The Scholar's Road, Chapter 59, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

Wa alzamahum kalimata al-taqwa – the words of your Lord nurse your soul. Let this aching body do what it wants, I am migrating to the word. Let the world play its games and compete for meaningless scores, I live by the word. Let them display their ornaments, flaunt their adornments, worship their senses, bid for the meaningless, exult, gloat, and boast, I am leaving this world. “So leave them to their babble and play, until they face their promised day” (43:83). When all is said and done, nothing remains except for the word.


Yes, babble and play—but when I see the fervor and vehemence by which some babble and play, I never cease to be amazed. The ignorant pursue their ignorance with fury and rage, and they see fear and enemies everywhere. The people of the word are bound by the word, and say, “Peace upon you, we feel no petulance, but we do pity your fate.” Wa alzamahum kalimata al-taqwa—God has made the believers bound by the “word of self-restraint” (48:26). Those who do not believe burn with the heat and cant of ignorance, but the believers are given the bliss of tranquility, and stand steadfast with the word of self-restraint (48:26). “The word of self-restraint”—what a subtle expression! The word is the testament, and its truth is self-restraint. Regardless of the rage of chauvinism, the arrogance of vanities and the fury of arrogance, the ardor of ignorance, and pestilence of prejudice, God’s charge to those who know is principled self-restraint.


“The life of this world is play and jest, but if you believe and practice self-restraint, God will grant you recompense. God does not ask that you surrender all of your possessions. If God would ask that of you, and press [that upon] you, you would covetously withhold, and [asking you to do that] would evoke your hate.” (47:36-7)


“Evoke our hate!”—Such is our pitiful state. If pressured to let go of our possessions, our play and games, and our indulgences and delusions, and if asked to embrace the full meaning of the word, it only provokes in us defiance, anger, and hate. Such is our truly sad state. If confronted with our arrogance, ignorance, self-indulgence, and lack of fair and just self-restraint, we react with stubborn arguments, anger, and hate.


I seek solace in the lessons of the past—in those who held steadfast to the restraint of the word. I seek comfort in those who gave the word its worth, and paid the price in pain and hurt. I find comfort in their suffering, as my suffering is bound to comfort someone else. The road of knowledge is lonely, but the traveler is assured when he finds someone else’s footsteps.


There is no need to deny the pain I suffer from the insolence of students, the treachery of friends, and the slander of foes. There is no need to deny that acts of kindness and care are answered with ingratitude and disdain. There is no need to deny that the equanimity of the word is persistently attacked by those who are severely allergic to thought. There is no need to deny that for every thoughtful word, jealousy spews out a thousand scornful words. Jealousy wears the garb of piety and lurks in ignorance, waiting to pounce on any gallant thought. There is no need to deny because my suffering will be the footsteps that comfort another traveler on the road. Those who worship their emotions and live for self-promotion will always torment the servants of reason and the upholders of the word. But, regardless of the pain, we are bound by the truth of piety, and the truth of piety is found in a word. Our history is full of heroes and persecutors. The only question is, whom do we choose to honor and whom do we choose to ignore.


