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Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

The word nahj means road and balagah is derived from baligh means to convey. The Nahj al-Balagah means the way of eloquence or way of rhetoric. It is the collection of 238 sermons (khutba), 79 letters and 478 short sayings of Ali bin Abu Talib, the first Imam. It was compiled by Sharif ar-Radi (d. 406/1015) and his brother al-Murtada Ali bin Tahir (d. 436/1044).

Many critics have questioned the validity of Nahj al-Balagah, maintaining that several sermons are fabricated by Sharif ar-Radi and al-Murtada to legalize the Shi'ite doctrinal differences. It has been an issue and lively polemic from the middle ages to the present. Ibn Khallikan (d. 681/1283) seems to have been the first to raise doubts on its authenticity. The majority of later writers, beginning with Dhahabi (d. 748/1348) in Mizan al-Itidal, Ibn Hajr in Lisan al-Mizan, Haji Khalifa (d. 1067/1657) in Kashf al-Zunun, etc. have in their turn revived these suspicions. On the other hand, Ibn Hadid (d. 656/1258) has no doubt as to the validity of this work. Laura Veccia Vaglieri writes that it is undeniable that a large portion of Nahj al-Balagah could indeed be attributed to Ali, especially certain historical and panegyrical passages, although it is difficult to ascertain the authenticity of the more apocryphal sections.

Sharif ar-Radi and al-Murtada Ali b. Tahir are most possibly doubtful compilers, because they were branded "liars" in Egypt during the Fatimid period. The Shi'ite jurist, Sharif ar-Radi (d. 406/1015) was an official keeper of the records of the Alid genealogies in Baghdad. He versified some verses in favour of the Fatimid Imams being the descendants of the Prophet in 400/1009, which reads:

I nourish pain in the land of enemies, while in Egypt is an Alid Caliph.
His father is mine, so is his Lord. While my host is the strange and far.
My veins are joined with him, by the Lord of all people, Muhammad and Ali.
My starvation in that land is a satisfaction; my thirst is satisfaction.
I am like a man going in the darkness, whilst behind him shines a bright moon.
(vide Diwan, Beirut, 1309 A.H., p. 972).

Ibn Tiqtaqa also quoted the above poem in his al-Fakhri (comp. 699/1302). Abul Fida (2:309) writes, “Sharif ar-Radi had composed a poem in praise of the Fatimids in which he admitted the legitimate descent of the Fatimids from Ali bin Abu Talib.”

But in 402/1011, the Abbasid caliph Kadir billah (d. 422/1031) alarmed over the prosperity of the Fatimids and their success inside his empire, attempted to combat with Imam al-Hakim by another tool. He gathered a number of Shi’a and Sunni jurists to his court and ordered them to prepare a forged genealogy of the Fatimids and sign the document. Like other depending upon the Abbasids, Sharif ar-Radi and his brother al-Murtada also joined the campaign and signed the document. Ibn Taghri Birdi (d. 874/1470) writes in al-Nujum al-Zahira fi Muluk Misr wal Qahira (Cairo, 1929, 1:45-6) that, “The Abbasid caliph hired the theologians and paid them large sum of money to write books condemning the Fatimid cause and their doctrine.” Ibn Athir (8:9) writes, “Sharif ar-Radi did not include these verses in his Diwan due to fear of the Abbasids, and also signed the document.”

One who employed his literary skills for material benefit and hid the fact, he historically cannot be reliable. It is therefore possible that some parts of the Nahj al-Balagah would have been fabricated to justify the Shi’ite cause, but not in its enterity as judged by Ibn Khallikan. Suffice it to say that the Ismailis must exercise precaution critically in its study. Whatever the case may be, the Nahj al-Balagah, what is extant at our disposal, is one of the great masterpieces of Arabic literature.

There are however many scholars before the period of Sharif ar-Radi and al-Murtada, who had collected the fragments of the sermons, letters and sayings of Ali bin Abu Talib. For instance, Zaid b. Wahab al-Jahani (d. 96/714), Abu Yaqub Ismail b. Mihran (d. 148/715), Muhammad b. Abi Nasr al-Sakuni (d. 148/715), Abu Makhtaf Lut b. Yahya (d. 170/786), Abu Muhammad Masada b. Sadaqatal (d. 183/799), Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. al-Hakam (d. 190/806), Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Suleman b. Nahmi, Abu Manzar Hasham b. Muhammad (d. 206/821), Abu Abdullah Muhammad b. Umar al-Waqidi (d. 207/823), Abul Fazal Nasr b. Mazaham (d. 212/827), Abu Khayr Sualeh b. Abi Hammad (d. 214/829), Abul Hasan Ali b. Muhammad al-Madini (d. 224/839), Abu Jafar Muhammad (d. 240/855), Muhammad b. Habib (d. 245/860), Abul Kassim Abul Azim b. Abdullah (d. 250/864), Abu Uthman Amro bin al-Jahiz (d. 255/871), Imam Muslim (d. 261/877), Abu Jafar Ahmad b. Muhammad (d. 274/899), Ibn Quateeda (d. 276/891), Amin b. Yahya (d. 279/894), Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Muhammad al-Thaqafi (d. 283/896), Dinawari (d. 290/905), Ibn Abil (d. 303/918), Tabari (d. 310/922), Abul Kassim Abdullah b. Ahmad (d. 319/931), Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Hasan (d. 321/933), Abu Tayyib Muhammad b. Ahmad (d. 325/937), Muhammad b. Abd Rubahu (d. 328/940), Kulaini (d. 328/940), Abu Ahmad Abdul Aziz b. Yahya (d. 332/941), Abul Kassim Zujaji (d. 337/946), Abul Hasan b. al-Hussain al-Masudi (d. 346/955), Abul Faraj Ispahani (d. 356/965), Abul Kassim Suleman b. Ahmad (d. 360/969), Ibn Babuya (d. 381/990), Darai Quitani (d. 385/994), Abu Bakr Bakuelani (d. 403/1013), Imam Hakim (d. 405/1015), Ibn Mazkoiya (d. 421/1030), Abu Naima al-Asbayhani (d. 430/1039), Abu Abdullah Muhammad b. Noman (d. 431/1040), Ali Abu Sa’id Mansur bin Hussain Abu Muhammad al-Hasan b. Ali (d. 432/1039), etc.

The sources of the above collecters require critical examination in the light of the extant Nahj al-Balagah, so that the historicity of the letters, sermons and sayings of Ali bin Abu Talib can be ascertained.

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