In our social media age, where “great scholar” is perhaps recklessly applied, Shaykh Akram Nadwi stands forth as arguably the leading traditional Islamic scholar in the West whose high repute is matched by his excellent published works (in English, Arabic and Urdu, including translations from Persian). Sayyid Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi’s praise of Shaykh Akram—in his foreword to Shaykh Akram’s Arabic translation, edition and annotation of the Persian Bustan al-muhaddithin by Shah ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Dihlawi, when Shaykh Akram was around 33 years of age—as “one of the outstanding young scholars” (ahad al-shabb al-fudala’) was both perceptive and foretelling, masha Allah. Now Shaykh Akram’s commencement on an original Arabic commentary of Sahih Muslim presents Muslims in the modern West with a chance to witness something seldom seen: a timeless scholarly moment, insha Allah. So it was the great pleasure of the Safeenah Fellowship and Doha Mosque, Bradford, to host Shaykh Akram as he came to address a learned audience on his work on Sahih Muslim. Consequently, I agreed to Shaykh Akram’s suggestion that I do a write-up of the event as a way of introducing his project to a wider audience; so I here present this short overview based on his oral presentation, my translation of excerpts from an Arabic article that he gave to participants and some private discussions that can be disclosed to the public.
Shaykh Akram’s approach to Sahih Muslim reflects his method of emphasising the brilliance and complexity of early Hadith masters like Bukhari, Muslim and Tirmidhi, amongst others, over later scholars. So as he has taught over the years, one cannot simply master simplified scholarly books as good as Ibn Hajar’s Nuzhat al-nazar and Tahdhib al-Tahdhib and then subject the Hadith canon to a thorough re-evaluation. In this respect, we are to come to these early classics to see what the authors are themselves saying, and not to strenuously apply later theories to them—much like how we should be cautious about rigidly applying the popular notions of later usul al-fiqh to Abu Hanifa, Shaybani and Malik, for example.
The beginnings of this project began about 10 years ago, in Oxford, when he started teaching Sahih Muslim to students from various universities in the country. In the course of teaching the book, he started to understand the book’s “virtues” (mazaya) and “special qualities” (khasa’is) in a manner he did not perceive as a student at Nadwa. This led to his conclusion that it is the best book to train students in the “methodology” (minhaj) of the “early Hadith scholars” (al-muhaddithin al-mutaqaddimin) in “authenticating” (tashih), “weakening” (tad‘if), “ordering” (tartib) and “classifying” (tasnif) hadith.
In the course of teaching the book, he perused a number of the prevailing commentaries; but he found that they did not adequately discuss the “special qualities” of the book, nor the “details” (daqa’iq) and “subtle points” (lata’if) that Imam Muslim observed in his selection of hadiths and chains of transmission (asanid). So he concluded that there was no commentary that could be considered “complete” (wafin), as such “commentaries” were really just “notes” (ta‘liqat) and explanations of how the authors’ legal school related to the hadith chosen by Muslim.
Indeed, Shaykh Akram found the same limitations in the most famous commentary on Sahih Muslim by Imam Nawawi. At Nadwa, he had received teaching which gave precedence to Nawawi’s explanations of the meanings of hadith over the points made by Ibn Hajar in his commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari, although Ibn Hajar’s commentary was superior from the perspective of giving a technical analysis of the hadith. Yet Shaykh Akram found Nawawi’s commentary to be more like a collection of brief “notes” and “beneficial points” (fawa’id), to the extent that sometimes his comments would be a few lines despite there being a number of hadith in a chapter. So although it is the “best of the commentaries” (afdal al-shuruh), it is more like a “gloss” (hashiya) and a collection of “notes”.
