Ismaeel ibn Umar ibn Katheer was born in 701 AH, corresponding to 1302 AD in a village called Majdal Al-Qaryah near Busra, a town of historical fame to the south of Damascus in Syria. His ancestry takes him back to the Arabian tribe of Quraysh. He was given the name Ismaeel, after his eldest half brother, who died after he fell from the roof of a building. The deceased brother was apparently a young man of great intelligence who had given much of his time and effort to scholarship. Their father felt the loss very keenly, and called his youngest son, who was born shortly afterward, after his eldest.
Ibn Katheer’s father was a scholar in his own right who followed the Hanafi school of law in his early years, then changed over to the Shafie school after he had studied under Imam Al-Nawawi, one of the great figures of the Shafie school of law. He had excelled in his studies of Arabic language and literature, and was a fine poet. He was appointed to deliver the Friday sermon in the local mosque in his village, and he was very popular because of his fine style and good knowledge.
Ibn Katheer’s father died in 703, when his youngest son was less than three years of age. In fact, Ibn Katheer says that he remembers his father only like one remembers an image in a dream. He left behind a large family: Two sons by his first wife, and four sons and a few daughters by his second wife. The eldest of these latter children, Abd Al-Wahhab, felt that he had to shoulder the responsibility for the upbringing of his brothers and sisters. He realized that he needed to move to a city where he could have a better chance of work. Therefore, he moved with all his full brothers and sisters to Damascus in 707. He was a loving brother who spared no effort in taking care of his family. He directed them to study and brought them up as only a caring father would do. Ibn Katheer had only full praise to say of his brother.
To appreciate the family atmosphere in which Ibn Katheer was brought up, we refer to the fact that of his brother Abd Al-Wahhab’s children, his daughter Umm Eissa attained wide fame as a scholar in her own right. She was nicknamed as Sitt Al-Qudhah, or Judges’ Grandmother. She studied under some of the most famous scholars of her time, including Ibn Asakir, Al-Hajjar and Al-Muzzi, one of Ibn Katheer’s own teachers. She used to certify scholars who read under her. Among these was Imam ibn Hajar, the renowned Hadith scholar who wrote Fatth Al-Bari, the best known commentary on the Al-Bukhari’s Sahih.
Apparently she was distinguished in her family by her fine upbringing of children. When she was over 60 years of age, two of Ibn Katheer’s grandchildren were handed over to her to bring them up. One of them, Ibraheem ibn Abd Al-Wahhab ibn Ismaeel was only 3 at the time, and Asma’, the daughter of Ahmad ibn Ismaeel, was only 5. She looked after them and brought them up to become scholars of high caliber. Some of the well known scholars of the next generation studied under both of them. We know that the well-known scholar Shams Al-Deen Al-Sakhawi (831-902) studied under both of them, praising them both. All this suggests that the whole family to which Ibn Katheer belonged had a distinguished scholarly tradition.
We do not know when exactly did Ibn Katheer get married, but we know that he married Zaynab, the daughter of his teacher Jamal Al-Deen Al-Muzzi. Both his wife and mother-in-law, Aishah bint Ibraheem memorized the Qur’an under Fatimah bint Abbas who devoted her time to help women memorize God’s book.
Ibn Katheer had several children, some of whom were scholars in their own right, although none of them attained the standard and fame of their father. Among his sons were Umar, Abd Al-Rahman, Abd Al-Wahhab, Muhammad and Ahmad.
Ibn Katheer’s first teacher was his brother Abd Al-Wahhab, but we do not know what and how much did he learn under him. Ibn Katheer himself mentions this fact. But he completed memorization of the Qur’an under Sheikh Muhammad Al-Baalabakki in 711, when he was only 10 years of age. He also received instruction in the different methods of reciting the Qur’an. He then turned his attention to the study of Hadith and learned Al-Muwatta’ by Imam Malik, as well as other books, under Sheikh Ali ibn Muhammad, and learned Al-Bukhari’s Sahih under Sheikh Ahmad ibn Abu Talib Al-Hajjar, and also under Yussuf ibn Al-Zaki Al-Muzzi. In fact, Al-Muzzi was his main teacher with whom he stayed long. Furthermore, Al-Muzzi was Ibn Katheer’s father-in-law.
We have mentioned these details of Ibn Katheer’s learning in order to indicate that we have a full record of his education, since he mentions his teachers and what he learned from them. However, we need only to mention that he studied under the main scholarly figures of his time. Among his teachers were Al-Nawawi, Ibn Jumma’ah, Ibn Al-Qalanisi and Ibn Asakir. But his most famous teacher was ibn Taimiyah with whom he stayed long. Indeed he studied much under Ibn Taimiyah and benefited a great deal from him. In his books, Ibn Katheer speaks very highly of Ibn Taimiyah. Indeed when Ibn Taimiyah was imprisoned in Damascus, Ibn Katheer would go to visit him and read under him in prison. He shared with him some of his rulings that stirred much controversy at the time, particularly on questions of divorce, in which Ibn Taimiyah rules independently from the main schools of law. It was such rulings that led to his last imprisonment, but there is no doubt that Ibn Taimiyah’s rulings were the right ones. They have been upheld by scholars since his time, and incorporated in the family laws of several Muslim countries.
Ibn Katheer had a very large number of students, particularly because he worked in teaching. In his time, travel in pursuit of learning had become less important than in earlier generations, because of the establishment of famous schools in different centers. Indeed, Ibn Katheer worked in a number of these schools. His first teaching was in the Najeebiyah school, then in Al-Fadhiliyah. He also was the head teacher of Hadith in a number of schools, such as Al-Salihiyah, Dar Al-Qur’an and Al-Hadith built by Prince Tinkiz and Dar Al-Hadith Al-Ashrafiyah, of which he was the director for sometime. He Also taught the Qur’an and explained its meaning in his circle in the Umawi Mosque, which is the main mosque in Damascus. His circle was very popular indeed.
Ibn Katheer died in 774 AH after a life devoted to scholarship. We will talk about his books and his heritage next week, God willing.