There are so many footsteps telling us the stories of those who agonized and suffered as they walked this road.[1] Our civilization was not built on the comforts of indolence and asininity—our civilization was built on the suffering of the martyrs of the word. When I think of my own pains, I am quickly humbled by the long list of sufferers on the way. I see the footsteps of Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (d. 414/1023) who died marginalized and poor. Before his death, he reportedly declared, “People don’t deserve my thought!” and burned his own books out of spite against those who tormented him throughout his life. I see the footsteps of the Hanbali jurist, Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d. 631/1233), who became famous in Egypt, but due to the heathenness of jealousy, he was accused of heresy. Dismayed and broken-hearted, he escaped to Hama in Syria and then Damascus. In Damascus, his fame quickly spread, but the ignorant and jealous chased him again, and after he was accused of rationalism and of having, God forbid, a brain, he was dismissed from his professorial chair in the ‘Aziziyya school. I see the footsteps of al-Baydawi (d. 685/1286), the Shafi‘i Chief Justice of Shiraz, who was accused of being a Shi‘i, and who suffered enormously from slander and jealousy. I see the footsteps of the scholar of hadith, al-Bukhari (d. 256/870), who was accused of being a Rationalist and was expelled and exiled until he died a ward of his relatives without a home or money. I see the footsteps of the great Maliki jurist and judge, Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 543/1148), who was dismissed, imprisoned, and exiled, and who withstood his torment with remarkable bravery. I walk in the footsteps of Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350), and his teacher Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), who were both tortured and imprisoned for their insistence on honoring the integrity of the word. Ibn Taymiyya, in particular, lived and died a martyr of the word. He was imprisoned and exiled from Egypt and Syria because of his writings, and, after issuing a fatwa that offended those in power, he was left to die in prison. I always find comfort in the footsteps of the great Hanafi jurist, al-Sarakhsi (d. 483/1090), who was also tortured and imprisoned because of his juristic integrity. He refused the comforts of a political appointment, was persecuted for his legal opinions, and wrote some of his most famous works in prison. I can never forget the footsteps of the Maliki jurist and judge, Ibn Rushd (d. 595/1198), who was beaten and exiled because of his rationalism, and who died with a broken heart—a heart broken by treacherous jealousy. I see the footsteps of the Shafi‘i jurist, ‘Izz al-Din Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam (d. 661/1262), who was imprisoned and exiled when he denounced the ruler’s alliance with the Christian crusading enemy. The Shafi‘i jurist, al-Kiya al-Harrasi (d. 504/1110-1), was accused of having heretical tendencies by envious clowns. As a result, he greatly suffered, and was even in danger of being killed, but his life was spared when some colleagues in Baghdad collected signatures on a petition attesting to his integrity. Al-Nisa’i (d. 303/915), the scholar of hadith, whose collection is considered one of the six authoritative works on the Sunna, was tormented in Egypt by those who were jealous of him, and so he moved to Palestine. In Palestine, he refused to be politically correct and so was beaten, and died from his injuries. The historian and jurist, al-Tabari (d. 310/923), refused all honors and positions, and was the model of sincerity and integrity. This earned him the spite of the ignorant, and he lived a good part of his life persecuted by fanatic Hanbalis. Eventually, no one dared to deal with him or visit him, his books were burned, and even his grave was desecrated by his ignorant enemies. The famous Maliki Qadi ‘Iyad (d. 544/1149) suffered numerous obstacles on the road, was eventually dismissed from the judiciary, and died in exile. The grand Shafi‘i jurist, al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505), known as the Son of Books, struggled with unrelenting petty jealousies. Frustrated, he eventually removed himself from public life and lived in isolation except for the company of his books. I stare at the footsteps of the Shafi‘i jurist al-Nawawi (d. 676/1277), who stood up against a ruler’s unjust taxes, was fired from his teaching post, and banished from Damascus. He went to Egypt where he became a chief judge only to be fired again, arrested, and imprisoned. He died poor and lonely in his father’s home in Nawa south of Damascus. Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) refused to issue a fatwa supporting the rulers and was imprisoned and savagely tortured. I glare at the long-suffering footsteps of the Shafi‘i jurist and historian al-Subki (d. 771/1370). He was the Chief Justice in Syria but fell victim to ignorance and jealousy. He was accused of sin, corruption, and heresy, and he was eventually removed from his position. Subki’s agony and suffering became mythical. In fact, it was said that he suffered a level of persecution that no judge had ever suffered before him in Islamic history. The hardest footsteps to look at are those of the Hanafi historian and jurist al-Jabarti (d. 1237/1822). In response to his bravery and honesty, his writings were banned, his son was killed, and his son’s body was displayed on a donkey.


