Understanding the World of Ibn al-Athīr – Hamid Mahmood

Hamid Mahmood 

Picture by Hamid Mahmood

Understanding the World of Ibn al-Athīr

 Ibn al-Athīr, ‘Izz al-Dīn Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Jazarī (1160-1233) the historian of Mosul has been put in first place alongside his contemporary Ibn Shaddād for the study of Saladin’s life.  But on the contrary Gibbs also accuses Ibn al-Athīr of giving a ‘malicious twist’ to the history of al-Isfahānī.  Can both statements be justified without contradicting the other; I believe it of great significance to try and understand the ‘mind’ of the author alongside the surroundings he finds himself in.    I will therefore analyse from the muqaddima (foreword) of al-kāmil, what Ibn al-Athīr believes to be the objective of History and its worldly benefits.  I will focus on the account of Saladin’s death in order to understand the medieval traditionalism at work in al-kāmil and contemporary works and explore the dualism in Ibn al-Athīrs description of Saladin.  Finally I will briefly mention some criticism of Gibbs’ understanding of Ibn al-Athīr by Yaacov Lev.  My main objective throughout, however, is to explore whether Ibn al-Athīr is wholesome negative of Saladin or is his analysis more complex in nature than what is generally thought.

I believe it is greatly significant to analyse a text through its ‘rootedness’ in ‘time’ and ‘place’.  This metaphor of the ‘rootedness’ of texts comes from Friedrich Schleiermacher, who argued that meaning and interpretation began with the intention of the author of a text, with due regard also to the historical context and situation out of which the author wrote.  Thiselton elaborated on what Schleiermacher meant by ‘intending’ as opposed to a simplistic understanding of it, ‘the goal and purpose behind and within a text that signal an author’s desire, will, and action as evidenced in and by the text and its surroundings.  Meaning and interpretation include more than these; but these remain his [Schleiermacher’s] starting point’.[1]  Yaacov Lev in his book ‘Saladin in Egypt’ illustrates such an approach and suggests,

Saladin’s historians were a product of their age and their attitudes and perceptions were shaped by the political and cultural values of the twelfth century… They have much in common in their educational and cultural backgrounds as well as in their professional careers… their world was shaped by the new institutions of learning that spread throughout the middle East from the second half of the eleventh century’.[2]

This analysis, despite it being for Saladin’s historian admirers, also includes Ibn Athīr because he too was influenced by the politics and culture of the time.  Hence, it is important to understand the role a madrasa would play and how it may influence the writings of the author.

The politics and culture in that period were intertwined.  Lev explains that, the cultural and religious life of the period was marked by traditionalism combined with mysticism, and focused on three institutions: madrasa, khānqā and dār al-ḥadīth’.[3]  From these institutions the former and latter were certainly influenced by the state and rulers, due to the system of patronage coupled with a social life that was overshadowed by a ‘zealous adherence’ of people (ta’assub).  Ibn al-Athīr’s work ‘asad al-ghāba fī ma’rifa al-ṣaḥāba’, which gives an alphabetical account of approximately 7500 companions of the Prophet shows ibn al-Athīr to be very much part of the traditional landscape of the madrasa and dār al-ḥadīth.  Secondly al-kāmil, according to Douglas Patton, was commissioned under the patronage of Badr al-Dīn Lu’Lu’.[4]  Hence I will examine al-kāmil, while fully aware of the cultural traditionalism and the patronage that Ibn al-Athīr owed his book to.

Furthermore, it is of equal importance to have in mind the ‘intent’ of the author as explained himself.  In this case we can deduce some points from Ibn al-Athīr’s illustration of the objective of History, which he describes under ‘fā’ida al-taṣnīf fī al-tārīkhfawā’iduhū al-dunyawiyya… al-fawā’id al-ukhrawiyya’ the benefit of authoring in [the subject of] History… its worldly benefits… benefits of the next world…’.  Ibn al-Athīr elaborates under ‘its worldly benefits’ the following points:

“The instructiveness of history has many aspects and its usefulness, both in this world and the other world, is very great.  Here, we shall mention only as much of that as we see fit.  We shall leave it to the natural intelligence of the student of history to make himself acquainted with the rest.

As to the usefulness of history for this world, for instance, it is no secret that human beings like to remain alive and prefer to be among the living.  Would that I knew what difference there is between things seen or heard yesterday and things read in books which contain historical information about the men of the past.  Reading about them is like being their contemporary, and knowing events is like being present when they took place.

Furthermore, kings and persons in authority may find the biographies of oppressors and tyrants treated in books which circulate among the people and which are transmitted from generation to generation.  They look at the ill fame and disgrace that were the consequence of oppression and tyranny, the resulting destruction of countries and human lives, the financial loss and the general corruption.  Thus, they come to disapprove of and avoid practises of oppression and injustice.  Likewise, they may see the biographies of just governors.  They read about the good reputation that survived them after their death, and the development and financial prosperity of their countries and realms.  Thus, they come to approve of their example and to desire to practise permanently what they did as well as to omit all that works to the contrary.  Kings and persons in authority derive an additional advantage from the study of history.  They learn through history about the wise counsels that served (their predecessors) to avert damage at the hands of enemies, to escape disasters, and to protect (?) rich cities and great realms

If such were the only useful aspect of history, it would be glorious enough`…’[5]

Here Ibn al-Athīr points towards three main benefits and also reasons for him writing texts on the subject of History, and his main readership he suggests is ‘men of authority and power’.  For ease of understanding I term each notion as follows: 1) faḍā’il (virtue), the readership approves and implements the ‘good reputation’ that survives the virtuous leaders; 2) mawā’iẓ (admonition), they disapprove of the oppression and tyranny by reading about the ill consequences that befell them and lastly; 3) ma’rifa al-ārā’ al-ṣā’iba (acquaintance of pertinent and wise counsels),  they learn through wise counsels and build awareness of imprudent ones.  Also interesting, I believe, the first two are a direct influence of the traditional background of the author, which could be understood from the Qur’anic verse chosen to conclude the introduction: ‘[We have destroyed even mightier generations before these disbelievers, who travelled through many lands – was there any escape?] There truly is a reminder in this for whoever has a heart, whoever listens attentively’.[6]  This attention to the purpose of History has also been addressed by ibn al-Khaṭīb (1313-1374):

و یری العاقل من تصریف قدرۃ اللہ تعالیٰ ما یشرح صدرہ بالایمان و یشفیہ، و یمر علیٰ مصارع الجبابرۃ فیحسبہ بذلک واعظاً و یکفیہ’ [7]

…and that the intelligent may witness the vicissitude of the omnipotence of God: which enlightens his heart with faith and cures it.  And that he may journey through the falls and ruins of [once] mighty [rulers] and that should be sufficient for him as an admonisher and warning’.

And this is then further systemised by Ibn Khaldūn, which Muhammad Iqbal summarises in his famous poem:

ميں تجھ کو بتاتا ہوں ، تقدير امم کيا ہے

شمشير و سناں اول ، طاؤس و رباب آخر[8]

The destiny of nations I chart for you:

at first: The sword and spear;

the zither’s, the lute’s soft sighs at last.[9]

So, from the outset Ibn al-Athīr’s analysis of history is influenced by the theological trend present in medieval madāris (pl. of madrasa).  However, I will experiment with texts from al-kāmil with these notions for a creative insight into the mind of Ibn al-Athīr or whether he writes with a ‘malicious twist’ to al-Iṣfahānī’s al-barq al-shāmī as argued by Gibbs.

An analysis of the death of Saladin is significant in trying to understand the traditional medieval world of Ibn al-Athīr by merely scrutinizing the titles and benedictions attributed to the Sulṭān.  When comparing Ibn al-Athīr’s text on the account of the death of Nur al-Dīn compared to Saladin there are striking differences, which affirm the influence of ‘zealous adherence’ of people (ta’assub) suggested by Lev:  a notion that influences ibn al-Athīr’s writings and also that of his contemporaries.  Ibn al-Athīr begins with the title:

ذکر وفاۃ نور الدین محمود بن زنکی رحمہ اللہ

ثم دخلت سنۃ تسع و ثمانین و خمسماءۃ  ۔  ذکر وفاۃ صلاح الدین و بعض سیرتہ[10]

‘Account of the death of Nūr al-Dīn Maḥmūd ibn Zankī (God have mercy on him)

The Year 580 [1193]  –  Account of the death of Saladin and a little about his character’.[11] When mentioning Nūr al-Dīn the benediction ‘raḥimahū Allāh’ (God have mercy on him) is clearly cited in the title.  But on the contrary for Saladin it is omitted and only mentioned within the text but not title.  Even within modern Muslim societies such a notion would raise eye brows.  When comparing the accounts of the deaths of both leaders in al-Nawādir and kaitāb al-fatḥ al-qussiyy there is benedictions for both Nūr al-Dīn and Saladin:

ذکر وفاۃ نور الدین محمود بن زنکی رحمہ اللہ

ذکر وفاتہ رحمہ اللہ و قدس روحہ[12]

Account of the death of Nūr al-Dīn Maḥmūd ibn Zankī (God have mercy on him)

Account of his death (may God have mercy on him, sanctify his spirit and give the Muslims a good successor).[13]

ذکر وفاۃ السلطان رحمہ اللہ بدمشق  ۔

جلس لیلۃ السبت سادس عشر صفر فی مجلس عادتہ  ۔  و مجلیٰ سعادتۃ  ۔  و نحن عندہ فی اتم اغتباط ۔  و اتم  نشاط  ۔  و ھو یحدثنا و نحن نحدثہ ۔۔۔[14]

Account of the death of the Sultan (may God have mercy on him) in Damascus –

It is evident from these two that Saladin is more highly revered, as due to the cultural respect he is not mentioned by name: either he is referred to with a  pronoun (huwa – he) or a title (al-sulṭān). This additional reverence suggests the notion of ta’assub for Saladin and is very much similar to that of the Prophet in the Qur’an whereby he is mostly referred to by a qualitative title and his name Muhammad only appears four times in the entire scripture – adding to the idea of a cultural traditionalism prevalent in the madrasa thought process.  And this further suggests a transformation also of the sufi notion of tashakhuṣ (high reverence of the saint) into one that now begins to take precedence when speaking of the political leadership, which Lev also suggests from Ibn al-‘Asākir when ascribing to Nur al-Din an aura of holiness by saying that Nur al-Din’s baraka (blessing) saved people from hardship and brought prosperity to his subjects.[15]

One other factor that is at play in the mind of Ibn al-Athīr is his view of History and reason for the rise and fall of nations and dynasties.  Despite inserting a benediction for Saladin in the text he eagerly mentions Saladin’s conversation with his son al-Afḍal and brother al-‘Ādil, which suggests a greed for land.  Ibn al-Athīr mentions, ‘He [Saladin] said, ‘We have finished with the Franks.  There is nothing to occupy us in this land.  Which region shall we attack?’… [al-‘Ādil then proposes to attack Khillāṭ] because Saladin had promised him, if he took it, that he would hand it over to him…’.[16]  This endless greed for land and power for Ibn al-Athīr is punished by God and he elaborates:

‘I have perused histories and seen many events of Islamic history that can be reliably documented.  I have seen in the case of many who start a dynasty that power is transferred from their immediate offspring to other family and relatives’.[17]

