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Ilm ul-Ghayb and the A’imma, from the view of Ayatollah Sālehi Najaf Ābādī

By Sadiq Meghjee, Seminary of Qom


The discussion of ‘ilm ul-ghayb and the A’imma has been a constant feature throughout the history of scholarly discussions, since the time of the early scholars following the major occultation of the holy twelfth Imam (a) up until now. The importance of this topic can be seen from the wide array of traditions scattered throughout the hadith literature, the fact that many of the early pioneering Shi’i theologians included this topic within their theological treaties and the emergence of the Imam’s possessing such knowledge as a widely (and pivotal) tenet of the Shi’i faith. However one of the areas which till today remains a point of contention among the ulemā is the extent to which the Imams have such knowledge and whether it can be considered to be absolute or limited. Within this paper I will briefly look at this question from the works of the scholars of Baghdad and then focus on the views of the 20th century scholar Ayatullah Sālehi Najaf Ābādī, touching on his views and his efforts in attempting to reform and critique the status quo.


The discussion of ilm ul-ghayb featured quite heavily in the discussions that took place amongst the scholars in the school of Baghdad. Shaykh Mufīd, considered to be amongst the founding scholars who contributed to the crystallization of Shi’i thought, was one of the first scholars to introduce this topic into his theological treatise, saying the Imam has knowledge of certain events that have happened in the past and will happen in the future, to extrapolate from this that they have absolute knowledge of everything would be an untenable position, as it only befits God to possess such an attribute, and while hypothetically one could argue the Imams had access to different types of knowledge, he personally is unable to find certainty with such a view [1]. Sharīf Murtadhā, among the greatest of students of Shaykh Mufīd, mimics the view of his teacher, saying that the only forms of knowledge required for the Imam is that related to his political environment and what is necessary to be known from the rulings of the shari’a [2]. Elsewhere he adds that in areas outside of the two specified fields the Imam can consult with individuals well versed in those fields (ahl ul-khibra)[3].

Shaykh Tusī, the great jurist of the 11th century, repeats the words of his teachers, in particular endorsing the view of Sharīf Murtadhā of the Imam consulting with ahl ul-khibra [4]. However such views did not go unopposed. Abul Fath Karajāki, another of Shaykh Mufīd’s students, put forward a “middle” idea between limited and unlimited knowledge, stating that out of necessity (maslihat wa lutf) God had given the Imam extraordinary knowledge, including but not limited to hidden realitiesand future and past events [5]. Karajāki goes on to state how even though the Imam has been gifted a wide array of knowledge, it still remains limited, and there are realities which they are not aware of. Other Shi’i theologians of Baghdad who differed on this issue was the Nawbakhtiyān, whom Shaykh Mufīd accused of holding the idea that the knowledge of the Imam was unlimited [6] however such a claim is open for questioning as the book Yāqut by Abu-Ishāq ibrāhīm ibn Nawbakht has been found to contain no such views.

While there were differing views from some scholars it can be assumed that the predominant view during the first century after the occultation was that of the Imam having limited and restricted knowledge [7], however in today’s era it could be said to be the opposite [8]. An example of such would be Shaykh Mohammad Hussayn Mozafar (d. 2002/1381) in his book ilm al-Imām, using proof based on both the intellect (min turuq il-aql) and the scripture (al-burhān an-naqli) argues that the Imam is not only aware of everything in reality but as an Imam is essentially required to do so, otherwise he would not be able to perform his role as the Imam and be the proof of God upon mankind [9]. Allāmah Tabatabei, who, in a treatise written in response to Ayatollah Najaf Ābādi, said the following: “By the permission of God the Imam is aware of the realities of the Universe in whatever form they may be present, and he is also aware of everything outside of the material perception such as heavenly creatures (mawjudāt-e-asmā), future and past events” [10]. While such views in respect to the Imam have become the norm [11], there exists a vocal minority who have criticised this position seeking to bring back moderation and views more in line with the earlier scholars of Baghdad.

Ayatollah Sālehi Najaf Ābādī

Sālehi Najaf Ābādī was born in 1302 in the town of Najaf Ābād, and at the age of 15 started seminary studies in Isfahan. Initially studying Arabic and Fiqh under Haj Āqā Rahim Arbābi, he then moved to Qom during the early years of the marji’iyyat of Ayatullah Burujerdi and attended his classes of dars-e-khārij. After Burujerdi passed away he then attended the duroos of Imam Khomeini in fiqh andAllamāh Tabatabei in philosophy. After he had completed his studies he started to teach a variety of topics himself within the seminary of Qom, such as jihād, khums, anfāl, and was credited to be one of the first to write on the concept of wilāyat-ul-faqīh in Persian [12]. He was amongst those named by Rafsanjanī [13] to have been influential on him and Shaheed Muttahari [14] also recalled him as a close friend. In addition to his scholarly activities he also participated in the build up to the Islamic Revolution, resulting in him being both imprisoned and later exiled [15].

