Through the grace of God, the weekend of 14-15 March 2009 saw the visit of Shaykh Akram Nadwi to the north of England (may God bless him, preserve him and increase him and us through him). This was a truly blessed experience that began with a one-day course on Abu Bakr Khara’iti’s Makarim al-akhlaq wa ma’aliha in Manchester (which served as the impressive launch for the Sacred Pursuits organisation); and then followed by another one-day course in Bradford on Shaykh Akram’s Mabadi fi usul al-hadith wa’l-isnad. In addition to being blessed with the Shaykh’s company during breaks, lunch and dinner, I was led to a wonderfully insightful ‘conversation’ with Shaykh Akram that was published in the IIDR’s paper for their ‘Sirah Fest 2009’. All praise is due to God for such an inspiring weekend, and I will try and share some of the generally beneficial matters that I perceived and learnt, insha’Allah.
Before the weekend, I knew of his forty-volume Arabic collection of female hadith scholars, and his links to Shaykhs Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Yusuf Qaradawi and ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda, as well as being familiar with his English works: Madrasah Life: A Student’s Day at Nadwat al-Ulama, Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, and al-Fiqh al-Islami: According to the Hanafi Madhhab, Volume 1. Also, I was aware of him being a Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies. Moreover, having studied with him before, I already knew of his effective and engaging teaching style.
Yet numerous additional details of Shaykh Akram’s background were revealed to me. Firstly, the fact that Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi personally chose and sent him from his teaching post at Nadwat al-Ulama (India) to teach at the Oxford Centre, when Abul Hasan was the chairman of the latter. Secondly, that he had taken the pledge of spiritual allegiance (bay’ah) to Shaykh Abul Hasan. Thirdly, his wide travels around the Muslim world – including Hijaz, Morocco, Syria and Egypt – in search and gaining of the highest chains of transmission in hadith, from leading authorities such as Shaykhs Muhammad ‘Awwama and Nur al-din ‘Itr, among others, in addition to Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Qaradawi and Abu Ghudda; and his connection in hadith transmission to the Ghumari family through Hasan bin Siddiq Ghumari, as well as Shaykh Wahbah Zuhayli reading hadith with him. Fourthly, some of his fascinating Arabic works, including the recording and explanation of the chains for Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi and Qaradawi, his biographies of Shibli Numani and Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, and his critical edition of Usul al-Shashi (with a foreword by Qaradawi).
Manners and Good Character
The essential teaching of the Shaykh over the entire weekend was manners and good character. This was apt bearing in mind that it is the topic of Khara’iti’s work. We covered some ahadith from the latter work on ‘encouragement of good character’, ‘softness in speech and humble submission’, ‘trustworthiness and censuring betrayal’, ‘keeping promises and the repugnance of breaking them’, ‘the virtue of treating one’s neighbours well’, ‘maintaining good family relations and being kind to them’, ‘the virtue of charity to one’s relatives’, ‘the virtue of modesty’, ‘honouring one’s guests’, honouring our elders, ‘guarding one’s tongue’, and ‘conditions of mastery over others’.
His behaviour was of noble humility – the good upbringing of the righteous and leaders. His warm and engaging personality made everyone who came into contact with him feel honoured, worthy and touched through his shining smile and friendly demeanour. His lofty virtue led him to initiate conversations with students and to put them at ease with his gracious manners and smile.
I remember saying to him over dinner how we in the West are not accustomed to the company of the scholars, and that we highly valued his frequent and involved efforts at teaching us in England. At this comment he paused in seriousness, and said how he was ashamed that people like him are considered the ‘ulama in this country. One sensed a genuine humility in this comment, and marvelled at its being held as his position; for if people like him are not really scholars, then scholarship would have to be considered dead; but by the grace of God it still lives through such men, alhamdulillah.
He stressed the importance of good character and how it is attained in Islam through faith and adherence to the law, i.e. the belief that one is a slave of God and that the means and ends of one’s character must fit the prescriptions of the Sacred Law. Furthermore, he taught how good character takes effort and needs training, unlike base character – the latter being easy like travelling downhill. For such training, he says that one needs knowledge and going to a scholar. On being asked about how one goes about improving one’s character without a scholar to train one, he recommended that one read the biographies of the righteous and that one adhere to the Qur’an and Sunnah.
