Sources of Shi'i Thought

Sources of Shi'i Thought

                                                                                                                          taken from:

                                                                                 Shomali, Mohamamd Ali, "Chapter Two: Sources of Shi'i Thought," Discovering Shi'i Islam,

                                                                                 (London: 2010, Centre for Cultural & Ethical Studies, 7th edition),

                                                                                 ISBN 978-1-907917-01-1 (pbk)
                                                                                 ISBN 978-1-907917-00-4 (hbk)

Before studying Shi'a doctrines or practices, it is necessary to know the sources on which the Shi'a rely for understanding Islam. In what follows, we will study the four sources of Shi'i thought, or in other words the four sources on which, from a Shi'i point of view, any investigation about Islam has to be based: the Glorious Qur'an, the Sunnah, reason and consensus.


The Glorious Qur'an

Needless to say, the Qur'an is the most important source for all Muslims, including the Shi'a. The Qur'an also acts as an instrument of unity among all Muslims. Regardless of their different sectarian and cultural backgrounds, all Muslims refer to the same book as the divine guide to govern their life. Today, as in any other time, there exists only one Qur'an, without any addition or alteration, throughout the Muslim world. A typical Shi'a standpoint towards the Qur'an can be found in the following passage:

We believe that the Qur'an was divinely inspired, and revealed by Allah on the tongue of His honourable Prophet, making clear everything, an everlasting miracle. Man is unable to write anything like it because of its eloquence, clarity, truth and knowledge, and no alteration can be made to it. The Qur'an we have now is exactly what was sent to the Prophet, and anyone who claims otherwise is either an evil-doer, a mere sophist or else a person in error, and all of them have gone astray, because it is the speech of Allah, and: “Falsehood cannot come at it from before it or from behind.” (41:42)

…We also believe that we must respect and give dignity to the Glorious Qur'an, and this both in word and in deed. Therefore, it must not be defiled intentionally, not even one of its letters, and it must not be touched by one who is not tahir [i.e. 'pure']. It is said in the Qur'an: “None can touch it save the purified.” (56:79) [Muzaffar, p. 26]


Shi'a deny any alteration in the Qur'an

As mentioned above, the Shi'a deny any alteration in the Qur'an and believe that the Qur'an available today is the same that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur'an is complete. No one has ever seen a copy of the Qur'an different from the standard one in any part of the Islamic world. There are manuscripts of the Qur'an available today that go back to the time of Shi'a Imams and they are exactly the same as the current ones.

The Glorious Qur'an itself explicitly says that God Himself preserves the Qur'an from any alteration and distortion:

Surely We have revealed the Reminder and We will most surely be its preserver. (15:9)

Regarding this verse, 'Allamah Tabataba'i in his renowned Al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur'an, one of the greatest commentaries of the Qur'an, states:

…the Qur'an is a living and eternal Reminder which will never die and fall into oblivion. It is immune from any addition and loss. It is immune from and secure against any alterations in form and style which could affect its character and role, that is, as, "the Reminder of Allah which expresses divine truth and knowledge". For this reason, the aforesaid verse indicates that the divine Book has always been and will continue to be guarded against any distortion and alteration. (Vol. 12, p. 99)


The Sunnah

After the Glorious Qur'an, the most important source for understanding Islam and therefore Shi'i thought is the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, including his sayings and his deeds. The Qur'an itself grants this high position to the Prophet, as he is referred to as the one who is responsible for explaining the Qur'an (16:44) and teaching the Qur'an and wisdom (62:2). The Prophet is a perfect example for the believers (33:21). He never speaks out of his own wishes (53:3). Muslims are asked to hold on to whatever he gives them and refrain from whatever he prohibits (59:7).

Knowing the above verses and many other verses regarding the status of the Prophet, and taking into account the significance of being a divine messenger chosen directly by God and spoken to by Him, the Shi'a, along with other Muslims, cultivated a state of sincere love for and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad.


The household of the Prophet

There seems to be no disagreement among Muslims about the validity of following the teachings of the household of the Prophet in understanding Islam, especially according to the Sunni view which considers even all the companions of the Prophet as reliable sources of understanding Islam. There is no doubt, then, that the household of the Prophet are reliable and trustworthy in their understanding and presentation of Islam.

This fact becomes even clearer when we refer to the traditions from the Prophet about his household, and examine sayings of Sunni scholars about the knowledge of Ali and other members of the household of the Prophet. For example, Imam Malik says: “No eyes have seen, no ears have heard, and nothing has come to the heart of any human being better than Ja'far b. Muhammad, who is distinguished in his knowledge, his piety, his asceticism, and in his servitude to God.” This is what Ibn Taymiyah reports from Imam Malik in his book. In a survey about those who narrated from Imam Sadiq, Shaykh al-Mufid (d.413) in his al-Irshad asserts that those who were trustworthy among them from different schools of thought were 4000 in number.

