Imam Ali ibn Hazm

by Adil Salahi Published on: 21st January 2005

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An Andalusian scholar who studied as an independent scholar rejecting blind following of a particular school of jurisprudence. He was taught by several women and argued the some women had been prophets.

This article was written by Adil Salahi and originally published by Impact magazine.

In a debate between two prominent scholars, one said to the other: “I have put more effort in pursuing studies and learning. You have pursued your studies, having all the help you need. You had a gold-plated lamp lighting up your study at night, while I had to rely on the street lamp for my night reading.”

The other replied: “This argument goes against you, not for you. You pursued your studies when you were in such conditions in the hope that your learning will help you to change your circumstances to something like mine. I pursued my studies in the circumstances you have described aspiring for nothing other than the status knowledge imparts in this life and in the life to come.”

The first scholar was Sheikh al-Baji, a Maliki scholar from the Andalus who wrote a commentary on Al-Muwatta’, the first major, authentic collection of hadiths compiled by Imam Malik. The second was Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Saeed ibn Hazm, the scholar whose name is synonymous with the Thahiri school of thought and fiqh. He is better known as Ibn Hazm, and as Abu Muhammad.

Ibn Hazm was born shortly before sunrise on the last day of Ramadan 384 AH, corresponding to 994 CE, and his birth place was the eastern district of Cordova in the Andalus or Islamic Spain. He says that he is of Persian origin and that his great Persian ancestor was an ally of Yazeed ibn Abu Sufyan, the first Muslim governor of Syria under the second Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab and the elder brother of Mu’awiyah who was later to become Caliph. Ibn Hazm’s family in the Andalus belonged to the ruling class of the Umayyad dynasty. His father was indeed a Minister in the Umayyad court.

Thus, in a high class home, full of riches, Ibn Hazm was brought up, and he was looked after by a number of women; some were relatives and others were maids of fine accomplishments. These women taught him reading and writing, and helped him memorize the Qur’an. They also ensured that his adolescent years were free of the unrestrained surges of passion that are characteristic of youth. But he was soon to attend scholars of high calibre, most notable of whom was Abu al-Hasan ibn Ali al-Fasi who combined a high standard of scholarship with dedication to worship and total piety. Ibn Hazm was fortunate with the choice of his teachers because, in addition to teaching him the subjects he was interested in, they taught him independent thinking and nurtured in him the keen desire to dedicate his scholarship to serving God’s cause.

But life was not so smooth for Ibn Hazm. There was much political turmoil in the Andalus at the time, with leaders gaining power and losing it at frequent intervals. This meant the arrest of his father and confiscation of some of his wealth, until his father died towards the end of 402 AH, when Ibn Hazm was only 18 years of age.

This trying period was instrumental in giving Ibn Hazm a clear determination to make scholarship his highest pursuit, making scholarly attainment his coveted prize. He concentrated at first on the Qur’an, the hadith and language, achieving a high rank in each of these. He then turned his attention to fiqh, or Islamic law, without dedicating himself totally to this discipline at this stage. He aimed merely to acquire a good standard that befits a scholar specialized in other fields. His fiqh studies meant first a study of the Maliki School of law, because it was the predominant school in North Africa and the Andalus. However, when he objected to a certain point during a discussion in a fiqh study circle, someone told him that he might not make such objection because he had only a meagre standard of fiqh study. This made him extremely angry. He, therefore, locked himself away at home, dedicating all his time to fiqh study. A month later, he joined the same circle and debated with other scholars, demonstrating his great wealth of knowledge, including Fiqh, or Islamic law. He then said: “I follow the truth wherever it leads me, making every effort to do so, without conforming to a single school.”

Thus, when he had studied the Maliki School, he also read al-Shafie’s criticism of Malik. He then studied the Shafie School of law, and through it he was able to study the views of Iraqi scholars, such as Ibn Abu Laila and Abu Haneefah, as well as his most famous disciples Abu Yussuf, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan and Zufar. These studies confirmed him as a follower of the Shafie School of law, as he admired al-Shafie for stressing the importance of religious texts, i.e. the Qur’an and the hadith. He was also a firm supporter of al-Shafie in his strong criticism of istihsan, or regressive analogy. To start with, analogy, or qiyas, is a process by which a scholar, looking at a question to which no Qur’anic or hadith text provides a ruling, gives it the same ruling as a similar matter where a specific ruling exists, provided that the two questions have the same basis in common. Regressive analogy, or istihsan, is a branch of this process which finds the scholar putting aside a clear analogy in favour of a more subtle one, comparing the issue at hand to one which is not readily apparent. But to do so, the scholar must have a highly valid reason.

