The Life of An-Nawawi
It is important for Muslims to take the time to learn about the lives of the pious predecessors. The great scholars and pious individuals of the past can be great examples of the living. Their behaviour and actions can have a great effect on their hearts. Their examples demonstrate that in every age, there were pious Muslims who followed the way of the Prophet (PBUH) and his noble Companions, without compromise and without giving in to the desires of this world. They demonstrate to the Muslims of today that the guidance of the Qur’an and Hadith was sufficient for them to lead their lives in manners pleasing to Allah, although they did not sit with and learn directly from the Prophet (PBUH) or even his close Companions.
Today, Muslims face many of the same problems, temptations and difficulties that these pious predecessors faced. The pious predecessors read and intensively studied the Qur’an and Hadith to attain guidance for their lives. They applied the Qur’an and Sunnah in their lives under various circumstances. What they derived from the Divine Guidance should be considered light for all of those who come after them who face circumstances similar to theirs.
There are many aspects of An-Nawawi’s life, in particular, that may set an example for those living today. In his introduction to his Master’s Thesis on An-Nawawi, Ahmad al-Haddad echoed these views when he stated,
“The third reason [for writing about An-Nawawi] was to bring to the forefront of the life of this extraordinary man who lived in a later time. It is hoped that this biography will bring to us and the coming generations great benefits with respect to the seriousness and striving for knowledge, with respect to asceticism and fearing Allah, and with respect to the bravery in publicly speaking the truth. The lives of the pious have the greatest effect on those who hear about them. Allah has certainly spoken the truth when He said, “And all that We relate to you (O Muhammad) of the news of the messenger [is] in order that We may make your heart strong and firm.” (Hud 11:20)
The goal here is to be brief. Therefore, only certain aspects of his life will be highlighted.
Background to An-Nawawi’s Life
Islam in the Seventh Century of Hijrah
The Seventh Century of Islam was a very turbulent time, especially for the area of Sham (Greater Syria). It was during this Century that the Mongols invaded the East and the Crusaders controlled part of the Muslim lands from the West. In the year 656H, the Mongols invaded and conquered Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasids. In 658, however, under the reign of Al-Mudhafar Qutuz ibn ‘Abdullah and military leadership of Al-Dhahir Baybars, the Muslims handed the Mongols a stunning defeat at Ayn Jalut. Also, in 679H, when the Mongols again tried to conquer Aleppo, they were defeated. From that time onwards, Muslim forces continue to battle and make headway against the Mongols. Similarly, the Crusaders were defeated and removed from Sham in the year 691H.
By the grace and mercy of Allah, these turbulent times did not mean the end of Islam studies for the inhabitants of that area. In fact, when Nur ud-Din az-Zanki (d. 569H) entered Sham he found that the light of learning had been extinguished. Therefore, he made a concerted effort to encourage the people of that area to renew their studies of Islam. In the process, he opened many schools for the study of Islam. In fact, he opened the first Dar al-Hadith in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere. This same spirit of spreading knowledge and establishing educational institutions was carried on by those who ruled after Nur ad-Din az-Zanki, especially Sayf ud-Din Qalawun (d. 689H). Therefore, one does not find a shortage of scholars and learning even during that turbulent century of Islamic history.
An-Nawawi’s Birth and Upbringing
Muhy ud-Din  Abu Zakariyyah Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Hizami an-Nawawi was born in the 631H (1233CE) in the village of Nawa, south of Damascus, Syria. Coming from Nawa, he is given the descriptive name of An-Nawawi, which is also sometimes written An-Nawaawi.
An-Nawawi did not come from a well-known family. There is very little mention, if any, of his grandfather, father and other relatives. This implies that they were a modest family. They also were not known for producing great scholars. However, his father did have a reputation for being very pious and God-fearing. His father had a garden in which he would grow food for his family. He would avoid, and taught his family to avoid, eating anything which may be forbidden in any way whatsoever. This was a true application of the following Hadith from Sunan at-Tirmidhi:
“O, People! Verily Allah is good and He does not accept but what is good. Allah has ordered the believers with the same command that He ordered the messengers. He said, ‘O Messengers, eat of the good and pure things and work righteous deeds. Verily, I am knowledgeable about what you do.’ And He said, ‘O believers! Eat of the good and wholesome things that We have provided for you.’ And he mentioned a man who was on a long journey, with dishevelled hair and dust-ridden, stretching out his hands to the sky, saying, ‘O Lord, O Lord,’ while his food is of the forbidden and his provisions are of the forbidden. How is he going to be responded to [by Allah]?”
From his youth, Yahya an-Nawawi was not attracted to sports or playing. Indeed, other children chided him for this. From an early age, he turned his attention to his studies. He hated any activity that would take him away from memorizing the Qur’an. On one occasion, the children forced him to play with them and he cried because of the time that he was wasting. It is not surprising then that he memorized the Qur’an at an early age.
At the age of eighteen, his father took him to Damascus to continue his studies. He excelled in the Shafi’i school of fiqh, memorizing some of its most important texts. He performed the pilgrimage to Makkah, visited Madinah and other locations but then returned to Damascus until prior to his death when he returned to his hometown of Nawa.
An-Nawawi’s Personal Life
His Pursuit of Knowledge
An-Nawawi first studied at the Saramiyyah school in Damascus. This is where his father left him. He had no housing there whatsoever. After some time, he approached the Shaykh of the school to ask if he had any housing, as many of the schools house their students. They had no housing so the Shaykh suggested that he go to Rawahiyyah School. There he was given a very small room in which he lived for a number of years. In fact, he remained in that small room until he was named the head of the Ashrafiyyah school, a number of years later. It was stated that, when one visited him, the room was so small and the books were so many, that the only way one could sit down was to remove the books and pile them on top of each other to make some room to sit.
After Saramiyyah, he continued his studies at the Rawahiyyah school in Damascus. At one point in time, he was attending twelve lectures a day on assorted topics, including Arabic language, hadith, fiqh and Islamic legal theory. Some of his well-known teachers included Ishaq ibn Ahmad al-Maghrabi al-Maqdisi (d. 650H), ‘Abdur-Rahman al-Anbari (d. 661H) and ‘Abdul-‘Aziz al-Ansari (d. 662H). He studied Sahih Muslim from Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Wasiti. In 655H, at the age of 24, he began teaching at the Ashrafiyyah school. His reputation and excellence as a scholar began to be recognized by the scholars and inhabitants of Damascus.
His pursuit of knowledge dominated his entire life. He would put all of his time into studying, learning, and teaching. It is even stated that he would not sleep except when sleep would overtake him. He would rest on his book and sleep for a little, then he would act startled upon awakening and continues studying. He once said about himself, “I spent two years without lying on the ground [to sleep] on my side.” That is, he would always study and write until sleep overtook while in a sitting position. Al-Qutb al-Yawnini 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 walking and 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.”
It seems – and only Allah knows the reality – that Allah truly blessed his time. Perhaps this was due to a sincere intention to please Allah. As mentioned above, he would attend up to twelve classes a day. Commenting on that fact, Al-Diqr wrote:
“He used to have twelve study sessions a day with his teachers. These included explanations, verifications, commentaries, explaining the different aspects and expressions as well as exacting the correct wordings. This would take, at least approximation, twelve hours a day. Then he would need to review what he had learned and memories that need to be memorized. The very least approximation is that this would also take twelve hours a day. This is twenty-four hours in a day! When would he sleep? When would he eat? When would he perform the acts of worship? When would he perform the voluntary late-night prayers? It is well-known that he performed those types of acts of obedience and worship. When would all of that take place? He was in need of studying and reviewing for all the twenty fours in a day and night. This shows how Allah blessed and graced this man. Allah blessed him in his time. He gave him the ability to complete in one day what it takes everyone else two years to accomplish. This is the only way we can explain this tremendous undertaking that made him one of the greatest scholars of his time in about ten years. In fact, it made him the leader (Imam) of his time. This is also the only way we can explain all of his wonderful, detailed and radiant writings in a span of time that lasted no more than fifteen years. He spent all of his lifetime and living hours in learning, teaching and writing.” (Quoted in Al-Diqr (see footnote 1), p. 34)
He led a very austere and simple life. Some narrations state that all the clothing he possessed was a turban and long gown. He did not desire any of the pleasures of this world. At one point in time, he would not eat anything except some cake and olives that his father would send him from time to time from Nawa. One of the reasons for this was that he was certain that such food came from permissible sources.
He would refuse even permissible things out of fear that they may lead him to doubtful matters. Indeed, he refused to eat any of the fruits of Damascus because he knew that orchards, many of which were endowments and for orphans and others, were not handled properly and he feared that the food he would be eating was not from a permissible source. Another reason he gave for not eating the fruit was that much of it was handled through sharecropping and there was a difference of opinion among the scholars concerning the validity of sharecropping. In a footnote, Al-Haddad points out that, in reality, all of those matters boiled down to one thing: An-Nawawi was afraid to involve himself in any matter concerning which there was even the slightest doubt.
An-Nawawi desired to live a simple and pure life, although it would have been possible for him to live otherwise, given his teaching position and influence. Chief Justice Sulayman az-Zara’i narrated that he visited An-Nawawi on the day of ‘Eid. An-Nawawi was eating some kind of broth with no meat. He asked Sulayman to eat with him and he said that is was not appealing to him. Sulayman’s brother went and bought some roasted meat and sweets. Sulayman told An-Nawawi to eat from it and he refused. Sulayman said to him, “O my brother, is this forbidden?” He said, “No, but it is the food of the tyrants [and extravagant].” In this matter, he was following the example of the Prophet(PBUH) who could have enjoyed many of the bounties of this world, but, instead, his household would go days without cooking any meat or having their full of bread for two days straight. It seems that An-Nawawi did not consider such food as impermissible, in general, as obviously the Prophet(PBUH) ate such foods. However, it seems that he was never sure that their source was permissible, so he refused to eat such foods.