Thus, there is no ambiguity here and this is why many Sunni scholars such as the late Shaykh Shaltut have clearly pointed out that every Muslim is allowed to act according to one of the five Islamic schools of fiqh: Ja'fari, Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi'i.

The reason is clear, because if Imam Ja'far Sadiq, for example, did not possess more knowledge or better access to the knowledge of the Prophet than the rest, then one has to admit that he must have been at least equal to others, especially if we bear in mind whom he taught such as Abu Hanifah, the Imam of Hanafi Muslims who attended Imam Sadiq's lectures for two years.

People who are educated or who seek the truth are expected, therefore, to examine all Islamic sources available, and thereby come to a conclusion about the ways Muslims can lead exemplary lives. Certainly one rich source is the teachings of the household of the Prophet.

Now, let us see whether it is necessary to refer to the household of the Prophet in understanding Islam. To provide an answer I will focus only on some traditions from the Prophet narrated by great Sunni narrationists and accepted by both Sunni and Shi'a scholars. But prior to that it has to be noted that all the teachings of the household of the Prophet were always based on the Glorious Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. No one should think, for example, that Imam Sadiq was saying something according to his own opinion about Islam. Whatever they uttered was exactly what they had themselves received from the Prophet. There are many traditions in this regard. For example, in Usul al-Kafi we find that Imam Sadiq said that whatever he said was what he had received through his forefathers from the Prophet.

One of these traditions is the famous tradition of Thaqalayn. This tradition was uttered by the Prophet on different occasions, including the day of 'Arafah in his last pilgrimage and the 18th of Dhu'l-Hijjah in Ghadir Khum. Despite minor differences in the wording the essence remains the same in all versions of the tradition. For example, in one version of the tradition the Prophet said:

“Oh people! I leave among you two precious things: the Book of God and my household. As long as you hold on to them you will not go astray.”

Or in another tradition the Prophet said:

“I leave among you two precious things, which if you hold on to you will not go astray after me: the Book of God which is like a rope extended between the heaven and the earth, and my household. These two things will not separate from each other until they reach me near the fountain on the Day of Judgement. Take care in how you treat them after me.”

This shows that the Prophet was worried about the way that Muslims, or at least some of them, would treat the Qur'an and his household. In another tradition he said:

“I leave two successors: first, the Book of God which is like a rope extended between heaven and the earth, and second, my household. They will not separate from each other until they come to me near the fountain of Kawthar.”

The above traditions can be found in major Sunni sources, such as: Sahih of Muslim (Vol. 8, p. 25, No. 2408), Musnad of Imam Ahmad (Vol. 3, p. 388, No. 10720), Sunan of Darimi (Vol. 2, p. 432), and Sahih of Tirmidhi (Vol. 5, p. 6432, No. 3788). They are also mentioned in books such as Usd al-Ghabah by Ibn Athir (Vol. 2, p. 13), Al-Sunan al-Kubra by Bayhaqi (Vol. 2, p. 198) and Kanz al-'Ummal (Vol. 1, p. 44).

Now let us reflect on the content of the hadith, i.e. the fact that the Prophet has left among Muslims two weighty things: the Qur'an and his household, and that as long as people hold on to them both, they will not go astray. This shows that these two things must always be in harmony with each other, and that they never contradict each other. Otherwise, the Prophet would not have given the instruction to follow both of them. Moreover, the people would get puzzled about what to do if the household of the Prophet were to tell them to go in one direction and the Book of God says to go in another. Although this fact is implicitly understandable from the beginning of hadith, the Prophet himself later explicitly confirmed this fact by saying, “They will not separate from each other until they come to me near the fountain of Kawthar”.

Thus, this hadith in all versions indicates that:

  • From the time of the Prophet until the end of the world the Book of God and the household of the Prophet will always be together.
  • No one can say that the book of God is enough, and that we do not need the household of the Prophet, or vice versa, for the Prophet clearly said: I leave two precious things that you must grasp and if you do so you will not be misled.
  • The household of the Prophet would never make mistakes and they are always truthful.
  • It is also interesting that according to this hadith the household of the Prophet, like the Qur'an itself, is held to be persistent until the Day of Judgement and Paradise. Thus, the household of the Prophet will never disappear, even for a short period of time.

The other hadith is the hadith of Safīnah (ship). All Muslims have narrated that the Prophet said:

“Be aware that surely the example of my household among you is like the example of the ship of Noah. Whoever boarded the ship of Noah was saved and whoever refused to enter the ship of Noah was drowned.”