There are so many footsteps, and so many sufferers, that when I think of one example, I immediately think of ten others. But perhaps my closest and dearest friend and companion on the road is the remarkable jurist, ‘Ali Ibn Muhammad Abu al-Wafa’ Ibn ‘Aqil, one of the most gifted intellects in human history. Ibn ‘Aqil, the author of books on jurisprudence, theology, and Sufism, was the true incarnation of the majestic word. His Kitab al-Funun is a 200-volume work that represents the glory of Islamic humanism, and the beauty that results when the supernal is aided by rationalism. Ibn ‘Aqil is the Hanbali jurist who studied with Hanbalis, Hanafis, Shafi‘is, Mu‘tazilis, and Sufis, and was described by Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) as more knowledgeable than Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111). The jurist al-Silafi (d. 576/1180) said, “I have never seen anyone like the jurist Abu al-Wafa’ Ibn ‘Aqil. No one could debate him because of the extent of his learning, the beauty of his presentation, the eloquence of his speech, and the power of his arguments.” Other scholars described him as a beautiful man, kind, and generous—a man of sparkling intelligence. I feel invigorated, liberated, and ashamed as I hear Ibn ‘Aqil say:


“God protected me in my youth from sin and put in my heart only the love of knowledge. I never cared for play or games, and I only mixed with students of knowledge like myself. Now, that I am eighty years old, I find that my zeal for knowledge is stronger than when I was twenty years old. Despite my age, I do not notice any weakness in my intuition, thought, or memory, and I am no less able to investigate the hidden proofs and evidence, but my physical endurance has waned… Yet, it is not lawful for me to waste a single moment of my life. If my tongue is not engaged in study or debate, and my eyes are not engaged in reading, I work my intellect while I am resting or lying down so that when I rise, I rush to write down a thought that had occurred to me. Yes, I find that my zeal for knowledge, now that I am eighty years old, is more vigorous than when I was twenty.”


This learned and beautiful man was the one who also said, “I have not abandoned the seeking of knowledge except on two nights: my wedding night and the night my parents died.” Yet, this beautiful man was persecuted by those who are ugly and who are, intellectually, his inferiors.


Ibn ‘Aqil was born in Baghdad in 431/1039, a descendant from a Hanafi- Mu‘tazili line of jurists. From his mother’s side of the family, he was related to the famous Hanafi-Mu‘tazili jurist, al-Zuhri. Ibn ‘Aqil’s father was a jurist of some repute who guided Ibn ‘Aqil towards the pursuit of knowledge at an early age. Ibn ‘Aqil studied with an array of jurists from a variety of intellectual orientations including traditionalists, rationalists, and Sufis. His early teachers included three women scholars: al-Huraniyya, Bint al-Junayyid, and Bint al-Gharrad. At the age of fifteen, after memorizing the Qur’an and studying grammar and hadith, Ibn ‘Aqil was ready to commence the study of law at the undergraduate level. He enrolled in the Hanafi school of law, but after successfully completing the first year, his studies were interrupted by disaster.


In 447/1055, when the Saljuqs sacked Baghdad and slaughtered his family, and Ibn ‘Aqil became an orphan. Destitute and lonely, he was reduced to poverty. He worked as a copyist for wages, and what little money he made, he spent on learning. But God sent a kind and generous merchant named Abu Mansur Ibn Yusuf (d. 460/1067), who cared for and supported Ibn ‘Aqil, and Ibn ‘Aqil became Abu Mansur’s ward. Ibn ‘Aqil re-enrolled to resume his law studies, but this time as a Hanbali student. He quickly stood out as the most distinguished student of al-Qadi Abu Ya‘la (d. 458/1065), the chief jurist of the Hanbalis in Baghdad at the time. Ibn ‘Aqil described his relationship to Abu Ya‘la in the following passage:


“Until his (Abu Ya‘la’s) death, I never missed attending his classes or accompanying him in his retreats. During these retreats, he allowed me to be with him, keeping him company, be it during walks or while walking beside his stirrup, when he was on his mount. In spite of my youth, I had access to his private moments more than any other of his disciples.”


