Scholar of renown: Ibn Atiyyah


Abd Al-Haqq ibn Ghalib ibn Abd Al-Rahman, who was better known as Ibn Atiyyah, after his seventh grandfather, was born in 481 AH, corresponding to 1088 CE, in Granada in the Andalus, or Islamic Spain. He grew up in a scholarly family. His father was a well-known scholar of Fiqh and Hadith, who traveled to the eastern parts of the Muslim world and learned under many scholars of repute. He was later appointed a judge in Granada, which testifies to his high standing as a scholar.

Ibn Atiyyah thus grew up in a family home frequented by scholars who studied under his father. This motivated him to follow in his father’s footsteps, and he was soon studying under his father and other scholars, benefiting by constant encouragement by the father who was aware that his son was gifted with sharp intelligence. Indeed, Ibn Atiyyah was a meticulous scholar, fond of obtaining books and keen to study so that he could have a grasp of every discipline. He did not confine himself to Islamic studies, but read in all fields, feeling that this would give him a better understanding of the Qur’an. He also traveled to all centers and cities in the Andalus, meeting a large number of scholars and learning from them, and this made him an accomplished scholar, well-known throughout the Andalus, and earning praise from many quarters. He was later to become a judge in Muria, when he gained fine reputation for his keenness to establish justice.

His was a time of much unrest in the Andalus, with unbelievers trying to attack the Muslim areas and sometimes gaining grounds. He joined the army and fought in several battles against unbelievers. He further advocated a strong stand by all Muslims in the Andalus, writing to princes and governors, reminding them of their duty to Islam and encouraging them to support God’s cause. All this ensured for him a good reputation as a scholar and a committed soldier of Islam.

Ibn Atiyyah wrote several books, one of these is Al-Ansab, in which he criticizes a book by one of his contemporaries. A short book called Al-Barnamaj, which contains biographies of a number of his teachers, survives in manuscript form. He wrote poetry, reflecting his thorough knowledge of the Arabic language. However, his main and voluminous work is a commentary on the Qur’an, entitled Al-Muharrar Al-Wajeez, which reflects his broad knowledge in a variety of disciplines and his outstanding achievement. Indeed, this is further reflected by the fact that his students included a number who were to achieve high renown as scholars in their own right.

Ibn Atiyyah’s commentary on the Qur’an is celebrated as one of the best. Scholars of all types have praised it in clear terms. Comparing it with the famous commentary by Zamakhshari, Imam Ibn Taimiyah says: “Ibn Atiyyah’s commentary is far better than that of Zamakhshari, and more accurate in its research and quotation. It is perhaps the most reliable of Qur’anic commentaries.” Ibn Khaldoon describes Ibn Atiyyah’s effort as: “He summed up all Qur’anic commentaries and endeavored to include only the most accurate.” With such testimonies by such high-ranking authorities, we realize that Ibn Atiyyah commanded a truly high position among Qur’anic scholars.

When Ibn Atiyyah decided to pursue his goal of writing a commentary on the Qur’an, he felt that he needed to prepare himself well for this great task. He realized that he needed to be familiar with all branches of knowledge. He then went deep into related disciplines, selecting the most reliable of works in each discipline, particularly Qur’anic commentary, methods of recitation, Islamic law or Fiqh, Arabic linguistics and literature, and theology, making sure to study the original sources of each discipline.

Ibn Atiyyah decided to make his book a comprehensive one, so that Qur’anic commentary should become the top field of Islamic scholarship. Thus, he assigns due importance to each and every aspect of the Qur’an, with precision of style. He includes nothing of the numerous stories, learned from other religions and known as Isaeliyyat, which found their way into earlier commentaries. Thus, Ibn Atiyyah distinguishes himself by his scholarly approach to his meticulous research.

When Ibn Atiyyah quotes from earlier scholars, he looks very critically at what they say, making sure that what he quotes is correct and accurate. In this way, he was able to purge any interpretation that sought to give Qur’anic words or statements anything other than their immediate meanings. He rejects all suggestions that Qur’anic statements may have hidden meanings that could be known only to an elite group of people. To him, the Qur’an is God’s book addressed to all mankind in a direct and straightforward manner. This does not allow any room for hidden meaning.

Ibn Atiyyah explains his methodology stating: “I move in this commentary according to the word order of every verse, explaining its ruling, grammatical position, linguistic function, meaning and pronunciation in different methods of recitation.” Thus, he tackles every word of the Qur’an, according to its word order, without moving from one aspect to another until he has completed its discussion. Thus, he finishes with its linguistic function before speaking about its meaning, and then moves on to its pronunciation. However, he attaches great importance to grammar and linguistics, which makes his book an authority on the subject. This is very logical because it is the key to understanding the Qur’an.

When he speaks of the legal implication of verses and sentences, Ibn Atiyyah does not confine himself to his school of Fiqh, which is the Maliki school, nor does he always support the views of his school. He weighs up the evidence supporting each view and gives greater weight to other views when they have more solid basis. When he discusses a point, he gives it his full attention, treating it fully and arriving at whatever conclusion he determines before he moves on to another point. This keeps his reader focused, able to grasp the subject matter, without being distracted by side issues. Furthermore, Ibn Atiyyah does not discuss in any great detail the finer elements of the Qur’anic style or imagery. It is noticeable that he tries to take Qur’anic words in their real sense, wherever this is possible. Thus, he limits the allegorical scope of Qur’anic texts. Besides, this approach makes him disinclined to include philosophers’ views or scholastic discourse. This adds to the merit of his commentary.

Ibn Atiyyah’s commentary was very influential on Qur’anic commentators in later generations. We see his influence at its clearest in the works of Al-Qurtobi (d. 671), Muhammad ibn Hayyan (d. 745), and Al-Tha’alibi (d. 875).

Despite the fact that Ibn Atiyyah achieved fame as a scholar, we find some controversy concerning the date of his death, although all biographies agree about the year of his birth. Thus, we are told that he died in 541, 542 and 545, but perhaps the first is the most accurate. May God shower His mercy on him.


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