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A Shi'a Anthology

ALI AL-RIDA (A.S), THE EIGHT IMAM

1. Profession of Unity


 

It has been related that when al-Ma'mun1 desired to install al-Rida (as his successor), he collected together Banu Hashim2 and said to them, "Verily I desire to install al-Rida in this affair after me." 

Banu Hashim envied al-Rida and said, "Thou appointest an ignorant man who possesses not the insight to direct the caliphate. Therefore send for him. He will come to us and thou wilt see how his ignorance decides thee against him. So he sent for him and he came. Banu Hashim said to him, O Abu-l-Hasan! Ascend the pulpit and display for us a sigh whereby we may worship God." 

So he ascended the pulpit and sat for a long time, his head bowed in silence. Then he trembled a great trembling and stood up straight, praised and lauded God, and asked His blessing for His prophet and his household. Then he said, " The 

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1. The famous Abbasid caliph, son of Harun al-Rashid. On his decision to appoint Imam al-Rida as his successor, see Shi'ite Islam.

 

2. In general Banu Hashim ("The sons of Hashim") have been understood to be the descendents of Hashim ibn 'Abd Manaf, the great grandfather of the Prophet and also the ancestor of 'Ali and al-'Abbas, half-brother of the Prophet's father, from whom is taken the name of the Abbasid caliphate. During the Abbasid period the term refers to the family of the Prophet, but more specifically, as here, to the Abbasid family itself. See B. Lewis, "Hashimiyyah", The Encyclopedia of Islam (new edition), vol.III, p.265. 

 

first element in the worship of God is knowledge of Him, the root (asl) of knowledge of Him is to profess His Unity (tawhid), and the correct way (nizam) to profess the Unity of God is to negate attributes from Him For the powers of reason testify that every attribute and everything possessing an attribute (mawsuf ) is created. Everything possessing an attribute testifies that it has a Creator which is neither attribute nor possesses an attribute. Every attribute and everything possessing an attribute testify to connection (iqtiran, between the attribute and that to which it is attributed). Connection testifies to temporality (hadath). And temporality testifies that it accepts not the Beginningless, which accepts not the temporal." 

So it is not God whose Essence is known through comparison. It is not His Unity that is professed by someone who attempts to fathom Him. It is not His reality (haqiqah) that is attained by someone who strikes a similitude for Him. It is not He who is confirmed (tasdiq) by him who professes an end for Him. It is not He to whom repairs he who points to Him. It is not He who is meant by him who compares Him (to something). It is not to Him that he who divides Him into parts humbles himself. And it is not He who is desired by him who conceives of Him in his imagination." 

"Everything that can be known in itself (bi-nafsihi) is fashioned (masnu).1 All that stands apart from Him is an effect (malul). God is inferred from what He fashions (sun'), the knowledge of Him is made fast by the powers of reason, and the argument (hujjah) for Him is established by (man's) primordial nature (al-fitrah)." 

"God's creating of the creatures is a veil between Him and them. His separation (mubayanah) from them is that He is disengaged from their localization (ayniyyah).2 That He is their origin (ibtida') is proof for them that He has no origin, for none that has an origin can originate others. That He has created them possessing means (of accomplishing things) is proof 

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1. Majlisi offers four possible explanations for this sentence, the simplest of which is as follows: "Everything whose existence can be known immediately through the senses without inference from its effects is fashioned (since it is a part of the created world)" (p. 233).

 

2. Men are not separated from God because they are in one place and He in another, but because He is free of place and localization, whereas they are entrapped within it (Majlisi, p. 233). 

 

that He has no means (adah), for means are witness to the poverty of those who use them." 

"So His names are an expression (tabir), His acts (afal) are (a way) to make (Him) understood (tafhim), and His Essence is Reality (haqiqah).1 His inmost center (kunh) separates (tafriq) Him from creation, and His otherness (ghuyur) limits (tahdid) what is other than He. Therefore ignorant of God is he who asks for Him to be described! Transgressing against Him is he who seeks to encompass Him! Mistaken is he who imagines to have fathomed Him!" 

