Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq

by Adil Salahi Published on: 14th January 2005

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One of the foremost scholars of Islam Imam Jaafar as-Sadiq was a teacher of both Abu Haneefah and Malik, the founders of two of the four schools of Islamic Law.

This article was written by Adil Salahi and originally published by Impact magazine.

“Abu Haneefah! People have become so infatuated with Jaafar ibn Muhammad and placed him far too highly in their esteem. Therefore, I want you to prepare some very difficult questions which you will put to him in my presence and in front of other scholars.” These were the instructions given to Imam Abu Haneefah by Al-Mansoor, the second Abbasid Caliph. Much as he loved Jaafar As-Sadiq and respected his scholarly achievement, Abu Haneefah had no choice but to comply with the Caliph’s request. Therefore, he prepared 40 such questions and waited for a call from the Caliph, which soon arrived. He went to him, to find Jaafar As-Sadiq sitting with him as well as many other people. As he looked at As-Sadiq, he was in awe of him much more than of the Caliph. Al-Mansoor asked Abu Haneefah to put his questions to As-Sadiq and he did, one by one. He answered all questions in detail. Needless to say, these were questions on issues subject to much controversy among scholars. As-Sadiq said in his answer to each question, as reported by Abu Haneefah: “You, i.e. the scholars of Iraq, say so and so, but the scholars of Madinah say such and such, while our own view is the following… He may agree with us or with the scholars of Madinah or may disagree with us all, elucidating his own opinion. None of the 40 questions presented any difficulty for him.”

Such was the standing of Jaafar As-Sadiq whom Abu Haneefah describes as the ‘most learned scholar I have ever seen.’ This is in line with Abu Haneefah’s criterion which states: “The most learned scholar is the one who knows best the differences among scholars.”

But who is this scholar best known by his title As-Sadiq, which means ‘the truthful’? Well, he is Jaafar ibn Muhammad ibn Ali Zainul-Abideen ibn Al-Hussain ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib, born in Madinah in the year 80 or 83 of the Islamic calendar, corresponding to 700 CE. Thus he is a direct descendent of the Prophet through his daughter Fatimah, Ali’s wife and Al-Hussain’s mother. This means that he was of the same age as Abu Haneefah, both born in the same year. While his paternal ancestry gives him a position of great distinction, his ancestry through his mother is also of high distinction. His mother was Farwah bint Al-Qasim ibn Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr. Thus, Jaafar benefited by having a father who was a distinguished scholar, and two grandfathers who were among the best known scholars of their age. In fact, his maternal grandfather, Al-Qasim ibn Muhammad is one of the seven most distinguished scholars of the era of tabieen, i.e. the successors to the Prophet’s companions.

Perhaps it is right to say that Jaafar As-Sadiq learnt more from his maternal grandfather, Al-Qassim ibn Muhammad, than his paternal grandfather Ali Zainul-Abideen, because the latter died when Jaafar was only 14, while he was 28 when Al-Qassim died. But his own father, Muhammad al-Baqir, was also a scholar of high repute.

At the time, Madinah was the most important centre of Islamic learning and scholarship. It was the city where most of the Prophet’s companions and their successors lived. Jaafar As-Sadiq learnt from the scholars of Madinah and excelled in various aspects of Islamic studies and other branches of study. However, he was best known for his scholarship in Islamic studies.

Among his close students we read the names of Abu Haneefah and Malik, the founders of two of the four schools of thought. The long list of scholars who studied under him also includes Sufyan Ath-Thawri, Yahya ibn Saeed, Abdulmalik ibn Juraij, Sufyan ibn Uyainah, Muhammad ibn Isshaq and Shubah ibn Al-Hajjaj; most of these achieved positions of excellence and high repute as scholars of fiqh, hadith and history. But it should be said that a good number of those who studied under him were either of his own age or even older than him, which says much about his superior achievements.

Jaafar As-Sadiq travelled several times to Iraq, at the invitation of Al-Mansoor. He met many of its scholars who were very pleased to be able to learn from him. He established his own school of thought which ranks along with the other four schools. Indeed he was instrumental in drawing the attention of later scholars to different disciplines.

