Sufyan al-Thawri

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Sufyan al-Thawri

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

Sufyàn al-Thawrï

Sufyàn ibn Sa‘ïd ibn Masruq Abu ‘Abd Allàh al-Thawrï al-Mudarï al-Kufï (97-161), the God-fearing, wise, grief-stricken, Mujtahid Imàm, “Commander of the Believers in Hadïth” – the highest level in hadïth Mastership –, “Shaykh al-Islàm, the Imàm of hadïth Masters, the leader of the prac­ticing Ulema in his time, the author of the Jàmi‘” (al-Dhahabï). His father was a junior Tàbi‘ï Muhaddith and he thus began his scholarly career at home. Abu Ishàq al-Sabï‘ï recited when he saw Sufyàn coming: (And We gave him wisdom when a child) (19:12). His Shuyukh number 600. Ibn al-Jawzï claimed that his students number over 20,000 but al-Dhahabï said: “This is preposterous, they hardly reached 1,000. I know none of the hadïth Masters from whom more narrated than Màlik, and those number 1,400 – including the liars and the unknown!”

Among the praises related about him:

· “I wrote from 1,100 Shaykhs, but from none better than Sufyàn.” (Ibn al-Mubàrak)

· “I never saw better than Sufyàn.” (Yunus ibn ‘Ubayd – he had seen Sa‘ïd ibn Jubayr, Ibràhïm al-Nakha‘ï, ‘Atà’, and Mujàhid.)

· “If ‘Alqama and al-Aswad were present they would stand in need of Sufyàn.” (Abu Hanïfa)

· “I never saw one resemble the Tàbi‘ïn more than Sufyàn al-Thawrï” (Ibn Abï Dhi’b).

· “I never saw stronger in hadïth memorization than al-Thawrï, nor more ascetic than Shu‘ba, nor more intelligent than Màlik, nor of better counsel to the Umma than Ibn al-Mubàrak…. Sufyàn is the most knowledgeable of them.” “I could not look at Sufyàn directly, he was too intimidating and full of majesty.” (Ibn Mahdï)

· “I never saw anyone more knowledgeable in the halàl and the haràm than Sufyàn al-Thawrï” (Ibn ‘Uyayna).

· “This is the most knowledgeable (afqah) of people on earth.” (Zà’ida)

· “I never saw anyone like Sufyàn al-Thawrï” (Ibn Wahb). Ibn Wahb narrates that he saw Sufyàn prostrate after Maghrib and not raise his head until the call for ‘Ishà’.

· “By Allàh! Sufyàn was more knowledgeable than Abþ H.anïfa” (Fudayl ibn ‘Iyàd.). “He is above Màlik in all things.” (Yahyà ibn Sa‘ïd al-Qattàn) “If these two concur on something – al-Thawrï and Abu Hanïfa – then this is a strong position.” (Ibn al-Mubàrak)

· “Al-Thawrï for us was the Imàm of all the people…. Sufyàn in his time was like Abu Bakr and ‘Umar in theirs.” (Bishr al-Hàfï)

· “If I were asked to choose someone to lead this Umma I would have chosen Sufyàn al-Thawrï” (al-Awzà‘ï).

· “I never saw a man who follows the Sunna more rigorously or in whose body I would love to be more than Sufyàn al-Thawrï.” (Al-Shàfi‘ï)

· “Do you know who is the Imàm? The Imàm in my view is Sufyàn al-Thawrï. No-one comes before him in my heart!” (Ahmad to Abu Bakr al-Marwadhï)

· “Sufyàn is the ‘Àlim of the Umma and its Worshipper” (Al-Muthannà ibn al-Sabbàh.).

· “Truly, if I see a person accompany Sufyàn, that person becomes great in my view.” (Abu Bakr ibn ‘Ayyàsh)

Sufyàn spoke certain precious words on money matters. He was once asked a question while he was buying something. He replied: “Leave me, my heart is with my dirham right now.” He said: “I much prefer to leave behind ten thousand dirhams over which Allàh takes account of me, rather than stand in need of people.” He also said: “In the past, money was disliked; but today it is the shield of the believer.” To a man who told him: “Abþ ‘Abd Allàh! You hold dinars in your hand?!” He replied: “Be quiet! Were it not for them, the kings would use us to wipe themselves (latamandala binà al-muluk).”

