It is striking that not one of the great muhaddiths, mufassirs, grammarians, historians, or legists of Islam has emerged from the region known as Najd, despite the extraordinary and blessed profusion of such people in other Muslim lands. This essay offers to Muslims with open minds an explanation of this remarkable fact.
The land of Najd, which for two centuries has been the crucible of the Wahhabi doctrine, is the subject of a body of interesting hadiths and early narrations which repay close analysis. Among the best-known of these hadiths is the relation of Imam al-Bukhari in which Ibn Umar said: ‘The Prophet (s.w.s.) mentioned: “O Allah, give usbaraka in our Syria, O Allah, give us baraka in our Yemen.” They said: “And in our Najd?” and he said: “O Allah, give us baraka in our Syria, O Allah, give us baraka in our Yemen.” They said: “And in our Najd?” and I believe that he said the third time: “In that place are earthquakes, and seditions, and in that place shall rise the devil’s horn [qarn al-shaytan].”’
This hadith is clearly unpalatable to the Najdites themselves, some of whom to this day strive to persuade Muslims from more reputable districts that the hadith does not mean what it clearly says. One device used by such apologists is to utilise a definition which includes Iraq in the frontiers of Najd. By this manoeuvre, the Najdis draw the conclusion that the part of Najd which is condemned so strongly in this hadith is in fact Iraq, and that Najd proper is excluded. Medieval Islamic geographers contest this inherently strange thesis (see for instance Ibn Khurradadhbih, al-Masalik wa’l-mamalik [Leiden, 1887], 125; Ibn Hawqal, Kitab Surat al-ard [Beirut, 1968],18); and limit the northern extent of Najd at Wadi al-Rumma, or to the deserts to the south of al-Mada’in. There is no indication that the places in which the second wave of sedition arose, such as Kufa and Basra, were associated in the mind of the first Muslims with the term ‘Najd’. On the contrary, these places are in every case identified as lying within the land of Iraq.
The evasion of this early understanding of the term in order to exclude Najd, as usually understood, from the purport of the hadith of Najd, has required considerable ingenuity from pro-Najdi writers in the present day. Some apologists attempt to conflate this hadith with a group of other hadiths which associate the ‘devil’s horn’ with ‘the East’, which is supposedly a generic reference to Iraq. While it is true that some late-medieval commentaries also incline to this view, modern geographical knowledge clearly rules it out. Even the briefest glimpse at a modern atlas will show that a straight line drawn to the east of al-Madina al-Munawwara does not pass anywhere near Iraq, but passes some distance to the south of Riyadh; that is to say, through the exact centre of Najd. The hadiths which speak of ‘the East’ in this context hence support the view that Najd is indicated, not Iraq.
On occasion the pro-Najdi apologists also cite the etymological sense of the Arabic word najd, which means ‘high ground’. Again, a brief consultation of an atlas resolves this matter decisively. With the exception of present-day northern Iraq, which was not considered part of Iraq by any Muslim until the present century (it was called ‘al-Jazira’), Iraq is notably flat and low-lying, much of it even today being marshland, while the remainder, up to and well to the north of Baghdad, is flat, low desert or agricultural land. Najd, by contrast, is mostly plateau, culminating in peaks such as Jabal Tayyi’ (1300 metres), in the Jabal Shammar range. It is hard to see how the Arabs could have routinely applied a topographic term meaning ‘upland’ to the flat terrain of southern Iraq (the same territory which proved so suitable for tank warfare during the 1991 ‘Gulf War’, that notorious source of dispute between Riyadh’s ‘Cavaliers’ and ‘Roundheads’).
Confirmation of this identification is easily located in the hadith literature, which contains numerous references to Najd, all of which clearly denote Central Arabia. To take a few examples out of many dozens: there is the hadith narrated by Abu Daud (Salat al-Safar, 15), which runs: ‘We went out to Najd with Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) until we arrived at Dhat al-Riqa‘, where he met a group from Ghatafan [a Najdite tribe].’ In Tirmidhi (Hajj, 57), there is the record of an encounter between the Messenger (s.w.s.) and a Najdi delegation which he received at Arafa (see also Ibn Maja, Manasik, 57). In no such case does the Sunna indicate that Iraq was somehow included in the Prophetic definition of ‘Najd’.
Further evidence can be cited from the cluster of hadiths which identify the miqat points for pilgrims. In a hadith narrated by Imam Nasa’i (Manasik al-Hajj, 22), ‘A’isha (r.a.) declared that ‘Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) established the miqat for the people of Madina at Dhu’l-Hulayfa, for the people of Syria and Egypt at al-Juhfa, for the people of Iraq at Dhat Irq, and for the people of Najd at Qarn, and for the Yemenis at Yalamlam.’ Imam Muslim (Hajj, 2) narrates a similar hadith: ‘for the people of Madina it is Dhu’l-Hulayfa – while on the other road it is al-Juhfa – for the people of Iraq it is Dhat Irq, for the people of Najd it is Qarn, and for the people of Yemen it is Yalamlam.’
These texts constitute unarguable proof that the Prophet (s.w.s.) distinguished between Najd and Iraq, so much so that he appointed two separate miqat points for the inhabitants of each. For him, clearly, Najd did not include Iraq.
There are many hadiths in which the Messenger (s.w.s.) praised particular lands. It is significant that although Najd is the closest of lands to Makka and Madina, it is not praised by any one of these hadiths. The first hadith cited above shows the Messenger’s willingness to pray for Syria and Yemen, and his insistent refusal to pray for Najd. And wherever Najd is mentioned, it is clearly seen as a problematic territory. Consider, for instance, the following noble hadith:
Amr ibn Abasa said: ‘Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) was one day reviewing the horses, in the company of Uyayna ibn Hisn ibn Badr al-Fazari. […] Uyayna remarked: “The best of men are those who bear their swords on their shoulders, and carry their lances in the woven stocks of their horses, wearing cloaks, and are the people of the Najd.” But Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) replied: “You lie! Rather, the best of men are the men of the Yemen. Faith is a Yemeni, the Yemen of [the tribes of] Lakhm and Judham and Amila. […] Hadramawt is better than the tribe of Harith; one tribe is better than another; another is worse […] My Lord commanded me to curse Quraysh, and I cursed them, but he then commanded me to bless them twice, and I did so […] Aslam and Ghifar, and their associates of Juhaina, are better than Asad and Tamim and Ghatafan and Hawazin, in the sight of Allah on the Day of Rising. […] The most numerous tribe in the Garden shall be [the Yemeni tribes of] Madhhij and Ma’kul.’ (Ahmad ibn Hanbal and al-Tabarani, by sound narrators. Cited in Ali ibn Abu Bakr al-Haythami, Majma‘ al-zawa’id wa manba‘ al-fawa’id [Cairo, 1352], X, 43).
