Folding time and space
Ali ibn Hasan (Abu Qasim) Ibn Asakir al Dimashqi
The great scholar Ibn Asakir is one of the very well known scholars of the 6th century Hijri. Born in Damascus in 499AH, he passed away in 571AH. (1105–1175AD). He was so dedicated to knowledge that he was al hafidh as well as the top of every science he decided to write about or master.
Most historians were Muhaddith
He was renowned as a great historian but before that he was a great Muhaddith.
The majority of historians, including Ibn Kathir were also Muhaddith. Imam Dahabi for example wrote 100 volumes known as Tarikh al Islam (the Great History of Islam) of which 60-70 volumes have been published. In addition his Siyar a`lam al-nubala (The Lives of Noble Figures) is 28 volumes, filled with biographies of noble scholars. Ibn al Athir was also a great historian and Muhaddith.
Muhaddith usually have their own chain of transmitters who narrate hadith (?), regardless whether all the narrations are the most authentic narrations.
Ibn Asakir met no less than 1300 shuyukh along his journey to 50-60 cities, and of those 80 plus were shaykhaat, (female) and he honoured them and felt proud that he had so many shuyukh.
Whenever you mention his name, the book comes to people’s minds, even though he wrote a hundred books, is Tarkeekh Dimashq, The History of Damascus.
This encyclopaedia of 80 volumes of the city where Ibn Asakir had been born and bred, was not the only book he penned, as he wrote a hundred books! The manuscript was so long not many people had the patience or money to print it. Only the government could print such a book and it was not published in its entirety until the 1990s.
When you are writing, in an area that is filled with scholarship it is not straightforward to come up with original work, and fresh ideas. Ibn Asakir managed to do this. No one had written about Damascus before him, so he decided to undertake that job. It was the city he loved. It made me think that we should write a history of scholars in the UK. No one has written that yet. It will be a reference for anyone who comes after them, to know who were the scholars, what was their lineage and what was their contribution to knowledge.
Histories of cities
Writing about the history of one’s city was a popular theme, and so there are other books about other cities, including Tareekh Baghdad, Tarkeekh Makkah, and Tareekh e Madinah. People liked to write about their cities and Damascus was a good choice as it has a wealth of history, was a hub of knowledge and home to a large number of notable and illustrious people.
Hence, there was much to write and Ibn Asakir managed to capture all this in his tome, from which you could easily extract many books, on the biographies of scholars, or about hadith, as he narrated a plethora of hadith from a wide range of shuyukh.
In addition to hadith, he wrote about different places and historical events, and everything he came across related to Damascus.
Head of Dar al Hadith an Nurriya
Ibn Asakir ended up returning to Damascus after his travels, where the ruler at that time, Nur ud Deen established the first school for teaching hadith in the whole region, Dar al Hadith an Nurriya and appointed Ibn Asakir its head. It is walking distance from the Ummayad Mosque (Masjid al Ummawi), which is the focal point of Damascus.
Dar al Hadith was on my way to the mosque and I used to pass it every day. I used to study Hanafi fiqh (legal rulings) with Shaykh Halabi(?) after maghrib every Thursday. Many famous names graduated from there, including Imam Nawawi who became the head of that school, ibn Atheer, Imam al Mizzi, the great hafidh; Ibn Kathir whose tafsir everyone has heard of, Imam Dahabi, the historian, Ibn Taymiyya and ibn Qayim. It is a minaret of hadith and knowledge. Though it is a small mosque, you can feel how special it is; it emanates spirituality. The moment you step inside you feel you have been transported to a different time and place. There is a hawd (fountain) in the middle, and when you pray you are filled with good memories and energy. (?)
A life of dedication and blessings
Ibn Asakir was so eloquent and dedicated, he invested his life, time and efforts in his work.
It is hard to comprehend who anyone could write the amount Ibn Asakir covered in Tareekh Dimashq – if he started wrote every day from the day he was born till he died, he would have had to write 10 pages a day, and even then it was not his only book.
