Principles of Interacting with the Sacred Texts with Shaykh Akram Nadwi


A recent weekend, hosted graciously by our brother-in-faith Ibrahim of the Azhar Academy in London, afforded a welcomed opportunity to re-visit the principles of hadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) and tafsir (Quranic exegesis) with our dear teacher Shaykh (senior scholar) Akram Nadwi – may God bless him and his family with good. Due to the learned and inquisitive audience that the Shaykh attracts, and his willingness to accept questions during the lessons, we focused mainly on hadith; but the essentials of both of his introductory booklets on these two sciences were covered together beautifully with a whole host of other matters  and they were amenably discussed over breaks of tea and lunch with the Shaykh. The end result, as always (by the grace of God), was that one’s admiration and awe of qualified scholarship, past and present, was intensified. This is not an overview of the whole weekend, but a focus on a few intellectual points worthy of emphasis for our milieu; however, there is no substitute for actually engaging in the complete  course material with the teacher and his inspirational character.

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The Science of the Hadith

Perhaps due in large part to the attacks of what has been termed ‘Orientalism’, one now sees intriguingly complex literature in English on the subject of hadith that is respectful of the orthodox tradition to a large extent; including the works of Muslims like Shaykh Mustafa Azami (the pioneer – may God bless him), Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, Iftikhar Zaman, Jonathan Brown, Scott Lucas, Gibril Haddad (alongside Musa Furber) and Bilal Phillips. Hadith is Shaykh Akram’s speciality and one finds him revelling in it as he quite effortlessly recounts principles, debates, variant narrations, chains of transmission and narrators.

Perhaps the singular most important lesson of his hadith teaching is his elaboration on the brilliance and profundity of the masters of this science. One could start with his introductory comments to Sahih Muslim, and how more legally-inclined explanations of the work have done harm to preserving the brilliance of the work; and it is such that even the standardized chaptering of the work has led to the message intended by the compiler being somewhat lost. For instance, when Muslim narrated a series of hadith on the same subject he would do so in a declining order of authenticity, with the actual proof and the strongest evidence being first; and then a declining level of strength -not as the proof- but as a support to the proof. Also, as the Shaykh had pointed out to me previously, scholars have conflated the whole issue, and then used the supporting narrations for primary proofs when this was not to be their function.

Moreover, there was a criticism of the habit of ranking hadith as sahih (rigorously authenticated) because the narration possesses the narrators of Bukhari or Muslim – a method favoured by Hakim in his Mustadrak. The reason being that such a rudimentary identification does not necessarily make a narration sahih, even according to Bukhari and Muslim themselves. The compilers of the two Sahihs had a far more profound method in selecting narrations. For instance, their acceptance of a narration as being highly sound could depend on from whom a reliable narrator was narrating from, or even the subject matter concerned. In the latter instance, it is discernible that Bukhari had different levels of acceptance depending on whether the narration related to law or virtues (fada’il). Moreover, Muslim would sometimes use weaker chains for certain narrations because they were shorter than the longer more rigorously-authenticated chains; therefore the hadith text would be clearly sahih, but the chain he chose to include with it might not be of the most exacting standard. Whilst the Shaykh extolled the genius and overall authenticity of the two Sahihs, he did not raise their every feature to the level of the Qur’an.


Furthermore, the Shaykh recommended students of hadith to read Mizzi’s Tahdhib al-Kamal, which is a general abridgement and occasional expansion of Abd al-Ghani Maqdisi’s work on the narrators of the Six Books. It was emphasised that Mizzi’s work is simply introductory, and has the virtue of being balanced. However it certainly does not mean that one then proceeds to try and rate hadith solely on the basis of its reading, or even less a reading of Ibn Hajar’s shortest abridgment of it (Taqrib al-Tahdhib). This discussion linked to Shaykh Akram’s distaste for the habit of modern Arabic printing houses to include modern ratings of hadith in their new prints, which seem to stem from a shallow reading and application of the science of the narrators. In addition, being endowed with the general principles of commendation and criticism (al-jarh wa’l-ta’dil) contained in Ibn Hajar’s Nukhbat al-Fikar will not allow one to go around making final judgements on the reliability of certain narrators, because such introductory principles are just a way of summarizing a path that is more complex. As we were taught in the beginning of the course, when we read a book of this science it teaches that we are ignorant; and the more we learn the more our ignorance is made clear. [We could really apply this humbling lesson to any science, especially law or even theology, when we set out to correct the perceived mistakes of previous masters.]

