1 Rulers as Authors: ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and the Other Twelver Imams

In: Rulers as Authors in the Islamic World
Teresa Bernheimer
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From commentaries on the Quran, to poetry, sermons, medicine, law, works of supplication, alchemy, even advice on sexual conduct: the Shiʿite Imams are recorded as authors for works of an astonishing variety of topics and genres. The article gives a first overview of the kinds of works ascribed to the Imams of the Twelver Shiʿi tradition, and explores the purpose and context of these ascriptions. The division into categories of works (exegetical works, collections of traditions, masāʾil works, legal works, devotional literature, sermons and sayings, theological treatises, medical works, poetry, alchemy) is necessarily tentative, and often ambiguous, as the material overlaps or cannot be clearly defined, or is extant only in short citations in later works. Some works are known only by title. The overview is thus meant to illustrate the breath of material ascribed to the Imams, which may tell us more about community formation and the development of scholarship in Islam than about authorship.


When the bookseller Ibn al-Nadīm (d. 380/990) completed his famous Fihrist (‘The Catalogue’) in late 4th/10th-century Baghdad, he claimed to have listed all the books ever written in or translated into Arabic.* The list is impressive, and covers anything from the monotheist scriptures to Arabic grammar and Greek sciences.1 To modern scholars, the Fihrist has been immensely valuable as it provides a window on the intellectual world of 4th/10th-century Baghdad—all the more so as many of the works listed in the Fihrist are no longer extant, and many titles and authors are known only from their entries in the Fihrist.2 As for the Imams of the Shīʿa, the first Imam ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 41/661) appears among the great orators (khuṭabāʾ) of early Islam; Ibn al-Nadīm also credits him to be the founder of Arabic grammar. The fifth Imam, Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Bāqir (d. 114/732), is said to have been the first author of a tafsīr, a commentary on the Quran.3 But apart from ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and Muḥammad al-Bāqir, none of the other Imams of the Twelver branch of Shiʿi Islam (the Ithnā ʿashariyya) are listed as authors in the Fihrist. Not in the section on the books of the Shīʿa, nor elsewhere.4 This absence is indeed surprising: later Islamic tradition, both Sunni and Shiʿi, record a great number of works ascribed to the Twelver Imams. Would Ibn al-Nadīm, as a proud Shiʿi and meticulous bibliographer, not have been eager to include such references?

Thus far, few studies have looked in detail at works ascribed to the Twelver Imams. Brief discussions are included in encyclopaedia entries on individual Imams, or in the introduction of editions of works ascribed to them.5 Some titles are gathered in the great bibliographical studies of Arabic books, such as Sezgin’s Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums, Muḥsin al-Amīn’s Aʿyān al-shīʿa, or Āghā Buzurg al- Ṭihrānī’s massive bibliography of Twelver texts, al-Dharīʿa ilā taṣānīf al-Shīʿa.6 Studies on the emergence of Shiʿism have also broached the subject, though here the focus has been more on the so-called “secret books”, works containing sacred knowledge that were in the possession of the Imams. To date, there has been no attempt at a comprehensive survey, nor has there been much detailed analysis of individual works. The one exception is an article by Ron Buckley on the many works ascribed to the sixth Imam of the Twelver Shiʿi tradition, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 148/765).7

My article also makes no claim to comprehensiveness; I aim to give a first overview of the kinds of works ascribed to the Imams of the Twelver Shiʿi tradition, and explore the purpose and context of these ascriptions. To get a sense of where and when books ascribed to the Imams were known and used, I have combed through a range of sources, from the first Shiʿi literature to early book lists, such as Ibn al-Nadīm’s Fihrist or the library catalogue of the Shiʿi scholar Ibn Ṭāwūs (d. 664/1266). Particularly interesting is the 7th/13th-century catalogue of the Ashrafiyya library in Damascus, among the earliest and largest libraries of the medieval Islamic world for which we have documentation: contemporaneous to the book list of Ibn Ṭāwūs, the Ashrafiyya library formed part of an endowment of the Ayyubid Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf (d. 636/1237) and contained a number of titles ascribed to the Imams—perhaps an indication of the complexity of al-Malik al-Ashraf’s patronage.8 In what follows I will also highlight some of the avenues the topic offers, on concepts of authorship in the historiography of Islam, as well as on the emergence and consolidations of Shiʿism, and the cross-denominational veneration of the family of the Prophet Muhammad.

1 “Secret Books”, and the Question of Authority

Some fascinating works associated with the Shiʿi Imams are the so-called “secret books”—works of divine origin said to have been in the possession of the Imams. These works are said to have contained knowledge not available to others, particularly not to those outside the Imams’ community. Some citations are included in later sources, but generally, they were not even passed down in the Shiʿi community—their existence and knowledge of their content ceased with the death of the 11th Imam (d. 260/874). The numbers and titles of these kinds of works differ in the sources: as Amir-Moezzi notes, “apparently a number of titles are ascribed to a single book, or, inversely, one title is given to a number of different books.”9 Among the best-known examples is the Ṣaḥīfa al-jāmiʿa, also known as al-Muṣḥaf or al-Ṣaḥīfa or Kitāb ʿAlī, a work said to have been dictated by the Prophet Muḥammad to his cousin ʿAlī. This book, often described as a very lengthy parchment (its great size is frequently remarked upon), is said to contain all knowledge, in particular everything on what is lawful and unlawful.10 Most quotations from the Kitāb ʿAlī as preserved in later works relate to legal topics, ranging from prayer to questions on marriage and divorce and inheritance.11