Perhaps no scholar has acquired more universal acclaim for his great and wide-ranging scholarship than Jaafar As-Sadiq. In addition to the excellence he achieved in the disciplines we mentioned above he was well known for his insight in morality and what leads to its corruption. He acquired distinction in this field because of his diligent commitment to the dictates of religious conscience and upholding the truth in all situations, even though he lived at a time of great turmoil. His statements to his sons, students and people in general highlight some of the great Islamic moral values, expressed in concise phrases. The following are a few reported by Sufyan Ath-Thawri: “A liar is devoid of honour; an easily bored person is deprived of genuine friendship; an envious person can find no comfort; and an ill-mannered one gains no respect. Place your trust in God to be a true believer; and be content with what God has given you and you will be rich. Be kind to your neighbour to be a true Muslim; and do not seek company with people who transgress the limits defined by God, because they teach you their ways. On all matters, consult only those who are God-fearing. If you aim to achieve a position of honour when you have no clan of your own, and real wealth when you have no money, then what you have to do is to move yourself away from the humiliation that is attendant on disobeying God to the honour earned through obeying Him.”

What we can clearly discern in his statements is a deep understanding of the Quran and its applicability to real life. Sufyan Ath-Thawri once asked him to teach him something useful, just as he was about to leave. Jaafar As-Sadiq said to him: “Sufyan, if you have a blessing and you wish to enjoy it for long, then continue to praise God and thank Him for it. God says in His revelations: ‘Should you be grateful, I will definitely give you an increase.’ (14: 7) And if you feel that your sustenance is slow coming, seek God’s forgiveness repeatedly. For God says: ‘Ask your Lord to forgive you your sins, for indeed He is much forgiving. He will let loose the sky over you with abundance, and will aid you with worldly goods and children, and will bestow upon you gardens and running waters.’ (71: 10-12) Sufyan, when you have a problem weighing heavily on you, say, ‘No power works except by God’s leave.’ That is the key to its disappearance and one of the treasures of heaven.” Sufyan said: “These three are awesome indeed.” Jaafar said: “Sufyan has understood them and God will benefit him by them, if He so pleases.”

With his breadth of knowledge it is no wonder that all Islamic schools of jurisprudence, theology and Sufism consider him among their main leaders. Even the Mu’tazilah, the rationalist school of theology, considers him to belong to them. The fact is that he neither belonged to them nor to any other school. He simply spoke out illustrating the message of Islam and explaining its fundamental concepts. He studied theological concepts and made his beliefs clear. If in some aspects he found himself in agreement with the Mu’tazilah or others, then that agreement is because they happened to be right in their views of these particular aspects. He was not committed to any line other than that of the Prophet and his companions.

Indeed, much that is claimed to have been said or expressed by Jaafar As-Sadiq should be discounted as false, unless it can be proven without a shred of doubt. “Fabrication that is attributed falsely to Jaafar As-Sadiq is plentiful. What has been reported by trustworthy scholars of his sayings and views is well known and it is at variance with what is falsely attributed to him.”

Some people have made claims which give Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq a higher position than that of an ordinary human being, who achieved distinction through talent, study and hard work. They further claim that he was given additional knowledge, granted to him through a bequest given by the Prophet to Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. It was then bequeathed by Ali to his son Al-Hassan, then to Al-Hussain, then Ali Zainul-Abideen, then to Muhammad Al-Baqir, then to Jaafar As-Sadiq, and through him to the rest of the 12 Shia imams. This bequest is called Al-Jafr which, according to some writers, is a gem of knowledge written on a hide of a sheep, and includes “The Torah as given to Moses, the Gospel as given to Jesus, and all wisdom given to all prophets and their successors, as well as all that was given to the Israelite rabbis, and the knowledge of what is lawful and what is unlawful, and what happened in the past and what will happen in the future.”

What this means is that Al-Jafr is a book containing information that is beyond human knowledge, as well as information on what will take place in the future. As such, it is the knowledge of al-ghayb, or what lies beyond the reach of human perception, either because it relates to the future or to realms well beyond our own world. In truth, Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq never said anything concerning any such book, or having had access to it. Never did he claim to have knowledge of al-ghayb, because, like all Muslims, he believed that such knowledge belonged to God alone. Indeed none of the Prophets, including the Prophet Muhammad, made any claim to having such knowledge of al-ghayb. God only imparts some such knowledge to whomever He chooses of His prophets and messengers to confirm their messages and to show that they receive their knowledge from Him. In the Quran, the Prophet is ordered to say: “Had I had knowledge of al-ghayb, I would have made sure to have an increase of what is good and spared myself what is evil.” An example of such knowledge given to Prophets is the opening of Surah 30, Al-Room, which describes a victory for the Byzantines over the Persians to take place within a few years of its revelation, as indeed happened.

To deny that Jaafar As-Sadiq had any knowledge of al-ghayb by no means belittles his standing. He was indeed one of the great scholarly authorities in our history, and a teacher of many of the great scholars, such as Abu Haneefah, Malik, and Sufyan Ath-Thawri. He was also without peers in that branch of study which was known as Kalam, which is devoted to the study of God’s nature and attributes. In this branch of knowledge, he was committed only to the authentic Sunnah of the Prophet.

But Jaafar As-Sadiq did not excel only in Islamic studies. He was keenly interested in other sciences, particularly chemistry, physics and astronomy. One of his main students in these disciplines was Jabir ibn Hayyan, who excelled in chemistry and mathematics. Apparently he had a special time allocated for him by As-Sadiq when he was his only student, which suggests that they were studying disciplines that are not easily understood by many people. Jabir ibn Hayyan wrote many pamphlets on various scientific disciplines; fifty of these have clear references to what he learnt from Jaafar As-Sadiq. But despite his interest in such branches [of knowledge], As-Sadiq was mainly interested in learning about man, his physical and spiritual entity, as well as his faith and morality.

The first quality of Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq was his honesty of purpose, noble aims and disregard of all worldly gains and pursuits. He always sought the truth, plain and simple. He never pursued worldly pleasures, or matters that might not be clearly approved by Islamic faith. He was endowed with clear insight which helped him maintain the path of piety.

His honesty was enhanced by three characteristics. The first is a combination of diligent study and dedicated worship. Imam Malik describes him as follows: “I used to attend Jaafar ibn Muhammad who was always smiling. But when the Prophet was mentioned, he would immediately adopt a very serious attitude. I was his regular visitor for a period of time, and I never saw him once without him being either praying, fasting or reciting the Qur’an. He never quoted a hadith by the Prophet unless he had performed his ablutions. He was never given to idle talk. Whenever I went to him, he would take the cushion he was sitting on to give it to me.” The second was his strong piety and the third was that he feared none other than God. He feared neither rulers, ruthless as they might have been, nor the masses.

Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq was endowed with both native intelligence and penetrating insight. When we add to these his great breadth of knowledge, we can appreciate that he was first among the scholars of his age, who included great figures such as Abu Haneefah, Malik and Al-Thawri.

The numerous reports of his debates with other scholars and with apostates and opponents of Islam confirm the fact that he enjoyed an exceptional presence of mind. We saw how he answered Abu Haneefah’s 40 hard questions, outlining differences among scholars on each, and confirming his own preference, or independent view.

His strength of faith demonstrated itself in his perseverance in adversity. He saw his young child dying in his arms. He wept, but he also remembered God’s favours and said: “My Lord, You have taken one, but You have left me others. You have put me to this test, but spared me from what is harder.” When he buried him, he said: “We pray God to grant what we love to whom we love, and He favours us with that. When He wills something which distresses us concerning our loved ones, we endure with patience.” This attitude of remembering God’s favours at the time of a calamity is a rare quality which testifies to strong faith.

In dealing with other people, Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq was exceedingly generous, forbearing and patient. When someone did him something wrong, he would pray God to forgive him.

He was also most courageous. This was by no means surprising, because he was a descendent of Ali the bravest of the Prophet’s companions. His courage enabled him to say the truth to Caliphs and governors, even though it was unwelcome to them. His courage and other qualities gave him an awe-inspiring personality. People felt in awe of him when they attended him, but he was very kind and treated people with humility.