"Whoso says 'how?' has compared Him (to something). Whoso says 'why?' has professed for Him a cause (talil). Whoso says 'when?' has determined Him in time (tawqit). Whoso says 'in what?' has enclosed Him (tadmin). Whoso says 'to what?' has professed for Him a limit (tanhiyah). Whoso says 'until what?' has given Him an end (taghiyah). Whoso gives Him an end has associated an end with Him. Whoso associates an end with Him has divided Him. Whoso divides Him has described Him. Whoso describes Him has deviated from the straight path (ilhad) concerning Him."2 

God does not change with the changes undergone by creation, just as He does not become limited by delimiting (tahdid) that which is limited (al-mahdud). He is One (ahad), not according to the explanation offered by number (tawil adad); Outward, not according to the explanation of being immediate (to the senses);3 Manifest, not through the appearance of a vision (of Him); Inward (batin), not through separation (muzayalah); Apart (muba'in), not through distance; Near, not through approach; Subtle, not through corporealization; Existent, not after nonexistence; Active, not through coercion; Determining, not through the activity of thought (jawl fikrah); Directing (mudabbir), not through movement; Desiring, not through resolution; Willing (sha'), not through directing attention (himmah);4 Grasping (mudrik), not through touch (majassah); Hearing, not through means; and Seeing, not through organs." 

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1. Majlisi comments: " 'His names are an expression', or they are not His very Essence and Attributes, rather they are means of expressing and speaking of them. 'And His acts are to make understood', so that men will come to know Him through them and they will infer His existence, knowledge, power, wisdom and mercy. 'And His Essence is Reality', or a hidden, transcendent reality not reached by the powers of the creatures' reason" (p. 234).

 

2. Majlisi offers several interpretations for this passage. According to the one which is largely followed here, "To associate an end with Him . . . means to come to the conclusion that He undergoes annihilation along with the creatures, so that it would be correct to say, 'His end is before, or after, the end of so and so.' This is the same as to say that He participates wholly in the nature of creatures and therefore has parts. Whoso says this has described Him as possessing possibility, incapacity and the other defects of possible beings. And whoso judges such has deviated concerning the divine Essence" (p.2,5).

 

3. From this sentence begins a long section which corresponds almost exactly with the hadith quoted from Imam 'Ali above (pp. 38 ff). For this reason the original Arabic terms have not been repeated. It might be tempting to take this correspondence as proof that the attribution of these words to 'Ali al-Rida or to 'Ali is incorrect. But one must remember that it is quite common for the Imams to quote their father and grandfather, all the way back to the Prophet. We have seen examples of this already in the chain of authority of a number of hadiths translated above. Moreover, in the middle of a discourse there is no particular reason for the Imam to stop and point out exactly whom he is quoting, just as is the case with quotations from the Quran, especially since most of his followers would know perfectly well. The traditional explanation for the repetition is summed up by Shaykh al-Saduq (al-Tawhid, p. 309; see also Majlisi, p. 306): "In the hadith of 'Ali there are certain words which Imam Rida mentioned in his sermon. This is a confirmation of what we have always said concerning the Imams, upon whom be peace: the knowledge of each of them is derived from his father right back to the Prophet."

 

4. This and the previous phrase are essentially the same in meaning. Normally, when man wills or desires to do something, he has a particular idea or goal and then exerts himself to achieve it, employing resolution and diligence. But as for God, "His command, when He desires a thing, is to say to it 'Be', and it is" (Quran XXXVI, 82). 

 

"Times accompany Him not, places enclose Him not, slumber seizes Him not, attributes delimit Him not, and instruments (adawat) are of no use to Him. His being (kawn) precedes times (al-awqat), His existence (wujud) non-existence and His beginninglessness (azal) beginning (al-ibtida')." 

"By His giving sense to the sense organs it is known that He has no sense organs. By His giving substance to substances it is known that He has no substance. By His causing opposition among things it is known that He has no opposite. By His causing affiliation among affairs it is known that He has no affiliate. He opposed darkness to light, obscurity to clarity, moisture to solidity, and heat to cold. He joins together those things which are hostile to one another and separates those which are near. They prove (the existence of) their Separator by their separation and their Joiner by their junction. That is (the meaning of) His words-He is the Mighty and Majestic-'And of everything created We two kinds; haply you will remember'."(LI 49). 

"So through them He separated 'before' and 'after' that it might be known that He has no before and after. They testify with their temperaments that He who gave them temperaments has no temperament. They prove by their disparity (tafawut) that He who made them disparate has no disparity. They announce through their subjection to time that He who subjected them to time is not subject to it Himself." 

