اكتب وبث علمك في إخوانك، فإن مت فأورث كتبك بنيك
Write down and spread your knowledge among your brothers. And if you are about to die then will your books to your children [What the Imam al-Sadiq is supposed to have said to al-Mufadhal]
فلما انصرفت إلى الكوفة أقبلت علي الشيعة فمزقوني كل ممزق، يأكلون لحمي ويشتمون عرضي، حتى أن بعضهم استقبلني فوثب في وجهي، وبعضهم قعد لي في سكك الكوفة يريد ضربي، ورموني بكل بهتان
When I reached Kufa and met the Shia, they tore me to shreds, eating my flesh and disparaging my honour, such that one of them faced me and punched me in the face, and one of them lay in ambush for me in the markets of Kufa wishing to beat me up, and they made false accusations against me [Mufadhal in his Last Will and Testimony]
ما يقولون في المفضل بن عمر؟ قلت: يقولون فيه: هيئة يهوديا أو نصرانيا
What do they say about al-Mufadhal b. Umar? They say: He has the appearance and manner of a Jew or a Christian [The General Populace of Kufa was not impressed by Mufadhal]
Who was He?
Abu Abdallah Mufadhal b. Umar al-Ju’fi (d. before 179), a money-changer by profession, was a Kufan companion of the two Imams, al-Sadiq and al-Kadhim. He was charged with performing certain tasks for them.
al-Tusi sees no problem in him. He includes him among the praiseworthy ‘intimate ones’ and ‘managers of the Imam’s affairs’ citing the following report as evidence:
علي بن محمد، قال: حدثني سلمة بن الخطاب، عن علي بن حسان، عن موسى بن بكير قال: كنت في خدمة أبي الحسن عليه السلام ولم أكن أرى شيئا يصل إلى إلا من ناحية المفضل بن عمر، ولربما رأيت الرجل يجئ بالشئ فلا يقبله منه ويقول: أوصله إلى المفضل
Ali b. Muhammad – Salama b. al-Khattab – Ali b. Hassan – Musa b. Bukayr: I was in the service of Abi al-Hasan عليه السلام. Nothing [of the monetary dues] used to reach him [from any other route] except through Mufadhal b. Umar. I would sometimes see a man bringing something to the Imam directly and he [the Imam] would refuse to accept it and say: take it to Mufadhal.
That he was an important figure who exerted considerable influence on the Shi’ite community is undeniable. This can be glimpsed from the number of narrations under his name and the books attributed to him.
A Controversial Narrator
However, there is a controversy about his status. A controversy which probably began in his own lifetime. Some saw him as the bearer of the ‘secrets’ of the Imams who was understandably misunderstood by the laymen who could not bear them, while others saw him as a crypto-syncretist who distorted the teachings of the Imam.
There exists both praise and censure of him attributed to the Imams. Most of the narrations which extol him are narrated by the Ghulat who glorify him as one of their pillars.
The books ascribed to him include partially surviving esoteric manuals like Kitab al-Sirat (‘The Book of the Way’) and Kitab al-Haft wa al-Azilla (‘The Book of the Seven and the Phantoms’) among others. These are treasured by contemporary Nusayri-Alawis but would be considered heretical in the Twelver Madhhab. It is unclear whether this attribution is historical or merely based on the communal memory of his significance for their teachings. Modern academic research sees these books as consisting of many layers, with unidentified authors adding material to the oldest core.
al-Ayyashi encountered some of this suspect literature as he retells below:
وأمّا أبو يعقوب إسحاق بن محمد البصري، فإنّه كان غالياً، وسرت إليه إلى بغداد لاكتب عنه وسألته كتاباً أنسخه، فأخرج إليّ من أحاديث المفضّل بن عمر في التفويض ، فلم أرغب فيه فأخرج إليّ من أحاديث مشيخته من الثقات
As for Abu Ya’qub Ishaq b. Muhammad al-Basri then he was a Ghali. I went to him in Baghdad to write from him. I asked him a book to copy so he took out for me a collection of narrations from Mufadhal b. Umar regarding Tafwidh [that the ‘Aimma are independent beings who run the world after its initial creation] but I did not express any interest in that, then he produced narrations relayed by the trustworthy ones among his teachers …
Traditionalist scholars like al-Najashi and Ibn al-Ghadhairi had a negative assessment of him for this very reason. They went through the works ascribed to him and found them to be unpalatable.
Ibn al-Ghadhairi is scathing when he says:
خطابي، وقد زيد عليه شئ كثير، وحمل الغلاة في حديثه حملا عظيما
‘A Khattabi. A lot of fabricated material has been attributed to him. The Ghulat have launched a full-scale attack on his narrations (i.e. they have invaded his original corpus infiltrating it with their own ideas)’
وقد ذكرت له مصنفات لا يعول عليها، وإنما ذكرنا للشرط الذي قدمناه
‘A number of books are listed as authored by him but they are not to be depended upon. I only include their names because of the condition which we have mentioned before [i.e. to list the titles of all Shi’i authors]’
Even if he is not responsible for what circulates under his name, the fact that the Ghulat considered him one of their own should be reason enough for caution. Anonymous writers are known to have penned material using his name seeking to enhance the authority of their works. It is an arduous task to sift the historical from the forged.
