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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. Ł50. ISBN 0-521-81628-9. Pb. Ł18.99. 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