In this newly anticipated series, Shaykh Shoayb Ahmed of South Africa will take us on a journey through the lives and biographies of some of the most celebrated and well known scholars of the twentieth and twenty – first century. These historical accounts will provide us with refreshing insights and lessons, and motivate us to follow in the footsteps of our pious predecessors.
In this second article of the The Trodden Path series, Shaykh Shoayb Ahmed writes on the life of the Syrian scholar, Shaykh Tahir Al-Jazairi (RA).
Shaykh Tahir Al-Jazairi (1268-1338=1852-1920)
His full name is Tahir ibn Muhammad Salih ibn Ahmad ibn Mawhub Al-Samouni Al-Jazaairi Al-Dimashqi.
This reformer and great scholar of tafsir, hadith, fiqh, usul, history and the arabic language was born in Damascus in 1852 (1268) where he passed away in the year 1920 (1338).
His father Muhammad Salih emigrated from Algeria to Damascus in 1846 (1263) along with the great Algerian leader Abdul Qadir Al-Jazairi. He lived there until he passed away in (1285). His father was a scholar in the Quraanic sciences and a reputable scholar in the Maliki Madhab. He was the authorized Mufti on behalf of the Madhab in Damascus.
Shaykh Tahir received his early education from his father; thereafter he studied with other ulama in Damascus. His father, Shaykh Salih migrated from Algeria after the French occupied their lands and imposed various pressures on the Muslims. He was a scholar and was responsible for Fatwa in the Maliki madhab in Damascus. He also read and repeated the lessons in Sahih Al–Bukhari on behalf of Shaykh Ahmad Al-Kuzbari in the Umawy Mosque. He authored a few useful books. He passed away in Damascus in 1868 (1285).
He studied Arabic, Turkish and Persian under Shaykh AbdurRahman Al-Banushnaqi. He also studied French, Syriac, Hebrew and the Ethiopian Language. He also knew some of the Berber tribal languages, particularly of those who inhabited parts of Algeria.
The scholars under whom he studied the various Islamic sciences with were many. One of them was Shaykh Abdul Ghani Al-Ghunaymi Al-Maydani (1222-1298=1807-1881, author of Al–Lubaab in Hanafi Fiqh, Sharh Al–Aqeedah Al–Tahawiyah and other books), who was one of the most senior Hanafi scholars who was a student of Imam Ibn Abideen (author of Rad Al–Mukhtar), one of the greatest Hanafi scholars in that century. From him, Shaykh Tahir learnt how to be thorough, accurate and precise when analyzing complex fiqh issues.
Shaykh Tahir devoted all his time and energy towards studying which also included studying the natural sciences. He also studied mathematics, astronomy and history. His knowledge of history was superb and in addition he was very well acquainted with the biographies of the previous scholars and their books.
In his youth, he was among the founders in a charitable organization that was established by a group of scholars of Damascus in 1877 (1294). In 1878 (1295), at the age of 26 he was appointed as a general inspector for the primary schools. During the period he served in this position, he wrote some books that were necessary at the time for pupils in various levels. Together with Shaykh Ala Al-Din Abidin (d.1888), they agreed to establish the Al-Jamiyat Al-Khairiyah Al-Islamiyah that was very active in Damascus and was responsible for establishing many schools.
In 1879 (1296) he attempted to gather in one place all historical manuscripts from the endowment libraries in Damascus. The result of his efforts was the establishment of the Zahiriyah Library that became one of the most prominent libraries in the Arab world because of its valuable collections of manuscripts.
After his success with this library he strove to repeat the same in Jerusalem to establish the Khalidiyah Library in Al-Quds. Shaykh Tahir continued to serve the knowledge of Islam through his writing, teaching, and promoting it through his libraries.
His activities increased after 1886 after he had abandoned his work with the government. He devoted his time to teaching and towards promoting various reforms.
In 1907 (1325), he faced some harassment and pressure from the Turkish authorities in Syria. As the result he immigrated to Egypt where its scholars welcomed him, especially the likes of Ahmad Taimur Basha and Ahmad Zaki Basha.
He refused to take a cent from the State, because he feared that he would be forced to be silent on issues that were not palatable to the leaders. Instead, he lived by sacrificing his most beloved possessions. He sold his books and his manuscripts in order to survive. Even in these desperate times, he chose to sell his books to Dar Al-Kutub Al-Misriyah for half the price he would have received from the British Museum because he wanted to ensure that the books remain in Muslim lands.
Shaykh Ali Yusuf and Ahmad Taimur Basha tried to allocate some position to him, which would enable thousands to benefit from his vast knowledge and at the same time he would receive a salary. He excused himself because of his old age and his inability to fulfill official administrative and time requirements and also because he was accustomed to reading and researching the whole night right until Fajr. This was particularly his practice in the last forty years of his life. He remained in Cairo for about thirteen years and in 1920 (1337) he became seriously ill, and he returned to Damascus. Soon after his return he was elected as a member of the Arabic Academy in Damascus and the Director of the Zahiriyah Library. He passed away four months later in 1920 (1338) and is buried on the Qasiyoun Mountain in Damascus, Syria.
As Shaykh Taahir was so careful about utilizing his time, he did not care about his appearance and dressed very shabbily. He never married and used to spend a great deal of the night with his friends and the remainder in reading and writing. He enjoyed swimming and walking as an exercise. He was very particular about performing his salah punctually to the call of the adhan, no matter where he was. He defended the Arabic Language and the Hijri Calendar.
Although he was modest by nature he was fiercely independent. He never accepted any gift from the rulers. When he was financially in need, he continued to sell some of his books. The most expensive and dearest thing to him was his books and the time he spent studying and conducting his research. Nothing at all distracted him. He was able to answer questions that were posed to him with ease and was very annoyed at those who tried to insult the scholars.
