Imam Shafi’ and his Quest for Knowledge
By Urooj Shahid
Imam al-Shafi’ is one of the key figures of Islamic history, and a name familiar to most Muslims today. But how many of us actually know much about his struggle for knowledge and learning? How many of us know his full name? Let us take a glimpse at the legendary personality of Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’. He was born in Gaza, Palestine in 767 AD (150 Hijri) – the year in which Imam Abu Hanifah died – and he died in Egypt in 820 AD. He is one of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as his lineage goes up to Abdul-Muttalib, the grandfather of the Prophet (SAW). He moved to Makkah at the age of two, and there he started his quest for sacred knowledge. By the tender age of seven, he had memorised the noble Qur’an. When he turned ten, he borrowed Imam Malik’s Al-Muwatta’ and committed it to memory since, unlike today, books were not readily available. Indeed, true knowledge is what is inscribed in the heart and can be benefitted from at the time of need.
The following is an account of how Imam Shafi’ went to seek knowledge from the legendary scholar of his time, Imam Malik ibn Anas. In those days it was difficult, if not impossible to see Imam Malik, and so when Imam Shafi’ was around fourteen years of age he was advised to take a letter to Imam Malik from the chief of Madinah. He went to one of the chiefs of Makkah and asked him to give him a letter which would allow him entry into Madinah, and would request Imam Malik to take the young boy as his student. He took the respective letters, and upon reaching Madinah, the Ameer of the city read the letter and remarked, “It is easier for me to walk barefooted from Madinah to Makkah, than to go and speak to Imam Malik”. Such was the noble character of Imam Malik that it demanded the utmost respect and honour. He held such a position of reverence and authority that even the ruler of Madinah was in awe of him. At long last Imam Shafi’ persuaded the Ameer of Madinah to accompany him to see Imam Malik.
They knocked on his door and out came a female servant, dressed in black. “Go and inform your master that I, the Ameer of Madinah am here to see him” said the Ameer. She went inside and came out after a while with the reply; “My master said that if you are here to seek an answer to a question, then write your question on a piece of paper and the answer shall be delivered to you. If you have a question on Hadith, then you know the day of the Hadith gathering, so kindly return and come back for that gathering”. The Ameer did not give up, so he remarked; “Go and inform him that I bear a letter from the Ameer of Makkah for him”. The servant disappeared once again, and soon reappeared with a chair in hand which was placed before the two men. Lo and behold, out came Imam Malik from his chamber, and placed himself on the chair that awaited him. He was a tall man, past the age of seventy. An air of grandeur and majesty surrounded him.
The Ameer handed over the letter to the Imam which read: Here stands before you a man who is noble in all his affairs, so relate Hadith to him and treat him well. Upon reading this the Imam remarked in astonishment: Glory be to Allah! Is the knowledge left behind by the noble Messenger of Allah now to be attained through the intercession of others? The Imam felt it was inappropriate that one should come and seek sacred knowledge through the mediation and request of others. The young Imam Shafi’ was afraid to speak to such a great figure. Nevertheless, Imam Malik himself surprisingly walked towards him and uttered with his gaze upon him, “May Allah safeguard you for you are indeed one from whose family we get the Hadith of the Messenger of Allah (SAW”, “What is your name young boy?” he asked. “Muhammad” replied the young Imam. Imam Malik had been bestowed with great intelligence and insight from Allah Almighty. “Fear Allah, and stay away from sins for you shall soon reach a high mark” he advised.
At the end of this brief visit, Imam Malik gave him the news for which he had come to Madinah. “Come to me tomorrow with someone who can read Al-Muwatta’ for you” he said. “I have already memorised it” Imam Shafi’ informed him gently. The young Imam’s piety and sincerity were so exuberant, that even Imam Malik walked over to him and invited him to come to learn the following day despite Imam Shafi’s initial manner of approach. The next day, the young Imam Shafi’ went to Imam Malik to learn from him. Imam Malik was impressed with the young boy’s clear and proficient speech and reading. He gave special attention to his learning and progress. Thus began Imam Shafi’s journey for Hadith and knowledge. His zeal and fervour for knowledge and attaining greater closeness to Allah forever fuelled him to continue on his path of learning and piety. He once said, “If you are on the path towards Allah, then run. If it is hard for you, then jog. If you get tired, then walk. And if you can’t, then crawl, but never go back or stop”. Imam Shafi’ remained in Madinah and benefitted from Imam Malik, until the latter’s demise. The insightful words of his teacher were soon realised as Imam Shafi’ excelled in all fields of sacred knowledge and learning. His lofty position as a scholar is not unknown to the Muslims of the 21st century. He remains a paragon of excellence, and an inspiration for generations to come.