Shaheed Jāvīd

In the year 1348 Najaf Ābādī wrote what would become his most monumental work, Shaheed Jāvīd, a book combining his unorthodox opinion on the knowledge of the Imams with the historical event of Karbala, presenting a new understanding on the motive and purpose of Imam Hussayn’s movement. Contrary to what had been understood by Shi’i scholars for centuries in respect to the movement of the Imam that he had left Medina knowing full well of every detail of his martyrdom, Najaf Ābādī on the other hand, while relying on the works of Shaykh Mufīd, Tūsī and Sharīf Murtadha, presented the view that the Imam had left with the genuine intention of establishing a government in Kufa, and while he was aware of impending martyrdom, the exact details of it, such as location time and place remained unknown, and for all the Imam could have known it could have been after the establishment of his desired government.

The motivation for writing the book seems to have come from his time in the presence of Burujerdi, the great faqīh and marja’ of the mid 20th century, who would encourage his students to strive for independent reasoning (ijtihād) in all of the fields they engage in, and would caution them from merely regurgitating the status quo without research. Najaf Ābādī himself said that if Burujerdi never cultivated this sense of responsibility towards research and istinbāt, it would have been unlikely he would have ever written such a book [16].


The publishing of the book caused great controversy, with the book being banned from publishing and referred to as a fitna, with the author himself being cursed openly within the seminaries [17]. Somehow it even ended up being cited as a reason for the killing of the Isfahani scholar Syed Abul Hassan Shams Ābādī, whose body was found dumped in the outskirts of Isfahan. Given the controversial claim being posited the book became the subject of mass refutation, with over 40 rebuttals written by a variety of scholars. Amongst the harshest of opponents was Ayatollah Mohammad Ridha Gulpaygānī who referred to the book as misguiding (kutb dhālah) and called for it not to be studied [18]. Ayatollah Mar’ashī Najafī effectively said the same [19] whereas Ayatollah Sāfī Gulpaygānī fell short of calling it a book of misguidance but nevertheless called its foundation absolutely false (bātil) [20].

Response & Discussion

In response to the intense criticism and stern backlash, Najaf Ābādī wrote a defense of his views in a book called ‘Asā ye Mūsā yā Darmān e ghuluw where he shows the reasoning for his views and critiques his critics. His reasoning can be broken down into four different methods, the Qur’an, the traditions, the intellect and the views of the early scholars of Baghdad.

In his response to Ayatullah Abul Hassan Qazvīnī who argued that before the Imam reaches Imamat it is obligatory for him to have absolute knowledge of everything, he argues that if this proposition is to be correct, then the same should be said of the Prophet and that he should have known of everything before he reached his station of Prophethood, but we know that the Qur’an explictily says otherwise. He uses verse 3 of Chapter 12 (Yusuf) to illustrate how God tells the Prophet he did not know the story of Yusuf before being informed of it by revelation, concluding if this is not true about the Prophet then a fortiori (be tarīq awla) it can not be correct about the Imam either [21] . Elsewhere he refers to verse 101 of Chapter 9 (Tawba) to prove the same point, finishing off the passage in surprise at such a view by asking rhetorically: “Has the author even thought about what he has written”? [22].

Elsewhere, in response to Qazvīnī’s claim that the mushaf of Fatema contains the details of every event to occur in the world and the Imam by possessing this book also has this knowledge, he differs and states this book only contains parts of what will occur as it is logically impossible in respect to the time taken for the book to be written and the size of it to contain absolutely every detail of every person and every event. He even goes through the pains of providing calculations to prove his point [23].

In respect to the tradition in al-Kāfi [24] which mentions how a person cannot be the Hujjat of God if he does not have knowledge of his own destiny, he cites the tradition as weak due to the presence of a known extremist, ibn Qāsim al-Batal, in the chain of narrators, and for being in contradiction to verse 9 of chapter 46 (Ahqaf)of the Qur’an [25]. This seems to be a pretty sensitive point for Najaf Ābādi, who in a separate book criticises Ayatullah Misbāh Yazdī [26] for using this hadith to prove the unlimited knowledge of the Imam, saying: “such views are worse than poison, whereas poison only damages the body, this kills the thoughts and intellect of a person!” [27].

