The Life and Thought of Imām Zāhid al-Kawtharī

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The Life and Thought of Imām Zāhid al-Kawtharī 

By Muntasir Zaman

 “What cosmic soul is imprisoned in that human body?” mused the learned Abū Zahrah (d. 1974 AH) in utter admiration—indeed, “it is the soul of al-Kawtharī!” he proclaimed. [1] In recent memory, relatively few scholars have managed to synthesize expertise in, not merely acquaintance with, the vast majority of Islamic sciences. Shaykh Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī (or Mehmet Zahit Kevsari) is arguably theletter-2 foremost contender for that accolade; his polymathic oeuvre leaves one hard-pressed to pinpoint his forte, [2] from the intricacies of philosophy[3] to the minutiae of Arabic grammar,[4] not to mention his undisputed command of theology,[5] Hadīth,[6] and Islamic law.[7] The ripple effect of his peerless intellectual contributions is strongly felt in Islamic seminaries throughout the world till this day.

A modest amount of literature is available on the life and thought of al-Kawtharī (henceforth Kawtharī), To add to the existing material, particularly for an English-speaking readership, the present article aims to delineate the most salient features of his scholarly career, provide a synopsis of his modus operandi vis-à-vis prophetic and non-prophetic reports, and examine the merits of two major points of contention. Relevant details on certain passages have been relegated to the footnotes for the purpose of brevity.

Curriculum Vitae

Born in the year 1296 AH/1879 CE in Düzce,[8] Turkey, Kawtharī was of Circassian decent with an ancestor bearing the name Kawthar—hence the sobriquet al-Kawtharī. He received his elementary education from local scholars, and then moved to the vibrant capital of the Ottoman Caliphate, Istanbul, where he attended lessons in the prestigious medrese complex of the Fatih Mosque.[9] After successfully completing the fifteen-year curriculum in 1325 AH/1907 CE,[10] he enjoyed a distinguished career as a lecturer at his alma mater and was appointed Deputy of the Office of Shaykh al-Islam.[11] Fleeing from the Republican militias of Ataturk, in the winter of 1922 he emigrated, with a heavy heart, from his homeland to the unfamiliar soil of Egypt, leaving behind a once-proud empire that now stood on the brink of collapse. The following thirty years were tirelessly spent in Cairo, a hotbed for competing paradigms of Islamic thought; the first decade of his sojourn was punctuated with two year-long visits to Damascus.[12] He was married to a woman of proverbial piety and patience who stood by his side through thick and thin until their last moments; together they had four children, one son and three daughters—sadly, they were laid to rest before their father. After struggling with poor health for several years, he breathed his last in Dhul Qa‘dah 1371 AH/August 1952 CE (Allah have mercy on him).[13]

The raison d’être of his repertoire was his gifted memory.[14] He would effortlessly quote from memory “vanished pages from the imperial libraries of Istanbul.”[15] Shortly before his demise, while breaking fast with a close pupil, he dictated from memory insights from his readings at the Topkapı Library—he had not visited the library since his emigration well over a quarter-century earlier.[16] His extensive knowledge of rare manuscripts, Arabic and non-Arabic, from libraries throughout the Muslim world was a novelty due to which he eclipsed others in his league.[17] Fortunately, he left behind a wide-ranging oeuvre that comprised of books, treatises, biographies, articles,[18] and annotations in Arabic, Persian, Turkish,[19] many of which have yet to see the light of day.[20] His legacy was carried on by his students,[21] notable among whom are Ahmad Khayrī Efendi (d. 1967),[22] Husām al-Dīn al-Qudsī (d. 1980), ‘Abd al-Fattāh Abū Ghuddah (d. 1997),[23] and Muhammad Amīn Sirāj (b. 1932),[24] apart from droves of others who received authorization from him.[25]

His exile in Cairo was riddled with impoverished living conditions; despite the odds, his self-sufficiency and contentment were truly commendable. Affluent well-wishers incessantly proffered monetary gifts, but he would politely refuse even though at times he was pressured by circumstances to sell his books—his lifeblood—to make ends meet.[26] When the India-based research center, al-Majlis al-‘Ilmī,[27] gifted him four copies of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Zayla‘ī’s magnum opus, Nasb al-Rāyah li Ahādīth al-Hidāyah, as a token of appreciation he compensated them with fifty copies of his book al-Nukat al-Tarīfah; he could not bear the thought of receiving a gift without returning the favor.[28] Pandering to the wealthy and ruling class was a Faustian bargain he was not prepared to make. His courageous opposition to modern curricular reform[29] and gratuitous government intervention[30] in Turkey is reminiscent of legendary anecdotes of al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salam (d. 660 AH)[31] and Muhyī al-Dīn al-Nawawī (d. 676 AH).[32]

