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.
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.
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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!