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Four Imams | Star of the Scholars

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The name of the second of the four great Imāms is Mālik b. Anas. Although of Yemeni origin, Imām Mālik was born in the city of Madīnah in the year 93AH (703CE), the same year in which the Companion Anas b. Mālik passed away.

His childhood and upbringing

Imām Mālik’s quest for knowledge began from his earliest years. At the tender age of 11, he was remarkably able to teach, and by the age of 21, he was in a position to issue Islamic rulings.

It was his father, however, who planted the initial seeds of interest in Islamic knowledge within the heart of Imām Mālik. Recalling a particular event, Imām Mālik spoke of the day when his father posed an Islamic question to both him and his brother. His brother’s answer was correct, contrary to what Imām Mālik answered, so his father said to him:

ألهاك اللعب بالحمام عن طلب العلم

“Playing with birds has distracted you from the quest for knowledge.”[1]

This angered Imām Mālik, so from that day onwards, he was determined to dedicate himself to the companionship of ‘Abdullāh b. Yazīd (also known as Ibn Hurmuz), a scholar from the Tābi’ūn. Imām Mālik devoted an entire seven years to learning from Ibn Hurmuz, arriving in the early hours of the morning to learn and not leaving until the late hours of the night.

His mother encouraged him to further his knowledge and manners. Imām Mālik said:

كانت أمي تعمِّمني وتقول لي: اذهب إلى ربيعة فتعلم من أدبه قبل علمه

“My mother would tie a turban around my head and say: ‘Go to Rabī’a and learn from his manners before you learn from his knowledge.’”[2]

What a gift his mother gave to humanity – making a man who would raise an Ummah. With gentleness and intelligence, Imām Mālik’s parents set him upon a path which he remained on for the next 80 years of his life.

Imām Mālik’s mother taught that goodness sprouts from adab (good manners). Indeed, you might come across people of immense knowledge, but they are quick to fall from your eyes when you realise just how vulgar, harsh, and ill-mannered they are. On the contrary, you might across someone of average knowledge, but he is quick to grow in your estimation due to his immense humility and refined manners.

Sufyān al-Thawrī said:

وكان الرجل لا يطلب العلم حتى يتأدب ويتعبد قبل ذلك عشرين سنة

“Students of knowledge would only embark on their journey for knowledge when they had first acquired manners and exerted huge efforts in worship for twenty years.”[3]

Makhlad b. Ḥussain said to Ibn al-Mubārak:

نحن إلى قليل من الأدب أحوج منا إلى كثير من العلم

“We are in more need of small amounts of good manners than huge amounts of knowledge.”[4]

Some of our predecessors said to their children:

يا بني لأن تتعلم بابا من الأدب أحب إليَّ من أن تتعلم سبعين بابا من أبواب العلم

“My son, for you to master a chapter on manners is dearer to me than for you to master seventy chapters of knowledge.”[5]

Imām Mālik also studied under the tutelage of Nāfi’, the servant of Ibn ‘Umar, who was himself the servant of the Prophet ﷺ. The knowledge that Imām Mālik would transmit from him would later be titled Silsilat al-Dhahab (the golden chain of transmission) due to its authenticity. This was an exceptionally short chain of narrators consisting of Mālik who narrated from Nāfi’ who narrated from Ibn ‘Umar who narrated from the Prophet ﷺ.

Nāfi’, however, was temperamental, so Mālik was very careful in his approach and displaying immense patience. Mālik would hide in the shadow of a tree, not wanting to impose his presence on Nāfi’. He would then ask Nāfi’ only two or three questions, after which he would make a quick retreat. With this persistent yet slow approach, Mālik was able to amass the knowledge of Nāfi’.

