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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Professor Muhammad Hamidullah (1908-2002)

Professor Muhammad Hamidullah was an outstanding Muslim scholar and sage of our time. In a scholarly career spanning nearly seven decades, he wrote extensively on a wide range of themes and subjects, including a widely-read translation of the Holy Quran in French ( and part-translations in German and English), Hadith, biography of the Prophet, Fiqh, Islamic international law and Arabic epigraphy. He edited several rare Arabic manuscripts and translated some of them into French. He authored over a hundred books and more than 1000 articles in seven languages, including French, Arabic, English, German, Turkish and Urdu. His French translation of the Quran, first published from Paris in 1959, has undergone more than 30 reprints and the last edition sold more than two million copies.

Professor Hamidullah belonged to that rare—and now rapidly dwindling—breed of Muslim scholars who carried on the tradition of their illustrious forebears with exemplary dedication and sincerity. His devotion to the pursuit of scholarship and his selflessness were reminiscent of the example set by Muslim scholars and sages of earlier times.

The following excerpts are taken from a new book on Professor Hamidullah, written by Professor A. R. Momin, who had the privilege of knowing him personally.

Authenticity of the Quran

Professor Hamidullah had a deep interest in the comparative study of religious scriptures. He writes that the original text of the Christian gospels in the Aramaic language is lost. Only the Greek translations of the Aramaic text are extant. A few years ago, some Christian scholars and priests in Germany set out on an ambitious project to collect copies of the existing manuscripts of the gospels in Greek. Thousands of such manuscripts were collected, meticulously studied and collated. After several years of painstaking research, the report of the project stated that some 200,000 variants were found, of which one-seventh were significant.

Some years later, a research institute, known as Institut fur Koranforschung, was established at the University of Munich in Germany for the purpose of collecting and collating copies of manuscripts of the Quran. Some 42,000 complete or incomplete manuscripts of the Quran were collected and collated. After some years of research, the report of the project stated that no variants in any of the existing manuscripts were found. Unfortunately, the building where the institute was located was destroyed in the American bombing of Germany during the Second World War.


Western Orientalists and writers have raised a hue and cry against jizya-tax, levied on non-Muslims living in the Islamic state. Jizya is collected by the Islamic state in exchange for the protection of their life, property and honour. Professor Hamidullah points out that the institution of jizya was not unique to the Islamic state. It existed in ancient Persia and Rome where it was levied on those who could not render military service. In the Islamic state, every adult Muslim man is obliged to participate in military expeditions. However, non-Muslims are exempted from this obligation. The money that was collected by way of jizya was spent on the welfare of non-Muslims.

During the lifetime of the Prophet, jizya was collected from the People of the Book (mainly Jews and Christians). During the caliphate of Umar, Magians (worshippers of fire) were also included among the dhimmis (non-Muslims who are entitled to protection by the Islamic state). During the caliphate of Uthman, the Berber tribesmen of North Africa, who followed animistic beliefs and rituals, came to be included among the dhimmis. After the conquest of Sindh, Hindus and Buddhists also came to be regarded as dhimmis and were required to pay the jizya.

During the lifetime of the Prophet, the amount of jizya was 10 dirhams in a year, which roughly corresponded to the expenses of an average family for 10 days. The amount of jizya was determined according to the social and economic status of a person. Caliph Umar divided the dhimmis, for the purpose of payment of jizya, into three categories: poor, middle-income and rich. The rich were required to pay 48 dirhams, the common people 24 dirhams, and farmers and artisans 12 dirhams. Jizya could be paid in cash or in kind. Only adult male members from amongst the dhimmis were required to pay the jizya; women, children, priests, the insane, the destitute, and old, blind, physically disabled and chronically sick persons with no source of income were exempted from the payment of jizya. Tax collectors were instructed to be attentive to the convenience of the dhimmis while collecting the jizya-tax.

One day Caliph Umar saw an old and blind person begging for alms on the street. He stopped and asked him who he was and why he was begging, to which he replied that he was a poor and destitute Jew and as such was required to pay the jizya. Caliph Umar took him to his house, gave him some money and sent instruction to the keeper of the state treasury to exempt him and other poor and destitute people like him from the payment of jizya.

