When we realise that a particular scholar was raised in a home of fine scholarship, we are not surprised that a son takes after a father and achieves a high standing in scholarship, whether following the same discipline in which his father has excelled or moving into different areas. In the history of Islamic scholars we have many examples where a son follows in his scholarly father’s footsteps. And it is often the case that the son would follow the same line and add to it other areas. This speaks of the type of care, upbringing and education that prevailed in Muslim society over many centuries. One of the great scholars who saw his son achieve high distinction among scholars was Imam Abu Dawood, Sulaiman ibn Al-Ash’ath, who is one of the most renowned six scholars of Hadith. Abu Dawood’s Sunan is often mentioned alongside the two Sahih collections of Al-Bukhari and Muslim as the most authentic books of Hadith.
Since we introduced Abu Dawood early in this series, we are introducing today his son, Abu Bakr, Abdullah ibn Sulaiman ibn Al-Ash’ath, a renowned scholar of Hadith in his own right, who acquired wide reputation as one of the most meticulous scholars of Hadith.
He was born in 230 AH, corresponding to 845 AD. He began his scholarship at an early age. He reports that the first scholar from whom he began to document Hadiths was Muhammad ibn Aslam Al-Toosi. His father was very pleased that Abdullah made this beginnig, at the early age of 11, and told him that what he wrote down of Hadiths have been taught to him by a very good person.
His father took him on a very long journey in which they visited different parts of Persia, or today’s Iran, where they met Hadith scholars. Thus, Abdullah was able to listen to the Hadiths narrated by the top scholars in Khurasan, northern Persia, Esphahan, Al-Ray, before travelling to Iraq and meeting scholars of Basrah, Kufah and Baghdad. They then travelled to Makkah and Madinah as well as Syria and Egypt, before settling finally in Baghdad.
Apparently, Abdullah went deep into a number of disciplines, giving particular attention to studies of the Qur’an. Thus he wrote books on Qur’anic commentary, different methods of reading the Qur’an, and the Qur’anic verses which scholars consider to have abrogated the rulings included in earlier verses. His writings earned him much praise and he was considered among scholars who combined broad learning with profound understanding.
It was in Hadith that Abdullah ibn Abu Dawood excelled, following his father’s footsteps. He studied under a very long list of scholars of Hadith, including Muhammad ibn Yahya Al-Thuhali, Ali ibn Khashram and Sulaiman ibn Ma’bad Al-Singi. His students were numerous indeed, and they included a number of scholars who achieved eminence in their own right, such as Abu Bakr ibn Mujahid, who distinguished himself as a top scholar specialized in the Qur’an and its methods of recitiation. Al-Daraqutni, who was highly prominent as a scholar of Hadith, was also among his students.
A later scholar of Hadith, Al-Hassan Al-Khallal, describes Abdullah ibn Abu Dawood as the imam of Iraq. He also says that his contemporaries included a number of scholars who were closer to the Prophet in the sense that they learned Hadith through eminent teachers with shorter chains of transmission of Hadith, but they did not achieve the degree of excellence he achieved. This was no little praise for Abdullah, because a shorter chain of transmission is always considered, in Hadith studies, as a matter of great merit.
It is reliably reported that he went to Sejestan at the time of Amr ibn Al-Laith. Students and scholars of Hadith welcomed him warmly and requested him to teach them whatever he could of Hadith. He protested that he had not carried any of his books with him.
They exclaimed: "You are Abu Dawood’s son and you need a book!" They continued to press him until he agreed. He dictated to them no less than 30,000 Hadiths from memory. When he returned to Baghdad and people heard of this, they quickly sent a group of scribes to copy the Hadiths he dictated in Sejestan. They brought it back and showed it to the best scholars of Hadith in Baghdad. They pointed out only six mistakes. Abu Bakr ibn Abu Dawood says: "Three of these I reported as I had learned them, while in the other three I was mistaken." This means a rate of one mistake in each 10,000 Hadiths. What scholar would achieve such a grade today?
Abdullah ibn Abu Dawood is well-known for a poem he composed on the main Islamic beliefs. This is in line with an Islamic tradition that survived over many centuries, where scholars sum up the basics or the details of a particular discipline in poetry form. The best known form for this type of composition is the one called rajaz, which maintains a rhyme only between the two halves of each line, in a sort of rhyming couplets. This serves as a reminder for a student or a scholar who memorizes the poem and studies its explanation in full detail to ensure learning the whole discipline.
This poem by Abdullah ibn Abu Dawood is rather different. It maintains the same rhyme throughout its 33 lines, and follows a different metre which renders itself to richer expression and imagery. But in such a purpose, imagery is not an aim of the scholar. The aim is to state his purpose in a short, easy to memorize form and style. In this, he has undoubtedly achieved success.
In his poem, Ibn Abu Dawood speaks about God, highlighting His main attributes and refuting the ideas of errant groups that tried to impose their understanding on Islamic beliefs. He also succinctly states the Sunni beliefs with regard to the most important of God’s attributes, showing the pure Islamic concept in its clear and straightforward line. He then states the Sunni beliefs as they differ from those of the Shia and Khwarij concerning the status of the Prophet’s companions and the status of people who commit sins. He concludes with emphasizing that faith means belief expressed in words and deliberate action.
The poem received much praise and has been explained by scholars. In fact Muhammad Al-Saffarini, who lived several centuries later, wrote a whole book explaining it. That in itself speaks for its importance and usefulness.
Abdullah ibn Abu Dawood died in 314, at the age of 86. May God shower His grace on his soul.