One of Imām Mālik’s teachers was Muhammad b. Shihāb al-Zuhri. Imām Mālik said:

وكنا نزدحم على درج ابن شهاب حتى يسقط بعضنا على بعض

“We would congregate at the doorstep of Ibn Shiḥāb in such numbers that we would end up falling on top of one another.”[6]

Imām Mālik also narrated the following encounter with Ibn Shihāb:

“On one Eid day, I said to myself, ‘This is a day when Ibn Shihāb will have a bit more time.’ So after the prayer, I sat at his door. I heard him say to his servant, ‘Go and see who is at the door.’ I heard the servant say, ‘This is your fair-haired student, Mālik. Ibn Shihāb said, ‘Allow him in.’ He said to me, ‘Have you not gone home?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Have you eaten anything?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Eat this.’ I said, ‘I have no need for it.’ He said, ‘So what do you want?’ I said, ‘For you to relate ḥadīth to me.’ So he narrated 17 narrations to me. Then he said, ‘What use is this knowledge if you do not memorise it?’ I said, ‘I can repeat every one of them to you,’ and I did just that.”[7]

In another narration, Imām Mālik took from Ibn Shihāb 40 narrations which he repeated from memory, after which Ibn Shihāb said to him:

إنك لنعم المستودع للعلم

“What an excellent vessel of knowledge you are.”[8]

His students

Perhaps the most famous student of Imām Mālik was Imām Al-Shāfi’ī, who memorised Imām Mālik’s Al-Muwaṭṭa’ (a book of ḥadīth and fiqh that includes 1720 narrations from the Prophet ≈ Companions, and Tābi’īn) at the age of 17 years old.

Another student of his was ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Qāsim al-Miṣri, who played a chief role in the spread and establishment of the Māliki school of thought in Morocco, Sudan, and al-Andalus.  Students from both of these regions travelled to ‘Abd al-Raḥmān when he returned to Egypt, then established it within their respective regions. Furthermore, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Qāsim, Asad b. al-Furāt, and Ṣaḥnūn together authored Al-Mudawwana, which became the core text in the Māliki school of thought.

‘Abdullāh b. Wahb is another celebrated student of Imām Mālik. One fateful day, when ‘Abdullāh b. Wahb was in a sitting of ḥadīth study, he fell unconscious after he heard a narration on the horrors of the Day of Reckoning. He was carried home where he remained unwell until he passed away.

Reading the biographies of the students of Imām Mālik gives one a clearer idea as to who their teacher really was, as pupils can be an accurate reflection of their teacher and upbringer. Al-Fuḍayl b. ‘Iyāḍ names over 1300 students of Imām Mālik who studied directly with him, but in reality, the true number of students cannot be enumerated.

His knowledge

Imām Mālik took knowledge from many teachers, including the seven famous jurists of Madīnah.  These teachers were from the Tābi’ūn, who in turn took their knowledge from the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ. This is a distinguishing trait of Imām Mālik, who said:

ما أفتيت بعد أن شهد لي سبعون أني أهل لذلك

“I have assumed the position of being able to give an Islamic ruling only after seventy scholars bore testimony that I am fit to do so.”[9]

Imām Mālik would also say:

لا ينبغي لرجل أن يرى نفسه أهلًا لشيء حتى يسأل من هو أعلم منه

“One must never consider himself qualified to do anything until he receives approval from those senior to him.”[10]

Imām al-Shāfi’ī said:

إذا ذكر العلماء فمالك النجم

“If the scholars are mentioned, then Mālik is the star.”[11]

Ibn al-Qāsim said:

أفضى بمالك طلب العلم إلى أن نقض سقف بيته فباع خشبه ثم مالت عليه الدنيا من بعد

“Mālik’s quest and expenditure for seeking knowledge resulted in him needing to sell the roof of his house for the price of its wood. Later on in his life, the world opened up for him.”[12]

In what may be the greatest testimony for Imām Mālik (should the following narration apply to him), the Prophet ﷺ himself said:

يُوشِكُ أَنْ يَضْرِبَ النَّاسُ، أَكْبَادَ الإِبِلِ يَطْلُبُونَ الْعِلْمَ فَلاَ يَجِدُونَ أَحَدًا أَعْلَمَ مِنْ عَالِمِ الْمَدِينَةِ

“It shall soon be that people will be hastening on camelback seeking knowledge, but they will not find anyone more knowledgeable than the scholar of Madīnah.”[13]

A number of scholars, including Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna and ‘Abd al-Razzāq, have stated that this ‘scholar’ is in reference to Imām Mālik.

