Izz Al-Din ibn Abd Al-Salam

by Adil Salahi Published on: 2nd March 2005

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A courageous scholar of Islamic law Izz al-Din wrote several important books. He played an key role in giving firm advice to divided Muslim rulers during a time when the Islamic world was under attack from Tartars and Crusaders.

BannerThe emissary was a Counsellor in court, and he was pleading his case very earnestly, speaking at length before concluding in the following manner: “I only want the best for you, the King and the people. Your presence by the side of the King will only be for the benefit of the people and will strengthen the Muslim community, particularly at this time of imminent danger. I am sure if you will only moderate your stance a little, everything will be set right. You will be restored to all your positions, and even given higher ones. All that you have to do is to kiss the hand of the King and show courtesy to him.”

The Counsellor looked up to the scholar waiting for a reply, but of all the replies he hoped for, or feared, he could not have expected what he actually heard: “How ill you think of me! You are suggesting that I kiss the King’s hand? I do not accept that the King kisses my hand. You people live in a world totally different from mine.”

The scholar was Shaikh al-Islam Izz al-Din ibn Abd al-Salam, and the King was Salih Ismaeel, of Syria. At the time, Syria and the surrounding areas were divided into a number of little states, some parts of which were occupied by the Crusaders who had their own little states and kingdoms. Egypt represented a danger to some of these mini-states because Egypt could claim back these areas as they were united under Salahuddin al-Ayoubi (Saladin). After his death they were ruled by his children, with the expectation that they would continue to function as a single unit against external danger. Now the King, Salih Ismaeel, began to collaborate with the Crusaders in order to strengthen his position against his rivals, particularly the King of Egypt. He went further than that and gave up some cities to the Crusaders. Izz al-Din was very angry at this realignment, and he expressed his opposition in the clearest way, stopping the traditional prayer for the King during the Friday sermon, and even invoked God’s wrath on the enemies of Islam, clearly implying that the King was one of them.

The scholar, who was better known as Al-Izz, was kept in confinement for the rest of the King’s reign, but the King was subsequently defeated and killed in a battle against the Egyptian army, and Al-Izz was honourably taken to Egypt, where he was to play a role of great importance. He was 60 at the time.

Izz al-Din ibn Abd al-Salam was born in Damascus in 578 H, corresponding to 1182 CE, i.e. six years before Jerusalem was liberated by Salahuddin from Crusader occupation. He studied under a number of renowned scholars such as Ibn Asakir, al-Amidi and Abu Muhammad al-Qasim. Although he started his education late, he was quickly able to outstrip his colleagues and establish his position as a scholar in his own right. He was later to become the head professor at the Zawiyah al-Ghazaliyah school in Damascus, combining this post with that of Imam and Khateeb at the Umawi mosque, the main mosque in the city. He occupied these posts for a long time, before he was stripped of them as described above.

His fame as a scholar was to spread far and wide. When he arrived in Egypt, al-Hafiz al-Mundhiri stopped giving fatwas, or legal rulings, saying: “It does not behove any jurist to give a fatwa where Izz al-Din happens to be present.” Another scholar, Ibn al-Hajib, rates him as higher in his scholarly achievements than al-Ghazali. And Al-Dhahabi says of him: “In his knowledge of Fiqh, devotion to religion and God-consciousness he attained that degree of perfection which makes one qualified to exercise ijtihad, or scholarly discretion in interpreting the revealed law of God and deducing new laws from it.”

What distinguished Izz al-Din more than his profound scholarly knowledge was his uncompromising attitude in maintaining Islamic principles and defending God’s and people’s rights. In all this, his courage was exemplary. Hence, he was loved and supported by all the people, respected and honoured by kings and rulers. Indeed, he had many encounters with rulers, several of whom were keen to learn his advice and act on it. One of them was King Al-Asharaf of Aleppo, who in his last illness requested Izz al-Din’s advice on impending matters. The Shaikh said: “The Sultan’s great reputation for valour and military brilliance is well deserved, particularly after the spectacular victories he has achieved against the enemies of Islam. However, the Tartars are making inroads into Islamic territories. They have been emboldened by the fact that the Sultan has deployed his troops to face his elder brother, King al-Kamil. Given such confrontation between the Sultan and his brother, the Tartars realize that the King will not be able to confront the enemies of God and the persecutors of Muslims. I would request the Sultan to give up the idea of fighting his own brother, and to turn his troops against the enemies of Islam. The Sultan should make up his mind, in these critical days of his illness, to fight for the sake of God alone and for restoring the supremacy of His faith. We hope to overcome the unbelievers with the help of the Sultan, if God is pleased to give him recovery. This would be the best choice, but if God wills otherwise, the Sultan would undoubtedly be recompensed for his intention to fight for the cause of Islam.” King Al-Ashraf thanked him and immediately issued orders in line with Izz al-Din’s advice, abandoning every thought of fighting his brother.

