What is the First thing that is Wajib on Humans? The View of an Akhbari Scholar

Originally posted on Shiitic Studies.


Not everyone in the Shi’i scholarly tradition has been on-board with the direction of travel of systematic theology, beginning as it does with the Kalam (rational theology) of the Mu’tazili influenced Baghdadi scholars in the Buyid era, passing by way of the Peripatetic influenced-thinking of Khwaja Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1274), and culminating in the hegemony of the synthesis represented by the theosophical school of Mulla Sadra (d. 1640) in the Hawza establishment today.

Specifically, scholars belonging to the classical Akhbari movement, while marked out primarily by their epistemological disagreement with the dominant Usuli school about the sources of the Law, were also overwhelmingly opposed to rational speculation in theology, on the basis of it being a ‘foreign’ innovation, a product of the ‘Greek’ philosophization of religion.

A representative text from this line of thinking is presented below.

Background to the Author and the Text

The text, which is translated into English for the first time, is from a treatise titled ‘Iqd al-Jawahir al-Nuraniyya fi Ajwiba al-Masail al-Bahraniyya‘, composed by Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani (d. 1772) in Karbala, and completed before noon, on Friday the 12th of October 1759. It languishes in manuscript form and has not been published as yet1.

Title page of the manuscript IR7822 kept in the Library of the Majles Shura Islami in Tehran.

al-Bahrani was a key player in the Usuli-Akhbari controversy of his day, and can be said to belong to the moderate wing of Akhbari thought, mainly because he did not see the controversy as fundamental to Shi’i identity, condemning the more radical Akhbaris who used the language of Takfir (excommunication) and abuse against their Usuli opponents.

He is not known for his theological views, his legacy resting on the shoulders of his multi-volume magnum opus al-Hadaiq al-Nadhira, which belongs to the genre of substantive Fiqh, also of note were his debates on legal theory with Wahid al-Bihbihani, the latter of whom is rightly considered the forebear of modern Usulism.

The document in question belongs to the responsa genre, containing answers to 120 questions posed to him by a contemporary2. Whilst most of the questions are to do with jurisprudential issues, such as the legality of doing Taqlid (legal emulation) to the dead, the first question that has to do with ‘the First Obligation of a Mukallaf‘ gives us insight into the author’s theological views.

The Text

Question: What is the first obligation upon a Mukallaf (legal agent)?

Answer: And from Him – Glorified be He – do we seek support and guidance to the correct path.

The discussion concerning this question requires a (related) discussion concerning Ma’rifat-ullah (Knowing God) – Glorified be He, (namely) is it Fitriyya Kasbiyya (Acquisitive i.e. the Fitra inclines us to acquire Knowledge of God) or Dharuriyya Fitriyya (Predicate i.e. Knowledge of God is already a part of our Fitra).

The predominant position is the former (i.e. it is Acquisitive), and to it subscribe the majority of the Ash’ariyya, the Mu’tazila, and most of our companions (i.e. scholars among the Imamiyya). Based on this, the first of the obligatory duties according to them is Ma’rifa (i.e. Acquiring Knowledge of God).

This is what they have stated explicitly, except that they have differed about (the exact formulation of) the First Obligation. Thus Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari said that it (the First Obligation) is:

Ma’rifatuhu (Knowledge of Him) – the Elevated, for it (i.e. Knowledge of Him) is the root of all other knowledge and religious beliefs, and from it do branch out all the other obligations in the Divine Law3.

It is also said: It (the First Obligation) is Nadhar (Reasoning) towards (obtaining) Ma’rifa (Knowledge) of Him the Elevated, because Ma’rifa (Knowledge of Him) depends on it (Reasoning). This is the position of the majority of the Mu’tazila.

It is also said: It (the First Obligation) is (undertaking) a part of it (i.e. the Initial Reasoning), for the obligation of the whole necessitates the obligation of the constituent parts (making up the whole), so the first part of Nadhar (Reasoning) is obligatory and precedent to Nadhar (Reasoning) (as a whole) which takes precedence over Ma’rifa (Knowledge of God as an end-point).