For Shaykh Akram, the lack of a complete commentary on Sahih Muslim has led some people to hurl “criticism” (naqd) at the book and argue that some of his narrations are weak. Yet the truth, he argued, is that “people have become ignorant, over the course of time, to Muslim’s methodology. When he composed the book, the Islamic world was filled with extraordinary imams who preserved hadith (huffaz al-hadith), and knew the sound from the unsound narrations, and their hidden flaws, and the discussions around hadith. Such people knew the high rank of the book. But then the science of Hadith became weak in the Islamic world, with few high-ranking experts; and so the goal of Muslim in his book was lost upon most people.” Shaykh Akram asserted that while Sahih al-Bukhari was blessed with the good fortune of having numerous commentaries upon it, including primarily the brilliant one by Ibn Hajar, Sahih Muslim has not received the same treatment. So he was blessed with the intention to render his own service to Sahih Muslim, whilst relying on God.
On the excellence of Sahih Muslim, Shaykh Akram spoke of its author’s brilliant selection and presentation of the narrations contained therein. This consists of his utilisation of only the two highest groups of narrators known for authentic transmission, and by methodically placing the primary narrations (usul) first and then the auxiliary narrations (mutaba‘at) directly afterwards—the usul being the proper material of the Sahihs of both Bukhari and Muslim. In addition to people not properly differentiating between the usul and the mutaba‘at in Sahih Muslim, the general neglect of Muslim’s own introduction (muqaddima) to his Sahih has led to a neglect of a third type of narration included in the work, namely those narrations which correct hidden flaws (‘illas) in accompanying narrations. [Shaykh Muhammad ‘Awwama, in his Min minhaj al-imam Muslim fi ‘ard al-hadith al-mu‘alla fi Sahihih, actually tries to show that Muslim has a two-pronged approach in this regard: firstly, if the hidden flaw is in the narrators in the chain, the correct (salim) version comes first; secondly, if the hidden flaw is in regards to the text, then the correct version follows. When this was pointed out to Shaykh Akram, he was not aware of that being the case, but he agreed to explore it now that he has a copy of ‘Awwama’s book.]
As he has taught for a number of years, Bukhari and Muslim intended to include as their usul every narration that fulfilled their highest criteria. Shaykh Akram found Ibn al-Jawzi, in Sayd al-khatir, agreeing with him on this point; yet Nawawi and others had argued that Bukhari and Muslim did not bring all the hadiths on their conditions, as they tried to rationalise the different selections made by Bukhari and Muslim. In order to understand this better, as well as helping to make sense of Muslim’s response to Abu Zur‘a that he was not collecting all of the sahih in his collection, Shaykh Akram’s division of sahih into 3 categories is useful. Firstly, there are the mujma‘ ‘alayh: those asl narrations that both Bukhari and Muslim narrated. Secondly, those deemed sahih in the general understanding of the muhaddiths—these can include those narrations, for example, that Tirmidhi would say that Bukhari considered to be sahih, but which are not in the latter’s Sahih. Thirdly, those which are said to be sahih but which are not in reality, such as those often narrated by Ibn Hibban, Hakim and others.
In opposition to Hakim’s claim, Shaykh Akram confirmed that Muslim had in fact completed the Sahih before his death, and he had taught it in its final version. So one should not understand the following words of Muslim in his muqaddima to imply his failure to finish the work: “We will add—if God the Exalted wills—explanation (sharhan) and illustration (idahan) in the places of the book where there is a citation of narrations with hidden flaws (mu‘allala).” Shaykh Akram stated that sharh and idah refer to Muslim correctly structuring the book, and not that he was going to point out every matter explicitly, as what is often understood to be a conventional commentary (sharh). Indeed, he emphatically argued that Muslim compiled this work for specialists to teach, and not for it to be read by the general public without learned counsel; and so for the learned, Muslim’s subtle points were apparent.
