The African, and Muslim, Discovery of America – Before Columbus

The African, and Muslim, Discovery of America – Before Columbus

Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick

(Adopted with permission from the book, Deeper Roots, Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean from before Columbus to the Present, DPB Printers and Booksellers, Cape Town, South Africa. As reported in his book, Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quik is a scholar with African American and Caribbean roots. He has traveled extensively to over 50 countries in the Caribbean, Central America, Africa and the Middle East. He is a graduate of the Islamic University of Madinah. Saudi Arabia and holds an M.A. degree and PhD in African History from University of Toronto, Canada. His direct involvement in Caribbean Islamic development as the first Ameer (leader) of the Islamic Council of Jamaica and a founding member of the Association of Islamic Communities of the Caribbean and Latin America, gives him a rare insight into the evolution of Islam in this region. Those interested in further research are strongly urged to read Dr. Quik’s book.)

Ancient America was not isolated from the old world as many historians and anthropologists would have us believe. People from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean travelled great distances, mingled with each other and exchanged knowledge and products. Long before Columbus became aware of the possibility of land in the west, Muslims, among other people, had made contact with the Americas and had already left an impression on the Native culture 13. Knowledge, agricultural products, livestock, metals, and other commercial items were exchanged between the two worlds. Evidence leading to establishing the presence of Muslims in ancient America comes from a number of sculptures, oral traditions, eye-witness reports, artifacts, Arabic documents, coins, and inscriptions. In Meso-American art, we see Africans and Semites in positions of power and prestige, especially in trading communities of Mexico. 14

A report in Before Columbus by Cyrus Gordon describes coins found in the southern Caribbean region:

“… the coast of Venezuela was discovered a hoard of Mediterranean coins with so many duplicates that it cannot well  be a numismatist’s collection but rather a supply of cash. Nearly all the coins are Roman, from the reign of Augustus to the 4th century CE. Two of the coins however, are Arabic of the 8th century CE. It is the latter that gives us the terminus a quo (i.e. time after which) of the collection as a whole (which cannot be earlier than the latest coins in the collection). Roman coins continued in use as currency into the medieval times. A Moorish ship, perhaps from Spain or North Africa, seems to have crossed the Atlantic around 800 CE15.“

The discovery of these coins adds validity to the reports, recorded by Muslim Historians and geographers, concerning the journeys of Muslim adventurers and navigators across the Atlantic Ocean. In Muruj adh-Dhahab wa Ma’adin al-Jawhar (The Meadows of Gold and Quarries of Jewels) written around the year 956 CE, Abul Hassan Ali ibn al-Hussain ibn Ali al-Masudi, a historian, geographer, philosopher, and natural scientist, wrote about a young man of Cordoba named Khashkhash ibn Saeed ibn Aswad who crossed the Atlantic Ocean, made contact with people on the other side, and returned in the year 889 CE. Al Masudi wrote:

“Some people feel that this ocean is the source of all oceans and in it there have been many strange happenings. We have reported some of them in our book Akhbar az-Zaman. Adventurers have penetrated it at the risk of their lives, some returning safely, others perishing in the attempt. One such man was an in habitant of Andalusia named Khashkhash. He was a young man of Cordoba who gathered a group of young men and went on a voyage on this ocean. After a long time, he returned with a fabulous booty. Every Spaniard (Andalusian) knows his story. 17”

A narration by Abu Bakr ibn Umar al-Qutiyya (not to be confused with the author of Tarikh Iftitah al-Andalus, Ibn al-Qutiyya) relates the story of Ibn Farrukh who landed in February 999 CE in Gando (Great  Canary), visited King Guanariga and continued his journey westwards till he found islands he called Capraria and Pluitana. In May of that year he arrived back in Span.

Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi (`1090-1180), the famous Arab physician and geographer who established himself in the Arabicised court of King Roger II of Sicily, reported in his extensive work Kitab al-Mamalik wa-l-Masalik, in the 12th century on the journey of a group of seamen who reached the isles of the Americas. Al Idrisi wrote:

“A group of seafarers sailed into the sea of darkness and fog (the Atlantic Ocean) from Lisbon in order to discover what was in it and to what extent were its limits. They were a party of eight and they took a boat which was loaded with supplies to last them for months. They sailed for eleven days until they reached turbulent waters with great waves and little light. They thought that they would perish so they turned their boat southward and travelled for twelve days. They finally reached an island that had people and civilization but they were captured and chained for three days. On the fourth day, a translator came speaking the Arabic language! He translated for the King and asked them about their mission. They informed him about themselves, then they were returned to their confinement. When the westerly wind began to blow they were put in a canoe blindfolded, and brought to land after three days sailing. They were left on the shore with their hands tied behind their backs. When the next day came another tribe appeared, freeing them and informing them that between them and their lands was a journey of two months. 19

This astonishing historical report not only describes contact between Muslim seamen and the Native people of the Americas, but it also describes travel between islands, probably the Bahamas chain or the Lesser Antilles. The islanders had developed the ability to speak Arabic, a language that cannot be mastered by a single contact. They must have been regularly visited by Arabic speaking Muslim merchants or adventurers, or they had lived in Muslim territory.

In October, 1929 CE, Khalid Edhem Bey discovered by chance in the library of Serallo, in the city of Istanbul, a map of parchment made in the month of Muharram in the year 919 AH (March 1513). The rare and valuable geographical letter contained, among other legends, the following note:

“This chapter explains how this map has been made. Such a map nobody owns at present. By the hands of this poor man it has been composed and now elaborated.”

The discovery was very significant. As already stated, it had to do with a parchment in Turkish writing, painted in several colors, with dimensions 1.85×0.60 20. It comprises the Atlantic Ocean with America and the western rim of the world. The other parts of the world, which the map probably included, have been lost. 21

The author of the map, Piri Muhyi’d-Din Re’is was a famous mavigator and map maker who died about 1554-55 CE. He wrote a handbook on navigation in the Aegean and the Mediterranean Seas, which was known as Piri Re’is Behriye. Perhaps the map found by Khalil Edhem Bey was part of this handbook, which was presented to Sultan Selim I in 1517 CE, and which would explain how the mysterious parchment was found in Serallo. What is most important to this study, however, is that this map; is one of the most conclusive pieces of hard evidence to show the validity of Muslim exploration in the Western hemisphere. Piri Re’is, a Turkish navigator, wrote that he used twenty source-maps, among them eight maps dating from the time of Alexander the Great, an Arab map of India, four Portuguese maps of the Indian Ocean and China, and a map by Columbus of the western area. But Piri’s map contains information that could not have been known by Columbus.  It contains the correct relative longitude across Africa, and across the Atlantic, all the way from the meridian of Alexandria, Egypt, to Brazil. The mid-Atlantic islands are shown with remarkable accuracy. The Cape Verde islands, Madeira Islands, and the Azores are shown in perfect longitude. The Canary Islands are off by one degree latitude. The Andes are shown on this map in 1513 CE. The Andes were not “discovered” by Europeans until 1527 CE with the coming of Pizarro. The Atrato River (in present day Columbia) is shown for a distance of 300 miles from the sea. Its eastward bend at latitude 5 degrees north is correct. The Amazon is shown twice, once on the equator of the main grid and once on the equator of the small grid.  The island of Marajo is shown at the mouth of the Amazon, but this island was not officially discovered by Europeans until 1543 CE. Someone must have travelled throughout the upper part of the South America exploring rivers and recording information.22

The Haji Ahmed map of 1559 CE, also supports the validity of a Muslim presence in the Americas long before Columbus. He was also a Turkish map-maker who, in the tradition of Islamic scientists and technicians of his age benefited from the knowledge of the ancient Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians, and took it to a higher level of development. Muslims had led the world in ?Astronomy, Mathematics, Chemistry, Medicine, History, Geography, Navigation, etc. for hundreds of years before the 16the century, and Haji Ahmed followed in their footsteps. The Eastern Hemisphere, on his map, is poorly done and probably was based on the sources of Ptolemy. The Western side, however, was mapped so well that it is hard to believe that anyone could have drawn this map who did not have access to maps of people well-travelled in the Americas. The shapes of North and South America are surprisingly modern, especially the western coasts23.  Their drawing on a highly sophisticated spherical projection puts the map about two centuries ahead of the cartography of that time. 24

Another map of Florida, based on a French expedition of the 1564, shows three names that demonstrate an earlier Muslim settlement in that area. They were written as follows:

Mayarca (Majorca)

Cadica (Cadiz)

Marracou (Marrakesh) 25


How could these names have been used by people if they had not made contact with North African or Andalusian Muslims?

Anti-diffusionist scholars have countered earlier claims to a pre-Columbian presence in the Americas by casting doubt on the nautical ability of Muslim or African seamen, and by citing the difficulty of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. In 1969 CE, the Scandinavian scientist, Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Atlantic for the second time, starting from the North African port, Safi, and arriving in Barbados, West Indies. His craft was made by Africans of indigenous papyrus, thereby proving that not only could North African or West African sailors have crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but that even the ancient Egyptians could have done so26.. It is now well known that the currents coming off the Iberian Peninsula and western coastline of Africa will take a ship easily into the Caribbean or to the east coast of South America (present day Brazil). 27

Mandinka (Mandidng) Voyages and Exploration

One of the most significant waves of Muslim explorers and merchants came from the West African, Islamic Empire of Mali. When Mansa Musa, the world-renowned ruler of Mali, was enroute to Makkah during his famous pilgrimage in 1324 CE, he informed the Governor of Cairo that his predecessor had undertaken two expeditions into the Atlantic Ocean in order to discover its limits. Shihab ad-Din al-Umari, a famous Arab geographer, in his Masalik al-Absar fi Mamalik al-Amsar, reported from his informant the following:

“I asked the Sultan Musa, says Ibn Amir Hajib, how it was that power came into his hands. “We are”, he told me, “from a house that transmits power by heritage. The ruler who preceded me would not believe that it was impossible to discover the limits of the neighboring sea. He wanted to find out and persisted in his pan. He had two hundred ships equipped and filled with men, and others in the same number filled with gold, water, and supplies in sufficient quantity to last for years. He told those who commanded them: “Return only when you have reached the extremity of the ocean, or when you have exhausted your food and water.” They went away, their absence was long, before any of them returned. Finally, a sole ship reappeared. We asked the captain about their adventures. “Prince”, he replied, “We sailed a long time, up to the moment when we encountered in mid-ocean something like a river with a violent current. My ship was last. The others sailed on, and gradually as each one entered the place, they disappeared and did not come back. We did not know what had happened to them. As for me, I returned to where I was and did not enter the current.”  “But the emperor did not want to believe him. He equipped two thousand vessels, a thousand for himself and the men who accompanied him and a thousand for water and supplies. He conferred power on me and left with his companions on the ocean. This was the last time that I saw him and the others, and I remained the absolute master of the empire.”

This report reveals that the Mandinka monarch made great preparation for the journey and had confidence in its success. His captain, who reported the violent river in the mid-Atlantic, must have encountered a mid-ocean current, but as the report shows us, he had little difficulty returning to the West African coast. This current was either the North Equatorial or the Antilles Current, either of whose distances from the West African coast at that latitude would place the fleet at the doorstep of the Americas. 29

Examination of inscriptions found in Brazil, Peru and the United States, as well as linguistic, cultural and archaeological finds offer documentary evidence of the presence of these Mandinka Muslims in the early Americas. The Mandinka made contact with Brazil, the closest land mass to the West African Guinea coast. They appear to have used it as a base for exploration of the America. They travelled along rivers in the dense jungles of South America, and moved overland until they reached Central America. Examination of inscriptions found in Brazil at Bahia and Minas Gerais, and on the coast of Peru at Ylo, reveal a definite presence of these African Muslims. The inscriptions were taken from ancient cities and stone tablets and were originally written in the Vai and related Manding scripts. 30

Many of the Mandinka cities of stone and mortar have been reclaimed by the jungle but a large number of these cities were seen by the early Spanish explorers and bandeiristas (land pirates). 31 One of these bandeiristas, a native of Minas Gerais, has provided many examples of the Mandinka script and description of the cities in the interior of Brazil. In a document, written 1754, we are informed that a city in Minas Gerais near a river, was well laid out and had superb buildings, obelisks, and statues. On the statue of a young man, naked from the waist up without a beard, underneath the shield, were the following characters: “Aha-na we-fe-nge:, meaning (He is of the maternal aunt), the pure side, or in other words: He is the heir to the throne. 32

In another part of the city, in a building probably used as a storehouse, the land pirates found the following characters: Si-kye-du-nde-pe?”, meaning there are abundant wild kidney beans fastened in small jars and thrust in a hole (or hiding place) 33.

From Brazil, these Muslim explorers went to the west and the north.  They left Brazil and travelled to Lake Titicaca (in present day Bolivia) where they were attacked. Many of these bearded explorers were killed, but they left a legacy of writing among the Indians of the Koatry Island of Lake Titicaca. Their indeograms are the same as the Manding inscriptions. The South American expeditions went as far as the Pacific coast, where, on a rock on the shore near Yin, are written the following characters: “Kye, Ngbe-gyo, gbe-su. Kye-nb=gbe-ta-wo-nde.”, meaning: Man: To pursue worship, to mature, and become matter without life. Man pursues a cavernous place (i.e. a grave or hole in the ground). 34

It appears that the Mandinka explorers, under the Mansa’s instructions, explored Central America and parts of the United States. This is evident from linguistic findings and the appearance of mounds throughout the United States, especially in the vicinity of the Mississippi River which they must have used as central waterway for exploring America.

In Arizona, they left inscriptions which show that the Mandinka explorers also brought a number of elephants to America with them. Writings and pictographs found in a cave at Four Corners, Arizona discuss the characteristics of the desert. Below are the first two lines of the Arizona inscriptions: “ga-gya kpa-nde-ngbe-ka-go-ne”, meaning: the desert is hot. Birds are numerous, white…(ka)…and called “go”. Another inscription: ga-ka, Bi-kpa” meaning, the elephants are sick and angry. At present sick elephants are considerable. 38

The Witness of early European Explorers

In 1920, a renowned American historian and linguist, Leo Weiner of Harvard University, wrote a controversial book entitled, Africa and the Discovery of America. He tried to prove in it that Columbus was well aware of the African, Muslim presence in the Americas. He based his argument on linguistic, agricultural, and cultural finds that he made in his study of the Native people of America and in the writings of the early European explorers. This early twentieth century work came as a surprise to many of the historians of America, but, on examination of the actual writings of the European explorers, clear proof of their understanding is revealed. Weiner showed, through his research, that the early Mandinka not only penetrated Central and North America, but inter-married with the Iroquois and Algonquian people. He wrote:

“There were several foci from which the Negro traders spread in the two Americas. The eastern part of South America, where the Caribs are mentioned, seems to have been reached by them from the West Indies. Another stream, possibly from the same focus, radiated to the north along roads marked by the presence of mounds and reached as far as Canada.36

Columbus had recorded the fact that Africans were trading with the Americas. In The Narrative of the Third Voyage, he wrote:

“Certain principal inhabitants of the island of Santiago came to see him, and they said that to the south-west of the island of Huego, which is one of the Cape Verde, distant twelve league from this, may be seen an island, and that the King Don Juan was greatly inclined to send to make discoveries to the south-west and that canoes had been found which start from the coasts of Guinea and navigate to the west with merchandise. 37

Las Casas later wrote about Columbus saying:

“…That after he would navigate, the Lord pleasing, to the west, and from there would go to this Espanola in which route he would prove the theory of the King John aforesaid; and that he thought to investigate the report of the Indians of the Espanola (Haiti) who said that there had come to Espanola from the south and the south-east, a black people who have the tops of their spears made of a metal which they call “guanine” of which he had sent samples to the Sovereigns to have them assayed, when it was found that of 32 parts, 18 were of gold, 6 of silver and 8 of copper.38

In Panama, the Mandinka, African Muslims had such an effect on the populace that they are classified as part of the indigenous people of the area. One expert of Central American traditions, D’Abbe de Bourbourg, wrote:

“It is thus that today we distinguish the indigenous people of Darien (Panama) under two names, the Mandingas and the Tule, whose difference perhaps recalls their distinct origin. 39

In 1513 CE, when Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the Spanish explorer, reached Panama, he and his party discovered the presence of African people. One of the recorders of the travels of Balboa, Gomara write:

“When Balboa entered the Province of Quateca, he found no gold but some black slaves belonging to the King of the place. Having asked the King where he obtained these slaves, he received as an answer that people of that color lived quite near to there and that they were constantly at war with them…These Black were entirely like the Blacks of Guinea.40

Another recorder of Balboa, Peter Martyr, left an account that adds to our knowledge of this discovery. He stated:

“We found there (in Quareca) black slaves, having come from a region a distance of only two days march, ad which produces people of that color, fierce, and above all cruel. He is believed that such Blacks came long ago from Africa with the intention of robbing and that, having shipwrecked, established residence in those mountains. 41

Writing on the same period, Rodrigo de Colmenares, in his Memorial against Balboa, write:

“…..a captain brought news of a black people located east of the Gulf of San Miguel…..’I que habia alii cerca gente negra..42

The reports of Martyr and Colmenares, although biased in their judgments of the purpose of the African exploratory voyages, are amazingly clear In their tracing the African presence. This type of obvious reporting, at such an early date in European colonial history, cannot be attributed to shipwrecked slaves, for the European colonies were not established at that time. Carlos Marques, correlating archeological finds with traditional native history, wrote:

“…But the people who live farther east (of Pointe Cavinas) as far as Cape Gracios a Dios, are almost black in color. They pierce a hole in their ears large enough to insert hen’s eggs 44.”

To the south-west, near the Nicaraguan border at Tegulcigalpa, another group of Blacks were reported, possibly by Columbus. They were known as “Jaras and Guabas”, 46. These names appear to be the same as Jarra in Gambia, and Diara in Senegal and Mali. Which represent a very ancient clan and territorial designation among the Mandinka Sarakoles. Kangala, one of the ancient capitals of Mali kings has frequently been shortened to Ka-ba; furthermore, Niani, another famous Malian capital, sometimes called Mali, after the empire, contained a district within its walls called “Niani Kaba”. The use of these names area another part of the legacy left by the early explorers. Both Kaba and Diara are still in use in West Africa and Central America today.

Some of the Muslim Africans of Honduras called themselves “Al-mamys” prior to the coming of the Spanish to Central America. They were probably related to the Africans seen by Ferdinand Columbus, or the Jaras and
Guabas of Tegulcigapla. Giles Cauvet in Les Berberes de l’Amerique, while making an ethnographic comparison between African and America, stated:

“…a tribe of Almamys inhabited Honduras….having preceded by a little the arrival of Columbus there.”

He also added that the title Almamy does not antedate the 12th century of our era, which is the earliest date the black Africa Muslims would have been conveyed to the American Isthmus.47 In the Manding language “Almamy” was the designation of “Al-Imamu”, from the Arabic “Al-Imam”, the leader of the prayer or in some cases, the chief of the community.

Other evidences of early pre-Columbian presence in the Americas are found in the writings of Manuel Orozco y Berra (Historia Antigua y de la Conquista de Mexico) who traces early colonies of black people living in Central America and the southeastern parts of America. Father Francisco Garces in 1775 ran across a race of black people living beside the Zuni Indians in New Mexico. A. de Quatrefages in Introduction a L’Etudes des Races Humaines, noted that the Indians and Blacks spoke different languages, and according to the Indians they were the earliest inhabitants of the land.48

African Gold and Cotton Trade  

The early Mandinka explorers, who travelled with the Mansa of the empire of Mali or on subsequent voyages, were without doubt carrying large amounts of gold with them. On the famous pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, previously mentioned, the Malian Muslims were carrying so much gold with them that they seriously affected the economy of every land they passed through. The gold trade with the Americas is established through gold analysis, linguistic findings, and eyewitness reports.

In the description of Columbus, previously mentioned, it was recorded that the Indians called gold “guanine”. The gold was found to be of 32 parts, 18 were of gold, 6 of silver, and 8 of copper. This was a common West African gold alloy, which had identical proportions of silver and copper and dated back to at least the thirteenth century. William Bowsman who spent fourteen years in West Africa before 1705, noted that gold is frequently mixed with a third part, and sometimes, with half silver and copper. He found that the “artificial” gold was found all along the Guinea coast49 .  Columbus was well aware of the West African gold, for not only did it have a certain alloy but it even carried a particular odor. 50

Linguistic research has uncovered a number of words having an Arabic or West African root which are found in the Native languages of the Caribbean and North America. The following are a few of the similarities:

Antilean (American) Mandinka Mandinka
Goanna, caona,guani, guanine Ghana (Arabic Ghani)Kane, Kani, Kanine, Ghanin gold
Nucay, nozay Nucay, nozay Metal iron orgold jewelry
Tuob, tumbaga Tuob, tumbaga Gold, a gold weight,A King’s title


The African gold words have an affinity to words that are used to describe gold, wealth, and riches. In Arabic, Ghinaa means wealth; ghaneemahmeans spoils or booty; ghanee means rich. These words are similar to Ghana and guanine. Also, nuqud means money or coins; nuhans means copper; naqiy means pure, clean. They are similar to nucay and nuhkuh.Tibr means raw metal, gold nuggets. This is similar to truob and tubab. Father Roman (Ramon Pane), one of the first twelve missionaries to visit the Americas after Columbus, stated that the African gold merchants who came to Hispaniola were called “black Guanini”.32

Gold was probably not the only item that the early Mandinka explorers brought with them. Columbus was surprised to find the Native people of the Americas bartering with a woven cloth, identical in design and style to that which he had seen in West Africa. In The Journal of the Third Voyages, he noted that the Indians “brought handkerchiefs of cotton, very symmetrically woven and worked in colors like those brought from Guinea, from the rivers of Sierra Leone, and of no difference.” He was so startled by this “discovery” that he remarked, “but they (the Indians) cannot communicate with the latter (West Africans), because from here to Guinea is a distance of more than 800 leagues (2400 miles).”53

Columbus made several references to “almaizar”, a cloth the Moors (Spanish or North African Muslims) imported from West Africa into Morocco, Spain and Portugal. 54

Ferdinand Columbus called the Native cotton garments “breechcloths of the same design and cloth as the shawls worn by the Moorish women of Granada.” 55 Herman Cortes, another infamous Spanish conqueror, described the dress of the Indians as follows:

“The clothing which they wear is like long veils, very curiously worked. The men wear breechcloths about their bodies, and large mantles, very thin, and painted in the style of Moorish draperies. 56

The “Moorish” usage here could have applied directly to the West African Mandinka Muslims also, as many of the same dress and cultural styles were shared throughout Spain, North and West Africa., As early as the eleventh century, the town of Silla on the Senegal River was a trading post under the control of the Empire of Ghana and used millet, salt, copper rings, gold cowry shells, euphorbium, and cotton breechcloths as currency. Al-Bakri reports that “almost every house had a cotton tree” and cotton was one of the most important mediums of exchange.57

Just as the trade in cotton goods was important in the Muslim World, they were also employed as a currency in the Caribbean and Central America. The consistent surprise at, and the testimony of the European explorers to, the remarkable similarity between the designs and the usage is just another proof of the connection of the two worlds.

