Telling Tall-Tales about the Pious Predecessors
  • Mon, 09/07/2015
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Some preachers make exaggerated claims about the Pious Predecessors, regarding things like how much they used to worship and how dedicated they were to reading the Qur’an. This is not to say that the preachers are making things up. Such exaggerated accounts unfortunately appear in numerous classical biographical works. Preachers think that repeating these claims in their sermons will inspire their listeners to increase their worship and dedication. Often, it has the opposite effect.

Examples of exaggerated claims abound in the biographical literature.

For instance it is related that `Abd Allah b. Ahmad described his father’s prayer habits as follows:
My father used to offer three hundred units of prayer in the course of a day and night. After he succumbed to weakness from the floggings he had endured, he reduced this number to one hundred fifty. This happened when he was around eighty years old. He read one-seventh of the Qur’an every day, completing the entire Qur’an once a week. He would also complete the Qur’an in the course of his night prayers in the course of a week. He would sleep for a brief period at night after the `Ishā’ prayer, then get up to engage in prayer and supplication until the dawn.
Now, it is quite likely that Ahmad completed the Qur’an in two ways in the course of a week, once during the night-time hours and the other during daylight hours. It is also possible that Ahmad’s son meant his father sometimes recited the Qur’an during the day and sometimes at night.

As for his claim that Ahmad offered three hundred units of prayer a day, this is extremely doubtful. What is confirmed from Ahmad’s practice is that he offered the same units of prayer that the Prophet used to offer. This was eleven to thirteen units of prayer at night. If there was time, he would prolong them, and if time was short he would make them brief. Ahmad was steadfast in observing the night prayer like this, in emulation of the Prophet’s Sunnah.

Abū Hanīfah was undoubtedly one of history’s most pious worshippers. His legal reasoning and erudition were not just intellectual pleasures to him, they were a form of worship and spiritual exertion. With each legal decision, he had a chance to receive either a single or double blessing from Allah.

Sufyān b. `Uyaynah observed: “In our time, no one ever came to Mecca who was more devoted to prayer than Abū Hanīfah.”

Abū `Āsim al-Nabīl said: “People used to call him ‘the tent pole’ because of how long he would stand in prayer.”

Abū Mutī` al-Balkhī said: “I was in Mecca at the time. Whenever I went to perform tawāf at the Ka`bah, day or night, I would see Abū Hanīfah and Sufyān making tawāf.”

All this is true and well-attested about Abū Hanīfah. All the same, we should be a bit hesitant about another claim made about him by al-Balkhī where he said:
It is known that Abū Hanīfah, for forty straight years, offered the Fajr prayer in the morning with the same ablutions that he made for the `Ishā’ prayer at night. He would recite the Qur’an completely in a single unit of prayer, and his weeping at night could be heard by his neighbours who used to feel sorry for what they thought was his distress. It is also known that in the place where he passed away, he had read the Qur’an seventy thousand times.
We should feel the same about the following claim made by one of Abū Hanīfah’s sons:
When my father died, we asked al-Hasan b. `Umārah to undertake the washing of his body. He agreed, and while he was washing him, he said: “May Allah have mercy on you. May He forgive you. You fasted for thirty years straight, and you did not lay down at night to sleep for the past forty years. You have set a difficult example for those who come after you, and you have put the Qur’an reciters to shame.
These two claims contain a good bit of exaggeration. Islam does not teach us to stay up throughout the night. Allah instructed the Prophet, saying: “Stand in prayer at night save for a little, half of it, or a little more, or a little less, and recite the Qur’an in clear, measured tones.” [Sūrah al-Muzammil: 2-4]

The Prophet would observe prayer for part of the night and he would sleep for another portion of it. This is what his Companions said about him, including Ibn `Abbās, Hudhayfah, and `Ā’ishah.

Likewise, nowhere has it been established that the Prophet, ever recited the entire Qur’an in a single unit of prayer. This has been authentically established about `Uthmān b. `Affān and narrated about two other Companions, `Abd Allah b. Zubayr and Tamīm al-Dārī. Al-Nawawī said: “As for those who recited the entire Qur’an in a single unit of prayer, they are too many to number. Among them were `Uthmān b. `Affān, Tamīm al-Dārī, and `Abd Allah b. Zubayr.”

It appears that al-Nawawī was referring to all the generations of the Pious Predecessors when he said that they were too many to number. If he meant the Companions, then this has been narrated only about the three who were mentioned.

As for the claim that Abū Hanīfah recited the Qur’an seventy thousand times, this would take two hundred years for someone to accomplish if they were to read the Qur’an in full every day without fail. This is impossible. Unfortunately, some biographers are in the habit of writing down everything that anybody says about a person, no matter how far-fetched.

The truth is that Abū Hanīfah recited the Qur’an seven thousand times. This is what most of the biographical sources mention, and it is a realistic number.

When we mention unusual narrations about the Pious Predecessors, it is imperative to point out the exaggerations they contain. Some people, when faced with such an intimidating example to follow, might become frustrated in their own religious practice. It might have the effect of weakening their resolve to exert themselves in worship. A rugged road is traversed by few people, and most of those who tread it give up in frustration.

We should keep this in mind when reading a lot of things attributed to the Pious Predecessors in works like Hulyah al-Awliyā’. (The Raiment of the Saints). Some of what we read is simply untrue, the result of embellishments added by the narrators, or overstatements of the facts. Sometimes a person mentions a specific large number to indicate the general concept of a large number, without really meaning that exact figure. In other cases, the excessive claim about a practice of one of the Pious Predecessors is true, but this does not mean that Islam encourages or sanctions that practice.

The person we must emulate is Prophet Muhammad. His is the best example to follow. Allah says: “Indeed, you have in Allah’s Messenger an excellent example of conduct for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and who remembers Allah much.” [Sūrah al-Ahzāb: 21]