Differing Perspectives Regarding Knowledge of the Unseen

By Shaykh Haidar Hobbollah

Translated by Shayan Shirazi

Question[1]:

Is there any rational evidence that proves the necessity of the Imām to know the unseen affairs, considering that the Imāms (upon them be peace) did not use this knowledge in many of their pursuits, but rather they acted according to their human nature? In other words, what is the wisdom or the benefit that accrues to the human society which is led by an Imām that has knowledge of the unseen affairs, whether future, past or present? And what is the role of this knowledge that the Imām holds in the perfection of human society? What are the views and opinions on this topic? And what is the most prominent evidence of those who deny the Imām’s knowledge of the unseen?

Answer:

The discussion regarding the infallible’s knowledge of the unseen (ghayb) takes place in two stages:

  1. Whether it is necessary or required for the infallible to have this knowledge
  2. Whether the infallible actually have this knowledge

The First Stage

As for the first stage, there is no convincing rational argument for the necessity of their knowledge of the unseen in the extent that some of the Imāmī [Shīʿa] in our time discuss, for example.

The Second Stage

As for the second stage, the authoritative source here is textual proof (naṣṣ) and history to affirm if they had knowledge of this unseen or not. The intellect is not able to identify the actuality of their knowledge in this state except on the basis of the theories of the Ṣūfīs and mystics on the issue of the al-Insān al-Kāmil[2], which are unconvincing theories, in my humble opinion. Therefore, the authoritative source here is the religious texts: do they prove the infallible’s extensive knowledge of the unseen or not? Furthermore, the mere fact that we do not find any argument for the necessity of their knowledge of the unseen, this does not negate their knowledge of the unseen either as there may be matters that have remained hidden from us regarding the secrets of this world.

There are two points of view here:

The First Perspective

Those of the first perspective prove the [infallible’s] knowledge of the unseen on the basis of the existence of some narrations. This perspective is divided into two groups in accordance with the division of the narrations into two sets:

Group One: they believe the infallible have absolute and actual[3] knowledge of the unseen. Thus, the Imām is currently aware of everything that occurs in the world and of every movement of the atoms of this universe, in a direct and actual manner. And it is clear that those who believe in the existential guardianship[4] of the Ahl al-Bayt (al-wilāyat al-takwīnīya) – meaning that they are the medium of Divine Emanation (wāsia al-fay) – believe in this view automatically.

Group Two: they believe that the infallible does not actually have knowledge of the unseen, but if he wished to know the unseen, he would immediately come to know it. Therefore, this group made knowledge of the unseen dependent on the will of the infallible.

The Second Perspective

Contrary to the first perspective, with its two groups, there is a second perspective that rejects absolute knowledge of the unseen for the infallibles, except for the knowledge that has been mentioned specifically in a textual proof concerning an event or area here or there. This perspective stems from Qurʿānic evidence and the Noble Sunna, which denies the existential guardianship (wilāyat al-takwīnīya) and absolute knowledge of the unseen for the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt (peace and blessings be upon them all). Or at the very least, this evidence may contradict the arguments put forth for the existential guardianship, which hinders the ability to use them to derive and argue for the theory of the existential guardianship and absolute knowledge of the unseen. From among those who hold this view regarding the issue of the existential guardianship is Sayyid Kāẓim al-Ḥāʾirī. After examining the conflicting evidence of the two perspectives, he arrived at the conclusion that existential guardianship is not established while simultaneously not denying it either – meaning that, in his opinion, there is no evidence that proves or negates it.

One of the opposing evidences used by supporters of this perspective is the following verse in which God addresses the Prophet:

﴿وَمِمَّنۡ حَوۡلَكُم مِّنَ ٱلۡأَعۡرَابِ مُنَـٰفِقُونَ‌ۖ وَمِنۡ أَهۡلِ ٱلۡمَدِينَةِ‌ۖ مَرَدُواْ عَلَى ٱلنِّفَاقِ لَا تَعۡلَمُهُمۡ‌ۖ نَحۡنُ نَعۡلَمُهُمۡ‌ۚ سَنُعَذِّبُہُم مَّرَّتَيۡنِ ثُمَّ يُرَدُّونَ إِلَىٰ عَذَابٍ عَظِيمٍ۬﴾

Among the Bedouin around you there are hypocrites, and among the people of Madinah, who are headstrong in hypocrisy. Thou knowest them not; We know them and We shall punish them twice. Then they shall be relegated to a great punishment. (9:101)

If the Prophet did not know some of the hypocrites around him, then how could he have knowledge of the entire world, administer the universe and possess complete existential guardianship over it?

