JAʿFAR AL-ṢĀDEQ iv. And Esoteric sciences



iv. Esoteric sciences

Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, a major figure in Shiʿite esotericism, is purported to be the founder of occult science in Islam. According to Imami-Shiʿite tradition, his knowledge concerned “the exoteric (al-ẓāher), the esoteric (al-bāṭen), and the esoteric of the esoteric (bāṭen al-bāṭen)” (Āmoli, p. 33; Corbin, pp. 188-89). “Our science, Jaʿfar is reported to have said, is immemorial and written in venerable books; it is engraved in the hearts and fixed in the ears. We have in our possession the red Jafr, the white Jafr, the Book of Fāṭema (Masḥaf Fāṭema) and al-Jāmeʿa (the “Encompassing”)” (Shaikh Mofid, p. 274). These books, containing knowledge of all things past, present, and future, were transmitted from one prophet and imam to another, the Jafr even going back to Adam, and reached Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq through Imam ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb and the other Shiʿite imams. Written on colored tablets made of pearl (white), ruby (red), emerald (green) or gold (yellow), they evoke both by their content and their material substrate the two esoteric sciences in which Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq is said to have excelled: divination and alchemy (Kolayni, I, pp. 344-46; Straface, pp. 347-49; Amir-Moezzi, pp. 186-88, 196-97, tr. pp. 73-74, 78).

Several pseudo-epigraphical works in Arabic, covering different sciences of divination, were transmitted under the name of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (Sezgin, I, pp. 530-31; Ullmann, pp. 195-96). The Ketāb al-jafr deals with a Shiʿite science par excellence, being considered a privilege of the imams. It contains apocalyptic predictions on the advent of the Mahdi, the final triumph of Shiʿism, and the annihilation of Sunni rule, using divinatory techniques such as gematria (ḥesāb al-jommal) and the occult power of the letters of the alphabet. According to Ebn Ḵaldun, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq possessed its original copy written on the skin of a young bull. It allowed him to reveal the hidden meaning of the Qurʾān (Ebn Ḵaldun, pp. 264-65, tr. Monteil, pp. 524-25, tr. Rosenthal, II, pp. 209-10; Kolayni, p. 348; Fahd, “Djafr,” p. 377; 1966, pp. 219-24). Closely related to the science of jafr are books on the “salutary properties” of the Qurʾān (Manāfeʿ sowar al-Qorʾān, Ḵawāss al-Qorʾān al-aʿẓam; Sezgin, I, p. 530), a method of divination based on the “mysterious letters” at the beginning of certain chapters (sura), the basmala or the names and attributes of God (Fahd, 1966, pp. 241-43). Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq was also well versed in the ʿelm al-faʾl, the “science of omens,” teaching how to interpret natural phenomena as good or bad presages (Fahd, 1966, pp. 450-83). To this discipline belongs hemerology (ektiārāt), a divinatory technique based on astrological calculations in order to determine the auspicious and inauspicious nature of specific years, months, days, or hours (Fahd, 1966, pp. 483-88; see Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, Faʾl-nāmaEḵtiārāt al-ayyām wa’l-šohur). Moreover, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq is reported to have introduced in Islam the science of palmomancy (ektelāj al-aʿżāʾ), enabling one to take presages about the future of a given person from the spontaneous pulsations and contractions of all parts of his body (Fahd, 1966, pp. 397-402; see Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, Ketāb eḵtelāj al-aʿżāʾ, containing his predictions and those of Daniel, Alexander, and Persian and Greek sages).

Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq is known in Islamic esoteric tradition as the father of Arabic alchemy. According to Ebn al-Nadim (p. 420, tr. II, pp. 853-54), the Shiʿites claim that he was the master of Jāber b. Ḥayyān. The alchemical corpus transmitted under Jāber’s name is indeed presented as written under the direct inspiration of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, who initiated his disciple into the secrets of alchemy. The historical relations between Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq and Jāber b. Ḥayyān remain very controversial, as they are linked to still unresolved questions about dating, composition, and authorship of the texts attributed to Jāber. Scholars such as Julius Ruska, Paul Kraus, and Pierre Lory consider Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s involvement in the transmission of alchemical knowledge as a literary fiction, whereas Fuat Sezgin, Toufic Fahd, and Nomanul Haq are rather inclined to accept the existence of alchemical activity in Medina in Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s time, although they remain cautious regarding the authenticity of the attribution of the Jaberian corpus to Jāber b. Ḥayyān and of the alchemical works to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (Ruska, 1924, pp. 40-52; 1927, pp. 264-66; Kraus, I, pp. LV-LVII; Lory, pp. 14-21, 57-59, 101-7; Sezgin, I, p. 529, IV, pp. 128-31; Fahd, 1970, pp. 139-41; Nomanul Haq, pp. 3-47). Among several apocryphal works attributed to Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq figures a Resāla fi ʿelm al-senāʿa wa’l-ḥajar al-mokarrem, also known under the title Resālat al-wasāyā lesayyedenā al-Emām Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (for manuscripts, see Sezgin, I, p. 531, IV, p. 131; Ullmann, pp. 195-96, 221). Ruska, who translated this text (in Ruska, 1924), showed that it is nearly identical with the Ketāb taʿwiḏ al-Ḥākem fi ʿelm al-sanʿat al-ʿāliya, containing two receipts for the elaboration of the elixir, allegedly transcribed from the bracelet of the Fatimid caliph al-Ḥākem, who inherited it from his ancestors and thus ultimately from Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (Ruska, 1924, pp. 67-113, combines both texts in his German translation and gives a facsimile edition of the Taʿwiḏ from a Gotha manuscript).

Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq is supposed to have revealed his esoteric knowledge to a small circle of privileged disciples, such as Abu’l-Ḵaṭṭāb Moḥammad Asadi and Mofażżal b. ʿOmar Joʿfi (eponyms of Khattabiyya and Mofazzaliyya), both considered by later Imami-Shiʿite tradition as extremists (see ḡolāt). Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s “secret revelations” to Mofażżal are transmitted in the Ketāb al-haft wa’l-aẓella (partial Ger. tr. in Halm, 1982, pp. 246-74) and in the Ketāb al-ṣerāṭ (ed. Capezzone, pp. 318-415). These texts played an important role in the elaboration of the esoteric doctrine of the Nosayris (Halm, 1978, pp. 253-65;1981, pp. 72-84; Capezzone, pp. 265-73), who consider Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq one of their main authorities (Bar-Asher and Kofsky, pp. 8, 22-23, 26-27, 32, 37, 80, 84, 129, 134).


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Meir M. Bar-Asher and Aryeh Kofsky, The Nusayrî-ʿAlawî Religion: An Enquiry into Its Theology and Liturgy, Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture 1, Leiden, Boston, and Cologne, 2002.

Leonardo Capezzone, “Una nuova fonte per lo studio dell’eterodossia islamica: Il Kitāb al-ṣirāṱ attribuito a Mufaḍḍal b. ʿUmar al-Ğuʿfî,” Rivista degli Studi Orientali 67, 1993, pp. 265-73.

Henry Corbin, En Islam iranien: Aspects spirituels et philosophiques– Le shîʿisme duodécimain, Paris, 1971.

Rifaat Y. Ebied and M. J. L. Young, “A Treatise on Hemerology Ascribed to Ğaʿfar al-Ṣādiq,” Arabica, 23, 1976, pp. 296-307.

Ebn Ḵaldun, al-Moqaddema, tr. Franz Rozenthal as The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, 3 vols., Princeton, 1967; tr. Vincent Monteil as Discours sur l’histoire universelle: Al-Muqaddima, Paris, 1997.

Ebn al-Nadim, Ketāb al-fehrest, ed. Reżā Tajaddod, Beirut, 1988; tr. Bayard Dodge as The Fihrist of al-Nadīm, 2 vols., New York, 1970.

Toufic Fahd, “Djafr,” EI2 II, pp. 375-77.

Idem, La divination arabe: Etudes religieuses, sociologiques et folkloriques sur le milieu natif de l’islam, Leiden, 1966.

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Idem, Eḵtelāj al-aʿżāʾ, trs. Julius Lippert and Friedrick Kern as Arabische Zuckungsliteratur, in Hermann Diels, ed., Beiträge zur Zuckungsliteratur des Okzidents und Orients, Berlin, 1907-8, II, pp. 57-91.

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Idem, Ketāb al-serāt, ed. Leonardo Capezzone as “Il Kitab al-sirat attribuito a Mufaḍḍal b. ʿUmar al-Guʿfi: Edizione del ms. unico (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale) e studio introduttivo,” Rivista degli Studi Orientali 69/3-4, 1995, pp. 318-416; ed. Monṣef b. ʿAbd-al-Jalil, Beirut, 2005.

Abu Jaʿfar Moḥammad b. Yaʿqub Kolayni, al-Oṣul men al-Kāfi, ed. and tr. with commentary Sayyed Jawād Moṣṭafawi, 4 vols. in 2, Tehran, n.d.

Paul Kraus, Jābir Ibn Ḥayyān: Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’islam I– Le corpus des écrits jābiriens, Mémoires de l’Institut d’Égypte 44, Cairo, 1942.

Julius Lippert and Friedrick Kern, “Arabische Zuckungsliteratur,” in Hermann Diels, ed., Beiträge zur Zuckungsliteratur des Okzidents und Orients II: Weitere griechische und ausser-griechische Literatur und Volksüberlieferung, Berlin, 1909, pp. 53-91.

Pierre Lory, Alchimie et mystique en terre d’Islam, Lagrasse, 1989.

Shaikh Moḥammad Mofid, Ketāb al-eršād, Najaf, 1962; tr. I. K. A. Howard as The Book of Guidance into the Lives of the Twelve Imams, Elmhurst, New York, 1981.

Syed Nomanul Haq, Names, Natures and Things: The Alchemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān and his Kitāb al-Aḥjār (Book of Stones), Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 158, Dordrecht, Boston, and London, 1994.

Julius F. Ruska, Arabische Alchemisten II: Ğaʿfar Alsādiq, der sechste Imām, Heidelberger Akten der Von-Portheim-Stiftung, Arbeiten aus dem Institut für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaft 10, Heidelberg, 1924.

Idem, “Ğābir ibn Ḥajjān und seine Beziehungen zum Imām Ğaʿfar as-Ṣādiq,” Der Islam 16, 1927, pp. 264-66.

Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, 8 vols., Leiden, 1967-82.

Antonella Straface, “Simbolismo ermetico e letteratura religiosa shiʿita,” in Paolo Lucentini, Ilaria Parri, and Vittoria Perrone Compagni, eds., Hermetism from Late Antiquity to Humanism/La tradizione ermetica dal mondo tardo-antico all’umanesimo, Instrumenta Patristica et Mediaevalia 40, Turnhout, 2003, pp. 339-53.

Manfred Ullmann, Die Natur-und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam, Handbuch der Orientalistik, Abt. I, Der Nahe und der Mittlere Osten Ergänzungsband VI/2, Leiden, 1972.

(Daniel De Smet)

Originally Published: December 15, 2008

Last Updated: April 5, 2012

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Vol. XIV, Fasc. 4, pp. 362-363