Another intriguing work in this group of “secret books” is the so-called Kitāb al-Jafr, or simply jafr. Allegedly there was a red and white jafr, the first a book of predictions and knowledge passed down from former prophets, and including the Psalms of David, Moses’ Pentateuch, the scrolls of Adam, the New Testament, and other legal prescriptions.12 The red jafr was not so much a book but a receptacle containing a weapon to be used by the hidden Imam on the day of judgment. The jafr is also said to have been based on dictations made by the Prophet to ʿAlī; later tradition, however, connects it to the sixth Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq.13

Another work of divine origin is the Kitāb (or Muṣḥaf) Fāṭima, a work that the Prophet’s daughter received from the angel Gabriel after her father’s death, and then dictated to her husband, ʿAlī. It is said to have included knowledge of things to come in the future, particularly the names of all legitimate rulers, i.e. the Twelve Imams.14

In addition to the works of secret knowledge revealed or dictated to the Imams and transmitted by them, there are also secret books that contain special knowledge of the past, such as traditions from past prophets. Some examples are the Ṣuḥuf Mūsā or the Ṣaḥīfat Ādam, which allegedly contained a description of the ahl al-bayt.15 Kohlberg suggests that these kinds of works are mentioned for two main reasons: “to underscore the wisdom of the imams, whose knowledge far transcends that of other mortals; and to show that there are various scriptures, approaching the Qurʾān in stature, where Shiʿi tenets find support”.16 Crucially for the present purposes, the “secret books”, while clearly important for authority and legitimacy of the Shiʿi community, were arguably not actually “authored” by the Imams. Rather, they are works of divine—or human—origin entrusted to them; the Imams were their transmitters and safe-keepers, but not actually their authors.

2 Authorship, Authenticity, and an Overview

So what actually constitutes “authorship” in the works ascribed to the Imams? What is immediately striking is the wide variety of titles ascribed to the Shiʿi Imams, as well as the many kinds of “authorial manifestations” encountered. A recent volume by Lale Behzadi and Jaako Hämeen-Anttila on Concepts of Authorship in Pre-Modern Arabic Texts explores some of the manifold possibilities of “authorship”. One gets the impression that each pre-modern Arabic text has its own particular notion of authorship.17 As regards the works of the Imams, none of the ascribed works can be surely said to have been written by the Imams, and transmitted in that form, down to the present period. Instead, many famous works ascribed to the Shiʿi Imams were written down only after a lengthy period of oral transmissions; or they are part of later compilations of material. For instance, the Nahj al-balāgha, a collection of sermons and saying attributed to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, was compiled by the Shiʿi scholar al-Sharīf al-Raḍī (d. 406/1016) in the late third/ninth century, some three hundred years after ʿAlī’s death; until they were committed to writing, the sermons had gone through a long period of oral transmission. We might reasonably ask: in what sense is ʿAlī really the “author” of this work? Similarly, the Risālat al-Ḥuqūq, a short treatise on the rights and duties of man attributed to the fourth imam ʿAlī Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn, was transmitted as part of later collections of Shiʿi material, and only appeared as a stand-alone work in the modern period.18 Or the collection of different epistles and writings ascribed to the Imams, a work now lost, but listed by Ibn Ṭāwūs under al-Kulaynī’s entry as a Kitāb al-Rasāʾil or Rasāʾil al-aʾimma.19

Whether the Twelver Imams should actually be considered as the “authors” of some of the works ascribed to them must be explored further. Some attributions stand in clear conflict with modern conceptions of “authorship”, particular with the conception of one author, and the modern emphasis on creativity and originality in literary authorship. The majority of texts are religious in nature, and as such averse to explicit originality. That they are ascribed to the Shiʿi Imams may tell us more about debates about authority and community formation than about actual authorship.20

Perhaps even more contentious than authorship is the question of authenticity. Modern scholars give a range of answers to the question whether the works ascribed to the Imams are to be considered authentic. Brockelmann in his survey of Arabic literature includes a chapter on the “Pseudo-ʿAlid Literature”, where he draws particular attention to the (in his view doubtful) ascriptions of works to ʿAlī and the fourth Imam Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn.21 Tahera Qutbuddin, in a study of the sermons ascribed to ʿAlī, has a different opinion. She suggests that “… it is likely that the recorded sermons attributed to ʿAlī possess a genuine core, and a portion of the orations and sayings attributed to him are authentic, some in essence, some even verbatim.”22

In contrast, Meir Bar Asher in his study of early Imāmī exegesis asserts that

Although Imāmī tradition ascribes many works to the Imams—some being holy scriptures, which according to Imāmī belief were handed down to them, and others of their own composition—these are clearly pseudoepigraphic. Some of these works are completely unknown safe for their alleged titles, and others are said to have been composed by the Imams (e.g. the Qurʾān commentaries attributed to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī) are clearly ahistorically ascribed to them.23

Again on the Nahj al-balāgha, Robert Gleave sidesteps the issue of authenticity by emphasizing its meaning for the Shiʿi community: “As for questions of dating and attribution, the material within the Nahj al-balāgha certainly dates from earlier than al-Raḍī, and portions of it perhaps even from ʿAlī’s time. For Shiʿi believers, however, the elevating content of the work provides a calibre of spiritual guidance which renders questions of authenticity irrelevant.”24

I will not add to these evaluations here; clearly, many questions of authorship, authenticity, and definition remain to be addressed. What is certainly intriguing is that such a large variety of works ascribed to the imams exists or existed. The following is a first overview of these works, divided into ten main categories. Rather than giving a comprehensive list, which is not possible given the current state of research, I give examples for each category to illustrate the breadth and kind of material that is ascribed to the Imams. Importantly, the division into the categories is necessarily tentative—and often ambiguous, as the material overlaps or cannot be clearly defined, as the work is only extant in short citations, or known only by title. For instance, what exactly is to be classified as a legal work is a difficult matter, as the Imams’ statements are generally regarded as divinely-inspired, and constitute both a commentary on and an extension of the revelation. The following categories are thus primarily meant to show the scope of the materials ascribed to the Imams.