However, Ibn Hazm did not stay long with the Shafie School. He followed in the footsteps of an earlier Shafie scholar, named Dawood ibn Ali who, two centuries earlier, founded the Thahiri school of thought, which relies only on texts and rejects the very concept of analogy.

Ibn Hazm was more than once attracted to politics, despite the fact that the Andalus was going through a prolonged period of turmoil. The fact is that he was strongly loyal to the Umayyads, and when an Umayyad leader claimed power, Ibn Hazm was ready to support him, even though his political involvement brought him only trouble. His first involvement saw him supporting al-Murtadha, Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad. He in fact travelled to Valencia to be with Abd al-Rahman in his attempt to seize power, and was one of his entourage as he raised an army to try to move into Granada. However, his rival, Ibn Hammood was in a much stronger position and he managed to get Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad assassinated. His supporters either fled or were taken captive. Ibn Hazm was of the second group and he remained in prison for a while until he was released in 409, when he was 25 years of age. This episode took him away from Cordoba for nearly six years. On his return, he concentrated once more on his studies, but he added to his study of fiqh and hadith a determined effort in defending Islam against the propaganda campaigns launched by Christians and Jews. Considering his sharp intelligence, clear logic, powerful argument and lucid language, his role was of great value to Islam.

Another Umayyad prince tried to regain power, with the support of the people of Cordoba. This was Abd al-Rahman ibn Hisham who was followed by Hisham ibn Muhammad. True to his principles, Ibn Hazm supported both and was a Minister and close adviser to both. Hisham started his rule of Cordoba in 418 when its people pledged their loyalty to him. But he was removed from office in 422, and he was in hiding for a few years, until he died in 428. With his death, the rule of the Umayyad dynasty came to its final end. The Andalus was divided into a number of mini-states, with rivalries among their rulers. This cured Ibn Hazm of involvement in politics, and he devoted all his energy to his scholarship. Although he had lost much of his family’s wealth, what was left to him was still considerable, giving him a life of comfort. Moreover, he always praised God for his blessings, recognizing that whatever he had was a favour from God.

Ibn Hazm started to travel widely in the Andalus, leading a comfortable life which enabled him to devote his time to spreading his line of scholarship in which he differed with the four main schools of law. He was very popular with young scholars because he was a highly eminent scholar with exceptional command of Fiqh, hadith, and a fine literary style. Furthermore, he was a master of debate and philosophy, well versed in logic. All this made his circles very lively, full of interest, with a frequent turn of the unexpected. The response he received more than compensated him for the loss of political position and influence.

He spent several years in Majorca where its governor, Ahmad ibn Rasheeq, was a friend and admirer of Ibn Hazm. This friendship gave Ibn Hazm the freedom he needed to propagate his school of thought, which relied only on the text of the Qur’an and authentic hadith, as we will discuss in more detail in the next issue, God willing. He was involved in many debates with other scholars, but they could not make any headway against his clear thinking, strong argument and powerful logic.

Another painful change of fortunes occurred when his friend Ibn Rasheeq died in 440 AH. Ibn Hazm had to leave Majorca because his opponents were now in a position to influence rulers and governors. What they held against him was that he did not follow the Maliki School of law, which was predominant in the Andalus and North Africa. He was always ready to voice his disagreement in the clearest of terms, because he believed this to be true.

His travels took him eventually to Seville which was under the governorship of al-Mu’tadhid ibn Abbad who continued in his position for 25 years. The governor was unkind to this great scholar, even though he was now a senior scholar in his mid-fifties. In fact there was a genuine disagreement between the two, when al-Mu’tadhid claimed that he derived his authority from Hisham ibn al-Hakam, an Umayyad Caliph who died 22 years earlier. The claim further said that Hisham was still alive. Ibn Hazm, who was strongly loyal to the Umayyads, described this claim as a ‘fabrication unparalleled in history.’ This was sufficient to earn him the hostility of al-Mu’tadhid.

Collaborating with a number of mediocre scholars who could not appreciate Ibn Hazm’s line of independent scholarship, Al-Mu’tadhid inflicted on Ibn Hazm a very painful punishment, ordering that all his books be burnt. He did so, painting himself as a defender of true scholarship and a supporter of scholars who followed the recognized schools of law. Perhaps nothing is more painful to a scholar than to see his books going up in flames. But this was something he had to suffer.

