Rijal - the narrators of hadith

by Abdassamad Clarke

The Froud Centre, London, Sunday 6/6/04


Almost the last piece of this talk to fall into place was its beginning. That came about when seeing that I had still a substantial part of this talk to prepare I started to read something totally unconnected: Fuzzy logic. This is the argument that our thinking in these lands until now, specifically the dominant school of philosophy and today science, has been predicated on the logic that if something is A it cannot be at the same time not-A, e.g. that if an atom is a part of you, it cannot at the same time be an atom belonging to the environment.

However, when scientists really look closely, these edges are not so well defined, and the line between you and the environment is not completely clear, or we could say simply does not exist. Many things in Islam and in the Arabic language assume that you are open to this kind of dual seeing. Things can be both A and not-A. The title of the book we are going to consider is a case in point: Rijal; narrators. If we were to translate it literally we could not call it narrators because it has nothing linguistically to do with narration whatsoever. However, if we translate it literally - men - we have a second problem, because here are 'A'ishah, may Allah be pleased with her, Umm Salamah, may Allah be pleased with her, and an enormous number of women.

We can say two things about this. First, you can hear rijal in the sense of men as opposed to women, and this is the possibility that gives us the above difficulty. Second, you can hear rijal as 'mature adult men' as opposed to boys or youth, and thus by extension mature adult women as opposed to girls. Ordinarily the age of rujulah is counted from around forty. Of course, rijal does mean men, but as in the regular sound masculine plural in Arabic it contains women within itself. The ordinary sound masculine plurals in Arabic - muminun - include not only all males, but all mixes of males and females up to the point where there are numerous females and one male. When that one male leaves, one uses the sound feminine plural - muminat. Therefore all Qur'anic address is intrinsically for both men and women unless there is a clear indication that it is for one or the other. When one says muminun wa muminat the former is for the males and the latter for the females. Similarly, here rijal refers to those adult human beings who transmitted the Sunnah and in this case transmitted the hadith, and I will assume here that you are all aware that in our view hadith and Sunnah are not the same thing, even though some schools of thought even among the 'ulama' use them interchangeably.


So this is a book about the correct transmission of authentic knowledge. It is, however, important that we not only have authentic knowledge, and receive it in genuine transmissions, but that we know its context. Context applies to the setting within which the original quotation has its meaning, the lives lived by the men who transmitted it, the societies within which they transmitted, and very importantly an understanding of the society within which we intend to put it into practice, for if we do not intend to put it into practice we are deceiving ourselves.

"That is a community which has passed. They have what they have earned, and you have what you have earned. And you will not be asked about what they were doing." (Surat al-Baqarah)

Among the matters of context, there are the lives and conditions within which the figures we will mention acted. We are talking about men and women who lived in the very first and second centuries of Islam, so close to the first generation Madinah that this affair was still completely new. Armies were marching to lands that the early Arabs had never dreamt of reaching. People were entering Islam, or signing the contract of the dhimmah, or being fought and often enslaved in enormous numbers, and the slaves were becoming Muslims in droves. The slaves were being taken back into the great cities, Madinah, Kufa and Damascus, and having an enormous impact on life there. Millions were learning to speak Arabic, and this was a devastating shock to the Arabic language and to the Arabs. A Herculean effort was made to formalise the language in order to teach its root meanings, grammar and syntax, which are so vital for all the sciences of the din. Astonishingly, it is at a relatively early date that non-Arabs are writing the definitive works on the language, just as they collect the hadith - al-Bukhari, at-Tirmidhi etc., were non-Arabs - and shoring up all of the sciences. There was the task of teaching these huge numbers their din. In all of that, large numbers of new cases were arising demanding careful decisions - ijtihad. The situation was made more complex by the anarchic relations between some of the ruling elite, and the mutual animosities, which spilled over into the Abbasid revolution.

So you have to understand that all of this was happening at the same time as these narrators of ours were living, and that they were each one of them making hard decisions, not always well. Some of our narrators were accused of being Shi'ah, but we cannot understand this in the modern sense of the term. That meant that they thought that some of the immediate descendants of 'Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, were the best people to be khulafa', even if they completely accepted the first four khulafa' ar-rashidun, may Allah be pleased with them, and even the Ummayads et al. Some of them adopted what we would regard as unorthodox theological positions. They lived prior to the time when the great intellects of our ummah had worked out what we today call 'aqidah, and they worked it out because of the different confusions and controveries that some of the earlier generations encountered.

Lastly, the matter is made more complex still because the Companions themselves took different standpoints on some key issues. These are very well known in the fiqh, and some of the well-known differences of the madhhabs crystallise, as it were, previous differences of opinion.

So this is some of the context of the original circumstances of these rijal. Now we must look with a glance at OUR context. What knowledge do we want? What knowledge do we need?


With the matter of knowledge we must necessarily sub-divide it in two categories. The ordinary Muslim is obligated to have knowledge. There is no such thing as an ignorant Muslim by definition. It is obligatory on each of us, men and women, to have the necessary knowledge of tawhid, without necessarily encompassing the proofs of the people of kalam, and the knowledge for our acts of worship, including knowledge of the Arabic language of those passages of Qur'an and supplications we use in the prayer, that will allow us to worship Allah in the correct manner.

The ordinary Muslim does not need proofs for this but needs to accept the judgements of trustworthy people, since it would simply be daft to expect shepherds, busy office-workers, garage mechanics, busy mothers and the wide spectrum of ordinary working human beings on this planet to master all of the proofs of these actions.

However, this obligation to learn does not stop at acts of worship. If you enter the market-place, if you go out to earn a living in any fashion you are obliged to know what transactions are halal and which ones are usury or in other ways unacceptable, since usury is one of the kaba'ir. Now this knowledge is one that even 'ulama' no longer know, let alone the ordinary Muslim and yet it is the knowledge which is obligatory on each one of us.

There is no doubt that there is also a need for knowledgeable fuqaha' among the Muslims. There have to be people who are relatively expert in handling this material. However, we have to guard against one thing: there is no priesthood in Islam. The essence of priesthood is the taking of a salary for a religious post such as leading the prayer. The best result we could hope for from these two almost contrary expections - people expert in fiqh who abandon years of their life in order to learn this material and then to deny them a salary for their hard earned expertise - is that we get a class of traders who embody the halal trading practices of Islam, for then they would also keep the market transactions clean. This is not idealism. For example, the wonderful illuminated city of Timbuktu at its height was based on an elite of fuqaha' who were traders in the market place, and of course Imam Abu Hanifah, may Allah be merciful to him, was a trader and thus independent of the wealthy and the powerful.

However, since the route to 'ilm is clear, and ordinarily only begins after the complete memorisation of the Qur'an, and is an arduous and long task, and by and large few of us here have embarked on it, then today we are going to consider this first knowledge which is the less specialised knowledge of the ordinary Muslim. Since we live in a literate age, it has perhaps become necessary for us to understand some of the more arcane and peripheral matters of the knowledge of the 'ulama' because these matters have entered into public discourse, sometimes causing great confusion.

Useful Knowledge

With this work - Rijal: the narrators of the Muwatta' of Imam Muhammad - whose concern is authenticating the narrators of these noble hadith, then all of this context is doubly important since if we were to misunderstand these things, we would arrive at false results by the most authentic of transmissions, and that would be doubly ironic and doubly tragic.

Moreover, we are bound by the imperative of seeking 'useful knowledge', because of the well-known du'a of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, which I will give here in full since it is of so much interest.

Zayd ibn Arqam said:

"I will not say to you except as the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, used to say. He used to say, 'O Allah, I seek refuge with You from incapacity and laziness, cowardice and meanness, decrepit old age and the punishment of the grave. O Allah give my self its taqwa and purify it, You are the best to purify it. You are its Guardian Friend and its Master. O Allah, I seek refuge with you from useless knowledge, and from a heart that is not humble and from a self that is never satiated and from a supplication which is not answered.'" (Sahih Muslim)

Now the significance in this famous du'a of seeking refuge from useless knowledge is that knowledge must be used. Knowledge that is not used is useless. Therefore a theoretical fiqh that is not applied is something to be sought refuge from. The only possible reason to study this matter is to be able to put it into effect.

I am reminded of a story from an early Celtic monk, Columbanus and his exchange with Pope Gregory, and remember the pre-Islamic Celtic christians regarded themselves as distinct from the Roman Church. The Pope argued that the Roman Church had more claim to authenticity and authority than the Celts because of the burial of St. Peter in Rome. Columbanus accepted that claim, but wrote back, "Even so, a live dog is better than a dead lion."

We would say that a less excellent fiqh that is put into practice is better than a completely learned scholarly fiqh that is not put into practice. Being right is not everything; being pleasing to Allah is. A pure and contrite heart for one moment is better than a lifetime of being correct with a hard heart.

But let us take what is in front of us today, and see what of use we can get from it. It is a book about men who are narrators from the Muwatta'.

The Muwatta

The genesis of this work is in the task undertaken at the behest of Turath Publishing to translate the Muwatta' of Imam Muhammad, which is sometimes known as the Muwatta' of Imam Malik in the narration of Imam Muhammad. Although we prefer the former title as do the majority of hadith scholars, the point of departure which we will take is in considering this work as the Muwatta' of Imam Malik as narrated by Imam Muhammad.

The Muwatta' is one of the great mysteries of our literature, because for the ordinary literate, modern Muslim there hangs over it a question mark. "It must be a Maliki work and thus specialised, or it must be a fiqh work and not relevant as a work of hadith," and these misconceptions are only in the case of those who have actually heard about the Muwatta'. However, when we step into the literature of the scholars of hadith and fiqh, there is an undoubted air of awe at mention of the Muwatta' and of Imam Malik.

Many have heard of that famous quote of Imam ash-Shafi'i, may Allah be merciful to him,

"There is not on the face of the earth after the Book of Allah, a book which is more sahih than the Muwatta'."

But we know that he said this before the compilation of the two Sahih works of al-Bukhari and Muslim.

However, a much later scholar, a sultan of this science of hadith, Hafidh Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani said,

"The unqualified truth is that all of the Muwatta' is sahih without any exception."

