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Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani and his Commentary

© Abdal-Hakim Murad

(Introduction to the translation of Ibn Hajar’s commentary on selected hadith, published as a booklet by the Muslim Academic Trust.)

The booklet intends to introduce non-Arabic speakers to one of the most seminal genres of Muslim religious literature, namely, the hadith commentary. It is surprising that no serious translations at present exist from this voluminous and influential body of writing, given that there are few hadith which can be understood adequately without reference to the often complex debates which have taken place concerning them between the scholars. These discussions have included investigations of the precise linguistic and lexicological meaning of the Prophetic speech, studies of the isnad, debates over the circumstances surrounding the genesis of each hadith (asbab al-wurud), and issues of abrogation by stronger or later hadiths or by Qur’anic texts. Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna, the great early hadith scholar, used to remark: al-hadith madilla illa li’l-‘ulama’: ‘the hadith are a pitfall, except for the scholars.’ For this reason no Muslim scholar of repute uses a hadith before checking the commentaries to ascertain its precise meaning, context, and application.

The importance of this literature may be gauged by the fact that at least seventy full commentaries have been written on Imam al-Bukhari’s great Sahih. The best-known of these include al-Kawakib al-Darari by Imam Shams al-Din al-Kirmani (d. AH 786), ‘Umdat al-Qari by Imam Badr al-Din al-‘Ayni (d.855), and the Irshad al-Sari by Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Qastallani (d.923). However the most celebrated is without question the magnificent Fath al-Bari (‘Victory of the Creator’) by Imam Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, a work which was the crown both of its genre and of the Imam’s academic career. It is appreciated by the ulema for the doctrinal soundness of its author, for its complete coverage of Bukhari’s material, its mastery of the relevant Arabic sciences, the wisdom it shows in drawing lessons (fawa’id) from the hadiths it expounds, and its skill in resolving complex disputes over variant readings. For Bukhari’s text has not come down to us in a single uniform version, but exists in several ‘narrations’ (riwayat), of which the version handed down by al-Kushmayhani (d.389) on the authority of Bukhari’s pupil al-Firabri is the one most frequently accepted by the ulema. This is, for example, why the new and definitive edition of the Sahih, through the authorised narration of the best-known hadith scholar of recent times, Shaykh al-Hadith ‘Abdallah ibn al-Siddiq al-Ghimari, uses the Firabri version (for this text see www.thesaurus-islamicus.li). Ibn Hajar frequently uses the Kushmayhani variant as his standard text, but gives his reasons, often in complex detail, for preferring other readings where these seem to have particular merit. In doing this he makes it clear that he is authorised, through the ijaza-system, for all the riwayat he cites.


Ibn Hajar considered the hadith collection of Imam Muhammad ibn Isma‘il al-Bukhari (AH 194-256), entitled al-Jami‘ al-Sahih (‘The Sound Comprehensive Collection’), to be the most reliable of all the hadith collections of Islam. His respect for the compiler was no less total, as is evident from the short biography which he offers of him, which portrays him as a saint as well as a scholar. He recounts, on Firabri’s eye-witness authority, how the imam would make ghusl and pray two rak‘as before including any hadith in his work, and always carried on his person one of the hairs of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). He collected his Sahih in Khurasan, and arranged it in the sanctuary at Mecca, and completed it while seated between the minbar and the Blessed Prophetic Tomb in Madina. His miracles (karamat) are numerous and well-attested. Once, after helping to build a fortress to defend the Muslim community, he provided the labourers with three small coins’ worth of bread, but even though there were a hundred labourers, there was enough for all. Despite his abstemious personal habits, he was endlessly generous to his students. One of his scribes, Muhammad ibn Abi Hatim, said: ‘When I was with him on a journey we would stay in a single room together, and I would see him rising fifteen or twenty times in a night to light the lantern, and work on an isnad, after which he would lie down again. I asked him: “Why do you impose all of this on yourself instead of waking me?” and he would reply, “You are a young man, and I don’t wish to interrupt your sleep.”’ Ibn Abi Hatim further related: ‘I once saw al-Bukhari in a dream. He was walking behind the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), setting his feet directly in the Prophet’s footsteps.’ And when he was lowered into his grave, a perfume like musk poured out from it. ‘So many people took dust from his grave,’ recalled another of his students, ‘that we had to place a wooden fence around it.’

Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi narrated that ‘Abd al-Wahid ibn Adam said: ‘I once saw the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), with a group of his companions, in a dream. He was standing, and I greeted him, and when he returned my greeting, I said: “Why are you standing here, O Messenger of Allah?” and he replied: “I am waiting for Muhammad ibn Isma‘il.” A few days later the news of al-Bukhari’s death reached me, and when I checked I realised that he had died at the moment when I beheld that dream.’