As a result of this, Ibn Hazm retired to his farms in a country village, where he pursued his scholarship, visited by young scholars who admired him. The pain he suffered is clearly seen in his subsequent writings in which we sense some bitterness. However, Ibn Hazm was a pious scholar who only defended what he believed to be the truth. He lived in this village, continuing to teach his students until his death in 456 AH. Today, he remains a highly celebrated scholar, and his school of thought continues to attract an increasing number of scholars.

We will discuss Ibn Hazm’s unique position in Islamic scholarship in the next issue, God willing.

A main characteristic of Ibn Hazm was his independent thinking. He lived at a time when belonging to a school of fiqh was the normal practice of scholars. Even those who attained prominence and high reputation conformed to their schools of fiqh, with little attempt to go beyond them. He always declared his independent views without fear of opposition.

One area in which Ibn Hazm differs with the majority of scholars is that of whether there were in the past women prophets. He comes clearly in favour of that, and he names four women who were prophets, Mary, Sarah, Moses’s mother and Asia bint Muzahim who was Pharaoh’s wife. He defines prophethood as ‘the acquisition of certain, undoubted knowledge that cannot be acquired through personal endeavour or human experience.’ Such knowledge must, then, come through God’s revelation. These four women received such knowledge.

In the case of Mary, she not only spoke to Archangel Gabriel, but she is also mentioned with a group of prophets in the surah carrying her name. When these prophets have all been mentioned, God states: “These are the ones God has blessed with His favours among prophets, of Adam’s progeny…” (19: 58) In the case of Sarah, she received information through a delegation of angels, and they gave her the ‘impossible’ information that she would conceive despite being past menopause and having an old man for a husband. Moses’s mother was told of what would happen to her infant son when she throws him in the Nile, and is then picked up by God’s enemy and his own enemy. The evidence in the case of Asia is the hadith describing her, along with Mary, as the only women who attained perfection.

Scholars who object to this view base their objection on the verse stating: “We have not sent before you any other than men who received our revelations.” (16: 43) Ibn Hazm replies that the verse speaks of messengers, not prophets. A messenger is a prophet who had a message to deliver. Not all prophets were messengers, while all messengers were prophets. He concurs that there were no women messengers.

“If you feel that you have attained distinction in scholarship, then you must realize that it is through God’s favour, not your own efforts, that you have acquired it. Hence, you must not return God’s favour by using His gift in what incurs His displeasure. Otherwise, He may well put you through some difficulty which causes you to forget all that you had learnt. Abd al-Malik ibn Tareef, a scholar of sharp intelligence and mild temperament, told me that he had a fine memory. He memorised practically everything he heard without having to repeat it. Yet, once on a voyage, his boat went through very rough seas, which caused him to forget most of what he had learnt. I myself experienced an illness which left me with practically nothing of what I had memorized. I managed to regain that only a few years later.”

These are the words of Ali ibn Hazm, a scholar of fine accomplishments which he recognized as gifts from God for which he was genuinely grateful. The first of these accomplishments was his excellent memory. He was able to memorize a very large collection of hadiths, as well as the rulings given by the Prophet’s companions and their successors [i.e. tabi’een] on cases which were put to them for judgement. This fine memory was coupled with a very sharp mind that gave him strong arguments in debate. Few could stand up to him in scholarly debate.

A further quality of Ibn Hazm was his clear thinking. He would not formulate an opinion on any question or subject without first thinking deeply about it, searching for its subtle aspects and looking for its finer points and elements. Moreover, he was not limited to certain disciplines and areas of study. His interests covered a very broad spectrum, although he was first and foremost an Islamic scholar in the full sense of the word.

Anyone who studies Ibn Hazm’s life cannot fail to note that he was a man of great sincerity in his pursuit of knowledge. Such sincerity enhanced his profound scholarly insight and enlightened his way to pursue the truth. Indeed, he felt that only through honest endeavours in achieving the best standard of scholarship that he could measure his success. This is a highly commendable goal which Ibn Hazm worked for throughout his life, always acknowledging God’s favours and expressing his gratitude for them.

An important product of this sincerity was his frank, outspoken defence of what he believed to be true. Thus, he defends his views very forcefully, caring little for the personal consequences this might lead to. His books are full of such forceful arguments, which could easily offend others. His contemporaries describe him as a ‘fine scholar whose presentation of his scholarship was less than fine.’ Yet he was clear in promoting a conciliatory attitude with other people in all ordinary matters. He was all for appeasement, as long as it did not lead to what might displease God. Therefore, he maintained very friendly relations with contemporary scholars. His letters to many of them express genuine friendship and affection. But when some of them were hard in criticizing his views, he was equally hard in his debate.

