ABU JAFAR AT-TAHAWI - Imaam of the Muhadithin and Fuqaha'
(229AH – 331AH)

The reason for this topic
The life of Imaam Tahawi
Imaam Tahawi’s relations with the ruler
His works
The qualities of Sharh Ma’ani ul-Athar

The reason for this topic

Amongst all the books that are studied in Darul-Uloom Holcombe-Bury in the fifth year, there is a very famous hadith and fiqh book, by Imaam Tahawi : Sharh Maani ul-Athar.  Few people have heard of this book, however its worth in the sight of an Islamic scholar is similar to the four books of Hadith taught in the final year (Daura-e- Hadith).  This being the case, it occurred to me to devote an article to the life of Imaam Tahawi and his magnum opus: Tahawi Shareef, and try to whatever extent my poor abilities will allow me to reveal the hidden treasures of this book and the life of its author.


The life of Imaam Tahawi

Imaam Abu Jafar At-Tahawi was born in Egypt, in the village of Taha, 229AH Circa.  At that time Egypt was a major centre of learning where thousands of Fuqahaa and Muhadithin could be found and to where students of knowledge from around the world would flock to sit at their feet.  Imaam Bukhari and Muslim both resided for some time in Egypt and Imaam Shafi taught, lived and was buried there.  Because of the fame of Imaam Shafi, most Egyptians followed his madhab.  Imaam Tahawi also adhered to this school of law.  It seems during his time as a student of knowledge he had the opportunity to study Hanafi jurisprudence and found it to be stronger than the Shafi Madhab, which compelled him to follow the Hanafi school.  Shaikh Zahid Al-Kawthari has whittled the stories about Imaam Tahawi’s conversion to three from the many found in the history books.  In one of these stories it is narrated that Imaam Tahawi in his youth, would study hadith and Shafi fiqh under his uncle, the famous student of Imaam Shafi, Imaam-ul-Muzni.  Once during his lecture Imaam-ul-Muzni became angry with the young Imaam Tahawi and took an oath saying “By Allah you will never be successful.”  It is said that due to this harsh exchange that he started attending the lectures of the Hanafi scholar Muhammed Ibn Arabi Imran instead.  Later in life, when Imaam Tahawi had become a scholar in his own right, he passed by the grave of his uncle and said: “May Allah have Mercy upon you.  If you were alive today you would have given the Kafarah for your oath.”  (Al-Havi Li-Sirat Imaam Abu Jafar at-Tahawi, Imaam Zahid-ul-kawthari p.16)

A second story which could also have been a contributing factor to his conversion is that when Imaam Tahawi – himself was questioned as to why he left the Shafi Madhab, he replied: “I used to observe my uncle forever referring to the writings of Imaam Abu Hanifa.  So I changed to it.”  (Ibid)

In any case, by the age of thirty Imaam Tahawi was an expert in Hanafi Fiqh, Hadith, the Arabic language and the differences of opinions amongst the jurists.  His time would be spent in teaching Hadith and Fiqh, as well as issuing judgements as the official Qadi.  So renowned was the Imaam that hundreds of students would come to study under him from the furthest reaches of the earth.  The ruler of Egypt himself held the Imaam in great esteem and would regularly attend his lectures and consult him on important matters of the country.

In addition to all this he also authored many books, many of which are still taught at Islamic Institutes today.  This in itself is ample evidence of his level of knowledge and sincerity that even after the passing of a thousand years his works have not been forgotten.  Whereas when we look at many of the works written on hadith and fiqh only in the last century not only have they been forgotten along with their authors, furthermore it is as though they have not been written in the first place!

The rank of Imaam Tahawi has been recognised by all the major scholars.  His biographers describe him as: Humble, unworldly, fearing of Allah, possessing a prodigious memory and a sharp intellect.  The scholar Shah Waliullah ranked him as a Mujtahid in the madhab (the second highest ranking of the seven levels).


Imaam Tahawi’s relations with the ruler

Throughout Muslim history the relationship the Alim has had with the rulers has always been a tenuous one.  It would often happen that an oppressive ruler drunk from his immense power would try to bribe or sway the scholar to give a verdict in his favour.  However Islamic history is full of gleaming examples of how the Ulama-e-Rabbaniyeen have remained unmoved by threats, bribes, sycophancy and general intimidation.  These true men of Allah would only have Allah Ta’la in their sights and His Majesty would not allow them to compromise in the slightest, regardless of the severe pressure and sometimes even torture that could be meted out to them.

Take the example of another famous hanafi scholar – Shams ul-Aimmah Sarkhasi (490 AH Died).  He was of non-Arab origin and lived in Sarkhas – a city in central Asia.  He authored many important works in Islamic jurisprudence.  ‘Usul as-Sarkhasi’ is the third major work on the subject of Usul ul-Fiqh of the Hanafis; after the works of Imaam Abul-Hassan ul-Karkhi and Imaam ul-Bazdawi.  However his most famous book is his magnus opus: ‘Al-Mabsut’, a work of encyclopaedic size extending to thirty volumes.

Once the ruler of Azerbaijan, by the name of Al-Khaqan consulted the Muslim Scholars concerning some particular issue.  All the Ulama at that time ruled in favour of the ruler.  Imaam Sarkhasi, however gave his Fatwa in opposition to the ruler declaring as unlawful what the ruler wished.  So the ruler consequently had the Imaam incarcerated in a pit where he remained by himself taking the conditions of bitter cold and rain for many months.  Nonetheless it was in these dire conditions that Imaam Sarkhasi continued to teach students of knowledge who would be sitting around the pit peering down at the Imaam whilst he would dictate to them al-Mabsut from his memory.

One of  Imaam Tahawi’s early teachers was the great hanafi scholar Qadi Bakkar bin Qutaibah.  He too was an exemplary role model of Taqwa and fearlessness in the face of those who wished to change the deen.  It was once related to him that Imaam al Muzni had severely criticised Imaam Abu Hanifa for several of his opinions.  Qadi Bakkar did not react without thinking and start issuing a sharp rebuttal.  On the contrary he sent two witnesses to Imaam al Muzni to confirm if these really were his criticisms.  Only when the witnesses had verified that Imaam al Muzni did actually make theses remarks, Qadi Bakkar wrote a comprehensive rebuttal of the criticisms.

Qadi Bakkar would teach Hadith and Fiqh in Egypt to hundreds of students.  The ruler of Egypt, ibn Tulun, himself would attend the Qadi’s lectures.  The ruler had become a close friend of the Qadi and would seek his advice on many issues.  This friendship had stretched for many years and every year the ruler would bestow upon him a gift of one thousand dirhams in a sealed bag.  Then once the ruler contravened the Shariah upon which Qadi Bakkar openly reprimanded him and told him that what he had done was haraam.  This enraged the ruler, especially as he had known the Qadi for 18 years as a close friend, had bestowed expensive gifts upon him and had treated him with respect, yet despite all this the Qadi still opposed him.  In any case the ruler set about making the Qadi’s life a misery.  He first had him removed from his post as Qadi, and then had him imprisoned in his own home, not enabling him to teach in the masjid.  To humiliate him yet further he dispatched a messenger demanding from the Qadi to return all the dirhams the ruler had given him for the last 18 years – which amounted to 18,000 dirhams.  When the messenger arrived at his house and related the official request, the Qadi took the messenger to a back room where he opened a locked box which contained eighteen bags of gold which he had received for the last eighteen years.  To the shock of the messenger even the official seals on the bags had not been touched.  When the messenger returned to the court lugging, with great difficulty, the eighteen bags, the smile on the rulers face quickly vanished and was replaced by beads of perspiration.

When a student has such an amount of Taqwa and fearlessness as his role models it is not surprising these same qualities are found in the student as well.  Thus we do find similar incidents in the life of Imaam Tahawi (rahmatullai alaih).  One such incident is narrated by Zahid-al-Kawthari in his book al-Havi:

“(Once) the governor of Egypt came to Imaam Tahawi.  As soon as his eyes set on the Imaam he was filled with immense awe.  The governor started displaying great kindness and respect towards him, he then said: ‘My master I wish to marry my daughter to you.’

