Theological dimentions discussions of Nahj al-balaghah (1) thinking about shi ism

one of the fundamental issues dealt with in the Nahj al-balaghah relates to theological and metaphysical problems. In all, there are about forty places in the sermons, letters, and aphorisms where these matters are discussed. Some of these pertain to the aphorisms, but more often the discussion is longer, covering sometimes several pages.

The passages on tawhid ( Divine Unity) in the Nahj al- balaghah can perhaps be considered to be the most wonderful discussions of the book. Without any exaggeration, when we take into account the conditions in which they were delivered, they can almost be said to be miraculous.

Nahj al- balaghah ‘s discussions about Divine Creativity and wisdom
The discussions on this theme in the Nahj al- balaghah are of a varied nature. Some of them constitute studies of the scheme of creation bearing witness to Divine creativity and wisdom. Here, Ali speaks about the whole system of the heaven and earth, or occasionally discusses the wonderful features of some specific creature like the bat, the peacock or the ant, and the role of Divine design and purpose in their creation. To give an example of this kind of discussion, we may quote a passage regarding the ant:
Have you observed the tiny creatures that he has created? How he has made them strong and perfected their constitution and shaped their organs of hearing and sight. And how has styled their bones and skin? Observe the ant with its tiny body and delicate from. It is so small that its features can hardly be discerned by the eye and so insignificant that it does not enter our thoughts. See how it roams about upon the ground and arduously collects its livelihood. It carries the grain to its hole and deposits it in its store. It collects during the summer for winter and when winter arrives, it foresees the time to reemerge. its livelihood is guaranteed and designed according to its built. The benefactor and the provider does not forget or forsake it. He does not deprive it, even though it should be in hard and dry stones and rocks. You will be amazed at the delicate intricacy the structure of its alimentary canals, its belly, and its even and ears which are in its head....

Intellectual and philosophilcal monotheism in Nahj al- balaghah
Most of the discussions about tawhid in the Nahj al- balaghah are rational and philosophical .the rare sublimity of the Nahj al- balaghah becomes manifest in these discourses. In these philosophical and rational discourses of the Nahj al- balaghah on tawhid what constitutes the focus of all arguments is the infinite absolute and self –sufficing nature of the Divine Essence. In these passages, Ali (a) attains to the heights of eloquence, and none, neither before him nor after him, has approached him in this aspect.

Another issue with is that of the absolute simplicity (al-basatat al-mutlaqah) of the Divine Essence and negation of every kind of multiplicity, divisibility in the Godhead and refutation of separability of the Dinive Attributes from the Divine Essence. This theme occurs repeatedly in the Nahj al- balaghah.

Also discussed is a series of other profound problems which had never been touched before him. They are: God being the first while also being the Last, his being simultaneously the Manifest and the Hidden, his priority over time and number, i.e. his pre-eternity is not temporal and his Unity is not numerical, his supremacy, Authority, and self – sufficiency, his creativeness, that attendance to one affair does not prevent him from attending to other affairs, the identity of Divine word and Act the limited capacity of human reason to comprehend His reality, that gnosis (ma’ritah) is a kind of manifestation (tajalli) of him upon the intellects, which is different from conception or cognition by the mind, the negation of such categories and qualities as corporeality, motion rest, change, place, time, similarity, opposition, partnership, possession of organs or instruments, limitation and number and a series of other issues which we shall, God willing mention later and give examples of every one of these Even a thinker well- versed in the beliefs and views of ancient and modern philosophers would be struck with wonder to see the wide range and scope of the problems propounded in that wonderful book.

We, the shi’ah Muslims,, must confess that we have been unjust in regard to our duty with respect to the man whom we, more than others, take pride in following, or, at the very least, we must admit falling short in our duty towards him. In substance, any kind of failure in fulfilling our responsibility is an act of injustice on our part, we did not want to realize the significance of Ali(a), or we had been unable to. All our energy and labour were devoted to proclaiming the prophet’s statements about Ali and to denouncing those who ignored them, but we failed pay attention to the intellectual side of Imam Ali’s personality.

Sa’di says:
The reality of musk lies in its scent not in the perfumer’s advice.

