Encyclopaedia Iranica Online

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The fifth imam of the Twelver Shiʿites (7th-8th century).

A version of this article is available in print

Volume III, Fascicle 7, pp. 725-726

AL-BĀQER, ABŪ JAʿFAR MOḤAMMAD B. ʿALĪ B. ḤOSAYN B. ʿALĪ B. ABĪ ṬĀLEB, the fifth imam of the Twelver Shiʿites. His mother was Omm ʿAbd-Allāh Fāṭema, Ḥasan b. ʿAlī’s daughter, who is described as a saintly woman. His honorary name al-Bāqer is commonly held to refer to his “splitting open knowledge (bāqer al-ʿelm),” signifying his erudition in the religious sciences. It was said that the Prophet Moḥammad named him so when he predicted the birth of his great-great-grandson and charged the long-lived companion Jāber Anṣārī (d. 73/692) with conveying his salutations to him. According to most Shiʿite sources, he was born in Medina in 57/677 and died there in 114/732 at the age of 57. The preference for these dates seems to rest partly on the parallelism of 57. According to another Shiʿite report, he predicted correctly his death at 58 years, just as his ancestors ʿAlī, Ḥosayn, and ʿAlī b. Ḥosayn had all been killed, or died, at 58. According to Wāqedī, he died in 117/735 and, according to Ḵalīfa b. Ḵayyāṭ, in 118/736 (Taʾrīḵ Ḵalīfa b. al-Ḵayyāṭ, ed. A. Ḏ. ʿOmarī, Beirut, 1397/1977, p. 349). These dates seem more likely since the reports about the rising of his brother Zayd in 120-22/738-40 suggest that he had died only recently so that the question of the succession was still open among his Kufan followers. The death date mentioned by Masʿūdī (Morūj VI, p. 17), 125-26/743-44, is definitely too late. Equally unacceptable is the birth date 44/664 implied by Wāqedī, since his father is known to have been 23 years old at the battle of Karbalāʾ in 61/680. Other dates given for al-Bāqer’s birth are 54/676 and 59/678-79. Most of his life he stayed in Medina. As an infant he was present at the battle of Karbalāʾ. According to Madāʾenī (Aḡānī, p. 13), his father sent him and his brother ʿAbd-Allāh together with the wife and family of Marwān b. Ḥakam to Ṭāʾef just before the siege of Medina under Yazīd in 63/683. This was done for the safety of his sons, who were still minor children, and of Marwān’s wife as is evident from the parallel report of Abū Meḵnaf (Ṭabarī, II, pp. 410, 420) where, however, only ʿAbd-Allāh, without al-Bāqer, is mentioned. According to Shiʿite reports, al-Bāqer was briefly summoned by the caliph Hešām (105-25/724-43) to Damascus where he confounded Christians in debate. He attended the funeral of the Shiʿite poet Koṯayyer ʿAzza in Medina in 105/723 and rewarded Komayt, another Shiʿite poet, when the latter recited a poem before him, and he gave him permission to eulogize the Omayyads. The reports in some late Sunni sources that he died at Ḥomayma, the seat of the ʿAbbasids in Palestine, probably rest on a confusion with the ʿAbbasid Moḥammad b. ʿAlī and are unreliable. He was buried in Medina in the cemetery of Baqīʿ al-Ḡarqad.