If a person from amongst the dhimmis took part in a war along with Muslims, he was exempted from the payment of jizya and was offered a share in the war booty. Once the forces of the Roman Emperor launched an offensive against Muslims. The residents of the city of Hims, which was under the control of Muslims, were asked to vacate the city. When the non-Muslim residents were leaving the city, the Muslim commander returned to them the money that had been collected by way of jizya, saying that we are obliged to protect your life and property in exchange for the jizya, but now that we are unable to do so, we have no right over this money.

A Jew, who had discovered the location of the stream which joined the Nile River to the Red Sea in the past, shared his knowledge with Caliph Umar. This discovery could greatly facilitate communication and trade between the city of Fustat and Arabia. Umar was pleased with the gesture and, as a token of appreciation and gratitude, exempted him from the payment of jizya for life.

Taxes on non-Muslims

The celebrated Italian Orientalist Levi della Vida once raised certain objections about the “exorbitant” taxes non-Muslims are required to pay in the Islamic state, saying that the rate of such taxes is unfair and discriminatory against non-Muslims.

Professor Hamidullah, who was a personal friend of Vida, convincingly repudiated these charges. He pointed out that, for one thing, non-Muslims, unlike Muslims, do not experience certain constraints. In fact, they enjoy certain privileges in the Islamic state, which are not available to Muslims. One of these privileges is that they are permitted to give and take interest or usury, which is forbidden to Muslims. Consequently, non-Muslims are in a position to improve their economic status faster and on a comparatively larger scale. Since their income tends to be higher as compared to Muslims, they are liable to pay a higher rate of tax.

Translation of the Quran in foreign languages

Professor Hamidullah writes that when Salman the Persian visited Madina in order to meet the Prophet and to embrace Islam, he did not know Arabic. He was accompanied by a Jew who acted as his interpreter. In the course of time he acquired sufficient proficiency in the language. Some of his compatriots in Iran, who had embraced Islam, sent him a request to dispatch the Persian translation of some verses of the Holy Quran. Salman asked the Prophet for his permission, which was granted. He then sent a Persian translation of the first chapter of the Quran to his compatriots.

Professor Hamidullah had a deep and abiding interest in the translations of the Quran in the various languages of the world. In 1939 he published a book The Quran in Every Language, which contained a detailed description of the translations of the Quran in 23 languages, along with a facsimile of the translation of the first chapter in these languages. This list was greatly expanded in subsequent editions of the book. In the course of time he had collected details of translations of the Quran in more than 150 languages. A detailed description of translations of the Quran in European languages has been provided in the introduction to his French translation of the Quran.

Judicial autonomy and independence

Professor Hamidullah points out that legislation has generally been the prerogative and privilege of government. One finds a striking exception to this rule in Islamic history. After the Prophet passed away, Islamic law has been independent of government or the ruling class. The interpretation and codification of Islamic law has independently been carried on by Muslim scholars and jurists. Similarly, Muslim judges (qadis) have generally discharged their judicial responsibilities independently and solely in the light of the principles and precedents laid down in the Quran and Hadith. The autonomy and independence of legislative institutions and processes and the absence of interference by the powers that be had positive and important consequences for the development of Islamic law and jurisprudence. The principle of separation of the judiciary from the government has now been universally accepted. Professor Hamidullah writes that an important principle of English law is that the king is not liable to any litigation or lawsuit. This principle is alien to Islam, which declares that no one, howsoever high or mighty, can be above law. It is significant to note that the Prophet allowed complaints in respect of tort and civil matters directed against himself and sometimes decided in favour of complainants.

Legal consensus in a globalising world

Professor Hamidullah emphasizes the great importance of the principle of Ijma (consensus among scholars and jurists over an issue) and suggests that there is a need to transform this highly potent principle into a universal institution. He points out that this could not have been possible in earlier times due to difficulties in the means of communication and transportation. But now it is possible to move in this direction.