Many more clear proofs would probably have been easily found among the native populations had it not been for the Spanish “scorched earth” policy of destroying all writings and remnants of Native culture.

Alexander Von Wuthenau, professor of Art History at Mexico City College from 1939-1965, was instrumental in the collection and display of a series of terracotta figures, masks, pottery, and other items which represent the many people who have visited the Americas before Columbus. His collection of actual materials from the period of Mandinka exploration gives us a graphic look at a the faces of the people, themselves. Note in Appendix 7,8,9, the clear African features, facial scarification, and Islamic turban. Time and the search for truth are slowly bringing these faces back to life.

The Garifuna People – Descendants of the Early Mandinka

Another part of the stolen pre-Columbian legacy that has been coming to light in the past few years is the origin of the Garaifuna people, sometimes known as Black Caribs. The Carib people are usually identified with the Native (Indian) group that populates parts of South America and the Caribbean. It is from their name that we derive the word “Caribbean”. P.V. Ramos in an article that appeared in the Daily Clarion of Belize, Central America, on November 5, 1946, wrote:

“When Columbus discovered the West Indies about the year 1493 CE, he found there a race of white people (i.e. half breeds) with woolly hair whom he called Caribs. They were seafaring hunters and tillers of the soil, peaceful and united.  They hated aggression. Their religion was Mohammedanism (Islam) and their language presumably Arabic. 59

The Black Caribs have maintained their own language and a set of rituals and cultural practices. The British Honduras Handbook states that the Black Caribs “are very clannish and speak a language of their own which they guard jealously. It appears to be basically an African dialect with a strong admixture of French, Spanish, and English words.” 60

Many European scholars have tried to argue that the Black Caribs, as a distinct group, were formed as a result of African slaves mixing with the Native Indians of St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean region, and later being transported to Honduras by the British. A. Quatrefages, in his work,Historie Generate des Races Humaines observed the following:

“When the Europeans landed on this latter island (St. Vincent) they found there two populations, or better two distinct races. One part of the island had the ordinary reddish-yellow complexion, the others were Blacks. In order to explain this latter peculiarity, one has generally admitted that a ship carrying slaves had been wrecked on these shores and that the Blacks set free, in this manner, mixed in with the ancient inhabitants. It is possible that the hypothesis is true, but not necessarily the reason which explains the formation of this mixed race. It would appear more probably that the color of the Black Caribs holds the same analogical causes which gave rise to the complexion which characterizes the Charuas and the Yamassee. They  (the Black Caribs) would very well be the descendants of the Africans who were conveyed to St. Vincent by the currents and winds, such as was the case of those who landed  towards the mouth of the Orinoco, in Brazil, in Florida, and at the Isthmus of Darien. They might even be the descendants of those Black men, who during the time of Columbus were from time to time making incursions to Haiti, well before slavery had brought Negroes to America. It is useless to return on the manner which might have given birth to the population that Herrera cited by Brasseur (de Bourbourgh), calls quento negra and which he clearly distinguished from the Caribs whom he called Caribales. 61

The Black Caribs (Garifuna) had a number of clearly Islamic-based practices.
They did not eat the flesh of swine, in any form although they were aware of its food value. In fact, they had instituted among themselves a complete prohibition and taboo,  calling it coin-coin or bouirokou.  They ate no crab or lizard while out at sea for fear of not returning to land. 62 The Handbook of South American Indians describes the Black Caribs with the following:

“The most prized possession of the (Carib) men was the Caracoli, a crescent-shaped alloy of gold and copper framed in wood, which the warriors obtained during raids upon the continental (South American) Arawak. Some of the Caracoli were small and served s ear, nose, or mouth pendants; others were large enough to be worn on the chest. They were a sign of high rank, being passed down from generation to generation, and worn only upon a ceremonial occasion and during journeys. 63

The Garifuna have also maintained a strong sense of family, sexual morality, and belief in One Creator. In the past ten years, they have become a more out-spoken group of indigenous Caribbean people. They are now found especially along the Caribbean coastline of Central America. In Belize and Honduras, a number of Garifuna have comeback openly to the fold of Islam and simple masjids are being constructed all along the coast. Much has yet to be done in order to trace the actual root of their African language. 64

In Retrospect

After surveying the growing number of archeological, linguistic, and historical proofs for the presence of Muslims in the Americas before Columbus, the researcher becomes totally aware of a massive cove-up. Not only was the presence of Muslims in the Americas known to the early Spanish and Portuguese explorers, but Muslim geographical and navigational information was actually the foundation of European expansion. Vasco de Gama is reported to have consulted Ahmad ibn Majid on the East Coast of Africa. Ibn Masjid is regarded as the author of handbook on navigation of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Southern China and the waters around the West Indies. 65

The colonization of the Americas by the Spanish was an extension of theReconquista (reconquest) of the Iberian Peninsula. Muslims had ruled much of Spain for over 700 years, dominating Europe culturally, educationally, and economically. The early explorers were, in many cases, Spanish soldiers who had fought in Spain or Africa and sailed the seas to destroy the power of Islam. They recognized the influence of Islam wherever they journeyed and did everything in their power to convert the people to Catholicism. When Hernan Cortes (the conqueror of Mexico) arrived in the Yucatan, he named the area “El Cairo”. 66 The men of Cortes and Juan Pisarro (the conqueror of Peru), some of whom had taken direct part in the struggle against Muslims, called the Indian temples “mesquitas” (Spanish for Masjid). 67 Ironically, the first Christian to see the American land, Rodrigo de Triana or Rodrigo de Lepe, on his return to Spain became a Muslim, abandoning his Christian allegiance. Columbus did not give him any credit, nor did the King give him any recompense. 68

During the rule of Ferdinand, the Catholic, in spite of excesses against Islam in Spain, some of the Moriscoes, 69  who travelled to Americas as explorers, soldiers and laborers, began practicing their true faith and succeeded in propagating Islam among the Indians. A series of laws were decreed in order to stop the flow of Muslims, free or enslaved, to the Americas and to win back the Muslim native Indians.

The following shows the attitude of the Spanish hierarchy to this pressing problem:

“The King: To our officials who reside in the city of Seville at the House of Trade of the Indies.

We are informed that because of the increase in the price of Negro slaves in Portugal and in the islands of Ginea and Cape Verde, some merchants and other persons who intend to have them for our Indies have gone or seen to buy Negroes in the islands of Sardinia, Majorca, Minorca and other parts of the Levanta in order to send them to our Indies because they say that they are cheaper. And because many of the Negroes in those parts of the Levant are of the race (casta) of the Moors and others trade with them and (since) in a new country, where at present our holy Catholic faith is being established, it is not fitting that people of this quality should go there, on account of the difficulties that could come from it. I order you that under no circumstance or by any means shall you consent to the passage to our Indies, islands or tierra firma of any Negro slaves who may be from the Levant or who may have grown up there, or of other Negros who may have been reared with Moriscoes, even though they be of the race of Negroes of Guinea.11

Made in Valladolid, July 16, 1550

Maximilano, The Queen,

By Order of His Majesty, His Highness,

In his name, Juan de Samano, Seal of the Council. 70

“You are informed that if such Moors are by their nationality and origin Moors, and if they should teach Muslim doctrines, or wage war against you or the Indians who may have adopted the Muslim religion, you shall not make them slave by any means whatsoever. On the contrary you shall try to convert them or persuade them by good and legitimate means to accept our holy Catholic faith. 71


Such was the plight of the early Muslims who braved the currents, visited new lands, learned new languages and cultures, traded with the peoples of the Americas, and became part of the already thriving civilizations. Yet despite all of these amazing achievements, very little information about their presence is being allowed out to the general public. World History will one day open its arms to all of its participants.



13 A number of linguists, historians, and archeologist have postulated that Arabic-speaking North African Muslims had made contact with the Americas in the 7th century CE. They traced the journey of a North African explorer, using a number of Libyan/Kufic inscriptions, from the North ?African coast to the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and into the Southwest of the present United States. Inscriptions in Libyan or Kufic in the American arc also claimed to have been found. Much work is left to be done in order to verify these claims. Because of the tentative nature of this valuable area of res\arch and the difficulty in tracing the primary documentation and materials, the chapter will focus on the Muslim exploration of the Atlantic side. For more information of the Pacific penetration see Barry Fell, America B.C. (New York, Times Books, 1976), and idem, Saga America (New York,  Times Books, 1980).

14 Ford, Barbara, “Semites First in America”, Science Digest, January, 1972, 43-48; Clyde Ahmed Winters, Al-Ittihad, July-October, 1977.

15 Cyrus Gordon, Before Columbus (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. 1971), 68-70

16 See Appendix 2 for Al-Masudi’s map in which the Americas appear and area referred to as “Ard Mahjoolah” (Unknown territory)

17 Al Masudi, Muruj adh-Dhahab, Vol. 1, 138

18 A summary of this story was translated into Spanish by Don Manual Osunay Savinon in

Resumen de la Geographia Fisica y Politica y de la Historia Natural y Civil de las Islas Canarias, Santa Cruz detenerife, 1844, See Rafael Bazan, “Some Notes for the History of the relations between Latin America, the Arabs and Islam” in the Muslim World Vol. XLI 291.

19 al-Idrisi, Geographia al-Idrisi (Dawzi Printing), 184 in Athara al-Madinatil Islamiyyah fil Hadratil Gharbiyyah by Dr. Mukhtar al-Qadi (Egypt, Pyramid Printing House, 1973), 335, or al-Idrisi, Opus Geographicum vol 5, 548

20 See Appendix 3

21 Rafael Bazan, The Muslim World, 284, 285

22 Joan Coay, “African Sea-kings in America? Evidence from Early Maps” in Ivan Van Sertima, African Presence in Early America, 162-`63

23 See Appendix 4

24 Ibid, 164

25 Ibid, 166, 18

26 See Appendix 5

27 See Appendix 6

28 Shihab ad-Din ibn Fadl al-‘Umari, Masalik al-Absar fi Mamalik al-Amsar, traduit par Daudefroy Demomtoyenes (Paris: KLibrarie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1927), 74-75

29 Harold Lawrence, “Mandinga Voyages Across the Atlantic”, in Ivan Van Sertima, African Presence in Early America, 238, Mohammed Hamidullah, “L’Afrique Decouvre l’Amerique avant Christophe Combe”, Presence Africaine, XVIII-XIX, (Fev-Mai, 1958)

30 Clyde Ahmed Winters, “Islam in Early North and South America”, Al-Ittihad, 1977. For more information see Idem, “The Influence of the Mande Languages on America”, a paper delivered at the 9th annual conference of the LIberian Studies Association, (Panel: Historical Ethnographics), Western Illinois University, March-April, 1977.

31 H.T. Wilkins, Mysteries of Ancient South America (New York), 1974.

32 Clyde Ahmed Winters, Islam in America, 60

33 Ibid 60

34 Ibid 60

35 Ibid 60

37 Lionel Cecil Jane, The Voyages of Christopher Columbus, taken from Clyde A Winters, Islam in….America 62

38 John Boyd Thatcher, Christopher Columbus, His Life, His Work, His Remains 380

36  Leo Weiner, Africa and the Discovery of America, (Philadelphia, Innes and Sons, 1920), Vol. 2, 365-366.

39 H. Lawrence, Mandinga Voyages, 221, Taken from L’Abbe Brasseur de Bourboug, Popul-Veh: le Livre Sacre of loes Mysthes de l’Antiquite Americaine (Paris: A. Bertrand, 1861).

40 H. Lawrence, Manding, Voyages, 221

41 Pedro Martir de Angeleriak, Decades del Nuevo Mundo (two volumes, Mexico: Jose Porruq e Hijos, Sucs, 1964, 29)

42 Charles L. G. Anderson, Life and Letters of Vasco Nunuez de Balbao(New York, Fleming H. Revel Co. 1941), 163

43 H. Lawrence, Manding Voyages, 221, 222 from Caralos C. Manquez,Prehistoria y Viajes: Estudios Arguelogicos y Etnigraficos, Segundo edicion, Corrigida y Aumuntada (Tomo I-Editorial America: Sociedad Espanola de Liberia, 1920), 27)

44 Piercing the ears and hanging heavy earrings is an ancient West African (especially Manding) custom among women. Mali was, of course, one of the richest gold producing areas in the world.

45 Ferdinand Columbus, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus, translated and annotated by Benjamin Keen (U.S.A. Rutgers University Press, 1959), 234

46 C.S. Rafinesque, “Primitive Black Nations of America”, Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge, vol. 1, Sept. 1832, 86

47 H. Lawrence, Manding Voyages, 229-230, taken from Giles Cauvert, Les Berberes en Amerique, 100-101.

48 Clyde A Winters, Islam in….America, 63

49 William Bowman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea (Liverpool: 1907), 73-74

50 Leo Weiner, Africa and the Discovery, 34

51 H. Lawrence, Manding Voyages, 239

52 Peter DeRoo, History of America before Columbus (London/Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott, 1900), 307

53 Thatcher, Christopher Columbus, 392-393

54 Ibid, 388, 393

55 Ferdinand Columbus, The Life of Admiral….232

56 Leo Weiner, Africa and the Discovery…Vol. 2, 37

57 Abu ‘Ubaid al Bakri, Description de l’Afrique Septentrionale, traduit par MacGucken de Slane (Algiers: A. Jourdan, 1913, 325, 326)

58 Alexander Von Wuthenau, Unexpected faces in Ancient America, (New York, Crown Publishers, 1975)

59 P.V. Ramos, “History of the Caribs” in The Daily Clarion, Belize, Central America, November 5, 1946 taken from D. Taylor, The Black Carib of Honduras, 37

60 Ibid, 37

61 A. De Quatrefages, Histoire Generate des Races Humaines, Introduction a l’Etude des Races Humaines (Paris: A Hennuyer, 1889), 598

62 Charles de Rochefort, The History of the Carriby Islands, Translated by John Davis, two volumes (London: J.M. for Thos. Dring & John Starkey, 1966), 2, 273

63 Julian Steward (ed.), Handbook of South American Indians, 6 vols. (Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institute Bulletin 143, 1950 vol. 1, 177

64 The present author while touring Beliz and delivering a lecture on “African/Muslim presence in the Americas before Columbus” in 1992, witnessed the re-acceptance of Islam of a number of Garifuna and visited their masjids along the coast.

65 R. Bazan, “Latin America, the Arabs and Islam”, The Muslim World, vol. LXI, 285

66 Ibid, 286

67 Idem,”The Muslim Immigration to Spanish America”, The Muslim World, vol. LXI, 173

68 Ibid, 289

69 Moriscoes were Muslims in Andalusia who were forced to accepted Catholicism.

70 R. Bazan, Muslim Immigration, 183, 184

71 Ibid 286

History Of Imam Abu Haneefa

Imam Abu Haneefa

Contributed by Professor Nazeer Ahmed

A giant among giants, Imam Abu Haneefa towers high among the sages who have graced Islamic history. He was like a huge mirror vaulting from horizon to horizon, reflecting the Light of the Prophet. These reflections empowered generation after generation to see the Light and bask in its warmth. A great majority of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world today (circa 2010 CE) follow the School of Fiqh named after him.

Al Imam al A’zam (the Great Imam), as he is referred to by those who adore him, was the first to define the processes that govern usool e Fiqh(the principles of Fiqh). He preceded Imam Malik by ten years, Imam Shafii by a generation and Imam Ahmed by a hundred years.  Imam Abu Haneefa studied with Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq.  In turn, the other great Imams had the benefit of the legacy of Imam Abu Haneefa when they took on the monumental task of codifying Fiqh.

That Imam Abu Haneefa was one of the greatest of the mujtahideen is well known. What is not commonly known is that he was also a great city planner, responsible for the planning of the city of Baghdad when it was founded by the Caliph al Mansur in 765 CE. Abu Haneefa was a mathematician of the first magnitude.  He was aware of the concepts of specific density and specific volume and implemented them in practice. As a philosopher, his work anticipated the Hegelian dialectic by more than a thousand years. The Hegelian dialectic (named after Hegel the German philosopher of the 17th century) is one of the basic principles of Western philosophy.  Its premise is that a higher collective truth emerges when multiple individual truths compete. To cap it all, Abu Haneefa was no hermit, or a pure academician, cloistering himself in a monastery or a mosque. He was a rich man, a successful merchant, a wonderful human being who lived among common folk with the zest and enthusiasm of a believer and contributed to the life of the community that he was a part of.

The Tigris River kisses the tomb of this mujtahid as it meanders through the now battered city of Baghdad. Located approximately six kilometers from the city center, the mosque of Abu Haneefa complex spreads out in the district of Al A’zamiyah which is named after him. It attracts pilgrims from Turkey, Bosnia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India , Bangladesh, indeed from all over the Islamic world.  The cemetery is old. During the Abbasid period (751 to 1258 CE) it was called Maqbaratul Khaysarun, named after the mother of the famed Caliph Harun al Rashid (763-809CE).  It has the tombs of many of the Abbasid Caliphs and dignitaries.

Gazing at the Abu Haneefa mosque from across the Tigris River on the west bank is the tomb of another great savant, Imam Musa al Kazim. The district is named after him and is called Al Kazimiyah. Musa al Kazim  (745-799CE) was the seventh imam in the lineage of ahl-e-bait in the Ithna Ashari Shia tradition. The Tigris River divides the two tombs and in a wistful simile symbolizes the Shia-Sunni divide that runs through Islamic history as does the river Tigris through the divided city of Baghdad. It is said among the believers on both sides that the two great scholars, Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Musa al Kazim talk to each other in the early hours of the morning bemoaning the Shia-Sunni fitna that has engulfed Baghdad and urging the believers to build a bridge. Indeed, a bridge was built connecting the two mosques early in the twentieth century. The Shias and the Sunnis could not agree whether to call it the al-A’azamiyah bridge or the al Kazimiyah bridge. Therefore, a compromise was reached and it was simply called Burj al Imamiyah (the Bridge of the Imams).

The story of Imam Abu Haneefa is the story of the famed city of Baghdad. With the Abbasid Revolution of 750 CE, the center of gravity of political power shifted from the Arab heartland to Persia and Central Asia. Acknowledging this shift in power, the Caliph al Mansur wished to relocate his capital from Damascus, Syria. Iraq, sandwiched between Persia and the Arab world was the logical choice. Imam Abu Haneefa was commissioned by the Caliph to locate and plan a site for the new capital. Abu Haneefa chose the current location, around a bend of the River Tigris, paying careful attention to defense and communications. To obtain the concurrence of the Caliph, Abu Haneefa marked out the geometrical layout of the planned capital, showing in detail the location of the palace, the mosque, the market place, the residential areas and the fort. Then he sprinkled cotton seeds over the marked outlines. Selecting a moonless night when there was little background radiation, Imam Abu Haneefa set fire to the cotton seeds. One of the characteristics of cotton seeds is that they radiate a brilliant light when they are ignited. Using the ignited cotton seeds as his guide, Imam Abu Haneefa showed the outline of the planned city to the Caliph from a tower specially constructed for observation on the occasion. The Caliph was pleased and authorized the construction to begin.

A large number of bricks were needed for the construction of the city. Factories went up all around the selected site but there was no quality control, of either weight or size. Imam Abu Haneefa prescribed that each brick must meet specific requirements of dimensions and weight. In addition, he stipulated that the bricks, once delivered, be stacked in cubical piles of prescribed dimensions so that the total number of bricks in each pile was one thousand. In this manner, he introduced the concepts of specific density and specific volume and applied them in a major architectural project.

Abu Haneefa was born as Nu’man bin Thabit bin Marzuban. His grandfather Marzuban was an Afghan from Kabul. Unlike most Arabic names, the name Abu Haneefa is derived from the name of one of his daughters, The people of Baghdad relate that Haneefa, the daughter of the Imam, was well known for her piety and showed great intelligence and wisdom at an early age.  She had her own halqa (a study circle) where she instructed  students in matters of religion. One day, a group of women asked her how so many individual men and women could work together for the common good even though they had their own separate families. Haneefa asked each of the women to bring a cup of milk. Taking a large ceramic jug from her father’s house, she poured the milk from each of the individual cups into the jar. “Now, tell me”, she asked each of the ladies, “which portion of the milk is yours”. The women instantly understood that the community was like the milk in the jar. The milk came from different cups but it was now one. As the fame of Haneefa spread, people started to refer to the Imam as Abu Haneefa (the father of Haneefa).

Marzuban was a successful merchant, engaged in the silk trade through the ancient caravan silk road leading from India through Afghanistan, Central Asia to China. He entered the fold of Islam during the period of Khulfa e Rashideen and moved to the garrison city of Kufa in southern Iraq. Located not far from the port city of Abadan, the city of Kufa became the provincial capital of Iraq and a bustling town of commerce and trade. Marzuban prospered as a silk merchant and it was here that Thabit, the father of Abu Haneefa was born.

