The Event of Ghadir Khum: From Oblivion to Recognition

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The event of Ghadir Khum is a very good example to trace the Sunni bias which found its way into the mental state of the orientalists. Those who are well-versed with the polemic writings of Sunnis know that whenever the Shi'as present a hadith or a historical evidence in support of their view, a Sunni polemicist would respond in the following manner:

Firstly, he will outright deny the existence of any such hadith or historical event.

Secondly, when confronted with hard evidence from his own sources, he will cast doubt on the reliability of the transmitters of that hadith or event.

Thirdly, when he is shown that all the transmitters are reliably Sunni standards, he will give an interpretation to the hadith or the event which will be quite different from that of the Shi'as.

These are three levels form the classical response of the Sunni polemicists in dealing with the arguments of the Shi'as.
Aquotation from Rosenthal's translation of Ibn Khaldun's The Muqadlimah would suffice to prove my point. (Ibn Khaldun is quoting the following part from Al-Milal wa al-Nihal, a heresiographic work of Ash-Sharistani.) According to lbn Khaldun, the Shi'as believe that: 'Ali is the one whom Muhammad appointed. The (Shi'a) transmit texts (of traditions) in support of (this belief)...The authority of the Sunnah and the transmitters of the religious law do not know these texts [1]. Most of them are suppositions, or[2] some of their transmitters are suspect, or [3] their (true)interpretation is very different from the wicked interpretation that (the Shi'a) give to them.' 8)

Interestingly, the event of Ghadir Khum has suffered the same fate at the hands of the orientalists. With the limited time and sources available to me at this moment, I was surprised to see that most works on Islam have ignored the event of Ghadir Khum, indicating, by its very absence, that the orientalists believed this event to be 'superstitious' and an invention of the Shi'as. Margoliouth's Muhammad the Rise of Islam (1905), Brocke lmann's History of the Islamic People (1939), Arnold and Guillaume's The Legacy of Islam (1931), Guillaume's Islam(1954), von Grunebaum's Classical Islam (1963), Arnold's The Caliphate (1965) and The Cambridge History of Islam (1970) have completely ignored the event of Ghadir Khum. Why did these and many other western scholars ignore the event of Ghadir Khum? Since western scholars mostly relied on anti-Shi'i works, they naturally ignored the event of Ghadir Khum.L Veccia Vaglieri, one of the contributors to the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1953), writes:'Most of the sources which form the basis of our [orientalists']knowledge of the life of the Prophet (Ibn Hisham, Al- Tabari,Ibn Sa'd, etc) pass in silence over Muhammad's stop at Ghadir Khum, or, if they mention it, say nothing of his discourse (the writers evidently feared to attract the hostility of the Sunnis,who were in power, by providing material for the polemic of the Shi'as who used these words to support their thesis of Ali's right to the caliphate). Consequently, the western biographers of Muhammad, whose work is based on these sources, equally make no reference to what happened at Ghadir Khum.' 9 )

Then we come to those few orientalists who mention the hadith or the event of Ghadir Khum but express their scepticism about its authenticity -- the second stage in the classical response of the Sunni polemicists.The first example of such scholars is Ignaz Goldziher, a highly respected German orientalist of the nineteenth century. He discusses the hadith of Ghadir Khum in his Muhammed anische Studien (1889-1890) translated in English as Muslim Studies(1966-1971) under the chapter entitled 'The Hadith in its Relation to the Conflicts of the Parties of Islam.' Coming to the Shi'as, Goldziher writes:'A stronger argument in their [Shi'a's] favour. ..was their conviction that the Prophet had expressly designated and appointed Ali as his successor before his death...Therefore the' Alid adherents were concerned with inventing and authorizing traditions which prove Ali's installation by the direct order of the Prophet. The most widely-known tradition (the authority of which is not denied even by orthodox authorities though they deprive it of its intention by a different interpretation) is the tradition of Khum, which came into being for this purpose and is one of the firmest foundations of the theses of the 'Alid party.' ( 10 )

One would expect such a renowned scholar to prove how the Shi'as 'were concerned with inventing' traditions to support their theses, but nowhere does Goldziher provide any evidence.After citing AI-Tirmidhi and Al-Nasa'i in the footnote as the sources of hadith for Ghadir, he says: 'AI-Nasa'i had, as is well known,pro-'Alid inclinations, and also AI-Tirmidhi included in his collection tendentious traditions favouring Ali, e.g., the tayr tradition.' ( 11 )