An interesting discussion developed following the fact that early hadith narrators allowed the narration by meaning, not word-for-word. The Shaykh mentioned how this naturally has an effect on how we understand the legal ruling, and the example was given of two narrations regarding how one makes up the cycles of the ritual prayer that one missed in joining the congregational prayer late. This led to the brief observation that this is a strengthening argument for the Hanafi and Maliki schools when they occasionally prefer the positions of the scholars of their region to solitary narrations from less famous Companions. Furthermore, sometimes their schools relied primarily upon the position of the scholars of the region, and the narrations they then quoted were just as support to their position, but not the basis of their positions. Therefore, it is a mistake to attack their position on the basis of such traditions because that is not why they hold the position. Shaykh Akram said that this does not mean that contemporary scholars cannot disagree at times with their founders – for he mentioned how independent legal reasoning (ijtihad) was a characteristic of the Companions’ successors (tabi’in) – but that one must respect that the rulings were arrived in a far more complex manner than many perceive; and one should not deem their positions ‘ignorant’, but should respect and understand their juristic method, even if one disagrees.

The Shaykh also cleared certain misconceptions about the use of weak ahadith in good actions. He taught how this has gone to an extreme in two manners. Firstly, the virtues in such weak narrations must already be established by sound narrations, and they should not establish an independent, new action that has no sound basis. Therefore it is permitted, he said, to use weak narrations about the virtues of the four sunnah cycles before dhuhr ; but salat al-awwabin, salat al-tawba and salat al-ishraq, and the night of 15 Sha’ban, have no sound basis in the first instance; and following them leads to an imbalance in the religion. Secondly, the weak narrations that can be used are those whose weakness is not due to having narrators who are liars or whose narrations are rejected (munkar). He said that this has not been observed in much of the fada’il literature, and Muslims should stick to works like Nawawi’s Riyad al-salihin for fada’il. In keeping with such caution, the Shaykh warned against taking hadith from Ghazzali’s Ihya’ or the ascetic practices found in the book that oppose the Prophetic Way.

Sciences of the Qur’an

The Shaykh made an impassioned call for Muslims to understand the Book of God through a concentrated effort to learn Arabic. Of course, in this pursuit, one cannot disregard learned commentary. He spoke of the virtues of Tabari’s commentary, and how Ibn Kathir’s work is a summary of it and more appropriate for the average person. As with all of his teachings, the Shaykh propagated a pristine and profound scholarly method.

In essence, the Shaykh’s booklet and presentation on the sciences of the Quran were standard. There were, however, interesting discussions regarding the work of Farahi and his successor Islahi (whose work is elaborated in Mustansir Mir’s Coherence in the Qur’an and seen here). Shaykh Akram spoke of how he was very fond of Farahi’s theory of the structure and coherence of the Qur’an in his early scholarly life, but he later came to see the theory as too dogmatic, and placing a limit on the Qur’an. His frustration with this limiting of the Qur’an is what made the commentary of Islahi tedious to him after Surat al-Baqarah. Again, the lesson for students in this issue is not to resort to ridicule, but to respectfully disagree with certain absolutist doctrines, and to also accept that many of the theories or opinions of ourselves, our teachers and even others are open to discussion. If such topics were discussed in the gentle manner exhibited by Shaykh Akram during his teaching, then we could hope for more love when disagreeing, and less sensitivity, boycott and weakening in the ties of brotherhood.

