In this article we wish to share the views of our scholars and in specific our classical scholars and those who came closely after them, regarding the topic of ‘ilm al ghayb (knowledge of the unseen)
Keep in mind that this refers to the absolute knowledge, as the Prophet ﷺ and Imams (as) did indeed have knowledge of some future events but this was either inherited knowledge from the Prophet ﷺ or knowledge they received by divine inspiration
Shaykh al-Saduq (d. 381 AH)
ومن قال: إن الله يبدو له من إحداث رأي وعلم مستفاد فهو كافر بالله. وما كان غير هذا فهو قول المغيرية، ومن ينحل للأئمة علم الغيب. فهذا كفر بالله، وخروج عن الاسلام عندنا.
And whoever professes that “the occurrences become apparent to Allah, through consideration and gained knowledge”, then such a person is a disbeliever in Allah. And what was other than this, then it is the belief of the Mughairiyah sect, and anyone who attributes the knowledge of unseen (‘ilm al ghayb) to the Imams, then that is an act of disbelief (kufr) in Allah and a departure from Islam according to us.Kamal al-Deen wa tamam al-Ni’ma, Volume 1, pg 134
والامام أيضا لم يقف على كل هذه التخاليط التي رويت لأنه لا يعلم الغيب، وإنما هو عبد صالح يعلم الكتاب والسنة، ويعلم من أخبار شيعته ما ينهى إليه.
The Imam also did not become aware of the false and true traditions that had got mixed as they he did not have the knowledge of the Unseen. He was a righteous slave of Allah having knowledge of the Book and Sunnah and among the traditions of Shias he becomes familiar only with those that reach himKamal al-Deen wa tamam al-Ni’ma, Volume 1, pg 138
Shaykh al-Mufeed (d. 413 AH)
He was asked:
الإمام عندنا [مجمع] على أنه يعلم ما يكون، فما بال أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام خرج إلى المسجد وهو يعلم، أنه مقتول وقد عرف قاتله والوقت والزمان؟ وما بال الحسين عليه السلام صار إلى أهل الكوفة وقد علم أنهم يخذلونه ولا ينصرونه، وأنه مقتول في سفرته تلك؟
ولم لما حوصر – وقد علم أن الماء منه لو حفر على أذرع يسيرة – لم يحفر، ولم أعان على نفسه حتى تلف عطشا؟ والحسن عليه السلام وادع معاوية وهو يعلم أنه ينكث ولا يفي ويقتل شيعة أبيه، عليهما السلام.
The consensus we (the twelver Shīʿas) are upon is that the Imām has knowledge of all [events] to come [in the future]. So how is it that ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام made his way to the mosque while he had knowledge that he will be killed, for indeed he knew both his killer and the time and place [that he will be killed]? And how is it that al-Ḥussain bin ʿAlī عليهما السلام advanced to Kūfa, while indeed he knew that they will betray him and will not support him, and he would certainly be killed on his journey to there? And why, when they cornered him and he knew that the water was denied from him, had dug a hole a cubit deep near by – water would spring forth – yet he did not dig or support himself; until he deteriorated from thirst. And al-Ḥassan عليه السلام made peace with Muʿāwiyah and made truce with him, while he knew that he (Muʿāwiyah) would violate [the treaty] and not fulfill it, and [continue] to kill the Shīʿa of his father عليه السلام?al-Masasil al-‘Akbariya, pg 69, Question #20
And it was answered by Shaykh al-Mufeed as follows:
والجواب – وبالله التوفيق -: [عن] قوله: إن الإمام يعلم ما يكون بإجماعنا، أن الأمر على خلاف ما قال. وما أجمعت الشيعة قط على هذا القول، وإنما إجماعهم ثابت على أن الإمام يعلم الحكم في كل ما يكون، دون أن يكون عالما بأعيان ما يحدث ويكون، على التفصيل والتمييز. وهذا يسقط الأصل الذي بنى عليه الأسئلة بأجمعها. ولسنا نمنع أن يعلم الامام أعيان ما يحدث ويكون بإعلام الله تعالى [ له ] ذلك ، فأما القول بأنه يعلم كل ما يكون فلسنا نطلقه ولا نصوب قائله ، لدعواه فيه من غير حجة ولا بيان ، . والقول : بأن أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام كان يعلم قاتله والوقت الذي كان يقتل فيه فقد جاء الخبر متظاهرا أنه كان يعلم في الجملة أنه مقتول ، وجاء أيضا بأنه يعلم قاتله على التفصيل ، فأما علمه بوقت قتله فلم يأت عليه أثر على التحصيل ولو جاء به أثر لم يلزم فيه ما يظنه المعترضون ، إذ كان لا يمتنع أن يتعبده الله تعالى بالصبر على الشهادة والاستسلام للقتل ، ليبلغه بذلك علو الدرجات مالا يبلغه إلا به ، ولعلمه بأنه يطيعه في ذلك طاعة لو كلفها سواه لم يردها ، ولا يكون بذلك أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام ملقيا بيده إلى التهلكة ، ولا معينا على نفسه معونة تستقبح في العقول .
