One of my favourite books on Islam is the collection of forty hadiths (Prophetic sayings) by Imam al-Nawawi, the so-called Forty Nawawi Hadiths. I like the collection for two main reasons and a host of others. Those two main reasons are:
- Al-Nawawi had a deep and profound understanding of Islam and of the human condition. He collected these forty (actually forty-two) sayings of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him as the sayings of the Prophet that “encapsulate” Islam. His understanding of Islam as reflected in those forty texts does not only stand the test of time – it continues to be entirely accessible and relevant today; it also reflects a profound understanding of the human condition. That deep and profound understanding of Islam is not of Al-Nawawi’s making; he did not construct or create Islam in this way; but he was able to survey the highly authenticated sayings of the Prophet and extract/collate those which provided a holistic understanding of Islam.
- The collection is a reminder that no meaningful contribution is a singular human enterprise. Al-Nawawi developed this collection around a nucleus identified by a previous scholar, Abu ‘Amr Ibn Al-Salah as the central texts of Islam; and Abu ‘Amr himself built on the work of preceding scholars. Further, Al-Nawawi started off with a smaller collection – (as listed in another of his works, Bustan Al-‘Arifin) and only later added the remaining ahadith. That reminds me of the importance of starting with something, but then constantly refining.
I admire Al-Nawawi. He was a real scholar’s scholar. He authored works in a number of Islamic disciplines (hadith, fiqh, usul al-fiqh) and his works were written for scholars, like his encyclopedic work of comparative fiqh al-Majmu’, while others were written specifically for lay people, like the Forty Hadiths, al-Athkar and Riyad Al-Salehin. He understood that lay people have very different requirements from scholars and he used a distinctive style which he explained in the introductions to those works: eliminating the long chain of sanad; using commonly recognized texts; selecting texts that had relevance to daily life ..etc.
He was hardworking and on a mission. It’s hard to imagine that he died at the very young age of 44 and yet had achieved such universal recognition that he was given the title, “the reviver of the Faith” (Muhyi-eldin); which he, in characteristic modesty and erudition, disliked, saying that the faith is alive and well and does not need a reviver.
I am inspired by Al-Nawawi and have chosen to contribute my own reflections of his forty hadiths through a personal project called “Islam in 40.” I hope to provide an authentic foundation for a holistic understanding of Islam that will benefit Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Before I begin to share my reflections, in my next posting I’ll share the paradigm that I believe al-Nawawi drew on in collecting the specific texts including in his collection.