- Al-Kafi, Book 1 (Intellect & Foolishness) by Shaykh Abu Ja‘far Muhammad b. Ya‘qub al-Kulayni
Until quite recently, Shi‘a Islam and its sources received scant attention in Western academy and were at times subsumed under Sunni Islam. This resulted in reductionism, essentialism, and the loss of nuance and sophistication in one’s understanding of its religious, cultural, and political ethos. This has been partially compensated with the publication of monographs on Shi‘a Islam and translations of important Shi‘a works. However, there is still a wide gap when it comes to providing reliable literature in English on Shi‘a hadith that would be intelligible for the non-expert in the field but without making the subject matter simplistic and superficial. The translation and commentary of the first thirty-six hadiths from the first chapter of al-Kafi (commonly referred to in English as the Book of Reason and Ignorance), done under the direction of Shaykh Rizwan Arastu, partially redresses this gap and enhances public literacy. This book is, therefore, a very welcome addition to the Shi‘a hadith collection in English for the target audience that it is intended, i.e. the non-specialist in Islam.
The primary sources of Shi‘a law are the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet and the twelve infallible guides that can be authenticated, consensus (ijma‘), and reason (‘aql). All hadiths have to be interrogated to determine their level of reliability, as many were manufactured and managed to creep into the corpus undetected. The four early Shi‘a hadith collections are al-Kafi by Kulayni (d. 941), Man La Yahduruh al-Faqih by [End Page 231] Ibn Babawayh al-Qummi (d. 991), and Tahdhib al-Ahkam and al-Istibsar by Muhammad Abu Ja‘far al-Tusi (d. 1067). Shaykh Arastu is clearly aware of the importance of the science of interrogating the transmitters of hadiths to evaluate their reliability, however, as this work is not intended for the expert reader, digressing into this area would compromise the rationale for undertaking this translation (xlii).
The World Organization for Islamic Services (WOFIS) in Tehran had begun to translate al-Kafi into English in 1978 under the guidance and supervision of the late Muhammad Rida al-Ja‘fari and John Cooper. But for a number of reasons, this project came to a standstill after the translation of section 1 of Kitab al-Hujjah. The resulting precise and accurate translation, due to the decision to remain faithful to the original text at the expense of smooth and flowing sentences, featured some stilted and non-idiomatic sentences. In the late 1990s, Muhammad Sarwar translated al-Kafi. Both of these works are meticulous, especially the former, but neither one provides a commentary or an explanatory translation of the hadiths. The Islamic Texts Institute’s (IIT) translation and commentary has adequately addressed and taken care of this gap and has done so in idiomatic English to make it an easier read.
Al-Kafi is one of the earliest comprehensive collections of hadiths that grouped the traditions under different chapters, starting with the fundamentals of religion and progressing to the more practical and detailed aspects of law. The best critical edition, the fifteen-volume work that provides variances found in other manuscripts, was published by Dar al-Hadith in Iran in 2008. Earlier hadith collections had begun to adopt the topical method of grouping the hadiths, but their scope was limited and not comparable to Kulyani’s extensive survey in al-Kafi. It contains approximately 15,000 traditions,1 of which about 9,500 are considered weak (da‘if ) by the standards of the science of hadith.2 But this is not the same as saying that they are unreliable, for this nomenclature only informs the reader that the chain of transmission (isnad) has some issues that require further...