2.1 Exegetical Works

Exegetical knowledge of the Quran is among the central faculties attributed to the Shiʿi Imams.25 It is thus curious that only a handful of exegetical works are actually ascribed to them. The best-known tafsīr is said to have been authored by the fifth Imam Muḥammad al-Bāqir. As mentioned above, al-Bāqir is credited by Ibn al-Nadīm as the founder of the exegetical tradition in Islam. His commentary is partially preserved in the tafsīr of ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm al-Qummī (d. after 307/919), himself a contemporary of the eleventh Imam and perhaps the most important Imāmī traditionist of the third/ninth century. Al-Bāqir’s commentary is transmitted via Abū al-Jārūd, the eponymous founder of the Jārūdiyya sub-group of the Zaydī Shiʿis.26 In the library list of Ibn Ṭāwūs, there is also a work entitled Tafsīr mansūb ilā (Abī Jaʿfar) al-Bāqir. The commentary for the verses quoted by Ibn Ṭāwūs (Q 2:67, 4:58, 9:119 with 33:23, 16:90), however, Kohlberg has found to be different to the one given in the recension by Abū al-Jārūd; he thus tentatively concludes that Ibn Ṭāwūs either had access to material not included in the extant version of Abū al-Jārūd’s transmission, or indeed cites a different work that is not otherwise attested.27

The sixth Imam al-Ṣādiq is another important interpreter of the Quran, and a great number of exegetical traditions are attributed to him. As Buckley points out, many of these traditions are not strictly part of the genre of exegesis, but are included in the works of the early Shiʿi authors, such as al-Kulaynī, (d. 328/940), Ibn Bābawayh (d. 381/991), or al-Ṣaffār al-Qummī (d. 290/903).28 As for an exegetical work ascribed to al-Ṣādiq, Sezgin lists a few manuscripts entitled Tafsīr al-Qurʾān, the earliest of which, now in the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library in Bankipore, was apparently a 10th-century compilation of sayings attributed to the sixth Imam by one al-Nuʿmanī (10th century). A commentary attributed to al-Ṣādiq was also transmitted in the Sufi tradition, in the Ḥaqāʾiq al-Tafsīr by Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī (d. 412/1021).29 Parts of a commentary attributed to the eleventh Imam al-ʿAskarī are preserved in the Kitāb al-Iḥtijāj of al-Ṭabrisī (fl. first half of 6th/12th), though this ascription has long been in doubt.30

2.2 Collections of Traditions

Examples of aḥādīth ascribed to the Imams are found throughout the literature. Particularly Muḥammad al-Bāqir and Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, the fifth and sixth Imams, are important authorities in the Shiʿi traditions, and frequently appear as authorities in Sunni works as well.31 In the modern period, traditions ascribed to a particular Imam have been collected and published as independent works, one example being the Musnad of Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn.32 This practice was not unknown to medieval scholars: a collection of pietistic aḥādīth entitled Miṣbāḥ al-sharīʿa and ascribed to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq appears in the book list of Ibn Ṭāwūs, who seems to have first attributed it to the Imam.33 Another early collection is the Musnad Mūsā al-Kāẓim collected by Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. ʿAbdallāh al-Shāfiʿī al-Bazzāz (d. 354/965).34

An interesting example of a collection of traditions is the Ṣaḥīfat al-Riḍā, a collection of some 240 traditions transmitted from the eighth Imam, ʿAlī al-Riḍā (d. 203/818). The work is said to have been written down by one ʿAbdallāh b. Aḥmad b. ʿĀmir, who heard it from his father Aḥmad, who heard it from al-Riḍā in 194/809–810.35 The main recension is by Faḍl b. al-Ḥasan al-Ṭabarsī (d. 548/1153). A copy of this work was used by Ibn Ṭāwūs in the seventh/thirteenth century: he quotes from it a tradition that Mondays and Thursdays are propitious times for travel.36 Jonathan Brown has pointed out that a number of the aḥādīth in the Ṣaḥīfat al-Riḍā also appear in Sunni collections, and notes that the work itself was transmitted by Sunni scholars.37

Worth noting in this context also are the collections of aḥādīth known as uṣūl (singular aṣl, “source”). These collections are distinct from other ḥadīth collections in that they “consist exclusively of utterances of an Imam which are committed to writing for the first time”.38 The actual authors of the uṣūl works are thus not the Imams themselves, but their followers and disciples (Shiʿi scholars record their names, though there is some variances with regard to the number of works and the identity of the compilers); the content, however, is ascribed exclusively to them.

2.3 Masāʾil Works

Works that take a masāʾil (question-answer) format are also known for a number of Imams. Examples are the masāʾil ʿan al-Riḍā, answers that the eighth Imam is said to have given to questions from the caliph al-Maʾmūn,39 or the Kitāb Masāʾil al-rijāl of the tenth Imam al-Hādī, listed in the book list of Ibn Ṭāwūs.40 The Masāʾil of the seventh Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓim is an interesting case for a consideration of authorship: the author is listed in al-Ṭūsī’s Fihrist as the Imam’s brother ʿAlī b. Jaʿfar, though al-Kāẓim gave the answers—in contrast to other cases mentioned above, where the Imam, of whom the questions are asked, is considered the author.41

2.4 Legal Works

An intriguing legal treatise is the Risālat al-Ḥuqūq, ascribed to the fourth Imam Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn. The text is a short summary of the rights of God upon man; it was preserved in the works of two early Shiʿi authorities, in the 4th/10th-century Tuḥaf al-ʿuqūl by Ibn Shuʿba al-Ḥarrānī, and in the works of the Buyid scholar Ibn Bābawayh’s (d. 381/991), in nearly identical form.42 The sixth Imam al-Ṣādiq is perhaps the most important legal authority among the Imams; his legal thought as primarily preserved in later works has recently been discussed and evaluated by Hossein Modarressi.43

