The art of fictional narration can be traced back to the earliest civilisations, and has assumed various different appearances over the centuries. The fact that it is fictitious was never really used to discredit literary fiction, since the lessons the author of Aesop’s Fables, for example, wished to impart, did not depend upon whether his animal characters could or did really speak. Similarly, Shakespeare, in his quasi-historical works, does not attempt to convey to the reader the notion that the words or actions he ascribes to his characters were really said or done by them. It is only when the author of the fictional narrative tries to overstep the bounds of fiction and confer upon his work the appearance of historical authenticity, that his work loses the respectable designation “literary fiction”, and earns for itself the ignominious epithet “literary hoax”.
The book al Muraja’at by ‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din al Musawi was first published in Sidon, Lebanon in the year 1355/1936. Since its first impression it is claimed to have gone through more than a hundred editions in Arabic. It is further claimed to have been translated into nothing less than twenty languages. In the English translation of Yasin T. al Jibouri it carries the title The Right Path, and is published by a number of publishing houses. The most common edition of this translation is the one published by Imam Hussain Islamic Foundation of Beirut, Lebanon. For the benefit of those who are as yet unacquainted with the Muraja’at and its author, we devote the first few pages to an introduction to both.
‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din al Musawi
He was born in Kazimiyyah, a city situated to the north-east of Baghdad in ‘Iraq, in 1290/1872. His father, Yusuf, is not known for any sort of academic pursuit, but his fourth ancestor Sharaf al Din, to whom the family owes its name, was reputed as a man of learning. The eponym ‘al Musawi’ denotes him to be of the progeny of Musa al Kazim, the seventh Imam in the line recognised by the Twelver Shia.
For his education he attended the seminaries in Kazimiyyah and Najaf, where he studied under scholars like Sheikh Muhammad Kazim al Khurasani, Sheikh Hassan al Karbala’i, and Sheikh Fathullah al Isfahani. At the age of 32 he moved to Jabal ‘Amil in the south of Lebanon, from where his family hailed originally. He is reported to have become involved in the struggle for independence against France, for which he was forced into temporary exile from his home, which was later burnt down by the French occupation forces. The hardship of an unsettled existence between Damascus and Palestine later forced him to leave his family scattered over different locations in the region and depart for Egypt in1337/1919.
This visit, it is said, was not his first visit to Egypt. Eight years earlier, in 1329/1911 he is supposed to have come to Egypt on a visit that he later claimed brought him into contact with Sheikh Salim al Bishri, the Grand Sheikh of al Azhar.
A quarter of a century later he publishes the book al Muraja’at, the subject matter of which is a series of 112 correspondences between al Bishri and himself, in which an attempt is made “to explain, justify, and uphold the raison d’etre of Shi’ism”. The book concludes with the Sheikh al Azhar’s admitting the correctness of the Shia faith, saying:
I bear witness that you, in the roots and branches of the faith, are followers of the Imams from the Messenger’s progeny. You have clarified this matter and rendered it obvious, unveiled whatever was obscure thereof; so, to doubt you is madness, and to mistrust you is misguidance. I have scrutinized your letter and found it very pleasing. I verified it and was able to inhale its divine fragrance which nourished me with its sweet scent. Before knowing you, I used to be confused about your beliefs due to what I hear of allegations from scandal mongers; now I have found it to be a lantern that dispels the darkness, and I am leaving you victorious, successful; so, how great is the blessing which Allah has bestowed upon me, and how great your benefit unto me!
This, in effect, is nothing less than clear acceptance of Shi’ism by Sheikh Salim al Bishri.
How much historicity the book contains is a subject for later discussion. At the moment we continue with our biographical sketch of its author.
The city of Tyre in southern Lebanon had for centuries been a stronghold of the Shia. Yet when ‘Abdul Hussain settled there, there was no masjid in the area. He bought a house and donated it to be used as a masjid. Later he built a spacious masjid. He also established a school that carried Islamic subjects in its curriculum.
Certain events in his life give the impression that he was dedicated to Sunni-Shia unity. It was his habit to celebrate Mawlid al Nabi on the 12th of Rabi’ al Awwal, and not the 17th, as the Shia do. This was because Sunnis who observe this celebration do so on that date. Moreover, he delivered many lectures on this issue, some of which was published by Sayed Rashid Rida in the journal al Manar. His book al Fusul al Muhimmah was written specifically to bridge the gap between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia. Yet when seen in a broader context, this devotion to Sunni-Shia unity seems to spring not so much from an inherent belief in the necessity of such unity, as from the realisation that the Shia are but a minuscule part of the Ummah. As an activist against French colonialization he must have realised the hopelessness of the Shia tackling colonial powers on their own. Furthermore, by creating—or endeavouring to create—platforms for such unity the way would be prepared for another long term objective of the Shia that would in itself be a solution to the problem of being an almost insignificant minority in the Muslim world: propagation of the Shia faith, for which purpose he wrote the book al Muraja’at.
His work al Fusul al Muhimmah, in which he attempts to give a blueprint of how to achieve unity between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia, reveals no readiness to distance himself from heterodoxical elements within Shi’ism. It is nothing but an attempt to convince the Ahlus Sunnah to accept that the Shia also believe in the essential tenets of faith, and for that reason they too, must be accepted as Muslims. Yet in this book too, his beliefs as a Shia prevent him from giving the Ahlus Sunnah the assurance that they will share salvation in the hereafter with the Shia. In the fifth chapter he quotes a number of ahadith from Sunni sources to the effect that all believers in the essential beliefs of Tawhid and Risalah will attain salvation in the hereafter. In the last paragraph of the chapter he turns around to say:
We (the Shia) too, have in our possession authentic narrations which we received from our Twelve Imams, whose words constitute the Sunnah that follows the Book, and the shield that protects from punishment. I present them to you in Usul al Kafi and other sources, where they announce glad tidings for those who believe in Allah, His Messenger, and the Last Day. But they render the general purport of the (Sunni) narrations that you have heard, specific with the belief in the Wilayah of the Family of the Messenger, whom the Messenger joined to the Book, whom he made the leaders of intelligent men, about whom he categorically stated that they are the ships of salvation amidst raging turmoil, the security of the Ummah in times of calamities, the stars of guidance in the darkness of error, the door of Hittah, where none but those who enter it will be forgiven, and the firm handhold that never breaks.
