His publishers call him Imam, ranking him with the great figures of Islamic scholarship of the past, such as Abu Haneefah, Malik, Al-Shafie and Ibn Taimiyah. Indeed, he has a great affinity with all these, as we will presently explain. If we consider this title on the basis of its linguistic meaning, which is a leader who shows the way, then he certainly was an Imam. And if we take it to mean a scholar of broad and varied knowledge, then he was certainly an Imam. But I do not think that the man himself would have accepted this title, because in scholarly circles it points to one who is competent to issue rulings on a great variety of questions. Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahrah certainly had the competence to look into questions and issue original rulings on the basis of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. But, like most great contemporary scholars, he did not need to do so, as most questions have ready answers in the works of the numerous scholars before him. What is needed in this area is to have rulings for questions and issues that are peculiar to our time and place.
Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Mustafa Abu Zahrah was born on March 29, 1898, corresponding to 1316 AH, in Al-Mahllah Al-Kubra, a provincial capital in Lower Egypt. His was a distinguished family, but he was to achieve distinction in his own right.
In his early years, Muhammad Abu Zahrah joined a pre-school nursery that taught the Qur’an, then he pursued his education in an elementary school run by Al-Azhar, the famous Islamic university founded over 1,000 years ago. After studying in a secondary school, he joined in 1913 the institute attached to the Ahmadi mosque in Tanta, where his native intelligence and genuine interest in Islamic studies enabled him to shine. He won wide respect among his colleagues and teachers. Hence, it came as no surprise when, in 1916, he was top of the entry examination to the institute of Islamic judges. Most of the applicants were several years older than him and had studied in different schools for much longer.
After graduation, he joined the teaching staff first in the faculty of Usool Al-Deen, in Al-Azhar, then in the law faculty. The first one is specialized in Islamic thought, while the second is a normal department of law at university level. Needless to say, Abu Zahrah’s specialization in that department was Islamic law. His teaching career saw him rise to the post of head of the Islamic Law Department and professor of Shariah in the university. In 1958, when he was 60 years of age, he retired from teaching, but he was yet to join the Islamic Research Academy in Al-Azhar. That was in 1962.
Muhammad Abu Zahrah gives us an insight into his personality and career. He mentions that his early schooling was aimed at memorizing the Qur’an, which he did when he was still an adolescent. But even at that time, two traits were easily distinguishable and were to remain with him throughout his academic life. The first was attaching a great value to his independent thinking, which made others call him a “stubborn child”, and the second was his strong dislike of authoritarian rule at all levels. These traits reflected themselves in adult life in personal courage in standing up for what he believed to be the truth, against powerful opposition.
Muhammad Abu Zahrah was a prolific author, writing no less than 34 books on a wide variety of issues. His first book was a biography of the Prophet and the events that took place during his lifetime. This is a long history in three volumes. He also wrote a book on the Qur’an highlighting the distinctive features of its unique style which presents a challenge to all creatures to compose even a small portion like it. In this book he provides an in-depth study of various approaches of the Qur’an, particularly in relating the same story several times, but each time it shows the story in a different light so as to sound absolutely new.
His most famous books, however, were a series of eight books of a minimum of 350 pages each. He devoted each book to the study of the life, views and scholarship of one of the leading scholars in Islamic history. These scholars were: Abu Haneefah, Malik, Al-Shafie, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Zaid ibn Ali, Jaafar Al-Sadiq, Ibn Taimiyah and Ibn Hazm. These works reflect his deep love of all these scholars and the great respect he afforded to each one of them. Together, his books provide an insight into the depth of Islamic scholarship and the different methodologies used by these great scholars. The personal biography he provides of each of these scholars is very detailed, enabling us to paint a true picture of the man and the main trends that influenced his scholarship. He then discusses the methodology each one of them follows and outlines the main views that distinguish each one.
His other works were mainly in the field of Islamic law covering a wide range of topics. Thus, we have a book on inheritance and a shorter one on inheritance according to the Jaafariyah school of law, which is a Shia school. He devotes a whole book to discuss the concept of crime in Islamic law and another to punishment. His legal works also cover personal and family law, the marriage contract, endowment, ownership and the Islamic concept of contracts.
Abu Zahrah also wrote extensively on comparative religion, devoting a whole book to Christianity, and another to other faiths. Another book he wrote in this field is a text book on the methodological principles of Islamic Fiqh. But he also wrote on social questions, such as the Islamic social structure and the nature of Islamic society. A third book in this area is the one devoted to social security in the Muslim community.
Going through the list of his books is sufficient to give us a clear idea of the breadth of his scholarship and the high degree of excellence of his knowledge. May God shower mercy on his soul.