Thabit ibn Marzuban grew up to be a God fearing young man. It is related that one day as he walked by the banks of the Tigris River, he found an apple that had floated downstream.  Hungry as he was, he picked up the apple and ate it. But then remorse set in. “Who did the apple belong to?”, asked the young Thabit. “I consumed an item without paying for it. How will face the Judgment Day for this forgetfulness?”. He walked upstream along the river bank to find the apple orchard so that he could approach its owner and seek his pardon. He located the orchard and knocked at the door of the owner who was amazed at the honesty and integrity of the young man standing before him, head bowed, asking for his forgiveness. “I will pardon you, but on one condition”, said the owner.  “Anything you propose, sir, I will accept”, said the young Thabit, “I am even willing to work for you to pay off the debt of the apple”. “The condition, my son, is this”, said the owner, “You must marry my daughter. She is blind, deaf and dumb. I need someone to take care of her”. That was the language of the Haneefs (for instance, according to the Quran, Prophet Ibrahim was a Haneef). The young Thabit understood that the daughter had never seen anything objectionable, heard anything bad or spoken ill of anyone. He immediately agreed.

Nu’man bin Thabit, later known by his universal name Imam Abu Haneefa, was born in the year 699 CE in the city of Kufa. As it is with most famous men and women in history, his lineage is claimed by Iranians, Afghans and Arabs alike. But most scholars agree he was of Afghan parentage through his grandfather Marzuban. Kufa was at the time a garrison city in a period of rapid expansion of the Omayyad Empire. It was also the provincial capital of Iraq and a commercial center, a meeting place for Persians, Arabs, Afghans and Indians. Turkish tribesmen wandered in from Central Asia as did the Chinese from far away Sinkiang. Abu Haneefa was only twelve years old when Sindh and Multan were added to the Omayyad domains through the conquests of Mohammed bin Qasim (711CE).

The melting pot that was Kufa left a lasting impact on the young Abu Haneefa and this impact is reflected in his Fiqh. His oft-quoted saying: “The Iman (faith) of a converted Turk is the equal of the iman of a resident of Madina”, summarizes his openness and acceptance of people of all nations and ethnic origins. Kufa was a very different town from Madina. While Madina was the city of the Prophet, the cradle of Islamic civilization, insulated from the convulsive currents in faraway lands, Kufa was at the very center of cultural and intellectual turbulence brought on by the mixing of Persian Zoroastrians, Chinese Buddhists, Indian Hindus, Roman Christians and Arab Muslims. The geopolitical as well the cultural contexts of the two cities was different. This background must be kept in mind by students of comparative Fiqh who study the positions of the various schools of Fiqh on specific issues.

Abu Haneefa, born as he was into a merchant family, learned the silk trade from his grandfather. His early training was in commerce rather than in Sunnah and Fiqh. It is related that when he was eight years old and was on his way to his grandfather’s silk store, he was stopped by a Shaykh and was asked which madrasa he was headed to. The Shaykh saw the light on the face of the young Abu Haneefa and sensed his great potential. When Abu Haneefa answered that he was headed to the silk store of his grandfather and not to a madrasa, the Shaykh guided him instead to a classroom. The young Abu Haneefa made rapid progress and soon outperformed all the other students in his class, memorizing the Quran, learning hadith and Sunnah and soaking in the knowledge that the best of the Shaykhs had to offer.

The learning of the young Shaykh Abu Haneefa soon attracted the attention of students and scholars.  Young and old alike attended his halqa (a circle of students) and learned from him. Traveling to the Hijaz, Abu Haneefa performed his Hajj and spent two years in Madina attending the halqa of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq, learning from him the inner meaning of the Shari’ah as transmitted from the Prophet through ahl-e-bait. There is, however, another tradition which believes that Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq never met. However, on the basis of the well known saying of Imam Abu Haneefa, “If it were not for the two years I spent with Ja’afar as Sadiq, I would be left wandering”, we accept the premise that Imam Abu Haneefa did indeed attend the halqa of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq and learned ilm ul ishara (the knowledge of the unseen) from him.

Imam Abu Haneefa had a unique method of teaching his students. Instead of giving them solutions to specific questions brought before him, the Imam would divide up his students into two groups. One group was asked to defend a proposition while the other was asked to oppose it. “What if” propositions were placed before the class. The students would study the Quran, the Sunnah, the hadith as well as the earlier decisions taken by the Suhaba, passionately debate among themselves, and would finally come up with a consensus. The process was devised to remove any probability of error in the judgment and the premise was that a higher truth emerges out of the dialectic (debate) of two opposing positions. A thousand years later, the same process became the foundation for the Hegelian dialectic, a school of philosophy named after the German philosopher George Wilhelm Frederich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel is considered the father of dialectic philosophy. The Marxists as well as the German nationalists before the Second World War considered Hegel to be the father of their ideology.

Imam Abu Haneefa was keenly aware of the challenges faced by jurists in the dynamic social environment of Kufa. The Zoroastrians, the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Sabians and the Christians had their own view of the cosmos and their own way of relating to the transcendent. As more and more followers of these ancient faiths accepted Islam, especially during the reign of the Caliph Omar bin Abdel Aziz (717-719 CE), there arose the immediate challenge of answering the questions posed by the new entrants to the Islamic faith. Imam Abu Haneefa rose to the challenge. He looked upon Fiqh as a dynamic process, applicable in all ages and all locations. No jurist of the future would be left without the tools required to search for solutions to the specific issues faced by him in his own space and time.

It is important here to elaborate on the terms Shari’ah and Fiqh as the two are sometimes used interchangeably as if they are synonymous, which they are not. Shari’ah is the unchanging, eternal Law of the Divine and applies to nature, history as well as societal issues. The fact that the sun  rises from the east is Shari’ah. The fact that electromagnetic waves take more than eight minutes to reach the earth from the sun is Shari’ah. If the earth was any closer to the sun, it would be too hot. If the earth was any farther away, it would be too cold. In either case, life on this planet would be impossible. The fact that the earth is tucked in a secure niche, coupled to a star of medium size, in a secure corner of our galaxy which rotates in its own orbit  is Shari’ah. The fact that individuals and nations will ultimately destroy themselves if they violate justice is Shari’ah. Prayer is Shari’ah.  So are charity, fasting, zakat and hajj.

Fiqh is the historical dimension of the Shari’ah. It is the human attempt to apply the Shari’ah so that they discharge the Divine commandment to create Divine patterns on earth. It defines the how, what, who when and what ifs of the Shari’ah. The process of Fiqh is a dynamic balance between the application of Divine Mercy and Divine Wrath with justice acting as the governing principle.  The Quran and the hadith explain clearly that Divine Mercy is preponderant over Divine wrath (The Quran, 11:119. Please also see the hadith, “By Him in whose Hand is my life, if you were not to commit sin, Allah would sweep you out of existence, and He would replace you by those people who would commit sin and seek forgiveness from Allah, and He would have pardoned them.“ Sahih Muslim, Volume 4, 1143, Kitab al-Tauba). The majestic panorama of creation revolves around knowledge, worship, service and forgiveness. The dimensions of Shari’ah are infinite. The dimensions of Fiqh are finite and it has definite hudood(limits).

The Hanafi Fiqh which evolved as an outgrowth of the teachings of Imam Abu Haneefa offers five sources for the development of Fiqh: the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet and his confirmed Ahadith, the Ijmah of the Companions, Qiyas and Estehsan.  The different schools of Fiqh differ on the importance of these five sources.The Maliki school which grew up in Madina in the heart of the Islamic world, accepts the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet and the collective Ijmah of all the Companions as sources of Fiqh but it rejects Qiyas and Estehsan. The Shafii school requires the Ijmah of the Companions to be universal as does the Maliki Fiqh, but unlike the Maliki Fiqh, it accepts the principle of Qiyas under exceptional circumstances. The Shafii Fiqh rejects Estehsan as does the Ithna Ashari Fiqh. The Hanbali Fiqh is the strictest of them all. It accepts only the Quran, the verified Sunnah of the Prophet and the universal consensus of the Companions as sources of Fiqh.

The Sunnah schools accept the mutuality of the four major schools of Fiqh, namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali. They differ only in their emphasis of the sources of Fiqh.

It was the genius of Imam Abu Haneefa that he left behind a legacy of jurisprudence, and the broadest principles that practically any jurist at any time and any place could use. Al Madhab al Qiyas, for instance, is the science of analogy. Qiyas literally means to measure, to place something in balance. Where a direct injunction from the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet is not available, the principle of Qiyas permits a jurist to use the force of analogy, to measure the preponderance of evidence and offer a legal opinion on a juridical matter. Similarly, where an entirely new situation arises which was not foreseen in earlier times, the principle of Estehsan provides a jurist the independence of Ijtihad (which means a rigorous intellectual exercise to arrive at a legal opinion).

The principles of Qiyas and Estehsan are available to the large number of Muslims who live as minorities in India, China, Europe and America to apply the Shari’ah and deduce legal opinions that meet the requirements of their social, political and economic context. For instance, in the thirteenth century, at the height of the Mongol destructions, the great scientist Nasiruddin al Tusi applied the principles of Estehsan to develop a school of akhlaq (character) called akhlaq e Nasiri. This school later became the foundation of the curriculum in the schools of Mogul India. Through his very openness, Imam Abu Haneefa left open the doors to ijtehad for minorities, doors that were shut in later times. This is his legacy. This is his greatness. No wonder he is referred to as al Imam al A’zam (the great Imam).If ever a Fiqh for minorities, al Fiqh al akhliyya (minority Fiqh) is evolved (as opposed to the existing schools of Fiqh which are al Fiqh al Aghlabiya, the Fiqh of the majority or the dominant group), the credit for its foundation must go to Imam al A’zam, Abu Haneefa.

Imam Abu Haneefa was a successful merchant and in his mu’amilaat(commercial transactions) demonstrated a fastidious adherence to the principles of the Shari’ah. It is related that once the Imam gave a loan to a man to build a house.  The next year, on a hot summer day, as the Imam was walking through the streets of Kufa, he felt tired and paused briefly in the shade of a house. When he enquired whose house it was, he was told that the house belonged to the man whom the Imam had given the loan. The Imam was terrified that he had taken an Idhafa (an increase) in the loan by taking advantage of the shade of the house and on the Judgment Day he would have to answer for his deeds because the act of taking refuge in the shade of a house for which he had given a loan might be construed as riba. Distraught, Imam Abu Haneefa forgave the loan.

Even while maintaining the rigor of his principles, al Imam al A’zam, Abu Haneefa was very human and had a keen sense of humor. Once a man asked him about taking a swim in the river. “Should I face the qibla when I bathe in the river”, asked the man. “No”, replied the Imam, “You should face the bank of the river and watch your clothes”.

His success and his greatness made the political establishment of the times jealous of him. In 766 CE Caliph al Mansur asked Imam Abu Haneefa to be the chief Kadi (judge) of Baghdad. The Caliph had hoped that by offering him a high post he could bring the Imam under his control. But the great ulema and sages and awliyah have through the ages refused the favors of kings and noblemen to maintain their independence. Abu Haneefa declined. The Caliph, furious that his invitation was spurned, had the Imam flogged and put in jail.  Even in the prison, the Imam continued to teach and train his disciples. And it was in prison that this great mujtahid breathed his last in the year 767 CE. The tribute to this giant among scholars is that a large majority of Muslims around the world, from Istanbul to Dhaka, from Samarqand to Cairo, use the Fiqh named after him. The principles of Qiyas and Estehsan evolved by Imam Abu Haneefa, when they are applied in conjunction with the Quran, the Sunnah and Ijmah,  provide the intellectual tools that can be used to develop a minority Fiqh (al Fiqh al Akhliyya) which has yet to emerge in the Islamic world despite the fact that more than three hundred million Muslims live as religious minorities in India, China, Russia, South Africa, Europe, Australia and North America.

Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq

Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq

Contributed by Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq (700-765 CE) was a giant among Islamic sages. He was the Shaykh of great Shaykhs, the teacher of Imam Abu Haneefa, Imam Malik, Abu Yazid al Bastami and Wasim ibn Atta. His scholarship embraced the esoteric as well as the exoteric, ilm ul ishara as well as ilm ul ibara, the sciences of kalam as well as the sciences of hadith, sunnah, the natural sciences and the historical sciences. He was al-hakim, an integrator, a true man of wisdom in the Quranic sense, a complete alimwho understood that the Shariah applied not just to the world of man but to the world of nature as well. He applied his incisive knowledge to create Divine patterns in the world of man through Fiqh but he also saw those patterns in nature and in history and he taught them to his students. He was the inheritor of two secrets, one from Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r), the other from Ali ibn Abi Talib (r). He was a far sighted savant who worked to bridge the gap between the Shia and the Sunni and between Islam and other faiths. No wonder the Shia and the Sunni, the Sufi and the Salafi, the traditionalist and the modernist all claim him to be one of their own.

He lived in exciting times. It was the age of faith. It was the age of reason. It was the age of intellectual consolidation. It was also the age of imperial expansion and political upheavals. It was the age when Islamic civilization came into its own. The seed planted by the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) sprouted, was tended to during this age by men and women of extraordinary vision and certainty of faith. The shape of this tree and the taste of its fruit were largely a legacy of what these great men and women did and did not do.

Just as a tree has many branches, the global Islamic community has many branches, each with its own beauty and its own unique characteristics: Shia, Sunni, Sufi, Salafi, Modernist, Traditionalist, the esoteric and the exoteric, the Arab, the Persian, the Turk, the African, the Pakistani, the Indian, the European, the Indonesian, and the Chinese. All of these branches grew out of the same trunk. The fact that they are different adds to the overall beauty of the tree and its global appeal.

Few scholars through the centuries have bridged the differences between Shia and Sunni, Sufi and Salafi, Modernist and Traditionalist and fewer yet have risen so high in their scholarship that they were claimed, with equal validity by the Shia and the Sunni, the Sufi and the Salafi, the Modernist and the Traditionalist. Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq was one such scholar. The Shias—Ithna Ashari, Ismailis, Alavis and Agha Khanis alike—consider him to be the sixth Imam. The Sunnis consider him to be a teacher of the great mujtahideen, Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Malik bin Anas. The Sufis of alltareeqas locate him in the chain of transmission of spiritual knowledge from the Prophet, the Salafis accept the ahadith transmitted through him, the modernists consider him to be the teacher of some of the best known empirical and rational scientists of the age, and the traditionalists follow his guidance in matters of faith and ritual. While the Sunnah of the Prophet is like the trunk of the tree that is the world of Islam, Imam Ja’afar was one of its main branches.

Yet another way to look at Imam Ja’afar is to consider him as the amalgam of Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r) and Ali Ibn Abi Talib (r). You recall that upon the death of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) many Companions considered Abu Bakr (r) to represent the consensus of the community while others felt that Ali (r) was the heir to Prophetic wisdom and was the one to be followed. The Islamic community split along these lines. Imam Ja’afar brought these two streams together through family relationships as well as scholarship. In him the esoteric and the exoteric, the consensus of the community and the Prophetic wisdom merged. Very few scholars had that privilege.

Lastly, Imam Ja’afar was a master both of Ilm ul Ibara and Ilm ul Ishara. Classical Islamic scholars divided knowledge into two broad categories, namely, that which was accessible to the mind and that which is accessible only to the heart.  In the former category belong reason, logic, mathematics, science, sociology, hadith and the obligations and rituals of religion. This knowledge can be taught and can be learned from an Alim. It is called Ilm ul Ibara from the Arabic root Alif-Bay-Ray (a-ba-ra) which means to wade, like wading from one shore of a river to the other. This is the knowledge imparted to a pupil in a school or a university. The knowledge of the heart, on the other hand, is not accessible to the mind but only to the heart. In this category belong love, compassion, humility, piety, ethics and a consciousness of Divine presence. This knowledge cannot be taught. But a great Shaykh can help a pupil cleanse his heart and open it to the unlimited possibilities of ilm ul Ishara. Sometimes, these two streams of knowledge are referred to as Ilm ul Ghaib (knowledge that is beyond perception) and Ilm uz Zahir (knowledge that is accessible to perception).  This terminology is consistent with Quranic terminology. However, a discussion of Ilm ul ghaib is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to point out here that Imam Sa’adiq inherited and was imparted Ilm ul Ishara from his father and grandfather, while he learned Ilm ul Ibara from the great ulema of the age.

Let me illustrate the difference between ilm ul ibara and ilm ul ishara by a parable that is taught to advanced students of fiqh and tasawwuf. It is said that the Prophet gave one of his robes to Hadrath Omar (r) and Hadrath Ali (r) and instructed them to take it to Hadrath al Uwaisi (r). But Hadrath al Uwaisi, one of the greatest of the Companions, had never met the Prophet or seen him in person. So Hadrath Omar and Hadrath Ali set out in search of this great Companion who had received the honor of a Prophetic robe. They went from town to town, village to village, hamlet to hamlet, enquiring about al Uwaisi. Finally, they came upon a small settlement around a well in the desert. Upon enquiry, the people said to Hadrath Omar and Hadrath Ali: “You see that man at the well with his back to us. That is al Uwaisi. He is always reciting, ‘la ilaha il Allah, Muhammad rasool Allah’, and each time he recites it, he cries.” As the two approached the well, Hadrath al Uwaisi, without turning his head, said aloud, “O Omar! O Ali! Have you brought the robe of the Prophet?” The two answered, “Yes, indeed, we have”.  Hadrath al Uwaisi took the robe, kissed it, placed it on his head and his eyes, and wept bitterly for the love the Prophet. When he came of his own, he turned to Omar (r) and asked: “O Omar! Have you ever seen the Prophet?”  The mighty Omar (r) was aghast at the question. “How could al Uwaisi ask me such a question when I have known the Prophet all my life?”  “Yes, Indeed, I have” answered the great Omar ibn al Khattab (r), and proceeded to describe the noble physical attributes of the Prophet. When he was finished, al Uwaisi turned to Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) and asked: “O Ali! Have you ever seen the Prophet?” Ali (r) answered: “I saw the Prophet only once, and I saw only a portion of his limitless chest. What is beyond it was not shown to me.”

Ja’afar ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq was born in the year 700 CE. His father Imam Muhammad al-Baqir was the son of Imam Zainul Abedin and the grandson of Imam Hussain ibn Ali. The year was the 83rd year of the Hijrah or 20 years after the tragedy of Karbala. We have specifically highlighted the chronology of Karbala, because it defined, as we shall see, many of the convulsions that took place during the lifetime of Imam Ja’afar. His mother Umm Farwah bint Qasim ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr was a great great grand daughter of Asma Bint Umais who was married to Abu Bakr Siddiq. Therefore, through familiar relationship Imam Ja’afar was related both to Abu Bakr (r) and Ali (r) and through Imam Hussain and Fatima az Zahra (r)  to the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh).

Imam Ja’afar received his early education from his father Imam Baqir and his maternal grandfather al-Qasim. The stream of knowledge, both esoteric and exoteric through Imam Baqir leads in an unbroken chain to Imam Zainul Abedin, Imam Hussain, Fatima az Zahra, Ali Ibn Abi Talib(r) and the Prophet. The stream of knowledge from his maternal side leads in an unbroken chain to Abu Bakr (r) and the Prophet. So it is that in Imam Ja’afar the esoteric and exoteric streams emanating from Abu Bakr (r) and Ali Ibn Abi Talib (r) meet. Ali (r) was referred to by the Prophet as “the doorway to my knowledge”. Abu Bakr (r) received his immersion in the Prophetic knowledge in the cave during the Hijrah of the Prophet from Mecca to Madina. This sublime event is alluded to in the Quran: “When the two of them were in the cave, (And) when he said to his companion: “Do not despair! Verily, Allah is with us.” (9, 40). The confluence of the streams of esoteric knowledge from Abu Bakr as Siddiq and Ali Ibn Abi Talib has profound meanings in Sufi liturgy and it is beyond the scope of this brief paper.

In addition to his training from his father and grandfather, Imam Ja’afar received formal education in the Quran and Hadith from eminent ulema of the age. He was also well versed in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, anatomy, alchemy and the natural sciences.

It was a period of rapid expansion of the Umayyad Empire. Imam Ja’afar was only eleven years old when Tariq ibn Ziyad and Musa ibn Nossayr crossed the Straits of Gibraltar (711-712 CE) and in a campaign extending over seven years, conquered Spain and Portugal. At the eastern extreme of the empire, Muhammad bin Qasim Al-Thaqafi  subdued Sind and Multan (711-714) in modern Pakistan.  Imam Ja’afar was seventeen when Omar bin Abdel Aziz became the Caliph in Baghdad. It was during the reign of this pious Caliph and his fair and just administration towards all subjects that conversion in Persia and Egypt gathered momentum. And Imam Ja’afar was thirty three (733CE) when Omayyad armies under Abdur Rahman I were stopped at the Battle of Tours in France and retreated to Sorbonne, thus marking the farthest reach of Muslim conquests in Europe.

Even as the Omayyad Empire expanded to include all of West Asia, western India, Central Asia, North Africa and Spain, it was seething with discontent from within.  The memory of Karbala was fresh in the minds of the Omayyads and the Shiites alike.  Omayyad rule was harsh towards the Shiites and looked upon them with suspicion. There were many revolts but two of them are worth mentioning. In the year 740 CE, when Imam Ja’afar was forty years old, Zayd bin Zainul Abedin led a revolt against the Umayyad Caliph al Hisham (d 744CE). The claim that Banu Hashim and Ahle Bait were the rightful heirs to the leadership of the ummah did not disappear with the assassination of Ali (r), the abdication of Hassan (r) or the martyrdom of Hussain (r).  It just went underground. After the death of Imam Zainul Abedin (712CE), his second son Zaid ibn Ali, considering it his duty to oppose Omayyad tyranny, invoked the example of Karbala and led an armed insurrection against the Umayyads. He had banked on the loyalty of the Kufans in the struggle. However, the Kufans, true to their historical perfidy, first promised their support and then pulled out of the fray just as they had done to Imam Hussain at the Battle of Karbala. Zaid ibn Ali died in the battle.