"He veiled some of them from others so that it might be known that there is no veil between Him and them other than them. His is the meaning of lordship (al-rububiyyah) when there was none over whom He was Lord, the reality of godhood (al-ilahiyyah) when there was nothing for whom He was God, the meaning of Knower when there was nothing to be known, the meaning of Creator (khaliq) when there was nothing created (makhluq) and the import of hearing when there was nothing to be heard. It is not because He created that He deserves the meaning (of the term) 'Creator' and not because He brought the creatures into being that the meaning of 'making' is derived." 

"How (should it not be so) ? For mudh ('ever since') conceals Him not, qad ('already')1 brings Him not near, 

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1. Qad often cannot be translated by a separate word in English. It indicates the termination of action at the moment of speaking and therefore as Majlisi notes, quoting the classical grammarians, serves "to approximate the past to the present" (p. 242). 

 

la'alla ('perhaps') veils Him not, mata ('when ?') limits Him not in time, hin ('at the time of') contains Him not, and ma ('with') brings Him not into association.1 Instruments (adawat) limit only themselves and means (alah) allude only unto their own like.2 Their activities are found only in things.3 Mudh withholds things from being eternal (qidmah), qad shields them from beginninglessness, and law la ('if only') wards off perfection (al-takmilah).4 Things become separate and prove (the existence of) their Separator. They become distinguished and prove their Distinguisher (muba'in). Through them their Maker manifests Himself to the powers of reason. Through (these powers)5 He becomes veiled to sight, to them imaginations appeal for a decision,6 in them is substantiated (only) other than Him, from them is suspended the proof and through them He makes known to them the acknowledgement (al-iqrar)."7 

"Confirmation (tasdiq) of God is made fast by the powers of reason, and faith (iman) in Him reaches perfection through acknowledgment. There is no religiosity (diyanah) except 

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1. Majlisi explains that none of these words can refer to God since each of them implies temporal or other limitation, while God transcends time and knows all things in eternity. Thus, "ever since" indicates a point of beginning in time, and if it applied to God it would indicate that what was before that point was concealed from Him. He can have no doubt concerning the future, so "perhaps" cannot apply to Him, etc. (pp. 24I-2).

 

2. Majlisi remarks that "instruments and means ... or physical organs and corporeal faculties ... allude to the existence of corporeality like themselves ... And it is not improbable that by 'instruments' are meant the words which are negated from Him in the previous section and that this passage is meant to be an explanation of that" (p. 242).

 

3. "The activities and the results of these instruments and means are found in creatures, not in God" (Majlisi, p.242).

 

4. "The fact that the words mudh, qad and lawla are attributed to instruments indicate that the latter are neither beginningless, nor eternal, nor perfect. Therefore instruments could not delimit or allude to Him because, by reason of their temporality and imperfection, they are far from being commensurate with (God,) the Perfect, Absolute and Eternal in His Essence ... (This is) because mudh refers to beginning in time ... gad approximates the past to the present ... and law la is employed to speak of what would have been good ... (for example), 'How good it would have been if only it had been such and such' ... and thus it points to imperfection in the situation and deters from absolute perfection" (Majlisi, p. 243). Majlisi also points out two alternative readings for this passage which need not concern us here.

 

5. The text reads "through them", and in a long passage (pp. 242-3) Majlisi demonstrates that the pronoun should refer to "powers of reason" rather than to "instruments", although in a similar passage in the Nahj al-balaghah it refers to the latter.

 

6. "He becomes veiled to sight through the powers of reason because it is the powers of reason which judge that the vision of Him. is impossible, and it is to the powers of reason that imaginations appeal when they differ among themselves" (Majlisi, p. 244).

 

7. "From the powers of reason the proof of things is derived, and through these powers God makes known to the reason, or to its possessor, the acknowledgment of Him" (Majlisi, p. 244). 

 

after knowledge (marifah), no knowledge except through sincerity (ikhlas) and no sincerity along with comparison.1 There is no negation (nafy) of comparison if there is affirmation (ithbat) of attributes."2 

"So nothing in creation is found in its Creator. All that is possible in it is impossible in its Maker. Movement (harakah) and stillness (sukun) do not affect Him. How should that which He effects (in others) have effect upon Him, or that which He has originated recur for Him ? Then His Essence would be disparate, His inmost center divided, His signification (mana) prevented from eternity. How would the Creator have a meaning different from the created?" 

