Allamah Sayyid Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din
By: Sayyid Ali Shahbaz
"Call unto the way of your Lord with wisdom and good exhortation, and reason with them in the best way. Surely! Your Lord best knows those who go astray from His path, and He knows best those who are rightly guided. "( Holy Qur'an 16:125)
He was a legend in his own lifetime. Throughout his entire life span of 87 years he strived for Islamic unity with irrefutable proofs of reasoning, enlightening minds and souls and removing the misconception and prejudice of the past centuries. A product of the famous theological centre of holy Najaf, this bright sun of Jabal 'Amil (in modern day Lebanon), dazzled so brilliantly on the firmament of Islam that the rays of knowledge of the Prophet's Household once again pierced the misty recesses of al Azhar in Cairo, over seven and a half centuries after Salah al-din Ayyubi had destroyed the libraries of the Fatimids and heated the public baths of Egypt with their books.
The colonialists naturally viewed him as a great obstacle in their nefarious designs against Islam and Muslims. Although the French who were in control of post-Ottoman Syria failed in their bid to take his life, they nevertheless did a great disservice to humanity by burning down his valuable library which among other books contained the labour of his scholarly efforts that were in the form of unpublished manuscripts.
This was Sayyid 'Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din al-Musawi, whose lasting fame was ensured by the analytical book al-Muraja'at, a collection of his correspondence with Shaykh Salim al Bishri al-Maliki, the doyen of scholars of Egypt's al-Azhar University. Compiled in the years between the two world wars, the book could not have come at a better time, considering the cultural decadence of the Muslims and the blinkers of bias that the bulky corpus of so-called hadith literature had put on the vision and insight of Muslims. With its emphasis on the Holy Qur'an and its appeal to scientific evaluation of the causes of discord among Muslims, Sharaf al-Din's work thus helped in bridging the gap between the different denominations of the Islamic Ummah. Today al-Muraja'at has been translated into almost all major world languages, and it continues with all the more vigor, its presentation of facts that no rational person concerned about his faith and the course of his soul in the Hereafter, could ever refuse. It could be said that what that great pan-Islamist of the 19th century, Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi, had initiated in order to knit the ranks of Muslims, and the role his pupil, the Egyptian scholar Shaykh Muhammad 'Abduh, had played in re-introducing the Nahj al-Balaghah to the Sunni world through his Sharh or commentary on the collection of Imam 'Ali ibn Abi Talib's ('a) sermons, letters and maxims (published 1885), had been given a much needed boost by the scientific scrutinizing of facts between Sayyid Sharaf al-Din and Shaykh Bishri.
Tashayyu' was being presented in a most analytical manner by a scholar of the school of the Prophet's Household with convincing arguments which left no room for the prejudiced, whether intentionally or ignorantly, to taint or taunt the beliefs of the Shi'ites. In fact so great was the impact of al-Muraja'at that a new generation of scholars of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria, rose to the occasion, and helped found in Cairo the Dar al-Taqrib or Institute for Promoting Proximity between the Schools of Islam. The result was, the Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, Mahmud Shaltut, in a historic verdict in 1959 acknowledged Tashayyu' as an acceptable juristic school of Islam, and declared that a Muslim is free to follow Jafari fiqh and need not confine himself to one of the four Sunni juristic schools Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi'i and Maliki.
Before continuing a review of the services rendered to Islam and Muslims by Sayyid Sharaf al-Din, it would be interesting to cast a glance at the history of Tashayyu' in his homeland, Lebanon. As readers of Message of Thaqalayn are quite aware, in my article on Mir Hamid Husayn Musawi which appeared in the previous issue of this quarterly journal of Islamic studies, I had attempted a brief introduction of Tashayyu' on the basis of Prophet Muhammad's (S.A.W.) famous saying called Hadith al-Thaqalayn (tradition of the two weighty things), which lays emphasis on Muslims to adhere to the Holy Qur'an (Kitab Allah) and the Imams of his Household ('itrat) so as to avoid going astray. Instead of repeating what I had written before, here I would suffice by quoting part of the famous verdict of Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut which should give those of our esteemed readers who are not properly aware, an idea of the meaning of Tashayyu' or the basis of the beliefs of those Muslims who prefer to follow the path of the Prophet's Ahl al-Bayt.