Recognizing his own poor state of health and fearing for the worst, King al-Ashraf felt that Izz al-Din was his best counsellor who would only give him advice that was most sincere and would benefit him on the Day of Judgement. Therefore, he requested Izz al-Din for further advice. The latter said: “The Sultan is bedridden but his chiefs and officials are having rounds of pleasure, revelling in drinking and the pursuit of their own pleasure, while Muslims are being burdened with new taxes and tithes. The most valuable presentation that the Sultan can present before God is the cleansing of this cesspool of corruption. The Sultan may wish to abolish all illegal impositions, stop all tyranny and restore justice to all his people.” The king thanked him warmly for his sincere advice, and requested him to pray to God that they both should be companions in heaven. He also gave him a gift of one thousand gold coins, but Izz al-Din refused to accept it, saying that he met the King only for God’s sake and he wanted his purpose to be untarnished by any worldly temptation.

In Egypt, Izz al-Din was received most respectfully by the Sultan who was known as King al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyoob. Izz al-Din was assigned to be the Imam and Khatib at the Amr ibn al-Aas mosque, one of the first and most spacious to be built in Egypt. He was also appointed Chief Justice of Egypt and Professor of the Shafie Fiqh at the Salihiyah School founded by the King.

Having received all this honourable treatment, Izz al-Din felt that it was his duty to continue in the same vain, giving only most sincere advice and counselling those in power to do only what is right. He would not compromise his principles even for the sake of the King who had been so hospitable and kind to him. This is clearly seen in the following incident.

King Ayyoob was holding a spectacular function on the occasion of the Eid, seated on the throne in a large reception hall, with all princes, chiefs of the state, courtiers and dignitaries attending him. All people who hoped to be admitted to the presence of the Sultan to offer their greetings on that occasion were also present. Suddenly a loud voice was heard addressing the Sultan by his first name: “Ayyoob, what would you say to God when He asks you: ‘Have I given you the kingdom of Egypt so that people could openly indulge in drinking wines when you are enjoying public reception?'” The King blurted: “Is this a fact?” Izz al-Din’s reply was very clear: “Yes, indeed. Wine is being openly sold in the city, and the people indulge in other vices too.” The King said: “But this wine shop was started in my father’s reign, Sire.” Izz al-Din said: “Are you, then, one of those the Qur’an condemns for following their forefathers’ ways?” The Sultan ordered the immediate closure of the wine shop and issued further orders that the sale of wine was banned throughout his realm.

It may be thought by many of us that it could have been foolish for the scholar to confront in this way the King who was very kind to him. After all, the King could not be held responsible for every violation of Islamic rules that occurred in his kingdom. No king likes to be confronted in such a manner in front of his chiefs and subordinates. Rulers do not like to have their authority challenged in any way, least of all in public. Yet here was the scholar using remarks that could not be acceptable and the King attending to his advice without any reproach. How come?

On his way back from court, Izz al-Din was asked by one of his students why he raised this particular issue on that occasion. Izz al-Din said to him: “When I saw the Sultan in his moment of glory, I thought he might give himself airs and that power might go to his head. Therefore, I thought it wise to admonish him publicly.” The student asked: “But were you not afraid of his might?” Izz al-Din replied: “No, my son! I only remembered God’s might and glory; so the Sultan appeared to me as meek as a cat.”

Thus, Izz al-Din’s intention was simply to get the Sultan back into the human world, and to ensure that thoughts of greatness did not become his main preoccupation. He did not wish to embarrass the Sultan, let alone insult him, but he wanted to remind him of God’s power over him. By doing so, he did the Sultan a great favour.

Much as the Sultan King Ayyoob respected Izz al-Din, he might not have responded with such respect of the scholar’s wishes had he felt that he was no better than other scholars. But the Sultan recognized that Izz al-Din had much greater popular support than that which he himself had enjoyed. Besides, people’s support of Izz al-Din was motivated by love, while he could rule over them only by the power of the state. And the people were so devoted to Izz al-Din, recognizing in him a fearless champion of right and justice.