The Messenger says ‘You lie!’ to a man who praises Najd. Nowhere does he extol Najd – quite the contrary. But other hadiths in praise of other lands abound. For instance:
Umm Salama narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) gave the following counsel on his deathbed: ‘By Allah, I adjure you by Him, concerning the Egyptians, for you shall be victorious over them, and they will be a support for you and helpers in Allah’s path.’ (Tabarani, classed by al-Haythami as sahih [Majma‘, X, 63].) (For more on the merit of the Egyptians see Sahih Muslim, commentary by Imam al-Nawawi [Cairo, 1347], XVI, 96-7.)
Qays ibn Sa‘d narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) said: ‘Were faith to be suspended from the Pleiades, men from the sons of Faris [south-central Iran] would reach it.’ (Narrated in the Musnads of both Abu Ya‘la and al-Bazzar, classified as Sahih by al-Haythami. Majma‘, X, 64-5. See further Nawawi’s commentary to Sahih Muslim, XVI, 100.)
Allah’s Messenger said: ‘Tranquillity (sakina) is in the people of the Hijaz.’ (al-Bazzar, cited in Haythami, X, 53.)
On the authority of Abu’l-Darda (r.a.), the Messenger of Allah (s.w.s.) said: ‘You will find armies. An army in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in the Yemen.’ (Bazzar and Tabarani, classified as sahih: al-Haythami, Majma‘, X, 58.) This constitutes praise for these lands as homes of jihad volunteers.
‘The angels of the All-Compassionate spread their wings over Syria.’ (Tabarani, classed as sahih: Majma‘, X, 60. See also Tirmidhi, commentary of Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Mubarakfuri: Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi bi-sharh Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi, X, 454; who confirms it as hasan sahih.)
Abu Hurayra narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s) said: ‘The people of Yemen have come to you. They are tenderer of heart, and more delicate of soul. Faith is a Yemeni, and wisdom is a Yemeni.’ (Tirmidhi, Fi fadl al-Yaman, no.4028. Mubarakfuri, X, 435, 437: hadith hasan sahih. On page 436 Imam Mubarakfuri points out that the ancestors of the Ansar were from the Yemen.)
‘The people of the Yemen are the best people on earth’. (Abu Ya‘la and Bazzar, classified as sahih. Haythami, X, 54-5.)
Allah’s Messenger (s) sent a man to one of the clans of the Arabs, but they insulted and beat him. He came to Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) and told him what had occurred. And the Messenger (s) said, ‘Had you gone to the people of Oman, they would not have insulted or beaten you.’ (Muslim, Fada’il al-Sahaba, 57. See Nawawi’s commentary, XVI, 98: ‘this indicates praise for them, and their merit.’)
The above hadiths are culled from a substantial corpus of material which records the Messenger (s.w.s.) praising neighbouring regions. Again, it is striking that although Najd was closer than any other, hadiths in praise of it are completely absent.
This fact is generally known, although not publicised, by Najdites themselves. It is clear that if there existed a single hadith that names and praises Najd, they would let the Umma know. In an attempt to circumvent or neutralise the explicit and implicit Prophetic condemnation of their province, some refuse to consider that the territorial hadiths might be in any way worthy of attention, and focus their comments on the tribal groupings who dwell in Najd.
The best-known tribe of Central Arabia are the Banu Tamim. There are hadiths which praise virtually all of the major Arab tribal groups, and to indicate the extent of this praise a few examples are listed here:
Allah’s Messenger (s) said: ‘O Allah, bless [the tribe of] Ahmas and its horses and its men sevenfold.’ (Ibn Hanbal, in Haythami, Majma‘, X, 49. According to al-Haythami its narrators are all trustworthy.)
Ghalib b. Abjur said: ‘I mentioned Qays in the presence of Allah’s Messenger (s) and he said, “May Allah show His mercy to Qays.” He was asked, “O Messenger of God! Are you asking for His mercy for Qays?” and he replied, “Yes. He followed the religion of our father Ismail b. Ibrahim, Allah’s Friend. Qays! Salute our Yemen! Yemen! Salute our Qays! Qays are Allah’s cavalry upon the earth.”’ (Tabarani, declared sahih by al-Haythami, X, 49.)
Abu Hurayra narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s) said: ‘How excellent a people are Azd, sweet-mouthed, honouring their vows, and pure of heart!’ (Ibn Hanbal via a good (hasan) isnad, according to Haythami, X, 49.)
Anas b. Malik said: ‘If we are not from Azd, we are not from the human race.’ (Tirmidhi, Manaqib, 72; confirmed by Mubarakfuri, X, 439 as hasan gharib sahih.)
Abdallah ibn Mas‘ud said: ‘I witnessed Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) praying for this clan of Nakh‘.’ Or he said: ‘He praised them until I wished that I was one of them.’ (Ibn Hanbal, with a sound isnad. Haythami, X, 51.)
On the authority of Abdallah ibn Amr ibn al-As, who said: ‘I heard Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) saying: “This command [the Caliphate] shall be in Quraysh. No-one shall oppose them without being cast down on his face by Allah, for as long as they establish the religion.”’ (Bukhari, Manaqib, 2.)
The hadith which appears to praise Tamim is hence not exceptional, and can by no stretch of the imagination be employed to indicate Tamim’s superiority over other tribes. In fact, out of this vast literature on the merits of the tribes, only one significant account praises Tamim. This runs as follows: Abu Hurayra said: ‘I have continued to love Banu Tamim after I heard three things concerning them from Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.). “They will be the sternest of my Umma against the Dajjal; one of them was a captive owned by ‘A’isha, and he said: ‘Free her, for she is a descendent of Ismail;’ and when their zakat came, he said: ‘This is the zakat of a people,’ or ‘of my people’.”’ (Bukhari, Maghazi, 68.)
This hadith clearly indicates that the rigour of the Tamimites will be used for, and not against, Islam in the final culminating battle against the Dajjal; and this is unquestionably a merit. The second point is less significant, since all the Arabs are descendents of Ismail; while the variant readings of the third point make it difficult to establish its significance in an unambiguous way. Even the most positive interpretation, however, allows us to conclude no more than that the Messenger (s.w.s.) was pleased with that tribe at the moment it paid its zakat. As we shall see, its payment of zakat proved to be short-lived.
Far more numerous are the hadiths which explicitly critique the Tamimites. These hadiths are usually disregarded by pro-Najdite apologists; but traditional Islamic scholarship demands that all, not merely some, of the evidence be mustered and taken as a whole before a verdict can be reached. And a consideration of the abundant critical material on Tamim demonstrates beyond any doubt that this tribe was regarded by the Messenger (s.w.s.) and by the Salaf as deeply problematic.
An early indication of the nature of the Tamimites is given by Allah himself in Sura al-Hujurat. In aya 4 of this sura, He says: ‘Those who call you from behind the chambers: most of them have no sense.’ The occasion for revelation (sabab al-nuzul) here was as follows:
‘The “chambers” (hujurat) were spaces enclosed by walls. Each of the wives of Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) had one of them. The aya was revealed in connection with the delegation of the Banu Tamim who came to the Prophet (s.w.s.). They entered the mosque, and approached the chambers of his wives. They stood outside them and called: “Muhammad! Come out to us!” an action which expressed a good deal of harshness, crudeness and disrespect. Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) waited a while, and then came out to them. One of them, known as al-Aqra‘ ibn Habis, said: “Muhammad! My praise is an ornament, and my denunciation brings shame!” And the Messenger (s.w.s.) replied: “Woe betide you! That is the due of Allah.”’ (Imam Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil [Beirut, 1403], p.702. See also the other tafsir works; also Ibn Hazm, Jamharat ansab al-‘Arab [Cairo, 1382], 208, in the chapter on Tamim.)
