Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Tarikh al-Khulafah (History of the Caliphs) – Jalal al-din Abd al-Rahman al-Suyuti


The family of Suyuti were of Persian origin settling in Upper Egypt during the Abbasid reign. An orphan from early age, Jalal al-din Abd al-Rahman al-Suyuti (1445-1505 AD) studied the Islamic sciences rigorously and was an Islamic theologian, jurist, historian, philosopher and teacher. Having studied under more than 150 teachers, many of them leading figures of his time, Suyuti mastered jurisprudence, foundations of jurisprudence, Arabic grammar, Quranic exegesis, tradition and eloquence. Considered to be right on the edge of the historical period of classical Islam Suyuti lived in a period of considerable consolidation. The sheer volume of works penned by Suyuti, over 500 in number, make him one of the most prolific writers in Islamic history.

Suyuti wrote considerably in the areas of history and biography before writing Tarikh al-Khulafah, al-Shamarikh fi Ilm al-Tarikh being particularly a noteworthy addition on the theory of history.

Fundamental Ideas

Suyuti’s Tarikh al-Khulafah (History of the Caliphs) pieces extracts from a number of earlier historic sources to provide a coherent history of the Caliphs who lead the Islamic civilisations from the death of the Prophet through to the contemporary world of Suyuti. (He utilises the works of Dahabi to the year 700, Ibn Kathir to 738, Masalik to 773 and Ibn Hajr to 850 as well as the works of al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Ibn Asakir, Abu Nuaym, al-Dinawari, al-Mubarrad and Thaa’lab.)

Suyuti commences his introduction by addressing why the Prophet left no political successor, an important question in Shiite political thought. He cites a number of traditions from the Prophet and the companions starting with the hadith of Hudayfah where the Prophet said, “Verily did I appoint a successor over you and were you to rebel against the successor appointed by me, punishment would come upon you.” He then moves on to consider the necessity of the Imams being from Quraysh and provides brief discussions on the traditions prophesising of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate.

Suyuti then commences his profiles with Abu Bakr, the first Caliph in the history of Islam. He considers Abu Bakr’s background and ancestry before the advent of Islam and his services to Islam during the life of the Prophet. He details the factors that distinguish him from the other companions, lists the verses and ahadith that mention him and indicate his preference for the position of Caliph. The historic events following the death of the Prophet, the gathering of the companions to select a Caliph before the Prophet was buried and the final election of Abu Bakr are treated in detail. This is followed by the key events that happened during his reign, including the contentious despatch of the army of Usamah, the slaughter of the apostates Musaylamah the liar and the collection of the Quran. The profile ends with the death of Abu Bakr and his selection of the next Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab.

For the remaining Caliphs from the companions, Suyuti provides similar detailed histories, covering Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman bin Affan, Ali bin Abi Talib and Hasan bin Ali.

The Caliphate then evolves to the Banu Ummayyah dynasty, and Suyuti reduces the level of detail for each Caliph; he provides sketches for each caliph, including summaries of their characters, how they came to power, key events during their rule and their demise.

Suyuti explains how the Ummayad dynasty began with the first Ummayad ruler Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan who handed it to his son Yazid who handed it to his son Muawiyah who ruled for 40 days before civil disturbances led the companion Abdullah bin Zubayr to temporarily become Caliph. Ibn Zubayr’s rule was violently cut short by the Ummayad ruler Abdul Malik bin Marwan who was then succeeded by his sons until the last Ummayad ruler, Marwan al-Himar (the ass) was replaced by Abu’l Abbas al-Saffah, the first in a long line of Abbasid rulers, in 750 AD. The history of the Abbasids follows a similar pattern to the Ummayads, switching to the Egyptian Caliphate in 1261 following the Mongol occupation of Baghdad, and ending with Suyuti’s contemporary Caliph, Mustamsik Billah.

Suyuti ends his Tarikh al-Khulafah with a two page overview of the rulers of the Umayyad dynasty of Spain.