This is again the same old classical response of the Sunni polemicists -- discredit the transmitters as unreliable or adamantly accuse the Shi'as of inventing the traditions.Another example is the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1911-1938), which has a short entry under 'Ghadir Khum' by F Bhul, a Danish orientalist who wrote a biographyof the Prophet. Bhul writes: 'The place has become famous through a tradition which had its origin among the Shi'as but is also found among the Sunnis, viz., the Prophet on journey back from Hudaybiyya (according to others from the Farewell Pilgrimage) here said of Ali: 'Whomsoever I am lord of, his lord is Ali also!'( 12 )

Bhul makes sure to emphasize that the hadith and the event of Ghadir has 'its origins among the Shi'as'! Another striking example of the orientalists' ignorance about Shi'ism is A Dictionary of Islam (1965) by Thomas Hughes.Under the entry of Ghadir, he writes: 'A festival of the Shi'as on the 18th of the month of Zu 'l-Hijjah, when three images of dough filled with honey are made to represent Abu Bakr, Umarand Usman, which are stuck with knives, and the honey is sipped as typical of the blood of the usurping khalifahs. The festival is named Ghadir, 'a pool,' and the festival commemorates,if is said, Muhammad having declared Ali his successor at Ghadir Khum, a watering place midway between Makkah andal-Madinah.' ( 13 )

. Coming from a Shi'i background of India,having studied in Iran for 10 years and lived among the Shi'a of Africa and North America, I have yet to see, hear or read about the dough and honey ritual of Ghadir!! I was more surprised to see that even Vaglieri, in the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, has incorporated this rubbish into his fairly excellent article on Ghadir Khum. He adds at the end: 'This feast alsoholds an important role among the Nusayris.' It is quite possible that the dough and honey ritual is observed by the Nusayris; it has nothing to do with the Shi'as. But do all orientalists know the difference between the Shi'as and the Nusayris? I very much doubt so.A fourth example from the contemporary scholars who have treaded the same path is Philip Hitti in his History of the Arabs(1964). Alter mentioning that the Buyids established 'the rejoicing on that [day] of the Prophet's alleged appointment of Ali ashis successor at Ghadir Khum,' he describes the location of Ghadir Khum in the footnote as 'a spring between Makkah andal-Madinah where Shi'ite tradition asserts the Prophet declared,"Whosoever I am lord of, his lord is Ali also".( 14 )

Athough this scholar mentions the issue of Ghadir in a passing manner, still he wants to leave his readers with the impression that the hadith of Ghadir is a 'Shi'ite tradition.'To these scholars who, consciously or unconsciously, have absorbed the Sunni bias against Shi'ism and insist on the Shi'i origin or invention of the hadith of Ghadir, I would just repeat what Vaglieri has said in the Encyclopaedia of Islam about Ghadir Khum:'It is, however, certain that Muhammad did speak in this place and utter the famous sentence, for the account of this event has been preserved, either in a concise form or in detail, not only by Al-Ya'kubi, whose sympathy for the 'Alid cause is well-known,but also in the collection of traditions which are considered as canonical, especially in the Musnad of Ibn Hanbal; and the hadiths are so numerous and so well attested by the different isnads that it does not seem possible to reject them.'( 15 )

Vaglieri continues: 'Several of these hadith are cited in the bibliography, but it does not include the hadith which, although reporting the sentence, omit to name Ghadir Khum, or those which state that the sentence was pronounced at al-Hudaybiyya.The complete documentation will be facilitated when the Concordance of Wensinck has been completely published. In order to have an idea of how numerous these hadiths are, it is enough to glance at the pages in which Ibn Kathir has collecteda great number of them with their isnads.'It is time the western scholarship made itself familiar with the Shi'i literature of the early days as well as of the contemporary period. There is no need to wait for Wensinck's Concordance.The Shi'i scholars have produced great works on the issue of Ghadir Khum. Here I will just mention two of those. The first is 'Abaqat al-Anwar written in Persian by Allama Mir HamidHusayn al-Musawi (d 1304 AH) of India. Allama Mir Hamid Husayn has devoted two bulky volumes (consisting of about 1,080 pages) on the isnad, tawatur and meaning of the hadith of Ghadir. The second is Al- Ghadir in 11 volumes in Arabic byAllama Abdul Husayn al-Amini where he gives with full references the names of 110 sahaba of the Prophet and also 84tabi'un (disciples of the sahaba) who have narrated the hadith of Ghadir. He has also chronologicaly given the names of the historians, traditionalists, exegetists and poets who have mentioned the hadith of Ghadir from the first until the fourteenth Islamic century.


