If one was to ask: “what are the ways of preserving one’s īmān from downfalls and keeping us firm upon the religion?”, the typical answers will include recitation and study of the Qur’an, good companionship, the night prayer, visiting the masjid, visiting the graveyards, and du’ā. Each and every one of these techniques is indispensable. However, should this itinerary even come close to completion, another item must be added; visiting the biographies of the giants before us.
The effectiveness of this is in:
Strengthening one’s inner resolve to proceed as a practicing Muslim
After relating the detailed encounters of not one but seven Prophets, Allah then says to the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ:
وَكُلًّا نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ مِنْ أَنْبَاءِ الرُّسُلِ مَا نُثَبِّتُ بِهِ فُؤَادَكَ
“And each story We relate to you (O Muḥammad ﷺ) of the news of the Messengers, so that We make your heart firm.”
الحكايات جند من جنود الله يقوي بها إيمان المريدين
“Stories are one of Allah’s soldiers that He uses to give strength to the hearts of the believers.”
Careful analysis of the lives of those who preceded us is an incredibly enabling experience, giving us the framework to reflect on our own lives and the many gaps within them. It is a highly soul-reviving and ambition-igniting experience.
Cleansing the heart
Imām Ibn al-Jawzi said:
رأيت الاشتغال بالفقه وسماع الحديث لا يكاد يكفي في صلاح القلب؛ إلا أن يمزج بالرقائق، والنظر في سير السلف الصالحين
“I have learned that engrossing one’s self in the study of Fiqh and the listening of Ḥadīth are barely sufficient on their own to rectify the heart. Rather, they must be mixed with heart-softeners and a study of the lives of those before us.”
An effective remedy to the sense of self-importance
Imām Ibn al-Jawzi said:
ومن نظر في سير السلف من العلماء العاملين استحقر نفسه, فلم يتكبر
“Whoever looks into the biographies of the dynamic scholars of the past will belittle himself, never feeling haughty again.”
The less one is conscious of his predecessor’s work ethic and achievements, the greater one will consider himself. The opposite is just as true.
My belief is that much, if not most, of the infighting that happens within the Da’wah scene today can be traced back to the sheer amount of gaping that each is doing into his or her own mirror reflection. Achievements, followers, branding, reach, and other than them aggrandises a person in their own eyes, whilst at the same time, growing averse to teamwork, sharing credit, acknowledging virtue, working away from the limelight, and so on, the knock-on effects of which are very imaginable.
One remedy to such deplorable outcomes is the constant referral to the biographies of our predecessors, observing ourselves through that mirror reflection. The product of such an exercise is the birth of a refined and humble Muslim who is unwilling to receive praise, fearful of fame, willing to collaborate and constantly eager to keep eyes set on Allah as opposed to on himself.
Nurturing deep love for our predecessors
You may ask: why is it important to love these giants of Islām? The answer is simple: because, in one of the most inspiring narrations, the Prophet ﷺ said:
المرء مع من أحب
“One will be with those whom one loves.”
Compare how you feel about any one of these greats before and after you have studied their biographies; it will be worlds apart. If we are unable to imitate their work ethic and achievements, then the least we can do is celebrate them and love them. Our hope in doing so is that Allah will allow us to stand beside them on the Day of Reckoning and admit us into the same levels of paradise that He will give them, inshāAllah. Indeed, hope springs eternal.
Why have we chosen the lives of the four Imāms?
Take a step back and observe the timeline of Islamic history – you will not fail but be amazed at Allah’s plan. The same way that Allah allowed certain events in the past to unfold for the preservation of the Qur’an, like what ‘Uthmān did when he gathered the Ummah upon one recitation, and the same way that he allowed certain events to unfold for the preservation of the Sunnah, by sending people with incredible minds who would memorise the chains of transmission and formulate a science to assess the veracity of each chain, similarly, Allah decreed that certain events would unfold for the preservation of the study of Fiqh; The Ḥalāl and Ḥarām.
Allah decreed the birth of four individuals over a short period of time who would become the founders of Islamic jurisprudence and whom the overwhelming majority of the Muslim Ummah would follow for centuries afterwards, and even until today. These exemplary men are the Imāms, Abū Ḥanīfa, Mālik, al-Shāfi’ī, and Aḥmad, the earliest of the four being Imām Abū Ḥanīfa.
I seek refuge in Allah in allowing this work to stop at the mere admiration of their lives and entertainment from their stories. Doing this would not be a sign of success for us, as the Prophet ﷺ said:
إن بني إسرائيل لما هلكوا قصوا
“When the children of Isrā’īl fell into ruins, they told stories.”
In other words, when the children of Isrā’īl abandoned performing good deeds, they turned to storytelling and congratulated themselves. We wish to take lessons from the mistakes of those before us, so the chosen model for this series is one where the biographies of these remarkable men will be used as a platform to communicate key values pertaining to worship, pristine manners, and high aspirations in the hope that Allah will jolt us from our slumber and subsequently make this a means of reformation for myself and others.