It is also said: It (the First Obligation) is Qasd (Intending) to Nadhar (undertake Reasoning), for Nadhar (Reasoning) is a voluntary act that is preceded by Qasd (Intending) which is precedent to the first part of the parts of Nadhar (Reasoning).

The commentator on al-Mawaqif said:

The argument is wholly semantic, for if what is meant is the obligation by the first Intention, that is, if what is meant is the first of obligations (to be) intended at first and in essence, then it is Ma’rifa (Knowing God), according to them all.

And if that is not what is meant, rather, is meant the first of obligations in absolute terms, then it is Qasd (Intending to Reason), because it is a prerequisite to the Nadhar (Reasoning) that is obligatory in absolute terms, so it (i.e. Qasd) becomes obligatory also …4.

Some (on the other hand) have asserted the second position (that Knowledge of God is not acquisitive but predicate), and to this belong a large number of our companions the Muhadithin, and they have stated explicitly, based on this position, that the First Obligation is to acknowledge and admit the Lordship (of Allah).

Because the fundamental nature of Ma’rifa (Knowledge of God) according to them, as you have already known, is predicate (i.e. innate to the primordial disposition of a human), the slaves do not have any hand in it (i.e. any role in acquiring it), rather, it is from the handiwork of Allah Glorified be He. That which is like this (i.e. God’s doing) does not become a Taklif (legal imposition) (on a human), rather, the imposition (upon a human) is (merely) to acknowledge that (Allah’s Lordship).

This is what can be inferred from the reports of the Ahl al-Dhikr, peace be upon them, which are the reference-point in all the Ahkam (rulings), and on which we rely in opposing something or establishing it, and there is no harm if we quote some of the reports that are relevant to this:

1. What was transmitted by Thiqat al-Islam in al-Kafi and al-Saduq in al-Tawhid from Abi Abdillah عليه السلام that he said:

ستة أشياء ليس للعباد فيها صنع: المعرفة والجهل والرضا والغضب والنوم واليقظة

Six things – slaves do not have in them (any) doing: Ma’rifa (knowledge), ignorance, pleasure, anger, sleep and awakening5.

2. It is transmitted in al-Kafi on the authority of Muhammad b. Hukaym that he said: I said to Abi Abdillah عليه السلام:

المعرفة من صنع من هي؟ قال: من صنع الله، ليس للعباد فيها صنع

Ma’rifa (Recognition) – whose handiwork is it?

He said: From the handiwork of Allah, there is not for the slaves in it (any) doing6.

3. It is also narrated from him (i.e. Abi Abdillah) in it (i.e. al-Kafi) (that he) said:

  ليس لله على خلقه أن يعرفوا وللخلق على الله أن يعرفهم، ولله على الخلق إذا عرفهم أن يقبلوا

It is not for Allah over His creation that they come to know (i.e. independently), (rather) it is for the creation over Allah that He makes them know, and it is for Allah over the creation that once He makes them know that they accept it7.

al-Saduq narrated it in Kitab al-Tawhid likewise8.

4. The two aforementioned Shaykhs (i.e. Kulayni and Saduq) transmit in their two books alluded to previously – from Hamza b. Tayyar from Abi Abdillah عليه السلام:

قال: اكتب فأملى علي: إن من قولنا إن الله يحتج على العباد بما آتاهم وعرفهم، ثم أرسل إليهم رسولا وأنزل عليهم الكتاب فأمر فيه ونهى

He (the Imam) said (to me): Write down – and he dictated to me (the following): ‘It is a part of our beliefs that Allah holds as proof over the slaves (only) from that which He has given them and made known to them, then he sent to them a messenger and sent down on them the Book, so He commanded in it, and forbade …’9

Add to this many other such reports.

The form of the evidence (found) in them is that they indicate that there is not for the slave in Ma’rifa – a hand, and that this was not imposed upon them, rather, what they were imposed upon was acceptance of that, after Allah – Glorified be He – casts certainty into their hearts, for it has come in the reports that there is not anyone except that the Truth is presented to him, such that his heart comes out in acceptance of it or rejection.

