What is the Shama’il? Is it a book or a genre? And is it an established Islamic tradition? Tarek Ghanem gives a detailed overview of what the Shama’il is and how it can benefit us.
Allah has revealed in the Qur’an:
And each [story] We relate to you from the news of the messengers is that by which We make firm your heart. (Sura Hud 11:120)
If God, all-Wise, narrated the stories of other prophets to our beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, to strengthen his heart, then what about our hearts? What about our need for spiritual strength? What about our need for spiritual strength, caught up as we are in our spiritually-suffocating worldly lives? And what’s more; without the Prophet amongst us?
“One doesn’t truly believe until I am more beloved to him than his parents, children, and all of humanity,” we are told by the Prophet (Bukhari, 15). This is the true quintessence and prerequisite of religion and love, correctly conceived. Now, how can this love be actualised and realised, with all due rigour? With regard to the character traits of the Prophet ; they are an evident source of infatuation. But how are we supposed to first know and then love the physical description of the Prophet? This article will discuss these questions through an introduction of the Shama’il genre and the physiognomy and characterisation of the Prophet.
Firstly, we are faced with contradictory principles when approaching Allah, Majestic in His praise, on the one hand, and the Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him, on the other. According to the profound understanding of many scholars, our perception of Allah and our perception of the Prophet, in spite of some similarities and overlap, are opposing. The most essential and, at the same time, most comprehensive knowledge we can acquire of Allah is our realisation of our inability to know Him; “There is nothing like unto Him” (42:11). Knowledge of Allah is a genuine realisation of His “absoluteness”. This is what the following approved theological maxim stresses; “Whatever comes to one’s mind, Allah is otherwise”.
Other than our love of Allah, our expression of love for the Prophet is entirely based on his relativity, closeness, and even personal relevance. He is the exemplar to be emulated. He is the person whose life is narrated in a more meticulous, detailed, and comprehensive manner than any other historical figure, but also down to the minutest, most personal feature and detail. In fact, emulating his example, in all these details, even in the most personal practices, is not just a praiseworthy religious practice, sunna, or a sign of love; it is a wise and illuminated way of living. Look how Ibn ‘Abbas, for example, used to stop his camel while performing the minor pilgrimage (‘umra) in the exact same spots where the Prophet did!
Love for and admiration of the Prophet is most touchingly manifested in its extension to anything he owned or touched. Love and seeking grace has always been the way of dealing with the belongings our beloved Prophet ﷺ; Umm Anas related: “The Prophet came to us in a room with a waterskin filled with water. The Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him, drank from it while standing. Umm Salim then cut it off the mouth of the waterskin [i.e. she kept it for herself]” (Bukhari, 5673). In the same vein it is related that after the Prophet passed away, the Companions never stopped the Prophet’s mule from eating and let it graze their land as it pleased. They used to stand up in respect for it.
So who is he whom we love and how can his beauty be conceptualised?
Beauty is ultimately the object of poets. Poets possess a higher authoritative insight and the tools with which to gracefully sculpt the beautiful in verse. The following anecdote illustrates this point: Although the Prophet subtly objected that people should not rise for him the way they used to rise for kings, Hassan ibn Thabit, the celebrated poet, struck by the Messenger’s beauty, rose and recited the following lines:
My rising for the beloved is upon me a mandate,
deserting a mandate is not upright.
I wonder about the one with insight and wit;
who sets eyes on such beauty and rises not!
Rising for the Beauty
The many physical descriptions of the Prophet that are related and authenticated, mysteriously and without exception, have two fascinating aspects in common. First, the many reporters who recounted the way the Prophet looked—both the ones that have described him closely and extensively like Hind bin Halah or Imam ‘Ali and those who described him only superficially —all suddenly proclaiming in mid-sentence in a baffled manner: “I have never seen anything more beautiful than he is,” as al-Baraa’ bin `Azib says in one account (Bukhari 3591, Muslim 6210). Some of them would suddenly exclaim “…the most beautiful of all people!” or “…like the moon!” (al-Bukhari 3589, Muslim 6212) or “He is for me more beautiful than the moon,” as Jabir ibn Sumra said (Bukhari 3592, Tirmidhi 11), or “pretty, beautifully proportioned!” as Abi al-Tufayl cried when he was the only person left on earth who saw the Prophet alive (Bukhari 3041, Tirmidhi 10); and, finally, the lyrical “beautifully faced, I have never seen anything [like him] before him or after him” as proclaimed by Anas ibn Malik (Muslim 6218).