In Shaykh Akram’s Arabic introductory article, he provided a synopsis of the features of his commentary: First, as he believes that Bukhari and Muslim agree on the conditions (shurut) for a hadith to be sahih, but disagree in their application (tatbiq) of these conditions, he discusses the reason (sabab) for either of them including a hadith in his collection and why the other did not include it, with the end result being that he shows how they strictly adhered to their conditions throughout their books. Second, he discusses the criticism of some hadiths in Sahih Muslim by both early and later Hadith scholars. His conclusion in this regard is that the majority of such objections stem from not understanding Muslim’s doctrine or not duly paying attention to his methodology; and that it sometimes entails criticising narrations that Muslim presents as auxiliary reports or ones in which Muslim himself points out the flaws. Third, he clearly classifies the usul from the mutaba‘at and those which Muslim includes to highlight flaws. Fourth, he explains the excellence of Muslim’s selection of narrations and the excellent reasoning behind their sequential ordering. Fifth, he divided every chapter so that the reader is well aware that each chapter begins with hadith or hadiths from the most important category of narrators (al-tabaqa al-ula) that must be from the usul. His division of the book differs with the popular printed version which often includes Nawawi’s chaptering, which consequently leads to chapters (abwab) and chapter headings (tarajim) beginning with narrations that Muslim only presented as mutaba‘at, which harms the ordering of the work. Indeed, Muslim’s actual structuring of the work is his “outstanding achievement” (ibda‘), and the confused presentation of what is strongest from what is weaker is a “serious imperfection” (khalal kabir) that “dishonours” (yashin) the book. Furthermore, he considered that Nawawi’s headings are often long and biased towards the Shafi‘i school. Shaykh Akram’s re-ordering of the chapters entails that each new chapter starts with the usul, then the mutaba‘at and then the narrations pointing out the hidden flaws, with each being clearly identified as such, so as to avoid the sort of ambiguity which currently exists. Sixth, he has inserted new chapter headings, often with the wording used by Bukhari and Abu Dawud in their main collections, which adhere to the doctrine of the Hadith scholars, and not the doctrine of later jurists (who read into Sahih Muslim what agrees with their school, or explain away what differs with them). Seven, he succinctly mentions the meanings of the hadith and the differences of the scholars and jurists regarding them. Eight, he has endeavoured to connect the hadith to the Noble Qur’an so as to make clear that the Sunna is an explanation of the Book of God (the Exalted), to show that the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) was making certain legal pronouncements based on his extraction from the Qur’an.
As usual, Shaykh Akram was cautious about making original tashih and tad‘if of hadith in our time, especially as it is often little more than checking a list of names in Tahdhib al-Tahdhib without making a deeper analysis—a practice that leads to over-simplistic conclusions, which is far from the method of the great early Hadith scholars who looked at hadith on a case-by-case basis, without the hastiness that marks the modern habit. He reiterated his agreement with Ibn al-Salah, in his Muqaddima, that such re-analysis is highly problematic now that the notebooks (usul) of the early imams are no longer extant. His advice for those who do want to engage in tashih and tad‘if was that they have to ensure that they are working from accurate copies (nuskhas) of Hadith works, like the ones used by great scholars like Mizzi, Dhahabi and Birzali. If accurate copies are not used, then people will continue, in his opinion, to make the sorts of mistakes that one will find of late, because they are relying on the corrupt prints that are so common.
His recommendation for a serious study of Hadith was to start with Tirmidhi, then Muslim, and then Bukhari, especially as the latter is the most superior book and its narrations are scattered in different places (unlike in the aforementioned). However, whilst quoting Shaykh Yunus al-Jawnpuri, he said that it was important to study Bukhari as Bukhari meant the book to be understood; in other words, not to read one’s own school or inclinations into the book, as is the prevalent habit of the sectarian groups of the Indian subcontinent. Hence one can see that criticisms of narrations within the two Sahihs, by people like Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Qayyim and Suyuti (in relation to the Sahih Muslim hadith on the father of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him), are, for him, due to ideas and concepts being given precedence over a thorough analysis of the narrations on their own terms.