Perhaps no king or Sultan had a closer relation with Izz al-Din than al-Muzaffar Qutoz, whose short reign of less than one year witnessed a great battle that stopped the march of the Tartar. Qutoz was a pious and righteous man who rose to the rank of Sultan by the force of circumstance, despite having many rivals and opponents. However, he was dedicated to the Islamic cause. He made Izz al-Din his closest adviser, consulting him on all matters of state. Izz al-Din took advantage of this situation to impress on the king the importance of playing his role as a dedicated servant of Islam. No personal gain did Izz al-Din seek. All his interest was in stopping the Tartar tide that swept over much of the Muslim world, ransacking Baghdad, the Islamic capital, and massacring hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the process.

Izz al-Din impressed on Qutoz that it was his destiny to fight the Tartars who were felt to be unstoppable. The King was now convinced that he could not escape fighting the Tartars, because they were certain to attack Egypt, the last part of the Muslim world that could resist their march. If they were to take Egypt, then Islam could not make a comeback. He also felt that no matter how strong the Egyptian army could be, it was no match for the Tartar sweeping force, unless God’s support was forthcoming. To ensure that it was, he needed Izz al-Din by his side, directing and correcting his measures of preparedness.

Izz al-Din organized a campaign to raise the morale of the Egyptian people and to kindle in them that jihad spirit that always ensured success. Whenever the Egyptians had a righteous ruler who called on them to sacrifice their all for the cause of Islam, showing them his readiness to be one of them, they responded with exemplary dedication. Some 70 years earlier, Salahuddin was able to use this characteristic to rescue Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Now it was Qutoz’s turn to halt the Tartars’ march that had already swept the Abbasid Caliphate aside and left Baghdad in ruins. To kindle that spirit, Izz al-Din mobilized a large force of scholars who went to every village and town in the country, calling on the people to be ready to sacrifice their lives for God’s cause. Izz al-Din felt that it was his destiny to be beside Qutoz in his hour of pressing need. Each of them needed the other to ensure that victory was a real possibility.

Realizing that his guests, the princes and nobility of Egypt, had finished their dinner, King al-Muzaffar Qutoz spoke about the preparations being taken to resist the expected Tartar attack, expressing the hope that Muslims would be able to turn the tide against the invaders and rid the world of their evil. An army was being raised and general mobilization was already undertaken. He then added that it was absolutely necessary to provide more financial resources. He invited suggestions for the best measures to be taken. The princes were agreed that the only way to raise the necessary funds was to increase taxes. It was an emergency situation, and people had to make sacrifices. However, the King’s eye was fixed on one particular guest, Sheikh al-Izz ibn Abd al-Salam. He wanted the Sheikh’s support for every measure, because he recognized his special position with the general population. The Sheikh’s response was soon forthcoming, lucid and to the point:

“You want this coming battle to be for the sake of God, and you know that you cannot win it unless you have God’s support. That is sure to come when the whole community, rulers and ruled, princes and commoners, nobility and ordinary people show their dedication to the cause. If you ask the people, already heavily taxed as they are, to pay more taxes when they see the princes and the nobility leading a luxurious style of life, with their women adorned with expensive jewellery, they will not feel that they are fairly treated. Before you can raise taxes and have popular support for your measures, you need to take away what the princes, the nobility and the rich have in excess of their needs. When they are brought to the level of the general public, you may increase taxes if needed. The new taxes will then be shared by all, as all will be at the same level. The people will then pay willingly. Moreover, you ensure justice, which is an important factor in making sure that we have God’s support in our battle for His cause. We cannot fight for God’s cause when injustice continues unchecked in our society.”

As the Sheikh made his point, opposition was rising among the princes. By the time he finished, many began to speak. They could not imagine how the Sheikh’s idea could be implemented. How could they live at the same level as the rest of the people? But soon enough they realized that opposition was futile. The Sheikh always stood firm, and he would not compromise on any point of justice. In fact, they soon learnt that the King already began to implement the Sheikh’s ruling, sending out his men to the princes’ palaces to bring back women’s jewellery and other money in support of the war effort. The princes had to acquiesce, much as they disliked the measure and what it entailed for their households.