In other words, while Sunnis are compelled to accept the Shia as Muslims by ahadith in their reliable collections that speak of salvation for all who believe in the oneness of Allah and the Prophethood of Muhammad salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, the Shia will vouch for the salvation of only those who believe in their Twelve Imams. Thus the essence of ‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din’s idea of unity between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia is a unity that is limited to the achievement of objectives of this world. In the Hereafter, as a dutiful Shia he believes, by virtue of narrations from the Twelve Imams documented in al Kafi and other Shia sources, that salvation is exclusively for the Shia.
Something else which throws light upon his attitude towards Sunni-Shia unity is his authorship of a book entitled Abu Hurairah—a book which amounts to nothing less than a character assassination of that venerable Companion of Rasul Allah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Dr. Mustafa al Siba’i, leader of al Ikhwan al Muslimun in Syria in the fifties and the sixties, and one of those ‘ulama’ who personally took up weapons against the French as well as against the Zionists in Palestine, relates about himself that he was at one stage very enthusiastic about bringing the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia closer to one another. The idea occurred to him that it would be very helpful if Sunni and Shia ‘ulama’ started visiting one another. He visited the residence of ‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din, whom he found as enthusiastic and responsive as himself towards the idea of bringing Sunnis and Shias closer to one another. They mutually agreed to hold a conference between ‘ulama’ of the two groups for this purpose. Sometime later he was awkwardly surprised by ‘Abdul Hussain’s publication of his book Abu Hurairah, in which he casts various aspersions against the character of that Sahabi, and eventually arrives at the conclusion that he was a kafir (unbeliever) and a munafiq (hypocrite) about whom the Messenger salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam had foretold that he will be of the inmates of Hell. Expressing his astonishment at such a turnabout from ‘Abdul Hussain, al Siba’i says, “I was dumbfounded at this position of ‘Abdul Hussain, in both his words and his book, a position which reveals a complete lack of sincerity for forging closer ties and forgetting the past.”
‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din died on the 30th of December 1957, and was buried at his own request in one of the rooms surrounding the grave claimed to be that of Sayyidina ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu at Najaf in ‘Iraq.
The authenticity of al Muraja’at
In the Arabic editions of al Muraja’at the actual contents of the book is preceded by an author’s preface, in which he mentions the following:
These pages have not been written today, and these thoughts have not been born recently: they have been organized for over quarter of a century; they could have appeared in print sooner barring hostile circumstances and calamities that put strong obstacles in their way. They had, therefore, to remain waiting for a chance to gather whatever limbs they squandered and parts they lost, for the events that delayed their publication did, at the same time, alter their organization.
After this introduction he goes on to fill two pages with an account of how perturbed he was at the disunity amongst Muslims. These sentiments took him to Egypt at the end of 1329 A.H, where he claims that his “good fortune brought him into contact with one of the learned men [of Egypt], distinguished by his broad mind, pleasant character, animated heart, vast knowledge, and high position; who quite deservedly occupied the office of its religious leadership”. Strangely, he does not give the name of this person, neither in this introduction nor at any other place in the book. Anyway, he goes on to describe how the two of them started exchanging the correspondences that he would later publish as al Muraja’at. Describing its development, he makes the following interesting, and indeed revealing, remark:
I do not claim that these pages are confined to the texts composed then by us, or that any of the forthcoming statements is not written by my own pen.
In The Right Path, which is the English translation of al Muraja’at by Muhammad Amir Haider Khan, this entire introduction has been completely omitted, for very obvious reasons. The passages quoted above contain the secret of the origin of al Muraja’at. This book is not the record of correspondence between ‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din and Sheikh Salim al Bishri. It is the sole enterprise of ‘Abdul Hussain, and Sheikh Salim al Bishri’s involvement in the evolution of al Muraja’at is pure fiction, as will be conclusively proven here. The discussion will centre around the following axes:
- The lapse of time between the supposed exchange of correspondence, and the publication of al Muraja’at.
- The reluctance of ‘Abdul Hussain to give the name of his correspondent.
- Elements within the structure of al Muraja’at that constitute grounds for impugning its authenticity.
The time lapse
‘Abdul Hussain states the time of the exchange of correspondence to have been in 1329/1911. Yet it is published for the first time in 1355/1936, a quarter of a century later—and, which is even more significant, twenty years after the death of his supposed correspondent Sheikh Salim al Bishri, who died in 1335/1916! Which “events and calamities” could have been so disastrous as to delay the publication of a book as epoch-making as this one? There is this vague suggestion in ‘Abdul Hussain’s words, which appears more palpably in the writings of his biographers, that it was his involvement in the resistance against French rule—that resulted in the burning of his library in Tyre, together with nineteen unpublished manuscripts—that prevented immediate publication. However, this reason is not supported by a precise chronology of events. Colonialist supremacy in the Levant (the geographical region comprising Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine) started only in 1918, when the British and the French assisted the Arabs to wrest Damascus from Ottoman control. When the British withdrew in 1919 the French were left in control, and it was only in the following year, 1920, that the League of Nations granted France a mandate over Syria and Lebanon. If the exchange of correspondence between ‘Abdul Hussain and al Bishri did in fact take place in 1911, he had almost an entire decade—from 1911 to 1919—to publish his book. Why would he have to wait twenty five years?
