16 Reasons Why: Forgery and the Household of the Prophet

By Rami Koujah

This post is part of a series of posts on the latest publication in our Harvard Series in Islamic Law, Hossein Modarressi’s Text and Interpretation: Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and His Legacy in Islamic Law. This series of posts take a deeper dive into the book, which examines the main characteristics of the legal thought of Imām Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, a preeminent religious scholar jurist of Medina in the first half of the second century of the Muslim calendar (mid-eighth century CE).

Sifting the wheat from the chaff of the Prophetic ḥadīth and reports attributed to early Muslim figures has been a perennial challenge, for Muslims and, more recently, non-Muslims alike. Professor Hossein Modarressi’s scholarship has always stood out for his meticulous attention to the nuances of this tradition, and one can glean from his writings the importance of “thick description” (to borrow, liberally, Clifford Geertz’s term[1]) — a deep and broad attention to the intellectual, political, and social background of reports and the individuals transmitting them — to the assessment and study of historical reports.[2] The same rigor is evident in Text and Interpretation, in which he draws our attention to the flurry of transmissions surrounding the Prophet, his Household, and Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq in particular.[3] Obviously important are the motives for such forgeries. Professor Modarressi highlights several such motives in his latest book. This blog post will build on that discussion.

Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 80 or 83-148 AH), whose legal thought and school is the subject of Text and Interpretation, lived during the heyday of ḥadīth transmission and, hence, ḥadīth forgery. Before the crystallization of an “orthodoxy,” Sunnī or Shīʿī, and before the institutionalization of textual-legal authority, there was widespread participation by the “uneducated or unsophisticated masses,”[4] or what Jack Tannous calls “simple believers,”[5] in the circulation of ḥadīth reports. This lay involvement presented a veritable crisis of authenticity of ḥadīth reports.[6] To illustrate this phenomenon, Professor Modarressi relates a humorous, if troubling, incident. One such “simple believer” from Baṣra, an indiscriminate hoarder of ḥadīths, visits Jaʿfar in the hopes of adding to his collection. Jaʿfar invites him to share some of what this Baṣran ḥadīth collector had amassed. Not knowing to whom he was speaking, the Baṣran begins to share statements he had heard on Jaʿfar’s own authority, but in direct contradiction to Jaʿfar’s own teachings. Jaʿfar, who consistently and explicitly maintained the impermissibility of wiping over one’s boots in satisfaction of their ablution, is told by the Baṣran man that “Jaʿfar” said, “Whoever does not wipe over his boots is a heretic.”[7] After hearing several more such statements attributed to himself — all of them on subjects that were earmarks of factional disputes — Jaʿfar asks:

“If you were to meet this man from whom you transmit and he were to say to you, ‘These things that you narrate from me are false, without basis, I do not recognize them, and I did not transmit them,’ would you believe him?” He [the Baṣran] said, “No!” He [Jaʿfar] said, “Why?” He said, “Because those who testified to his sayings were men whose word would be accepted were they to testify with regards to the neck [that is, life] of a man.”[8]

In a world of simple believers, and in which Muslims constituted a minority, appealing to the authority of the Prophet or someone of Jaʿfar’s esteem was a reliable, and very often successful, strategy in inter-/intra-religious debate. Just consider the following figures: the jurist and ḥadīth scholar Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463 AH) estimates that 12,000 ḥadīths were falsely attributed to the Prophet;[9] al-ʿAllāma ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn al-Amīnī (d. 1970) estimates 408,683 forged reports;[10] and from among the Sunnī ḥadīth compilers, Bukhārī verified as ṣaḥīḥ 2,761 from around 600,000 ḥadīths he collected (excluding multiple isnāds), Muslim distilled around 4,000 ṣaḥīḥ reports from 300,000 (excluding multiple isnāds), and Abū Dāwūd verified around 4,800 from 500,000.[11] Clearly, there was a bustling industry of supply and demand of ḥadīth reports in the leadup to their collections in the 3rd/9th century, as well as thereafter.