The word Shi'ah by which the followers of (Imam) Ali ibn Abi Talib are known, is derived from the word Mushayya ' which means to follow...They are the well guided ones. Of these Shi'ah is the group which is known by the name Ja'fari or Imami Ithna Ashari. This well known group follows the principles that are taken from the Book of God (the Holy Qur'an) and the teachings of His Messenger Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) through their Imams in both fundamental belief and Islamic law..1
In other words, it means Tashayyu' is the nectar of Islam and has remarkably preserved the pristine sunnah and sirah of Prophet
Muhammad (S.A.W.), as passed down by his infallible progeny, for whom, unlike other Muslims, Islam was a household affair.
Tashayyu' in Lebanon
Historically and geographically speaking, Lebanon is a part of Syria and was established as a separate entity only in the 1940s (formal independence was declared on 1st January 1945) by the French colonialists, whose scheme was to carve out a Christian state in West Asia for the Maronites of Mount Lebanon. Therefore, it could be said that Islam appeared in Lebanon in the initial years after the passing away of the Holy Prophet, when the majority of the people of Syria, who were Monophysite Christians, accepted the new faith brought by the triumphant Muslim Arab armies following the defeat of the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius. The second caliph subsequently appointed Yazid and after his death his brother
Mu'awiyah -the sons of Abu Sufyan that most avowed enemy of Prophet- as governors of Syria. The crafty Mu'awiyah ibn Abu Sufyan, consolidated his rule in Damascus, adopting all the decadent and un-Islamic manners and customs of the former Byzantine rulers, but since the 3rd caliph was an Umayyad kinsman, his excesses were overlooked.
But. then appeared on the Syrian scene, Abu Dhar, the Prophet's esteemed companion, as a forced exile from Madinah. Abu Dhar was a great ascetic and along with Salman, Miqdad ibn Aswad, 'Ammar ibn Yasir and some other companions of the Prophet, was known among the steadfast adherents (Shi'ites) of Imam 'Ali since the lifetime of the Messenger of Allah. The verbal duels between Abu Dhar the champion of pure Muhammadan Islam and Mu'awiyah the political Muslim, are preserved in the books of history and need not be repeated. However, relevant to the subject of the article, it was Abu Dhar, who sowed in Syria, the seeds of Tashayyu' or the teachings of Islam, that were not tainted or touched by the likes of Abu Hurayrah and the forged traditions that the factories of Mu'awiyah and the Umayyuds would soon produce, in order to confound the beliefs of unsuspecting Muslim masses.
Thus, Tashayyu' in Syria and Lebanon could be traced to Abu Dhar's efforts. In the subsequent centuries it was strengthened by migrations from the Hijaz as well as new adherents, especially during the rule of the Bani Hamdan in Aleppo and the Fatimids of Egypt, who exercised authority over the area. The region then passed under the hegemony of Turkish chieftains, the Christian Crusaders of Europe, the Kurdish Ayyubid sultans and later the Ottoman Turks of Anatolia, all of whom with rare exceptions, because of their apparent ignorance of the realities of Islam, showed an avowed aversion to the followers of the school of the Ahl al-Bayt.
Tashayyu' in Lebanon was centered mainly in Jabal 'Amil and the Ba'labak region, and because of the rugged nature of the area, the people practiced their beliefs in semi isolation, though they were not free from the periodic bouts of persecution from their non-Shi'ite overlords. Nevertheless, Jabal 'Amil gave to the world some of the greatest scholars of Islam, two of whom have been immortalized for the tragic martyrdom they suffered at the hands of the enemies of Islamic unity. The first was Shaykh Shams al-Din Muhammad ibn Makki al-'Amili, known as Shahid Awwal or the First Martyr who was killed in Damascus in 786 A.H. (1384 A.D.). Prior to his martyrdom he was imprisoned for a year, during which he wrote his masterpiece Kitab al-Lum'ah al-Dimashqiyyah which continues to serve as a juristic manual at theological centers to this day.
The next great scholar of Jabal 'Amil to attain the status of immortal martyrdom was Shaykh Zayn al-Din bin 'Ali al-Jabal Amili, subsequently known as Shahid Thani or the 'Second Martyr', who was treacherously beheaded in 966 A.H. (1559 A.D.) while being taken from Damascus to the Ottoman court in Istanbul for a debate with the Sunni 'ulama '.
The other prominent names to emerge from Lebanon in the following centuries are Shaykh Hasan, son of the Second Martyr, the Ibn Khatun family of scholars (of whom the renowned Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Khatun settled in Haidarabad Deccan), Muhaqqiq Thani Shaykh 'Ali Karaki, Shaykh Baha' al-Din Muhammad al 'Amili and Shaykh Muhammad bin Hasan al-Hur al-'Amili. The last three were among the waves of scholars who migrated to Safavid Iran and Iraq to spread the teachings of the Prophet's Household. Jabal 'Amil, however, continued its role of producing outstanding scholars in every generation such as those of the Al-Sadr and Al-Sharaf al-Din families, who were Sayyids (direct descendants of the Prophet) and greatly venerated for their knowledge.
Sayyid 'Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din was born in 1290 A.H. (1871 A.D.) in Kazimayn, Iraq, where his father Sayyid Yusuf was engaged in religious studies. There was scholarly strain in the young boy's blood since his mother was the daughter of Ayatullah Sayyid Hadi Sadr and the sister of Ayatullah Sayyid Hasan Sadr, two of the prominent 'ulama ' of those days. Al Sharaf al-Din and Al Sadr, were branches of the same Musawi family, being descended from Ibrahim al-Murtada the son of the 7th infallible Imam of the Prophet's Household, Musa al-Kazim ('a).
The two branches had produced some of the leading scholars of Islam, and incidentally the great 5th century A.H. prodigies of Baghdad, Sharif Murtada and Sharif Radi, also traced their lineage to Ibrahim al-Murtada. Sayyid 'Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din who was 38th in line of descent from Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.), was thus a fresh and unique face, and he has provided a lively account of the history of his family in his book titled Bughyat al-Raghibin fi Al Sharaf al-Din.
At the age of 8, Sayyid 'Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din returned to his ancestral place Jabal 'Amil after completion of his father's studies in Iraq.By the time he reached 17, and before leaving for the holy city of Najaf in Iraq for higher studies, he had learnt grammar, syntax, logic, usul, and the art of rhetoric (bayan) from his father. The next fifteen years were spent in mastering the sciences of jurisprudence, philosophy, exegesis, usul, hadith, and the chain of narrators. Among his teachers were such learned men as Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Yazdi, Sayyid Isma'il Sadr, Akhund Khorasani, Shaykh al-Shari'ah Isfahani and his own maternal uncle Sayyid Hasan Sadr.
Sayyid 'Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din soon established his reputation in Najaf as a brilliant scholar who never wasted a moment in his quest for knowledge. His restive spirit brought him into contact with the 'ulama' of Karbala', Kazimayn, Samarra' and other cities of Iraq, which he used to visit in order to engage in discourses and exchange of viewpoints with them. His sharp memory, keen intellect and analytical brain coupled with his authority over fiqh, usul and hadith, brought him admiration from even his seniors. He later gave a book form to his debates and discourses with the 'ulama' of Iraq and titled it 'Madarik al-Ahkam.
Probing of Facts
Upon his return home to Jabal 'Amil from the theological centers of Iraq at the age of 32 around the year 1903 A.D., he found that his reputation as a young mujtahid had already preceded him. Syria, however, was a different turf when compared to Iraq and the young Sayyid Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din was too dynamic a scholar to limit himself to the Shi'ite areas of Jabal 'Amil and Ba'labak. Therefore, having sensed the need of Islamic awakening, he settled in Tyre and embarked on enlightening minds with the realities of Tashayyu' in order to promote affinity between the juristic schools of Islam. He had access to a vast corpus of literature in hadith, sunnah, exegesis of the Holy Qur'an and
history, which he widely and authoritatively reflected in his writings. He did not contend himself with his learning but made it the base for rationalistic expansion of Islamic sciences, thus making new springs of knowledge to flow.
