The 18th of Dhu ‘l-Hijja is celebrated in the Shi’a world as the ‘idd of Ghadir Khumm in which Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said about Imam ‘Ali:
“Whomsoever’s master (mawla) I am, this ‘Ali is also his master.”
This event is of such significance to the Shi’as that no serious scholar of Islam can ignore it. The purpose of this paper is to study how the Orientalists handled the event of Ghadir Khumm. By “orientalists”, I mean the Western scholarship of Islam and also those Easterners who received their entire Islamic training under such scholars.
Before proceeding further, a brief narration of the event of Ghadir Khumm would not be out of place. This will be especially helpful to those who are not familiar with the event. While returning from his last pilgrimage, the Prophet received the following command of Allah:
“O the Messenger! Convey what had been revealed to you from your Lord; if you do not do so, then [it would be as if] you have not conveyed His message [at all]. Allah will protect you from the people.” (The Qur’?n 5:67)
Therefore he stopped at Ghadir Khumm on the 18th of Dhu ‘l-Hijja, 10 AH to convey the message to the pilgrims before they dispersed. At one point, he asked his followers whether he, Muhammad, had more authority (awla) over the believers than they had over themselves; the crowd cried out, “Yes, it is so, O Apostle of Allah.” Then he took ‘Ali by the hand and declared:
“Whomsoever’s master (mawla) I am, this ‘Ali is also his master – man kuntu mawlahu fa hadha ‘Aliyun mawlahu.” Then the Prophet also announced his impending death and charged the believers to remain attached to the Qur’an and to his Ahlul Bayt. This summarizes the important parts of the event of Ghadir Khumm.
The main body of this paper is divided as follows: Part II is a brief survey of the approach used by the Orientalists in studying Shi’ism. Part III deals with the approach used to study Ghadir Khumm in particular. Part IV is a critical review of what M.A. Shaban has written about the event in his Islamic History AD 600-750. This will be followed by a conclusion.
2. Study of Shi’ism by the Orientalists
When the Egyptian writer, Muhammad Qutb, named his book as Islam: the Misunderstood Religion, he was politely expressing the Muslim sentiment about the way Orientalists have treated Islam and Muslims in general. The word “misunderstood” implies that at least a genuine attempt was made to understand Islam.
However, a more blunt criticism of Orientalism, shared by the majority of Muslims, comes from Edward Said, “The hardest thing to get most academic experts on Islam to admit is that what they say and do as scholars is set in a profoundly and in some ways an offensively political context.
Everything about the study of Islam in the contemporary West is saturated with political importance, but hardly any writers on Islam, whether expert or general, admit the fact in what they say. Objectivity is assumed to inhere in learned discourse about other societies, despite the long history of political, moral, and religious concern felt in all societies, Western or Islamic, about the alien, the strange and different. In Europe, for example, the Orientalist has traditionally been affiliated directly with colonial offices.”
Instead of assuming that objectivity is inhere in learned discourse, Western scholarship has to realize that precommitment to a political or religious tradition, on a conscious or subconscious level, can lead to biased judgement. As Marshall Hudgson writes, “Bias comes especially in the questions he poses and in the type of category he uses, where indeed, bias is especially hard to track down because it is hard to suspect the very terms one uses, which seem so innocently neutral…”
The Muslim reaction to the image portrayed of them by Western scholarship is beginning to get its due attention. In 1979, the highly respected scholar trained in Western academia, Albert Hourani, said, “The voices of those from the Middle East and North Africa telling us that they do not recognize themselves in the image we have formed of them are too numerous and insistent to be explained in terms of academic rivalry or national pride.” This was about Islam and Muslims vis-�-vis the Orientalists.
When we focus on the study of Shi’ism by the Orientalists, the word “misunderstood” is not strong enough; rather it is an understatement. Not only is Shi’ism misunderstood, it has been ignored, misrepresented and studied mostly through the heresiographic literature of their opponents. It seems as if the Shi’ites had no scholars and literature of their own. To borrow an expression from Marx, “they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented,” and that also by their adversaries!
The reason for this state of affairs lies in the paths through which Western scholars entered the field of Islamic studies. Hodgson, in his excellent review of Western scholarship, writes,
“First, there were those who studied the Ottoman Empire, which played so major a role in modern Europe. They came to it usually in the first instance from the viewpoint of the European diplomatic history. Such scholars tended to see the whole of Islamdom from the political perspective of Istanbul, the Ottoman capital.