Al-Darāwirdi said:

“I saw in my dream that I had entered the Masjid of the Prophet ﷺ. I saw him advising the people when Mālik entered. When the Prophet ﷺ saw him (Imām Mālik), he ﷺ said: ‘Come here, come here.’ Mālik approached him until he was close, then the Prophet ﷺ took off his ring and placed it onto Mālik’s finger. I interpreted this to be in reference to Mālik’s knowledge.”

His worship

Imām Mālik would prolong his bowing and prostration during his voluntary prayers. When he stood in prayer, he would resemble a dry plank of wood – completely still and serene.[14]

His sister was asked: “What did Mālik do most of his time when at home?” She replied:

المحصف والتلاوة

“It was purely the Book of Allah and its recitation.”[15]

Fāṭimah, daughter of Mālik, said:

كان مالك يصلي كل ليلة حزبه، فإذا كانت ليلة الجمعة أحياها كلها

“Mālik had a nightly portion of prayer. However, on the evening before Friday, he would spend the entire night in prayer.”[16]

‘Abdullāh b. al-Mubārak said:

رأيت مالكًا فرأيته من الخاشعين، وإنما رفعه الله بسريرة كانت بينه وبين الله، وذلك أني كثيرًا ما كنت أسمعه يقول

“I saw Mālik and he was from those who were humble and submissive to Allah. Allah elevated his rank due to a secret that was between him and Allah. I would frequently hear Mālik saying:

من أحبَّ أن يفتح له فرجة في قلبه، وينجو من غمرات الموت، وأهوال يوم القيامة، فليكن في عمله في السر أكثر منه في العلانية

‘Whoever aspires for an opening (of goodness) to be made in his heart, to be saved from the throes of death and the horrors of the Day of Judgment, let him ensure that his private deeds are greater than his public deeds.’”[17]

It is common knowledge that one of the seven categories of people whom Allah will shade on the Day of Resurrection – on a Day when their will be no shade but His – is a person who “remembered Allah in privacy and wept.”[18] The key word in this description is not ‘wept’, but ‘privacy’. One may doubt one’s intentions when shedding tears in public. However, when alone and away from every influence other than the reverence of Allah, this is when the signs of sincerity become far starker.

It is common knowledge that the deeper a peg is thrusted into the soil, the stronger that peg will stand. Winds will not move it even if that peg happens to be thin, because the majority of that peg is in darkness – underground and unseen. However, if you were to lump a huge peg on the surface of the ground without pushing any of it underground, even a small child could push it over despite its size, because all of it is exposed and out in the open. It has no secrets – none of it is in darkness.

Private acts of worship follow the exact same rule. The more you train yourself to worship in secret, the deeper you thrust your peg within the soils of īmān, and the stronger you will be in the face of temptations and challenging circumstances.

Ḥudhayfa b. al-Yamān, a companion who was informed by the Prophet ﷺ of the names of the hypocrites of Madīnah, was once asked by a man: “Am I from the hypocrites?”

Ḥudhayfa responded:

أتصلي إذا خلوت وتستغفر إذا أذنبت ؟

“Do you pray when you are alone, and do you repent when you commit a sin?”

The man said, “I do.”

Ḥudhayfa responded:

اذهب فما جعلك الله منافقا

“Walk on, for Allah has not made you from the hypocrites.”[19]

Take Imām Mālik’s advice: conceal your fasts, pray in secret, reflect over Allah’s Majesty, and weep in the stillness of the night when your only companion is al-Rahmān. Rather than wasting those times of seclusion to sinful behaviour, view them as a golden opportunity to fortify your īmān and reserve a place beneath the Shade of Allah on the Day of Judgment.

His awe

As a person of devout worship, it is understandable why Imām Mālik would be clothed by Allah with the garments of awe. People’s admiration of an individual is merely a reflection of that individual’s reverence of Allah.

Sa’īd b. Abū Maryam said:

ما رأيت أشد هيبة من مالك، لقد كانت هيبته أشد من هيبة السلطان

“I have never seen anyone of greater awe than Mālik. In fact, his prestige surpassed that of the Sultan.”[20]

Similarly, Imām al-Shāfi’ī said:

ما هبت أحدًا قَطُّ هيبتي مالك بن أنس حين نظرت إليه

“Never have I felt greater reverence towards anyone as I did towards Mālik when I saw him.”[21]

There was an incredible air of awe and serenity to the study circles of Imām Mālik. He wanted his students to venerate the gatherings of knowledge, so before teaching, he would bathe, wear his finest clothes, and have incense lit during his circles for the purpose of honouring such gatherings of knowledge.

Imām Mālik’s students would slowly turn the pages of their books and quietly sharpen their pencils. Even the leading scholars who sat in his gatherings would not interrupt him, but instead had their heads lowered in respect. No one dared to ask him to repeat what he had said, let alone request the evidence for it. It seems that this was a unique characteristic of Imām Mālik’s study circles – his gravitas afforded him this ability to impose very strict rules of etiquette in his gatherings.

Ibn Qa’nab said:

ما رأيت قط أشد وقاراً من مجلس مالك، لكأن الطير على رؤوسهم

“I have never seen a gathering that had greater reverence than the assembly of Mālik. It was as if birds were sat on their heads.”[22]

Yaḥya b. Yaḥya al-Andalūsi said:

“I was sat with Mālik when two geckos landed on his head. They walked on Mālik’s hat then made their way to his neck, until they were beneath his clothes and left from the bottom of his garment, whilst Mālik remained unfazed and unmoved.”[23]

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] Tartīb al-Madārik

[2] Al-Dībāj al-Mudhahhab fī Ma’rifat a’yān ‘ulamā al-Madhhab

[3] Ḥilya al-Awliyā’

[4] Madārij al-Sālikīn

[5] Tadhkirah al-ṣāmi’ wa al-Mutakallim fī adab al-‘Ālim wa al-Muta’allim

[6] ilsila A’lām al-Muslimīn by Imām Mālik

[7] Tartīb al-Madārik

[8] Tartīb al-Madārik

[9] Ḥilya al-Awliyā’

[10] Ḥilya al-Awliyā’

[11] Mawāhib al-Jalīl

[12] Tartīb al-Madārik

[13] Al-Tirmidhī, on the authority of Abū Hurairah

[14] Tartīb al-Madārik

[15] Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā

[16] Tartīb al-Madārik

[17] Tartīb al-Madārik

[18] Al-Bukhārī and Muslim, on the authority of Abū Hurairah

[19] Tārīkh b. ‘Asākir

[20] Tartīb al-Madārik

[21] Tartīb al-Madārik

[22] Tartīb al-Madārik

[23] Tartīb al-Madārik

About Shaykh Ali Hammuda

Shaykh Ali Ihsan Hammuda is a UK national of Palestinian origin. He gained bachelors and masters’ degrees in Architecture & Planning from the University of the West of England, before achieving a BA in Shari'ah from al-Azhar University in Egypt. He is currently based in Wales and is a visiting Imām at Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff, and also a senior researcher and lecturer for the Muslim Research & Development Foundation in London. Ustādh Ali is the author of several books including 'The Daily Revivals' and 'The Ten Lanterns", and continues to deliver sermons, lectures and regular classes across the country.

One comment

  1. ASA
    I am from the USA and I happened to somehow stumble on your website. Only Allah knows how He brought me here.

    I want to jazak Allah khayran to the author and to Islam21c for the amazingly enlightening series of articles on the four imams.

    May Allah SWT reward you. My heart has been refreshed from such noor.

    Please continue to spread the noor of Truth.


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