Izz al-Din was the real master of the situation. His influence on the people was enormous. They loved him like they loved no one else. They realized that he would not compromise on a point of truth and justice. He was the best defender of their interests. They also knew that he feared no king or prince. And they were sure that siding with him meant being on God’s side and fighting for His cause. But they were naturally overawed by the Tartars’ advance. The latter had a reputation for military superiority. Many in the land of Islam felt that the Tartars could not be defeated. Hence, it was necessary to remove this feeling and put things back into the proper perspective. This was the task Izz al-Din undertook with marvellous results. When in due course the Egyptian army moved to Palestine to face the advancing Tartar army, soldiers were praying to God to grant them one of the two best alternatives: victory or martyrdom. This spirit is the same as the Prophet’s companions showed in their military encounters. Hence, the battle of Ein Jaloot achieved a remarkable victory for Islam, turning the tide against the Tartars and signalling their retreat. They were never to regain their sweeping influence.

This was a situation where both King and scholar were on the same side. The King was an old student of Izz al-Din, attending his circle back in Damascus before the Sheikh travelled to Egypt when he denounced the Syrian ruler, Salih Ismaeel for collaborating with the Crusaders and giving up to them several cities. At that time, Qutoz was still a young man, sold as a slave to a kind businessman who encouraged him to attend Izz al-Din’s circle. Values of courage and justice were inculcated in him at that time. Now he was the overall master of Egypt and found the Sheikh giving him his full backing. Indeed, both the King and Izz al-Din, who was in his late seventies, fought sword in hand in that battle. All the princes and their private forces fought alongside them, and the whole population was determined to fight this decisive battle. The credit for victory belonged to both Izz al-Din and Qutoz. Indeed, the latter seemed to have completed the fulfilment of his role, as he was killed on his way back from the battle. The Sheikh wept for him, saying that, since the days of Umar ibn Abd al-Azeez, no Muslim ruler was more committed to justice than Qutoz.

Yet it must be asked: how could Izz al-Din carry the day when he confronted the princes with his ruling that they must first abandon all their riches and put it all into the war effort? How was it that the King was ready to implement the ruling on the spot and the princes do nothing?

The fact is that Izz al-Din always showed such courage. The princes tried to stop him, but they failed, even when his ruling was so humiliating to them. Nearly 20 years earlier, having been in Egypt for a little over a year and working as chief justice under King Najm al-Din Ayyoob, the Sheikh considered the princes’ situation. They were originally slaves bought in large numbers to provide strength in depth to the rulers. They were soon to emerge as the ruling clique, with rivalries between their leaders. As slaves, their actions were not valid unless they regained their freedom. Since no one claimed to own any one of them, they were the property of the Muslim state. Hence, he issued his ruling that they all must be sold and freed by their new masters before they could function in their respective positions in government.

There was an outcry among the princes against the Sheikh. Even the King, who dearly loved and greatly respected Izz al-Din felt that this ruling was too much. He sent word to him to change his ruling, but the Sheikh insisted. In his anger, the King said a couple of words against the Sheikh, who was then his Chief Justice. Izz al-Din felt that such words compromised his position. Thus, Izz al-Din put his belongings on the back of a donkey and left Cairo. But the people of Egypt would not take that. They immediately followed him. By the time he had covered a few kilometres, a large and increasing proportion of the population of Cairo had followed the Sheikh. The news of such mass exodus was carried to the King, and a sincere adviser said to him: “If the Sheikh finally deserts you, your kingdom will be lost.” The King immediately rmounted his horse and rode fast to catch up with the Sheikh. He then apologized to him and begged him to return.

On his return to Cairo, Izz al-Din decided that the sale should proceed without delay. The Deputy Sultan was still furious, and he summoned the Sheikh to attend him, but Izz al-Din did not bother. The Deputy was even more angry. Therefore, he rode with a number of his officers, declaring that he would kill the Sheikh. As he stood at his door, he knocked fiercely. Izz al-Din’s son went to look and he was scared. He went quickly to his father, warning him and urging him to escape. Izz al-Din said to him: “Move out of my way, son. Your father is too humble to be given the honour of being a martyr for God’s cause.”

As he came out of the door, Izz al-Din looked hard at the Deputy, with total calm and reassurance. It was a case of the Deputy feeling unable to move his hand. He dropped his sword and was in tears. He requested the Sheikh to pray for him. He confirmed with the Sheikh the procedure of the sale, asking him who would take the price and what would be done with it. Izz al-Din told him that he himself would take the money and use it for the benefit of the whole community.

It was all done. All the princes were gathered at the market place. The Sheikh himself called them out by name, one by one, asking high prices for them. Each one had arranged with a friend or a subordinate to buy him, in order to ensure that they would receive their freedom. They were then freed, and thus were able to function in their respective posts.