Second, there were those, normally British, who entered Islamic studies in India so as to master Persian as good civil servants, or at least they were inspired by Indian interest. For them, the imperial transition of Delhi tended to be the culmination of Islamicate history.
Third, there were the Semitists, often interested primarily in Hebrew studies, who were lured into Arabic. For them, headquarters tended to be Cairo, the most vital of Arabic-using cities in the nineteenth century, though some turned to Syria or the Maghrib. They were commonly philologians rather than historians, and they learned to see Islamicate culture through the eyes of the late Egyptian and Syrian Sunni writers most in vogue in Cairo. Other paths-that of the Spaniards and some Frenchmen who focused on the Muslims in Medieval Spain, that of the Russians who focused on the northern Muslims-were generally less important.”
It is quite obvious that none of these paths would have led Western scholars to the centres of Shi’a learning or literature. The majority of what they studied about Shi’ism was channelled through the non-Shi’i sources. Hudgson, who deserves our highest praise for noticing this point, says, “All paths were at one in paying relatively little attention to the central areas of the Fertile Crescent and Iran, with their tendency towards Shi’ism; areas that tended to be most remote from western penetration.” And after the First World War, “the Cairene path to Islamic studies became the Islamicist’s path par excellence, while other paths to Islamic studies came to be looked on as of more local relevance.”
Therefore, whenever an Orientalist stuided Shi’ism through Ottoman, Cairene or Indian paths, it was quite natural for him to be biased against Shi’a Islam. “The Muslim historians of doctrine [who are mostly Sunni] always tried to show that all other schools of thought other than their own were not only false but, if possible, less than truly Muslim. Their work described innumerable ‘firqahs’ in terms which readily misled modern scholars into supposing they were referring to so many ‘heretical sects’.”
And so we see that until very recently, Western scholars easily described Sunni’ism as ‘orthodox Islam’ and Shi’ism as a ‘heretical sect’. After categorizing Shi’ism as a heretical sect of Islam, it became “innocently neutral” for Western scholars to absorb the Sunni scepticism concerning the early Shi’a literature. Even the concept of taqiyyah (dissimulation when ne’s life is in danger) was blown out of proportion and it was assumed that every statement of a Shi’a scholar had a hidden meaning. And, consequently, whenever an Orientalist studied Shi’ism, his precommitment to Judeo-Christian tradition of the West was compounded with the Sunni bias against Shi’ism.
One of the best examples of this compounded bias is found in the way the event of Ghadir Khumm was studied by the Orientalists, an issue that forms the main purpose of this paper.
3. Ghadir Khumm: From Oblivion to Recognition
The event of Ghadir Khumm is a very good example to trace the Sunni bias that found its way into the mental state of 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 reliable by Sunni standards, he will give an interpretation to the hadith or the event that will be quite different from that of the Shi’as.
These three levels form the classical response of the Sunni polemicists in dealing with the arguments of the Shi’as. A quotation from Rosenthal’s translation of Ibn Khaldun’s The Muqaddimah would suffice to prove my point. (Ibn Khaldun is quoting the following part from al-Milal wa ‘n-Nihal, a heresiographic work of ash-Shahristani.) According to Ibn Khaldun, the Shi’as believe that
‘Ali is the one whom Muhammad appointed. The (Shi’ah) transmit texts (of traditions) in support of (this belief)…The authority on the Sunnah and the transmitters of the religious law do not know these texts.  Most of them are supposititious, or  some of their transmitters are suspect, or  their (true) interpretation is very different from the wicked interpretation that (the Shi’ah) give to them.
Interestingly, the event of Ghadir Khumm has suffered the same fate at the hands of Orientalists. With the limited time and resources available to me at this moment, I was surprised to see that most works on Islam have ignored the event of Ghadir Khumm, indicating, by its very absence, that the Orientalists believed this event to be ‘supposititious’ and an invention of the Shi’as. Margoliouth’s Muhammad and the Rise of Islam (1905), Brockelmann’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 Khumm.
Why did these and many other Western scholars ignore the event of Ghadir Khumm? Since Western scholars mostly relied on anti-Shi’a works, they naturally ignored the event of Ghadir Khumm. L. Veccia Vaglieri, one of the contributors to the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1953), writes:
Most of those sources which form the basis of our knowledge of the life of Prophet (Ibn Hisham, al-Tabari, Ibn Sa’d, etc.) pass in silence over Muhammad’s stop at Ghadir Khumm, 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’is 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 Khumm.
