History of Shi’i Imami Theology (1)

This is intended to be the first of many posts on the history of the development of Shi’i Imami theology.

There are various reasons why being familiar with the history of Imami theology can be of benefit for not just a Shi’a, but as well as a student of Shi’i Islam. As its history begins with the era of the Imams (s), to know how they and their companions dealt with various theological issues, challenges, and what sort of responses would they provide to those questions acts as a window through which we can attempt to learn about the religion itself. The presence of the Imams pre-Ghaybah itself makes it an important time-period to study as companions would engage in theological discussions and debates, while often bouncing off ideas and opinions off the Imams (a), who were of course seen as sources of guidance. While there were companions whose views and opinions were incorrect at times, and we find reports where the Imams (s) had to correct them or point their errors out, nevertheless we also find that many of the companions had views which were a direct result of the teachings of the Imams (s). Furthermore, without being familiar with the history of the development of Imami theology, particularly the era during the lifetime of the Imams (s), it is difficult to understand the numerous theological narrations that exist in the hadith corpus, as we would be reading them without any context.

The history of Imami theology shows that it went through various phases and encountered numerous challenges during the course of these phases. We see various factions of companions forming due to differing methodologies, approaches, and understanding of religious teachings. As such, we can identify a few distinct groups forming during the lifetime of the Imams (s) themselves, such as that of Hisham bin Hakam, Hisham bin Salim and Mufadhdhal bin ‘Umar. Each of these figures influenced later individuals (for example: Yunus bin ‘Abdul Rahman, Hasan bin ‘Ali bin Yaqtin, and Muhammad bin Sinan respectively) and this transmission of methodology and inclinations was carried on until the next few centuries. On the other hand, we also see that various cities were the hub for these debates and discourses, in different time periods. In this series, we intend on covering some aspects of the history of some of these schools from the perspective of their geographic location.

In this introductory piece, we will very briefly glance over the most important cities where the Imamis were active (or at times inactive) in theological discourse during the course of time, and impacted subsequent generations (positively or negatively). These schools can be narrowed down to the following cities:

1) Medina: Generally speaking, historians will begin their discussions on the history of the development of Imami theology after the incident of Karbala with the Imamate of Imam Sajjad (s). After the incident of Karbala, two Shi’i theological schools of thought were prevalent in Medina, one that was centered upon Imam Sajjad (s) and one on the personality of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah (son of Imam Ali). This time period has not been heavily studied unfortunately, even though recent efforts have been made by some scholars to research this time period.

2) Kufa: Without much delay, the hub of the Imami theological school moved to the city of Kufa. While it is true that the presence of Imam Baqir (s) and Sadiq (s) was in Medina, for various reasons, it was Kufa where Imami theological discourse was prevalent and took a distinct form and shape. This shift took place in the beginning of the 2nd century Hijri, and various Muslim sects, such as the Khawarij and Mu’tazalites, were participating in theological dialogue in this city. It was in the city of Kufa where the earliest foundations for a distinct Imami identity were laid and extremely important figures were taught and trained by the Imams (s) themselves. Many Kufans would travel back and forth between Kufa and Medina in order to access the Imams (s) directly and then bring their teachings to the city of Kufa.

3) Baghdad: After theological discourse in Kufa began diminishing, Baghdad slowly began to flourish. However, the Shi’as – who were generally located in the suburbs of Karkh – had no substantial influence, nor participation for at least a century between 180 to 280 Hijri. Due to various political restrictions imposed on the Shi’ias, many companions of the Imams (s) were unable to participate in any theological dialogue nor defend their beliefs. Thus, we see narrations indicating that an Imam may have prohibited certain companions from further engaging in theological debates – evidently a political and strategic move. Important figures such as Yunus bin ‘Abdul Rahman and others were imprisoned during this time for their activities. All in all, we find no significant progress nor theological discourse by the Imamis during this century. A few names that appear here and there are also of those whose identify and biography is relatively unknown.

It was only a century later when we see the Nawbakhtis (such as Abu Sahl and Abu Muhammad) lifting up the fallen reins and re-enter theological discourse. Interestingly, we have no record of whose students the Nawbakhtis were and neither do they point towards any teacher. Although it is known that they had access to a personal library, so it is possible that they heavily utilized the heritage that had been passed down to them. In any case, this new phase in Baghdad reaches its climax during the time of Shaykh Mufid and Sayyid Murtadha, and ends with the departure of Shaykh Tusi to Najaf.

4) Qom: As the Kufan school was coming to its end, it was the city of Qom that slowly become its substitute. The Kufan heritage was transferred over to Qom by various different scholars. Although the Kufan school had both a theologian and traditionalist-theologian movement, in Qom it was primarily a traditionalist-theologian methodology that had importance. So while many of the scholars of Qom did have a methodology and a framework within which they would intellectualize, they were still distinct from someone who would be deemed a pure theologian.

5) Rey: A lot of Baghdad and Qom’s heritage was transferred to Rey with the immigration of some of the Imami scholars to the city. Thus it is seen as an important city where Imami theological discourse was prevalent for about one-and-half to two centuries.

6-7) Hilla and Jabal al-Amel: Much of Rey’s heritage was transferred over to Hilla, and the theological developments within Hilla were transmitted to Jabal al-Amel by Shahid Awwal and Shahid Thani. However, since there were no important works produced within the latter city on theology, Jabal al-Amel is essentially considered an extension of Hilla and not seen as a city where significant progress was made.

8) Najaf: One stream from Hilla’s theological school of thought moved to Najaf through the efforts of Fadhil Miqdad – a student of Shaheed Awwal. The former would accompany him till Damascus before the latter was martyred.

9/10) Fars & Isfahan: After Najaf, it was the school of Fars and Isfahan during the Safavid dynasty that took charge of being the hub of Imami theological discourse.

These 10 cities were without a doubt the most influential when it comes to discussing the history of the development of Imami theology. While the starting point of this historical timeline may be seen in Medina chronologically speaking, it was in the city of Kufa where a distinct Imami Shi’i theology was born. As much work has been done on the city of Kufa and Baghdad – some of it also available in English – we wish to begin our series of posts with the city of Qom, a city less discussed or often cast aside as insignificant. As the histories of some these schools are tightly connected (particularly that of Kufa, Qom and Baghdad’s), we will of course at times be forced to discuss certain aspects of the Kufan or Baghdad school in order to better understand certain aspects of Qom’s role and influence on Imami theology.

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