Cairo’s volatile scholastic and socio-political milieu was diametrically opposite to the relatively stable intellectual homogeneity in Ottoman Turkey during his tenure as Deputy of the Office of Shaykh al-Islam. This geographical shift sparked within him a new-found zeal.[33] In an unflinching commitment to preserve the traditional teachings of Islam, which he believed were slowly sinking in quicksand, he engaged with schisms of all sorts: he minced no words in his forceful disagreement with modern thinkers who drank from ‘the brackish waters of the West;’[34] he raged against liberal reformists who championed vague slogans of common good as a panacea to all conceivable ills;[35] and he administered the coup de grace to anti-madhhab advocates.[36]

The highlight of his intellectual career was the stimulating dialogues and correspondence with scholars of varying orientations, such as the Ottoman Shaykh al-Islām Mustafā Sabrī (d. 1954),[37] the Moroccan polymath Ahmad al-Ghumarī (d. 1961),[38] and the Yemeni Hadīth scholar ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Mu‘allimī (d. 1966).[39] Given their diverse background, it is not surprising that these exchanges often brimmed with scholarly fury, but, in the same breath, were not bereft of the mutual decorum characteristic of Islamic dialogues of yesteryear.[40] After disagreeing with Yūnus ibn ‘Abd al-A‘lā (d. 264 AH) on a given issue, Imām al-Shāfī‘ī (d. 204 AH) gently held his hand and asked, “Can we not remain brothers even though we differ on this issue?” [41]

Methodology & Contentions

In the arena of polemics, even the victor seldom exits unscathed—every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Kawtharī, who was in the midst of Cairo’s heated intellectual feuds, was no exception. His damaging critique of not a few groups earned him the ire of detractors who criticized him for a number of perceived flaws, chief among them an excessive partisanship for his legal school and methodological inconsistency. The proceeding explanation, to be sure, is not to say he was absolved of errors—that is intrinsic to human nature. But many of Kawtharī’s supposed shortcomings can be assuaged to a large extent by better understanding his methodology. As such, a word on his modus operandi vis-à-vis prophetic and non-prophetic reports is in order.

An unwavering adherence to the widely-transmitted practice of Muslims is a theme that pervades his works.[42] Time and again, he assures his readers that the legitimacy of his stance is supported by the inherited practice of the vast majority of Companions and Successors.[43] He considered it paramount to gauge the reliability of isolated reports against constants drawn from the aggregate ethos of Islamic teachings; this is typified by his fellow Cairene Hanafī scholar Abū Ja‘far al-Tahāwī (d. 321 AH), who had formulated his unique Hadīth-cum-legal hermeneutics a millennium earlier.[44] More specifically, he advised that a report about/from someone should be studied in light of what is established about him.[45] Moreover, an in-depth reading of history was the sine qua non of his methodology as he took great pains to contextualize and note factors that may have influenced a scholar’s Weltanschauung.[46] To recapitulate his modus operandi in one word: nuance.

Critics derided him for an alleged slavish attachment to the eponym of his legal school and an equally stubborn refusal to accept any critique against him.[47] At the outset, it should be noted that partisanship (ta‘assub) is not a categorically negative quality. That many a prestigious scholar was extolled by the likes of al-Dāraqutnī (d. 385 AH)[48] and al-Hākim (d. 405 AH)[49] for partisanship for noble causes like the Sunnah is quite telling. But in order for it to be praiseworthy, one should be convinced of the veracity of his cause (with the possibility of error in probable issues) and substantiate it with cogent evidence. Given that partisanship (ta’ssaub) in common parlance carries a derogatory connotation, an appropriate substitute would be firm adherence (tamassuk).[50] Kawtharī himself warned of the dangers of odious fanaticism to one’s school since, inter alia, it prompts one to dismiss persuasive arguments as flimsy casuistry, and vice versa.[51] Leading by example, he had no qualms in abandoning the position of Imām Abū Hanīfah in the face of convincing evidence to the contrary, as in the issue of endowments.[52] With this mind, he is to be excused, even commended, for an unflinching devotion to his legal school, because ultimately he was defending a tradition that like others exercised legitimate judgment to arrive at the most accurate interpretation of the foundational sources of Islam. In many cases, his firmness was accentuated by the vehemence of the criticisms, which drove him to reciprocate accordingly.[53]

That a considerable amount of his oeuvre relates to the Hanafī school, in one way or another, was not an act of fanaticism. Rather, given his undisputed proficiency in the school, he was the most qualified to undertake such projects, which he accomplished with competence. He also penned a number of works on other schools, such as a biographical tract on al-Layth ibn Sa‘d (d. 175 AH), who founded an independent legal school, and he encouraged the publication of Ibn Abī Hātim al-Rāzī’s Adāb al-Shāfi‘ī wa Manāqibuhū, for which he also wrote a forward, to name a few.[54]

The second contention raised against him is methodological inconsistency. In other words, he is guilty of criticizing a narrator in one place while deeming him reliable elsewhere. This contention, however, stems from an inadequate understanding of Kawthrī’s methodology. Given that nuance placed an important role in his methodology, he would apply his discretion as a Hadīth expert when employing the reports of a narrator as per the context. This approach is in line with pioneering scholars of Hadīth like Imāms al-Bukhārī (d. 256 AH)[55] and Muslim (d. 261 AH) [56] who would assess the reports of a narrator based on the context through a rigorous selection process.[57] Kawtharī’s treatment of the narrator Muhammad ibn Humayd al-Rāzī (d. 248 AH) is a striking case in point. In a discussion on intersession, he faults Ibn ‘Abd al-Hādī (d. 744 AH) for citing only those who impugned al-Rāzī; as counterweight to this one-sided expose, he highlights the opinions of those who spoke approvingly of him.[58] Contrast this with an article where he exposes the flawed and disingenuous approach of Orientalists who cast doubts on Islam by misconstruing certain reports from books of history and Sīrah; here he states that al-Rāzī’s probity is disputed, but many have vehemently impugned him.[59] Prima facie this may seem inconsistent: in one place, he points out the positive of the narrator while in another other he points out the negative. Far from inconsistency, this demonstrates deep insight. In both scenarios, he openly acknowledges that opinions vary regarding al-Rāzī, but as per the demands of the context—one a rejoinder to a one-sided intra-Islamic polemic while another a response to biased anti-Islamic criticism—he accentuates one opinion over the other.[60]

In a similar manner, he would emphasize an aspect regarding an otherwise unreliable narrator that may have caught the attention of a scholar and prompted him to overlook the narrator’s shortcomings. Consider the case of al-Mughīrah ibn Ziyād (d. 152 AH) where Kawtharī states that although his probity is disputed, since a number of authorities have deemed him reliable and the compilers of the Sunan works transmitted from him, “it is not surprising that a mujtahid would employ his narrations.”[61] In this example, he is clearly not giving the green light of categorical acceptance; instead, he is drawing attention to one dimension that, in tandem with external factors, may have caught the attention of a scholar who ipso facto employed his reports.[62] It is therefore paramount to bear in mind the distinct, multifarious methods scholars devised in developing their views.[63]


Like other prominent figures whose lives decorate the annals of Islamic history, Kawtharī led an enviable life, one that serves as an example par excellence for the scholarly fraternity, in particular. It is tempting to exhaust the many inspirational episodes that fill his biography. This brief expose, however, does not pretend to be an exhaustive study of his life and thought; that would require an encyclopedic, albeit highly appreciated, undertaking. In the foregoing, we momentarily walked in the shoes of Kawtharī, from his humble beginnings in Düzce to his ascendancy in the upper scholarly echelons of the Ottoman Caliphate to his life-changing exile in Cairo. His self-sufficiency, humility, and generosity only enhanced the value of his peerless scholarly acumen. Charges of methodological inconsistency and partisanship for his school of law stem from an inadequate understanding of his modus operandi. Be it as it may, with the passing of Kawtharī, the Muslim world not only mourned the loss of an irreplaceable scholar, but, more precisely, it also sounded the death knell for the remnant of an age gone past.

[1] Abū Zahrah, al-Imām al-Kawtharī in al-Maqālāt, p.15.

[2] Surprisingly, his forte appears to have been Qur’ānic studies, based on the following reasons. First, Ibrāhīm al-Akīnī, his primary teacher, was a specialist, inter alia, in the science of Qirā’ah; see: al-Kawtharī, al-Tahrīr al-Wajīz, p.43. Second, he was part of the faculty of specialization in Hadīth and Qur’ānic exegesis where he taught Qur’ānic studies for a lengthy period; see: Ibrāhīm al-Sarrāwī, Introduction to Tabaqāt Ibn Sa‘d, sec. dāl. Finally, his most celebrated book is a two-volume introduction to Qur’ānic studies—it was left behind in Istanbul prior to his migration and is yet to be located; see: Khayrī, al-Imām al-Kawtharī in al-Maqālāt, p.451; al-Kawtharī, al-Maqālāt, p.22.

[3] For instance, he critically edited and annotated ‘Abd Allah al-Batalyawsī’s (d. 521 AH) al-Haqā’iq fī al-Matālib al-‘Aliyah al-Falsafiyyah al-‘Awīsah, an explanatory treatise on certain delicate philosophical concepts.

[4] In fact, his first work was a Persian poem on Arabic grammar entitled Nazm ‘Awāmil al-I‘rāb. He also wrote a one-volume critique on Muhammad al-Akīnī’s gloss on al-Fawā’id al-Diyā’iyyah (that is, ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Jāmī’s [d. 998 AH] renowned commentary, commonly known as Sharh Mullā Jāmī fi al-Nahw, on Ibn Hājib’s [d. 646 AH] al-Kāfiyah). This is in addition to a ten-page treatise where he resolves the ambiguity of a passage from al-Muharram’s supercommentary on Jāmī’s aforementioned book. See: Khayrī, al-Imām al-Kawtharī in al-Maqālāt, p.450. For a glimpse into the sophisticated nature of Jāmī’s commentary, see: Moosa, Ebrahim (2015), What Is a Madrasa?, pp.117-18.

[5] Among the theological works he critically edited and annotated were Ibn Qutaybah’s al-Ikhtilāf fī al-Lafż, al-Bayhaqī’s al-Asmā’ wa al-Sifāt, Imām al-Haramayn’s al-‘Aqīdah al-Niżāmiyyah, and a number of treatises attributed to Imām Abū Hanīfah, such as al-Alim wa al-Muta‘allim and al-Fiqh al-Absat.

[6] This is clear to anyone who even reads his books out of curiosity. His marginal comments on his personal copy of ‘Abd al-Hayy al-Kattānī’s Fahras al-Fahāris are brilliant examples—among countless others—of his precision in the transmission of Hadīth. Muhammad Al Rashīd reproduced these comments in: al-Imām Zāhid al-Kawtharī wa Ishāmātuhū fī ‘Ilm al-Riwāyah wa al-Isnād, p. 74 ff.

[7] See: Abū al-Hājj, Athar al-Imām al-Kawtharī fī Nusrat wa Ta’yīd al-Madhāhib al-Fiqhiyyah al-Sunniyyah, p.30 ff.; al-Bayūmī, Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī Rāwiyat al-‘Asr wa Amīn al-Turāth al-Islāmī in al-Muqaddimāt, p.19; al-Bannūrī, Introduction to al-Maqālāt, pp.7-8.

[8] To be precise, he was born in a village called al-Hājj Hasan Efendi, named after his father who had founded it, situated three miles south of Düzce. See: al-Kawtharī, al-Tahrīr al-Wajīz, p.43.

[9]  Classical Ottoman scholarship for the most part was shaped by three seminaries of learning: (1) the first seminary in Nicea in 1331 CE by Orhan Gazi; (2) the Fatih Mosque and Complex with its Sahn-i Seman (lit. eight courtyards, or, madrasas) by Mehmet the Conqueror in Constantinople in 1471 CE; and (3) the Süleymaniye Mosque under the instruction of Sultan Süleyman in 1557 CE. See:  Ozervarli, Sait (2016), Theology in Ottoman Lands in The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology (ed. Sabine Scmidtke), Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.570. On the vibrant scholarly activity in Ottoman lands during the 17th century, see Khaled El Rouayheb’s phenomenal study “Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Current in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb.” By examining the works of various scholars in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa, the author argues against the notion that the 17th century was a period of intellectual stagnation in the Muslim world, a notion that “risks reinforcing the impression that on the one side of the Mediterranean in the seventeenth century one encounters Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, Locke, and Leibniz, whereas on the other side one encounters popular chroniclers, Sufi diarists, popularizers of medical or occult knowledge, and the like” (p.3).

[10] At the medrese complex, a prospective student would select a teacher of his choice with whom he would spend the following 15 years learning all the sciences. The teacher would deliver only two lessons daily, for which he would prepare throughout the day. Upon graduation, a student would in effect become a carbon copy of his mentor. The teacher would then restart the cycle with a new batch of students for another 15 years. Kawtharī’s teacher at first was Ibrāhīm Haqqī al-Akīnī (d. 1318/1901) and after he passed away he completed the course with ‘Alī Zayn al-‘Abidin al-Alasūnī (d. 1329/1911) in compliance with al-Akīnī’s bequest; this was apart from select books he studied privately with other teachers. On the intriguing pedagogy employed at the Fātih Mosque, see: al-Kawtharī, al-Tahrīr al-Wajīz, pp.9, 32-33. For a light hearted, yet miraculous, incident that occurred during preparation for his final exam, see: ibid., p.38.

