We Are Imam an-Nawawi: The Attack On Our Principles Beyond Paris

Amidst the tragic events in Paris and Nigeria last week, a tragedy of a different sort took place in Syria, when militants destroyed the 13th century tomb of Imam an-Nawawi (d 1277 CE/676 AH). Like many of their ilk who have similarly demolished other tombs throughout the Muslim world, this attack is ultimately an attack on the 1400 year-old history and heart of Islam, the ramifications of which have fueled murder from Peshawar to Paris.

Most, if not all, Muslims have heard of Imam an-Nawawi (may Allah have mercy on him), primarily through Riyadh-us-Saaliheen and his collection of 42 essential hadith, the Arba’een al-Nawawiyya, a text that is the staple of most Muslims’ religious education growing up, and likely the most memorized collection of hadith (Prophetic narrations) in the world. Though Imam an-Nawawi lived only to the age of 45, he was a giant amongst giants in Islamic scholarship, a prolific writer, and the authority in Shafi fiqh(jurisprudence). Known for his humility, his home contained nothing but books—so numerous were they that he would have to move stacks of books to make space for a visitor to sit in his home. He was also a scholar of great courage, who spoke out against injustice and admonished the political leadership of his time.

Even today, when it has unfortunately become commonplace for Muslims to disparage and criticize scholars, even pre-eminent ones from the past, Imam an-Nawawi has been kept out of the fray. He commands almost universal respect, beloved by all sides of the ideological and juristic spectrum of our tradition, which makes the desecration of his grave all the more shocking and saddening. This attack on his tomb, purportedly in the name of “pure” Islam, is exactly the opposite—it is an attack on the entire, normative essence of Islam that has been, and continues to be, practiced by billions of Muslims worldwide.

Those who advocate the demolition of tombs and other historical sites in the Muslim world consider their existence sacrilegious, impediments to attaining the purest form of Islamic creed. This position has been under legitimate scholarly debate with differences of opinion, though it should be noted these sites have existed for centuries and the majority, while not necessarily promoting such buildings, have tolerated their presence.

The concerning reality however of the current destruction of tombs is not whether there is validity in the legal ruling, but in how the ruling is being applied, or more accurately, how it is being imposed. These actions are being conducted by those outside the law without recognized municipal authority, ignoring the needs and sensibilities of the local population, while neglecting the weight of a long-standing historical tradition of tolerance. Moreover, their actual methods of demolition, often done deceptively and secretly overnight, use crude explosives, the cruelty, cacophony and carelessness of which is nothing but utter disrespect and desecration for the interred body within.

The tomb of Imam an-Nawawi before (top) and after (bottom) its destruction

Islam teaches us to have respect for both the dead and the living, and yes, while the rights of the living are given priority, the fact that we are taught to respect the dead is important in developing our moral sense of sanctity for all things. Abdallah ibn Amr ibn ‘As (may Allah be pleased with him) said:

“I saw the Messenger of Allah ﷺ performing tawaf around the Holy Kaaba, saying to it: ‘How pure and good you are! How pure and good your fragrance is! How great and exalted you are! And how great and exalted your sanctity is! But by Him whose hand is Muhammad’s soul, the sanctity of a believer’s blood and property in the sight of Allah is greater than your sanctity! [emphasis added]’”1

One might take this narration at face value and understand its most critical message, namely that the life of a human being is far greater than any physical object or structure, even greater than the house of God itself. This is, without a doubt, the most important meaning to glean from this hadith. But another shade of deeper meaning apparent in this connection our Messenger ﷺ is making, by the sheer fact that he made this statement while sanctifying the Kaaba through tawaf, perhaps, is that the sanctity we hold for the Kaaba feeds into our entire concept of everything that is sacred, including human life and dignity.

The implication then is that the loss of sanctity for the sacred, even the non-living, can lead one down to the road to developing the loss of sanctity for human life itself. Life eventually becomes cheap as sanctity for the sacred gradually erodes. Current events show us that those who desecrate graves and destroy history are amongst those who are the most harsh and brutal towards the living. Similarly, those who mock and disparage the sacred, whether it be the personage of the Messengers of God (peace be upon them all), religious texts, or the God-given dignity of others on account of their race or background, may do so under the guise of liberty, but history teaches us that such irreverence and belittlement, especially directed towards the oppressed, fuels a culture of demonization, and eventually subjugation and violence.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, in commenting on the Paris shootings, stated: “Individual liberties is not our highest value. Our highest value is treating human beings with love, kindness, generosity, respect, and see[ing] them as embodiments of the holy; and treating the earth as sacred.” This sentiment of our concept of the sacred—and its relationship to the kindness shown to one another—is at the root of one of the most famous hadiths found in Imam an-Nawawi’s collection, the Arba’een, comprising the core message of Islam, which states:

“None of you has imaan (belief) until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” (Reported in Bukhari, Muslim)

It was Imam an-Nawawi himself who, in his commentary of this very text, interpreted this brotherhood as a general one, an intention for good and benefit for all human beings, regardless of their belief. This brotherhood is as sacred as our very belief. Such an interpretation is bolstered by the fact that in the collection of Muslim, it states both “neighbor” and “brother” due to doubt over the exact wording, while other related hadiths state this meaning more clearly, such as one narration in the collection of Ahmad, which states “A slave [of God] will not reach the reality of imaan (belief) until he loves for people what he wants for himself of good.”

Any reflection on these texts only calls into question the motives of those who desanctify the sacred. Even if they believe they are doing right, the results of their actions—namely turning people away from the path to God and alienating entire populations, much less the loss of human life itself—is in contradistinction to their purported goal. It exposes them as those who seek not to protect the purity of the sacred, but destroy everything the sacred stands for, because their real motive is not good for others, but nourishing their own selfishness, tribalistic exclusivity and quest for power. To paraphrase from the commentary of Ibn Rajab on the aforementioned hadith, they see only the imperfections of others while seeing only the perfections of themselves, which results in despising others and looking down on them. This is at the heart of their efforts.

The attack on the grave of Imam an-Nawawi is more than an attack on the sanctity of a grave. It exemplifies the murder of the civility and principles that his life and message represented. The irony of this attack is that Imam an-Nawawi himself held the position that domes should not be built over graves, and made this wish known for his own grave. As the story goes, years after his death, people eventually did place a dome over his tomb. A tree, however, then slowly emerged, and over time, pushed through the roof, necessitating its removal. His principles were preserved and empowered, through an act of the Unseen, removing an affront imposed upon him that he could not, in death, physically resist.

Likewise, any positive response to the cycle of tragedies and injustice today can only occur through holding fast through our principles, reliance on God, and intending only good for others. When established firmly in pure hearts, like a majestic tree reaching into the heavens, no man-made structure or murderous ideology can prevent its ascent.

We are not extremists or terrorists. We are not mockers of the sacred. Nous somme Imam an-Nawawi. We are Imam an-Nawawi, because sacred principles always prevail over temporal power and arrogance.

1. Reported in Targhib wa’l Tarhib of Imam al-Mundhiri


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