Abu’l-Fadl Ahmad ibn Hajar’s family originated in the district of Qabis in Tunisia. Some members of the family had settled in Palestine, which they left again when faced with the Crusader threat, but he himself was born in Egypt in 773, the son of the Shafi‘i scholar and poet Nur al-Din ‘Ali and the learned and aristocratic Tujjar. Both died in his infancy, and he was later to praise his elder sister, Sitt al-Rakb, for acting as his ‘second mother’. The two children became wards of the brother of his father’s first wife, Zaki al-Din al-Kharrubi, who entered the young Ibn Hajar in a Qur’anic school (kuttab) when he reached five years of age. Here he excelled, learning Surat Maryam in a single day, and progressing to the memorisation of texts such as the Mukhtasar of Ibn al-Hajib on usul. By the time he accompanied al-Kharrubi to Mecca at the age of 12, he was competent enough to lead the Tarawih prayers in the Holy City, where he spent much time studying and recalling God amid the pleasing simplicity of Kharrubi’s house, the Bayt al-‘Ayna’, whose windows looked directly upon the Black Stone. Two years later his protector died, and his education in Egypt was entrusted to the hadith scholar Shams al-Din ibn al-Qattan, who entered him in the courses given by the great Cairene scholars al-Bulqini (d.806) and Ibn al-Mulaqqin (d.804) in Shafi‘i fiqh, and of Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi (d.806) in hadith, after which he was able to travel to Damascus and Jerusalem, where he studied under Shams al-Din al-Qalqashandi (d.809), Badr al-Din al-Balisi (d.803), and Fatima bint al-Manja al-Tanukhiyya (d.803). After a further visit to Mecca and Madina, and to the Yemen, he returned to Egypt.

When he reached 25 he married the lively and brilliant Anas Khatun, then 18 years of age. She was a hadith expert in her own right, holding ijazas from Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi, and she gave celebrated public lectures in the presence of her husband to crowds of ulema among whom was Imam al-Sakhawi. After the marriage, Ibn Hajar moved into her house, where he lived until his death. Many noted how she surrounded herself with the old, the poor and the physically handicapped, whom it was her privilege and pleasure to support. So widely did her reputation for sanctity extend that during her fifteen years of widowhood, which she devoted to good works, she received a proposal from Imam ‘Alam al-Din al-Bulqini, who considered that a marriage to a woman of such charity and baraka would be a source of great pride.

Once esconced in Egypt, Ibn Hajar taught in the Sufi lodge (khaniqah) of Baybars for some twenty years, and then in the hadith college known as Dar al-Hadith al-Kamiliyya. During these years, he served on occasion as the Shafi‘i chief justice of Egypt.

It was in Cairo that the Imam wrote some of the most thorough and beneficial books ever added to the library of Islamic civilisation. Among these are al-Durar al-Kamina (a biographical dictionary of leading figures of the eighth century), a commentary on the Forty Hadith of Imam al-Nawawi (a scholar for whom he had particular respect); Tahdhib al-Tahdhib (an abbreviation of Tahdhib al-Kamal, the encyclopedia of hadith narrators by al-Mizzi), al-Isaba fi tamyiz al-Sahaba (the most widely-used dictionary of Companions), and Bulugh al-Maram min adillat al-ahkam (on Shafi‘i fiqh).

In 817, Ibn Hajar commenced the enormous task of assembling his Fath al-Bari. It began as a series of formal dictations to his hadith students, after which he wrote it out in his own hand and circulated it section by section to his pupils, who would discuss it with him once a week. As the work progressed and its author’s fame grew, the Islamic world took a close interest in the new work. In 833, Timur’s son Shahrukh sent a letter to the Mamluk sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay requesting several gifts, including a copy of the Fath, and Ibn Hajar was able to send him the first three volumes. In 839 the request was repeated, and further volumes were sent, until, in the reign of al-Zahir Jaqmaq, the whole text was finished and a complete copy was dispatched. Similarly, the Moroccan sultan Abu Faris ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hafsi requested a copy before its completion. When it was finished, in Rajab 842, a great celebration was held in an open place near Cairo, in the presence of the ulema, judges, and leading personages of Egypt. Ibn Hajar sat on a platform and read out the final pages of his work, and then poets recited eulogies and gold was distributed. It was, says the historian Ibn Iyas, ‘the greatest celebration of the age in Egypt.’

Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Hajar departed this life in 852. His funeral was attended by ‘fifty thousand people’, including the sultan and the caliph; ‘even the Christians grieved.’ He was remembered as a gentle man, short, slender, and white-bearded, a lover of chess and calligraphy, much inclined to charity; ‘good to those who wronged him, and forgiving to those he was able to punish.’ A lifetime’s proximity to the hadith had imbued him with a deep love of the Messenger (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), as is shown nowhere more clearly than in the poetry assembled in his Diwan, an original manuscript of which has been preserved at the Egyptian National Library. A few lines will suffice to show this well:

By the gate of your generosity stands a sinner, who is mad with love,
O best of mankind in radiance of face and countenance!
Through you he seeks a means [tawassala], hoping for Allah’s forgiveness of slips;
from fear of Him, his eyelid is wet with pouring tears.
Although his genealogy attributes him to a stone [hajar],
how often tears have flowed, sweet, pure and fresh!
Praise of you does not do you justice, but perhaps,
In eternity, its verses will be transformed into mansions.
My praise of you shall continue for as long as I live,
For I see nothing that could ever deflect me from your praise.

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