A Response to Peshawar Nights


The art of fictional narration

The art of fictional narration can be traced back to the earliest civilizations, and has assumed various different appearances over the centuries. The fact that this form of narration is fictitious was never really used to discredit literary fiction, since the lessons the author of Aesop’s Fables, for example, wished to impart, did not depend upon whether his animal characters could or did really speak. Similarly, Shakespeare, in his quasi-historical works, does not attempt to convey to the reader the notion that the words or actions he ascribes to his characters were really said or done by them.

However, it is when the author of the fictional narrative tries to overstep the bounds of fiction and confer upon his work the appearance of historical authenticity, that his work loses the respectable designation “literary fiction”, and earns for itself the ignominious epithet “literary hoax”.

The Historicity of “Peshawar Nights”

In the book “Peshawar Nights”, whose author is styled as “Sultan al-Wa‘izin Shirazi”, we have an example of a work which purports to be the record of a Sunni-Shi‘i debate. However, an objective analysis of the book leads us to the inevitable conclusion that in this particular work Shirazi has done nothing more than employ the literary device of fictional narration—a device that for centuries has found favour with Shi‘i polemicists.

Shi‘i polemicists were quite aware that to actually engage the ‘ulama of the Ahl as-Sunnah in debate would considerably curtail their advantage, and therefore they resorted to the more convenient ploy of creating their own opponents, since by doing so they would be able to manipulate the “opponent’s” arguments to their own advantage. Thus, when Sultan al-Wa‘izin Shirazi decided to choose this style of writing for his book, he was not being original at all. He was merely imitating the precedent set by earlier Shi‘i writers like Abul Futuh ar-Razi and Radiyy ad-Din Ibn Tawus. Below we look at three works in this genre by these two authors.


A book by this title appeared during the latter half of the previous century, purporting to be the record of a debate that had taken place at the court of Harun ar-Rashid between Husniyyah, a slave girl owned by a merchant friend of Imam Ja‘far as-Sadiq, and the Imams Abu Yusuf and ash-Shafi‘i. This slave girl had supposedly stayed with Imam Ja‘far upto the age of twenty, and had acquired expertise in numerous branches of knowledge from him. In the book she publicly humiliates the two Imams, defeating their arguments and presenting them with “incontrovertible evidence” of the truth of the creed of the Shi‘ah.

The book is full of anachronisms. For one, ash-Shafi‘i came to Baghdad only after the death of Abu Yusuf, so it is impossible that they could ever have taken part together in any discussion. The book also speaks of a third learned man by the name of Ibrahim Khalid of Basrah, who was supposedly regarded by Abu Yusuf as “superior in knowledge to them all.” When they themselves were unable to answer the arguments of Husniyyah, they referred the matter to this Ibrahim Khalid, but he too, was incapable of responding to her. History, however, has recorded nothing of a person by this name, and the effort to identify him with Abu Thawr, whose name was Ibrahim ibn Khalid, is futile, since Abu Thawr was a Baghdadi by birth and lived there all his life. Far from being regarded as ash-Shafi‘i’s superior, he was his student, and one of the four narrators of his qadim views. Even of Husniyyah herself, the annals of history and biography have recorded nothing at all. It is only in this belated document that mention is made of her existence.

It is recorded by the prominent Shi‘i bibliographer, Aqa Buzurg Tihrani in his bibliographical lexicon adh-Dhari‘ah that this booklet was originally found in the possession of a sayyid in Syria by Mulla Ibrahim al-Astarabadi when the latter returned to Iran from Hajj in the year 958/1551. He translated it into Persian, and it was first published in 1287/1870. (adh-Dhari‘ah, vol. 4 p. 97 no. 452, 3rd edition, Dar al-Adwa’, Beirut 1401/1981)

The Shi‘i biographer Mirza ‘Abdullah Effendi al-Isfahani has done us a favour by exposing the real author of the book Husniyyah, and his purpose in writing such a book. He writes in his book Riyad al-‘Ulama’:

Such a degree of learning and eminence is accorded to Husniyyah in this booklet, that it creates the impression of it being the fraudulent work of Shaykh Abul Futuh ar-Razi, written and forged by him. He ascribed it to Husniyyah in order to bring disgrace to the beliefs of the Ahl as-Sunnah, and to humiliate them by exposing their beliefs. (Riyad al-‘Ulama’ vol. 5 p. 407 (Maktabat Ayatullah al-Mar‘ashi, Qum 1401/1981)

This identification of Abul Futuh ar-Razi with the authorship of the booklet Husniyyah is supported by Sayyid Muhsin al-Amin, the author of A‘yan ash-Shi‘ah, one of the most authoritative contemporary biographical dictionaries of the Shi‘ah. He states categorically that this book “is the work of Abul Futuh ar-Razi”.

Yuhanna the Christian

This same Shaykh Abul Futuh ar-Razi is credited with the authorship of another spurious polemical tract called Risalat Yuhanna an-Nasrani (the tract of Yuhanna [John] the Christian). In this tract, quoted by a number of Shi‘i writers as factual truth, a Christian by the name of Yuhanna engages the Sunni ‘ulama of Baghdad in a debate during which he demonstrates the “fallacies” in the creed of the Ahl as-Sunnah. Eventually he declares his acceptance of Shi‘ism as the true religion. Mirza ‘Abdullah Effendi ascribes this work to Abul Futuh ar-Razi. The “strength” of this polemic is supposed to derive from the fact that even a non-Muslim is able to discern the “falsehood” of Sunni belief from the “truth” of Shi‘ism.

‘Abd al-Mahmud the Dhimmi

Radiyy ad-Din Ali ibn Tawus belonged to a prominent Shi‘i family that lived at Hillah near Najaf at the time of the sack of Baghdad by the Tartars under Hulagu. Shi‘ite complicity in the fall of Baghdad is a fact of history. This explains why the Mongol conquerors favoured the Shi‘i intellectuals. Ibn Tawus, for example, was appointed Naqib al-Ahsraf by Hulagu, the destroyer of Baghdad. He gladly accepted this office, having earlier persistently refused it from the late Khalifah, al-Mustansir.

With the fall of Baghdad came a new surge in Shi‘ite propagation, the like of which was only seen in the days of the Buwayhids during the 5th century. The high positions occupied by Shi‘i dignitaries in the Ilkhanid (Mongol) administration afforded the Shi‘ah the influence and leverage they needed to prosper. In Iraq the town of Hillah soon developed into the most important center of Shi‘i learning.

This age also saw the composition of a number of polemical works. As the most prolific Shi‘i author of the time, it would be only natural for Ibn Tawus to contribute to this genre of literature. However, he preferred to do so under an assumed identity. His book, entitled at-Tara’if fi Madhahib at-Tawa’if, was written under the nom-de-plume Abd al-Mahmud ibn Dawud al-Mudari.

He commences his book with the (patently false) statement that he is a man from amongst the Ahl adh-Dhimmah (Jews or Christians living under the protection of the Muslim state). He then proceeds on to a comparative study of different religious persuasions, and predictably enough, ends up with Ithna ‘Ashari (Twelver) Shi‘ism as the only true religion. Like Abul Futuh ar-Razi before him, he seeks to inject objectivity into his work by assuming the identity of a supposedly unbiased observer. (See Riyad al-‘Ulama’ vol. 5 p. 407)

This survey of the use of fictional narration by Shi‘i polemicists in history creates the background against which we will now proceed to examine the historicity of Peshawar Nights” and its contents.


The first thing which draws the attention of the unbiased reader should be the fact that while there were two sides who participated in the discussion, the book itself came from the peof the Shi‘i participant exclusively. This fact might at first glance escape the notice of the unsuspicious reader who has complete faith—to the point of gullibility—in the goodwill of the author. However, no one possessed of a sense of discretion can help but notice this discrepancy.

