The Scholar, The Teacher, The Mystic: Who Was Jafar Al-Sadiq?
In the Summer of 2016 I visited a prestigious Muslim college in the United States. I was impressed by the facilities and the learning environment, skimming through the books in the library and spending some time in the prayer hall. Posters were plastered along the the walls, presenting thought-provoking Islamic content in ‘bitesized’ words and sentences. I read through the posters until I came across one that listed the names of the greatest scholars to have impacted our Islamic tradition. I took my time on this poster, scanning all the names on the list. From Avicenna to Al-Ghazaali, it seemed as though there was no end to the legendary names and titles that the poster displayed – except, there was. My satisfaction was soon tainted by disappointment as I read the names back again to make sure, but unfortunately the name of a great, perhaps the greatest, scholar ever to grace this tradition was missing. If you are a practicing Muslim, then this under-appreciated man has had an impact on your life and you may never have heard of his name.
Imam Jafar al-Sadiq, the 8th century scholar, was born in one of the most intriguing periods in Islamic history. His birth coincided with the settlements after the conquests as the Islamic empire spread to the furthest horizons of East and West. The Muslims had now encountered hundreds of different peoples and tribes across the lands as they strengthened their presence on a global scale, both politically and militarily. Outside of this realm of physical strength, in the realm of the intellect, were formidable forces in the forms of strange and new concepts that would strike at the hearts and minds of the Muslims and their belief systems. As Muslims were exposed to the cultures of previously unknown nations and their political, economical, and intellectual climates –they came to a crossroads where they had to confront the inevitable questions surrounding their own identity and culture, unapparent to them beforehand. Up until this point, Islamic ideology was dominating the intellectual belief systems of the Arabian peninsula and the inhabiting tribes it would come into contact with, but now the thoughts and ideas of the ancient intellectuals and philosophers of the East and West were available to the Muslims. They began to wonder where they stood in some of the greatest discussions of human history, and where their Quran and Sunnah were in the context of all of this new-found knowledge. It was necessary at this point for the Muslims to bring about an intellectual movement to answer these questions, otherwise Islam itself would have perished. By His mercy, Allah (swt) never leaves His nation without a guide, and this period was no different. This was the period in which the name Jafar Al-Sadiq spread far and wide, as he pioneered the Muslim intellectual movement from Medina through a school dedicated to traditional learning. His famous reputation for his breadth of knowledge stretched across to the far horizons of the Islamic empire. Unfortunately, works which are attributed to him are scarcely found (perhaps why many Muslims do not know of him or under-appreciate him), although the works of many of his students are still available to us. He was a teacher to thousands of Muslim scholars who would travel across the lands and leave their mark on communities and intellectual discussions, and so his teachings were indirectly felt across the globe – both then and now.
Imam Jafar al-Sadiq was a scholar born of a very special lineage. His mother was the great granddaughter of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, on both sides. On his paternal side, he descended from Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatima the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), which meant he was the great grandson of the Messenger (pbuh) himself. Therefore, he was the first person whom combined the lineage of the first Caliph with that of the Ahlulbayt. He is also a central figure when it comes to several different sects within the tradition. For Ahlul-Sunnah, he was a teacher of both Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik ibn Anas. For Twelver Shia he is the 6th Infallible Imam. For Ismailis, he is the father of the Imam they are named after, Ismail ibn Jafaar. For Sufis, he is the central link in the golden chain leading back up to Ali ibn Abi Talib from whom they receive much of their spiritual teachings.
Born on the 17th of Rabee al-Awal, this is the week of his birth, in which he shares with his grandfather RasoolAllah. On this occasion, it would be befitting to recount some of his notable scholarly qualities, as well as some anecdotes from his life.
The Qualities of Jafar Al-Sadiq
The 8th century was a time that there still did not exist an official guideline or spiritual treatise by which the ‘wayfarer to God’ could use and implement in the way that a modern murid now would. The Sufi Sheikhs trace their words and teachings back to the household of Prophet Muhammad for their spiritual wisdom, which was given to those companions of the Ahlulbayt, composed of tight circles. Imam Jafar al-Sadiq was one of the first scholars who would package spiritual advice for the seeker of God that is related to the way we understand the science of mysticism, irfan, gnosis or wayfaring today. In one of the very few works we have available to us which is attributed to Jafar al-Sadiq, ‘Lantern of the Path’, he outlines his description of the true seeker of God:
‘The gnostic (‘arif) is with the people, while his heart is with Allah. If his heart were to forget Allah for the time it takes to blink an eye, he would die of yearning for Him. The gnostic is the trustee over the happenings of Allah, the treasury of His secrets, the repository of his lights, the proof of His mercy to creation, the instrument of His sciences and the measure of His favour and justice. He does not need people, nor a goal, nor this world. He has no intimate except Allah, nor any speech, gesture or breath except by Allah, with Allah, and from Allah, for he frequents the garden of His sanctity and is enriched by His subtlest favours to him.’