That the description and infatuation with the physical description of the Prophet is an essential element of Islam is testified by its very scripture. In his eminent al-Khasā’is al-Nabuwia al-Kubra (The Grand Prophetic Attributes) Imam al-Suyuti mentions that many physical features of the Prophet were mentioned in the Qur’an: face (2:144), ears (61:9), eyes (17:53, 18:28, 20:131), tongue (94:3), heart (94:1, 3:159, 26:192-194, 11:120, 25:32, 53:11, hand (48:29, 69:41-45, and chest (94:1).
The Hadith Master : Opening the Eyes of Insight
The inner and outer depiction of the Prophet naturally came to form a genre, pioneered by the celebrated hafidh and author of one of the six canonical Hadith collections, Abu ‘Isa Muhammed bin Isa al-Tirmidhi (his birth date is not agreed upon, d. 297H.). He was known to be a meticulous Hadith-master, an astute scholar, and an austere mystic who lost his sight from weeping in worship. Al-Hafidh al-Muzii described him as “A superior Hadith-master and imam, through whom Allah benefited all Muslims.” Al-Hakem, another celebrated Hadith master, narrated “…Al-Bukhari died, leaving no one like Abu ‘Isa in knowledge, memorisation, scrupulousness, and asceticism.”
Al-Tirmidhi’s opus Al-Shamai’l al-Muhammadiya (The Muhammadan Attributes), an anthology of 412 traditions, inaugurated this genre and is still considered by many scholars—even the ones who wrote commentaries on it — to be unmatched. “It is the only book in its genre, unique in its arrangement and content, so much so that it is considered divinely gifted and has been disseminated in the East and the West,” asserts Sheikh al-Islam Ibrahim al-Bajuri in his commentary on the work. Other commentators include Sheikh ‘Abdel Ra’uf al-Manawi, Sheikh `Ali al-Qari, and the celebrated Hadith master, commentator on Sahih al-Bukhari, and scholar Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani.
The work, a straightforward compilation of hadith without any commentary, narrates traditions related to the Prophet following a logical order. It starts with “A section on what is narrated concerning the Physical description of the Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him”. The most celebrated of these traditions is ‘number five’ which was related by `Ali ibn Abi Talib, and later came to form the substance of the artistic genre of writing the Hilya, or the ‘description of the Prophet’; a standard practice for Arabic calligraphy masters. A beautiful translation of the tradition is the one by the American calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya in his work the Hilye of the Prophet Mohammed.
Transmitted from Ali , may God be pleased with him, who, when asked to describe the Prophet, peace be upon him, would say, “He was not too tall nor too short. He was medium sized. His hair was not short and curly, nor was it lank but in between. His face was not narrow, nor was it fully round, but there was a roundness to it. His skin was white. His eyes were black. He had long eyelashes. He was big-boned and had wide shoulders. He had no body hair except in the middle of his chest. He had thick hands and feet. When he walked, he walked inclined, as if descending a slope. When he looked at someone, he looked at them in full face. Between his shoulders was the seal of prophecy, the sign that he was the last of the prophets. He was the most generous-hearted of men, the most truthful of them in speech, the most mild-tempered of them, and the noblest of them in lineage. Whoever saw him unexpectedly was in awe of him. And whoever associated with him familiarly loved him. Anyone who would describe him would say, ‘I never saw, before him or after him, the like of him.’ Peace be upon him.”