In addition to this Qur’anic critique, abundant hadiths also furnish the Umma with advice about this tribe. Since the tacit acceptance of the Prophet (s.w.s.) constitutes a hadith, we may begin with the following incident.
This relates to a famous poem by Hassan ibn Thabit (r.a.). The Tamimites were late converts to Islam, joining the religion, after much resistance, only in the Year of Delegations (‘am al-wufud), which was the ninth year of the Hijra. They hence miss the virtue of sabiqa, of precedence in Islam. Coming at last to the Prophet (s.w.s.), the Tamim insisted on a public debate against him, and he appointed Hassan to reply to the Tamimites’ vain boasting about their tribe. Hassan’s ode, which completely defeated and humiliated them by describing the low status of their tribe, can be considered evidence for the Prophet’s (s.w.s.) own view of Tamim, since the condemnation was given in his presence, and there is no record of his criticising it. (Diwan Hassan ibn Thabit [Beirut, 1966], p.440; for full details of the incident see Barquqi’s commentary in the same volume. See also Ibn Hisham, Sira [Guillaume translation], p.631.)
A further hadith concerning Tamim runs as follows:
On the authority of Imran ibn Husayn (r.a.): ‘A group of Tamimites came to the Prophet (s.w.s.), and he said: “O tribe of Tamim! Receive good news!” “You promise us good news, so give us something [money]!” they replied. And his face changed. Then some Yemenis came, and he said: “O people of Yemen! Accept good news, even though the tribe of Tamim have not accepted it!” And they said: “We accept.” And the Prophet (s.w.s.) began to speak about the beginning of creation, and about the Throne.’ (Bukhari, Bad’ al-Khalq, 1.)
The harsh waywardness of the Tamimi mentality documented in the Qur’an and Hadith casts an interesting light on the personality of Abu Jahl, the arch-pagan leader of Quraysh. Abu Jahl, with his fanatical hatred of the Prophet (s.w.s.), must have been shaped by the Tamimi ethic in his childhood. His mother, Asma’ bint Mukharriba, was of the tribe of Tamim. (al-Jumahi, Tabaqat Fuhul al-Shu‘ara, ed. Mahmud Shakir [Cairo, 1952], p.123.) He also married the daughter of ‘Umayr ibn Ma‘bad al-Tamimi, by whom he had his son, predictably named Tamim. (Mus‘ab ibn Abdallah, Nasab Quraysh [Cairo, 1953], p.312.)
An attribute recurrently ascribed to the Tamimites in the hadith literature is that of misplaced zeal. When they finally enter Islam, they are associated with a fanatical form of piety that demands simple and rigid adherence, rather than understanding; and which frequently defies the established authorities of the religion. Imam Muslim records a narration from Abdallah ibn Shaqiq which runs: ‘Ibn Abbas once preached to us after the asr prayer, until the sun set and the stars appeared, and people began to say: “The prayer! The prayer!” A man of the Banu Tamim came up to him and said, constantly and insistently: “The prayer! The prayer!” And Ibn Abbas replied: “Are you teaching me the sunna, you wretch?”’ (Muslim, Salat al-Musafirin, 6.)
Perhaps the best-known of any hadith about a Tamimite, which again draws our attention to their misplaced zeal, is the hadith of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira:
Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri (r.a.) said: ‘We were once in the presence of Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) while he was dividing the spoils of war. Dhu’l-Khuwaysira, a man of the Tamim tribe, came up to him and said: “Messenger of Allah, be fair!” He replied: “Woe betide you! Who will be fair if I am not? You are lost and disappointed if I am not fair!” And Umar (r.a.) said, “Messenger of Allah! Give me permission to deal with him, so that I can cut off his head!” But he said: “Let him be. And he has companions. One of you would despise his prayer in their company, and his fast in their company. They recite the Qur’an but it goes no further than their collarbones. They pass through religion as an arrow passes through its target.”’ Abu Sa‘id continued: ‘I swear that I was present when Ali ibn Abi Talib fought against them. He ordered that that man be sought out, and he was brought to us.’ (Bukhari, Manaqib, 25. For the ‘passing through’ see Abu’l-Abbas al-Mubarrad, al-Kamil, chapter on ‘Akhbar al-Khawarij’ published separately by Dar al-Fikr al-Hadith [Beirut, n.d.], pp.23-4: ‘usually when this happens none of the target’s blood remains upon it’.)
This hadith is taken by the exegetes as a prophecy, and a warning, about the nature of the Kharijites. There is a certain type of believing zealot who goes into religion so hard that he comes out the other side, with little or nothing of it remaining with him. One expert who confirms this is the Hanbali scholar Ibn al-Jawzi, well-known for his hagiographies of Ma‘ruf al-Karkhi and Rabi‘a al-Adawiya. In his book Talbis Iblis. (Beirut, 1403, p.88) under the chapter heading ‘A Mention of the Devil’s Delusion upon the Kharijites’ he narrates the hadith, and then writes: ‘This man was called Dhu’l-Khuwaysira al-Tamimi. […] He was the first Kharijite in Islam. His fault was to be satisfied with his own view; had he paused he would have realised that there is no view superior to that of Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.).’
Ibn al-Jawzi goes on to document the development of the Kharijite movement, and the central role played by the tribe of Tamim in it. Hence (p.89) ‘The commander of the fight [against the Sunnis, at Harura] was Shabib ibn Rab‘i al-Tamimi’; also (p.92) ‘Amr ibn Bakr al-Tamimi agreed to murder Umar’. All this even though their camp sounded like a beehive, so assiduously were they reciting the Qur’an (p.91).
The Kharijite movement proper commenced at the Siffin arbitration, when the first dissenters left the army of the khalifa Ali (k.A.w.). One of them was Abu Bilal Mirdas, a member of the tribe of Tamim (Ibn Hazm, 223), who despite his constant worship and recitation of the Qur’an became one of the most brutal of the Kharijite zealots. He is remembered as the first who said the Tahkim – the formula ‘The judgment is Allah’s alone’ – on the Day of Siffin, which became the slogan of the later Kharijite da‘wa.
In his long analysis of the Kharijite movement, Imam Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi also describes the intimate involvement of Tamimites, and of Central Arabians generally, noting that the tribes of Yemen and Hijaz contributed hardly anyone to the Kharijite forces. He gives an account of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira’s later Kharijite activities. Appearing before Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (k.A.w.) he says: ‘Ibn Abi Talib! I am only fighting you for the sake of Allah and the Hereafter!’ to which Imam Ali replies: ‘Nay, you are like those of whom Allah says, “Shall I inform you who are the ones whose works are most in loss? It is they whose efforts are astray in the life of this world, but who think that they are doing good!” [Kahf, 103].’ (Imam Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, al-Farq bayn al-firaq [Cairo, n.d.], 80; see the note to p.76 for the full identification of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira.)