In fact, he gave practical shape to the sayings of the infallible Imams, that be wu'at al-ahadith and not merely ruwat al-ahadith
(Transmitters of traditions). Wu'at is the plural of wa'i which means having a correct perception and comprehension. The First Martyr in his al-Lum'ah al-Dimashqiyyah has given a beautiful description of wa'i. As a contemporary researcher Muhammad Reza Hakimi says, the genuine hadith is but an explanation of the universal outlook of the Holy Qur'an, and that the knowledge of the human mind, however vast, is like a candle in front of the bright sun when compared to the wisdom of the Holy Book. The hadith corpus thus requires proper probe and understanding and should be reciprocally substantiated by the contents of the Holy book for its genuine application, and this is what Sayyid Sharaf al-Din has tried to reflect in his works. He was not just a transmitter but a philosopher and reformer well versed in these sciences, which he gave new and practical meaning.3
Sharaf al-Din's efforts to split open the treasures of hidden knowledge bore fruits, because of his emphasis on the point that even the scholars of Sunni schools acknowledge as authentic, the traditions transmitted hy the Prophet's AM al-Bayt. His keen mind dwelt on the dimensions of wilayat haqqah (authority of the divinely ordained), philosophy of politics and the ource of difference between Tashayyu' and Tasannun, and analysed them.
Aqa Buzurg Tehrani says in this regard:
Sharaf al-Din read with diligence and analytical probe all hadith literature whether from the Prophet, his Ahl al-Bayt or his companions, both from the Sunni and Shi'ite sources, grasping their meaning and accurately outlining the issues as well as the obvious facts, that many scholars prior to him were ignorant of.4
His knowledge of, and researches in history, ably substantiated his efforts to enlighten scholars of the concrete facts, thereby exposing the forgeries that had taken place in the earlier centuries. One of his outstanding works in this regard was titled 'Abu Hurayrah '. Sharaf al-Din in this book took a bold step by subjecting to close scrutiny the vast bulk of hadith quoted in Sunni works from Abu Hurayrah, who had accepted Islam only during the last two years of the Prophet's life. The work is without the least prejudice and focuses on the life of Abu Hurayrah both before and after acceptance of Islam, his character, his inclinations, the period in which he lived and the political atmosphere of the times.
The dismantling of myths had an instant effect, and Shaykh Abu Rayyah, one of the leading Sunni 'ulama ' of Egypt, wrote an identical research work titled 'Shaykh al-Madayrah ', in which he presented the bare facts of Abu Hurayrah's dubious personality and questioned the authenticity of most of his transmissions.
Aqa Buzurg in his voluminous account of scholars of the 14th century A.H., writes that Sayyid Sharaf al-Din subjected historical material to minute probe, sifting through the dusty accumulation of history with scientific precision, till be had separated the realities of Islam from myths and stories.5
Quest for Islamic Unity
Sayyid Sharaf-al-Din had settled in the city of Tyre in southern Lebanon which had a sizable population of Sunni Muslims. In 1327 A.H., he published the book al-Fusul al-Muhimmah fi Tarikh al- Aimmah, emphasizing on the necessity of unity between the Sunnis and Shi'ites after outlining the dispute and differences between them. One of the practical steps that he took towards Islamic unity was the celebration of Prophet Muhammad's (S.A.W.) birth anniversary on 12th of Rabi' al-Awwal, although according to the accounts of the Ahl al-Bayt the Prophet was born on the 17th of that month. He also used to visit the Sunni 'ulama' of Tyre on this day and felicitate them on the occasion.
His contention was: why should Muslims who believe in One God, one Prophet, one Book and bow towards the same qiblah five times a day, be divided in juristic matters because of their ignorance of the basic facts of their faith?
He therefore set his eyes on broader horizons and in his quest for Islamic unity; he traveled to Egypt in 1331 A.H. (1912 A.D.). Egypt with al-Azhar as its religious centre was the prime seat of learning in the Sunni world, and here he had the opportunity to discuss his views with Egyptian 'ulama '. Here he found eager ears, considering the fact that he was visiting the 'Land of the Nile', 15 years after the death of that prime torchbearer of Islamic unity, Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi, whose ideas and memory were very much alive in Egypt. During one of his speeches at al-Azhar on the differences between the Sunnis and Shi'ites, Sharaf al-Din used his now famous expression Farraqat huma al-Siyasah, Faltajma' huma al-Siyasah, which means 'Politics had separated them and Politics should join them'.
His speeches had a great impact on the Egyptian audience. The enlightened minds of al-Azhar welcomed his ideas, considering the crisis of identity the Islamic world was passing through on the eve of the First World War, with European colonialists looking for the slightest opportunity to ruin the life and beliefs of the Muslims. The Dean of al-Azhar, Shaykh Salim al-Bishri, a venerable scholar in his seventies, was impressed by the young 37 year old Sayyid, and thus was paved the ground for a dialogue which would eventually remove the misunderstanding of centuries.
Impact of al-Muraja'at
The result of the meeting and the subsequent correspondence between these two open-minded scholars from two different juristic schools of Islam was the book al-Muraja'at, containing 112 letters. It is not only a testimony of the analytical mind of Sayyid Sharaf al-Din, but stands as firm proof of the scholarly credibility of Shaykh al-Bishri, who never for a moment showed the slightest bias for the school in which he had been brought up, and who after elaborate research and discussion acknowledged the concrete facts of Muhammadan Islam.
Sayyid Sharaf al-Din says of his meeting with Shaykh al-Bishri:
Long before the exchange of letters between me and Shaykh Salim al-Bishri, I was thinking of writing on such a topic, since from my early youth the idea of understanding and unity between Sunnis and Shi'ites was beating in my breast like the lighting which flashes in cumulus clouds... I always thought of finding ways of promoting understanding between Muslims and removing hatred from among them...We should all hold fast to the Rope of Allah and like brothers should tread the path of truth, and should support each other in the building of a strong, civilized, knowledgeable and practical society.6
Shaykh al-Bishri, at the end of the lengthy correspondence with Sayyid Sharaf al-Din which spanned several years, said the following:
I bear witness that you believe in the same basic principles of faith and observe the same religious rites as did the Imams in the posterity of Muhammad (S). You have made this fact quite clear and have unmasked what was concealed. No sane person will have any doubt about it, and to create any doubt or confusion about it will be tantamount to intentionally misleading others. You have made the matter quite transparent and have enabled me to look through it... Before the truth dawned upon me through you, I was in great confusion and obscurity due to what I had heard about your religion from the mischievous and unjust spreaders of disconcerting news. When Allah kindly brought us together, I followed you till I came under the flag of guidance and the lamp in darkness, and when I departed from you I was prosperous and successful.7
As anyone who has read the al-Muraja'at would know, the intention of these two great scholars was not to demonstrate their dogmatic expertise nor to stubbornly defend illogical concepts that had descended as part of faith from generation to generation, but it was to arrive at the ultimate truth in a calm and logical manner keeping with the instructions of the Holy Qur'an. It was this scientific probing of facts that paved the ground for Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut to issue in 1959 his famous verdict, part of which I quoted in the beginning of the article. Shaltut adds in his verdict:
The difference between the Ja'fari and Sunni schools is not greater than the difference among the Sunni schools themselves. They (the Ja' fans) believe in the fundamental principles of Islam as they are stated in the Glorious Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet. They also believe in all the rules whose inclusion in the religion of Islam is self evident and whose recognition is required for being a Muslim and the denial of which excludes the person from Islam.8
"Thus, Sayyid Sharaf al-Din's great work proved a ray of guidance for persons groping in sectarian darkness. The book is an undeniable proof of the truth of the path of the Ahl al-Bayt who provides a perfect frame for Islamic unity. The path of the Imams of the Prophet's Household, as pointed out in al-Muraja'at, serves as an exquisite mirror for the teachings of the Holy Qur'an, without which Muslims would be bereft of any worthy model, both in their struggle to build up the ideal society of Islam and for the eternal journey of their souls in the hereafter. The book admirably works as an open invitation towards unity and for closing of ranks among the different denominations of the Ummah in order to confront the plots of the enemies of Islam.
1. Muhammad Jawad Chirri: The Shi'ites Under Attack, published by The Islamic Centre of America, Detroit, Michigan, p.109.
2. Both father and son had reluctantly accepted Islam as late as
8 A.H. after the surrender of Mecca some three years before the
Prophet's death. On that day while issuing a general amnesty to all
Meccan infidels who accept Islam the Prophet had called them
Tulaqa' or freed slaves. The subsequent anti-Islamic behavior of
the Umayyads in history leaves little doubt whether they were
Muslims at all.
3. Muhammad Reza Hakimi: Sharaf al-Dln, published by
Daftar-e Nashr-e Farhang-e Islami, Tehran.
4. Aqa Buzurg Tehrani: Nuqaba ' al-Bashar, vol. 3, p. 1083.
6. Sayyid Sharaf al-Din: Preface to al-Muraja'at.
7. Al-Muraja 'at, Letter no. 111.
8. Muhammad Jawad Chirri: The Shi'ites under Attack, p. 109.