Ibn al-Athīr gives the example of Mu’āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān (602-680), who ‘usurped’ power from Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī, from whom power was denied to his descendents and passed onto the Banū Marwān.  Lev points out that, ‘Ibn al-Athīr implies that the establishment of rule is associated with the shedding of blood and violence and therefore the founders cannot enjoy the fruits of their endeavours.  The roots of this concept are Biblical, but it serves Ibn al-Athīr’s purpose well’.[18]  It is interesting to note – despite this concept of punishment – that throughout his al-kāmil Ibn al-Athīr manages to conceal and circumvent this notion for his patron Badr al-Dīn Lu’Lu’, who according to Patton commissioned this work.[19] But, again one is perplexed of Ibn al-Athīr’s praise of Saladin subsequent to the conversation he had with his brother and son:

‘Saladin (may God have mercy on him) was a generous, forbearing, of good character, humble, ready to put up with something that displeased him, much given to overlooking the faults of his follower… as for his generosity, he gave away much, not hesitating about anything he gave away…when he died, he left only one Tyrian dinar and forty Nāṣirī dirhams in his treasury…’[20]

And Ibn al-Athīr continues to describe more virtues of Saladin, which include his humility when Sufis would attend on him; his adherence to the sharī’ah; transmission of ḥadīth and his might in Jihad against the infidels.  Ibn al-Athīr, I believe, divides his description of Saladin between that of Saladin the ‘ruler’ and Saladin the ‘religious’ personality.  This indicates how Ibn al-Athīr had no problem with viewing Saladin as a religious man but his political environment imprisons his thoughts on his leadership and forces him to term him a usurper.  This is similar to Mu’āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān, whose descendants too were deprived of the ‘fruits’ of power but under religiosity he too is highly regarded, also for being the companion of the Prophet the unique benediction ‘raḍiya Allāhu ‘anhu’ is placed besides his name, which means ‘God is pleased with him’.


However, as a resident in Mosul under the Zangids and constantly under their patronage, with the Ayyūbids Ibn al-Athīr conceals naught as opposed to curtaining Lu’Lu’s usurpation, and hastens to portray the transfer of power from Shīrkūh to Saladin and then from him to his brother’s descendents:

‘Finally take this Shīrkūh:  as we have mentioned, power was transferred to the descendants of his brother Ayyūb, and from Saladin too, after he had established and exalted the dynasty and become its founder, power passed to the offspring of his brother al-‘Ādil and in the hands of his own offspring there remained only Aleppo… what I think to be the reason for this is that the person who is the first of a dynasty takes ‘extreme measure’[21] and seizes power, while the hearts of his predecessors are deeply attached to it.  Therefore God, as a punishment for him, denies it to his descendents and those for whose sake he acts’.[22]

Clearly when Ibn al-Athīr was writing this only Aleppo remained under the hands of Saladin’s descendents.  However, it is slightly obscure to what Ibn al-Athīr means by ‘punishment’ and the reason for its importance determines the influence of theology present in medieval traditionalist madāris (pl. of madrasa).  For indeed Ibn al-Athīr, when narrating the incident of the death of Saladin, inserted into the text the benediction of ‘raḥimahu Allāh’ God have mercy on him.  This seems to be a contradiction between the ‘punishment’ of God on Saladin to ‘mercy’ of God, this transformation illustrates Ibn al-Athīr’s dual approach – of viewing him as a sulṭan and separately a religious figure.  By that I mean Ibn al-Athīr portrays Saladin as ‘Saladin the usurper and villain, greedy for power and wealth’ in relation to his usurpation of power from the Abbasids but then provides balanced evaluations in relation to the Crusaders and does not shy away from commending his religiosity.


An example of his balanced evaluations can be seen within his analysis and portrayal of the council of doctors.  Ibn al-Athīr mentioned in the introduction to al-kāmil as a benefit of History ‘ma’rifa al-ārā’ al-ṣā’iba’ recognition of pertinent counsels.  Ibn al-Athīr narrates:

‘His emirs attended him and advised him to move from that place and to abandon close pressure on the Franks.  They presented this to him as the best course, saying, ‘We have pressed the Franks hard and even if they wanted to leave their position, they could not.  Our best plan is to move away so that they can pack up and leave.  If they do depart – and this is the likely outcome – then we are spared their trouble and they ours!  If they stay, we can return to the battle and get back to where we were before.  Moreover, your health is bad and your pain intense.  If any rumour of that got abroad, our men would be lost.  By every calculation our best plan is to withdraw from them.’  The doctors concurred in this, so he accepted it to do what was God’s will’.[23]

Despite Ibn al-Athīr being a contemporary to these events he was not an eye witness and uses ‘Imād al-Dīn’s text for this incident at Acre.  It is significant to note that following Saladin’s great victories at Ḥiṭṭīn and Jerusalem, here was a chance for Ibn al-Athīr to launch the most subtle criticism and there was no need to ‘maliciously twist’ the situation either – as Gibbs argues – as it was failure in all aspects of warfare.  But, instead Ibn al-Athīr decides to shield Saladin and bring the ‘councils and their counsels’ at the forefront of his criticism.  I view this as Ibn al-Athīr’s view of the incident through  ma’rifa al-ārā’ al-ṣā’iba or lack thereof and perhaps intends this counsel to be a lesson for future kings.  However, he only comes with this conclusion with hindsight otherwise strategically at the time that was perhaps a better option as strongly argued by the doctors.  Ibn al-Athīr here is trying to portray Saladin’s lack of leadership, autonomy, and a faltering passion for jihād.  It is also felt as though he is covering Saladin and shifting the blame onto his council.  But, he also credits Saladin when he opposes the council in Haṭṭīn, who suggest to avoid a large scale battle for constant raids and he opts for the all out attack, which earns him his greatest victory.  Hence, I agree with Lev that ‘each account that deals with Saladin must be examined on its own merits.  In many cases Ibn al-Athīr’s bias against Saladin is not evident and neither detectable to us because of our restricted understanding of the system of values which guided twelfth / thirteen century historians’.[24]


So is Ibn al-Athīr’s understanding of Saladin merely shrouded by and influenced by political powers or is the matter more complex?  In response to Gibb’s ‘all out attack’ on Ibn al-Athīr Lev suggests for a consideration of the following points to illustrate the complexity of dealing with al-kāmil.   I) Since both historical works of Ibn al-Athir (al-bāhir and al-kāmil) were written after the conclusion of ‘Imad al-Din’s the Syrian Lightning, there is no valid reason to accept Gibb’s assumption that Ibn al-Athir’s account of the years 1169 – 1171 is independent of ‘Imad al-Din. Ibn al-Athir could have used ‘ Imad al-Din for the years 1169 – 1171 too.[25]   2) Ibn al-Athir did collect information and sources quite independently of ‘Imad al-Din. In both works of Ibn al-Athir there are many accounts based on oral information.  For example, the man who was instrumental in the proclamation of Friday sermons in Egypt in the name of the Abbasids was personally known to Ibn al-Athir.  And the account of Nur aI-Din’s death is related on the authority of his personal physician.  Therefore, the divergence between the works of ‘lmad al-Din and Ibn al-Athir is not necessarily a reflection of Ibn al-Athir’s distortion of ‘Imad al-Din; it could have been a result of different and independent sources’.[26]    Also to overlook a culture of study based very much on the oral tradition is erroneous.

3) Hostility to Saladin does not discredit outright Ibn al-Athir’s commentary on Saladin’s deeds and motives.  For the modern student of Saladin a non-partisan account might prove very valuable. 4) A comparison between Ibn al-Athir’s accounts in the history of the Atabegs and the universal history reveals that the narrative in the universal history is more hostile to Saladin. In the universal history Saladin is always portrayed in a worse light than in the history of the Atabegs.

And lastly and most significantly, 5) hostility to Saladin did not permeate the whole of Ibn al-Athir’s writings. The following example can serve as an illustration for the different ways Saladin is treated by Ibn al-Athir. In his account of Shirkuh’s third campaign in Egypt, Ibn al-Athir quotes Saladin as saying: “Allah gave me a possession of what I had not coveted”. Ibn al-Athir’s informant was a person very close to Saladin, and here this illustrated Saladin’s early reluctance to participate in the third campaign to Egypt and the results were beyond imagination.  Lev rightly notes that, ‘Saladin’s aim is to portray himself as a man who is not avid for power.  His fortunes were ordained by God in spite of his own reluctance and  he is merely a tool of God’s will.[27]  By using this account, Ibn al-Athīr propagates in fact Saladin’s self created image, which contradicts that of the power-obsessed leader.  Once again it becomes unclear of why Ibn al-Athīr’s views change throughout the book.

In conclusion I found through a constant focus on the traditional landscape of the then medieval Islamic world that Ibn al-Athīr is shrouded by complexity and by no means is completely dismissive of Saladin’s career.  However, through the focus on the account of Saladin’s death I found that Ibn al-Athīr maybe has a duality in viewing the sulṭan as a leader who usurped but at the same time a man of commendable religiosity.  Hence, he draws a line between his criticism of his usurpation – and any matter related to it – and his religiosity, which includes his jihādī valour against the might Crusades.  I have come to learn that the general view of Ibn al-Athīr as a zangid historian twisting history to stigmatize Saladin, maybe correct in relation to the account of his usurpation and must be dealt with additional care, but throughout al-kāmil there are passages which prove otherwise.


The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem

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Ibn al-Athīr, (D. 630) – (2003).  al-Kāmil fī al-Tārīkh: min sana 489 li ghāya sana 561 li al-hijra – al-mujallad al-tāsi’ (Part 9) (الکامل فی التاریخ: للامام العلامۃ عمدۃ المورخین أبی الحسن علی بن أبی الکرم محمد بن محمد بن عبد الکریم بن عبد الواحد الشیبانی المعروف ‘با بن الأثیر’ الجزری المقلب بعز الدین المتوفیٰ 630 ھ ۔ من سنۃ 489 لغایۃ 561 للھجرۃ).  Notes by M. Yūsuf al-Diqāqa. 4th ed. Dār al-Kutub al-‘ilmiyyah: Beirut, Lebanon

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Ibn Shaddād, B. (D. 632 A.H.) – (1317 A.H.).  Kitāb Sīra Salāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbiyy al-musammāt bi al-Nawādir al-Sulṭāniyya wa’l-Maḥāsin al-Yūsufiyya – (کتاب سیرۃ صلاح الدین الأیوبی المسماۃ با لنوادر السلطانیۃ و المحاسن الیوسفیۃ ۔ تألیف القاضی بھاء الدین المعروف بابن شداد ۔ المتوفی سنۃ 632 ھجریۃ). Notes on side by Tāj al-Din Shāhanshāh ibn Ayyūb.  Maṭba’at al-aādāb wa al-mu’ayyad: Cairo, Egypt

Nicholson, H. J. (2001).  Chronicle of the Third Crusade: A Translation of the Itinerarium pereprinorum et gesta Regis Ricardi. (Crusades Texts in Translation).  Ashgate Publishing Limited: England.