Imām Abū Ḥanīfa
His full name is al-Nu’mān, son of Thābit, son of al-Marzubān. He was given the moniker Abū Ḥanīfa. From the name al-Marzubān, it is evident that Abū Ḥanīfa’s origins were Persian. His origin was from Kabul, the capital of modern-day Afghanistan. His grandfather, al-Marzubān, embraced Islām during the reign of ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭāb before moving to the city of Kufa, Iraq.
Imām Abū Ḥanīfa is the only one of the four Imāms who was born during the era of the Companions. In fact, according to many, Abū Ḥanīfa saw the companion Anas b. Mālik – the servant of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ – whilst others have argued that he saw the Companion ‘Abdullāh b. al-Hārith when he was 16 years old during Ḥajj. This makes him the only one from the four Imāms who can potentially be considered from the Tābiʿūn.
This is a particularly unique quality to Imām Abū Ḥanīfa and a remarkable privilege, as the Prophet ﷺ had praised the first three generations of Islām:
خَيْرُ النَّاسِ قَرْنِي ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ ثُمَّ الَّذِينَ يَلُونَهُمْ
“The best of people are of my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them.”
His birth and upbringing
Imām al-Dhahabī said:
وسيرته تحتمل أن تفرد في مجلدين رضي الله عنه ورحمه
“His biography can potentially fill two volumes of work. May Allah be pleased with him and have mercy upon him.”
Imām Abū Ḥanīfa was born in the city of Kufa in the year 80AH and was raised as an only child in a practicing, honourable, and affluent Muslim family. His father, Thābit, had a clothes shop in the city of Kufa in which Abū Ḥanīfa would work after his father passed away.
This was the way of the predecessors – refusing to be dependent on anyone but Allah for their provisions. Like everyone else, they required an income, but their freedom to advocate the truth without fear, favour, or even subtle pressure from a sponsor was to them a greater requirement.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
مَا أَكَلَ أَحَدٌ طَعَامًا قَطُّ خَيْرًا مِنْ أَنْ يَأْكُلَ مِنْ عَمَلِ يَدِهِ، وَإِنَّ نَبِيَّ اللَّهِ دَاوُدَ ـ عَلَيْهِ السَّلاَمُ ـ كَانَ يَأْكُلُ مِنْ عَمَلِ يَدِهِ
“Nobody has ever eaten a better meal than that which one has earned by working with one’s own hands, and the Prophet of Allah, David, would eat from the earnings of his manual labour.”
Abdul Bāsit b. Yūsuf al-Gharīb authored a book in which he lists around 400 different professions and trades that belonged to no less than 1500 scholars of Islām.
This life lesson – the desire to be financially independent – can be seen when one reads the nicknames of many of these scholars, which include al-Zajjāj (the glass maker), al-Qaffāl (the locksmith), al-Najjār (the carpenter), al- Ḥaddād (the blacksmith), al-Bazzāz (the draper), al-‘Attār (the perfume seller), al-Qassāb (the sugar cane worker), al-Jassās (the plasterer), al-Khabbāz (the baker), and so on.
This has always been the case in our Islamic history, up until quite recently when da’wah and Islamic scholarship has become a job title that reaps a salary like any other occupation. In many cases, this quid pro quo relationship has been abused by financers who may on occasion threaten to withhold the wages of the scholars if they do not comply or carve the fatwa or Islamic position that is being dictated to them. These so-called callers to Islām and scholars hence speak and remain silent on demand.
Imām Abū Ḥanīfa inherited 200,000 dirhams from his father, a huge fortune given that one could purchase a whole sheep at the time for only three dirhams. However, rather than live a life of luxury as most would have chosen, the unique Imām only kept 4000 dirhams for himself. This was due to a narration attributed to ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib that mentioned 4000 dirhams as sufficient for a person, and anything beyond that is surplus.
The Imām then gave himself a modest stipend of two dirhams per month, thereby living a humble lifestyle. However, his humility was not a false one for the benefit of others. He would continue to wear the finest clothes which he had access to as this was his trade.
The Imām would spend his surplus funds on the poor and students of knowledge, investing in his palaces in the next life. It is reported that Abū Ḥanīfa set aside an allowance of 100 dirhams a month for one of his main students and chief judge, Abū Yūsuf, to spend on himself and family.
It began with a few words
Imām Abū Ḥanīfa’s momentous journey began with a few words of encouragement from a blessed passer-by. Abū Ḥanīfa said:
I once passed by al-Sha’bī – a scholar of ḥadīth and fiqh (and a contemporary of Imām Abū Ḥanīfa) – who said to me:
إلى من تختلف؟
“Who do you visit?”
