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A Review on the Islamic Seminary of Baghdad and Basra

The Seminary of Basra was known for its major role in the Science of Narration (‘Ilm-e Hadith) and the Seminary of Baghdad was recognized as the center of scholarly discussions.

The city of Baghdad – which was the center of caliphate during the rule of the Abbasids – was the most important center of gathering and interchange amongst the dominant sects of Islam; it was also the center where debates and the exchange of ideas amongst their great scholars in various topics – primarily in issues regarding theology – took place. The presence of the Shi‘a Imams in Baghdad and in Iraq, after Imam Sadiq, became a means for Shia scholars, jurists, theologians, and narrators to learn and train under the supervision of the infallible Imams. They later were able to debate with other religious scholars and use the intellectual environment of the city to defend the true Shi‘a beliefs in various theological issues and to promote pure knowledge of the Ahl-ul-Bayt and the Prophet. The extent of academic work carried out by the Imamiah scholars was to such an extent that some researchers have recounted the number of students of Imam Kadhim and his narrators in Baghdad to reach over six hundred people.

After the passing of the era of the Imams’ presence and the approach of the minor occultation of Imam Mahdi, the city of Baghdad experienced a new dynamic time period, and that was due to the presence of The Four Deputies of the Imam, namely Uthman ibn Sa’id al-Asadi, Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Uthman, Abul Qasim Husayn ibn Ruh al- Nawbakhti, and Abul Hasan Ali ibn Muhammad al-Samarri. With the use of religious dissimulation (taqiyya) and through direct guidance and instructions from the Imam, these pious and well-known scholars sought to protect the Shi‘a entity and become the intellectual leader of the Shi‘a people. By responding to the religious misconceptions and receiving religious taxes, they turned Baghdad into the biggest Shi‘a center in the world.

Another period of academic growth of the city of Baghdad and the Islamic seminaries was simultaneous with the major occultation of the twelfth Imam. Some of the important events of this period were the political upheavals and the coming to power of the Shi‘a Buyids (Al-e Buye) in Iran and Iraq; with proving the grounds for theological discussions, it created change in the prevailing atmosphere upon the Shi‘a seminaries after the time of Imam Askari, which were engaged in gathering narrations and were rigorous in reaching a surface level understanding. It also provided the means for theological discussion revolving around ideological issues to be prepared for in the Islamic seminaries of Baghdad. It was in such an atmosphere that great Shi‘a personalities such as Shaykh Mufid, Sayyid Radi, and Sharif Murtadha with reviving the intellect as a source in the acquisition of Islamic teachings, on one hand were to guide the Ja’fari Jurisprudence towards comparative and demonstrative jurisprudence (fiqh istidlali) and ijtihad; on the other hand, with addressing intellectual issues, they revised the Shi‘a theological viewpoint in regards to ideological topics under scrutiny at the time. In what follows, we will consider the biographies of two great scholars of the seminary of Baghdad, namely Shaykh Mufid and Sayyid Murtadha.

Shaykh Mufid (336-413 A.H.) was one of the great scholars and prominent theologians of the fourth and fifth century Hijri. He taught renowned scholars such as Sayyid Murtadha, Sayyid Radi, and Shaykh Tusi. Ibn Imad Hanbali, a renowned Islamic historian, in regards to the events that took place in 413 A.H., writes:

During these years Mufid passed away. He was one of the great Shi‘a scholars who published many books and writings. He was also a leader of the people…” Likewise, Ibn Abi Tayy states in The History of Shi‘a, “Mufid was the greatest amongst the well-known Shi‘a scholars and is their representative. He was wise in the fields of theology, jurisprudence, and mentoring debates and during the Buyid Dynasty he would debate the supporters of various vocations and beliefs with a certain aura of dignity and grandeur; he also assisted the less fortunate on multiple occasions. His humility and reverence was great, his prayers and fasts numerous; he wore clean and pleasant clothes; well-known people such as Azad-ud-Daulah Dilami – the governing authority of the Buyids – would visit Shaykh Mufid on numerous occasions. He lived for 76 years and wrote over two hundred books and dissertations (risalah). In the month of Ramadhan, year 413 A.H., he passed away and eighty thousand people participated in his funeral.

In addition to bringing new advancements in principles of jurisprudence (usul) and theology, Shaykh Mufid also expanded in the area of jurisprudence and gave rise to deductive reasoning (istidlal) and ijtihad and with not being satisfied with just the external meaning of narrations. He benefited from thinking freely and having a systematic understanding and logical interpretation of the narrations. In the field of political jurisprudence (fiqh-e siyasi), through writing books and academic debates, Shaykh Mufid clarified the status of leadership (imamah) in political philosophy in Islam and the idea that the Shi‘a Imams and their deputies must be the ones responsible for governing and leading the Islamic society. The books Awa’il al-Maqalat and Tashih I`tiqadat al-Imamiyyah in the science of theology, al-Muqni`yah in the field of jurisprudence, and the books al-Irshad, Fusul al- Mukhtarah, and al-Amali are amongst some of his works.