A separate discussion which Allamāh Tabatabei brings up is that this knowledge that the Imam possesses has no effect on his actions (amal) nor does it have any relation with his responsibility (taklīf) as the future events are of those type of reality which God has decreed to absolutely happen, adding that the Imam will always act according to the apparent(dhāhir) and normal ways of decision making [28]. Najaf Ābādī disagrees with this, bringing the view of Shaykh Ansārī on the issue of certainty (qat’), where Ansārī says: “knowledge is in it’s essence proof (hujjat)…and it is not possible for something to be knowledge yet have no binding proof nor bring about an obligation” [29]. Elsewhere to support his arguments he brings the view of Shaykh Tūsī , who commenting on the chapter that the Imams knew when they would die within Kitāb al-Hujjat of Al Kāfi, says: “Such a thing isn’t possible, as protecting the self from evil, from the perspective of the intellect and shari’a (aqlan wa shar’an) is obligatory, and it is not permissible for a person to remain obediently patient on something repulsive (qabīh)” [30]. Thus from this perspective if the Imam did know of what the future held then the act of sending Muslim ibn Aqīl to Kufa while knowing he would have been killed, and the same with the instance of Malik ibn Ashtar with Imam Ali, would be unacceptable [31].

Out of all the refutations written it appears that Najaf Ābādī was most affected by the book Shaheed e Āgāh, the work of the marja’ taqlīd Ayatollah Safi Gulpaygānī, resulting in a more detailed andexpansive response as well as a brief comment on Gulpaygānī’s unscholarly and ill-mannered approach. In the introduction to his response Najaf Ābādī mentions that the criteria for successful research is remaining independent and unbiased and not allowing the emotional relevance of the subject, no matter how sensitive it may be, to interfere and effect the research. Najaf Ābādī then quotes a minimum of 9 instances where Gulpaygānī has either made false accusations or childishly mocked his work, mentioning that Gulpaygānī himself within his introduction [32] apologizes for the unintentional harsh tone he may have used at certain times. It is interesting to note Najaf Ābādī doesn’t accept this platitude and further adds that the apology of Gulpaygānī will not suffice on the Day of Judgement [33].

One thing which Gulpaygānī did within his work which the other writers had not done was attempt to justify and cast aside the views of Shaykh Tūsī and Sharīf Murtadha by claiming what they had said was done in an attempt to appease both the Sunnis and the ruling power of the time. Najaf Ābādī in response brings some more views from both the scholars to further prove how they also believed in the limited knowledge of the Imam, with Sharīf Murtadha saying: “Imam Hussayn never imagined that the people of Kufa would betray him”, with Shaykh Tūsī approving of his teachers views within his own work. Najaf Ābādī continues that it is a travesty and a cause of sorrow that a person can confidently claim such a thing without being familiar or reading their views. If the claim was made unknowingly then such a person has spoken without knowledge, and if the claim was made knowingly then such a person has put an unfounded accusation on the scholars (tohmat zadeh) [34].

Call to moderation

Najaf Ābādī finishes off his book with a small section on the importance of following the middle path, mentioning how in respect to this issue there exists within society two extreme groups, both on either side of the spectrum (ifrāti wa tafreeti). Those who are extreme consider the Imam to have unlimited and innate knowledge (nā mahdūd wa hudhūri) while the other group considers the Imam only to have knowledge of the ahkām and nothing more when it comes to hidden knowledge. He continues by saying that while the group who have fallen short are mocked and not taken seriously, the group who have become extreme are not only encouraged but have found fertile ground to continue propagating and spreading their views. Rather ominously he warns that if this continues society will creep towards more blasphemous views like what happened to the Christians, where they elevated Jesus to the point of Divinity. Finally he concludes with a statement of intent, that the struggle against those who are extreme is of greater importance then fighting those who have fallen short, as those who are extreme have polluted the understanding of Tawhid, whereas those who have fallen short have committed a mistake which wont damage the fundamentals of Islam in any way. Quoting a number of traditions from the A’imma he boldly concludes that those who hold the idea that the A’imma possess unlimited, innate and inherent knowledge (nā mahdūd, hudhūri wa zāti) are worse than the Khwārij in their damage to Islam, let alone the Jews and the Christians [35].


In spite of the topic being a very sensitive one it can be argued that at the very least it warrants an unbiased investigation into the developments, changes and fluctuations that have been undertaken in the understanding amongst the Shi’i ulema of the relationship between ilm ul-ghayb and the A’imma. It is clear to be seen that the conclusion which is commonly accepted today without doubt, starkly differs from the predominant views a century or two after the Occultation, and at times comes into direct conflict with both the Qur’an and the hadith literature. Shaheed Jāvīd played a crucial role in reinvigorating the discussion and acting as a litmus test in this regard, highlighting how many scholars have unanimously taken a position which Najaf Ābādī referred to as brazen extremism (ghuluw). What is certain is that in being able to stand on the views of giants such as Shaykh Tūsī and Sharīf Murtadha, Najaf Ābādi has found himself a sense of credibility which will not allow his arguments to be cast aside without serious consideration. In an era where scholars have taken to taqiyyah from their followers for fear of causing trouble [36], at the very least it would be of injustice not to refer to the works of Najaf Ābādī as a breath of fresh air in bringing an alternative perspective within a system that is increasingly becoming resistant to reformation.


