There are very few scholars whom people recognize instantly the moment you mention a book written by him. Or it can be the other way round. You mention the book and instantly the name of the author comes to your mind.
With Sayyid Sabiq we have a case of an author and a book: Mention the book and the author is immediately recognized, and mention the author and the name of the book is spontaneously given. The book is Fiqh As-Sunnah, a treasure of knowledge that every Muslim needs.
The book, the first to be written by Sayyid Sabiq, was started in the forties. Some twenty years later the author visited some of the Islamic republics in the old Soviet Union and he was informed that his book was studied there. It was a big surprise to him that his book found its way to those remote places, writhing under the Communist regime. In his book the author was phenomenally successful in providing a complete manual of Fiqh, or Islamic law, i.e. Shariah, in a highly readable and simple language.
Thus a discipline that required going through tens of books by scholars belonging to different schools of thought, and written several centuries earlier, was placed at the fingertip of any one who needed it. Readers who wished to learn about Islamic Fiqh but had no previous training were able to refer to it, as did students of Islamic universities who needed a summary that served as a bridge to a more detailed and in-depth study. Both groups found in it an indispensable work that saved them time and effort. Today the book remains an essential reading for anyone who wishes to learn what Islam requires of the individual and the community in matters of faith, worship, family matters and business transactions.
It all started when Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamic revivalist movement in the Arab world, recognized Sayyid Sabiq’s strength in this area. Sayyid Sabiq had joined the Brotherhood and was teaching its members Fiqh in a simple way. Hassan Al-Banna asked him to write his lessons and have them typed and copied, so that they could be made available to whoever wanted them. Then he asked him to approach the task more methodically so that he would have a book that simplified the study of Fiqh. That started a series of booklets that were soon to form a large book, published these days in three large volumes, encompassing all areas of Fiqh. The book was subsequently translated into many languages.
Although the author wrote several books after that, none had the same impact as Fiqh As-Sunnah. In 1994 the book earned him the coveted King Faisal Prize for Islamic Studies. As the prize earned him a good sum of money and as he intended the book to be purely for the service of Islam, he used the monetary value of the prize for the establishment of a subsidiary institute of Al-Azhar in his home village. There are many such institutes of Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest Islamic university, in many cities and towns in Egypt. Sayyid Sabiq was the initiator of another such institute in his home village.
That village is called Istanha, in the Nile Delta in Egypt, where he was born in 1915. He memorized the Qur’an at the age of 9, and then he studied in a nearby institute of Al-Azhar, before moving on to another institute in Cairo. Subsequently he studied in the Shariah Faculty of Al-Azhar where he graduated and pursued higher studies.
Sayyid Sabiq responded to the call of Hassan Al-Banna and joined the Muslim Brotherhood early in his career. When the Brotherhood sent volunteers to fight in Palestine in 1948, Sayyid Sabiq had a very important role in the preparations for their jihad. As they received their training to fight, they were also receiving Islamic education to sharpen their enthusiasm for a fight against the Zionists who were trying to occupy the land. That was a spiritual training in no way less important than the military training. He played the same role when the Brotherhood volunteers led the liberation campaign against the British colonialists in the Suez Canal in 1951-4.
Sayyid Sabiq was imprisoned by the Egyptian government in 1948-9 with thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members, many of them fighting in Palestine. They were transported from Palestine to prison camps in Egypt. In prison Sayyid Sabiq and other scholars such as the late Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali undertook the teaching of the prisoners. They taught the Qur’an, Hadith and seerah to turn imprisonment into a period of study for many detainees.
In the late forties the Brotherhood was accused by Egyptian governments of being implicated in certain acts of violence, particularly ones leading to the assassination of some political figures or personalities who supported the British colonialists. Following one of these events, Sayyid Sabiq was interrogated for allegedly having given a fatwa, or Islamic ruling that those people should be assassinated. Indeed Egyptian press at the time gave him the title, “The Mufti of Blood.” Yet nothing was further from the truth. They could prove nothing against him and he was released without charge. Indeed that false accusation was nothing more than a distortion of his role in having encouraged the youth members of the Brotherhood to volunteer for jihad and heightened their enthusiasm to fight against the Zionist aggressors in Palestine and the colonial power in Suez.
Sayyid Sabiq had a good measure of the sense of humor of Egyptian people. It is reported that when the intelligence officers interrogated him, one of them asked him whether he knew Malik, referring to a young man implicated in the assassination of Nuqrashi, a former prime minister. Sayyid Sabiq answered the question as though it referred to Imam Malik, the founder of the Maliki school of thought. He said: “Of course I do. He was a great scholar, and the imam of Madinah, the city where the Prophet had settled after his emigration from Makkah.”
The officer interrogating him said angrily: “I am asking you about Malik, the terrorist.”
He said: “I am a student of Islamic studies. I know scholars, not terrorists.”
Sayyid Sabiq was spared imprisonment when the Nasser regime cracked down on the Brotherhood in 1954. There were two reasons for that: His disagreement with the then leader of the Brotherhood, Hassan Al-Hudhaibi, and his personal friendship with Nasser. He then realized that Nasser only made use of such friendships for his own aims. One example was a project that he persuaded Kamaleddin Hussain, a member of the military junta that staged the Egyptian revolution with Nasser and minister of education, to implement. The project aimed to provide in all schools facilities for students to memorize the Qur’an. This was at the time done in special schools that were of lesser status than government schools. Sayyid Sabiq wanted to make the facility more common, and to ensure that students who wished to learn the Qur’an did not have to delay their schooling. When the project was presented to Nasser, he said to Hussain, “You should first close down these special schools, and we will implement your project starting at the beginning of the next academic year.” Hussain closed down the special schools, but he was not allowed to put the project into effect. Thus Egypt lost those Qur’anic schools without gaining the facility advocated by Sayyid Sabiq in their place.
Sayyid Sabiq was teaching at Al-Azhar, but he also held different posts in its administration. Later he taught for many years at the Umm Al-Qura Islamic University in Makkah. He spent his last years in Egypt, his home country, where he was decorated with a Note of Honor in 1992.
Sayyid Sabiq died in Egypt in late February 2000. May God bless his soul.