Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq

Contributed by Professor 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 Abi 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 overall beauty of the 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 locate him 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. Sometimes, these two streams of knowledge are referred to as Ilm ul Ghaib (knowledge that is beyond perception) and Ilm uz Zahir (knowledge that is accessible to perception).  This terminology is consistent with Quranic terminology. However, a discussion of Ilm ul ghaib is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to point out here that 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.

Let me illustrate the difference between ilm ul ibara and ilm ul ishara by a parable that is taught to advanced students of fiqh and tasawwuf. It is said that the Prophet gave one of his robes to Hadrath Omar (r) and Hadrath Ali (r) and instructed them to take it to Hadrath al Uwaisi (r). But Hadrath al Uwaisi, one of the greatest of the Companions, had never met the Prophet or seen him in person. So Hadrath Omar and Hadrath Ali set out in search of this great Companion who had received the honor of a Prophetic robe. They went from town to town, village to village, hamlet to hamlet, enquiring about al Uwaisi. Finally, they came upon a small settlement around a well in the desert. Upon enquiry, the people said to Hadrath Omar and Hadrath Ali: “You see that man at the well with his back to us. That is al Uwaisi. He is always reciting, ‘la ilaha il Allah, Muhammad rasool Allah’, and each time he recites it, he cries.” As the two approached the well, Hadrath al Uwaisi, without turning his head, said aloud, “O Omar! O Ali! Have you brought the robe of the Prophet?” The two answered, “Yes, indeed, we have”.  Hadrath al Uwaisi took the robe, kissed it, placed it on his head and his eyes, and wept bitterly for the love the Prophet. When he came of his own, he turned to Omar (r) and asked: “O Omar! Have you ever seen the Prophet?”  The mighty Omar (r) was aghast at the question. “How could al Uwaisi ask me such a question when I have known the Prophet all my life?”  “Yes, Indeed, I have” answered the great Omar ibn al Khattab (r), and proceeded to describe the noble physical attributes of the Prophet. When he was finished, al Uwaisi turned to Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) and asked: “O Ali! Have you ever seen the Prophet?” Ali (r) answered: “I saw the Prophet only once, and I saw only a portion of his limitless chest. What is beyond it was not shown to me.”

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 grand daughter of Asma Bint Umais who was married to Abu Bakr Siddiq. Therefore, through familiar 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. Ali (r) was referred to by the Prophet as “the doorway to my knowledge”. Abu Bakr (r) received his immersion in the Prophetic knowledge in the cave during the Hijrah of the Prophet from Mecca to Madina. This sublime event is alluded to in the Quran: “When the two of them were in the cave, (And) when he said to his companion: “Do not despair! Verily, Allah is with us.” (9, 40). The confluence of the streams of esoteric knowledge from Abu Bakr as Siddiq and Ali Ibn Abi Talib has profound meanings in Sufi liturgy and it is beyond the scope of this brief paper.

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 Al-Thaqafi  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 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.

Even as the Omayyad Empire expanded to include all of West Asia, western India, Central Asia, North Africa and Spain, it was seething with discontent from within.  The memory of Karbala was fresh in the minds of the Omayyads and the Shiites alike.  Omayyad rule was harsh towards the Shiites and looked upon them with suspicion. There were many revolts but two of them are worth mentioning. In the year 740 CE, when Imam Ja’afar was forty years old, Zayd bin Zainul Abedin led a revolt against the Umayyad Caliph al Hisham (d 744CE). The claim that Banu Hashim and Ahle Bait were the rightful heirs to the leadership of the ummah did not disappear with the assassination of Ali (r), the abdication of Hassan (r) or the martyrdom of Hussain (r).  It just went underground. After the death of Imam Zainul Abedin (712CE), his second son Zaid ibn Ali, considering it his duty to oppose Omayyad tyranny, invoked the example of Karbala and led an armed insurrection against the Umayyads. He had banked on the loyalty of the Kufans in the struggle. However, the Kufans, true to their historical perfidy, first promised their support and then pulled out of the fray just as they had done to Imam Hussain at the Battle of Karbala. Zaid ibn Ali died in the battle.