What can be asserted without doubt is that the historical Mufadhal was at one point in time connected to Abu al-Khattab and the Khatabiyya [there is even a splinter-sect of the Khatabiyya which was named after Mufadhal i.e. the Mufadhaliyya]. They are accused of deifying al-Sadiq in some way and of believing in continuation of prophecy. We have some narrations which indicate Mufadhal’s links with such beliefs:
حدثني الحسين بن الحسن بن بندار القمي، قال حدثني سعد بن عبد الله بن أبي خلف القمي، قال حدثني محمد بن الحسين بن أبي الخطاب و الحسن بن موسى، عن صفوان بن يحيى، عن عبد الله بن مسكان قال: دخل حجر بن زائدة و عامر بن جذاعة الأزدي على أبي عبد الله عليه السلام فقالا: جعلنا فداك، إن المفضل بن عمر يقول إنكم تقدرون أرزاق العباد ...
al-Husayn b. al-Hasan b. Bundar al-Qummi – Sa’d b. Abdallah b. Abi Khalaf al-Qummi – Muhammad b. al-Husayn b. Abi al-Khattab and al-Hasan b. Musa from Safwan b. Yahya from Abdallah b. Muskan who said: Hujr b. Zaida and A’mir b. Judha’a al-Azdi entered upon Abi Abdillah عليه السلام and said to him: May we be made your ransom, Mufadhal b. Umar says that you are the ones who allot the Rizq of the slaves …
علي بن محمد، عن صالح بن أبي حماد، عن محمد بن أورمة، عن ابن سنان، عن المفضل بن عمر قال: كنت أنا والقاسم شريكي ونجم بن حطيم وصالح بن سهل بالمدينة فتناظرنا في الربوبية، قال: فقال بعضنا لبعض: ما تصنعون بهذا نحن بالقرب منه وليس منا في تقية قوموا بنا إليه، قال: فقمنا فوالله ما بلغنا الباب إلا وقد خرج علينا بلا حذاء ولا رداء قد قام كل شعرة من رأسه منه وهو يقول: لا لا يا مفضل ويا قاسم ويا نجم، لا لا بل عباد مكرمون لا يسبقونه بالقول وهم بأمره يعملون
Ali b. Muhammad – Salih b. Abi Hammad – Muhammad b. Awrama – Ibn Sinan – al-Mufadhal b. Umar who said: I, al-Qasim al-Shariki, Najm b. Hutaym and Salih b. Sahl were in Madina when we disputed each other over the divinity [of the ‘Aimma]. He [Mufadhal] said: We said to each other - why are we speculating on this when we are nearby to him [the Imam] and he is not in Taqiyya with us [does not answer us in dissimulation], let’s go meet him. He [Mufadhal] said: We headed towards him - by Allah we had not reached the door before he came out bare-footed, without a cloak and all the hair on his head stood on end [in apprehension] saying: No - O Mufadhal, Qasim and Najm, No! “rather mere honored slaves, never preceding Him (Allah) in word, and they always follow His orders” (21:26-27)
حدثني حمدويه وإبراهيم ابنا نصير، قالا: حدثنا محمد بن عيسى، عن علي ابن الحكم، عن المفضل بن عمر أنه كان يبشر أبا الخطاب وفلان أنكما لمن المرسلين
Hamduwayh b. Nusayr and Ibrahim b. Nusayr – Muhammad b. Isa – Ali b. al-Hakam: That he [Mufadhal b. Umar] used to give glad tidings to Aba al-Khattab and one other saying: ‘verily you are messengers’
قال الكشى: وذكرت الطيارة الغالية في بعض كتبها عن المفضل: أنه قال لقد قتل مع أبي اسماعيل يعني أبا الخطاب سبعون نبيا ... وأن المفضل قال: أدخلنا على أبي عبد الله عليه السلام ونحن اثنى عشر رجلا، قال: فجعل أبو عبد الله عليه السلام يسلم على رجل رجل منا ويسمي كل رجل منا باسم نبي، وقال لبعضنا: السلام عليك يا نوح، وقال لبعضنا: السلام عليك يا ابراهيم، وكان آخر من سلم عليه وقال: السلام عليك يا يونس، ثم قال: لا تخاير بين الانبياء
al-Kashshi said: The Tayyara Ghulat say in one of their books that al-Mufadhal said: Seventy prophets were killed with Aba al-Khattab … Mufadhal is also supposed to have said: Twelve of us entered in to see Abi Abdillah عليه السلام. He [the Imam] began greeting each one of us individually and calling each one of us by the name of a prophet, saying to one of us ‘peace be upon you O Noah’ to another ‘peace be upon you O Ibrahim’, he greeted the last one of us saying: ‘peace be upon you O Yunus’. Then he [the Imam] said: do not distinguish between the prophets!
