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
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 agreat 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 83 rd 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 ofTours 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 GreatImam) 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 andmathematician 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!