Despite not having access to works that he may have penned, thankfully, there exist thousands of narrations consisting of an abundance of answers and advice available to us which his followers collected over the centuries. Of these are the many stories and details of his life that give you an idea of what kind of person Imam Jafar al-Sadiq truly was, a true reflection of his grandfather. One such story is that of a pilgrim visiting the Prophet’s Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina as he fell asleep. Upon waking and grabbing his purse, he realised that his money had gone missing – 1000 dinars to be exact – and he began to look around for his suspects. He noticed that Imam Jafar al-Sadiq was praying near by, and accused him of having picked his purse whilst he was asleep. Imam Jafar asked him about the contents of the purse, and then asked the man to accompany him home, where he gave the man 1000 dinars. The man, now satisfied, returned to the mosque, only to find he had misplaced his initial 1000 dinars. Guilty and ashamed, he ran back to the Imam to apologise and return the 1000 dinars, yet Imam Jafar refused to take back the money. ‘We, the family of the Prophet, never take back what we give away,’ he told the man. He advised the man that if his guilt is overcoming him, then to donate the money to charity so that the poor of the town may benefit, and so the man donated it to the poor people of Medina.
Jafar Al-Sadiq: Expert in Multiple Fields
Imam Jafar Al-Sadiq was of course an expert of Islamic Jurisprudence. His insights on the Islamic position for any given situation were a guide to the Muslim Ummah and the scholars of his time when new issues, concepts and ideas were arising by the week. However, his scope of knowledge was not confined only to jurisprudence, for he was a polymath who mastered a plethora of different subjects. When it came to scientific knowledge, traditions relate back his detailed explanations of the human body, as his insights on biology are accompanied by his insights in the the realm of chemistry, physics and astronomy. A number of would-be famous scientists were his students and graduated from his school, including the well-known alchemist Jaber ibn Hayyan, known commonly as ‘Geber’, and dubbed the father of early chemistry, who referred to the wisdom of Imam al-Sadiq abundantly throughout his works.
For Imam Jafar al-Sadiq to have influence over the scholars who spanned across the Muslim lands and beyond, he needed to have a grasp of the languages of his time. There are several sources that indicate he spoke with the people of Khorasan in their native tongue (Persian/Farsi) when they conversed with him. This should not be surprising, as his great grandmother was Shahrbānū, the Sassanid princess, wife of Hussain ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib and daughter of Yazdegerd the 3rd, the last emperor of the Sassanid dynasty of Persia. This meant that the princesses’ son, Ali al-Sajjad ibn al-Hussain, and her grandson Muhammad al-Baqir ibn Ali, could speak Persian too. Muhammad al-Baqir was the father of Jafar al-Sadiq, so this may have been a language he acquired early on in his life. However, he was fluent in many other languages associated with his surrounding lands. It is reported that he was well versed in Armaic, and there even exists a tradition written in Arabic letters in which he makes a prayer to Allah in Hebrew.
The sheer number of students who attended the Imam’s classes or narrated his sayings are indicative of his academic prominence. Hasan bin Ali al-Washsha says that he saw nine hundred people in Masjid al-Kufa who used to say, ‘Ja’far bin Muhammad told me..’.
Sufyan al-Thawri, a giant amongst scholars, studied under Imam Jafar al-Sadiq for a period of time. Shahristani, the author of the famous al-Milal wa al-Nahal, wrote concerning Imam Jafar:
‘In religious matters and issues, he possessed an endless amount of knowledge; in wisdom he held a superior view; in worldly affairs and its glamor he had a powerful asceticism, and he stayed away from illicit desires’.
The biographer Abu Zuhra, who penned a a biographical account dedicated to both Jafar al-Sadiq and Abu Hanifa, writes the following in this regard:
‘Islamic scholars, with all of their difference of opinions and variety in inclinations, do not have a consensus on any individual other than Imam Sadiq’.
Abu Hanifa himself has also narrated traditions from Imam al-Sadiq in his al-Athar, in which he wrote,
‘I did not see anyone more of an expert in jurisprudence than Ja’far bin Muhammad, and he is undoubtedly the most knowledgeable individual in the Islamic community’.
It is evident that Imam Jafar al-Sadiq was a mountain of Islamic and worldly knowledge that we continue to reap benefit from, yet the treasure chests buried at the heart of this mountain have remained hidden from its explorers for centuries. If we wish to uncover this treasure we, at the very least, must begin by penetrating deeply into our own souls to pay our respects to those who came before us, those who established this Godly way of life in the most turbulent of times, those arks of salvation who sailed us to safety hundreds of years before we were born.
We give thanks to Allah for sending us scholars in every time, and for sending us the teacher of scholars, Imam Jafar al-Sadiq.