Richards, D. S. (2010).  The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh. Part 2: The Years 541-589/1146-1193: The Age of Nur al-Din and Saladin. – (Crusades Texts in Translation; 15).  Ashgate Publishing Limited: England.

Richards, D. S. (2007).  The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin or al-Nawādir al-Sulṭāniyya wa’l-Maḥāsin al-Yūsufiyya by Bahā’ al-Dīn Ibn Shaddād.  (Crusades Texts in Translation).  Ashgate Publishing Limited: England.

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Websites and Internet Sources


[1] Thiselton, A. C. (2009).  Hermeneutics: An Introduction. pp. 20-22.  See ‘The Rootedness of Texts Located in Time and Place’.

[2] Lev, Y. (1999).  Saladin in Egypt.  pp. 1-2

[3] ibid., p. 2.  In the madrasa, Sunni law and other auxiliary subjects were taught. Dār al-Ḥadīth was an institution of a more narrow scope devoted to the study of the Prophetic traditions. The

khānqā served the mystics (Sufis) as a focal point of their social and religious life.

[4] ibid., p. 36

[5] Ibn al-Athīr, (D. 630) – (2003).  al-Kāmil fī al-Tārīkh: min sana 562 li ghāya sana 628 li al-hijra – al-mujallad al-tāsi’.  Vol. 1,  p.9-11.  Translation taken from: Rosenthal, F. (1968).  A History of Muslim Historiography.  2nd ed.  pp. 298-300

[6] Qur’an 50:33-37

[7] Quote taken from ibn al-Khaṭīb of Granada (1313-1374). Al-iḥāṭa fī akhbār al-gharnāṭa. see muqaddima (introduction)

[8] Taken from Iqbal’s ‘bāl-e-jibrīl’ – available online: http://www.allamaiqbal.com/

[9] Translation from ‘Gabriel’s Wing’ by Taseer, M.D in Pakistan Quarterly, Karachi. April 1947

[10] Ibn al-Athīr, (D. 630) – (2003).  op. cit., Vol. 10, p.589

[11] Richards, D. S. (2010).  The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh. Part 2: The Years 541-589/1146-1193: The Age of Nur al-Din and Saladin. p.408

[12] Ibn Shaddād, B. (D. 632 A.H.) – (1317 A.H.).  Kitāb Sīra Salāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbiyy al-musammāt bi al-Nawādir al-Sulṭāniyya wa’l-Maḥāsin al-Yūsufiyya.  p. 249

[13] Richards, D. S. (2007).  The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin or al-Nawādir al-Sulṭāniyya wa’l-Maḥāsin al-Yūsufiyya by Bahā’ al-Dīn Ibn Shaddād. p. 243

[14] Al-Iṣfahāniyy, ‘I. D. (1935).  Kitāb al-fatḥ al-qussiyy fī al-fatḥ al-qudsiyy ‘کتاب الفتح القدسی فی الفتح القدسی’. p. 454

[15] Lev, Y. (1999).  op. cit., p. 8

[16] Richards, D. S. (2010).  op. cit., p.408

[17] Richards, D. S. (2010).  op. cit., p.178

[18] Lev, Y. (1999).  op. cit., p. 40

[19] ibid., p.36

[20] Richards, D. S. (2007). Al-kāmil  op. cit., p.408-9

[21] Richards interprets this to mean taking extreme measure: to acquire and remain in power by killing many people.  He comes to this conclusion because one manuscript mentions explicitly mentions ‘yukthir al-qatl (kills many people).  See al-nawādir, p.179, footnote no. 14

[22] Richards, D. S. (2010).  op. cit., p.179

[23] Richards, D. S. (2010).  op. cit., p.369

[24] Lev, Y. (1999).  op. cit., p. 40-41

[25] ibid., p. 38

[26] ibid.

[27] ibid., p. 39

Hasidism and Sufism: Spirituality in Judaism and Islam


Hasidism and Sufism: Spirituality in Judaism and Islam

(Hamid Mahmood)


In an era when media and politics over-shadow relations between Muslims and Jews, maybe there is a solution – spirituality. I will initiate by defining Ṣūfism and Ḥasidism, alongside the definition process I will analyse and contrast between the two. Thereafter, I will focus my attention on the Pīr (sheikh) / Tsaddik and murīd / ḥasidim, and examine their centrality in both spiritualities using Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetry. I will examine the notion of the Tsaddik through four channels as approached by Rachel Elior. I will conclude by briefly analysing individuals, Abraham Maimonides and Baṣīr, who in the medieval period were inclined towards Islamic mysticism – taṣawwuf. And alongside the medieval, I will also look at similar examples in the contemporary modern period – Pīr Ināyat Khan and Rabbi Zalman Shalomi.

Defining Ṣūfism and Ḥasidism

Jonathan Brown and Martin Lings simply explain Sūfism as: the ‘the art of knocking’ on the door of the divine.[1] Brown further quotes a famous Sūfi saint Abū Bakr al-Shiblī as describing Sufism as, ‘comforting the heart with the fan of purity, clothing the mind with the cloak of faithfulness, acquiring generosity and rejoicing in meeting God’.[2] Pīr Dhul-Fiqār of the Naqshbandī ṭarīqat (order) illustrates how one is to acquire taṣawwuf, he quotes Hasan al-Basrī, ‘hum ne taṣawwuf qīl wa qāl se nahī balke tark-e-lazzāt se sīkhā’ – we acquired taṣawwuf not through argumentation and debate, but by casting aside materialistic and worldly desires.[3] Junaid al-Baghdādī once said in a poem:

الصوفی من لبس الصوف علی الصفیٰ ۔ و لزم طریق المصطفیٰ

و جعل الدنیا علی العفا ۔ و الا کلب الکوفی احسن من الصوفی[4]

A Sūfī is he: who dons al-ṣuf (woollen clothing) with the purity of heart

who holds firmly to the ṭarīq (path) of the ‘chosen one’ (Muḥammad) [5]

who leaves behind and transcends the world

if not, then a kūfī [6] dog is superior to the ṣufī.

I believe Ṣūfism is very similar to Ḥasidism in the way that it initiated and transformed into diverse number of ṭuruq (pl. of ṭarīqh – paths). For instance the chishti ṭarīqa, despite claiming silsila to the Prophet, is named after the place in contemporary Afghanistan called Chisht, and similar reasons for other ṭarīqas. However, when defining and analysing Ḥasidism, Rachel Elior presents four factors that umbrella all the ḥasidic groups: (1) A relationship to the Ba’al Shem Tov; (2) Tsadik and community; (3) Being and nothingness; and (4) The ḥasidic congregation.[7]

I will focus my attention on the second and fourth points. It is evident that if the tsadik is viewed so highly, then the master and founder of this spiritual path is bound to be central. The second notion, Tsadik and community, will be dealt with in depth and throughout the essay. But, in simple words Elior assesses, ‘The tsadik links the terrestrial world of his followers with the supernal worlds… the link between the tsadik and his followers is intimate, based on charismatic leadership of the community in a spirit of holiness. All members are of the community are equal in their relationship to the tsadik, which fosters a strong sense of brotherhood’.[8] The third, being (Yesh) and nothingness (Ayin)’ is a ḥasidic idea of the unity and meeting of opposites. Elior elaborates as, ‘this two-way process takes place continuously from the ayin to the yesh and from the yesh to the ayin: every limited element strives to expand, to divest itself of corporeality, and to return to its abstract source, and every abstract element strives to contract, to clothe itself, and to be revealed in its limited expression’.[9] This notion is similar to Muhammad Iqbal’s idea of the Prophet Muhammad and his ascent to the source, he believes, ‘Muhammad of Arabia ascended the highest Heaven and returned. I swear by God that if I had reached that point, I should never have returned’.[10] Finally, the ‘ḥasidic congregation’ is similar to the second notion, but I view it as a result of the powerful bond between the tsadik and the follower. As Elior stresses that there was a relation from both channels, tsadik was the sole channel of divine mercy and sustenance for his followers…[on the other hand] the tsadik also depended on the recognition and support of his followers’.[11] In the ṣūfism of the sub-continent, the masters at times stress the importance of murāqaba (meditation) of the master despite it being repudiated by the ulema’. Similar to this is the incident of Junaid al-Baghdādī and his murīds who claimed to have walked on water by calling the name of their master, Oh Junaid instead of Oh Allah: and once they said, ‘Oh Allah’ they began to sink. Interestingly, Junaid explained, “You are trying to reach Allah and yet you haven’t even reached Junaid!”.[12] However it is ‘tales’ of these kind that the wahhābī and orthodox Islamic mind is forced to reject ṣūfism, and at times in its entirety.

The Pīr (master) and the murīd (follower) | The Tsaddik and the Hasidim

I believe, in both spiritual paths within Judaism and Islam, the relationship between the master and follower is central. The utmost significance in this relation is the deeper and real experience of the holy letters: in ṣufism the sheikh is seen as someone who has attained a higher status; he has survived temptation and reached the maqām (station) where he now stands. However, now he must pass his experience of reaching that maqām to his murīds and the silsila of the previous sheikhs must continue till the Last Day. I will later look at the difference between the ‘master’ in ṣūfism and ḥasidism – the silsila. The sheikh in ṣufism provides the murīd with esoteric knowledge, which is believed by the ṣufī to be such ‘ilm ladunnī that cannot be acquired through extensive study. The story of Rūmī’s conversion to ṣufism is an interesting one, in which a contrast between ‘ilm al-kasabī (acquired knowledge) and ‘ilm-e-ladunnī / kashf (spiritual esoteric knowledge) is given:

‘One day Mawlana Rumi was sitting with his students and disciples near a pond which was in the middle of his garden giving them a lesson in one of the Islamic ‘intellectual sciences’. The Mawlana was surrounded by a large pile of handwritten books and scrolls and was teaching from them when suddenly a strange fellow approached him and, smiling, pointed to the pile of books and asked, “What is this?”

Taking the man to be a wandering dervish and illiterate, Rumi smiled and said, “This is something which you do not know!” [exoteric knowledge].

Still smiling, the dervish picked up the pile of books and threw them into the pond. Rumi was horrified and cried out, “You ignorant fellow! What have you done? You have ruined all my precious books!”

The dervish continued to smile and, nonchalantly approaching the pond and putting his hand into the water, retrieved all the books. Amazingly, all the books instantly became dry and as good as new!

Astonished at this charismatic miracle Rumi cried out, “What is this?”

“This is something which you do not know!” [referring here to esoteric knowledge]. answered Shams of Tabriz.[13]

Subsequent to Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī’s struggles through the maqāmāt (stations) he said what is now quoted by ṣūfī’s throughout the ṭarīqa in Persian:

مولوی ھر گز نشد “مولاے روم”

تا غلامِ شمس تبریز نشد [14]

Mevlawī could never have become the Maula (Master) of Rūm,

till he became the slave [15] of Shams Tabrez

However, even for the famous jurist of Islam, al-Shāfi’ī, the acquiring of exoteric knowledge depended upon a spiritual state of taqwā and tark al-ma’āṣī. Imām al-Shāfi’ī once complained to his teacher regarding his weakness in memory and expressed this incident in a poem:

شکوتُ الیٰ وکیع سوءَ حفظی ۔ فاوصانی الیٰ ترک المعاصی

فان العلمَ نور من الاھی ۔ و نور اللہ لا یُعطیٰ لِعاصی[16]

“I complained to [my teacher / my sheikh] Waqī’ regarding the weakness of my memory. He prescribed for me the abstinence from sins. For indeed al-‘ilm [sacred knowledge] is a nūr (light) from my Lord. And the light of Allah is not given to a sinner”.