Tarikh al-Khulafah is praiseworthy for its selective compilation and editorial commentary rather than any particularly new content. It allowed for the preservation of a number of older texts which no longer remain extant and for this alone it is noteworthy. Furthermore, Suyuti’s work follows a structure that has informed most later views of the period.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Tahafut al-Falasafah (Incoherence of the Philosophers) – Abu Hamid Mumhammed al-Ghazali


Born in the easten Iranian city Tus, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was an Islamic theologian, jurist, philosopher and mystic. By his early thirties he became a pre-eminent scholar and lecturer at the leading university of Baghdad. Following a period of scepticism and doubt, he attained religious certitude through mysticism before re-emerging in public life. He remains one of the most celebrated scholars in the history of Islamic thought.

The translator Michael Marmura was born in Jerusalem, gaining his MA and PHD from the University of Michigan, subsequently chairing the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies.

Fundamental Ideas

The Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy, bringing to a head the conflict between kalam (speculative theology) and falsafa (philosophy).

Ghazali explained his reasons for writing the Tahafut in the preface and introduction. He condemned certain pseudo-intellectuals of his time, who have been so impressed by “high sounding names such as Socrates, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle and their likes” that they became imitators and their followers without having any real thought of their own. Furthermore, they used these examples to rationalise their own disregard for the rituals and obligations imposed by their own religion opting for disbelief (kufr). Tahafut was to show the incoherence of the philosopher’s beliefs and the contradictions of their metaphysical statements. His argument however was not with their mathematics, astronomical sciences or logic, but only those theories that contravened the principles of religion.

Ghazali stated that the Tahafut was intended to refute the works of the philosophers and not to defend any specific theological doctrines. He said he would write a sequel which would affirm the true Islamic doctrines, which was to become Al-Iqtisad fi al-Itiqad.

In Tahafut Ghazali rejects twenty philosophical doctrines, based on the works of Aristotle and Plato and the Muslim philosophers, Al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037), their proponents in the medieval Muslim world. Seventeen of these doctrines were condemned as heretical innovations and three as irreligious (kufr), totally opposed to Islamic belief.

In his first and longest discussion, Ghazali addressed the issue of the world’s pre-eternity – the first irreligious doctrine. The philosophers he said argued that the world is the necessitated effect of an eternally necessitating cause so therefore must be eternal. They argued issue at hand being does god act voluntarily or necessarily because of his nature. Ghazali argued that an eternal world implies the negation of the divine attribute of will. The philosophers had to show the impossibility of a divine and eternal will creating the world at a given time – something they were unable to do.

The second irreligious doctrine is in the thirteen discussion, Ibn Sina’s theory that God knows particulars only in a universal way. According to Ibn Sina’s system of thought, God would know all about the universal characteristics of the planets and the suns for instance, but not in relation to individual acts. Ibn Sina failed to prove this to be the case Ghazali argued and furthermore this position would contradict the divine omniscience articulated in the Quran.

The final irreligious doctrine is Ibn Sina’s doctrine denying bodily resurrection. Ghazali argues that Ibn Sina has not proven the immateriality of the soul which he used as the basis to argue this point. Ghazali offers a detailed refutation of the proofs Ibn Sina uses to prove the immateriality of the soul. He then goes on to state, even if this point is accepted, it does not mean bodily resurrection is not possible. Quranic texts describe the bodily resurrection in a literal manner and must therefore be taken literally and not metaphorically unless the resulting meaning is rendered impossible. This is not the case and the philosophers were unable to demonstrate this.


In the twelfth century, Ibn Rushd (also known in the West as Averroes) drafted a lengthy rebuttal of Ghazali's Tahafut entitled Tahafut al-Tahafut - The Incoherence of the Incoherence. It critiques Ghazali’s understanding of the philosopher’s positions arguing that he in fact has misunderstood some of what the philosophers argue. Furthermore, his focus of attack is Ibn Sina’s philosophical system rather than that of al-Farabi.

However, the influence of Ghazali’s Tahafut still continues. It put philosophy on the defensive as never before, however, it also articulated the philosophical positions so clearly that it inadvertently brought philosophy to the attention of new readers. Theological scholars after Ghazali would not fail to address philosophical arguments in their books of kalam.


Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah (Ordinances of Governance) – Abu’l-Hasan al-Mawardi


Abu’l-Hasan al-Mawardi (972-1058AD), son of a rose-water merchant, was a tenth century Basra based judge who was involved in the political affairs of his time.

