Even though it is commonly accepted by Shias that the contents of Nahjul Balagha are authentically attributed to Ali bin Abi Talib, objective research proves that this understanding is simply nonacademic and untrue.
Al-Shareef Al-Radhi (d. 406 AH) passed away in the fifth century and compiled the sermons and letters in the year 400 AH. Al-Radhi collected what was available to him from sources that were available to him that were attributed to Ali.
However, since Al-Radhi came a few centuries too late, the only way to accept all the sermons and letters that he collected is by giving the compiler our complete blind trust. This is because Al-Radhi never provided his sources, which makes the attribution of all the texts to Ali bin Abi Talib questionable.
Method of Determining Reliability
Not surprisingly, the scholars of Islam did not give this blind trust to any compiler of narrations, but rather the Isnad system was formed to prevent forgeries, mistakes, and false attributions. It was through the Isnad system that Sunni books like Al-Bukhari’s and Muslim’s compilation had become canonized texts for the Sunni school. Similarly, it was through the Isnad system that Shias canonized their four books: Al-Kafi, Man La Yahtharhu Al-Faqeeh, Tahtheeb Al-Ahkam, and Al-Istibsar.
The Isnad system is a system in which compilers of narrations would provide the names of their teachers that have heard the report up until the eye-witnesses themselves. The main criteria for accepting a narration as authentic is the reliability of all the narrators and the connection of the chain of narrators. If the main reporter is not an eye-witness of the event, the narration would be rejected. If the chain included a narrator whose reliability was unknown, the narration would be rejected.
For example, a narration by Mohammad bin Sireen (d. 110 AH), who is known as the Imam of the Tabi’een, would be rejected if he narrated directly from the Prophet – peace be upon him – , for Mohammad bin Sireen was born during the caliphate of Uthman, which makes him a few decades too young to have been an eye-witness of any prophetic narrations.
Problem and Solution
With this in mind, it becomes clear as to why Al-Shareef Al-Radhi’s narrations from Ali bin Abi Talib are simply not acceptable according to the standards of the scholars. Due to this, one of the top Shia scholars and editors, Abdul Zahra’ Al-Hussaini (d. 1930), attempted to gather alternative sources for the sermons that have been attributed to Ali in order to affirm that these sermons and letters are indeed correctly attributed to him.
In this section, we will study the content of Nahjul Balagha individually from the aspect of reliability in order to ascertain as to whether or not the content is correctly attributed to Ali bin Abi Talib. The research provided mainly relies on studying the alternative sources that are provided by Abdul Zahra’ Al-Hussaini’s Masadir Nahjul Balagha (Sources of Nahjul Balagha).