* * *

In the final analysis, the learning of these sciences is supposed to bring us closer to God, and certainly make us more humble and obedient. If it has not, or has made us more argumentative or wrongly divisive, then we really have not been breathing in Shaykh Akram’s sweet fragrance, which beautifies even critical discussion. This does not mean having to idealize scholarship and scholars – as mentioned by the Shaykh when recounting the reality of tadlis amongst the scholars of hadith, which Shaykh Akram rejects as being understood as  ‘mendacious’ (seen here). Also which Jonathan Brown has translated as ‘obfuscation in transmission’ in Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World – nor does it mean demeaning the scholars as ‘ignorant’ when we disagree, especially when such charges often only exemplify our own immaturity and general foulness. The improvement in character conjoined with mature and sober Islamic literacy should make one somewhat magnanimous in how they treat differences within the broad parameters of essential orthodoxy. This has always struck me as the noble method of Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi – may God have mercy on his soul – and it is what I see in Shaykh Akram. In fact, it is not a modern sort of hippy trend whereby everything is good and right; but rather one where non-essential differences are nobly criticised – whether one agrees or disagrees with the content, one could not say that Abul Hasan’s refutation of Sayyid Mawdudi in Appreciation and Interpretation of Religion in the Modern Age was not dignified and worthy of emulation in tone and method. We are privileged to have a representative of this tradition in England, and we thank God, and we hope that it continues to flourish. Indeed, in this respect, we pray that the English translation of the Arabic biography of Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi by Shaykh Akram receives the full support in its final editing stages – as dedicatedly supported by Shaykh Akram himself, Sulayman Kazi and Jamil Qureshi – and will be another building block toward erecting a fine generation of religiously literate Muslims whose character and unity is a sight to simply sit back and behold in awe due to its splendour. To God we ask for success!

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14 Comments

  1. Andrew Booso says:

    Salam

    Here’s a link that shows some details about the background of Ibrahim Amin of the Azhar Academy: http://attahawi.com/contributors/

    fi amanillah

    Andrew Booso

  2. Son of Adam says:

    It’s interesting that the Shaykh made mention of Farahi and Islahi. I’ve read some of their work online and noticed that they have a whole different definition of what constitutes as sunnah. They define the sunnah as what was passed down generation by generation by the masses, and not through single reports (as in hadith). Although they do not reject the hadith, they prefer interpreting hadith in light of the Qur’an, as opposed to how the Qur’an has been traditionally interpreted in the light of hadith. As a result, many of their opinions differ greatly from what previous scholars have said.

    Wasn’t Imam Malik’s (rA) madhab based on the practices of the people living in Medina? Wouldn’t that be similar to what Farahi and Islahi (and their students) believe the sunnah to be? I have found this view to be troubling, because if followed, it would almost leave little place for the hadith or a definition of sunnah that relies greatly on hadith… So, I was wondering if the Shaykh has any opinion of this? Anyways, great article and may Allah reward you and Shaykh Akram.

  3. Andrew Booso says:

    Salam

    Shaykh Akram mentioned that Farahi died before he could fully develop his theory on the Quran; yet his followers have then taken his initial findings as an absolute theory. Shaykh Akram didn’t mention Farahi and Islahi in relation to any other discipline than the Quran.

    Regarding the findings of Farahi and Islahi, and anyone now claiming to be their inheritors, I would say that one should be cautious in widely applying their limited theories on the Quran to the areas of hadith (and ranking narrations) and Sacred Law (and the deduction of legal rulings). Quranic exegesis (tafsir) or theories of the Quran’s structure are very distinct to the disciplines of hadith and law.

    Armed with some Arabic and a wide Islamic literacy, it is quite easy to appear quite learned. But the reality is that expertise in a discipline takes a long time and ultimately rests on God-given success (tawfiq). Thus it is best to take each discipline from its people; and be careful of solitary attempts at polymathy. In other words, take tafsir from its experts, take hadith from its experts, take law from its experts, etc.

