Scholar of renown: Ahmad ibn Muhammad Al-Zarqa

Edited by Adil Salahi, Arab News Staff
Publication Date: 
Mon, 2002-06-10 03:00

Not many months ago, we introduced in this series the late Professor Mustafa Al-Zarqa, one of the very top scholars of the twentieth century in the Muslim world. Today we are introducing his father, Sheikh Ahmad ibn Muhammad Al-Zarqa, who was born in Aleppo in north Syria around 1285 AH, corresponding to 1868. Ahmad’s father, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Zarqa was a highly eminent scholar, and considered the top authority of his time in the Hanafi school of Fiqh. His contemporaries deferred to his opinion on any complex question where no straightforward answer was available. Since Sheikh Muhammad was a man of fine personality and good character, scholars were keen to attend his circle where they could combine authoritative scholarship and enjoyable education.

This provided the young Ahmad Al-Zarqa with a rare opportunity to pursue scholarship. At a young age, he memorized the Qur’an, attending Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hajjar, the Aleppo authority on Qur’anic recitation at the time. He then attended schools and mosque circles where he learned Arabic and literature in addition to Qur’anic commentary, Islamic law, Hadith and other subjects. He showed great promise as he was endowed with fine intelligence and sharp memory. He was still a young man when he was allowed to attend his father’s special circle, reserved only for scholars of good achievement. As the father lived to an old age, the son was able to attend his circle for more than 30 years, which provided him with an opportunity for discussing complex questions with a number of reputable scholars. He was also able to study a variety of books and subjects under his father, but it was in Fiqh or Islamic law that he was particularly interested.

Ahmad Al-Zarqa studied under many other scholars in his hometown. However, he remained very close to his father and read under him a large number of the great works in Fiqh and other disciplines. He was clearly gifted for detailed study. Therefore, he would be meticulous in considering any issue put to him. He would look at every aspect of the question, consider its intricacies and peculiar circumstances before determining its answer. But he would also explain rulings and point out their supporting evidence.

When his father retired at the age of 75, Ahmad was given his father’s posts in schools and mosques. He soon proved himself worthy of all the tasks assigned to him. His students loved him as they felt that they had the privilege of reading under a scholar of the highest caliber. After World War I, Syria was under a French mandate. The religious endowments authority in Aleppo established the first regular school devoted to Islamic studies. Sheikh Ahmad was appointed on the staff and he was assigned the teaching of Fiqh. He worked hard to allocate a special subject to study the Fiqh Rules. These were 99 rules outlined in the preamble to Majallat Al-Ahkam Al-Adliyah, issued in the late nineteenth century by the Ottoman government to standardize the rules operative in courts of law throughout the Ottoman Empire. The Majalla and its rules remain a major source for legal matters in many Muslim countries. The 99 rules stated in its preamble explain basic principles of Islamic law. They are expressed in concise form. Placing them in a special subject was very apt. Sheikh Ahmad Al-Zarqa taught this subject for 20 years.

To help his students, he collected his notes which explain the rules and kept revising them to attain a high standard of perfection. His notes were then collected in a book which provides a thorough explanation of all these rules. The book is indispensable to any lawyer in any country where Majallat Al-Ahkam Al-Adliyah is considered a main source of the national law.

This is the only book Ahmad Al-Zarqa wrote. It is said that a scholar who writes only one book is one that takes exceptional care to ensure a thorough discussion of his subject matter. This is very true of Al-Zarqa’s book in explaining the 99 rules of Islamic law.

Ahmad Al-Zarqa was very interested in literature, and he excelled in poetry and literary studies, although he did not write poetry. However, he has a fine style of writing.

A main area of interest for Ahmad Al-Zarqa was collecting manuscripts. He was an expert on the subject, and he could easily identify the most valuable manuscripts. What gave him this expertise was the fact that in his youth and early adulthood, he used to buy and sell manuscripts. He bought manuscripts from different parts of the Muslim world, retaining for himself those which he recognized as highly valuable. Over the years he had a personal library that was rich in the best manuscripts. When this became well-known, many foreign embassies approached him with generous offers of purchase. Although the offers were very tempting, ensuring very high profit, he refused to sell a single manuscript if the buyer would take it out of the Muslim world.

Recognizing the importance of his library, he began to worry that unless appropriate measures were taken to safeguard the manuscripts, they could be destroyed by a natural disaster or stolen. He could not take such measures by himself as he lacked the resources. Eventually, he sold his collection to the public library in Alexandria, Egypt, receiving a much lower price than what he had been offered by Western universities. This is something that must be recorded to his credit, because by so doing, he ensured that the manuscripts would be protected until such a time when they would be edited and published.

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Zarqa died in 1357 AH, corresponding to 1936. His son, Mustafa, was to follow in the family tradition and become a highly renowned scholar. Indeed, he is considered among the top ten scholars of the twentieth century in the entire Muslim world.

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