian). In this tract, quoted by a number of Shi‘i writers as factual truth,[xix] a Christian by the name of Yuhanna engages the Sunni ‘ulama of Baghdad in a debate during which he demonstrates the “fallacies” in the creed of the Ahl as-Sunnah. Eventually he declares his acceptance of Shi‘ism as the true religion. Mirza ‘Abdullah Effendi ascribes this work to Abul Futuh ar-Razi. The “strength” of this polemic is supposed to derive from the fact that even a non-Muslim is able to discern the “falsehood” of Sunni belief from the “truth” of Shi‘ism.
‘Abd al-Mahmud the Dhimmi
Radiyy ad-Din Alī ibn Tawus belonged to a prominent Shi‘i family that lived at Hillah near Najaf at the time of the sack of Baghdad by the Tartars under Hulagu. Shi‘ite complicity in the fall of Baghdad is a fact of history. Al-Mustansir’s wazir, Mu’ayyid ad-Din ibn al-‘Alqami treacherously co-operated with the Tartars to secure the downfall of the ‘Abbasids. This wazir was a close friend of Ibn Tawus.[xx] Ibn Tawus’ acceptance of the post of Naqib al-Ashraf from Hulagu, having earlier refused it from the ‘Abbasid khalifah al-Mustansir, is quite significant.
With the fall of Baghdad came a new surge in Shi‘ite propagation, the like of which was only seen in the days of the Buwayhids. The high positions occupied by Shi‘i dignitaries in the Ilkhanid (Tartar) administration afforded the Shi‘ah the influence and leverage they needed to prosper. The town of Hillah soon developed into the most important centre of Shi‘i learning, producing the likes of al-‘Allamah (Hasan ibn Yusuf ibn Mutahhar) al-Hilli, Ibn Dawud ar-Rijali, al-Muhaqqiq (Ja‘far ibn Hasan) al-Hilli and ash-Shahid al-Awwal (Muhammad ibn Makki al-‘Amili).
This age also saw the composition of a number of polemical works. Amongst the better known of these works is Ibn Mutahhar’s Minhaj al-Karamah, in refutation of which Ibn Taymiyyah composed his celebrated Minhaj as-Sunnah. Ibn Tawus also contributed to this genre of literature. However, he preferred to do so under an assumed identity. His book, entitled at-Tara’if fi Madhahib at-Tawa’if, was written under the nom-de-plume ‘Abd al-Mahmud ibn Dawud al-Mudari. He commences his book with the (false) statement that he is a man from amongst the Ahl adh-Dhimmah (Jews or Christians living under the protection of the Muslim state). He then proceeds with a comparative study of different religious persuasions, and predictably enough, ends up with Ithna ‘Ashari (Twelver) Shi‘ism as the only true religion. Like Abul Futuh ar-Razi before him, he seeks to introduce objectivity into his work by assuming the identity of a supposedly unbiased observer.[xxi]
These are three classical examples of fictitious polemical works. Besides them there are several more, a number of which were composed relatively late. Thus, when ‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf ad-Din decided to write his own polemical masterpiece, he had before him the examples of eminent ‘ulama of his sect who had made use of the literary style that might be termed “polemical fiction”. Polemical fiction was by that time an established style of writing amongst Shi‘i polemicists. It may therefore be concluded, with considerable certainty, that al-Muraja‘at too, falls in this category.
Al-Muraja‘at in the Sunni World
Sunni reactions to al-Muraja‘at have been varied. Some persons were completely deceived by ‘Abd al-Husayn’s careful forgery. Amongst these one may count Shaykh Muhammad Mara‘i al-Amin al-Antaki of Aleppo, Syria. This shaykh was an al-Azhar educated ‘alim whose reading of al-Muraja‘at led him to embrace the Shi‘i faith. His own book, Limadha Ikhtartu Madhhab ash-Shi‘ah (Why I embraced the madhhab of the Shi‘ah) is virtually a reproduction of ‘Abd al-Husayn’s arguments in al-Muraja‘at.