As-Sadiq lived at a time of great political and intellectual turmoil. There were many groups and trends, most of which started as political, then tried to give themselves a religious cover. Perhaps the one event which caused much of this activity was the killing of Al-Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson, at Karbala’. Many were the groups which called for avenging his killing. Groups like Kaisaniyah and Khattabiyah claimed to be supporters of the Prophet’s descendants, but they went too far in their deviant views so that they cannot be considered Muslims. These groups were trying to attach themselves to Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq and claimed his support. But they were deviant to the extent that the Kaisaniyah believed in the re-incarnation on the present Imam of the spirit of his predecessor, and claimed that God may change His mind according to events, while Khattabiyah gave As-Sadiq the status of Godhead, alleging the God’s spirit was embodied in him.

Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq was resolute in opposing all such views and denounced such groups, making it clear that they were not Muslims. He dissociated himself from them, declaring in the most unequivocal terms that he had nothing to do with them and that they got no support from him whatsoever. He further sent messengers to Iraq, where they had some following, to explain to people that none of their views was sanctioned by him and that he would be the first to take them to task. He declared his true faith and earned much respect for that.

The same sort of turmoil was stirred on the intellectual stage, with people who try to undermine the Islamic faith spreading ideas and beliefs that were alien to Islam. Some claimed that man has no free choice in what action he does. Everything is done by God’s will. Hence, the one who commits all sins is the same as the one who does all sorts of good deeds, since both do their actions by God’s will and neither has control over his actions. Others said that a person who commits a cardinal sin, or even a small sin, is an unbeliever. Against all these, Jaafar As-Sadiq was very active in explaining the true Islamic beliefs and presenting them clearly to people.

During his lifetime, a great political event took place, namely the overthrow of the Omayyad Caliphate and the rise of the Abbasid rule. In planning the overthrow, the Abbasids were working in close cooperation with their cousins, the Alawi descendants. In fact, people believed that the new rulers would belong to the Alawis, the descendants of Ali ibn Abu Talib. But this was not to be.

Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq did not aspire to any political position, not even to be a Caliph. He did not care who was Caliph. He devoted himself to his scholarship. Nevertheless, some people suggested that he was more entitled to be the Caliph than any of the Abbasids. The second Abbasid Caliph, Abu Jaafar Al-Mansoor, was very alert to any call to replace the new Abbasid rule, particularly after some groups advocated the appointment of Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Al-Hassan, known as Al-Nafs Al-Zakiyah, as Caliph. This led to a battle which ended with the killing of Al-Nafs Al-Zakiyah and his brother Ibraheem by Al-Mansoor’s troops. The Caliph suspected that Jaafar As-Sadiq supported this uprising, and people in his court reinforced his suspicion. So he called him over to Kufah, where he spoke very strongly to him. Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq assured him that he took no part in any plot or rebellion and that he was in principle against such a plot. The meeting ended with the Caliph being reassured of As-Sadiq’s position.

Some people in Al-Mansoor’s court and others who wanted to curry favour with him continued to bring him reports that Jaafar As-Sadiq was supporting plots of rebellion. Al-Mansoor might have suspected that such reports were not totally unfounded. Therefore, he called him over to Baghdad several times. With each time, he felt more and more reassured that the reports he had heard were false. He was much more respectful of Jaafar As-Sadiq and was very hospitable to him when he visited Iraq.

On some of his visits, particularly the first one, before Al-Mansoor was Caliph and the later ones in his reign, Jaafar As-Sadiq was keen to meet people and scholars. People loved him dearly, particularly when he became the head of the Alawi household. He was able to win the sort of love due to them, which is a love free of deviation, exaggerated claims and extremism. These visits also gave him an insight into the sort of deviant claims some groups made concerning the Alawi descendants. He worked hard to purge people’s faith of all such deviations.

