by Dr. Gibril Fouad Haddad
Muhammad Zahid ibn Hasan al-Kawthari al-Hanafi al-Ash‘ari (1296-1371), the adjunct to the last Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Caliphate and a major Hanafi jurist praised by Imam Muhammad Abu Zahra as a Reviver (mujaddid) of the fourteenth Islamic century. He studied under his father as well as the scholar of Qur’an and hadith Ibrahim Haqqi (d. 1345), Shaykh Zayn al-‘Abidin al-Alsuni (d. 1336), Shaykh Muhammad Khalis al-Shirwani, al-Hasan al-Aztuwa’i, and others. When the Caliphate fell he moved to Cairo, then Sham, then Cairo again until his death, where the late Shaykhs ‘Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda and ‘Abd Allah al-Ghumari became his students. Following is his prestigious chain of transmission in fiqh:
Imam al-Kawthari (d. 1371) took fiqh from his father, and also from the hadith master Ibrahim Haqqi (d. 1345) and from Shaykh Zayn al-’Abidin al-Alsuni (d. 1336).
Al-Kawthari’s father took fiqh from the hadith master Ahmad Dya’ al-Din al-Kamushkhanawi al-Naqshbandi (d. 1311) the author of the hadith index Ramuz al-Ahadith.
who took fiqh from Sayyid Ahmad al-Arwadi (d. 1275)
who took fiqh from the hadith master Muhammad Amin, Ibn ‘Abidin (d. 1252), whose chain is given elsewhere.
Both Haqqi and Alsuni took fiqh from the hadith master Ahmad Shakir (d. 1315)
Al-Kardari took fiqh from the author of the Hidaya, Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Bakr al-Marghinani (d. 593)
while Sadr al-Islam took fiqh from Isma’il ibn ‘Abd al-Sadiq
Al-Shaybani took fiqh from the founder of the madhhab Imam Abu Hanifa al-Nu‘man (d. 150)
‘Alqama and al-Aswad took fiqh from ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud (d. 32),
while al-Sulami took fiqh from Sayyiduna ‘Ali who was martyred in Kufa in the month of Ramadan of the year 40.
Both Ibn Mas‘ud and Sayyiduna ‘Ali took from the Seal of Prophets and Leader of the Radiant-faced ones, the Master of the First and the Last among angels, jinn, and human beings including Prophets and Messengers: who was taken to the Highest Company in the late morning of the Second Day of the week, the 13th of the month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal in the year 11, the blessings and greeting of Allah upon him, honor, generosity, and mercy, and upon his excellent and chaste Family as well as his pure and Godfearing Companions.
A tireless scholar, there is apparently no field of the Islamic sciences in which al-Kawthari did not have a well-founded claim to authority. He edited and brought back into circulation countless classical books of fiqh, hadith, and usûl after he moved to Cairo. A staunch Ash‘ari, he held an extremely critical view of anti-Ash‘aris, considering Ibn Taymiyya an unmitigated anthropomorphist. Among the books he authored as listed by his student Ahmad Khayri:
Bulugh al-Amani fi Sira al-Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani, a biography of the foremost Hanafi authority after Imam Abu Hanifa.
Al-Fara’id al-Wafiya [or: al-Fawa’id al-Kafiya] fi ‘Ilmay al-‘Arud wa al-Qafya ("The Abundant Peerless Matters in the Two Sciences of Prosody and Rhyme"), published without the name of the author.
Fiqh Ahl al-‘Iraq ("The Jurisprudence of the Iraqi Scholars"), less than a hundred pages in length, it is one of the great works on the remarkable character of Hanafi fiqh and its school and contains useful definitions of key concepts such as analogy (qiyâs), scholarly exertion (ijtihâd), and discretion (istihsân) as well as biographical notices on the most eminent figures of the Hanafi school. It was meticulously commented upon by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda. Excerpts:
(In praise of al-Zayla‘i) "If the students of fiqh find one among the hadith masters who is profoundly learned and truly insightful without being taken over by vain lusts – let them hold onto him tooth and nail, for such a type is, among them, as rare as red sulphur."
• Bid‘a al-Sawtiyya Hawl al-Qur’an ("The Innovation of Asserting Pre-Existence for Qur’an-Recitation") in which he states: "It is a fact that the Qur’an as found on the Tablet, on Gibril’s tongue and that of the Prophet e , as well as the tongue of all those who recite it, their hearts, and their tablets, is created, originated, and necessarily brought to be. Whoever denies this is a sophist who is unworthy of being heard. The pre-existent is only the concept that subsists in Allah I in the sense of Allah’s own self-discourse (al-kalâm al-nafsî) within His Knowledge, as expressed by Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Ibn Hazm."
