An Analysis of the Hadith al-Manzila
Continuing from the previous entry in this series examining the proof–texts of the Imamiya Shi’a, we come to another important and well-known Hadith:
أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم خَرَجَ إِلَى تَبُوكَ، وَاسْتَخْلَفَ عَلِيًّا فَقَالَ أَتُخَلِّفُنِي فِي الصِّبْيَانِ وَالنِّسَاءِ قَالَ أَلاَ تَرْضَى أَنْ تَكُونَ مِنِّي بِمَنْزِلَةِ هَارُونَ مِنْ مُوسَى إِلاَّ أَنَّهُ لَيْسَ نَبِيٌّ بَعْدِي
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ set out for Tabuk, and made Ali his vicegerent. (Ali) said: “Are you leaving me behind among the children and women?” The Prophet ﷺ said: “Are you not pleased that you are to me in the position Aaron is to Moses, except there is no prophet after me.” (Bukhari)
Undoubtedly this blessed Hadith expresses a great virtue and excellence for sayyidina Ali b. Abi Talib by comparing him to the great Prophet Aaron, the minister of Prophet Moses (peace be upon them all). However, the Imamiya Shi’a derive from this Hadith a proof that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ explicitly appointed sayyidina Ali as his successor, just as Aaron was Moses’s deputy. Yet a closer inspection of this Hadith, its critical wording and above all its context will reveal just how hollow the Imamiya claim is. Firstly, keep in mind that the Prophet designated Ali as his Khalîfa (successor, deputy, vicegerent) not for after his death, but during his temporary absence in Medina while he was off in the expedition of Tabuk, as the Hadith itself makes quite clear. Similarly, the Prophet Moses, when he went up to Mt. Sinai for forty nights in order to receive the Torah from God, left his elder brother Aaron as his deputy to take care of the affairs of the Israelites. Now it should be noted that Aaron was not Moses’s successor after Moses’s death, because Aaron, being older than Moses, actually died within Moses’s lifetime. Hypothetically, had Aaron been Moses’s successor after the latter’s death, then perhaps the Imamiya Shi’a would have ammunition in arguing that Ali was meant to be the Prophet’s ﷺ immediate successor. But the historical reality is that Prophet Moses was succeeded by the Prophet Joshua son of Nun (peace be upon him), yet there is no Hadith in which our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is reported to have said to Ali: “You are to me in the same position as Joshua was to Moses”. In fact, there isn’t a single Hadith established from our Prophet ﷺ in which he explicitly stated that “Ali is my successor after my death” or something along these lines which would constitute an explicit proof for the Imamiya claim. As for this Hadith al-Manzila, it only speaks of the temporary Khilafa (succession) of Ali during the absence of the Prophet ﷺ from Medina while he was involved in the expedition of Tabuk.
Now what I have written thus far is essentially the standard Sunni reply to the Imamiya Shi’a concerning the purport of this Hadith. But there is another important point which escapes many of the Sunnis and their Ulama which has been picked up upon by the Imamiya Shi’a, and which has the potential to disrupt the Sunni narrative if not adequately addressed. In order to dispel the notion that perhaps Ali might be a prophet, since he has been compared to Aaron, who was a Prophet, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “Except that there is no prophet after me.” Hence this is the only qualification to Ali’s similarity to Aaron in the latter’s relation to Moses. Aaron was Moses’s brother, his minister, and his deputy during the latter’s absence from the nation. Likewise, Ali is the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ brother in the sense of being his cousin and reared along him as a brother in the house of Abu Talib, and also the Prophet’s minister, his right-hand man, his representative. But in keeping with the accurate comparison to Aaron, it has to be conceded that Ali was not the Prophet’s ﷺ immediate successor after his death. Yet the Imamiya Shi’a raise the point that by saying “except there is no prophet after me” the Prophet was implying Ali’s succession after his death, because the word بعد “after” has been used. The Sunnis too interpret this Hadith to mean that there is no Prophet after the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ death. Thus indirectly the Sunni interpretation gives ammunition to the Imamiya Shi’a in arguing that Ali was the Prophet’s successor after the Prophet’s death, with the qualification that Ali himself was not a prophet.
The answer to this argument is that the word بعد does not only mean “after” but can also be translated as “absence”, so if the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ intended to say “Ali is to me in the same position Aaron is to Moses except that there is no prophet in my absence” then the argument of the Imamiya Shi’a that the Prophet was pointing to Ali as being his immediate successor is nullified. I argue that the intention of the Prophet in the Hadith al-Manzila when he said لَيْسَ نَبِيٌّ بَعْدِي was “there is no prophet in my absence” and not “there is no prophet after my death”. The proof for this is the usage of the word بعد in relation to the Prophet Moses as mentioned in the Holy Qur’an:
وَإِذْ وَاعَدْنَا مُوسَىٰ أَرْبَعِينَ لَيْلَةً ثُمَّ اتَّخَذْتُمُ الْعِجْلَ مِن بَعْدِهِ وَأَنتُمْ ظَالِمُونَ
And when We made an appointment with Moses for forty nights. Then you took [for worship] the calf in his absence, while you were wrongdoers.
(Sura 2: 51)
وَلَمَّا رَجَعَ مُوسَىٰ إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ غَضْبَانَ أَسِفًا قَالَ بِئْسَمَا خَلَفْتُمُونِي مِن بَعْدِي
And when Moses returned to his people, angry and grieved, he said, “How evil is that by which you have done behind me in my absence”
(Sura 7: 150)
*See also Sura 2: 92; 7: 148
In conclusion, Hadith al-Manzila can in no way be construed as a proof that the Prophet ﷺ designated Ali b. Abi Talib as the one to immediately succeed him upon his death. The comparison with Aaron proves Ali’s succession and vicegerency was only during the absence of the Prophet ﷺ from Medina, like Aaron was in charge of the Israelites temporarily whilst Moses was absent having gone up to Mt. Sinai. Likewise, the comparison with Aaron makes it clear that Ali was not to be the Prophet’s ﷺ immediate successor, because Aaron died within Moses’s lifetime, who was actually succeeded by Joshua not Aaron.