His other work al Fusul al Muhimmah, was published for the first time in 1327/1909, two years prior to his alleged trip to Egypt. A second edition was published in 1347/1928 with additions by the author. This shows that the author was not so preoccupied by his resistance activities that he was unable to write or prepare works for publication. Furthermore, if circumstances in Lebanon did not allow him to publish al Muraja’at there, he could have had it published in Egypt, which he visited again in 1337/1919. The author of his biography published in the The Right Path, the English translation of al Muraja’at, writes:
In Egypt his speeches were extremely influential in turning public sentiment against the British colonialists there. At that time Sayed Rashid Rida published in the journal al Manar most of his speeches that dealt with the Lebanese people facing French colonialism.
It is well known that Sayed Rashid Rida was at that time an arch-proponent of Sunni-Shia unity, and devoted pages from his journal al Manar to it. If the transcripts of al Muraja’at were at that time in existence, why did ‘Abdul Hussain not publish it in al Manar? Even a mere mention of the exchange of correspondence between ‘Abdul Hussain and al Bishri would have meant a lot. Yet, despite ‘Abdul Hussain’s obvious access to publication in a journal as devoted to Muslim unity against the colonial powers as Sayed Rashid Rida’s al Manar, we are at a loss to find a single mention, even in passing, of ‘Abdul Hussain’s alleged correspondence with Sheikh Salim al Bishri.
Suddenly, twenty five years later, when al Bishri has been dead for two decades, when most of those who may have remembered the events of a quarter of a century ago have already died, ‘Abdul Hussain surprises the Muslim world with a book comprising the records of correspondence he claims to have been exchanged with al Bishri; correspondence at the end of which the Sheikh al Azhar admits the correctness of the faith of the Shia, and in fact accepts Shi’ism, as shown earlier.
The publishers of the English translation of al Muraja’at, entitled The Right Path, were alert enough to note the indictment of the book’s authenticity contained in the opening remarks of the author’s introduction. Accordingly, they took the “prudent” step of completely omitting it, and in their own foreword they gloss over the lapse of a quarter century between the completion of the correspondence and the publication of the book in the following words:
After the correspondence had been completed, the Sayed [‘Abdul Hussain] … eventually published it under the title al Muraja’at in 1355AH/1936AD.
The identity of the correspondent
What seems very unusual is that ‘Abdul Hussain does not reveal the identity of his correspondent, neither in the introduction nor in the course of the book. It is true that the letters of this mysterious correspondent are all signed with the letter sin, in the Arabic, which appears as an “S” in the English translation. ‘Abdul Hussain comments upon this cryptic device in a footnote, saying:
The subtlety and appropriateness of this signature is not unclear.
We can see that here too, like earlier in his introduction, he does not state the name of his correspondent. The English translator, however, allowed himself the liberty of translating the above footnote as follows:
It may also be noted that the letter “S” denotes both his name (which is Salim) and faith, which is Sunni.
Where on the one hand ‘Abdul Hussain consistently maintains this secrecy about the identity of his correspondent, he gives enough cryptic clues that point towards Sheikh Salim al Bishri. Besides the signature, there is also the year he mentions as the year of his visit to Egypt: 1329/1911. This coincides with al Bishri’s second tenure as Sheikh al Azhar, which lasted from 1327 up to his death in 1335. A person described as having “occupied the position of religious leadership of Egypt”—as ‘Abdul Hussain describes his correspondent—in the year 1329 can be none other than Sheikh Salim al Bishri. With such clues to the identity of his correspondent, why does he still refrain from explicitly stating his name?
It seems that when ‘Abdul Hussain first published al Muraja’at in 1355/1936 he was still somewhat apprehensive that despite the passing of twenty five years, there might still be people living who were close enough to Sheikh al Bishri to know that ‘Abdul Hussain’s claim to have exchanged correspondence with the Sheikh is an infamous lie. He preferred therefore to leave his correspondent unnamed, thereby keeping an avenue of escape open in the event he was accused of dishonesty. At the same time he gives cryptic clues to the identity of the correspondent, so that if his forgery remains undetected, and people come to accept Sheikh Salim al Bishri’s involvement in the evolution of al Muraja’at as a fact, future publishers would need to have no qualms in associating the Sheikh’s name with al Muraja’at. This is exactly what happened. Today every edition of the book carries a foreword in which the story of ‘Abdul Hussain’s meeting with Sheikh al Bishri is recounted as the origin of al Muraja’at. Some editions even carry a picture and a short biographical of the Sheikh, alongside with a picture and biographical sketch of ‘Abdul Hussain.
There are three elements in the structure of al Muraja’at which throw light upon its true origin.
- The lack of documentary evidence about Sheikh al Bishri’s involvement.
- The similarity between the linguistic styles of the letters ascribed to Sheikh al Bishri and those ascribed to ‘Abdul Hussain.
- The picture of the Sheikh al Azhar as lacking in knowledge of basic precepts, and of being unacquainted with fundamental Sunni sources of reference, suggested by a number of the letters ascribed to him.
1. Documentary evidence
In a work like al Muraja’at one would expect to find some type of corporeal evidence of Sheikh Salim al Bishri’s involvement. There would at least have to be something like a reproduction of one of his original letters to ‘Abdul Hussain. Yet, no edition of al Muraja’at has ever carried anything that provides tangible proof of his involvement. The only available evidence seems rather to suggest his complete non-involvement. In the foreword to the English translation by Muhammad Amir Haider Khan published by Ansariyan Publications, Qum, it is stated that ‘Abdul Hussain published the book “with the permission of the Sheikh”. This is blatantly untrue. When was this “permission” given? Twenty years after the Sheikh’s death? The Arabic editions of al Muraja’at published during the life of ‘Abdul Hussain and thereafter are completely silent about this “permission”. The publisher of the English translation too, is incapable of producing documentary evidence of the supposed permission. Just like in the case of the omission of the author’s own introduction, the myth of Sheikh al Bishri’s permission had to be invented to deceive the unwary Sunni reader.