• Hadith Man Tashabbaha bi Qawmin fa Huwa Minhum ("The Hadith: ‘Whoever Outwardly Imitates A People, He is One of Them’") in which he says: "This hadith is one of the pithy statements of the Prophet e . Al-Najm al-Ghazzi – one of the great Shafi‘i scholars of the eleventh century – authored a large volume titled Husn al-Tanabbuh li Ahkam al-Tashabbuh ("The Excellent Awakening to the Rulings That Pertain to Outward Imitation") in which he examines at length the rulings inferred from this hadith. This volume is in Damascus’ Zahiriyya library and deserves to be published." In the corollary article entitled Mansha’ Ilzam Ahl al-Dhimma bi Shi‘arin Khassin wa Hukmu Talabbus al-Muslimi bihi ‘Inda al-Fuqaha’ ("The Origin of the Imposition of a Distinctive Vestimentary Sign on Non-Muslim Citizens and the Juridical Status of Its Donning by a Muslim") – written in response to Muhammad ‘Abduh’s fatwa permitting the donning of fedoras and top hats by Muslims – he cites the hadith of the Prophet e : "Dye your white hair and do not imitate the Jews" and mentions that Ibn Taymiyya adduced it as evidence that tashabbuh may take place passively on our part and without specific intention. This is a proof against beardless Muslims that wear a suit and tie "without intending to imitate non-Muslims" let alone those who endorse their fashions.
• Hijab al-Mar’a ("Woman’s Veil") in which he adduced the report of Ibn ‘Abbas and ‘Ali’s companion ‘Abida al-Salmani – narrated by al-Tabari in his Tafsir – whereby the meaning of the verse [ they [women] should cast their outer garments (jalâbîb) over their persons] (33:59) included the face but for one eye. Ibn Rushd said that this verse has been adduced as proof that all of woman’s body constitutes nakedness while al-Qurtubi in his commentary on the verse said that the jilbâb is the cloak that conceals all of the body including the head. Another verse states [ And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their headcovers (khumûrihinna) over their bosoms] (24:31), "only that which is apparent" meaning their face and hands according to most jurists, provided they pose no risk of enticement. The Hanbalis include the hands and face among the limbs that must be covered, as they read the above verses in the light of the Prophet’s e statement: "Woman is nakedness (al-mar’atu ‘awra), so when she goes out the devil is facing her, and the nearest she is to her Lord’s countenance is in the privacy of her house." ‘A’isha defined the headcover as follows: "When a woman reaches puberty she must cover whatever her mother and grandmother must cover," their khimâr being "nothing short of what covers both the hair and skin," "without transparency." She also said: "By Allah, I never saw any better women than the women of the Ansar nor stronger in their confirmation of the book of Allah! When Sura al-Nur was revealed [ and to draw their khumûr over their bosoms] (24:31) – their men went back to them reciting to them what Allah had revealed to them in that [sura or verse], each man reciting it to his wife, daughter, sister, and relative. Not one woman among them remained except she got up on the spot, tore up her waist-wrap and covered herself from head to toe (i‘jtajarat) with it. They prayed the very next dawn prayer covered from head to toe (mu‘tajirât)." The two interpretations of the order to [draw their headcovers over their bosoms] among the women of the Companions and the generation that immediately succeeded them – on which are based the two views of the Four Schools, to cover everything or leave out the face and hands – stem from the fact that some women drew from the top down, some from the sides and over. The result for the first category was to cover the face, while the second category left the face uncovered.
• Khutura al-Qawl bi al-Jiha ("The Gravity of the Doctrine That Attributes Direction [to Allah I ]") in which he reports al-Bayadi’s explanation of Imam Abu Hanifa’s statement: "Whoever says, ‘I do not know whether my Lord is in the heaven or on earth’ is a disbeliever and, similarly, whoever says, ‘He is on the Throne and I do not know whether the Throne is in the heaven or on earth’ is a disbeliever." Al-Bayadi said in Isharat al-Maram: "This is because he implies that the Creator has a direction and a boundary, and anything that possesses direction and boundary is necessarily created. So this statement explicitly attributes imperfection to Allah I . The believer in [divine] corporeality and direction is someone who denies the existence of anything other than objects that can be pointed to with the senses. They deny the Essence of the Deity that is transcendent beyond that. This makes them positively guilty of disbelief."