A skim through the subdivisions of the work leads from his physical portrayal, dress, belongings, depiction of his mannerisms, habits, diet and speech, to his acts of worship, virtues, greying and passing away. The concluding section of the work reveals the intention of the work and the emotional and, above all, spiritual influence that Imam al-Tirmidhi brilliantly exercises over the reader; “Abu Hurayra said: The Prophet of Allah, Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him said: ‘Whoever sees me in dream has truly seen me, for the Satan doesn’t embody my shape’. A similar hadith, also narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra in al-Bukhari (7079) and Muslim (6057), is “Whoever sees me in his dream will see me when awake and Satan does not embody my shape.” With this Imam al-Tirmidhi introduced a lasting tradition, as all books that were later written about the Prophet end with the topic of dreaming of him.
The last two traditions related by the work are the following two non-prophetic ones;
411- “`Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak said: ‘If one is tested by destiny, then he should seek the traditions [of the Prophet]’.”
412- “Ibn Sirin said: ‘This Hadith [science] is [of] religion; then see who you take your religion from’.”
Insights on Beauty
Having had the honour of studying the Shama’il with two living classical scholars, I came to the realisation that a true understanding of the attributes of the Prophet can only be attained from those who embody them and are his rightful heirs through a perpetual handing down of the sacred sciences.
The first scholar is Sheikh Ibrahim ‘Abdel Ba’ith al-Kitani, who comes from a al-Kitani family which produced generations of Hadith masters. The second is Sheikh Dr. Yusri Gabr, a Hadith scholar, who was a student of the late eminent Hadith master Sheikh ‘Abd Allah Siddiq al-Ghumari, and a teacher of Tasawwuf in the halaqat (classic teaching circles) of al-Azhar Mosque. Dr. Gabr asserts that there is a reason why all the people who describes the features of the Prophet are of one of two categories; either people who grew up in his household, such as Imam `Ali, his two sons al-Hasan and al-Hussayn, the Prophet’s stepson from Sayyida Khadija, Hind ibn Hilala, and his servant Anas ibn Malil, or Companions who saw him during their childhood, such as al-Saib ibn Yazid, Rumaytha, or non-Muslims such as Umm Ma’bad (the owner of the eatery by which the Prophet stopped on his Emigration, before she became a Muslim.)
The reason for this, explains Sheikh Yusri, is that these people grew up in the house of the Prophet and saw him before the completed incorporation of the metaphysical reality into their beings by virtue of reaching puberty. What happens at that age is that a believer, when he meets the Prophet in person, will not only encounter his beauty—he will also encounter his majesty—which Imam ‘Ali described as follows: “Whoever saw him unexpectedly was in awe of him.”
This is also why no description of the Prophet was ever given by his closest and mature Companions. There is a tradition in Sahih Muslim that relates from ‘Amr ibn al-‘As: “I couldn’t bear to take in his image because I considered him too exalted. If I were to be asked to describe him I couldn’t bear it, for my eyes never fully took him in.” It is reported in Al-Shifa that the Companion al-Bara’ ibn `Azib said: “I used to want to ask the Messenger of Allah about a matter and postpone it for years because of his majesty.”
Another understanding of the physical beauty of the Prophet that is related is that he is the most beautiful of all creation; transcending that of Prophet Joseph (Yusuf), who was known to possess half of the all created beauty. Imam al-Qurtubi in his book al-Salah explicates: “The perfection of the beauty of the Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, was not manifested to us fully; for, if it would have appeared in its entirety, our eyes wouldn’t have been able to observe him.” To that end, and in relation to Prophet Joseph, Imam al-Busiri in his renowned eulogy of the Prophet, al-Burda (the Cloak), pertinently versifies:
He has no equal in his beauties
The gem of beauty in him is indivisible.