The eleventh century saw the possibility of a revival of Abbasid fortunes through an alliance with the rising Seljuks. The Abbasid rulers asked Mawardi to write a treatise on the Islamic political ruling system so people were able to differentiate the legitimate Abbasid Caliphate from pretenders such as the Fatimids based in Egypt.

The resulting book, Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah (The Laws of Islamic Governance), written in 1045-58AD, gained prominence at the time and is the most cited textbook in modern political studies in Islam.

Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah has been adopted by numerous contemporary political movements calling for the reestablishment of the Caliphate (al-Khilafah).

Mawardi’s many works of jurisprudence and sociology demonstrated him to be an excellent dthinker and scholar.

Dr Asadullah Yate, Cambridge graduate and student of Shaykh Abdal Qadir al-Murabit, undertook the translation in 1996.

Fundamental Ideas

Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah book commences with a discussion of the juristic theory of the Caliphate – commencing with the obligation of Imamate on Muslims (the author uses the term interchangeably with Caliphate) and the supporting Sharia evidences followed by a discussion of the contract and procedure of appointment of the Caliph. Mawardi elaborates the conditions of the holder of this office, how the Imam is to be chosen (either elected by those of power and influence or delegated by the previous Imam) and the responsibilities of the Imam (which are enumerated as ten). He regularly cites examples of consensus from amongst the companions of the Prophet(pbuh) during the first thirty years after the death of the Prophet(pbuh).

The following nineteen chapters (over 300 pages in length) detail insights into key issues of Islamic political and public administrative law, including the appointment of governors, officials, judges and military commanders, and their rights, responsibilities and duties; fighting apostates, insurgents and brigands; dividing the spoils of war; boundaries between countries, land reclamation and water supplies; land enclosure, tithes, taxes and alms; crimes and punishments; fornication, theft, drinking and adultery. Mawardi makes considerable use of Sharia texts and historical precedents throughout the earlier Caliphate periods to justify his points and articulate the structural concepts of the state.

The key construct that al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah articulates is the hierarchical structure of political governance with the Caliph at the apex. The head of the Islamic state is the Caliph with whom political authority (sultah) is vested and sovereignty is destined for the sharia (siyadah). Below the Caliph sit the governors (wazirs), executive and non-executive assistants (muawin), judges (qudaa), head of the military (amir al-jihad), judicial redress, niqabaj tribunal and administrators to who authority is delegated and who are answerable to the Caliph.


Most of the book is empirical, dealing with the day to day apparatus of governance and public administration. An early chapter however deals with the juristic theory of the Caliphate and its underpinning evidences. This appears focused at provided support to the Abbasid rulers and countering the Fatimid claims rather than addressing political theory, the nature and purpose of political power.

Mawardi’s arguments lie firmly in the area of traditional jurisprudence which contrast sharply with political writings of Muslim philosophers such as al-Farabi. They differ with writers such as Ibn Taymiyyah in their erudition which makes them less accessible to simple readers or those without juristic and political knowledge.

Some contemporary writers have suggested that Mawardi’s work is an articulation of selective historical episodes during the Khulafah Rashidah packaged into an Islamic theory. They however miss the Sharia evidences cited by Mawardi throughout his text, showing his articulation is not expressing historical episodes but Sharia texts – the Caliphate structure is the de facto political system of Islam.

Mawardi's book has influenced a number of contemporary political groups and movements, in particular Hizb ut-Tahrir, who wish to reestablish the Caliphate and adopt much of the strucutre and processes from the classical period of Islam that was articulated by Mawardi.

Al-Risala – Imam al-Shafii


Imam Shafii’s al-Risala is one of the earliest available treatises on Islamic jurisprudence. For those who have not heard of Imam Shafii, he is the founder of one of the four major schools of Islamic law in the 8th century (the other three being Abu Hanifa, Malik bin Anas and Ibn Hanbal).

Risala is targeted at those familiar with the basics of Islamic jurisprudence, undergraduate levels and above. Beginners may find it a little heavy.

Iraqi born translator Majid Khadduri, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, is a well known authority on many Islamic subjects including history and politics. He undertook this translation in the 1960s, so it does lack a lot of terminology which has since become standard in works of this kind. He adds a comprehensive introduction to the translation, starting with the historical background of the Risala. He explains the state of Islamic jurisprudence before the advent of Shafii, outlines Shafii’s biography, discusses the old and new Risala and provides an overview of some of the key ideas of the Risala.