Interestingly, when Thānwī was asked the definition of a ṣūfī, he replied with determination, ‘عالم با عمل’ ‘ālim bā amal’ – ‘A scholar, who implements his knowledge’.[17] Hence, it is bringing to life the letters of the sacred texts and becoming the embodiment of the sacred knowledge that is the spiritual aim of Islamic spirituality. Iqbal expresses this notion in his poem, of how a mu’min (believer) is not the one who merely recites the sacred text, but is in reality the sacred text.

ہمسایۂ جبریلِ امیں بندہ خاکی

! ہے اس کا نشیمن‘ نہ بخارا نہ بدخشان

یہ راز کسی کو نہیں معلوم کہ مومن

[18]! قاری نظر آتا ہے‘ حقیقت میں ہے قرآن

With Gabriel trusted and steadfast
this clay-born man has kinship close
a dwelling in some land or clime
for himself Muslim never chose.
This secret yet none has grasped
that a mu’min by appearance is a reciter [of the Qur’an],

But in reality he is the Qur’an.[19]

There is a similar approach to the Pīr of Ḥasidism, and his relation to his ḥasidim.

As the rabbi of Rizhyn once said,

“Just as the holy letters of the alphabet are voiceless without the vowel signs, and the vowel signs cannot stand without the letters, so zaddikim and ḥasidim are bound up with one another. The zaddikim are the letters and the ḥasidim who journey to them are the vowel signs. The ḥasidim need the zaddik, but he has just as much need of them. Through them he can be uplifted. Because of them he can sink – God forbid! They carry his voice, they sow his work in the world…’[20]

But, the reason for the ḥasidim’s need to go to the tsaddik I believe is similar to the ṣūfī idea, of reaching the ultimate source, the reality of God and the tsaddik is the intermediary for that. Rabbi Mordecai elaborated the need for the ḥasidim to come to the tsaddikim, which is homogeneous to the ṣūfī idea of transferring ‘ishq (Love) from ‘fānī’ (the mortal) to ‘bāqī’ (the immortal). He once said, “people go to the tsaddikim for many different reasons. One goes to the tsaddik to learn how to pray with fear and love; another to acquire strength to study the Torah for its own sake. Still another goes because he wants to mount to a higher rung of spiritual life, and so on. But none of these things should be the true purpose of going, for each of them can be attained, and then it is no longer necessary to toil for it. The only, the true purpose, should be to seek the reality of God. No bounds are set to this, and it has no end’.[21]

Rābi’ah Baṣriyyah, a famous female ṣūfī of her era, emotionally expressed the very notion:

“O my Lord, if I worship you from fear of hell, burn me in hell.

If I worship you in hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.

But if I worship you for yourself alone,

grant me then the beauty of your Face”.[22]

However, I believe, the most significant contrasting difference between the tsaddik and the pīr is the silsila (the chain of narrators), which the Ṣūfis believe leads back to the Prophet himself. An idea which, I believe is influenced by principles of ḥadīth tradition likewise shi’ite belief of connecting the imams to the genealogy of the Prophet. But at times these silsilas seem to be problematic when one finds unauthentic sources in the chain of transmission. For instance, when figures like Khidr [23] are mentioned in the chain they become dubious. I present an example of a silsila of my own ṣūfī lineage, where one could see how the methodology used in ṣufism are assumed to be taught down the ages from the Messenger himself, but alongside that I will point towards a problem within the silsila:

Hazrat Mufti Moosa Badat Khalifah of > Hazrat Mufti Mahmood Hasan Gangohi (died 1417 AH) > Shaikhul Hadith Maulana Zakaria Kandhelvi (died 1402 AH) > Hazrat Maulana Khalil Ahmed Saharanpuri (died 1346 AH) > Qutbul Alam Maulana Rashid Ahmed Gangohi (died 1323 AH) > Hajee Imdaadullah Makki (died 1317 AH) > Hazrat Miajee Noor Muhammad (died 1259 AH) >Shaikh Abdur Raheem (died 1246 AH) >Shah Abdul Bari Siddiqi (died 1226 AH) >Shaikh Abdul Haadi (died 1190 AH) >Shah Adhduddin (died 1170 AH) >Shah Muhammad Makki Ja’fari (diedAH) >Shaikh Sayyed Muhammadi (died 1107 AH) >Khwaajah Muhibullah Ilahabadi (died 1058 AH) >Shah Abu Saeed Nu’mani (died 1040 AH) >Shaikh Nizaamuddin Thaneseri (died 1024 AH) >Shaikh Jalaaluddin Thaneseri (died989 AH) >Shah Abdul Quddus Gangohi (died944 AH) >Khwaajah Muhammad bin Shaikh Aarif (died898 AH) >Khwaajah Aarif (died882 AH) >Khwaajah Ahmad Abdul Haq Radolvi (died837 AH) >Khwaajah Jalaaluddin Kabirul Auliya (died765 AH) >Shaikh Shamsuddin Turk Panipatti (died718 AH) >Khwaajah Alaauddin Sabir Kalyeri (died690 AH) >Shaikh Fareeduddin Shakar Ganj (died668 AH) >Hazrat Shaikh Qutbuddin Bukhtiyaar Kaki (died633 AH) >Khwaajah Muinuddin Chishti (died632 AH) >Khwaajah Uthmaan Harooni (died597 AH) >Khwaajah Shareef Zandani (died584 AH) >Khwaajah Maudood Chisti (died527 AH) >Khwaajah Sayyed Abu Yusuf (died459 AH) >Khwaajah Abu Muhammad (died411 AH) >Khwaajah Abu Ahmad Abdaal Chishti (died355 AH) >Khwaajah Abu Ishaaq (died329 AH) >Khwaajah Alawi Mumshaad Dinywari (died298 AH) >Khwaajah Abu Habeerah Basri (died287 AH) >Khwaajah Huzaifah Mur-ashi (died202 AH) >Hazrat Sultan Ibraahim bin Adham (died 162 AH) > Khwaajah Fuzail bin Ayaaz (died187 AH) > Khwaajah Abdul Waahid bin Zaid (died176 AH) > Hazrat Hasan al-Basri (died110 AH) > AMMERUL MU’MINEEN SAYYIDINA HAZRAT ALI radiyallahu anhu (died 40 AH) > SAYYIDINA MUHAMMAD RASULULLAH [The Messenger of Allah] Sallallahu alaihi wasallam (died 11 AH). [24]

Here the silsila ends at the Prophet through his cousin Ali: the ṣūfīs from the chishtī ṭarīqa claim that their teachings and methods have been acquired through the time which lead back to the Prophet. So henceforth there is a spiritual connection between the pīr and the murīd, which is acquired directly from the Prophet through this chain. However, towards the end of the silsila we have the famous Hasan al-Basrī acquiring his ṣūfī teachings from the Prophet’s cousin Ali, but it is still debated whether Hasan al-Basri had actually met Ali and heard from him let alone acquired the complete ṣūfī ṭarīqat.

Within ṣufism there still lies the question of learning from the ‘other’ master, whom one has not pledged an allegiance (bai’at) to. Thanwi, interestingly explains this in his ṣūfī exegesis of the Qur’an:

قولہ تعالی وَٱلَّذِينَ يُؤۡمِنُونَ بِمَآ أُنزِلَ إِلَيۡكَ وَمَآ أُنزِلَ مِن قَبۡلِكَ وَبِٱلۡأَخِرَةِ هُمۡ يُوقِنُونَ اسی پر یہ قیاس کیا جاوے گا کہ اعتقاد تو تمام مشاءخ اہلِ حق کے ساتھ ایسا ہی رکھنا چاہے جیسے اپنے شیخ کے ساتھ البتہ اتباع صرف اپنے شیخ کا ہوتا ہے۔ جیسا بعینہ یہی حکم ہے انبیاء علیھم السلام میں ۔ [25]

‘those who believe in the revelation sent down to you [Muhammad], and in what was sent before you, those who have firm faith in the hereafter’ (Qur’an 1:4). It will be deduced [from this verse] that belief will be on all mashā’ikh ahl al-ḥaq (the masters of the true path) just as i’tiqād (belief) with one’s own master, however ittibā’ (following the ṣūfī path) is only of one’s own sheikh. Just as the identical command regarding the following of Prophets. It is evident from this exegesis that the ṣūfī’s, despite their silsilas, have resorted to deducing uṣūl (principles) of taṣawwuf from interpretations of the Qur’an.

The Tsaddik

Rachel Elior has systematically explained the role of the Tsaddik in Hasidism through four notions; (1) Charisma; (2) Mutual devotion and responsibility; (3) Embodiment of the divine dialectic; and (4) linking the divine and the material. Elior explains the notion of Charisma, ‘The Tsadik derives his authority from the charisma of divine election, a sense of divinely inspired mission and a consciousness of revelation through immediate contact with higher worlds. [26]

The ṣūfī sheikh, in this notion, is one with the Tsaddik, but as elaborated earlier the difference between both in this context would be the silsila, which is believed to reach back to the Prophet himself. However, there is a distinction between the function of the ulemā’ and the ṣufī masters, similar to that of the tzaddikim and the normative rabbis. However, it is clear that both do merge, so there will certainly be ‘ulemā who are also ṣūfī masters, and this I believe to be the normative practice now in the Muslim world. For instance the madrasa (Islamic Seminary) of Bury is famously known for its ṣufī influence on traditional subjects and methodology. Sūfī mystic-jurists of the sub-continent, such as Mufti Taqī ‘Uthmānī, call for a merging of the sciences of taṣawwuf and fiqh. However, at times it is felt that ṣufism begins to influence jurisprudence and vice versa. But this is then rebuked by jurists by differentiating the status of taqwā (تقویٰ) and fatwā (فتویٰ).

Elior further explains the notion of ‘Mutual devotion and responsibility’, The relationship between the tsaddik and his Hasidim is based on an all-embracing nexus of spiritual brotherhood and social responsibility’. [27] This relationship is termed hitkasherut vehitkalelut (affiliation and absorption), it could be seen as the two wheels of the same cycle, as they both need each other for this spiritual movement on a difficult path. ‘Embodiment of the divine dialectic’, Elior elaborates as, the tsaddik embodies the dialectical tension between transcendence and sublimation, the process of emanation from nothingness so as to bring abundance into the world. He moves between different states of consciousness so as to confront both divine nothingness and physical being.[28] This notion I believe is quite unique to Hasidism.