Applying sa’di’s words to our attitude regarding Imam Ali ‘s personality, we did not realize that this musk recommended by the Divine perfumer, itself carried its pleasant aroma, and before everything else we should have tried to know its scent and become familiar with it, that is, we should have familiarized ourselves and others with its inner fragrance. The counsel of the Divine PerFumer was meant to acquaint the people with its pleasant redolence, not for the purpose that may believe that it is musk and then devote all their energies trying to convince other by arguing with them. Without bothering to acquaint themselves with its real fragrance.

Had the Nahj al- balaghah belonged to some other people, would they have treated it in the way we treated this great book? The country of Iran is the center of shi’ism and the language of its people isPersian. You have only to examine the translations and commentaries on the Nahj al- balaghah to make a judgement about what our accomplishment amounts to.

To take amore general case, the shi’l sources of hadith (tradition )and texts of du’a (prayers)are incomparable to the texts of the non- shii works in the same field. This is also true of Divine teachings and other subjects. The problems and issues discussed in works like al- kulayni’s al- kati, or shaykh al-saduq’s al –T awid, or al-‘ Ihtijaj of al- Tabarsi are nowhere to be found among the works of the non- shii’s, it can be said that if occasionally similar issues are dealt with in the non- shi’i books, the material is unmistakably spurious, for it is not only opposed to the prophetic teachings but is also contradictory to the Qur’anic fundamentals. There is a strong smell of anthropomorphism which hangs around them. Recently, Hashim Ma’ruf al- Hasani, in his book Dirasat it al- kaft li al kulayni wa al- Sahih li al- Bukhari, which is an original but a brief comparative study of al- sahih of al- Bukhari and al- kulayni’s al- katl has dealt with the traditions related to the problems of theology.

The discussion of theological problems and their analysis by the shi’i Imams, of which the Nahj al- balaghah is the earliest example, was the main cause of the emergence of rationalistic approach and philosophic outlook in the shi’i intellectual world from the earliest days of IsIam. This cannot be labelled as an innovation in IsIam, rather, is basis was laid down by the Qur’an itself it was accordance with the approach of the Qur’an and for the purpose of its interpretation that the Imams of the Ahl al- Bayt(a) expounded such issues, if anybody can be reproached in this matter, it is those who did not adopt this method and abandoned the means to follow it.

History shows that from the earliest IsIamic era, the shi’ah, more than any other sect, were interested in these problems. Among the Ahl al- sunnah, the Mu’tazilites, who were nearer to shi’ah, did possess similar inclinations. But, as we know, the general view predominant among the Ahl al- sunnah did not welcome it. and a result the Mu’tazilite sect became extinct about the end of the 3rd / 9th century.

Ahamd Amin, the Egyptian writer, confirms this view in the first volume of this zuhr al- ‘IsIam. After discussing the philosophic movement in Egypt during the reign of the Fatimids, who were a shi’ah sect, he writes:
Philosophy is more ask to shi’ism than it is to the sunni IsIam, and we witness truth of this in the era of the fatimid rule [in Egypt] and in that of the Buyids [ in Iran]. Even during the later ages Iran, which is a shi’ite country, has paid more attention to Philosophy than any other IsIamic country. In our own times, sayyid Jamal al-Din al- Asadabadi, who had shi’ite inclinations and had studied Philosophy in Iran, created Philosophic movement Egypt when he arrived here.

Criticism of Ahamd Amin’s speeches about the source and reasons of rational teudencies in shi’ism
Curiously, Ahamd Amin in his explanation of why the shi’ah showed more inclination towards Philosophy, commits an error, willfully or otherwise According to him, “the reason for greater inclination on the part of shi’ah towards rational and Philosophical discussions is to be found in their esotericism and their flair for ta’wil. they were compelled to seek the assistance of Philosophy for defence of their esotericism. That is why the fatimid Egypt and Buyid Persia, and Iran during the safawid and Qajar periods, were more disposed towards Philosophy than the rest of the IsIam world.”

This is sheer nonsense on the part of Ahamd Amin. It was the Imams (a) the shi’ah who for the first time introduced Philosophical approach and it was they who introduced the most profound and intricate concepts with regard to theological problems in their arguments polemics, sermons, ahadith, and prayers, of which the Nahj al- balaghah is one example. Even with regard to the prophetic traditions, the shi’iah sources are far more sublime and profound than the traditions contained in the non- shi’i sources. This characteristic is not confined to Philosophy only, but is also true of kalam, fiqh, and usul al- tiqh, in which the shi’ah enjoy a position of distinction. All this owes its origin to one and same source: stress on rationalism.

