Philosophy & Theology

al-Baghdadi: Survey of Different Muslim Groups

al-Farq Bayn al-Firaq

  ‘Abd al-Qahir b. Tahir b. Muhammad al-Baghdadi al-Isfara’ini al-Tamimi

 Part One of this Section

البغدادي: أصناف اهل السنة و الجماعة 

By S. Z. Chowdhury

Autumn 2003 

 Regarding the Exposition of the Different Categories of the People of Sunnah and Jama‘ah[1]

“And know – and may Allah grant you prosperity! – that the People of Sunnah and Jama‘ah comprise eight categories of people:

 1. The first category from them are those who have comprehensive knowledge in the field of: Allah’s Unity (tawhid) and the Prophethood (nabuwwah); the rulings of threats and promises (al-wad wa ’l-waid); reward and punishment (al-thawab wa ’l-iqab); conditions of juristic reasoning (ijtihad) as well as the Khilafah (imamah) and political leadership (al-ziamah) and they proceeded in this manner adopting the characteristics of the scholastic theologians (sifatiyyah min al-mutakallimin)[2] who were free from (tabarra’u) likening Allah to His creation (tashbih) as well as nullifying His [SWT] attributes (tatil) and free from the innovations of the Rafidah,[3] Khawarij,[4] al-Jahmiyyah,[5] al-Najjariyyah as well as the rest of the people of pernicious desires and misguidance.

 2. The Second category from amongst [the people of Sunnah and Jama‘ah] are: the exalted Imams of Islamic rulings (a’immah al-fiqh) including the ‘People of Opinion’ (al-ra’y) and ‘Traditions’ (al-hadith); those who believed and affirmed, in the fundamentals of the religion, the school that adheres to the attributes of Allah and His Eternal attributes (sifatihi al-azaliyah) and are free from the doctrine of al-qadar and al-i‘tizal;[6] affirmed the visio beatifica of Allah Most High (ru’ya Allah) with the eyes (bi ’l-absar) without making a likeness to created things nor nullification; those who affirmed the Hashr of the grave as well as the interrogation in the grave (al-su’al fi ’l-qabr), the Hawd, the Sirat, the great intercession (shafaah) and the Divine pardon for sinners who did not associate anything will Allah (duna shirk).

And they[7] asserted: The eternal bliss of Paradise (bi-dawam naim al-jannah) for its inhabitants and the eternal torment of the Fire for the non-believers. And they also asserted: the khilafah of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali and how excellent they were in their praises for the Pious Predecessors of this ummah (al-salaf al-salih); and they deemed the Friday Prayer obligatory behind Imams who are free from being partisan to the people of desires and misguidance; they deemed extracting an Islamic ruling from the Qur’an, Sunnah and Consensus of the Companions (ijma al-sahabah) as obligatory; and considered wiping over the leather socks (mash ‘ala ’l-khuffayn) as permissible as well as the incident of three pronouncements of divorce (wuqual-talaq al-thalath) but considered temporary marriage (mutah) as unlawful and finally, they deemed obedience to the Sultan [as obligatory] in all that is not disobedience [to Allah].

            Included in this group are the followers of Malik, al-Shafi‘i, al-Awza‘i, al-Thawri, Abu Hanifah, ibn Abi Laylah, the followers of Abu Thawr, the followers of Ahmad b. Hanbal, the Zahiriyyah and the rest of the jurists who affirmed all the rational aspects as well as the fundamentals of [Allah’s] attributes and did not mix their fiqh with any reprehensibly innovated matter from the people of wanton desires and misguidance.

 3. The third category: they are those who possessed knowledge by means of the reports (akhbar) and the transmitted examples (al-sunan al-ma’thurah) from the Prophet upon him be blessings and peace; have differentiated between the rigorously authenticated aspects (al-sahih) from the inauthentic (al-saqim); and who knew the causes of ‘impugnment’ (al-jarh) and ‘validation’ (al-tadil) and did not muddle their knowledge (lam yakhlitu ilmahum) with any reprehensibly innovated matter from the people of wanton desires and misguidance.