The writer of the foreword seeks to make amends for this serious indictment of the book’s historicity by stating that “four reporters recorded the discussions in the presence of approximately 200 people (Shia and Sunni Muslims),” and that “local newspapers published these accounts each following morning.” Yet, both Shirazi and his publishers fail to produce the least bit of factual evidence in the form of copies of the newspaper reports from which it is alleged that Shirazi ultimately compiled the book. All we have to vouch for the occurrence of this ten-night discussion is the word of Shirazi himself.

There is furthermore no external corroboration at all, least of all by the Sunni participant or the five other dignitaries who are alleged in the translator’s preface (p. xviii) to have publicly acknowledged their conversion to Shi‘ism. Once again, we have nothing but Shirazi’s own claim to support the historicity of the event upon which “Peshawar Nights” is based.


The book is published not in Peshawar, the city in which the discussion reportedly took place, but in Tehran. It is published not in Urdu or Pushtu, the language of the North West Frontier, but in Persian, the language of Iran.

It is highly unlikely that there was a Persian language newspaper in Peshawar, or in the rest of India for that matter, at the time of the alleged debate. In India at that time, Persian had diminished into an archaic language, more suited for the occasional moments of inspiration of the romantic poet than for the practical use of the media. Shirazi himself was merely a visitor to India, and is therefore not likely to have known either Urdu or Pushtu. The question about how he came to transcribe his book from newspaper accounts published in a language he did not know will remain a mystery for as long as one believes that the book is the record of an historical debate. On the other hand, if one accepts the much more plausible, rational, and indeed logical position that the author of the book has employed the literary device of fictional narration, for whatever reason, the mystery is immediately and conclusively solved.

The participants

The names of the participants are given as Hafiz Muhammad Rashid and Shaykh ‘Abd as-Salam, and they are said to be from Kabul. None of these two persons are identified beyond their first names. Eponymous descriptions that identify persons in terms of their localities or family connections, and which are so common amongst the ‘ulama of India and Afghanistan, are conspicuously absent. The same is true for the third person, Sayyid ‘Abd al-Hayy. Even the Nawab Sahib, whose conversion at the end of the 10th session is prominently touted, is not clearly identified. Why, if the incident and the personalities were as real as the author tries to make them seem, does he prefer to keep it secret?

Furthermore, Sunni-Shi‘i polemics was at that time a very well developed discipline. Shi‘i proselytization in the established Sunni community had led to some Sunni ‘ulama taking up the task of debating and refuting the Shi‘ah. Beginning with Shah Waliyyullah and his son Shah ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, there were literally scores of Sunni ‘ulama who specialized in Sunni-Shi‘i polemics. At the time this debate was supposedly taking place in the remote city of Peshawar, there lived in India an intellectual giant like ‘Allamah ‘Abd ash-Shakur of Lucknow, a scholar whose devotion to Sunni-Shi‘i polemics had earned him the title “Imam Ahl as-Sunnah”. In 1345 when this debate allegedly occurred ‘Allamah ‘Abd ash-Shakur was in his prime at the age of 52.(See Nuzhat al-Khawatir, vol. 8 p. 271) The erudite Mawlana Anwar Shah Kashmiri was at that time 53 years of age. (See Nuzhat al-Khawatir, vol. 8 p. 90) If Sultan al-Wa‘izin Shirazi was at all serious about an objective discussion of Sunni-Shi‘i differences, he would have been engaging scholars of this caliber, and not figures of obscure historicity, who probably never existed outside his own imagination.


Shirazi’s citation of sources cannot fail to attract the reader’s attention. The translators ascribe this to his erudition: “Although the dialogue was extemporaneous, such was the erudition of Sultanu’l-Wa`izin Shirazi ... that the transcript serves as a detailed bibliographical reference to hundreds of Sunni treatises well known and little known, in which the claims of the Shi`ites are acknowledged.” (p. xviii) However, to the careful—and knowledgeable—reader, this very same manner of citation reveals a fatal fault in the authenticity of the book as a faithful record of a debate in 1345/1927.