Having experienced such courage and strict adherence to what is right and fair, these princes realized that they could not oppose Izz al-Din when he ruled that they should pay out everything they held in excess of their legitimate needs, before taxes could be raised for the war effort. Hence, they acquiesced without too much trouble. This ensured that the preparations for the battle were made on sound basis, with justice upheld in practice.

In fact it was this clear stand for what is right, fair and in line with Islamic principles that gave Izz al-Din his highly influential position, with both the ruling class and the community. His word was upheld even by the Caliph in Baghdad. In 640 H, with Izz al-Din still new in Egypt, having spent little over one year there, that he was told that Mueen al-Din, the Chief Minister, instructed some of his men to build an entertainment place over the top of a mosque. Games and gambling were conducted there. Izz al-Din was furious. He took his sons and they demolished the place. He then declared that the Minister had lost his integrity, and would not be acceptable as a witness in court. The King accepted this, and the Minister felt that such a declaration could not affect his position. But he was to realize that it was not so.

It happened that King Ayyoob wanted to send a letter to the Caliph in Baghdad, because although Egypt was fully autonomous, it was still affiliated to the Caliph who approved the appointment of its Kings and Sultans. The King instructed his Minister to write the letter. When the messenger carrying the letter arrived in the Caliph’s court in Baghdad and delivered his letter, the Caliph asked him whether he personally heard the contents of the letter being read out by the King. The messenger said: “No, but it was given to me by Mueen al-Din, his Minister, personally.” The Caliph said: “But this man has been declared by Izz al-Din as a man of no integrity. As such, we do not accept his report of the King’s instructions.” The messenger had to go back to Cairo where the King read out the letter to him, and then returned to Baghdad to deliver it to the Caliph.

Thus Izz al-Din’s character shines before our eyes. He was courageous, firm and dedicated to truth and justice, fearing no authority when he made a stand for what is right. But what sort of scholar was he? Izz al-Din belonged to the Shafie School of law, but he was a versatile scholar, qualified to exercise ijtihad, or scholarly discretion, in order to establish new rulings on the basis of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. We have seen how he exercised this in order to check the excesses of the state, and to organise the general mobilization of the people to fight for the cause of Islam. But he also exercised this qualification in many other ways, ruling on numerous questions that were put to him as a judge or a scholar.

Furthermore, Izz al-Din wrote many books in various disciplines. For example, he wrote a complete commentary on the Qur’an, giving particular attention to linguistic points that make the meaning easier to grasp. He wrote also other books in this discipline, but his most valuable work in this area is a book which is given the short title Majaz al-Qur’an which is highly praised by many scholars. Bibliographies also mention four books by Izz al-Din on hadith subjects, but one of them, which was a summary of the Sahih by Muslim has been lost. The other three are pamphlets.

However, his most valuable book known as Qawa’id al-Ahkam, has been commended by scholars in all generations. This is a book of Fiqh which explains that all Islamic commandments and prohibitions are aimed at ensuring what is best for man. Nothing works against people’s interests. Adhering to these orders is certain to bring benefit to man. This is an original approach that Izz al-Din was able to present most lucidly to benefit both scholars and students.

Another book of great value is Shajarat al-Ma’arif wal-Ahwal, which may be translated as The Tree of Knowledge. According to Izz al-Din, the trunk of this tree is the knowledge of God, and its branches sum up the knowledge of God’s attributes. Its fruits are enabling man to adopt the moral values and good manners encouraged by the Qur’an. Scholars say that these last two books are enough to testify to Izz al-Din’s great standing as a scholar and an Imam. To give an idea of Izz al-Din’s scholarship, we may mention that in this book he limits himself to quoting from the Qur’an and the hadith only. He does not quote any earlier scholar, regardless of how competent they were, because he wanted to leave no room for mistakes. He cites around 640 hadiths, all of which are authentic, even though he does not mention where they are to be found in hadith collections. However, most of these are related by either al-Bukhari or Muslim or both of them. Later scholars mention that only three of these hadiths may be classified as lacking in authenticity, but even these are supported by other hadiths in the two most authentic collections. Such a standard of high scholarship is rare indeed among scholars.

Izz al-Din died in Egypt in 660 H (1261 C.E.), two years after the Battle of Ein Jaloot. He was mourned by the entire Muslim world, particularly in Syria and Egypt. May God shower his mercy on him.

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