Shah Wali Allah ad-Dihlawi (1114-1176AH) went even further and said something which is very sweeping,

"My breast expanded and I became certain that the Muwatta' is the most sahih book to be found on the earth after the Book of Allah."

So here we have not only a sahih book, possibly the most sahih book, about which most of us did not know much before, but one that proved decisive in the biography of no less a figure than Shah Wali Allah, and so exercised a decisive influence on the Islam of the sub-continent, and so on the Islam of many of us here in this country.

Note that the attachment of Shah Wali Allah nor that of the Deobandi school of today is not to this specific version of the Muwatta' but to the Muwatta' in general and specifically to the famous Muwatta' of Yahya, on which Mawlana Zakariya has written a very complete commentary.

The recording of hadith

So what do we know about this work?

Before advancing to that we need prior material on this matter of the recording of the hadith, for the Companions, with exceptions, did not write down the hadith fearing to mix them up with the Qur'an.

This is from as-Suyuti's Tarikh al-khulafa:

Ibn Umar related that Umar wished to record the sunan (customary practices of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and of his Companions), so he sought Allah's choice in the matter (through the supplication known as the istikharah) for a month. Then he arose one morning with a clear resolve and said, 'I remembered a people who were before you who wrote a book, and then they turned to it and abandoned the Book of Allah.'

This famous decision of Umar's is widely documented by the hadith scholars. It is said that he took counsel of the Companions all of whom agreed to his doing it, but he decided against it.

The next phase in the matter is the khalifate of Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, may Allah be merciful to him and be pleased with him. Now it is simply not good enough to understand this Umar as the saintly khalifah among the Bani Umayyah. The key to knowing who he was is that earlier in his career he was appointed the governor of Madinah under the Khalifah al-Walid. There he learned not only to love Madinah as do all the Muslims, but to understand the importance of the embodied and transmitted knowledge of the Sunnah of the populace (the 'amal), the knowledge of its scholars, and the fact of their reaching agreement on a large body of the Sunnah in Madinah itself. Thus, when through the act of Sulayman, may Allah be merciful to him, the Umayyad who appointed Umar his successor he ascended to the khalifate for the brief years that he did, Umar set about gathering knowledge of the Sunnah from Madinah and dispersing it in the lands of Islam. He also commanded the 'ulama' to begin recording the Sunnah, and it is from his reign that the recording of hadith is dated, since he is widely counted as one of the khulafa' ar-rashidun ô. Indeed one of the salaf remarked, "If there is a Mahdi, then it is Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz." In his time, the fiqh, the Sunnah and the hadith began to be recorded but usually not in any composed way.

Our next phase for our purpose begins with Mansur, the Abbasid khalifah.

The following is from Shaykh Ni'matullah, a contemporary shaykh of Hadith in Deoband.

The people of knowledge mention that Imam Malik's composition of the Muwatta' came about as the result of the suggestion of the Abbasid khalifah Abu Ja'far al-Mansur made during one of his Hajj journeys. Al-Mansur invited him to visit him and Abu Ja'far honoured him and made him sit beside him, asking him many questions. His [Malik's] manner, knowledge, intellect, the penetration of his thinking and the soundness of his responses pleased him and he recognised his station in knowledge, in the din, and as an imam of the Muslims.
The noted scholar and historian Qadi Imam Ibn Khaldun said in his Muqaddimah:
Abu Ja'far had a rank in knowledge and in the din before the khilafah and after it. It was he who said to Malik while indicating to him to compose the Muwatta', "Abu 'Abdullah, no one remains on the face of the earth more knowledgeable than me or you, but the khilafah has occupied me. You must compose a book for people by which they will benefit. In it you should avoid the concessions (rukhsah) that Ibn 'Abbas grants, the severities of Ibn 'Umar, and the unusual and singular positions (shadhdh) that Ibn Mas'ud takes. Arrange it and make it accessible (watti') for people." Malik said, "By Allah! He taught me composition on that day."
Imam Malik composed the Muwatta' according to the method which Abu Ja'far al-Mansur had indicated. He compiled the choicest of the hadith and the traditions narrated among the People of Madinah. He gathered the body of practices ('amal) which was transmitted by large numbers of one generation to large numbers of the next generation (tawatur), avoiding the concessions granted by Ibn 'Abbas, the severities of Ibn 'Umar and the singular and unusual positions adopted by Ibn Mas'ud. He confined himself to narrating only from the shaykhs of the People of Madinah except for six people: Abu'z-Zubayr from Makkah, Ibrahim ibn Abi 'Ablah from Sham, 'Abd al-Karim ibn Malik from al-Jazirah (north-west 'Iraq), 'Ata' ibn 'Abdullah from Khurasan, Humayd at-Tawil and Ayyub as-Sakhtiyani from Basra. He completed the work during the khilafah of al-Mahdi.
Thus was completed the composition of this book the Muwatta' in which Imam Malik collected the hadith of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, the judgements of the Companions and the Followers, and the view which he considered the consensus of the People of Madinah, from which he never departed. So he collected together the hadith in the widest sense and whatever was connected to them of the traditions of the first generation because they were the main point of reference for practical rulings.
Shaykh Ni'matu'llah al-A'dhami

Imam Malik

From the work before us, let us take some almost random comments by Shaykh 'Abd al-Hayy:

Al-Hakim said in al-Mustadrak, 'This [764] is a sahih hadith because of the unanimous agreement of the imams of transmission on the imamate of Malik and that he is completely reliable in everything which he narrates, since only the sahih exists in his narrations, particularly when in narration from the People of Madinah."
Ibn al-Hidha' said, "He ['Abdullah ibn Abi Habibah] is one of the men about whom it is sufficient to know that Malik narrated from them," as is in Sharh az-Zurqani.
Its commentator said, "Those things about which Malik said they 'reached' him are sahih, as Ibn 'Uyaynah said."