Another evidence used is the verse:

﴿قُل لَّآ أَقُولُ لَكُمۡ عِندِى خَزَآٮِٕنُ ٱللَّهِ وَلَآ أَعۡلَمُ ٱلۡغَيۡبَ وَلَآ أَقُولُ لَكُمۡ إِنِّى مَلَكٌ‌ۖ إِنۡ أَتَّبِعُ إِلَّا مَا يُوحَىٰٓ إِلَىَّ‌ۚ قُلۡ هَلۡ يَسۡتَوِى ٱلۡأَعۡمَىٰ وَٱلۡبَصِيرُ‌ۚ أَفَلَا تَتَفَكَّرُونَ﴾

Say, “I do not say unto you that with me are the treasuries of God; nor do I know the unseen; nor do I say unto you that I am an angel. I follow only that which is revealed unto me.” Say, “Are the blind and the seer equal? Will you not, then, reflect?” (6:50)

Is this verse compatible with the view that the Ahl al-Bayt have absolute knowledge of the unseen?!

And another evidence is:

﴿قُل لَّآ أَمۡلِكُ لِنَفۡسِى نَفۡعً۬ا وَلَا ضَرًّا إِلَّا مَا شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ‌ۚ وَلَوۡ كُنتُ أَعۡلَمُ ٱلۡغَيۡبَ لَٱسۡتَڪۡثَرۡتُ مِنَ ٱلۡخَيۡرِ وَمَا مَسَّنِىَ ٱلسُّوٓءُ‌ۚ إِنۡ أَنَا۟ إِلَّا نَذِيرٌ۬ وَبَشِيرٌ۬ لِّقَوۡمٍ۬ يُؤۡمِنُونَ﴾

Say, “I have no power over what benefit or harm may come to me, save as God wills. Had I knowledge of the unseen, I would have acquired much good, and no evil would have touched me. I am naught save a warner and a bearer of glad tidings unto a people who believe.” (7:188)

In this verse, is there a restriction of independence from God? For the Prophet negates his knowledge of the unseen, with the explanation that if he had known the unseen, he would have acquired much good and no evil would have touched him. Is the Prophet’s lack of being touched by evil dependent on knowledge of the unseen, in a manner independent from God, or does knowledge of the unseen, even if it be dependent on God, achieve this protection also?

Another evidence is:

﴿وَيَـٰقَوۡمِ لَآ أَسۡـَٔلُڪُمۡ عَلَيۡهِ مَالاً‌ۖ إِنۡ أَجۡرِىَ إِلَّا عَلَى ٱللَّهِ‌ۚ وَمَآ أَنَا۟ بِطَارِدِ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوٓاْ‌ۚ إِنَّهُم مُّلَـٰقُواْ رَبِّہِمۡ وَلَـٰكِنِّىٓ أَرَٮٰكُمۡ قَوۡمً۬ا تَجۡهَلُونَ (٢٩) وَيَـٰقَوۡمِ مَن يَنصُرُنِى مِنَ ٱللَّهِ إِن طَرَدتُّہُمۡ‌ۚ أَفَلَا تَذَڪَّرُونَ (٣٠) وَلَآ أَقُولُ لَكُمۡ عِندِى خَزَآٮِٕنُ ٱللَّهِ وَلَآ أَعۡلَمُ ٱلۡغَيۡبَ وَلَآ أَقُولُ إِنِّى مَلَكٌ۬ وَلَآ أَقُولُ لِلَّذِينَ تَزۡدَرِىٓ أَعۡيُنُكُمۡ لَن يُؤۡتِيَہُمُ ٱللَّهُ خَيۡرًا‌ۖ ٱللَّهُ أَعۡلَمُ بِمَا فِىٓ أَنفُسِهِمۡ‌ۖ إِنِّىٓ إِذً۬ا لَّمِنَ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ﴾

O my people! I ask not of you any wealth in return for it; my reward lies only with God. And I shall not drive away those who believe; truly they shall meet their Lord. But I see that you are an ignorant people. (29) O my people! Who would help me against God, were I to drive them away? Will you not remember? (30) I say not unto you that with me are the treasuries of God; nor do I know the Unseen. And I say not that I am an angel; nor do I say of those who are despicable in your eyes, ‘God will not give them any good’—God knows best what is in their souls—for then I would indeed be among the wrongdoers. (31) (11:29-31)

Is this language from Prophet Noah (peace be upon him) consistent with someone who has existential guardianship upon the world as well as absolute knowledge?