The hadith of Safïnah in its different versions emphasises the same fact and can be found in different Sunni books. For example, it can be found in Mustadrak by Hakim Nishaburi, Vol. 3, pp. 149 & 151, Arba'in Hadith by Nabahani, al-Sawa'iq al-Muhriqah by Ibn Hajar amongst other sources.

Thus, according to these sets of traditions the appeal to the guidance of the household of the Prophet is of the utmost necessity.

Note: The tradition of thaqalayn is mentioned in both Sunni and Shi'a sources so it is a matter of agreement among all Muslims. However, there is a version of the hadith in which the Prophet is quoted as saying 'my Sunnah' instead of 'my household'. This version can only be found in some Sunni sources. Provided that this version too can be authenticated, there is no difficulty in understanding what this tradition means. The Prophet in many traditions narrated by all Muslims has said: “I am leaving two precious things and those are the glorious Qur'an and my household.” In a few traditions narrated only by a particular group of Muslims he has said: “the glorious Qur'an and my Sunnah”. Obviously the result would be that as one side of the comparison is the same, i.e. the Qur'an, the other side too must be identical. Therefore, 'my Sunnah' and 'my household' also must be identical; otherwise one has to say that there is no harmony in what the Prophet said. Thus, the very act of resorting to the teachings and advice of the household of the Prophet is the very act of resorting to the Sunnah of the Prophet. Thus, the only way to reach the Sunnah of the Prophet and to understand exactly what his Sunnah was is to refer to these people who have had the closest relationship with him and who knew better than anyone else what he said or did or approved.


Who constitute the household of the Prophet?

The other question concerns the exact meaning of “the household”. According to many traditions, we are told to refer to the household of the Prophet: “Ahlul Bayt” or “'Itrah”. What do these terms refer to? There is no doubt about the status of the household of the Prophet in Islam, but there may be a need to investigate the referent of the term to see whether it includes anyone who was a relative of the Prophet or not. Of course, there is no doubt among Muslims that certainly Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet, Imam Ali, and their sons Imam Hasan and Imam Husayn are members of his household. The only concern is whether other relatives of the Prophet are included or not, and if so, to what extent.

Sunni Muslims believe that all relatives of the Prophet are included. Of course, they exclude those who did not embrace Islam, such as Abu Lahab, one of the uncles of the Prophet and at the same time one of his most hostile enemies who has been cursed in the Qur'an. Shi'a Muslims believe that the Ahlul Bayt are those who have appropriate levels of faith and knowledge that make it possible for them to be mentioned along with the Qur'an in the tradition of the Thaqalayn and others. Moreover, they believe that the Prophet himself has clearly defined who the Ahlul Bayt are.

In what follows, I will mention some hadiths narrated in major Sunni sources:

(1) Muslim narrates from 'Ayishah, Umm al-Mu'minin:

The Prophet went out wearing a black woollen cloak, when Hasan the son of Ali came to him, so the Prophet let Hasan come in with him under the cloak. Then Husayn came and he too entered. Then Fatimah came. She entered as well. Then Ali came. He also went under the cloak, such that the cloak covered the Prophet, Ali, Fatimah, Hasan and Husayn. Then the Prophet recited: 'God only desires to keep away impurity from you, O People of the House! And to purify you a (thorough) purification' (33:33).

(2) Muslim narrates from Sa'd b. Abi Waqqas that he was asked by Mu'awiyah why he refused to verbally abuse Ali. Sa'd replied:

“I remember three sayings of the Prophet about Ali which caused me not to say anything bad about him. If I possessed even one of these qualities it would be better for me than red camels. The first was that when the Prophet wanted to go to the war of Tabuk, he left Ali in Medina. Ali was very sad at not having the good fortune to join the army and fight for the sake of God. He went to the Prophet, saying: 'Do you leave me with children and women?' The Prophet replied: 'Are you not happy to be to me as Aaron was to Moses, except that there will be no prophet after me?' Second I heard from the Prophet on the day of conquest of Khaybar: 'Certainly I will give the flag [of Islam] to a man that loves God and His Messenger and is loved by God and His Messenger'. We hoped to be given the flag, but the Prophet said: 'Call Ali for me!' Ali came while suffering from pain in his eyes. The Prophet gave him the flag and at his hands God granted us victory. Third when the verse of Mubahalah was revealed the Prophet called Ali, Fatimah, Hasan and Husayn and said: 'My Lord! These are my household'.”

(3) Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal narrates from Anas b. Malik that when the verse of tañh3r (33:33) was revealed, for six months the Prophet used to call at the house of Ali and Fatimah every morning on his way to the mosque for the Dawn Prayer and say: “Prayer, O People of the House! 'God only desires to keep away impurity from you, O People of the House! And to purify you a (thorough) purification' (33:33).”