A controversial case of legal literature ascribed to the Imams is the Fiqh al-Riḍā. The work, said to be the legal rulings of the eighth Imam ʿAlī al-Riḍā, was unknown until the 10th/16th century, when a group of scholars from Qom brought a copy of the work containing numerous ijāzas on the hajj to Mecca. There it was judged to be authentic, but soon even Imāmī scholars were divided about its provenance; according to the current consensus its authenticity is doubtful; as Madelung notes, “it has been convincingly argued by S. Ḥ. Ṣadr that the greater part of the book is taken from the otherwise lost Ketāb al-taklīf of the Emāmī heretic Moḥammad b. ʿAlī Šalmaḡānī (d. 322/934; see his “Faṣl al-qażāʾ fiʾl-ketāb al-moštahar be Feqh al-Reżā,” in Āšnāyī bā čand nosḵa-ye ḵaṭṭī I, Qom, 1396/1976, pp. 389–442).”44

2.5 Devotional Literature

Another substantial group of works ascribed to the Imams might be described as “devotional literature”. There are many prayer books and books of supplications, some of which are known only by title, others extant and widely available.45 Some contain collections of prayers, others just a single one, such as the lengthy Duʿāʾ Kumayl ascribed to ʿAlī. Perhaps the best-known title of devotional literature is al-Ṣaḥīfa al-kāmila or al-Ṣaḥīfa al-sajjādiyya attributed to the fourth Imam Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn (who is also known as al-Sajjād, the worshipper of God; hence the title). This work survives in numerous manuscripts and editions, and has received many commentaries and translations both in the medieval and modern periods.46 Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn is also known as the author of other prayer books, such as the Munājāt, or the Duʿāʾ laylat al-jumʿa. The last two titles are found in the 13th-century catalogue of the Ashrafiyya library in Damascus, together with a number of other duʿāʾ works ascribed to other Imams.47 As the Ashrafiyya was not a Shiʿi library, this inclusion points to what has been called “ʿAlidism” or even “confessional ambiguity”—a shared veneration of the Imams and the Family of the Prophet more generally, which was particularly nuanced in medieval Syria.48 The Ashrafiyya catalogue also has an entry for a Ḥirz marwī ʿan Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, a work on prayer amulets (or a single amulet), a form of supplication also known for other Imams.49

2.6 Sermons and Sayings of the Imams

Collections of sermons and sayings of the Imams are another group for which a number of titles are recorded. Particularly well known are the sermons of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, whom Ibn al-Nadīm had mentioned among the great orators (khuṭabāʾ) of early Islam. The famous collection Nahj al-Balāgha (‘The Path of Eloquence’) is indeed celebrated for its eloquent Arabic. Recorded in the late 4th/10th century by the Buyid scholar al-Sharīf al-Raḍī (d. 406/1016), the Nahj al-Balāgha was widely copied and commented on in subsequent centuries. One example is the twenty-volume commentary (Sharḥ) by the Sunni-Muʿtazilī theologian Ibn Abī l-Ḥadīd (d. 655 or 656/1257 or 1258), which itself spurred a number of responses and commentaries.50 The Ashrafiyya library also held a copy of the Nahj al-Balāgha, further pointing to its popularity in Sunni circles.51

Other well-known early collections of ʿAlī’s sermons and sayings include the Dustūr maʿālim al-ḥikam (‘A treasury of virtues’) by the Shāfiʿī jurist of the Fatimid period al-Quḍāʿī (d. 454/1062), and the Ghurar al-ḥikam wa-durar al-kalim compiled by ʿAbd al-Wāḥid al-Āmidī (d. 510/1116), who was a student of the Shiʿi scholar Ibn Shahrāshūb (d. 588/1192).52

2.7 Theological Treatises

One might think that theological treatises ascribed to the Imams were important ammunition in sectarian discussions; in fact, it is noticeable that works of this kind are rare among the materials attributed to the Imams. Among the few examples is the Waṣiyyat fī l-ʿaql attributed to the seventh Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓim, which was preserved in the works of early Shiʿi authors, al-Kulaynī (d. 328/940) and Ibn Shuʿba (4th/10th-century). The Waṣiyya is addressed to the famous Shiʿi theologian of the early ʿAbbāsid period, Hishām b. al-Ḥakam (d. 179/795 or 796).53

There is also a treatise on human free will attributed to the tenth Imam ʿAlī al-Hādī, also preserved in the work of Ibn Shuʿba, together with other short statements by the tenth Imam.54

2.8 Medical Works

Traditions and sayings relating to medical issues ascribed to the Imams are found throughout the hadīth literature.55 One early collection of such traditions is the Ṭibb al-aʾimma (‘Medicine of the Imams’) compiled by Abū ʿAttāb ʿAbdallāh and al-Ḥusayn, the sons of Bisṭām b. Sābūr of Nishapur, who was a companion of the sixth and seventh Imams al-Ṣādiq and al-Kāẓim. The Ṭibb al-aʾimma has been edited and translated, and received some attention as an example of a distinctly Shiʿi approach to medicine.56 However, apart from the question of whether such works are rightly ascribed to the Imams, the extent to which they reflect a particularly Shiʿi perspective on medicine, as distinct from a Sunni one, remains to be re-examined: Andrew Newman has argued that a thorough reading of the Ṭibb al-aʾimma does not substantiate this view; he points to the preventative approach to medicine—traditions on eating the right foods, etc—similarly found in the works of Sunni authors. He also emphasizes the blend of Prophetic medicine, Galenic tradition, and pre-Islamic medical practice, characteristic also of other, non-Shiʿi works of medicine.57