In steering away from all political controversy, Imam Jaafar As-Sadiq was able to win the love of both people and rulers. When he died in 148 AH/765 CE, Al-Mansoor wept in grief. Al-Ya’qoobi, the historian, mentions that Ismail ibn Ali, a close associate of Al-Mansoor, once found him weeping. When he asked him the reason, Al-Mansoor said: “The master, the great scholar and the last of the best household has died. That was Jaafar ibn Muhammad. He was of God’s chosen people and a leader in doing what is good.”

What Al-Mansoor said about Jaafar As-Sadiq was the truth. As a distinguished scholar, he earned the respect of all the Muslim nation, particularly its most distinguished scholars, such as Abu Haneefah and Malik. He continued to be viewed with the highest respect among scholars of following generations, starting with Al-Shafi’i and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, right up to our present day.

Shia scholars have credited Imam Jaafar Al-Sadiq with the establishment of what is known as Usool al-Fiqh, which is the branch of study of the methodology scholars use to understand Qur’anic and hadith statements in order to arrive at rulings for different issues. This discipline is universally credited to Imam Al-Shafi’i who wrote a whole book on it called Al-Risalah, which remains its main and original source. However, Shia scholars say that Imam Jaafar Al-Sadiq and his father Imam Muhammad al-Baqir were ahead as they dictated to their students. They say one of Jaafar Al-Sadiq’s students, Hisham ibn al-Hakam compiled a volume on terminology and the significance of terms, while Yunis ibn Abd al-Rahman, compiled a volume on the issue of conflict between hadiths.

Both these areas are part of Usool al-Fiqh, and accepting what is said in this connection about Imam Jaafar Al-Sadiq, we may say that Al-Shafi’i did not invent this discipline out of nothing. Scholars who preceded him might have discussed or studied different areas of it. A great scholar as Jaafar Al-Sadiq certainly was, he could certainly have addressed these areas. But Al-Shafii perfected this discipline and established it as a mature and well regulated field which benefited all Muslim scholars since his time to the present day, and will continue to benefit them in future.

Imam Jaafar Al-Sadiq rejected analogy as a basis of evidence to deduce rulings. Instead he relied on ijtihad based on the Qur’an and authentic hadith. This means that ijtihad forms an essential part of his school of law.

Before we conclude, we need to say a word about his views on education.

Jaafar As-Sadiq paid much attention to the importance of education. He was keen to impart practical religious education to those who attended his circle, either through direct teaching or counselling. He attached much importance to instilling the right motivation among his students and the young generation, particularly with regard to the fulfilment of religious duties. He saw a great role for education to ensure that his students steer away from sectarian controversy which leads to division and hatred within the Muslim community. In his teaching he was keen to instil in his students the concept that Islamic values must be put in practice, so that they do not remain slogans that have no practical relevance.

He gave much attention to the need that should education be well balanced. Thus, students must be trained to implement the best moral values and standards, and to look after their livelihood, without giving it exaggerated significance. Students must receive the type of education which teaches them how to respect others, attend scholarly circles, refraining from what is unbecoming or unlawful and interference in what does not concern them. They also must be trained to speak out for the truth, in all situations, enjoining what is right and condemning what is wrong. They need to give proper importance to reading the Quran and to acquiring the best social manners. The sum of all these elements is to enhance piety and to establish true complementarity between an individual’s religious sense, his moral values, manners and social attitudes. That ensures for him happiness in this life and goodly reward in the life to come.

All this can only be achieved if certain conditions are fulfilled. These are:

· Recognition of the importance of education and teaching;

A proper relationship between student and teacher, enhancing a student’s willingness to learn and accept what the teacher says;

· A student should love his teacher, care for his interests, and talk about him with respect in his absence. He must allow no element of laziness to creep into him;

· Education must be based on a rational basis;

· Objectivity in scientific study, particularly in experiments;

· Putting all subjects in an easy, acceptable form, without resorting to too much symbolism;

· Scholarship must serve the community’s interests;

As-Sadiq was a great scholar and educator, a man of superior thinking and fine understanding of Islam and its teachings. His heritage needs to be studied in depth, so as to exclude whatever is in conflict with his attitude and scholarship. May God shower His grace on him.

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