    A modern problem is people find a ‘Shaykh’ – spiritual or otherwise – and they make him their Shaykh in every discipline and area of their personal life. I’d warn against claiming that polymathy in its highest form is so easily attainable.

    And God knows best.

    Andrew

    • Asim says:

      Wa salam,

      As a fan of Farrahi and Islahi, I find any criticism related to their theories of the Quran, especially that of coherence and sturcture being dogmatic, as dogmatic. The reasons for this are multiple:

      1. Farrahi’s knowledge of classical Arabic was vast, to the point that one can rightfully consider him more Arab than Arab’s themselves. His opinions are not substantiated only by coherence, but are rooted in vast precedent of the pre-Islamic literature, including poetry and oration of the Arabs. He delineates all the principles in his notes that have been translated by the likes of Islahi and his students.

      2. A typical example of this, is Farrahi’s vast works on the Oaths in the Quran. In fact, by studying his papers on the pre-Islamic conception of ‘oath-swearing’, one can see how fundamentally superior his knowledge of the Arab tradition is, to even many of the classical scholars. For example, the traditional argument regarding the use of oaths is that it was done as a magnification of the object sweared, while Farrahi demonstrates that such an argument is fallacious and oaths were sworn to serve as ‘witness’ and were used to substantiate an argument. The traditional opinion can sometimes be considered comical, as exemplified in their discourses on the swearing in surah Fajr. This position of Farrahi leads fundamentally to the point that the swearing of oaths relates to the actual content of the surahs themselves, which substantiates not only knowledge of Arabic, but further argument to establish coherence in the Quran. It also has implications towards the ijaz of the Quran.

      3. Even Farrahi’s original tafseer works on breif Meccan surahs establishes his vast knowledge of classical Arabic. He quotes verse after verse of Arabic poetry to establish his arguments. For example, his dilations on the word ‘sabr’ as exemplified in surah Asr, with pre-Islamic poetry establishes far more than any other previous commentary has.

      4. From a rhetorical perspective, the works of Islahi and Farrahi bring out many of the subtlety’s that the traditional commentaries fail to do, and this knowledge is often substantiated with proof from the grammarians. For example, Islahi refers to the concept of ellipsis in his introduction of tafseer as a common principle of classical Arabic and one will find little discussion on this in the traditional commentaries such as those by Tabari and ibn Kathir. Islahi often dilates upon the rhetorical purpose of why a preposition was suppressed in a particular verse to lend meaning to a particualr verse or may dilate why a noun is devoid of a definite article in another instance (Surah Shams and the word ‘nafs’).

      5. Islahi also brings out other features, which were common in pre-Islamic Arabian odes, which is not only an example of coherence but demonstrates vast knowledge of the oratory nature of the Arabs. For example, in surah Baqarah Allah makes mentioned of the children of Israel being favored 3 times. Islahi points out how each repetition serves as a subtle shift in discourse, though the essential theme is the same. The first time, Allah encourages the Bani Israel to accept the mission of Muhammad (S) positively. In the second instance, Allah criticizes the Bani Israel and roots out their pride that is preventing them from accepting Muhammad (S) through how they were punished previously for their rejection. This is the negative aspect of the argument. The final repetition introduces the concept of Abraham, the forefather of the Israelites, as the one who built the Ka’aba, meaning the mission of Muhammad (S) is the continuation of that same mission.

      6. Farrahi was a scholar of Hebrew as well, and anybody familiar with Biblical studies recognizes the role in Arabic in understanding the Hebrew. For example, Adam Smith in his commentary on the Bible, which is considered one of the most famous, argues that one must resort to Arabic to understand much of the Biblical material. IN fact, in Genesis 1:1, he goes to Arabic to actually establish the meaning of Elohim, which is the Biblical name for God and which the Hebrews themselves dispute the meaning. Surprisingly, he proceeds to dilate upon al-ilah and the ropot meanings in Arabic. This knowledge of Hebrew allows Farrahi to add subtle insights into the Quranic interpretation, as well as correcting the Biblical commentators. One only has to refer to his tafseer of Adh-Dhariyat:

      http://al-mawrid.org/pages/articles_english_detail.php?rid=752&cid=510

      The tafseer also demonstrates his vast and encyclopediac knowledge of the Arabic as well.

