When it came to the devotion of seeking the beneficial knowledge of Islam and all it’s fruits, there is arguably no one that shines as bright as Imam Al-Nawawi.
Born in 631 AH, his full name is Abu Zakaria Mohi-ud-din Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi. He was born near the capital of Damascus, Syria in the village of Nawa. His family was modest and not that well known. Imam al-Nawawi grew up during one of the most turmoil plagued centuries of Islamic civilisation. The 7th century AH was very turbulent as this was the time where the Mongol horde conquered and sacked Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate capital. Also, there were numerous attacks laid out on the Muslims by crusader armies from the West. However, despite these events, there was some significant progress made in the world of Islamic scholarship. This century saw some of the most influential scholars rise up as giants of the ummah, such as; Ibn Taymiyyah, Al-Qurtubi and Nasir al-Din al-Tus, to name a few.
Imam Al-Nawawi’s childhood was a notable one. From a young age he wasn’t involved in any of the typical things kids his age would do. On one occasion, kids would come to taunt and tease him as he sat on the side. They would force him to play with them but he would resist and cry. The young Imam would cry because he hated being away from reading the Quran. When a man by the name of Yasin Marakashi saw this happen in front of him he explained: “a special love and affection developed in my heart for young Nawawi. I approached his teacher and urged him to take exceptional care of this lad as he was to become a great religious scholar. His teacher asked whether I was a soothsayer or an astrologer. I told him I am neither soothsayer nor an astrologer but Allah caused me to utter these words.” His teacher then relayed this to his father who he himself was a pious and virtuous man. The Imam’s father decided to dedicate the life of his son to the pursuit of Islamic knowledge and upholding the religion.
Imam al-Nawawi spent the remainder of his childhood in Nawa until he was 18 years old, where he left to Damascus to pursue knowledge. Damascus was considered at that time to be the center of learning as there were more than three hundred institutes, colleges and universities in Damascus. During this time Imam Al-Nawawi studied Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence from some of the most famous scholars who were masters in their own respected fields of knowledge. By the age of 24 he stunned everyone when he began teaching students of his own. Scholars amongst them were amazed to learn of this young Imam who has mastered the various Islamic sciences and was teaching at such a young age.
One of the aspects that made Imam Al-Nawawi stand out as a distinguished scholar of Islam is his level of devotion to the pursuit of knowledge even after he was teaching in universities. His life was consumed with books, studying and teaching. It was said that he would be so taken with studying that he would not sleep until it was too unbearable for him and sleep would overcome him. He would then wake up startled and continue studying. He even said about himself, “I spent two years without lying on the ground [to sleep] on my side”. Also, Al-Qutb Al-Yauneeni said about him, “”He would not waste any moment of the day or night but he would spend it busy with attaining knowledge. Even when he is walking in the streets, he will be busy going over what he had remembered and reviewing his notes. He continued gaining knowledge in that way for a period of six years.”
He was so captured by studying, he really had no time or any inclination for any extravengency or material desires. It was stated that all he possessed was a turban and a long gown. Even when it came to food, Imam Al-Nawawi never ate more than cakes and olives that were sent to him by his father in fear of eating food that came from impermissible sources. For his teaching he accepted no payments and relied on support from his father. Another notable fact about Imam Al-Nawawi was that he never married. The reason as to why he never married is because of his austerity and lack of desire for the pleasures of this world. Al-Diqr writes: “It is possible that he did not marry because he feared that he would not be able to fulfill the rights of his wife due to his learning desires.”
His house was so full of books and reading materials that he literally had no place for his guests to sit. They had to shuffle some books around in order to facilitate a seat for themselves. When his guests eventually did visit him, he would have a plate pre-prepared for them so that he doesn’t waste any time, and when he would entertain his guests, he would still busy himself with sharpening his pencils, careful he wouldn’t waste any time.
In the span of twelve or thirteen years from when he started writing to his death he wrote and compiled some of the most important works in the history of Islam. Just some of his books include: Riyaadh Al-Saaliheen (Gardens of the Righteous), Al Minhaj bi Sharh Sahih Muslim (His Commentary to Sahih Muslim), Forty Hadiths and Kitab Al-Adhkar. It is so hard to believe that Imam Al-Nawawi was able to complete just these enormous feets of work (to name a few) in such a short amount of time.
Imam Al-Nawawi did not only bury his head in his books and forget about the Muslim world. He was genuinely concerned for the well being of the Muslims. A famous moment of Imam Al-Nawawi’s life was his encounter with local rulers at the time, most notably with the Sultan Rukn al-Din Baibars. Baibars was a war hero who fought off the Mongol horde, delivering to them their first defeat at the hands of Muslims and stopping the Mongols from completely decimating Islamic civilisation. Despite the reputation of this Sultan, this didn’t stop Imam Al-Nawawi from confronting the Sultan about some injustices that he enforced on the people of Damascus. Multiple times, Imam Al-Nawawi sent letters to Sultan Baibars confronting him about the unjust ‘needed’ war tax levied on the inhabitants of Syria outside of war time. Imam Al-Nawawi knew that it was his responsibility to advise his Muslim brother no matter his position or social status. Because of his persistence on justice, the Imam was removed from Damascus and returned back to his hometown of Nawa.
After returning to Nawa, he became ill and passed away on the 24th of Rajab, 676 AH (1277 AD) at the young age of 44. Indeed, Imam Al-Nawawi’s life was encompassed by one major theme, that is ‘Devotion to the pursuit of knowledge’. His endless nights of reading, studying and learning while not owning anything except for his clothes and his books serve as an inspiration for Muslims to devote themselves to immerse themselves in the Islamic sciences and fields of knowledge. May Allah have mercy on Imam Al-Nawawi and facilitate for us Muslims who are devoted to the pursuit of knowledge to uphold this religion.
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