4. The fourth category from amongst [the people of Sunnah and Jama‘ah] are: those who possessed deep knowledge regarding the major areas of Arabic Literature (al-adab), Grammar and Syntax (al-nahw wa ’l-tasrif) and those who followed the path of the Arabic Linguists and Rhetoricians such as Khalil,[8] Abu ‘Amru b. al-‘Ala’,[9] Sibawayh,[10] al-Farra’,[11] al-Akhfash,[12] al-Asma‘i, al-Mazani,[13] Abu ‘Ubayd [al-Qasim b. al-Sallam][14] and all the rest of the learned from the School of Kufah and Basrah who did not muddle their knowledge with any reprehensibly innovated matter from the people of the Qadariyah sect or the Khawarij and whoever of them inclined in any way whatsoever towards misguided whims, they are not of the Ahl al-Sunnah and their statements are neither a proof (hujjah) in the Language nor the Grammar.

5. The fifth category are: those who have knowledge of the various ways of Qur’anic recitation as well as from the aspect of exegesis of Qur’anic verses, its explanation (ta’wiliha) according to the norms and methods (madhhab) of the Ahl al-Sunnah and not the explanation of the people of wanton desires and misguidance.

6. The sixth category are: the pious ascetics (al-zuhhad) and the Sufis (al-sufiyyah) who underwent deep reflection (absaru), abstained (fa ’l-qsaru),[15] were tried and tested (akhtabaru), learned lessons (fa ’l-tabaru), were content with the Divine decree (radu bi ’l-maqdur), satisfied with the less difficult (qanaa bi ’l-maysur); those who knew that the ears, eyes and the heart (al-fu’ad) are all responsible regarding what is Good and what is Bad (mas’ulun an al-khayr wa ’l-sharr), accountable for even an atom’s weight (mathaqil al-dharrah);[16] have prepared the best preparation for the Day of Judgment; their utterances followed the twin paths of interpretation and instruction in accordance with the People of Hadith and not of those who purchase the hadith as mere amusement (lahw);[17] who do not know of pride (al-riya’), do not reject shame (al-haya’); their religion is al-Wahid, negation of likening Allah to creation (tashbih), their doctrine is resigning the meanings of Allah’s attributes purely to him (tafwid),[18] having complete reliance upon Him [SWT], submission to his commands (taslim li-amrihi), content with what they are provided with (al-qinaah bi-ma ruziqu) and shunning that which is frowned upon:

 (Race with one another in hastening towards forgiveness from your Lord and Paradise the width whereof is as the width of the heaven and the earth prepared for those who believe in Allah and His Messengers. That is the Grace of Allah which He bestows on whom He is pleased with. And Allah is the Owner of Great Bounty).[19]

7. The seventh category are: the Murabitun[20] at the frontier posts for the Muslims against the non-believers, struggling and fighting against the enemies of the Muslims, who protect the Muslim sanctuaries; who defend their women and their lands and render victorious (yuzharun) the orthodox school, the Ahl al-Sunnah wa ’l-Jama‘ah. Moreover, they are those regarding whom Allah (SWT) revealed: (Those who struggle four Our cause; so of surety we will guide them to Our paths: And Allah is with those who do right). May Allah increase them in their ability from and with His excellence.

8. The eighth category comprise the common people over whom the general mark of the Ahl al-Sunnah prevails and not the [dark] smudge which is visible as the mark of the people of pernicious desires and misguidance.

Thus, we only intended by this [last] general category those who firmly believed in the agreement of the scholars of Sunnah and Jama‘ah regarding the areas of Divine Justice and Unity, Divine threats and Promises; and referred to them with regards to the requirements of the religion, and followed them in the laws (furu‘) related to Halal and Haram and did not believe one bit in the unwarranted innovations of the people of desires and misguidance and those are what the Sufis term “the occupying  of paradise” (hashwu ’l-jannah).”[21]

                                                                                                And Allah knows Best. 