2. Linguistic style
Readers of the original Arabic text of al Muraja’at will be struck by the resemblance between the literary styles of two supposedly different persons. A cursory glance at any of ‘Abdul Hussain’s other works—like al Fusul al Muhimmah, al Nass wa l-Ijtihad and Ajwibat Musa Jarullah—will convince anyone who possesses a literary appreciation of the Arabic language that the style of “both correspondents” in al Muraja’at belongs to none other but ‘Abdul Hussain himself. As for Sheikh Salim al Bishri’s literary style, if his extant writings—like Wadh al Nahj, his commentary on Ahmed Shawqi’s Nahj al Burdah—are anything to go by, it is a far cry indeed from the flamboyance and verbosity of expression ascribed to him by the author of al Muraja’at.
3. Ignorance of the Sheikh Al Azhar
Al Muraja’at is set at a time when the post of Sheikh al Azhar was occupied not by governmental appointment, but by virtue of knowledge and erudition. ‘Abdul Hussain himself bears testimony (unwittingly, perhaps) to this fact where he describes his correspondent as a man “distinguished by his vast knowledge”. However, in more than one of his letters the picture the reader gets of his learning is quite disparaging. Here follow a few examples:
Letters 12, 13 and 14:
In Letter 12, “Sheikh al Bishri” requests ‘Abdul Hussain to present proof of the status of the Ahlul Bayt from the Qur’an. ‘Abdul Hussain proceeds to enumerate over fifty verses from the Qur’an that, he claims, refer to the Ahlul Bayt. The majority of these verses are bent out of context by purely esoteric (batini) interpretation, and those that can acceptably be said to refer to the Ahlul Bayt have been the subject of much debate in Sunni works on tafsir. The “Sheikh”, seemingly ignorant thereof, praises ‘Abdul Hussain profusely, and says, “You have produced clear and powerful verses of the Qur’an, and cited everlasting proofs. Therefore, you have accomplished the task which you undertook to perform. It would be a folly to contradict you because you have exposed the folly of the ignorant.”
Letters 13 and 14:
In Letter 13 the “Sheikh” brings up the issue of accepting the traditions of narrators with known Shia proclivities, whereupon ‘Abdul Hussain practically teaches him the methodology of the muhaddithun of the Ahlus Sunnah on this point, producing a list of 100 such narrators whose traditions appear in major Sunni works. The “Sheikh” is pictured ignorant of a simple point of hadith methodology, which ‘Abdul Hussain has to teach him.
Letters 21, 22 and 23:
In Letter 21 the “Sheikh” disputes the authenticity of a hadith on grounds of the fact that it is not in the collections of al Bukhari and Muslim. Any scholar worth his salt knows that the Sahihayn are not the exclusive repositories of authentic ahadith, and therefore this argument from the “Sheikh” is puerile. In al Muraja’at ‘Abdul Hussain has to prove the authenticity of the hadith to the Sheikh al Azhar, and refers him to Musnad Ahmed. In Letter 23 the “Sheikh” comes back in amazement to confirm that he actually found the hadith in Musnad Ahmed, and that ‘Abdul Hussain’s authentication of the hadith is correct.
Letters 27, 28 and 29:
In letter 27 the “Sheikh” invokes Sayf al Din al Amidi as his authority for disputing the authenticity of a hadith. No self-respecting scholar of hadith would ever refer to al Amidi, who was an exponent of usul al fiqh, in a question of hadith authentication. It is just as ridiculous as referring a legal matter to a dentist! This had to be pointed out to the “Sheikh” by ‘Abdul Hussain. In Letter 29 the “Sheikh” admits al Amidi’s incompetence to judge the authenticity of a hadith, saying, “Amidi has committed a blunder, which indicates his knowledge of traditions and traditionists.”
In this mediocre picture painted by ‘Abdul Hussain of a man whom he himself describes as “distinguished by his vast learning” the discerning reader cannot fail to detect clear signs of the mendacity ‘Abdul Hussain has made himself guilty of in ascribing half of the letters in al Muraja’at to the Sheikh al Azhar, Sheikh Salim al Bishri.
Debate between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia is an age-old phenomenon that has given rise to a specific genre of polemic literature. This genre of literature was by nature unilaterally critical. This means that these works were usually one-sided attacks on the beliefs of the opponents. The closest they ever came to being bilateral was when refutations or counter-refutations would be written to earlier works, like in the case of Minhaj al Sunnah, Ibn Taymiyah’s refutation of Ibn al Mutahhar al Hilli’s Minhaj al Karamah, or Nuzha-e Ithna ‘Ashariyyah, Hakim Mirza Muhammad Kamil’s response to Tuhfa-e Ithna ‘Ashariyyah by Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz. But the bilateralness of such refutations could still not generate the placidity and dispassionateness found in dialogue, as opposed to the vehemence of polemical debate. The participants in dialogue, unlike debate, are supposed to be free from bigotry, fanaticism, and preconceived notions. Dialogue, it is supposed, takes place in a spirit of neutrality and open-mindedness. The results yielded by such dialogue, therefore, would be vastly more objective—and convincing—than those of the polemical debate.
The author of al Muraja’at knew this only too well. Fired with the zeal to propagate his faith—like most of the ‘ulama’ of the Shia are—he knew that no polemical discourse could ever do a tenth of what a dialogue could. The problem lay in getting that dialogue off the ground, and securing a Sunni participant with sufficient esteem in the Sunni world to lend credibility and authority to the dialogue.
