The Imams Know When They Will Die and Die Voluntarily
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
اللَّهُمَّ صَلِّ عَلَى مُحَمَّدٍ وَعَلَى آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ
The aim of this article is to address the question: Do the Shi'a believe that the Imams know when they will die and die voluntarily? If so, on what basis is this claimed? And does this entail shirk or kufr by contradicting the verse of Qur'an, "Indeed, Allah ˹alone˺ has the knowledge of the Hour. He sends down the rain, and knows what is in the wombs. No soul knows what it will earn for tomorrow, and no soul knows in what land it will die. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware" (31:34)?
The answer to the first question is apparent from the title of a chapter of al-Kafi: The Imams know when they will die and die voluntarily. The hadith within it provide ample evidence for this position. Now, what of the claim that this belief flies in the face of the Qur'an and constitutes kufr? Let us examine the verse that is frequently brought up in this context:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ عِندَهُ عِلمُ السّاعَةِ وَيُنَزِّلُ الغَيثَ وَيَعلَمُ ما فِي الأَرحامِ ۖ وَما تَدري نَفسٌ ماذا تَكسِبُ غَدًا ۖ وَما تَدري نَفسٌ بِأَيِّ أَرضٍ تَموتُ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَليمٌ خَبيرٌ
Indeed, Allah ˹alone˺ has the knowledge of the Hour. He sends down the rain, and knows what is in the wombs. No soul knows what it will earn for tomorrow, and no soul knows in what land it will die. Surely Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.
The verse states that no one knows the place of their death, and has no relation to someone knowing the time or manner of their death, or going to their death voluntarily. In fact, were we to take such an extreme position, we would have to declare the Sunnis mushriks as well for attributing this same knowledge and ability to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ)!
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) knew of his approaching death:
قَامَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَوْمًا فِينَا خَطِيبًا بِمَاءٍ يُدْعَى خُمًّا بَيْنَ مَكَّةَ وَالْمَدِينَةِ فَحَمِدَ اللَّهَ وَأَثْنَى عَلَيْهِ وَوَعَظَ وَذَكَّرَ ثُمَّ قَالَ " أَمَّا بَعْدُ أَلاَ أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ فَإِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ يُوشِكُ أَنْ يَأْتِيَ رَسُولُ رَبِّي فَأُجِيبَ وَأَنَا تَارِكٌ فِيكُمْ ثَقَلَيْنِ أَوَّلُهُمَا كِتَابُ اللَّهِ فِيهِ الْهُدَى وَالنُّورُ فَخُذُوا بِكِتَابِ اللَّهِ وَاسْتَمْسِكُوا بِهِ " . فَحَثَّ عَلَى كِتَابِ اللَّهِ وَرَغَّبَ فِيهِ ثُمَّ قَالَ " وَأَهْلُ بَيْتِي أُذَكِّرُكُمُ اللَّهَ فِي أَهْلِ بَيْتِي أُذَكِّرُكُمُ اللَّهَ فِي أَهْلِ بَيْتِي أُذَكِّرُكُمُ اللَّهَ فِي أَهْلِ بَيْتِي
...One day Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) stood up to deliver sermon at a watering place known as Khumm situated between Mecca and Medina. He praised Allah, extolled Him and delivered the sermon and. exhorted (us) and said: Now to our purpose. O people, I am a human being. I am about to receive a messenger (the angel of death) from my Lord and I, in response to Allah's call, (would bid good-bye to you), but I am leaving among you two weighty things: the one being the Book of Allah in which there is right guidance and light, so hold fast to the Book of Allah and adhere to it. He exhorted (us) (to hold fast) to the Book of Allah and then said: The second are the members of my household I remind you (of your duties) to the members of my family.
حَدَّثَنِي يَحْيَى بْنُ قَزَعَةَ، حَدَّثَنَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ بْنُ سَعْدٍ، عَنْ أَبِيهِ، عَنْ عُرْوَةَ، عَنْ عَائِشَةَ ـ رضى الله عنها ـ قَالَتْ دَعَا النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَاطِمَةَ ابْنَتَهُ فِي شَكْوَاهُ الَّذِي قُبِضَ فِيهِ، فَسَارَّهَا بِشَىْءٍ فَبَكَتْ، ثُمَّ دَعَاهَا، فَسَارَّهَا فَضَحِكَتْ، قَالَتْ فَسَأَلْتُهَا عَنْ ذَلِكَ. فَقَالَتْ سَارَّنِي النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَأَخْبَرَنِي أَنَّهُ يُقْبَضُ فِي وَجَعِهِ الَّذِي تُوُفِّيَ فِيهِ فَبَكَيْتُ، ثُمَّ سَارَّنِي فَأَخْبَرَنِي أَنِّي أَوَّلُ أَهْلِ بَيْتِهِ أَتْبَعُهُ فَضَحِكْتُ.
The Prophet (ﷺ) in his fatal illness, called his daughter Fatima and told her a secret because of which she started weeping. Then he called her and told her another secret, and she started laughing. When I asked her about that, she replied, The Prophet (ﷺ) told me that he would die in his fatal illness, and so I wept, but then he secretly told me that from amongst his family, I would be the first to join him, and so I laughed."