[1] From his book al-Farq bayn al-Firaq, 1st edn. ed. by Muhammad Muhy al-Din ‘Abd al-Hamid, al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, Beirut 2004, pp.220-224.

[2] Often there is a misunderstanding that the pious predecessors (al-salaf al-salih) were utterly against the use of and immersion into the dialectical parameters of kalam, particularly the vehement opposition by the Hanbali madhhab. However, this condemnation of kalam is overly zealous and exaggerated for three main reasons: 1) the use of kalam, historically, began with individuals and sects who were pernicious innovators in matters of doctrine such as the Qadariyyah, Jahmiyyah, Rawafidiah, Mu‘tazilah, etc. lacking any proper understanding of reasoning, method and evidence and so the rebuke and castigation by the early ‘ulama’ from the four madhabs were solely directed at the founders and ideas of these sects but the criticisms cannot be taken out of their context and re-directed – anachronistically – at those who came after in refuting the unorthodox sects with the same reasoning and methods. Thus, Imam Abu Zahra wrote: “Whenever you hear Abu Yusuf or Muhammad [al-Shaybani] or al-Shafi‘i or ibn Hanbal and others [amongst the early Imams] revile the science of kalam and those who take knowledge by following the methods of the Mutakallimun, know that they only meant the Mu‘tazilah by their criticisms and the methods of the Mu‘tazilah,” see Abu Hanifah quoted in IbnAbd al-Salam: The belief of the People of Truth, Islamic doctrines and beliefs series by Dr. G. F. Haddad, As-Sunna Foundation of America, U. S. A. 1999, vol.3, p.28. Similarly, Nuh Keller writes: “What al-Shafi‘i meant [by the prohibition of engaging in kalam] was the heretical scholastic theology that proliferated in his time that put rationalistic theories ahead of the Qur’an and Sunna not the science of theology (‘ilm al-tawhid) by which the Ash‘ari and Maturidi scholars have clarified and detailed the tenets of faith of Sunni Islam which is an important part of the Islamic sciences,” The Reliance of the Traveller, Modern Printing Press, Dubai 1991, p.9.

                2) Notwithstanding the repugnance the early scholars had for kalam, much of the dislike was due to an emphasis on wara’ (God-wariness) i.e. “extreme scrupulousness against learning and practising a discipline initiated by the enemies of the Sunna. Thus they considered kalam reprehensible but not forbidden as is clear from their statements. For example, ibn Abi Hatim narrated that al-Shafi‘i said: ‘if I wanted to publish books refuting every single opponent [of the Sunna] I could easily do so, but kalam is not for me and I dislike that anything of it is attributed to me,’” G. F. Haddad, op. cit., p.29 and Imam al-Dhahabi, Siyar al-Alam al-Nubala’, ed. by Muhibb al-Din al-‘Amrawi, Dar al-Fikr, Beirut 1996, vol.8, p.388.

                3) The terrain of kalam is extremely perilous and unless one possesses an astute mind or is fully qualified, equipped and adequate to take on the subtleties, then the results could be extremely dangerous either leading a person to misguided heresy or condemned unbelief. Hence, to block such a route was a pre-emptive measure (sadd al-dharai) taken by the scholars. The same caveat and caution holds true for matters pertaining to the ahkam shariyyah (Islamic rulings) where unless one is qualified to directly derive the ruling from the text (nass) – i.e. unless one is a mujtahid – he/she is not permitted to attempt doing that. 

