The “Dot Under the Ba” Phrase
Introduction: This is a research on the phrase 'I am the dot under the ba' which, according to Nader Zaveri's article (1), is fabricated and misattributed to Imam Ali. The objective is not to challenge Nader's conclusion; rather, present a broader picture of the argument and help readers form an intellectual and an unbiased opinion.
Key Points in Nader's Article: Key points in Nader's article have been listed below in chronological order as it will help readers compare & weigh the arguments presented in this work.
This phrase was first recorded as a saying of someone else (not Imam Ali) back in 4th/5th Century Hijri. It was recorded by two sufis, Ghazali and Arabi. It was initially attributed to Imam ali in 5th/6th Century Hijri. The phrase attributed to Imam Ali was first recorded by a Sufi Sunni scholar, Ibn Talha Al Shafi, who did not provide any chain of narration. Al-Dhahabi and Ibn Kathir's view of Al Shafi was negative since, according to them, he occupied himself with the knowledge of letters. The book in which Al Shafi attributed the phrase to Imam Ali is full of discussion re knowledge of letters (This point is probably there to inform readers that the book is not that reliable in terms of content). The first shia scholar, Rajab al Bursi, mentions this phrase in his book Mashariq ul Anwar however he is also a Sufi (The mention of all of these scholars/historians as being Sufis is probably there to inform readers that they hold little weight in terms of reliability). Al-Bursi is also linked with exaggerators. Allama Majlisi doesn't rely on his work alone, and what is mislead, mixture, wrong and exaggeration. Since the Allama didn't quote this phrase in any of his books, he most likely considered it weak. Rajab Al Bursi also doesn't provide any chain of narration. All other scholars who have recorded this phrase either quote from Al Shafi's book or Al Bursi's book. Since both scholars were sufis, into knowledge of letters (ilm ul haroof) or were considered exaggerators, the case for the phrase being a misattribution to Imam Ali naturally picks momentum.
Method of Investigation: While probing history, we have to look at the overall picture and utilize various methods in order to reach a balanced conclusion. Lack of this approach can lead to errenous conclusions. The tools which one can utilize include, but are not limited to, the Context, the Implied or Intended meaning of the sayings, Timeline of events, Analysis of Chain of Narration, Various Scholarly opinions/references throughout history, Comparison of Contradictory Sayings, Research of other sayings with similar context and meanings, Logical arguments and Conclusion e.t.c Keeping all of the above in mind, I will now commence my investigation of the phrase, "I am the dot under the ba".
Understanding the Context and Implied Meaning of the Two Claims: If we're given two contradictory historical references or narrations, much sense can be made out by reviewing the context and implied meaning. In Nader's article, there are two claims to the "dot under the ba" phrase with different implied meanings: First Claim: Someone used the phrase in response to Shibli's question, "Who are you?". Apparantly, according to this report, he was expressing humility. Shibli responded by saying, "Keep it that way i-e Make little of your station". The author of Ihya Uloom, Ghazali, has included this phrase in one of the chapters condemning Arrogance and Pride. (2) Second Claim: Imam Ali is reported to have said it in his explanation/tafsir of Surah Fatiha and the word Bismillah. The implied meaning is apparantly deep and synonymn to Him being the gate to (the city of) knowledge and the key or intermediary to the secrets of Allah mentioned in the Holy Books.
Scrutinizing the Two Claims: 1) Since the context and implied meaning of the above two claims is different, it becomes apparant that the phrase wasn't, by mistake, misattributed to Imam Ali over the course of history. For if that were the case, Imam Ali's use of the phrase would also be limited to mere, "I am the dot under the ba" and would focus on the subject of pride and humility. 2) It is however possible that the fabricators deliberately misattributed the phrase to Imam Ali , in which case, they also included their own meanings and context to the phrase. But this possibility rests on an assumption that the fabricators went as far as adding their own context and meanings to this phrase. And unless there are references available to hint that this actually did occur, we can't give much weight to such a possibility. 3) Another possibility is that Imam Ali's phrase did not get the opportunity to flourish, considering how He and all other Imams and their shias battled injustice and oppression during their lives. But this possibility cannot thrive by providing above reason since that would mean giving way to the many exaggerations. However it can gain credibility if we find other references in which Imam Ali ever hinted towards the secrets of Fatiha or the verse Bismillah or the letter ba in the same way as he did in the phrase under scrutiny. After doing some research, I did happen to collect many such references, details of which will be provided later. At this stage, I just wanted to bring it to readers' attention that the likelihood of this third possibility is much higher, under the watchful eyes of context and Implied meaning.
