Imam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari


Shaykh Mawlana Muhammad Yusuf al-Binnawri, a member of the Majlis `Ilmi (a scholarly council for revival of classical Islamic works) and a professor at the Islamic University in Dabhel, Surat (India), described al-Kawthari as,

      “The keen-eyed verifying scholar, the experienced and erudite, the great teacher, the shaykh, Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari – may his life be long in good health.”
[Preface to Nasb al-Rayah, 1/17]

The Shaykh and Imam, the Mujtahid and Usuli, the Muhaddith of Morocco, Abu’l-Fadl `Abdullah ibn Siddiq al-Ghumari (may Allah have mercy upon him) says,

      “There was a firm relationship between myself and the teacher al-Kawthari, in spite of the striving of the jealous to ruin it.  He used to respect me a great deal, so much so that when I asked him for ijazah a year before his death, he asked me for ijazah.  He used to ask me about the ahadith which some people would ask him about.  Our relationship continued as it was until his death.  May Allah have mercy upon him and reward him with His pleasure.”
[Iqamat al-Burhan `ala Nuzul `Isa fi Akhir al-Zaman, by al-Ghumari, with an introductory word by al-Kawthari, p.7]

His Biography

The Imam and distinguished Shaykh, former head of the School of Law and Professor of Shari`ah at Cairo University, Muhammad Abu Zahrah (may Allah have mercy upon him) wrote a glowing seven-page tribute to Imam al-Kawthari after the latter’s death, from which I have summarized the following :

“Islam has lost one of the Imams of the Muslims, who worked alone [away] from the trivialities of this life, and devoted themselves to knowledge with the devotion of a believer in the worship of his Lord.  That is because he knew that knowledge is one of the worships, whereby the scholar seeks the pleasure of Allah and not of anyone besides Him.  He does not seek thereby loftiness [of station] on the earth, nor corruption, nor standing out 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 [Allah], the Truth, the Majestic.  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 [behind him] in these years such as the position of Imam al-Kawthari has been left vacant, for 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.

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 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 reformers, in the true meaning of a reformer, for reform . . . . . is returning to the religion its splendor and dispelling the confusions [which exist] over it.  That is true and sincere reform, and Imam al-Kawthari undertook the revival of the Prophetic sunnah.

Imam al-Kawthari was a true scholar; the scholars knew his knowledge.  I knew him [many] years before meeting him.  I knew him through his writings in which the light of truth shone forth.  I knew him through his annotations on manuscripts which he undertook to publish.  By Allah! My amazement at the manuscript was not as much as my amazement at the annotations of the annotator.  It could not occur to the mind of the reader that [al-Kawthari] was a non-Arab writer and not a manifest Arab.  Yet, it is not astonishing [really], for he was Turkish by ancestry and rearing, and in his human life, but, as for his scholarly life, it was purely Arabic, for he read nothing but Arabic, and nothing filled his head but the shining light of Muhammadan Arabic.

A passing glance at the life of this distinguished scholar shows us he was the sincere scholar, the striver, perseverant in adversity and affliction. . . . . He was from a family in the Caucasus [which was reflected in] his vigor, strength, handsome body and spirit, and [in] the quality and depth of his thought . . . . He was born [in a house] of guidance and truth.  He studied Islamic knowledge until he attained the highest rank at around eighteen years of age.  Then, he ascended the ladder of teaching [positions] until he reached its highest level at a young age.  Until, 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, he stood in ambush for them.  He chose his religion over their world, and chose to defend the Islamic relics rather than to have a delightful life.

He strove with all his might and effort – may Allah be pleased with him – on the loftiest paths until he became the Head of the Council of Mashayikh of Islam in Turkey (i.e. the Ottoman Empire).  He was among those known to give his post its due . . . . [until eventually] he accepted to step down from his post for the sake of good, for it is better to step down for the sake of truth than to [remain and] implement falsehood.

Then, the scholar is put to the severest test when he sees his dignified country – the Great Land of Islam – overshadowed by atheism and taken over by those who do not wish any honor for this religion.  Then, the one clinging to his religion becomes like one clasping a burning coal. Then, he finds himself targeted by persecution, such that were he not to escape, he would be cast into the depths of the prisons, and prevented from his knowledge and teaching.  At that point, the Imam finds himself faced with three choices : Either, he must be cast as a fettered prisoner [into prison], whereby his knowledge would be extinguished,  or he must flatter [the authorities] and assist them, or he must emigrate, and the lands of Allah are expansive.  He emigrated to Egypt, and then moved to Syria.  He then returned to Cairo, and then went back to Damascus again, until he finally settled in Cairo.

That noble man, who was put to trial with severities, but conquered them, was also afflicted by the loss of loved ones, for he lost his children during his own lifetime, death taking them one after the other.  By virtue of his knowledge, he was able to be patient, uttering the statement of [Prophet] Jacob, “Patience is beautiful, and Allah’s help is to be entreated.”  He went on to his Lord, perseverant, thankful and praiseful, as the sincere and righteous pass on.  May Allah be pleased with him and make him pleased.”

[From a foreword by written by Abu Zahrah to Ibn al-Jawzi’s “Daf`u Shubah al-Tashbeeh” with annotations by al-Kawthari.]

His Publications

Imam al-Kawthari produced numerous works, in the way of his own books, as well as annotations of classical works.  Among them are:

In Doctrine:
–  Al-Juwayni’s “Al-`Aqidah al-Nizamiyah
–  Al-Bayhaqi’s “Al-Asmaa’ wa al-Sifat”
–  Al-Baghdadi’s “Al-Farq bayn al-Firaq”
–  Ibn al-Jawzi’s “Daf` Shubah al-Tashbeeh”
–  Ibn Qutaybah’s “Al-Ikhtiliaf fi al-Lafz wa al-Radd `ala al-Jahmiyyah
wa al-Mushabbihah

– al-Baqillani’s, “Al-Insaf fi-ma Yajib I`tiqaaduh
–  Nazrah `Aabirah fee Mazaa`im Man Yunkiru Nuzool `Isa Qabla al-Akhirah
( a profound scholarly refutation of heretic beliefs which denied Jesus’ second coming)
–  Qawaid `Aqaa’id al-Batiniyah
–  Kashf Asraar al-Baatiniyah wa Akhbaar al-Qaraamitah
–  al-Tabseer fi al-Din wa Tamyeez al-Firqah al-Najiyah
–  al-Tanbeeh wa al-Radd `alaa Ahl al-Ahwaa’ wa al-Bida`

In Hadith and its sciences:
–  Al-Qaysarani’s, “Shuroot al-A’immah al-Sittah” and al-Hazimi’s
Shuroot al-A’immah al-Khamsah
–  al-Qasim ibn Qutlubgha’s, “Bughyat al-Alma`i fi-ma Faata min Takhreej
Ahadith al-Hidayah lil-Zaylai”

In Jurispridence:
– Imam al-Shafi`is “Ahkaam al-Qur’an”
Fiqh Ahl al-`Iraq wa-Hadeethuhum
Al-Ishfaq `alaa Ahkaam al-Talaaq
– Ibn Hazm’s “Maratib al-Ijma`

In History and Biographies:
–  Kitab Baghdad
–  Bulugh al-Amaanee fee Seerat al-Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan
–  Al-Hawi fee Seerat al-Imam Abi Ja`far al-Tahawi
–  Husn al-Taqadi fee Seerat al-Imam Abi Yusuf al-Qadi
–  Al-Imta` bi Seerat al-Imaamayn al-Hasan ibn Ziyad wa Saahibihi
Muhammad ibn Shuja`
–  Lamahat al-Nazar fee Seerat al-Imam Zufar

– Al-Dhahabi’s “Manaqib al-Imam Abi Haneefah wa Saahibayhi Abi Yusuf wa

–  Maqaalaat al-Kawthari
–  Tahreer al-Wajeez fima Yabtagheehi al-Mustajiz

Reply to accusations

Those who have read thus far with a clear mind will obviously have a markedly different picture of al-Kawthari than that portrayed by some of his enemies.  While al-Kawthari was not perfect, and he did have faults, nevertheless accusations against him were often motivated by certain biases, and by way of illustration, we respond below to some of the accusations for those who may have heard them – those who have not need not read any further.