[3] Literally “those who refuse” which is historically a derogatory term used for the Shi‘ites who refused to accept the khilafah of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman (RA) as legitimate. See The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, ed. by John L. Esposito, Oxford University Press 2003, p.262 and I. R. Netton, A Popular Dictionary of Islam, Curzon Press, Surrey 1992, p.210. See also article 10 in the ‘Wasiyah Abi Hanifah’ where it reads: “And we confess that the most excellent of this community after Muhammad, our Prophet, is Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, then ‘Umar, then ‘Uthman, then ‘Ali – Allah’s good pleasure be on all of them, according to His word: ‘And they were foremost on earth and foremost still; these are they who shall be brought nigh to God in Gardens of delight.’ And every one of them who has the foremost place is also the most excellent. Every God-fearing person loves them and every reprobate munafik hates them.” Cf. also ‘Fiqh al-Akbar I’, art.4 & 5 and ‘Fiqh al-Akbar II’, art.10 all in A. J. Wensinck’s The Muslim Creed: Its Genesis and Historical Development, Oriental Books, New Delhi 1979, p.127.

[4] For an account of this sect, see Ignaz Goldziher’s Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, trans. by Andras and Ruth Hamori, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1981, pp.167-174 and W. M. Watt, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, Oneworld Publications, Oxford 1998, pp.9-37.

[5] This sect appears not to be a fully delineated one like say the Mu‘tazilites but historically, Muslim heresiographers have made a broad association of the sect with the individual named Jahm b. Safwan (d.746) and the ascription ‘Jahmiyah’ was subsequently taken with a hostile characterisation. They were denounced as unbelievers for denying that the Qur’an was not created; denying the existence of Heaven and Hell, divesting Allah of some of His attributes and denying various points of eschatology, see Netton, A Popular Dictionary, p.133 and Watt’s Formative Period, pp.143-148 for a fuller account.

[6] The descriptions “al-qadar wa ’l-itizal” are a reference to the Mu‘tazilite view (which was in fact a refined position originated by the Qadariyah sect) that human beings were absolutely free to forge their own actions and hence are completely responsible for them. This was opposed by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools who upheld the doctrine of Fate and Divine pre-destination (al-qada’ wa ’l-qadar). See, al-Shahrastani, al-Milal wa ’l-Nihal, ed. by Cureton, London 1846, vol.1, p.30;  Wensinck, The Muslim Creed, pp.62-63 and R. C. Martin, M. R. Woodward and D. S. Atmaja, Defenders of Reason in Islam: Mutazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol, Oneworld Publications, Oxford 1997, pp.1-19.

[7] That is the Imams of fiqh; al-Baghdadi is continuing the account of the second category.

[8] All biographical references have been translated from the notes of the editor of the Arabic edition. He is Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Ahmad al-Farahidi al-Azdi al-Basri (d.175), the master of Arabic Prosody. He narrated from Ayyub al-Sakhtiyani as well as others. He was an Imam, immense in rank with regards to the Arabic language; he was great and humble, pious and forgiving. He wrote the famous lexicon Kitab al-Ayn, adhered to the school of Sibawayh and was gifted in his argumentation which were considered to be of the finest example in the Arabic Grammar. See al-Dhahabi’s al-Ibar, vol.1, p.268 and the Tabaqat of al-Zabidi, p.43.

[9] He was from Basrah, an Imam and one of the seven remitters of the Qur’an. He was considered to be one of the most knowledgeable of people regarding the Qur’an, the Arabic Language, Poetry as well as Arab History. He had a vast amount of books, turned excessively ascetic and later burned his books. He died 154 AH, al-Dhahabi, al-Ibar, vol.1, p.223 and al-Hanbali’s Shadhrat al-Dhahab, vol.1, p.237.

[10] He was Abu Bishr ‘Amru b. ‘Uthman b. Qanbar known famously as “Sibawayh” and was the leader of the Basran School in Linguistics. He authored the book al-Kitab which is considered to the most superb piece of work ever written regarding the Arabic Language and was also inimitable in his thinking. He died 180 AH. See al-Dhahabi’s al-Ibar, vol.1, p.278 and the Tabaqat al-Nahwiyyin wa ’l-Lughwiyyin of al-Zabidi, p.56.

