By GF Haddad
Muhammad ibn Jarir ibn Yazid ibn Kathir, Abu Ja`far al-Tabari (d. 310), one of the major mujtahid Imams and the founder of a school of Law which remained for 150 years after his death, then disappeared. He is the author of a massive commentary on the Qur’an; an equally large universal history; a biographical history entitled Tarikh al-Rijal; an encyclopedia of jurisprudence entitled al-Basit and a medium-sized work entitled Latif al-Qawl fi Ahkam Shara’i` al-Islam, which he abridged into a smaller work; a book on the dialects and sciences of the Qur’an entitled al-Qira’at wa al-Tanzil wa al-`Adad; the unfinished book of al-Fada’il on the immense merits of the Companions; al-Manasik on the rituals of Pilgrimage; Sharh al-Sunna (“Explanation of the Sunna”); al-Musnad (“Narrations With Uninterrupted Chains”); the unfinished Tahdhib al-Athar (“Classification of Transmitted Reports”); Tabsir Uli al-Nahi (“Admonishment for the Wise”) for the people of Tabaristan; Ma`alim al-Huda (“Sign-Posts of Guidance”); Ikhtilaf al-Fuqaha’ (“The Differences Among the Jurists”); Tartib al-`Ulama’ (“Classification of the Scholars of Knowledge”) etc. Al-Dhahabi praises the latter book and mentions that al-Tabari begins it with the rules of conduct for the purification of the self and the sayings of the Sufis.
In one of his classes al-Tabari asked: “What is the status of one who says: Abu Bakr and `Umar are not two Imams of guidance?” Ibn al-A`lam replied: “He is an innovator.” Al-Tabari said: “An innovator? Just an innovator? Such a person is put to death! Whoever claims that Abu Bakr and `Umar are not two Imams of guidance is definitely put to death!”1
Al-Tabari limited his Tafsir of the Qur’an and his great history to thirty volumes each out of compassion for his students, as he originally intended to write three hundred volumes respectively. Al-Khatib heard the linguist `Ali ibn `Ubayd Allah al-Lughawi say: “Muhammad ibn Jarir spent forty years writing forty pages a day.” Abu Hamid al-Isfarayini the faqih said: “If a man travelled all the way to China in order to obtain the Tafsir of Muhammad ibn Jarir it would not be too much.” This alludes to the hadith narrated from the Prophet — Allah bless and greet him –: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.”2 Husaynak ibn `Ali al-Naysaburi said the first question Ibn Khuzayma asked him was: “Did you write anything from Muhammad ibn Jarir?” Husaynak said no. Why? came the reply. Husaynak said: “He would not show himself, and the Hanbalis forbade people from going in to see him.” Ibn Khuzayma said: “You did poorly. To write from him alone would have been better for you than all those from whom you wrote.” Ibn Khuzayma himself had read al-Tabari’s Tafsir in seven months, after which he said: “I known not, on the face of the earth, anyone more knowledgeable than Abu Ja`far [al-Tabari], and the Hanbalis were unjust towards him.”3
The Caliph al-Muktafi requested al-Tabari to write a certain book for him. When it was finished, a gift was produced for him but he refused to take it. He was told: “You must ask for some need, whatever it is.” He replied: “I ask the Commander of the Faithful to forbid panhandling on the day of Jum`a.” This was done as he requested.4
In Ikhtilaf al-Fuqaha’ al-Tabari mentions the differences of opinion between Malik, al-Awza`i, Sufyan al-Thawri, al-Shafi`i, Abu Hanifah, Abu Yusuf, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, and Abu Thawr. He mentions some of the jurists among the Companions, the Successors, and their Followers until the second century. When he was asked for the reason why he did not mention Imam Ahmad in his book he replied that Ahmad was not a jurist (faqih) but a hadith scholar (muhaddith). The followers of the Hanbali school disapproved of this and reportedly roused the people against him, preventing visitors and students from visiting him in the daytime, and he died and was buried in his house.