I mentioned to him that I’d thought over his answer to this latter query, and I asked him whether Ibn al-Jawzi’s Sifah al-safwa might be an important book to teach in the West as a chronicle of the lives of the righteous? He agreed that this is a good book for such a purpose, but that Dhahabi’s Siyar a’lam al-nubala was a better work of this kind. Furthermore, he stated three books from the scholars that had greatly impacted him: Dhahabi’s Siyar, Ibn Taymiyya’s al-Radd ‘ala’l-mantiqiyyin and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Sayd al-khatir. For presentations on the latter two, one can consult Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi’s fascinating discussions of these major figures in his Saviours of the Islamic Spirit.
The Shaykh was not opposed to people entering the Sufic turuq if one spent time with a Master and found him to be a person of abstinence (zuhd) – obviously basing his actions on the Qur’an and Sunnah. Nevertheless, he stressed the power of the remedies of the Qur’an and Sunnah, which reminded me of ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda’s words in his notes to Muhasibi’s Risalah al-mustarshidin that one need not necessarily join a tariqa through bay’ah; but that one could reach spiritual excellence through adhering to the Qur’an and Sunnah, by God’s permission.
Shaykh Akram’s nobility and excellence as a teacher leads him to give hope to the weak of us, and encourage us towards our Lord. When asked to choose an ayat from the Qur’an and a hadith, he chose the following in his IIDR ‘conversation’: Say: “O my servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah: for Allah forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (39:59); and ‘a person will be with whom he loves’. For the latter hadith, the Shaykh added: ‘this hadith gives a chance for a person to think that even though he is not pious, because of his love for the Prophets, and their Companions, that he has a chance to enter Paradise’.
Hadith and Scholarship
His introduction to the science of hadith was not dry and merely technical, but an extended session of light and heart-melting due to its frequent narration of actual ahadith of our blessed Master Muhammad (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) with the connection of our dear Shaykh (may God bless him and his family). He began the session – as he did in Manchester – with a musalsal narration which many people would begin their teaching of hadith with; namely the ‘hadith of mercy (rahma)’ through his chain from Hasan bin Siddiq Ghumari back through such masters, among others, as Sayyid Murtada Zabidi, Suyuti, Ibn al-Jawzi, Sufyan bin ‘Uyaynah, from ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr al-As (may God be well pleased with him and his father) that the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, ‘The All-Merciful (al-Rahman) – praised and exalted be He! – has mercy for those who are merciful. Be merciful to those in the earth, and He of the heaven will be merciful to you.’ Then the course began with the Shaykh’s narration of the hadith of ‘Umar (may God be well pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) said, ‘Actions are only by intentions…’ etc. with his own chain that was one degree higher than the chain in Sahih al-Bukhari, and two degrees higher than the chain in Sahih Muslim.
This highly informative course deepened one’s appreciation of the great science of hadith, and the mercy of God upon this Community through the blessed efforts of the masters, especially in relation to the preservation of the isnad (the mentioning of the chain of transmission). He quoted Ibn Sirin and ‘Abdullah bin Mubarak on the importance of the isnad; and from Qadi Abu Bakr bin al-‘Arabi on how God blessed this Community with the isnad, and how we would be lowering ourselves and forsaking the favour of God if we left the isnad.
Then he highlighted Hafiz ‘Iraqi’s definition of the muhaddith as one who has written, narrated, heard, preserved, travelled, and obtained the best of books of chains and history and hidden mistakes – approaching a thousand books! After finishing the lengthy quote, in which ‘Iraqi rebuked those who take on the title but do not possess its qualities, Shaykh Akram then mentioned how no one is a muhaddith now with this definition; and being a teacher of Sahih al-Bukhari does not make one a muhaddith.
Shaykh Akram warned against taking this science without the guidance of its people. He emphasised how mistakes in re-checking the classification of hadith without the necessary first-hand training can be due to making a mistake in reading something like Mizzi’s Tahdhib or Ibn Hajar’s works on the narrators (Tahdhib al-Tahdhib or Taqrib) – all essentially abridgements of ‘Abdal-Ghani Maqdisi’s al-Kamal, although Shaykh Akram did mention that Mizzi added to his own abridgement. Previous masters of hadith would know many of these names and their rulings by memory, and could often be spared the sort of oversight bequeathed through mere book checking – although, of course, they could make such mistakes or contradictions. When asked on who is now alive that can be considered a master of this discipline, the Shaykh only mentioned ‘Awwama and ‘Itr – and he had earlier praised Abu Ghudda for his similar standing in the field.
