Saturday, September 10, 2011

Literary Aspects of the Qur’an: Al-Baydawi’s interpretation of Alif Lam Mim Using the Rules of Tajweed

By Maulana Dr M Mansur Ali

The Qur’an, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy, invigorated the barren hearts of camel shepherds and transformed them in to guiding stars for humanity. That eternal and unimpeachable writ, which laid the foundation of a civilization that carried the knowledge of late antiquity in its bosoms and brought Europe out of its darkest hours. It had occupied the minds of philosophers, theologians, jurists and politicians of yesteryears. It had informed poetry, grammar, arts, aesthetics and belles-lettre. Umar II’s politics, Al-Rumi’s gazals, Al-Razi’s logic, Al-Ghazali’s ethics, al-Hariri’s prose, al-Attar’s poetry and Ibn Al-Arabi’s metaphysics all find their origins in this heavenly mandate. It had inspired the Sufi’s chanting of the souls, the music of the dervish’s reed, the literalism of the Salafi and the speculation of the rationalist. And yet its ultimate reality lies with Allah blessed be He in Whose hands is Dominion; and He over all things hath Power.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an is a literary miracle. An entire body of literature called ‘ijaz al-Qur’an had been developed to understand this miraculous aspect of the Qur’an. It uses eloquent Arabic language of the highest standard as well as a plethora of literary devices, the hallmark of any magnum opus. At times it employs short and fast paced verses resembling the beatings of the heart, whilst other times slow, meticulous and clear instructive verses are used to lay down points of law. Clear, unambiguous words, similes, alliterations, onomatopoeias, hyperboles, rhetorical questions, imageries, allegories, metaphors, aphorisms, euphemisms and ironies are its common features.

Whilst some verses of the Qur’an are clear in their meanings, others are somewhat ambiguous and veiled. Allah in his infinite wisdom had decided to keep some of the knowledge of his words concealed from public consumption, and it is only those who have been touched by divine aurora have been made privy to some of its mysteries. Some of these unclear verses constitute a set of cryptic letters found in the beginning of some chapters of the Qur’an, the meaning of which only Allah knows. These are known as al-huruf al-muqatta’at the disjointed letters, or al-huruf al-fawatih the opening letters such as Alif Lam Mim, Ya Sin, Ta Sin, Kaf Ha Ya ‘Ayn Sad. This did not stop scholars from exercising their God given intellect in trying to decipher these letters. For example where the majority of the scholars remained reticent to interpret the three letters Alif Lam Mim found in the opening section of sura al-Baqara the second chapter of the Qur’an, other scholars ventured to understand them. Some have interpreted them to mean Allah, Jibril and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), others opined that the Arabs were already familiar with these types of letters in their poetry, hence they were not a cause of confusion and contention for the immediate Arab audience of the Qur’an. A third group of scholars maintained that by employing simple letters of the Arabic alphabet, the contrast was being made between the literary works of the Arabs and the divine writ. That these were the very same letters employed to write both sets of writings, but how different are the outputs when the one is authored by the transcendent God and the other by mortal beings.

One scholar who attempted to appropriate some meaning to these letters was Qadi Abdullah b. Umar al-Shirazi al-Baydawi (d. 684/1286) a seventh/thirteenth century Shafi exegete of the Qur’an. Al-Baydawi’s interpretation is interesting as he makes an attempt to understand them using the rules of Arabic elocution (tajweed). The alif (in this instance a hamza) is a glottal letter (al-harf al-halqi) that emanates from the lowest point of the larynx closest to the lungs (aqsa al-halq). The letter lam is an alveolar letter (al-harf al-dhalqiyya) which articulates when the tip of the tongue makes contact with the roots of the upper incisors and the letter mim is an endo-labial letter (al-harf al-shafatayn) where the sound is forced through the lips by closing and opening of the inner lips.

Qadi al-Baydawi says that the vocal apparatus and the places of articulation (makharij al-huruf) are the same organs used by the respiratory system. The letters of alif lam mim cover the entire gamut of the respiratory system from the lower trachea to the outer lips. Since they constitute the words of Allah, al-Baydawi says that what can be learnt from them is that each and every breath that we take and every word that we utter should be in accordance with Allah’s will and pleasure.

These are human attempts to understand that which transcends our feeble minds as absolute truth only remains with The Absolute Truth (al-Haqq). After exercising their intellectual faculty, one is required to humble his knowledge in front of the Omniscience and all Muslims are required to concede in humility the emphatic statement Wallahu A’lam, and Allah knows best.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Abu Hanifa: His Life, Legal Method and Legacy by Shaykh Akram Nadwi

Reproduced here with kind permission from Muslim World Book Review (MWBR)

Review: Abu Hanifa: His Life, Legal Method and Legacy
Mohammad Akram Nadwi, (Markfield: Kube Publishing Ltd., 2010)

Reviewed by: Dr M Mansur Ali
Cardiff University

Muslim World Book Review (MWBR) vol. 31, no. 4, Summer 2011, pp. 29-31.