What were these demands more exactly? First, one might distinguish between motives for fabricating and the group-identity of forgers. Motives can often, though not always, be very difficult to pin down as the line between politics and piety is easy to blur (what ideology underpins predestinarian reports that seem to encourage acquiescence to despotism? — political, theological, or pietistic agendas can be either causal, correlative, or both). Nor are all motives necessarily malicious; many were innocent, pious, or due to ignorance. There can also be factional overlaps, such as between the “proto-Sunnīs”[12] who were indifferent to the figure of ʿAlī and the ʿAbbāsid-era Sunnīs, who sought to rehabilitate and co-opt ʿAlī’s authority towards establishing a Sunnī orthodoxy.[13]

Professor Modarressi mentions three groups active in forging ḥadīths and attributing them to the Prophet, ʿAlī, or Jaʿfar: the quṣṣāṣ (story-tellers, popular preachers), an institution reportedly established by Muʿāwiya, whom Professor Modarressi describes as the “prime engine of fabricators.”[14] Many of the quṣṣāṣ served as a propaganda arm for the Umayyads and concocted reports disparaging ʿAlī and his descendants. With the Sunnī rehabilitation of ʿAlī under the ʿAbbāsids, the output of the quṣṣāṣ and the work it did towards refashioning ʿAlī’s image was incorporated into Sunnī ḥadīth literature. As Professor Modarressi writes, “[t]his was the stage on which the role of ḥadīth transmitters was vitally important, because their many contributions, placed mostly, though not solely, in the mouth of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, presented ʿAlī as someone who fully agreed with the orthodox teachings on every matter, whether historical, doctrinal, or legal.”[15]

A second group Professor Modarressi discusses are the Ghulāt, who promoted an esoteric, fantastical theology and ascribed it to the Shīʿī Imāms, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq in particular.[16] Lastly, both Shīʿī and non-Shīʿī individuals attributed statements to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq with no apparent doctrinal agenda, but they may have sought to capitalize on his scholarly popularity and religious authority.[17]

In general, the motives in the first two groups are apparent, even if perhaps not in every case. Without specifying their specific group-identities, given that there were numerous factions, Professor Modarressi also points out that fabrications fueled much of the sectarian opposition,[18] specifically to the Family or “House of the Prophet” (legal and theological) of the late Umayyad/early ʿAbbāsid period.[19]

Other scholars have enumerated lengthy lists of motives for fabrication of ḥadīth reports. In his al-Mu’āmara al-kubrā ʿalā madrasat Ahl al-Bayt (The Great Conspiracy Against the Household of the Prophet), Hussein al-Rāḍī, a contemporary scholar,[20] enumerates and documents sixteen reasons for fabrication.[21] The remainder of this blogpost will draw on al-Rāḍī’s scholarship to elucidate those reasons. According to al-Rāḍī, these 16 reasons are as follows:

  1. The Ghulāt: This group has already been mentioned, but for more, interested readers can refer to the 193 pages that al-Rāḍī dedicates to discussing them.[22]
  2. Opponents of the Household of the Prophet:[23] some of their enemies built on the work of the Ghulāt by representing the latter’s fabrications as heresies proclaimed by the Imāms themselves.[24] Others denigrated this group or attributed statements to the Imāms that defamed their opponents or that otherwise cast them in a bad light.[25] In other cases, as discussed in another of Professor Modarressi’s articles, non-Alids were praised in order to establish their merit above ʿAlī and his descendants.[26] The role that the Umayyads played in this is effort is well-known. With regards to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq in particular, the extent to which fabrications were attributed to him caused some ḥadīth collectors to regard him as a weak transmitter, which provides a possible reason for his exclusion from Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ.[27]
  3. Heretics who wanted to propel heretical viewpoints (zandaqa); this group could overlap with the output of the Ghulāt.[28]
  4. Factionalist groups (al-taʿaṣṣub lil-madhhab): Their role in fabrication is evidenced by the aforementioned incident with the Baṣran man.[29]
  5. Those interested in promoting certain religious or mundane practices,[30] including actions as ordinary as how to drink water.[31]
  6. Those interested in earning the favor of political rulers.[32]
  7. Those interested in promoting certain pietistic practices.[33]
  8. Those interested in earning money. Muʿāwiya is reported to have paid certain individuals handsomely.[34]
  9. Those interested in fame.[35]
  10. Those interested in promoting certain ritual practices.[36]
  11. Those in opposition to the political stances taken by members of the Household of the Prophet.[37]
  12. Those intent on repressing the Imāms and their followers, to the point that some opponents refrained from transmitting their reports out of fear.[38]
  13. Those cautious about maintaining precautionary secrecy (taqiyya) of some Imāms and their followers. Prompted by the fear that resulted from repression, certain forgers placed fabricated material into reports so that if they were exposed they could claim to have been practicing taqiyya.[39]
  14. Those suffering from religious ignorance.[40]
  15. Those who made innocent mistakes due to lack of expertise.[41] By way of comparison, the Ḥanafīs are known to have required that ḥadīth reports with legal content be transmitted by legally knowledgeable individuals.
  16. Tearjerking: Some narrators believed it was permissible to invent reports in order to elicit the proper sentiments with respect to the memory of the Household of the Prophet.[42]