He also said: “The ‘Àlim is the cure in the Religion and money its disease. If the ‘Àlim drags the disease to himself, when can he heal others?”[1]

Long before the Ihyà’, Sufyàn warned against the mere thirst for knowl­edge at the expense of the training of the ego. He possessed a photographic memory – “I never forgot anything I had memorized” – but, more importantly, “I never memorized a single hadïth except I practiced it, at least once.” “He said: “Adorn knowledge and the hadïth with yourselves, not vice-versa.” He also said: “The ugliest of people is he who pursues the world through the work of the hereafter.” Abu Dàwud said he heard Sufyàn say: “I do not fear anything that might enter me into the Fire more than the hadïth.” He also said: “Would that I had recited the Qur’an and stopped there.” He also said: “Whoever increases in knowledge increases in pain; if I knew nothing it would be easier for my predicament.” He also said: “If hadïth were a good it would have vanished just as goodness has vanished… Pursuing the study of hadïth is not part of the preparation for death, but a disease that preoccupies people!” Al-Dhahabï comments:

By Allàh, he has spoken the truth!… Today, in our time, the quest for knowledge and hadïth no longer means for the hadïth Scholar the obliga­tion of living up to it, which is the goal of hadïth. He is right in what he said because pursuing the study of hadïth is other than the hadïth itself.[2]

Al-Dhahabï also said:

Love of hadïth in itself and its practice for the sake of Allàh is required and part of one’s provision for the Return; but love of its narration, its shortest chains, excessive focus on knowing and understanding it – that is what is blamed and feared on the part of Sufyàn, al-Qattàn, and the people of [spiritual] observance, for much of this is a curse on the muh.addith.[3]

Yet when he was asked: “Until when will you study hadïth?” he replied: “And what greater goodness is there for me but hadïth, so that I might turn to it?” Al-Ashja‘ï said: “I heard from al-Thawrï 30,000 hadïths.” Sufyàn also said: “There is no need better than [the study of] hadïth if the intention is correct.” He also said: “If a man were to try and lie in [narrating] hadïth, even inside his own house, Allàh would cause someone to overpower him.” To a man who said to him: “Narrate to us just as you heard,” he replied: “No, by Allàh! This is impossible. These are only the meanings.” “If I tell you that I am narrating to you just as I heard, do not believe me.” “Were we to narrate to you exactly in the way we heard, we would not narrate to you a single hadïth.” Ibn Mahdï said: “We would be with Sufyàn as if he had been summoned for his last reckoning. We did not dare speak a word to him. Then we would mention a hadïth and all this fear would be dispelled and nothing remain except haddathanà h.addathanà.” Qabïsa said: “If you saw Sufyàn you would think he is a monk but when he started narrating you could not recognize him.”

On the chain of transmission: “The isnàd is the weapon of the believer. Whoever has no weapon, with what is he fighting?”

Sufyàn al-Thawrï called the kissing of the hands of the Ulema a Sunna. Among his sayings: “Among the best of people is the Sufï learned in Fiqh.”[4] “I found the reform of my heart between Makka and Madïna, among a community of strangers who wore wool and ample coats.” “Simple living (zuhd) does not consist in eating chaff and wearing coarse cloth, but in keeping hopes short and search out the coming of death.” “I never saw rarer zuhd than the renunciation of leadership. You might see a man renounce food, money, and dress, but when it comes to leadership, he maneuvers and battles.” “A man must force his child to learn because he is responsible for him.” To a boy in the first row of prayer he said: “Have you reached puberty?” If not, he would make him stand in a back row. Asked why he aban­doned soldiery (al-ghazþ), Sufyàn replied: “Because they do not observe the categorical obligations (innahum yudayyi‘una al-farà’id.).” To Shu‘ayb ibn Harb he said: “What you wrote will not benefit you until:

– you consider correct the wiping of the two khuffs [in wudu’];

– the softening of Bismillàh al-Rahmàn al-Rahmàn al-Rahïm in prayer becomes dearer to you than its recitation outloud;

– you believe in qadar;

– you pray behind every righteous and unrighteous imàm;

– you hold that jihàd continues until the Day of Resurrection;

– you endure patiently under the flag of the sultan whether just or unjust.”

