There is a common question posed to the Shīʿas about the knowledge of the Imām and why they did not avoid death, since they knew – and did that constitute suicide? Unfortunately, many Shīʿa fail to answer this sufficiently, and even more worrying is that some believe the Imām indeed had full knowledge of the unseen and future events. Shaykh al-Mufīd was asked this question, as reported in Biḥār al-Anwār:

سئل الشيخ المفيد قدس الله روحه في المسائل العكبرية : الامام عندنا مجمع على أنه يعلم ما يكون ، فما بال أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام خرج إلى المسجد وهو يعلم أنه مقتول وقد عرف قاتله والوقت والزمان ؟ وما بال الحسين بن علي عليهما السلام سار إلى الكوفة وقد علم أنهم يخذلونه ولا ينصرونه وأنه مقتول في سفرته تلك ؟ ولم لما حصروا وعرف أن الماء قد منع منه وأنه إن حفر أذرعا قريبة نبع الماء ولم يحفر وأعان على نفسه حتى تلف عطشا ؟ والحسن عليه السلام وادع معاوية و هادنه وهو يعلم أنه ينكث ولا يفي ويقتل شيعة أبيه عليه السلام ، فأجاب الشيخ رحمه الله عنها بقوله :

al-Majlisi says: “al-Shaykh al-Mufīd (may Allāh sanctify his spirit) was asked, in [the book] al-Masā’il al-`Ukrabiyyah: The consensus we (the twelver Shīʿas) are upon is that the Imām has knowledge of all [events] to come [in the future]. So how is it that ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام made his way to the mosque while he had knowledge that he will be killed, for indeed he knew both his killer and the time and place [that he will be killed]? And how is it that al-Ḥussain bin ʿAlī عليهما السلام advanced to Kūfa, while indeed he knew that they will betray him and will not support him, and he would certainly be killed on his journey to there? And why, when they cornered him and he knew that the water was denied from him, had dug a hole a cubit deep near by – water would spring forth – yet he did not dig or support himself; until he deteriorated from thirst. And al-Ḥassan عليه السلام made peace with Muʿāwiyah and made truce with him, while he knew that he (Muʿāwiyah) would violate [the treaty] and not fulfill it, and [continue] to kill the Shīʿa of his father عليه السلام? So al-Shaykh رحمه الله answered them with this statement:

وأما الجواب عن قوله : ” إن الامام يعلم ما يكون ” فإجماعنا أن الامر على خلاف ما قال ، وما أجمعت الشيعة على هذا القول ، وإنما إجماعهم ثابت على أن الامام يعلم الحكم في كل ما يكون دون أن يكون عالما بأعيان ما يحدث ويكون على التفصيل والتمييز ، وهذا يسقط الأصل الذي بنى عليه الأسولة بأجمعها ، ولسنا نمنع أن يعلم الامام أعيان ما يحدث ويكون بإعلام الله تعالى [ له ] ذلك ، فأما القول بأنه يعلم كل ما يكون فلسنا نطلقه ولا نصوب قائله ، لدعواه فيه من غير حجة ولا بيان ،  .

And as for the reply to the point “the Imām has knowledge of all [events] to come [in the future]”, our consensus is that the affair is different to what was said, since the Shīʿa have only an established consensus that the Imām has knowledge of the rulings of all that is to come, without having the knowledge in essence of everything that will occur, whereupon [knowing] its tiny and particular details. Therefore, this nullifies the foundation that all these questions were built upon. However, we do not deny that the Imām has [some] knowledge of the essence of things that will occur, and that is through Allāh teaching it to him. So as for the statement that they know everything that is to come, we do not take it as absolute, nor do we approve of the one saying it, for their call to it is without any valid evidence or proof.

والقول : بأن أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام كان يعلم قاتله والوقت الذي كان يقتل فيه فقد جاء الخبر متظاهرا أنه كان يعلم في الجملة أنه مقتول ، وجاء أيضا بأنه يعلم قاتله على التفصيل ، فأما علمه بوقت قتله فلم يأت عليه أثر على التحصيل ولو جاء به أثر لم يلزم فيه ما يظنه المعترضون ، إذ كان لا يمتنع أن يتعبده الله تعالى بالصبر على الشهادة والاستسلام للقتل ، ليبلغه بذلك علو الدرجات مالا يبلغه إلا به ، ولعلمه بأنه يطيعه في ذلك طاعة لو كلفها سواه لم يردها ، ولا يكون بذلك أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام ملقيا بيده إلى التهلكة ، ولا معينا على نفسه معونة تستقبح في العقول .

And the statement that ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام knew his killer, and the time that he would be killed, [we reply] that the news that has reached us apparently only proves that – in summary – he knew that he would be killed, and also that he knew who his killer was in detail. However, as for the knowledge of the time that he would be killed, then there has not been any reports that conclude this; and had this [sort of] report reached us, it would not comply with what the challengers propose, as he did not refuse the [submission in] worship to Allāh, Most High, with patience in his martyrdom and submission to being killed. [Allāh] informing him of this raises his ranks, where he did not inform anyone else [about their death]. His (Allāh’s) knowledge that he will obey him in that an obedience that if it were burdened upon any one else, would not have been able to be carried out. And thus, ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام would not voluntarily meet his demise, nor would he aid something against himself, in a way that is repulsive to the intellect.