But Ibn ‘Aqil’s thirst for knowledge was unquenchable, and he continued to pursue many other classes and teachers. The list of Ibn ‘Aqil’s teachers is remarkable. It includes Abu al-Tayyib al-Tabari (d. 450/1058), al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (d. 463/1071), Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi (d. 476/1083), and Abu Muhammad al-Tamimi (d. 488/1095). It is clear that the teacher’s intellectual orientation or his formal association with a particular school of thought did not matter. What did matter was the quality of knowledge and its usefulness. Ibn ‘Aqil’s attitude towards knowledge, and his zealous pursuit of learning were bound to irritate those who could not understand the value of the word.


During the time he studied with al-Qadi Abu Ya‘la, Ibn ‘Aqil continued to attend the classes of several rationalist (Mu‘tazili) teachers. Some of Ibn ‘Aqil’s fellow Hanbali students could not believe that Abu Ya‘la’s star-student would continue to study with rationalist scholars. Some of these students, probably incited by al-Sharif Abu Ja‘far (d. 470/1077), confronted Ibn ‘Aqil and demanded that he stop studying with the rationalist scholars. Abu Ja‘far was Abu Ya‘la’s long-time graduate student and assistant, who despite his loyalty and service to Abu Ya‘la, was being outshined by Ibn ‘Aqil. Abu Ya‘la did not demand that Ibn ‘Aqil stop attending the classes of the rationalists and, in fact, Abu Ya‘la continued to be very close to Ibn ‘Aqil, but Abu Ja‘far was burning with jealousy. It is unlikely that Abu Ja‘far could have declared his open hostility to Ibn ‘Aqil during Abu Ya‘la’s lifetime. All the historical evidence indicates that Abu Ya‘la continued to cherish Ibn ‘Aqil and even encouraged him to study with the rationalist scholars. It is likely, however, that Abu Ja‘far was the hidden force working against Ibn ‘Aqil. In any case, Ibn ‘Aqil’s response to the Hanbali students was simple and straightforward; Ibn ‘Aqil argued that he found those classes very useful, and that it was his right to pursue knowledge wherever it may be found. The Hanbali students insisted, while Ibn ‘Aqil persisted, and finally, the Hanbalis ambushed Ibn ‘Aqil and beat him severely until his blood flowed on the ground.


After the beating, Ibn ‘Aqil was undeterred. He continued to study and compose with remarkable vigor and insight, and equally mastered the discourses of the traditionalists and rationalists. He distanced himself from the petty competitions for position or recognition, and remained loyal to the integrity of the word. Ibn ‘Aqil, remembering this period, stated:


“My fellow (Hanbalis) insisted that I terminate my studies with a certain group of intellectuals, and they wanted to prevent me from acquiring useful knowledge… I endured poverty and hardship and endured working as a copyist with continence and the pious fear of God. I did not vie with any jurist for the chair of a halaqa (position of teaching), and I did not aspire to any scholarly post that could have prevented me from pursuing knowledge.”


Integrity is not divisible, and that is why you find that those who have the true love of the word are also the people who love the truth. The love of truth requires pious self-restraint so that each and every fact and consideration may be given its fair and just share. Ibn ‘Aqil’s integrity pervaded every corner of his mind, and guided him through the tribulations of life. When Ibn ‘Aqil was about twenty-two years of age, he had a serious dispute with Abu Sa‘d al-Mustawfi (d. 494/1101), the Saljuq Minister of Finance, over the reconstruction of Abu Hanifa’s Mausoleum. Al-Mustawfi was a fanatic Hanafi politician and, like most fanatics, was not incredibly bright. A mosque was built around Abu Hanifa’s (d. 150/767) grave in 436/1044-5, but several disciples and scholars were also buried in the near vicinity of the same grave. In 453/1061, al-Mustawfi decided to tear down the mosque and build a new dome and shrine in honor of Abu Hanifa. The new construction necessitated the excavation of the mosque’s foundations, and while digging, the workers unearthed many human bones, which they re-buried in a nearby field. Furthermore, in building the shrine, the Minister misappropriated teakwood and huge doors from churches and synagogues in Samarra. While most people remained silent, Ibn ‘Aqil was outraged. He pointed out to the Minister that it was unlawful to build anything by misappropriating the properties of others. He also pointed out that by excavating the bones of those buried in the shrine, there was a good possibility that the workers excavated Abu Hanifa’s bones. If, in fact, Abu Hanifa’s bones had been excavated and re-buried elsewhere, what was the point of having the shrine in the first place? In addition, Ibn ‘Aqil vigorously protested the very idea of disturbing the burial place of the great jurist Abu Hanifa, and others. Although Ibn ‘Aqil was no longer a Hanafi, he could not accept this careless disrespect towards a great man of knowledge.


