Ghadir Khumm and the Orientalists 3

Ghadir Khumm and the Orientalists 3

Ghadir Khumm: From Oblivion to Recognition

The event of Ghadir Khumm is a very good example to trace the Sunni bias that found its way into the mental state of Orientalists. Those who are well-versed with the polemic writings of Sunnis know that whenever the Shi'as present a hadith or a historical evidence in support of their view, a Sunni polemicist would respond in the following manner:

Firstly: he will outright deny the existence of any such hadith or historical event.
Secondly: when confronted with hard evidence from his own sources, he will cast doubt on the reliability of the transmitters of that hadith or event.
Thirdly: when he is shown that all the transmitters are reliable by Sunni standards, he will give an interpretation to the hadith or the event that will be quite different from that of the Shi'as. These three levels form the classical response of the Sunni polemicists in dealing with the arguments of the Shi'as. A quotation from Rosenthal's translation of Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah would suffice to prove my point.

(Ibn Khaldun is quoting the following part from al-Milal wa 'n-Nihal, a heresiographic work of ash-Shahristani.) According to Ibn Khaldun, the Shi'as believe that 'Ali is the one whom Muhammad appointed. The (Shi'ah) transmit texts (of traditions) in support of (this belief)...The authority on the Sunnah and the transmitters of the religious law do not know these texts.

[1] Most of them are supposititious, or

[2] some of their transmitters are suspect, or

[3] their (true) interpretation is very different from the wicked interpretation that (the Shi'ah) give to them.(1)
Interestingly, the event of Ghadir Khumm has suffered the same fate at the hands of Orientalists. With the limited time and resources available to me at this moment, I was surprised to see that most works on Islam have ignored the event of Ghadir Khumm, indicating, by its very absence, that the Orientalists believed this event to be 'supposititious' and an invention of the Shi'as.

Margoliouth's Muhammad and the Rise of Islam (1905), Brockelmann's History of the Islamic People (1939), Arnold and Guillaume's The Legacy of Islam (1931), Guillaume's Islam (1954), von Grunebaum's Classical Islam (1963), Arnold's The Caliphate (1965), and The Cambridge History of Islam (1970) have completely ignored the event of Ghadir Khumm.

Why did these and many other Western scholars ignore the event of Ghadir Khumma Since Western scholars mostly relied on anti-Shi'a works, they naturally ignored the event of Ghadir Khumm. L. Veccia Vaglieri, one of the contributors to the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam (1953), writes. Most of those sources which form the basis of our knowledge of the life of the Prophet (Ibn Hisham, al-Tabari, Ibn Sa'd, etc.) pass in silence over the Prophet Muhammad's stop at Ghadir Khumm, or, if they mention it, say nothing of his discourse (the writers evidently feared to attract the hostility of the Sunnis, who were in power, by providing material for the polemic of the Shi'is who used these words to support their thesis of Imam Ali's right to the caliphate). Consequently, the western biographers of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP), whose work is based on these sources, equally make no reference to what happened at Ghadir Khumm.(2)
Then we come to those few Western scholars who mention the hadith or the event of Ghadir Khumm but express their skepticism about its authority-the second stage in the classical response of the Sunni polemicists.
The first example of such scholars is Ignaz Goldziher, a highly respected German Orientalist of the nineteenth century. He discusses the hadith of Ghadir Khumm in his Muhammedanische Studien (1889-1890) translated into English as Muslim Studies (1966-1971) under the chapter entitled as "The Hadith in its Relation to the Conflicts of the Parties of Islam." Coming to the Shi'as, Goldziher writes a stronger argument in their [Shi'as'] favor ... was their conviction that the Prophet had expressly designated and appointed 'Ali as his successor before his death...Therefore the Ali adherents were concerned with inventing and authorizing traditions which prove 'Ali's installation by direct order of the Prophet. The most widely known tradition (the authority of which is not denied even by orthodox authorities though they deprive it of its intention by a different interpretation) is the tradition of Khumm, which came into being for this purpose and is one of the firmest foundation of the theses of Imam Ali party.(3)

One would expect such a renowned scholar to prove how the Shi'as "were concerned with inventing" traditions to support their theses, but nowhere does Goldziher provide any evidence. After citing at-Tirmidhi and al-Nasa'i in the footnote as the source for hadith of Ghadir Khumm, he says, "Al-Nasa'i had, as is well known, pro-'Ali inclinations, and also at-Tirmidhi included in his collection tendentious traditions favoring of Imam Ali, e.g., the Tayr tradition." (4) This is again the same old classical response of the Sunni polemicists-discredit the transmitters as unreliable or adamantly accuses the Shi'as of inventing the traditions.
Another example is the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam (1911-1938) which has a short entry under "Ghadir Khumm" by F. Bhul, a Danish Orientalist who wrote a biography of the Prophet. Bhul writes, "The place has become famous through a tradition which had its origin among the Shi'is but is also found among Sunnis, viz., the Prophet on journey back from Hudaibiya (according to others from the farewell pilgrimage) here said of 'Ali: Whomsoever I am lord of, his lord is 'Ali also!"(5)
Bhul makes sure to emphasize that the hadith of Ghadir has "its origin among the Shi'is!"

Continue in the next article: ( Ghadir Khumm and the Orientalists 4 )



1. Ibn Khaldun, the Muqaddimah, tr. Franz Rosenthal, vol. 1 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958) p. 403. In original Arabic, see vol. 1 (Beirut: Maktabatul Madrasah, 1961) p. 348.

2. EI2, p. 993 under "Ghadir Khumm".

3. Goldziher, Muslim Studies, tr. Barber and Stern, vol. 2 (Chicago: Aldine Inc., 1971) pp. 112-113.

4. Ibid.

5. EI1, p. 134-135 under "Ghadir Khumm".