وأما علم الحسين عليه السلام بأن أهل الكوفة خاذلوه ، فلسنا نقطع على ذلك ، إذ لا حجة عليه من عقل ولا سمع ، ولو كان عالما بذلك لكان الجواب عنه ما قد مناه في الجواب عن علم أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام بوقت قتله ومعرفة قاتله كما ذكرناه . و أما دعواه علينا أنا نقول : إن الحسين عليه السلام كان عالما بموضع الماء قادرا عليه ، فلسنا نقول ذلك ، ولا جاء به خبر ، على أن طلب الماء والاجتهاد فيه يقضي بخلاف ذلك ولو ثبت أنه كان عالما بموضع الماء لم يمتنع في العقول أن يكون متعبدا بترك السعي في طلب الماء من حيث كان ممنوعا منه حسب ما ذكرناه في أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام ، غير أن ظاهر الحال بخلاف ذلك على ما قدمناه .

As for al-Ḥussain عليه السلام, that he had knowledge that the people of Kūfa would betray him, [we reply] that we do not assert that this is the case since there is no valid evidence for this – be it intellectually or through reports. And if he had knowledge in this, the response to it would be what was examined in the answer about the knowledge of ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام in regards to the time of his death, and his cognizance in his killer as we have mentioned. As for the claim that al-Ḥussain had knowledge of the location of water and was capable of retrieving it, then we do not say this, and there has not reached us any news of this, and in fact his search and struggle for water demands the opposite of that. [However], if we say that it was established that he had knowledge in the locality of the water, it does not go against the intellect that he is [in submission] worshiping by neglecting striving in seeking water from the perspective that it was forbidden for him to do so, as per what we mentioned earlier regarding ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام, besides the fact that the apparent situation is in opposition to this anyway, as we have already presented.

والكلام في علم الحسن عليه السلام بعاقبة موادعته معاوية بخلاف ما تقدم ، وقد جاء الخبر بعلمه بذلك ، وكان شاهد الحال له يقضي به ، غير أنه دفع به عن تعجيل قتله وتسليم أصحابه له إلى معاوية ، وكان في ذلك لطف في بقائه إلى حال مضيه ولطف لبقاء كثير من شيعته وأهله وولده ، ودفع فساد في الدين هو أعظم من الفساد الذي حصل عند هدنته ، وكان عليه السلام أعلم بما صنع لما ذكرناه وبينا الوجوه فيه انتهى كلامه رفع الله مقامه .

As for the discussion about the knowledge of al-Ḥassan عليه السلام, in the consequences of his reconciliation with Mu‘awiyah is  differing from the previous [cases], for it has reached us through the reports that he had knowledge of this. And the occurrences that took place validate this, despite that it warded off the hastening of his death, and the surrendering of him to Mu`awiyah by his companions. And in that was a grace for him to remain [alive] until his passing, and a grace in the survival of the abundance of the Shīʿa, his family, and his children. The prevention of corruption within the religion has far more value than the corruption that was obtained through the peace treaty. And he عليه السلام was most knowledgeable with what ensued from what we have discussed, and we have presented the different perspectives in it.” – his quote ends here, may Allāh raise his ranks.

أقول : وسأل السيد مهنا بن سنان العلامة الحلي نور الله ضريحه عن مثل ذلك في أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام فأجاب بأنه يحتمل أن يكون عليه السلام أخبر بوقوع القتل في تلك الليلة ، ولم يعلم في أي وقت من تلك الليلة أو أي مكان يقتل ، وأن تكليفه عليه السلام مغاير لتكليفنا ، فجاز أن يكون بذل مهجته الشريفة في ذات الله تعالى ، كما يجب على المجاهد الثبات ، وإن كان ثباته يفضي إلى القتل .

I (al-Majlisi) say: al-Sayed al-Muhinna bin Sinān asked al-ʿAllāmah al-Ḥilli (may Allāh illuminate his shrine) something similar to that [mentioned above], regarding ‘Amīr al-Mu’minīn عليه السلام, so he answered that it is possible that he عليه السلام was informed of the occurrence of the murder on that night, while he did not come to know in which exact time from that night, or which place, he would be killed. His burden is different to our burdens, so it is permissible to sacrifice his honourable self to the essence of Allāh, just as it is required from the one who struggles (mujāhid) to have steadfastness, even if his steadfastness leads to him being killed.

Reference: Biḥār al-Anwār, Volume 42, Page 257 (See Image below)

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It is also of benefit to mention what al-Shaykh Moḥammed Āṣif al-Moḥsini has said in relation to this chapter within Biḥār al-Anwār:

And what is of benefit from the news within the chapter – from it the second hadith being reliable in its chain on the apparent – is his عليه السلام knowledge in his martyrdom itself. It is said that there is abundantly recurring narrations in the reports of the declaration of his martyrdom before his death. However, as for the year of his martyrdom, and who his killer was – being ʿAbd al-Raḥmān bin Muljim – and the knowledge of the night of his martyrdom, then it has been reported in narrations that are not reliable, and Allāh is the knowledgeable in the reality of this affair.

Reference: Mashraʿatu Biḥār al-Anwār, Volume 2, Page 130 (See Image below)

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