Lastly the idea of ‘Linking the divine and the material’, Elior understands as, the tsaddik devotes himself simultaneously to God and to the world. In an attempt to reunite the divine element in the material world with its source in the heavenly world, he strives to elevate the mundane; at the same time he attempts to draw down the divine abundance from on high for the benefit of the world’.[29] This idea is similar to Rūmī’s dervish, when he circles in the ṣūfī dance, with one hand up towards the divine and the other lowered towards the world: it is where he takes from the divine and distributes to the world. Further to this point at the death of Umar ibn Abd al-Azīz (Umar II), the Byzantine emperor exclaimed, ‘If a man subsequent to Jesus Christ had the miracle to bring people back from the dead, it would have been Umar ibn Abd al-Azīz. I dislike the monk, who escapes from the world and resides in his abode of worship. That monk amazes me, who kept the material world beneath his feet and even then lived a life of an ascetic’ [referring here to Umar II].[30]

It is interesting to note all the similarities in the tales; poetry; purposes and above all the belief in One God; and a belief system that leads back to Prophet Abraham: surely there must be some inclination of both towards the other. Recently, when the ‘kosher’ phone came into the market designed for the needs of the Hasidim, the Muslim was the first to say, ‘right, I am certainly buying that for my child’.[31] And delightful is what Dr Jonathan Gorsky believes, that despite differences in theology, the Abrahamic faiths come together in spirituality.[32] In the medieval period there are many examples of Jews, who were inclined towards ṣufism such as Abraham Maimonides who once said,

“Thou art aware of the ways of the ancient saints of Israel, which are not or but little practiced among our contemporaries, that have now become the practice of the Sufis of Islam, on account of the iniquities of Israel.” [33]

Goiten has written an article ‘A Jewish Addict to Sufism’ focusing on a Jewish Sūfī Baṣīr, and a letter from his wife to the Rabbi urging the Jewish community to bring him back from the mountain.[34] Similarly Pīr Ināyat Khān has also confirmed the idea of Abraham Maimonides by giving form to an innovative ṭarīqa called the ‘Ināyatī-Maimūnī ṭarīqat’, and also once stated,

“The Sufi is an Israelite, especially in his study and mastery of the different names of God. The miraculous powers of Moses can also be found in the lives of the Sufis both past and present. In fact the Sufi is the master of the Hebrew mysticism; the divine voice heard by Moses on Mount Sinai in the past is audible to many a Sufi today”.[35]

Also in contemporary times Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi too has spent time in the Zāwiya with Sūfī masters in the ‘Holy Land’. From an article by Rabbi Zalman he explains how the Sufī master began discussing whether it was kosher for a non-Muslim to do dhikr. Rabbi Zalman recalls the incident when asked by the Sūfiīs:

“Why don’t you go with your own people?”

I said, “I davened this morning with my own people.”… and I’d like to be able to say dhikr with you.”

“Are you a Muslim?”

I say, “La. Ana Mu’min.” I’m a believer. I’m not a Muslim, I’m a believer.

“What do you believe in?”

And I say, “Ash-hadu.” I bear witness. “La illaha ill Allah al-ahad.” There is no G-d but G-d, and that G-d is one.

… [subsequent to being asked what sharī’ah he follows]

“Then why not follow the Shariya of Islam?”

I say, “Because it is not fitting, it isn’t ‘Adab [respectful],’ it’s not fitting for a son to go in paths different than his father. So I come from the banī Yitzhak and banī Yakub and not from the banī Ismail, and so I have to follow the Shariya of my parents.”

“What about Ṭarīqat?”

So we were talking about the higher levels of the Sufi. I said, “With that, I’m with you at one.”

Then somebody gives a kick on the side and says, “Ask him! Ask him! What about rasuliyat [prophethood]?” What has he got to say about Muhammed? Ah, they got me, ah!

So I say, “Ash-hadu.” I bear witness. “La illaha il Allah, wa Muhammed rasul Allah.” There is no G-d but Allah. And Muhammed is His messenger.

So they say to me, “Then you’re a Muslim!”

And I say, “La. Ana Yahudi.” No, I’m a Jew.

“Then how could you say, how could you say such a thing?”

So I said, “Allow me to go back with you in your history. There was Ismail [Ishmael], the son of Ibrahim ha-lililai, Abraham the friend of G-d. Ismail – his children – Ismail still had the Tawḥīd – the knowledge of the oneness of G-d, but his children fell into the dark ages, into the jāhiliyya, into the unknowing. And so, they had lost their way to the oneness of G-d. So, Ya rahim, Ya rahman, the merciful, the compassionate, sent out a messenger to the children of Ismail to bring them back to Tawḥīd – to the oneness . I believe that he was a true messenger.”

The Imam said, “I don’t want to talk anymore. I want to say dhikr with this man!”

And they brought in the drums, and we start to say dhikr.[36]

It seems that at the end of this essay one possibly could conclude that there is light at the end of the tunnel when relations between Judaism and Islam are approached through spirituality and mysticism. I initiated by defining the two spiritualities and in the process compared and contrasted the two through diverse tales and poems. I then analysed, what I believed to be the most significant aspect of Ṣūfism and Ḥasidism, the role of the Sheikh and Tsaddik. I found that the outlook of both notions very similar, but the only real difference was the silsila in Sūfism. I thereafter analysed medieval and the continuation up to the modern period of a merge between both spiritualities within Judaism and Islam.


The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem

Ahmad, Z. F. (2003). Majālis-e-Faqīr (مجالسِ فقیر), Vol. 1. 3rd edition. Maktabatul Faqīr: Faisalabad, Pakistan [Urdu]

Badāt, M (2003). Nisbat wa Iḥsān aur A’māl – e – Qalbiyyah (نسبت و احسان اور اعمالِ قلبییہ). Majlis – e – Maḥmoodia: Bately, UK

Badāt, M (2006). An Introduction to the Science of Tasawwuf: A Translation of Nisbat wa Iḥsān aur A’māl – e – Qalbiyyah (نسبت و احسان اور اعمالِ قلبییہ) by Khalil Ahmed Kazi.

Accessed online [29.04.2011]:


Buber, M. (1991). Tales of the Hasidim. Schocken Books: New York, USA

Brown, J. A. C. (2009). Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. Oneworld Publications: Oxford, England

Brown, J. A. C. (2011). Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK

Elior, R. (2008). The Mystical Origins of Hasidism. English ed. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization: Portland, USA

Elior, R. (No date). Chapter: ‘The Infinity of Meaning embedded in the Sacred Text’.

Accessed online [08.05.2011]:


Goitein, S. D. (1953). ‘A Jewish Addict to Sufism: In the Time of the Nagid David II Maimonides’. The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series. Vol. 44, No. 1 (July 1953), pp. 37-49.

Iqbal, M. (2008). The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. 10th ed. Kitab Bhavan: New Delhi, India.

Iqbal, M. (No date). کلیاتِ اقبال؛ متن، اردو ترجمہ اور تشریح Kulliyyat-e-Iqbal: matan, urdu tarjumah, tashreeh. Sheikh Muhammad Bashir & Sons: Lahore, Pakistan [Urdu]

Iqbal, M. ḍarb-e-kalīm (ضرب کلیم): The Rod of Moses.

Accessed online [08.05.2011]:


(search under prose works, translation of ḍarb-e-kalīm)

McAuliffe, J. D. (2003). Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān. Vol. 3. Brill: Leiden, Boston

‘Reb Zalman Among the Sufis’. Transcribed by Reuven Goldfarb with the assistance of Eliyahu (Khaled) McLean.

Accessed online [18.04.2011]:


Rūmī, J. (2009). Ḥikāyāt-e-Rūmī (حکایات رومی). Trans. by Sufi Asif Mahmood. Book Corner Show Room: Jehlum, Pakistan [Urdu]

Sajjad, Z. A. and Shahabi, I. A (1991). Tārīkh-e-Millet (تاریخِ ملت). Vol. 1. Idara Islāmiyyāt: Lahore / Karachi, Pakistan

Thānwī, A. A. (1424H). Bayān al-Qur’ān (بیان القراٰن: رفع الشکوک اردو ترجمہ مساءل السلوک من کلام ملک الملوک وجوہ المثانی مع توجیہ الکلمات والمعانی). Idārah Tālīfāt e Ashrafiyyah: Multan, Pakistan [Urdu]

Thānwī, A. A. (1425H) . Tuḥfa al-‘Ulemā’ (حضرت حکیم الامت تھانوی رحمہ اللہ کی سینکڑوں تصانیف کا نچوڑ: تحفۃ العلماء) Idara-e-taleefat-e-Ashrafiyya: Multan, Pakistan. [Urdu]


Accessed online [27.04.2011]


Accessed online: [10.05.2011]

‘Inayati-Maimuni Tariqat of Sufi Hasidim | The Desert Fellowship of the Message’

Accessed online [10.05.2011]: http://www.zimbio.com/Judaism/articles/144/Inayati+Maimuni+Tariqat+Sufi+Hasidim+Desert

[1] Brown, J. A. C. (2009). Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. (p. 184).

[2] ibid.

[3] Ahmad, Z. F. (2003). Majālis-e-Faqīr (مجالسِ فقیر), Vol. 1. (p. 196)

[4] ibid.

[5] In all instances of a Muslim’s speech and traditional writings the phrase ‘Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH)’ (صلی اللہ علیہ و سلم) is followed by the name of the Prophet, but in this article I intend the phrase, hence on the understanding that it is intended and assumed no disrespect is intended.

[6] Kūfī refers to the resident of Kūfa

[7] Elior, R. (2008). The Mystical Origins of Hasidism. (pp. 2-4)

[8] ibid., (p. 2)

[9] Elior, R. (No date). Chapter: ‘The Infinity of Meaning embedded in the Sacred Text’, p. 39. Accessed online [08.05.2011]: http://members.ngfp.org/Courses/Elior/EliorNave_Mil-Ch2.pdf

[10] Iqbal, M. (2008). The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. (p. 124) – Iqbal, here has quoted a mystic from Gangoh, pointing towards the difference between the experience between the Prophet and a mystic.

[11] Elior, R. (2008). The Mystical Origins of Hasidism. (p. 3)

[12] Naqshbandi, A. Three Tales of Sufi Wisdom.

Accessed online [09.05.2011]: http://www.chowk.com/Views/Three-Tales-Of-Sufi-Wisdom

[13] Accessed online [07.05.2011]: http://www.chowk.com/Views/Three-Tales-Of-Sufi-Wisdom also in Urdu: Rūmī, J. (2009). Ḥikāyāt-e-Rūmī (حکایات رومی). Trans. by Sufi Asif Mahmood.

[14] Rūmī, J. (2009). Ḥikāyāt-e-Rūmī (حکایات رومی). Trans. by Sufi Asif Mahmood. (p. 21)

[15] Slave here refers to murīd (follower).

[16] Thānwī, A. A. (1425H) . Tuḥfa al-‘Ulemā’ حضرت حکیم الامت تھانوی رحمہ اللہ کی سینکڑوں تصانیف کا نچوڑ: تحفۃ العلماء – (p. 41)

[17] ibid., (p. 159)

[18] Iqbal, M. ḍarb-e-kalīm (ضرب کلیم): The Rod of Moses. Accessed online [08.05.2011]: http://www.allamaiqbal.com/

(search under prose works, ḍarb-e-kalīm.)

[19] ibid., (search under prose works, translation of ḍarb-e-kalīm)

[20] Buber, M. (1991). Tales of the Hasidim. (p. 54)

[21] ibid., (p. 164)

[22] Rābi’ah Baṣri’s (717-801) Ṣūfism. [Accessed online 27.04.2011]:


[23] There are a multitude of interpretations as to who Khiḍr. Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an (vol. 3) states that Al-Zamakhsharī asserts that Khiḍr lived from the time of Dhū l-Qarnayn to that of Moses; Sayyid Qub sets that tradition aside, calling him only “the righteous servant.” However, some ṣūfī tradtions believe that Khiḍr is still alive and witnessed by some mashā’ikh.