I responded, “To the marketplace.”
Al-Sha’bī responded, “I do not mean that. I meant to ask who among the scholars do you visit?”
I responded, “I do not visit them much.”
لا تغفل، وعليك بالنظر في العلم ومجالسة العلماء، فإني أرى فيك يقظة وحركة
“Do not behave thoughtlessly, (rather) turn to knowledge and the circles of scholars, for I see alertness and energy in you.”
Abū Ḥanīfa said:
فوقع في قلبي من قوله، فتركت الاختلاف إلى السوق، وأخذت في العلم، فنفعني الله بقوله
“The love of what he said was placed in my heart, so I left the marketplace and turned to knowledge. Allah benefited me a great deal by his advice.”
The couches of psychiatrists are filled with people who suffered traumatic experiences as young children. Indeed, a young mind is vulnerable to humiliation and feelings of insignificance, which can have lifelong consequences. However, by the same token, moments of inspiration and words of encouragement can have a positive impact on a young mind, which can set up a lifetime of success and high achievements.
In each of your gatherings, whether with your family around the dinner table, friends in a restaurant, or even something you partake in online, take the time to identify and offer encouragement to such talent. In doing so, direct such talented people to utilise their skills for the home of the hereafter – just as al-Sha’bī did with Abū Ḥanīfa.
In this regard, we have other examples of a short solitary statement that inspired the receiver to transform his life forever. Take for example Imām al-Dhahabī, who was inspired by a simple passing comment to pursue the path of knowledge. His Shaykh, al-Birzāli, said to him:
إن خطك يشبه خط المحدثين
“Your hand-writing resembles the handwriting of the scholars of ḥadīth.”
فحبب الله إليّ علم الحديث
“From that day onwards, Allah placed the love of Ḥadīth within my heart.”
Al-Dhahabī would later excel in many of the Islamic sciences and author books that have become indispensable to the Islamic corpus.
Similarly, it was nothing but a passing comment in a gathering that launched Imām al-Bukhārī into the skies of stardom, having collected a book of ḥadīth that is now considered by Muslims as the most authentic reference in existence after the Qur’an. Speaking about how it all began, Al-Bukhārī said:
كنّا عند إسحاق بن راهويه فقال: لو جمعتم كتاباً مختصراً لصحيح سنة النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم. قال: فوقع ذلك في قلبي فأخذت في جمع الجامع الصحيح
“We were seated with Isḥāq b. Rāhwayh who asked, ‘Why don’t you gather a summarised book of the authentic narrations of the Prophet ﷺ?’ Instantly, the love of doing so fell into my heart and I began to compile the book.”
Bear in mind that Imām al-Bukhārī was only 16 years of age at this time and would dedicate the next 16 years of his life in compilation of the book. This means he was only 32 years old when he had completed his monumental book on ḥadīth.
Ponder over the words of Badr al-Dīn b. Jamā’ah who said:
كنا إذا رأينا في الصبي نباهة ألقينا عليه شباكنا فلا يخرج إلا عالماً
“Whenever we saw a young one exhibiting signs of intelligence, we would cast our nets over him and he would only leave (our tutelage) after he had become a scholar.”
Do not allow talent to go to waste. Potential reformers exist in huge numbers, just as they did in the past. However, one important difference is that those before us were blessed with parents, friends, teachers and passers-by who identified, guided, encouraged, and financed them.
It may be a passing comment of encouragement that you offer someone in a gathering, but to him, those words made him or her feel like they had been born on that very day, having changed the course of their lives and purpose for which they live for. Consequently, every bit of good that later comes through them is documented on your scales as well! After the passage of 1300 years, imagine the reward of al-Sha’bī as the world continues to benefit from the fiqh of Imām Abū Ḥanīfa.
So begin with those closest to you: your parents, siblings, children, and spouse. Do not stop there – branch out to your friends, work colleagues, and so on. Your words of encouragement cost you nothing, but for other people, they may be life-realigning and hereafter-defining ones.
 Al-Qur’an 11:120
 Ṣalāḥ al-Ummah fī ‘Ulūw al-Himma
 From his book Ṣayd al-Khāṭir
 Talbīs Iblīs
 Al-Bukhārī and Muslim, on the authority of Ibn Mas’ūd
 Al-Ṭabarānī, on the authority of Khabbāb b. al-Aratt
 Tabyīd al-Ṣaḥīfa bi Nāqib Abū Ḥanīfa
 Manāzil al-A’imma al-Arba’a
 Muslim, on the authority of Ibn Mas’ūd
 Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā
 Al-Bukhārī, on the authority of Al-Miqdām
 Titled: Al-Turfa fī man Nusib min Al-‘Ulamā ila Mihna aw Hirfa
 Abū Ḥanīfa, Muḥammad Abū Zuhra
 ‘Uqūd al-Jumān
 Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā