Scholars of Islam: Murtada al-Zabidi

The Qur'an, holy book of Islam
The Qur'an, holy book of Islam. Worshipping month of Ramadan © Desky Dwisaputra | Dreamstime.com

Murtada al-Zabidi was one of the most prominent ulema and Muslim scholars of the 18th century. His contribution to the defence of Islam from haram novelties and to the purification of Allah’s Faith from false delusions was so fundamental that some of the Muslim faqihs (scholars of law) and muhaddiths (scholars of the Sunnah) consider Murtada az-Zabidi a mujaddid (a renovator of the faith, who, according to the Prophet, should appear every hundred years) of the 12th century AH. He earned this title thanks to his two areas of activity: the compilation and publication of the most complete of the known classical dictionaries of the Arabic language and the protection of the Ash’arite Kalam from the tendencies of the rational interpretation of faith (Mutazillism and its followers Mutakallim) which spread in the 18th century, in particular, in his work with comments on the exposition of the Ash’ari Kalam by Imam al-Ghazali.

Murtada al-Zabidi was born in 1732 in the very north of India, on the territory of the modern state of Uttar Pradesh (here one finds Agra, the ancient capital of the Great Mughals, and the capital of India, New Delhi, which administratively constitutesa separate metropolitan area but is physically located here). His parents were originally from Iraq, then moved to Yemen, to the city of Zabidi, a place known for its academic schools. There Murtada spent his childhood and youth, there he received his education. He then moved to Egypt, where he died of a plague epidemic at the age of 58. In Egypt, Murtada al-Zabidi became interested in the ideas of Sufism and joined the followers of the dervish order of Naqshbandi. Sufi philosophy, which is based on a mystical connection with God and attaches key importance to spiritual experience over rational experience, was the solid foundation on which the theological beliefs of Sheikh Murtada al-Zabidi were formed.

In Egypt, Sheikh al-Zabidi began teaching and began writing scientific papers. First, his work on lexicography and Islamic doctrine should be noted – his Arabic dictionary Taj al-Arus Min Jawahir al-Qamus (The Bride’s Crown from the Pearls of the Qamus). In his work, Sheikh al-Zabidi took as a basis the work of his predecessors, in particular, the famous author of the Arabic dictionary “Al-Qamus al-Muhit” (“The Encompassing Ocean”), a Persian scholar of the 14th century, Fairuzabadi. Sheikh al-Zabidi’s work was truly a renewal and the “wedding crown” of Fairuzabadi’s “Ocean”. Al-Qamus, which consisted of 2 volumes as penned by Fairuzabadi, was expanded by Sheikh al-Zabadi to 40 volumes. In total, it consisted of 120,000 entries, and within each entry there were whole groups of close, related, same-root and same-meaning words and concepts. The value of the dictionary “Taj al-Arus” was also in the fact that all its interpretations were given from the standpoint of the correct Ash’arite kalam, thus, it was a powerful means of spreading the true faith and scientifically verified philosophy of Islam. To this day, Taj al-Arus is the main classical dictionary of the Arabic language and the most authoritative source of definitions on key issues of Islam in the Muslim world.

In addition to Taj al-Arus, Sheikh al-Zabidi wrote several major works with commentary and interpretation of the works of Imam al-Ghazali, the best known theologian of the Ash’ari Kalam, a symbol of Ash’arite philosophy, in particular, comments on the main presentation of Ash’arite philosophy in the book of Imam al-Ghazali “Ihya ulum ad-Din ”(“ Revival of Religious Sciences ”). The work of Imam al-Ghazali, written almost seven centuries prior to that, needed comments from modern scholars for its more successful application in the fight against the latest delusions. Sheikh al-Zabidi coped with this task brilliantly. His comments not only highlight and illuminate the most important points in Imam al-Ghazali’s presentation, but also apply them to the realities of modern life.

The works of Sheikh Murtada al-Zabidi are still important scholarly works used by modern scholars and referred to by the researchers of Muslim law.