Seerah: The Rise of Historical Writing in Islam (Part 3): The 2nd Century and the Role of Imam Al-Zuhri

Seerah: The Rise of Historical Writing in Islam (Part 3)

You must learn from Al-Zuhri, for you will not find anyone more knowledgeable of the ways of the past than him.” — Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz

There is no one like Al-Zuhri in this world—when he entered Madinah, no one else would narrate Hadith until he left.” — Imam Malik

“[Al-Zuhri] was the depository of the learning of the seven jurists of Madinah,” and “had no equal among men.” — Imam Malik

Al-Zuhri is the best scholar of Hadith and the best expert in isnad.” — Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal

The work of ‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubair, the son of a distinguished Companion of the Prophet, Al-Zubair ibn Al-‘Awwam, played a key role in the writing of Seerah, since he gathered many historical hadiths into the maghazi (military expeditions) literature, and laid the foundations for an authentic method to write Islamic history as an independent subject.

No wonder, the first scholar in Islam to write a proper, organized and chronological history (as opposed to disconnected reports) of maghazi was a student of his by the name of Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Shihab Al-Zuhri (d. 124 A.H.). Al-Zuhri’s significance may be appreciated from the fact that the famous Imam Malik ibn Anas (d. 179 A.H.) was one of his students. Even more important is what Imam Malik said about his sources of learning, as quoted above, that Al-Zuhri was the receptacle of the knowledge of the ‘seven jurists of Madinah.’ Suffice it to say that most of the knowledge of the Prophet’s Hadith and knowledge of Islamic practice that has come down to us traces back to these seven most eminent scholars of Madinah.

Before we further elaborate about Imam Al-Zuhri, it is important to understand the historical background in which he took up the task of Hadith compilation and Seerah writing.

The Second Century

The second century began with a brief but promising period of comprehensive revival in the ummah—marked by the Caliphate of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz (nick-named: ‘Umar II, after his grand grandfather ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second of the Guided Caliphs). Before him, the Umayyad rulers had introduced in their ruling many corrupt practices that violated the principle of Islamic egalitarianism and justice and gave rise to extreme reactions that crystallized in some dissident sects of the Ummah forever.

‘Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz began the revival of true Islam by returning the dynastic monarchy of the Umayyads to a shurabased Islamic rule by voluntarily stepping down from his inherited position and did not take the burden of Caliphate except when the people had freely elected him. Another aspect of un-Islamic behavior of some of the Umayyads was that they, viewing themselves kings not caliphs, considered the Muslim treasury to be theirs and their family’s property. ‘Umar reversed that by returning all ill-acquired wealth of his family to the Muslims. In addition, he stopped maligning ‘Ali or any of the Companions of the Prophet.

But Allah so willed, in his infinite wisdom that ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz would die, most likely poisoned, after only a couple of years of rule. He has been rightly dubbed the Fifth Righteous Caliph of Islam, may Allah be pleased with him.

Though much of the original self-serving Umayyad policies were restored after the death of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz, some of his feats could not be undone after him. The most important of those achievements was his order to the scholars of the ummah to start compiling the hadiths of the Prophet on a full-fledge scale. A prominent member among those scholars was the collector of the knowledge of the Prophet’s city—Imam Muhammad ibn Shihab Al-Zuhri.

The Seerah Phase

Imam Ibn Shihab Al-Zuhri of Madinah

Al-Zuhri hailed from the Quraish clan of Banu Zuhra, a branch from which came the mother of the Prophet. Thus he had the honor of being related to the Prophet.

Al-Zuhri was tutored by some of the foremost scholars of Hadith, four of whom—Sa‘eed ibn Al-Musayyab, Abban ibn ‘Uthman, ‘Ubaydullah ibn ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Utbah, and ‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubayr—he especially revered and called them the “four seas” of knowledge. Al-Zuhri was renowned for his strong memory—yet he wrote down the knowledge he gained for further aid to his memory. His contemporaries recognized his habit of writing as one reason for his superiority in knowledge; he used to write down traditions (sunan) of the Prophet as well as “what came down concerning his Companions.” His main source of maghazi seems to have been ‘Urwah ibn Al-Zubair (d. 94 A.H.), although he quotes from all the chief scholars of Madinah. (Duri, Abdul Aziz. The Rise of Historical Writing Among the Arabs, 1983. p. 96-97)

Al-Zuhri stood above his contemporaries not only in his retentive memory and added protection through reliance on writing, but also in his broad-based curiosity. He questioned anyone who had the reputation of being trustworthy. Al-Dhahabi says, “Ibraheem ibn Sa‘d said, ‘I once asked my father, ‘In what respects did Al-Zuhri surpass the rest of you?’ He replied, ‘He used to come to the sessions by the front way rather than from the back (boldness), and there would remain in the session not a single man, old or young, whom he had not queried. He would also come to the house of one of the Ansar, and again, there would remain not a soul, old man or young, aged woman or younger, whom he had not queried. He even tried to ask questions of young ladies in their private quarters.’’’ Imam Malik (d. 179 A.H.) described Al-Zuhri as “the receptacle of the learning of the seven jurists,” and, “had no equal among men.” ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz said, “There remained no one more learned than him (Al-Zuhri) on Islamic practice (Sunnah).” And Ibraheem ibn Sa‘d related from his father that Al-Zuhri gathered together knowledge which no one before him had ever collected.”

Al-Tabari (d. 310 A.H.), the great historian and scholar of Tafseer (Quran Exegesis), who built his universal history upon the material collected by Al-Zuhri, remarked, “Muhammad ibn Shihab Al-Zuhri was foremost in the knowledge of the maghazi (military expeditions) of the Messenger of Allah and akhbar (historical reports) about Quraish and the Ansar, a great transmitter of narratives about the Messenger of Allah and his Companions.” (Duri, p. 98-99)

Al-Zuhri is reported to have compiled a book of the life of the Prophet—for which he appeared to have used the usual term maghazi, as well as the now prevalent term, Seerah, which refers not only to the military expeditions but the entire life of the Prophet. (Duri, 99). If there was a book written by Al-Zuhri, it has not survived, but we do have fragments from his reports preserved by Ibn Ishaq’s Seerah, Al-Waqidi’s Maghazi, Al-Tabari’s Tareekh, Al-San‘ani’s Musannaf and ‘Uyun Al-Athar by Ibn Sayyid Al-Naas.

Some detractors of Al-Zuhri object to his amicable relations with the Umayyads. But as a scholar, Al-Zuhri seems to have been focused on learning and teaching and would accept judgeship or any official position that allowed him to advance his cause of knowledge. He accepted judgeship under the Umayyads, but so did the great Companion, Abu Hurairah, and other Companions, while knowing that the Umayyads were not always committed to Islam. It was so because the Companions and their Followers (Tabi‘een) at first had divergent reaction to the corruption of power; some completely avoided contact with the rulers, others kept in touch with them in order to give them advice while maintaining their integrity. There were yet others who gave in to the temptations of power. While Imam Al-Zuhri was not a hardliner in his political judgment, he maintained his impeccable integrity and independence, as reported by scholars who wrote his biography.

Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim’s Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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