Bear in mind also that at that time it was not typed on a PC, but written painstakingly by hand, after several drafts. I worked with manuscripts for a long time and I came across many drafts by scholars. Some of them did not get the chance to proof read their drafts as they passed away before they completed their final copy. Ibn Asakir was a perfectionist and we can imagine how many times he must have written, categorised, revisited and corrected his drafts. He wouldn’t have been satisfied that it was perfect after his first draft. People always refine their work. And in his introduction he asks the reader to excuse his mistakes and know that they were not deliberate.
How it is possible to write so much? The answer is that Allah Almighty provides sincere people with extra blessings.
Allah Almighty blesses the time of the pious. He can enable them to complete a week’s work in a single hour with His blessing. I have experienced this and I can verify this. I used to have a student who was in our Utrujj team, and used to help us with projects. He was very proficient and had undertaken a PhD. At one point, we had a project to finish but his PhD deadline was also looming. What was he to do? Complete his dissertation for submission or help with the Utrujj project? Instead of picking his thesis over the project as it was due, he decided not to discontinue the Utrujj project because it was for Allah’s sake. To his amazement, he found that Allah Almighty put barakah in his time.
As he had been working on his PhD for 3 years, he was very familiar with how long each piece of writing took. Though he was falling behind, he carried on and relied on Allah. He came to realise that the work he used to do in one week, was now being facilitated for him by Alah and only taking a day. His colleagues working on similar projects were baffled how did it. He quickly realised it was not his efforts but the barakah Allah was putting in his time. Allah Almighty folded time for him. When you have sincerity, Allah Almighty bestows extra blessings on you and it is simple for Him to make time serve you. Time is after all the creation of Allah. When Allah commands time to serve you, it will serve you. Your productivity will be speeded up.
Space can also be made to serve you. We see this in the story of Bilqis (the Queen of Sheba) in the Quran, when Suleman (peace be on him) said
He said: O chiefs! which of you can bring to me her throne before they come to me in submission? (27:38)
The jinn said he could bring it before the meeting was over, but the one who had knowledge of the Book, said he could bring before the blink of an eye. And the space between then was hundreds if not thousands of miles.
A powerful one from among the jinn said, “I will bring it to you before you rise from your place, and indeed, I am for this [task] strong and trustworthy.”
Said one who had knowledge from the Scripture, “I will bring it to you before your glance returns to you.” And when [Solomon] saw it placed before him, he said, “This is from the favor of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful – his gratitude is only for [the benefit of] himself. And whoever is ungrateful – then indeed, my Lord is Free of need and Generous.” (27:39-40)
If it was not mentioned in the Quran we would not believe it happened, but it is the same way that Allah folds time, that He can also fold space for you. This is easy for Allah Almighty.
This is what makes me comment that the blessings which Allah has given to Ibn Asakir can be given to people of sincerity beyond their imagination. Ibn Asakir’s work is not just long, but it is solid, deep and well researched. It is like a jewel.
Connecting with other scholars
Though we live in a click the link age, where we access scholars from different corners of the world virtually at the tap of our screen. The scholars of the past traversed time and space and still managed to come into contact with more shuyukh than we can with the internet. They would travel – without planes, cars and trains – to meet even 5000 shyukh in 100-200 cities. They would arrive in a city and seek out the 10-20 prominent shukuyh and pick up the knowledge from them that they did not already have. They might stay a day, a month or a year depending on how much there was to learn.
The piety of the scholars
The son of Ibn Asakir (may Allah be pleased with him) described how he used to receive ijazas from different shuyukh, used to complete multiple khatam of the Quran. He was not just writing a book, but busy engaged in worship, fasting, doing dhikr, praying, and in ei’tiqaf (seclusion) in the eastern minaret of the mosque, Minara shaqiya, famously mentioned in the hadith which says it the place where Eesa (peace be on him) will descend.
The white minaret
The white minaret in Damascus is the eastern minaret of the Ummayad mosque in Damascus. Imam Ghazali also made ei’tiqaf in that mosque, so it is very historic.