Shaban His New Interpretation

Among the latest work by the western scholarship on the history of Islam is M A Shaban's Islamic History AD 600-750, subtitled' A New Interpretation,' in which the author claims not only to use newly discovered material but also to reexamine and reinterpret material which has been known to us for many decades. Shaban, a lecturer of Arabic at SOAS of the University of London, is not prepared to even consider the event of Ghadir Khum. He writes: 'The famous Shi'ite tradition that he [the Prophet] designated Ali as his successor at Ghadir Khum should not be taken seriously.' Shaban gives two 'new' reasons for not taking the event of Ghadir seriously:'Such an event is inherently improbable considering the Arabs' reluctance to entrust young untried men with great responsibility.Furthermore, at no point do our sources show the Madinan community behaving as if they had heard of this designation.' ( 16)

Let us critically examine each of these reasons given by Shaban.(1) The traditional reluctance of the Arabs to entrust young men with great responsibility. First of all, had not the Prophet introduced many things to which the Arabs were traditionally reluctant? Was not Islam itself accepted by the Makkans very reluctantly? This 'traditional reluctance,' instead of being an argument against the appointment of Ali, is actually part of the argument used by the Shi'as. They agree that the Arabs were reluctant to accept Imam Ali as the Prophet's successor not only because of his young age but also because he had killed their leaders in the battles of Islam. According to the Shi'as, Allah also mentions this reluctance when after ordering the Prophet to proclaim Imam Ali as his successor ('0 Messenger! Convey what had been revealed to you...'), He reassured His Messenger by saying that 'Allah will protect you from the people' (5:67). The Prophet was commissioned to convey the message of Allah,no matter whether the Arabs liked it or not.Moreover, this 'traditional reluctance' was not an irrevocable custom of the Arab society as Shaban wants us to believe. Jafry,in The Origin and Early Development of Shi'a Islam, says: 'Our sources do not fail to point out that, though the 'Senate'(Nadwa) of pre-Islamic Makkah was generally a council of elders only, the sons of the chieftain Qusayy were privileged to be exempted from this age restriction and were admitted to the council despite their youth. In later times, more liberal concessions seem to have been in vogue; Abu Jahl was admitted despite his youth, and Hakim ibn Hazm was admitted when he was only 15 or 20 years old.' Then Jafry quotes Ibn 'AbdRabbih: 'There was no monarchic king over the Arabs of Makkah in the jahiliyyah. So whenever there was a war, they took a ballot among chieftains and elected one as 'King,' were he a minor or a grown man. Thus on the day of Fijar, it was the turn of Banu Hashim, and as a result of the ballot Al-Abbas,who was then a mere child, was elected, and they seated him on the shield.' ( 17)

Thirdly, we have an example in the Prophet's own decisions during the last days of his life when he entrusted the command of the army to Usama ibn Zayd, a young man who was hardly 20 years of age. ( 18)

He was appointed over the elders of the Muhajirun and the Ansar, and, indeed, many of the elders resented this decision of the Prophet. ( 19)