• Al-Lamadhhabiyya Qantaratu al-Ladiniyya ("Anti-Madhhabism is the Archway of Atheism").
• Layla al-Nisf Min Sha‘ban ("The Night of Mid-Sha‘ban") in which he cites the hadith whereby the Prophet e said: "The night of mid-Sha‘ban let all of you spend in prayer and its day in fasting, for Allah descends to the nearest heaven during that night beginning with sunset and says: ‘Is there no-one asking forgiveness that I may forgive them? Is there no-one asking sustenance that I may grant them sustenance? Is there no one under duress that I may relieve them? Is there not such-and-such, is there not such-and-such, and so forth until until dawn rises.’" Al-Kawthari commented: "The meaning of descent is His opening the gate of response to His servants, and this is true Arabic usage. As for explaining it as His displacement from top to bottom, it is ignorance of what is permissible and impermissible to apply to Allah I . Therefore, one has to explain it metaphorically as Allah’s sending down a herald sounding out this call, as indicated by al-Nasa’i’s narration; or, also metaphorically, as His ‘turning toward’ (yuqbilu ‘alâ) those who ask forgiveness etc. as related from Hammad ibn Zayd and others. Also, sunset and the last third of the night differ for each region, so both go on continuously according to each different region of the world. It cannot be imagined that a sensory descending is meant in all the formulations of the hadith of descent, and the hadith of mid-Sha‘ban is in the same category."
• Ma Hiya al-Ahruf al-Sab‘a? ("What Are the Seven Wordings?") in which he expressed the positions that the ahruf al-sab‘a were not dialects but synonyms, most of which were either abrogated or retained in their known current form.
• Mahq al-Taqawwul fi Mas’ala al-Tawassul ("The Eradication of Gossip Concerning the Use of Intermediaries"), a seminal article on the question.
• Tahdhir al-Umma Min Du‘at al-Wathaniyya ("Warning the Community About Those Who Call to Idol-Worship"), written in 1942, in which he lambasts al-Azhar for allowing the publication of ‘Uthman ibn Sa‘id al-Darimi’s al-Radd ‘ala al-Jahmiyya which contains phrases like "[Allah I ] moves if He wishes, descends and ascends if He wishes… stands and sits if He wishes"; "Allah I has a limit… and His place also has a limit, as He is on His Throne above His heavens, and these are two limits"; "if He wished, He would have settled on the back of a gnat" and other enormities. This is identical to Ibn Karram’s doctrine whereby "Allah has a body unlike bodies, and a limit." Yet Ibn Taymiyya ardently defends al-Darimi’s views, citing them time and again in his attack on Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s Asas al-Taqdis – a refutation of anthropomorphism – entitled al-Ta’sis Radd Asas al-Taqdis, even claiming that Imam Ahmad upheld the doctrine of that Allah I possesses a limit. At the same time he admits that Ahl al-Sunna did hold the opposite view: "The position that He is above the Throne but has no limit (hadd) nor dimension nor body is that of many of the upholders of the Divine Attributes (al-sifâtiyya) among the followers of Ibn Kullab and the Ash‘ari Imams including their early authorities and whoever agrees with them among the jurists … and the hadith scholars and the Sufis... among them Abu Hatim, Ibn Hibban, and Abu Sulayman al-Khattabi." Then he states: "Al-Qadi [Abu Ya‘la] said that Ahmad asserts in absolute terms that Allah I had a limit but he negates it in Hanbal’s narration, saying: ‘We believe that Allah is on the Throne in the manner He wishes and however He wishes, without limit nor description anyone could give or define Him by.’ So he negated the limit that pertains to the description he mentioned, meaning the limit known by creatures… And that is the meaning of Ahmad’s statement: ‘Allah I has a limit that only He knows.’" The latter is in blatant contradiction of what is authentically reported from Imam Ahmad by his the major authorities of his school.
Among the books al-Kawthari edited or forwarded:
Now, the reason behind this attack, is that al-Hafiz used to assail some of the Hanafis in his books of biography, such as al-Durar al-Kamina and Raf‘ al-Isr [‘an Qudat Misr]. He said of the Hanafi al-‘Ayni that he used to take the manuscript pages of Fath al-Bari from one of his students and use them in his commentary [on Sahih al-Bukhari, entitled ‘Umdat al-Qari]. When al-Hafiz found out, he prevented the distribution of these pages to students.