[24] Silsila taken from: Badāt, M (2003). Nisbat wa Iḥsān aur A’māl – e – Qalbiyyah (نسبت و احسان اور اعمالِ قلبییہ). Also available online from the English Translation:

Badāt, M (2006). An Introduction to the Science of Tasawwuf: A Translation of Nisbat wa Iḥsān aur A’māl – e – Qalbiyyah (نسبت و احسان اور اعمالِ قلبییہ) by Khalil Ahmed Kazi.

Accessed online [29.04.2011]:


[25] Thānwī, A. A. (1424H). Bayān al-Qur’ān (بیان القراٰن: رفع الشکوک اردو ترجمہ مساءل السلوک من کلام ملک الملوک وجوہ المثانی مع توجیہ الکلمات والمعانی). (p. 4)

[26] Elior, R. (2008). The Mystical Origins of Hasidism. (p. 130)

[27] ibid.

[28] ibid.

[29] ibid.

[30] Sajjad, Z. A. and Shahabi, I. A (1991). Tārīkh-e-Millet (تاریخِ ملت). Vol. 1. (p. 668)

[31] Article ‘Is that cell phone Kosher’ on BBC. Accessed online [10.05.2011]: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7636021.stm

[32] Lecture at Heythrop College.

[34] Goitein, S. D. (1953). ‘A Jewish Addict to Sufism: In the Time of the Nagid David II Maimonides’. The Jewish Quarterly Review, (pp. 37-49)

[35] Cited from article, ‘Inayati-Maimuni Tariqat of Sufi Hasidim | The Desert Fellowship of the Message’

Accessed online [10.05.2011]: http://www.zimbio.com/Judaism/articles/144/Inayati+Maimuni+Tariqat+Sufi+Hasidim+Desert

[36] For full article refer to:

‘Reb Zalman Among the Sufis’. Transcribed by Reuven Goldfarb with the assistance of Eliyahu (Khaled) McLean.

Excerpt from an audio tape of the Farbrengen with Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at the Hillel Foundation, Berkeley, California, March 19, 1994. Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi is speaking.

Accessed online [18.04.2011]: http://www.sufi-tariqah.de/tarchiv/rebzalman.html

Islamic Education in The UK: A View to The Future

Islamic Education in The UK: A View to The Future
Tariq Ramadan

Islamic Education in the UK:
A View to the Future

A discussion on the Islamic Education in the UK: A View to the Future organised by the Islamic Society of the University of Oxford, held at Jesus College, Oxford, on 6th of March, 2012. Professor Tariq Ramadan gave a lecture on this important topic.

Professor Ramadan at the very start said that we must start with three points: the main framework, objectives, principles and then end of objectives. “We are attempting to promote the principles framework and the objectives; but very often we want to do exactly the same as what is taught by other systems and simply add the word ‘Islamic’ and they are happy in the competition when the Muslims are doing as good as the other,” mentioned Professor Ramadan.

Professor Ramadan explained that for him, the first point is not simply to integrate within the current system, but more rather to contribute to the system for the better. He said, “Let us agree to disagree from the very beginning and identify the added-value and principles that we need to understand, promote and translate in our lives”

The second point, Professor Ramadan said, is to restructure how one can deal with the issues of good intentions and hope. “I have seen too many people having the good intention to have Islamic schools. Yet good intentions can destroy unless we identify the right way of achieving them,” said Professor Ramadan and added, “This is something that we learn from the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) life. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was always asking God to help him but he did not forget to think when comes to implementation and to ask the people around him, even non-Muslims, people from other faiths, to help him to go the right way. I rely on God but I need human intelligence and human agency anywhere in the West.”

People researching and working on education are developing new theories, trying for the best to devise a better. “If we neglect this new research and theories in the name of the fact that Muslims have the right principles, is this right? Having the right principles yet not deriving the right methodology is wrong because there is no way to understand the principles unless one understands how to implement such principles within a specific context,” argued Professor Ramadan.

Principles – the context and evaluation
Professor Ramadan talked of the principles, context and evaluation. He said that we need to evaluate; we must be positive. “To be a good Muslim is always to strive to have a good knowledge. This must relate to the principles, context and environment – where and with whom you are living and what you want to achieve there. In the name of the principles, one must consider the context within which you are living and then draw your conclusions, evaluate. We need to evaluate, we need to assess where we are,” said Professor Ramadan.

Speaking about the achievement over the last 25 years; Professor Ramadan said, “I would say that we must be positive of this because over the last 25 or 30 years what the Western Muslims, the European Muslims have achieved is great. Does it mean we should be happy with it? We should be happy with the constructive and critical ways and consider what must still be improved in the whole process.”

Some of the principles that we must rely upon
First The Tawheed
Professor Ramadan said, “Let me consider some of the principles which are important for me when it comes to Islamic education, the principles which we must rely upon. I think that it comes to the beginning of the revelation that we have really to understand the Oneness of God – Tawheed is essential. When God is talking to the Prophet (peace be upon him) the first dimension on which He (God) is relying about Himself Rabbul Alamin, the Rab is not exactly the way we translate it into English saying Lord.”

Professor Ramadan said, “In Rab there is the root of Tarbiyah; the Educator. He (God) is taking the Prophet (peace be upon him) and saying I am your educator; now this is the way I am taking you from here and now I want you to go there. So on the way towards Truth, on the way towards Me, on the way towards being close to Me, I am your Educator and you are going to be educated; and through this process you are yourself going to be the model. So you are the best example, because the Educator is God. So the Tarbiyah is essential.”

Upon what dimensions is this Tarbiyah based? Professor Ramadan said, “Allah is talking about Himself Ar-Rahman and you know how much the Prophet (peace be upon him) loved this Surah – Surah Ar-Rahman. Talim twice here between Allamal Qur’an. He taught Qur’an, the recitation and the revelation. He Created the Man and then Allamahul Bayan. He taught him how to express himself. Coming from God with this understanding in the Revelation and being able to be speak out be twice Allama. So Talim here is essential, is not only knowledge.”

Three dimension, Al-Ilm, Fahm and Fiqh
Professor Ramadan said, “So there is this dimension of Al-Ilm and wa-Faham. So, Al-Ilm which is the knowledge that you acquire and Fahm is what you understand from that knowledge which you have acquired. This is something which is the Dimension of Al-Ilm, al-Faham and we have a third word which is Fiqh. In fact, Fiqh is deep knowledge; and deep knowledge is the knowledge of the understanding of the revelation and the implementation of this revelation in your time, in your place to remain fit.”

Professor Ramadan continued, “So there are three dimensions, Ilm, Fahm and Fiqh. These three dimensions are important but that is still not enough; because as it was said, very often when we start talking about this; we think and in our system today very often when you speak about understanding, you speak about mind; your heart is understanding and this is a dimension which is so important in anything relating to spirituality.”

Principles: Mind, Heart and Body
Speaking about the principles of Mind, Heart and Body, Professor Ramadan said, “That in any Islamic education based upon the Islamic principles when you educate the mind, you educate the heart. This is something what we know and any teacher knows that you always get a better knowledge when you love the teacher. Mathematics, for example, is always easier when you love the teacher! So this is why the Messenger was loved; he was loved and he was the best teacher. At the same time, it is clear that there are limits – because we love you. You learn to teach us how to learn; in him we understand that it is out of love that we respect him though our mind is ready to respect because our heart is open to love.”

“This is the meaning of education but still this is not enough; it is not only this. Today we should also consider what we are acquiring from behaviour, psychology – it is not only your mind, your heart or even your body. Teach your body from everything that we have in our prayer. There is something which is hardly you educating the body. Now we have physical education; there is something which is deep in the way you are using and training your body to be closer. For example, the way you say salam, the way you greet people, the way you serve them – your body is learning and understanding something and this comes from psychology, anything relating to the relationship with your body, heart and mind,” said Professor Ramadan.

He continued, “It is a comprehensive approach; never neglect the body if you want the spiritual education; anyone who is just talking about your heart and saying that this is spiritual is missing the point; because what we learn from the Prophet (peace be upon him) is exactly this: Connect the mind with the heart with the body and understand that when the body is ready it is sometimes the body opening your heart, not always the opposite. These are the three dimensions of the principles that we have in Islamic education and it is part of something which is related to the meaning of things as you are saying education is mainly about meaning.”

Basic Islamic Education: Food for Mind, Heart and Body
What would you like to achieve? “Understanding the meaning through al-Ilm, Faham and Fiqh is the very essence of the very simple part of the Hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him), when you get it right;” said Professor Ramadan and added, “If every dimension of the human being is right – your mind, heart, body – they have their voice and you must be very cautious to gear to every dimension of your being it’s right. So your mind must acquire the knowledge as much as your body must have food, as much as your heart used to get love and all these dimensions are part of the education. You will never achieve peace which is the very essence, the high objective of Islam; you will never achieve peace if you do not understand that education is all about being balanced; first the balance is to recognise that you have needs and then it is for you to look for and discover the answer to these needs.”

“This is part of what we must explore from the basic Islamic Education and this is why in considering human beings, in considering our children, it is the very meaning of dignity. To give dignity – give me the food for my mind, the food for my body and the food for my heart. Educating is all about this,” said Professor Ramadan.

Conception – Three Basic Rights, Basic Dignity
Having noted these principles of food for mind, body and heart there are three points which follow on from this. Three conceptions of basic rights and basic dignity. Professor Ramadan said, “When we are talking about this, these are the basic rights of any human being, any family, any Muslim-majority country, any community we must consider this: The respect of the basic rights, giving the dignity, the basic dignity to the human being.”

1) Autonomous: Giving Education to Walk Without
“What is the first consequence of this? The first is what we should do at one point in my life I am going to be autonomous; I am going to be mukallaf, mukallaf means without my father, without my mother, without my teacher, I am going to be asked by God; and you must teach me how to be autonomous, as the French philosopher noted, ‘I am not teaching you to think like me; I am teaching you to think without me.’ This concept is essential – that education is that I am giving you the means to walk without me, at one point on the Day of Judgement you are not going to return to me, you and I will be alone,” said Professor Ramadan.

He also argued, “Autonomy is something which is essential in our education; yet how can one be autonomous knowing only the text and not the context. For the protector, for example sometimes in considering Islamic schools, and also even within our families, we as parents protect our children in a way that when they are outside in the world they are not equipped to face the realities. So they are not autonomous, they only pretend to be just to please us. Yet when someone just pretends to be autonomous to please the authority, everything is lost. The authority and his or her way of teaching autonomy is wrong – it is not effective this way.”

“Autonomy is essential; are we today educating our children, boys and girls, to be autonomous, where autonomy means not only to be able to make the correct decisions but where autonomy is spiritually strong enough to face the challenges of this life today with their heart, their mind and their body,” said Professor Ramadan.