On the fanaticism / partisanship of al-Kawthari
Consider the following, and then re-evaluate the ‘extreme fanaticism’ of al-Kawthari:

1 He wrote a forward to Imam al-Shafi`i’s “Ahkam al-Qur’an” (which was collected by Imam Abu Bakr Ahmad al-Bayhaqi).  This was published by Dar al-Qalam, Beirut in 1989.
He also wrote a forward to Imam al-Shafi`i’s “Musnad,” and this has been published by Dar al-Fikr, Beirut, in 1997.
If he really considered Imam al-Shafi`i to be “more harmful than Iblees” (BTW, if you are intent on pursuing this subject (which I hope you are not) then please furnish an exact reference for this, I would very much like to verify the allegation) then why would he promote al-Shafi`i’s works!

2 He annotated Ibn al-Qaysarani’s “ShurooT al-a’imah al-sittah” (“The Criteria of the Six Imams [of Hadith]”)  (Maktabat al-Quds, 1357 AH), although it is well-known that none of the authors of the Sihah Sittah were Hanafi (Bukhari and Muslim were actually Shafi`i, and Abu Dawud was Hanbali (and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was a student of Imam al-Shafi`i).) How do we reconcile this with the allegation that he considered Imam al-Shafi`i ‘more harmful that Iblees’ ?  Remember, al-Kawthari could just as easily have chosen a Hanafi work to annotate, such as, for example, al-Khawarizmi’s “Jami` Masanid al-Imam Abi Hanifah al-Nu`man,” which includes biographical notes on its narrators, and could use a decent editing.

3 In spite of the scathing attacks on Imam Abu Hanifah by Imam Ibn Qutaybah (may Allah forgive him for his misunderstandings) in his “Ta’weel Mukhtalif al-Hadeeth,” we find that al-Kawthari has also published one of Ibn Qutaybah’s books, “al-Ikhtilaf fi al-Lafz,” (Published by Maktabat al-Quds, Cairo, 1349 AH) evidently because he recognized the book’s value, aside from his feelings towards the author.  Fanaticism, anyone?

4 He contradicted his Imam, Abu Hanifah, in a regulation related to endowments (awqaf), as I have already mentioned.  (I can dig out the exact reference, inshaAllah, if anyone really wants it).  He said clearly that if Abu Hanifah had known of the hadith here, he too would have changed his verdict.  Fanaticism would have been for al-Kawthari to find some far-fetched way to discredit the hadith.

5 He contradicted the majority of the scholars of his madhhab by being Ash`ari rather than Maturidi.  It is well-known that Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi was strongly influenced by Imam Abu Hanifah in his formulation of the Islamic Doctrine, whereas Imam Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash`ari was more inclined to Imam al-Shafi`i.  If al-Kawthari contradicted his Imam in something as fundamental as `aqidah, one cannot  help but wonder as to the extent of his ‘fanaticism’.

6 The exact expression and  context of al-Kawthari’s alleged attack on Anas ibn Malik also needs to be investigated.  In the Musnad of Abu Hanifah is a narration from Anas ibn Malik via Abu Hanifah.  If al-Kawthari was really so fanatical to Abu Hanifah, would he really discredit his own Imam by insinuating that he narrated from a ‘weak and feeble-minded’ narrator?  And, if he would do this, how strong can his ‘fanaticism’ have been?  Reflect, O people of insight!

7 His statement ‘a sectarian refuting a sectarian’ need not be taken literally.  It can be taken as ‘fighting fire with fire,’ and is a well-known technique of debate – holding an adversary to his own principles. Furthermore, your own message acknowledged that he was actually quoting the words of someone else, who could be the sectarian whom al-Kawthari was using to ‘refute’ what he perceived as sectarianism.  Of course, this is aside from his considering the scholar in question a fanatic Shafi`i – if he was wrong in that, may Allah forgive him.  And, may Allah forgive those who attack al-Kawthari himself, and guide all to the truth.