And the following verse:

﴿قُلۡ مَا كُنتُ بِدۡعً۬ا مِّنَ ٱلرُّسُلِ وَمَآ أَدۡرِى مَا يُفۡعَلُ بِى وَلَا بِكُمۡ‌ۖ إِنۡ أَتَّبِعُ إِلَّا مَا يُوحَىٰٓ إِلَىَّ وَمَآ أَنَا۟ إِلَّا نَذِيرٌ۬ مُّبِينٌ۬ (٩) قُلۡ أَرَءَيۡتُمۡ إِن كَانَ مِنۡ عِندِ ٱللَّهِ وَكَفَرۡتُم بِهِۦ وَشَہِدَ شَاهِدٌ۬ مِّنۢ بَنِىٓ إِسۡرَٲٓءِيلَ عَلَىٰ مِثۡلِهِۦ فَـَٔامَنَ وَٱسۡتَكۡبَرۡتُمۡ‌ۖ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يَہۡدِى ٱلۡقَوۡمَ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ﴾

Say, “I am no innovation among the messengers, and I know not what will be done with me or with you. I only follow that which has been revealed unto me, and I am naught but a clear warner.” (9) Say, “Have you considered if it is from God and you disbelieve in it, though a witness from the Children of Israel bore witness to the like thereof, then believed in it, while you waxed arrogant? Surely God guides not wrongdoing people.” (10) (46:9-10)

Is this type of discourse consistent with someone who knows all the knowledge of the unseen? Rather, the Prophet (upon him and his household be peace) claims here that he is no different to the rest of the messengers, that he is nothing but a warner and a bearer of glad tidings and that he does not have knowledge of what will occur. So how can we say that he has knowledge of destiny and fate, of calamities and affliction, of what is and of what will be, until the Day of Judgement? Are these concepts consistent with the spirit of these noble verses?!

And God, the Exalted, said:

﴿تِلۡكَ مِنۡ أَنۢبَآءِ ٱلۡغَيۡبِ نُوحِيہَآ إِلَيۡكَ‌ۖ مَا كُنتَ تَعۡلَمُهَآ أَنتَ وَلَا قَوۡمُكَ مِن قَبۡلِ هَـٰذَا‌ۖ فَٱصۡبِرۡ‌ۖ إِنَّ ٱلۡعَـٰقِبَةَ لِلۡمُتَّقِينَ﴾

These are among the accounts of the Unseen that We reveal unto thee. Thou knewest not of them, neither thou nor thy people, beforehand. So be patient. Truly the end belongs to the reverent. (11:49)

Therefore, before the revelation of these verses, the Prophet (upon him and his household be peace) did not even know some of the stories of the previous Prophets. So how could he be the first creation (al-ādir al-awwal) who emanated existence and specific forms (al-suwar al-nawʿīyya) upon the world since the beginning of creation, while he does not know some of the events of the Prophets before him?! And how can he have absolute knowledge of the unseen while he is a fetus in his mother’s womb, as some claim?! How is it possible to claim that this verse intends to address people other than the Prophet – in the style of ‘I meant you, but O neighbour you should listen’ (īyyāk aʿnī wa-smaʿī yā jāra) – while it explicitly negates his knowledge of the unseen and his people’s knowledge simultaneously?

The second perspective stems from such verses and some narrations in order to say that the narrations that establish knowledge of the unseen for the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt are either fabricated by the ghulāt[5] and thus rejected for their violation of the Book of God, or that their knowledge must be returned to its holders[6]. The first perspective interprets the aforementioned verses as negating their knowledge of the unseen independent from God, not absolutely.

These are the differing and divided views concerning this topic; I have presented the views of the different groups for you here and everyone can come to their own conclusion.

Footnotes

[1] Haidar, Hobbollah, Iḍāʾāt fī al-fikr wa al-dīn wa al-ijtimāʿ, vol. 1, pp.93-96.

[2] The complete or perfect person.

[3] Meaning that they have real knowledge of unseen at every moment rather than a potential to acquire this knowledge when, and if, they seek to know it

[4] Alternatively translated as cosmic guardianship

[5] Lit. extremists or exaggerators, denoting heretical Shīʿī groups

[6] Meaning that if the meaning of a narration is not clear, “return its knowledge to the Imāms” and abstain from rejecting it