This very short, albeit highly erudite work of hagiography has been written by a scholar who has engaged with Abu Hanifa and his legacy for a very long time. By using only the most authentic reports found in the classical Islamic prosopographical collections, original Arabic and Urdu sources and core Hanafi legal texts, the author endeavours to understand ‘why’ and ‘how’ Abu Hanifa came to inherit the appellation ‘Al-Imam al-A’zam’ (the greatest one worthy to be followed), an epithet which is worthy of him today as it was in his days.

The book is written in the typical format of a classical Islamic biography work. He discusses, Abu Hanifa’s life, his life style, his erudition and probity, his piety and propriety, his scholarship, his teachers and his students. He talks about him as a jurist, a lawyer, a theologian and a Hadith scholar. The impact of Abu Hanifa’s fiqh and its status in the modern age is discussed in details. All of these discussions take place within the framework of the overall development of Islamic law in general. The quality of the book is further enhanced by the use of diagrams and an annotated reading list. At this juncture, given the plethora of sources found on Abu Hanifa’s life in English in the form of monographs, articles, introductory sections to translated classical texts, translations of Arabic and Urdu books, audio and visual recordings and the internet, the question that looms on this reviewer’s mind is ‘what is the need for yet another biography of Abu Hanifa?’

The reviewer believes that it is what the author wants to do with the biography of Abu Hanifa that justifies the writing of this book. The author deems it pertinent to write this book because of three reasons. Firstly, he takes issues with the many voices from within and outwith Islam shouting for an Islamic reformation. He argues that Islam’s contribution to the modern world especially in trade and commerce has been advanced by people like Abu Hanifa and his ilk. It’s only through understanding and emulating the lives of these pious savants that some of the ethical and moral principles that have been lost can be restored. Secondly, information readily available through high-speed medium is not ‘ilm but short lived, bereft of any substance and missing the personal touch of a wise master. Through this book, the author wants to remind us that true ‘ilm can only be sought through slow and painstaking study where the knowledge is passed from heart to heart.

For this reviewer, the most unique contribution of this book is the author’s third reason for writing the book. The author draws a distinction between Abu Hanifa and later Hanafi scholars. That Abu Hanifa is someone who understood the context as well as the text, that he made a distinction between the spirit of the law and its word and that his understanding of the law is not partial but holistic. He urges Muslim scholars to recover both their intellectual ability as well as their moral authority to understand the Qur,an and Sunna in its entirety and not just in parts. The scholars will find a precedent for this in Abu Hanifa, who paradoxically, was neither a Hanafi nor a professional Hanafi Mufti. This is a streak that one can implicitly see throughout the work (pp. 115-120). The author very subtly tries to rescue Abu Hanifa from Hanafi scholars who are engaged in ‘self-contained discourse’, where the fiqh is presented ‘with reference to itself rather than its sources’, a partial and anachronistic understanding of fiqh that is severed from reality.

Equally unique is the author’s discussion on the development of the sciences of Hadith. One of the major drawbacks, that this reviewer has noticed, in some traditional Islamic circles is that people tend to treat the works of the scholars in a way as if they were all written in the same era; working with the same hermeneutical devices and employing terminologies that are ossified in time. This kind of attitude towards the sources leads to misunderstanding and unfounded criticism as the author has shown. Abu Hanifa cannot be blamed for following a hadith deemed to be weak by later standards if those standards were not available in his day and age. If the Hanafi School is founded upon those standards used by Abu Hanifa, then it is not fair to judge the actions of its followers through later developments. This is a very important subject as it will put a lot of minds at ease as to why seemingly Abu Hanifa does not follow sound Hadith.

A few personal observations. One does not get an inkling of the author’s opinion regarding the authorship of Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar. Abu Zahra opines that some of the topics discussed in the work seem to have developed after Abu Hanifa. It would have been interesting to see how the author reacts to this assertion. The author very brilliantly sheds light on Abu Hanifa as a Hadith scholar. However, this discussion would have been further enhanced if the author addressed the common cliché that Abu Hanifa knew only 17 Hadiths. An assumption that stems from a comment made by Ibn Khaldun in his Prolegomena (although Ibn Khaldun does indicate it to be a weak claim by using the passive perfective verb ‘qeela’). A section on the Hadith works of the school would have nicely complimented the legacy of Abu Hanifa. Finally, ‘Radd al-Mukhtar’ should read ‘Radd al-Muhtar’ (p. 111).

The author has successfully delivered his promise to understand as to ‘why’ and ‘how’ Abu Hanifa came to deserve the title ‘Al-Imam al-A’zam’; it now remains the duty of the scholars to imbibe Abu Hanifa’s teachings in trying to understand the Qur’an and Sunna holistically in both letter and spirit.