There were others, like the Lebanese writer Dr.‘Atif Salam, who seemed to have found in this book a foundation whereupon Sunni-Shi‘i unity could be built. Like al-Antaki, he too, has reproduced verbatim entire sections from al-Muraja‘at in his book al-Wahdat al-‘Aqa’idiyyah ‘inda as-Sunnah wash-Shi‘ah (Doctrinal Unity between the Ahl as-Sunnah and the Shi‘ah). His sentiments were shared by a number of figures who were involved in the Dar at-Taqrib in Cairo, and were thus already receptive of the idea of unity.
This receptivity, coupled with a number of other factors, is probably the cause of their uncritical acceptance of al-Muraja‘at as an authentic document. The first of these factors was their belief in the complete honesty and openness of Shi‘i participants in unity endeavours. This rendered them credulous, and caused them to disregard the possibility of taqiyyah on the part of their Shi‘i counterparts. Secondly, most, if not all, of those who were misled into believing in al-Muraja‘at as an authentic record of Sunni-Shi‘i dialogue were simply not adequately qualified in the field of schismatology. A person like Dr. Hamid Hifni Dawud, for example, who wrote a foreword to one edition of al-Muraja‘at, might have been the dean of the Faculty of Arabic Language at ‘Ayn Shams University, but that does not make him an expert on comparative studies between Sunnism and Shi‘ism. Dr. Muhammad Yusuf Musa, who also wrote a foreword, was a specialist in fiqh, and not in Sunni-Shi‘i comparative studies. None of these men is known for any manner of expertise in the field of hadith, which is a sine qua non for a proper appraisal of the book, as will be revealed in the course of this detailed critical analysis. Strangely, not a single one of them seems to have taken the trouble of learning more about Shi‘ism from its authoritative sources. Their blind acceptance of the words of Shi‘i propagationist writers like ‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf ad-Din, without bothering to compare them with what is contained in the classical legacy of the Shi‘ah, is in itself proof of their extreme credulousness.
And last, but most definitely not least, all Sunni “admirers” of al-Muraja‘at seem to overlook the fact that the arguments advanced in the book effectively negate the validity of Sunni Islam. Endorsing the book is therefore tantamount to the acknowledgement that Sunni Islam is a corrupt and deviate form of original Islam. Therefore, logically, the only ones who could admire the book are those who were actually convinced by it to embrace Shi‘ism. Any Sunni who endorses the book but still remains a Sunni finds himself in the contradictory position of regarding one thing as the truth —since that is what the book claims Shi‘ism is— but following and practicing another.
There has also been the tendency amongst Sunni ‘ulama to ignore the very existence of the book. This trend is reminiscent of Imam Taqiyy ad-Din as-Subki’s reaction to the book Minhaj al-Karamah by Ibn Mutahhar al-Hilli, and Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah’s rebuttal of it, the Minhaj as-Sunnah. He set forth his opinion on the Minhaj al-Karamah in verse as follows:
إن الروافض قوم لا خلاق لهم من أجهل الناس في علم وأكذبه
والناس في غنية عن رد إفكهم لهجنة الرفض واستقباح مذهبه
The Shi‘ah are a wretched people,
most ignorant in knowledge, and most false.
There is no need to rebut their lies,
since Shi‘ism itself is so vile and repugnant.
This attitude of trusting that the common people will find Shi‘ism itself so repulsive that there would be no need to reply to Shi‘ite propaganda in detail, overlooks the fact that the Shi‘i propagandist does not approach his target with the repulsive features of his belief. He propagates his faith with a careful strategy calculated to create doubt in the mind of the Sunni about his beliefs as a Sunni, but not so aggressive as to repel him. Like any adept salesman he presents his own faith in a most convincing way, and steers well clear of any controversial elements. The success the book al-Muraja‘at has had in Sunni circles is proof of the fact that ignoring its existence aids, rather than hinders, its task.
It is for this reason that as-Subki’s attitude came under severe criticism from later scholars. One of them, Abu ‘Abdillah Muhammad ibn Jamal ad-Din Yusuf of Yemen had the following to say:
يا أيها الرجل الحامي لمذهبـــه ألزمت نفســـك أمرا ما أمرت به
تقول في باغضي صحب الرسول ومنيرى مسبـهم أصلا لمذهبه
والناس في غنية عن رد إفكهم هذا هو الإِفك لكن ما شعرت به
بل رده واجب نصحا ومعذرة ونصـرة لسبيـل الـحق من شبه
إذا تقول في الصحب الكرام فما ذا توجبون عليه يا ذوي النـبه
وقد علمتم بأن الشخص داعية إلي ضـلال بـلا ريب ولا شبـه
O you who stand in defence of your opinion,
you have taken up something other than what you were ordered to.
