What are the features and privileges of Behar al-Anwar?

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SHAFAQNA- Behar al-Anwa being a huge hadith collection is the most important work by Allamah Muhammad Baqir Majlisi. It is a big encyclopedia of Shiite traditions encompassing all religious issues and themes including exegesis of the Quran, history, jurisprudence, theology etc.

Some of the most important features of Behar al-Anwar are the following:
1- The book mentions relevant Quranic verses in the beginning of chapter.  2- The book is inclusive in the sense that it deals with various subjects. 3- Independent treatises have been mentioned in this collection. 4- The book provides references from rare sources and corrected versions of books. 5- The book provides explanation and interpretation of every tradition.
There is no doubt that these features does not mean that all the traditions and reports in this book are authentic and endorsed by Shiite scholars or that they do not need to be verified in terms of their contents and chains of transmission.
Detailed Answer
Behar al-Anwar Li-Durar Akhbar al-Aemah al-Athar literally means seas of light containing gems of the sayings of pure leaders i.e. the infallible Imams (AS). This huge hadith collection, is the most important work by Allamah Muhammad Baqir Majlisi. It is a big encyclopedia of Shiite ahadith containing all religious issues and themes including exegesis of the Quran, history, jurisprudence, theology etc.
  1. Privileges
Some of the most important features of Behar al-Anwar are as under:
1. Well-organized chapters: This collection is among Shiite’s biggest and most wide-ranging hadith collections that include the narrations of the hadith books in very well-organized and separate chapters.
2. Mentioning relevant Quranic verses in the beginning of every chapter: Allamah Majlisi cites relevant verses from the Quran to begin every chapter. Then, if the verses need to be interpreted, he interprets them quoting great scholars and exponents and then mentioning all the narrations and reports relevant to the subject of the chapter.
3. Comprehensiveness of Behar al-Anwar as compared to other hadith collections: A glimpse of the titles and narrations existing in Behar al-Anwar shows that this great work includes various religious themes and issues and there is no Islamic topic (at least in his time) that he may not have attended and dealt with by collecting its narrations and reports.
4. Quoting independent treatises in Behar al-Anwar: While dealing with a subject-matter, Allamah Majlisi comes across books and treatises relating to the subject. Due to the treatise being short and relevant, he quotes the treatise thoroughly e.g. the treatise of Imam Hadi regarding predestination and absolute delegation of authority (compulsion and free will), Imam Sajjad’s Treatise on Rights, Tawhidof al-Mufadhal and so forth.
5. Benefiting from rare sources and corrected versions of books: It is understood clearly well that Allamah Majlisi had had excess to a lot of books, some of which perished and have not been passed on to us. Therefore, to collect traditions and piece of reports from different sources, Allamah has benefitted from the best and most reliable copies of books. Had he not gathered these narrations in a single book, we would not have access to those narrations now.
6. Explanation and interpretation of traditions: Allamah Majlisi has, in many cases after mentioning a tradition, explained the difficult or strange words of the tradition. He has benefitted from various etymological, jurisprudential, exegetic, theological, historical sources to interpret and explain the narrations. The exposition of the traditions is one of the privileges of this encyclopedia of traditions.
7. Reporting various documents and texts in every single topic: Another good feature of this encyclopedic work is that the book enables the researcher to distinguish the degree of the credibility of the narrations and reports because the narrations relating to every subject are put together.[1]
8. Providing references from different sources for repeated narrations: Allamah Majlisi has provided references for repeated reports and narrations using different sources. He has highlighted the differences in the chain of transmission of the traditions or in the texts of identical reports collected from different books.
  1. Criticisms
One of Allamah Majlisi’s most important objectives was to collect narrations in order to prevent them from getting lost or destroyed so that through this work he could pass Shiite’s hadith legacy to the succeeding generations. Naturally such a huge and extensive work cannot be free of flaws and deficiencies. It cannot be free of errors and mistakes since it is the work of a man who admits his being prone to error. In fact, none of our scholars have ever claimed that their work is flawless.
Yet, there are some scholars who believe that there are weak and unreliable reports in Behar al-Anwear and that Allamah Majlisi’s explanations are inadequate and at times erroneous. They are of the view that these are the weaknesses that can be found in this collection. They maintain that most of the explanations, interpretations and comments made by Allamah Majlisi are hurriedly written and that has led to some mistakes.[2]
Repetition of traditions can be another weaknesses of this collection. There is, however, no doubt that Allamah Majlisi had been mindful of the repetition but different factors such as differences in the chains of transmission of traditions, texts of the reports and relationship of one report with two or more themes have led to repetition.
It goes without saying that different chapters and themes require such repetition to happen. As was said earlier, Allamah Majlisi sought to sort out the narrations on the basis of various themes. Since some narrations had thematic connection with different subjects, the author is compelled to either mention a tradition in parts or make mention of the entire narration once again, something that causes the book to grow in size and become boring for the reader.
Allamah Majlisi knew pretty well that if he were to cut a narration short, the first part of a narration might hold some contexts and significations which would shed some light on the second part of it or vice versa rendering the narration useless or unclear. That is why, Allamah Majlisi has, in most cases, mentioned the traditions completely in a chapter and in another chapter, he has mentioned only that part of the report which is related to the subject matter.  Meanwhile, he has reminded that he has mentioned the entire hadith in a chapter and by so doing he has done away with the problem of some contexts getting lost.

[1] See Jami’ al-Ahadith Software produced by Computer Center for Islamic Sciences (Noor); Professors of the College of Islamic Sciences, hadith science, p 250 – 251, Jamal Publications, Qom, first edition, 1389 (Persian calendar).
[2] See, Amin, Sayyid Mohsen, A’ayan al-Shi’ah, vol.9, p. 183, Dar al-Ta’aruf for Publication, Beirut, 1406 A.H.

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