What is meant by ‘acceptance’ is acknowledgment by the tongue, belief in the heart, and action by the limbs, which is the definition of Iman (Faith), for Faith according to us, as has come in the verses and in narrations, is a term that refers to this (i.e. how we have defined it above), even if this is against the famous position among the majority. That being the case, if the slave accepts that, and Faith is demonstrable from him in the manner described, then he is a Mu’min (believer), and if not then the Hujja (argument) is against him.

Among those who have explicitly supported our chosen position in the matter is our master, the Muhaddith al-Amin al-Astarabadi, may his spirit be sanctified, in his book al-Fawaid al-Madaniyya, wherein he says after quoting a large number of reports that have come with this meaning:

I say: Here there are some Fawaid (useful points) which merit to be alluded to:

First: It can be inferred from these narrations the mistake of the Mu’tazila, the Asha’ira and those who agreed with the Mu’tazila from our latter-day scholars in the question of the First Obligation …

Fourth: It can be inferred from them that the slaves were not imposed upon to obtain Ma’rifa at all, and that it is upon Allah to define and explain, firstly by pure Ilham (inspiration i.e. alluding to Fitra), and secondly by sending the messengers and sending down the Books, and manifesting the miracles at his hand, peace be upon him and them, and it is upon them (i.e. the slaves) to accept what Allah the Elevated has made known to them10.

And he (al-Astarabadi) said in another place in the same book:

His wisdom the Elevated – decreed that the legal impositions be attached to the people in stages, such that it is imposed upon them to affirm the Shahadatayn at first, then after this acknowledgment has issued from them, the rest of that which the prophet came with are imposed upon them11.

He (al-Astarabadi) said:

From the narrations that evidence this is the Sahiha of Zurara which has been mentioned in al-Kafi:

قلت لابي جعفر عليه السلام: أخبرني عن معرفة الامام منكم واجبة على جميع الخلق؟ فقال: إن الله عزوجل بعث محمدا صلى الله عليه وآله إلى الناس أجمعين رسولا و حجة لله على جميع خلقه في أرضه، فمن آمن بالله وبمحمد رسول الله واتبعه وصدقه فإن معرفة الامام منا واجبة عليه، ومن لم يؤمن بالله وبرسوله ولم يتبعه ولم يصدقه ويعرف حقهما فكيف يجب عليه معرفة الامام وهو لا يؤمن بالله ورسوله ويعرف حقهما

He (Zurara) said: I said to Abi Ja’far عليه السلام: Inform me about the Ma’rifa (knowledge of the identity) of the Imam among you, is it obligatory on all of creation?

So he said: Indeed Allah the Elevated appointed Muhammad to all the people, as a messenger and a Hujja (proof) of Allah over all His creatures on His earth, so whoever believes in Allah and in His messenger and follows him and confirms his truth, then the Ma’rifa (knowledge) of the Imam from among us becomes obligatory on him.

As for one who does not believe in Allah and His messenger and does not follow him and does not confirm his truth, and (does not) recognize their right – then how can it be obligatory upon him to know the Imam whilst he does not believe in Allah and in His messenger and (does not) recognize their right?!12

Of those who also (backed) this (position) explicitly was our Shaykh al-Majlisi, may Allah perfume his grave, in the book al-Bihar whence he said after quoting a number of reports and mentioning a number of possible interpretations of them:

What is apparent from them (i.e. the reports) is that the slaves are (only) imposed upon to submit to the truth and abandon arrogance in accepting it.

As for the Ma’arif (aspects of cognizance) then they are, in their totality, of that which Allah the Elevated casts in the heart of his slaves after they choose the truth, then he perfects that (in them) day after day, in proportion to their deeds and obedience, until he leads them to reach the station of the Muttaqin.

It is sufficient for you (as evidence for this position) what has reached you of the life-practice of the prophets and the Imams of the religion in perfecting their communities and companions, for they did not direct them to acquisition, and Nadhar (reasoning), and studying the books of the philosophers, and to learn the sciences of the heretics, rather they called them first to submit to Tawhid and the rest of the beliefs, then they called them to perfect their selves via acts of obedience and exertions until they achieved the highest stations of felicities13.

And it (his words) are good and apposite as is not hidden for the intelligent and aware (person).