Al-Tabari’s reply is neither new nor unique of its kind. Several of those who wrote about the differences among jurists did not mention Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Among them: Al-Tahawi, al-Dabbousi, al-Nasafi, `Ala’ al-Din al-Samarqandi, al-Firahi al-Hanafi (one of the scholars of the seventh century) in his book Dhat al-`Uqdayn, and others of the Hanafis who wrote on the subject, all omitted him. Ibn al-Fardi said in his chronicle of the scholars of al-Andalus, upon mentioning Abu Muhammad `Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Asili al-Maliki, that the latter wrote a book concerning the differences of Malik, al-Shafi`i, and Abu Hanifa called al-Dala’il fi Ummahat al-Masa’il (“The Proofs For The Paramount Questions”). He states:
The author of Kashf al-Zunun said that Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Rahman al-Samarqandi al-Sakhawi5 who died in Mardin in 721 in `Umdat al-Talib li Ma`rifa al-Madhahib (“The Reliance of the Student of the Knowledge of the Schools”) mentioned the differences among jurists and said in the end: `I placed in my book the views of al-Nu`man [Abu Hanifa], Ya`qub [Abu Yusuf], Muhammad [ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani] and their excellent companions, also Shafi`i, Malik, and all in which they differed with the Shi`as. May Allah give them life and every reward.’ Therefore the position of Ahmad in his view is lesser than the Three, and similar to that of Dawud al-Zahiri and the Shi`a.6
Nor did al-Ghazzali, who also wrote about ikhtilaf, mention Ahmad in his Wajiz; nor did Abu al-Barakat al-Nasafi in his al-Wafi. As for the authors of books of history and geography, Ibn Qutayba did not mention Ahmad in Kitab al-Ma`arif; al-Maqdisi does mention him in Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ashab al-Hadith, but he does not include him among the Ashab al-Fiqh, while he includes Dawud al-Zahiri. Ibn `Abd al-Barr wrote al-Intiqa’ fi Fada’il al-Thalatha al-Fuqaha’ (“The Hand-Picked Excellent Merits of the Three Great Jurisprudent Imams: Malik, Shafi`i, and Abu Hanifa”). The anonymous `Umda al-`Arifin (“Reliance of the Knowers”) mentions as the fourth of the Four Imams not Ahmad, but Sufyan al-Thawri. Al-Ghazzali said: “He and Ahmad were of the most famous Imams for their strong fear of Allah, and for the small number of their followers. As for now, the School of Sufyan is abandoned, and the consensus of the Muslims is around the four known schools.” Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi in his biographies of the scholars of Baghdad, similarly reserves the highest level of jurisprudence for al-Shafi`i, while he names Ahmad “the master of hadith scholars” (sayyid al-muhaddithin).
Was al-Tabari a Shafi`i? Abu Muhammad al-Farghani – one of the most important narrators of the books of al-Tabari – is reported in the books of history as saying: “Harun ibn `Abd al-`Aziz related to me: Abu Ja`far al-Tabari said to me: `I have given rulings according to the fiqh of al-Shafi`i for ten years in Baghdad, and Ibn Bashshar al-Ahwal (the teacher of Ibn Surayj) took it from me.’ When al-Tabari’s learning increased, his striving and research led him to produce all that he produced from among the categories of knowledge in his books, and he left nothing except he gave Muslims advice about it.” The authors of the books of biographical layers (Tabaqat) are unanimous that he is a mujtahid mutlaq (capable of independent legal reasoning), but they differ on the question whether he is also at the same time a follower of the Shafi`i school like Abu Thawr, who is considered both a mujtahid mutlaq and a follower of al-Shafi`i.7 Al-Asnawi and al-Sharqawi did not mention him in their biographies of the Shafi`is, while [Abu Ishaq] al-Shirazi says in the introduction to his “Biographical-Layers [of the Jurists]” that he is considered outside the Shafi`is. Ahmad Ibn Qasim al-`Abbadi (d. ~1585CE) says “he is among our scholars” in the Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyyin. Rafi`i in al-Muharrar says: “Due to his differences, Ibn Jarir is no longer considered of those in our madhhab, although he is counted among the layers of the companions of al-Shafi`i.” Nawawi mentions this in Tahdhib al-Asma’ wa al-Lughat. This important distinction is often overlooked by the chroniclers who are interested in enlarging the numbers of their imam’s followers and including prestigious names among them, such as Ibn Abi Ya`la’s inclusion of Abu `Ubayd Ibn Sallam in Tabaqat al-Hanabila, and Ibn al-Subki’s inclusion of al-Bukhari in Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyya.
An incident was related to have taken place between al-Tabari and some Hanbalis in Baghdad over the explanation of the verse of the Exalted Station [17:79], whereby al-Tabari reportedly to have recited:
subhana man laysa lahu anisun wa ma lahu fi `arshihi jalisu Glory to Him Who has no comrade nor companion sitting with Him on His Throne!