There are also traditions about the meaning of Qurbā (near ones) which has been mentioned several times in the Qur'an. For example, according to the Qur'an, the Prophet did not ask any payment in return for his teachings from the people. He only wanted the people to love his Qurbā for their own benefit. So who are the Qurbā? Zamakhshari, a great Sunni scholar and exegete of the Qur'an, says that when this verse was revealed, the Prophet was asked who is meant by this verse, and to whom all have to be respectful. The Prophet replied: “Ali, Fatimah and their two sons”.



The Shi'a believe that reason is a reliable source of knowledge and in complete harmony with revelation. According to some hadiths, God has two proofs (hujjah), through which humans can understand His will: the internal one which is reason (al-'aql) and the external, which are the prophets. Sometimes reason is called, “the internal prophet” and the prophets are called “the external reason”. There is an established rule among Shi'a jurists that whatever judgement is made by reason is the same as that made by the religion (shar') and vice versa. It is also unanimously accepted that one of the conditions of moral or legal responsibility is to have sound reason. If someone is insane, he is not considered as responsible upon what he acts. What is expected of the people in religion also varies according to their mental and rational capacity. Those who are very clever and intelligent are expected to be more prepared, pious, and obedient than those who are lay or ignorant.

According to the Qur'an, God requires all human beings to exercise their rational faculty and to ponder on His signs and communications in the universe. On many occasions disbelievers are condemned because of their failure to think or to act according to rational requirements. For example, they are condemned because of their blind imitation of their ancestors, and there are many verses with rhetorical questions, such as: “Do not they think?!” (36:68), “Do not they ponder on the Qur'an?!” (4:82; 47:24) and “In these, there are signs for those who are thoughtful” (13:4; 16:67; 30:28).

In general, reason contributes to religious studies in three major areas: The first is in understanding the realities of the world, such as the existence of God, the truth of religion and scientific facts. The second is in introducing principles of moral values and legal norms, such as the evil of oppression and the good of justice. The third is in setting up standards and logical processes of reasoning and inference. All these three roles of reason are recognised and, indeed, recommended by Islam.

In contrast, the role of revelation or the Scriptures in religious studies can be summed up as follows:

  • confirmation of the facts that are already known by reason;
  • introducing new subjects that are not known by reason, such as details of resurrection and detailed accounts of moral and legal systems;
  • providing sanctions through the religious system of reward and punishment.

At the end, I should mention that there is nothing irrational in Islam. Of course, one has to distinguish between certain and decisive rational judgements, and one's guessing or personal opinions. If there is a case in which it seems that rational judgement is in conflict with certain religious positions, one has to accept that there must be a mistake in at least one side: either it was not a real judgement of reason or it was not a religious law. God never misleads people by telling them to do something through the prophets, and the opposite thing through our God-given reason. There have always been some judgements attributed to reason and taken as contradicting religious positions that after close consideration have proven to be contrary to decisive rational premises.



Traditionally, one of the sources of understanding Islam is consensus (ijmā'). According to Shi'a methodology of thought, the consensus of all people or a group of them such as the scholars by itself is not sufficient as a proof (1ujjah); just as one person may make mistake, two, three, or thousands, or even all of them may do so. However, whenever there exists an agreement among all Muslims or Muslim scholars in a way whereby the agreement unveils the Sunnah, it can serve as a proof, as an instrument to uncover the will of God. For example, when we find that every Muslim in the time of the Prophet said his prayer in a certain way we realize that the Prophet had instructed them to do so; otherwise there would be no factor to unify their action. It is not possible to imagine that they had all acted blindly and without instruction, or that they all made mistakes and the Prophet did not correct them.

Thus, for the Shi'a consensus in itself is not a proof. It only works when it leads to the discovery of Sunnah. Accordingly, if Muslims today agree on a given subject, while a scholar has doubt about the Islamic judgement on that subject, he methodologically cannot say that because everybody says so, I also say the same. There have been many cases in the history where all human beings believed in the same way and later they found out that they were wrong, e.g. the earth being flat. It is only the Qur'an and the Sunnah that are unquestionably true and immune from any error or mistake. This approach grants a type of dynamism to Shi'i thought, so that every generation of scholars and even any single scholar is able and indeed is required to refer directly to the Qur'an and Sunnah and conduct his own original ijtihād, that is his investigation and independent judgement. Ijtihād has never been banned or closed in the Shi'a world. The Shi'a believe that the view of no jurist, however high his position, is immune from scientific questioning or challenge. Of course, as in any other discipline, every religious scholar needs to consult and examine carefully the works of his predecessors.


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