The Dominion of Scholars
Recorded in the Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi collection of the Prophetic Traditionsis a hadith wherein the Prophet Muhammad foretold the future emergence of “Black Standards (rayat al-sud)” from the region of Khurasan, presumably a Muslim contingent so superior in many ways that nothing would be able to stop them “until they are planted in Jerusalem (hatta tunsaba bi-Iliya’).”
The geographical area of what used to be Khurasan encompassed a major portion of today’s Uzbekistan and particularly the city of Samarkand; a huge part of Afghanistan including its major cities of Kabul (east), Kandahar (south), and Herat; some part of Iran including the cities of Tus, Sarakhs, Nishapur, and Gurgan; and some part of Turkmenistan.
Any truncated view of Khurasan’s history would obfuscate the fact that it was once an intellectual and civilizational epicentre of Islam. Such obfuscation could only serve to allow continued political instrumentalist of eschatological hadiths by unscrupulous groups such as the Islamic State in using the religion’s name to justify acts of terror.
Those are the people who make ignorance their capital by making use of hadiths without due regard of their full contexts and prerequisite understanding in order to lure and recruit the uninformed and the unsuspecting into joining their illegitimate causes.
Yet, whenever Islam enters a region it contributes to civilizational and cultural growth. According to historian and thinker Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas in his work Historical Fact and Fiction (2011), the “permeation of the basic elements” of Islam which occur without the removal of pre-Islamic “basic and praiseworthy elements” deemed as socially binding and compatible with the religion can cause the emergence of diverse Muslim cultures capable of becoming collectively and characteristically an Islamic civilisation.
Such was exemplified by the people of Khurasan whom the 10th century geographer and historian al-Muqaddasi praised in his work Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ma‘rifat al-Aqalim (The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions) as “the most devoted to the law, the most steadfast in holding on to the truth” and “more honourable, have more righteous and intelligent people, and profound knowledge, and remarkable mental retention of the Qur’an; they have wealth aplenty, and rightmindedness.”
Khurasan was home to prestigious institutions of learning, one of which was al-Madrasah al-Nizamiyyah. Established in the 11th century as a group of colleges by Malik-Shah’s vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, it attained prominence that a 13th century traveller Shaykh ‘Ali ibn Abi Bakr al-Harawi would mention in his travelogue Kitab al-Isharat fi Ma‘rifat al-Ziyarat (The Guidebook to Places Worth Visiting) the finest cities dedicated to learning of the hadith and the religious sciences: Herat, Balkh, and Sijistan.
Khurasan was home to many scholars who contributed a major part of the Islamic corpus. The city of Sarakhs near the Iran-Turkmenistan border was the birthplace of Imam Muhammad al-Sarakhsi (d. 1096), the author of the 30-volume work on Hanafi jurisprudence Kitab al-Mabsut.
Al-Sarakhsi was also the author of Sharh al-Siyar al-Kabir (The Major Commentary on Prophetic Conduct). As a commentary upon Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani’s (d. 805) Kitab al-Siyar (The Book on Prophetic Conduct), this work provides the guidelines for proper conduct of jihad against aggressors, rules of engagement with rebels, and protection of dhimmi (non-Muslim subjects under Muslim rule).
According to the late Muslim scholar Muhammad Hamidullah (1908–2002) in his book The Muslim Conduct of State (first published 1941), the works of these scholars laid the foundations for modern-day international law.
At Nizam al-Mulk’s invitation, Islam’s luminary Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) headed the Nizamiyyah and taught students there during the height of his career in 1092.
Al-Ghazali’s 40-book Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences) is considered to be one of the greatest scholarly masterpieces ever produced in the history of Islam still being read, taught, translated, commented upon, and studied today after more than 900 years.
As introduced by the author himself, the Ihya’ was written with the aim of reviving the religious sciences, restoring the original meaning of fiqh (understanding of the religion), and clarifying key concepts which had become obscure due to the semantic construction of terms.
14th century Samarkand was home to the Muslim polymath Imam Sa‘d al-Din al-Taftazani (d. 1390). A commentator of Aqa’id al-Nasafi, the comprehensive summary work on the creed of Islam, al-Taftazani obtained his education in the cities of Herat, Ghijduvan, Feryumed, Gulistan, Khwarezm, Samarkand, and Sarakhs.
Again, the fact that al-Taftazani travelled to these places for the sake of knowledge is also indicative of the civilisation and the intellectual culture which had lived and thrived.
All the above show the great value of Khurasan in terms of civilizational development in history. The above mentioned figures deserve the recognition as shining exemplar for those interested in emulating the successes of the past.