‘Allamah Muhammad Zahid Al-Kawthari (rahimahullah) was among the most unique and spectacular Hanafi ‘Ulama of his time.
Birth & early studies
He was born in a small city near Duzce, Turkey, in the year 1296 A.H (1879). He began his quest for knowledge in Duzce itself until the age of 15. After first acquiring preliminary knowledge in Fiqh, Hadith, etc. with his father, he then began to benefit from other resident teachers. Thereafter, he left for Istanbul, a city with Scholars who were like overflowing springs and streams and full of the rarest of manuscripts and books, where he immersed himself in studying for another 11 years in Jami’ul Fatih. It was there under the initial tutelage of Shaykh Ibrahim Haqqi Al-Ayni and then Shaykh Zainul ‘Abidin Al-Ulsuni, Shaykh Ahmad Shakir Al-Kabir, and others where he completed his formal studies.
Teaching & Other Academic services
After attaining his formal Ijazah three years later (due to the examination being offered only once every five years), he engrossed himself in teaching in the very same Jami’ul Fatih. He taught there for approximately seven years, from 1325 A.H till right before World War I (1914). He then decided to leave his teaching position in order to assist the government in opening up a new Islamic institution in Kastamonu. Roughly three years later, once the war was over and the peace treaty had been signed, ‘Allamah Kawthari returned to the city of Istanbul. Almost immediately, he was appointed to teach in a very prominent institution named Daru Shafaqatil Islamiyyah. It was then that he began to engage in the teaching of Takhassus (A specialised, and very high level of in-depth study). Amazingly, he was among the youngest of teachers to have ever taught Takhassus. He continued to teach until he was selected to represent the faculty of Takhassus in meetings held with the Wakilu Darse [the one in charge of overseeing all of the ‘Ulama and Islamic institutions during the Ottoman Empire since the reign of Sultan Bayazid the second -who passed away 918 A.H-]. Eventually, ‘Allamah Kawthari himself was honoured and esteemed with the position of Wakilu Darse!
Political change & subsequent migration
It was around this time, after Kemal Ataturk came into power, that living in Turkey became more and more difficult for Allamah Kawthari and other traditional Scholars. With the arrival of Kemal Ataturk, Din was almost completely wiped out, and any upright individual who stood up for Din and the teaching of sacred Islamic knowledge became a target for the government. He closed all religious courts and schools, prohibited working individuals from wearing headscarves, allowed the consumption of alcohol, switched to the Gregorian calendar in place of the Islamic calendar, made Sunday a day of rest instead of Friday, changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic letters to Roman ones, ordered that the Adhan be given in Turkish rather than Arabic, and even went as far as forbidding the wearing of headgear for males.
In fact, with time, conditions became even more severe for ‘Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah), and one day after hearing about schemes for his arrest, he left straight from the marketplace without going home and boarded the next ship to Alexandria, Egypt. This was in -1341 A.H)!
There is no doubt that this was one of the most noteworthy of events to have happened in ‘Allamah Kawthari’s life. He went from being an extremely prominent teacher of high status, living a life of much comfort and ease, to the status of a refugee! Losing out on the comforts of the Dunya was of no major issue to ‘Allamah Kawthari, as he knew the great reward in store for the one who immigrated purely for the sake of Allah and his Rasul (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam)
There were great difficulties and hardships involved in moving to and living in Egypt, but there was also much good which came out of it for Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah) and the rest of the ummah as well.
‘For indeed, with difficulty comes ease.’ (Surah 94, Verse: 10).
Moving to Egypt allowed more of the world to recognize and appreciate his virtues. Turkey was more closed off to the world when compared to Egypt. Egypt was full of Muslims from various countries. This allowed ‘Allamah Kawthari to meet with many different ‘Ulama from different parts of the world, as they visited or resided in Egypt. It also provided him access to the great libraries and manuscripts found in Egypt, and the freedom to speak and write whatever he felt was the truth! In addition to that, due to him having so many different students from different countries, ethnicities, and backgrounds, it granted him a means of spreading his ‘Ilm and influence to all four corners of the world.
Some of his Qualities:
His student, Shaykh Ahmad Khayri (rahimahullah) writes:
- ‘Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah) had extremely sharp eyes and ears. Added to that, he had the most unique and astonishing memory and beautiful handwriting.
- He was very proficient in the Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and even Circassian languages. Despite having a slight Turkish accent when speaking Arabic, he still spoke with absolute clarity and eloquence. In fact, he used to speak Arabic along with the proper declensions at the end of the words. He used to get his message across with the best selection of words and had a unique flow to his speech.