Of course, instead of listening to reason, al-Mustawfi insisted on his conduct and complained to Ibn ‘Aqil’s benefactor, Abu Mansur, and insisted that Ibn ‘Aqil be punished. When asked to refrain from criticizing al-Mustawfi, Ibn ‘Aqil replied, “I have witnessed gross and reprehensible acts. My piety and religious feelings induce repulsion in me [against such behavior], and I cannot contain the aversion I feel… These people [al-Mustawfi and his supporters] live in total ignorance of the true religion.”


At times, acts of integrity might be rewarded in the most unexpected way. For instance, when Ibn ‘Aqil was in Mecca, he found a valuable red necklace. Ibn ‘Aqil searched for the necklace’s owner and found that it belonged to the imam of a mosque. Upon returning the necklace to the imam, the imam insisted on offering a reward to Ibn ‘Aqil, and Ibn ‘Aqil refused. Years later, after the imam died, Ibn ‘Aqil married his daughter, who was drawn to him because of his piety and honesty.


The altercations with his fellow Hanbali students and the Minister were just the beginning of Ibn ‘Aqil’s troubles. In 458/1065, Abu Ya‘la, the venerated teacher of both Ibn ‘Aqil and Abu Ja‘far, died. With his death, Abu Ya‘la’s professorial chair at the Mosque of the Caliph al-Mansur became vacant. This was the most prestigious chair in Hanbali law at the time, and there were two obvious candidates. Abu Ja‘far had studied with and assisted Abu Ya‘la for twenty years, but did not seem to be a particularly gifted student. Ibn ‘Aqil had completed five years of undergraduate study and seven years of graduate study in law, but at that time, for a candidate to qualify for a professorial position in law, he normally needed fifteen years of graduate level study in jurisprudence. Ibn ‘Aqil only had seven years—he was simply too young. Nevertheless, it was possible for graduate students of exceptional abilities to be appointed to a professorial position even before the completion of their studies. Such was the case, for example, with Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085) and Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya. Ibn ‘Aqil, despite being younger than all the other professorial candidates, was selected to occupy the chair, and with this, Ibn ‘Aqil became the head of the Hanbali school in Baghdad.


Abu Ja‘far was livid. If Abu Ya‘la would have nominated Abu Ja‘far to succeed him to the chair, without a doubt, Abu Ja‘far would have been confirmed as the occupant of the chair. But Abu Ya‘la died without nominating anyone to the chair. Abu Ja‘far resented Ibn ‘Aqil’s diligence and attitude towards knowledge, and he hated Ibn ‘Aqil’s tolerance towards the rationalists. Furthermore, Abu Ja‘far was quite simply jealous of Ibn ‘Aqil’s learning and insight. Interestingly, after becoming a professor, Ibn ‘Aqil would teach his classes and leave immediately to study with other scholars. In Ibn ‘Aqil’s words, “After teaching my own courses, I used to leave my halaqa in order to pursue, without respite, the halaqas of the religious intellectuals…” This could have only further enraged Abu Ja‘far, and ignited his hate.


Only two years after Ibn ‘Aqil occupied his prestigious position, Abu Mansur, Ibn ‘Aqil’s benefactor and protector, died. With Abu Mansur’s death, Ibn ‘Aqil was made vulnerable, save for the protection of God. Abu Ja‘far did not waste time; he met with Abu al-Qasim Ibn Ridwan, the Caliph’s son-in-law, in 461/1068, and they both made a pact to destroy Ibn ‘Aqil.


