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.
The first of a series for the Message International Magazine, in which I attempt to examine one great personality from our rich and vibrant scholarly tradition, along with some information on one of their major literary works, explained in the context of the historical era they lived in. It is my hope that presenting glimpses from our tradition in light of these three aspects (the personality, the text, and the historical context that produced both) will make for a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of our tradition and go a long way towards building Islamic literacy and a more robust connection with our heritage.
Imām Al-Qurtubī [died 671H/1272CE]: Abū ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Abūbakr al-Ansārī al-Khazrajī al-Qurtubī, also known as “the Shaykh of the Qur’anic commentators,” was a prolific scholar born and raised in Andalus whose learning and expertise extended to a broad varietyof subjects, including not only the Islamic sciences but the social and cultural issues of his era. He was a beneficiary of the rich and vibrant intellectual heritage of Cordoba, where he had access to someof the world’s most renowned scholars, numerous schools and the biggest public libraries in the world. He also lived during a period of constant conflict with the neighboring Christian kingdoms. In 627H his own fatherwas killed defending their farm from invading Crusader armies, and al-Qurubīwas forced to carry his body home and provide him a proper burial. At the age of 25, he was compelled to leave the region altogether with the fall of Cordoba in633H/1236CE. Continue reading →