Shu‘ayb said: “Every single Salàt?” He replied: “No, only Jumu‘a and the two ‘Ïds, otherwise, you are free to choose and not to pray except behind one you trust and know that he is from Ahl al-Sunna. When you stand before Allàh, if He asks you about this, tell him, ‘My Lord! Sufyàn ibn Sa‘ïd told me this.’ Then leave me with my Lord.” Al-Dhahabï said: “This is firmly established as authentic from Sufyàn.”[5]

He used to give precedence to ‘Alï over ‘Uthmàn, which al-Dhahabï calls “slight Shï‘ism.” Yet he narrates that Sufyàn said: “Love of both ‘Uthmàn and ‘Alï are not found together except in the heart of the noblest men.” He also narrates that Sufyàn said: “Whoever says that ‘Alï was more deserving of the Caliphate than Abu Bakr and ‘Umar has declared that Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Alï, the Muhàjirun, and the Ansàr were all wrong. I am not sure whether such a person’s acts of worship rise to the heaven.” “Whoever places anybody before Abu Bakr and ‘Umar has made light of twelve thousand Companions of the Messenger of Allàh with whom the Messenger of Allàh was well-pleased when he died!” Asked about a man who died insulting Abu Bakr he said: “Such a man is a disbeliever in Allàh Most High.” “Do we pray over him?” “No, and fie to him!” “But he says là ilàha illà Allàh?” He replied: “Do not touch him with your hands. Raise him up on a slab of wood until you bring him down into his grave.”

In his Tafsïr Sufyàn said: “(We lead them on) (7:182, 68:44) means We lavish blessings on them but prevent them from giving thanks.” He also said: “He is not a wise person (faqïh) who does not consider difficulties a blessing and fortune a trial.” Sufyàn once spent the night in the house of Ibn Mahdï and started weeping. To his questioners he replied: “I care less for my sins than for this dust, but I fear deprivation of faith before dying.” ‘Atà’ al-Khaffàf said he never met Sufyàn except he saw him weeping. When he asked him why, Sufyàn replied, “Because I am afraid of being written among the wretched in the Mother of the Book.” He also said: “Whoever is content with the world, fear of the next life is removed from his heart.” Yet Qabïsa said he found Sufyàn so inclined to joking that he lagged behind him whenever he could – to avoid his jokes – and ‘Ïsà ibn Muhammad relates that Sufyàn sometimes laughed to the point of lying down and stretching his legs. Al-Mu‘àfà used to rebuke him, saying: “What is this, Sufyàn? This is not the manner of the Ulema!” And Sufyàn would accept it from him.

Sufyàn was the farthest of people from kings and princes. He would not eat at their tables nor return their salaams but he would avoid them and ignore them until they showed humbleness and repentance. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhàb said: “I never saw princes and rich men sit more meekly than in the gathering of Sufyàn al-Thawrï.” In our own time this was also observed from the Moroccan hadïth Master Muhammad ibn Ja‘far al-Kattànï. Sufyàn also said: “Those kings left the hereafter to you, so leave the world to them!”

Yahyà ibn ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Abï Ghaniyya said: “I never saw anyone with a sterner face (asfaqa wajhan) for the sake of Allàh.” Sufyàn said: “If a man’s neighbors all praise him, then he is an evil man because he might have seen them do something wrong and he says nothing and meets them with a smile; or he is a flatterer.”

Among his sayings: “Safety lies in not being known.” “I never met anyone except they warned me against fame.” “I fear Allàh has abandoned this Umma by having people need me. I wish I could live among people who do not know me.” “The less people you know, the less slander you commit.” “Having many brothers is part of folly in one’s Religion.”

Qabïsa said that no-one sat with Sufyàn except they remembered death. Yusuf ibn Asbat. narrates that he once handed Sufyàn the ablution-pot in the evening and left him holding it pensively. At dawn, he had not moved and said: “I am still thinking about the next life.” He would reach states of anxiety about the Day of Judgment in which he urinated blood. He said: “I may see something against which I ought to speak out but I do not, then I urinate blood.” He also said: “I felt the fear of God to a point I wondered how I could still be alive, then I would say to myself: I have a fixed term of life, but I wish it were made lighter for me. My fear is such that I fear losing my mind.” “I ask Allàh to take away some of my fear of Him.” Ibn Mahdï said: “Night after night I would catch sight of Sufyàn sitting up and calling out: ‘The Fire! The Fire! I cannot sleep nor feel pleasure anymore because I think of the Fire.”[6] Abu Nu‘aym said that Sufyàn would be useless for days whenever this state overtook him.

Sufyàn’s garb was coarse and ragged and he ate dried meat and eggs. He said to Mu’ammal: “I do not tell you not to eat good things. Dress well and eat good things.” Ahmad ibn Yunus said: “I once ate fruit at Sufyàn’s house, he said: ‘This was brought to us as a present.’” ‘Abd al-Razzàq said: “Sufyàn once ate dates with butter, then he rose and prayed until noon.”