There was another uprising, led by the Abbasids which had a profound and lasting impact on Islamic history. Dissatisfied with the spiritual approach taken by Imam Zainul Abedin after Karbala, some supporters of Bani Hashim looked elsewhere for leadership. They found a leader in Muhammad bin Hanafia, a son of Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) from one of his marriages after the death of Fatima az Zahra (r). This is the beginning of the non-Fatimid branch of the Alavis. After Muhammad bin Hanafia, his son Abu Sulaiman Abdullah became the Imam but he was poisoned by the Omayyad Caliph Sulaiman. As he lay dying, Abdullah looked around for someone from his family to pass on the Imamate. As no one from his immediately family was available, he found a Hashemite, Muhammad bin Ali Abbas, from a nearby town. Muhammad bin Ali Abbas was a grandson of Abbas, uncle of the Prophet. Thus, through a twist of historical circumstance, one branch of the Imamate passed from children of Ali ibn Abi Talib to the children of Abbas. This branch is referred to as the Abbasids. It was the Abbasids who established their Caliphate in the year 750 CE and ruled the vast Islamic Empire from Baghdad for more than five hundred years until the Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258 CE.

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 awaited 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 semi-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 murid.  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. Most students of Islamic jurisprudence do not realize that much of 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 outward manifestations  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. The comprehensiveness and breath of scholarship exhibited by Imam Ja’afar is consistent with the Quranic Injunctions to study not only the sciences of the soul but also the sciences of nature and of history because in all three there are Signs of Divine patterns. The Quran states: “Soon We shall show them Our Signs on the horizon and within themselves, until it is clear to them that it is indeed the Truth.” (41, 53). On the horizon means the external (zahiri) world of man (history and sociology) and the world of nature (the natural sciences). It was only after the seventeenth century that the study of Quran and the Sunnah was separated from a study of history and natural sciences in Islamic academies with disastrous consequences for Islamic civilization.

Imam Ja’afar lived in a period of intellectual turmoil. The rapid advance of the Omayyad armies into India, Spain and Central Asia had brought into the fold of Islam Christians, Zoroastrians, Copts, Buddhists, Hindus and Nestorians. These arrivals brought with them their own ways of looking at the transcendent and their own systems of ancient learning.  Muslims scholars, in their zeal to understand and transform the Divine patterns on earth, moved with enthusiasm and vigor to learn the sciences of Greece, Egypt, Persia, India and China. Khalifa al Mansur was a great patron of learning. He sent delegations to Constantinople, with generous gifts, to bring back the Greek works of Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Ptolemy and Galen. From India came the Siddhanta of Aryabhatta, a classic Sanskrit work of astronomy and mathematics created during the reign of Gupta dynasty in northern India (319-550 CE). As the reservoir of knowledge increased so did the curiosity of people and they looked for answers to the basic questions of religion in the light of the new knowledge acquired from distant lands. The development of Fiqh was the response of Islamic civilization to this intellectual eruption. It provided stability to the intellectual landscape and guided the Islamic community through the turbulence of competing and sometimes contradictory ideas.  Imam Ja’afar was one of the intellectual giants who guided the ship of Islam through the turbulence of these ideological storms.

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 (earth, air, water and fire) 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 question is sometimes asked as to how it is possible for a person to have knowledge of the natural and mathematical sciences which he had not learned from other teachers. Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq and his father Imam Baqir knew these subjects before the books of the Greeks and the Indians were translated into Arabic. The question is deep and requires a serious answer. The difficulty in answering the question arises from the claim by modern science that the empirical and the rational are the only two methods of acquiring knowledge. It does not admit of acquisition of knowledge by supra-rational or transcendent means. I have dealt with this question in other essays in this Encyclopedia in great detail. A summary is submitted here.

Knowledge is acquired by at least four methods: empirical, rational, intuition and infusion. The empirical is the language of observation and experimentation. It is the language of the senses and is the basis of modern science. The rational is extensional knowledge and is the language of mathematics. The rational is a servant of the empirical. Intuition is knowledge that is known to man but which he has forgotten. It is bestowed by Divine grace to those who seek it. Infusion is the language of the scriptures and is given only to the Prophets.

Human civilization is built on all four of these modes of learning. Modern man accepts the empirical and the rational, denies the language of infusion (revelation) and is fuzzy about inspiration unless it is subjected to empirical validation.