Abu Ja‘far and Ibn Ridwan started a concerted smear campaign. Supported by their students and an army burning with ignorance and jealousy, they accused Ibn ‘Aqil of being a Mu‘tazili, a rationalist, and a heretic. They spread unsubstantiated rumors that Abu Ya‘la secretly hated Ibn ‘Aqil, and confided in some that Ibn ‘Aqil was a heretic. They even circulated a story accusing Ibn ‘Aqil of being a false-prophet and an infidel. If being a rationalist meant having the power of thought, reason, and critical insight, this accusation, thrown at Ibn ‘Aqil, was most certainly true. All the other accusations were nonsensical, but envy will make people believe anything. Abu Ja‘far and his supporters were intellectual midgets. They could not debate Ibn ‘Aqil because of his superior knowledge, so they turned this knowledge against him. They claimed that Ibn ‘Aqil used his superior knowledge to excite young men to unsteadiness, causing them to go astray. He confuses young men with his many questions and queries. He makes young men question their faith and emboldens them against the traditions and customs of their elders. Even if Ibn ‘Aqil is knowledgeable, they contended, he lacks piety, and if he is pious, he lacks wisdom. If Ibn ‘Aqil is not stopped, he will even embolden the people against their leaders.


Ibn ‘Aqil’s students tried to defend him, but jealousy is one of the strongest forces in the world of games and delusions. People who knew Ibn ‘Aqil for many years, scared of being accused, pretended not to know him. Even the few notables who invited Ibn ‘Aqil to dinner at their homes during the crisis were attacked and accused of being heretics. Most people distanced themselves. Ibn ‘Aqil was forcibly prevented from lecturing in his classes and was not permitted to defend himself. Even publishers, agents, scholars, and students were warned not to accept any written materials from Ibn ‘Aqil, and not to deliver any messages or letters on his behalf. Eventually, Ibn ‘Aqil lost his professorial chair and, suffering from the treachery of friend and foe, he fell gravely ill. Fearing for the safety of his works, Ibn ‘Aqil entrusted some of his writings to one of his friends and students, but this friend and student took Ibn ‘Aqil’s writings and handed them over to none other than Abu Ja‘far himself. Ibn ‘Aqil’s fate was sealed.


Abu Ja‘far and his camp exploited an oppressive edict that was passed during the reign of the Caliph al-Qadir (r. 381-422/991-1031). Al-Qadir was a follower of the Qadiri Creed, and he passed an edict pursuant to which any Shi‘i or Mu‘tazili could be executed unless he retracted his beliefs. The Caliph in Ibn ‘Aqil’s time was al-Qa’im (r. 422-67/1031-75), al-Qadir’s son. Al-Qa’im was not particularly keen about enforcing his father’s unjust edict, but in response to the persistent efforts of Abu Ja‘far and his camp, Ibn ‘Aqil was arrested, imprisoned and then exiled, and kept secluded. Ibn ‘Aqil was reduced to abject poverty again. However, Abu Ja‘far and his party were not yet done. After an effort that lasted three years, in 465/1072, they managed to bring legal proceedings against Ibn ‘Aqil for heresy, and pursuant to al-Qadir’s edict, Ibn ‘Aqil was to be executed. But Abu Ja‘far did not want Ibn ‘Aqil to become a martyr. Instead, Abu Ja‘far wanted Ibn ‘Aqil to sign and read a retraction in return for a pardon. And, in that same year, on September 24 (8 Muharram), Ibn ‘Aqil stood in the mosque-college of his accuser, al-Sharif Abu Ja‘far, to read aloud the retraction before a great assembly of people. The retraction read in part:


“I [Ibn ‘Aqil] purify myself, before God, of the doctrines of the heretical innovators, Mu‘tazilis and others; of frequenting the masters of this doctrinal system; of venerating its partisans; of invoking the mercy of God on their predecessors; and of emulating them. What I have written, and what has been found written in my hand concerning their doctrines and their errors, I repent to God for having written. It is not permitted to write those things, nor to say them, nor to believe them…


“With this, I ask God’s forgiveness, and I turn to Him in penitence for having frequented the heretical innovators, Mu‘tazilis, and others; for having sought to emulate them; for having invoked God’s mercy on them; and for having venerated them. For all of that is prohibited; a Muslim is not permitted to do this, because of what the Prophet has said—the blessings and peace of God be upon him! ‘He who venerates the author of a condemnable innovation helps in bringing about the ruin of Islam.’