As Imam Abd al-Qahir gives his account of the early Kharijite rebellions, replete with appalling massacres of innocent Muslim civilians, he makes it clear that the leaders of each of the significant Kharijite movements hailed from Najd. For instance, the Azariqa, one of the most vicious and widespread Khariji movements, were led by Nafi‘ ibn al-Azraq, who was from the Central Arabian tribe of Banu Hanifa (Abd al-Qahir, 82). As the Imam records, ‘Nafi and his followers considered the territory of those who opposed them to be Dar al-Kufr, in which one could slaughter their women and children. […] They used to say: “Our opponents are mushriks, and hence we are not obliged to return anything we hold in trust to them.’ (Abd al-Qahir, 84.) After his death in battle, ‘the Azariqa pledged their allegiance to Ubaydallah ibn Ma’mun al-Tamimi. Al-Muhallab then fought them at Ahwaz, where Ubaidallah ibn Ma’mun himself died, along with his brother Uthman ibn Ma’mun and three hundred of the most fanatical of the Azariqa. The remainder retreated to Aydaj, where they pledged their allegiance to Qatari ibn al-Fuja’a, whom they called Amir al-Mu’minin.’ (Abd al-Qahir, 85-6.) The commentator to Abd al-Qahir’s text reminds us that Ibn Fuja’a was also of Tamim (p.86).
The Azariqa, who massacred countless tens of thousands of Muslims who refused to accept their views, had a rival in the Najdiyya faction of the Kharijites. These were named after Najda ibn Amir, a member of the tribe of Hanifa whose homeland is Najd; Najda himself maintained his army in Yamama, which is part of Najd. (Abd al-Qahir, 87.)
As is the way with Kharijism in all ages, the Najdiyya fragmented amid heated arguments generated by their intolerance of any dissent. The causes of this schism included the Kharijite attack on Madina, which came away with many captives; and different Kharijite ijtihads over sexual relations with Muslim women who, not being Kharijites, they had enslaved. Three major factions emerged from this split, the most dangerous of which was led by Atiyya ibn al-Aswad, again of the tribe of Hanifa. Following Najda’s death, his own faction split, again into three, one of which left Najd to raid the vicinity of Basra (Abd al-Qahir, 90-1).
The last major Kharijite sect was the Ibadiyya, which, in a gentler and much attenuated form, retains a presence even today in Zanzibar, southern Algeria, and Oman. The movement was founded by Abdallah ibn Ibad, another Tamimi. Its best-known doctrine is that non-Ibadis are kuffar: they are not mu’mins, but they are notmushriks either. ‘They forbid secret assassinations [of non-Ibadis], but allow open battles. They allow marriages [with non-Ibadis], and inheritance from them. They claim that all this is to aid them in their war for Allah and His Messenger.’ (Abd al-Qahir, 103.)
The best-known woman among the Kharijites was Qutam bint ‘Alqama, a member of the Tamimite tribe. She is remembered as the one who told her bridegroom, Ibn Muljam, that ‘I will only accept you as my husband at a dowry which I myself must name, which is three thousand dirhams, a male and a female slave, and the murder of Ali!’ He asked, ‘You shall have all that, but how may I accomplish it?’ and she replied, ‘Take him by surprise. If you escape, you will have rescued the people from evil, and will live with your wife; while if you die in the attempt, you will go on to the Garden and a delight that shall never end!’ (Mubarrad, 27.) As is generally known, Ibn Muljam was executed after he stabbed imam Ali (k.A.w.) to death outside the mosque in Kufa.
Muslims anxious not to repeat the tragic errors of the past will wish to reflect deeply upon this pattern of events. Tens of thousands of Muslims, fervently committed to the faith and outstanding for their practical piety, nonetheless fell prey to the Kharijite temptation. The ulema trace the origins of that temptation back to the incident of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira, who considered himself a better Muslim than the Prophet himself (s.w.s.). And he, like the overwhelming majority of the Kharijite leaders who followed in his footsteps, was a Tamimi. Of the non-Tamimi Kharijites, almost all were from Najd.
There is a further issue which Muslims will wish to consider when forming their view of Najd. This is the attitude of the Najdis following the death of the Messenger (s.w.s.). The historians affirm that the great majority of the rebellions against the payment of zakat which broke out during the khilafa of Abu Bakr (r.a.) took place among Najdis. Moreoever, and even more significantly, many of the the Najdi rebellions were grounded in a strange anti-Islamic ideology. The best-known of these was led by Musaylima, who claimed to be a prophet, and who established a rival shari‘a which included quasi-Muslim rituals such as forms of fasting and dietary rules. He followed the Islamic prayer rules, but abolished the Fajr and the Isha prayers. One of his so-called ‘revelations’ ran:
Banu Tamim is a tribe of purity,
a free people, with no fault in them,
neither do they pay a tribute.
We shall be their allies of protection,
good to them for as long as we live!
We shall protect them from everyone,
and when we die, their affair is with al-Rahman.
(Imam al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa’l-Muluk [Beirut, 1407], II, 276).
Musaylima was a forceful speaker, and soon gained a huge following in Central Arabia. However the historians record that when he tried to imitate the miracles of the Prophet (s.a.w.) disaster would result. Children brought to him for cures would become sicker. When his wudu water was poured over crops, the land would turn sterile. Wells that he had used would turn salty. However the power of tribalism caused many to pay no attention.
Talha al-Namari came to Najd and said: ‘Where is Musaylima?’ At this the people said: ‘Careful! Call him the Messenger of Allah!’ So he replied: ‘No, not until I have seen him.’ So when he came to him he said: ‘You are Musaylima,’ and he replied, ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Who comes to you?’ and he replied: ‘Al-Rahman’. He asked: ‘Does he come in light or darkness?’ ‘In darkness.’ Whereupon he said: ‘I bear witness that you are a liar and that Muhammad tells the truth, but a liar of your tribe is dearer to me than a truth-teller of his.’ So he joined Musaylima until he was killed at the Battle of Aqraba. (Tabari, II, 277).
Incidents like this are revealing in two ways. Firstly, they show the characteristic feature of Musaylima’s aqeedah: Allah resembles a physical being who can ‘come’. Secondly, they reveal the immense, blind power of Arabian tribalism as this still existed in Najd.