4) While we're considering various possibilities, could it be that the person mentioned in Ghazali's book may have heard the phrase from elsewhere and used it to respond to Shibli? It may initially sound unlikely and unreasonable an argument. However, it is actually quite probable considering that the second reference provided in Nader's article - Ibn Arabi's Meccan Illuminations - has the phrase mentioned in the chapter named "Recognizing the Secrets of Bismillah Al Rehman Al Raheem" (3). Do note that it is only Imam Ali's phrase which clearly makes mention of Al-Fatiha and Bismillah. Interestingly, Al-Ghazali also mentions a saying of Imam Ali in his same book Ihya Uloom (the initial book quoted in Nader's article), while discussing the Zahir and Batin of Quran, "(Afterall) what is the meaning of the saying of Hazrat Ali that I can load 70 camels with the tafseer (explanation) of Surah Fatiha, whereas the zahiri tafseer of Al-Fatiha is short". As we continue to probe the phrase in light of context and implied meaning, it becomes apparant that there is more to the phrase than just being a misattribution to Imam Ali.
List of reports mentioning Dot, Ba, Bismillah or Al-Fatiha One thing worth praise in Nader's article is the timeline of the phrase i-e mention of the earliest book in which it is recorded followed by other classical shia or sunni books. I will therefore present a timeline as well which includes various references (with respective dates) that refer to Imam Ali mentioning the secrets of Al-Fatiha, Bismillah, the letter Ba or its dot. Although these references do not serve as a concrete evidence of the phrase attributed to Imam Ali, they do support the likelihood of possibility 1, 3 and 4 as explained above. 1) Al-Ghazali (b.450H - d.505H) - "(Afterall) what is the meaning of the saying of Hazrat Ali that I can load 70 camels with the tafseer (explanation) of Surah Fatiha, whereas the zahiri tafseer of Al-Fatiha is short" (4) 2) Al-Suhrawardi (b.549H - d.586H) - "The Prophet P.b.u.H said I am the city of knowledge and Ali is the gate to it. Ali, that door of wisdom, confirms this saying, "I am the dot under the Ba"" (5) 3) Ibn Shehr Ashob (d.588H) - "Ali said, "I can load 70 camels with the tafseer of Fatiha ul Kitab"" (6) 4) Sibt Ibn Jozi (b.581H - d.654H) - "Hazrat Ali is also known as Bateen because of his knowledge. He used to say that I can load a camel with the tafseer of Bismillah Al Rehman Al Raheem". (7) 5) Kamal ul deen Al Shafi (b.582H - d.652H) - "And know that all of Allah’s secrets are in the heavenly books, and all of the secrets of the heavenly books are in the Quran. And all of which is in the Quran is in al-Fatiḥah, and all of which is in alFatiḥah is in bismillah, and all of which is in bismillah is in the ba of bismillah, and all of which is in the ba in bismillah is the dot which is under the ba. Imam Ali said: “I am the dot which is under the ba" (8)
6) Kamal ul deen Al Shafi (b.582H - d.652H) - "I can load a camel with the tafsir of Bismillah Al Rehman Al Raheem" (9) 7) Ibn Abi Fatah Al Arbali (d.693H) - "Once He a.s said, I can load a camel with the tafsir of Bismillah Al Rehman Al Raheem" (10) 8) Ubaidullah Amritsari (7th Hijri approx.) - "Ibn Abbas said that one night Hazrat Ali kept explaining the meaning of the dot of the ba of Bismillah Al Rehman Al Rehman until morning and I felt like i was a fountain in comparison to an ocean" (11) 9) The above scholar mentions Ibn al Maghazli (d. 482H) as a reference to Ibn Abbas report but doesn't mention book's name. He does however mention using Ibn Maghazli's book Al-Manaqib (Virtues of Imam Ali) in the index. I checked the entire book (Al-Manaqib) twice but couldn't find the reference. I may have missed it, or maybe the copy I have is an edited version or perhaps Amritsari took reference from another book of Ibn al Maghazli. 