Imam Ja’afar-as-Sadiq

Submitted by Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq (700-765 CE) was a giant among Islamic sages. He was the Shaykh of great Shaykhs, the teacher of Imam Abu Haneefa, Imam Malik, Abu Yazid al Bastami and Wasim ibn Atta. His scholarship embraced the esoteric as well as the exoteric, ilm ul ishara as well as ilm ul ibara, the sciences of kalam as well as the sciences of hadith, sunnah, the natural sciences and the historical sciences. He was al-hakim, an integrator, a true man of wisdom in the Quranic sense, a complete alim who understood that the Shariah applied not just to the world of man but to the world of nature as well. He applied his incisive knowledge to create Divine patterns in the world of man through Fiqh but he also saw those patterns in nature and in history and he taught them to his students. He was the inheritor of two secrets, one from Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r), the other from Ali ibn Abu Talib (r). He was a far-sighted savant who worked to bridge the gap between the Shia and the Sunni and between Islam and other faiths. No wonder the Shia and the Sunni, the Sufi and the Salafi, the traditionalist and the modernist all claim him to be one of their own.

He lived in exciting times. It was the age of faith. It was the age of reason. It was the age of intellectual consolidation. It was also the age of imperial expansion and political upheavals. It was the age when Islamic civilization came into its own. The seed planted by the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) sprouted, was tended to during this age by men and women of extraordinary vision and certainty of faith. The shape of this tree and the taste of its fruit were largely a legacy of what these great men and women did and did not do.

Just as a tree has many branches, the global Islamic community has many branches, each with its own beauty and its own unique characteristics: Shia, Sunni, Sufi, Salafi, Modernist, Traditionalist, the esoteric and the exoteric, the Arab, the Persian, the Turk, the African, the Pakistani, the Indian, the European, the Indonesian, and the Chinese. All of these branches grew out of the same trunk. The fact that they are different adds to the majesty and beauty of this tree and its global appeal.

Few scholars through the centuries have bridged the differences between Shia and Sunni, Sufi and Salafi, Modernist and Traditionalist and fewer yet have risen so high in their scholarship that they were claimed, with equal validity by the Shia and the Sunni, the Sufi and the Salafi, the Modernist and the Traditionalist. Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq was one such scholar. The Shias—Ithna Ashari, Ismailis, Alavis and Agha Khanis alike—consider him to be the sixth Imam. The Sunnis consider him to be a teacher of the great mujtahideen, Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Malik bin Anas. The Sufis of all tareeqas honor him as a major link in the chain of transmission of spiritual knowledge from the Prophet, the Salafis accept the ahadith transmitted through him, the modernists consider him to be the teacher of some of the best known empirical and rational scientists of the age, and the traditionalists follow his guidance in matters of faith and ritual. While the Sunnah of the Prophet is like the trunk of the tree that is the world of Islam, Imam Ja’afar was one of its main branches.

Yet another way to look at Imam Ja’afar is to consider him as the amalgam of Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r) and Ali Ibn Abi Talib (r). You recall that upon the death of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) many Companions considered Abu Bakr (r) to represent the consensus of the community while others felt that Ali (r) was the heir to Prophetic wisdom and was the one to be followed. The Islamic community split along these lines. Imam Ja’afar brought these two streams together through family relationships as well as scholarship. In him the esoteric and the exoteric, the consensus of the community and the Prophetic wisdom merged. Very few scholars had that privilege.

Lastly, Imam Ja’afar was a master both of Ilm ul Ibara and Ilm ul Ishara. Classical Islamic scholars divided knowledge into two broad categories, namely, that which was accessible to the mind and that which is accessible only to the heart.  In the former category belong reason, logic, mathematics, science, sociology, hadith and the obligations and rituals of religion. This knowledge can be taught and can be learned from an Alim. It is called Ilm ul Ibara from the Arabic root Alif-Bay-Ray (a-ba-ra) which means to wade, like wading from one shore of a river to the other. This is the knowledge imparted to a pupil in a school or a university. The knowledge of the heart, on the other hand, is not accessible to the mind but only to the heart. In this category belong love, compassion, humility, piety, ethics and a consciousness of Divine presence. This knowledge cannot be taught. But a great Shaykh can help a pupil cleanse his heart and open it to the unlimited possibilities of ilm ul Ishara. Imam Sa’adiq inherited and was imparted Ilm ul Ishara from his father and grandfather, while he learned Ilm ul Ibara from the great ulema of the age.