The motives were many, and surely more could be registered. Further, the challenge of pinning down a single motive also depends on the degree to which available information allows a researcher to identify a specific or general motive. In all cases, if the frenzy of ḥadīth transmission in the 3rd/9th century and thereafter was a bane to the Household of the Prophet, it was certainly a boon to the forger (and can be both to the modern historian).

Hence why some tried to stem the tide of ḥadīth reports altogether by stating that Companions and Successors cautioned people to avoid joining the ḥadīth-reporting circus because of the widespread confusion it was causing.[43] That is why we are told that Abū Hurayra’s (d. 57-59/681-83) contemporaries impugned him for his prolific ḥadīth reporting.[44] Busr b. Saʿīd (d. 100/719) reportedly said: “We used to sit with Abū Hurayra and he would say ‘I heard Abū al-Qāṣim [i.e., the Prophet], say…. Then he would say, ‘Kaʿb[45] reported […].’ Then we would leave the lesson and hear people attribute the saying of the Prophet to Kaʿb and the saying of Kaʿb to the Prophet.”[46] As a result, early Ḥanafī jurists were suspicious of Abū Hurayra’s ḥadīth transmissions despite his known companionship to the Prophet.[47]

Debates on the authenticity of ḥadīth and other early reports are not likely to end any time soon. Although the point that such reports cannot be read with a blind eye to their context and implicit ideologies is not novel, Text and Interpretation shows that understanding the background of early Islamic history that is reliant on ḥadīth reports requires reading with breadth, depth, and, importantly, common sense.

We will get a chance to see more of this through Professor Modarressi’s study of the role that reports on muʿta marriage played in sectarian disputes in a later post.


[1]  Geertz himself borrowed this term from Gilbert Ryle. See Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973), 3-30. In this vein, the meaning of a particular ḥadīth can only be properly interpreted and understood if considered against a thickly described background of events, debates, individuals, and homologous reports.

[2] See Lena Salayeh, The Beginnings of Islamic Law: Late Antique Islamicate Legal Traditions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 39-41.

[3] Hossein Modarressi, Text and Interpretation: Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and His Legacy in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Jack Tannous, The Making of the Medieval Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[6] Many early scholars recognized this fact, including al-Shāfiʿī. See Text and Interpretation, 142 n. 71.

[7] Text and Interpretation, 107-08.

[8] Ibid., 108.

[9] Ibid., 96 n. 453 (citing Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s al-Tamhīd).

[10] Ḥusayn al-Rāḍī, al-Mu’āmara al-kubrā ʿalā madrasat Ahl al-Bayt (Beirut: Dār al-Maḥajjah al-Bayḍāʼ, 2008), 36 (citing al-ʿAllāma ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn Aḥmad al-Amīnī al-Najafī, al-Ghadīr fī al-kitāb wa-l-sunna wa-l-adab, 10 vol. [Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Aʿlamī, 1994], 5:353), though one should be mindful of multiple isnāds for the same or similar mutūn, as well as symbolically exaggerated numbers mentioned in the primary sources.

[11] Ibid., 40.

[12] With noted objections to the label.

[13] Text and Interpretation, 112; Nebil Husayn, Opposing the Imām: The Legacy of the Nawāṣib in Islamic Literature (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 8-10; idem., “The Rehabilitation of ʿAlī in Sunnī Ḥadīth and Historiography,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 29, no. 4, (2019): 565-83.

[14] Text and Interpretation, 110.

[15] Ibid., 112.

[16] Professor Modarressi discusses this group in greater detail in Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shiʻite Islam: Abū Jaʻfar ibn Qiba al-Rāzī and His Contribution to Imāmite Shīʻite Thought (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1993), 19-49. See also al-Rāḍī, Mu’āmara, 69-263.

[17] Text and Interpretation, 10.