10) Rajab Al Bursi (d.813H) - "Maula a.s said, "Existence became evident with Ba and the dot of ba establishes the distinction between the worshipper and the One Worshipped"". (12) 11) Rajab Al Bursi (d.813H) - "Ibn Abbas said that one night Imam Ali explained the ba of bismillah until morning. He then said, "I can load 40 camels with the sharah of Bismillah"" (13) 12) Ali b. Younis Al-Amili (d.877) - refers to Ibn Shehr Ashob regarding the Ibn Abbas report and the saying of Imam Ali loading 70 camels. (14) 12) Syed Nurullah Mar'ashi (b.956H - d.1018H) - provides references from Amritsari's Arjah al-Matalib and Rajab Bursi's Yanabi al Muwada. (15) 13) Muhammad Saleh Kashfi (d.1040H) - "Ibn Fakhri narrates that Imam Ali said, "I can load 70 camels with the tafseer of ba of bismillah"" (16) 14) Muhammad Saleh Kashfi (d.1040H) - "It is mentioned in Tafseer Behr ul Darar and Riyadh al Qudus that Abdullah bin Abbas said, "One day Ameer ul Momineen advised me to come see him after Isha prayers. After Isha', he asked me, "do you know the tafseer of the Alif of Alhamd?" I said, "Ameer ul momineen knows better". He then explained the meaning of Alif and Laam in the first part of night and explained the Ha of Alhamd in the second part of night after which he said, "have you heard what I said?" I replied, "Yes" Then Ameer ul Momineen said, "Abdullah, I can load 70 camels with the meanings of Surah Al Fatiha""". (17) 15) Allama Baqir Majlisi (b.1024H - d.1109H) - "Ibn Abbas said that one night Imam Ali explained the ba of bismillah until morning. He then said, "I can load 40 camels with the sharah of Bismillah"" (18) 16) Syed Hashim Al Bahrani (d.1107H) - quotes from Al-Siraat ul Mustaqeem and Manaqib by Ibn Shehr Ashob to refer to the Ibn Abbas and the 70 camel report. (19)
17) Sheikh Ali Al-Namazi (d.1405H) - quotes from Kambani/Kumbani and Wajdeed (اني طRRRRRRRRج كمب٩ \ ٤٦٩ == دRRRRج وجدي٤٠\١٨٦) - "Ameer ul Momineen explained the meaning of Ba of Bismillah to Ibn Abbas all night long and then said "I can load 40 camels with the sharah of Bismillah" and a similar saying is in Tafsir ul Burhan, "I can load a camel with the tafsir of Bismillah Al Rehman Al Raheem"" 18) Same scholar quotes from Al-Ihqaq (اقRRRRص االحق٦٤١وص٦٤٣،ن عنRRRRاس ابRRRR " )عبAnd know that the secrets of the Heavenly books are in the Quran And all of which is in the Quran is in al-Fatiḥah, and all of which is in al-Fatiḥah is in bismillah, and all of which is in bismillah is in the ba of bismillah, and all of which is in the ba in bismillah is the dot which is under the ba" (20)
Note: There are other sayings of Imams, explaining the meaning of Bismillah Al-Rehman Al-Raheem. For example, Imam Jafar Sadiq said, " The ba of Bism means Bahaullah, the seen of Bism means Sana'ullah, and the meem means Majadullah or according to other reports, Malikullah."(21) Thought it is worth a mention, to allow people to see the beauty and the hidden meanings of the verse Bismillah.
Critical Review of those who recorded the Phrase: Conducting critical analysis of narrators and/or historians, especially those linked to exaggeration or sufism, is important however a number of variables need to be considered and it's best to do a thorough research before reaching a conclusion. For example, in Nader's article, Muhammad b. Talha al Shafi' is mentioned as a sufi sunni who was also into ilm-ul-huruf (knowledge of letters). This is one side of the story. Other side is that, he studied jurisprudence, narrated hadith in many countries and was known to excel in madhab. He was appointed as a minister, though he apologized and disavow but his apology was rejected. So he took the position for two days after which he ran away leaving behind his property to become an 'ascetic'. Interestingly, this person also wrote a book in which he mentioned our Imams as those who know Ilm-ul-Jafr so "he chose from their secrets in his books" (24) To sum it up, this Scholar was offered the role of ministry, which he refused for some reason, secretly escaped from the clutches of the then Authority and by coincidence also happened to have an interest in the teachings of our Imams (particularly ilm-ul-Jafr).