[11] Abu Zakariyyah Yahya b. Ziyad b. ‘Abd Allah b. Mansur al-Farra’ al-Daylami, the most outstanding individual in Kufah in terms of knowledge. He travelled to Baghdad and was the greatest companion of al-Kasa’i. He was the leader in both Arabic Grammar and Syntax, died 207 AH. See al-Dhahabi, al-Ibar, vol.1, p.353; Tabaqat al-Nahwiyyin wa ’l-Lughwiyyin of al-Zabidi, p.143; Maratib al-Nahwiyyin of Abu Tayyib al-Halabi, p.86 and al-Hanbali’s Shadhrat al-Dhahab, vol.2, p.19.

[12] He is Abu ’l-Hasan Sa‘id b. Mas‘adah al-Jashi‘i. He took and studied from Sibawayh and was older than him. He was also a companion of Khalil before meeting Sibawayh and al-Kasa’i read al-Sibawayh’s book to him. He died 215 AH; see al-Zibidi, Tabaqat, p.74 & Maratib al-Nahwiyyin of Abu Tayyib al-Halabi, p.68.

[13] One of the famous students of al-Akhfash, died 236 AH, Tabaqat of al-Zabidi, pp.92-100.

[14] Abu ‘Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam, one of the most distinguished of Jurists, scholar of hadith and grammar and one of the knowledgeable men regarding the books of the Sunnah. He was extremely civil and well-mannered. No-one wrote neither more sounder nor beneficial books than him. Ishaq b. Rahuyah used to say: “Allah indeed loves the truth. [I swear], Abu ‘Ubayd [al-Qasim] is more knowledgeable than me, than Ahmad b. Hanbal and Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi‘i.” There is disagreement regarding his date of death. Bukhari records it in the year 224 AH whereas others say he died in the year 225 and even 222. See al-Manhaj al-Ahmad, vol.1, p.80; al-Zabidi, Tabaqat, p.217; al-Dhahabi, al-Ibar, vol.1, p.392; Tabaqat al-Huffaz of al-Dhahabi, p.417 and al-Hanbali, Shadharat al-Dhahab, vol.2, p.54.

[15] In other words, they led an abstemious, self-disciplined and austere life.

[16] Cf. Qur’an 99:7-8 where in figurative expression the most smallest and subtle form of one’s deeds (al-dharrah) will be shown to its owner, a stark reminder that however small, inconspicuous and concealed an act may be – whether good or bad – it will not escape Allah’s knowledge.

[17] A. J Arberry writes: “Therefore the Sufi is bound to study the Life of Muhammad (sirah), to comprehend his code of conduct (sunna), and to be intimate with the Traditions (hadith), handed down from generation to generation, first by word of mouth and later in writing, which are the unique and abundant sources upon which he may draw for enlightenment. The hadith is the second pillar after the Koran upon which he, like all Muslims, rests the fabric of his faith and life.” See Sufism: An Account of the Mystics in Islam, 2nd edn. Allen & Unwin, London 1979, p.13.

[18] The position

[19] See Qur’an al-Hadid:21 and al-Jum‘ah:4

[20] The anglicised form is “Almoravids” meaning ‘those who line up together (in defence of the faith)’. It also has the meaning of being connected to a “ribat” i.e. a military post or a Sufi order. Originally a coalition of Western Saharan Berbers united by a sense of leadership and unified religious doctrine, entering Spain and Morocco later to be supplanted by the Almohads (al-muwahhidun); see J. L. Esposito, Oxford Dictionary of Islam, p.17 & Netton, A Popular Dictionary, p.31. Also, see B. Lewis’ succinct account in The Political Language of Islam, p.147.

[21] The imagery is most vivid. Literally, the rendering would be “the stuffing of paradise” or “the filling of Paradise” which is intended to denote that Paradise would be occupied, swelled and full by the general masses of people so long as they were upon the orthodox school.

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