Sunni and Shiʿite sources agree in describing him as an eminent religious scholar. They sharply contrast, however, in their reports about his scholarly activity and views. In the Sunni sources he appears as a member of the conservative orthodox aristocracy of Medina transmitting mostly from, and to, well-known Sunni authorities. He is quoted as declaring his loyalty to Abū Bakr and ʿOmar, calling them imams of right guidance and dissociating himself from their enemies. He called Abū Bakr the Truthful (ṣeddīq) and, when questioned about it, jumped up to repeat it three times adding that whoever did not call him so, his word would not be accepted by God on earth and in the hereafter. He reported that ʿAlī had followed the practice of Abū Bakr and ʿOmar with regard to the share of the Prophet and his relatives in the booty explaining that ʿAlī did not wish to be charged with contravening their practice. He cursed Moḵtār, the avenger of Ḥosayn, as a liar and declared his dissociation from the extremist Shiʿites Moḡīra b. Saʿd and Bayān. He denied that he or anyone of the family of the Prophet had ever upheld the doctrine of rajʿa or considered any offense as equivalent to polytheism. He affirmed that his father and he prayed behind “them” (the representatives of the Omayyad caliphate) “without practicing religious dissimulation (fī ḡayr taqīya)” (Ebn Saʿd, V, p. 158). He denied being the Mahdi and affirmed that the Mahdi would be of ʿAbd Šams adding that in his view he was none other than the later caliph ʿOmar II (Ebn Saʿd, V, p. 245). When later the Khorasanian leaders Qaḥtaba and Solaymān b. Kaṯīr asked him about the identity of the rightful imam, he referred them to the ʿAbbasid Moḥammad b. ʿAlī in Syria.

Ṭabarī quotes Bāqer in his history frequently about details of the life of Moḥammad and ʿAlī and cites a lengthy report of his about the events leading up to the death of Ḥosayn at Karbalāʾ. He is invariably considered a trustworthy transmitter by the Sunni ḥadīṯ experts. Nasāʾī mentions him as one of the early legal scholars (foqahāʾ) of Medina. Abū Dāwūd included a ḥadīṯ transmitted by him in his Sonan. Numerous edifying sayings of his were narrated in Sufi circles.

In Shiʿite tradition al-Bāqer appears as the inaugurator of the religious and legal teaching that was further elaborated by his son Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq and formed the basis of Imami Shiʿism. Here he stood within the tradition of the radical wing of the Shiʿites, repudiating the caliphate of Abū Bakr, ʿOmar, and ʿOṯmān and endowing the ʿAlid imams with supernatural qualities and knowledge. From the Kaysānīya, the main representatives of radical Shiʿism in his time, he seems to have adopted doctrines like badāʾ and rajʿa, the return of some of the dead before the resurrection for retaliation. He shunned, however, revolutionary activity and espoused the principle of taqīya, precautionary dissimulation. He is quoted as stating: “Taqīya is part of my religion and the religion of my fathers. Whoever has no taqīya has no faith.” The systematic practice of taqīya no doubt explains the contrast between the Sunni and Shiʿite reports about his teaching. Neither of the two aspects presented by them should be considered as basically fictitious.

Al-Bāqer’s views on legal and ritual questions are frequently quoted in Imami and Zaydī works. It is clear that some of the basic characteristics and specific rules of Twelver Shiʿite law, like the permission for the temporary marriage (moṭʿa) and the prohibition of the ritual wiping of the shoes (masḥ ʿala’l-ḵoffayn), go back to him. A commentary on the Koran attributed to al-Bāqer was transmitted by his disciple Abu’l-Jārūd Zīād b. Monḏer and is quoted frequently in the Tafsīr of ʿAlī b. Ebrāhīm Qomī. It reflects a strictly predestinarian theology (see W. Madelung, “The Shiite and Khārijite Contribution to pre-Asḥʿarite Kalām,” in P. Morewedge, ed., Islamic Philosophical Theology, Albany, 1979, pp. 136-37 n. 51). Al-Bāqer appears often as the author of apocalyptic prophecies, transmitted from him mostly by the Shiʿite traditionist Jāber Joʿfī. In spite of their Shiʿite character, such prophecies were taken over and transmitted by Sunni traditionists. Although some elements of this material may go back to al-Bāqer, most of it consists of later elaborations posterior even to Jāber (see Madelung, “The Sufyānī between Tradition and History,” Stud. Isl. 63, 1986, esp. pp. 10-11, 34-35).