Worse than this, al-Kawthari imputed senility to Anas bin Malik for relating a hadith that contradicts the school of Abu Hanifa. Worse yet is his attempt to pass a fabricated hadith as authentic because it might imply the tidings of Abu Hanifa, namely, the hadith: "Were knowledge (al-‘ilm) to be found at the Pleiades, certain men from among the Persians would go there to obtain it." The hadith is in the two Sahihs with the word "belief" ["Were belief (al-îmân) to be found at the Pleiades, a man from those people would go there to obtain it"], and when the Prophet e said it he put his hand on the shoulder of Salman al-Farisi t . Some forger then changed the word "belief" to "knowledge" as pointed out by my brother, the hadith master Abu al-Fayd, in al-Mathnuni wa al-Battar, who said: "Even if it were authentic there would not be in it any reference to Abu Hanifa but to the hadith masters who came out of Persia, such as Abu al-Shaykh and Abu Nu‘aym, for ‘ilm in the terminology of Islamic law means the Book and the Sunna, not juridical opinion (ra’î) and analogy (qiyâs)." Al-Kawthari took him to task in Ta’nib al-Khatib for saying this and replied to him with some harsh words, whereupon my brother wrote a reply to him in which he collected his scholarly blunders and the self-contradictions caused by his odious fanaticism, with some harshness, at the same time acknowledging his knowledge and learning. That reply was not submitted for publication out of deference for their friendship.The difference of opinion between two scholars does not break up their friendship and, like two lawyers differing in a court of justice, they meet as friends outside of it…. May Allah have mercy on my brother and on al-Kawthari, the two major scholars of their time without contest, and may Allah gather us with them in the Abode of His Mercy.
Following is Imam Abu Zahra’s eulogy of al-Kawthari after the latter’s death:
Islam has lost one of the Imams of the Muslims, who worked alone far from the trivialities of this life, devoting themselves to knowledge with the devotion of a believer in the worship of his Lord. That is because he knew that knowledge is part of the acts of worship whereby the scholar seeks the pleasure of Allah and none besides Him. He does not seek thereby a lofty station on the earth, nor corruption, nor influence on account of distinction and reputation. Nor does he seek any of the fleeting things of this world. He seeks only to bring victory to the truth, in order to please the True One Y . That is Imam al-Kawthari. May Allah make his resting place pleasant, be pleased with him and make him pleased.
I do not know of any scholar who has departed and left his position vacant these past years such as the position Imam al-Kawthari has left vacant. He was the Remnant of the Pious Predecessors, who did not take knowledge as a source of income, nor as a stepping-stone to a worldly goal.
He was – Allah be well-pleased with him! – a scholar of learning who personified the transmitted report, "The ulamas are the inheritors of the Prophets." He did not consider this inheritance a mere title of honor by which to pride himself and dominate others. Rather, he considered it a jihad for the purpose of announcing Islam, showing its truths, and banishing the illusions that conceal its essence. He would show it to people pristine and radiant so that they rose to its light and were well-directed by its guidance. He considered such an inheritance demand of the scholar that he strive just as the Prophets strove, standing firm against hardships and tribulations just as they did, remaining patient like them when faced by the stubbornness of those he called to the truth and guidance. Such inheritance is not an honor except to those who practice the means that lead to it, give it its due rights, and know the duties that come with it. Imam al-Kawthari did all of the above.
That distinguished Imam was not an adherent of a new school of thought, nor was he an inviter to a novel matter with no precedent, nor was he one of those whom people label nowadays as reformers. Nay, he used to shy from that, for he was a follower (muttabi‘) and not an innovator. Yet, in spite of that, I say that he was one of the Renewers (al-mujaddidîn) in the true sense of Renewal. For Renewal is not what people today commonly think, namely, casting off the noose and a return to the beginnings of Prophecy; rather, it consists in returning to the religion its splendor and dispelling the confusions that were cast over it, so that it will be shown to people in the purity of its essence and in its original pristine state. Renewal consists in giving life to the Sunna, causing innovation to die, and for the column of Religion to stand among mankind.
That is real and true Renewal and, indeed, Imam al-Kawthari undertook the revival of the Prophetic Sunna. He uncovered what had lain hidden in the alcoves of history out of the books of the Sunna; clarified the methods of its narrators; and made known to the people the Sunna of the Prophet e in its sayings, its deeds, and its tacit rulings through his epistles and his books. Then he devoted himself entirely to the efforts of the past ulamas who upheld the Sunna and gave it its due right. He published the books in which they compiled their works for the purpose of reviving the Sunna at a time when souls were imbued with love of the Religion, hearts had not yet been corrupted, and the scholars were not swayed by the world away from the hereafter nor spent time at the beck and call of rulers.