- Despite his brilliance, he used to enjoy having genuine scholars criticize his work. He used to always remember Shaykh Ahmad Rafi’ Al-Tahtawi (author of التنبيه و الإيقاظ which is a critical analysis of ‘Allamah Kawthari’s footnotes on ذيول تذكرة الحفاظ) in a good light. ‘Allamah Kawthari never got upset at Shaykh Ahmad’s work because he knew that, similar to his own work on ذيول تذكرة الحفاظ, Shaykh Ahmad’s rebuttal was written with the intention of benefiting people.
- ‘Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah) contributed to almost every field of Din either by authoring a separate book, article, or even footnotes on a previously written book.
- His true genius was in being able to recollect anything at any time, and that assisted him in answering questions swiftly with great depth and insight. When he spoke on any subject, he would pour forth knowledge like a gushing stream! Anyone who met him wouldn’t just see him as a single ‘Alim or even a group of ‘Ulama. No, but rather he was like a walking library full of the most valuable gems and resources!
- ‘Allamah Kawthari had a deep affection for students and had great concern with regards to their studying. So much so that he even wrote to Al-Azhar University with suggestions on how to better improve the curriculum, class schedule, and even better discipline the students! He gave extra importance to the manner in which they ate, drank, dressed, cleaned, spoke, and dealt with people. His goal was to create righteous brilliant scholars to protect and preserve the Din of Islam.
- As far as his abstinence from worldly pleasures, he was true to his name (Zahid means one who abstains from overindulging in the glamour of the Dunya!)
- He had such levels of chastity, modesty, and nobility that couldn’t even be imagined. Despite being monetarily very poor, he was the noblest of persons I ever saw. He never asked for any favours from anyone!
- It’s well known to all of those who knew ‘Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah) that he would never ever accept a fee for teaching anyone. Nor did he accept a fee for publishing his own works or even for editing someone else’s work! It was only near the end of his life when, due to medical fees, he began to sell his books. He absolutely refused any sort of monetary assistance, whether it was from students or other well-wishers, despite them considering it the greatest of honours to aid their beloved; ‘Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah).
- Among his great virtues was his complete aversion to bargaining. In fact, the reason I (Shaykh Ahmad Khayri) wanted to get to know him better and become his student was when I saw him actually informing the seller to raise the price for a book he wanted to buy! It was one of the rarest scenes ever! ‘Allamah Kawthari is insisting he pay more for the book he wanted to buy whereas the seller is insisting ‘Allamah Kawthari actually pay less!
- Shaykh Hisamud Din Qudsi (another one of ‘Allamah Kawthari’s students) once wrote about the first time he met ‘Allamah Kawthari. He said: ‘I spent some time with him and I noticed that he would never bargain with any merchant! If he ever realized he had been cheated or duped, the most he did was refrain from buying from the one who cheated him.’
- Shaykh ‘Abdullah Al-Himsi narrated that ‘Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah) used to regularly pay tips to the nurses who assisted him in the hospital. ‘Allamah Kawthari once said: “Some people who attribute themselves to the ‘Ulama have adopted the evil habit of bargaining, stinginess, and greed (and it is because of them the general masses think bad of us). Thus, it is our duty to exterminate and uproot this ideology the general public hold of us.
Merits and Words of Praise
Hereunder are a few notes from senior ‘Ulama of that era:
- ‘Since the passing of ‘Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah), I don’t know of any ‘Alim who has been able to fill the void which he left behind. He is the remainder of our pious predecessors who never viewed ‘Ilm as a means of sustenance or any other material gain. He was the embodiment of the Hadith that the ‘Ulama are the inheritors of the Prophets. He was among the Mujaddidin (revivors) of this Din.’ – Shaykh Muhammad Abu Zuhra
- ‘He was the most ingenious academic, most thoroughly versed author, most genius intellectual, the unsheathed sword of Allah, having knowledge as vast as the horizons, the debater who never lost a debate in his life.’ – Shaykh Muhammad Ismail.
- ‘He had the most unique ability to recall things, especially names. He was such that if he heard something or saw someone even once, he’d remember him after many many years! That, along with his vast knowledge and experience with rare manuscripts made him among the greatest of scholars in the field of ‘Ilmul Rijal, the likes of which no one in his era could be compared.’ – Shaykh Ahmad Khayri.
Muhaddithul ‘Asr; ‘Allamah Muhammad Yusuf Al-Binnory (rahimahullah) writes:
- ‘He was a man who possessed: extremely vast knowledge, astonishing depth of understanding, a miraculous memory and unique awareness. He combined both branches of knowledge; Hadith and fiqh with all their sub-branches. He had extensive information of the rare manuscripts around the world. In addition to his natural traits of exemplary character, humility, contentment with the bare minimum, patience, dignity, generosity with his knowledge and beauty in appearance.’
A more recent Scholar; Doctor ‘Ammar Jaydal states:
- ‘Very seldom will one find the likes of ‘Allamah Kawthari, having encompassed all of the different types of Shar’i knowledge. Whenever he discussed a certain branch of ‘Ilm, it seemed as if he mastered only that field whereas in reality he had actually mastered every field! He was a master in Fiqh, Aqidah, Tasawwuf, Hadith, Tarikh (History), Grammar, the Arabic language, etc. Not only that, but the way he remembered facts and names was extraordinary. He was the greatest living example of having a superb memory.’
Another contemporary Scholar states:
- ‘Like the famous golden chain of the past: Malik, Nafi’, Ibn ‘Umar, there is also a golden chain of the present; starting from ‘Allamah Kawthari, to his student Shaykh ‘Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah, to Shaykh Muhammad Awwamah.’
A few of his works:
‘Allamah Kawthari was a very prolific writer and wrote in almost every subject as mentioned above. Not only did he author his own books, but he also added extremely beneficial footnotes and commentary to the work of remarkable scholars before him. A few of his famous works are highlighted below:
1. تأنيب الخطيب علي ما ساقه في ترجمة أبي حنيفة من الأكاذيب – This was exclusively written to refute what ‘Allamah Khatib Baghdadi (rahimahullah) wrote against Imam Abu Hanifa (rahimahullah) in his تأريخ بغداد. This book is full of extensive research related to the fields of Jarh and Ta’dil, Tarajim of Rijal, Fiqh, and Aqidah.
2. محق التقوّل في مسألة التوسل – In this book ‘Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah) absolves those who make Tawassul via Nabi (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) and the Ahlu Bayt from committing shirk, and he clearly explains how Nabi (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) is in fact the true rightful wasilah.
3. نظرة عابرة في مزاعم من ينكر نزول المسيح عليه السلام – A book solely authored to refute the false concoctions of those who reject the usage of Hadith in matters of Aqidah. Herein ‘Allamah Kawthari establishes the coming of Nabi Isa (‘alayhis salam).
4. النكت الطريفة في التحدث عن ردود ابن أبي شيبة علي أبي حنيفة – A defense on behalf of Imam Abu Hanifah (rahimahullah) against the allegations of Imam Ibnu Abi Shaybah (rahimahullah). These allegations claim that Imam Abu Hanifah (rahimahullah) went against Sahih authentic Hadiths in approximately 125 major issues. ‘Allamah Kawthari closely examines the proofs of both sides and explains that those issues which are debated (mukhtalaf fih) ultimately stem from the different depths and levels of understanding among the Fuqaha. He also explains the different stages of development that Fiqh itself went through along with its various sources.
5. الأسماء و الصفات للبيهقي – Originally the work of Bayhaqi (rahimahullah), ‘Allamah Kawthari added very deep footnotes especially in regards to those Masa’il connected to what are termed as الصفات الخبرية.
In this manner, ‘Allamah Kawthari (rahimahullah) published many books. He also wrote a great number of articles pertaining to the various branches of Din as far as Adab, History, Hadith, Aqidah, Fiqh, Usulul Fiqh, ‘Ulumul Quran, etc. Shaykh Ridwan Muhammad, Ridwan (rahimahullah) has rendered a great service in gathering, organising, and printing these articles all in one book titled: مقالات الكوثري.
On Sunday, the 19th of Dhul Qa’dah, 1371 A.H (1952), ‘Allamah Kawthari, one of the greatest scholars, researchers, authors, and ‘Ulama of his century breathed his last. It is mentioned that he was fully conscious till he passed away. He was truly a product of the following Hadith of Nabi (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam):
‘May Allah Ta’ala keep that person fresh who listens to my Hadiths, and preserves it until he passes it on.’
Since his passing, there have been numerous articles and treatises written on the life and efforts of this brilliant star of knowledge.
May Allah Ta’ala accept this humble contribution too.
May Allah shower His Mercy on Shaykh ‘Allamah Muhammad Zahid Al-Kawthari, accept all of his services for the Din, and grant him a lofty status in Jannatul Firdaws! And May Allah Ta’ala grant us the ability to benefit from his work and follow in his footsteps.
The above article was written by my student; Moulana Farhan Sharif (hafizahullah), and edited by myself.