[11] In the Ottoman Caliphate, the office of Shaykh al-Islām, the highest scholarly position, was designated to the head of religious affairs. This title was used earlier unofficially to refer to a scholar of great repute and an authority in religious matters. See: Abū Ghuddah, al-‘Ulamā’ al-‘Uzzāb, p.46. Since the Shaykh al-Islām was often preoccupied with political affairs, he was appointed three deputies: one to pass legal verdicts; a second to head the department of education (i.e. pedagogy, scholars, and religious institutes); and a third to oversee judicial affairs. Kawtharī occupied the second post known as Wakīl al-Dars, akin to the post of Shaykh al-Azhar in Egypt. See: Khayrī, al-Imām al-Kawtharī, p.437; al-Kawtharī, al-Tahrīr al-Wajīz, p.38.

[12] His trips to Damascus were for purely academic reasons. He spent his time buried in the rare manuscripts held in the vaults of the Zāhiriyyah Library—days would go by without food. See: Wahbī Sulaymān, Introduction to al-Imām Zāhid al-Kawtharī wa Ishāmātuhū, p.6; Mutī‘, Tārīkh ‘Ulamā’ Dimashq, vol.3, p.417.

[13] Khayrī, al-Imām al-Kawtharī, p.429-433, 438.

[14] Interestingly, Kawtharī personally told ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Ghumārī that his memory was such that with one glance at a passage from a book, he would not forget the line, let alone the page; that was until a near-death experience while in Turkey where he almost drowned, after which his memory was not the same. See: al-Ghumārī, al-Safīnah, vol.1, 169; cf. Al Rashīd, al-Imām Muhammad Zāhid, p.193. This near-death experience is described in: Khayrī, al-Imām al-Kawtharī, p.435. Now, with this in mind consider the story in reference before his demise.

[15] Brown, Jonathan (2014), Misquoting Muhammad, London: Oneworld Publication, p.15.

[16] Khayrī, al-Imām al-Kawtharī, p.433.

[17] See: al-Bayūmī, Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī, p.20.

[18] This is in addition to the forwards and introductions he wrote for a wide-range of books and treatises that are significant works in their own right. That many of articles and introductions were posthumously printed for a broader readership demonstrates the value these writings held in the sight of scholars. It should be noted that the present compilation of his articles is not exhaustive; Iyād al-Ghawj wrote a piece on the articles that were not included. See: al-Sarhān, Footnotes on Rasā’il al-Imām Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī, pp.107-8.

[19] He appears to have written only one book in Turkish: a biography of Mujaddid Alf-e Thānī (d. 1034 AH) entitled “al-Rawd al-Nādir al-Wardī fī Tarjamat al-Imām al-Rabbānī al-Sarhindī.” See: Khayrī, al-Imām al-Kawtharī, p.451.

[20] For a list of his writings, see: Khayrī, al-Imām al-Kawtharī, pp.450-59. His writings were characterized with a succinct and lucid literary style that allowed him to write in one volume what would otherwise require several volumes. See: ‘Awwāmah, Forward to al-Musannaf, vol.20, p.10.

[21] During his tenure as professor at the Fātih Mosque, he lectured the largest class, and hundreds of students graduated under his auspices. See: al-Sarrāwī, Introduction to Tabaqāt Ibn Sa‘d, sec. dāl.

[22] He was one of Kawtharī’s closest post-migration students, whose authoritative biography is cited throughout this article. For a short biography of Ahmad Khayrī, see: Al Rashīd, al-Imām Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī, pp.149-53.

[23] He enjoyed a close relationship with Kawtharī during his studies at al-Azhar. He even took on the sobriquet ‘al-Kawtharī’ and named his eldest son Muhammad Zāhid out of love for his teacher. See: Al Rashīd, al-Imām al-Muhammad Zāhid, p.164. Kawtharī gave him the agnomen Abū al-Futūh and highly praised him. See: Al Rashīd, Imdād al-Fattāh, p.146; al-Kawtharī, Introduction to Manāqib wa Adāb al-Shāfi‘ī, p.541. However, he had no qualms in openly disagreeing with his teacher on certain issues with due respect. See, for instance: Abū Ghuddah, Kalimāt fī Kashf Abātīl wa Iftirā’āt, p.38.

[24] See: Brown, Misquoting Muhammad, p.160.

[25] For a well-prepared list of his students and those who received authorization from him, see: Al Rashīd, al-Imām al-Muhammad Zāhid, p.147 ff.