Upon hearing this, the account goes, the irate Hanbalis pelted al-Tabari with their inkwells and he sought shelter in his house.8 The report seems dubious in light of al-Tabari’s lengthy defense, in his Tafsir, of Mujahid’s narration of the Prophet’s — Allah bless and greet him — seating on the Throne next to Allah. Al-Tabari went to great length to show that the report is authentic from the perspectives both of transmission and reason as we mentioned in Part Four of this book. Furthermore, Ibn al-Jawzi’s report is not found anywhere else. What is well-established is that the Hanbalis persecuted al-Tabari for failing to mention Imam Ahmad in his book as we showed. Another reason mentioned by al-Dhahabi, was the antagonism between al-Tabari and the Hanbali Abu Bakr ibn Abi Dawud, who falsely accused him of being a Rafidi. May Allah have mercy on them. SAN 11:291-301 #2696.
1In Ibn Hajar, Lisan al-Mizan (5:101).
2Narrated from Anas by al-Bayhaqi in Shu`ab al-Iman and al-Madkhal, Ibn `Abd al-Barr in Jami` Bayan al-`Ilm, and al-Khatib through three chains at the opening of his al-Rihla fi Talab al-Hadith (p. 71-76 #1-3) where our shaykh Dr. Nur al-Din `Itr declares it weak (da`if). Also narrated from Ibn `Umar, Ibn `Abbas, Ibn Mas`ud, Jabir, and Abu Sa`id, all through very weak chains. The hadith master al-Mizzi said it has so many chains that it deserves a grade of fair (hasan), as quoted by al-Sakhawi in al-Maqasid al-Hasana. Al-`Iraqi in his Mughni `an Haml al-Asfar similarly stated that some scholars declared it sound (sahih) for that reason, although al-Hakim and al-Dhahabi correctly said no sound chain is known for it. Ibn `Abd al-Barr’s “Salafi” editor Abu al-Ashbal al-Zuhayri declares the hadith hasan in Jami` Bayan al-`Ilm (1:23ff.) but all the above fair gradings actually apply to the wording: “Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.” The first to declare this hadith forged is Ibn al-Qaysarani (d. 507) in his Ma`rifa al-Tadhkira (p. 101 #118). This grading was kept by Ibn al-Jawzi in his Mawdu`at but rejected, among others, by al-Suyuti in al-La’ali’ (1:193), al-Mizzi, al-Dhahabi in Talkhis al-Wahiyat, al-Bajuri’s student Shams al-Din al-Qawuqji (d. 1305) in his book al-Lu’lu’ al-Marsu` (p. 40 #49), and notably by the Indian muhaddith Muhammad Tahir al-Fattani (d. 986) in his Tadhkira al-Mawdu`at (p. 17) in which he declares it hasan. Al-Munawi, like Ibn `Abd al-Barr, gave an excellent explanation of the hadith in his Fayd al-Qadir (1:542). See also its discussion in al-`Ajluni’s Kashf al-Khafa’ under the hadith: “Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim,” itself a fair (hasan) narration in Ibn Majah because of its many chains as stated by al-Mizzi, although al-Nawawi in his Fatawa (p. 258) declared it weak. Cf. al-Sindi’s Hashya Sunan Ibn Majah (1:99) and al-Sakhawi’s al-Maqasid al-Hasana (p. 275-277).
3Narrated by Ibn al-Athir in al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh (8:134-136) [year 310]; al-Khatib in Tarikh Baghdad (2:164); Ibn Kathir in al-Bidaya (11:166); and al-Dhahabi in the Siyar (11:294, 297 #2696).
4The Prophet -Allah bless and greet him – said: “Whoever begs people for money so that he can accumulate it is asking for a hot coal. Therefore let one [who begs] take little, and consider it much.” Narrated from Abu Hurayra by Muslim and Ahmad. And: “One of you keeps begging until when he meets Allah Most High, there is not a piece of flesh left on his face.” Narrated from Ibn `Umar by Bukhari and Muslim. See the Reliance of the Traveller (p. 774, r39.0) for the legal ruling on begging.
5This is not Ibn Hajar’s student Shams al-Din Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Sakhawi al-Shafi`i, who died in 902 in Madina and is buried in al-Baqi` near the grave of Imam Malik – may Allah be well pleased with them.
6The claim that Ahmad’s jurisprudence is similar to that of the Shi`a is strange, but its resemblance to the Zahiri school has often been suggested.
7Imam al-Suyuti also described himself as both a mujtahid mutlaq and a follower of the Shafi`i school in his book al-Radd `Ala Man Akhlada Ila al-Ard wa Jahila Anna al-Ijtihada Fi Kulli `Asrin Fard (“The Refutation of Those Who Cling to the Earth and Ignore That Scholarly Striving is a Religious Obligation in Every Age”).
8Frederik Kern cites this account in his introduction to his edition of al-Tabari’s Ikhtilaf al-Fuqaha’ (Cairo, 1902).
Allah’s blessings and peace on the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions, and Praise belongs to Allah, Lord of the worlds.