If the Prophet of Islam could appoint the young and untried Usama ibn Zayd over the elders of the Muhajirun, then why should it be 'inherently in probable' to think that the Prophet had appointed Imam Alias his successor?(2) The traditional reluctance to entrust tried men with great responsibility. Apart from the young age of Imam Ali, Shaban also refers to the reluctance of the Arabs in entrusting 'untried men with great responsibility.' This implies that Abu Bakr was selected by the Arabs because he had been 'tried with great responsibilities.' I doubt whether Shaban would be able to substantiate the implication of his claim from Islamic history.One will find more instances where Imam Ali was entrusted by the Prophet with greater responsibilities than Abu Bakr. Imam Ali was left behind in Makkah during the Prophet's migrationto mislead the enemies and also to return the properties of various people which were given in trust to the Prophet. Imam Ali was tried with greater responsibilities during the early battles of Islam in which he was always successful. When the declaration (bara'at) against the pagan Arabs of Makkah was revealed, first Abu Bakr was entrusted to convey it to the Makkans, but later on this great responsibility was taken away from him and entrusted to Imam Ali. Imam Ali was entrusted with the city and citizens of Medina while the Prophet had gone on the expedition to Tabuk. Imam Ali was appointed the leader of the expedition to Yemen. These are just a few examples which come to mind at random. Therefore, on a comparative level, Ali ibn Abi Talib was a person who had been tried and entrusted with greater responsibilities than Abu Bakr.(3) The behaviour of the Medinan community about the declaration of Ghadir. Firstly, if an event can be proved as true by the accepted academic standards (of the Sunnis, of course),then the reaction of the people to that event is immaterial. Secondly, the same 'traditional reluctance' used by Shaban to discredit the declaration of Ghadir can be used here against his skepticism towards the event of Ghadir. This traditional reluctance, besides other factors which are beyond the scope of his paper, ( 20) can be used to explain the behavior of the Medinan community.Thirdly, although the Medinan community was silent during the events which kept Imam Ali away from the khilafah, there were many among them who had witnessed the declaration of Ghadir Khum. On quite a few occasions, Imam Ali implored the sahaba of the Prophet to bear witness to the declaration of Ghadir. Here I will just mention one instance which took place in Kufa during the khilafah of Imam Ali, 24 years after the Prophet's death. Imam Ali heard that some people were doubting his claim of precedence over the previous khulafah, therefore, he came to a gathering at the mosque and implored the eyewitnesses of the event of Ghadir Khum to verify the truth of the Prophet's declaration about his being the lord and master of all the believers. Many sahaba of the Prophet stood up and verified the claim of Imam Ali. We have the names of 24 of those who testified on behalf of Imam Ali, although other sources like the Musnad of Ibn Hanbal and Majma' as-Zawa'id of Hafiz al-Haythami put that number at 30. Also bear in mind that this incident took place 25 years after the event of Ghadir Khum,and during this period hundreds of eyewitnesses had died naturally or in the battles fought during the first two khulafah'srule. Add to this the fact that this incident took place in Kufa which was far from the center of the sahabas, Medina. This incident which took place in Kufa in the year 35 A.H. has itself been narrated by four sahaba and 14 tabi'un and has been recorded in most books of history and tradition. ( 21)

In conclusion, the behavior of the Medinan community after the death of the Prophet does not automatically make the declaration of Ghadir Khum improbable. I think this will suffice to make Shaban realize that his is not a 'new' interpretation; rather it exemplifies, in my view, the first stage of the classical response of the Sunni polemicists -- an outright denial of the existence of an event or a hadith which supports the Shi'i views-- which has been absorbed by the majority of the western scholars of Islam.


In this brief survey, I have shown that the event of Ghadir Khum is a historical fact which cannot be rejected, and that in studying Shi'ism, the pre commitment to the Judeo-Christian tradition of the orientalists was compounded with the Sunni bias against Shi'ism. Consequently, the event of Ghadir Khum was ignored by most western scholars and emerged from oblivion only to be handled with skepticism and reinterpretation.

I hope this one example will convince at least some western scholars to reexamine their methodology in studying Shi'ism,and instead of approaching it largely through the works of heresiographers like Ash-Sharistani, Ibn Hazm, Al-Maqrizi and Al-Baghdadi who present the Shi'as as a heretical sect of Islam,they should turn to more objective works of both the Shi'as as well as the Sunnis.The Shi'as are tired, and rightfully so, of being portrayed as a heretical sect that emerged because of the political and economic circumstances of the early Islamic period. They demand to represent themselves instead of being represented by their adversaries.(22)



8 ) Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, tr Franz Rosenthal, vol 1, New York: Pentheon Books, 1958, p 403. In Arabic, see vol 1, Beirut: Maktatatul Madrasah, 1961, p 348.

9 ) Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1953, see under 'Ghadir Khum.'

10 ) I Goldziher, Muslim Studies, tr Barber and stern, vol 2, Chicago: Aldine Inc, 1971, pp 112-113.

11 ) Ibid.

12 ) Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1911-1938, see under 'Ghadir Khum.'

13 ) Thomas P Hughs, A Dictionary of Islam, New Jersey: Reference Book Publishers, 1965, p 138.

14 ) Philip K Hitti, A History of the Arabs, London: Macmillan co, 1964,p 471.

15 ) Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1953, see under 'Ghadir Khum.'

16- M A Shaban, Islamic History AD 600-750, Cambridge: University Press, 1971, p 16.

17- S H M Jafry, The Origin and Early Development of Shi'a Islam, Qum: Ansariyan Publications, n.d., p 22.

18- 'M H Haykal, The life of Muhammad, tr Al-Faruqi (n.p., American Trust Publications, 1976, p 492.

19- See the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa'd and other major works on seerah.

20- For more details, see S S A Rizvi, Imamate, Tehran: WOFIS,1985, pp 120-121.

21- For full references, see Al-Amini, Al-Ghadir vol 1, Tehran: Mu'assatul Muwahhidi, 1976, pp 166-186.

22- This Article is extracted from the book of Ghadir, written by : a group of authors and published by : Ansaryan

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