In his book devoted to Ibn Hazm’s life and scholarship, the late scholar, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zuhrah identifies two main reasons for the hard attitude Ibn Hazm often shows in his writings. The first was his feeling that a number of princes and rulers were hostile to him; willing to deal with him very harshly. He saw that some mediocre scholars were trying to encourage such princes and rulers to do just that. In fact, he was not far wrong in that. The second reason was due to a serious illness he suffered, leaving him rather impatient and sharp in his attitude.

Yet one of Ibn Hazm’s main characteristics is that he was very faithful to his friends, teachers and to everyone with whom he came in contact. He was indeed faithful even to an acquaintance whom he would have met once only, or with whom he had a single conversation. Nothing was more repugnant to him than treachery. Indeed he would do a good turn in reply to a bad one.

When we speak of Ibn Hazm, we deal with a scholar of Islamic law, hadith and theology, who also went deeply into other disciplines of Islamic studies. Yet Ibn Hazm’s literary merit is beyond doubt. His style is one of the finest. We read him today, nearly a thousand years after his death, and we appreciate the beauty of his style. In addition he was a poet of merit. In fact, had he not devoted his time to Islamic law and other Islamic disciplines, he would have ranked amongst the top poets in Arabic literary history.

Ibn Hazm was a scholar of very high calibre. Had he chosen to stick to the Shafie School of law, which he embraced for some time, he would probably have been the second highest figure in its history. But he left it to take up a totally different line, in which he achieved the highest distinction. That line is known as the Thahiri School, which takes all religious texts at face value. As its main proponent, Ibn Hazm relies on rational reasoning in proving God’s existence and sovereignty as well as proving the truth of God’s messages to mankind. Once he has proven these two, he takes up the details of the divine message from authentic texts, and takes these texts at their apparent meanings. He argues that there is no room for intellectual discretion, or scholarly opinion in matters of religion. The only sources to be upheld are the Qur’anic and hadith texts. He rejects analogy, or qiyas, altogether, where a case with no stated ruling could be judged on the basis of analogy with a similar case that is subject to a clear text, provided that the reason for judgement applies to both cases. Similarly, he rejects personal or public interest, i.e. maslahah, and outcome as bases for rulings. To take any of these as basis is to give intellectual reasoning and discretion a legislative position. To him that is totally unacceptable.

As a correlative of this standpoint, Ibn Hazm rejects the very notion of trying to attach reasons for Islamic rules and laws. To him, all these are part of the code God has legislated, and their implementation is part of our worship. As such, they need not have any reason other than that.

Ibn Hazm provides very powerful arguments in support of his stand. From the Qur’an he cites God’s own statement: “We have not left out anything without including it in the Book.” Had there been room for judgement on the basis of reasoning, it would be contrary to this statement. He also cites the verse that says: “Believers, obey God and obey the Messenger and those from among you who have been entrusted with authority. If you are in dispute over anything, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you truly believe in God and the Last Day.” (4: 59) This is a definitive text on what sources we may rely upon to have rulings on any matter. He further cites a number of hadiths that restrict such sources to the Qur’an and the sunnah. A most important one from his point of view is the hadith that says: “Good knowledge is not taken out of people’s hearts, but true knowledge is removed with the death of scholars. When no scholars are left, people will have ignorant leaders who rule on the basis of their own reasoning, thus going astray and leading others astray.” He further quotes Umar ibn al-Khattab who says: “When the Prophet judged something on the basis of his own reasoning, he judged right because God guided him. Our views are merely based on our own assumptions and ideas.” Ibn Hazm has no shortage of such statements in support of his stand.

Thus, what Ibn Hazm and the Thahiri School rely on is simply the Qur’an, the sunnah and the unanimity of scholars. Where a Qur’anic text has clear import, he takes it up without question and applies it as it is. Where a text is not so clear, people should refer to scholars who are able to relate Qur’anic texts to one another, or to texts of hadith to determine the ruling on any particular question. Ibn Hazm rejects any assumption of conflict between Qur’anic texts. Any assumed conflict can easily be reconciled through restricting the application of a general text or abrogation of one text by another.