All of this invoked the memory of Shaykh Albani and made me recall the extract translated by our ustadh Suhaib Webb from Shaykh Muhammad Hassan Walid Didou Al-Shinqiti on Shaykh Albani, which was balanced and politely critical (see http://www.suhaibwebb.com/blog/translations/a-glowing-example-of-critique-and-respect-by-sh-muhammad-hassan-al-shanqiti-may-allah-preserve-him/ ). It is interesting that contemporary scholars who place an emphasis on Shaykh Albani’s works – like Qaradawi, ‘Azzam or Munajjid, for example – are not usually hadith specialists. It struck me that one should tread with caution in such waters, and look broadly at the masters of the science, without simply always relying on one author. [In contrast to Didou’s comments and others, one can read the defence of Albani translated from various sources by Abu Rumaysah: http://www.islaam.net/main/display.php?category=36.]
I was able to have a fascinating discussion with Shaykh Akram on the issue of dirayat (critical or intellect-based scrutiny) of ahadith, as brought up by Shibli Numani in his Imam Abu Hanifa: Life and Works, primarily from a lengthy Ibn al-Jawzi quote from Sakhawi’s Fath al-mughith. I raised the concern about an excessive application of this principle that might be neo-Mu’tazili, and how I favoured the approach of Shaykh Qaradawi in Approaching the Sunnah: Comprehension & Controversy. In this latter work Qaradawi warned contemporaries against rejecting ahadith with sound chains on the basis of what are perceived as intellectual grounds for rejection – and he later gives an example of Shaykh Muhammad Ghazali, one of his ‘teachers’, doing this with a hadith from Sahih Muslim; and one could add here Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo’s rejection of ahadith from the two Sahihs in his notes to his translation of Bukhari’s Adab al-mufrad (apparently on the method of Taha Jabir al-Alwani). For Qaradawi, ahadith with sound chains from the muhaddithin must be accepted and one tries to ‘study the intelligible meaning or the appropriate interpretation’. If one cannot find such an understanding, then Qaradawi says that the hadith is accepted but that one ‘refrains from’ them ‘for fear that they have meanings not yet disclosed’ to one. Shaykh Akram supported my fears and liked what Qaradawi had said in this regard. Moreover, he added that the muhaddithin had historically applied this principle of dirayat, so it was not new.
Furthermore, we discussed the limits of the intellect and the Shaykh spoke of the continuing relevance of Ibn Taymiyya’s attack on the philosophers, and how their attempts at defining many matters were conjectural. Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi expounds on this in the Saviours. I told him that this discussion on the limits of the intellect reminded me of Sayyid Qutb’s mild rebuke of the school of Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida during his commentary of surah al-fil in his In the Shade of the Qur’an. Qutb wrote how ‘Abduh and Rida (and the less famous Abdal-Qadir al-Mughrabi) opposed the ‘pressures of superstition’ while having a ‘fascination with technology’ and became ‘extra cautious, tending to make the familiar natural laws the only basis of the Divine Laws of nature’. Qutb notes that they went ‘too far’, and failed to see the Qur’an’s teaching of God’s ‘will and power’ being ‘absolute, limitless and go far beyond the universal rules and laws He ordained, whether familiar to man or not’. As Qutb mentions, ‘what is familiar to man is only a fraction of these laws [of the universe]’. Therefore Qutb advises that one ‘cannot approach what the Qur’an states with prejudiced minds and preconceived ideas’. [These ‘rationalist’ tendencies are apparent in the English studies of the meanings of the Qur’an by ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali and Muhammad Asad, as highlighted by Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi in his An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’aan.]
It was apt that the Shaykh should stress the genius and ‘miracle’ of Sahih al-Bukhari. He said if the book disappeared, he doubted the Community could again assemble such a masterpiece. The Shaykh emphasised that it is a book that cannot be read without guidance or learning. In this regard, not only would a person be liable to commit many serious misunderstandings, but he would also be unaware of the mastery that has gone into the work by the author.