"If something from behind limited Him, then something in front would limit Him. If perfection (tamam) were seeking Him imperfection would be upon Him. How should that which does not transcend (imtina) temporality be worthy of (the Name 'Beginningless' ? How should that which does not transcend being produced (insha') produce the things (of the world) ? There the would have arisen in Him a sign of having been made (al-masnu) and He would become a proof (dalil) after having been the proven (madlul alayh)."3 

"There is no argument in absurd opinions (such as the above), no answer when it (absurdity) is asked about, no glorification of Him in its meaning. Nor is there any in distinguishing Him from creation, unless it be that the Eternal accepts not to be made two, nor the Beginningless to have a beginning." 

"There is no god but God, the All-high, the Tremendous. They have cried lies who ascribe equals to God! They have gone astray into far error and suffered a manifest loss! And God bless Muhammad and his household, the pure." 

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1. There is no substance to the absurd arguments that would prove Him temporal and possessed of extraneous attributes, and no answer to such arguments precisely because of their self-evident absurdity. By saying such things one does not glorify Him, rather one attributes to Him imperfection (Majlisi, p. 246).

 

2. According to Majlisi this means that there is nothing wrong with distinguishing Him from creation, unless we consider a perfection-His lying above duality and beginning-to be a fault. He cites the following line of poetry as an example of this type of expression: "They have no fault except that their swords/ Are dented from slashing the enemy forces". I.e., their only "fault" is a perfection (p.246).

Another possible interpretation of this passage, which however is made doubtful by the context and structure of this and other sayings of the Imams, is to say that there is always something provisional about distinguishing God from creation, for this implies some sort of fundamental duality, which precisely-as asserted by the Shahadah, la ilaha illallah-God transcends. The world cannot exist "independently" of God, otherwise it would be another deity. If God is one, then ultimately the world cannot be other than He. Certainly He is other than the world, however, as this and all the other, hadiths cited from the Bihar al-anwar emphasize so strongly. See F. Schuon, Understanding Islam, pp. I7-I8 and I25-6.

 

3. Cf. such Quranic passages as the following: "Whoso associates with God anything, has gone astray into far error . . . Whoso takes Satan to him for a friend, instead of God, has surely suffered a manifest loss" (IV, II6-9). 

2. The Veil


 

It was related from Muhammad ibn 'Abdallah al-Khurasani, the servant of al-Rida-upon whom be peace-that a man from among the unbelievers (zanadiqah)1 entered the presence of the Imam, with whom was a group of people. Abu-l-Hasan (the Imam) said to him, "Dost thou see that if the correct view is your view-and it is not your view-then are we not equal ? All that we have prayed, fasted, given of the alms and declared of our convictions will not harm us." 

The unbeliever remained silent. Then Abu-l-Hasan said, "If the correct view is our view-and it is our view-then have not you perished and we gained salvation?" 

He said, "God's mercy be upon thee. Then let me know, how is He and where is He ?" 

Abu-l-Hasan answered, "Woe upon thee, surely the opinion thou hast adopted is mistaken!. He determined the 'where', and He was, when there was no where; and He fashioned the 'how', and He was, when there was no 'how'. So He is not known through 'howness' or 'whereness' or through any form of sense perception, nor can He be gauged by anything." 

The man said, "So then surely He is nothing (la shay') if He cannot be perceived by any of the senses." 

Abu-l-Hasan said, "Woe upon thee! When thy senses fail to perceive Him, thou deniest His lordship. But when our senses fail to perceive Him, we know for certain that He is our Lord and that He is something different from other things (shay' bi-khilaf al-asha).2 

The man said, "Then tell me, when was He?" 

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1. The zanadiqah (sing.: zindiq) are identified specifically in Islamic history with the Manichaeans, but the word is also used more generally, as here, to mean umbeliever and heretic.

 

2. Concerning the use of the term "thing" to refer to God, see above, note 92. 

 

Abu-l-Hasan said, "Tell when He was not, and then I will tell you when He was."1 

The man said, "Then what is the proof of Him?" 

Abu-l-Hasan said, "Surely when I contemplate my body and it is impossible for me to increase or decrease its breadth and height, or to keep unpleasant things away from it or draw benefits to it, then I know that this structure has a maker and I acknowledge (iqrar) Him-even though that which I had seen of the rotation of the celestial sphere through His power; the producing of clouds;2 the turning about of the winds;3 the procession of the sun, the moon and the stars; and others of His wondrous and perfectly created signs (ayat), had (already) made me know that (all) this has a Determiner (muqaddir) and Producer (munshi')." 

The man said, "Then why has He veiled Himself (from men)?" 