‘Abdul Hussain’s solution was ingenious. He was well aware of the importance of al Azhar in the Sunni world. He would never find a more distinguished “correspondent” than the Grand Sheikh of that institution. Should he actually seek dialogue with the Sheikh al Azhar of his time? That would be too precarious, because the living Sheikh al Azhar could turn out to be too well versed in Sunni-Shia polemics, which would mean that he would be ready with a whole array of answers to ‘Abdul Hussain’s questions, as well as an arsenal of disturbing questions of his own. The dialogue therefore would have to be fictitious, but garbed in a cloak of reality. Fortunately he would not have to be troubled by his conscience over this deception, because, as a Shia, he enjoyed the privilege of practising Taqiyyah, or dissimulation. In other words, his faith allowed him to twist the truth or invent his own version of it, provided such means finds justification in the end, and what justification could be more weighty than the propagation of “the true faith”?
There now remained one last question: Which past occupant of the office of Sheikh al Azhar will be given the honour of being his “correspondent”? It would have to be someone who died long ago, so that not too many questions would be asked. He chose Sheikh Salim al Bishri, whose death, as we have seen, preceded the publication of al Muraja’at by a full twenty years. Even then too, he was cautious, and did not go to the extent of explicitly identifying his correspondent by name, as we have seen.
Inventing his own correspondent held one crucial advantage: Like a puppeteer, ‘Abdul Hussain would be able to make the “Sheikh al Azhar” say whatever he wanted to. (This explains the apparent ignorance of the “Sheikh al Azhar”.) The unwary Sunni reader who has already swallowed the bait, and actually believes that al Muraja’at is the record of a real dialogue between the Sheikh al Azhar and ‘Abdul Hussain, would be presented with a “Sheikh al Azhar” who is unable to counter any of ‘Abdul Hussain’s arguments, who lavishes praise upon him, who endorses his views and findings, and who ultimately admits the truth of Shi’ism, and accepts it. By this masterstroke ‘Abdul Hussain would vanquish not merely his fictitious “Sheikh al Azhar”, but Sunnism at large.
And that is the story of al Muraja’at.
Polemical fiction in Shia literature
The style of writing adopted by ‘Abdul Hussain in al Muraja’at has long been favoured by Shia authors in polemical literature. They were quite aware that to actually engage the ‘ulama’ of the Ahlus Sunnah in debate would considerably curtail their advantage, and therefore they resorted to the more convenient ploy of creating their own opponents, since by doing so they would be able to manipulate the “opponent’s” arguments to their own advantage. When ‘Abdul Hussain chose this style of writing for the book he himself considered his magnum opus, he was not being original at all. He was merely imitating the precedent set by earlier Shia writers like Abu al Futuh al Razi and Radiyy al Din Ibn Tawus. Below we look at three works in this genre by these two authors.
A book by this title appeared during the latter half of the previous century, purporting to be the record of a debate that had taken place at the court of Harun al Rashid between Husniyyah, a slave girl owned by a merchant friend of Imam Jafar al Sadiq, and the Imams Abu Yusuf and al Shafi’i. This slave girl had supposedly stayed with Imam Jafar up to the age of twenty, and had acquired expertise in numerous branches of knowledge from him. In the book she publicly humiliates the two Imams, defeating their arguments, and presenting them with “incontrovertible evidence” of the truth of the creed of the Shia.
The book is full of anachronisms. For one, al Shafi’i came to Baghdad only after the death of Abu Yusuf, so it is impossible that they could ever have taken part together in any discussion. The book also speaks of a third learned man by the name of Ibrahim Khalid of Basrah, who was supposedly regarded by Abu Yusuf as “superior to them all.” When they themselves were unable to answer the arguments of Husniyyah, they referred the matter to this Ibrahim Khalid, but he too, was incapable of responding to her. History, however, has recorded nothing of a person by this name, and the effort to identify him with Abu Thawr, whose name was Ibrahim ibn Khalid, is futile, since Abu Thawr was a Baghdadi by birth and lived there all his life. Far from being regarded as al Shafi’i’s superior, he was his student, and one of the four narrators of his qadim views. Even of Husniyyah herself, the annals of history and biography have recorded nothing at all. It is only in this belated document that mention is made of her existence.
Aqa Buzurg Tehrani, the eminent Shia bibliographer, records in his bibliographical lexicon al Dhari’ah that this booklet was originally found in the possession of a Sayed in Syria by Mulla Ibrahim al Astarabadi when he returned to Iran from Hajj in the year 958/1551. He translated it into Persian, and it was first published in 1287/1870. The Shia biographer Mirza ‘Abdullah Effendi al Isfahani has done us a favour by exposing the real author of the book Husniyyah, and his purpose in writing such a book. He writes in his book Riyad al ‘Ulama’:
Such a degree of learning and eminence is accorded to Husniyyah in this booklet, that it creates the impression of it being the fraudulent work of Sheikh Abu al Futuh al Razi, written and forged by him. He ascribed it to Husniyyah in order to bring disgrace to the beliefs of the Ahlus Sunnah, and to humiliate them by exposing their beliefs.
The identification of Abu al Futuh al Razi as the author of the booklet Husniyyah is supported by Sayed Muhsin al Amin, the author of A’yan al Shia, one of the most authoritative contemporary biographical dictionaries of the Shia. He states categorically that this book “is the work of Abu al Futuh al Razi”.
Yuhanna the Christian
This same Sheikh Abu al Futuh al Razi is credited with the authorship of another spurious polemical tract called Risalat Yuhanna al Nasrani (the tract of Yuhanna [John] the Christian). In this tract, quoted by a number of Shia writers as factual truth, a Christian by the name of Yuhanna engages the Sunni ‘ulama of Baghdad in a debate during which he demonstrates the “fallacies” in the creed of the Ahlus Sunnah. Eventually he declares his acceptance of Shi’ism as the true religion. Mirza ‘Abdullah Effendi ascribes this work to Abu al Futuh al Razi. The “strength” of this polemic is supposed to derive from the fact that even a non-Muslim is able to discern the “falsehood” of Sunni belief from the “truth” of Shi’ism.