[26] Al-Kawtharī (2013), Rasā’il al-Imām Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī ilā al-‘Allāmah Muhammad Yūsuf al-Bannūrī, ed. Su‘ūd al-Sarhān, Jordan: Dār al-Fath, p.45. Kawtharī developed a close bond with Shaykhs Yūsuf al-Bannūrī (d. 1977) and Ahmad al-Bijnawrī (d. 1997), two exceptionally talented scholars from Deoband, when the latter arrived in Cairo in the Spring of 1938 for scholarly work at the behest of the newly founded al-Majlis al-‘Ilmī. During their short stay, they sought out Kawtharī and enjoyed his companionship; Kawtharī would later reminisce over the fruitful time they had spent together. In the following year, Kawtharī and Bannūrī began corresponding via letters—from April, 24, 1939 until February, 3, 1952 shortly before the former’s demise. After more than a decade of correspondence, Kawtharī concludes his final letter with the following tear-inducing words, “My deteriorating health prevents me from continuing this correspondence with you and with Mawlānā Abū al-Wafā’ [al-Afghānī; d. 1975]—every beginning has an end. My soul is with you, praying for you every goodness. And upon you [peace] and Allah’s mercy and blessings.” See: Ibid., pp.24, 32, 222. This page turning correspondence, of which only Kawtharī’s letters are published, is a first-hand account into many less known aspects of his life.

[27] On the history and activities of al-Majlis al-‘Ilmī, see: al-Bannūrī, Introduction to Nasb al-Rāyah, vol.1, p.2.

[28] Al-Kawtharī, Rasā’il, pp.168-69.

[29] Khayrī, al-Imām al-Kawtharī, p.430.

[30] An attempt was made to demolish a madrasah built by Sultan Mustafa III (d. 1187/1774) to make way for a shelter for disaster victims. In a bold act that cost him the leadership post as Wakīl al-Dars, Kawtharī vehemently protested the intervention on religious grounds. See: Ibid., p.437.

[31] See, for instance: Ibn Hajar, Raf‘ al-Isr, vol.1, p.240.

[32] See his letters to al-Zāhir Baybars (d. 676/1277) in: al-Sakhāwī, al-Manhal al-‘Adhb al-Rawī, p.30 ff.

[33] ‘Awwāmah, Manhaj al-Imām Muhammad Zājid al-Kawtharī fī Naqd al-Rijāl, p.5.

[34] See: al-Kawtharī, al-Maqālāt, p.203.

[35] See, for instance: ibid., p.233 ff.

[36] See, for instance: ibid., p.129.

[37] See: al-Kawtharī, al-Istibsār fī al-Tahdduth ‘an al-Jabr wa al-Ikhtiyār, p.3; Sabrī, Mawqif al-‘Aql wa al-‘Ilm wa al-‘Alam ‘ind Rabb al-‘Alamīn, vol.3, p.390 ff./cf.vol.4, p.51. Kawtharī heaps praises on him before engaging in the discussion while Mustafa Sabrī calls him “My honorable friend Shaykh Zāhid.” Also, see Muhammad Amīn Sirāj’s comments in: ‘Awwāmah, Adab al-Ikhtilāf, pp.83-84.

[38] Whatever the misunderstanding that caused the subsequent furor, Ahmad al-Ghumārī eventually ceased his critique and personally went to Kawtharī to apologize and reconcile, and he described him as a “verifying hadith scholar with expansive research;” this was verified by al-Ghumārī’s close student ‘Abd Allah al-Talīdī. See: ‘Awwāmah, Manhaj al-Imām al-Kawtharī, p.24.

[39] The to-and-fro that ensued between the two scholars stemmed from Kawtharī’s book Ta’nīb al-Khatīb, a critique on al-Khatīb al-Baghdādī’s treatment of Imām Abū Hanīfah in Tārīkh Baghdād. See: Mamdūh, Sa‘īd (2009), al-Ittijāhāt al-Hadīthiyyah fi al-Qarn al-Rābi‘ ‘Ashar, Cairo: Dār al-Basā’ir, pp.148-49; ‘Awwāmah, Manhaj al-Imām Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī fī Naqd al-Rijāl, p.49 ff.; ‘Abd al-Mālik, al-Madkhal ilā ‘Ulūm al-Hadīth, p.170. In several places, al-Mu‘allimī praised Kawtharī and thanked him for directing him to the location of numerous manuscripts. See: al-Mu‘llimī, Introduction to al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl, vol.1, sect. kāf/wāw; idem, al-Anwār al-Kāshifah, p.175.

