One of the major points of contention between the Shi’a and many of the Ahl al-Sunnah is the faith of Abu Talib, the father of Imam ‘Ali (a) and the guardian of Prophet Muhammad (p).
The reason why this question is important is firstly, if Abu Talib was indeed a Muslim and someone casts doubt on his faith, then this is a grave injustice upon a believer;
secondly, if it is demonstrated that he was indeed a Muslim and the accusations of disbelief originate in a systematic campaign by the Umayyads who were known for their anti-Banu Hashim antics, then this adds to our understanding with regards to early Islamic history and how information was transmitted generation after generation. in this way it is vital we are thorough and cautious in our historical analysis.
What then are the arguments used by Sunnis for the disbelief of Abu Talib?
Two narrations are often sighted as the strongest pieces of evidence:
The first narration is recorded by the Umayyad court scholar Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī through a transmitter named Sa‘īd bin Musayyab who says “when Abu Talib was reaching the moment of his death, the Prophet urged him to recite the testimony, but he refrained from doing so. (Sunan al-Nasā’ī, book 21, hadith # 219.)
The second narration is by a transmitter named Mughīra bin Abī Shu‘ba in which it is said that Abu Talib will be in hellfire, although with a relatively decreased intensity of punishment. (Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī, book 63, hadith #111.)
What we immediately notice is that both these reports are transmitted by some of the staunchest enemies of Imam ‘Ali (a), known for their pro-Umayyad affinities.
Not only was al-Zuhri working for the Umayyad government, but both Sa‘īd (Sharh Nahj al-Balāgha, vol. 4, pg. 101.) and Mughīra (Al-Aghānī, vol. 17, pg. 90; al-Kāmil fi al-Tārīkh, vol. 3, pg. 430.) were recognized for their reservations against Imam ‘Ali (a). How is it then possible to accept these reports without any further investigation? these narrators were openly hostile to Imam ‘Ali and the entire clan of Bani Hashim, could there be a conflict of interest?
As for the evidence for the faith of Abu Talib, there are three main arguments:
First: his conduct during the life of the Prophet (p) has been recorded in the works of all Muslims. historians from all backgrounds even non muslim academics agree that Abu Talib defended the Prophet (p) from the disbelievers to his very last breath. For any individual to sacrifice all they had to protect the Prophet and his mission, is a very clear indication of faith and belief.
Second: the confessions of Abu Talib as depicted in his poetry have also been preserved in the literary corpus of the Muslims. In one of these poems, he says:
Did you not know that we have found Muhammad?
A prophet like Moses described in the oldest books,
And that love is bestowed on him alone from mankind,
And that none is better than he whom God has singled out in love. (Sīrah Ibn Hishām, vol. 2, pg. 4.)
Finally: the third avenue is through narrations that exist exclusively in Shi’i works which are abundantly clear that Abu Talib was a Muslim. This also corroborates and reconciles with the first two avenues.
In fact, some narrations in Shi‘i works compare Abu Talib with the people of the cave (aṣḥāb al-kahf) (Uṣūl al-Kāfī, vol. 1, pg. 448.) which illustrates that his concealment of faith was for a greater good and objective.
When we look at the arguments for the faith of Abu Talib, found in both Shi‘i and Sunni sources and compare them with the few reports speaking of his disbelief narrated by pro-Umayyad transmitters, it is not difficult to see which position is correct and convincing.
Although Abu Talib never openly joined the ranks of early Muslims and tried to remain neutral, this was clearly a strategy to help protect the Prophet (p) from the violent Quraysh.
Unfortunately, the question regarding Abu Talib’s faith only became an issue during the Umayyad era when opponents of Imam ‘Ali (a) maliciously began spreading lies to tarnish his reputation. this legacy instilled a hatred for the Imams and their followers to this day.