Among that (i.e. reports) which are explicit in their evidencing the sought after (position), free of any possibility of misinterpretation and refutation, is what has been transmitted by our Shaykh al-Saduq, may Allah perfume his grave, in the book Uyun Akhbar al-Ridha, in a report on his (i.e. al-Ridha’s) authority that he said:

أول الفرائض شهادة أن لاإله إلا الله وحده لا شريك له

The first of obligations is bearing testimony that there is no god but Allah, alone, He has no partner14.

ِAlso what was transmitted by the trustworthy and august Ahmad b. Abi Talib al-Tabrisi in the book al-Ihtijaj, on the authority of the Commander of the Faithful عليه السلام in answer to the questions of the heretic who came to him with verses from the Qur’an arguing for (presence of) contradiction between them, and it is a lengthy report, but he said in the midst of it:

فكان أول ما قيدهم به الاقرار بالوحدانية ولنبيه بالنبوة والشهادة بالرسالة فلما انقادوا لذلك فرض عليهم الصلاة ثم الصوم ثم الحج

So the first (thing) with which He bound them by – [meaning by it the Mukallafin] – was acknowledging His Oneness, and the prophethood of his prophet, and bearing witness to the messege.

So when they submitted to that, He obligated upon them the Salat (daily prayer), then the Sawm (fasting in Ramadhan), then the Hajj (pilgrimage to Makka)15

Conclusion: You are well-aware that what can be inferred from the aforementioned Sahiha of Zurara and also from the aforementioned narration of al-Ihtijaj is that the Kafir, so long as he does not enter into Islam and affirm it, is not liable for anything of the Furu (secondary obligations like SalatZakatSawm, etc.).

This (position) is in opposition to that which our companions (i.e. fellow Shia) have united over. In fact (it is in opposition) of other than them (i.e. the Sunnis) also. So much so that no dissent to that (consensus) is recorded except what is attributed to Abi Hanifa.(They are all united) to the effect that the Furu are imposed upon the Kafir (he is liable for them), even if they are not accepted from him (if he were to perform them) except with (the condition of accepting) Islam (first)16.

We have expanded the discussion on this point in our book ‘al-Durar al-Najafiyya’ and shown there the strength of what is indicated by the aforementioned reports – even if it is against the famous position. For it may happen that the famous position does not have a credible basis, and it is possible that what is credible is not famously known.

Among those who also held this position is al-Muhaddith al-Kashani in his Tafsir al-Safi, and it is also what is apparent in the words of the Muhaddith al-Amin al-Astarabadi. Whoever wants to come to know the reality of the matter, and the evidences in support of the point, with a thorough refutation of the evidences marshalled by the opponent in this regard, should refer to the book named.

Comments on the Text

What has come to become the dominant position in both classical (especially in its post-Hilla stage) and modern Shi’i theology has been the requirement to acquire Knowledge of God through the use of cognitive faculties (reason) to construct proofs for His existence.

The position that is supported by the reports, on the other hand, is that Knowledge of God comes from God. That is, it is on God to make Himself known to his Slaves, and He has done so by the innate knowledge bestowed to them as part of their Fitra (present with a human from birth) which necessitates them to recognize that God exists, before additionally encountering messengers who call them to this. Thus, every human knows of God as a result of God’s generosity, not by virtue of Kasb (acquisition) and Nadhar (reflection). Nadhar is not a prerequisite for knowledge of God, rather the first obligation of a human is to submit to this truth.

The proponents of the Akhbari school (and others who can be said to loosely belong to this tendency) saw this as just another example of what had gone wrong, with their opponents choosing to uphold a position alien to the scripturalist tradition. A position taught by the Imams had been obscured by later thinking and it fell to them to recover the original.

Studying al-Bahrani’s discussion of the question reveals him to be one who is not totally unaware of Kalam discussions and the respective positions of major schools around the issue. It must be said, however, that he does not access this material first hand, but is mostly influenced by the systematic polemic found in the much more versatile Mawla Muhammad Amin Astarabadi (d. 1626)’s Fawaid al-Madaniyya, the putative reviver or founder of the school (depending on your point of view about the origins of the Akhbari school), whom he quotes repeatedly17.