1 Awā’il al-Maqālāt, Shaykh Mufīd, p. 77
2 As-Shāfi, Sharīf Murtadha, p. 325
3 ibid
4 Al-Iqtisād al-Hādi ila ar-Rashād, Shaykh Tūsī , p 192
5 Kanz al-Fu’ād, Karajāki, p. 112
6 Awā’il al-Maqālāt, Shaykh Mufīd, p. 77.
7 Ilm Imām dar dīdgāh Shaykh Mufīd va Shāgirdān vay
8 Ilm ghayb Payambar va Imām az negāh Mutakalimīn va Falāsafeh, p. 16, Mohammad Hassan Nādim
9 Ilm al-Imām, Shaykh Mohamad Husayn Mozafar, p 24
10 Bahthī kutāh dar bāreh ye Ilm Imām, Allāmah Tabatabei, p.3
11 For further examples refer to Umarā e hastī by Abul Fadhl Nabavī, p. 224 and Jawāhir ul-Wilāyah by Syed Mohammad Ali Kāthimaynī Burujerdi
12 Dar mahzar Faqīh Azād, Mohsin Kadivār, p. 227
13 Ruznāmeh risālat, 28 murdad 1368 and ‘Asā ye Mūsā yā Darmān e ghuluw, Najaf Ābādi, p. 11
14 Hamāse yeh Hussayni, Shaheed Muttahari, v. 1, p. 329
15 ‘Asā ye Mūsā yā Darmān e ghuluw, Najaf Ābādī, p. 11-14
16 Kufta gū bā Muhammad Ali Kūsha, p. 2
17 Paik e aftāb peshūheshī dar kār nāmeh va andīsheh nāmeh yeh Ayatullah Mahmūd Taleqānī, Mohammad Esfandyarī, p. 160
18 Sar guzasht kitāb Shaheed Jāvīd, Ridhā Ustadī, p. 181
19 ibid, p. 192
20 Shaheed e Āgāh, Ayatullah Sāfī Gulpaygānī, p. 80
21 Asā ye Mūsā yā Darmān e ghuluw, Najaf Ābādī, p. 16
22 ibid, p.47
23 ibid, p. 32-33. In respect to size, he says: If there are 3.7 billion people on the world, and for each person one line is written, and assuming a page contains 37 lines, it’s clear that such a book would be over 100 million pages and over 100 thousands books, and if we assume each book weighs 1kg then this would weigh more than 100 thousand tonnes! In respect to time, he says: if each line would take less than under a minute to write then writing the events of 3.7 billion people would take 3 billion minutes, which is more than 5,700 years!
24 al-Kāfi, Kulaynī, v. 1, p. 258
25 Asā ye Mūsā yā Darmān e ghuluw, Najaf Ābādī, p. 57-58
26 Rāhnamā shenāsī, Ayatullah Mesbāh Yazdī, p. 482
27 Ghuluw, Ayatullah Najaf Ābādī, p. 15
28 Bahthi kutah dar bareh ye Ilm Imam, Allamah Tabatabei, p.4-7
29 Asā ye Mūsā yā Darmān e ghuluw, Najaf Ābādī, p. 69
30 Talkhīs as-Shafī, Shaykh Tūsī , v. 4, p. 190
31 Asā ye Mūsā yā Darmān e ghuluw, Najaf Ābādī, p. 69-70
32 Shaheed e Āgāh, Ayatullah Sāfī Gulpaygānī, p. 19-20
33 Asā ye Mūsā yā Darmān e ghuluw, Najaf Ābādī, p. 170
34 ibid, p. 190-194
35 ibid, p. 213-221
36 Showkarān e andīsheh, khātirāt Ayatullah Najaf Ābādī, p. 55: I (Ayatullah Najaf Ābādī) mentioned previously that Āqā Borojerdi did not dare write verdicts in his resalah that were against the famous verdicts of the jurists, and would explicitly say that he does taqiyyah from his followers. In his lessons on Salāt al-Jumu’ah he said: “You are surprised at how Imam Sadiq (s) would do taqiyyah in front of his opponents and the government, and give a verdict against what was true? There is no room for surprise here. We have also reached a point where we fear our followers and do not dare write a verdict or opinion (that is against what is famous amongst the jurists) in our resalah!”

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