2) Knowledge of Context:
The second point connected to being able to be autonomous, is giving the knowledge of the context. Professor Ramadan argued, “If you only count Islamic education; if you know the Qur’an; if you know the Hadith; and you are not reading the world. By the way, the first revelation, when you start understanding the beginning of the revelation, when it is said to the Prophet (peace be upon him) IQRA iqra is read, it is not only read the text, then wal qamar; it all the world, it is changing your understanding of the world; these are signs. So we must understand the world within which we live as much as we must understand the Book. The Book is there to help us understand the world and we must look at the people around us.”

Professor Ramadan said, “I think that this is where our Islamic education in the West is to learn about the West. Learn about society, people and what it means to be autonomous in Britain now, today, not in Egypt 25 years ago, not in Sudan and other countries. This is the context”.

3) Valued Outside
Talking about Islamic schools, Professor Ramadan said, “Out of the Islamic schools in Britain, or wherever you are, if you have Islamic schools that are isolating our boys and daughters in a space where they are good there but not valued outside there is something wrong. In fact, I need to get the knowledge when I go outside to have a value; people are looking at me exactly when we are all like this. We must stop having idealistic hopes such that you are going to be a good Muslim, to get the good Islamic knowledge. I need to be valued; I need to have a value in the society. Good education is giving me a value.”

Which kind of added-value do we give to our young generation in Britain? What will you contribute; what will you give to this society; what is the value that you have as a human being, while raising these questions, Professor Ramadan said, “The only ‘I am visible because I wear the headscarves, I am visible because I have beard’, this is the opposite of getting value.”

Some of the Principles to Promote Islamic Education
1) Freedom

Professor Ramadan said, “Freedom is essential in Islam – many of the scholars when they talk about the fact that the Angels were prostrating in front of Adam (peace be upon him) for two reasons: First is knowledge and second is that it was free. He is a free human being. Adam was free; so he is free. This freedom is essential; we need to educate our children in a way they are free.”

“My first concern is freedom – not freedom to speak or freedom to move, more rather it is freedom of what you want to be, how you want to be – it is to be assertive, to be at one with your own values. You might not be free. You think you are free to follow, but I am free not to follow; I am able to say I don’t like it because I am educated to try to find my right answer. I think that we must be serious about this concept. Muslims are not serious about the question of freedom,” argued Professor Ramadan.

He maintained, “Freedom of what you want to be; how you educate your children to be get with this spiritual trend is important here. Then you also have the freedom to speak and freedom to ask questions. This is something which is missing very often in our mosques. Our Islamic education is all about ‘You listen. Listen because I am giving you the Qur’an, giving you the Hadiths’.”

2) To Question
Professor Ramadan said, “This is why I think we must also understand that if you want the right education in the West, or in Britain for example, you devise a course. You are not teaching the students to ask questions because all questions are legitimate, you call the students.”

Referring to the use of the internet today, he said, “We avoid questions about behaviour, about sexuality. How am I being protected if you are hiding the questions that are in my mind? I am colonised with questions and yet you pretend that these questions are not there. The only answer to my question is Aujubillah haram. Haram is not helping me. I am surrounded with all these questions so please don’t put me in a situation when I feel this is attracting me, where I feel I am wrong or I am a bad guy.”

“So start with normality and try to go to spirituality; from natural to spiritual; but not from bad. You cannot be at peace with this; visible thinking starts with this; firstly we must have the courage and secondly we must be active,” said Professor Ramadan.

Critical Thinking
1) Active – Ability to Speak Out, to Write; The Need for Writing; To be Effective
Professor Ramadan said, “With this freedom the second requirement is to be active; as it was said to be active means to be able to speak. We need to teach our children, our people, our students to speak out – we need to teach them also to write. I think that we need this writing for it is not only read, it is to write. To be effective and have value within our society, we must speak in order to be heard and write in order to be read.”

“It was also said to serve, which is exactly to serve as a contribution. I don’t like all this business about integration; integrate our school into the system; all this for me is awful. For example this school should contribute – yet you are what you give, the education which is helping our children to give; to give with your mind, with your heart and with solidarity,” argued Professor Ramadan.

But once again if you want to serve the society; Professor Ramadan enquired, “If you want to serve in Britain what do you know about the history and legacy of this country? What do you know about the critical questions that the British, the fellow citizens, have? You need to know these questions and this is I say that we must reconcile ourselves.”

“Many Muslims say that they respect other religions so the first respect to have is at least to learn about the other religions, to read about it. Yet what do you know about Christianity, Buddhism or other religions?” enquired Professor Ramadan and maintained, “It is a two-way process. We live in the West yet we are not doing the job as such and we are not teaching this two-way process – we must acknowledge and recognise that at the very least the knowledge of both us and the others is part of this process.”

2) Spirituality: Putting Meaning into Action
Speaking about spirituality, Professor Ramadan said, “For me when I speak about acting here, spirituality means action. Just to feel that you are close to God means that in anything that you do you put meanings into your actions. Never forget this, when you start by saying Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim, put meanings in actions. The objective of this is to satisfy God and serve the people and the best way to satisfy HIM is to serve the people. This is spirituality – this spirituality is not only to pray during the night. As I always repeat: Pray during the night in order to serve the people during the day – this is the way you serve God and yourself. By the way by serving and praying, this is the connection.”

3) Education is about Love
Professor Ramadan suggested that education is about love. “The last point also comes from education. I would like to highlight two points relating to this – I really mean that education is about love. Firstly you have to learn how to love your own parents, your family, your children and secondly you also have to learn how to love your society. When we consider ourselves in this country for example, how many Muslims (those who were either born here or who came later in their lives) already look at Britain and consider the people as ‘my’ own people and refer to them as ‘my’ people. This sense must come from the heart, not the mouth – you may say ‘I care about you and I care about this society’ but is this really the case? Whilst you may speak about it, how do you actually put your words into action,” argued Professor Ramadan.

“In our mosques, in our schools we keep on repeating us versus them. You can speak about this when it comes to morality but not when it comes to building a society,” said Professor Ramadan and mentioned, “All the Prophets (peace be upon them all) and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the last one, when checked and oppressed, he had to leave them and when he returned and he said, ‘My people, you are my people; and I am serving you even against your will. Why, because He (God) told me to do so. So I am serving him against your own will. You know why? because you are acting against your own benefit’. So the point for us in relation to education is for us to love the society that we live in, love the people and somehow translate this concept into our education system.”

Professor Ramadan concluded “There is one central theme here and that is that in order to share something with your society, you need to learn and teach about the arts – this includes beauty, poetry, tastes and culture because engaging with all these dimensions is a way of translating our love for our societies and our people in a non-verbal, a deeper way. Since the more that you celebrate beauty the more that you celebrate the Creator of beauty. All this can be summarised in one sentence such that ultimately education is about teaching and educating courageous people – those who are free, ready to speak out, ready to be assertive and courageous enough to be able to show the people around them their needs. The need of love could be perceived as a fragility and weakness, yet the most courageous people are those that admit that they need and those that say that they love. So the only right question to ask today might be: How many courageous people are we educating in our schools?”


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Sūra al-‘Qalam (Chapter 68): structure and organic unity

Hamid Mahmood

Analyse Sūra al-‘Qalam (Chapter 68) showing the structure and organic unity of the sūra.

وہ بجلی کا کڑکا تھا یا صوتِ ہادی
عرب کی زمیں جس نے ساری ہلادی

(مولانا حالی ؒ)

Exploring organic unities and structures within sūras is a new phenomenon, as I believe the early Muslims (ṣaḥāba and tābi’īn), when analysing verses and sūras could ‘organically unify and structure each verse with the lived experience of Prophet Muhammad. Hence they sought no need of understanding structures and organic unities. However, now the need intensifies, as even on grassroots level yearn to understand the organic unity of the Sacred Text. I will therefore analyse and experiment with Amin Ahsan Islahi’s idea of ’amūd, by using his basic principles alongside Marwān Nūr al-dīn Sawār’s innovative notion of colour coding verses grouped under specific contexts. I will also aid my analysis with illustrations and diagrams marked on pages 5 and 6.

I will initiate by elucidating Islahi’s notion of the ’amūd and how it functions within each sūra between the verses, knitting together all the sūras of the Qur’ān to form a structured organic unity. Mustansir Mīr explains the notion in four parts:
‘(1) Each Qur’ānic sūrah has a dominant idea, called the axis of the sūrah, around which all the verses of that sūrah revolve. Thus no verse, or no group of verses, stands alone but has a direct relation with the axis of the sūrah and is part of the coherent scheme of the sūrah. (2) The sūrahs of the Qur’ān exist in pairs, the two sūrahs of any pair being complementary to each other and, together constituting a unit. There are a few exceptions, however. The first sūrah, Fatihah, does not have a compliment, because it is a kind of preface to the whole of the Qur’ān. All the other exceptions too are not exceptions in the real sense of the word since each of them is an appendix to one or the other sūrah. (3) The 114 sūrahs of the Qur’ān fall into seven groups. The first group comes to an end at sūrah 5, the second at sūrah 9, the third at sūrah 24, the fourth at sūrah 33, the fifth at sūrah 49, the sixth at sūrah 66, and the seventh at sūrah 114. Each group contains one or more Makkan sūrahs followed by one or more Madīnan sūrahs of the same cast. Like individual sūrahs or each pair of sūrahs, each group has a central theme which runs through all its sūrahs, knitting them into a distinct body. In each group, the themes of the other groups also occur but as subsidiary themes. (4) Each group logically leads to the next, and thus all the groups become variations on the basic theme of the Qur’ān, which is: ‘Allah’s call to man to adopt the right path’.
Now, keeping in mind Mir’s concern regarding the difference between ‘connectedness’ and ‘organic unity’, ‘a connection, howsoever weird and farfetched, can be established between any two objects of the universe. But organic unity implies the presence of a harmonious interrelationship between the components of a body or entity which produces a unified whole, a whole which is over and above the sum total or the components of and has worth and meaning in itself’, I have sought to depict Islahi’s idea through a diagram (see fig. 1.1, p.5) to then project this notion upon each sūrah and in this case, particularly sūra al-qalam. I will explore, through Islahi’s tadabbr-e-qur’ān, the sūrah’s organic unity within itself; with its pair; within it’s group amongst the seven other groups and finally its unity within the Qur’ān.

According to Islahi’s understanding, the seventh and final group of suwar (pl. of sūrah) begins from sūrah 67 (al-mulk) till the end of the Qur’ān and Islahi believes that the Axis of this group is indhār (اِنذار), hence, all the suwar in this group have the notion of indhār flowing through them knitting them all together in harmony. The approach to indhār in this group is reminiscent to the Prophet’s indhār on mount ṣafā. This indhār therefore includes vivid images of qiyāmah; the aḥwāl of qiyāmah; the consequence of denying this indhār for the Quraysh and the power of language and kalām used in delivering this indhār is as described by Molana Ḥālī in his Urdu poem:

وہ بجلی کا کڑکا تھا یا صوتِ ہادی
عرب کی زمیں جس نے ساری ہلادی
Was it a thunderbolt or the voice of a guide (hādī)
That shook the entire Arabian Peninsula

The state was such after the revelation of these suwar that Arabia changed in its entirety: one was either for this call, or on the contrary ardently opposed to it.