There are many occurrences of this phenomenon throughout the book, but a few random examples should suffice to clarify its nature to the reader.

  1. One of the sources quoted by Shirazi, complete with volume and page numbers, is the book at-Tarikh al-Kabir by Imam Bukhari. (See p. 229) This work would be printed in Hyderabad, Deccan for the first time ever in the year 1362/1943, no less than 16 years after the “debate” took place.

  2. Another work cited by Shirazi is Hilyat al-Awliya by Abu Nu‘aym al-Isfahani. (See p. 139) The first edition of this work was published in Cairo, from 1351/1932 to 1357/1938. The printing of this first edition commenced 6 years after the date of the alleged debate in Peshawar, and was completed 12 years after that date.

  3. The book Tarikh al-Khulafa by Suyuti is quoted with page number by Shirazi. (See p. 147) Yet the first ever edition of this book would appear in print in 1371/1952, 26 years after the event.

  4. The Tarikh of Ya‘qubi would be published for the first time by Dar Sadir in Beirut only in 1960. Shirazi quotes from it, complete with page reference, 33 years before its first edition would see the light. (See p. 147)

  5. The fifth volume of Baladhuri’s Ansab al-Ashraf would be published by the University Press in Jerusalem in 1936. Sultan al-Wa‘izin Shirazi cites from this very same volume, to the point of supplying the page number, 9 years earlier. (See p. 146)

  6. Muruj adh-Dhahab by Mas‘udi was first published by Dar Sadir in Beirut in 1368/1948, 3 years before Shirazi could quote it with volume and page numbers. (See p. 146)

  7. al-‘Iqd al-Farid by Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih is quoted with page and volume numbers by Shirazi. (See p. 190) Yet it was printed for the first time in Cairo in 1952, a quarter century after the alleged debate in Peshawar.

  8. al-Haythami’s book Majma‘ az-Zawa’id is confidently cited by Shirazi, with page and volume numbers. (See p. 82) Yet the book would be printed for the first time in 1352, 7 years later.

  9. ‘Umdat al-Qari by Badr ad-Din al‘Ayni was first published in 1348. Shirazi manages to cite this work by page and volume numbers 3 years before its publication. (See p. 239)

  10. The book Tarikh Baghdad was first published by Maktabat al-Khanji in Cairo in 1349/1930. Again Sultan al-Wa‘izin Shirazi manages the impossible by citing from this work with page and volume numbers 4 years before its publication. (See p. 183)

Thus Shirazi’s habit of supplying copious lists of references, and thereupon attempting to inject authority into them by citing page and volume numbers, had an unexpected—and a most definitely undesired—side effect. Instead of bolstering the authority of his book, it destroyed the entire image of the book as the authentic record of an objective debate.

Aside from the above cases where Shirazi has made reference to sources which were to be printed several years after the date of his alleged debate in Peshawar, he also has the tendency to list a large number of references which he could never possibly have laid hands or eyes on. Most of his references lack volume and page numbers. This shows that he did not have access to these works, and was merely quoting them from secondary, unnamed sources. A substantial number of them refer to books that have been completely missing for ce, and of which nothing is known besides their titles.

Source methodology

One point of criticism which will recur throughout the book is the author’s indiscriminate use of sources. In matters of Shari‘ah and history, source methodology accounts for four fifths of any textual argument. No quotation can be presented as an authoritative argument if its authenticity has not satisfactorily been accounted for.

The key word here is authenticity. No hadith is authentic simply for the reason of it being documented in a book. Of all people, the Shi‘ah are supposed to be the first to take note of this fact. Whenever they are confronted with the fact that their hadith literature contains a huge number of ahadith (2000, according to Ni‘matullah al-Jaza’iri in al-Anwar an-Nu‘maniyyah) indicating that the present Qur’an suffered interpolation at the hands of the Sahabah. To know just how much importance the Shi‘ah attach to authenticity, one needs only to look at the vehemence and fervour with which Ayatullah Muhammad Husayn Burujirdi—the supreme Shi‘i mujtahid upto his death in 1961—rejected the Shi‘i ahadith proving interpolation in the Qur’an as being “extremely weak”. (Lutfullah as-Safi, Ma‘ al-Kahtib fi Khututihi al-‘Aridah, p. 53)

Is authenticity a principle that only the Shi‘ah can invoke when things turn against them? No person possessed of a sense fairness can fail to see the double standards of him who complains when unauthentic quotations from his own legacy are used against him, but freely quotes from the literature of his opponents without bothering to secure the authenticity of what he quotes.