He suggests that in order to transform the principle of Ijma into a universal institution, it is necessary to establish its headquarters or central secretariat in a given country (which, in his opinion, could be in any part of the world, including Pakistan, Moscow or Washington), with regional offices or branches in all countries where substantial Muslim populations are living. The regional offices or branches should solicit the active involvement and cooperation of all scholars and jurists at the regional level. Proposals or suggestions pertaining to contemporary issues faced by Muslim communities in general (or specific issues faced by Muslims in regional contexts) may be submitted to the central secretariat.

The central secretariat will examine the authenticity and legitimacy of the proposals submitted to it and then forward copies of the proposals to the regional offices located across the world for opinions and comments. Each regional office will then forward copies of the proposals to local scholars, jurists and other experts with a request to send in their responses and arguments. When the responses and comments of scholars are received, they will be forwarded to the central secretariat. Professor Hamidullah emphasizes that the language of communication at the central secretariat should be Arabic.

When the central secretariat has received responses, comments and arguments from all regional offices and if it is found that these reflect a consensus among scholars and jurists over a given issue, it may issue a declaration to this effect. In the event of differences or controversy the central secretariat may prepare a synopsis of the main points of disagreement, which may then be circulated among all the regional offices. The purpose of this exercise is to encourage and facilitate greater interaction and exchange of views among scholars and jurists. When all the responses from scholars and jurists from various regional offices have been received, the central secretariat will ascertain once again whether a consensus has been reached or whether substantial disagreements still remain. The entire proceedings may be brought out in the form of a treatise.

Islamic international law

One of Professor Hamidullah’s seminal contributions relates to Islamic international law. He demonstrated, initially in his doctoral thesis submitted to Bonn University and later published from Leipzig in 1935 and in later works, that Muslim scholars and jurists of the early centuries of the Islamic era made a highly original and pioneering contribution to the conceptualisation of international law. Professor Hamidullah points out that the Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius (d.1645) is generally regarded as the father of international law, but the fact of the matter is that the foundations of international law were laid eight centuries earlier by Imam Zayd ibn Ali (d. 120 A.H.), Imam Abu Hanifah (d.150 A.H.) and Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani (d. 189 A.H.). Islamic international law considerably influenced international law in Europe. The fact that the earliest writers on international law in Europe were mainly of Spanish and Italian descent was not a mere coincidence. The intellectual climate of opinion in Spain and Italy had drawn heavily on the Islamic legal tradition.

Professor Hamidullah dwelt at considerable length on the principle of neutrality in Islamic law and in European law and pointed out that a discussion on the principle of neutrality in European international law can be traced to not later than the 17th century, whereas Muslim scholars and jurists dwelt on this principle in considerable detail in the first and second centuries of the Islamic era.

The most important treatise dealing with Islamic international law is Shaybani’s As-Siyar al-Kabir. Al-Sarakhsi (d.490 A.H.) wrote a detailed commentary on this book, known as Sharh as-Siyar al-Kabir. Professor Hamidullah translated this commentary into French, which was published in four volumes from Turkey.

The genius of Imam Abu Hanifah

Though Professor Hamidullah was born in a Shafii family, he was a great admirer of Imam Abu Hanifah. He writes that some of Imam Abu Hanifah’s contemporaries, such as Awzai’ and Malik, were outstanding scholars who wrote great works in Islamic law. Imam Abu Hanifah’s seminal and pioneering contribution to Islamic jurisprudence lies in the fact that he set up an academy of highly qualified and competent scholars and experts from diverse fields (such as Quranic exegesis, Hadith, Fiqh, Arabic literature and philology, grammar, arithmetic, logic) and encouraged them to deliberate collectively on legal issues and to prepare a compendium of Islamic law. “I can say with conviction,” writes Professor Hamidullah, “that this compendium was more comprehensive than that of the Roman emperor Justinian (482-565).”

Professor Hamidullah quotes Imam Shafii to the following effect: “People are beholden to five persons. One who desires mastery over the biography of the Prophet is beholden to Ibn Ishaq. One who desires to have expertise in Islamic law is beholden to Abu Hanifah. One who desires to excel in poetry is beholden to Zuhayr. One who desires to have competence in Quranic exegesis is beholden to Muqatil ibn Sulayman. One who desires to become an expert on Arabic grammar is beholden to Kisai.”