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) died voluntarily:
حَدَّثَنَا بِشْرُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ، حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ، قَالَ يُونُسُ قَالَ الزُّهْرِيُّ أَخْبَرَنِي سَعِيدُ بْنُ الْمُسَيَّبِ، فِي رِجَالٍ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْعِلْمِ أَنَّ عَائِشَةَ قَالَتْ كَانَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ وَهْوَ صَحِيحٌ " إِنَّهُ لَمْ يُقْبَضْ نَبِيٌّ حَتَّى يَرَى مَقْعَدَهُ مِنَ الْجَنَّةِ، ثُمَّ يُخَيَّرَ ". فَلَمَّا نَزَلَ بِهِ وَرَأْسُهُ عَلَى فَخِذِي غُشِيَ عَلَيْهِ، ثُمَّ أَفَاقَ، فَأَشْخَصَ بَصَرَهُ إِلَى سَقْفِ الْبَيْتِ ثُمَّ قَالَ " اللَّهُمَّ الرَّفِيقَ الأَعْلَى ". فَقُلْتُ إِذًا لاَ يَخْتَارُنَا. وَعَرَفْتُ أَنَّهُ الْحَدِيثُ الَّذِي كَانَ يُحَدِّثُنَا وَهْوَ صَحِيحٌ قَالَتْ فَكَانَتْ آخِرَ كَلِمَةٍ تَكَلَّمَ بِهَا " اللَّهُمَّ الرَّفِيقَ الأَعْلَى ".
When the Prophet (ﷺ) was healthy, he used to say, "No soul of a prophet is captured till he is shown his place in Paradise and then he is given the option." When death approached him while his head was on my thigh, he became unconscious and then recovered his consciousness. He then looked at the ceiling of the house and said, "O Allah! (with) the highest companions." I said (to myself), "Hence, he is not going to choose us." Then I realized that what he had said was the application of the narration which he used to mention to us when he was healthy. The last word he spoke was, "O Allah! (with) the highest companion."
In conclusion, those who claim that the Shi'a have committed shirk or kufr by claiming that the Imams know when they will die and die voluntarily should be wary that they are throwing stones from a glass house, given the presence of authentic hadith in their own works stating that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) not only predicted his approaching death but chose to die voluntarily. Given the Shi'a belief that the Imams are successors to the Prophet (ﷺ) in every way except prophethood, and the existence of a number of hadith providing evidence for the Shi'a position, it cannot be claimed that such a belief is baseless, either.
Bonus question: If the Imams (as) know when they will die, does this mean they commit suicide by, for example, eating food they know to be poisoned?
This question is addressed in the following hadith, among others:
وَ حَدَّثَنَا بأَحْمَدُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ بْنِ أَبِي مَحْمُودٍ عَنْ بَعْضِ أَصْحَابِنَا قَالَ: قُلْتُ لِلرِّضَا ع الْإِمَامُ يَعْلَمُ إِذَا مَاتَ قَالَ نَعَمْ يَعْلَمُ بِالتَّعْلِيمِ حَتَّى يَتَقَدَّمَ فِي الْأَمْرِ قُلْتُ عَلِمَ أَبُو الْحَسَنِ ع بِالرُّطَبِ وَ الرَّيْحَانِ الْمَسْمُومَيْنِ اللَّذَيْنِ بَعَثَ إِلَيْهِ يَحْيَى بْنُ خَالِدٍ قَالَ نَعَمْ قُلْت فأكله و هو يعلم قال أنساه لينفذ فيه الحكم.
And it was narrated to us by Ahmad ibn Muhammad, from Ibrahim ibn Abu Mahmoud, from one of our companions who said: "I said to al-Ridha, peace be upon him, ‘Does the Imam know when he will die?’ He responded: ‘Yes, until he approaches the affair (i.e. his death).' I said, ‘Did Abu al-Hasan (Imam Musa al-Kadhim), peace be upon him, know of the poisoned dates and basil which were sent to him by Yahya b. Khalid?’ He answered, ‘Yes’. I said, ‘So, he ate it [although] he knew?’ He said, ‘Yes. Allah made him forget so that the ruling (i.e his death) could be established on him.
Baṣa'ir al-Darajāt, Part 10, Chapter 9, Hadith #3
حَدَّثَنَا بأَحْمَدُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ بْنِ أَبِي مَحْمُودٍ قَالَ: قُلْتُ الْإِمَامُ يَعْلَمُ مَتَى يَمُوتُ قَالَ نَعَمْ فَقُلْتُ حَيْثُ مَا بَعَثَ إِلَيْهِ يَحْيَى بْنُ خَالِدٍ بِرُطَبٍ وَ رَيْحَانٍ مَسْمُومَيْنِ عَلِمَ بِهِ قَالَ نَعَمْ قُلْتُ فَأَكَلَهُ وَ هُوَ يَعْلَمُ فَيَكُونُ مُعِيناً عَلَى نَفْسِهِ فَقَالَ لَا يَعْلَمُ قَبْلَ ذَلِكَ لِيَتَقَدّم فيما يحتاج إليه فإذا جاء الوقت ألقى الله على قلبه النسيان ليقضي فيه الحكم.
It was narrated to us by Ahmad ibn Muhammad, from Ibrahim ibn Abu Mahmoud who said: "I asked [Imam al-Ridha, peace be upon him], ‘Does the Imam know when he will die?’ He responded, ‘Yes.' I said, ‘When [your father Imam Musa al-Kadhim, peace be upon him] was sent by Yahya ibn Khalid the poisoned dates and basil, he knew of it?’ He answered, ‘Yes.' I said, ‘So he ate it although he knew, then he assisted against himself (i.e. committed suicide).' He said, ‘No, he knew before that in order to advance regarding what he would be needy to. So, when the time came, Allah caused him to forget so that the ruling (i.e. his death) could be established on him.'"
Baṣa'ir al-Darajāt, Part 10, Chapter 9, Hadith #12