Vol. 2    Issue 13   01-15 November 2007
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
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The Prophet’s compassion and magnanimity

Soon after the Prophet’s migration to Madinah, Makkah was in the grip of a severe drought. Since Makkah was a desert, food grains had to be brought from other areas. Najd was the only area at that time which was unaffected by the drought and could therefore send food grains to Makkah. A group of Muslim soldiers happened to capture a wealthy and influential person, named Thamama ibn Athal, from Najd. He was brought to Madinah and taken to the Prophet. The Prophet invited him to Islam but he refused and said that he was ready to pay some ransom for his release. The Prophet ordered that he be tied to a pillar in the mosque. On his instruction, Thamamh was given food and water. After a couple of days the Prophet invited him again to the fold of Islam but he refused. A few days passed and finally the Prophet ordered his release. He was so overwhelmed by this gesture that he fell at the Prophet’s feet and embraced Islam.

Thamah told the Prophet that food grains from his land were sent to Makkah and if the Prophet permitted, he could block the supply to the city. The Prophet agreed to the suggestion and Thamamah blocked the supply of food grains to Makkah, which caused a great deal of hardship to the people there. Faced with the spectre of starvation, they sent an emissary to the Prophet, who told him on their behalf that he had always preached love, compassion and kindness, but the people of Makkah were on the verge of starvation. The Prophet immediately dispatched a letter to Thamamah, asking him to lift the blockage and to restore the supply of food grains. He then sent 50 gold coins for the poor and destitute people in the city.

The primacy of literacy in Islam

Arab historians report that Aby Sufyan ibn Umayyah, uncle of Abu Sufyan ibn Harb (Caliph Mua’wiyah’s father), was the first person in Arabia to have learnt the Nabatean script in Yemen and to adopt the Nabatean script for writing the Arabic language. He then taught this script to some people in Makkah, including his nephew Abu Sufyan and the latter’s son Mua’wiyah. The celebrated historian Al-Baldhuri reports that before the advent of Islam, only 17 persons in Makkah knew to write. This may be an under-statement, considering the fact that Makkah was a flourishing centre of trade and commerce and was thereby exposed to a wide variety of cultural and literary influences. Be that as it may, it seems quite certain that literacy in pre-Islamic Arabia was limited to a handful of people and that the Arabic script was extremely primitive.

It is highly significant that the first revelation of the Quran urged the Prophet to read. It is also significant to note that the second chapter of the Quran, which was revealed after the Prophet’s migration to Madinah, explicitly states that every transaction on credit should be committed to writing and that, in addition, it should be attested by at least two witnesses (Quran 2:282). The Prophet declared that “should any Muslim possess property or assets fit for testamentary will, it would not be proper for him to pass even three nights without having a written will with him.”

Though himself unlettered, the Prophet was acutely aware of the importance of writing and urged his followers to learn it. He appointed Abd-Allah ibn Sai’d ibn al-A’s, who was an excellent calligrapher, to teach writing to the inmates of al-Suffah. One of the Companions of the Prophet complained to him about his poor memory, whereupon he advised him to take recourse to writing. The Prophet declared that one of the duties of a father towards his son is to teach him to write.

In the Battle of Badr, Muslims scored victory over the unbelievers and more than 70 prisoners-of-war were captured by them. Umar, who later became the second caliph, suggested that they should be executed. (Incidentally, the Bible says that if the enemy is defeated in war, their men, women, old persons and children should be put to death.) However, Abu, Bakr, who succeeded the Prophet as the head of the Islamic state, disagreed with this opinion and suggested that they should be set free in lieu of some ransom. The Prophet accepted this suggestion. A ransom of four thousand dirhams or a hundred camels was fixed as ransom for each of the captives. Those who paid the ransom were set free. In the case of those who could not afford the ransom money, their relatives and friends came to their rescue and arranged for the ransom amount.

Some of the captives had neither the ransom money nor friends or relatives who could pay the ransom money on their behalf. However, they knew reading and writing. The Prophet declared that a captive who is unable to pay the ransom money but knows how to write could secure his release by teaching ten Muslim children how to write. It was from one of these prisoners that young Zayd ibn Thabit, who later acted as the Prophet’s scribe and secretary, learnt writing. Imam Bukhari has reported this incident under the caption: sanction accorded to the appointment of pagans as teachers of Muslims. Interestingly, a few of the prisoners had neither the means to pay the ransom money nor the ability to read and write. They were set free on the promise that they would not wage a war against Muslims in the future.