Professor Hamidullah narrates an interesting and illuminating incident from the biography of Imam Abu Hanifah. A married couple had a fight over some matter in the night. The fight was so bitter that, in a fit of rage, the husband swore that if the wife did not speak with him till sunrise, she will cease to be his wife. The wife, who was equally exasperated, swore that she would not speak with him till sunrise. After a while it was time for the pre-dawn prayers and the husband got up and went to the mosque for prayers. Sometime after the prayers the sun began to rise. The husband realised his folly and became panicky. He went to visit Muhammad ibn Sirin, an eminent jurist, and narrated to him the whole story, hoping that the worst had not happened. Ibn Sirin told him that nothing could be done in the matter and the divorce had occurred. He was overcome by dejection and decided to meet Imam Abu Hanifah, hoping that he might suggest a way out. Imam Abu Hanifah heard his story and assured him that divorce had not occurred. He then came back delighted to Muhammad ibn Sirin and reported what Imam Abu Hanifah had said. Ibn Sirin was astounded and anguished by Imam Abu Hanifah’s response and he immediately set out to meet him. “Have fear of Allah, Abu Hanifah,” he said, adding that “this man’s wife has been divorced, but you are saying that the divorce has not occurred. If he continues living with the woman, this will amount to an illicit relationship, for which you will be held responsible. How will you face Ahhah?”

Imam Abu Hanifah remained, as was his wont, calm and patient and asked the man to recount the whole incident. Imam Abu Hanifah then said, “When the man said to his wife that if she did speak with him till sunrise she would no longer remain his wife, he did not specify what he meant by “speaking.” When the wife immediately replied to the husband, saying that she too would not speak with him till sunrise, this amounted to “speaking.” This indicates that the condition for divorce--not “speaking”—did not take effect and hence their marital relationship remained unaffected. Muhammad ibn Sirin was convinced by Imam Abu Hanifah’s argument and explanation. Thus Imam Abu Hanifah’s acuity of perception and keenness of judgement saved the couple’s marriage.

Non-Muslims in the Islamic state

One of the highly significant contributions of Professor Hamidullah relates to a detailed discussion on the status of non-Muslims in the Islamic state. He makes a reference to the written assurance issued by the Prophet to the Christians of Najran, which stated the following.

    An assurance is hereby extended, on behalf of Allah and the Prophet, to the people of Najran, that their lives, religion, lands and wealth will be protected. No changes in their existing state of affairs will be effected. Their rights will not be violated. Their commercial cravans and delegations will be protected. No cardinal will be removed from his position, nor will an ascetic be denied the right to his way of life. The custodians of churches will experience no interference in respect of their functions.

It is remarkable that the conquest of Syria by the Muslim army during the caliphate of Abu Bakr met with no resistance from the local Christian population who welcomed the Muslim soldiers who, in their eyes, liberated them from the oppression of their coreligionists. When Khalid ibn Walid signed a treaty with the Christian population after the conquest of Hira during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, he gave them a written assurance to the effect that their churches would not be demolished or desecrated by Muslims and that they would not be prevented from ringing their bells or from carrying crosses in their religious processions.

After the conquest of Jerusalem, Caliph Umar gave the following assurance in writing to the Christian population of the town.

    This is the assurance which Umar, the servant of Allah, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia. He grants to all security of their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and of all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be converted into dwelling places nor demolished nor shall any constraint be put upon them in matters of their faith.

During the caliphate of Umar, some Muslims usurped a piece of land which belonged to a Jew and constructed a mosque on the site. When the Caliph came to know about the incident he ordered the demolition of the mosque and the restoration of the land to the Jew. Caliph Umar used to consult non-Muslims in military and administrative matters.