One of the greatest benefits of the session with Shaykh Akram was to conclusively reiterate that books like Sahih Muslim and Sahih al-Bukhari were not written for the general public or even average religious scholars to read without proper training and understanding. In addition, it is refreshing to be treated to traditional scholarship that treats sacred knowledge as a living entity, and not a dead relic that is just reprinted, recited and followed with strange simplicity, and without the naïve delusion of grandeur or the narrow-mindedness of lazy partisanship. I told Shaykh Akram that narrow-minded traditionalists will oppose such a creative commentary on Sahih Muslim as though the book has not been properly understood throughout history; and he responded by saying that it is like saying that Sahih al-Bukhari was not truly understood for around 600 years until Ibn Hajar’s Fath al-Bari. As Shaykh Akram mentioned in relation to the early opposition to Muslim’s Sahih by his contemporaries like Abu Zur‘a, books often take time to be fully accepted and can even be objected to in the time of the author—see Jonathan Brown’s The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim for further details of the opposition to Muslim as well as the story of his book’s acceptance amongst scholars.
Now Shaykh Akram is the first to assert the superiority of scholars that he on occasion disagrees with (such as Hakim, Nawawi, Ibn Hajar, or even recent Indian scholars) but he has a duty as a real scholar—as opposed to one who only knows how to parrot a party line—to give analysis as he sees it. The fact that such original lines of enquiry have not been attempted before is not necessarily a criticism of others. For example, Shaykh Akram narrated that when Shaykh Rafi Usmani—the brother of Shaykh Taqi Usmani—spoke to him in Oxford recently, and Shaykh Akram described his project, Shaykh Rafi said that he had taught the book for years and such questions had not come to his mind; and one hears the same from other madrasa teachers and students.
Moreover, we have to understand how limited our own familiarity with our tradition is. When I co-hosted Wael Hallaq in London in 2016, he mentioned how less than 1% of existing manuscripts in the Muslim world have been printed. Furthermore, Joel Blecher’s recent essay entitled “Revision in the Manuscript Age: New Evidence of Early Versions of Ibn Hajar’s Fath al-bari” reminds us that we do not even have critical editions, based on the work of groups of scholars on numerous manuscripts, for classics like Ibn Hajar’s Fath al-Bari; and for us Malikis, we could add the lack of a similarly critical edition of Sahnun’s Mudawwana (as mentioned by Umar F. Abd-Allah Wymann-Landgraf in Malik and Medina), and the list could go on. So we have to expect more original scholarship in this context; and when they are conducted by the likes of Shaykh Akram, we should be overjoyed and supportive, both intellectually (by being informed and critical interlocutors) and financially (by funding them). In the West, we have enough Facebook shaykhs, but we do not have enough scholars working at the highest levels like Shaykh Akram.
Furthermore, we cannot be deluded about the task of knowledge revival before us. To begin with, Islamic studies—whether in the West or the East, in both the academy and the madrasa—does not, on the whole, attract the best minds, as they go to the fields of medicine, engineering, law and the like; so there is generally an intellectual deficit. Therefore, we have to be vigilant against two types of groups: firstly, the immature academics or moulvis (whether those named as “mufti” by Indian-style madrasas or “shaykhs”, who seem to be getting these honorifics at an alarmingly young age these days) who make hasty attempts at deconstructing tradition, without a profound foundation; secondly, the simplistic traditionalists who have a fit when presented with an idea that is new to them, no matter how well formulated it is within the tradition itself. In fact, the highest scholarly expertise usually takes decades to reach full maturity; and the field of Islamic studies—in the academy and the madrasa—needs a mass renewal in terms of the best minds and the best resources coming together to rise to the huge challenge before us. We place our trust in God and ask Him to guide our hearts towards rectifying this condition.