To the same end, the Prophet’s wife Aisha, is reported to have quoted the following two lines of poetry about the Prophet’s beauty, based on the Qur’anic story of Joseph and the vizier’s wife, Zulaykha, whose friends cut their hands because they were mesmerised by his beauty:
If only the friends of Zulaykha would see his forehead
They would cut their necks rather than their hands
Likewise, taken by the poetic, the Prophet’s closest companion Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, eulogised the Prophetic beauty:
Trustworthy, Elected, for goodness he called
Like moonlight in a cloudless night
Remedying the Heart
After al-Tirmidhi’s al-Shama’il, many early and later scholars followed the endeavor. The person whose name comes only second after Imam al-Tirmidhi’s in the Shama’il genre is the famous Maliki Jurist (al-Qadi) `Iyad al-Yahsabi (d. 544 AH), who also excelled in other Islamic disciplines, most notably Hadith and Qur’anic exegesis. Moreover, he was known for his linguistic and superior literary gifts. Amongst his works are a brilliant commentary on Sahih Muslim and numerous other books on Hadith and jurisprudence. His articulate and scholarly al-Shifa’ bi-Ta`rif Huquq al-Mustafa (The Remedy in Identifying the Rights of the Chosen One) became an unparalleled classic, accepted by all Islamic scholars.
Since at-Tirmidhi ‘the Wise’ the Sham’ail genre has extended both horizontally and vertically, i.e. both thematically and in terms of depth. Many other additions to the descriptions given in al-Shamai’l al-Muhammadiya have flourished. Not only has the number of hadith narrations increased; the mention of the Prophet in the Qur’an, his miracles, the importance of loving him, visiting his tomb, loving his Family, and rulings on the one who slanders him also became part and parcel of the genre. Also, scholarly examinations related to his rank and exaltation by Allah as well as traditions about the Companions invoking peace and blessings upon him have become part of the Shama’il corpus.
Sheikh Yusri is the first one to commentate on al-Shifa’ in Cairo, home of the respected Jamia al-Azhar, since the past two hundred years.
The book is considered to be so blessed that scholars state, “no house that contains al-Shifa’ can burn down”, due to the grace of its content.
As the jurist ‘Iyad elucidates in his preamble to al-Shifa’, he wrote it because of persistent requests by others to author a book on the rights of the Prophet:
A discourse about that demands the evaluation of principles, the authoring of [lengthy] chapters, the revelation of mysteries and subtleties from the science of [the realisation of higher] realities, regarding that which is due or ascribed to him; or regarding that which is rejected or lawful in relation to him. It also demands knowledge of the Prophet and Messenger; ‘messengership’ and prophethood; [the state(s) of] love, friendship, and the attributes of this sublime rank. Surely the likeness of this [mission] is a vast desert, in which even the sand grouse [bird known for its infallible sense of direction] gets lost and where steps fall short; unexplored territories in which one’s discernment is misguided, unless steered by the banner of knowledge and a penetrating perspective; slippery slopes on which feet slip, unless depending on divine success and support… (p. 5)
In relation to Prophetic features, he brilliantly writes:
Know—may Allah enlighten your heart and multiply your and my love of this noble Prophet—that if you look for the qualities of beauty that are innate, you will find that he [the Prophet]—Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him—acquired them fully, encompassing all aspects of beauty, as has been definitively established in all narrations (p. 58).
A New Generation of Lovers
One of the later contributors to the genre is Imam al-Hasan al-Ansari. Unfortunately, his Muntaha al-Su’ul fi Madh al-Rasul (Ultimate Inquiries into Commending the Messenger) has not survived the vagaries of time. Likewise, the Azhari Imam Ahmed Shehab ad-Din al-Qastalani (d. 932 AH), after teaching and commenting on the al-Shifa‘ in the al-Maqsura area (between the Prophet’s resting place and the pulpit), returned home to Cairo to write a large tome entitled al-Mawahib al-Ladunia bil-Minah al-Muhammadiya (Mystically Inspired Mohamedan Gifts) which became widely circulated. This work includes chapters on the Divine selection of the Messenger’s prophethood and genealogy in pre-existence, the prophetic biography, the Prophet’s names and titles, a description of his physiognomy and character, his miracles, his Nightly Ascendance, the injunction to love and exalt him, and even his medicine. Finally it discusses his departure.