There was another uprising, led by the Abbasids which had a profound and lasting impact on Islamic history. Dissatisfied with the spiritual approach taken by Imam Zainul Abedin after Karbala, some supporters of Bani Hashim looked elsewhere for leadership. They found a leader in Muhammad bin Hanafia, a son of Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) from one of his marriages after the death of Fatima az Zahra (r). This is the beginning of the non-Fatimid branch of the Alavis. After Muhammad bin Hanafia, his son Abu Sulaiman Abdullah became the Imam but he was poisoned by the Omayyad Caliph Sulaiman. As he lay dying, Abdullah looked around for someone from his family to pass on the Imamate. As no one from his immediately family was available, he found a Hashemite, Muhammad bin Ali Abbas, from a nearby town. Muhammad bin Ali Abbas was a grandson of Abbas, uncle of the Prophet. Thus, through a twist of historical circumstance, one branch of the Imamate passed from children of Ali ibn Abi Talib to the children of Abbas. This branch is referred to as the Abbasids. It was the Abbasids who established their Caliphate in the year 750 CE and ruled the vast Islamic Empire from Baghdad for more than five hundred years until the Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258 CE.


Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq stayed above the political convulsions of the age, focusing instead on teaching and training the community.  In this respect he presages the great Sufi Shaykhs who were to grace the canvas of Islamic history in later centuries,  most of whom, with some notable exceptions like Shaykh Sanusi of Libya (d 1860), Shaykh Shamayl of Daghestan (d 1871), and Shaykh Abdel Qadir of Algeria (d 1883), shunned politics and political involvement, emphasizing instead the spiritual and ethical well being of man. This outlook was of immense benefit to Islamic civilization. Imam Ja’afar avoided the ruthless persecution that awaited Umayyad rule focusing instead on scholarship and teaching. There was wisdom in this strategy.  History owes a debt of gratitude to Imam Sa’adiq for his dedication to knowledge and teaching which produced great luminaries in the fields of jurisprudence, tasawwuf, science and mathematics.


Imam Ja’afar is known in history as one the greatest of Islamic scholars and teachers. The method of teaching those days was in a halqa or a semi-circle where a shaykh imparted knowledge and wisdom to those who attended his halqas. It was the age when transmission of knowledge was through a discourse between a teacher and his pupil or a Sufi sage and his murid.  Such halqas were held in the house of a shaykh or in a mosque. Imam Ja’afar initially taught at the halqa started by his father Imam Baqir. As the attendance grew the halqas were held in the mosque of the Prophet in Madina. So great was his radiance that he immediately attracted a large number of students. Many of these students were learned and well known shaykhs themselves, much older than Imam Ja’afar and in some fields as learned as he. Such was the humility of the scholars those days. They did not consider it beneath their dignity to learn from a younger man more knowledgeable than themselves. Among those who frequented his halqas in the early years was Imam Abu Haneefa who said with reference to his association with Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq: “Were it not for the two years I spent in the company of Ja’afar as Sadiq, I would be wandering”. He referred to Imam Ja’afar as “the most learned scholar I have ever seen”. The reference here is to the transmission of spiritual knowledge. Shariah has both an external aspect and an internal aspect. The internal aspect of Shariah is the anchor to which the external aspect is tethered. Imam Abu Haneefa is known as Imam al-Azam (the Great Imam) in the field of jurisprudence. As acknowledged by Imam Abu Haneefa, the spiritual underpinnings of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence owes much to the spiritual knowledge transmitted by Imam Ja’afar as Sa’adiq and through an unbroken chain of transmissions and his lineage to the spirituality of Ali Ibn Abi Talib (r), Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r) and (for those who wish to immerse themselves into this deep ocean) to Noor e Muhammadi, the Light of Muhammad (pbuh).

Another great scholar who attended the halqa of Imam Ja’afar was Imam Malik ibn Anas, after whom the Maliki school is named. Most students of Islamic jurisprudence do not realize that much of the Maliki Fiqh is based upon the rulings given by Ali ibn Abi Talib (r) during the Caliphat of Omar ibn al Khattab (r).   Imam Malik (711-795CE) of Madina was younger than Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq (700-765 CE) and Imam Abu Haneefa (699-767CE). Imam Malik said of Imam Ja’afar: “I was his regular visitor for a period of time, and I never saw him once without praying, fasting or reciting the Qur’an.” In the next generation after Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Malik, Imam Shafii (d 820) of Damascus studied the teachings of Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Malik and developed the Shafii school of Fiqh. The Hanbali Fiqh which grew out of a protest movement against the Mutazalites used the earlier schools of Fiqh as its basis. Thus all the major schools of Fiqh, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, Hanbali and Ja’afariya owe a debt of gratitude to the knowledge transmitted by Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq.


Shari’ah has both an inner dimension and an outer dimension. It has outward manifestations  as well as an inner taste. If the major schools of Fiqh reflect both the inner and outer dimensions of the Shari’ah, it is due in no small measure to the insights offered by Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq.

Imam Ja’afar was not only a scholar of Kalam, Sunnah and Hadith. He was also a historian and a master of chemistry, astronomy, mathematics and natural sciences. One of his students Jabir ibn Hayyan, went on to distinguish himself as the foremost chemist and mathematicians of his age. The comprehensiveness and breath of scholarship exhibited by Imam Ja’afar is consistent with the Quranic Injunctions to study not only the sciences of the soul but also the sciences of nature and of history because in all three there are Signs of Divine patterns. The Quran states: “Soon We shall show them Our Signs on the horizon and within themselves, until it is clear to them that it is indeed the Truth.” (41, 53). On the horizon means the external (zahiri) world of man (history and sociology) and the world of nature (the natural sciences). It was only after the seventeenth century that the study of Quran and the Sunnah was separated from a study of history and natural sciences in Islamic academies with disastrous consequences for Islamic civilization.

Imam Ja’afar lived in a period of intellectual turmoil. The rapid advance of the Omayyad armies into India, Spain and Central Asia had brought into the fold of Islam Christians, Zoroastrians, Copts, Buddhists, Hindus and Nestorians. These arrivals brought with them their own ways of looking at the transcendent and their own systems of ancient learning.  Muslims scholars, in their zeal to understand and transform the Divine patterns on earth, moved with enthusiasm and vigor to learn the sciences of Greece, Egypt, Persia, India and China. Khalifa al Mansur was a great patron of learning. He sent delegations to Constantinople, with generous gifts, to bring back the Greek works of Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Ptolemy and Galen. From India came the Siddhanta of Aryabhatta, a classic Sanskrit work of astronomy and mathematics created during the reign of Gupta dynasty in northern India (319-550 CE). As the reservoir of knowledge increased so did the curiosity of people and they looked for answers to the basic questions of religion in the light of the new knowledge acquired from distant lands. The development of Fiqh was the response of Islamic civilization to this intellectual eruption. It provided stability to the intellectual landscape and guided the Islamic community through the turbulence of competing and sometimes contradictory ideas.  Imam Ja’afar was one of the intellectual giants who guided the ship of Islam through the turbulence of these ideological storms.

Imam Ja’afar taught the natural and historical sciences as well. His teachings reveal that he knew about the rotation of the earth around the sun, the existence of elements beyond the four (earth, air, water and fire) subscribed to by the Greeks. He also held discourses on the nature of light and heat that are consistent with our own modern understanding of these subjects. One of his students was the well known chemist and mathematician Jabir ibn Hayyan. Wasil ibn Ata (d 748 CE) who is generally credited with the founding of the Mutazilah (rational) school of philosophy also studied at the halqa of Imam Ja’afar.

The question is sometimes asked as to how it is possible for a person to have knowledge of the natural and mathematical sciences which he had not learned from other teachers. Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq and his father Imam Baqir knew these subjects before the books of the Greeks and the Indians were translated into Arabic. The question is deep and requires a serious answer. The difficulty in answering the question arises from the claim by modern science and by modern man that the empirical and the rational are the only two methods of acquiring knowledge. It does not admit of acquisition of knowledge by supra-rational or transcendent means. I have dealt with this question in other essays in great detail. I will summarize my research here.

Knowledge is acquired by at least four methods: empirical, rational, intuition and infusion. The empirical is the language of observation and experimentation. It is the language of the senses and is the basis of modern science. The rational is extensional knowledge and is the language of mathematics. The rational is a servant of the empirical. Intuition is knowledge that is known to man but which he has forgotten. It is bestowed by Divine grace to those who seek it. Infusion is the language of the scriptures and is given only to the Prophets.

Human civilization is built on all four of these modes of learning. Modern man accepts the empirical and the rational, denies the language of infusion (revelation) and is fuzzy about inspiration unless it is subjected to empirical validation.

So much in human experience cannot be measured. How do you measure love? How do you attach a dollar value to the sacrifices of parents as they bring up their children? If you think these are esoteric questions, consider the following: When I was a Principal Scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope during the period 1979-1982, I was asked to design advanced composite structures which have a thermal expansion of less than one thousandth of a millionth of a wavelength of light. Those skilled in this field will immediately recognize that there are no known scientific instruments that can measure the dimensional accuracy of structures to this precision. I had to invent and devise an acceptable method with sufficient accuracy for this application. But what if the requirement was more stringent than that stated above?  The task would be impossible with our present state of technology. One of the most challenging tasks in scientific research is the design of a reliable experiment. There is so much that just cannot be measured. There is much that the modern disbelieving person accepts  on the basis of faith even if it is not measured. For instance, what existed before the Big Bang? And yet when a sage, a religious scholar or a great man of intuition takes a position in natural science, he is laughed at.

This has been the difficulty faced by the sages through the ages. People laughed at them because they just could not understand the wisdom of the sages.  This was even more so with the Prophets. The people of Noah laughed at him when he was building the ark. The Pharaoh wanted his Chief to build a tall structure so that he could “look” at the God of Moses!

Much of the language of intuition is Ilm ul Ishara. It can be felt, alluded to but it cannot be taught. Some of it is accessible to reason, some is not. Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq was a sage. Through his training, his lineage, his piety, his unstinted character and his purified heart reflecting Divine grace,  his intuition was wider than that of most people. If he predicted the movement of the earth around the sun, it was not because he necessarily learned this from the Egyptians or Greeks but because this knowledge, the Truth, is within the heart, only to be discovered by those who seek it. It is a Divine gift, given to whom He pleases.

Summarily, every human being is born with an infinite reservoir of knowledge. But man forgets and the knowledge is submerged into the subconscious. It becomes apparent and accessible to perception through conscious effort, training, striving. Divine grace favors those who strive and struggle and rewards them with the perception of that which was hitherto not perceived. That is intuition. A scientist has scientific intuition through his/her hard work. A sage acquires it through his/her heart that is illuminated by Divine grace.

We reinforce our observation by pointing out that a research committee consisting of well known scientists from France, Germany, Italy, United States, Iran, Lebanon and England examined the scientific teachings of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq and looked into its sources. It was called the Research Committee of Strasbourg. It confirmed the scientific basis of Imam Ja’afar but got bogged down as to its sources. The committee members, scientists as they are in the modern empirical and rational sciences cannot accept that there are other modes of learning accessible to man through Divine grace, namely, through inspiration (intuition) or revelation.

The scholarship and wisdom of Imam Ja’afar was not without its distracters. Khalifa al Mansur, who ruled from Kufa and Baghdad at that time, was a far sighted, rational monarch open to new ideas from the far corners of the earth. But there was another, less compassionate aspect to his rule.  Indeed, he was in many ways a tyrant. Suspicious as he was of rival centers of power, he was intolerant of any sign of dissent. Alarmed at the popularity of Imam Sadiq, al Mansur wanted to discredit him by showing that his knowledge was limited. He commanded Imam Abu Hanifa to formulate forty controversial questions related to Fiqh which would be asked of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq. Imam Abu Hanifa knew that refusal to follow the Caliph’s instructions would result in public flogging or worse.  Confident that Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq was more than a match for any questions put to him, Imam Abu Hanifa formulated the questions. The two imams were called into the presence of Caliph Mansur and the questions were asked of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq. Imam Ja’afar not only answered each question, he also gave a comparative analysis of the legal opinions of the Kufa school (which later became the Hanafi Fiqh) and the Madinite school (which evolved into the Maliki Fiqh) as well as his own opinion (documented in later years as the Ja’afariya Fiqh). Satisfied, the Caliph sent the two Imams home unmolested.

The character of Imam Ja’afar was exemplary. He was pious, always engaged in remembrance of God. He emphasized the need for ethics, morality and justice in human affairs. Sufyan Ath-Thawri reports some of the Imam’s sayings: “A liar is devoid of honor;; an envious person can find no comfort; and an ill-mannered one gains no respect. Place your trust in God to be a true believer; and be content with what God has given you and you will be rich. Be kind to your neighbor to be a true Muslim; and do not seek company with people who  transgress the limits defined by God, because they teach you their ways. On all matters, consult only those who are God-fearing.”

Imam Ja’afar taught reconciliation and brotherhood across interfaith and sectarian divides. Regarding the Sunnis he said: “Pray with their tribes, take part in their funerals, visit their sick and give them what is due to them”. Shaykh Hisham reports the following invocation of Imam Ja’afar about Abu Bakr Siddiq (r) and Omar ibn al Khattab (r): “O God, you are my witness that I love Abu Bakr and I love Omar and if what I am saying is not true may God cut me off from the intercession of Muhammad (pbuh).” How different was the approach of the great Imams from the parochial approach of today’s Shias and Sunnis who are at each other’s throats, steeped as they are in the ignorance and prejudice accumulated over centuries of self-serving historical narratives!

History Of Maulana Rumi

Maulana Rumi

Contributed by Ibrahim Gamard

Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī b. Bahā’ al-Dīn Walad b. Ḥusayn b. Aḥmad Khaṭībī was born on 6 Rabīc I 604/September 30, 1207 in or near the ancient city of Balkh in a region of Khorāsān (now in Afghanistan) and died on 5 Jumāda II 672/December 17, 1273 in Konya (now in Turkey). His birth name was the same as his father’s: Muḥammad. From an early age, his father called him Jalāl al-Dīn (“The glory of the Religion”). He was also called by the Arabic title, Mawlānā (“our Master”), as was his father. In addition, his disciples called him by the Persian title, Khodāwandgar (“great Master”). He was known as Rūmī (“Roman”) because he spent most of his life in the region known by Muslims as “Rūm,” the Anatolian peninsula most of which had been conquered by the Saljūq Turks after centuries of rule by the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire.

Mawlānā has long been viewed as one of the greatest Persian poets and has been called “surely the greatest mystical poet in the history of mankind” (Arberry, 1949, p. xix). He is the author of the following poetic works: Dīvān-é Kabīr (“Great Collected Poetic Works”) or Dīvān-é Shams-é Tabrīzī (which contains, in the earliest manuscripts, more than 3,000ghazaliyāt or lyric poems, 40 tarjīcāt or stanzaic poems, and over 1800rubācīyāt or quatrains) and Mathnawī-yé Macnawī (“Couplets of Deep Spiritual Meaning”), considered his greatest work that was composed in his later years, which contains over 25,000 authentic verses). Over the centuries, many verses and poems, as well as “improvements” within verses, have been added to the manuscript tradition; and more inauthentic verses and poems are claimed as belonging to Mawlānā in contemporary books and articles. His prose works, believed to have been compiled after his death, are Fīhi Mā Fīhi (“Whatever Is In It, Is In It,” also known as the “Discourses of Rumi”), Majālis-é Sabca (“Seven Sessions,” also known as the “Sermons”), and Maktūbāt (“Letters”).

The basic story of Mawlānā’s life is well known: how he emigrated from Balkh with his family just prior to its destruction by the Mongol army of Genghis Khan, travelled from place to place (including Mecca) with his family before living in several towns in Anatolia (in present day Turkey) and moving finally to Konya (the ancient city of Iconium), succeeded his father who was a renowned religious scholar, met the wandering dervish Shams al-Dīn of Tabrīz who had a transforming impact on his life, became troubled by the jealousy of his followers that led to the first disappearance of Shams, sent his oldest son (Sulṭān Walad) to bring Shams back from Damascus, became completely distraught when Shams disappeared permanently, then became more profoundly creative than ever before as a mystical poet, and was succeeded (following the death of his chief disciple, Ḥusām al-Dīn Chalabī) by Sulṭān Walad, who was the first to organize the tradition of the Mawlawī (Mevlevi) Sufis-later known in the West as the “Whirling Dervishes.”

Here, certain aspects of his life have been selected for emphasis, some of which challenge assumptions and claims that occur frequently in many of the books and articles about Mawlānā.

According to Sepahsālār, who wrote that he was Mawlānā’s direct disciple, Mawlānā’s birth was in the year 1207 C.E. (p. 22). And Aflākī also accepted this year in his hagiography (p. 73), written at the request of Mawlānā’s grandson (between 1318-1353) and mentioned the full date as September 30, 1207 (6 Rabīc al-Awwal 604 A.H.). However, some Mawlānā scholars have thought there was evidence of an earlier birth year, but this view has not been accepted by most scholars (Lewis, pp. 317-20).

There is evidence, based on his father’s journal, Macārif, that Mawlānā was born in Wakhsh (now in Tākijistān), about 240 kilometers northeast of Balkh in the valley of the Wakhsh River (which flows into the Āmū Daryā, or Oxus River), where his father lived and worked as a jurist and preacher between 1204 and 1210 (Bausani, 1965, p. 393; Meier; Schimmel, p. 11; Lewis, pp. 47-49). The town of Wakhsh was culturally a part of the city of Balkh. In the year 1212, Mawlānā’s father moved with his family to Samarqand (now in Uzbekistān). He presumably returned to Balkh at some point, since he and his family emigrated from there to Anatolia about 1216 or 1217. Since there is reason to believe that Mawlānā lived in Balkh for some period of time, this gives justification to view him as from Balkh, a “Balkhī.”

Mawlānā’s father, Bahā’ al-Dīn Walad, may have been born and raised in Balkh. However, there is no supporting evidence that he was a well-known religious scholar in Balkh (Lewis, pp. 46-47, 54-55); rather, a miracle story developed that was based on a dream that he recorded in his journal, that the Prophet Muḥammad declared him to be the “Sultan of Religious Scholars.” Presumably, he lived in Balkh for periods of time as a preacher, scholar, and spiritual teacher. He may therefore also be viewed as a “Balkhī,” a man from Balkh. Books about Mawlānā commonly say little about his father except to describe him as a Muslim scholar and judge. However, Bahā’ al-Dīn was an unusual mystic, whose focus was not on discourse but on direct experience of the Presence of God through prayer, dreams, visions, and intimations. There is evidence that Mawlānā’s own mystical teachings were strongly influenced by his studies of his father’s journal of mystical experiences and insights (Lewis, pp. 82-86, p. 107).

A number of stories about Mawlānā’s life were added or altered in order to fit hagiographical needs. For example, claims were made that he was a descendant of Abu Bakr (the first successor of the Prophet Muḥammad) and that his grandmother was a royal princess (the daughter of the Khwārazmshāh, the King of Khorāsān or eastern Persia). These assertions have been refuted by scholars (Forūzānfar, 1988, p. 8; Lewis, p. 91).

The legend that Mawlānā’s grandmother was a princess has been used to support a claim made by some Turkish scholars that Mawlānā was Turkish and that his native language was Turkish (based on an assumption that the ruling family in that part of Central Asia was a Turkish dynasty). A related claim is that Mawlānā later learned an “Anatolian Persian dialect” (Önder, pp. 198-99). These claims are contradicted by the fact that there are no more than two dozen verses containing Turkish words out of all the thousands of verses composed by Mawlānā in his Dīwān (Lewis, pp. 548-49) and very few words in his Mathnawī. In addition, the poetic works of his son (Sulṭān Walad) and his grandson (Ūlū cĀrif Chalabī) are entirely in Persian, except for a small number of poems in Turkish.

A claim (made in the 15th century) that Mawlānā met the great Sufi poetcAṭṭār as a child enables him to be viewed as “blessed” with a similar poetic gift (Lewis, pp. 64-65). The assertion (also made in the 15th century) that Mawlānā’s father was a disciple of the famous Sufi master Najm al-Dīn Kubrā can be considered legendary, since it remains unsubstantiated (Lewis, pp. 30-33, 92).

Many books and articles about Mawlānā’s life depict him as a conventional religious intellectual, an Islamic scholar and judge (as his father tends to be described), who suddenly was transformed into a mystic after meeting Shams-é Tabrīzī. While there is no doubt that his experiences with Shams-é Tabrīzī were greatly transformative, Mawlānā had previously undergone nine years of Sufi training under his father’s leading disciple and successor, Sayyid Burhān al-Dīn Muḥaqqiq al-Tirmidhī, known as the “Knower of Secrets” (Sirr-Dān). Sayyid Burhān al-Dīn arrived in Konya in 1232, a year after Mawlānā’s father died.

During part of these years of Sufi discipleship, the Sayyid directed Mawlānā to go to Syria and master the traditional Islamic domains of knowledge. He first went to Aleppo, where he studied at the Madrasa-yé Halāwiyya (a college of the Ḥanafī school of Sunnī Islamic law) and where he associated with some disciples of his father. After completing his studies, he returned to Anatolia and the Sayyid directed him to do several forty-day spiritual retreats. The Sayyid was said to be so impressed by Mawlānā’s spiritual state, after completing these retreats, that he declared him to be without equal in the world in the major branches of knowledge as well as of hidden spiritual secrets (Aflākī, pp. 83-84). In the year 1241, Mawlānā received word that Sayyid Burhān al-Dīn had died and went to visit his teacher’s tomb (in Qaysarīya). Sayyid Burhān al-Dīn was a mature mystic who loved to quote from the Sufi poetry of Sanā’ī.