Here I would like to illuminate something in principle, which is this matter of those transmissions that are mursal, or they are as Imam Malik said "balaghani - it reached me," etc.

Al-A'mash said, "I said to Ibrahim, 'Give me something from Ibn Mas'ud with a chain of transmission.' He said, 'If I narrate you something from a man from 'Abdullah that is what I heard. If I say, "'Abdullah said..." then it is from more than one person.'"

What he is saying here is that the transmission which we late modern people would regard as being more sahih because the isnad is uninterrupted would be weaker than the one which he gives in the style of a mursal which the modern person would regard as weaker.

Malik narrated from him [Ibn Abi Salih], and he [Malik] is the judge concerning the shaykhs of Madinah, the discriminatory person who can discriminate gold from false gold.

Ash-Shafi'i said, 'If it had not been for Malik and Sufyan [Ibn 'Uyaynah] the knowledge of the Hijaz would have gone.'

The truth is that Malik is the one against whom others have to be measured in terms of memorisation and exact attention to detail...

Our shaykhs mention from Abu Hanifah that he [Zayd ibn 'Ayyash] is unknown, but his aspersion is refuted by saying that he is a trustworthy narrator and that Malik narrated from him in the Muwatta', and that he did not narrate from an unknown person.

Now the above from the eminent Shaykh is sufficient for us as to the absolutely trustworthy nature of Malik as a narrator and of the Muwatta' as a sahih book.

Let us now see what they said about Malik indicating what it was that made him a hadith transmitter of such a trustworthy nature. This I want to examine in some detail and at length, because we are in an age which proclaims a devotion to hadith but uses them in arugments and disputes, and so I think in this passage another spirit will become apparent to us. This is from a work by the great Shafi'i shaykh as-Suyuti, Is'af al-Mubatta' bi rijal al-Muwatta', which is one of the key works drawn upon by Shaykh Abdalhayy for this work which we are examining.


'Ali narrated from Habib al-Warraq, Malik's scribe, " Ad-Darawardi, Ibn Abi Hazim and Ibn Kinanah gave me a dinar to ask Malik about three men from whom he had not narrated, so I asked him. He bowed his head in silence and then he raised it and said, 'It is what Allah wills; there is no strength but by Allah,' which he used to say very often. Then he said, 'Habib, I came to this mosque at a time when there were seventy shaykhs in it of those who had reached the Companions of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and who narrated from the Followers, but we have not carried away knowledge from anyone but its people.'"
Bishr ibn 'Umar az-Zahwani said, "I asked Malik about a man, and he asked, 'Have you seen him in my books?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'If he had been a trustworthy narrator you would have seen him in my books.'"


Ahmad ibn Salih sad, "I do not know of anyone more given to sifting narrators and people of knowledge than Malik, and I do not know of him narrating from anyone about whom there was some [cause for concern]. He narrated from a whole [lot of] people none of whom are to be abandoned."


Mutarrif ibn 'Abdillah said [narrating] from Malik, "I left a whole group of the people of Madinah without taking anything of knowledge from them, and yet they were of those from whom knowledge was being taken. They were different sorts. Some of them lied but not concerning their knowledge and I left them because of their lying. Some of them were ignorant of what they had, so that for me it was not appropriate to take from them because of their ignorance. Some of them are found fault with because of a wrong theoretical understanding (ra'y saw')."
Ma'n ibn 'Isa said, "Malik used to say, 'Knowledge must not be taken from four, and it can be taken from anyone other than them: it must not be taken from a fool; nor should it be taken from someone of erroneous opinions (hawa) who calls others to his erroneous opinions; nor from a liar who lies while talking about people even though he is not suspect when narrating the hadith of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace; nor is it to be taken from a virtuous right-acting shaykh given to worship if he does not know what he is narrating.'" Ibrahim ibn al- Mundhir said, "I mentioned this account to Mutarrif ibn 'Abdillah and he said, 'I bear witness that I heard Malik say, "I reached shaykhs in this city who were people of virtue and of right action and who would narrate hadith but I heard nothing from any of them." Someone asked, "Why?" He said, "They did not know what they were narrating."'"
Isma'il ibn Abi Uways said, "I heard my maternal uncle Malik saying, 'This knowledge is a din, so look at who you take your din from. I met seventy people who said, "The Messenger of Allah said, may Allah bless him and grant him peace,..." around these pillars, and I took nothing from them, even though if any of them had been entrusted with the bait al-mal he would have acted in a trustworthy fashion, because they were not people of this business. Then Ibn Shihab came to us and we used to crowd around his door.'"