In the following pages I will survey the sources of Sunni hadith cited by Shirazi. The sources from which he cites Sunni hadith may be classified under three headings: (1) primary sources (2) secondary sources (3) obscure sources.

1. Primary sources

Hadith books in this category are characterized by the fact that they utilize isnads (chains of narration) for their material. It includes books such as the Musnad of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the six major works of al-Buhkari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, at-Tirmidhi, an-Nasa’i and Ibn Majah, the works of al-Bayhaqi, ad-Daraqutni, and of authors as late as Abu Nu‘aym al-Isfahani and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi.

The narrated material in any collection utilizing isnads is as a rule only as good as the isnad. In Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim we have a unique case, in that these two authors have applied a rigorous set of criteria to the ahadith which they admitted into their collections. The ahadith in the Sahihayn are therefore all authentic, not simply for the fact that they appear in those books, but because they conform to the criteria of authenticity stipulated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

Books besides the Sahihayn are all subject to scrutiny of their isnads to determine to what extent they conform to the criteria of authenticity. There never has been a claim, neither by the authors of these works, nor by anyone else, that these works incorporate exclusively authentic material. Muhaddithin like al-Hakim, the author of al-Mustadrak, and Ibn Hibban, the author of at-Taqasim wal-Anwa‘ (commonly known as Sahih Ibn Hibban), have attempted to follow the example of al-Bukhari and Muslim by documenting only authentic ahadith, but their criteria, as well as the extent to which they abided by those criteria left a lot to be desired, and consequently came under censure from later muhaddithin.

Indiscriminate quoting from these works would therefore only occur if a person suffers from one of two defects: ignorance of the science of hadith; or a Machiavellian attitude of the end—in this case the conversion of the Ahl as-Sunnah—justifying the means. Either of these defects is sufficient to disqualify anyone as an objective polemicist.

2. Secondary sources

Books in this category do not use isnads. Instead, they reproduce the texts of hadith from the primary sources, and give a reference to the source from they have taken it. An example here would be the book Majma‘ az-Zawa’id by Abul Hasan al-Haythami. In this work the author has collected those ahadith in the Musnads of Ahmad, al-Bazzar and Abu Ya‘la, and the three Mu‘jams of at-Tabarani—al-Kabir, al-Awsat and as-Saghir—that do not appear in the six major collections.

Since the hadith collections in this category basically draw from the previous category, the same is applicable to it in terms of authenticity as was stated for the primary sources. In fact, when quoting from such secondary sources, the onus to prove authenticity is even greater.

Shirazi seems quite oblivious to—or ignorant of—the fact that works such as Majma‘ az-Zawa’id merely reproduce ahadith from primary sources. Therefore he thinks nothing of adducing Majma‘ az-Zawa’id as a source after having already ascribed the hadith to al-Mu‘jam al-Awsat of at-Tabarani. (See p. 82) This is but one example of many. One wonders how someone who displays such an astonishing lack of proficiency in hadith could be bold enough to present himself as an erudite scholar.

Other books in this category are ad-Durr al-Manthur and Tarikh al-Khulafa, both by as-Suyuti, Ihya’ ‘Ulum ad-Din by al-Ghazali, Tafsir Mafatih al-Ghayb (also known as at-Tafsir al-Kabir) by Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi, Jami‘ al-Usul by Ibn al-Athir, and Kanz al-‘Ummal by ‘Ali al-Muttaqi. This list is by no means exhausitive. These titles are mentioned merely by way of example.