Then we come to those few Western scholars who mention the hadith or the event of Ghadir Khumm but express their scepticism about its authority-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 Khumm in his Muhammedanische Studien (1889-1890) translated into English as Muslim Studies (1966-1971) under the chapter entitled as “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’as’] 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 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 Khumm, which came into being for this purpose and is one of the firmest foundation of the theses of the ‘Alid party.
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 at-Tirmidhi and al-Nasa’i in the footnote as the source for hadith of Ghadir Khumm, he says, “Al-Nasa’i had, as is well known, pro-‘Alid inclinations, and also at-Tirmidhi included in his collection tendentious traditions favouring ‘Ali, e.g., the tayr tradition.” 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 Khumm” by F. Bhul, a Danish Orientalist who wrote a biography of the Prophet. Bhul writes, “The place has become famous through a tradition which had its origin among the Shi’is but is also found among Sunnis, viz., the Prophet on journey back from Hudaibiya (according to others from the farewell pilgrimage) here said of ‘Ali: Whomsoever I am lord of, his lord is ‘Ali also!” Bhul makes sure to emphasize that the hadith of Ghadir has “its origin among the Shi’is!”
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’ahs on the 18th of the month of Zu ‘l-Hijjah, when three images of dough filled with honey are made to represent Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman, which are struck with knives, and the honey is sipped as typical of the blood of the usurping Khalifahs. The festival is named for Ghadir, ‘a pool,’ and the festival commemorates, it is said, Muhammad having declared ‘Ali his successor at Ghadir Khum, a watering place midway between Makkah and al-Madinah.”
Coming from a Shi’a family that traces its ancestory back to the Prophet himself, having studied in Iran for ten years and lived among the Shi’as 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, has incorporated that nonsense into her fairly excellent article on Ghadir Khumm. She adds at the end that,
“This feast also holds an important place 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). After mentioning that the Buyids established “the rejoicing on that [day] of the Prophet’s alleged appointment of ‘Ali as his successor at Ghadir Khumm,” he describes the location of Ghadir Khumm in the footnote as “a spring between Makkah and al-Madinah where Shi’ite tradition asserts the Prophet declared, ‘Whomsoever I am lord of, his lord is ‘Ali also’.” Although this scholar mentions the issue of Ghadir in a passing manner, he classifies 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’ite origin or invention of the hadith of Ghadir, I would just repeat what Vaglieri has said in the Encyclopaedia of Islam about Ghadir Khumm:
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 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.
Vaglieri continues, “Several of these hadiths are cited in the bibliography, but it does not include the had?th which, although reporting the sentence, omit to name Ghadir Khumm, or those which state that the sentence was pronounced at al-Hudaybiya. The complete documentation will be facilitated when the Concordance of Wensinck have 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 collected a great number of them with their isnads.”
It is time the Western scholarship made itself familiar with the Shi’ite literature of the early days as well as of the contemporary period. The Shi’a scholars have produced great works on the issue of Ghadir Khumm. Here I will just mention two of those:
1. The first is ‘Abaqatu ‘l-Anwar in eleven bulky volumes written in Persian by Mir Hamid Husayn al-Musawi (d. 1306 AH) of India. ‘Allamah Mir Hamid Husayn has devoted three bulky volumes (consisting of about 1080 pages) on the isnad, tawatur and meaning of the hadith of Ghadir. An abridged version of this work in Arabic translation entitled as Nafahatu ‘l-Azhar fi Khulasati ‘Abaqati ‘l-Anwar by Sayyid ‘Ali al-Milani has been published in twelve volumes by now; and four volumes of these (with modern type-setting and printing) are dedicated to the had?th of Ghadir.
2. The second work is al-Ghadir in eleven volumes in Arabic by ‘Abdul Husayn Ahmad al-Amini (d. 1970) of Iraq. ‘Allamah Amini has given with full references the names of 110 companions of the Prophet and also the names of 84 tabi’in (disciples of the companions) who have narrated the hadith of Ghadir. He has also chronologically given the names of the historians, traditionalists, exegetists and poets who have mentioned the hadith of Ghadir from the first till the fourteenth Islamic century.
The late Sayyid ‘Abdu ‘l-‘Aziz at-Tabataba’i has stated that there probably is not a single hadith that has been narrated by so many companions as the number we see (120) in the hadith of Ghadir. However, comparing that number to the total number of people who were present in Ghadir Khumm, he states that 120 is just ten percent of the total audience. And so he rightly gave the following title to his paper: “Hadith Ghadir: Ruwatuhu Kathiruna lil-Ghiyah…Qaluluna lil-Ghiyah – Its Narrators are Very Many…Very Few”.
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