As leader of a rival religion, he and his Najdi enthusiasts were in a state of baghy, heretical revolt against due caliphal authority, and Abu Bakr (r.a.) sent an army against them under Khalid ibn al-Walid. In the year 12 of the Hijra Khalid defeated the Najdis at the Battle of al-Aqraba, a bloody clash that centred on a walled garden which is known to our historians as the Garden of Death, because hundreds of great Companions lost their lives there at the hands of the Najdis. The battle ranged the egalitarian spirit of Islam against the old Arab tribalism, as was shown by the fact that the banner of the Muhajirun was held by a freed Persian slave, Salim, while the banner of the Ansar was held high by Thabit b. Qays. The Muslim battle-cry was not the invocation of a tribe or an ancestor, instead it was, ‘Ya Muhammad!’ (Tabari, 281.) The pseudo-prophet was killed by Wahshi, the Ethiopian slave who, even though he had killed Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib, had made good his Islam, and was now an honored member of the community. The killing of the prophet of Najdi pride by a man of such humble origins was a powerful symbol of the principles that were at stake. (See Abdallah ibn Muslim Ibn Qutayba, Kitab al-Ma‘arif [Cairo, 1960], p.206; Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri, Futuh al-buldan [repr. Beirut, n.d., p.86.])
Devotion to Musaylima lingered on in Central Arabia, however. An indication of the continuity of Najdi religious life is given by the non-Muslim traveller Palgrave, who as late as 1862 found that some Najdi tribesmen continued to revere Musaylima as a prophet. (W. Palgrave, Narrative of a year’s journey through Central and Eastern Arabia [London, 1865], I, 382.)
The other ringleader of Najdi rebellion against the khilafa was a woman known as Sajah, whose full name was Umm Sadir bint Aws, and who belonged to the tribe of Tamim. She made claims to prophethood in the name of a rabb who was ‘in the clouds’, and who gave her revelations by which she succeeded in uniting sections of the Tamim who had argued among themselves over the extent to which they should reject the authority of Madina. Leading several campaigns against tribes who remained loyal to Islam, the Najdi prophetess is said to have thrown in her lot with Musaylima. Other than this, little is known of her fate. (Ibn Qutayba, Ma‘arif, p.405; Baladhuri, Futuh, pp.99-100.)
It is well-known that the Najdi reformer, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was a Tamimi. The violence and takfir associated with the movement which carries his name surely bears more than a coincidental resemblance to the policies and mindset of the Tamimi Kharijites of ancient Najd. Consider, for instance, the following massacre, of the Shi‘a of Karbala in April 1801, as described by a Wahhabi historian:
Saud made for Karbala with his victorious army, famous pedigree horses, and all the settled people and bedouin of Najd […] The Muslims (i.e. the Wahhabis) surrounded Karbala and took it by storm. They killed most of the people in the markets and houses. One cannot count their spoils. They stayed there for just one morning, and left after midday, taking away all the possessions. Nearly two thousand people were killed in Karbala. (Uthman ibn Bishr, Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd[Makka, 1349], 1, 121-122.)
It is hard to distinguish this raid, and the brutality of its accomplishment, from the Khariji raids from Najd into the same region a thousand years earlier.
Muhammad Finati, an Italian revert to Islam who served with the Caliphal army which defeated the Wahhabis, wrote a long first-hand account of the extreme barbarism of the Najdi hordes. For instance:
Such among us as fell alive into the hands of these cruel fanatics, were wantonly mutilated by the cutting off of their arms and legs, and left to perish in that state, some of whom, in the course of our retreat, I myself actually saw, who had no greater favour to ask than that we would put them to death. (G. Finati, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati [London, 1830], I, 287.)
It is sometimes claimed that the days when ‘all the settled people and bedouin of Najd’ would happily commit such mass murder are long gone, and that Wahhabism has become more moderate. But another, more recent example, shows otherwise. In 1924, the Wahhabi army entered the city of Ta’if, plundering it for three days. The chief qadi and the ulema were dragged from their houses and slaughtered, while several hundred other civilians lost their lives. (Ibn Hizlul, Tarikh Muluk Al Sa‘ud [Riyadh, 1961], pp.151-3.) After giving the the Sunni population of the Hijaz this terrorist lesson, ‘Ibn Saud occupied Mecca with Britain’s tacit blessing’ (Alexei Vassiliev, A History of Saudi Arabia [London, 1998], p.264).
A good deal of material concerning Najd and Tamim has been preserved from the time of the Salaf. If we reject the method of some Najdi apologists, a method based on the highly selective quotation of hadiths coupled with the blind imitation of opinions expressed by late-medieval commentary writers, we may reach some reasonably settled and authoritative conclusions regarding Central Arabia and its people. The Qur’an, the sound Hadith, and the experience of the Salaf overwhelmingly concur that Central Arabia is a region of fitna. The first of all fitnas in Islam emerged from that place, notably the arrogance of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira and his like, and also the apostasy and fondness for false prophets which caused such difficulty for Abu Bakr (r.a.). Subsequently, the Kharijite heresy, overwhelmingly Najdi in its roots, cast a long shadow over the early history of Islam, dividing the Muslims, distracting their armies from the task of conquering Byzantium, and injecting rancour, suspicion, and bitterness among the very earliest generations of Muslims. Only the most determined, blinkered and irresponsible Najdi sympathiser could ignore this evidence, transmitted so reliably from the pure Salaf, and persist in the delusion that Najd and the misguided, literalistic rigorism which it recurrently produces, is somehow an area favoured by Allah.
And Allah knows best. May He unite the Umma through love for the early Muslims who refused bigotry, and may He preserve us from the trap of Kharijism and those who are attracted to its mindset in our time. Ameen.
(Introduction to the translation of Ibn Hajar’s commentary on selected hadith, published as a booklet by the Muslim Academic Trust.)
The booklet intends to introduce non-Arabic speakers to one of the most seminal genres of Muslim religious literature, namely, the hadith commentary. It is surprising that no serious translations at present exist from this voluminous and influential body of writing, given that there are few hadith which can be understood adequately without reference to the often complex debates which have taken place concerning them between the scholars. These discussions have included investigations of the precise linguistic and lexicological meaning of the Prophetic speech, studies of the isnad, debates over the circumstances surrounding the genesis of each hadith (asbab al-wurud), and issues of abrogation by stronger or later hadiths or by Qur’anic texts. Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna, the great early hadith scholar, used to remark: al-hadith madilla illa li’l-‘ulama’: ‘the hadith are a pitfall, except for the scholars.’ For this reason no Muslim scholar of repute uses a hadith before checking the commentaries to ascertain its precise meaning, context, and application.
The importance of this literature may be gauged by the fact that at least seventy full commentaries have been written on Imam al-Bukhari’s great Sahih. The best-known of these include al-Kawakib al-Darari by Imam Shams al-Din al-Kirmani (d. AH 786), ‘Umdat al-Qari by Imam Badr al-Din al-‘Ayni (d.855), and the Irshad al-Sari by Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Qastallani (d.923). However the most celebrated is without question the magnificent Fath al-Bari (‘Victory of the Creator’) by Imam Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, a work which was the crown both of its genre and of the Imam’s academic career. It is appreciated by the ulema for the doctrinal soundness of its author, for its complete coverage of Bukhari’s material, its mastery of the relevant Arabic sciences, the wisdom it shows in drawing lessons (fawa’id) from the hadiths it expounds, and its skill in resolving complex disputes over variant readings. For Bukhari’s text has not come down to us in a single uniform version, but exists in several ‘narrations’ (riwayat), of which the version handed down by al-Kushmayhani (d.389) on the authority of Bukhari’s pupil al-Firabri is the one most frequently accepted by the ulema. This is, for example, why the new and definitive edition of the Sahih, through the authorised narration of the best-known hadith scholar of recent times, Shaykh al-Hadith ‘Abdallah ibn al-Siddiq al-Ghimari, uses the Firabri version (for this text see www.thesaurus-islamicus.li). Ibn Hajar frequently uses the Kushmayhani variant as his standard text, but gives his reasons, often in complex detail, for preferring other readings where these seem to have particular merit. In doing this he makes it clear that he is authorised, through the ijaza-system, for all the riwayat he cites.