“The Sharif Abu Ja‘far, and his companions, masters and partisans, my superiors, and my colleagues—May God the Exalted protect them—rightly blame me, seeing what they have witnessed written in my hand of works from which I purify myself before God. I am certain that I was wrong, that I was not right…


“I call on God, on His angels, and on the men of religious learning, to witness what I have just said voluntarily and without constraint. The sentiments of my heart are in complete accord with the expressions of my mouth—May God the Exalted be the Judge! God has said, ‘God will exact a penalty from whoever repeats an offense. For God is Exalted, and Lord of retribution (5:95).”


One can only imagine Ibn ‘Aqil’s pain and agony while reading this shameful retraction—the politics of convenience mixed with the spite of jealousy and the insolence of ignorance to degrade a great intellect. And, with this retraction, Abu Ja‘far thought that he had finally won. Ibn ‘Aqil lived in exile and seclusion until Abu Ja‘far’s death in 470/1077. Ironically, Abu Ja‘far never obtained the prestigious professorial chair he so badly coveted, and he died following a painful and long illness after being poisoned by one of his many rivals. Most importantly, Abu Ja‘far left behind no worthwhile work or thought.


During his exile, Ibn ‘Aqil met his beloved wife and had several children. Two of his sons died, and he persevered with faith and strength. After Abu Ja‘far’s death, Ibn ‘Aqil resumed teaching in a mosque-college of his own, and eventually became the head of the Hanbali guild. He composed numerous works, and taught some of the most prominent students. Reflecting on this painful period of his life, he said:


“I have seen dynasties come and go, but no power of a sultan, nor that of a crowd, was capable of dissuading me from what I believed to be the truth. My fellow (Hanbalis) subjected me to physical suffering to the point of drawing blood; and I was tormented during the administration of al-Nizam[3] with legal prosecutions and imprisonment. [And, all I say is] O You for whom I have sacrificed all, do not disappoint my hopes…”


Of course, God did not disappoint Ibn ‘Aqil’s hopes. Ibn ‘Aqil outlived his persecutors, and died, in body, in 513/1119. In intellect, he lives on, and will live until the very end. When he died, he left behind nothing of this world of play and games. The only things found in his home were his books, and a few garments of cloth. But thousands marched in his funeral, and, according to one source, those who paid their respects were close to three-hundred thousand souls. Ibn ‘Aqil honored the word, and was honored by the word. Despite the distractions of games and the noise of babble, he held firmly to the word of self-restraint. For, the key to piety and knowledge is to restrain yourself from drifting into the fogs of this world and to maintain your footsteps along the truthful way.


Ibn ‘Aqil, may God bless your beautiful soul, your footsteps are firmly embedded on the road of knowledge and, through the centuries, you have been the enlightenment, consolation, and companion to so many travelers on that arduous road. As for your persecutors, and mine, I only have the words of our Lord: “Turn away from them, and say, ‘Peace,’ for, in time, they will come to know.” (43:89)




[1] For this Conference I relied on a variety of biographical dictionaries and historical sources such as al-Muntazam by Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201) and al-Siyar by al-Dhahabi (d. 748/1348). However, I am especially indebted to George Makdisi’s valuable study on Ibn ‘Aqil, Ibn ‘Aqil: Religion and Culture in Classical Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997).  The quotes reproduced here are, for the most part, Makdisi’s. However, I have changed some of the translations to reflect my understanding of the original sources.


[2] Nizam al-Mulk was the effective ruler of the Saljuk Empire from 465/1072 until his assassination in 485/1092.  Nizam al-Mulk endowed professorial chairs for distinguished jurists such as Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085) and Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi (d. 476/1083).