It doesn't add up so I personally feel the need to read Ibn Talha's books and find his links with the (wrong group of) sufis and such concepts condemned by our Imams. Furthermore, it is important to find out when he became a sufi (if indeed this is true) and which books were written by him in that time period. This is because generally when a narrator or historian is being scrutinized, it is not that all of his work is thrown into trash. As I understand it, scholars do check whether he was unreliable from the beginning or became one later in his life. By doing that, they are able to give due credit to rest of his works completed before his reputation came under question. I am reminded of this discussion regarding the reliability of a historical figure, Abul-Qasim Al-Koofi. While discussing a reference, it was brought to our attention that he became an exaggerator at the end of his life. When I sent the question to a scholar's office, it was advised that although this is true, his book, which has that reference, is reliable and was written when he was on the straight path. Moving on to the first shia scholar, Rajab al Bursi, who mentioned this phrase. He is also apparantly a sufi and has been criticised for taking interest in knowledge of letters. Furthermore, Allama Majlisi also doesn't rely on him alone, and what is mislead, mixture, wrong and ghulw. Due to lack of time and references, I am more inclined to send queries to scholarly offices to find various opinions about him. A brief review for now is as follows: While Allama Majlisi does not rely on him alone, he does quote from Rajab Bursi. And although Al-Majlisi does not directly quote "dot under the ba" phrase in his Bihar, he makes mention of Ibn Abbas report in which Imam Ali spent the entire night explaining the ba of bismillah (Reference aleady provided in the list above). This same report has been recorded by other scholars with a slight change of words i-e Imam Ali spent all night explaining the dot of ba of bismillah. Whilst there may be criticism against him by our scholars, which I am unaware of due to lack of references, I did happen to find Allama Ameeni's view about him in the "About Author" section of Al-Bursi's book Mashariq ul Anwar, "He is a renowned Hafiz and has a unique place amongst the ulema and fuqha of Imamia. His position in the art of hadith is clear and stands out in adab and poetry. He is also known for his knowledge of letters and its secrets. No one has reached the heights of his understanding, even though he has proven the truth without exaggerating the virtues of Aal-e-Muhammad. Ameerul Momineen has said, "Avoid ghulw in regards to us. Infact say that no doubt there is one God, after which you can praise as you like" and Imam Jafar Sadiq has said, "We only submit to One God" and "Everything was created for us and praise us as much as you wish however you will fail to reach the heights of our virtues" Please note that this is the only scholarly opinion I am aware of (in favour of Rajab Bursi), and it's possible that other scholarly views against Rajab Bursi and his apparant exaggeration outweigh it. I would leave it to other momineen to research and share them with us.
In regards to ilm-ul-Huroof, I am unsure why scholars or historians interested in it may be viewed as unreliable, especially when it is known that our Imams taught uloom such as ilm-ul-jafr which require knowledge of letters as well. Ghulam Abbas A'wan, author of Aftab e Jafr writes that books such as Miftah ul Jafr (858H), Matla ul Uloom and Shams ul Ma'arif ul Kubra can be read to check the shar'i isnad and authenticity of Ilm-ul-Jafr. There is also a report in Sheikh Sadooq's Ma'ani ul Akhbar which mentions Hazrat Abu Talib embracing Islam through knowledge of letters: It is narrated to me (Sheikh Saduq) by Abu Faraj Muhammad b. Muzaffar b. Nafees Misri faqih, who narrated from Abu Hassan Muhammad b. Ahmad daudi, who narrated from his father, who said that he was with Abu Qasim Hussain bin ruh qudusullah ruh, when a person came to ask him, What did Abbas mean when He said to the Prophet, "Your uncle Abu Talib has accepted Islam through calculation of jummal. He counted till 63 on his hands." So he said, "He mean't Ilah, Ahad, Jawad". It's interpretation is that Ilah has Alif (1), Laam (30) and Ha (5). Ahad has Alif (1) Ha (8) and Daal (4). Jawad has Jeem (3), Wao (6), Alif (1) and Daal (4). All of these numbers add up to be 63. (25)