Abul Ghasem Ali bin Husayn Musawi, popularly known as, Sayyid Murtadha and entitled as, ‘Allam al-Huda,’ was another great Shi‘a scholar of the Islamic seminaries in Baghdad, who was Shaykh Mufid’s student and Shaykh Tusi’s teacher. He was born in Rajab in 355 A.H. in Karkh area of Baghdad. Sayyid Murtadha’s financial capabilities enabled him to arrange the seminarians’ financial conditions while spending all of his time in lectures, discussions, and composing. He set a certain monthly wage for every student in accordance with his academic activities and research, and set all the interests of a village that was under his management to provide paper for the scholars; he did so with an inalienable religious endowment (waqf).

Sayyid Murtadha had a unique accomplishment in the science of narration and rational sciences and in jurisprudence, principles of jurisprudence, theology, narration and exegesis, literature, poetry, and terminology. He owned written works, which include al-Masa’el al- Naseriyah in jurisprudence, al-Dhuri’ah fi Usul al-Fiqh, al-Shafi fi al- Imamah, al-Mukhalas fi Usul al-Deen, and al-Dhakhirah fi Ilm al- Kalam wa al-Intesar fi ma Anfardat bihi al-Imamiyah.

Another key action Sayyid Murtadha took to provide for the academic needs of those who travelled to Baghdad from various parts of the world and joined his seminary, was that he dedicated a part of his house that he was residing in for the students’ classes and discussion circles, popularly known as, “Dar al-Ilm.” He also left his personal library, which had over eighty thousand books that were bought with his personal funding, at the disposal of the seminarians.

The Islamic Seminary of Baghdad and the Four Books of the Shi‘a

Amongst the feasible blessings of the Islamic seminaries of Baghdad was its role in writing and creating the Four Books of the Shi‘a, namely: Kitab al-Kafi, Man la Yahduruhu al-Faqih, Tahdhib al-Ahkam, and al-Istibsar. All of them replaced the valuable series, Usul al- Arba’ma’ah in gathering narrations from the Infallibles and it overcame the scholars’ and mujtahids’ need in methods of deducing Islamic commandments.

The collection al-Kafi was the deceased Muhammad bin Ya’qub Kulayni Razi’s work, published in Baghdad after twenty years of research, examination, and traveling to various Shi‘a populated cities while gathering authentic narrations. The late Kulayni who spent his earlier years in his birthplace – in the suburbs of Rey – initially moved to Qum to seek Islamic knowledge. Afterwards, he travelled to the seminaries of Nishabur, Kufa, and Baghdad. Throughout these trips, along with meeting well-known Shi‘a narrators and great narrators of the infallible imams, he gathered parts of the chapter of jurisprudence and narration. After migrating to Baghdad, he properly organized his work and wrote the collection, al-Kafi. al-Kafi is composed of two volumes: Usul al-Kafi (theology), five volumes of Furu al-Kafi (jurisprudence), and one volume of Rawdat al-Kafi (various topics). In total, it comprises 16,199 narrations which are from the Prophet) and the infallible Imams.

The second book from The Four Books of the Shi‘a is Man la Yahduruhu al-Faqih, written as result of the efforts of the renowned scholar, Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Ali bin Babiwayh Qummi, also known as Shaykh Saduq. Shaykh Saduq, who had a history of travelling and a residing at the seminary in Rey, Nishabur, Khorasan, and Bukhara, entered the Islamic seminary of Baghdad in 355 A.H. where he taught and trained the students. Shaykh Mufid is of those who participated in his lecture sessions. After some time, he traveled to Balkh, and there through the request of one of Imam Kadhim’s children, he wrote a book on jurisprudence that clarified the religious duties (shar’i) of the Muslims in regards to jurisprudence and various religious laws. Similar to Razi’s book on medicine, Man la Yahduruhu al-Tabib, he named his book on jurisprudence Man la Yahduruhu al- Faqih. This book comprises 5,963 valuable narrations from the Imams. Even though – according to Shaykh Saduq’s own statement – he essentially quoted the writers opinions and rulings, considering the credibility of the narrations, it is one the most reliable books of narration and has been used as a source by scholars and mujtahids all throughout the history of Islamic jurisprudence.

Tahdhib al-Ahkam and al-Istibsar are the third and fourth books from the Four Books of Shi‘a and have been written by Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Hasan bin Ali Tusi predominantly known as Shaykh Tusi. Shaykh Tusi migrated from Toos to Iraq in the year 408 A.H. when he was 23 years old. He participated in Shaykh Mufid’s classes in Baghdad and after a short period of time reached the level of ijtihad and in that young age published the book Tahdhib al-Ahkam which was an explanation to Shaykh Mufid’s book on jurisprudence. The book Tahdhib is comprised of 13,590 narrations which are presented in 23 jurisprudential books and 393 chapters.