‘Abdul Mahmud the Dhimmi
Radiyy al Din Ibn Tawus belonged to a prominent Shia family that lived at Hillah near Najaf at the time of the sack of Baghdad by the Tartars under Hulagu. Shi’ite complicity in the fall of Baghdad is a fact of history. Al Mustansir’s wazir, Mu’ayyid al Din Ibn al ‘Alqami treacherously co-operated with the Tartars to secure the downfall of the ‘Abbasids. This wazir was a close friend of Ibn Tawus. Ibn Tawus’s acceptance of the post of Naqib al Ashraf from Hulagu, having earlier refused it from the ‘Abbasid khalifah al Mustansir, is quite significant.
With the fall of Baghdad came a new surge in Shi’ite propagation, the like of which was only seen in the days of the Buwayhids. The high positions occupied by Shia dignitaries in the Ilkhanid (Tartar) administration afforded the Shia the influence and leverage they needed to prosper. The town of Hillah soon developed into the most important centre of Shia learning, producing the likes of al ‘Allamah (Hassan ibn Yusuf ibn Mutahhar) al Hilli, Ibn Dawood al Rijali, al Muhaqqiq (Jafar ibn Hassan) al Hilli, and al Shahid al Awwal (Muhammad ibn Makki al ‘Amili).
This age also saw the composition of a number of polemical works. Amongst the better known of these works is Ibn Mutahhar’s Minhaj al Karamah, in refutation of which Ibn Taymiyyah composed his celebrated Minhaj al Sunnah. Ibn Tawus also contributed to this genre of literature. However, he preferred to do so under an assumed identity. His book, entitled al Tara’if fi Madhahib al Tawa’if, was written under the nom-de-plume ‘Abdul Mahmud ibn Dawood al Mudari. He commences his book with the (false) statement that he is a man from amongst the Ahl al Dhimmah (Jews or Christians living under the protection of the Muslim state). He then proceeds with a comparative study of different religious persuasions, and predictably enough, ends up with Ithna ‘Ashari (Twelver) Shi’ism as the only true religion. Like Abu al Futuh al Razi before him, he seeks to introduce objectivity into his work by assuming the identity of a supposedly unbiased observer.
These are three classical examples of fictitious polemical works. Besides them there are several more, a number of which were composed relatively late. Thus, when ‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din decided to write his own polemical masterpiece, he had before him the examples of eminent scholars of his sect who had made use of the literary style that might be termed “polemical fiction”. Polemical fiction was by that time an established style of writing amongst Shia polemicists. It may therefore be concluded, with considerable certainty, that al Muraja’at too, falls in this category.
Al Muraja’at in the Sunni world
Sunni reactions to al Muraja’at have been varied. Some persons were completely deceived by ‘Abdul Hussain’s careful forgery. Amongst these one may count Sheikh Muhammad Mara’i al Amin al Antaki of Aleppo, Syria. This Sheikh was an al Azhar educated ‘alim whose reading of al Muraja’at led him to embrace the Shia faith. His own book, Limadha Ikhtartu Madhhab al Shia (Why I embraced the madhhab of the Shia) is virtually a reproduction of ‘Abdul Hussain’s arguments in al Muraja’at.
There were others, like the Lebanese writer Dr. ‘Atif Salam, who seemed to have found in this book a foundation whereupon Sunni-Shia unity could be built. Like al Antaki, he too, has reproduced verbatim entire sections from al Muraja’at in his book al Wahdat al ‘Aqa’idiyyah ‘inda al Sunnah wa al Shia (Doctrinal Unity between the Ahlus Sunnah and the Shia). His sentiments were shared by a number of figures who were involved in the Dar at-Taqrib in Cairo, and were thus already receptive of the idea of unity.
This receptivity, coupled with a number of other factors, is probably the cause of their uncritical acceptance of al Muraja’at as an authentic document. The first of these factors was their belief in the complete honesty and openness of Shia participants in unity endeavours. This rendered them credulous, and caused them to disregard the possibility of Taqiyyah on the part of their Shia counterparts. Secondly, most, if not all, of those who were misled into believing in al Muraja’at as an authentic record of Sunni-Shia dialogue were simply not adequately qualified in the field of schismatology. A person like Dr. Hamid Hifni Dawood, for example, who wrote a foreword to one edition of al Muraja’at, might have been the dean of the Faculty of Arabic Language at ‘Ayn Shams University, but that does not make him an expert on comparative studies between Sunnism and Shi’ism. Dr. Muhammad Yusuf Musa, who also wrote a foreword, was a specialist in fiqh, and not in Sunni-Shia comparative studies. None of these men are known for any manner of expertise in the field of hadith, which is a sine qua non for a proper appraisal of the book, as will be revealed in the course of this detailed critical analysis. Strangely, not a single one of them seems to have taken the trouble of learning more about Shi’ism from its authoritative sources. Their blind acceptance of the words of Shia propagandist writers like ‘Abdul Hussain Sharaf al Din, without bothering to compare them with what is contained in the classical legacy of the Shia, is in itself proof of their extreme credulousness.
And last, but most definitely not least, all Sunni “admirers” of al Muraja’at seem to overlook the fact that the arguments advanced in the book effectively negate the validity of Sunni Islam. Endorsing the book is therefore tantamount to the acknowledgement that Sunni Islam is a corrupt and deviate form of original Islam. Therefore, logically, the only ones who could admire the book are those who were actually convinced by it to embrace Shi’ism. Any Sunni who endorses the book but still remains a Sunni finds himself in the contradictory position of regarding one thing as the truth—since that is what the book claims Shi’ism is—but following and practicing another.