Ibn Hajar considered the hadith collection of Imam Muhammad ibn Isma‘il al-Bukhari (AH 194-256), entitled al-Jami‘ al-Sahih (‘The Sound Comprehensive Collection’), to be the most reliable of all the hadith collections of Islam. His respect for the compiler was no less total, as is evident from the short biography which he offers of him, which portrays him as a saint as well as a scholar. He recounts, on Firabri’s eye-witness authority, how the imam would make ghusl and pray two rak‘as before including any hadith in his work, and always carried on his person one of the hairs of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). He collected his Sahih in Khurasan, and arranged it in the sanctuary at Mecca, and completed it while seated between the minbar and the Blessed Prophetic Tomb in Madina. His miracles (karamat) are numerous and well-attested. Once, after helping to build a fortress to defend the Muslim community, he provided the labourers with three small coins’ worth of bread, but even though there were a hundred labourers, there was enough for all. Despite his abstemious personal habits, he was endlessly generous to his students. One of his scribes, Muhammad ibn Abi Hatim, said: ‘When I was with him on a journey we would stay in a single room together, and I would see him rising fifteen or twenty times in a night to light the lantern, and work on an isnad, after which he would lie down again. I asked him: “Why do you impose all of this on yourself instead of waking me?” and he would reply, “You are a young man, and I don’t wish to interrupt your sleep.”’ Ibn Abi Hatim further related: ‘I once saw al-Bukhari in a dream. He was walking behind the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), setting his feet directly in the Prophet’s footsteps.’ And when he was lowered into his grave, a perfume like musk poured out from it. ‘So many people took dust from his grave,’ recalled another of his students, ‘that we had to place a wooden fence around it.’
Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi narrated that ‘Abd al-Wahid ibn Adam said: ‘I once saw the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), with a group of his companions, in a dream. He was standing, and I greeted him, and when he returned my greeting, I said: “Why are you standing here, O Messenger of Allah?” and he replied: “I am waiting for Muhammad ibn Isma‘il.” A few days later the news of al-Bukhari’s death reached me, and when I checked I realised that he had died at the moment when I beheld that dream.’
Abu’l-Fadl Ahmad ibn Hajar’s family originated in the district of Qabis in Tunisia. Some members of the family had settled in Palestine, which they left again when faced with the Crusader threat, but he himself was born in Egypt in 773, the son of the Shafi‘i scholar and poet Nur al-Din ‘Ali and the learned and aristocratic Tujjar. Both died in his infancy, and he was later to praise his elder sister, Sitt al-Rakb, for acting as his ‘second mother’. The two children became wards of the brother of his father’s first wife, Zaki al-Din al-Kharrubi, who entered the young Ibn Hajar in a Qur’anic school (kuttab) when he reached five years of age. Here he excelled, learning Surat Maryam in a single day, and progressing to the memorisation of texts such as the Mukhtasar of Ibn al-Hajib on usul. By the time he accompanied al-Kharrubi to Mecca at the age of 12, he was competent enough to lead the Tarawih prayers in the Holy City, where he spent much time studying and recalling God amid the pleasing simplicity of Kharrubi’s house, the Bayt al-‘Ayna’, whose windows looked directly upon the Black Stone. Two years later his protector died, and his education in Egypt was entrusted to the hadith scholar Shams al-Din ibn al-Qattan, who entered him in the courses given by the great Cairene scholars al-Bulqini (d.806) and Ibn al-Mulaqqin (d.804) in Shafi‘i fiqh, and of Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi (d.806) in hadith, after which he was able to travel to Damascus and Jerusalem, where he studied under Shams al-Din al-Qalqashandi (d.809), Badr al-Din al-Balisi (d.803), and Fatima bint al-Manja al-Tanukhiyya (d.803). After a further visit to Mecca and Madina, and to the Yemen, he returned to Egypt.
When he reached 25 he married the lively and brilliant Anas Khatun, then 18 years of age. She was a hadith expert in her own right, holdingijazas from Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi, and she gave celebrated public lectures in the presence of her husband to crowds of ulema among whom was Imam al-Sakhawi. After the marriage, Ibn Hajar moved into her house, where he lived until his death. Many noted how she surrounded herself with the old, the poor and the physically handicapped, whom it was her privilege and pleasure to support. So widely did her reputation for sanctity extend that during her fifteen years of widowhood, which she devoted to good works, she received a proposal from Imam ‘Alam al-Din al-Bulqini, who considered that a marriage to a woman of such charity and baraka would be a source of great pride.
Once esconced in Egypt, Ibn Hajar taught in the Sufi lodge (khaniqah) of Baybars for some twenty years, and then in the hadith college known as Dar al-Hadith al-Kamiliyya. During these years, he served on occasion as the Shafi‘i chief justice of Egypt.
It was in Cairo that the Imam wrote some of the most thorough and beneficial books ever added to the library of Islamic civilisation. Among these are al-Durar al-Kamina (a biographical dictionary of leading figures of the eighth century), a commentary on the Forty Hadith of Imam al-Nawawi (a scholar for whom he had particular respect); Tahdhib al-Tahdhib (an abbreviation of Tahdhib al-Kamal, the encyclopedia of hadith narrators by al-Mizzi), al-Isaba fi tamyiz al-Sahaba (the most widely-used dictionary of Companions), and Bulughal-Maram min adillat al-ahkam (on Shafi‘i fiqh).
In 817, Ibn Hajar commenced the enormous task of assembling his Fath al-Bari. It began as a series of formal dictations to his hadith students, after which he wrote it out in his own hand and circulated it section by section to his pupils, who would discuss it with him once a week. As the work progressed and its author’s fame grew, the Islamic world took a close interest in the new work. In 833, Timur’s son Shahrukh sent a letter to the Mamluk sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay requesting several gifts, including a copy of the Fath, and Ibn Hajar was able to send him the first three volumes. In 839 the request was repeated, and further volumes were sent, until, in the reign of al-Zahir Jaqmaq, the whole text was finished and a complete copy was dispatched. Similarly, the Moroccan sultan Abu Faris ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hafsi requested a copy before its completion. When it was finished, in Rajab 842, a great celebration was held in an open place near Cairo, in the presence of the ulema, judges, and leading personages of Egypt. Ibn Hajar sat on a platform and read out the final pages of his work, and then poets recited eulogies and gold was distributed. It was, says the historian Ibn Iyas, ‘the greatest celebration of the age in Egypt.’
Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Hajar departed this life in 852. His funeral was attended by ‘fifty thousand people’, including the sultan and the caliph; ‘even the Christians grieved.’ He was remembered as a gentle man, short, slender, and white-bearded, a lover of chess and calligraphy, much inclined to charity; ‘good to those who wronged him, and forgiving to those he was able to punish.’ A lifetime’s proximity to the hadith had imbued him with a deep love of the Messenger (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), as is shown nowhere more clearly than in the poetry assembled in his Diwan, an original manuscript of which has been preserved at the Egyptian National Library. A few lines will suffice to show this well:
By the gate of your generosity stands a sinner, who is mad with love,
O best of mankind in radiance of face and countenance!
Through you he seeks a means [tawassala], hoping for Allah’s forgiveness of slips;
from fear of Him, his eyelid is wet with pouring tears.
Although his genealogy attributes him to a stone [hajar],
how often tears have flowed, sweet, pure and fresh!
Praise of you does not do you justice, but perhaps,
In eternity, its verses will be transformed into mansions.
My praise of you shall continue for as long as I live,
For I see nothing that could ever deflect me from your praise.
Any Muslim can benefit from reading hadiths from al-Bukhari and Muslim, whether on his own or with others. As for studying hadith, Sheikh Shuayb al-Arnaut, with whom my wife and I are currently reading Imam al-Suyuti’s Tadrib al-rawi [The training of the hadith narrator], emphasizes that the science of hadith deals with a vast and complex literature, a tremendous sea of information that requires a pilot to help one navigate, without which one is bound to run up on the rocks. In this context, Sheikh Shuayb once told us, “Whoever doesn’t have a sheikh, the Devil is his sheikh, in any Islamic discipline.”
In other words, there are benefits the ordinary Muslim can expect from personally reading hadith, and benefits that he cannot, unless he is both trained and uses other literature, particularly the classical commentaries that explain the hadiths meanings and their relation to Islam as a whole.
The benefits one can derive from reading al-Bukhari and Muslim are many: general knowledge of such fundamentals as the belief in Allah, the messengerhood of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the Last Day and so on; as well as the general moral prescriptions of Islam to do good, avoid evil, perform the prayer, fast Ramadan, and so forth. The hadith collections also contain many other interesting points, such as the great rewards for acts of worship like the midmorning prayer (duha), the night vigil prayer (tahajjud), fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, giving voluntary charity, and So on. Anyone who reads these and puts them into practice in his life has an enormous return for reading hadith, even more so if he aims at perfecting himself by attaining the noble character traits of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) mentioned in hadith. Whoever learns and follows the prophetic example in these matters has triumphed in this world and the next.
What is not to be hoped for in reading hadith (without personal instruction from a sheikh for some time) is two things: to become an alim or Islamic scholar, and to deduce fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) from the hadiths on particulars of sharia practice.
Without a guiding hand, the untrained reader will misunderstand many of the hadiths he reads, and these mistakes, if assimilated and left uncorrected, may pile up until he can never find his way out of them, let alone become a scholar. Such a person is particularly easy prey for modern sectarian movements of our times appearing in a neo-orthodox guise, well financed and published, quoting Quran and hadiths to the uninformed to make a case for the basic contention of all deviant sects since the beginning of Islam; namely, that only they are the true Muslims. Such movements may adduce, for example, the well-authenticated (hasan) hadith related from Aisha (Allah be well pleased with her) by al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, Shirk (polytheism) is more hidden in my Umma than the creeping of ants across a great smooth stone on a black night . . . (Nawadir al-usul fi marifa ahadith al-Rasul. Istanbul 1294/1877. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d., 399).
This hadith has been used by sects from the times of the historical Wahhabi movement down to the present to convince common people that the majority of Muslims may not actually be Muslims at all, but rather mushrikin or polytheists, and that those who do not subscribe to the views of their sheikhs may be beyond the pale of Islam.
In reply, traditional scholars point out that the words fi Ummati, “in my Umma” in the hadith plainly indicate that what is meant here is the lesser shirk of certain sins that, though serious, do not entail outright unbelief. For the word shirk or polytheism has two meanings. The first is the greater polytheism of worshipping others with Allah, of which Allah says in surat al-Nisa, “Truly, Allah does not forgive that any should be associated with Him [in worship], but forgives what is other than that to whomever He wills” (Quran 4:48), and this is the shirk of unbelief. The second is the lesser polytheism of sins that entail shortcomings in one’s tawhid or knowledge of the divine unity, but do not entail leaving Islam. Examples include affection towards someone for the sake of something that is wrongdoing (called shirk because one hopes to benefit from what Allah has placed no benefit in), or disliking someone because of something that is right (called shirk because one apprehends harm from what Allah has placed benefit in), or the sin of showing off in acts of worship, as mentioned in the sahih or rigorously authenticated hadith that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, The slightest bit of showing off in good works is shirk (al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn. 4 vols. Hyderabad, 1334/1916. Reprint (with index vol. 5). Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d.,1.4). Such sins do not put one outside of Islam, though they are disobedience and do show a lack of faith (iman).
Scholars say that the lesser shirk of such sins is meant by the hadith, for if the greater shirk of unbelief were intended, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would not have referred to such individuals as being in my Umma, since unbelief (kufr) is separate and distinct from Islam, and necessarily outside of it. This is also borne out by another version of the hadith related from Abu Bakr (Nawadir al-usul, 397), which has fikum or “among you” in place of the words “in my Umma”, a direct reference to the Sahaba or prophetic Companions, none of whom was a mushrik or idolator, by unanimous consensus (ijma) of all Muslim scholars. As for sins of lesser shirk, it cannot be lost on anyone why their hiddenness is compared in the hadith to the imperceptible creeping of ants across a great smooth stone on a black night; namely, because of the subtlety of human motives, and the ease with which human beings can deceive themselves.
Similarly, al-Bukhari relates that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “Truly, you shall follow the ways of those who were before you, span by span, and cubit by cubit, until, if they were to enter a lizards lair, you would follow them.” We said, “O Messenger of Allah, the Jews and Christians?” And he said, “Who else?” (Sahih al-Bukhari. 9 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint (9 vols. in 3). Beirut: Dar al-Jil, n.d., 9.126: 7320).
This hadith is also used by modern movements claiming to be a return to the Quran and sunna, to suggest that the majority of ordinary Sunni Muslims who follow the aqida (tenets of faith) or fiqh of mainstream orthodox Sunni Imams (whose classic works seldom fully correspond with their views) are intended by this hadith, while there is much evidence that the orthodox majority of the Umma is divinely protected from error, such as thesahih hadith related by al-Hakim that “Allah’s hand is over the group, and whoever diverges from them diverges to hell” (al-Mustadrak, 1.116). Such hadiths show that Quranic verses like “If you obey most of those on earth, they will lead you astray from the path of Allah” (Quran, 6:116) do not refer to those who follow traditional Islamic scholarship (who have never been a majority of those on earth), but rather the non-Muslim majority of mankind.
