Recovering a Lost Biography: Abu Bakr al-?’s Portrayal of al-Ri – Part 1

lost biography

Contributed by Shiitic Studies

For the one and only Shh of Khurasan

In the hope that you come to the aid of your most humble servant in his day of need


When our Shaykh al-?ad?q (d. 381) journeyed to Nays?b?r in the year 352, he went to the house of a Sunni ??kim (judge) by the name of Ab? ?Al? al-?usayn b. A?mad al-Bayhaq?[1] with only one request: He had gotten news that the ??kim had access to Ab? Bakr Mu?ammad b. Ya?y? al-??l?’s (d. 335) biography of al-Ri?? and wanted him to transmit it to him[2]. The ??kim did as requested and al-?ad?q made use of it as one of his sources when authoring ?Uy?n Akhb?r al-Ri??.

This is how Ab? Bakr al-??l?’s biography[3] of al-Ri?? has survived and can be reconstructed. The biography consists of, by my count, 46 reports which al-?ad?q scatters throughout his ?Uy?n Akhb?r al-Ri?? all beginning with an identical lower chain: al-?ad?q > al-??kim al-Bayhaq? > al-??l? > […].

What follows is a study of al-??l?’s biography which I believe provides a unique glimpse into al-Ri??’s personality as well as giving us a sense of what it was like being drawn into the orbit of the Imam.

Who was Ab? Bakr al-??l??

This is how Ibn al-Nad?m (d. 380), a much younger contemporary of al-??l?, introduces him:

Mu?ammad b. Ya?y? [b. ?Abdall?h] b.

al-?Abb?s al-??l?. A refined Ad?b (man of letters) and collector of books[4].

He served as a Nad?m (boon companion) to al-R??? (r. 322-329) and was his tutor before that, and he had served as a Nad?m to al-Muktaf? (r. 289-295) and al-Muqtadir (r. 295-320) without cessation. 

His life is too conspicuous, well-known and recent for us to need to go into much detail.

He was one of the best chess players of his time[5]

He possessed upstanding chivalry[6]

Al-Kha??b al-Baghd?d? (d. 463), writing a generation later, describes al-??l? as follows:

Ab? Bakr Mu?ammad b. Ya?y? b. ?Abdall?h b. al-?Abb?s b. Mu?ammad b. ??l. Famously known as al-??l?.

A learned scholar in all the Fun?n al-?d?b (literary arts).

He was well acquainted with the accounts of kings, chronicles of Caliphs, deeds of nobles, and classes of poets.

He was prolific in transmission, possessing a good mastery of the ?d?b (literary arts), ingenuous at composing books and arranging the material within in their appropriate places.

He was a Nad?m to a number of Caliphs. He recorded their biographies and collected their poems.

He wrote down the accounts of earlier and later poets, viziers, secretaries, and administrators. 

He was correct in belief, beautiful in etiquette, pleasant in speech.

He had distinguished forefathers, for his ancestor ??l and his family were rulers of Jurj?n, then his (i.e. ??l’s) descendants after him presided over the Kitba (secretarial department) and undertook A?m?l al-Sul??niyya (governmental tasks).   

To Abu Bakr al-Suli belong a lot of poems in Mad? (eulogy), Ghazal (romance) and other (genres)[7]

The picture that emerges is that of an erudite courtier[8], adept at the literary arts, especially poetry, hailing from a well-connected family with a long-record of service to the Abbasids[9].  

Now being a Nad?m meant always being by the Caliph’s side and Abu Bakr al-??l? was at the side of three successive Abbasid Caliphs, ready to regale the Caliph with an impromptu poetic composition, engage him with sophisticated conversation, recount a long forgotten accomplishment of an ancestor, or play a game of chess to keep the bored Caliph entertained.

But all the while that al-??l? was doing this, he was hiding a dark secret that if exposed could cost him his life.

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