The Traditionalist-Theologian Phenomenon | History of Shi’i Imami Theology (2)

The earliest distinct Shi’i Imami school was that of Kufa’s, which began taking form in the beginning of the 2nd century Hijri during the time of Imam Baqir (s). This era itself is worthy of being studied and as a matter of fact has been studied extensively by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike. The various theological trends that existed in Kufa for a century-and-a-half, were without a doubt some of the earliest and most influential trends that shaped the future of Shi’i thought and identity.

During this period, companions of the Imams considered the Imams to be sources of guidance and recognized their authority when it came to being the source of true knowledge. A large network of students and companions of the Imams were involved in narrating their teachings and spreading their teachings. This group of individuals generally came to be known as Muhaddithun (narrators). Many of these narrators however, were also considered Mutakallimun (theologians) and are deemed some of the greatest Imami companions of the time. While many definitions have been given for what constitutes a theologian, at the very least it can be said that it was someone who attempted to work out their religious beliefs within a given epistemological framework. Unlike a Muhaddith, a theologian would generally have been more attentive towards contradictory narrations and would pay closer attention to the words being narrated in order to argue for whether such information fits within their established framework or not. Furthermore, most theologians were heavily involved in debates and discussions against opponents in order to defend their beliefs.

Thus, we can identify three major trends in Kufa during the era of Imam Baqir (s) and Imam Sadiq (s): 1) those who were merely deemed as narrators of traditions and would generally avoid getting into theological disputes, 2) those who were deemed pure theologians, and 3) those who happened to be narrators of traditions and as well as theologians at the same time. This last group is what we refer to as the traditionalist-theologian. The Shi’i companions of the Imams (s), whichever segment they fit into, would still consider themselves bound to the teachings of the Imams in all cases, and would often refer back to them for assistance and guidance. This can be seen in the numerous reports that have been preserved in primary Shi’i texts like Usul al-Kafi.[1]

The fundamental difference between the traditionalist-theologians and the narrators was that the former would attempt to rationalize, justify and fit the teachings of the Imams in a specific established framework of thought. The narrators generally speaking, would not involve themselves in such activities, and would suffice with simply quoting the traditions as evidence for their views when it required. In other words, what was deemed sufficient as guidance for them was the Nass (words of the Imam – orally narrated or written down) on its own, and they saw no necessity in adding their own opinions to the subject matter as it would be deemed irrelevant in front of the words of someone divinely appointed as a source of guidance. Despite this, it must be said that this group, just like the traditionalist-theologians and the theologians, did indeed have a framework in which they would understand things. That framework was the Nass it self. Therefore we find many examples where narrators were seen attempting to explain the contents of a Nass by utilizing other traditions themselves.

Though Shi’i traditionalist-theologians were different from mere theologians as far as the former would often narrate traditions from the Imams (s), in essence it seems that this method was simply an extension of the theologians and the difference was not as extensive. Many companions were considered traditionalist-theologians, such as Zurarah bin A’yun and others from his family, Abu Basir, Muhammad bin Muslim, Ibn Abi ‘Umayr etc.

Both these movements – after having benefited from the presence of the Imams in 2nd century Hijri – had very different fates by the middle of the 3rd century. Theological discourses that had given life to Kufa’s highly engaged society, eventually died out. This is largely to be blamed on certain decisions made by the ‘Abbasid government, such as the implementation of various sanctions, restrictions, and limitations on the Imamis in Kufa and certain theologians who held specific views in general.[2] However, the Imami traditionalist-theologians were able to preserve a lot of their written works and transfer much of their heritage to the next generation as the middle of the 3rd century Hijri approached.

As activity in Kufa slowly died out, another school began taking form as the Kufan traditionalist-theological heritage transferred over to it, and slowly became a substitute for Kufa. This school found its home in the city of Qom.

In the next few posts we will try to address a range of different topics, including – but not limited to: how Qom became the hub for Shi’i theological discourse, why was it seen as the most reasonable destination after the decline of Kufa, a brief history of the earliest Shi’as to have migrated there, the transfer of Kufa’s hadith heritage to Qom, important companions and scholars who lived in Qom and their theological methodologies, the case of scholars exiling Imami narrators of hadith who were accused of certain flaws, prevalent theological views in Qom, the role of the intellect amongst scholars of Qom.


[1] See for example see Usul al-Kafi, Volume 1, Book 3, Chapter 1, Hadith #4; Book 4, Chapter 1, Hadith #3, #4. The examples are too many to list here.

[2] The political situation had become so tense that that Imam Kadhim (s) eventually had to tell Hisham bin Hakam to stop any theological debates and discussions. See Rijal al-Kashi, Hadith #479, Page 265-266

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