Selfless devotion to teaching

Hammad ibn Salma was an eminent scholar and teacher of Hadith. Like his predecessors and contemporaries, he taught Hadith free of charge and never accepted any gifts from his disciples. One of his disciples travelled to China for trading purposes and returned with a fortune. He brought some gifts for his teacher, thinking that he would be pleased with him and would consequently take additional interest in his lessons. When he placed the gifts before Hammad, the latter said, “You have to choose either of two things. I will accept your gifts if you so desire, but I will not teach you Hadith. Alternatively, if you wish to continue learning Hadith with me, I will not accept your gifts.” The disciple, sensible as he was, profusely apologised for his indiscretion and respectfully said that he would rather prefer to learn Hadith with the teacher.

Scholarly charisma

Once Caliph Harun al-Rashid visited Raqqa, located along the river Euphrates in Iraq. During the same time, Abd-Allah ibn al-Mubarak, the celebrated scholar and disciple of Imam Abu Hanifah, had arrived in the town. The news of his arrival spread like wild fire and large numbers of people rushed to have a glimpse of him, which caused a virtual stampede. Many people had their footwear snapped or broken.

The Caliph’s wife, who was watching this scene from the balcony of her palace, wondered what the commotion was all about. She inquired with the attendants who the person was for whom people had flocked in their thousands. She was told that a distinguished and highly respected scholar from Khurasan had come to town and people were falling over each other to meet and greet him. Upon hearing this, she exclaimed, “This is indeed what kingdom is all about, unlike that of Harun al-Rashid where not a single person can be summoned without the police and the soldiers!”

Tolerance and accommodation in Islamic tradition

The Prophet’s Companions and those who came after them had some minor differences in matters of jurisprudence, legal pronouncements and the performance of rituals. Some of them recited Bismillah aloud in prayers while others recited it quietly. Some recited the Qunut invocation in the pre-dawn prayers while others did not. Imam Shafii considered eating frogs, crabs and tortoises impermissible while others did not prohibit their consumption. In spite of such differences they never hesitated to follow one another in the congregational prayers. They had tremendous regard and respect for each other. They never doubted the integrity, honesty and sincerity of their peers. Imam Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d. 730 A.H.) has perceptively observed: “If a new issue leads to differences among people, without causing hostility, malice, ill will or division, we deem it as a part of Islam. But if a new issue results in creating animosity and incrimination among Muslims, if it causes the snapping of the bonds of brotherhood, it has nothing to do with Islam.”

Islamic law follows the path of ease and convenience for the people and eschews hardship and inconvenience. An eminent Muslim jurist Ibn al-Qayyim says: “The basis of Islamic Shariah is wisdom and well-being of people in the world and in the Hereafter. Their well-being lies in complete justice, mercy and wisdom. Any thing that replaces justice with tyranny, mercy with harshness, well-being with misery, and wisdom with folly has nothing to do with the Shariah.”

Scholars, jurists and men of learning in the early centuries of the Islamic era viewed the legal differences among their contemporaries and predecessors not as a bane but as a blessing in disguise. Sufyan Thawri, for example, used to say: “Do not say that the ulama have differed over such and such issue; rather, say that they have provided convenience and ease for the people—by their difference of opinion.” Hanafi scholars and jurists have maintained that there is nothing objectionable if Hanafi jurists and muftis reach a consensus in respect of an exceptional case in an extraordinary situation where they give a legal opinion in accordance with the principles and tenets of the Maliki school of jurisprudence.

In the early Islamic period, some rulers sought to bring about uniformity and homogenization in legal matters under the aegis of the state. However, they were dissuaded by eminent scholars and jurists from doing so. During the caliphate of Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, it was suggested that he should bring about uniformity and consensus in respect of legal rulings, to which he replied: “I would not have been very pleased if Muslim scholars had not had any differences in legal issues. The Companions of the Prophet had certain differences in legal matters. Therefore, any one who follows the precepts of any of the Companions is on the right path.” He then circulated a proclamation in the Islamic territories to the effect that the people of various regions should abide by the rulings over which the local scholars and jurists had reached a consensus.

