'Ilm al-ghayb

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ʿĪlm al-ghayb (Arabic: عِلمُ الغَیب ) or knowledge of the unseen or knowledge of the hidden is a sort of divine knowledge that is inaccessible to normal human beings, but according to Islam, some human beings may possess such knowledge if God allows them to. According to Shiite doctrines, knowledge of the unseen or the hidden is exclusively possessed by God, but for some reasons, it is also endowed to some human beings. However, some sorts of such knowledge are necessarily specific to God and cannot be shared by human beings, such as God's knowledge of His essence (dhat), which is a type of His knowledge of the hidden that is impossible for human beings to possess. According to religious doctrines, the prophets (a) (or at least some of them), the Holy Prophet (s), Shiite Imams (a) and some righteous persons might possess the knowledge of the hidden. The scope of such knowledge that they may possess is different, the highest degree of such knowledge being enjoyed by the Prophet (s) and his Successors, according to Shiites.

There have been two theories about Imams' scope of knowledge of the unseen among Shiite scholars: minimalism and maximalism. Recent Shiite scholars hold to an unlimited scope of such knowledge for Imams (a).

The Notion

The word "ghayb" (Arabic: غَیب ) literally means what is unseen or hidden, in contrast to the word "shuhud" (Arabic: شُهود ) which refers to whatever is observable by our senses.

In quranic and hadith terminology, ghayb is what cannot be known by virtue of normal cognitive apparatuses.

The phrase "'ilm al-ghayb" means knowing the ghayb, the unseen—that is, knowledge of what cannot be known by the senses.

Types of Ghayb

According to one classification, there are two types of ghayb or unseen:

  • What is revealed via learning, reflection, and intellectual exercise.
  • What can only be accessed and known by God or whoever God allows to.

The latter is in turn of two types:

  • What needs to be revealed to the prophets and messengers of God, such as miracles (or mu'jizat), religious truths, and other information of the unseen.
  • What is so specific to God that He does not allow anyone else to know. Nobody except God can know such things through observations or reflections or whatever cognitive faculties. One example of this is divine essence.

The Possibility of Knowledge of the Unseen

According to Islamic doctrines, God can let some people know about the unseen—what has happened before or what is going to happen in the future. Here is a Quranic verse:

Ibn Sina provides an experimental argument for the possibility of such knowledge for human beings:

Just as it is possible for human beings to know about the unseen (in the past or the future) in their veridical dreams, it is also possible for them to possess such knowledge when they are awake.

The Prophets' Knowledge of the Unseen

Allah will not acquaint you with the Unseen,

but Allah chooses whomever He wishes from His apostles.

~ Sura al-'Imran verse no.179

One capacity that is required for a person to be a prophet at all is knowledge of some unseen truths. God reveals to the prophets some past or future truths that no normal human person has access to.

The Qur'an has referred to Jesus Christ (a)'s knowledge of some unseen things:

Also there is a Quranic verse to the effect that God gives whatever knowledge of the unseen to his prophets:

According to some scholars of the Quranic exegesis, Qur'an 3: 179 shows that all the prophets possessed knowledge of the unseen, especially given that the pronoun in this verse refers to anyone who is chosen by God.

The Prophet's (s) Knowledge of the Unseen

It has been thought that among the prophets, Prophet Muhammad (s) possessed the widest scope of knowledge of the unseen. By the leave of God, he had knowledge of whatever he needed in order to accomplish his mission. There is a mention, in the Qur'an, of information of which the Prophet (s) was aware, pointing out that he was not aware of this before his prophecy:

Imams' Knowledge of the Unseen

According to Shiite beliefs, Imams (a) need to have comprehensive knowledge of the laws of Shari'a which they are supposed to protect against distortions and whose ambiguities they are supposed to clarify. If Imam (a) does not have such knowledge, God's goal of appointing him for such a position—to clarify and protect the laws of Shari'a—would be flouted. Therefore, it is required for Imam (a) to have complete knowledge of whatever he needs in order to clarify and protect the religion. Since such knowledge is very wide and cannot be acquired by normal human capacities, it is necessary that Imam (a) has part of such knowledge by non-normal, super-human capacities and in non-normal ways.