وأما علم الحسين عليه السلام بأن أهل الكوفة خاذلوه ، فلسنا نقطع على ذلك ، إذ لا حجة عليه من عقل ولا سمع ، ولو كان عالما بذلك لكان الجواب عنه ما قد مناه في الجواب عن علم أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام بوقت قتله ومعرفة قاتله كما ذكرناه . و أما دعواه علينا أنا نقول : إن الحسين عليه السلام كان عالما بموضع الماء قادرا عليه ، فلسنا نقول ذلك ، ولا جاء به خبر ، على أن طلب الماء والاجتهاد فيه يقضي بخلاف ذلك ولو ثبت أنه كان عالما بموضع الماء لم يمتنع في العقول أن يكون متعبدا بترك السعي في طلب الماء من حيث كان ممنوعا منه حسب ما ذكرناه في أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام ، غير أن ظاهر الحال بخلاف ذلك على ما قدمناه .
والكلام في علم الحسن عليه السلام بعاقبة موادعته معاوية بخلاف ما تقدم ، وقد جاء الخبر بعلمه بذلك ، وكان شاهد الحال له يقضي به ، غير أنه دفع به عن تعجيل قتله وتسليم أصحابه له إلى معاوية ، وكان في ذلك لطف في بقائه إلى حال مضيه ولطف لبقاء كثير من شيعته وأهله وولده ، ودفع فساد في الدين هو أعظم من الفساد الذي حصل عند هدنته ، وكان عليه السلام أعلم بما صنع لما ذكرناه وبينا الوجوه فيه انتهى كلامه رفع الله مقامه .
The answer – and success comes from Allah – : And as for the reply to the point “the Imām has knowledge of all [events] to come [in the future]”, our consensus is that the affair is different to what was said, since the Shīʿa have only an established consensus that the Imām has knowledge of the rulings of all that is to come, without having the knowledge in essence of everything that will occur, whereupon [knowing] its tiny and particular details. Therefore, this nullifies the foundation that all these questions were built upon. However, we do not deny that the Imām has [some] knowledge of the essence of things that will occur, and that is through Allāh teaching it to him. So as for the statement that they know everything that is to come, we do not take it as absolute, nor do we approve of the one saying it, for their call to it is without any valid evidence or proof.
And the statement that ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام knew his killer, and the time that he would be killed, [we reply] that the news that has reached us apparently only proves that – in summary – he knew that he would be killed, and also that he knew who his killer was in detail. However, as for the knowledge of the time that he would be killed, then there has not been any reports that conclude this; and had this [sort of] report reached us, it would not comply with what the challengers propose, as he did not refuse the [submission in] worship to Allāh, Most High, with patience in his martyrdom and submission to being killed. [Allāh] informing him of this raises his ranks, where he did not inform anyone else [about their death]. His (Allāh’s) knowledge that he will obey him in that an obedience that if it were burdened upon any one else, would not have been able to be carried out. And thus, ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام would not voluntarily meet his demise, nor would he aid something against himself, in a way that is repulsive to the intellect.
As for al-Ḥussain عليه السلام, that he had knowledge that the people of Kūfa would betray him, [we reply] that we do not assert that this is the case since there is no valid evidence for this – be it intellectually or through reports. And if he had knowledge in this, the response to it would be what was examined in the answer about the knowledge of ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام in regards to the time of his death, and his cognizance in his killer as we have mentioned. As for the claim that al-Ḥussain had knowledge of the location of water and was capable of retrieving it, then we do not say this, and there has not reached us any news of this, and in fact his search and struggle for water demands the opposite of that. [However], if we say that it was established that he had knowledge in the locality of the water, it does not go against the intellect that he is [in submission] worshiping by neglecting striving in seeking water from the perspective that it was forbidden for him to do so, as per what we mentioned earlier regarding ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام, besides the fact that the apparent situation is in opposition to this anyway, as we have already presented.
As for the discussion about the knowledge of al-Ḥassan عليه السلام, in the consequences of his reconciliation with Mu‘awiyah is differing from the previous [cases], for it has reached us through the reports that he had knowledge of this. And the occurrences that took place validate this, despite that it warded off the hastening of his death, and the surrendering of him to Mu`awiyah by his companions. And in that was a grace for him to remain [alive] until his passing, and a grace in the survival of the abundance of the Shīʿa, his family, and his children. The prevention of corruption within the religion has far more value than the corruption that was obtained through the peace treaty. And he عليه السلام was most knowledgeable with what ensued from what we have discussed, and we have presented the different perspectives in it.al-Masasil al-‘Akbariya, pg 69, Question #20
Shareef al-Murtadha (d. 436 AH)
معاذ الله ان نوجب للامام من العلوم إلا ما تقتضيه ولايته٫ واسند إليه من الاحكام الشريعة٫ وعلم الغيب خارج عن هذ
God forbid that we require the Imam to have knowledge of things beyond what is required by his wilaya, and what he relies on for Islamic rulings, and the knowledge of the unseen [‘ilm al ghayb] is not part of thisal-Shafi, Volume 3, pg 188
Shaykh al-Tusi (d. 460 AH)
ولم نوجب أن يكون عالما بما لا تعلق له بالاحكام الشريعة
We do not consider it necessary for the Imam to have any knowledge of things which are not related to the Islamic lawsTalkhis al-Shafi, Volume 1, pg 252
Shaykh Tabarsi (d. 548 AH)
ولا نعلم أحدا منهم استجاز الوصف بعلم الغيب لأحد من الخلق، فإنما يستحق الوصف بذلك من يعلم جميع المعلومات، لا بعلم مستفاد. وهذه صفة القديم سبحانه، العالم لذاته، لا يشركه فيها أحد من المخلوقين. ومن اعتقد أن غير الله سبحانه يشركه في هذه الصفة فهو خارج عن ملة الاسلام.
We do not know of any Shia scholar who permits attributing the knowledge of ghaib to any of the makhlooq (creatures) for the only one who is worthy of being characterized by such an attribute is the one who possesses all knowledge without acquisition. And this is true only for Allah whose knowledge is eternal and He knows everything by Himself (without acquiring it from any source). None is a partner of Him in this attribute and whoever believes that anyone other than Allah has ‘ilm al-ghaib then he is outside the fold of Islam.Majma’ al-Bayan, Volume 5, pg 352
Ibn Shahrashub (d. 588 AH)
قوله سبحانه وَ لٰا أَعْلَمُ الْغَيْبَ و قوله الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ النبي و الإمام يجب أن يعلما علوم الدين و الشريعة و لا يجب أن يعلما الغيب و ما كان و ما يكون لأن ذلك يؤدي إلى أنهما مشاركان للقديم تعالى في جميع معلوماته و معلوماته لا تتناهى
روي أن أمير المؤمنين ع كان يعلم أنه مقتول و أن قاتله ابن ملجم فلا يجوز أن يكون عالما بالوقت الذي يقتله فيه على التعيين لأنه لو علم ذلك لوجب عليه أن يدفعه عن نفسه و لا يلقي بيده إلى التهلكة و إن هذا في علم الجملة غير واجب
[Regarding] His saying, Glory be to Him, “[..] nor do I [the Prophet ﷺ] know the unseen [..]” (6:50), and His saying, “Those who believe in the unseen [..]” (2:3)
It is a necessity that the Prophet and the Imam have knowledge of the religion and sharia [islamic law], and it is not necessary for them to have knowledge of the unseen and what was and what will happen [the future], because that leads to the fact that they are partners with the Almighty in all of his knowledge and His knowledge is endless.Mutashabih al Quran, Volume 1, pg 211
It has been narrated Ameer al-Mumineem عليه السلام knew that he would be killed and that his killer will be ibn Muljim, and it is not permissable/possible that he knows the time he will be killed in, in detail (?) because if he knew that, it would be obligatory on him to protect himself [..]
Commentary on ahadith
We would like to add the comments of the contemporary scholar Ayatollah Shaykh Asif al-Mohseni (ra) where he comments on the relevant chapter in Bihar al-Anwar:
And what is of benefit from the news within the chapter – from it the second hadith being reliable in its chain on the apparent – is his عليه السلام knowledge in his martyrdom itself. It is said that there is abundantly recurring narrations in the reports of the declaration of his martyrdom before his death. However, as for the year of his martyrdom, and who his killer was – being ʿAbd al-Raḥmān bin Muljim – and the knowledge of the night of his martyrdom, then it has been reported in narrations that are not reliable, and Allāh is the knowledgeable in the reality of this affair.Mashra’at al-Bihar, Volume 2, pg 130
قُل لَّا أَمْلِكُ لِنَفْسِي نَفْعًا وَلَا ضَرًّا إِلَّا مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ ۚ وَلَوْ كُنتُ أَعْلَمُ الْغَيْبَ لَاسْتَكْثَرْتُ مِنَ الْخَيْرِ وَمَا مَسَّنِيَ السُّوءُ ۚ إِنْ أَنَا إِلَّا نَذِيرٌ وَبَشِيرٌ لِّقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ
Say: “I have no control over any beneﬁt for myself nor [over] any harm except what Allah may will. Had I known the Unseen, I would have acquired much good, and no ill would have befallen me. I am only a warner and a bearer of good news to a people who have faith.”Surat al-A’araf, Verse 188
Allamah Muhammad Husayn al-Tabatabai
The polytheists’ question in the last verse implied that one who claims to be a prophet is eﬀectively claiming to know the unseen. But that is not true, because only God has genuine and independent knowledge of the unseen. Others can know only through God’s revelation and teaching. In this verse, God orders His Prophet to dissociate himself from the claim of knowing the unseen.Tafsir al-Mizan, Chapter 7, Verses 187-188 – Link
The real reason for why God is the only being with knowledge of the unseen is that all other beings—without exception—are limited in their existence. Their being is deﬁned by some boundaries. A corollary of this is that they do not have access to what lies beyond their existential boundaries. God is the only being that is unlimited, inﬁnite and encompassing of all things. Hence, He is the only One Who knows the unseen.
Explaining this real reason would be somewhat advanced for the simple minds of the Prophet’s audience at the time. That is why God commands His Prophet to talk to them in terms that they would be able to comprehend. The verse’s explanation can be elaborated as follows: The knowledge of the unseen would guide one to every beneﬁt and harm. If one were to know what is beneﬁcial and what is harmful to them, they would naturally use that knowledge in their advantage. Therefore, if one does not maximize their beneﬁt and minimize their harm, it is a sign that they do not know the unseen.
Say, “I have no control…”: This part of the verse gives a description of the Prophet which contradicts his knowledge of the unseen.
… Had I known the Unseen…: This part of the verse clariﬁes the consequence of knowing the unseen. The two parts together negate knowledge of the unseen from the Prophet.
… I am only a warner…: The last part of the verse clariﬁes the Prophet’s real function and position. His sole claim is that he is a messenger, nothing else.
ابن المغيرة، قال: كنت عند أبي الحسن عليه السلام أنا ويحيى بن عبد الله بن الحسن عليه السلام فقال يحيى: جعلت فداك انهم يزعمون انك تعلم الغيب؟ فقال: سبحان الله سبحان الله ضع يدك على رأسي، فوالله ما بقيت في جسدي شعرة ولا في رأسي الا قامت.
قال، ثم قال: لا والله ما هي الا وراثة عن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله.
Ibn al-Mughira said: I was with Abi al-Hasan عليه السلام together with Yahya bin Abdallah bin al-Hasan, so Yahya said to him: may I be made your ransom, they think that you know the Ghayb (unseen), so he عليه السلام said: praise be to Allah, praise be to Allah, put your hand upon my hair, for by Allah – there is not a hair in my body nor upon my head except that it has stood (i.e. in apprehension of their false claim), he (Ibn al-Mughira) said: then he عليه السلام said: no by Allah, it (i.e. the glimpses of the unseen) is not but an inheritance from the messenger of Allah ﷺ.Ikhtiyar Ma’rifat Rijal al-Kashi, Volume 2, pg 587
أبي بصير، قال: قلت لأبي عبد الله عليه السلام: انهم يقولون، قال: وما يقولون؟ قلت:
يقولون تعلم قطر المطر وعدد النجوم وورق الشجر ووزن ما في البحر وعدد التراب، فرفع يده إلى السماء، وقال: سبحان الله سبحان الله لا والله ما يعلم هذا الا الله!!
Abi Basir said: I said to Abi Abdillah عليه السلام – they do say, he said: and what do they say? I said: they say that you know the number of the drops in the rain, and the number of the stars, and the number of leaves in all the trees, and the weight of what is in the ocean, and the number of sand particles, so he عليه السلام raised his hand to the sky and said: praise be to Allah, praise be to Allah, no by Allah, no one knows this except for Allah.Ikhtiyar Ma’rifat Rijal al-Kashi, Volume 2, pg 588
And it has also been narrated in Nahjul Balagha:
فقال له بعض أصحابه: لقد أَعطيت يا أميرالمؤمنين علم الغيب! فضحك (عليه السلام)، وقال للرجل ـ وكان كلبياً ـ :
يَا أَخَا كَلْب، لَيْسَ هُوَ بِعِلْمِ غَيْب، وَإِنَّمَا هُوَ تَعَلُّمٌ مِنْ ذِي عِلْم، وَإِنَّمَا عِلْمُ الْغَيْبِ عِلْمُ السَّاعَةِ، وَمَا عَدَّدَهُ اللهُ سُبْحَانَهُ بِقَوْلِهِ: (إِنَّ اللهَ عِنْدَهُ عِلْمُ السَّاعَةِ وَ يُنَزِّلُ الْغَيْثُ، وَ يَعْلَمُ ما فِى الاْرْحامِ، وَ لاتَدْرى نَفْسٌ ماذا تَكْسِبُ غَداً، وَ ما تَدْرى نَفْسٌ بِاَىِّ اَرْض تَموتُ..).الاية. فَيَعْلَمُ سُبْحَانَهُ مَا فِي الاْرْحَامِ مِنْ ذَكَر أَوْ أُنْثَى، وَقَبِيح أَوْ جَمِيل، وَسَخِيٍّ أَوْ بَخِيل، وَشَقيّ أَوْ سَعِيد، وَمَنْ يَكُونُ فِي النَّارِ حَطَباً، أَوْ فِي الْجِنَانِ لِلنَّبِيِّينَ مُرَافِقاً; فَهذَا عَلْمُ الْغَيْبِ الَّذِي لاَ يَعْلَمُهُ أَحَدٌ إِلاَّ اللهُ، وَمَا سِوَى ذلِكَ فَعِلْمٌ عَلَّمَهُ اللهُ نَبِيَّهُ (صلى الله عليه وآله) فَعَلَّمَنِيهِ، وَدَعَا لِي بِأَنْ يَعِيَهُ صَدْرِي، وَتَضْطَمَّ عَلَيْهِ جَوَانِحِي.
One of his companions said to him: O Amir al-mu’minin, you have been given knowledge of the unseen.
Whereupon Amir al-mu’minin (as) laughed and said to the man who belonged to the tribe of Banu Kalb:
O brother of Kalb! This is not knowledge of hidden things (‘ilmu’l-ghayb), these matters have been acquired from him (namely in Prophet) who knew them. As regard knowledge of hidden things, that means knowledge of the Day of Judgement, and the things covered by Allah in the verse:
“Verily, Allah is He with Whom is the knowledge of the Hour; He sends down the rain, and He knows what is in the wombs. No soul knows what it will earn tomorrow, and no soul knows in what land it will die..” (Qur’an, 31:34)
Therefore, Allah alone knows what is there in the wombs, whether male or female, ugly or handsome, generous or miserly, mischievous or pious, and who will be the fuel for Hell and who will be in the company of the Prophets in Paradise. This is the knowledge of the hidden things which is not known to anyone save Allah. All else is that whose knowledge Allah passed on to His Prophet and he passed it on to me, and prayed for me that my bosom may retain it and my ribs may hold it.Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 128 – Link
(1) Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, VI, 48;
(2) Ibn al-‘Athir, al-Nihayah, (b.j.r);
(3) al-Saduq, al-‘Amali;
(4) al-‘Amidi, Ghurar, 329;
(5) al-Karajiki, Ma’dan, 226;
(6) al-Bayhaqi, al-Mahasin, 41;
(7) al-Jahiz, al-Hayawan, II, 90.
The annotator of Nahjul Balagha comments on this part of the sermon:
To know hidden things on a personal level is one thing, while to be gifted by Allah with knowledge of any matter and to convey it to others is different. The knowledge of the future which the prophets and vicegerents possess is gained by them through Allah’s teaching and informing. Allah alone has knowledge of events which are to happen in the future. Of course, He passes this knowledge on to whoever He wills. Thus He says:
(He alone is) the “Knower of the unseen, neither doth He reveal His secrets unto any (one else) save unto that one of the Messengers whom He chooseth…” (Qur’an, 72:26-27)
In this way Amir al-mu’minin also received knowledge of the future through the instructions of the Prophet or inspiration from Allah, for which these words of Amir al-mu’minin stand evidence. Of course, sometimes it is not proper or expedient to disclose certain matters and they are allowed to remain under a veil. Then no one can be acquainted with them as Allah says: Verily, Allah is He with Whom is the knowledge of the Hour and He sendeth down the rain, and knoweth He what is in the wombs; and knoweth not any soul what he shall earn the morrow, and knoweth not any soul in what lands he shall die: Verily Allah is All-knowing, All- aware. (Qur’an, 31:34)Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 128, Footnote #3 – Link