What characterizes the Akhbari stream is their lack of regard for the gradually built, centuries-old, Imami consensus of the day. They preferred a straight-forward text-based approach of quoting the statement of the Imams (who were possessors of superior knowledge) to a rationalist hermeneutic. They had no qualms in rejecting the theological implications borne of philosophical speculation rooted in extra-Shīʿī sources when they saw them at odds with the reports of the Imams.


  1. The publishers of another of Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani’s works included a part of the treatise (11 questions) as an introduction to the main body of that work. See: al-Risala al-Salatiyya, 1978, Maktaba al-Ulum al-A’mma, Manama, Bahrain. Pgs. 7 – 12.

    A scanned copy of the handwritten manuscript can be downloaded from here: Ketabpedia (مخطوطات مكتبة مجلس الشورى الإسلامي)

  2. All the questions were posed by al-Shaykh Ali b. al-Hasan b. Abdallah b. Ali al-Biladi. Shaykh Abdallah al-Biladi (the grandfather of the questioner) was one of the teachers of Shaykh Yusuf al-Bahrani. See: al-Dharia ila Tasanif al-Shia of Agha Buzurgh Tehrani, Vol. 15, Pg. 288, Entry No. 1879.
  3. As attributed to him by al-Sharif al-Jurjani (d. 1414) in his commentary onʿAḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī’s (d. 1355) al-Mawaqif fi Ilm al-Kalam, Vol. 1, Pgs. 275 – 276, ed. Muḥammad Badr al-Dīn al-Naʻsānī, Maṭba ʻat al-Sa ʻādah, Cairo (1907).
  4. al-Bahrani is referring throughout this section, and in quoting the different views amongst the Mutakallimun, to al-Jurjani’s commentary of al-Iji’s Mawaqif, See Pg. 276 (as in the footnote above). This text and its commentaries can be said to be the most studied Kalām texts of the Sunnī madrasa curriculum after the fourteenth century CE.

    See Footnote No. 17 below for a clarification that this is an indirect source for al-Bahrani mediated by Astarabadi.

  5. al-Kafi: Vol. 1, Pg. 164; al-Tawhid: Pg. 411.
  6. al-Kafi: Vol. 1, Pg. 163. Mulla Muhammad Salih Mazandarani (d. 1671) who belongs to this same Akhbari stream comments on this report as follows:

    The question of Ibn Hukaym is whether Ma’rifa is from the handiwork of Allah and his doing (providential) or from the doing of his slaves and and an acquisition of theirs through their reflection (intellectual activity)?

    There have come in this regard a lot of narrations, which in their abundance have reached the level of Tawatur al-Ma’nawi, some of them are found in Kitab al-Tawhid of al-Saduq, and some are found in Kitab al-Mahasin of Ahmad b. Abi Abdillah al-Barqi, and some are found in other reliable books apart from the two, and in them there is evidence, both in terms of literal wording as well as implication, that Ma’rifatuhu (Knowledge of Him) – the Elevated is providential, and that the it has not imposed upon the slaves (i.e. required of them) to acquire it through reasoning and constructing proofs, and that it is upon Allah to explain and identify (Himself).

    Firstly, in the world of the souls through Ilham (inspiration), and secondly, in the world of the bodies through the sending of messengers and sending down of Books, and that it is upon them (i.e. the slaves) to accept what Allah the Elevated has made known to them.

    Thus it has been invalidated what the Ashaira, the Mu’tazila and some of our companions (scholars from the Imamiyya) have gone to (in holding the position) that Knowledge of Him the Elevated is Nadhariyya (subject to reasoning). (See: Sharh Usul al-Kafi: Vol. 5, Pg. 84).