Ja’afar ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq was born in the year 700 CE. His father Imam Muhammad al-Baqir was the son of Imam Zainul Abedin and the grandson of Imam Hussain ibn Ali. The year was the 83rd year of the Hijrah or 20 years after the tragedy of Karbala. We have specifically highlighted the chronology of Karbala, because it defined, as we shall see, many of the convulsions that took place during the lifetime of Imam Ja’afar. His mother Umm Farwah bint Qasim ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr was a great great granddaughter of Asma Bint Umais who was married to Abu Bakr Siddiq. Therefore, through familial relationship Imam Ja’afar was related both to Abu Bakr (r) and Ali (r) and through Imam Hussain and Fatima az Zahra (r)  to the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh).

Imam Ja’afar received his early education from his father Imam Baqir and his maternal grandfather al-Qasim. The stream of knowledge, both esoteric and exoteric through Imam Baqir leads in an unbroken chain to Imam Zainul Abedin, Imam Hussain, Fatima az Zahra, Ali Ibn Abi Talib(r) and the Prophet. The stream of knowledge from his maternal side leads in an unbroken chain to Abu Bakr (r) and the Prophet. So it is that in Imam Ja’afar the esoteric and exoteric streams emanating from Abu Bakr (r) and Ali Ibn Abi Talib (r) meet. In addition to his training from his father and grandfather, Imam Ja’afar received formal education in the Quran and Hadith from eminent ulema of the age. He was also well versed in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, anatomy, alchemy and the natural sciences.

It was a period of rapid expansion of the Umayyad Empire. Imam Ja’afar was only eleven years old when Tariq ibn Ziyad and Musa ibn Nossayr crossed the Straits of Gibraltar (711-712 CE) and in a campaign extending over seven years, conquered Spain and Portugal. At the eastern extreme of the empire, Muhammad bin Qasim subdued Sind and Multan (711-714) in modern Pakistan.  Imam Ja’afar was seventeen when Omar bin Abdel Aziz became the Caliph in Baghdad. It was during the reign of this pious Caliph and his fair and just administration towards all subjects that conversion in Persia and Egypt gathered momentum. And Imam Ja’afar was thirty-three (733CE) when the Omayyad armies under Abdur Rahman I were stopped at the Battle of Tours in France and retreated to Sorbonne, thus marking the farthest reach of Muslim conquests in Europe.

Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq stayed above the political convulsions of the age, focusing instead on teaching and training the community.  In this respect he presages the great Sufi Shaykhs who were to grace the canvas of Islamic history in later centuries, most of whom, with some notable exceptions like Shaykh Sanusi of Libya (d 1860), Shaykh Shamayl of Daghestan (d 1871), and Shaykh Abdel Qadir of Algeria (d 1883), shunned politics and political involvement, emphasizing instead the spiritual and ethical well being of man. This outlook was of immense benefit to Islamic civilization. Imam Ja’afar avoided the ruthless persecution that characterized Umayyad rule, focusing instead on scholarship and teaching. There was wisdom in this strategy.  History owes a debt of gratitude to Imam Sa’adiq for his dedication to knowledge and teaching which produced great luminaries in the fields of jurisprudence, tasawwuf, science and mathematics.