      • Asim says:

        As an additional comment to this, even non-Muslim scholars have taken up the pen in discovering the coherence in the Quran. For example, Neal Robinson, who wrote “Discovering of the Quran…” has presented the coherent structure of many surahs, along with discussions on asonance as it relates to the overall meaning of a particular surah. He dilates upon how the story of the Ark of the Covenant as being returned to Israel is actually presented as a prophetic glad tidings that the Ka’aba too, will be restored to the rightufl descendants of ABraham (S), Muhammad and his followers, the Companions. As an aside, just as the Ark serves the religious symbol of God’s favor, as well as a sign of their historical and national prestige through the remnants of Moses and Aaron to the Banu Israel, the Ka;aba served for the Banu Ishmael a religious symbol as well as a sign of their historical and national prestige, for like the Ark, it housed the remnants of Ishmael and ABraham, such as the horns of the sacrificed ram.

        The idea of coherence is extremely relevant in today’s context and it’s gaining more and more popularity as a result of divine grace. It is in this modern era where attacks on the ‘lack of structure’ and ‘dis-jointedness’ of the Quranic discourse is being presented by many of the opponents of Islam. Ironically, as exemplified always in Muslim tradition, the Muslims precede the disbelievers in repsect to their own faith. Allah the ALmighty seems to have already opened the door on this aspect of interpretation in the sub-continent way before the criticisms against the structure of the Quran actually began by the non-Muslims.

  4. Sajjad says:

    Salam – Well written piece… Jazak Allah for the effort. You mentioned that Shaikh Akram has introductory booklets on hadith and tafsir. How can one get copies of these? Thank you.

    • Andrew Booso says:

      Jazakumallah khairan to you all for reading the piece and leaving such pleasant comments.

      Shaykh Akram’s introductory booklets on usul al-hadith, usul al-tafsir and usul al-fiqh for students of knowledge are all in Arabic, and usually available for purchase at his events. If you are in England then I’d recommend contacting the al-Salam Institute – but their website seems to be down right now.

      However, the series have been provisionally translated into English, for publication through Angel Wing Publications. But the Shaykh informed me that they are currently with him for some editing and additions, so I can’t see them being released anytime too soon. But make du’a.

      Andrew

  5. Muslema says:

    Jazak Allah Khair for this important piece…if the related article is this good, I can’t imagine how nice the actual class is. Very appreciative of your notes and reflections!

  6. naveed shaikh says:

    Assalaamu Alaikum

    Sounds like a very nice session,alhamdulillah

  7. Iqbal says:

    Assalamu Alaykum,

    @ Brother Andrew Booso

    Thanks, very interesting. I was wondering did the Shakyh Akram mention anything else about the research of Brother Jonathan Brown espicially his PHD on Canonization of the two Sahihayn of Bukhari and Muslim?

    Wasalam

    • Andrew Booso says:

      Wa alaykum as-salam wa rahmatullah

      Thanks for your comment.

      The Shaykh did not mention Jonathan’s work during the weekend. Jonathan ‘s research came up once between the Shaykh and me when I was at his house, and the Shaykh was briefly complimentary in general. Of course, as with any scholar, that should not be taken as an indication that he agrees with their every word.

      It is perhaps fair to say that Jonathan’s work has taken hadith studies to a new level in English. He has done an excellent job in mapping out the history of the discipline, together with elaborating on its leading figures and arguments. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say that his works are necessarily the first port of call for an English-speaking student of hadith. Yet someone with a fair background should be able to greatly appreciate his advanced presentations, as well as his excellent indications to further reading in the Arabic sources; and his setting out of ‘orientalist’ studies in the field, together with his summation of Harald Motzki’s latest research, should be a great aid to English-speaking Muslims who are having to engage with such discussions.