Ibn Wahb said, "I heard Malik saying, 'I reached people in this city who had attained to live a hundred years or a hundred and five, and nothing was taken from them, and fault was found with someone who took from them."

Ibn Wahb and Ashhab said, "Malik said, 'I went to see A'ishah bint Sa'd but I regarded her as a weak transmitter so I took nothing from her except her saying, "My father had a washtub from which he and all his family would do wudu'."'"

Mutarrif said, "Malik asked me, 'Does al-'Attan ibn Khalid narrate hadith?' I answered, 'Yes.' He said, 'We belong to Allah and to Him we are returning!' He said, 'I reached trustworthy people who would not narrate hadith.' I asked, 'Why?' He said, 'For fear of slips.'"

Ibn Wahb said, "Malik looked towards al-'Attan ibn Khalid and said, 'It has reached me that you take knowledge from this one.' I said, 'Of course.' So he said, 'We would not take hadith except from people of fiqh.' He said, 'I saw Ayyub as-Sakhtiyani in Makkah on two Hajjs and I wrote nothing down from him, but on the third I saw him sitting in the courtyard of Zamzam, and when the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, was mentioned in his presence he would weep so much that I felt mercy for him. So when I saw that I wrote down [Sunnah] from him.'"
Abu Mus'ab said, "Someone said to Malik, 'Why do you not take from the people of Iraq?' He said, 'I saw them coming here and taking [hadith and fiqh] from untrustworthy people so I said, "They are like that in their own country, and they take from those who are untrustworthy."'"
Al-Athram said, "I asked Ahmad ibn Hanbal about 'Amr ibn Abi 'Amr the mawla of al-Muttalib and he said, 'It increases his standing with me that Malik narrated from him.'"
Abu Sa'id ibn al-A'rabi said, "Yahya ibn Ma'in used to regard a man as trustworthy because of Malik's narrating from him. He was asked about more than a few people about whom he said, 'A trustworthy narrator; Malik narrated from him.'"


Qarad ibn Nuh said, "Malik mentioned something and so somone asked him, 'Who narrated that to you?' and he answered, 'We did not use to sit with fools.'" 'Abdullah ibn Ahmad ibn Hanbal said, "I heard my father when this statement was mentioned saying, 'There isn't a statement in the world greater than this among the eminent virtues of the people of knowledge, that Malik ibn Anas mentioned that he had never sat with a fool, and no one is safe from that apart from Malik.'"

This majestic statement of Imam Malik is amusing to us today, because you can hear in the question the modern, "What is your dalil akhi?"

Ibn Wahb said, "Malik said, 'I came upon people in Madinah whom if others had sought rain [from Allah] by means of them they would have been given water, and they had heard a great deal of knowledge and hadith, but I took nothing from any of them. That is because they had obligated themselves with fear of Allah and doing without, whereas this business - meaning hadith and fatwa - needs a man who has taqwa, scrupulousness, careful preservation [of knowledge], exacting mastery, knowledge, understanding, and knowing what comes out of his head and what will come to him tomorrow on the [Day of] Rising. As for doing without [the world] without exacting mastery and without ma'rifah, then there is no benefit in it, it is no proof, and knowledge is not to be taken from them.'"
Ma'n ibn 'Isa said, "I heard Malik saying,
'How many a brother I have in Madinah whose supplication I hope for but whose testimony I do not regard as valid.'"


Mansur ibn Salamah said, "We were with Malik and a man said to him, 'I have lived here for seventy days and have written down sixty hadith.' So Malik said, 'Sixty hadith; you think them not worth the trouble?' The man said, 'We would probably write them down in Kufa or in Iraq in a single session.' Malik said, 'What have we to do with Iraq? That is the abode of fighting; they fight at night and spend by day.'"


Clearly in this striking portrait of Malik as a narrator and 'alim there are many elements. The most important of which is that he would simply not listen to let alone narrate from fools or wrong people. Many hadith he did not hear because he would not allow himself to hear from any of those who were simply not totally trustworthy. He was intent on gathering the strongest and surest material for the Muslims, the Muwatta', the well-trodden path. Imam Ahmad, may Allah be merciful to him, recognised this as something unique to him. Every other hadith scholar gathered some hadith which they had later to discard because of the weakness of their narrators, or indeed which they failed to discard. And the discussion of the often undoubted merits of weak hadith is not really appropriate here, but is a worthy topic for another day.

Madinah and Kufa

In this passage from as-Suyuti there are elements which are clearly discordant, particularly to our modern ear, and they can be summed up in one word: Iraq. Iraq is mentioned by Malik with something close to hostility but at the least disparagement. Now Iraq is really a shorthand for Kufa. Thus we are here in need of understanding two cities, for it is out of this interaction that everything else will come, all of the madhhabs and the schools of Islam, both in fiqh and kalam: Madinah and Kufa. In this opposition and this contrast we will discover a very Qur'anic theme, this interplay of the opposites which is such a major thread of the Qur'an. Thus to understand this interplay we will have to ditch our football-club allegiances if we want to gain something precious.

Now we will have to identify these two cities as light and dark, but please do not see this in a Zoroastrian manner, but in the Muslim manner that sees the underlying unity in their interplay.


