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Al-Nudbah: A Devotional Elegy

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Al-Nudbah

Publisher's Note: Al-Nudbah, published by the Islamic Texts Institute, includes the English translation and commentary, Arabic text, as well as an audio CD containing its Arabic and English recitation by Shaikh Rizwan Arastu and a bonus track recitation by Mohsen Farahmand. Order the book online.

When Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) was expelled from paradise, the Qur'an tells us, "he received certain words from his Lord" in order to properly articulate his regret. The story underlines the human need for divine assistance in formulating one's prayer and petition in a form that would make it acceptable to God. Thence, perhaps, derives the notion of authority and authenticity in relation to prayer and supplication texts in the Islamic tradition of piety.

Many supplications are cited in the Qur'an itself. These, along with those narrated from the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny), make up a library of mostly short petitionary formulas useful for thanksgiving and remembering God during the daily routine, or on particular days of the week or those of a particular month, or for making requests for fulfillment of some need. Some of these are meant for invoking divine blessings and assistance on special days and occasions, or for the purpose of seeking solace or aid in distress and emergencies.

Aside from the regular salat, the ritual prayer, which serves as the very breath of religious life, supplication (du'a, pl. ad'iyah, that is, prayer in the sense of 'a specially worded form used to address God') fulfills a vital function in the religious life of the faithful.

Among the world's religious traditions, the Shia tradition within Islam is probably unequalled both in extent of the corpus of prayers handed down from the original leaders of the faith, as well as in respect of their role and range of religious and didactic functions.

Besides the extant corpus, the original extent of the du'a and ziyarah literature handed down from the Imams can well be guessed from the number of compilations made by early Shia scholars. On the basis of the bibliographical lists of Najashi and Tusi and the sources used by Ibn Tawus, Rasul Ja'fariyan has given a list of about 60 works on du'a compiled before the Misbah al-Mutahajjid of Shaikh Tusi. He mentions more than a hundred works of the post-Tusi du'a literature pertaining to three periods bracketed by four major compilers of du'a literature: from Shaikh Tusi (d. 460/1068) to Ibn Tawus (d. 664/1265-66), from Ibn Tawus to Kaf'ami (905/1499-1500), and from Kaf'ami to Shaikh Abbas Qummi (d. 1359/1940).

Presently, aside from al-Sahifah al-Sajjadiyyah (the famous collection of supplications composed by Imam Ali ibn al-Hussain, the fourth Imam, whose translation, by William Chittick, was published in 1987 by the Muhammadi Trust of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), none of the major collections of Shia hadith, nor any of this kind of Shia literature as represented by the works of Shaikh Tusi, Ibn Tawus, Kaf'ami and others, are accessible to the English-speaking readers.

Al-Nudbah: A Devotional Elegy is a translation of a Friday supplication popular among the devout Shia, accompanied with a scholarly commentary. It is the first effort of its kind in English in that, besides the inclusion of a commentary, it is the fruit of teamwork by a group of scholars, led by Shaikh Rizwan Arastu, a British-born American scholar who received his academic training at Qom, presently the main center of Shia religious studies in the Muslim world. On returning from Qom, he founded the Islamic Texts Institute, based in Dearborn, Michigan, with the strategic objective of making available precise and well-researched translations of Shia classics of hadith in the English language.

By methodically remolding the complex phrases of the classical Arabic text into simple and facile paraphrases of contemporary English, the translation relieves the reader of the effort to overcome the first of a double line of barriers in accessing the meanings of the text. The second barrier lies in the fact that the text is densely packed with references and allusions to episodes of early Islamic history, Qur'anic verses, and Prophetic traditions. These have been clarified in the commentary. An educated Shia reader whose religious culture has been shaped by lifelong association with such texts as the Nudbah may not stand much in need of a commentary. But it is indispensable for readers not familiar with the Shia culture, or for those who are exploring its teachings.

The translation and commentary are preceded by an introduction that gives an outline of the contents of the Nudbah and its sources. The earliest extant source of the Nudbah is al-Mazar al-Kabir, the work of Ibn al-Mashhadi (d. after 594/1197), who cites it from a now extinct book of Ibn Abi Qurrah, who in turn cited it from a previous work by Bazawfari, which is also not extant. From Ibn al-Mashhadi's work it is cited by Ibn Tawus (in two of his works, al-Iqbal and Misbah al-Za'ir) and his son (in Zawa'id al-Fawa'id). These works do not cite any isnad for it, nor does any of them identify any particular Imam as its source.

However, some authors such as Ibrahim b. Muhsin Kashani in al-Sahifah al-Mahdiyyah, and Jawad Qayyumi in Sahifat al-Mahdi, ascribe it to the Twelfth Imam, as may appear likely from the text of the supplication, as well as from Ibn al-Mashhadi's statement, innahu 'd-du'a li Sahib az-Zaman, which may be taken to mean that it is a supplication 'belonging' to the Twelfth Imam, or one meant 'for' him. Allamah Majlisi, who cites it in the Bihar from Ibn Tawus while also quoting the above remark, ascribes it to Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) in his Zad al-Ma'ad without citing any source whatsoever for his statement.

This attribution of the Nudbah to the sixth Imam by the Allamah has found circulation in some later works such as Sayyid Sadr al-Din Tabataba'i in his commentary Sharh-e Du'a-e Nudbah, Mirza Muhammad Taqi Isfahani's Mikyal al-Makarim, and the Manasik-e Hajj (p. 277) of Ayatollah Fadhil Lankarani. The latter goes further than the Allamah. After mentioning its sources such as Ibn al-Mashhadi, Ibn Tawus, Mir Damad and Majlisi, he states that "Imam al-Sadiq used to recite it on Fridays and on the Eids of Ghadir, Fitr and Qurban," as if that were a statement affirmed by each of the four authors mentioned.

After a discussion of the sources, arguments are offered concerning the 'authenticity' of the supplication, or, at the very least, the justifiability of reciting it with the hope of thawab and qurbah. Perhaps the strongest reason in favor of its authenticity is internal evidence based on style and diction, which are so characteristic of the texts handed down from the Imams. Moreover, with the prolific supply of supplications from such an authoritative source as the Imams of the Prophet's Family, there was little need for the scholars to engage in such elaborate compositions. In addition, whenever, albeit rarely, any invocations have been composed by Shia scholars, they were apt to be accompanied with an explicit declaration about their authorship, as in the case of the compositions of Ibn Tawus.

The commentary meticulously elaborates the terms, hints, and allusions occurring in the text by explaining their meaning and theological or historical significance by relying on citations from the Qur'an and hadith sources, such as al-Kafi, the Nahj al-Balagha, and 'Uyun Akhbar al-Reza, as well as some tradition-based commentaries such as al-Burhan and Nur al-Thaqalayn. The approach is primarily theological and tradition-based, and eschews the notions and formulations characteristic of commentaries on similar texts with a philosophical or mystical bent.

All in all, as the first publication of the Islamic Texts Institute, al-Nudbah is a welcome addition to the still scanty collection of good and reliable translations of Shia texts available in English, and it holds out the future promise of similar standard works of enduring value from the Islamic Texts Institute. 

Author of this article: Ali Quli Qarai
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