3. Obscure sources

Shirazi has shown an idiosyncratic predilection to quote from obscure and doubtful sources. A number of his sources stand out prominently in this regard: Yanabi‘ al-Mawaddah by Sulayman al-Qanduzi al-Hanafi; Kifayat at-Talib by Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Kanji ash-Shafi‘i; and Fara’id as-Simtayn by al-Hamawayni.

The first of the three, al-Qanduzi, is described in Mu‘jam al-Mu’allifin (vol. 4 p. 252) as a Sufi who lived during the latter half of the 13th/19th century. Al-Kanji, although very prominently labelled by Shirazi as a Shafi‘i, is completely unknown to biographers of the Shafi‘i fuqaha such as Imam an-Nawawi in Tahdhib al-Asma’ wal-Lughat, Ibn as-Subki in Tabaqat ash-Shafi‘iyyah al-Kubra, Ibn Qadi Shuhbah in his Tabaqat ash-Shafi‘iyyah, and Jamal ad-Din al-Isnawi in his Tabaqat. Having died in 658 (as stated by Zerekly in al-A‘lam vol. 7 p. 150) he lived at least a century before an-Nawawi (who died in 767) and two centuries before the remaining biographers. It is therefore of great significance that that not one of these biographers make any mention of him. Of al-Hamawayni I have not been able to locate a single trace in any of the biographical dictionaries.

When authors such as these compile works in which they include ahadith the like of which was never heard of before them, what status shall be accorded to such ahadith? Shall they be regarded as “authentic ahadith” from “your own reliable Sunni scholars”? I leave this question to the great Imam Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi to answer. In his book al-Mahsul fi ‘Ilm al-Usul (vol. 4 p. 299) he lists the kinds of narrations which are known with certainty to be untrue and baseless. The fourth kind is the following:

The narration which is narrated at a time when narrations have already become established, and when it is searched for it cannot be found in books nor in the memories of the narrators—such a narration is known to be baseless.

The same line reasoning is to be found in Abul Husayn al-Basri’s book, al-Mu‘tamad (vol. 2 p. 79):

A narration which, after the stabilization of hadith, is searched for but cannot be traced in the corpus of hadith, is known for a fact to be a forgery, since we know that the ahadith have been documented. The narration of a hadith after documentation can therefore only be the narration of documented ahadith. So if we do not find that (i.e. we find a hadith being narrated which was not previously documented) then we know it to be an untrue narration.

Thus, when you see the gloating manner in which Shirazi cites hadith from latter day “Sunni” authors such as al-Qanduzi and al-Kanji, or the unknown Ibn al-Maghazili and al-Hamawayni, then pity his gross lack of knowledge of this fieldof hadith, of which he has set himself up as an expert. And if Shirazi deserves pity, how much more deserving of pity would those be whose utter gullibility would lead them to swallow the fruits of his “erudite scholarship” hook, line and sinker?

The question one cannot help asking oneself is this: Can a book as elliptical, as blatantly dishonest, and as seriously defective in scholarship as this one ever serve to build bridges over the yawning chasm which separates the Ahl as-Sunnah from the Shi‘ah? This book was never intended for that purpose. Its publication today stands as the unmistakable recommitment by the Shi‘ah of today to the ideal of yesterday. That ideal is to convert the Ahl as-Sunnah to the faith of the Shi‘ah. The author preferred to refer to himself in the book as “Da‘i”. This was mistranslated by the translators—who obviously do not know Arabic—as “well-wisher”. Da‘i does not mean well-wisher. It means missionary.

After this introduction I will proceed to analyze and criticize the arguments of the author in detail. The destruction of the historicity of the book has only removed the veil of objectivity and fair dialogue that was clouding they sight of the credulous reader. Now that the book has been revealed to be the work of a Shi‘i missionary using a deceptive literary device to win the trust and confidence of his credulous reader, the only thing that remains is to critically analyze his arguments. Towards the fulfillment of that objective I seek the aid of Allah.