Imaam Tahawi replied by saying: ‘I will not do it.’

‘Do you need money?’ asked the Governor.


‘Then can I offer you a piece of land?’


‘Ask me for whatever you wish.’

‘And you will agree?’


‘Protect your deen so that you do not lose it, and strive to free yourself of your Nafs before your death.  And beware of oppressing Allah’s slaves.’
Having said that he departed.  It is said thereafter the ruler stopped oppressing the citizens of Egypt.


His works

Imaam Tahawi wrote nearly forty books many of which are still available today.  Perhaps two of his greatest to the sciences of Hadith and Fiqh were his two books, Sharh Ma’ani ul-Athar and Mushkil ul-Athar.  ‘Mushkil ul-Athar’ is an amazing example of one scholars efforts in reconciling all the Ahadith that seem to conflict with one another.  It has been published and is available in many volumes.  It is a must for any student of Hadith.  ‘Ma’ani ul-Athar’ is a Hadith book but with the added benefit of being a detailed explanation of the hanafi madhab in the context of the Ahadith showing how thoroughly it is grounded in Ahadith.

Shaikh Zahid al-Kawthari in eulogising this book quotes the praise of another scholar:

“…As for the Sunan of Daraqutni, Darimi or Bayhaqi etc. they do not approach by even a footstep.  Nor can they reach to its elevated station, nor are they capable of competing with it in any sense nor equal it in the two scales of the balance.”


The qualities of Sharh Ma’ani ul-Athar

The following are a list of qualities which make Imaam Tahawi’s book more superior than other Hadith books :-

1. The nature of this book of Hadith is not to merely mention  Ahadith for the purpose of preservation.  As noble as this aim is there is yet another more difficult, invaluable purpose, namely to deduct rulings from seemingly conflicting Ahadith.  Thus this book can be termed on ‘Fiqh ul-Hadith’.  It is because of this unique quality that it is essential in training the apprentice student of knowledge on how to read Hadith.

2. The book is also a comprehensive repository for the many differences of opinion of the Ulema of the various different Madhahib, and because Imaam Tahawi was a Mujtahid in his own right, he competently decides between the various opinions offering his own favoured position.

3. The book is also emphatic refutation of those who critcise the hanafi madhab as not being based on Hadith.  The book proves successfully how not only do the Ahnaf act upon Hadith but moreover how their wholistic approach to the Ahadith enables them to act upon all the Hadith in any given chapter.

4. It is recognised as a rare masterpiece on the subject of reconciliation of Ahadith so much so that even  though  it is authored by a hanafi scholar,  even the scholars of other madhahib are enable to dispense with it.

5. Another characteristic of this book is that Imaam Tahawi meticulously records many sanads for the same Hadith.  Sometimes for one Hadith he cites twenty different chains.  The benefit of this is not only the Hadith itself is strenghthened but also a certain narrator may have transmitted an extra detail (ziyadah) missed by other narrators which could aid in understanding the Hadith.

6. Shaikh Zahid al-Kawthari has also pointed to another priceless quality that is found in this book as well as Imaam Tahawi’s other major works.  Namely he does not form his conclusion merely on the basis of the evaluation of the chains for the considerable differences of opinion of the Muhaddithin concerning the narrators.  Rather, a tool employed often by Imaam Tahawi, is to fit the meanings of the Ahadith within the parameters of accepted general principles with a penetrating awareness of the parrallelism that exists in the basic meanings of the Ahadith.  In the end what the jurist achieves is a coherent and rational appreciation of the Shariah.  And because Imaam Tahawi assiduously follows this methodology a student who reads this book properly will be trained in being a Faqih.

Sheikh Zahid al-Kawthari writes:
“The students skill (in Fiqh) will grow and his natural abilities will be revealed.”

In another place he writes:

“There is not a rival to this book in giving a person the aptitude to be a Faqih, and in teaching the ways of understanding as well as cultivating the quality of jurispudence.”


other links:  
  Inter-Islam: AudioZeal for Hadeeth - Shaykh Riyadhul-Haq
The Authenticity of Ahadeeth

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