8 Imam `Abdullah Al-Ghumari was an Ash`ari who openly subscribed to ta’weel, and  I would guess that according to you, this classifies him as a ‘propagating innovator’ (mubtadi`un da`in).  The popular opinion in the books of Hadith science is that a propagating innovator is not an acceptable narrator.  How, then, can you accept his narration?!

Even if you concede that being Ash`ari is not a jarH, (or if you take by the less popular view that the narration of a propagating innovator is acceptable), the narration you quote from al-Ghumari (viz. the one criticizing al-Kawthari) is still not decisive, because its apparent import is contradicted by the action of the narrator (`amal al-raawee bi-khilaafi maa-rawaa) – al-Ghumari himself did not consider what he mentioned about al-Kawthari to render him an unreliable reference, as evidenced by the fact that al-Ghumari asked al-Kawthari for ijazah.

Furthermore, it is well-known that al-Ghumari and al-Kawthari had significant differences in their approach to fiqh – al-Kawthari was a more conservative ‘madhhabi‘, whereas al-Ghumari – although this may come as a surprise to some – was strongly opposed to taqleed, (as I was told by one of his students to whom he gave ijazah, and as is also clear to anyone who has some familiarity with his writings). In such circumstances, there is likely to be some element of bias, and hence, the criticism of one party by the other is not directly accepted – a principle well-established among the scholars of JarH and Ta`deel (Accreditation and Disreputation).  Hence, if possible, the report should be verified from an unbiased source; otherwise it is better left aside.

The enmity and accusations between such distinguished pairs of scholars as Imam al-Awza`i and Imam Abu Hanifah, Imams Malik ibn Anas and Ibn Abi Dhi’b, (may Allah forgive them all) is well-known, and does not make any of these personages worthless.  Bias can sometimes be unintentional and subconscious, inhibiting one’s ability to understand what one’s adversary means, or preventing one from looking for alternate interpretations, excuses, etc.  This is well-known and established among the scholars of the science, and I need not dwell further upon it, since it seems that those disputing with us herein have transcended the basics of the major Islamic sciences, which is why they find themselves compelled to dwell on issues such as that which we are discussing.

9 Accusations of partisanship/fanaticism are often subjective.  Imam al-Qaffal, a Shafi`i scholar, would say,”We did not blindly follow al-Shafi`i, but our ijtihad agreed with his.”

10 Please do not force me to mention the names of other prominent scholars who have been accused of ta`aSSub (partisanship/fanaticism). I hope that the above points do not leave any need to do so.

These, then, are at least ten points in reply to the accusations, and they should be sufficient for one imbued with a sense of fairness – we may note, in passing, that Imam al-Suyuti, in “al-Azhar al-Mutanathirah,” considered ten to be the minimum number of narrations for tawatur. As for those intent on demonizing their opponents, picking on their every error and shortcoming, and slandering them, even entire volumes will not suffice them.

To conclude, we reiterate that we are not claiming that Imam al-Kawthari was sinless (ma`Soom).  May Allah forgive his faults, accept his righteous deeds, and grant all the wisdom and fairness to take from him what is good, and to leave aside and remain silent over anything which transpires to be wrong.

I leave you with the following:

“That is a nation which has passed away.  For them is what they have earned, and for you is what you earn.  And, you will not be asked about what they used to do.” [Surah al-Baqarah]

The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) said,
“O assembly of those who have believed by their tongues, but into whose hearts faith has not reached!  Do not backbite the Muslims, nor seek out their hidden [faults], for indeed, whoever seeks out the secrets of his brother, Allah will seek out his secrets, and whoever has Allah seeking out his secrets, [Allah] will expose him, even if in the depths of his house.” [or as he (peace and blessings be upon him) said it; Abu Dawud]

And, it is reported that Jesus, son of Mary (peace be upon them both) said, “Do not look at the faults of others as if you are lords; rather look at your own faults, for you are slaves.”

I close with the same words with which Imam Muslim closed his introduction to his “SaHeeH”,
“Allah is to be entreated for help in opposing that which contradicts with the ways of the scholars, and in Him is reliance to be placed.”

And peace and blessings be upon Muhammad, the Final Prophet, and upon his Purified Household, and honorable companions.

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