[18] Note the fluidity of the “sectarian” affiliation during this early period and take caution against reducing motives to mere ideology. See Marina Rustow, “The Qaraites as Sect: The Tyranny of a Construct,” in Sects and Sectarianism in Jewish History: Sects and Sectarianism in Jewish History, ed. Sacha Stern (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 147-86, 179-82. I thank Rachel Richman for bringing this source to my attention.

[19] Text and Interpretation, 106.

[20] For his criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses in Yemen, Hussein al-Rāḍī was imprisoned without trial in March 2016 and remains there, being deprived of necessary medical treatments for his illnesses. See Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (GIDHR), Twitter post, November 14, 2021, 3:21 a.m., https://twitter.com/gulfidhr/status/1459798527870181379?s=20&t=j73C4Kr9uM9KPuXqxYfwhw.

[21] al-Rāḍī, Mu’āmara, 68-69.

[22] Ibid., 69-262.

[23] Ibid., 263-317.

[24] Ibid., 268.

[25] Ibid., 269-76.

[26] Modarressi, “Early Debates on the Integrity of the Qur’ān: A Brief Survey,” Studia Islamica 77 (1993): 5-39, esp.19-21.

[27] Text and Interpretation, 114-15, 114 n. 517; al-Rāḍī, Mu’āmara, 289-90 (wherein is mentioned the name of specific forgers and forgeries excluded in Professor Modarressi’s quotation).

[28] al-Rāḍī, Mu’āmara, 319. See also Text and Interpretation, 142 n. 73.

[29] al-Rāḍī, Mu’āmara, 319-20.

[30] Ibid., 320-21.

[31] Text and Interpretation, 98.

[32] al-Rāḍī, Mu’āmara, 283, 322.

[33] Ibid., 322.

[34] Ibid., 285-86, 322.

[35] Ibid., 322-23.

[36] Ibid., 323.

[37] Ibid., 324.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 324-25.

[41] Ibid., 325.

[42] Ibid., 326-28.

[43] Abū Bakr al-Jaṣṣāṣ, al-Fuṣūl fī al-uṣūl, 2nd ed., 4 vols. (Kuwait: Wizārat al-Awqāf al-Kuwaytiyya, 1994), 3:132-33.

[44] For documentation, though uncritical, on Abū Hurayra’s prolific output (ikthār) but arguing that it is exaggerated, see Usman Ghani, “‘Abu Hurayra’ a Narrator of Hadith Revisited: An Examination into the Dichotomous Representations of an Important Figure in Hadith with special reference to Classical Islamic modes of Criticism” (PhD diss., University of Exeter, 2011), 84-180.

[45] Kaʿb b. al-Aḥbār (d. 32/652-3) was a Jewish convert to Islam known for his transmission of Biblical lore (isrā’iliyyāt). Considering Abū Hurayra’s claim to fame was his intimate association and study with the Prophet, it is curious why he took as a teacher Kaʿb, who became Muslim well after the Prophet’s death. A context of “simple believers” does not seem to quite cut it as an explanation in this particular case. See M. Schmitz, “Kaʿb al-Aḥbār”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs eds., accessed July 14, 2022, https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/kab-al-ahbar-SIM_3734?lang=en.

[46] al-Jaṣṣāṣ, Fuṣūl, 3:134.

[47] Ibid., 3:131. Abū Bakr al-Jaṣṣāṣ writes that because the Companions often contradicted Abū Hurayra’s reports and reproached him for his profuse transmissions, “we know that what people say about him not forgetting anything he heard is wrong.” The notion that Abū Hurayra’s memory was beyond reproach is due to a report, attributed to Abū Hurayra himself, that the Prophet once covered him with his cloak and prayed that Abū Hurayra would never forget anything he heard from the Prophet. Needless to say, al-Jaṣṣāṣ did not accept its authenticity. Ibid., 3:130-31.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Rami Koujah, 16 Reasons Why: Forgery and the Household of the Prophet, Islamic Law Blog (Aug. 10, 2022), https://islamiclaw.blog/?s=16+Reasons+Why%3A+Forgery+and+the+Household+of+the+Prophet)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Rami Koujah, “16 Reasons Why: Forgery and the Household of the Prophet,” Islamic Law Blog, August 10, 2022, https://islamiclaw.blog/?s=16+Reasons+Why%3A+Forgery+and+the+Household+of+the+Prophet)

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