However, it is now fitting to analyse the ’amūd (Axis) of sūra al-mulk and sūra al-qalam, as Islahi describes them to be pairs in this final group and believes that they both have the same ’amūd – ‘indhār’ despite the differing style of deliverance. It is also interesting to note that Ashraf ’Ali Thānwī too, portrays in his exegesis similarities between the sūras and marks the slight difference in both:
ربط: سورت سابقہ میں منکرینِ توحید کی طرف زیادہ روے سخن اور اس سورت میں طاعنین فی النبوت (الیٰ ٰاخرہ)
Interconnection (rabṭ): The previous sūra (al-mulk) covers the narratives of munkirīn-e-tawḥīd (those opposed to monotheism), on the contrary this sūra (al-qalam) deals with ṭā’inīn fī al-nubuwwa (those who reproach and taunt the Prophethood of Muhammadؑ), and because denying Prophethood is kufr, hence the earthly (dunyawiyya) and heavenly (ukhrawiyya) punishments have been the axis of certain verses. Hence, it is also possible to see how both the exegetes explain a similar notion from differing perspectives, as for Islahi, he views the axis of the sūra to be indhār, whereas for Thānwī a response to those who reject notions of tawḥīd and nubuwwa.

Hence, I will now experiment with Islahi’s basic concept to structure sūra al-qalam and explore whether the āyāt flow amid the ’amūd – indhār, as apposed to the atomistic approaches. In doing so I will now introduce an innovative idea on grassroots level edited and researched by Marwān Nūr al-dīn Sawār and his team, who have produced a ‘colour coded verse contextualised Qur’ān’, in which all the verses of the same context are colour coded together and a further specific verse based explanation of the text is given at the foot of the page (see Fig. 2.1 on p. 6). Sawār forms six groups of verses in this sūra as shown in Fig. 2.0 : (1) verses 1-4; (2) verses 5-16; (3) 17-33; (4) 34-41; (5) 42-47; and (6) 48-52. Keeping in mind Sawār’s categorization I will now merge Islahi’ṣ idea and axis (’umūd).

Verses’ 1-4, I opine, to be the Qur’ān’s response to the allegations laid down by the Quraysh, who were responding to the indhār of the Prophet by declaring him majnūn. These set of verses in their response play a major role in reassuring the Prophet of his ‘ajr and status, and in doing so hint towards the endeavour of previous Prophets, especially Yūnus (Jonah). Despite the mainstream cognisance of ḥurūf al-muqaṭṭa’āt, that their true meaning is only in the mind of the Author, to understand the relationship of nūn with the ’umūd Ḥamīd al-dīn Farāhī presents sūra al-nūn in support of his theory regarding these letters: “the letter nūn still denotes its ancient meaning of fish. In this sūra, the Prophet Jonah (sws) has been addressed as ṣāḥib al-ḥūt (he is also addressed as ṣaḥib al-nūn in sūra 21:87) that is he who is swallowed by a whale. Farahi opines that it is because of this reference that the sūra is called ‘nūn’. He goes on to say that if one keeps in consideration the example given above, it is quite likely that the abbreviated letters by which other Surahs commence are placed at the beginning of the Surahs to symbolize a relation between the topics of a particular sūra and their own ancient connotations”. Therefore the Prophet has been reminded at the very beginning of the sūra that patience is incumbent once the call (indhār) has been given, by reminding him of the incident of Yūnus in the whale (nūn) which is linked to verse 48 – and be not like the man of the fish. Finally, according to Islahi the purpose of the oath was to give a three fold response to the Quryash; (1) rejection of their claim of the Prophet’s junūn; (2) rejection of their claim that the Prophet’s endeavour is for a limited period, and it would soon fade away with the turning pages of history; and finally (3) that the Prophet is the beholder of high character, therefore the Quraysh call upon themselves grave torment. All purposes for the oath are linked to the axis (indhār) as the response of the Quraysh was a direct result of the Prophet’s indhār to them.

This first set of verses (1-4) then move onto the second, verses 5-16. I believe group 2 to be a follow on of the reassurance to the Prophet by instructing him not to give in and follow or become sympathetic in his call (indhār) (وَدُّواْ لَوْ تُدْهِنُ فَيُدْهِنُونَ) towards such a people, whom the Qur’ān describes as al-mukadhibīn, ḥallāf mahīn, hammāz etc. Thereafter, the theme moves onto a parable of the people of the garden (Group 3: verses 17 – 33). I view this parable from two distinct perspectives, both of which are intertwined with the ’amūd. The first being that of Thānwī mentioned earlier, the earthly (dunyawiyya) torment upon those who reproach nubuwwa, hence reject the indhār foretold to them. The second perspective, I opine, in the midst of all chaos a kind of glad tiding to the Prophet of an ultimate spread of Islam within the Quraysh. For the former notion the Quraysh are warned to beware of similar consequences to those who had all the wealth and the latter to the Prophet, working on the theme of patience, that the Quraysh will not accept in the initial stage of the indhār, but will ultimately embrace once the power of God can no longer be rejected: similar to the saying of one of them ‘Did I not say to you, ‘why do you not pronounce Allah’s purity?”, they said “we pronounce the purity of our Lord. No doubt, we were wrongdoers” (68:28-29) is reminiscent to the attitude of the Quraysh following the conquest of Makkah.

Group 4 of the verses (34-41) sets out an immensely significant ethical principle in Islam: the one who opposes the indhār and on the contrary the one who wholeheartedly accepts it cannot be equal, they will be rewarded accordingly. After illustrating the punishment for those who reject the call, the Qur’ān portrays the awaited rewards for those who take heed of the warning and clearly draws the line, ‘shall We make the obedient like the sinners? What has happened to you? How do you judge? (68:35-36), I believe this also reflects the message of verse 68:9. Group 5 (Verses 42-47) draws vivid images of the resurrection and verse 44 (فَذَرْنِى وَمَن يُكَذِّبُ بِهَـذَا الْحَدِيثِ) could also be taken as clear indication towards the significant unity with the ’amūd. And finally, group 6 (48-52) comes back to what was mentioned earlier: instructing the Prophet to be patient upon his people’s attitude towards the indhār, unlike ṣāḥib al-ḥūt (dhu al-nūn).

In conclusion I believe that if the verses in the suwar ‘seem’ to be disconnected, and there is no logical unity from one verse to the next, then it may in accordance with Islahi’s understanding be organically united with its ’amūd. Hence, unlike modern books which flow from one sentence, paragraph, page and chapter to the next, the Qur’ān’s each verse or grouped verses orbit around the ’amūd; and each group connects to its own axis; and then the seven groups outlined by Islahi encircle the ’amūd of the Qur’ān – ‘Allah’s call to man to adopt the right path’, which man constantly pleads for in the preface to the Qur’ān (اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ). Therefore, when trying to reconstruct the unity in verses and within the Qur’ān as a whole, specifically here in the seventh group: I see the Prophet returning from his first message; enshrouded in his blanket commanded to stand and warn (indhār – qum fa’andhir wa rabbaka fa kabbir); I see his struggle at dār al-arqam and then standing at ṣafā ridiculed, God responding; at times he (the Prophet) warns (indhār) his people of al-qāri’ah, illustrating the unlit sun, the falling stars, the shattering of the earth. I envision him warning the jinn, alongside insān, and his golden promise the ’amūd of which flows through the last group of suwar,

‘if they put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left…
I would not abandon it (the indhār).


Islahi, A. A. (2009). Tadabbur-e-Qur’an ( تدبرِ القران). Vol. 8 , p. 479
Mir, M. (1999). ‘Is the Qur’an a Shapeless Book?’. Accessed online [25.01.2011]:
Also for a detailed exploration see. Islahi, A. A. (2009). Tadabbur-e-Qur’an ( تدبرِ القران). Vol. 1 , pp. 13-42 [Urdu]. See also Campanini, M. (2010). The Qur’an: Modern Muslim Interpretations. Trans. by Higgitt, C. – Under Chapter IV ‘The Qur’an and Nazm’, pp. 85-88.
اِنذار : (انذر) Andhara (prf. 3rd.p.m.sing.IV.): War ned; Called attention to; Showed the danger to come (Omar, ‘A. M. (2008). Dictionary of the Holy Qur’ān. pp. 557-558) – hence, Indhār would mean ‘warning of an approaching danger’.
Islahi, A. A. (2009). Tadabbur-e-Qur’ān ( تدبرِ القران). Vol. 8 , p. 479
Thanwi, A. A. (1424 A.H.). Bayanul Qur’ān (بیان القران ). Vol. 3, p. 571.
Translation of the Urdu text of Bayānul Qur’ān. (بیان القران ). Vol. 3, p. 571
Al-Qur’ān al-Karīm: القرآن الکریم: بالرسم العثمانی بروایۃ حفص لقراءۃ عاصم مذیّلا بِالتفصیل الموضوعی استخدام فکرۃ الترمیز بالتدرج اللونی للدلالۃ علیٰ اقسام المواضیع ۔
Edited and researched by Sawār, M. N (1st ed. 2007)
Adapted from Islahi’s ‘Tadabbur-i-Qur’an’ and translated by Shehzad Saleem. ‘Ḥurūf-e-Muqaṭṭa’āt: Farahi’s View’. Accessed Online [18.03.2011]: http://www.amin-ahsan-islahi.com/?=65
Islahi, A. A. (2009). Tadabbur-e-Qur’ān ( تدبرِ القران). Vol. 8, p.512.
all reminiscent to the orbit of the moon around their planets and the planets their sun, all existing in absolute harmony


The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem

Al-Qur’ān al-Karīm: القرآن الکریم: بالرسم العثمانی بروایۃ حفص لقراءۃ عاصم مذیّلا بِالتفصیل الموضوعی استخدام فکرۃ الترمیز بالتدرج اللونی للدلالۃ علیٰ اقسام المواضیع ۔
Edited and researched by Sawār, M. N (1st ed. 2007). Dār al-Fajr al-Islāmī: Damascus, Syria.

Campanini, M. (2010). The Qur’an: Modern Muslim Interpretations. Routledge: London & New York.

Hawting, G. R. and Shareef A. K. (1993). Approaches to the Qur’an (SOAS Series on Contemporary Politics & Culture in the Middle East). Routledge: New York, USA

Ibn Abbas, A. Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs.
Surah al-‘Asr (English Translation by Mokrane Guezzou) accessed online [20.01.2011]:

Islahi, A. A. (2009). Tadabbur-e-Qur’ān ( تدبرِ القران). Volumes 1 and 8. Faran Foundation: Lahore, Pakistan [Urdu]

Mir, M. (1999). ‘Is the Qur’an a Shapeless Book?’. Renaissance, 1999, Volume 9, No. 8.
[Accessed online: 25.01.2011]:

Mubārakpūrī, S. R. (2002). Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum – The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet (PBUH). Revised ed. Darussalam: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

‘Omar, ‘A. M. (2008). Dictionary of the Holy Qur’ān – (Arabic-English). 5th ed. NOOR Foundation – International Inc: USA and Germany.

Thanwi, A. A. (1424 A.H.). Bayānul Qur’an (بیان القران). Volume 3. Idārah Taleefat-e-Ashrafia: Multan, Pakistan

[Accessed online: 25.01.2011]

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