He used to prepare a large quantity of coffee that would last for a few days to save on preparation time.
He drank coffee to give him energy and to keep him alert and awake. Whenever he left his home he always carried a book or some notes from which he could benefit, thus never wasting any time.
Despite the great amount of time he spent in reading, he advised students to lessen their reading during the holidays and, instead, to increase their sporting and recreational activities. He maintained that, deep immersion into books could lead to seclusion and alienation from people. He in turn had an excellent relationship with many scholars of Damascus that included; Shaykh Abdul Razaaq Al-Baytar, Shaykh Abu Al-Khair Abidin, Shaykh Salim Al-Bukhari and his special friend Shaykh Jamal Al-Din Al-Qasimi (author of a 17 volume Tafsir titled Mahaasin Al-Tawil fi Tafsir Al-Quran Al-Karim, 1283-1331=1866-1914). Shaykh Tahir visited Shaykh Jamal Al-Din daily from the beginning of 1906 until he left for Egypt in 1907. He attended Shaykh Al-Qasimi’s lessons in Mustalah Al-Hadith and Tafsir. Shaykh Tahir even reviewed Shaykh Al-Qasimi’s book in Mustalah Al-Hadith. They continued to correspond with one another even when Shaykh Tahir was in Egypt. Many orientalist scholars respected him and consulted him on numerous occasions. The Jewish orientalist scholar, Goldziher was one such scholar who even attended the Shaykh’s lessons in Damascus and translated his book Towjeeh Al-Nazhr into German.
He wrote many books, over 35 in number on various subjects. These include aqidah, ulum Al-Quran, tajwid, the science of hadith, sirah, usul, Arabic rhetoric, Arabic literature, the philosophy of natural mathematics, history and introductions to many Islamic manuscripts.
- Irshad Alba (in teaching the Arabic Language)
- Al-Tibyan (the science of the Quraan)
- Towjih Al-Nazhr (in the science of hadith). This book is described by Shaykh Abu Ghuddah as one of the most extensive works on the subject. Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah edited and published the last two.
- Al-Jawahir Al-Kalamiyah fi Al-Aqaaid Al-Islamiyah (Aqidah)
- Al-TaqribilaUsul Al-Ta’rib (Arabic Grammar)
- Sharh Khutab Ibn Nabatah(Poetry and Literature)
- Al-Tazkirah Al-Zhahiriyah (articles on various topics)
- Al-Uqud Al-Alaali fi Al-Asanid Al-Awali
- Muniyat Al-Azkiya fi Qisas Al-Anbiya
- Mukhtasar Adab Al-Katib by Ibn Qutaybah
- Madkhal Al-Tulabila Fan Al-Hisaab
Some of his works are still manuscripts and have never been published. Some of the titles are:
- Asna Al-Maqasid fi Ilm Al-Aqa’id
- Al-Ilmam bi Usul Sirat Al-Nabi Alayhi Al-Salatwa Al-Salam.
- Al-Tafsir Al-Kabir. (4 Volumes and can be regarded as notes to Tafseer Al-Baydawi).
- Various others describing his travels to Alexandria and other places.
- Various compilations of biographies of scholars of different eras.
- Selections from Al-Muwafaqat by Al-Shatibi and Zaruq’s work in Tasawwuf
He could be distinguished from many of his contemporary scholars because he enjoyed the following:
- His initiatives in spreading education and establishing schools. Through his interaction with the Turkish authorities, he worked tirelessly to achieve this many times convincing people who owned large palatial homes to donate a portion, which could be used for a school. These schools were in all the cities of Syria and he even established a school for girls.
- He personally took charge of the syllabus. He did receive some opposition from certain sectors in Damascus, who wanted this knowledge to be exclusively for them and their families. He endured and persevered and because of his acquaintance with the governor, he was successful. He also encouraged and supported the establishment of a school dedicated to teaching the seven modes of recitation of the Quran.
- His active participation in establishing social and charitable organizations.
- His efforts in promoting history and various aspects related to the Arabic language.
- His role in bridging the gap in some way between realities and absolute aspects of Islam and modern science.
- His emphasis on education (tarbiyah) and ethics (akhlaaq).
- His activism through writing and keeping the people informed through the newspapers. Once Ahmad Zaki Basha received 10 000 pounds from the Minister of Education to publish rare books. A year passed and nothing was done. When a new minister was appointed, this amount was returned to the Ministry. Shaykh Taahir was very annoyed and upset and he felt that Ahmad Zaki had done a great disservice to the Ummah.
His students, Shaykh Muhammad Sai’d AlBani Al-Dimashqi, Muhammad Kurd Ali, Shaykh Ali Al-Tantawi and Shaykh Adnan Al-Khatib revered him and they wrote about his productive life and distinct personality.
* This biography may be found in the book: Muslim Scholars of the 20th Century by Shaykh Shoayb Ahmed
Biography of Shaykh Shoayb Ahmed
Shaykh Shoayb Ahmed is a well respected South African Islamic scholar who lives in Pretoria, South Africa. He studied at the King Saud University in Riyadh and the faculty of Shariah at the Islamic University of Madina. He has attained a M.A. in Islamic Studies from the University of South Africa. Through his extensive travels he has met and benefited from many senior scholars from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, India, Turkey etc. He has received numerous Ijazahs from the various scholars that he has met, studied with and served. He is currently a senior educator at the al – Ghazzali College in Pretoria.
He has authored two books:
- Muslim Scholars of the 20th Century.
- Muslim Scholars of the 21st Century.
He was one of the translators of Shaykh Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al – Maliki’s work: The Way of the True Salaf.