I tend to feel that Sayyid Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (may God have mercy on him) would be proud of how Shaykh Akram has developed and represented the Nadwa tradition since Sayyid Abul Hasan personally chose and sent him from Nadwa at around the age of 27 years, in 1991, to be a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (OCIS). Carla Powers, in If the Oceans were Ink, spoke of how when she worked with the 27 year old Shaykh Akram at the OCIS she marvelled at “what a scholar he was… he was already a rising star”. Furthermore, a current standard-bearer of the Nadwa, Sayyid Salman al-Husayni Nadwi, endorsed Shaykh Akram’s English fiqh series, al-Fiqh al-Islami, by saying, “Maulana Mohammad Akram Nadwi has the necessary competence to access the original sources and evidences from the Qur’an and Sunnah, and to analyse legal issues in the light of those sources and evidences.” Indeed, Sayyid Abul Hasan, in Western Civilization, Islam and Muslims, stated that Nadwa was a project to do away with the “fossilised” nature of late Arab and Indian scholarly traditions, and to revive the Islamic sciences so that they spoke to the modern world. [For an overview of the Nadwa project, one can also consult Shaykh Akram’s comments in his Madrasah Life and the analysis of Barbara Metcalf in Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900.]
Nonetheless, I think it is important to also credit his scholarly excellence to the legacy of Hamid al-Din Farahi (1863–1930), as well as Nadwa. The reason being is that Shaykh Akram first studied in an “Islahi” madrasa—connected to the Islah seminary that Sayyid Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, in Muslims in India, says was founded in 1909 by Farahi “on the lines of Nadwatul Ulema, Lucknow”, with its specialist subject of study being commentary of the Quran, and in which Farahi spent his final days teaching. Shaykh Akram has mentioned that he was initially dedicated to Arabic grammar, which he learnt properly at his Islahi madrasa—he noted that Nadwa is not very good at teaching Arabic grammar! [Thanks to Sohaib Saeed for reminding of Shaykh Akram’s opinion that the standards of the Islahi seminary have fallen, which is to be expected when a scholar of Farahi’s stature departs (may God have mercy on him).]
Farahi was the one who developed his own theory on the coherence in the Quran (nizam al-Qur’an) and the notion of each sura and verse being related to what is before and after it. Now past Quranic scholars, like Razi, Biqa‘i and Suyuti, had spoken of such “coherence” in the sense of munasaba, but Farahi’s own position is rightly deemed to be original—for an English work that discusses Farahi’s thought in some detail, see Mustansir Mir’s Coherence in the Qur’ān. This sense of breaking new scholarly ground, regardless of the norms of the prevalent tradition, is something that characterises Shaykh Akram. Those who recall Shaykh Akram’s fond anecdotes in Madrasah Life of his teacher Shaykh Shahbaz Islahi, whose open-minded scholarship could be fairly attributed to his being a product of Farahi and his thought, will see the same intellectual depth and originality of Shaykh Shahbaz in Shaykh Akram. Consequently, there are occasions when Shaykh Akram has a dhawq (lit. “taste”, but I here mean something akin to “informed intuition”) for how to understand the religious sources and traditional scholarly positions, while many of us scramble for past sayings as we wander in our blindness looking to be told what to think.
In fact, it is of note that Sayyid Abul Hasan had great admiration for Farahi. Firstly, in Muslims in India, Abul Hasan spoke of Farahi’s Jamharat al-balagha and al-Im‘an fi aqsam al-Qur’an as “unique… throughout the world of Islam”. Indeed, Abul Hasan wrote the introduction to the Dar al-Qalam edition (Damascus, 1994) of the Im‘an—see the English translation of one of Shaykh Akram’s Arabic books that bears the English title Shaykh Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī Nadwī: His Life & Works. Secondly, one sees that Abul Hasan gave the inaugural address at a three-day commemoration of Farahi’s thought held at the Islah seminary in 1991. Thirdly, Abul Hasan, in his booklet entitled Islamic Studies, Orientalism and Muslims, lauded Farahi as an “encyclopaedic author”, one of the numerous examples given by Abul Hasan to show the superiority of the traditional educational system over the modern academy method. As such, one finds Shaykh Akram to be almost the perfect Islahi-Nadwi.
Andrew Booso is a member of the Al-Salam Institute’s Advisory Board and director of the Safeenah Fellowship.