Shiite View about Imam's Knowledge

According to Shiites, just like prophets, the infallible Imam (a) receives his knowledge of the unseen from God, and his knowledge is intuitive, that is, it will be accessible to him whenever he wants (it is not required that the knowledge be actual all the time). According to some hadiths, whenever Imam (a) wants to know something, God will give him the knowledge thereof.

There are narrations, in Shiite hadiths, of some information and prediction of the unseen (the past or the future events) by Shiite Imams (a). Some of this can be found in several sermons of Nahj al-balagha , such as Imam Ali (a)'s prediction of the devastation of Kufa, 'Abd al-Malik Marwan's attack to Kufa, prediction of Hajjaj b. Yusuf al-Thaqafi's bloodshed and his overeating, information about the bloody future of Basra, news about the rule of four vice people from sons of Marwan, and the prediction of Moguls' attacks and their crimes.

The View of Imamiyya Scholars of Kalam

There are some major views about Imam's knowledge of the unseen among Shiite scholars of kalam:

  • Imam's absolute and actual knowledge only of the Elimination and Addition Tablet.
  • Imam's knowledge of the unseen only conditionally upon request from God.
  • Agnosticism about the details of Imam's knowledge of the unseen.
  • Limited knowledge of Imam (a) to some things which are required for his imamate and leadership.

The Scope of Imam's Knowledge of the Unseen

According to Shiite beliefs, Imam's knowledge includes everything he needs in his imamate and leadership. Some Shiite hadiths tell us that the scope of Imam's knowledge of the unseen includes everything that has occurred or is going to occur in the world (maximalism), and that God does not appoint someone as Imam unless he is capable of responding to people's questions. Here are some instances of Imam's knowledge of the unseen:

  • Imam's knowledge of the Qur'an, its absolute (mutlaq) and limited (muqayyad) statements, general and particular statemnets, and al-nasikh wa al-mansukh (verses that abrogate other verses, and ones that are abrogated).
  • Knowledge of other Sacred Scriptures.
  • Knowledge of whatever has happened or is going to happen in the future.
  • Knowledge of deaths and catastrophes.
  • Knowledge of all mundane and afterlife affairs.
  • Knowledge of the way, and the time, of his own death/martyrdom.
  • Knowledge of divine mysteries.
  • Knowledge of divine laws.

Imam's Ways of Access to Knowledge of the Unseen

According to Shiite sources, Imam (a) has different ways of access to the unseen or hidden information, including:

a. Receiving the knowledge from the Prophet (s): there is a hadith from Imam al-Rida (a) according to which Imam has received his knowledge from the Prophet (s), who has received it in turn from Gabriel. And there is a hadith from Imam al-Baqir (a) according to which Imams (a) possess knowledge of what God has taught his angels and prophets (a). This sort of teaching is done in different ways:

  • Normal teachings: in this way of teaching, Imam Ali (a) heard the Prophet's (s) words, just like other people, though (because of his capacities) he has learned much more.
  • Non-normal ways: in this way of teaching, which is specific to Imams (a), they have received the teachings via unusual ways, such as the following:
1. The knowledge that the Prophet (s) gave to Imam Ali (a) in the last hours of his life. According to some hadiths, in those moments he received from the Prophet (s) a vast amount of knowledge equivalent to one thousand sections in each of which there were a thousand other sections of knowledge. It included knowledge of past and future events, catastrophes and judgments. This knowledge is, according to Shiites, a heritage of imamate that is transferred from one Imam to his successor.
2. Through kitab al-jami'a (the Comprehensive Book): according to Shiites, this is a book written down by Imam Ali (a) from what the Prophet (s) told him, including news and information needed by an Imam, and this is also transferred from one Imam to his successor, according to Shiites.
3. Through kitab al-jafr (the Book of Jafr): this book is, according to some hadiths, a heritage of the prophets and their successors, containing the information had by prophets and Israelite scholars. It also contains Zabur which is the book of the prophet Dawud (a), Torah which is the book of Moses (a), Gospel which is the book of Jesus (a), and Suhuf which is the book of Ibrahim (a).