  8. Aliy Faisal says:

    Another course by Sh. Akram Nadwi at Cambridge:

    Course: Introduction to Usul al-Hadith (Principles of Hadith)[CN01]

    When: Saturday 18th September 2010 Time: 10:00AM – 6:00PM

    Venue: Central Cambridge Location TBC (with free parking and easy public transport access)

    Course Fee: £20 if registered in July | £25 in August | £30 in September.

    Terms: Registration would be complete and place booked once payment is made. Payment refundable in full for cancellations up to 2 weeks before the course start date. Family discounts may be available, please ask.

    Registration: http://www.tinyurl.com/shaikhnadwicam01

    Childcare Facilities: Crèche facilities will be available on site for the entire duration of the course. Cost: £15 for one child | £10/child for two or more children

    The courses are organised in collaboration with Al-Salaam Institute Oxford and Muslim Education & Outreach Cambridge.

    Muslim Education & Outreach Cambridge (MEOC)
    Tel: 01223 655223| Fax: 01223 858 066 | Email: courses@meoc.org.uk

  9. sheepoo says:

    Nice article!
    As for the Farahi-Islahi School of Quranic Exegesis, I totally agree with the Shaykh that Islahi‘s Tafsir takes on a monotonous tone after the first few chapters. This can clearly be seen when he repeatedly uses the phrase “There is no major difference between the central theme of this Surah and the previous one….” rather broadly and fails to connect certain very obvious ayahs within a Surah with each other.
    However, I would love to get some more explanation from the Shaykh as to what he means when he says that Farahi‘s approach to the Quran is dogmatic. Maybe a few examples will help in this regard.

    I, however, do take exception to some of the comments on this article when it is mentioned that the Farahi-Islahi school of thought tends to do-away with the Hadith. The basic approach of this School is to give Quran its proper due when it comes to extracting rules and regulations for the purposes of Shariah. Thus, Hadith can never overrule the Quran, no matter what. If there is an apparent discrepancy between the two, we hold on to the Quran and stay silent as regards to the Hadith that apparently contradicts the Quran, until we get a better handle on its understanding.

    I hope that the Shaykh will allow me to say that scholars in every time and place reserve the right to disagree with their earlier counterparts; thus, if the Quran has traditionally been interpreted in the light of the Hadith there is nothing wrong in taking the opposite approach, especially when we know that the Hadith has not been preserved to the same degree of authenticity as the Quran.

    As for the definition of the Sunnah being different in the Farahi-Islahi school of thought from the traditionally held view, I think that the demarcation between Hadith and Sunnah is extremely important and is one of the few things which required more insight from some of our scholars of past. It also resolves quite a few thorny issues currently rampant in the the Islamic religious polity.
    To cite a simple example, the act of rafa yadain has traditionally been an issue where we find different Traditions either for doing it or not doing it and the scholars have had a hard time making all these different situations conform to each other. If we take Sunnah as a separate entity from the Hadith we would realize that the act of offering the prayer was present right from the time of Prophet Ibrahim. Since the Meccans had lost this correct way of praying and had introduced their own acts (whistling and clapping, according to the Quran) in the prayer, corrections were made by the Prophet (PBUH) by bringing the act of Prayer back to its basics: standing up;raising hands to say Takbir;reciting the Quran;going in ruku;standing up from ruku;performing two sujuds and sitting between them;saying salaam at the end of the prayer. This then is the Sunnah, the way of the Prophet.

    Bottom line: a lot of work still needs to be done when it comes to the Farahi-Islahi school of thought. I would totally agree with the Shaykh in respectfully disagreeing with what we do not understand from the scholars of past. However, I would like to add that there is nothing wrong in making our own way when it comes to understanding the Quran, with the help of Allah.

    Just my 2 cents!

  10. Iqra says:

    I’d like to commend brother Andrew Booso for his most excellent piece and aadaab in responding to the respective commenters. May Allah bless you–this was a very nice piece.

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