He used to do jammah in the mosque and khatam of the Quran every week. And in Ramadan, khatam every day. He used to take himself into accountant which is called muhasiba in spirituality. It took him 40 years to write his book. His son said he did nothing else for 40 years but acquiring and disseminating knowledge. Even when was in seclusion he was working.
The majority of scholars have thabat, which is a special book in which they detail their shuyukh. (The plural of thabat is athbaat.) Some of them have been lost, or they didn’t get a change to write theirs. But they most of them had it. Ibn Asakir’s thabat is 3 volumes, which a friend of mine worked on for a very long time. It details his shuyukh, what he studied with them, the ijazas he gained.
The thabat is important because it shows your credentials – your lineage and pedigree. It shows your qualifications, who you learned from, where you learned from and what you learned. If some scholar does not have a thabat it is a bit fishy. When you have a thabat it is your proof that you were in those cities and met those shuykh as you would have witnesses of those who were there with you at the time. This is an important part of authentication as well as tradition.
He had many friends, including Imam Samai’i whom he met in Baghdad, he used to say was unique and the most knowledgeable person on earth. Even though colleagues can be jealous at times of the achievements of their peers, Ibn Asakir was very well regarded by those around him, and they were generous in their praise of him.
Great scholars such as Ibn Dahabi and Imam Sukki wrote his biography, as did Ibn Khalikaan in his lengthy book Wafayat al Ayan (The obituaries of eminent men).
Nobody who studies Islamic knowledge and can dismiss him.
Rewarded for his dedication
He was blessed in his memory, knowledge and family. Allah elevated his status in dunya. His son went on to be the head of the school, Dar al Hadith. He lived for 72 years and his story is the last chapter in Shaykh Abudul Fattah Abu Ghuddah’s book The Patience of the Pious Predecessors.
His efforts left a rich legacy long after he passed away. As the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
When a man dies all his good deeds come to an end except three: Ongoing charity (Sadaqah Jariyah), beneficial knowledge and a righteous son who prays for him. (Nasa’i)
When we die everything is frozen, but we continue to gain ongoing reward in our account from knowledge that we passed on. If you go to any library in the East or West you will find his books.
Let’s be one of these people, who reap reward and create benefit for others and spread goodness. When we write down and review knowledge every breath we take has to be with purpose. We see this in his work and the work of dedicated scholars.
Seek the right knowledge and the right teachers
You need the right teachers, otherwise you might get the right knowledge without the right understanding. This will be more harmful that beneficial. You also need to acquire classical knowledge and match it your reality. The foundation comes from the Quran and correct tajweed and fiqh, but to apply it to your reality and your community is another challenge. Without the second step that the knowledge is out of touch with reality. We need knowledge which we can use. We need to match the authentic and classical knowledge with contemporary knowledge.
Shaykh Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah was born in Syria in 1917. One of the outstanding Muslim scholars of the 20th century, Shaykh Abu Ghuddah was a leading scholar in the field of Hadith and the Hanafi school of Fiqh. He studied in Syria and Egypt specialising in Arabic Language, Hadith, Shariah and Psychology. He had many prominent teachers, amongst them Shaykh Ragib al-Tabbakh, Shaykh Ahmed ibn Muhamad al-Zaraqa, Shaykh Isa al-Bayanuni, Shaykh Ahmad al-Kurdi and the renowned Ottoman Scholar Imam al-Kawthari.
He taught Usul al Fiqh, Hanafi Fiqh and Comaparative Fiqh at the University of Damascus. He also taught at the King Saud University and Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University. He was buried in al-Baqi Cemetry in Madinah in 1997.
Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim as part of his Series on the Knowledge Seekers, based on the book, The Patience of the Pious Predecessors by Shaykh Fattah Abu Ghuddah.
The Full Series
Lessons from knowledge seekers – part 9
Folding time and space – part 8
The poverty of the knowledge seekers – part 2
The pursuit of knowledge – part 1
May 14, 2021
May 12, 2021