b. Through Mushaf Fatima (a) (the Book of Fatima (a)): according to some hadiths, the Book of Fatima is a collection of Lady Fatima al-Zahra's (a) conversations with angels, containing information about future events until the Resurrection. Lady Fatima (a) reported them to Imam Ali (a) and he wrote them down. There is a hadith from Imam al-Sadiq (a) according to which the Book of Fatima contains information about the future.

c. Through revelation and conversation with angels: Hassan b. Yahya al-Mada'ini asked Imam al-Sadiq (a) about how Imam answers the questions he is asked, and he replied: sometimes it is revealed to him, sometimes he hears it from an angel, and sometimes both.

The Benefits of Imams' Knowledge of the Unseen

According to Muhammad Rida Muzaffar, there are some benefits for Imams' knowledge of the unseen:

  • Benefits for the Islamic Umma.
  • Increasing the power of Islamic leaders.
  • The completion of the divine grace in His appointment of Imams (a).

Arguments and Evidence for Imams' Knowledge of the Unseen

According to some hadiths, Imam is the heir of the prophets' knowledge and the treasure of divine knowledge. Shiites appeal to some hadiths to argue for this doctrine, including the hadith from the Prophet (s):

"I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate".

According to a hadith, after Hisham heared Imam al-Sadiq's (a) answers to 500 problems in kalam, he told the Imam: I know that the problems of halal and haram are in your hands, but is this knowledge of kalam? Imam al-Sadiq (a) replied: Woe to you, Hisham! God does not appoint an Imam for people unless he has (knowledge of) everything people need.

Knowledge of the Unseen by Other People

Knowledge of the unseen is not limited to prophets and Shiite infallible Imams (a); some other people might have degrees of such knowledge. There are references in the Qur'an to some of such people:

  • Believers who witness the hypocrites.

Problems Concerning Knowledge of the Unseen

There are problems about, and objections to, Imams' knowledge of the unseen. Shiite scholars of kalam have tried to provide replies to these objections. Here are some of these objections:

1. If Imams have knowledge of the hidden, then how should we deal with hadiths in which it is made explicit that they do not possess such knowledge? For example, there is a hadith in which someone told Imam al-Sadiq (a) that Imam has knowledge of the unseen, but he said: "I do not have such knowledge". And as evidence for this he added: "My bondwoman has done something wrong and I want to punish her, but I cannot find her".

This objection, as scholars of kalam have said, arises from ignorance of the whole body of hadiths in this regard. According to Quranic evidence and hadiths, Shiite Imams (a) possess knowledge of the unseen. Therefore, hadiths that deny such a quality are either maj'ul (fabricated) or have been stated in taqiyya . The evidence for this is the very hadith cited in the objection. In the rest of this hadith, when Imam (a) and the narrator go somewhere else where nobody else is present, the Imam (a) cites a Quranic verse and says that he has knowledge of the unseen, and indeed an Imam should have such knowledge in order to accomplish his missions and responsibilities.

2. If Imams (a) were aware of the time and the cause of their martyrdoms, they had to prevent them, rather than let them happen. For example, if Imam Ali (a) knew that he would be hit in the head by a sword at the 19th night of the month of Ramadan in the Mosque of Kufa, then he was religiously obliged not to go there, because it would count as suicide, which is religiously forbidden.

There have been several replies to this objection. Some people maintain that Imams (a) do not have knowledge of some events, knowing which is not required for their missions (in imamate and the leadership of Muslims), and the time and cause of their martyrdoms are such events. Others have distinguished between external and internal knowledge, believing that Imams (a) possessed both types of knowledge. But they have to comply with the implications of external knowledge (what is available to all people), accomplishing their social responsibilities on the basis of such knowledge. However, they had internal knowledge of all events, including their own fates, but they were still obliged to act upon their external knowledge. Therefore, they were not allowed to prevent their deaths, drawing upon their internal knowledge. Most Shiite scholars have tended to accept the second reply to the objection.


  • The material for writing this article has been mainly taken from علم غیب in Farsi wikishia.