The author of the famous fourth century hadith compilation Tuḥaf al-‘Uqūl, Abu Muḥammad al-Ḥasan ibn ‘Ali ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn Shu‘ba al-Ḥarrāni is an individual whose character remains elusive because nothing has been said about him in the early works of rijāl. Though more recent scholars have mentioned him with praise, the late Sayyid al-Khui (r) says that the opinions of later scholars are to be considered as their own ijtihād and are of little value if nothing has been mentioned by the earlier scholars of rijāl. 1 As such, attempts have been made to try and reconstruct the character of Ibn Shu‘ba from the contents of his famous compilation Tuḥaf al-‘Uqūl.
For example, one phrase that is found in Tuḥaf al-‘Uqūl is al-shī‘ah al-mustabīrīn [p. 490] which is an uncommon phrase and some theories have been put forward and debated in relation to what this could mean and how it may relate to the beliefs of Ibn Shu‘ba. Specifically, whether or not by this phrase Ibn Shu‘ba was actually hinting against the Muqaṣṣirah among the Shī‘ah. 2 Another interesting claim that has been made is that because Ibn Shu‘ba has included the testament (waṣiyya) of Mufaḍḍal ibn ‘Umar al-Ju‘fī al-Kūfī in his compilation, he must have been a Nuṣayri.
Some later scholars such as Shaykh Husayn al-Baḥrāni (in his work on ethics al-Ṭarīq ila Allāh) have evinced that he was one of the teachers of Shaykh al-Mufīd because of the fact that the latter has narrated some traditions from him. However, Shaykh Muḥsin Amīn says that even though Shaykh al-Mufīd has narrated from him, this is not sufficient to prove that he was one of Ibn Shu‘ba’s students. 3 Due to the dearth of information about al-Ḥarrāni, many things have been speculated about him and the above are some of the more well known examples. Whether he was the actual compiler of Tuḥaf al-‘Uqūl and al-Tamḥīṣ (the other work that has been attributed to him) has also been questioned.
What is fascinating to note is that attempts have been made to reconstruct the person of Ibn Shu‘ba through the contents of his work and to deduce what his beliefs were etc. This is not something new and can be seen in the cases of other authors and compilers as well. But, when biographical information is available in the sources, it is taken to be the sole source of information about the individuals, and scholars do not normally use the same methods of reconstruction to try and check whether the biographical information tallies with the contents of the works of these individuals. This type of analysis could yield some interesting results and might give us a sense of how accurate these biographies are in the first place.