A well-known medical work associated with the Imams is al-Risāla al-dhahabiyya, which is said to have been authored by the eighth Imam ʿAlī al-Riḍā for the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn. Al-Maʾmūn had designated al-Riḍā as his heir in 201/817, and the work allegedly came about after the caliph asked the Imam for his advice on one of their travels to the East. Even though the ascription to al-Riḍā has long been doubted, the name al-Risāla al-dhahabiyya (‘The Golden Treatise’) refers to the golden ink which al-Maʾmūn reportedly ordered for its production.58 The work also appears in the library catalogue of the Ashrafiyya library under the title al-Risāla al-Maʾmūniyya al-mulaqqaba bi-l-dhahabiyya.59 The early Shiʿi authors, including al-Ṭūsī, first ascribed the work to one Muḥammad b. Jumhūr, a companion of the eighth Imam. But Ibn Jumhūr fell out of favour with later Twelver authorities for his alleged extremism (ghuluww), and later ascriptions include Ibn Jumhūr only as a transmitter.60 Fabrizio Speziale, in a thorough examination, edition, and Italian translation of the Risāla, suggests that Ibn Jumhūr may indeed have been the author, and notes the work’s distinctive content, which includes discussions of medical cures, suggestions for good hygiene, sexual practice, and the general maintenance of good health. According to Speziale, the text is highly influenced by the assimilation of Galenic medicine and has limited space for religious healing—such as invocations—which is prominent in other collections of the Imams’ medical traditions.61

The earliest extant manuscript copies of al-Risāla al-dhahabiyya appear to date to the twelfth century: Newman found three early copies, dated to 548/1153, 624/1226, and 789/1387 respectively, and notes that according to al-Ṭihranī as many as sixteen commentaries and translations had been made since the eleventh century, with at least four copies dated to the later Safavid period.62

2.9 Poetry

Some of the Imams were also known for their poetry, at least in later centuries. There is some controversy around the authenticity of the dīwān of ʿAlī; indeed, Modarressi notes that much of the poetry attributed to ʿAlī has been shown to belong to others. Nonetheless, a first collection of ʿAlī’s poetry appeared as part of the Musnad ʿAlī by ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Jalūdī (d. 322/933), and further collections were compiled in later centuries, most notably the Anwār al-ʿuqūl fī ashʿār waṣī al-rasūl, a collection of some 500 poems by Quṭb al-Dīn Muḥammad b. al-Ḥusayn al-Kaydarī al-Bayhaqī (lived in the early 7th/13th century). This work forms the basis of a widely distributed Dīwān ʿAlī.63

A well-known collection of poetry is also attributed to Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn, and survives in a number of manuscripts;64 its authenticity, however, is doubted by Modarressi among others, who notes that “both style and content point to a different time and composer”.65 Be that as it may, many lines of poetry attributed to Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn and other Shiʿi imams appear throughout the literature, and the Imams’ poetry has enjoyed a wide readership, to judge by the recorded number of manuscripts, translations, and editions of such works.66

2.10 Alchemy

A number of works on alchemy are attributed to the sixth Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, such as a Risālat Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq fī ʿilm al-ṣināʿa wa-l-ḥajar al-mukarram, or a Risāla fī faḍl al-ḥajar wa-l-mūsā (‘Treatise on the Benefits of the Stone and the Razor’).67 Al-Ṣādiq is said to have been a teacher of the famous alchemist Jābir b. Ḥayyān (d. c. 200/815), though both the attributions to the Imam and the relation to his very prolific student remain a topic of discussion.68 In the work of Jābir b. Ḥayyān there is also a Khuṭbat al-bayān attributed to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, an attribution likely meant to lend legitimacy to the Greek material on which it is based.69 Though the authorship of these works is doubtful, the importance of an ascription to the Imams in the context of a “special affinity” of alchemy and Shiʿism might be further explored.70

3 Conclusion: Contextualizing the Works Ascribed to the Shiʿi Imams

From this first overview of works attributed to Imams of the Twelver Shiʿi tradition some observations can be made. Most striking is, first, the variety and breadth of subjects on which the Imams allegedly wrote. From commentaries on the Quran, to poetry, sermons, medicine, law, works of supplication, alchemy, even advice on sexual conduct: the Imams are recorded as authors for works of an astonishing variety of topics and genres. Some of these works are known only by title; indeed, the importance of the works appears precisely to be their association with the Imams.71 As regards the likely audiences, the appearance of works ascribed to the Imams in Sunni circles is noteworthy. The inclusion of titles in the 13th century Ashrafiyya library, for instance, might be variously explained—are they the remnants of a Fatimid library that was incorporated? Were Shiʿi texts collected as way to “know thy enemy”? In what way were these texts even regarded as Shiʿi?—though the choice of works, i.e. devotional texts rather than sectarian treatises on points of ritual and dogma, point to a wider usage contextualized in the trans-confessional veneration of the Imams.72

Secondly, it is immediately apparent that many works are ascribed to some Imams, and very few to others. Particularly the sixth Imam al-Ṣādiq is known as the author of a great variety of works; the fourth Imam Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn, the fifth Imam al-Bāqir, and the eighth Imam al-Riḍā also have a number of ascriptions. On the other hand, few titles are said to have been authored by al-Ḥasan and al-Husayn, or the ninth Imam al-Jawād. In very broad terms, this corresponds to a general distribution of attributions to the Imams in Shiʿi tradition.73 This distribution likely relates to the role the Imams respectively played in the formation of the Shiʿi community.