There has also been the tendency amongst Sunni ‘ulama’ to ignore the very existence of the book. This trend is reminiscent of Imam Taqiyy al Din al Subki’s reaction to the book Minhaj al Karamah by Ibn Mutahhar al Hilli, and Sheikh al Islam Ibn Taymiyyah’s rebuttal of it, the Minhaj al Sunnah. He set forth his opinion on the Minhaj al Karamah in verse as follows:
إِنَّ الرَّوَافِضَ قَوْمٌ لاَ خَلاَقَ لَهُمْ مِنْ أَجْهَلِ النَّاسِ فِيْ عِلْمٍ وَأكْذَبِهِ
وَالنَّاسُ فِي غُنْيَةٍ عَنْ رَدِّ إِفْكِهِمُ لِهُجْنَةِ الرَّفْضِ وَاسْتِقْبَـاحِ مَذْهَبِهِ
The Shia are a wretched people, most ignorant in knowledge, and most false.
There is no need to rebut their lies, since Shi’ism itself is so vile and repugnant.
This attitude of trusting that the common people will find Shi’ism itself so repulsive that there would be no need to reply to Shi’ite propaganda in detail, overlooks the fact that the Shia propagandist does not approach his target with the repulsive features of his belief. He propagates his faith with a careful strategy calculated to create doubt in the mind of the Sunni about his beliefs as a Sunni, but not so aggressive as to repel him. Like any adept salesman he presents his own faith in a most convincing way, and steers well clear of any controversial elements. The success the book al Muraja’at has had in Sunni circles is proof of the fact that ignoring its existence aids, rather than hinders, its task.
It is for this reason that al Subki’s attitude came under severe criticism from later scholars. One of them, Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Jamal al Din Yusuf of Yemen had the following to say:
يَا أَيُّهَا الرَّجُلُ الْحَامِيْ لِمَذْهَبِهِ أَلْزَمْتَ نَفْسَـكَ أَمْـرًا مَا اُمِرْتَ بِهِ
تَقُوْلُ فِىْ بَاغِضِىْ صَحْبِ الرَّسُوْلِ وَمَنْ يَرَى مَسَبَّـتَهُمْ أَصْلاً لِمَذْهَبِهِ
وَالنَّاسُ فِي غُنْيَةٍ عَنْ رَدِّ إِفْكِهِمُ هذَا هُوَ الإِفْكُ لكِنْ مَا شَعَرْتَ بِهِ
بَلْ رَدُّهْ وَاجِبٌ نُصْحًا وَمَعْذِرَةً وَنُصْـرَةً لِسَبِيْـلِ الْحَقِّ مِنْ شُبَـهِ
إِذَا تَقَوَّلَ فِى الصَّحْبِ الْكِرَامِ فَمَا ذَا تُوْجِبُـوْنَ عَلَيْـهِ يَا ذَوِى النَّـبَهِ
وَقَدْ عَلِمْتُمْ بِأَنَّ الشَّخْصَ دَاعِيَةً إِلَى ضَـلاَلٍ بِـلاَ رَيْبٍ وَلاَ شُبَـهِ
O you who stand in defence of your opinion, you have taken up something other than what you were ordered to.
You say about those who hate the Companions of the Messenger and believe cursing them to be a fundamental of their faith:
“There is no need to rebut their lies”? This, indeed, is the real lie, though you do not know.
Rather, refuting it is obligatory, as an extension of goodwill, a discharge of duty, and in defence of truth against dubious claims.
When this person slanders the Companions, then what punishment do you declare him liable of, O men of intelligence,
knowing without doubt, and without ambiguity, that he is an inviter towards deviation?
Another poet, Abu al Muzaffar Yusuf ibn Muhammad ibn Mas’ud al Surramarri, says:
أَكُلُّ مَا ظَهَرَتْ فِي النَّاسِ هُجْنَـتُه يَصِيْرُ أَهْلاً لإِهْمَـالِ النَّكِيْرِ بِهِ
وَاللهِ لاَ غُنْيَـةَ عَنْ رَدِّ إِفـْكِهـِمُ بَلْ رَدُّهُ وَاجِبٌ أَعْـظِمْ بِمُوْجِبِهِ
أَيُتْرَكُوْنَ يَسُبُّوْنَ الصَّحَـابَةَ وَالْــ ـإِسْلاَمَ يُخْتَالُ زَهْوًا فِي تَصَلُّبِهِ
هذَا مَقـَالٌ شَنِيْـعٌ لَمْ يَقُلْ أَحَد بِهِ وَلاَ رَهْطُ جَـهْمٍ فِىْ تَحَزُّبِهِ
وَاللهِ لَوْ لاَ سُيُـوْفٌ مِنْ أَئِمَّتـِنَا في كَاهِلِ الرَّفْضِ لاَ تَلْوِيْ وَمَنْكِبِهِ
لأَضْحَتِ السُّنّـَةُ الْغَرَّاءُ دَاثِـرَةً بَيْنَ الْبَرِيَّـةِ كَالْعَنْقـَا وَأَغْرِبـِهِ
Does everything whose repulsiveness has become commonly manifest deserve to be ignored and not refuted?
By Allah, there is no way we can refrain from refuting it. It is a duty, and Great is He who ordained it.
Shall they be left to arrogantly and fanatically vilify the Sahabah and Islam?
This is indeed an evil claim which no one, not even the followers of Jahm, ever made.
By Allah, had it not been for the unflinching swords of our Imams upon the shoulders of Shi’ism,
The resplendent Sunnah, just like the ‘anqa bird, would have been obliterated amongst men.
There has been very little critical work done on al Muraja’at. Mention may be made here of two sterling efforts. The first is the work of Mahmud al Zu’bi entitled al Bayyinat fi al Radd ‘ala Abatil al Muraja’at (Clear Signs: a Refutation of the Falsehoods of al Muraja’at). This book in two volumes is probably the most comprehensive response to al Muraja’at. Our present study started out as a translation of this work. It soon became clear that a mere translation would not serve the needs of the English-speaking public. It was therefore decided to write an independent refutation that would draw from al Zu’bi’s work and at the same time fill the gaps left by him. To him, however, goes the honour of chronological precedence.