Mufadhal, The Khattabiyya and Ismail
The Khatabbiya seem to have taken Ismail the son of al-Sadiq as their figure-head and pinned their hopes on him as the next Imam. It is hard to discern from the meager sources available whether Ismail’s participation in this was of his own volition or not.
رجال الكشي: حمدويه بن نصير، عن يعقوب بن يزيد، عن ابن أبي عمير، عن هشام بن الحكم وحماد بن عثمان، عن إسماعيل بن جابر قال: قال أبو عبد الله: ايت المفضل قل له: يا كافر يا مشرك ما تريد إلى ابني تريد أن تقتله
Hamduwayh b. Nusayr – Ya’qub b. Yazid – Ibn Abi Umayr – Hisham b. al-Hakam and Hammad b. Uthman – Ismail b. Jabir who said: Abu Abdillah عليه السلام said: Go to Mufadhal and say to him - O Kafir, O Mushrik, what do you want for my son Ismail? Do you want to kill him!?
The narration above has the Imam using very harsh language with Mufadhal in the context of the latter’s ‘grooming’ of Ismail which al-Sadiq felt was dangerous.
On the other hand, there also exists a countervailing narration as below:
الكافي: محمد بن يحيى، عن أحمد بن محمد بن عيسى، عن علي بن الحكم، عن يونس بن يعقوب قال: أمرني أبو عبد الله عليه السلام أن آتي المفضل واعزيه باسماعيل وقال: اقرأ المفضل السلام وقل له: إنا قد اصبنا بإسماعيل فصبرنا، فاصبر كما صبرنا، إنا أردنا أمرا وأراد الله عزوجل أمرا، فسلمنا لامر الله عزوجل
Muhammad b. Yahya – Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Isa – Ali b. al-Hakam – Yunus b. Ya’qub who said: Abu Abdillah عليه السلام ordered me to go to Mufadhal and condole him for [the death of] Ismail. He [the Imam] said: Convey my greetings of peace to Mufadhal and say to him: We have been tried through Ismail and have remained patient, so be patient the way we have been patient. We wanted something but Allah Mighty and Majestic wanted something else so we have submitted to the command of Allah Mighty and Majestic.
This one is much more warm. The Imam condoles Mufadhal on the occasion of Ismail’s death - the two must have been especially close - and commends him to be patient in emulation of the Imam’s own patience.
How can we explain this difference in tone?
It seems that one way to reconcile between them is to posit that Mufadhal had a period of estrangement from the Imam - because of his involvement with the Khattabis and their intentions for Ismail, however, he later repented from this and broke away with Abu al-Khattab, consequently the relation with the Imam improved.
Evidence for this can be found in the narration below:
جبرئيل بن أحمد قال: حدّثني محمّد بن عيسى، عن يونس، عن حماد بن عثمان قال: سمعت أبا عبداللّه عليه السلام يقول للمفضّل بن عمر الجعفي: يا كافر يا مشرك ما لك ولابني، يعني إسماعيل بن جعفر، وكان منقطعا إليه، يقول فيه مع الخطابية، ثم رجع بعد
Jibrail b. Ahmad – Muhammad b. Isa – Yunus – Hammad b. Uthman who said: I heard Aba Abdillah عليه السلام saying to al-Mufadhal b. Umar al-Ju’fi: O Kafir, O Mushrik, what do you have to do with my son - meaning Ismail b. Ja’far? - and he [Mufadhal] was loyal to him [Ismail], believing about him [that he is the Imam and much more] together with the Khatabiyya, then he returned afterwards.
That Mufadhal returned back to the truth after deviation can be proved also by the fact that he was not among those followers of Abu al-Khattab who died with their leader when they were attacked by the men of Isa b. Musa [the Abbasid governor of Kufa] after barricading themselves in the central mosque as part of an aborted revolt.
Another piece of evidence for this view is that Mufadhal seems to have a more cordial relation with al-Kadhim after the death of al-Sadiq [indeed there are no censures against him quoted from this Imam, which would tally with his reform in his later years].
محمد بن مسعود، قال: حدثني عبد الله بن خلف، قال: حدثنا علي بن حسان الواسطي، قال: حدثني موسى بن بكير قال: سمعت أبا الحسن يقول لما أتاه موت المفضل بن عمر، قال: رحمه الله، كان الوالد بعد الوالد، أما انه قد استراح
Muhammad b. Masud – Abdallah b. Khalaf – Ali b. Hassan al-Wasiti – Musa b. Bukayr who said: I heard Aba al-Hasan saying when he was informed of the death of al-Mufadhal b. Umar - May Allah have mercy on him, he was a father after the father [al-Sadiq i.e. a second father to him]. Verily he is now resting in peace.
The case of al-Mufadhal is a complicated one. More needs to be done to collect all the relevant evidence and formulate a coherent position, if at all possible. This is obviously not the place for an in-depth study. Such research should also consider the provenance of famous books attributed to him like Tawhid al-Mufadhal, al-Ihlilaja etc. Having said all this, caution must be exercised as regards narrations attributed to him, specifically if the contents have to do with Imamology.