Mawlānā was married all his life from about the age of eighteen, and he was very devoted to his two wives. His first marriage was to Gawhar (“Pearl”), whom he had known since childhood. She was the daughter of one of his father’s disciples (Sharaf al-Dīn Lālā of Samarqand), who had accompanied the family during their migrations. The marriage took place in the town of Lāranda (present day Karaman), which was not far from Konya. It was there, during period of seven years, that Mawlānā’s sons, Bahā’ al-Dīn Muḥammad Walad (known as Sulṭān Walad) and cAlā’ al-Dīn Muḥammad were born; it was also where his mother, his wife’s mother, and his brother cAlā’ al-Dīn died. The family then moved to Konya in 1228. His wife died there at a young age, and later on he married a widow (who had a son), Kerrā of Konya, with whom he had a third son, Muẓaffar al-Dīn Amīr cĀlim, and a daughter, Malika.

Mawlānā’s second Sufi master, Shams-é Tabrīzī, arrived in Konya on November 29, 1244 (Aflākī, p. 84). Aflākī called him “Mawlānā Shamsu ‘l-Ḥaqq wa ‘l-Dīn Muḥammad, ibn cAlī, ibn Malakdād al-Tabrīzī” (p. 614). According to early Mawlawī (Mevlevi) tradition, the spiritual tradition of Mawlānā’s successors, he was said to be 60 years of age (Forūzānfar, p. 50). Later on, Shams asked to marry a young woman raised in Mawlānā’s household named Kīmiyā, and after they married they lived in Mawlānā’s household (Sepahsālār, p. 133).

Although Shams-é Tabrīzī has been described for more than a century as an illiterate wandering dervish [qalandar] who was charismatic and had antinomian or heretical tendencies, we now have much more information about him in the English language (thanks to scholars such as Franklin Lewis and William Chittick) that was previously available only in Persian (Muwaḥḥid, 1990 and 1998). We now know, based on the notes of his discourses (Maqālāt-é Shams-é Tabrīzī) that were recorded by his disciples (one of whom was Mawlānā’s son, Sulṭān Walad), that he had a solid Islamic education in the Arabic language and that he was a Sunnī Muslim who followed the Shāficī school of Islamic law (Maqālāt, pp. 182-83). He must have memorized the Qur’ān, since he taught young boys its memorization (Chittick, p. xvi).

Shams al-Dīn placed much importance on “following” [mutābacat], meaning following the Sunnah or the example of the behavior that was modeled by the Prophet Muḥammad. Shams was critical toward a number of well-known Sufi masters (contemporary and past ones) because they did not follow the example of the Prophet sufficiently, and some apparently felt they were so spiritually advanced that they had little need for it (Lewis, p. 150, 156-58).

Based on this understanding, the initial meeting between Shams and Mawlānā can be seen in a new light: Shams was searching for one of the great hidden saints of God, and one of the proofs of such a person would be a humble veneration and love of the Prophet Muḥammad, combined with a strong commitment to following the Prophet’s pious way of life. This would be in contrast to other Sufis who made claims of receiving extraordinary spiritual favors from God but who had a lack of commitment to following the Prophet’s example.

In Aflākī’s hagiography there are two versions of the famous meeting. The first account is generally preferred by popularizing Western authors because it fits their view that Mawlānā had been a mere Muslim scholar and theologian until he met Shams, who introduced him to radical mystical teachings.

According to the first version (pp. 84-87), Shams challenged Mawlānā with quotes from the Prophet Muḥammad and the (ninth century C.E.) Sufi, Bāyazīd al-Bisṭāmī (also spelled Abū Yazīd):

“Say who was greater: Ḥażrat-é Muḥammad the Prophet or Bāyazīd?” He answered, “No, no! Muḥammad Muṣṭafà, the leader and chief of all the prophets and saints! And greatness belongs to him!” Shams then said, “Then what does it mean that Ḥażrat-é Muṣṭafà said (to God), ‘Glory be to You! We have not known You as You deserve to be known’ and Bāyazīd said, ‘Glory be to me! How great is my state! And I am the King of kings!’”

Mawlānā is then depicted as falling from his mule from awe of that reply, shouting, fainting, and sleeping for an hour. After returning to his senses, he is described as taking Shams by foot to his (religious) college, into a small cell in which no one was given passage until forty days were completed, or three months according to others.

Aflākī’s second version (pp. 619-20) portrays Mawlānā as a faithful Muslim who revered the Prophet Muḥammad more than anyone, and Shams-é Tabrīzī is depicted as the one who fainted after hearing Mawlānā’s reply:

For Abū Yazīd, (his) thirst became pacified by a gulp (of water), he spoke from (feeling) satiated, and the jug of his comprehension was filled by that amount. And that light was (suited to) the measure of the window of his house. But for Ḥażrat-é Muṣṭafà-(may the) peace (of God) be upon him, there was tremendous thirst, (there was) thirst after thirst.… Necessarily, he spoke about thirstiness and every day he became increased in his supplications for (greater) nearness (to God). And (so) of these two assertions, the assertion of Muṣṭafà is greater. Because (Abū Yazīd) arrived (near) to God, viewed himself as full, and did not look (for) more. But Muṣṭafà-peace be upon him-saw more every day and went further. (And) day by day, hour after hour, he witnessed more of the Lights, Grandeur, Power, and Wisdom of God. For this reason he said, “We have not known You as You deserve to be known.”

An earlier account was written by Mawlānā’s disciple, Sepahsālār, who wrote (about 40 years after Mawlānā’s death). According to this version (pp. 126-28), the two sensed each other’s presence in Konya, went in search, and ended up sitting on opposite benches. When Shams asked the question, he quoted Bāyazīd first and the Prophet second. Mawlānā replied,

Although Bāyazīd is one of the perfected saints and knowers among the attained companions of the heart, yet he held himself back when (he was) in the circle of sanctity in the known station and kept himself fixed there. The greatness and perfection of that station became revealed to him concerning the exalted qualities of his (own) station, and he declared the explanation of unification by these words. And although Ḥażrat-é Rasūlullāh-may the peace and blessings of God be upon him-traversed seventy great stations every day, such that the first had no relation to the second, when he reached the first station he expressed gratitude (to God) and he knew that it was an extensive journey. When he reached a second degree and he witnessed that it was a higher and more noble station than (the one before) it, he asked (Divine) forgiveness concerning the first level and his contentment with that station.

Both are then described as falling into a state of spiritual ecstasy, after which Mawlānā took Shams into a small cell that belonged to a close disciple (Shaykh Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Zarkôb) for a period of six months.

An even earlier account, by Mawlānā’s son, Sulṭān Walad (p. 34), provides only a brief poetic description of their meeting without any details of their initial conversation.

The earliest account is by Shams-é Tabrīzī himself, as recorded by his disciples begins with a criticism of Bāyazīd (p. 685):

And the first words I spoke with (Mawlānā) were these: “But as for Abū Yazīd, why didn’t he adhere to following (the Prophet’s example) and (why) didn’t (he) say ‘Glory be to You! We have not worshipped You (as You deserve to be worshipped)?’” Then Mawlānā knew to completion and perfection (the meaning of) those words (of the Prophet). But what was the final outcome of these words? Then his inmost consciousness made him drunk from these (words), because his inmost consciousness was cleansed (and) purified, (and) therefore (the meaning of) it became known to him. And with his drunkenness, I (also) knew the pleasure and delight of those words-for I had been neglectfully unaware of the pleasure and delight of these words.

These accounts indicate that Mawlānā was already an advanced Sufi, as well as a religious scholar. And they suggest that Shams-é Tabrīzī found Mawlānā to be the hidden saint he had long searched for, one who was advanced on the Sufi path who continued to follow the Prophet Muḥammad, and who acknowledged that the Prophet journeyed far beyond any of the Muslim Sufi masters who came after him in the mystical worship of God.

A contemporary claim has been promulgated that Mawlānā and Shams-é Tabrīzī were “lovers” on the physical level as well as the spiritual. However, this view is ill-informed about significant features of medieval Persian culture: such a relationship would have been incompatible with the homoeroticism of the time. And to believe that such was the case misunderstands the nature of lover-beloved themes in Persian Sufi poetry that had been an established convention for three hundred years (Lewis, pp. 320-24). An example of one such theme relates to the Sufi practice of cultivating intense love of the spiritual master until there is “annihilation in the presence of the master” [fanā fī ‘l-shaykh] as a stage on the path to “annihilation in the Presence of God” [fanā fī ’llāh]. Furthermore, such a claim ignores the basic master-disciple roles in numerous fields of knowledge, professions, and crafts throughout Muslim history-in particular, the training of a disciple by a Sufi master based on traditional Islamic ethics. Mawlānā condemned sodomy and effeminate behavior in numerous places in his poetry (such as Mathnawī 5:363-64, 2487-2500; 6:1727-32, 3843-68). And Shams-é Tabrīzī condemned homosexual acts as unmanly and blameworthy in the presence of God (p. 773).

Mawlānā wanted to spend most of his time with his newly found spiritual master. During the initial period of Shams’ stay in Konya (of about 16 months), Mawlānā’s disciples had felt neglected and when their jealousy steadily increased, Shams-é Tabrīzī left Konya and went to Syria. Two dates were given by Aflākī for this departure: March 21, 1245 (p. 88) and March 11, 1246 (pp. 629-30); the later date is considered more reliable since it was written in Arabic (Lewis, p. 177; Muwaḥḥid, 2000, p. 207). It appears that he returned and left again for Syria a second time, seven days after his wife Kīmiyā died, about December 1246 (Aflākī, p. 642, Muwaḥḥid, p. 207). He returned only after Mawlānā sent his son, Sulṭān Walad, with a group to invite him back. According to Aflākī, Shams was murdered by some of Mawlānā’s jealous disciples on a Thursday sometime during the Islamic lunar year that occurred between May 1247 and April 1248 (p. 686). The total time that Mawlānā spent with his greatest spiritual master appears to have been less than three years: from the end of November 1244 to April 1248, minus a seven month stay in Aleppo (mentioned by Shams himself, p. 359, a stay that apparently preceded going to Damascus) and minus his time in Damascus and the travel time between Damascus and Konya for two or three journeys.

Aflākī’s claim (in his hagiography that was completed eighty years after Mawlānā died) that Shams was murdered has been challenged and rejected by scholars (Muwaḥḥid, p. 199-203 and Lewis, p. 185-93). First of all, it seems unlikely that Mawlānā’s family and disciples could have kept such a murder secret from him. Neither his son Sulṭān Walad nor Sepahsālār mention a murder in their works that are earlier than Aflākī’s work (Lewis, p. 185). No witnesses saw Shams die, because he supposedly disappeared miraculously after being wounded (Aflākī, p. 684). Although there is a shrine in Konya dedicated to Shams-é Tabrīzī, the claim that his body was thrown down a plugged-up well in Konya and buried next to the body of the founder of Mawlānā’s religious college, Amīr Bahā al-Dīn Gawhartāsh (Aflākī, pp. 700-01), has been refuted because only one grave was found, presumably that of Gawhartāsh (Lewis, pp. 188-90). Even if Mawlānā was told that Shams was murdered in Konya, he clearly did not believe it, because he made two trips to Syria to look for Shams (Sepahsālār, p. 134). And finally, there is evidence that Shams-é Tabrīzī may have been buried, not in Konya, or in Tabrīz (where there is also an alleged tomb of Shams), but in the town of Khôy (now in Iran, about 50 kilometers east of the present Turkish border, on the road to Tabrīz), where a Sultan of the Ottoman Empire went to pay his respects to the tomb of Shams in the early 16th century C.E. (Mowaḥḥid, p. 209).

More pertinent are Shams’ reported statements about leaving permanently, such as his threat to disappear in such a way that, “I will become so absent that no trace of me as a created being will be found” (Sepahsālār, p. 134; see Sulṭān Walad, pp. 50-51). And he hinted that he would need to leave permanently in order to further Mawlānā’s development as a spiritual master. For example, in one speech recorded by his disciples (pp. 163-64) in which he appears to have addressed Mawlānā he said:

Since I am not in the situation where I might order travel for you, I will place (the need for) travel upon myself for the welfare of your work, because separation is a cook… What is the value of that work (of yours)? I would make fifty journeys for your welfare. My travels are for the sake of the (successful) emergence of your work. Otherwise, what’s the distinction for me between Anatolia and Syria? There’s no difference (if) I am at the Kacba (in Mecca) or in Istanbul. But it’s certainly the case that separation cooks and refines (the seeker).

After Mawlānā made two journeys to Damascus and failed to find Shams, his son, Sulṭān Walad wrote (p. 50, 52):

He did not find Shams-é Tabrīz in Syria; (instead) he found him within himself, like the clear moon. He said, “Although we are far from him in body, without (consideration of) body and spirit we both are one light. Whether you see him or me, I am him (and) he is me, (O) seeker…” He said, “Since I am him, (for) what do I search? Now (that) I am his very substance, I may speak from my (very) self.”

After a period of several years of suffering greatly because of the disappearance of Shams, Mawlānā declared (in 1249) that Shams had appeared to him in the form of one of his close disciples, named Shaykh Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Zarkôb. He put Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn in charge of training his disciples, which made them almost as jealous as they had been toward Shams. But Mawlānā found out about this out and threatened to abandon his disciples completely unless they ceased complaining. In popular works about Mawlānā, Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn tends to be portrayed as little more than a illiterate tradesman. Although he evidently could not read or write, he was actually the most senior dervish. He had been a Sufi disciple of Sayyid Burhān al-Dīn together with Mawlānā. In addition, Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn had also been a disciple of Shams-é Tabrīzī (Sepahsālār, p. 134). Furthermore, Mawlānā recommended that his son accept Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn as his Sufi shaykh (Sulṭān Walad, p. 275) and he arranged for his son to marry Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn’s daughter, Fāṭima, whom Mawlānā had taught to write and read the Qur’ān(Aflākī, p. 719).

Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn maintained his post of teaching and training the disciples to become dervishes for a period of ten years and died in 1258. Mawlānā then saw the reflection of Shams in another disciple, Ḥusām al-Dīn Chalabī, whom he promoted to be the teacher of the disciples. It was Ḥusām al-Dīn who inspired Mawlānā to compose rhymed couplets [mathnawī] in the manner of Farīd al-Dīn al-Dīn cAṭṭār, and Mawlānā then began to compose his Mathnawī.

After the death of Mawlānā in 1273, Ḥusām al-Dīn became his first successor until his death in 1283. Mawlānā’s son, Sulṭān Walad, then humbly accepted the most senior and advanced dervish of his father’s disciples, Karīm al-Dīn Walad-é Baktamūr, to be the chief trainer of the disciples for a period of seven years (Sulṭān Walad, p. 275). After Karīm al-Dīn died (about 1291 or 1292), Sulṭān Walad became the clear leader of the disciples and founded the first branches of the “Mawlawī” form of Sufism beyond Konya. Other Sufi orders of the time commonly engaged in mystical practices involving music and ecstatic dance-like movements, but these practices became of central importance to the Mawlawī order. The ecstatic whirling so frequently done by Mawlānā during “mystical concerts” [samāc] was first formalized into the famous Mawlawī whirling prayer ritual by Pīr cĀdil Chalabī, who died in 1460 (Bausani, p. 394; Lewis, p. 444).

According to Aflākī, Mawlānā did not engage in the “mystical concert” in his youth, but was later encouraged to do so by his wife Kerrā’s mother. When he began to participate, he would mainly wave his hands, a common practices of Sufis in such sessions. Later, Shamsé Tabrīzī showed him how to whirl [charkh zadan] (Aflākī, p. 681). According to Sepahsālār, on the other hand, Mawlānā did not participate in such gatherings until after he met Shams-é Tabrīzī, who indicated to him, “Enter into the mystical concert, for that which you are seeking will become increased in the mystical concert” (p. 65). It should be stressed that Muslim Sufis had already been engaging in the ecstatic movements of the mystical concert for four centuries before Mawlānā’s time, since the middle of the 9thcentury C.E., starting in Baghdad, a practice that spread very quickly, especially among Persian Sufis (During, p. 1018). There are indications that Mawlānā composed poetry specifically to be recited, chanted, or sung during mystical concerts-and that he composed poetry while engaged in such sessions, especially when whirling (Lewis, p. 172, pp. 314-15).

Very rarely does one read in English the words, “Rumi was a Muslim.” In most of the popularized translations and versions of Mawlānā’s poetry, his strong adherence to Islamic piety is minimized or ignored: verses are changed or skipped in order to avoid references to the Qur’ān or the Traditions (Aḥādīth) of the Prophet Muḥammad, and even references to prayer and the mention of God are often avoided. Such minimizations of Mawlānā’s commitment to Islam have also helped interpretive poetic versions of his poetry to become amazingly popular in the United States (often misrepresented as “translations” when the authors do not read Persian). Many of these books give the impression that Mawlānā was so transformed by Shams-é Tabrīzī that he transcended his allegiance to Islam, became a universal mystic who was knowledgeable about other religions, was indifferent to the distinctions between forms of worship, and cared little about the religious adherence of people who were attracted to him. However, there is little evidence that he knew much about other religions, other than what he learned from a traditional Islamic education (Gamard, p. xv).

The following verses, translated from Persian or rendered into popularized poetic versions do not occur in the authentic works of Mawlānā, yet they are frequently claimed as his in books, articles, and lectures:

“What is to be done, O Moslems? for I do not recognise myself. I am neither Christian nor Jew, nor Gabr, nor Moslem” (trans. Nicholson, 1898, p. 125). “Not Christian, or Jew or Muslim, nor Hindu, Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion or cultural system” (Barks, p. 32). “Cross and Christians, from end to end, I surveyed; He was not on the Cross. I went to the idol-temple, to the ancient pagoda; no trace was visible there” (trans. Nicholson, 1898, p. 71). “Come back, come back, no matter what you think you are. An idol worshipper? A non-believer? Come back. This gate, no one leaves helpless. If you have broken your vows ten thousand times, come back.” (trans. Abramian, p. 4). “Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, it doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times, come-come yet again, come!” (Feild, ii). “That one who has tasted the wine of union with the supreme soul, In his faith, the Ka’be and an idol temple are one” (trans. Shiva, p. 33). “This is me: Sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed. Sometimes a devoted Muslim, sometimes a Hebrew and a Christian. For me to fit inside everyone’s heart, I put on a new face every day” (trans. Shiva, p. 178). “I go into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church and I see one altar” (Barks, p. 246).

However, Mawlānā’s authentic works show that he was a very devout and pious Muslim, as well as a great Muslim mystic and poet. His poetry is filled with references to the Qur’ān and the Traditions of the Prophet Muḥammad. For example, he wrote about his masterpiece, the Mathnawī, as “the roots of the roots of the roots of ‘the Religion’ (of Islām) in regard to unveiling the secrets of obtaining connection (with God) and (spiritual) certainty (of the Truth)… it is the remedy for hearts, the brightening polish for sorrows, the revealer of (the meanings of) the Qur’ān…” (Book 1: Preface). He said, “I am the servant of the Qur’ān as long as I have life. I am the dust on the path of Muḥammad, the Chosen one. If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings, I am quit of him and outraged by these words” (Rubācīyāt, F-1173, trans. Gamard and Farhadi, p. 2). And he also said, “Now, you should know that Muḥammad is the leader and guide. As long as you don’t come to Muḥammad first, you won’t reach us” (Fīhi Mā Fīhi, no. 63, trans. Gamard, p. 161).


–         Abramian, Vraje. Nobody, Son of Nobody: Poems of Shaikh Abu Saeed Abil-Kheir. Prescott, Arizona: Hohm, 2001.

–         Aflākī, Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad. Manāqib al-cārifīn (edited by Yazıcı). Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımavi, 1959; reprinted, Tehran: Dunyā’ī Kitāb, 1362/1983.

–         Aflākī, Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad. The Feats of the Knowers of God (Manāqeb al-carefīn) (trans. John O’Kane). Leiden: Brill, 2002.

–         Barks, Coleman with John Moyne). The Essential Rumi. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

–         Bausani, A. “Djalāl al-Dīn Rūmī.” The Encyclopedia of Islam: New Edition, Vol. II (C-G). London: Luzac, 1965.

–         Chittick, William C. Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi. Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae, 2004.

–         During, J. “Samāc”. The Encyclopedia of Islam: New Edition. London: Luzac, 1995, pp. 1018-19.

–         Feild, Reshad. The Last Barrier. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

–         Forūzānfar, B. Zendagānī-yé mawlānā jalāluddīn muhammad mashhūr ba-mawlawī. Tehran: Kitāb-Forôshī Zavvār, 1988.

–         Gamard, Ibrahim. Rumi and Islam. Woodstock, Vermont: SkyLight Paths, 2004.

–         Gamard, Ibrahim and Farhadi, Rawan. The Quatrains of Rumi. (See below.)

–         Lewis, Franklin. Rumi-Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teaching and Poetry of Jalāl al-Din Rūmi. (See below.)

–         Meier, Fritz. “Bahā-i Walad: Grundzüge seines Lebens und seiner Mystic.” Acta Iranica 27. Leiden: Brill, 1989.

–         Muwaḥḥid, Muḥammad cAlī. Shams-é tabrīzī: 583-645. Tehran: Ṭarḥ-é Naw, 1990, 1996.

–         Nicholson, R. A. Selected Poems from the Dīvāni Shamsi Tabrīz. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1898.

–         Önder Mehmet. Mevlāna and the Whirling Dervishes. Ankara, Turkey: Güven Matbaası, 1977.

–         Schimmel, Annemarie. I Am Wind, You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi. (See below.)

–         Sepahsālār, Farīd al-Dīn Aḥmad. Zendagīnāma yé mawlāna jalāl al-dīn mawlawī [also known as Risāla-yé sepahsālār] (edited by Nafīsī). Tehran: Iqbāl, 1946.