It is fitter to regard the previously-mentioned hadiths wording of following the Jews and Christians as referring, in our times, to the Muslims who copy the West in all aspects of their lives, rational and irrational, even to the extent of building banks in Muslim cities and holy places never before sullied by usury (riba) on an institutional basis since pre-Islamic times. Or those who promote divisive sectarian ideologies under the guise of reform movements among the Muslims, as the Jews and Christians did in their respective religions.
Traditional scholarship is protected from such misguidance by the authentic knowledge it has preserved, living teacher from living teacher, in unbroken succession back to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). To return to our question, without such a quality control process, the unaided reader of hadith cannot hope to become a sort of homemade alim, giving fatwas on the basis of what he finds in al-Bukhari or Muslim alone, because the sahih hadiths related to Islamic legal questions are by no means found only in these two works, but in a great many others, which those who issue judgements on these questions must know. I have mentioned elsewhere some of the sciences needed by the scholar to join between all the hadiths, and that some hadiths condition each other or are conditioned by more general or more specific hadiths or Quranic verses that bear on the question. Without this knowledge, and a traditional sheikh to learn it from, one must necessarily stumble, something I know because I have personally tried.
When I first came to Jordan in 1980, someone had impressed upon my mind that a Muslim needs nothing besides the Quran and sahih hadiths. After reading through the Arabic Quran with the aid of A.J. Arberry’s Qur’an Interpreted and recording what I understood, I sat down with the Muhammad Muhsin Khan translation of Sahih al-Bukhari and went through all the hadiths, volume by volume, writing down everything they seemed to tell a Muslim to do. It was an effort to cut through the centuries of accretions to Islam that orientalists had taught me about at the University of Chicago, an effort to win through to pure Islam from the original sources themselves. My Salafism and my orientalism converged on this point.
At length, I produced a manuscript of selected hadiths of al-Bukhari, a sort of do-it-yourself sharia manual. I still use it as an index to hadiths in al-Bukhari, though the fiqh conclusions of my amateur ijtihads are now rather embarrassing. When hadiths were mentioned that seemed to contradict each other, I would simply choose whichever I wanted, or whichever was closer to my Western habits. After all, I said, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was never given a choice between two matters except that he chose the easier of the two (Sahih al-Bukhari, 4.230: 3560). For example, I had been told that it was not sunna to urinate while standing up, and had heard the hadith of Aisha that anyone who says the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) passed urine while standing up, do not believe him (Musnad al-Imam Ahmad. 6 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d., 6.136). But then I read the hadith in al-Bukhari that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) once urinated while standing up (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1.66: 224), and decided that what I had first been told was a mistake, or that perhaps it did not matter much. Only later, when I began translating the Arabic of the Shafi’i fiqh manual Reliance of the Traveller did I find out how the scholars of sharia had combined the implications of these hadiths; that the standing of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to pass urine was to teach the Umma that it was not unlawful (haram), but rather merely offensive (makruh)–though in relation to the Prophet such actions were not offensive, but rather obligatory to do at least once to show the Umma they were not unlawful–or according to other scholars, to show it was permissible in situations in which it would prevent urine from spattering one’s clothes.
In retrospect, my early misadventures in hadith enabled me to appreciate the way the fiqh I later studied had joined between all hadiths, something I had personally been unable to do. And I understood why, of the top hadith Imams, Imam al-Bukhari took his Shafi’i jurisprudence from the disciple of Imam Shafi’i, Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr al-Humaydi (al-Subki, Tabaqat al-Shafi’iyya al-kubra. 10 vols. Cairo: Isa al-Babi al-Halabi, 1383/1964, 2.214), and why Imams Muslim, al-Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, and al-Nasai also followed the Shafi’i school (Mansur Ali Nasif, al-Taj al-jami li al-usul fi ahadith al-Rasul. 5 vols. Cairo 1382/1962. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d., 1.16), as did al-Bayhaqi, al-Hakim, Abu Nuaym, Ibn Hibban, al-Daraqutni, al-Baghawi, Ibn Khuzayma, al-Suyuti, al-Dhahabi, Ibn Kathir, Nur al-Din al-Haythami, al-Mundhiri, al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Taqi al-Din al-Subki and others; why Imams such as Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzifollowed the madhhab of Ahmad ibn Hanbal; and why Abu Jafar al-Tahawi, Ali al-Qari, Jamal al-Din al-Zaylai (the African sheikh of Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, thought by some to have been even more knowledgeable than him), and Badr al-Din al-Ayni followed the Hanafi school.
These facts speak eloquently as to the role of hadith in the sharia in the eyes of these Imams, for whom it was not a matter of practicing either fiqh or hadith, as some Muslims seriously suggest today, but rather, the fiqh of hadith embodied in the traditional madhhabs which they followed. There would seem to be room for many of us to benefit from their example.
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
The word sunna has three separate meanings that are often mixed up by Muslims when the term arises in discussions.
The first sense of sunna is in the context of shari’a rulings, in which sunna is synonymous with the mandub or “recommended”, meaning something that one deserves a reward in the next life for doing–such as using the miswak to clean one’s teeth before prayer–but is not punished for not doing. It can be contrasted in this context with the “wajib” or obligatory, meaning something that one is rewarded in the next life for doing– such as performing the prescribed prayers–and deserves punishment in the next life for not doing. The sunna in this sense is at the second level of things Allah has asked of us, after the wajib or obligatory.
A second sense of sunna is in the context of identifying textual sources, as when the Kitab, meaning the Qur’an, is contrasted with the sunna, meaning the hadith. In this sense, sunna is strictly synonymous with hadith, and is used to distinguish one’s evidence from that of the Qur’an. One should note that this is quite a different sense from the above-mentioned meaning of the word sunna, though sometimes people confuse the two, believing that the Qur’an determines the obligatory, while the hadith determines what is merely sunna or recommended–but in fact, rulings of both types are found in the Qur’an, just as they are in the hadith.
A third sense of sunna is the way of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), embodied in the things he said, did, and in his noble states of heart; together with the things he approved of in others (whether by explicit confirmation, or by allowing them to be done in his presence without condemning them), and the things that he intended to do but did not get the chance, such as fasting on the ninth of Muharram (Tasua). Here, sunna simply means the Prophets way (Allah bless him and give him peace), and is not to be confused with either of the two senses mentioned above. In contrast to the first sense, his sunna or way (Allah bless him and give him peace) includes not just the recommended, but rather the whole shari’a, the entire spectrum of its rulings, whether obligatory (wajib), recommended (sunna), permissible (mubah), or avoiding the offensive (makruh) or unlawful (haram). And in contrast with the second sense, his sunna or way (Allah bless him and give him peace) is preserved not only in the hadith, but first and foremost in the Qur’an, for as Aisha (Allah be well pleased with her) notes in the hadith of al-Bukhari, “His character was the Qur’an“.
The confusion and non sequiturs that often result when Muslims discuss the sunna could perhaps be better avoided if these distinctions were kept in mind.
©Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995