Debating the Epistemic Value of Hadith: Fatḥ al-bāb of Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Akhbārī (d. 1232/1817) Shiʿite Legal Theory

Debating the Epistemic Value of Hadith: Fatḥ al-bāb of Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Akhbārī (d. 1232/1817)

The abstract explores the debate on the epistemic value of Hadith in Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Akhbārī's "Fatḥ al-bāb," highlighting the Akhbārīs' belief in accessing definitive knowledge through Shiʿi Hadith literature despite the absence of the Twelfth Imam.

Debating the Epistemic Value of Hadith: Fatḥ al-bāb of Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Akhbārī (d. 1232/1817)

Kumail Rajani (University of Exeter) and Nebil Husayn (University of Miami)

The central role of the imam as the sole interpreter of sharīʿa is the hallmark of the Shiʿi legal tradition. Only Imams, in the Twelver Shiʿi legal framework, can interpret God’s revealed law. It is for this reason, Twelver Shiʿites commit to the idea of the necessity of a living imam in every age and time. The Twelver Shiʿites, however, faced a problem of legal authority as a result of the sudden disappearance of the Twelfth Imam in 260/874. The burning question was: Is there any way to ascertain “definitive knowledge” of the sharīʿa in the absence of the Imam? Two divergent theories – insidād (no, the door to knowledge is closed) and infitāḥ (yes, the door to knowledge is open) – were proposed to address this issue. It is commonly assumed that the majority of the Uṣūlīs support the theory of insidād – either both bāb al-ʿilm (“the door to definitive knowledge”) and bāb al-ʿilmī (“the door to certified means to knowledge”) or just bāb al-ʿilm – This position leaves a wider room for engaging in personal juristic reasoning through a broad range of hermeneutical tools. Akhbārīs, on the other hand, unanimously adhere to the theory of infitāḥ.

The text edited and commented upon in Chapter 5 of Shiʿite Legal Theory: Sources and Commentaries is a scathing critique of the insidād position of the Uṣūlīs by Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Akhbārī (d. 1232/1817). This unapologetic and zealous supporter of the Akhbārī school of thought composed Fatḥ al-bāb ilā l-ḥaqq wa-l-ṣawāb to refute the claims and justifications of the Uṣūlīs that the occultation of the twelfth Imam meant that the door to ascertaining definitive knowledge and truly knowing the rulings of God was closed. The inaccessibility of the Imam is essential, Uṣūlīs argued, the inaccessibility of definitive knowledge of the sharīʿal This, in turn, opens the door to a host of non-certainty bearing (ẓannī) proofs. Uṣūlīs went to greater lengths to argue for the credibility of these proofs; Akhbārīs stated that they yield nothing but conjecture with no probative force (ḥujjiyya). Since Sunnis promoted ẓann and ijtihād, Akhbārīs asserted that they did not have imams. Twelver Uṣūlīs, under the influence of Sunnis, adopted the same or similar ẓannī procedures and sources.

Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Akhbārī’s methodological commitment to the Akhbārī school of thought prompted him to advance the view that the occultation of the Twelfth Imam does not mean “definitive knowledge” somehow is lost; the sources remain available, and they are not difficult to understand nor are they deliberately evasive (due to the Imams’ dissimulation – taqiyya), as the Uṣūlīs claim. He uses analogies, examples stories, and scores of akhbār to highlight that the occultation of the Imam, however long its length, does not prevent the Shiʿi community from accessing “definitive knowledge” and certainty. Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Akhbārī argues that one must distinguish between the disappearance of an individual and the disappearance of his intellectual legacy. This is particularly true when, on account of the individual’s charisma – he attracted numerous followers who recorded his teachings, made arrangements to disseminate his commandments, and also preserved the words and teachings of his venerated ancestors. The disappearance of an imam should not lead one to conclude that his legacy has also vanished. For Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Akhbārī, the body of Shiʿi hadith literature is effectively a living imam that is capable of offering definitive, consistent, non-evasive, unambiguous and non-contradictory religious guidance. Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Akhbārī ridicules Uṣūlīs’ skepticism over the ability of the Shiʿi hadiths to provide knowledge; for him, it is like a visual defect, saying “If a person does not have a healthy eye, it is not surprising they will be suspicious of the dawn”.