Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani

Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani

by Bernard Haykel

Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilisation), 2003. Pp.xv + 265. Bibliog. Index. Map. Genealogical tables. Illus. Hb. £50. ISBN 0-521-81628-9. Pb. £18.99. ISBN 0-521-52890-9.

The Zaydi branch of Shia Islam was brought to Yemen in the closing years of the 9th century by a descendant of the Prophet, Yahya bin al-Husayn, who declared himself Imam with the title of al-Hadi ila ‘l-Haqq. From that time, despite the 1962 Revolution which abolished the imamate, the Zaydi madhhab (school of jurisprudence) has been the predominant one in the northern regions of Yemen; although in Hadhramaut, the southern provinces of Yemen and Tihama the Shafa’i school of Sunni Islam holds sway. In any survey of those Yemenis who have contributed to Zaydi thought and theology, Muhammad bin Ali al-Shawkani will figure prominently. He was a mujtahid, that is to say one who is qualified to issue juridical edicts (fatwas), and from 1795 until 1834 he was chief judge (qadhi al-qudhah) in the Zaydi state, based in Sana’a and serving under four imams. He is often referred to as Imam al-Shawkani out of deference to his intellectual achievements, but not being a sayyid (a descendant of the Prophet) he could never have been ruler of the state.

Al-Shawkani has been hailed as mujaddid (‘renewer’) of the century in which he lived, and also referred to as Shaykh al-Islam, a title not previously used by Zaydis. He enjoys a following which extends beyond Yemen and Zaydi circles. This reviewer purchased his copy of al-Shawkani’s Nayl al-Awtar, a 4-volume tome on hadith (sayings of the Prophet) in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in the 1970s where it was, and continues to be, esteemed by the Sunni Hanbali establishment.

The Zaydi madhhab is a ‘broad church’ and ranges from an uncompromising Shi’ism to a more open approach towards Sunni Islam. The former group was dominant in Yemen until the end of the 17th century. The latter position is exemplified by ulema such as the early 15th century Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Wazir, the 17th century Salih bin Mahdi al-Maqbali and the 18th century Muhammad bin Isma’il al-Amir.

What is paradoxical in Yemen is that even though Imam al-Hadi enunciated the principle that following a living mujtahid was preferable to following a dead one, the jurisprudence (fiqh) of al-Hadi (fiqh Hadawi) has dominated Zaydi law in Yemen over the centuries. Even the numerous mujtahids since al-Hadi’s day have generally kept themselves very much within al-Hadi’s methodology. For instance, they rejected wholesale the authority of the 6 canonical books of the Sunnis.

The process of following a mujtahid is called taqlid. Al-Shawkani defines this as following someone else’s opinion without knowing the textual proof underpinning it. He therefore rejects the validity of taqlid. Haykel justly observes that, in practice, this would lead the ordinary Muslim, unfamiliar with the various texts or unable to sift them, to adopt a taqlid approach to al-Shawkani’s juridical opinions. Much of al-Shawkani’s anti-taqlid polemic was no doubt a reaction to what he perceived as the fossilisation of jurisprudence in Yemen. 

Al-Shawkani may have abandoned Hadawi fiqh but was he still a Zaydi? Haykel seeks to show that al-Shawkani wasn’t and that he also questioned other characteristic features of Zaydism. For instance, he mistrusted kalam, the scholastic or dogmatic theology beloved by the Zaydis, so there is not much kalam in his legal works and other treatises. Haykel says that it would be inappropriate to label al-Shawkani an Ash’arite (the dominant dogmatic theology of the Sunnis) and concludes that he ‘appears to fit more properly, though perhaps not entirely, in the Hanbali tradition which rejected outright many of the theological claims made by the various schools of kalam.’ Al-Shawkani’s insistence that the scholar must follow in the path of al-salaf al-salih (‘the pious forefathers’) – the Companions of the Prophet and the two generations following them – is indeed a concept dear to the Hanbali tradition and to those who considered themselves faithful to that tradition like the 13/14th century Ibn Taymiyya and the 18th cenury Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (although Haykel is at pains to show al-Shawkani regarded the Wahhabis as extremists).

It seems that al-Shawkani favoured the literalist approach to the Qu’ran and hadith, which is indeed the Hanbali line; but without more detailed evidence from his writings especially on articles of Zaydi faith such as tawhid (Divine Unity) and ‘Adl (Divine Justice) such a conclusion can only be tentative. Dwelling, as Haykel does, on al-Shawkani’s attitude of deference towards the first three Caliphs and their followers, and how this brought him into conflict with many of his contemporaries, does not help to resolve the uncertainty, since Zaydis, unlike the other Shia sects, have displayed, and still do, a multitude of positions on this issue.

Haykel refers to al-Shawkani and his disciples and to those who, in Haykel’s view, held similar ideas at an earlier period, as ‘Traditionists’. He even speaks of ‘the Sunni [sic] Traditionists’ of highland Yemen, but I have never heard any Zaydi refer to Zaydi ulema such as Muhammad bin Isma’il al-Wazir in this way. Haykel defines ‘traditionists’ as scholars who broadly accepted as authoritative the six Sunni canonical collections of hadith (primarily Bukhari and Muslim). But a term such as ‘Sunni-orientated’ would seem a more apt appellation in this context than ‘traditionist’ which could equally well be applied to al-Shawkani’s opponents, whom Haykel calls ‘Hadawis’, since they adhered closely to al-Hadi’s fiqh and theological stance.

The book contains much vivid narrative not least Haykel’s account of events leading to the execution in August 1825, on the orders of Imam al-Mahdi Abdullah, of a strict Hadawi, Muhammad al-Samawi (a.k.a. Ibn Hariwah), in which many are convinced that al-Shawkani had a hand.

The final chapter, ‘Shawkani’s legacy’, is especially interesting since it takes the story up to the present and will be useful to any student of modern Yemen, where the polemic which emerged in al-Shawkani’s day is by no means dead. There are several pages about Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din whom Haykel rightly describes as a mujtahid (which was not the case with the Imams whom al-Shawkani served) and who was essentially a Hadawi in legal matters but not a rigid one like his father; Yahya issued his own ikhtiyarat (legal choices) when differing from the Hadawi norm. The plentiful footnotes detailing the sources are excellent, there is a 20-page bibliography and the transliteration has been done meticulously throughout. Minor factual errors include the name of the slightly curved dagger worn by sayyids and qadhis which is called thuma not ‘asib (p.5), and the date of the Prophet’s last pilgrimage which was in 10ah not 9ah (p.39). More serious is the mis-translation of the Prophet’s words at Ghadir Khumm on p.39. The correct translation is: ‘0 God be a friend of whomever befriends [Ali] and an enemy of whomever takes him [Ali] as an enemy’.

A. B. D. R. Eagle

Bernard Haykel