Analysing Muslim Traditions: Studies in Legal, Exegetical and Maghazi Hadith by Harald Motzki – Review by Dr. M. Mansur Ali

With kind permission from Muslim World Book Review

Analysing Muslim Traditions: Studies in Legal, Exegetical and Maghazi Hadith
By Harald Motzki, with Nicolet Boekhoff – Van Der Voort and Sean W. Anthony, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2010). Price: £149.15.

Reviewed by Dr M. Mansur Ali,
Cardiff University

Classical orientalist studies of Hadith generally fell under the studies of the origins of Islam. Hence, the primary focus of these studies was to prove the origins and provenance of Hadith. With the absence of any sources contemporary to the Prophet, Western scholars’ attitude towards the corpus of Hadith was sceptical. In other words, for them, in contrast to the Muslim view of Hadith, every hadith was deemed to be a forgery until it can be proven otherwise. Scholars discarded the Muslim approach to Hadith verification as being too formalistic and based only on external criteria (isnad). Hence, they devised their own methodologies for verifying the authenticity and origins of Hadith. Harald Motzki suggested that it will not be prudent to wholly do away with the chain of narrators as a careful study of these chains can tell us a lot about the provenance of a hadith. Rather, the chain of narrators should be studied in tandem with the text of a hadith, which Motzki calls the isnad-cum-matn approach.

The book under review is a collection of articles written by Motzki over the last three decades. The last two articles in the book were written by the other two co-authors. In its preface, Motzki discusses the contents of the book and the processes the articles went through before being available in English. This book has many merits; firstly, all of Motzki’s articles found in this book are being presented in English for the first time. Secondly, all the articles in the collection employ the isnad-cum-matn approach first formulated by Motzki in his study of the Musannaf of ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-San’ani (d. 211/826). In addition to this most of the articles are responses to other scholars who were/are also engaged in the study of the origins of Hadith: chapters 1 and 6, Schacht; chapter 2, Juynboll, chapters 3 and 4, Irene Schnider and chapter 5, Herbert Berg.

Chapter 1 functions as the methodological introduction to the book, while the rest of the chapters are an application of this method. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 take the application of the isnad-cum-matnmethod out of the legal domain to other disciplines such as tafsir and maghazi. They show that theisnad-cum-matn approach can easily be extended to other disciplines and yield similar results unlike Schacht’s method which yielded erroneous results when taken outside the legal traditions, as Cook has shown. The author of chapter 6 has done us kind by providing the Arabic script whilst comparing different versions of a hadith as it is a daunting task to follow slight orthographical changes whilst reading the transliteration. The author of chapter 7 has a wonderful introduction to historiography in general in the introduction to his article.

For this reviewer, the most original and interesting contribution in this book is chapter 2. Over the years, GHA Juynboll has developed, expanded and polished Schacht’s common-link theory to the extent that, for Juynboll it has become the only methodology (usul al-Hadith) worthy of studying Hadith with. Juynboll used this methodology to study the six canonical Hadith collections. It has also been employed by Muslim feminists such as Nevin Reda to prove the authenticity of Hadithrelated to female leading the prayer in a mixed congregation. However elaborate the theory is, in this chapter, Motzki proves that it nevertheless suffers from many methodological and epistemological flaws. This is the most rigorous critique of Juynboll’s common-link theory and a must read for the serious students of Hadith. He shows that in order for the common-link theory to work, every strand of the chain of narrators for a particular hadith text needs to be scrutinised. Without doing this the common-link theory will not yield accurate results. He demonstrates that Juynboll’s over reliance on the chains of narrators found in al-Mizzi’s (d. 742/1341) Tuhfat al-Ashraf (which is only restricted to collecting the chains of narrators found in the six canonical collections and a few other books), is what lead Juynboll to make erroneous conclusions such as denying the historical Nafi’ the client of Ibn ‘Umar (d. 117/735).

Contrary to what some Muslims believe, orientalists are not there to deconstruct and dismantle the foundations Islam. In the absence of any early writings, they try to make an objective and honest attempt to understand what really happened in this early period of Islam. However, it becomes problematic when scholars hold on to their methods religiously even though the fallacy of their approach has been proved. Motzki has obviated all of Juynboll’s arguments and yet, Juynboll makes no attempt to modify his theory as can be seen in his latest work such as The Encyclopaedia of Canonical Collections.

Motzki’s works are highly valued amongst Muslim circles as it comes close to their own scholarship. However, accepting or rejecting Motzki’s thesis will depend on how much reliance one is willing to place on the chain of narrators. At a cost of £149.15 it is not your average coffee table book nor is it an easy read. However, if one can patiently wade through the welter of names and dates, the results are satisfactory. Finally, few orthographical mistakes do not detract from the excellent scholarship displayed in the book. (p.3) ‘Annahu sami’ituhu yaqul’ should read ‘annahu samia’hu yaqul’, (p. 10) ‘first quarter second century’ should read ‘first quarter of the second century’, (p. 23) ‘any of theses types’ should be ‘these types’.

Reference: M. Mansur Ali, Muslim World Book Review (MWBR), Vol. 31, issue 3, spring 2011, pp. 20-21.