Originally written for the Message International Magazine
His name was Yaḥyā, his kunya (Islamic surname) Abū Zakariyyā and his given title Muḥyuddīn (meaning “Reviver of the Religion”). But he is known in history as simply Imām Nawawī from his place of birth in the Syrian village of Nawā south of Damascus, said to be the hometown of the Prophet Job (Ayyūb). Like other notable scholars, he was a premier product of Damascus, the lush city of knowledge and Islamic scholarship.
His Learning and Vast Knowledge
Born 631/1234 into a humble family, not particularly known for scholarship or fame, his father, a local shopkeeper, was noted to be extremely pious and made sure to adequately provide for his son’s education, primarily in the religious sciences. He in turn was the ideal young student, full of zeal and thirst for learning and shunning games and play even in childhood. He acquired his early education in the Qur’ān in his hometown and when it became clear that his aptitude required much more, he was taken to Damascus for further studies.
It was there that he truly blossomed, spending night and day with a singular devotion that became legendary even in his own time. He studied both privately and formally, attending several formal institutes such as the Rawāḥiyyah school. At this particular school he spent a number of years living in a small room full of so many books that he had to move them to make room anytime he had visitors. He never wasted time, reviewed his lessons while walking, and ate and slept with his books. He himself admitted that during this period he spent two years without ever lying down on his side, falling asleep instead while reading and studying, picking where he left off when waking up.
He had more than twenty two teachers and attended up to twelve lessons a day in various disciplines, but he particularly excelled in ḥadīth and jurisprudence (fiqh) of the Shāfi‘ī legal school. He amassed a large library, acknowledging that he possessed more than 100 books in Shāfi‘ī jurisprudence alone, including many rare manuscripts.
At the age of 24 he began teaching in Damascus, to the delight of flocks of students who began to shadow him for the rest of his life. These included Ibn al-‘Aṭṭār [died 724H], who spent the most time with him to the point of earning the title “Nawawī Lite.”
The last years of his life saw his focus shift to writing, and in that too, he was similarly blessed. He exhausted himself in that endeavor like he had done earlier, writing continuously until his hands out of physical exhaustion forced him to stop. In a short span of twelve years before his death, he managed to produce a body of written work that included more than fifty titles, many of which happen to be the most widely read books in the Muslim world to this day. These include the eighteen volume commentary to Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, which is still the most famous and widely used commentary on that ḥadīth work, the twelve-volume Rawḍat al-Ṭālibīn, the 9-volume classic reference of fiqh al-Majmū‘, which is characterized by a comparative fiqh approach and the referencing of ḥadīth, al-Adhkār on supplications, and many others. But the two most famous works were his forty ḥadīth collection entitled al-Arba‘īn and his collection of ḥadīth known as Riyāḍ al-Ṣāliḥīn.
Imām Nawawī was also known for a strong sense of social justice coupled with a tenacious degree of courage. Once the chief justice of Damascus visited him with some lavish food, which he refused by saying, “This is the food of tyrants.” He never hesitated to criticize the rulers for wrongs and social injustices. At one point, he led a social reform effort on behalf of the people of Damascus who were struggling with a high tax burden during a time of drought and difficulty. He wrote a strongly-worded letter on behalf of all the schools of fiqh in the region as well as the local populace, all of whom had agreed upon Imām Nawawī as their representative in this regard. He had the letter personally delivered by his student to the Mamluk Sultan in Egypt al-Ẓāhir Baybars. The Sultan in turn, was not pleased, and responded with threats, to which Imām Nawawī wrote another letter which included the following:
“As for myself, threats do not harm me or mean anything to me. They will not keep me from advising the ruler, for I believe that this is obligatory upon me and others . . .”
During another similar encounter, he was physically brought before the ruler Baybars and asked why he had not signed a fatwa to allow the ruler to collect money from the citizens in his fight against the Mongols, to which he responded, “I know that you used be a slave without wealth, then Allah bestowed His bounties upon you and you became the ruler. I also know that you have one thousand male slaves with girths made of gold and two hundred female slaves, each of them with gold jewelry. If you spend all of that and leave your slaves with regular clothes rather than gold, then I will sign your fatwa that you can take wealth from the citizenry.”
His rocky relationship with the rulers ultimately forced him to leave Damascus for good and return to his hometown of Nawā.
He was famous for never having married, and various justifications are always given in this regard. But the clearest reason that emerges from examining the remarkable life that he lived is that he simply did not have time. He was chosen for a different task, and that he fulfilled.
He died at the young age of 44 in his own village after a period of illness, leaving behind a legacy of several life-times of effort. His father outlived his son by nine years and died surpassing 70 years of age. What a proud father he must have been, witnessing with his own eyes the birth, the life and the ultimate death of the son he himself had raised and educated in Islam.
Riyāḍ al-Ṣāliḥīn, literally “Gardens of the Righteous,” is one of the most popular and widely used compilations of ḥadīth in the world today. Containing 1,896 ḥadīth in 372 chapters, this outstanding work is a masterful compilation of Qur’ānic verses and ḥadīth narrations arranged in a broad and comprehensive range of chapters. What sets this compilation apart from others is its exclusive reliance on authentic ḥadīth, the correlation of ḥadīth with Qur’ānic verses, its ease of use in finding ḥadīth, and its highly practical approach, in keeping with the author’s intended purpose of helping to encourage believers to be better Muslims. It is undoubtedly one of the most popular works studied in masjids, schools, homes and gatherings throughout the Muslim world today, and has inspired several commentaries.
The other famous work of the author is his celebrated forty hadith collection (Arba‘īn). As Dr. Jonathan Brown notes, forty ḥadīth collections became one of the most common and enduring forms of using ḥadīth as a means of scholarly expression in Islamic tradition. And although hundreds of scholars compiled similar collections, only one stands out. Its distinction and the secret behind its unanimous acceptance by the ummah lies in the fact that it represents a broad survey of the essential and fundamental issues of the religion. The author compiled, in his estimation, the forty most important statements of the Prophet Muhammad, and the ummah resoundingly agreed with him. As such, it has inspired countless commentaries over the ages, including by major scholars such as Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalī, Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī al-Makkī, Mullā ‘Alī Qārī and others.
The seventh century of Hijrah calendar was a turbulent one. The devastating destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols occurred in 656/1258, and the Muslims bounced back under Mamluk leadership in the battle of ‘Ayn Jālūt in 658/1260. The remaining decades were characterized by a low-grade conflict with external enemies which included the Crusaders in addition to the Mongols. These catastrophic events, though occurring in Imām Nawawī’s lifetime, did not in any way hinder the wonderful legacy of Islamic learning and scholarship. As the Qur’ān says:
And most certainly we shall let
You go through trials, so that we test,
The faithful strivers and the steadfast
Among you all, thus we shall make
You mettle manifest.
[the Qur’ān a Poetic Translation 47:31]