Madinah almost needs no introduction, but let us introduce her as if a stranger. Madinah is the abode of Islam and the abode of the Hijrah where much of the Qur'an was revealed. It is this unique city whose inhabitants stood by their Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in every situation. You have to grasp first that this was a city of entirely ordinary people, indeed very basic and simple people of fitrah. It was not a city of great philosophers, 'ulama' and not even of great warriors. Madinah was a small city, which we would call a town, in which the inhabitants were largely agriculturalists, as opposed to the Makkans who were traders. They were not nomads but settled people. With the infusion of the Muhajirun then two elements united. The Madinans were originally from Yemeni stock, and in the words of the Rasul, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, "Al-iman yamani - Iman is Yemeni." The Muhajirun were these northern Arabs of 'Adnan and Mudar, of that strand called al-'Arab al-musta'ribah - Arabized Arabs because they descended from non-Arabs, Ibrahim and Isma'il, peace be upopn both of them. Thus two polar opposites of the Arabs united in Madinah. The Qurayshi emigrants were traditionally traders who travelled widely to the north and the edges of the Byzantine and Persian empires and sometimes deeper into them, and to the south to the Yemen whose sailors brought back goods from India, China and Africa.

So this Madinah was the meeting point of these very different tribal groupings. In it there took place the sirah that you all know, the revelation of the surahs and ayat on the Shari'ah, and the Sunnah. All of this took shape in Madinah, with often small everyday incidents causing the revelation of Qur'an. The people of Madinah were careful because they knew that even actions done secretly in their houses were the occasion for revelation or were revealed to the Messenger. They knew that where there was no revelation on a matter, that it was a Divine affirmation of it by the simple absence of revelation about it.

During the life of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and after his death even more so, they were men and women engaged in digesting the significance of each word of the Qur'an and each matter of the Sunnah. They were told to stay together and to stay in Madinah, and except for those who selflessly left Madinah to be teachers and generals or fighters in the armies, the majority stayed there in obedience to the well known hadith of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.

There grew in this ambience to be a commonly accepted body of the Sunnah in Madinah which comprised transmission of what had actually been done as the last practice of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, as well as their reaching unanimity or majority agreement on other matters, as well as encapsulating new judgements arrived at on the basis of previous judgements. All of this was referred to by them and by Imam Malik as the 'amal - the practice. This practice was regarded by Imam Malik and by the people of Madinah as being weightier than hadith, so that we are sometimes astonished to see these early Madinans giving judgement contrary to a hadith which they very clearly knew. This 'amal was a very present part of most transmissions of the Muwatta', and is clearly the governing knowledge by which Imam Malik and the Madinans judged and decided.

Note that although both Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ash-Shaybani and Imam ash-Shafi'i wrote works arguing against some elements of this 'amal which we have not read, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah has written an entire work confirming its essential nature.


Kufa was created at the command of 'Umar ibn al-Khattab in the desert of Iraq facing into the rich cultivated lands because he did not want the Arabs to lose their hardihood, and it was settled with many of the nomadic tribes who had been apostates and who had been fought to bring them back into Islam. They redeemed themselves in the fighting against the Persians, but one has to remember this origin.

In that fighting, many slaves were taken and they contributed enormously to the population of Kufa. Great numbers of them accepted Islam, either immediately or over time.

Then there were a small group of the Companions, some of the most eminent of them: Abdallah ibn Mas'ud, Anas ibn Malik, al-Mughirah ibn Shu'bah, et al. Some were there as teachers, some as military leaders, some for a period as local amir, and then finally there was the khalifate of Sayyiduna Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him.

That khalifate and its relocation from Madinah to Iraq came about as many of you know in the civil war with Sayyiduna Mu'awiyah, may Allah be pleased with him. The centre of gravity in that fighting was to the North and so the men of Madinah were forced to come north, and Kufa proved to be their strategic move. This was to have very weighty consequences, for it gave the people of Kufa a sense of pride which no other city outside of Madinah had: Kufa had been a city of the Khalifate of one of the greatest of the Companions of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. This gave the Kufans a standing in their own eyes, and in the eyes of others of the Muslims. Moreover, a very strong and powerful intellectual tradition grew up there in fiqh, kalam, Arabic language, hadith and the other sciences of Islam

However, along with all of that, very disturbing things happened in Kufa. There were continual rebellions against their amirs, even eminent amirs from among the Companions. As-Suyuti transmitted:

Abu Hudbah al-Himsi said: Umar was told that the people of Iraq had pelted their amir with pebbles and he went out angry. He performed the prayer but was forgetful in his prayer. When he had completed the prayer, he said, 'O Allah, they have made me confused, so make them confused, and hasten with the youth of (the tribe of) Thaqif who will pass judgement among them with the judgement of Jahiliyyah, who will not accept from their good-doers and will not pass over their wrongdoers with pardon.' I say that this indicates al-Hajjaj. Ibn Lahi'ah said, 'Al-Hajjaj was not yet born at that time.'

In Kufa the first people appeared who fabricated hadith.

The movements first appeared which were to become the Khawarij, that fanatical puritanical movement which seceded from the army of Sayyiduna Ali and were later to murder him.