The second noteworthy contribution is that of the great contemporary muhaddith, Sheikh Muhammad Nasir al Din al Albani. The Sheikh’s series on spurious ahadith entitled Silsilat al Ahadith al Da’ifah is well known. In the second volume of this series he discusses a hadith cited by ‘Abdul Hussain in al Muraja’at. The Sheikh states:
There are several reasons for discussing and analysing the authenticity of this particular hadith. One of it is that I have seen the Sheikh called ‘Abdul Hussain al Musawi, the Shia, citing it in his book al Muraja’at in such a way as to create the impression of it being authentic, which is a thing he habitually does in this type of hadith.
He then gives a lengthy discussion on ‘Abdul Hussain’s deliberate abuse of a simple mistake on the part of Hafiz Ibn Hajar al ‘Asqalani whereby he (i.e. ‘Abdul Hussain) has attempted to prove that the hadith in question is actually authentic. Al Albani seriously questions the honesty and scrupulousness in citing Sunni references for which ‘Abdul Hussain’s admirers have so much praised him. He goes on to say:
The book al Muraja’at is filled with da’if (weak) and mawdu’ (forged) narrations on the subject of the merits of ‘Ali radiya Llahu ‘anhu, in addition to ignorance of this science (of hadith) and the tendency to mislead and deceive the reader. It even contains blatant falsehood in a way that the reader could never imagine possible from a self-respecting author. It is for this reason that I have resolved to discuss critically all those ahadith, as many as they may be, to point out the causes of their weakness, and to reveal the deception and delusion in (the author’s) words. That will be published, if Allah permits, from numbers 4881 to 4975 (in this series).
To the best of our knowledge this part of Silsilat al Ahadith al Da’ifah has not yet seen publication. The value of al Albani’s takhrij (tracing and critical appraisal) of the ahadith cited by ‘Abdul Hussain in al Muraja’at is evident, taking into account his vast knowledge, acknowledged expertise, and long experience in the field of hadith. Recent controversies centering upon him are more jurisprudential in nature, and do nothing to affect his competence as a muhaddith. It would therefore be in the interest of our study to have access to this forthcoming (if not already published) volume of his Silsilah.
As has been mentioned, the book al Muraja’at has seen publication in a number of languages. Presently the English translation of Yasin T. Al Jibouri is especially popular and widely circulated online. Despite the wide circulation it enjoys and its easy availability to the public very little, if anything, has been done to tackle the issues and the evidence it presents. It is either accepted at face value, or else simply ignored. Both these options are equally detrimental, as we have seen. The mirage of al Muraja’at will only be exposed and shattered through a comprehensive critical study of its contents.
Note: From here onwards the actual content of the book comes under critical discussion. Since it is expected that many readers would not have a copy of al-Muraja`at or its translation on hand, it was considered useful to reproduce the entire text of the book before responding to it. In this way we would also prevent the suspicion of misrepresenting the author. The letters in al-Muraja`at are reproduced in red print in groups of two, with our critical commentary following after every second letter, in black.
 Ahmed Mughniyah: al Khumayni Aqwaluhu wa-Af’aluhu p. 45
 The Right Path p.xxiv (Ansariyan Publications, Qum)
 The material for this biographical note is taken from his life-sketch given in the beginning of the 1989 edition of al Muraja’at published by Dar al Bayan al ‘Arabi, Beirut, pp. 51-71, and the biography given on pp. xxiii-xxvi of the Ansariyan Publications edition of The Straight Path.
 Al Muraja’at: A Shia-Sunni dialogue, translated by Yasin T. al Jibouri, Letter no. 111, p. 295
 Al Fusul al Muhimmah p. 32 (Dar az Zahra’, Beirut, 7th ed. 1977)
 Al Sunnah wa Makanatuha fi al Tashri’ al Islami pp. 8-9 (al Maktab al Islami, Beirut, 2nd ed. 1396)
 Al Muraja’at: A Shia-Sunni dialogue, translated by Yasin T. al Jibouri, Introduction, p. 22
 Al Muraja’at: A Shia-Sunni dialogue, p. 24
 ibid. p. 75 and p. 77 (author’s introduction)
 ibid. p. 58 (author’s biography by Sheikh Murtada al Yasin)
 Syria (the French Mandate): entry in Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia
 The Right Path p. xxvi (Ansariyan Publications, Qum)
 ibid. p. xxii
 The Right Path, p. 2
 Once, after the publication of al Muraja’at, the Sheikh’s son, a medical doctor, was asked if he knew anything about his father’s alleged correspondence with ‘Abdul Hussain. He denied any knowledge of it.
 Al Dhari’ah vol. 4 p. 97 no. 452 (3rd ed., Dar al Adwa’, Beirut 1401/1981)
 Riyad al ‘Ulama’ vol. 5 p. 407 (Maktabat Ayatollah al Mar’ashi, Qum 1401/1981)
 Cited by al Mahallati in Rayahin al Shari’ah vol. 4 p. 148 (Dar al Kutub al Islamiyyah)
 See for example al Anwar an Nu’maniyyah by Sayed Ni’mat Allah al Jaza’iri, vol. p. (Mu’assasat al A’lami, Beirut)
 Al Shahid al Thani, quoted by Muhammad Bahr al ‘Ulum in a footnote to Lu’lu’at al Bahrayn of Yusuf al Bahrani, p. 236 (Dar al Adwa’, Beirut 1986)
 Riyad al ‘Ulama’ vol. 5 p. 407
 See Minhaj al Sunnah al Nabawiyyah, part 2, pp. 2-11 (Dar al Kutub al ‘Ilmiyyah, Beirut n.d.)
 Al Albani, Silsilat al Ahadith al Da’ifah wa al Mawdu’ah, vol. 2 p. 295 (Maktabat al Ma’arif, Riyadh 1992)
 ibid. vol. 2 p. 297