The accomplished jurist, Hadith master, and poet Imam Yusuf al-Nabhani (1265-1350 AH), became the star in the sky of this genre in our modern times. In his opinion al-Mawahib is a highly beneficial and inclusive work. Still, he judged it too lengthy, because it goes into deeply detailed and protracted theological and jurisprudential discussions, which made it “inaccessible” to many. He thus abridged this work under the brilliant title Al-Anwar al-Muhammadia min al-Mawahib al-Ladunia (Muhammadan Lights [Derived] from Mystical Inspirations).
“Know that it is part of perfecting faith in him [the Prophet] —Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him—that Allah, most-Sublime, has created the Prophet’s body in a way unsurpassed before or after in human creation,” Imam al-Nabahani asserts in Al-Nawar with regard to the Prophet’s exquisiteness (p.194).
He contributed to the genre with many other works, varying from poetry to related compilations of prayers by Muslim saints and scholars. His most famous work is Was’il al-Wusul ila Shamai’l al-Rasul (The Means of Attainment to the Characteristics of the Messenger). Nabhani’s work yet again illustrates the close relationship between Hadith scholarship and the Shama’il genre.
The Undying Beauty
One of the most fascinating aspects of this genre is the way its subject matter has expanded while simultaneously fragmenting. Many works came to specialise in a certain aspect of Shama’il. The most famous of these early works is the lengthy Dala’il al-Nubuwwa (Proofs of Prophethood) by Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458AH), a title and a theme which was taken up by numerous other scholars and under which they covered all the narrations related to the miracles and attributes of the Prophet.
The prominent and ultra prolific Hadith master, Imam Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (849-911 AH.), produced many books which deal with certain parts of the genre. Among these is al-Riyad al-Aniqa fi Sharh Asma’ Sayyid al-Khaliqa (The Pretty Meadows of Explaining the Names of the Master of Creation). He also authored the previously mentioned al-Khasa’is al-Nabawiyya al-Kubra, which focuses on the miracles and privileges of the Prophet. This is an excellent commentary on the numerous names, designations, and titles which were attributed to the Prophet. One of his greatest works deals with seeing the Prophet in a dream: Tanwir al-Huluk fi Jawaz Ru’ya al-Nabi’ wa al-Malak (Lightening the Darkness with Regard to Seeing the Prophet and Angels).
A truly interesting aspect of the genre which has attracted much attention and is a further illustration of its increasing fragmentation is the Prophet’s slippers. Works focusing on this theme are Fath al-Mut`al fi Madh al-Ni`al (The Illumination of the Sublime in Praising the Slippers [of the Prophet]) by Shehab al-Din Ahmed al-Muqri and Nayl al-Shifa’ bi Na`l (Attaining to a Cure through the Slippers) by the Deobandi Sheikh Ashraf `Ali al-Tahanawi.
One of the most significant contemporary Shamai’l works is that by the late scholar, Hadith master and jurist, al-Sayyid Muhammad `Alawi al-Maliki’s Muhammad al-Insan al-Kamil (Muhammed, the Perfect Human Being). The work, which is written in very accessible language, is based on the idea that the perfection of Islam necessitates the perfection of its emissary; hence, all aspects of the Prophet are a manifestation of perfection, including his physical shape. Al-Maliki writes, “It has been confirmed that he—Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him—was the epitome of beauty. This beauty is crowned by two matters: First, inspiring majestic awe; second, illuminating radiance. This is why whoever saw him was not stunned by him, unlike those who saw Prophet Joseph—peace be upon him—who, although he possessed only half of created beauty, women exalted him and cut their hands when they saw him, exclaiming: “How perfect is Allah! This is not a human being. This is not other than some gracious angel” (12:31) (p. 17).
