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Bihar al-Anwar

Posted by on March 12, 2014

Biḥār al-Anwār al-Jāmiʿatu li Durari Akhbāri al-Aʾimmat al-Aṭhār (Oceans of light: A Compendium of the Exalted Traditions of the Pure Imāms) by ʿAllāmah Muḥammad al-Bāqir ibn Muḥammad al-Taqī al-Majlisī (d. 1111 A.H.) is an encyclopedic compilation of aḥādīth. This work, which occupied al-Majlisī for most of his scholarly life, grew from a more modest work known as Fihrist Biḥār al-Anwār (or Fihrist Muṣannafāt al-Asḥāb) which was published in 1070 A.H. and consists of a table of contents that corresponds roughly to that of the final version as well as traditions taken from ten early works, six of which are by Shaykh al-Ṣadūq. A few years later, al-Majlisī began collecting practically the entire corpus of Imāmī ḥadīth. In his introduction to Biḥār, he describes his aim of collecting the available ḥadīth literature, including texts thought to be lost, and arranging its contents subject-wise.

al-Majlisī was able to draw on the help of such luminaries as Niʿmatullāh Jazāʾirī (d. 1112) and Mīrzā ʿAbdullāh ibn ʿĪsā Afandī (d. between 1130 and 1140 A.H.), both of whom were among his pupils. He would occasionally also obtain financial assistance from the Safavid court, as when attempting (unsuccessfully) to obtain Shaykh al-Ṣadūq’s manuscript of Madīnat al-ʿIlm from Yemen. He would often have scribes do the actual copying of passages, though he also wrote a considerable portion of the text himself.

al-Majlisī did not live to see the Biḥār through to completion. At his death, he left only preliminary drafts of the later volumes. Particularly noticeable is the absence of his explicatory comments from these drafts. Instead, we find occasional brief notes, probably written by his pupil and grandson Muḥammad Ḥusayn Khātūnābādī (d. 1151 A.H.), whose Ḥadāʾiq al-Muqarrabīn is one of the earliest sources on the history of the Biḥār. One of the first scholars to take note of the Biḥār was al-Majlisī’s contemporary Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1104 A.H.).

The first complete edition of Biḥār, dedicated to Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh and to his son and successor Muẓaffar al-Dīn, was lithographed in Tehrān and Tabrīz between 1303 and 1315 A.H. A useful index entitled Safīnat al-Biḥār wa Madīnat al-Ḥikam wal-Āthār was compiled by Shaykh ʿAbbās ibn Muḥammad Riḍā al-Qummī (d. 1359 A.H.), who also included in it some traditions not found in the Biḥār itself. A supplement (mustadrak) to the Safīna was written by ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-Shāhrūdī. Of its projected 110 volumes, three (54-56) are taken up by an index.

It is noteworthy that al-Majlisī himself made use of the Biḥār in his Persian works, some of which are abridged or extracted from volumes of his magnum opus. In his introduction to Ḥayāt al-Qulūb, for example, al-Majlisī speaks of the need to make the material in the Biḥār accessible to those with no knowledge of Arabic. Indeed, the three volumes of the Ḥayāt are abridged Persian translations of such material.

Biḥār al-Anwār reflects the accumulated knowledge of a millennium of Shiʿī ḥadīth scholarship, and covers most aspects of Imamī religious thought such as: the concept of knowledge (ʿilm); tawḥīd and the divine attributes; free will and predestination, death and the after-life; arguments (iḥtijājāt), mainly of the Imāms (a); stories of the Prophets; biographies of the Prophet and his forebears; biographies of Fāṭima and the first eleven Imams; the twelfth Imam and issues related to his occultation and many other important subjects.

While most of the works on which al-Majlisī drew are available today in printed editions, some are still known chiefly through quotations in the Biḥār. al-Majlisī always identifies the source of each passage in his work, whether it was written by himself or copied from an earlier authority. Although al-Majlisī tried to be comprehensive, there are some texts which he was able to use only partially or not at all, as he had obtained them while the work was already in progress. He intended to incorporate the missing material in a supplement (to be entitled Mustadrak al-Biḥār), but he did not live to write it. Furthermore, in conformity with his stated views, al-Majlisī refrained from using texts with a Sufi or a philosophical bias, thus excluding from the Biḥār a major component of the Shiʿī literary tradition. He did however, cite Sunni sources for lexicographical or polemical purposes.

Historically, the earliest texts incorporated in the Biḥār go back to the pre-ghayba period (before 260 A.H.). Some consists of works written during the Lesser Occultation (260-329 A.H.) and the Buyid period. Particularly prominent are works by Shaykh al-Ṣadūq (d. 381 A.H.), Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 413 A.H.), Sharīf Murtaḍā ʿAlam al-Hudā (d. 436 A.H.), and Shaykh al- Ṭūsī (d. 460 A.H.). The later ʿAbbasid period is represented by works of Ibn Shahrāshūb (d. 588 A.H.), Ibn Ṭāwūs (d. 664 A.H.), and others; while the period between the fall of Baghdad (in 656 A.H.) and the beginning of the 10th century, includes compositions by such masters as the ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī (d. 726 A.H.) and al-Shahīd al-Awwal (d. 786 A.H.). Finally, al-Majlisī also incorporated works written in the Safavid period by (among others) al-Shahīd al-Thānī (d. 965 A.H.) and Shaykh Bahāʾī (d. 1030 A.H.).

The Biḥār contains commentaries on the Koran, such as the tafsīrs of Furāt ibn Ibrāhīm (d. 300 A.H.), ʿAlī ibn Ibrāhīm al-Qummī (d. 307 A.H.), al-ʿAyyāshī (d. 320 A.H.), and the Majmaʿ al-Bayān of al-Ṭabarsī (d. 548 A.H.); biographies of the Imāms, such as the Irshād of Shaykh Mufīd and the Iʿlām al-Warā of al-Ṭabarsī; doctrinal and theological works expounding the major tenets of Imamī Shiʿism; legal texts; polemical writings; supererogatory prayers and supplications; collections of sayings and anecdotes. Most of this material consists of traditions from the Prophet and the Imāms, the significance of which was greatly enhanced by the growing influence of the Akhbārīs in the 11th century; and al-Majlisī, though not a declared Akhbārī, was in sympathy with some of their beliefs.

Being a compilation, the Biḥār does not present a uniform view on all issues; it contains both moderate and radical traditions. al-Majlisī was aware of various contradictions and inconsistencies, and on occasion attempted to resolve them. The radical traditions in the Biḥār are concerned with three major issues: (1) The integrity of the Qurʾān: certain phrases in the Qurʾān referring to ʿAlī’s rights are said to have been deliberately excised. (2) The status of the Prophet’s companions (ṣaḥāba). (3) The position of the imams: they are said to have possessed knowledge of the unseen (ghayb) and to have performed miracles.

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