Today we are including in this series a scholar of the second generation of Islam. His father, Az-Zubair ibn Al-Awwam was one of the ten companions of the Prophet to whom he gave the happiest news of all, that of the certainty of being admitted into Heaven on the Day of Judgment. Az-Zubair, who was one of the very early believers in Islam, was described by the Prophet as his “very close supporter”. In fact, he was the first one ever to draw his sword for the defense of Islam. Urwah’s mother, Asmaa, was the daughter of none other than Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s closest companion even long before he began to receive his Qur’anic revelations. She was one of the very few people to know about the Prophet’s trip to Madinah when he left Makkah and was pursued by the unbelievers who wanted to kill him. In fact, she had a special role to play in that trip, as she was the one to bring the Prophet and her father their supply of food every day while they were hiding in the cave of Thawr.
Urwah ibn Az-Zubair was born in the year 22 of the Islamic calendar, i.e. 12 years after the Prophet had passed away. He married four wives and had at least ten sons and six daughters. One of his sons, Abdullah, is described as one of the finest most eloquent speakers, while Hisham ibn Urwah was an eminent scholar of Hadith and Fiqh, i.e. Islamic jurisprudence.
Urwah was a very generous man. He used to open a door into his farm at the time when dates were ripe so that anyone could go in and take whatever he wished of his dates. He dug a well for people to drink, and it was said to have the finest water in Madinah. He was a man of genuine piety. He used to read about one quarter of the Qur’an every day and spend a long period in night worship. He also was regularly fasting voluntarily.
But his strong faith is evidenced more by his patience in adversity. He had gangrene in his leg, and the Caliph, Al-Waleed ibn Abdulmalik, urged him to accept doctors’ advice that it should be amputated. When he finally accepted, it was suggested to him to have an intoxicating drink so that he would not feel the pain, but he refused, saying: “I would not resort to anything forbidden for the cure I am seeking.” He was then advised to have something that would make him unconscious, but he said: “I would then lose the reward of enduring the pain.” That meant that he would be fully conscious while the amputation was taking place.
Two strong men were brought in to hold him, but he declined their help and said to the amputator: “I will engage in my worship. When you see me fully engaged, you proceed with your work.” He then began to glorify God and extol His praises. Then the amputator cut his leg and cut his bones with a saw. When he had finished that, he used boiling oil to stop the bleeding. Not a single cry of pain was heard of Urwah throughout this whole operation. However, he lost consciousness for a while. When he recovered, he wiped the sweat off his face and praised God. He took his amputated foot in his hand and said: “God knows that I have never used you to walk to anything forbidden.”
Although Urwah lived through a period of great political upheaval, in which two of his brothers were leading players, he kept away from all political controversy.
Urwah was devoted to learning and scholarship. He was siting with Abullah ibn Omar and two of his own brothers, Abdullah and Musaab in Hijr Ishmael at the Ka’aba when one of them suggested that each one of them should express a wish. Abdullah ibn Az-Zubair said he wished to be a Caliph, while Musaab said his wish was to be the governor of Iraq and to marry two women he named. Urwah said he wished to be a scholar while Abdullah ibn Omar wished that he would earn God’s forgiveness. Each one of them had his wish, and we hope that Abdullah ibn Omar has been granted the forgiveness he wished.
As he was a close relative of Abu Bakr’s family, he had access to the main sources of Islamic scholarship in their purity. He mentioned that four years before the death of Aisha, his aunt who was the Prophet’s wife, he had learned from her every single Hadith she had reported. He also said: “If I was told that a companion of the Prophet knew a Hadith, I would go to him and sit by his doorstep until he comes out and I would ask him about that Hadith.” In fact, Urwah knocked at every door to increase his knowledge of Islam, learning from many of the Prophet’s companions whatever they learned from him. His aunt seems to have taken special interest in his education. Many of his students achieved eminence as scholars in their own right. The Caliph Omar ibn Abdulazeez, himself a scholar of high caliber, says: “I have not seen anyone better read than Urwah ibn Az-Zubair.” He seems to be one of the first scholars ever to write down and compile his information in books. He would dictate to his students and tell them to check what they have written by comparing their notes. His interest was varied and wide in scope. A modern scholar describes him as an encyclopedia. However, his main fields of interest were poetry, Islamic jurisprudence, Hadith and history.
It was in this last field that Urwah made his most important contribution. His main area of interest in history is that of the Prophet’s life and the battles he fought. This was the initial formulation of the discipline known as Al-Maghazi, which was the first that was documented about the Prophet’s life and his actions in establishing the Muslim community and state in Madinah. We have several reports of Caliphs, or rulers of the Islamic state, provincial governors and scholars writing to him with their questions about this area of history and he would always answer them either verbally or in writing. Most importantly, the Caliph, Abdulamalik ibn Marwan, wrote to him on several occasions seeking information on the Prophet’s battles. At-Tabari, the famous historian documents long passages of Urwah’s answers.
Furthermore, scholars of his own and the following generations report that Urwah was the first to write a book on the battles fought by the Prophet. In fact, several scholars reported his history of these battles. The most important of these is Abul-Aswad Muhammad ibn Abdurrahman ibn Nawfal, who was an orphan brought up by Urwah. His father had left him in Urwah’s care before his death, asking him to look after him, and Abul-Aswad was educated by Urwah like one of his own children, until he became a scholar in his own right. He was known to teach Urwah’s book on the Prophet’s battles. However, we do not have a single manuscript which contains the full text of this book. What we have are reports of what Abul-Aswad used to teach on the authority of Urwah. At the turn of the present century of the Islamic calendar, i.e. 18 years ago in 1981, the Arabic Educational Bureau of the Gulf Cooperation Council, published the full text of Urwah’s book as a contribution to the celebrations of the new century. So, we have the full text of this book, written over 1300 years ago, in book form for the first time.
The Bureau had commissioned the task to Professor Muhammad Mustafa Al-Azami, a leading scholar on Hadith. Professor Azami collected all the reports of the Prophet’s battles by Ibn Laheeah, who heard it directly from Abul-Aswad, who is better known as Urwah’s orphan. He then looked at other reports on the authority of Abul-Aswad, and verified these by comparison with other reports in a highly scholarly method. He was thus able to arrive at as complete a text as possible of the whole book. Thus we have now the complete text of a history of the Prophet’s battles written by a scholar of eminence who lived shortly after the Prophet. That is a task for the completion of which the Arabic Educational Bureau and Professor Azami deserve much credit.
Urwah ibn Az-Zubair died in the year 93 of the Islamic calendar, at the age of 71. May God bless his soul.