You say about those who hate the Companions of the Messenger
and believe cursing them to be a fundamental of their faith:
“There is no need to rebut their lies”?
This, indeed, is the real lie, though you do not know.
Rather, refuting it is obligatory, as an extension of goodwill,
a discharge of duty, and in defence of truth against dubious claims.
When this person slanders the Companions, then what
punishment do you declare him liable of, O men of intelligence,
knowing without doubt, and without ambiguity,
that he is a inviter towards deviation?
Another poet, Abul Muzaffar Yusuf ibn Muhammad ibn Mas‘ud as-Surramarri, says:
أكل ما ظهرت في الناس هجنته يصير أهلا لإهمال النكير بـه
والله لا غنية عن رد إفكهم بل رده واجب أعظم بـموجبه
أيتركون يسبون الصحابة والــــ إسلام يـختال زهوا في تصلبه
هذا مقول شنيـع لم يقل أحـد به ولا رهـط جهـم في تـحزبه
والله لو لا سيوف من أئمتنـا في كاهل الرفض لا تلوي ومنكبه
لأضحت السنة الغراء داثرة بين البرية كالعنقــا وأغر به
Does everything whose repulsiveness has become
commonly manifest deserve to be ignored and not refuted?
By Allah, there is no way we can refrain from refuting it.
It is a duty, and Great is He who ordained it.
Shall they be left to arrogantly and fanatically
vilify the Sahabah and Islam?
This is indeed an evil claim which no one
not even the followers of Jahm, ever made.
By Allah, had it not been for the unflinching swords
of our Imams upon the shoulders of Shi‘ism,
The resplendent Sunnah, just like the ‘anqa bird,
would have been obliterated amongst men.[xxii]
There has been very little critical work done on al-Muraja‘at. Mention may be made here of two sterling efforts. The first is the work of Mahmud az-Zu‘bi entitled al-Bayyinat fir-Radd ‘ala Abatil al-Muraja‘at (Clear Signs: a Refutation of the Falsehoods of al-Muraja‘at). This book in two volumes is probably the only comprehensive response to al-Muraja‘at. Our present study started out as a translation of this work. It soon became clear that a mere translation would not serve the needs of the English-speaking public. It was therefore decided to write an independent refutation that would draw from az-Zu‘bi’s work and at the same time fill the gaps left by him. To him, however, goes the honour of chronological precedence.
The second noteworthy contribution is that of the great contemporary muhaddith, Shaykh Muhammad Nasir ad-Din al-Albani. The shaykh’s series on spurious ahadith entitled Silsilat al-Ahadith ad-Da‘ifah is well known. In the second volume of this series he discusses a hadith cited by ‘Abd al-Husayn in al-Muraja‘at. The shaykh states:
There are several reasons for discussing and analysing the authenticity of this particular hadith. One of it is that I have seen the shaykh called ‘Abd al-Husayn al-Musawi, the Shi‘i, citing it in his book al-Muraja‘at in such a way as to create the impression of it being authentic, which is a thing he habitually does in this type of hadith.[xxiii]
He then gives a lengthy discussion on ‘Abd al-Husayn’s deliberate abuse of a simple mistake on the part of Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani whereby he (i.e. ‘Abd al-Husayn) has attempted to prove that the hadith in question is actually authentic. Al-Albani seriously questions the honesty and scrupulousness in citing Sunni references for which ‘Abd al-Husayn’s admirers have so much praised him. He goes on to say:
The book al-Muraja‘at is filled with da‘if (weak) and mawdu‘ (forged) narrations on the subject of the merits of ‘Ali t, in addition to ignorance of this science (of hadith) and the tendency to mislead and deceive the reader. It even contains blatant falsehood in a way that the reader could never imagine possible from a self-respecting author. It is for this reason that I have resolved to discuss critically all those ahadith, as many as they may be, to point out the causes of their weakness, and to reveal the deception and delusion in (the author’s) words. That will be published, if Allah permits, from numbers 4881 to 4975 (in this series).[xxiv]
To the best of our knowledge this part of Silsilat al-Ahadith ad-Da‘ifah has not yet seen publication. The value of al-Albani’s takhrij (tracing and critical appraisal) of the ahadith cited by ‘Abd al-Husayn in al-Muraja‘at is evident, taking into acount his vast knowledge, acknowledged expertise and long experience in the field of hadith. Recent controversies centering upon him are more jurisprudential in nature, and do nothing to affect his competence as a muhaddith. It would therefore be in the interest of our study to have access to this forthcoming (if not already published) volume of his Silsilah.