Imam Bukhari (may God have mercy upon him) was the sort of character indicative of the great scholars of the past who sacrificed their lives for this knowledge, and we are still feasting on the fruits of their labours. Shaykh Akram spoke, with an emphasis on the hadith masters, of how these scholars ate and slept little; and during the day they studied and sought hadith, and at night they wrote the hadith. He said that we can become like them because the knowledge is available; but we don’t want to follow that path of sacrifice; instead we want our long sleep of eight hours and the comfortable living. Furthermore, despite modern technology, we still talk of these early imams as our leaders, because these scholars knew more than us who can just look in a few books, or who are too rash in taking on giants when we have yet to grow sufficient muscles.
When one thinks of the Shaykh’s own scholarly successes in conjunction with his many commitments, it is not surprising to read the Shaykh describing his life in the IIDR ‘conversation’: ‘I don’t engage in other activities like watching television, or going out. I confine myself to my workplace and my family, and my day starts early’. This is reminiscent of the foremost scholars, those who leave legacies, rather than lots of big words and plans. To God we complain of our state and ask for help! Here one recalls some of the wonderful anecdotes included in Shaykh ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda’s Value of Time: ‘Ubayd ibn Ya’ish being fed by his sister for thirty years because he was too busy writing hadith; Abu Yusuf al-Alma’i (the student of Abu Hanifa) leaving the washing and burial of his young son to neighbours and relatives so that he would not miss a moment of Abu Hanifa’s lecture; al-Fath ibn Khaqan always carrying a book in his sleeve or shoe, and whenever he would go to the bathroom or prayer he would take one out and read while walking; Abu Nu’aym teaching while walking; Khatib Baghdadi constantly reading a book while walking, among many others.
Due to our predicament, one feels that many in the West – including myself – often fail to distinguish between a good car and a super car when it comes to Islamic scholarship. A good car is the student of the scholars, who has learnt well and hopefully graduated from a recognised institute with distinction, but he is not of the higher scholars – somewhat like how a secular Masters or PhD in a Western university does not necessarily make one a leading academic: this takes years of published papers and works, and recognition by one’s peers, and prestigious teaching posts. A super car is a scholar of the scholars: one who minor and major scholars seek for knowledge, whose works are numerous and whose peers praise him.
Shaykh Akram is a scholar of scholars, masha-Allah, and how rare are they in the West! I’ve written before of how we in England must not lose this blessing. Over the course of the weekend, I was informed by the Shaykh of a dedicated group of brothers from Manchester – who were at the forefront of the excellent Saturday programme, and also attended the Sunday programme – who were wont to travel every Sunday from Manchester to Oxford to hear the Shaykh teach hadith from the Sahihs. These are a people who understand what a jewel Shaykh Akram is – for a search will show that the journey from Manchester to Oxford is around three hours one way! May God bless them and increase them, for themselves and us.
Now, of course, we in the West must understand that not all super cars are fit for all courses. A fast race on a flat track might require a McLaren F1 road car or Ferrari, but these would not be suitable for a rough terrain over desert or country rally, where a Subari rally car might be better; or the track might be narrow, where a mediumer powerful car is more appropriate. The point is that we need to recognise that even scholars of scholars have specialities; therefore we might not take law (fiqh) from a muhaddith or Sufi, nor hadith from a jurist (faqih) or jurisprudent (usuli), nor history from a theologian (mutakallim), and the list goes on.
Finally, Shaykh Akram presented some wise advise in the IIDR paper. He reminded us that the material development we experience in the West has come at ‘a very high price’, where we have leant towards ‘materialism’ that has negatively impacted upon ‘religious and human values’ since the ‘renaissance’. Therefore he encouraged us to present our ‘faith-based values’ as a way of repaying the ‘material benefits’ we enjoy, alhamdulillah. How often this feast leaves us sloth and inebriated! To help us towards our goals, he left three pieces of advice: ‘develop and strengthen’ faith in the unseen; ‘attain good knowledge of the religion through learning Arabic and studying Islamic sources in their original languages’ – ‘If we do that, we can avoid many misunderstandings, or superficial understandings of the religion’; and ‘understand the value of time’, as a gift from God, and ‘we should spend every moment of our lives in those things that benefit our society and ourselves’, and ‘we must avoid wasting time in harmful or un-useful activities’. We, the cradling children, thank him for such wise and comprehensive fatherly counsel. May God bless him and his family with good for travelling from their home to teach us. Amin to every supplication herein.