Imam Ja’afar is known in history as one the greatest of Islamic scholars and teachers. The method of teaching those days was in a halqa or a circle where a shaykh imparted knowledge and wisdom to those who attended his halqas. It was the age when transmission of knowledge was through a discourse between a teacher and his pupil or a Sufi sage and his pupil.  Such halqas were held in the house of a shaykh or in a mosque. Imam Ja’afar initially taught at the halqa started by his father Imam Baqir. As the attendance grew the halqas were held in the mosque of the Prophet in Madina. So great was his radiance that he immediately attracted a large number of students. Many of these students were learned and well known shaykhs themselves, much older than Imam Ja’afar and in some fields as learned as he. Such was the humility of the scholars those days. They did not consider it beneath their dignity to learn from a younger man more knowledgeable than themselves. Among those who frequented his halqas in the early years was Imam Abu Haneefa who said with reference to his association with Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq: “Were it not for the two years I spent in the company of Ja’afar as Sadiq, I would be wandering”. He referred to Imam Ja’afar as “the most learned scholar I have ever seen”. The reference here is to the transmission of spiritual knowledge. Shariah has both an external aspect and an internal aspect. The internal aspect of Shariah is the anchor to which the external aspect is tethered. Imam Abu Haneefa is known as Imam al-Azam (the Great Imam) in the field of jurisprudence. As acknowledged by Imam Abu Haneefa, the spiritual underpinnings of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence owes much to the spiritual knowledge transmitted by Imam Ja’afar as Sa’adiq and through an unbroken chain of transmissions and his lineage to the spirituality of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (r), Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r) and (for those who wish to immerse themselves into this deep ocean) to Noor e Muhammadi, the Light of Muhammad (pbuh).

Another great scholar who attended the halqa of Imam Ja’afar was Imam Malik ibn Anas, after whom the Maliki school is named. From a historical perspective, the Maliki Fiqh is based upon the rulings given by Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) during the Caliphat of Omar ibn al Khattab (r).   Imam Malik (711-795CE) of Madina was younger than Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq (700-765 CE) and Imam Abu Haneefa (699-767CE). Imam Malik said of Imam Ja’afar: “I was his regular visitor for a period of time, and I never saw him once without praying, fasting or reciting the Qur’an.” In the next generation after Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Malik, Imam Shafii (d 820) of Damascus studied the teachings of Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Malik and developed the Shafii school of Fiqh. The Hanbali Fiqh which grew out of a protest movement against the Mutazalites used the earlier schools of Fiqh as its basis. Thus all the major schools of Fiqh, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, Hanbali and Ja’afariya owe a debt of gratitude to the knowledge transmitted by Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq.

Shari’ah has both an inner dimension and an outer dimension. It has an outward manifestation as well as an inner taste. If the major schools of Fiqh reflect both the inner and outer dimensions of the Shari’ah, it is due in no small measure to the insights offered by Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq.

Imam Ja’afar was not only a scholar of Kalam, Sunnah and Hadith. He was also a historian and a master of chemistry, astronomy, mathematics and natural sciences. One of his students Jabir ibn Hayyan, went on to distinguish himself as the foremost chemist and mathematicians of his age.

Imam Ja’afar taught the natural and historical sciences as well. His teachings reveal that he knew about the rotation of the earth around the sun, the existence of elements beyond the four (namely, earth, air, water and fire) that were subscribed to by the Greeks. He also held discourses on the nature of light and heat that are consistent with our own modern understanding of these subjects. One of his students was the well-known chemist and mathematician Jabir ibn Hayyan. Wasil ibn Ata (d 748 CE) who is generally credited with the founding of the Mutazilah (rational) school of philosophy also studied at the halqa of Imam Ja’afar.

The character of Imam Ja’afar was exemplary. He was pious, always engaged in remembrance of God. He emphasized the need for ethics, morality and justice in human affairs.

He taught reconciliation and brotherhood across interfaith and sectarian divides. Regarding the Sunnis he said: “Pray with their tribes, take part in their funerals, visit their sick and give them what is due to them”. How different was the approach of the great Imams from the parochial approach of today’s Muslims who are at loggerheads with each other, steeped as they are in the ignorance and prejudice accumulated over centuries of self-serving historical narratives!

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