Why it became important at certain times to ascribe works to the Imams themselves, when such works were previously unknown or had been attributed to the Imams’ companions or other later scholars, remains to be examined in detail. Their absence in Ibn al-Nadīm’s Fihrist seems to suggest that by the 4th/10th century the association of works with the Imams themselves was not yet central. Nonetheless, this period does seem to be a turning point, with the Buyid patronage of Shiʿi works more generally, some of which first record works ascribed to the Imams. To what extent periods of patronage, and periods of heightened inter-confessional or intra-Shiʿi discussion, furthered the ascription of works to the Imams deserves further examination. Some of the manuscript evidence of copies and commentaries points to periods of heightened interest, for instance in the Safavid period, though this needs further analysis. Given the wide variety of subjects and genres that came to be associated with the Imams’ authorship, the answer as to when and why associations came to be will necessarily be nuanced. One thought that may be worth exploring further is whether an ascription to the Imams made it possible to include (or indeed exclude) material—in discussions, legal disputes, etc—that might otherwise be excluded (or indeed included). Andrew Newman on al-Risāla al-dhahabiyya, for instance, suggests that the ascription to the authority of the Imam may have been a pathway to make the Greek tradition generally more acceptable.74 But the inclusion of Hellenistic material was likely only one aspect—what were the intellectual pressures and developments in other fields and among other schools and sects that strengthened ascription to the Imams?

The overview presented here is just a peak at the iceberg: there are many more works ascribed to the Twelver Imams. Some of these are known only by title, some are extant in manuscript copies, some can be gleaned from citations in later works. I hope to have sparked some interest. The new possibilities of research supported by the digital humanities in our field make this an excellent topic to gain a fuller understanding not only of the formation of Shiʿi scholarship, but of the historical development of Islamic learning more generally.


Many thanks to Tamima Bayhoum-Daou and Etan Kohlberg for comments on a draft of this paper, and to the organizers and participants of the 2018 workshop in Hamburg for their comments and suggestions, in particular to Sonja Brentjes for guidance on the scientific works.


Ibn al-Nadīm, al-Fihrist, ed. Sayyid; trans. Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist. Devin Stewart has recently produced much research on Ibn al-Nadim; on the problems relating to editions of the Fihrist, see Stewart, Editing the Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim; see also his The Structure of the Fihrist, for a discussion of the overall project.


The titles are often not fixed but consist of descriptive short identifications of a work.


Ibn al-Nadīm, al-Fihrist, ed. Sayyid i, 88. For a discussion of tafsīr in the Fihrist, see Frolov, Ibn al-Nadim on the History of Qurʾanic Exegesis. Frolov shows that, while giving the impression of comprehensiveness, there is in fact a careful construction and selection to al-Nadīm’s presentation of the sources; in the case of tafsīr, he offers a decidedly Shiʿi version of history.


I am grateful to Letizia Osti for the references to ʿAlī among the khuṭabāʾ and founder of grammar, Ibn al-Nadīm, al-Fihrist, ed. Sayyid i, 389 and i, 103.


There are brief discussions of works ascribed to the Imams in the following entries: Gleave, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib; Madelung, Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn; Gleave, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq; Kohlberg, Mūsā al-Kāẓim; Madelung, ʿAlī al-Reẓā; Madelung, ʿAlī al-Hādī.


Sezgin, Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums, especially i, 524–552 (section on fiqh of the Shīʿa); al-Amīn, Aʿyān al-shīʿa (reprint), especially iv/2; al-Ṭihrānī, al-Dharīʿa ilā taṣānīf al-Shīʿa.


Buckley, The writings of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq.


For Ibn Ṭāwūs see Kohlberg, A medieval Muslim scholar at work; the Ashrafīya library catalogue has been edited and studied by Hirschler, Medieval Damascus. There is a brief discussion of works ascribed to the Imams on 123–125.


Amir-Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shiʿism 73–75 on “secret books”, where he gives a list of seven titles. Kohlberg, Authoritative Scriptures in Early Imami Shiʿism, contains a discussion of secret books with slightly different identifications to Amir-Moezzi’s.


See for instance al-Ṣaffār al-Qummī, Baṣāʾir al-darajāt 142–146.


There is a full discussion in Modarressi, Tradition and Survival 4–12, with references to citations of the Kitāb ʿAlī in early sources.


Kohlberg, Authoritative Scriptures 300.


Al-Kulaynī, Uṣūl min al-Kāfī, ed. al-Ghaffārī i, 238–242 (Bāb fīhi dhikr al-Ṣaḥīfa wa-l-jafr wa-l-jāmiʿa wa-muṣḥaf Fāṭima). See van Ess, Theologie und Gesellschaft i, 280–282. For a discussion of the connection to al-Ṣādiq see Buckley, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq. Buckley also mentions the remarks by the historian Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406), who doubts the authenticity of this work.


al-Ṣaffār al-Qummī, Baṣāʾir al-darajāt 154; al-Kulaynī, al-Kāfī i, 241. For a discussion of the various traditions on this title and citations in later works, see Modarressi, Tradition and Survival 17–22.


Kohlberg, Authoritative Scriptures 299.


Kohlberg, Authoritative Scriptures 298.


Behzadi and Hämeen-Anttila (eds.), Concepts of Authorship in Pre-Modern Arabic Texts. The focus of the volume is on pre-modern literary texts, though the analysis could well be extended to historical (often also literary) and religious texts.


A list of the main studies on the Nahj al-Balāgha is included in Qutbuddin, ʿAli b. Abi Talib. For the Risālat al-Ḥuqūq, see Madelung, Zayn al-ʿĀbedīn, and the discussion below.


Kohlberg, Ibn Ṭāwūs 312–313, no. 501.


