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The Biography of Imam An-Nawawi

BY: IDP Research Division

PUBLISHER: Islamic Digital Publishing

Copyright © - 2018 All rights reserved.

No part of this e-book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without prior consent from the Publisher.

Table of Contents


Islam in the Seventh Century of the Hijrah

An-Nawawi's Birth and Upbringing

His Pursuit of Knowledge

His Austerity

An-Nawawi Never Married

His Beliefs and Creed ('Aqeedah)

His Taweel

Conclusions About his Beliefs

His School of Fiqh

His Writings

His Students

His Bravery and Sacrifice for the Sake of Allah

An-Nawawi, the Ruler and the Masses

An-Nawawi, the Ruler and the Scholars

An-Nawawi and Other Scholars

An-Nawawi and the Masses

His Death



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 for the living. Their behavior and actions can have a great effect upon the hearts. Their examples demonstrate that in every age, there were pious Muslims who followed the way of the Prophet (S) and his noble Companions, without compromise and without giving into the desires of this world. They demonstrate to the Muslims of today that the guidance of the Qur'an and Hadeeth 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 (S) 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 intensely studied the Qur'an and Hadeeth 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 a 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-Haddaad echoed these views when he stated, "The third reason (for writing about An-Nawawi) was to bring to the forefront 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 generation great benefits with respect to seriousness and striving for knowledge, with respect to asceticism and fearing Allah, and with respect to 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 messengers (is) in order that We may thereby make your heart strong and firm." (Hud/120)

The goal here is to be brief. Therefore, only some aspects of his life will be highlighted.

Islam in the Seventh Century of the 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 from the East and the Crusaders controlled part of the Muslim lands from the West. In the year 656 AH, 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-Dhaahir Baibars, the Muslims handed the Mongols a stunning defeat at Ain Jaloot. Also, in 679, when the Mongols again tried to conquer Aleppo, they were defeated. From that time onwards, Muslim forces continued to battle and make headway against the Mongols. Similarly, the Crusaders were defeated and removed from Sham in the year 691 .

By the grace and mercy of Allah, these turbulent times did not mean the end of lslamic studies for the inhabitants of that area. In fact, when Noor al-Deen Zanki (d. 569) 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-Hadeeth in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere. This same spirit of spreading knowledge and establishing educational institutions was carried on by those who ruled after Noor al-Deen Zanki, especially Saif al-Deen Qalaawoon (d. 689). Therefore, one does not find a shortage of scholars and learning even during that turbulent century of lslamic history.

An-Nawawi's Birth and Upbringing

Muhiy al-Deen' Abu Zakariya Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Hizaami An-Nawawi was born in 631 A.H. (123 3 C.E.) in the village of Nawa, south of Damascus, Syria. Coming from Nawa, he is given the descriptive name An-Nawawi, which is also sometimes written al-Nawaawi.

All of the biographical works give him the nickname "Muhiy al-deen" 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 lslam is not in need of anyone to give it life. Al-Haddaad argues that the name does become him but that out of modesty, he did not like to be called by it. According to al-Madaabaghi, 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.

Also, He was given the name Abu Zakaria ("The Father of Zakaria") although he never had a child by that name. It is not uncommon for men to be given agnomens while they are still under age and that agnomen remains with them throughout their lives. In al-Majmoo', An-Nawawi argues that it is recommended for people to have agnomens, even if they do not have children.

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 Hadeeth from Sunan al-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 of 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 disheveled hair and dust-ridden, stretching out his hands to the sky, saying, 'O Lord!, O Lord!,' while his food is of the forbidden, his drink is of the forbidden, his clothing 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, the 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'ee 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 to continue his studies. He remained in Damascus until just prior to his death, when he returned to his hometown of Nawa.

His Pursuit of Knowledge

An-Nawawi first studied at the Saaramiya school in Damascus. This is where his father left him. He had no housing there whatsoever. After some time, he approached the Shaikh of the school to ask if he had any housing, as many of the schools did house their students. They had no housing so the Shaikh suggested that he go to the Rawaahiyah 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 Ashrafiyah 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 Saaramiyah, he continued his studies at the Rawaahiya school in Damascus. At one point in time, he was attending twelve lectures a day on assorted topics, including Arabic language, Hadeeth, Fiqh and Islamic legal theory. Some of his well-known teachers included lshaaq ibn Ahmad al-Maghrabi al-Maqdisi (d. 650 A.H.), Abdul Rahmaan al-Anbari (d. 661 A.H.) and Abdul Azeez al-Ansaari (d. 662 A.H.). He studied Saheeh Muslim from Abu lshaaq Ibraaheem al-Waasiti. In 655 A.H., at the age of 24, he began teaching at the Ashrafiyah 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 continue 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 slept overtook while in a sitting position.

Al-Qutb al-Yauneeni 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 is walking 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 difficult aspects and expressions as well as exacting the correct wordings. This would take, as a least approximation, twelve hours a day. Then he would need to review what he had learned and memorize what needed 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-four hours 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 days to do, and in one year what takes others 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."

His Austerity

He led a very austere and simple life. Some narrations state that all the clothing he possessed was a turban and a 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 fruit of Damascus because he knew that the 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 that 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-Haddaad 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 Sulaimaan al-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 Sulaimaan to eat with him and he said that it was not appealing to him. Sulaimaan's brother went and brought some roasted meat and sweets. Sulaimaan told An-Nawawi to eat from it but he refused. Sulaimaan 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 (S) 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 (S) 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 not drink cold water out of fear that it may make him drowsy. Al-Haddaad 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-Haddaad 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 all of himself to it. If a person dedicates all of himself to knowledge, then he may achieve a portion of it. Al-Haddaad 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 lslam.

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