[40] See, for instance: al-Subkī, Qā‘idah fī al-Jarh wa al-Ta‘dīl in Arba‘ Rasā’il fī ‘Ulūm al-Hadīth, p.23 ff.; ‘Awwāmah, Adab al-Ikhtilāf, pp.79-94, 148-57.

[41] Ibn ‘Asākir, Tārīkh Madīnat Dimashq, vol.51, p.302.

[42] He writes, “I have always called towards an adherence of the sharī‘ah of Allah by mobilizing under the flags of these imams (Allah be pleased with them all), without paying heed to dissenters on the peripherals and fundamentals.” See: al-Kawtharī, al-Sirā‘ al-Akhīr bayn al-Islām wa al-Wathaniyyah in al-Maqālāt, p.306.

[43] See, for instance: al-Kawtharī, al-Nukat al-Tarīfah, vol.2, p.539.

[44] See: al-Kawtharī, al-Hāwī, pp.20-21; al-Bakrī, Hamzah (2015), Introduction to al-Nukat al-Tarīfah, Jordan: Dār al-Fath, p.34; Shamsy, The Canonization of Islamic Law, pp.205-7.

[45] For instance, one should examine negative reports about Imām Abū Hanīfah against what is widely transmitted about him. As Kawtharī says, “authentic isolated reports cannot overrule what is widespread (al-mustafīd al-mashhūr), let alone what is concurrently transmitted (mutawātir).” See: al-Kawtharī, Ta’nīb al-Khatīb, p.31. A practical example is reports concerning Ibn Mas‘ūd’s exclusion of the mu’awwidhatayn in his copy of the Qur’ān. Reports of this nature cannot be accepted as they conflict with what is widely related that Ibn Mas‘ūd taught these sūrahs to his students, as is transmitted via six of the ten modes of Qur’ānic recitation. See: al-Kawtharī, Masāhif al-Amsār in al-Maqālāt, p.16; ‘Awwāmah, Footnotes on al-Madkhal, vol.1, p.349.

[46] Kawtharī describes this as the dakhā’il of narrator criticism, a monumental task reserved exclusively for experts in the field. See: al-Kawtharī, Fiqh Ahl al-‘Irāq, p.77; Abū Ghuddah, Mas’alat Khalq al-Qur’ān; ‘Awwamah, Athar al-Hadīth, p.32. For instance, he explains that Ibn Qutaybah’s earlier critique of Imām Abū Hanīfah was due to the ubiquitous resentment in his circles towards the Imām. This was because during the Qurānic Inquisition, some Hanafī Mu‘tazilī theologians who held judicial positions vetted Hadīth scholars vis-à-vis their beliefs; thus the latter retaliated by criticizing, unfairly, the eponym of the former’s legal school. See: al-Kawtharī, Introduction to al-Ikhtilāf fī al-Lafż, p.4; cf. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jāmi‘ Bayān al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihī, vol.2, p.1087 ff.

[47] See: al-Ghumārī, ‘Abd Allāh (1986), Bida‘ al-Tafsīr, Casablanca: Dār al-Rashād al-Hadīthah, p.179; cf. Mamdūh, al-Ittijāhāt al-Hadīthiyyah, pp.148-49.

[48] Al-Dāraqutnī praised the piety of the grammarian Ismā’īl al-Saffār (d. 341 AH) and said he was partial towards the Sunnah. See: al-Baghdādī, Tārīkh Baghdād, vol.7, p.301.

[49] Al-Hākim said regarding Abū al-Fadl al-Tūsī (d. 348 AH), “In Khurasān, he was one of the pillars of Hadīth in addition to his religiosity, asceticism, generosity, and partisanship for the People of Sunnah.” See: Ibn ‘Asākir, Tārīkh Madīnat Dimashq, vol.62, p.45.

[50]As Ibn Mullā Farrūkh (d. 1061 AH) aptly points out, scholars from all the schools of law “expressly state the impermissibility of ta’assub but the correctness of firm adherence (salābah) to the madhhab.” In this context, ta‘ssub, he continues, is a desire-driven inclination to support one’s school and to interact with another school condescendingly. See: Ibn Mullā Farrūkh, al-Qawl al-Sadīd fī Ba‘d Masā’il al-Ijtihād wa al-Taqlīd, p.46.

[51] See: al-Kawtharī, Fiqh Ahl al-‘Irāq wa Hadīthuhum, p.10.

[52] See: al-Kawtharī, Muhādathah Qadīmah Hawl al-Waqf al-Ahlī, p.192; al-Bakrī, Introduction to al-Nukat al-Tarīfah, vol.1, p.36 ff.