Ahmad ibn Yunus said: “I heard Sufyàn al-Thawrï countless times say, ‘Allàhumma sallim sallim, Allàhumma sallimnà, warzuqnà al-‘àfiyata fïl-dunyà wal-àkhira.’” ‘Abd al-Razzàq said he heard Sufyàn say to Wuhayb: “By the Lord of this [human] frame, I do love death!”

When Ibn Mahdï took care of Sufyàn in his last illness, he asked him about the permissibility of leaving the congregational prayer to that end. Sufyàn said: “Serving a Muslim in need for one hour is better than congregational prayer.” Ibn Mahdï said: “From whom did you hear this?” Sufyàn replied: “‘Àsim ibn ‘Ubayd Allàh narrated to me from ‘Abd Allàh ibn ‘Àmir ibn Rabï‘a, from his father [the Companion ‘Àmir ibn Rabï‘a al-‘Anzï]: ‘I would prefer serving one man among the Muslims who is in need for a single day, to sixty years of congregational prayers in which I never missed the opening Takbïra!’” Sufyàn became afflicted with chronic diarrhea. The night of his death, Ibn Mahdï relates, he made his ablution sixty times. When he felt the end was near he left his bed and put his cheek on the ground, saying, “Abþ ‘Abd al-Rahmàn! How hard it is to die!” He then said: “Recite Yà Sïn over me, for I was told it makes it easier for the sick man.” Ibn Mahdï said: “I recited and did not finish before he expired.”

Mus‘ab ibn al-Miqdàm said he dreamt of the Prophet e holding Sufyàn by the hand and thanking him. Ibràhïm ibn A‘yan also dreamt of him and asked him: “What happened to you?” Sufyàn replied: “I am with the (Noble and righteous) (80:16).” Ibn al-Qayyim in al-Ruh. reports that Ibn ‘Uyayna said: “I saw Sufyàn al-Thawrï in sleep [after his death] and said, ‘Give me your final command!’ He said, ‘Make little of the knowledge of men.’” Qubaysa ibn ‘Uqda said, “I saw Sufyàn al-Thawrï in sleep after his death and I said, ‘What has Allàh done with you?’ He said, ‘I looked at my Lord face to face, and He said to me:

My pleasure is with you, Ibn Sa‘ïd!

You stood (in worship) when night fell,

Sad with tears and firm of heart.

Behold! Choose which castle you wish,

And visit me; for I am not far from you!”

Sufyàn ibn ‘Uyayna also said: “I saw Sufyàn al-Thawrï after his death, flying in the Garden from palm tree to tree and from tree to palm tree, saying, (For the like of this let the workers work) (37:61) but the narration in the Siyar has (Praise be to Allàh, Who has fulfilled His promise unto us) (39:74) He was asked, ‘By means of what were you brought into the Garden?’ He said, ‘Godwariness, godwariness (wara‘)!’”

Of his moving words: “Weeping is ten parts, one for Allàh, and nine for other than Allàh. If the part that is for Allàh comes once a year, that is plenty.” Ibn Mahdï said: “I could hardly hear Sufyàn’s recitation because of his weeping.”

Ibn al-Mubàrak visited al-Firyàbï and said: “Bring out the hadïth of al-Thawrï for me.” Then he started weeping until his beard became wet and he said: “Allàh have mercy on him! I do not think I shall ever see the like of him again.”

Main source: al-Dhahabï, Siyar (Fikr ed. 7 :174-211 #1083).


[1]Al-Dhahabï, Tadhkirat al-Huffàz. (1:204).

[2]Al-Dhahabï as cited in al-Sakhàwï, al-Jawàhir wal-Durar fi Tarjamat Shaykh al-Islàm Ibn H.ajar (al-‘Asqalànï), ed. Hàmid ‘Abd al-Majïd and Taha al-Zaynï (Cairo: Wizàrat al-Awqàf, 1986) p. 21-22.

[3]Siyar. There is more in al-Dhahabï’s Tadhkirat al-Huffàz..

[4]Narrated by al-Harawï al-Ansàrï in his T.abaqàt al-Sufiyya, Ibn al-Jawzï in Sifat al-Safwa, and Ibn al-Qayyim in Madàrij al-Sàlikïn (2:330).

[5]Tadhkira (1:207).

[6]Also in the Hilya (7:60) and Tàrïkh Baghdàd (9:157).

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