Imam al-Kawthari was a true scholar; the scholars knew his knowledge. I knew him years before meeting him. I knew him through his writings in which the light of truth shone forth. I knew him through his commentary of manuscripts which he undertook to publish. By Allah! My amazement at the manuscript did not match my amazement at the commentary of the editor. Even when the original manuscript was a brief epistle, yet the Imam’s commentary on it would turn it into a major work that should be read. Truly one’s insight and wide erudition show plainly in such commentaries. All this he did with an elegant style, subtle allusions, forceful analysis, accomplished accuracy, and total mastery over his own thought and writing technique. It could not occur to the mind of the reader that he was a non-Arab writer and not patently Arab. … Yet it is not really astonishing, for he was Turkish in ancestry, education, and everyday life at the time he lived in Istanbul (al-Astana) but his scholarly life was purely Arabic, for he read nothing but Arabic, and nothing filled his head but the shining light of Muhammadan Arabic. …
He came from a family in the Caucasus, as reflected in his vigor, strength, handsome body and spirit, and the quality and depth of his thought. His father moved to Istanbul where he was born in surroundings of guidance and truth. He studied the Islamic sciences until he attained the highest rank in them at around twenty-eight years of age. Then he ascended the ladder of teaching positions until he reached their highest level quite early. He reached the point when he was confronted by those who wanted to separate the world from religion in order to rule the world by other than what Allah has revealed, but he stood in ambush for them despite the fact that he was yet without experience, with everything that a young man at the beginning of his career could hope for. But he chose his Religion over their world. He chose to defend what is still left of Islam rather than have a pleasant life. He preferred to face continuous enmity while obtaining the good pleasure of Allah I rather than pleasure and comfort amidst people’s approval and the good pleasure of those who held the keys of the lower world. Obtaining the good pleasure of Allah is truly the goal of faith.
He fought the promoters of atheism (al-ilhâdiyyîn) in power when they tried to shorten the period of study for the religious curriculum when he saw that to shorten it would jeopardize its preliminary and final parts, so he left no stone unturned until he did away with their wish and even lengthened the period that they were trying to cut short, so that students would be able to absorb and digest all the disciplines they needed, especially for non-natives learning in a patent Arabic tongue. …
He strove with all his might and effort – may Allah be well-pleased with him – on the loftiest paths until he became Deputy of the Office of Shaykh al-Islam in [Ottoman] Turkey. He was among those known to give such a post its due. He never exceeded bounds so as to please someone high-placed, no matter how great their power over him, eventually preferring to be expelled from his position for the sake of upholding the public good. It is better to be expelled for the sake of truth than to implement falsehood. …
Then the lofty-minded, abnegating, Godwary scholar was put to the severest test when he saw his dear country – the Great Land of Islam, the pivot of his strength, the locus of hopes for Muslims – overshadowed by atheism and taken over by those who do not wish any honor for this Religion. The one who clings to his Religion in such a place soon becomes like one clasping a burning coal. Then he finds himself targeted by persecution so that unless he escaped, he would be thrown into some forlorn prisons and blocked from all that is knowledge and teaching. At that point, the Imam faced three choices. Either to remain a prisoner in chains, his knowledge put out in the deep gaol; a harsh fate for a scholar of learning accustomed to teach and guide others, extracting the treasures of the Religion and bringing them to light for the benefit of humankind. Or grovel and flatter and kowtow, short of which he would remain in fetters or even risk losing his life. Or emigrate – and vast are the lands of Allah. He remembered the saying of Allah, [ Was not the earth of Allah spacious that you could have migrated therein?] (4:97).
So he emigrated to Egypt then moved to Syria. He then returned to Cairo, then went back to Damascus again, until he finally settled in Cairo.
During his trips to Sham and his residence in Cairo he was a beacon of light. His residence expanded into a school to which flocked the students of true knowledge – not the students of schoolish knowledge. Those students were guided to the sources of knowledge through the books that were written when the marketplace of the Islamic sciences was vibrant and the souls of the ulamas thriving with Islam. He coached the minds of those searching students with those sources and directed them to them. At the same time he would explain whatever they found obscure and pour out the abundance of his learning and share the fruits of his thought. …
I bear witness that I have heard the praise of eminent personalities and scholars, but I never prided myself with any of it as much as I prided myself with the praise of this magnificent shaykh – for such is a scholarly badge from someone who is truly able to give it. …