The Shiʿite biographical sources narrate numerous stories of a legendary character about al-Bāqer’s debates with religious leaders and scholars like Ṭāwūs, Qatāda b. Deʿāma, Moḥammad b. Monkader, Abū Ḥanīfa, ʿAmr b. ʿObayd, Nāfeʿ b. Azraq and his son ʿAbd-Allāh b. Nāfeʿ, whom he stunned by his religious learning. They ascribe many miracles to him, like his conversing with ring-turtledoves and a wolf, his answering questions of jinnis on religious law and his being served by a jinni, his being visited by Ḵeżr and the prophet Elias, his restoring youth to the aged Ḥabbāba Wālebīya and giving temporary eyesight to the blind Abu’l-Baṣīr, and his causing an earthquake by lightly moving a thread brought by the angel Gabriel from heaven. According to some anachronistic stories he died poisoned, either involuntarily by the caliph ʿAbd-al-Malek (d. 86/705) with a poisoned saddle during a quarrel between al-Bāqer and Zayd b. Ḥasan about the inheritance of the Prophet or by the caliph Ebrāhīm b. Walīd (ruling in 127/745).


Ebn Saʿd, V. pp. 235-38.

Balāḏorī, Ansāb al-ašrāf III, ed. ʿAbd-al-ʿAzīz Dūrī, Beirut, 1398/1978, p. 116.

Yaʿqubī, Taʾrīḵ, pp. 365-66, 384-85.

Anonymous, Aḵbār al-dawla al-ʿabbāsīya, ed. ʿAbd-al-ʿAzīz Dūrī and A. Moṭallebī, Beirut, 1971, p. 132, 169, 184-85, 204-5.

Nawbaḵtī, Feraq al-šīʿa, ed. H. Ritter, Istanbul, 1931, pp. 52-55 and index.

Ṭabarī, index s.v. Moḥammad b. ʿAlī b. al-Ḥosayn. Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad Kolaynī, al-Oṣūl men al-kāfī, ed. ʿAlī-Akbar Ḡaffārī, Tehran, 1388/1968-69, I, pp. 303-4, 469-72.

Aḡānī1 I, p. 13; VIII, p. 43; XV, pp. 123, 126; XVI, p. 88; XX, p. 147.

Abū ʿAbd-Allāh Moḥammad Mofīd, al-Eršād, ed. Kāẓem Mūsawī Mīāmavī, Tehran, 1377/1957-58, pp. 245-54, tr. I. K. A. Howard, London, 1981, pp. 393-407.

Abū Noʿaym Eṣfahānī, Ḥelyat al-awlīāʾ, Cairo, 1932-38, III, pp. 180-92.

Abū ʿAlī Fażl b. Ḥasan Ṭabresī, Eʿlām al-warā be-aʿlam al-hodā, ed. ʿAlī Akbar Ḡaffārī, Beirut, 1399/1979, pp. 259-65.

Abu’l-Faraj b. al-Jawzī, Ṣefat al-ṣafwa, Hyderabad, 1389/1969, II, pp. 60-63.

Ebn Ḵallekān (Beirut), IV, p. 174.

Erbelī, Kašf al-ḡomma fī maʿrefat al-aʾemma, Qom, 1381/1961, II, pp. 329-66.

Abū ʿAbd-Allāh Moḥammad Ḏahabī, Sīār aʿlām al-nobalāʾ IV, ed. Maʾmūn Sāḡerjī, Beirut, 1401/1981, pp. 401-9.

Ṣalāḥ-al-Dīn Ḵalīl Ṣafadī, al-Wāfī be’l-wafayāt IV, ed. S. Dedering, Wiesbaden, 1394/1974, pp. 102-3.

Ebn Ḥajar ʿAsqalānī, Tahḏīb al-tahḏīb, Hyderabad, 1325-27/1907-9, IX, pp. 350-52.

Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, Tehran, 1376-1405/1956-85, XCVI, pp. 212-367.

Aʿyān al-šīʿa IV/2, pp. 3-28.

D. M. Donaldson, The Shiite Religion, London, 1933, pp. 112-19.

M. G. S. Hodgson, “How Did the Early Shiʿa Become Sectarian?” JAOS 75, 1955, pp. 10-13.

S. H. M. Jafri, Origins and Development of Shīʿa Islam, London, 1979, index s.v. Muḥammad al-Bāqir.

Cite this page
Wilferd Madelung, “BĀQER, ABŪ JAʿFAR MOḤAMMAD”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 31 May 2023 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_6608>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 19881215

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