He was also well-known for his modesty. Part of his modesty included never being served by any of his students. At the same time, he continued to serve his students even into his old age.
An-Nawawi would fast perpetually (every day except the days of ‘Eid). In general, he would only eat once a day, after the last obligatory prayer of the day; and he would only drink once a day, before dawn. When he drank, he would drink cold water out of fear that it may make him drowsy. Al-Haddad argues that this was done by An-Nawawi so that he would dedicate all of his time to work and worship instead of the pleasures of this life. Al-Haddad writes that it is said that knowledge is not attained by rest. In fact, he states, a person will not receive even part of knowledge unless he dedicates himself to it. If a person dedicates all of himself to knowledge, then he may achieve a portion of it. Al-Haddad states that perhaps this was An-Nawawi’s perception of knowledge. He left his heart completely free and open to receive the blessed knowledge of the religion of Islam.
He did not accept a stipend for his teaching. It seems that he may have accepted money for the first year or two. That money he did receive, he would spend on books that were left as endowments after him. However, after that time, he refused to accept any money whatsoever for his services.
One material possession of this world that An-Nawawi did have was books. In general, a student is greatly in need of books. He is perhaps as much in need of books than he is of food and water, as Al-Haddad pointed out. As alluded to earlier, An-Nawawi’s small room was like a warehouse of books. One of the testimonies as to how many books An-Nawawi had may be found in his introduction to At-Tahqiq wherein he said, “I have with me, of the books of Shafi’i fiqh, and all praises are due to Allah, about one hundred books, including well-known books, rare books and others.” Al-Haddad comments, “If that was the case with the number of books of fiqh, which were not as plentiful as they were in later eras, then what about the number of books of hadith he must have had, as there were many more books of hadith available at his time.” Taj ud-Din as-Subki (683-756H), who was a Chief Justice (Qadhi al-Qudha), was asked to complete one of An-Nawawi’s works, Al-Majmu’. He tried to excuse himself by saying that he did not have the number of references available to him that An-Nawawi had.
It seems clear though, that An-Nawawi’s goal was not simply to possess a large library. His books were not for decoration or display. Instead, he benefited greatly from these works and, from his lectures and writings, numerous people have benefited from them since then.
Adapted from Commentary on the Forty Hadeeth of an-Nawawi, Jamaal al-Din M. Zarabozo, published by Al-Basheer Publications & Translations with some minor amendments.
- Those readers interested in more details about the life of Imam An-Nawawi may consult Ala ud-Din ibn Al-Attar, Tuhfat at-Talibin fi Tarjumah al-Imam Muhy ud-Din (Riyadh: Dar as-Sami’i, 1414H), passim; Jalal ud-Din as-Suyuti, Al-Minhaj al-Sawi fi Tarjamah Al-Imam An-Nawawi (Beirut: Dar ibn Hazm, 1994), passim; ‘Abdul-Ghani ad-Diqr, Al-Imam An-Nawawi: Shaykh ul-Islam wa’l-Muslimin was Umdat al-Fuqaha wa’l-Muhadithin (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 1980), passim. As-Suyuti relied greatly on Al-Attar, quoting lengthy passages from his work.
- All of the biographical works give him the nickname “Muhy ud-Din” although he himself did not like to be called by it. He said that he did not forgive the person who gave him that nickname. He may have disliked that nickname because it means, “The one who gives life to the religion,” while, in fact, the religion of Islam is not in need of anyone to give it life. Al-Haddad argues that the name does become him but that out of modesty, he did not like to be called by it. (See Al-Haddad, p. 19) According to Al-Madabaghi, if a name or title of praise is disliked by someone, out of modesty, although the title fits him, then it is allowed to call that person by that name. This is not considered a type of backbiting or insult. See Hasan al-Madabaghi’s comments on the margin of Ahmad ibn Hajr al-Haytami, Fath al-Mubin li Sharh al-Arbain (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1978), p. 4.
- He was given the name Abu Zakariyyah (“The Father of Zakariyyah”) although he never had a child by that name. It is not uncommon for me to be given agnomens while they are still underage and that agnomen remains with them throughout their lives. In Al-Majmu’, An-Nawawi argues that it is recommended for people to have agnomens, even if they do not have children. See Yahya an-Nawawi, Al-Majmu’ Sharh al-Muhadhab (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, n.d.) vol. 8, p. 438.
- Al-Haddad, p. 26.
- ibid, p. 32.
- The most detailed discussion of the different teachers of Imam An-Nawawi may be found in Al-Haddad, pp. 41-70.
- Quoted in Al-Diqr, p. 28.
- Al-Haddad, p. 90.
- ibid, p. 90.
- Al-Diqr, p. 129.
- There is a difference of opinion concerning perpetual fasting. An-Nawawi seemed to be of the view that it is permissible as long as one has the ability to do it and as long as one does not fast on those days which it is prohibited to fast. See An-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, vol. 8, p. 40.
- Al-Haddad, p.35.
- See Al-Diqr, p.127.
- Quoted in Al-Haddad, p. 71.
- ibid, p. 72.