[53] In his critique of Imām al-Haramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 478 AH), he writes, “God willing, I will a tread a moderate path between gentleness and harshness as per the demands of the argument I will critique, proportionate to its veracity and the lack thereof, giving according to his ‘measurement scale’ without meekness and virulence.” See: al-Kawtharī, Ihqāq al-Haqq, p.15; cf. idem, Rasā’il, p.92.

[54] Al-Bayūmī, Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī, pp.30-31.

[55] Ibn Hajar (d. 852 AH) explains al-Bukhārī’s reason for narrating the hadiths of ‘Abd Allah ibn Sālih, which is his modus operandi vis-à-vis narrators of this class, “Whatever he transmits from his hadiths is authentic since he sieved them from [the corpus of] his hadiths.” See: Ibn Hajar, Hudā al-Sārī, vol.1, p.415.

[56] In justifying Muslim’s transmission from Matar al-Warrāq, a narrator with questionable memory, Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawzī (d. 751 AH) writes, “There is no fault on the part of Muslim for relating his hadiths, because he selected from the hadiths of this class what he believed they remembered just as he abandoned from the hadiths of a reliable narrator where he believed that narrator erred.” See: Ibn al-Qayyim, Zād al-Ma‘ād, vol.1, p.353.

[57] An interesting example is al-Bukhārī’s alternating between the active and passive voices as per the context when prefacing the incident of Jābir ibn ‘Abd Allah’s month’s journey to acquire one hadith. See: Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bārī, vol.1, p.73/vol.13, p.453; cf. ‘Awāmah, Footnotes on Tadrīb al-Rāwī, vol.4, p.542.

[58] Al-Kawtharī, Mahq al-Taqawwul in al-Maqālāt, p.351. That he pointed out al-Subkī’s error too, with whom he agreed overall on the subject, and that he mentioned additional criticism on al-Rāzī demonstrate his sincere search for the correct position.

[59] Al-Kawtharī, Kalimah ‘an Khālid ibn al-Walīd wa Qatl Mālik ibn Nuwayrah in al-Maqālāt, p.400.

[60] ‘Awwāmah, Manhaj al-Imām Muhammad Zāhid al-Kawtharī, pp.20-21.

[61] Al-Kawtharī, al-Nukat al-Tarīfah, vol.1, p.220. This is brought under a hadith al-Mughīrah narrates that supports Imām Abū Hanīfah’s position on making vinegar out of wine.

[62] Al-Bakrī, Introduction to al-Nukat al-Tarīfah, vol.1, p.25.

[63] Kawtharī explains that all Sunnī scholars accepted the Prophet’s hadīths as the second source of law, but in so doing each scholar formulated his respective techniques of text-based and isnād-based analysis. See:  al-Kawtharī, al-Hāwī fī Sīrat al-Imām Abī Ja‘far al-Tahāwī, p.19. Even the Companions employed various methods of verifying the reliability of hadiths, like juxtaposing it with the Qur’ān. See, for instance: Ibn Mansūr, Sa‘īd (1982), al-Sunan, ed. al-A‘żamī, India: al-Dār al-Salafiyyah, vol.1, p.268.


3 thoughts on “The Life and Thought of Imām Zāhid al-Kawtharī

    mzaman36 responded:
    January 23, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    Wa Alaykum Assalam,

    I’m not sure if it was made available online. I was given a copy from a friend. Since it was a paper he presented for a conference on the subject it will be difficult to obtain a copy.

    m7ia said:
    January 24, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    Jazakum Allahu khayra for another great article!

    Near the top, “together they had four children, one son and two daughters—sadly, they were laid to rest before their father” – should that be three children?

    Ftn 2 – “Finally, his most celebrated book is a two-volume introduction to Qur’ānic studies—it was left behind in Istanbul prior to his migration and is yet to be located” – this sounds fascinating.

    Ftn 10 – “At the medrese complex, a prospective student would select a teacher of his choice with whom he would spend the following 15 years learning all the sciences. The teacher would deliver only two lessons daily, for which he would prepare throughout the day. Upon graduation, a student would in effect become a carbon copy of his mentor.” – This is very interesting. Perhaps it has pedagogical lessons for us today. It reminds me of some madaris that teach only two subjects at a time (though more than two class periods a day).

    Ftn 26 – “Ahamd al-Bijnawrī” – I assume this should be “Ahmad”.

    Imran Ahmed

      mzaman36 responded:
      January 24, 2017 at 5:28 pm

      Wa ‘Alaykum Assalam,

      Allah reward you for your input.

      Yes, it would be great if his work on ‘Ulum al-Qur’an gets published. Some scholars have found few of his books that were left behind in Turkey. It is possible that this is among them, and will hopefully be made available for the general audience.

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