Abu-l-Hasan replied, " Surely the veil is upon creatures because of the abundance of their sins. As for Him, no secret is hidden from Him during the day or the night."4 

The man said, "Then why does the sense of sight perceive Him not?" 

Abu-l-Hasan answered, "Because of the difference between Him and His creatures, who are perceived by the vision of the eyes, whether their own or others. Then He is greater than that sight should perceive Him, imagination encompass Him, or the power of reason delineate Him." 

The man said, "Then define His limits (hadd) for me." 

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1. Majlisi comments on the unbeliever's question and the Imam's answer as follows (p. 38): "The apparent meaning is that he is asking about the beginning of God's being and existence. But it is also possible that the question concerns the principle of time for His existence. According to the first (possibility), the gist of his answer is that beginning in time pertains to that which is temporal, to that which had been nonexistent and then became existent. But as for God, nonexistence is impossible (so He cannot have a beginning in time).

"According to the second (possibility), the meaning is that the existent in time would be so through transformation in essence and attributes, for time is the relationship of the changing (al-mutaghayyir) to the changing. So in one moment of time it has a state which it does not have in another. But God transcends change in essence and attributes."

 

2. Cf. Quran XIII, I2.

 

3. Cf. Quran II, I64.

 

4. I.e., He is not veiled, for He sees all things. It is men who have veiled themselves from Him. 

 

He answered, "He has no limits." 

The man asked, "Why?" 

He answered, "Because every limited thing (makdud) ends at a limit. If limitation (tahdid) is possible, then increase is possible. If increase is possible; then decrease is possible. So He is unlimited. He neither increases nor decreases. Nor is He capable of being divided or imagined." 

The man said, "Then tell me about your saying that He is Subtle, Hearing, Seeing, Knowing and Wise.1 Can He be the Hearing without ears, the Seeing without eyes, the Subtle without working with the hands and the Wise without workmanship (sanah)?"2 

Abu-l-Hasan said, "Surely a person among us is subtle in accordance with (his) skill in workmanship. Hast thou not seen the man who undertakes a task and is subtle in his handling of it, so that it is said, 'How subtle is so and so!' Then how should it not be said of the Majestic Creator that He is Subtle, when He creates a subtle and majestic3 creation, places in its living creatures their souls, creates every kind different in form from its own kind, and none resembles another ? Each possesses in the composition of its form a subtlety from the Subtle and Aware Creator." 

"Then we looked upon the trees and their bearing of delicate things, whether edible or inedible, and we said at that, 'Surely our Creator is Subtle, (but) not like the subtlety of His creatures in their workmanship.' And we said, 'Surely He is Hearing, for no hidden from Him are the sounds of His creatures between the Throne and the earth, from a mote to what is larger than it, and in the land and the sea. And their words are not confused by Him.' At that we said, 'Surely He is Hearing, but not through ears.'" 

"Then we said, 'Surely He is Seeing, but not through eyes, for He sees the trace of a black speck on a dark night 

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1. These are all divine names which occur in the Quran. It should be noted, however, that the name latif ("Subtle") is particularly difficult to render into English in a manner which would do justice to its various shades of meaning, as will be apparent from the passage. Nevertheless it seemed better to maintain the one word in English than to try to change it according to context and lose the point which the Imam wishes to make. In another, hadith Imam Rida explains the meaning of the divine name al-latif as follows: God is "Latif, not because of being scanty, slender or small, but because of penetrating into things and being impossible of comprehension .... God is too subtle to be grasped within a definition or limited by a description, whereas, 'subtlety' for us is in smallness of size and quantity" (al-Tawhid, p. I89).

 

2. "Wisdom" (al-hikmah) is defined as "knowledge which puts everything in its place", and therefore implies application and "workmanship".

 

3. Here subtle and majestic, latif and jalil, are meant to be two contrasting attributes, referring to the very small and the very large, etc. 

 

on a black stone.1 He sees the tracks of an ant on a pitch-black night. He sees what is harmful for it and what beneficial, and the result of its cohabitation, and its young and descendents.' And at that we said, 'Surely He is Seeing, but not like the sight of His creatures." 

"The man did not leave until he had embraced Islam. The Imam said other things as well. 

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1. Cf. Quran VI, 59: "With Him are the keys of the Unseen; none knows them but He. He knows what is in land and sea; not a leaf falls, but He knows it. Not a gram in the earth's shadows, not a thing, fresh or withered, but it is in a Book Manifest."

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