Fundamental Ideas of the Risala

The Risala begins with an introductory chapter discussing the religious basis of Islamic jurisprudence, aimed at reforming mankind into a God fearing community. The Quran and the orders of Muhammed (pbuh) comprise two important elements of the new and final religion.

The next chapter focuses on the Quran as the basis of legal knowledge, its rules addressing all matters, spiritual and temporal. From a juridicial point of view, Shafii identifies legal rules, general principles and groupings which Shafii summarises into five categories:

  • specific legal provisions from the Quran,
  • provisions from the Quran where modes of observance are specified by Muhammed (pbuh),
  • broad provisions particularised by Muhammed (pbuh),
  • provisions laid down by Muhammed (pbuh) and rules sought through Ijtihad.

This analysis was innovative at the time and provided a significant prism through which the Quran was viewed in the following centuries.

Shafii discusses the legal contribution that the Sunnah makes in clarifying the meaning of particular Quranic legislation or elaborating law and explains its role as a source of law. In this discussion, Shafii made it clear that only authenticated traditions of the Prophet (pbuh) were binding and considered authoritative sources of legislation. This was in sharp contrast to existing Hijazi and Iraqi schools that often took traditions based on local customs or embodied a personal opinion as valid for legislation. Shafii spends considerable time clarifying what constitutes an authentic tradition, who are reliable transmitters and why certain authentic traditions are contradictory to one another. Furthermore, Shafii categorised traditions relating back to the Prophet (pbuh), the companions or leading jurists with the latter being accepted to clarify the meaning of text but is not binding.

In the following chapters, Shafii discusses the principle of abrogation, where Quranic injunctions were repealed by later ones. He does not accept that the Quran can abrogate the Sunnah or vice versa. The Prophet (pbuh) would replace any Sunnah action contradicted by Quranic revelation thus clarifying the Sunnah’s role as a second source.

The latter part of the Risala covers the remaining important subjects of Islamic jurisprudence: Ijma (consensus), Qiyas (analogy), Ijtihad (personal reasoning), Istihsan (juristic preference) and Ikhtilaf (disagreements) albeit with less coverage than the Quran and Sunnah.

Shafii formulates the concept of ijma as consensus of the scholars as a method of expounding law acceptable to contemporary jurists but invests the community with higher authority. This has led to successive jurists from his own school differing with him, primarily, due to the absence of any mechanism of implementing consensus of the community.

There is a more detailed discussion of Qiyas and Ijtihad due to the widespread and sometimes unrestricted usage of Qiyas with a number of critics denying it in its entirety. Shafii limits the usage of Qiyas and imposes a number of conditions on its usage.

In addressing Istihsan, which was primarily used by the Iraqi jurists, he rejects the principle due to its unlimited and unrestricted use of discretion. He states that personal reasoning through the mechanism of Qiyas should be used following Quran, Sunnah and Ijma.

Finally Shafii considers Ikhtilaf in interpretation which at his time was quite fluid and tolerated. Having proposed a systematic approach to dealing with the sources of jurisprudence, he limited the degree of interpretation to those texts that have the propensity for different interpretations and where personal reasoning can be exercised in Qiyas. This was much stricter than the prevailing views and created significant discussion.


A number of jurists across the various legal schools of thought have historically provided detailed critique of the concepts introduced in the Risala. However, over time much of the contents of Risala have been incorporated into all the schools of thought. The systematic organisation and development of the primary and secondary sources, the critical acceptance of narrations, the differentiation of sources which are authoritative and those which are supportive to mention but a few.

However the main failing of Risala is that of the concept of ijma, which Shafii mandates as ijma al-ummah. This is weak for two reasons - firstly the evidences used to show it is a source are not definitive and are open to a multitude of interpretations, and secondly, ijma al-ummah has historically occurred only on a small number of credal matters, rendering the principle inoperable for the purposes of legislation.

Risala has had a major historic impact which continues to reverberate to modern times. A clear and systematic methodology has been adopted by all modern Islamic jurists influenced by Shafii.