Chain of Narration: The phrase lacks chain of narration which is problematic from the point of view of rijal. However few things need to be taken into consideration. Firstly, this is not a matter of deducing Fundamental Principles or Shara'i laws. I think we should view the phrase as a noteworthy historical record, referring to ma’rfat-e-Ilahi, Nabi & Ahlulbayt, and although it may be considered weak on the basis of ulum such as rijal, we should be open minded towards other means of investigation and consider the likelihood of the report not being outright 'fabrication'. Plenty of information, besides rijal, has been provided for those who seek. Concern for Exaggeration: There are many such sayings in our books, some of which are far more complex than this 'dot under the ba' phrase, leading many people to believe, that those sayings (and whoever quotes them) are dwelling into dangerous territories of exaggeration. Surely, our Imams have advised us against following (just) the doubtful things, lest we may be misguided. So precaution is required, when in doubt and we should refer to the doubtless things in Quran and ahadith regarding the doubtful ones. However, the doors for research should remain open and we shouldn‘t ignore or label all difficult reports as exaggerations or fabrications unless we have done thorough research. Afterall, our Imams also said, "None of you can become a Faqih unless he recognises various angles of our qalaam (sayings)" (22). And our Prophet said, "There is Zahir (that which is apparant) in Quran as well as Batin (the hidden). It's zahir is hukm (order) and its batin is ilm (knowledge). It's zahir is pleasant and its batin is deep. It has ramuz and those ramuz have ramuz within them" (23). Iltemas e Duwa InshaAllah
1) http://www.revivingalislam.com/2012/04/i-am-dot-under-ba_21.html 2) Ihya Uloom - Al Ghazali - Vol 3 Pg516 onwards - Translator (Urdu): Maulana Nadeem Wajdi - Darul Isha'at 3) Fatuhaat ul Makiya - Ibn Arabi - Vol 1 P:112,113 - Darul Tiba'ah Al Bahira 4) Ihya Uloom - Al Ghazali - Vol 1 Pg530 - Translator (Urdu): Maulana Nadeem Wajdi - Darul Isha'at: Urdu Bazaar, Karachi. 5) Hayakal Al-Nur - Suhrawardi - Pg 40 - Interpreted by Al-Halveti - 1998 Tosun Bayrak 6) Manaqib Aale Abi Talib - Ibn Shehr Ashob - Vol 1 Pg322 7) Tazkirat ul Khawas - Ibn Jozi - Pg22 - Translation (Urdu): Maulana Safdar Najafi Ali Publications Lahore 8) Al-Dur AlMandham Fi al-surr al Adham 9) Matalib al Su'el Fi Manaqib Aal e Rasul - Al Shafi - Pg:149 10) Kashf ul Ghamma - Vol1 - Pg130 - http://www.al-shia.org/html/ara/books/libtarikh/kashf_alqomeh1/021.htm 11) Arjah al-Matalib - Amritsari - Pg: 113 - Idara Uloom Aal e Muhammad Lahore. 12) Mashariq ul Anwar - Rajab Bursi - Pg30 - Translator (Urdu): Imdad Hussain Hamdani - Rehmatullah book agency Karachi. 13) Mashariq ul Anwar - Rajab Bursi - P89 - Translator (Urdu): Imdad Hussain Hamdani - Rehmatullah book agency Karachi. 14) Al-Sirat ul Mustaqeem - Ali b. Younis Amili - Vol 1 Pg219 15) Ihqaq ul Haq wa izhaq ul Batil - Syed Nurullah Hussaini Mar'ashi - Vol 7 http://gadir.free.fr/Ar/Ehlibeyt/kutub2/Ihkakul_Hak/book/238-aqa'ed/0026-%20sharhahqaq-alhaq/07/15.htm#270-3-3-0-3 16) Manaqib Murtazvi Fi Imama (Kokab Durri) - M. Kashfi - Pg323 - Translator (Urdu): Syed Shareef Hussain Sabzwari - Imamia Kutub Khana Lahore. 17) Manaqib Murtazvi Fi Imama (Kokab Durri) - M. Kashfi - P:322-323 - Translator (Urdu): Syed Shareef Hussain Sabzwari - Imamia Kutub Khana Lahore. 18) Bihar ul Anwar Vol 40 Pg186 - http://www.alshia.org/html/ara/books/?mod=hadith&start=50&end=60 19) Al-Burhan Fi Tafsir ul Quran - Syed Hashim Al-Bahrani - Vol 1 Pg4 http://gadir.free.fr/Ar/Tefsir/KUTUB/Burhan/Takdim.htm 8
20) Mustadrak Safinatul Bihar - Sheikh Ali Namazi - Vol1 Pg269 - ةRRRRر مؤسسRRRRRRRالنش الميRRRRRة اإلسRRRRRRRRRRة التابعRRين لجماعRRRRRRRRم المدرسRRRRRRRرفة بقRRRRRRRRالمش 21) Ma'ani ul Akhbar - Sheikh Saduq - Vol 1 Pg:42, Translator (Urdu): Dilawar Hussain Hujati, Al-kisa' Publishers. 22) Ma'ani ul Akhbar - Sheikh Saduq - Vol 1 Pg:41-42, Translator (Urdu): Dilawar Hussain Hujati, Al-kisa' Publishers. 23) Tafsir Ayashi - Abu Nasr Muhammad b. Mas'ud - Pg5 - Haqq brothers, Muslim centre Urdu Bazar Lahore. 24) http://www.answering-ansar.org/biographies/ibn_talha/index.php 25) Ma'ani ul Akhbar - Sheikh Saduq - Vol 1 Pg:333, Translator (Urdu): Dilawar Hussain Hujati, Al-kisa' Publishers.