A succinct summary of the question of authority and originality in traditionalist culture remains Michael Cook on the forgery of isnāds, Early Muslim Dogma 107–108: “In a modern academic culture, with its high valuation of originality, I would like to think, and have it thought, that the idea was my own; any flaw in my scholarly morality will this thus be manifest in a failure to acknowledge that idea from another scholar. In a traditionalist culture, by contrast, the relevant value is not originality but authority: sharp practice consists in falsely ascribing my view to a greater authority than myself.”


Brockelmann, GAL, SI 73–76.


Qutbuddin, ʿAlī’s Contemplations on this World and the Hereafter 335. Qutbuddin is slightly more cautious in another article, stating that “It is conceivable, then, that the texts recorded in the sources are remnants—albeit imperfect ones—of the early oratorical tradition”. See Qutbuddin, The Sermons of Ali ibn Abi Talib 207.


Bar-Asher, Scripture and Exegesis in Early Imāmī Shiism 7.


Gleave, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib.


Al-Ṣaffār al-Qummī, Baṣāʾir al-darajāt 386.


al-Qummī, Tafsīr al-Qummī, ed. Ṭayyib al-Mūsawī al-Jazāʾirī. For a close study of the Tafsīr al-Qummī, see Bar-Asher, Scripture and Exegesis 33–70, especially 48–50 where Bar-Asher suggests that the commentary of al-Bāqir via Abū l-Jārūd was likely not part of al-Qummī’s original work but incorporated by a later editor. See also Amir-Moezzi, ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm al-Qummī.


Kohlberg, Ibn Ṭāwūs 339, no. 560.


Buckley, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, which includes the best discussion to date of the exegetical works ascribed to al-Ṣādiq.


Sezgin, GAS i, 529; Buckley, The writings of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq 18. For the Sufi recension, see Mayer (trans.), Spiritual Gems. The book also includes the Arabic edition of the text by Paul Nwyia.


See Kohlberg, al-Ṭabrisī, with a list of citations of the tafsīr in the Kitāb al-Iḥtijāj.


See for instance Lalani, Early Shīʿī Thought: The Teachings of Muḥammad al-Bāqir 96–100.


Musnad al-Imām al-Sajjād, ed. ʿAzīz Allāh al-ʿUṭāridī.


Kohlberg, Ibn Ṭāwūs 272, no. 409. For the manuscripts see Sezgin, GAS i, 529; and Buckley, The writings of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq 18. There are various editions as well as an English translation, which is available online at https://www.al-islam.org/lantern-path-imam-jafar-al-sadiq. Najāshī also mentions two works entitled Akhbār ʿAlī b. al- Ḥusayn, that Modarressi suggests would have been “collections by and about Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn quoted in the Sunnī tradition”; see Modaressi, Tradition 36.


Sezgin, GAS i, 535.


Ṣaḥīfat al-Riḍā, ed. Ḥusayn ʿAlī Maḥfūẓ. For a list of manuscripts see Sezgin, GAS i, 536. Madelung, Ṣaḥīfat al-Reżā: “ʿAbdallāh b. Aḥmad b. ʿĀmer is mentioned by Najāshī as the transmitter of a nosḵa from Reżā”.


Kohlberg, Ibn Ṭāwūs 323, no. 523. The work was edited by Muḥammad Mahdī Najaf, Mashhad 1406.


Brown, The Sahifa of Imam Reza as a Centerpiece of Confessional Ambiguity. William Graham has found that the Ṣaḥīfat al-Riḍā contains at least fifteen aḥādīth qudsiyya, divine sayings, that are not known from Sunnī collections; see Graham, Ḥadīth qudsī. For Shiʿi ḥadīth qudsī, see Vilozny, Imāmī Records of Divine Sayings.


Kohlberg, al-Uṣūl al-arbaʿumiʾa 128, republished in Kohlberg, In Praise of the Few, ed. Amin Ehteshami 403.


Sezgin, GAS i, 536. The work also in the collection of Ibn Ṭāwūs, see Kohlberg, Ibn Ṭāwūs 259, no. 376, where the author cited is al-Ṣabbāḥ b. Naḍr (or Naṣr) al-Hindī (fl. 3rd/9th century). The excerpts cited consist of a pronouncement on astrology.


Kohlberg, Ibn Ṭāwūs 259, no. 377. Kohlberg suggests that this was possibly part of the Kitāb al-masāʾil wa-ajwibatihā min al-aʾimma, listed as anonymous earlier in the list (259, no. 374).


al-Ṭūsī, Fihrist kutub al-Shīʿa 117–118, no. 379; Kohlberg, Ibn Ṭāwūs 258, no. 372. The Masāʾil ʿAlī b. Jaʿfar is extant in a number of manuscripts and also available in a Beirut 1410/1990 edition. I am grateful to Etan Kohlberg for this information.


Madelung, ʿAlī b. al-Ḥosayn b. ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn; on the transmission see also Chittick, The Psalms of Islām xvii–xxii.


Modarressi, Text and Interpretation: Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and His Legacy in Islamic Law.


Madelung, ʿAlī al-Reẓā.


For a number of works of supplication ascribed to al-Ṣādiq and only known by title, see Buckley, The writings of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq 23–24.


al-Ṣaḥīfa al-sajjādiyya, Arabic and Persian, ed. Āyatī; English translation Chittick, The Psalms of Islām; for the manuscripts, see Sezgin, GAS i, 526. As is clear from the manuscript tradition and commentaries, the work was particularly popular in the Safavid period. The Safavid scholar Ashkivarī, for instance, is credited with a Persian translation and commentary of al-Ṣaḥīfa al-sajjādiyya, see Rizvi, Ashkivarī, Quṭb al-Din.