Shaykh Tusi’s second famous work is al-Istibsar, which was issued after Tahdhib al-Ahkam. In composing this book, he made use of the two biggest libraries at the time in Baghdad, meaning Sayyid Razi’s library and Abu Nasr Shabur’s library. In the introduction of Tahdhib, he mentioned the presence of resentment and the existing differences in the Shi‘a narrations that triggered outrage from opposing parties; since he believed that resolving differences was crucial, he introduced this issue using a practical approach in al-Istibsar. It was through this that al-Istibsar became the first book of narrations that dealt with resolving differences in narrations.

In the mid-fifth century Hijri, the most unfortunate, bitter, and regrettable event in the history of Baghdadi seminaries occurred which resulted in the closing of the seminary. Tuqrul Bayk Saljuqi’s attack on Baghdad and the seizing of the city in the year 447 A.H. led to not only the genocide of the Shi‘a people, but also the burning of the biggest libraries in Baghdad such as the libraries of Sayyid Murtadha, Shaykh Tusi, Abu Nasr Shabur, Bahaud Dawla Dilami’s vizier which in 381 A.H. in the Shi‘a populated area of Karkh was built as The House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah). Afterwards, the great scholars of Baghdad, including Shaykh Tusi, moved to neighboring cities.

Islamic Seminary of Basra

The Islamic seminary of Basra is one of the oldest publication centers of Shi‘a theology in Iraq and is cited as the major seminary in the science of Prophetic Narration (Ilm-e Hadith).

Basra is a city in Iraq built after the conquest of the Hira region during the Islamic era in the year 15 A.H. Up until the year 36 A.H. – the time when the Battle of the Camel took place – the people of this city were mainly Uthmani. However, after the Battle of the Camel and Imam Ali’s victory in that war, the Imam appointed Ibn Abbas as the Governor of Basra and Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali as the city judge. Due to the hard work of these two well-known figures of virtue and courtesy, and the people of Basra became more acquainted with the biography of Imam Ali that they started to lean towards Shi‘ism. Ibn Abbas would spend all day at the main masjid teaching the Holy Qur’an, Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh), and Islamic commandments (ahkam), and when he would leave Bara to see Imam Ali and to take part in the battles of the Imam, he would assign Abu al-Aswad al- Du’ali as his deputy in Basra.

After the martyrdom of Imam Ali, the devotion of the people of Basra to the Imams continued; they were eager to understand the presence of the Imams and convey their narrations. This devotion was a desire beyond explanation. It led the people to gather many companions (sahabi) and narrators (muhaddith) which then formed into the seminaries and centers for publishing narrations from the Prophet and the infallible Imams. It was the formation of these institutes that led narrators from other cities to travel to Basra to hear narrations from the Prophet through his companions, and through this they created an educational atmosphere in the city. The growth flow in Basra leaned towards the Sh‘ia sect in such a way that taking into consideration the number of narrators during the time of Imam Baqir, one could claim that during the second century Hijri calendar, Basra became a Shi‘a populated city.

After the major occultation of the twelfth Imam, Basra continued to be the center where narrators gathered and where the devotees of the Infallibles traveled to and settled in pursuit of learning the Ahlul Bayt’s message.

The Islamic seminary of Basra’s outstanding status in the science of narration, its geographical location of being situated on the route to Mecca, and the path the pilgrims take to The Sacred House (Bayt al- Haram) was a great opportunity for Islamic scholars to enter the city and assist with issues regarding science and narration. Moreover, books related to great Shi‘a scholars refer to numerous scholars who resided in this city from the fourth to the eight century Hijri. Some of the great narrators of the fourth century are: Abdul Aziz bin Yahya bin Saeed Basari, Muhammad bin Ibrahim Ishaq, Sharif Abu Talib Mudhaffar Basari, and Muhammad bin Omaro bin Ali Basari, all of whom were teachers (mashayekh) of Shaykh Saduq in which he narrated hadith from. This movement continued in the next few centuries, although they did experience periods where the Islamic seminaries of Basra experienced relative declines in the branch of narration.

As a witness to this matter, we can look at Aghabozorg Tehrani’s report. He was a narrator residing in Basra from the fourth to the eight century Hijri. In the fifth century, he reports nine Shi‘a students in Basra, where their numbers drop to five people in the sixth century and in the seventh century it falls once again to three people. In the eight century he only reports two Shi’a students, and in the ninth century he does not mention any Shi‘a scholar at all. However, in the tenth century he introduces an individual named Muhammad Tulani; in the eleventh century the number of scholars in this city reaches six people, which it seems to have relocated to Basra from other seminaries, such as Ahsa; and in the twelfth century Hijri, he recounts five Shi‘a scholars, where some moved from Bahrain to Basra.

The selection taken from “Major Shia Islamic Seminaries” by Iman Khoshro.

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