As has been mentioned, the book al-Muraja‘at has seen publication in a number of languages. The English translation of Muhammad Amir Haider Khan under the title The Right Path is especially popular, and has been published repeatedly from Iran. Despite the wide circulation it enjoys and its easy availability to the public very little, if anything, has been done to tackle the issues and the evidence it presents. It is either accepted at face value, or else simply ignored. Both these options are equally detrimental, as we have seen. The mirage of al-Muraja‘at will only be exposed and shattered through a comprehensive critical study of its contents.
وَمَا عَلَيْنَا إِلاَّ البَلاَغُ المُبِيْنُ
And our duty is but plain conveyance
[i] Ahmad Mughniyah: al-Khumayni Aqwaluhu wa-Af‘aluhu p. 45
[ii] The Right Path p.xxiv (Ansariyan Publications, Qum)
[iii] The material for this biographical note is taken from his lifesketch given in the beginning of the 1989 edition of al-Muraja‘at published by Dar al-Bayan al-‘Arabi, Beirut, pp. 51-71, and the biography given on
pp. xxiii-xxvi of the Ansariyan Publications edition of The Right Path.
[iv] The Right Path, Letter no. 111, p. 487
[v] al-Fusul al-Muhimmah p. 32 (Dar az-Zahra’, Beirut, 7th ed. 1977)
[vi] as-Sunnah wa-Makanatuha fit-Tashri‘ al-Islami pp. 8-9 (al-Maktab al-Islami, Beirut, 2nd ed. 1396)
[vii] al-Muraja‘at p. 75 (Dar al-Bayan al-‘Arabi, Beirut 1989)
[viii] al-Muraja‘at p. 84
[ix] ibid. p. 75 and p. 77 (author’s introduction)
[x] ibid. p. 58 (author’s biography by Shaykh Murtada Al Yasin)
[xi] Syria (the French Mandate): entry in Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia
[xii] The Right Path p. xxvi (Ansariyan Publications, Qum)
[xiii] ibid. p. xxii
[xiv] The Right Path, p. 2
[xv] Once, after the publication of al-Muraja‘at,the Shaykh’s son, a medical doctor, was asked if he knew anything about his father’s alleged correspondence with ‘Abd al-Husayn. He denied any knowledge of it.
[xvi] adh-Dhari‘ah vol. 4 p. 97 no. 452 (3rd ed., Dar al-Adwa’, Beirut 1401/1981)
[xvii] Riyad al-‘Ulama’ vol. 5 p. 407 (Maktabat Ayatullah al-Mar‘ashi, Qum 1401/1981)
[xviii] Cited by al-Mahallati in Rayahin ash-Shari‘ah vol. 4 p. 148 (Dar al-Kutub al-Islamiyyah)
[xix] See for example al-Anwar an-Nu‘maniyyah by Sayyid Ni‘matullah al-Jaza’iri, vol. p. (Mu’assasat al-A‘lami, Beirut)
[xx] Ash-Shahid ath-Thani, quoted by Muhammad Bahr al-‘Ulum in a footnote to Lu’lu’at al-Bahrayn of Yusuf al-Bahrani, p. 236 (Dar al-Adwa’, Beirut 1986)
[xxi] Riyad al-‘Ulama’ vol. 5 p. 407
[xxii] See Minhaj as-Sunnah an-Nabawiyyah, part 2, pp. 2-11 (Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, Beirut n.d.)
[xxiii] Al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith ad-Da‘ifah wal-Mawdu‘ah, vol. 2 p. 295 (Maktabat al-Ma‘arif, Riyadh 1992)
[xxiv] ibid. vol. 2 p. 297