  7. al-Kafi: Vol. 1, Pg. 164.
  8. al-Tawhid: Pg. 412.
  9. al-Kafi: Vol. 1, Pg. 164; al-Tawhid: Pg. 413.
  10. al-Fawaid al-Madaniyya Pg. 445.
  11. al-Fawaid al-Madaniyya Pg. 469.
  12. al-Kafi: Vol. 1, Pg. 180-181.
  13. Bihar al-Anwar: Vol. 5, Pg. 224.
  14. This phrase is not found in al-Uyun, but seems to be the opening statement of a treatise called Usul al-Diin that is attributed to al-Ridha and said to have been dictated by him at the request of al-Ma’mun, as per Sayyid I’jaz Husayn (See his Kashf al-ḥujub wa-l-astār Pg. 50, No. 231; also al-Dharia ila Tasanif al-Shia Vol. 2Pg. 191, Entry No. 725).

    The closest I could find with this meaning in al-Uyun is the following:

    فإن قال (قائل): فما أول الفرائض؟ قيل له: الاقرار بالله وبرسوله وحجته وبما جاء من عند الله عز وجل

    So if someone were to say: What is the First Obligation? It is said to him: Acknowledging Allah, His messenger, His proof, and what has come from Allah Mighty and Majestic … (See: Uyun Akhbar al-Ridha: Vol. 1, Pg. 106).

  15. It seems that al-Bahrani was quoting these reports from memory, because there is a divergence with what is found in al-Ihtijaj: Vol. 1, Pg. 379:

    فكان أول ما قيدهم به الاقرار بالوحدانية والربوبية والشهادة بان لا إله إلا الله، فلما أقروا بذلك تلاه بالاقرار لنبيه صلى الله عليه وآله بالنبوة والشهادة له بالرسالة، فلما انقادوا لذلك فرض عليهم الصلاة ثم الصوم ثم الحج

    So the first (thing) with which he bound them by was acknowledging his Oneness and Lordship and bearing witness that there is no god but Allah, so when they acknowledged that, he followed it up with acknowledgment of his prophet’s صلى الله عليه وآله prophethood, and bearing witness as to his messengership, so when they submitted to that he obligated upon them the Salat (ritual prayer), then the Sawm (fasting), then the Hajj (pilgrimage).

  16. The famous position that al-Bahrani is not afraid to contradict on the back of looking at the reports, is that which holds acts like SalatZakatSawm etc to be Wajib on a Kafir, and the latter sinful and answerable for not performing them, even if it is not accepted from him if does go on to perform them because affirmation of Islam is a pre-condition for their acceptance. al-Bahrani sees not such obligation on them, the only obligation they have in front of them is to accept Islam and the rest will follow naturally.
  17. It is undeniable that many of those who came after al-Astarabadi (d. 1626) and belonged to the Akhbari stream, such as Muhammad Tahir al-Qummi (d. 1689), Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi (d. 1699), Muhammad Salih al-Mazandarani (d. 1671), Yusuf al-Bahrani (d.1772), and others, followed the same line of argumentation on this particular question as set forth by al-Astarabadi, even going so far as quoting the passage above from Sharh al-Mawaqif because Astarabadi had done so (See the latter’s Fawaid al-Madaniyya, The Eleventh Section: Explicating on the mistakes that the Mu’tazila, Asha’ira, and those who agreed with them in identifying the First Wajib, Pg. 405f).

    The huge debt that these scholars (many of whom limited themselves to the study of Hadith) owe to him when critiquing the majoritarian consensus on theological and philosophical issues arises from the fact that Astarabadi was a theologian in his own right, who was trained in the typically philosophy-intense curriculum of his day, before turning against it. He could thus critique it from inside (using their own technical arguments against them as it were).

    In other words, Astarabadi was an active participant who could contribute originally to the specialized debates of his day. Of particular note is his repeated criticisms of al-Dawwani (d. 1502) and al-Dashtaki (d. 1498) and their commentaries on Nasir al-Diin Tusi’s Tajrid al-I’tiqad, the seminal work that became the mainstay of the Shi’i theological curriculum, and marked the turn from the previous discursive theology to a Neo-Platonic demonstrative theology. Astarabadi’s acquaintance with the Sunni Kalam work Sharh al-Mawaqif is easily understandable in light of the fact that both Dawwani and Dashtaki, his erstwhile near-contemporary opponents, had written glosses on Jurjani’s famous commentary on al-Iji’s famous text (which was itself influenced by Tusi’s Tajrid, and the circle is complete).

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