In Kufa there first appeared the theological argumentation that would result in the Mu'tazili heresy that would come to dominate the Abbasid khalifate and cause great fitnah for the Muslims.

The group called the Qadariyyah emerged there, as did their dialectal opposite the Murji'ah. These are two extreme interpretations of the nature of free will.

Thus you can see that Kufa was a hotbed of unrest both politically, religiously and intellectually. And yet this hotbed felt that it had a legitimate claim to be one of the great capital cities of Islam.

Abu Hanifah

In this city there grew a madhhab which was known initially as the madhhab of Iraq and came to be known as the madhhab of Abu Hanifah. Here you need to know all of this preceding material to understand the tremendous achievement of Abu Hanifah, may Allah be merciful to him. The Imam rescued a noble science of fiqh from out of this hotbed, thus proving the word which the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said and which the imams have always understood to refer to him: "Even if the din were in the Pleiades, a man from the Persians would have gone off with it," or he said, "From the sons of the Persians until he could comprehend it."

Hadith in Madinah and Kufa

To understand for our limited purposes here the contrast between this Madinan perspective and the Kufan one, I want to take two of the matters that I have already quoted.

First: Mansur ibn Salamah said, "We were with Malik and a man said to him, 'I have lived here for seventy days and have written down sixty hadith.' So Malik said, 'Sixty hadith; you think them not worth the trouble?' The man said, 'We would probably write them down in Kufa or in Iraq in a single session.' Malik said, 'What have we to do with Iraq? That is the abode of fighting; they fight at night and spend by day.'"

Here we can see, as we do in the report from Imam Muhammad, may Allah be pleased with him, who said that he learnt the Muwatta containing 700 hadith in three years, that Malik narrated less than one hadith a day. In other words, he did not narrate a hadith every day, but if he did narrate, it was more likely to be a single hadith. Malik himself recounts that in his keeping company with one of his great Shaykhs, Sa'id ibn al-Musayyab, may Allah be pleased with him, that Sa'id did not necessarily narrate any hadith or traditions at all in a day. So this was something of the very ethos of Madinah and its shaykhs.

Moreover, we know that when people went to Malik, he would ask them if they had come for fiqh and fatwa or for hadith. If they replied hadith, then he would go and perform wudu, make sure that he was dressed well, sit in dignity, have 'ud lit, etc., and then with great gravity he would narrate a hadith, and we have already seen with what caution he had gathered those hadith. In this narration from as-Suyuti then, Malik meets his opposite, for the man from Iraq was accustomed to learning fifty to sixty hadith in a day or even in a single session. These are clearly utterly different approaches.

With the first Madinan approach, you can almost but not quite dispense with the science of narrators, since Malik would only narrate from people who were completely trustworthy. If he did not trust a man, he would not sit down with him to learn.

There is a story, again from as-Suyuti, on this:

He said, 'I saw Ayyub as-Sikhtiyani in Makkah on two Hajjs and I wrote nothing down from him, but on the third I saw him sitting in the courtyard of Zamzam, and when the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, was mentioned in his presence he would weep so much that I felt mercy for him. So when I saw that I wrote down [hadith] from him.'

The very fact of narrators being in his book is considered by many of the people of hadith sufficient evidence of their high standing. However, with the second approach you need a scientific method to discriminate the narrators. There are so many narrations from so many narrators of such different qualities, that you have to weigh up a lot of material about their different qualities. So it is of the highest interest to us that Imam Muhammad comes to Madinah, for in the meeting of these two completely different approaches there is something very instructive for us.

Hadith and Ra'y

First of all, we will have to clear away an utterly nonsensical picture of what the difference was between the two traditions that has grown up among orientalists and even some of the Muslims. In this fallacious picture the people of the Hijaz are regarded as people of hadith and tradition, whereas the people of Iraq are people of ra'y which in this perspective is called opinion. This view then leads to the nonsensical perspective that Imam Abu Hanifah, may Allah be merciful to him, preferred his own opinion to known hadith, whereas Imam Malik would always cling to the hadith and never use this famous opinion or ra'y. However, we have already seen that Kufa and Iraq were fanatically concerned for hadith, whereas the Madinans used them with awe and respect but sparingly. Moreover, one of Malik's main shaykhs was Rabi'ah ar-Ra'y and Malik him was well known to be a man of this as-yet enigmatic quality.

We need to explicate then some things further and these are matters which the two great schools of thought agree on, but differ quite substantially from later schools, for just as the schools of Imam ash-Shafi'i and Imam Ahmad, may Allah be merciful to them, share many characteristics with Madinan fiqh given the clear line of transmission from Malik to ash-Shafi'i to Ahmad, yet there are elements in the two early madhhabs, that of Madinah and Iraq, which they have in common, which later schools were to abandon so that today people do not even recognise them.

