Scholar of renown: Ibn Al-Hajj Al-Abdari

Edited by Adil Salahi, Arab News Staff
Publication Date: 
Mon, 2002-07-15 03:00

Muhammad ibn Muhammad, Abu Abdullah, better known as Ibn Al-Hajj was one of the well-known scholars in North Africa. He belongs to Fez in present-day Morocco. His title Al-Abdari suggests that his lineage goes back to the Arabian tribe Abduddar. This means that his family originally migrated from Arabia to North Africa, or that his ancestors might have settled there after North Africa came under Islamic rule. We are not sure of the year of his birth, but it is suggested that he was born around 657 A.H., corresponding to 1258 A.D. This is calculated on the basis that he was perhaps around 80 when he died in 1336 A.D.

The time when Al-Abdari lived was one of the darkest periods in Islamic history. The Crusades had swept through Syria and Palestine to establish their presence in these parts. They even subjugated Jerusalem to their rule for nearly a whole century. The Crusade aggression was for sometime on the decline, particularly after the victories achieved by Salahuddin and his liberation of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hitteen in 1187 A.D. Nevertheless, the threat from the Crusaders continued until King Najmuddeen Ayyoub was able to inflict a heavy defeat on the last of the Crusader kings, Louis IX of France, taking him captive at the Battle of Varscour in Egypt in 1250 A.D. At the time of the battle King Ayyoub was on his deathbed, yet he achieved a great victory that signaled the end of the Crusaders’ threat.

But the Muslim world faced another danger, which was much more destructive, coming from the east. That was the Tartar invasion, sweeping through the eastern parts of the Muslim state with mass slaughter of the population of several cities. This culminated in their conquest of Baghdad and the collapse of the Abbassid rule in 656 A.H. The Tartars continued their march eastward and took over Syria and marched into Palestine, until they suffered a very heavy defeat at the Battle of Ain Jaloot. There they met the Egyptian army led by King Qutz, who was a highly religious ruler, working in close collaboration with one of the most famous scholars, Al-Izz ibn Abdussalam, whom we introduced very early in this series. It is to be noted here that both the European, i.e. Crusader, and Asian, i.e. Tartar, aggressions were finally defeated by Egyptian armies led by highly religious kings, totally dedicated to the cause of Islam.

These political events, involving many battles and mass killings and destruction of towns and cities, led to a fundamental change in the map of learning centers in the Muslim world. Scholarship had to find safer seats. This meant a move west, leading to the ultimate great flourish of seats of learning in Egypt, particularly in Cairo, Alexandria and Fayoum. Indeed the Mamlouk reign encouraged travel and migration by scholars, so as to make Egypt very attractive to them as a place where they could settle in peace. Thus Al-Azhar in particular had a great magnetic power attracting scholars from far east and far west in the Muslim world. With such grouping of scholars, their role was very important in mobilizing the population, heightening the spirit of fighting for the cause of Islam and providing the rulers with valuable counsel, that corrected unpopular practices, removed injustice and ensured closer co-operation between the rulers and the population. This was only achieved through the remarkable courage of scholars, who were able to face up to any ruler, and bring concessions that rallied the population and ensured their commitment and readiness to sacrifice their all for the cause of Islam.

Al-Abdari studied under many scholars of high standing in various cities and provinces. One of his books documents the scholarly status of many places and cities, as he witnessed it. He started a trip early in his life, beginning at his place on the coast of the Atlantic in Morocco. He started his trip in January 1289, on his way to pilgrimage. He stayed in many cities, meeting scholars and reading under them, particularly in Tunis, Al-Qairawan, Alexandria, Cairo, in addition to Madinah and Makkah. While his ultimate aim was to do the pilgrimage, he was also keen to acquire as much learning as possible. Moreover, he wanted to study the situation of the Muslim population in those areas, after the threat of invasion had been removed.

Al-Abdari records what he saw on his trip in a book of immense value. His record is that of a critic with scholarly insight. We find out, for example that he was highly impressed by what he saw in Tunis, where he was able to meet many scholars, learn from them and attend their circles. He gives us, for example, an account of what he saw in the city’s library: “Numerous copies of the Qur’an were shown to us, mostly written in eastern style. Some of them were totally written in gold. We were also shown older books that were kept securely because of their early dates, some of which went as far back as Sahnoon’s time (Sahnoon was born around 480 years before Al-Abdari) and even earlier. One of these books was Malik’s Al-Muwatta’, as recorded by Abul-Qassim. I also saw there a complete copy of the Qur’an, well bounded, written in a very clear eastern style, without any dots over letters or markings of short vowels. It measures around 2.5 spans of the hand by 1.5 spans (i.e. around 65 x 40 cm). They mentioned that it was the copy sent by Uthman the third caliph to North Africa, and was written personally by Abdullah ibn Omar ibn Al-Khattab.”

Al-Abdari was far from impressed by what he saw in Algiers as he noted the dearth of scholars of any good standing there. Similarly he records his disapproval of some of what he saw in Alexandria, where scholars were preoccupied with the study of logic and philosophy. He criticizes the insistence by such scholars that a student would remain dumb until he has mastered the study of logic. He asks rhetorically: “Do they think that El-Shafie and Malik ever studied logic?” Nor was Al-Abdari impressed by what he saw of scholarship in Makkah and Madinah. He was reasonably pleased by what he saw in Constantina and highly impressed with the large number of scholars he met in Cairo. He obtained certificates from many of them. He also included in his book biographical notes on many of the scholars he met and with whom he was impressed.

Some 40 years later, Al-Abdari wrote another book, largely drawing on his trip. The book is known as Madkhal Ash-Shara Ash-Shareef Ala Al-Mathahib, or “Introduction to Islamic Jurisprudence According to Schools of Thought”. The book has an unusual approach. The author points out questions of innovation or deviation from Islamic teachings which he saw or encountered on his trip, and outlines the proper Islamic approach in each one of them. Thus it is a book that aims at correcting erroneous practices that may take a person away from proper Islamic guidance. Hence, it serves a great purpose and answers a clear need. That explains the fact that the book acquired much fame and became widely known. The book was published in 4 volumes of over 300 large pages each. In the first volume the author includes 22 chapters, each addressing one question where practice is at variance with Islamic teachings. He scrutinizes the practice and points out the proper way to follow. Thus we have chapters on intention, pursuing knowledge, prayer, the position of a mosque as a place of education, offering prayers at home, the behavior of scholars during scholarly debate, etc. The second volume has 62 chapters with a similar number of questions, including the Prophet’s birthday, the position of Madinah, the manners to be followed by students, women’s behavior, etc. The whole book is written in this way, without any particular thread for the arrangement of its chapters and questions. It is not a book on Fiqh in the usual sense, nor is it a book of education and its methods, or a book of Hadith or Qur’anic commentary, but it includes something of all these disciplines.

Because of lack of a consistent line, the book was not satisfactory for its author, who did not wish to publish or publicize it. Indeed he thought of burning it. However, he could not bring himself to doing that. Instead, he gave it to a friend to throw it in the sea, but a scholar advised him to publish it. That earned him and the book great fame and admiration.

Al-Abdari died in Cairo in 1336. May God bless his soul.

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