With the impending publication of a couple of recently translated works authored by the great Imam al-Nawawi, I thought it would be of benefit to post some material regarding the life of this great Imam. We are fortunate that Imam al-Nawawi’s student Shaykh Ibn al-Attar recorded for us first hand some incidents from his life, but as he himself mentioned, he could have filled volumes regarding the amazing things he witnessed from the Imam.
Another aspect of the material I hope to present here (inshAllah) is to shed some light on the spiritual aspects of the life of Imam al-Nawawi. We know him well for his immense contributions to Shafi fiqh and hadith, however details of other aspects of his life are less well known to readers in the West.
I have translated some material from Imam al-Suyuti’s biography entitled ‘Minhaj al-Sawi’, which is based heavily on Shaykh Ibn al-Attar’s biography entitled ‘Tuhfat al-Talibin’, with some additions by Imam al-Suyuti from other sources. Due to time constraints the plan is to translate material from Imam al-Suyuti first, and then follow up with any additional points from Shaykh Ibn al-Attar which might be of interest. We begin with some details from the early life of Imam al-Nawawi.
Imam al-Suyuti said in his ‘Minhaj al-Sawi’ (subtitles from translator):
A Miracle Regarding Laylat al-Qadr
Ibn al-Attar said, ‘One of the great pious people mentioned to me that he was born and was recorded among the truthful ones (al-sadiqin)…When he reached 7 years of age, and it was the night of the 27th of Ramadan, his father said, ‘He was asleep next to me, he awoke approximately in the middle of the night and awoke me and said, ‘O father what is this light which has filled the house? He awoke all of the family but we did not see anything. I then knew that it was Layat al-Qadr’.
A Pious Scholars Meeting Imam al-Nawawi as a Child and His Foresight
When he reached 10 years of age and Shaykh Yasin bin Yusuf al-Marakashi, one of the friends of Allah (Most High) was there. He saw that the children were forcing him to play with them, and he was running away from them due to their forcing him, whilst reciting the Quran in that situation. He said ‘love of him took place in my heart and his father had him in the shop, but he would not be busied from Quran with buying and selling.’
Shaykh Yasin said, ‘I went to his Quran teacher and advised him regarding him (Imam al-Nawawi) and said to him: This child will perhaps be the most knowledgeable person of his time and the most ascetic of them, and people will benefit from him.’ He replied, ‘Are you an astrologer?’
He said, ‘No, rather Allah inspired me to articulate this’
He mentioned this to his father who paid close attention to him until he completed the Quran whilst he was close to the age of puberty.
His Study in Damascus and Striving in the Seeking of Knowledge
Ibn al-Attar said: The Shaykh said, ‘When I was 19 years of age, my father took me to Damascus, in the year 49 and I took up residence in the Madrassa al-Rawahiyyah. I spent around two years there where I did not place down my side on the ground. My provisions in it were the rations of the Madrassa and nothing else.’
He said, ‘I memorized al-Tanbih in four and half months and a quarter of al-Muhadhab in the rest of the year.’
He said, ‘I studied with our Shaykh, the Imam, asectic scrupuluos scholar, Abu Ibrahim Ishaq bin Ahmad bn Uthman al-Maghribi al-Shafi. I kept his company and he was impressed by me when he saw my busying myself (with knowledge), punctuality and not mixing with people. He loved me greatly and made me the repeater of the lesson in his circle for the majority of the group.
His First Hajj and Opening
He said, ‘When it was the year 51 I performed Hajj with my father and the standing (in Arafat) that year was on Friday. Our journey was from the first of Rajab and I resided in the city of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) for around a month and a half.’
His father said, ‘When we set out for the journey from Nawa he fell ill with fever until the day of Arafah.’ He said, ‘He did not groan (in pain) at all. When we returned to Nawa he travelled to Damascus, Allah poured forth upon him abundantly. He continued to busy himself with knowledge and follow the example of his Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Ishaq in worship, prayer, fasting continuously, asceticism and scrupulousness. When his Shaykh passed away he increased his involvement with knowledge and action and performed Hajj another time.’
If Imam al-Qushayri Had Met Imam al-Nawawi
Ibn al-Attar said, ‘Our Shaykh Qadi Abul Mafakhir Muhammad bin Abd al-Qadir al-Ansari said to me: If al-Qushayri the author of the Risalah had met your Shaykh and his Shaykh he would not have not have mentioned anyone before them both due to their great scholarship. This is due to their encompassing knowledge, action, asceticism, scrupulousness, articulating wisdom and other than these.
Twelve Lessons in One Day
He said, ‘The Shaykh mentioned to me saying: I would study every day 12 lessons a day with the scholars by way of explanation and correction. Two lessons in al-Wasit, a lesson in al-Muhadhab, a lesson in al-Jam’ bayn al-Sahihain, a lesson in Sahih Muslim, a lesson in al-Luma’ of Ibn Junni, a lesson in Islah al-Mantiq of Ibn al-Sikkayit in language, a lesson in Tasrif, a lesson in Usul al-Fiqh, a lesson in Asma al-Rijal and a lesson in Usul al-Din.’
He said, ‘I would record all that would related to the explanation of the difficult, clarification of expressions and precision of language.’
He said, ‘Allah blessed me in my time, busying myself (with knowledge) and helped me with it.’
An Experience with His Seeking to Study Medicine
He said, ‘It occurred to me to study medicine (ilm al-tibb) so I purchased al-Qanun and resolved to study it. However my heart became darkened and I remained for days unable to busy myself with anything, so I reflected on my matter and from where the intruder had entered upon me. Allah (Most High) inspired me that its cause was my involvement with medicine (tibb). I sold immediately that book and removed from my hime all that related to medicine. After this my heart became enlightened, my state returned back to me and I returned to that which I was upon originally.’