We saw already in the quote from Ibrahim an-Nakha'i which we used and which throws light on the mursal hadith, that there has been a complete reversal of the understanding which many of the salaf had in this perspective. Now, almost without exception, we adhere to a very late viewpoint which is that there are sahih hadith, and these are often single lines of narrators each of whom is impeccable there being no breaks in the chain, and then there are less reliable hadith among which are mursal, mawquf and those which Malik prefaced by saying, "Balaghani - it has reached me." We saw that some mursal hadith, i.e. hadith narrated by a Follower without naming the Companion or Companions from whom he heard it, are potentially stronger than sahih, since they may well have been heard from a number of Companions rather than a single narrator, and so the Shaykh narrates them without naming any one narrator since to name a single narrator would be to weaken his isnad.

Then we have the matter of the mawquf. These are hadith from Companions in which they do not say that they heard them from the Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. There are famous examples about which we know from other routes of transmission that they are indeed from him, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. Why would that be?

He [Malik] said, 'I reached trustworthy people who would not narrate hadith.' I [Mutarrif ] asked, 'Why?' He said, 'For fear of slips.'

This matter is very illuminating for us, because they have not ascribed them to him, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, for fear of attributing something to him, even if very slightly, that he had not said. This fear was something that characterised a great number of the salaf: Companions, Followers and Followers of the Followers. This explains a great deal about Imam Abu Hanifah's use of a smaller number of hadith in comparison to his usage of reports from the Companions. Like them, he did not wish to attribute anything to the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, that he was not completely sure of in every way. Therefore, he relied more on the Companions because it is known that they did not do things from their own opinions, but adhered to what they had seen and heard of the Sunnah. Therefore, each judgement or account of a Companion's behaviour is an unspoken hadith. Therefore the use of fewer hadith is not an example of disrespect for the Sunnah but of tremendous respect and awe for it.

We have seen already that Kufa is characterised by this tremendous appetite for knowledge of the Sunnah and because the Sunnah is not from there but from Madinah, then they are perforce in need of getting as many reports as possible from anyone who comes from Madinah. Thus of necessity, the Kufans must get every scrap, and because every scrap is not equally valuable nor every narrator equally veracious, then there had to be a science for assessing all of this sometimes conflicting material, which was greatly enlarged by the differing views of different Companions, and this science is initially alluded to as ra'y. And because ra'y comes from the verb 'to see' i.e. intellectually with the mind's eye, then I have translated it not by the word opinion but by the phrase 'theoretical understanding', since similarly 'theory' comes from the Greek verb 'to see'. But of course, the word 'opinion' is not completely wrong, for we might put it that it is a 'view', it is an actual seeing of how it is.

Imam ash-Shafi'i and Muhammad ibn al-Hasan

The next stage in our tale of two cities is then when the pupil of Imam Malik, Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi'i goes to Kufa and meets the pupil of Imam Abu Hanifah and of Malik and there makes a kind of scientific synthesis but again from our perspective as a common denominator leaving out one of the key matters, the 'amal practice of the People of Madinah.


So we set out to look at knowledge not from the point of view that we are 'ulama' but that we are ordinary Muslims seeking that knowledge that will help us to discharge our obligations in this time, and since people have opened this door on to matters ordinarily reserved for the 'ulama' then we have perforce to know something about these matters just as a part of our being knowledgeable Muslims.

But the core of what we need is the knowledge of tawhid and of the obligations of Islam, and finally of how we are able to transact with money and the ordinary transactions. There are things that will give that a focus for that: first, that it is for action and not for theory, discussion and debate. Just as our beginning point is Madinah with the Companions around the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, our end point and goal may be summed up as building Madinah in our lands where we now live, for if we are not engaged in doing that we are obligated to go to where we can live as Muslims, to Dar al-Islam if any is to be found on this planet.

In this concept of building Madinah, we find benefit in what we have talked about, because we owe it to Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi that he has called the Muwatta' "a blueprint for an illuminated city". It is a plan laid out on which basis we can build a city, but this city's foundations, walls and roofs are transactions and behaviour. The weighty foundation of it are the voluminous chapters on trade, buying and selling and the ordinary transactions of life. Its pillars are the five of Islam.

There are threads which we can follow through this work.

First, dhikr. In brief I will only refer you to what Ibn Juzayy, may Allah be merciful to him, said in his tafsir.

Second, amirate. The presence of Muslim amirs is very strong in the Muwatta', receiving counsel, sending others to gain counsel from the Companions, forming judgements and rulings. One sees how essential it is for Muslim life that there be an amir in the community.

Third, the revival of zakat. This neglected pillar is an act of worship and thus the same as the salat - not a social welfare - thus it ought to be done as the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, did it. That means collected by zakat collectors appointed by an amir and distributed by them to the known categories.

The final thread that is throughout the Muwatta' or indeed any work of hadith and fiqh, and that is gold, specifically the gold dinar. This was what people paid the zakat with and it was what people traded and did business with.

Given the foundations - a strong knowledge of non-usurious trade in the marketplace, and the pillars of Islam especially the restored pillar of zakat and the re-introduction of the gold dinar and silver dirham for it, then we are able to turn to the more luminous aspects of our din. That is pointed out in one hadith whose resonances echo through all of the Qur'an and the Sunnah. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said:

I have only been sent to perfect the noble generous qualities of character.

We accept that Allah ta'ala has put us here for a reason, and we accept that Europe and the West becoming Muslim would not be a greater miracle than the acceptance of Islam by much of the Byzantine empire and the Persians and lands to the east and west, north and south.

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