–         Shiva, Shahram. Rending the Veil: Literal and Poetic Translations of Rumi. Phoenix, Arizona: Hohm, 1995.

–         Tabrīzī, Shams al-Dīn. Maqālāt (edited by Muwaḥḥid). Tehran: Sahāmī, Intishārāt-é Khwārazmī, 1990, 1998.

–         Walad, Bahā’ al-Dīn Muḥammad. Macārif (edited by B. Forūzānfar). Tehran: Kitābkhāna Tawrī, 1954, 1974.

–         Walad, Bahā’ al-Dīn (Sulṭān). Walad-nāma [also known asMathnavī-yé waladī or Ibtidā-nāma] (edited by Homā’ī). Tehran: Mū’asisa-yé Nashr-é Homā’ī, 1316/1937, 1376/1997.


–         Mathnawī-yé macnawī (edited by R.A. Nicholson). London: Luzac; in three volumes: 1925, 1929, 1933. (This edition is based upon the earliest manuscript of the Mathnawī, starting from Book III: 2836.)

–         Mathnawī (edited by Muḥammad Isticlāmī, in seven volumes, with commentary). Tehran: Zavvār, 1987. (This edition is based entirely upon the earliest manuscript of the Mathnawī.)

–         Mathnawī-yé macnawī (edited by Tawfīq Subḥānī). Tehran: Maydān-é Ḥasan ābād, 1994. (This edition is based entirely upon the earliest manuscript of the Mathnawī.)

–         Kulliyāt-é shams yā dīwān-é kabīr-é mawlānā jalāluddīn muammad mashhūr ba-mawlawī (edited by Badīcuzzamān Forūzānfar). Tehran: University of Tehran (in nine volumes), 1336-1346/1957-1967. [Not to be confused with Kulliyāt-é shams-é tabrīzī (edited, not entirely, by Forūzānfar), Tehran: Amīr Kabīr, 1336/1957, one volume, revised and reprinted since; the last part (the final ghazaliyāt, the tarjicāt, and all of the rubācīyāt) were taken from inferior sources before Forūzānfar had completed the final volumes of his edition.]

–         Fīhi mā fīhi az goftār-é mawlānā jalāluddīn muammad mashhūr ba-mawlawī (edited by Badīcuzzamān Forūzānfar). Tehran: Amīr Kabīr, 1951.

–         Fīhi mā fīhi mīrās-é dorokhshān-é lisān al-cārifīn mawlānā jalāluddīn muammad mawlawī-yé balkhīkhorāsānī (edited by Ḥusayn Ḥaydar Rokhānī). Tehran: Intishārāt-é Sanā’ī, 1999.

–         Majālis-é sabca-yé mawlānā (edited by Ferīdūn Nāfiẕ). Tehran: Nashr-é Jāmī, 1984.

–         Majālis-é sabca: haft khāābah (edited by Tawfīq Subḥānī). Tehran: Intishārāt-é Kayhān, 1986.

–         Maktūbāt-é jalāluddīn rūmī (edited by Tawfīq Subḥānī). Tehran: Markaz Nashr-é Dāneshgāhī, 1992.



–         Masnavi i Ma’navi: Teachings of Rumi, The Spiritual Couplets of Maulána Jalálu-‘d-dín Muhammad i Rúmí (trans. E. H. Whinfield). London: Trubner, 1887, reprinted. (An abridged translation, sometimes paraphrased.)

–         The Mathnawí of Jalálu’ddín Rúmí (trans. Reynold A. Nicholson). London: Luzac; in three volumes: 1926, 1930, 1934; with Commentary in two volumes: 1937, 1940. (The only complete translation and the only complete commentary in English; the translation is based upon the earliest manuscript of the Mathnawī, starting from Book III: 2836.)

–         Tales of Mystic Meaning (trans. R. A. Nicholson). London: 1931; reprinted, Oxford: Oneworld, 1995. (A short selection based on his complete translation.)

–         Tales from the Masnavi (trans. Arthur J. Arberry). London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961; More Tales from the Masnavi, 1963. (Accurate translations of the major stories, omitting “digressions”.)

–         The Essence of Rumi’s Masnevi: Including His Life and Works (trans. Erkan Türkmen). Konya, Turkey: Eris Booksellers, 1992, rev. 1997. (Contains selected translated passages with Persian text and succinct commentaries.)

–         Rumi: Spiritual Verses, The First Book of the Masnavi-ye Ma’navi(trans. Alan Williams). London: Penguin, 2006. (In iambic pentameters.)

–         Rumi: The Masnavi, Book One (trans. Jawid Mojaddedi). London: Oxford University, 2004; Rumi: The Masnavi, Book Two, 2007. (In rhyming iambic pentameters.)

Dīwān-é Kabīr

–         Mystical Poems of Rumi (trans. Arthur J. Arberry). Chicago: University of Chicago, 1968; Mystical Poems of Rumi: Second Selection, Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1979; Mystical Poems of Rumi, University of Chicago, 2009; in one volume. (The new edition contains translations of all 400 of the ghazaliyāt; with corrections, especially of the second volume, made by Franklin Lewis; Arberry’s translations supersede those done by Nicholson in 1898, Selected Poems from the Dīvāni Shamsi Tabrīz, since he made improved translations of 40 of the ghazaliyāt, and omitted the other seven, which are no longer considered authentic.)

–         The Quatrains of Rumi (trans. Ibrahim Gamard and Rawan Farhadi). San Rafael, California: Sufi Dari Books, 2008. (The complete translation of Forūzānfar’s authentic edition of the Rubācīyāt, Volume 8, of the nearly 2,000 quatrains attributed to Mawlānā; a thematic arrangement; with improved Persian text and explanatory footnotes; with 116 of the quatrains determined to be composed before Mawlānā’s time placed in an appendix.)

Fīhi Mā Fīhi

–         Discourses of Rumi (trans. A. J. Arberry). London: John Murray, 1961. (A complete translation.)

–         Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Rumi (trans. W. M. Thackston Jr.). Putney, Vermont: Threshold, 1994. (A complete translation.)

Majālis-é Sabaca

–         Sermon no. 6 (trans. Franklin Lewis). Rumi-Past and Present, East and West: the Life, Teaching and Poetry of Jalāl al-Din Rūmi, pp.130-33. (See below.)

Selected Translations From All of Mawlānā’s Works

–         Schimmel, Annemarie. The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi. London: Fine Books, 1978. (A thematic arrangement.)

–         Schimmel, Annemarie. I Am Wind You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi. Boston: Shambhala, 1992; republished as Rumi’s World: The Life and Works of the Greatest Sufi Poet, 2001. (A thematic arrangement.)

–         Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York, 1983. (A thematic arrangement, with translations of 75 complete ghazaliyāt and a few quatrains.)

–         Lewis, Franklin D. Rumi: Past and Present, East and West-The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalāl al-Din Rumi. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001; revised paperback edition, 2003. (A comprehensive work that includes translations of 40 complete ghazaliyāt and a few quatrains.)

–         Lewis, Franklin. Rumi: Swallowing the Sun. Oxford: Oneworld, 2008. (Contains translations of 73 complete ghazaliyāt, some quatrains, and other selections.)

–         Gamard, Ibrahim. “Dāru ‘l-Masnavī” website: [Most of the material for this article was taken from the Introduction to The Quatrains of Rumi.]

Askiya Muhammed

Askiya Muhammed

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Very few thinkers have influenced the history of West Africa as has the Algerian scholar Al Moghili who lived in the second half of the 15th century. Great ideas resonate through history much like the echo of drums between chains of mountains. Each reverberation provides fresh impetus for action. When ideas are implemented through great men and women, history is transformed and human affairs are reshaped. Al Moghili’s ideas, implemented through Askiya Muhammed (also known as Askiya the Great) fundamentally changed the course of West African history and provided the inspiration for reformist movements in, Mali and Sene-Gambia in modern times.

In the mid-15th century, the empire of Mali disintegrated and Songhay emerged as the largest and most powerful of West African states. It was an ancient kingdom that had maintained its independence through the Mali period. Al Yaqubi, writing in the 9th century, describes Songhay as an important African kingdom ruled by a Muslim. Another historian, Al Bakri maintains that when the ruler of Songhay ascended the throne in 1068, he was presented with a copy of the Qur’an and a shield from the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad as a symbol of his royal authority.

The capital city of Songhay was Kukiya, situated about 60 miles south of the important trading center of Gao on the Niger River. Askiya Muhammed moved the capital city to Gao in 1497. Ibn Batuta visited the city of Gao in 1352 and described it as the most important city in the Sudan. There were two main mosques, one for the royal court and the other that served as the Jami’ Masjid. The population was punctual in performing the daily prayers. In the bazaars, the local population mingled with merchants from Morocco, Egypt and beyond. Further south, the important trading center of Jenne was also Muslim. With Jenne as their base, African merchants were able to propagate Islam all the way to the borders of the tropical forest region.

Although Songhay existed as a kingdom well before the year 1000, it was during the reign of Sunni Ali that its borders expanded in every direction. Sunni Ali added Timbaktu and Jenne to his conquests thereby consolidating the extent of the empire from the edge of the Sahara in the north to the fringes of the tropical forests in the south. At its height, the Songhay empire was as large and powerful as the Mali empire, embracing an area of more than half a million square miles and controlling all the north-south and east-west trade routes from West Africa.

Sunni Ali was a far-sighted monarch, using tact and compromise to forge an empire. He was a courageous man, a shrewd statesman and an able administrator who used religion to forge trade links but did not allow it to hinder his political ambitions. The capture of Timbaktu brought him into conflict with the powerful Tuaregs who had hitherto controlled that city. Many of the ulema in his own empire were Tuaregs. Consequently, there was always a degree of tension between Sunni Ali and the ulema whom he suspected of being sympathetic to the Tuaregs. For this reason, some Muslim writers have accused Sunni Ali of being anti-Muslim but this charge is not supported by historical facts.

After Sunni Ali, Songhay entered a period of instability. His son, Sunni Barou, refused to declare himself a Muslim and was therefore deposed by an army officer, Muhammed Turi, in the year 1493. Turi ruled Songhay as Askiya Muhammed I, from 1493-1528. Askiya Muhammed was a pious man, a noble soldier, a superb administrator and a man of learning. He encouraged scholars from North Africa, Egypt and beyond to migrate to Songhay. During his days, the cities of Gao, Timbaktu and Jenne became important centers of learning known throughout the Islamic world. Askiya the Great appointed Islamic scholars to important government positions in the departments of justice and administration. He listened to them and followed their advice in matters of state. One such scholar who had immense influence with Askiya Muhammed was the Algerian Al Moghili.

Al Moghili was a proponent of purity of faith. He was against the commercialization of religion and opposed the appointment of ill-informed and self-proclaimed scholars as jurists. Religion was too serious a matter to be left in the hands of illiterate salesmen. He held that Islam should not be packaged and sold like a product in the market, or be bent and reshaped to suit the needs of a ruler. It was to be the eternal message for the spiritual and material well-being of mankind, as was taught by the Prophet.

Al Moghili maintained, as did earlier scholars in Islam, that at the turn of every century a great reformer would arise to bring it back to the model established by the Prophet. Askiya Muhammed believed that he was one such reformer. He sought Al Moghili’s advice and ruled in accordance with it. He appointed jurists of repute and ensured their independence through generous grants. He encouraged education and honored scholarship. He believed that Islam was the vehicle not just for establishing commercial links and furthering trade, but was a universal mechanism for literacy, culture, law and justice. During his period, Islam spread far and wide in Africa, from the Atlantic coast in the west to the pasturelands of northern Nigeria.

Faith is that one central stream that binds Islamic history together. Over time, this stream gets polluted just as a stream gets polluted as its runs through inhabited terrain. The reformers wage a struggle to clean up this stream, purify it and bequeath its waters to those who live downstream. Al Moghili’s ideas have had a major impact on later Islamic movements in Africa. Uthman dan Fuduye (d. 1817), the great Islamic reformer in West Africa, drew his inspiration from the ideas of Al Moghili and carried his struggle in the model of Askiya Muhammed.

Askiya the Great was deposed in 1528 because he lost his eyesight in his old age and was unable to rule. Following a brief period of instability, Songhay experienced a second period of peace and prosperity from 1539 to 1591. However, disputes over the issue of succession in the 1580s weakened the empire and it became prey to invaders. Towards the end of the century, Portuguese slave traders carried their raids into Songhay territory. In 1591, following border skirmishes over control of the salt mines, a Moroccan army under Judar Pasha invaded Songhay, captured Gao and brought the territories around the bend of the Niger River under Moroccan rule. The Moroccan invasion hastened the disintegration of local Muslim power. Instability ensued, making it easier for the European predators to raid further into West Africa in search of slaves. The great Atlantic slave trade had just begun.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa and the Kingdom of Mali

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Embracing an area more than half a million square miles, the kingdom of Mali was undoubtedly one of the richest and most prosperous on earth in the 14th century. Its territory touched the Atlantic Ocean to the west and extended as far as the bend in the Niger River to the east. From north to south, it embraced the entire swath of land south of the Sahara to the thick tropical forests of equatorial Africa. The kingdom was richly endowed with gold, salt, cola nuts and ivory, which were in great demand in the markets of the Mediterranean. But above all, it was endowed with gifted and far-sighted rulers like Mansa Musa.

From our perspective, the important element in Mali was that it was Muslim. This fact made it an integral part of the vast Islamic world. Trade and ideas flowed freely between Mali, North Africa, Spain, Egypt and Arabia. Muslim traders plied the desert with their caravans carrying brass work from Spain, brocades from Egypt, precious stones from India and returned with gold, salt, cola nuts and ivory. More important was the flow of ideas and scholars. Africans traveled to Mecca for Hajj and brought back books written in Baghdad, Cairo and Kairouan. Islamic jurists and ulema were in great demand in the learning centers of Sijilmasa, Timbaktu, Mali and Ghana. African soldiers were very much a part of Muslim armies in Spain, Egypt and India. Mali was thus a part of the Islamic mosaic contributing its wealth and its resources to the prosperity of Asia and Europe alike.

Mali is referred to in Arabic as Mallel. It was inhabited by the Mandinka who claim their descent from Bilal ibn Rabah, companion of the Prophet and the first Muezzin of Islam. Bilali Banuma is the name given to Bilal in the Mandinka language. Islamic influence in Mali from the 7th century onwards is confirmed by the oral traditions, which were the basis for much of the historical evidence in Africa, until present day scholars discovered the great libraries in Timbaktu and Jenne. Muslim historians like Ibn Hisham and Al Yaqubi (9th century), Al Bakri (11th century) and Ibn Khaldun (14thcentury) have recorded the penetration of Islam in the Mali region.

The initial thrust for political consolidation among the Mandinka tribes came from the discovery of gold in the mines located at Bure. Wealth, a measure of surplus human energy, is a primary engine for political centralization. Only faith, that transcendental element in collective human effort, surpasses wealth in this respect. To protect the caravans that carried gold, local hunter-associations were formed. These were loose military groupings directed towards a common goal, namely, the protection of trade routes. It was not until the reign of Sundiata that the Mandinka forged the political union that gave birth to Mali.

Sundiata, who ruled from 1230-1255, is known in the Mandinka language as Mari-Djata. According to some sources, Sundiata was born into a Muslim family. According to others, such as Ibn Khaldun, he accepted Islam as an adult. The Mandinka were under continuous military pressure from a rival tribe, the Susus. In the year 1230, in a series of military engagements, Sundiata defeated Sumangru, king of the Susus. Following this decisive victory, the kings and chiefs of the Mandinka gathered together and swore their allegiance to Sundiata. Tradition records that Sundiata wore a Muslim dress on this historic occasion. Henceforth Islam was to provide the universal cohesive force for the Mandinka, transcending their allegiance to tribe and region. The Mali Empire was born.

Mansa Uli succeeded his father Sundiata. The word Mansa (or Mansu) in Mandinka means king, Uli is a local pronunciation of Ali (r). Uli extended the borders of Mali in every direction. To the north, he added the important trading centers of Walata and Timbaktu. To the east, he added Gao. To the west, he expanded into Senegal and Gambia, reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Mali thus became the owner of north-south as well as east-west trade routes and the repository of important centers of learning.

After Mansa Uli (d. 1285), Mali went through a period of turbulence over issues of succession. When the turbulence died down, Mansa Musa, perhaps the most able and best known of Mali monarchs, ascended the throne in 1307. Mansa Musa (1307-1337) consolidated the administration of the state, encouraged trade and protected trade routes. In 1324, he performed his Hajj. According to Ibn Khaldun, he took with him an entourage of 12,000. (Some writers claim his entourage was as large as 72,000). The Malians were rich and carried with them a plentiful supply of gold. They spent so much of it during their trip that the price of gold fell in North Africa and Egypt and the price of commodities increased, causing considerable inflation.

On his return from Hajj, Mansa Musa stopped off in Cairo and Kairouan, bought a large number of books and returned home accompanied by Maliki jurists, administrators and Qur’anic scholars. He richly endowed the African universities in Walata, Timbaktu and Gao, built mosques, patronized scholarship, encouraged mass education and established closer relations with the Muslim powers of North Africa and the Mamluke Sultan of Egypt, Nasiruddin Muhammed (1309-1340).

Mansa Musa is known in history as a pious man, a scholar, a generous patron and a far-sighted ruler. In chronological terms, Mansa Musa ruled less than a hundred years after the fall of Baghdad (1258) and the total destruction of Central Asia and Persia by the Mongols. In the early part of the 14th century, there were only three parts of the Muslim world that had any semblance of political and economic power. These were Mamluke Egypt, the Empire of Mali and the Sultanate of Delhi. Persia was just recovering under Ghazan the Great and the Ottomans were only in the nascent state of their global upsurge.

We know a great deal of the status of Islam in Mali through the writings of Ibn Batuta (1304-1377), the great world traveler, who visited the region in 1354. Ibn Batuta met the ruler of the state, stayed with the jurists and common folks alike and through his keen insight analyzed its society and its culture. According to Ibn Batuta, the Africans were punctual in their observance of salat, were extremely fastidious in observing rules of cleanliness and competed with each other in the giving of zakat. Memorizing, learning and recitation of the Qur’an were honored and encouraged. Poetry and culture flourished. And women enjoyed dignified freedom unequaled in the Islamic world at that time.

Some scholars, like Ivan Van Sertima in his book, “They Came Before Columbus”, have asserted that the Africans were the first to discover America. Recent research into the historical records of the period has confirmed this assertion. The historian Shihabuddin Abul Abbas Ahmed (1300-1384) describes the Mali explorations of the Atlantic Ocean in his book, Masalik al absar fi mamalik al amsar (Roadways for those who have sight and are searching, in the provinces of the kingdoms). Empirical evidence to support pre-Columbian contacts between Africa and America is abundant. African sculpture in the West Indies is a replica of similar work in West Africa. The ocean currents from the coast of Sene-Gambia to the Indies and the coast of Brazil would make such a journey plausible. But the mere presence of ocean currents does not bring about monumental historical events like the discovery of a continent. Such events require foresight, planning and most important, capital and material resources. Mali possessed such resources in abundance. It was so rich, in fact, that it could disturb the money supply in the Mediterranean world. It had an abundant supply of wood in the Sene-Gambia region with which to build large ships. It had tremendous human resources in a vast and far-flung empire. And its rulers were far-sighted with a global vision. If the Africans did visit the American continent, it must have been during the period of Mansa Musa.

Islam in Africa

Islam in Africa

Introduction of Islam in Africa

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Africa, alone among the continents, has a majority Muslim population. Africa gave the Islamic world its first muezzin, Bilal ibn Rabah. It was home to its greatest historian, Ibn Khaldun and the birthplace of its best-known traveler, Ibn Batuta. It produced one of its few genuine mass movements, the Murabitun movement and provided the manpower for the injection of Muslim political military power into southwestern Europe. It bankrolled the Muslim world with treasures of gold in its historic struggles with the Crusaders and the Mongols and enriched Europe and Asia alike with its human energy and its rich heritage of music, art, culture and history. Yet, it is astonishing how little attention is paid to the history of Muslims in Africa. At best, Africa-along with Indonesia and China-receives a marginal treatment from Muslim historians. It is almost as if Africa is a footnote to West Asia. This is all the more surprising considering that 250 million Muslims, constituting almost twenty percent of all Muslims in the world, live in Africa, while another 250 million live in Indonesia, Malaysia and China.

One may advance several reasons for this neglect. Oriental scholarship is focused on the Middle Eastern character of Islam, embracing primarily the Arab element and including as a corollary the Turkish and Persian elements. In the larger context, African Muslim history suffers from the same neglect that characterizes Africa in general. One may legitimately infer that European denial of African history is in part a deliberate attempt to deny the African his historical past, which was not less brilliant than that of medieval Europe. How else could one justify the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that lasted more than three hundred years and resulted in the forced shipment of a hundred million men, women and children? To enslave a continent one has to first dehumanize it. Until recent times, Africa was referred to as “the dark continent”, bereft of historical or civilizational achievements. Muslim scholarship, aping the West during the colonial era, went along with this denial. Only now is the historical contribution of African Muslims to Islamic history receiving the attention it so richly deserves.

Africa is a vast continent, second only to Asia in size and five times the size of Europe. It is home to the most desolate deserts and it has some of the thickest forests. The great expanse of the Sahara separates the Mediterranean world from the rest of Africa. The Nile snakes through the eastern desert, giving life to a narrow patch of green, sustaining more than eighty million people in Egypt and the Sudan. West of Egypt lies the great Libyan Desert, uninhabitable except for a narrow strip close to the Mediterranean. The Atlas Mountains cover the northwestern territories embracing Algeria and Morocco and protrude into Spain. South of Mediterranean Africa, extending in a broad swath is the Sahara, the largest and the harshest desert on planet earth. It occupies an area of more than three million square miles, almost the size of the United States. Only a few well-defined trade routes traverse this vast terrain, providing civilizational links between the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa. The modern states of Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Libya, Egypt and northern Sudan lie partly or wholly in the Sahara.