So much in human experience cannot be measured. How do you measure love? How do you attach a dollar value to the sacrifices of parents as they bring up their children? If you think these are esoteric questions, consider the following: When I was a Principal Scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope during the period 1979-1982, I was asked to design advanced composite structures which have a thermal expansion of less than one thousandth of a millionth of a wavelength of light. Those skilled in this field will immediately recognize that there are no known scientific instruments that can measure the dimensional accuracy of structures to this precision. I had to invent and devise an acceptable method with sufficient accuracy for this application. But what if the requirement was more stringent than that stated above?  The task would be impossible with our present state of technology. One of the most challenging tasks in scientific research is the design of a reliable experiment. There is so much that just cannot be measured. There is much that the modern disbelieving person accepts  on the basis of faith even if it is not measured. For instance, what existed before the Big Bang? And yet when a sage, a religious scholar or a great man of intuition takes a position in natural science, he is laughed at.

This has been the difficulty faced by the sages through the ages. People laughed at them because they just could not understand the wisdom of the sages.  This was even more so with the Prophets. The people of Noah laughed at him when he was building the ark. The Pharaoh wanted his Chief to build a tall structure so that he could “look” at the God of Moses!

Much of the language of intuition is Ilm ul Ishara. It can be felt, alluded to but it cannot be taught. Some of it is accessible to reason, some is not. Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq was a sage. Through his training, his lineage, his piety, his unstinted character and his purified heart reflecting Divine grace,  his intuition was wider than that of most people. If he predicted the movement of the earth around the sun, it was not because he necessarily learned this from the Egyptians or Greeks but because this knowledge, the Truth, is within the heart, only to be discovered by those who seek it. It is a Divine gift, given to whom He pleases.

Summarily, every human being is born with an infinite reservoir of knowledge. But man forgets and the knowledge is submerged into the subconscious. It becomes apparent and accessible to perception through conscious effort, training, striving. Divine grace favors those who strive and struggle and rewards them with the perception of that which was hitherto not perceived. That is intuition. A scientist has scientific intuition through his/her hard work. A sage acquires it through his/her heart that is illuminated by Divine grace.

We reinforce our observation by pointing out that a research committee consisting of well-known scientists from France, Germany, Italy, United States, Iran, Lebanon and England examined the scientific teachings of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq and looked into its sources. It was called the Research Committee of Strasbourg. It confirmed the scientific basis of Imam Ja’afar but got bogged down as to its sources. The committee members, scientists as they are in the modern empirical and rational sciences cannot accept that there are other modes of learning accessible to man through Divine grace, namely, through inspiration (intuition) or revelation.

The scholarship and wisdom of Imam Ja’afar was not without its distracters. Khalifa al Mansur, who ruled from Kufa and Baghdad at that time, was a far-sighted, rational monarch open to new ideas from the far corners of the earth. But there was another, less compassionate aspect to his rule.  Indeed, he was in many ways a tyrant. Suspicious as he was of rival centers of power, he was intolerant of any sign of dissent. Alarmed at the popularity of Imam Sadiq, al Mansur wanted to discredit him by showing that his knowledge was limited. He commanded Imam Abu Hanifa to formulate forty controversial questions related to Fiqh which would be asked of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq. Imam Abu Hanifa knew that refusal to follow the Caliph’s instructions would result in public flogging or worse.  Confident that Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq was more than a match for any questions put to him, Imam Abu Hanifa formulated the questions. The two imams were called into the presence of Caliph Mansur and the questions were asked of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq. Imam Ja’afar not only answered each question, he also gave a comparative analysis of the legal opinions of the Kufa school (which later became the Hanafi Fiqh) and the Madinite school (which evolved into the Maliki Fiqh) as well as his own opinion (documented in later years as the Ja’afariya Fiqh). Satisfied, the Caliph sent the two Imams home unmolested.

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. Sufyan Ath-Thawri reports some of the Imam’s sayings: “A liar is devoid of honor;; 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 neighbor 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.”

Imam Ja’afar 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”. Shaykh Hisham reports the following invocation of Imam Ja’afar about Abu Bakr Siddiq (r) and Omar ibn al Khattab (r): “O God, you are my witness that I love Abu Bakr and I love Omar and if what I am saying is not true may God cut me off from the intercession of Muhammad (pbuh).” How different was the approach of the great Imams from the parochial approach of today’s Muslims who are at each other’s throats, steeped as they are in the ignorance and prejudice accumulated over centuries of self-serving historical narratives!