One of the most momentous contemporary services to the Shama’il is the compilation and authentication of all sahih Hadith related to the Shama’il by the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation in an annotated volume titled: Shama’il al-Nabi Sala Allah `Alayh was Sallam. It is a compendium of 1373 traditions from the six canonical Hadith books in addition to hadith from al-Muwatta’ of Imam Malik, al-Musnad of Imam Ahmed, Al-Musnad of al-Hamidi, al-Sunan of Al-Darimi and al-Sunan al-Daraqutni. The book’s inner beauty is reflected in its exquisite script, design, illumination, and the classical layout of the sectioning and marginalia. It was submitted to the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ prestigious 50/50 best designed books and dust jackets competition for books published in 2005, and was selected as one of the fifty winners. The exhibition of the winning entries was held at the AIGA’s gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York from September to November 2006.
The last two Hadiths in this work read:
On the authority of al-Tafyal bin Abi Ka`b, who narrated from his father said “When two thirds of the night had elapsed, The Messenger of Allah—Allah’s peace and blessing be upon Him—used to rise [for night vigil prayer] and say: ‘O people! Remember Allah! Remember Allah! The Trumpet blast has come, followed by the second! Death has come with what is in it! Death has come with what is in it!’ I said: ‘O Messenger of Allah. I pray for many blessings upon you. How much should I reserve for you in my prayer?’ He said: ‘What you wish.’ I said: ‘A quarter’. He said: ‘If you wish. If you add more it is better for you.’ I said: ‘Half.’ He said: ‘If you wish. If you add more it is better for you.’ I said: ‘Two thirds then.’ He said: ‘If you wish. If you add more it is better for you.’ I said: ‘Should I reserve all of my prayer for you?’ He said: ‘Then you will be spared from your worries and your sins will be forgiven.’”(al-Tirmidhi, 2645).
The very last tradition reads: “Allah has wandering angels that convey to me the prayers of peace invoked by my nation.” (al-Nasa’i, 1290).
Another scholar who contributed with tremendous work to this genre is the late sheikh Abd Allah Siraj al-Din, whose books on demonstrating prophetic virtues and analysing different elements of prophetic behaviour stand unparalleled. The authors of the Shama’il genre were moved by several objectives; informing people about the rank and beauty of the Prophet, reporting his exemplary life, and inspiring closeness to him through creating a spiritual as well emotional link to his person.
Imam al-Nabhani mentions another reason in the preface of Was’il al-Wusul ila Shamai’l al-Rasul with which the author of this article identifies: “…I looked at my lack of knowledge, my feebleness of understanding, the greatness of my sins, and the abundance of my deficiencies, so I restrained myself [from writing about the Prophet] as befits someone who knows his rank and thus restricts himself. I then pondered being a member of the nation of this distinguished Prophet and [his] bounteous generosity. Like a little child advances towards a compassionate, benevolent father, I proceeded [to write] after hearing the words of Allah: “Now there has come to you a Messenger from among yourselves; grievous to him is your suffering; anxious is he over you, gentle to the believers, compassionate” (9:128) (p. 28).
Al-Tirmidhi, Muhammed bin `Isa, Al-Shamail Al-Muhammadiya. Dar Ibn Hazm, Beirut, Lebanon, 1997.
Al-Yahsabi, Abi al-Fadl `Eyad, al-Shifa’ bi-Ta`rif Huquq al-Mustafa. Dar al-Kutub al-`Ilmiya, Beirut, Lebanon, undated .
Al-Nabahani, Yusuf bin Ismail, Al-Anwar al-Muhammadia min al-Mawahib al-Ladunia. Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, Cairo, Egypt
Al-Nabahani, Yusuf bin Ismail, Was’il al-Wusul ila Shamai’l al-Rasul. Dar al-Minhaj, Beirut, Lebanon, 2004.
Shama’il al-Nabi Sala Allah `Alayh was Sallam. Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, Cairo, Egypt, Germany, Stuttgart, 2004
Tarek Ghanem is a student of Islamic sciences and a dedicated father. He works as the Online Services Lead at SeekersHub Global Islamic Seminary. This article was first published on masud.co.uk, a leading resource of traditional Islam since 1996. Consider making a donation to masud.co.uk to support its important work.