Shaikh Al-Kulayni

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Al-KafiEditor’s note: Arsalan Rizvi is a new columnist with Islamic Insights. He will be writing a column on the lives of our great scholars and jurisprudents from previous centuries in order for us to know better the legacy they have left us.

Al-KafiEditor’s note: Arsalan Rizvi is a new columnist with Islamic Insights.  He will be writing a weekly column on the lives of our great scholars and jurisprudents from previous centuries in order for us to know better the legacy they have left us with today.

In front of them lay an open grave and the body of a man who looked like he had just passed away, with fresh henna on his nails.  It was a great moment of humiliation for the prince and his courtiers. 

An avowed enemy of the Shia, the prince had taken upon himself to exhume the body of one of their Imams and disprove the belief that their bodies never rotted or disintegrated.  A courtier had then brought to his attention that the Shia held the same belief about their Maraja and great scholars.  With great pomp and arrogance, the royal court had arrived in this neighborhood of Baghdad to dig up the grave of a scholar who had been buried there over a hundred years ago.  Yet to their shock, anger, and humiliation, when they removed the earth and opened the grave, the exhumed body of Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Yaqoob ibn Ishaq al-Kulayni still looked as fresh and peaceful as it must have been when he was buried there. 

Born near the Persian town of Raey during the era of Imam Hasan al-Askari (peace be upon him), Sheikh al-Kulayni is arguably one of the greatest scholars in the history of Islam.  He acquired his basic religious education in his hometown, and his teachers included Ali ibn Ibrahim Qummi, a respected commentator of the Quran, and Ali ibn Samarri, the fourth and final deputy of Imam Zamana (may Allah hasten his re-appearance) during the Minor Occultation.   He was already called “Thiqat al-Islam” (Trusted by Islam) by Shias and non-Shias alike before he moved to Baghdad, and there he was given the title “Sheikh al-Fuqaha” (Sheikh of the Jurists). 

In Baghdad, Sheikh al-Kulayni started teaching, and due to the dissimulation of Ibn Rouh (the third deputy of Imam Zamana), he became the unofficial leader of the Shia community.  Perhaps his greatest contribution to Shiism is the renowned al-Kafi, consisting of three books: Usool al-Kafi, a collection of over 16,000 narrations by the Infallibles on matters of belief, Firu al-Kafi, consisting of narrations regarding matters of practice, and Raudat al-Kafi, dealing with narrations on miscellaneous issues apart from belief and practice. 

During the time of the Imams, the Shia were not too concerned about developing a science of interpreting Sharia.  Whenever they had a question, they could directly ask the Imam of the time.  The students of Imam Jafar Sadiq (peace be upon him) were known to take copious notes as he went about the day answering questions on religious matters, and narrations in fact speak of camels traveling laden with books containing the Imam’s narrations to other parts of the Muslim world.  Yet as the period of the Major Occultation approached and as atrocities against Shia academia increased, concerned groups of Shia scholars asked Sheikh al-Kulayni to codify and organize the narrations of the Prophet and his household (peace be upon them). 

Thus began a struggle that consumed almost 20 years of the Sheikh’s life.  He traveled all over the Muslim world to visit students and confidantes of the Imams, collecting narrations that he found authentic and reliable.  If he heard about a single student of the Imams living in some solitary and far-out region who might have an authentic narration, he would gladly travel the distance to acquire it from him.  A better idea of his struggle can be understood from the fact that Bukhari and Muslim, working in politically favorable times with immense resources and governmental assistance, were able to acquire only about 7000 narrations between the two of them, whereas Sheikh al-Kulayni was able to record 16,199 narrations in Usool alone despite the anti-Shia elements of the time working against him. 

This collection eventually took the form of al-Kafi, a standard that every jurist today will study before being given permission for Ijtihad.  In fact, some narrations say that when this book was presented to Imam Mehdi, he is known to have said, “Hadha Kitabu Kafi Le Shi’atuna,” (this book is sufficient for our Shia). 

Sheikh al-Kulayni is greatly praised for careful categorization and arrangement of the narrations in his book.  It is interesting to note that he chose to begin the book of Usool (beliefs) with narrations on intelligence, ignorance, knowledge, and scholarship before mentioning Tawheed, perhaps conveying the idea that it is only through reasoning and contemplation that one can arrive at matters of belief such as Tawheed and Imamat

In the year 329 of Hijra, almost immediately after the death of Ali bin Samarri, Sheikh al-Kulayni passed away around the age of 70.  He was buried in Baghdad, where today a small dome stands on his grave, built by the awe-stricken governor of Baghdad who had attempted to exhume his body to humiliate the Shias.  Sheikh al-Kulayni was succeeded by Sheikh as-Saduq as the leader of the Shia community. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: These articles are adaptations of lectures delivered by Maulana Sadiq Hasan in Karachi, Pakistan, during the 1980s on the lives of the great scholars of Islam. The Urdu lectures can be accessed at Hussainiat.com. For previous articles in this series, please look under the History section.

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