Once the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur told Imam Malik that he proposed to circulate copies of his books in every city and town, with the instruction that people should follow only these books. Imam Malik dissuaded the caliph from carrying out this project. He told the caliph that people in different cities were following the rulings of local scholars and jurists and that it was advisable to allow this situation to continue. Likewise, caliph Harun al-Rashid told Imam Malik that he wished to have the latter’s celebrated work Al-Muwatta hung at the Ka’bah so that the Muslim masses could follow it in a uniform manner. Imam Malik advised him not to do so.

Scholars’ frugality and integrity

Mis’ar ibn Kidam, an eminent scholar, led a frugal life and was well-known for his moral integrity and self-respect. He used to often say: “One who gets used to surviving on vinegar and vegetables and remains content with them cannot be enslaved.”

Imam Abul Hasan al-Karkhi was an outstanding scholar of Islamic law and jurisprudence and an eminent mufti of his time. Though he lived in straitened circumstances, he scrupulously kept away from the company of the rich and the ruling elite and never accepted any gifts or grants from the government. Towards the end of his life he was stricken with a paralytic stroke. Due to financial difficulties he could not afford proper medical treatment. Some of his disciples sent a feeler to the ruler of Halab, saying that it was a pity that an eminent scholar was unable to get proper treatment due to economic hardships. The ruler dispatched an emissary with 10,000 dirhams. Before the emissary reached Imam Abul Hasan’s house, he came to know that some of his disciples had requested the ruler for financial help to meet the cost of treatment. He was distressed by this and fervently prayed to Allah and asked him to save him from the ignominy of being obliged to anyone in the last moment of his life. Before the ruler’s emissary reached his doorstep, Imam Abul Hasan’s soul had departed for his heavenly abode.

The reward of honesty and integrity

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Baqi alias al-Bazzaz was an eminent scholar and teacher who lived in the 12th century. Once, while he was in Makkah, he experienced extreme destitution. He was walking in a state of dejection when his eyes fell on a purse lying on the street. He picked it up and saw that it was an expensive purse made of silk. He came home and opened the purse to find, to his amazement, an extremely beautiful necklace of precious pearls. He left the purse at home and came out of his house to see if he could find the owner of the necklace. He saw an old man, holding a kerchief in his hand in which some thing was tied, and saying aloud that he had lost a purse which contained a pearl necklace and that if someone were to find it he would offer him a reward of 500 gold coins. Abd al-Baqi called him aside and took him to his house and asked him the details about the pearls and the necklace. When he was satisfied that the purse and the necklace belonged to the old man he returned the purse to him, but declined to accept the reward of 500 gold coins.

After some time Abd al-Baqi left Makkah and boarded a ship to travel to another city. Unfortunately the ship was wrecked in a fierce storm in the sea and all the passengers, except Abd al-Baqi, were drowned. He sailed on a barge and somehow reached the shore. He discovered that this was a village inhabited by Muslims. He saw a mosque and went there to offer prayers. The local people heard about his misfortune and treated him with kindness. After a while when they came to know that he was a scholar and teacher they flocked to him to learn the Holy Quran. They paid him well and held him in high esteem. After a few months they grew very fond of him and requested him to settle in the village. They also offered to get him married to a girl from the village. After the marriage ceremony, Abd al-Baqi saw his bride and was astounded to see on her neck the same pearl necklace that he had found lying on the street in Makkah. He narrated the incident to his wife, who told him that the owner of the necklace was her father.

People in the village later told him that the old man had gone on a pilgrimage to Makkah when he lost the necklace. When he came back to the island he narrated how an honest man had found the necklace and how he returned it to him without accepting any reward. “I have not come across another person like him and if I meet him again I will get my daughter married to him,” he told the people. After some time he passed away, leaving the necklace with his daughter.

The smell of suspicious food

Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 283 A.H.), an eminent Sufi saint, was extremely careful about the food he ate and made sure that it came from a halal source. He lived in straitened circumstances but never compromised with his principles. One day he paid a visit to Junayd, another eminent Sufi scholar. The latter sensed that Harith was very hungry. He respectfully asked him if he could get some food for him, to which Harith agreed. Junayd went to his uncle’s house, who was a wealthy man, and returned with a variety of dishes. Harith took a morsel but found it difficult to swallow it. Finally he went outside the house and brought it up. He then asked Junayd wherefrom he had got the food. When Junayd told him that it was from his uncle’s house, Harith said,” My nose simply cannot bear the smell of doubtful food.”

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