Hirschler, Medieval Damascus 303, no. 1136; there are also two books of invocation prayers ascribed to the sixth Imam al-Ṣādiq, Duʿāʾ ʿan Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (203 and 204, entries 430 and 433), and one ascribed to al-Bāqir (204, entry 431).


For the term “ʿAlidism” see Bernheimer, The ʿAlids: The First Family of Islam. For a study on the religious landscape of Syria reflecting it, see Mulder, The Shrines of the ʿAlids in Medieval Syria. For the continued importance of the Prophet’s family across confessional boundaries in later centuries, see for instance Pfeiffer, Confessional Ambiguity vs. Confessional Polarization.


Hirschler, Medieval Damascus entry 321. See also Sezgin, GAS i, 530, and Sezgin, GAS i, 528 for al-Ḥirz of Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn.


Qutbuddin, Ibn Abī l-Ḥadīd. Qutbuddin has recently done much research on the sermons of ʿAlī, and is currently preparing a translation of the Nahj al-Balāgha.


Hirschler, Medieval Damascus entries 1333 and 1393.


Al-Āmidī, Ghurar al-ḥikam wa-durar al-kalim; see Gleave, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib. The Treasury of Virtues has been translated by Qutbuddin, A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons, and Teachings of ʾAli. See also Grobbel, Die hundert Sprüche ʿAlīs.


Kohlberg, Mūsā al-Kāẓim. The Waṣiyya is preserved in a shorter and a longer version: al-Kulaynī, al-Kāfī i, 13–20, and Ibn Shuʿba al-Ḥarrānī, Tuḥaf al-ʿuqūl 283–297 respectively.


Ibn Shuʿba al-Ḥarrānī, Tuḥaf al-ʿuqūl 338–358.


For a summary of recent scholarship on medicine in Islam see Perho, Medicine and the Qurʾān and Perho, The Prophet’s medicine 62–63 for a discussion of works of the Imams.


On the Ṭibb al-aʾimma, see Andrew Newman, https://www.al-islam.org/islamic-medical-wisdom-tibb-al-aimma/preface. The argument for a particularly Shiʿi perspective was made by Rahman, Health and Medicine in the Islamic Tradition.


Islamic medical wisdom: The Ṭibb al-aʾimma, tr. Batool Ispahany. Gleave also mentions a work ascribed to ʿAlī entitled al-Ṣaḥīfa al-ʿAlawiyya (allegedly on cures for illness); see Gleave, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib.


Ullmann, Die Medizin im Islam 190; Sezgin, GAS i, 536 gives a list of manuscripts; see also Newman, Bāqir al-Majlisī and Islamicate Medicine, where a recount of the origins tradition is found of 352. Newman’s study examines the inclusion of al-Risāla al-dhahabiyya in Muḥammad Bāqir al-Majlisī’s (d. 1110/1698 or 1111/1699) Biḥār al-anwār, an encyclopaedic compendium of Shiʿi ḥadīth dating to the late Safavid period.


Hirschler, Medieval Damascus 214, no. 511.


al-Ṭūsī, Rijāl al-Ṭūsī 387; see also Newman, Bāqir al-Majlisī 350, note 9.


Speziale and Giurini, Il trattato aureo sulla medicina attribuito a l’imām ʿAlī al-Riḍā, “Introduzione”, 7–58; and Speziale, La Risāla al-dahabiyya. I am grateful to Prof Speziale for sharing his work and sending his remarks.


Newman, Bāqir al-Majlisī 351, in particular note 10 for the editions. An English translation is found at https://www.al-islam.org/golden-treatise-tibb-al-rida-imam-ali-al-rida; retreived on November 7th, 2023.


Modarressi, Tradition and Survival 16; see al-Ṭihranī, al-Dharīʿa ii, 431–434.


Sezgin, GAS i, 526–527.


Modarressi, Tradition and Survival 36.


Poetry ascribed to the Imams continues to be published in stand-alone volumes, see for instance the recent edition of poetry of al-Ḥusayn, Dīwān al-imām al-Ḥusayn.


Ulmann, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam 195 and 221. Julius Ruska translated the Risālat Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq in the early 20th century, and doubted the attribution to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq; see Ruska, Arabische Alchemisten II. For further titles relating to alchemy, see Buckley, The writings of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq 25, and Sezgin, GAS vi, 131–269.


See De Smet, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq. iv. And Esoteric Sciences. On Jābir b. Ḥayyān see also Delva, The Abbasid Activist Ḥayyān al-ʿAṭṭār; Forster, Jābir b. Ḥayyān, and note 2 for further references on his relationship to the sixth Imam.


Sezgin, GAS iv, 22; see Rapoport and Savage-Smith, Lost Maps of the Caliphs 244, note 2.


Forster, Alchemy.


Why was it important, for instance, that a book on Ikhtilāj al-aʿḍāʾ (‘The Twiching of Limbs’) would have been authored by al-Ṣādiq? See Buckley, The writings of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq 19.


See again Hirschler, Medieval Damascus 125–126.


For instance, Buckley found that about 65 % of the traditions on ʿibādāt in Ibn Bābawayh’s Man lā yaḥḍuruhu al-faqīh were attributed to al-Ṣādiq, 15 % to al-Bāqir, 5 % to ʿAlī and al-Riḍā, and the remainder to al-Ḥasan and ʿAlī b. al-Husayn and al-Kāẓim; see Buckley, The writings of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq 15.


Such a case might be made for other works. Regarding the attribution of an ethnographic account entitled a Sermon on the Races to ʿAlī, Rapoport and Savage-Smith say: “The attribution to ʿAlī is undoubtedly a means of crediting Hellenistic material with Islamic legitimacy, as attested for a comparable account of alchemy”; Rapoport and Savage-Smith, Lost Maps of the Caliphs 244 (see above note 68).


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