During the caliphate of Ali, the Muslim-occupied territories of the Byzantine Empire faced internal strife. Emperor Constantine II sent a secret message to the Christian population in the Islamic territories, urging them to rise in revolt against Islamic rule and assuring them of his military support. The Christians, however, spurned the offer, saying “these enemies of our religion are preferable to you.”

Islam does not favour the forced assimilation or conversion of non-Muslims (Quran 2:256; 109:6). The Islamic state guaranteed not only the protection of the life, property and honour of non-Muslims but also of their beliefs and rituals, personal laws and endowments. When Amr ibn al-A’s, a distinguished Companion of the Prophet, conquered Egypt in 640 A.D., he left the local Christian population in possession of their churches and guaranteed to them independence and autonomy in all ecclesiastical matters. He allowed the properties and endowments attached to Christian churches remain with their traditional custodians.

Some Christians from Najran (Yemen) declined to accept Islam but agreed to live under Islamic rule on condition that they should have the freedom to retain and manage their churches and to appoint their priests. They requested the Prophet to appoint a Muslim judge to arbitrate in their disputes. He deputed Abu Ubaydah ibn al-Jarrah for the purpose. He discharged his judicial duties in such an impartial and efficient manner that many Christians embraced Islam.

The status of women in Muslim society

Professor Hamidullah writes, on the authority of the celebrated biographer Ibn Ishaq, that when the verses of the Quran were revealed, the Prophet used to recite them in the gathering of men and then in the assembly of women.

Professor Hamidullah devoted a whole chapter in his well-known work The Political Life of Prophet Muhammad (in Urdu), which offers a detailed discussion of the ways in which women extended a helping hand to the Prophet in carrying out his mission. During the lifetime of the Prophet and in later years, many women, including young girls and pregnant ladies, used to accompany soldiers to the battlefield where they engaged in many useful activities, including cooking for the soldiers and nursing the wounded.

Some women during the lifetime of the Prophet knew to read and write. Shifa, the daughter of Abd-Allah, was a cousin of Caliph Umar who could read and write. The Prophet appointed her to an important administrative post in the local market. Another lady, Umm Waraqa, had memorised the Holy Quran. Professor Hamidullah mentions, on the authority of Abu Dawud’s Sunan and the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, that the Prophet had appointed her as imam in a local mosque. In his opinion, this was an exceptional arrangement to deal with a specific situation. He mentions an interesting illustration to indicate that sometimes uncommon situations call for exceptional, unconventional responses. A Dutch student in Paris fell in love with an Afghan girl. Their love was so intense that the boy decided to embrace Islam in order to marry the girl. The next day of marriage the girl came to meet Professor Hamidullah and told him that she was faced with a peculiar problem. Her husband was very keen to say his regular prayers but did not know how to go about it. He wanted his wife to lead the prayers and he would follow her. “Can I do that?” she asked. Professor Hamidullah told her about Umm Waraqa’s case and suggested that, since this was an exceptional situation, she might lead the prayers for a few days and her husband could follow her. In the meantime, he should make an attempt to memorise some verses of the Quran so that, after some time, he could himself lead the prayers.

The celebrated biographer and historian Ibn Sa’ad has devoted the eighth volume of his monumental work Al-Tabaqat al-Kabir to the biographies of female narrators and teachers of Hadith. The volume contains the biographies of seven hundred women. Ibn Hajar, in his authoritative biographical dictionary, Tahdhib al-Tahdhib, has provided the biographies of 1543 female narrators and transmitters of Hadith. It is significant to note that even the daughters of poor artisans excelled in the pursuit of learning. Thus, Kitab al-Amwal, a treatise on public taxation written by Abu Ubayd Qasim ibn Sallam (d. 224 A.H.), begins with the following words: Certified to have been read in the presence of the good and pious calligrapher, Professor Fakhrun-Nisa Shuhdah, the daughter of the needle-maker Abu Nur Ahmad ibn Faraj ibn Umar al-Dinawari, at her house in Baghdad.”

(Professor A. R. Momin’s book Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah: Sirat, Kamalat aur Ifadat (in Urdu) can be had from Farid Book Depot, 2158, M. P. Street, Pataudi House, Darya Ganj, New Delhi 110 002)

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