South of the Sahara lies an equally expansive swath of grassland and agricultural land watered by the great rivers, the Niger and Senegal in the west and the Nile and its tributaries in the east. This area, which is also the size of the United States, is the historical Sudan. Today, this territory is occupied by the modern states of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bassau, Guinea, Mali, Upper Volta, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The reader should not confuse historical Sudan with the modern state of Sudan, which lies south of Egypt. Historical Sudan is a much larger area embracing the entire territory south of the Sahara from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. East of the Ethiopian highlands, the terrain once again changes to the Somali pastures and desert. As one traverses southward towards the equator, the grasslands change to dense forest. These forests are a few hundred miles deep in western Africa but grow to a dense patch of impassable territory in the Congo basin extending through Zaire, Kenya and Uganda. The forests, until recent times, defined the limit of civilizational influence from the Mediterranean and from the coastline along the Indian Ocean. South of the equator lies southern Africa, which changes gradually from bush land to pastures and agricultural territory towards the modern state of South Africa.

The history of Africa is strongly influenced by its geography and its topography. Egypt, situated at the confluence of Asia and Africa, is a child of the Nile. From the time of the Pharaohs, the Nile valley has provided political, cultural and social unity to the area. The fellaheen of the Nile constitute the oldest continuous cultural unit in the world. Egypt also acted as the conduit for African art, science and culture to the rest of the world. Specifically, the development of Greek thought in the eastern Mediterranean in the 5th century BC owes a great deal to the wisdom of Africa. Egypt belongs to the Mediterranean world and is the doorway to North Africa. It sits astride an axis linking the Mediterranean civilizations with the civilizations of the Indian Ocean. It provides a bridgehead to Asia and its historical influence extends into the Syrian highlands. In turn, Egypt has attracted the attention of Asian conquerors, as happened in the Persian invasion of the 6th century BC, the Roman invasion of the first century BC, the Arab-Islamic invasion of the 7th century and the attempted Mongol-Crusader invasions of the 13th century.

In the Maghrib, the Atlas Mountains are inhabited by the Berbers, a hardy, independent people who have resisted foreign rule through the centuries. Land and sea trade routes interconnect the Mediterranean lands. Ancient empires welded them into a common dominion. The Maghrib, as well as Egypt, was part of the Roman Empire. In the 7th century, as Umayyad armies raced across Asia, Africa and Europe, all of these territories came under the sway of the Islamic Empire. Initially, each of these empires established their presence in fortified towns along the coast, whereas the people of the interior largely remained untouched. Consequently, a certain tension between the settled city population and the pastoral nomadic population of the hinterland has always existed in the Maghrib. In the classical Islamic era (700-1250), the Maghrib held the key to Spain and southwestern Europe. When the Berbers were supportive, Muslim armies advanced into Spain and France. When there were disturbances in the Atlas Mountains, the advance stopped or there was a retreat. In the 11thand 12th centuries, it was the turbulence in the Maghrib that largely determined the fate of Muslim Spain.

Diverse peoples, each with its own rich history, inhabit the grasslands, steppes and agricultural areas of the Sudan belt. In centuries bygone, the proud and independent Tuaregs acted as a conduit between the Maghrib and the western Sudan. Further south are the Soninke, Wolof and Mandinka of Sene-Gambia; the Bambara, Fulbe and Mossi of the western Niger basin; the powerful Hausa-Fulani of northern Nigeria; the Kanuri, Shuwa, Sara of eastern Nigeria and Cameroon and, the Bagrami of the Chad region.

The Sudan belt is connected to the Mediterranean by caravan trade routes. From ancient times, five broad routes are identifiable. The first one leads from Morocco through Marrakesh towards Mauritania and Sene-Gambia. The second one starts from Dudja in eastern Morocco through Bechar in western Algeria and ends in the ancient cultural center of Timbaktu in Mali. The third leads from Algiers and Biskra through Tamanrasset in Algeria to Agadez in Niger and ultimately Kano Nigeria. The fourth is an east-west route connecting the commercially important Niger River basin through Kano in northern Nigeria, Ndjamina in Chad to Al Ubayyid in modern Sudan and ultimately to the Red Sea. The fifth one connects Yemen and Hejaz through the Red Sea to Ethiopia. There were also continuous trade contacts from ancient times between Oman and the Persian Gulf regions with the East African shores.

These trade routes were the conduits not only for a two-way exchange of men and material, but also ideas. One such sublime idea was the idea of Islam. Africa was in the cradle of Islam. Among the most honored companions of Prophet Muhammed (p) was Bilal ibn Rabah, the firstmuezzin of Islam. The proximity of Hejaz to Abyssinia ensured continuous contacts between Africans and the Arabs of Mecca. When enmity of the pagan Arabs to the mission of Islam was at its height, the Prophet ordered some of his Companions to migrate to Abyssinia. Several waves of believers did migrate (circa 620) and were received with honor by the Negus, King of Abyssinia. These émigrés returned to Mecca when peace was established between the Muslims and the pagans, but contacts continued and the highlands of Ethiopia were the first in Africa to hear the call of Islam.

According to oral traditions in western Africa, some of the descendants of Bilal ibn Rabah migrated to Mallel, the Arabic name for Mali. Specifically, the Mandinka clan Keita, which is generally credited with founding the great Mali Empire, claims its descent from Bilal ibn Rabah, referred to as Bilali Bunamah in the Mandinka language. Tradition also has it that some of the Companions of the Prophet migrated to Libya and from there to the Lake Chad area further south. Such migrations would be in keeping with the exhortation of the Prophet to his Companions to go forth and spread the message of Islam in the far reaches of the world. Much of the history of early Africa is oral and there is no reason to doubt that African migrants from Mecca established contact with and settled down in the developed regions of West Africa.

The Muslims took Egypt and Libya from the Byzantine Empire in 642. Islam transformed and uplifted the decaying Byzantine civilization in Egypt, imparted to it a transcendence based on Tawhid, so that the land of the Nile became a cradle of the nascent Islamic civilization. Within forty years of the conquest of Egypt, Umayyad armies had reached the Atlantic Ocean. Uqba bin Nafi, the conqueror of the Maghrib, founded the city of Kairouan (circa 670), in modern Tunisia. According to some accounts, Uqba bin Nafi led an expedition towards Mauritania. The Kunta tribe of Sene-Gambia, claim their descent from Uqba bin Nafi. The Kuntas are a distinguished tribe of learned men who in the course of time produced great scholars like Sidi Muhammed al Kunti who had a profound impact on the introduction of Islam into West Africa. Sidi Muhammed’s son Sidi al Bakkai introduced the Qadariya order into West Africa in the 15th century. The Qadariya Order, named after Shaikh Abdul Qader Jeelani (1077-1166) of Baghdad, was a major force in the spread of Islam in Africa, India, Pakistan, Central Asia and southeastern Europe. Towards the end of 19th century, another great African, Uthman Dan Fuduye, inspired by the ideas of Sidi Muhammed and of the Qadariya School, waged a valiant struggle for Islam in West Africa.

Kairouan soon grew into an important trade center and a magnet for scholars. Large caravans passed through this city carrying goods from the Sudan, the Maghrib and Spain to Egypt and returned loaded with imports from Persia, Khorasan, India and beyond. More significant was the traffic to the cities of Mecca and Madina for the Hajj. As we have pointed out in earlier chapters Madina was the center for the Maliki School of Fiqh. It was natural that Maliki scholars, attracted by the prosperity of Kairouan and of the Spanish cities, moved to North Africa. Some of these scholars accompanied the trade caravans south of the Sahara to the Sudan belt. Thus it was that the radiance from Mecca reached West Africa and the Maliki School of Fiqh came to be the accepted school throughout West Africa, the Maghrib and Spain. For the last thousand years, Islamic jurisprudence of the Maliki School, together with the institution of Hajj, has provided a vital civilizational link between West Africa and the rest of the Muslim world.

Mutual trade interests between the Umayyads who controlled the Maghrib and the kingdom of Ghana (not to be confused with the modern state of Ghana, the ancient kingdom of Ghana was centered around southern Mali) helped the flow of merchants and merchandise. Ghana controlled the gold mines to the south and as trade increased, it required an increasing supply of gold. The Omayyads, as well as successor kingdoms in the Maghrib, saw to it that trade routes were protected. They established trade centers along the caravan routes to enhance the flow of goods and ensure the safety of merchants. The primary export of West Africa was gold. Other products included salt, ivory and kola nuts. In return, the North Africans provided religious and administrative services and brought in horses from North Africa, spices from Asia and books of learning from Kairouan, Baghdad and Bukhara. Slave trade was not a principal element in the Arab-African transactions, as is sometimes claimed by European writers. It was much later in the 17th and 18th centuries that Omani merchants competed with the Europeans for slaves in the Bantu areas of East Africa.

It was trade, more than any expedition or migration of Arabs that firmly established Islam in West Africa. Among the important trading centers were Tahert in Algeria, Sijilmasa in Morocco, Tanderi in Mali and Agadez in Niger. These caravan routes were connected to the rich commercial towns in the Sene-Gambia and Niger basins as well as Lake Chad. The Sanhaja who inhabited the Sahara acted as escorts to the trade caravans and were the first to accept Islam as early as the Omayyad period in the 8th century. In the Sene-Gambia and NigerRiver basins, local merchants, noblemen and chieftains led the introduction of Islam. Several reasons may be advanced for this. The merchants were obviously impressed with the business ethics as well as the contractual laws in the Shariah. The noblemen and the chieftains could draw upon the administrative and organizational talents of Muslims. But more important, Islam provided a universal creed and a universal community wherein all believers were equal. By the 9th century, important Muslim centers existed in the cities of Gao, Ghana and Tekrur. By the 10th century, the rulers of Gao had accepted Islam. By the 11thcentury, the kings of the powerful state of Ghana had themselves become Muslim. The intrinsic spirituality of traditional African cultures helped the early spread of Islam, which arrived on the scene proclaiming that it wasdeen ul fitra, or the natural religion of humankind sent to remind all nations of the pristine relationship between man and the One Omniscient Divine.

The presence of a vibrant Islamic community in West Africa acted as a catalyst for social and political movements in the Maghrib and the Sudan. In the first half of the 11th century, the Murabitun rose from the steppes of West Africa to dominate all of the Maghrib and Spain. They establishedribats, which were a combination of fortresses, madrasahs and spiritual training centers, in the Mauritania-Morocco region. By 1150, these ribatshad coalesced into a centralized political authority and produced a mass movement, which displaced the fading Omayyad dynasty in Spain and the decaying Fatimids of North Africa. As late as the 19th century, Islam provided the motivating force for internal reform and resistance to European colonization in West Africa. The work of Uthman Dan Fuduye (d. 1817) established the Sokoto Caliphate and provided inspiration to slave revolts as far away as Jamaica.

The introduction of Islam into East Africa followed a somewhat different path from that in West Africa. East Africa includes a broad swath of territory embracing the modern nations of Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. Of the 100 million people who live in that region today, approximately 40% are Muslim.

Since pre-Islamic times, East Africa was known to the Arabs as the land of the Zanj and was a part of the large and prosperous Indian Ocean trade zone that linked India, China, Persia, Arabia and the eastern shores of Africa. China exported porcelain. From India came fine cotton. The products from the Persian Gulf included silk and manufactured goods while Yemen exported incense and horses. African exports included ivory, gold, animal skins, ambergris and rice. Dotting the coastline of the Indian Ocean were large and small trading centers extending in an arc from the tip of Africa to the Straits of Malacca. Included among these were the East African cities of Mombasa, Pemba, Kilwa and Shofala.

Islam was introduced into East Africa as early as the 7th century by successive waves of refugees from Arabia. The first group arrived in the year 698 fleeing the persecution of the Omayyad governor of Iraq, Hajjaj ibn Yusuf. Shortly thereafter, a second group arrived, led by the Kharijites Sulayman and Saeed, whose revolt against the Caliph Abdul Malik had failed. Sulayman established an Ibadi state at Lamu, just north of Mombasa, in modern Kenya. More migrations followed as the persecution of dissidents in the Omayyad Caliphate increased. In the year 729, after a particularly harsh crack down on the Shi’a community, there was a substantial migration of Shi’as to Mombasa. After the Abbasid revolution of 750, as the Omayyads were hunted down and killed, it was the turn of the Omayyads to flee and seek refuge in Africa. In 908 several thousand Iraqis, fleeing the destructions caused by the Karamatians, arrived in Somalia and built for themselves the new towns of Barawah and Shakah.

Following the Seljuk invasions of the 11th century, there were substantial social dislocations in Persia. To escape the ravages of war, some Persians moved further west towards Anatolia but some migrated to East Africa. Most of those fleeing the political turmoil in Iraq and Persia were men. In East Africa they intermarried with the local Bantu ladies, creating a rich Arab-Persian-Bantu amalgam and a vibrant Swahili (meaning, coastal) culture. It was from this matrix that the powerful Swahili dynasties of the 13th and 14th centuries arose.

Early in the 12th century, the Swahilis founded a state with its capital at Kilwa. By the turn of the century, this state had expanded to include the entire coastline from Zanzibar to Shofala. To the interior it extended its borders to the Zambezi River including the gold mines in Zimbabwe and Manika. Gold and trade brought prosperity to the land attracting immigrants both from Yemen and the African hinterland. New towns such as Titi and Sunnah grew up to cater to the gold trade.

In the 13th century, Oman emerged as a strong naval power in the western Indian Ocean. The Omanis captured the southern coastline of the Arabian Peninsula, including Yemen, and extended their influence to the Sahel. In 1303 the Omani Sultan Suleyman shifted his capital from Oman to Batah in Kenya. For the next 500 years, the history of the Sahel was inextricably linked with that of Oman and the Persian Gulf.

Among the refugees from Arabia and Persia were many ulema. The influx of scholars, merchants and refugees planted the seeds of the new Islamic community. The Shariah provided the basis for commercial transactions. The Shafi’i fiqh, practiced in southern Arabia, took hold in East Africa. The community grew as conversion of the Bantus gathered momentum through intermarriage. In the 13th century, as Islam spread on the wing oftasawwuf beyond its Arab-Persian heartland, Sufi zawiyas were also established in East Africa. The global network of zawiyas added stability to the newborn communities and facilitated the movement of merchant and scholar alike, furthering the growth of Islam. The melting of Arab, Persian and Bantu elements produced a new language, Swahili, which was written in the Arabic script and had a rich vocabulary of Arabic, Persian and Bantu words.

In 1329, the great world traveler Ibn Batuta visited Mogadishu, Mombasa and Kilwa. He found Mogadishu to be a thriving market place “with paved streets and many large domed mosques”. The people were “law abiding and pious, wore plenty of gold and silver jewelry and ate off Chinese porcelain.” Further south, the city of Kilwa was the capital of a large kingdom ruled by Sultan Mawahid Hasan, the fourth in the line of the Mahdali dynasty founded by immigrants from Yemen. Ibn Batuta had an audience with the Sultan and found him to be “a man of great humility who sits with poor people, eats with them and respects the ulema and thesheriffs”.

The spread of Islam further south towards the horn of Africa was arrested by the appearance of European gunboats early in the 16th century. In 1505 the Portuguese occupied Kilwa, razed all of its 300 mosques and slaughtered its population. In 1508 they occupied Mozambique and more slaughter followed. The Portuguese challenge was taken up by the Ottomans. The Omani Sultan, Saif ibn Sultan, working with the Ottoman navy, drove off the Portuguese, reclaimed most of the Sahel (meaning, the coast) for the Muslims and moved his capital from Oman to Kilwa. The struggle for control of East Africa continued through much of the 16th and 17th centuries with the Omani capital shifting between East Africa and the Persian Gulf. Successive Omani dynasties, like the Yarubis and Sayyedis participated in this struggle alongside the Ottomans. After the year 1600, a military equilibrium developed with the Muslims controlling the coastline north of Shofala and the Portuguese holding onto the areas south of it.

In the 17th century the Dutch displaced the Portuguese as the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean. Many of the important Portuguese colonies, such as Cape Town in South Africa, Colombo in Sri Lanka and Malacca in Malaysia, fell to the Dutch. It was the Indonesian islands, however, that felt the full brunt of Dutch colonial designs. In their frequent wars with the sultans of the Archipelago, the Dutch captured Muslim prisoners and shipped them to Cape Town. Some among the prisoners were scholars and Sufi shaykhs. These scholars were the first to introduce Islam into the area around the Cape of Good Hope. Today, the tombs of many of these honored shaykhs dot the landscape of southern Africa. The venerated tomb of Syed Abdur Rahman who was brought in chains from Sumatra to Cape Town in 1652 illustrates this observation.

In 1805, the Omani Sultan, Saeed Ibn Sultan shifted his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar. A ruler with foresight and wisdom, he built Oman into a prosperous empire. He encouraged agriculture and trade, introduced the cultivation of cloves into Zanzibar, facilitated Muslim immigration and invited the neighboring African rulers to embrace Islam. After his death, the Empire of Oman was divided into an Arab province and an East African province. Sultan Majid Ibn Saeed became the Sultan of the Sahel. It was this sultan who founded the city of Dar es Salaam and moved his capital from Zanzibar to that city.

The death of Sultan Majid in 1870 marked the end of Muslim rule in East Africa. It was the height of the colonial period. Britain, Germany, Portugal and Italy reached an understanding to carve up the East African territories. In 1883, the Germans occupied Zanzibar. The Portuguese moved into the area south of CapeDelgado and annexed it to Mozambique. The British moved into Kenya. In 1887 the Zanzibar Sultan Bargash ibn Saeed sold the cities of Dar es Salaam, Kilwa and Lindi to the Germans for a sum of four million Marks. In1889 he accepted a British protectorate over Pemba and Zanzibar. The following year he surrendered Mogadishu to the Italians for a sum of 160,000 Indian rupees. In 1894 he gave a perpetual lease on Mombasa to the British for an annual payment of 10,000 British pounds. In 1907 the British organized the territories near Lake Nyasa under the name of Nyasaland that later became the Republic of Malawi. The Germans organized their colonial holdings under the name of Tanganyika; after their defeat in the First World War (1918) they surrendered it to the British.

On the heels of colonization came an army of missionaries from Europe, well financed by private sources and encouraged by the colonial administrations. At stake was the very soul of Africa. The colonialists suppressed the study of Arabic and discouraged the use of Swahili. The missionaries established educational institutions whose agenda, in addition to preparing the students for jobs in the colonial administrations was to convert the Africans to Christianity. Afraid that their children would lose their faith, the Muslims avoided the missionary schools. They waged a valiant battle to survive by running an alternate educational system based on the madrasah and the shaykh. But resources were meager, Muslim societies were in a state of retrenchment, and the quality and comprehensiveness of madrasah based education suffered. The graduates of the missionary schools found good jobs in the colonial administrations so that when colonialism receded after World War II and Africa became independent, it was the Christians who were in control of the civil administrations. The disparity in education introduced an element of tension between the Muslims and the Christians in some parts of East Africa that continues to this day.

Islam in Persia

Islam in Persia

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Pivotal as Persia was in the political developments of Muslim Asia, its primary contribution was to preserve, reinvigorate and transmit the spiritual legacy of Islam through its language, art and architecture. While the Arabs provided the ideational foundation of the edifice of Islam, it was the Persians who adorned it with beauty and embellished it with spirituality. The primary medium for this achievement was the Farsi (Persian) language, the lingua franca of the East and the court language of the dynasties in Persia, Turkey, Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Persia was the fountain of tasawwuf that extended the boundaries of Islam after the Mongol-Tartar deluge. Indeed, Persia was the land where the soul of Islam was rediscovered.

The geography of the Persian landmass makes it a central piece on the chessboard of the Asian landmass. Sitting astride the Persian plateau south of the Caspian Sea, it dominates and controls overland access from the Mediterranean to India and China. In the medieval world, the trade routes from Alexandria in Egypt and Aleppo in Syria ran through Persia. The northerly routes connected Tabriz in northwestern Persia to the Central Asian cities of Samarqand and Bukhara, thence through the ancient Silk Road through Sinkiang to China. The southern trade routes ran through Isfahan to Kabul in Afghanistan and from there through the passes of the Hindu Kush to the vast Indo-Gangetic plains. Large caravans plied these caravan routes carrying with them not only the goods produced by the principal trading centers of the ancient world but also scholars and adventurers. Persia became a crucible of ideas, melting its own ideas with the ancient wisdom of China, India and the Mediterranean. Control of the Persian highlands gave a potential conqueror the ability to strike east or west, as was so decisively demonstrated by Hulagu Khan of the Mongols and Timurlane of the Tatars.

The battle of Al Qadasia (636-637) opened the Persian heartland to Islamic penetration. Victory at the battle of Nahawand (642) cemented the conquest. By the year 751, when Muslim armies overcame Chinese resistance at the battle of Tlas, the Islamic domain extended beyond the Indus River to the east and the Oxus River to the north. The Zoroastrian world, once so powerful that it projected its power from Athens Kabul, was now a part of the larger Islamic world.

Some of the earliest Companions of the Prophet were Persians and their names are honored by Muslims the world over. Salman Farsi was one such distinguished Companion. During the first 40 years of Omayyad rule, the diffusion of Islam into the Persian heartland was slow. The Arabs made no attempt to force their religion on the Persians and left them alone as long they paid the protective tax and obeyed the laws of the state. Taxation, not conversion, appeared to be the primary concern of the Caliphs in Damascus. The conquering Arabs zealously guarded their tribal social boundaries. The few Persians who accepted Islam were treated as mawalis(protected people), a term that accorded the newcomers less than full social status in the community.

The situation changed with the ascent of Caliph Omar bin Abdul Aziz (d. 619). Alone among the Omayyads, he made an attempt to reach out to the conquered people. Discriminatory taxes were abolished and the newcomers were accorded the same dignity as that given to the established Arab nobility. Conversion accelerated and when the Abbasid revolution erupted in 750, the Persian element tilted the balance of power in favor of the Abbasids. Foremost among the leaders of the revolution was Abu Muslim, a Persian general of singular capability and determination.

The Persians were carriers of an ancient civilization that had extensive interactions with the civilizations of China and India. They brought with them advanced technologies, effective methods of agriculture, a universal philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and a tradition of efficient state administration. Their presence was felt in the Islamic community as early as the time of the Prophet. It was Salman Farsi who suggested to the Prophet that a defensive trench be constructed around Madina to thwart the invading Meccan armies. The trench made a crucial difference in the outcome of the armed encounter, which was termed the Battle of the Trench. The Persian mastery of carpet weaving was noticed as early as the reign of Caliph Omar ibn al Khattab (r). After the battle of Madayen, an exquisite carpet called farsh e bahaar was brought to Madina from the Persian capital. In the following centuries, the caliphs of Baghdad, as well as the Persian dynasties in the outlying provinces, encouraged the art of carpet weaving. The caliphs adopted Persian methods of administration. Persian and Byzantine techniques of construction were used in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem as well as in the extensive system of aqueducts built by the Omayyads. The Zoroastrians of Persia also had a unitary concept of heaven and the Arabs accorded them the status of “People of the Book”, a status equivalent to that of the Christians and the Jews.

The Persians immediately made their presence felt in the intellectual domain. The Arabs had established themselves in military cantonments which in time grew to be centers of intellectual activity. Most of the Persians who had accepted Islam migrated to these centers so as to establish a cultural and religious linkage with the resident Arabs. As the city-cantonments grew in size, so did the need to define the social and judicial framework of the evolving community and its interfaces with other communities. This need gave birth to the sciences of Fiqh. The city of Kufa, a border town between the Arabic-speaking and Persian-speaking worlds became a center of learning and a place of congregation for scholars. One such scholar was Imam Abu Haneefa, after whom the Hanafi School of Fiqh is named. Imam Abu Haneefa was of Afghan-Persian parentage and was familiar with the concerns of the non-Arab segments of the community. The school of Fiqh evolved by him and his disciples reflected these concerns.

It was in the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Mamun (d. 833) that the Persians became a decisive political force in the Abbasid Empire. Mamun’s victory over his brother Amin (810-813) for succession to the Caliphate was in no small measure due to the intervention of the Persians. Mamun’s armies had a large number of Persian soldiers led by Tahir, a dynamic Persian officer. The victorious Caliph rewarded Tahir for his fidelity by appointing him the governor of southern Iraq. The Tahirids soon became autonomous and while maintaining their allegiance to Baghdad, established the Tahirid dynastic rule. They introduced Persian court etiquette and were the first to encourage the use of the Farsi language in the official circles.

By the beginning of the 10th century, Persians outnumbered Arabs in the lands east of the Tigris River. The preponderance of Persians had a profound impact on the political, linguistic and intellectual landscape of the Islamic community. The Tahirids established a Persian dynasty (820-822) with their capital at Neshapur. Mathematicians like Al Khwarizmi (d. 862) and historians like Al Tabari (d. 923) found patronage in the Persian courts.

The sciences of Fiqh and hadith flourished in Persia as they did in the Arab heartland. One of the greatest of the muhaddithin, Imam al Bukhari (d. 869) lived during this period in Khorasan. Imam al Bukhari traveled through much of the Islamic world, collected and examined over 300,000ahadith and after a rigorous scrutiny, selected approximately 7,000 as valid. His collection of ahadith is one of the most authoritative ones in the Islamic sciences and is accorded the same honor as the collections of Imam Ja’afar as Saadiq, Imam Muslim, Imam Tirmidhi, Imam Abu Dawud, Imam Malik Ibn Anas and Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal.

Persian political influence reached its zenith under the Buyids who rose to power in southern Iraq (932). Increasing conversion had shifted the center of gravity of the empire away from Baghdad into the outlying provinces both in eastern Persia and the Maghrib. Court intrigues had sapped the strength of the Caliphate. There was increasing military pressure from the Fatimids in Egypt. The Abbasid Caliph Mustakfi, desperate to seek help, invited the Buyid prince Ahmed to defend Baghdad against the Fatimids. The Buyids, who practiced the Ithna Ashari Fiqh, were only too happy to assume the role of protectors of the Sunni Caliphate in Baghdad. In return, Ahmed received the title of Mu’iz ad Dawla and was given the reigns of the empire. For several years thereafter, the Persian Buyids were effective rulers of Baghdad until the Seljuks rescued the Abbasids.

It was under the Samanids of Khorasan (901) that the Persian language, arts and architecture blossomed into their fullest expression. The cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, Neshapur, Mashad and Herat grew into world-class centers of learning. Samanid patronage produced a galaxy of notable men of science and letters like Abu Nasr Al Farabi (d. 950) and Abu Ali Ibn Sina (d. 1037). The patronage of the arts continued when the Ghaznavids displaced the Samanids (962-1026). Mahmud of Ghazna made his capital city a beacon of art and culture. Al Baruni (d. 1048), one of the foremost historians and chroniclers of the age, lived at the court of Mahmud. Firdowsi, one of the most celebrated Farsi poets and author of the Shah Nama, lived in Ghazna. Firdowsi composed the Shah Nama, a classic poem that extols the achievements of pre-Islamic heroes of Persia, as a tribute to Mahmud. The great poet was disappointed with the reward he received for the masterpiece whereupon he composed a poem belittling the emperor and sent it to Mahmud. The emperor, who was on his campaigns in India, regretted the treatment he had given the poet and sent a more handsome reward. Firdowsi did not live to receive the gifts. As the camels laden with the gifts entered through one gate of the city of Ghazna, the body of Firdowsi was being carried out for burial through another gate.

However, it was the Mongol deluge that transformed the landscape of Islamic history and brought the Persian element into the forefront of Islamic intellectual activity. When Genghiz Khan descended from the highlands of Central Asia onto the Farghana valley (1219), Islamic civilization was primarily city based. As conversion had proceeded in Persia and Central Asia, so had the migration of people to the cities. This movement had resulted primarily from economic considerations. Official patronage was focused on a few principal towns that became magnets for scholars and peasants alike. The management of social interactions in an urban milieu demanded a heavy emphasis on the rules of the Shariah and its juridical exposition in the schools of Fiqh. Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and of the various schools of Fiqh, was the language of the learned circles.

Genghiz Khan destroyed the urban centers of learning. In some cities, more than 90% of the population was slaughtered. Throbbing urban centers became grazing land for Mongol horses. Mosques and madrasas alike were razed. The Arabic-speaking learned elite perished or fled, some towards India, others towards Egypt and Anatolia. With its Arabic-centered urban civilization in ruins, the leadership of the remnants of the community fell to the rural areas where Farsi was the spoken language. And it was from the huts and hermitages of the Persian landscape that Islam emerged once again to conquer the conquerors and carry forth its message to the far corners of Asia, Europe and Africa.

Historical currents had prepared the world of Islam for just such a calamity. More than a hundred years before the Mongols descended from the Gobi desert, the heart of Islam was beating to a different rhythm from that of the kazis and ulema with their zealous emphasis on the finer points ofFiqh.

Imam Al Ghazzali (d. 1111), perhaps the single most important integrator of Islamic knowledge in the first millennium of Islam, had broughttasawwuf into the mainstream of Islamic sciences. Indeed, through his own example, he had made tasawwuf the focus of Islamic life. Following his work, intellectual activity in the spiritual dimension of Islam accelerated. The towering personality of the age who represented this dimension was Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani (d 1186).

Shaykh Abu Muhammed Mohiuddin Abdul Qader Jeelani was born in Jeelan in northern Persia in 1077. It was a period of intense intellectual activity and the Shaykh received his early training from local ulema. In 1095, as a young man of eighteen, he set out to Baghdad seeking additional knowledge and training. He sought and received instruction from the luminaries of his age, including Shaykh Abu Wafa Ibn Aqil, Shaykh Muhammed Al Baqlani and Shaykh Abu Zakariya Tabrizi. At the age of fifty, he received his ijaza (diploma) from Shaykh Kazi Abi Saeed Al Muqrami and was commissioned to head the madrasah of Shaykh Kazi Abi Saeed in Baghdad.

Shaykh Abdul Qader’s fame soon spread throughout the land. The courtyard of the madrasah was too small to hold the crowds, so the lectures were moved to the Jami Masjid. The Jami Masjid too proved to be too small so the lectures were moved to a vast open field on the outskirts of the city. It is said that as many as 70,000 people listened to the Shaykh at one time. Scribes recorded his sermons and passed them on for posterity.

The lectures of the Shaykh covered every facet of Islamic life, includingkalam, hadith, Fiqh, tafheem ul Qur’an (commentaries on the Qur’an), ethics, Seerat un Nabi (life and example of the Prophet) and tasawwuf. He was strict in his observance of the Shariah and chided those who were remiss in their observance of its injunctions. In the intense spiritual atmosphere of the age, many self-proclaimed ulema claimed that their special insights into religion gave them an excuse not to observe the obligatory prayers, fasting and zakat. Shaykh Abdul Qader chided them and declared that any position not based on the Shariah was atheism. The Shaykh’s exposition of tasawwuf, recorded in Al Fathu Rabbani, is a veritable fountain of spirituality and has inspired Muslims and many non-Muslims for over 800 years. The Shaykh’s humble disposition endeared him to the poor and his forthrightness and rectitude brought him the respect of the high and mighty. Sultans and emperors alike waited to see him and partake of his wisdom.

Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani inspired a galaxy of Sufi sages in the 12th, 13thand 14th centuries. After he passed away in 1186, his disciples carried his message to the far corners of the Islamic world. The Qadariya Sufi tareeqawas established to give concrete expression to his spiritual and social ideals. It was the first of the many tareeqas that were to dominate the Islamic landscape after the 13th century. The Qadariya tareeqa radiated its influence to every continent of the Old World and was instrumental in bringing millions into the fold of Islam. As late as the 19th century, Uthman Dan Fuduye, inspired by visions of the great Shaykh, waged his struggle to establish a just social-political order in West Africa. In India and Pakistan he is referred to as Ghouse ul Azam Dastagir and is accorded a position of honor next to only that of the Prophet and the early Companions.

The work of Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani and those who immediately followed him was the life raft that rescued Islam after the Mongol devastations. For an entire generation, between 1219 and 1250, the horsemen from Mongolia roamed the Eurasian continent destroying ancient cities, reshaping, reforming and remolding entire societies. The concurrent challenge from the Crusaders of the West was no less menacing. Indeed, the Crusaders made a determined attempt to convert the Mongols to Christianity, or at least to forge an alliance with them with the avowed intent of extirpating Islam. Following the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1261) the military threat subsided but the threat of losing Asia to non-Islamic ideologies remained.

And it was tasawwuf that rose to take up the challenge and rescue Islam in its gravest hour. The genius of tasawwuf lay in its ecstatic and inclusive character. It was the Islam of the heart, not of the mind. The disappearance of a city culture that had supported the Islamic edifice ofFiqh and fatwa had thrown the mantle of leadership to the countryside where Islam was based on emotion and devotion. The khanqahsestablished by the Qadariya and other Sufi orders became the focus of Islamic life. A qanqah had five distinct functions. First it was a mosque wherein the faithful offered their obligatory prayers. Second, it was amadrasah where instruction was provided on the Qur’an and the sciences of Fiqh. Third, it was a retreat where individuals could seek solitude and focus on their inner selves or congregate for dhikr (recital of the name of God). Fourth, it was a place to mold the very character of people under the watchful guidance of a shaykh and teach them the virtues of selfless service, chivalry, courage, devotion to the Divine and a universal outlook on life. And fifth, it was a place of rest for the weary traveler, or a refuge for the family fleeing from the persecutions of the times.

Persian ecstatic Islam more than met its challenges. By 1295, the Il-Khanid (Mongol) Ghazan accepted Islam and Persia was back in the forefront of Islamic life. From the Persian heartland, Islam spread to the subcontinent of India-Pakistan and projected itself into the Archipelago of Malaysia and Indonesia. To the west, it reinforced its presence in sub-Saharan Africa and grew to be the dominant faith on that continent. The Ottomans who emerged after the Mongol-Tartar deluge were themselves heavily influenced by tasawwuf. And it was out of the caldron of Sufi ideas that the Safavid dynasty emerged.

With the destruction of the urban centers of learning wherein Arabic was the medium of instruction, Farsi emerged as the medium of expression for ecstatic Islam. Five hundred years of association with Islam had transformed Farsi and had exposed it to the rich lexicon of Arabic. And now it was the turn of Farsi to take center stage. It was through Farsi that sublime poetry and exquisite prose found their expression in the post-Mongol, Timurid, Safavid, Mogul and Ottoman periods.

Perhaps the greatest of the Farsi poets and one whose impact is still felt in the modern world, was Maulana Muhammed Khudawandagar Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273). No other savant personifies the transition from the pre-Mongol urban-empirical Islamic civilization to the post-Mongol rural-ecstatic civilization, as does Rumi. His Islamic name was Muhammed; Khudawandagar and Jalaluddin were his titles. He is called Rumi due to his residence in Konya which was located in a province referred to at the time as “Rum”, meaning an old province of the Roman Empire. His disciples called him Maulana (meaning, our guide and teacher). He was born to Persian-Afghan parents in 1207 in the city of Balkh in Afghanistan. His father, Bahauddin Walad was a scholar of repute, a Sufi master of the Kubrawiyah tareeqa and was held in high esteem by the local people. The sensitive mind of Rumi absorbed the scholarship and spirituality of his parents. But the quiet life of Balkh was soon shattered by the firestorm from Mongolia. As Genghiz Khan descended on Khorasan and advanced towards Persia and Afghanistan, Bahauddin Walad fled to Nishapur where the young Rumi met the celebrated poet Fareeduddin Attar, author of the classic Mantiq at Tayr (Conference of the Birds). Attar saw in the young lad the potential of a genius and gave him a copy of his works as a gift.

The Mongol avalanche soon engulfed all of Persia and Bahauddin fled once again with his family, this time to Baghdad. News of the arrival of Shaykh Bahauddin reached Kaikubad, the Seljuk ruler of Konya. Kaikubad was a patron of scholars. He invited Bahauddin to settle in Konya whereupon the Rumi family set out for Anatolia, visiting the cities of Mecca and Madina on the way and performing their Hajj. Shaykh Bahauddin died in 1231 leaving the young Jalaluddin in charge of the madrasah he had founded.

In 1232, Rumi met Shaykh Burhanuddin Muhaqqiq Tirmidhi, himself a student of Shaykh Bahauddin and became his murid. Under Shaykh Burhanuddin’s direction, Rumi mastered the sciences of kalam, hadith, Fiqh, tafheem e Qur’an, Arabic and Farsi grammar and tasawwuf. But the luminary who inspired Maulana Rumi to his ecstatic poetry was Shaykh Shamsuddin Tabrizi. Maulana Rumi met Shaykh Tabrizi in 1245 and the two forged a spiritual friendship that inspired the Maulana to compose poetry. When Shaykh Tabrizi disappeared from Konya in 1247, the Maulana was distraught and sent messengers to look for the Shaykh all over Anatolia and Syria. The search proved futile, but the Shaykh had impelled the spiritual ocean of the Maulana just as the setting moon impels the waves of the ocean. The Maulana poured forth his ecstasy in his first collection, Diwan e Sham e Tabrizi, a work of unmatched rhythm, music, alchemy and spirituality.

The work that bestowed a universal stature on Maulana Rumi was theMathnawi. A collection of over 27,000 verses, the Mathnawi is a veritable rhapsody of love of the human soul for the Divine. The Maulana drew upon the scriptures as well as the classics of Farsi and Arabic to construct a symphony of the soul in its journey towards the Master. Each verse is of incomparable beauty, each story of unsurpassed wisdom.

It is said in Sufi circles that God took a drop of love from His infinite Ocean Love, without in any way increasing or decreasing the depth of the Ocean and bestowed it upon humankind, dividing it equally between every man and woman ever created. If one were to claim that the Maulana captured the very essence of that drop of Divine Love that has sustained humankind, it would not be an exaggeration.

The Mathnawi is the epitome of Islamic tasawwuf. It has had a profound impact on Islamic culture and poetry, especially in the arc extending from Europe through Turkey, Persia, Central Asia and the Subcontinent. It has been translated into most modern languages. The Maulana stood at the pinnacle of spirituality as expressed in the Farsi language. His work continued to inspire Muslim writers and poets through the centuries. Some, like Shamsuddin Muhammed Hafiz (d. 1391), approached the spiritual heights of the Maulana. Other great ones like Abdur Rahman Jami (d. 1492) and Mohammed Iqbal (d. 1938) paid him homage. It is a tribute to this sage that the most popular poet in America today is not Shakespeare or Milton but Jalaluddin Rumi.

The legacy of Persia was the spiritual archetype that dominated Islam for 500 years. It was the renowned Sufi masters, men like Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani, Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti, Maulana Rumi, Shaykh Bahauddin Naqshband and Shaykh Shihabuddin Suhrawardi who served as role models for Muslims. Paupers and emperors alike sought to emulate their example. Architects and artisans derived their inspiration from them. Reformers and counter-reformers alike used their names to draw attention to their movements. Timurlane, conqueror of Asia, was an ardent supporter of Sufi masters. A Sufi shaykh trained the Ottoman Sultan Muhammed, conqueror of Istanbul. The Safavid dynasty of Persia grew out of a Sufi movement. Mogul Emperors Akbar and Jehangir were so devoted to Shaykh Salim Chishti that they performed pilgrimages to his qanqah on foot. Uthman dan Fuduye initiated his reforms in West Africa in the name of Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani. And Shaykh Shamil of the Caucasus who resisted the Russians for thirty years was inspired by the Naqshbanditareeqa.

The Persian spiritual influence extended to the architecture of post-Mongol Islam. Islamic architecture is a projection of the heavens on earth and seeks to realize in the matrix of material form a hint of the transcendence of heaven. Hence geometry is divided into two parts: functional geometry and supernal geometry. Functional geometry is the exoteric aspect of mathematical forms; supernal geometry describes the meaning behind those forms. Thus a dot is not just the limit of space as defined in mathematics, but also the onset of the creation of space. A dot moves and creates a line, which is not just a linear connection of points but the beginning of creation of space and a reminder (in the Arabic and Farsi languages) of the name of Allah. A line rotates and creates a circle, which becomes a representation of justice inasmuch as it shows no directional bias. And so on.

The inherent focus on transcendence enabled Muslim architects to realize in the construction of mosques and minarets alike something of the transcendence that lies hidden in geometrical forms. The genius of Persian architecture was that it applied that transcendence to the non-religious domain as well. Specifically, the application of supernal geometry with its emphasis on symbols and meaning to the construction of tombs and cenotaphs resulted in the erection of monuments of unparalleled beauty. The Timurids, the Safavids and the Ottomans all constructed tombs over the graves of sages and royalty alike to capture something of the essence of heaven on earth.

This art form reached its pinnacle in the Mogul court of Shah Jehan who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. The erection of this monument with its unsurpassed beauty and harmony could have been possible only in the framework of an ecstatic Islam in which love, not ritual, was the first step in the ascent of man to heaven. Conversely, such a structure would not have been possible in the classical age of Islam with its heavy emphasis on doctrine, the rational and the ritual. Classical Islam erected the edifice of law. In the post-Mongol period, the edifice of law was used by the Persian-speaking people as a platform on which they erected monuments of love.

From a historian’s perspective, the most important contribution of the Farsi-speaking world was the institution of zawiya (the Turkish tekke). The Persians did not invent this institution any more than they invented the science of tasawwuf. But it was in Persia and in the contiguous regions of Anatolia and the subcontinent that it emerged as the central institution of community life. The zawiya was based on the mosque-madrasah paradigm that had existed from the earliest days of Islam. The Persians-and the Turks and the Indo-Pakistanis-extended its function to include the cultivation of religious ecstasy through dhikr and the remembrance of God .The zawiya also became a nucleus for youth movements wherein young men learned the virtues of chivalry and courage and nurtured their character under the watchful eye of a Sufi shaykh. Ibn Batuta, in hisRehla, describes in detail the zawiyas he visited in Anatolia, Persia and India. Each Sufi order had its own zawiyas in which young men-and women-gathered to pray, to learn the Qur’an and Fiqh, to perform dhikrand to cultivate a comradeship based on faith. As commercial activity resumed after the Mongol destructions, these zawiyas also became centers of guilds and trade associations. A calligrapher, for instance, would undergo years of training in the control of hand muscles, preparation and maintenance of his tools, concentration on his work and focus on his soul. He would also be a member of one tareeqa or the other from which he would learn the discipline of the heart, which alone is the springhead of creative work. The Sufis made Divine Love accessible to the most illiterate peasant as well as the most sophisticated scholar. It was this immediacy of Divine Presence that molded the character of Muslims for five hundred years after Genghiz Khan. And the zawiya was the institution that made this possible.

The zawiyas spread to all parts of the Islamic world and were instrumental in ensuring the stability of Muslim societies up until the 18th century. In the largely rural milieu of India, Pakistan, Persia, Turkey and North Africa, the historical role of the zawiya was pivotal. It was the men of the zawiyawho were the backbone of the Turkish marches and the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire. It was the men of the zawiya who took Islam from Delhi and Lahore to the far corners of the subcontinent. It was the men of the zawiya who triumphed over the Portuguese at the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir (1578) and rescued North Africa from the same fate that had befallen Muslim Spain.

In the 18th century, the zawiya came up against the cold efficiency of the joint stock companies from Europe. The encounter took place just as political and social decay was overtaking the Islamic world. In the encounter, the joint stock companies triumphed. But the spiritual legacy of the zawiya endures to this day as a haunting reminder of a traditional Islam that once dominated the interconnecting landmass of Asia, Europe and Africa.