Some other have tried to trace the origin of this difference [between the shi’i and the sunni intellecst] in the concept of “the shi’ite nation.” According to them since the Persians are shi’ite and the shi’ah are Persian, and as the Persian, are a people with a Philosophical temperament, fond of the intricacies of speculation and pure thought, with the help of their rich and strong Philosophical tradition, they succeeded in raising the level of shi’i thought and gave it an IsIamic colour.

Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, expresses a similar view based on the above- mentioned argument. With his habitual or inherent impoliteness he puts forth this opinion. However, Russell lacks the capacity of vindicating his claim, since he was totally unfamiliar with IsIam Philosophy and basically knew nothing about it. he was not qualified to express any informed opinion about the origin of shi’ah thought and its sources.

Our rejoinder to the upholders of this view is: First of all, not all shi’ah were Iranian, nor all Iranians were shi’ah were Muhammad ibn Ya’qub al-kulayni, Muhammad ibn Ali ibn al- Husayn ibn Babawayh al- Qummi and Muhammad ibn Abi Talib al- Mazandarani Persian, but not Muhammad ibn Isma’l al- Bukarl, Abu Dawud al- sijistani and Muslim ibn Hjjaj al- Nishaburi? Was al- sayyid al- Radi, the compiler of the Nahj al- balaghah, of Persian origin? Were the fatimids of Egypt of Persian descent?

Why was Philosophic thought revived in Egypt with the inception of fatimid rule and why did it decline with their fall? And why was it revived later, after along interval, only through the influence of an Iranian shi’ah?

The truth is that the Imams of the Ahl al- Bayt (a) were the only real dynamic force behind this mode of thinking and this kind of approach. All scholars of the Ahl al- sunnah admit that among the prophet’s companions only Ali (a) was a man of Philosophic wisdom, who had an altogether distinct rational approach Abu Ali ibn sina is quoted as having remarked: Ali’s position among the companions of Muhammad (s) was that of the “ rational in the midst of the “corporeal”.

Obviously, the intellectual approach of the followers of such an Imam as Ali (a) should be expected to be radically different from that of those who followed others, Moreover, Ahamd Amin and others have been susceptible to another similar misunderstanding. They express doubts with regard to the authenticity of ascription of such Philosophic statements [as exist in the Nahj al balaghah] to Ali (a) they say that the Arabs were not familiar with such kind of issues and such arguments and elaborate analyses as are found in the Nahj al balaghah before acquaintance with Greek Philosophy, and evidently, according to them, these discourses should have been composed by some later scholars familiar with Greek Philosophy, and were attributed to Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib(a).

We also accept that the Arabs were not familiar with such ideas and notions, not only the Arabs, the non- Arabs, too were not acquainted with them, nor were those notions familiar to the Greeks and Greek Philosophy, Ahmad Amin first bring down Ali (a) to the level of such Arabs like Abu Jahl and Abu sufyan and then he postulates his minor and major premises and bases his conclusion on them: the Arabs were unfamiliar with Philosophical notions, Ali was an Arab: therefore Ali was also unfamiliar with Philosophical notions. One should ask him whether the Arabs of the Jahiliyyah were familiar with the ideas and concepts that were propounded in the Qur’an. Had not Ali (a) been brought up and trained by the Messenger of Allah himself? Did n’t the prophet (s) introduce Ali (a) to his companions as the most learned and knowledgeable amongst them? Why should we deny the high spiritual status of someone who enriched his inner self by drawing on the bounteous wealth of IsIam in order to protect the prestige of some of the prophet’s companions who could never rise above the ordinary level?

Ahamd Amin says that before acquaintance with Greek Philosophy the people of Arabia were not familiar with the ideas and concepts found in the Nahj al balaghah. The answer to that the Arabs did not become acquainted with the ideas and notions propounded in the Nahj al balaghah even after centuries of familiarity with Greek Philosophy. Not only the Arabs, even the non- Arab Muslims were not acquainted with these ideas, for the simple reason that there is no trace of them in Greek Philosophy itself! These ideas are exclusively special to IsIamic Philosophy. The IsIamic Philosophers gradually picked these ideas up from the basic IsIamic sources and incorporated them in their thought under the guidance of revelation.

Sources :

  1. Glimpses of the Nahj al-Balaghah- pages: 51 to 62