The second source is the sunnah, and Ibn Hazm follows al-Shafie’s view that both the Qur’an and the sunnah must be taken together as one source that must be obeyed. He says: “The Qur’an and authentic hadith complement each other. They are a single body in the sense that they are both revealed by God, and they have the same ruling with respect to the requirement that we must obey them.” Ibn Hazm considers any verbal statement or approval by the Prophet as binding on all Muslims. The Prophet’s actions, on the other hand, are obligatory and binding only if we have a statement indicating that the Prophet did a certain action in fulfilment of an instruction he received from God. A case in mind is the Prophet’s order: “Pray as you have seen me pray.” Thus, when there is a clear indication that an action by the Prophet is done instead of a verbal statement, then such action becomes binding on us.

The third source of rulings, according to Ibn Hazm, is the unanimity of scholars. He approves this on the basis of the hadith that states “My community will not be in error when they are unanimous.” Thus in applying this source, he is only implementing an authentic hadith. A fourth source of ruling is what is known as istishab, which means giving matters their original ruling of permissibility, unless there is a text to change that. To Ibn Hazm, there is no other source of religious rulings.

This approach, commendable as it is, has been subject to fierce criticism and debate with scholars of other schools of law. In this, Ibn Hazm has always been very strong and sharp in his criticism. In fact, his sharp words, seen in many of his books, have lost him many friends and admirers. Nevertheless, he remains a towering scholar in our history.

His approach led him to put in great efforts in the pursuit of an in-depth study of the Qur’an and the sunnah. He ranks with the great scholars of hadith, no doubt. Thus, his books are full of hadiths, which he cites in support of his views and rulings. In fact, he gives no ruling unless he has clear evidence to support it. What also distinguishes his hadith scholarship is that he does not quote a hadith on the basis of the works of the famous hadith scholars such as al-Bukhari and Muslim. He gives his own chains of transmission, listing the names of reporters connecting him to scholars like al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nassaie and others. Thus, he many have in his chain of transmission six or seven scholars that take him up to, say, al-Bukhari and then he adds the chain al-Bukhari gives in his Sahih. This is a highly distinctive feature in Ibn Hazm’s scholarship.

Ibn Hazm wrote a large number of books. His son reports that he collected of his father’s works no less than 400 volumes, in 80,000 pages. His writings covered a wide variety of subjects, including some psychological studies, such as his famous book, Tawq al-Hamamah, or The Ring of the Dove, which he devotes to the study of the psychology of love. A five-volume work is devoted to explaining the beliefs and practices of all religions, sects and creeds and how they differ from the true faith. Another highly valuable book in four volumes, Al-Ihkam fi Usool al-Ahkam, is an in-depth study of Fiqh methodology, in which he explains how he differs from other scholars and schools of Fiqh.

However, his major work which explains all his views and rulings on all matters relating to religion and life affairs is Al-Muhalla. It is published in several editions, sometimes in 9 volumes and sometimes in 12. This book is a wealth of scholarship, in which Ibn Hazm discusses each question separately. On each question, he cites the views of earlier scholars of high achievement, not restricting himself to the views of the four schools of Fiqh, but also citing the rulings of scholars like al-Hassan al-Basri (d. 110), al-Laith ibn Saad (d. 175), Ata’ (d. 114), Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161), al-Awza’ie (d. 157), etc. He also quotes the evidence they cite in support of their views. He then discusses why he considers their views incorrect, and produces the evidence in support of his own view. This makes for a highly scholarly discussion. Many scholars describe Al-Muhalla as the encyclopaedia of Islamic Fiqh. Indeed, it has preserved many of the views of early scholars whose work was either not documented or lost. The only problem with Al-Muhalla is that Ibn Hazm is often scathing in his criticism of his opponents. Yet there is no doubt that he is an honest defender of what he considers to be the truth. Any scholar who wants to exercise ijtihad, in order to arrive at rulings for questions encountered in present day life cannot overlook Al-Muhalla. Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zuhrah, one of the top scholars in the twentieth century, describes this book in these words: “It is truly and accurately the pillar of Islamic Fiqh, and it is a highly useful book. Had it not been for the usage of scathing remarks and some phrases that are evidently inappropriate and out of place, it would have been the best book ever on Sunni Fiqh.

The Thahiri School has survived because of its direct appeal, although it has never been widespread in any particular area. However, in every generation there have been scholars who have upheld Ibn Hazm’s approach. Today, we find some scholars who even attach to their names the title Al-Thahiri, to indicate that they follow Ibn Hazm’s line.

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