View Full Version : "Book reviews from behind bars..." - Imam Anwar al-'Awlaki

07-03-2008, 09:24 AM

"Book reviews from behind bars:

Assalamu alaykum all,

In this set of short blogs I will review the books that I had a chance to read while I was in jail. Here is the first:

This was during my first two months in the Political Security Jail. This was a time when I was allowed no visitors, no contact with family, and no contact with other prisoners. In fact I wasn’t even allowed to speak to the prison guards except in whispers and only for urgent needs. This was a time of complete isolation from the outside world.

I was in an underground solitary cell made up of four concrete walls with an iron gate on one side and on the opposite side a small window -rather a hole- covered with iron mesh to allow for some fresh air to come in. I couldn’t see much from it because it was about four meters high. Then there was the roof with a bulb hanging from it which was on continuously day and night. Then the floor with a mattress 2-3 inches thick, a blanket, a worn off pillow, a plastic plate, a bottle for water, and an empty bottle “just in case”.

And then there was a Quran…
In this environment there is nothing to do and nothing to read but the Quran, and that is when the Quran reveals it secrets. When the hearts are clean; when there is nothing clouding the spirit, the Quran literally overwhelms the heart.

I have never in my life felt the Quran so strongly. Thoughts, insights and feelings that I would fail to describe would come with every new verse that I would recite. Reading Quran then was not something I would force upon myself but I would recite it with eagerness for hours at end and never lose my concentration. The chapters of the Quran would carry me outside of this world and I would completely forget about my situation until a warden would slam the door open for restroom time or to take me for interrogation. Then I would wake up again to the depressing reality of this world.

So does the Quran speak to us differently in jail?
We approach Quran with a more receptive heart when we are being tested. We also come to understand Quran better when we are separated from the distractions of this world. Both these two elements exist in prison. One thing I came to realize is that the Quran does not open up its secrets to you unless you open up your heart to it. Quran does not spill its pearls to the undeserving.

Ibn Taymiyyah wrote while he was in jail that he had been reciting Quran and reflecting on its meanings and that Allah has opened up the meanings of Quran for him. He said he learned new meanings that scholars would wish to learn. He had learned from it meanings he had never thought of before and he went further to state that he regretted the time he spent in the past learning other aspects of knowledge and not focusing on the Book of Allah. Within a short period he said that he had read the Quran, from cover to cover, eighty times. This was due to the blessings of him being imprisoned. Allah says: “You might dislike a thing and in it Allah puts a lot of good”

During that blessed period of over two months when I was free of any distractions except for the interrogation worries, that is when I came to understand the statement of Uthman (r) when he said: “If the hearts are pure they would never satisfy their thirst from the Book of Allah”
Those moments are so strange to me now, and so different that they do not seem to be a reality, or even a far away memory, but rather seem to be a dream.

We ask you O Allah to make us of those who love your words and contemplate them.

“Indeed in that (i.e. Quran) is a reminder for whoever has a heart or who listens while he is present (in mind)” Sura Qaaf 37.

Next: Madarij al Salikeen by Imam Ibn al Qayim"

Login/Register to hide ads. Scroll down for more posts
07-03-2008, 09:27 AM

"Book review 2: Madarij al Salikeen by Ibn al Qayim

Madarij al Salikeen by Ibn al Qayim:

This is a three Volume book which represents one of the greatest works produced on the topic of spirituality. I had already read the book a long time ago and was fascinated by it. When I was in jail and was thinking about what books to order when I would be allowed to do so, this book seemed to be the right thing to read in my present circumstances. Steadfastness was what was needed now, and steadfastness was a deed of the heart, so it was the heart that I should focus on.

When the opportunity arrived and I was allowed to order books it was on the top of my reading list.

The author starts by giving tafsir of surat al Fatiha. The rest of the book are the stages that the traveller moves through in “إياك نعبد وإياك نستعين” “You do we worship and You do we seek help from” [Fatiha, v5]

The book is based on a book written by Abu Ismail al-Ansari al-Harawi al-Sufi who was a Hanbali scholar from Hirat in modern day Afghanistan. The name of his book is Manazil al-Sa’ireen (the Stations of the Travellers). Imam Abu Ismail named one hundred stations that the traveller during his journey to Allah passes through.

The first station is “al-Yaqadhah” “The Waking up” This is when the heart wakes up from the slumber of unawareness. The next station is the station of “Azm” “The Resolve,” after the heart has woken up it decides to embark on its journey towards Allah.

Some of the stations that he mentions: The station of Fear, Repentance, Observation, Hope, Sincerity, Purification, Trust, Submission, Fortitude, Gratitude, Will, Certainty, Trust, Knowledge, Wisdom, Tranquillity, Purity, Drowning, Absence, Life, and Love.

The language of ibn al Qayim in his books is eloquent. But in this book his language is so high class that it represents the peak of his writing. This book is simply untranslatable. The terminology that he uses and the fascinating way of putting the concepts together would make any translation lose a portion of its beauty during the process. Now I don’t mean here by eloquence the beauty of the words and the use of a flowery style of writing but I mean the ability of the author to express complicated thoughts and sophisticated concepts, and what would otherwise be difficult to express, into readable words that not only are understood by the reader but captivate him and make him feel that the author is reading his inner thoughts and is seeing through into the depths of his heart to see his ailment and prescribe the cure.

Ibn al Qayim after mentioning the verses of Quran and hadiths blends his words with the words of Abu Ismail al-Ansari , whom he would refer to as shaykh-ul-Islam, along with the sayings of the great scholars of the heart such as: al Junaid, AbdulQadir al Jaylaani, al Tasturi, and al Fudhail bin Iyadh.
There are so many words of wisdom and valuable teachings in this book that are waiting to be observed and lived by.

May Allah bless us all and provide us with wisdom and guide us to righteous acts. We ask Allah to shower his mercy upon our great scholars whom Allah has made the instruments of teaching us the truth and guiding us towards the straight path. Ameen

Next: In the Shade of the Quran by Sayyid Qutb"

07-03-2008, 09:28 AM

"Book Review 3: In the Shade of the Quran by Sayyid Qutb

This work by the Shaheed -by the will of Allah- along with “Milestones” represent his greatest works and the fruits of his life. I received 5 of the 6 volumes along with Madarij al Salikeen as the first books I was allowed to have. This came after a period of two months with nothing but the Quran. Having had the chance to spend that time with the book of Allah and to contemplate on it, I wanted to read what our scholars had to say about Quran so I ordered Tafsir Ibn Kathir which is a proper classical tafsir along with “In the Shade of the Quran” which is more about thoughts and insights on the book of Allah in addition to it being a contemporary tafsir.

Sayyid is a very prolific and eloquent writer. His style is unique. If someone has read for him then he could recognize his writings without having to be told who the author is. With Ibn kathir his tafsir is full of Hadiths and statements of scholars and rulings so it must be read slowly. I would limit myself to a maximum of 30 pages a day. But because of the flowing style of Sayyid I would read between 100-150 pages a day. In fact I would read until my eyes got tired. My left eye would get exhausted before the right eye so I would close it with my hand and carry on reading with my right eye until it can handle it no more and would just shut down. My vision started deteriorating especially in my left eye. Was it because of too much reading, or was it because of poor lighting, Allah knows best. I found that deteriorating eyesight along with kidney problems where the two most common complaints of the prisoners.

I would be so immersed with the author I would feel that Sayyid was with me in my cell speaking to me directly. There was something about my reading in prison: I could feel the personality of the author through his words. So even though I was in solitary confinement I was never alone. I was with ibn Kathir for some days, with ibn al Qayyim, Sayyid Qutb, al Shawkani, al-Nawawi and many others on other days. How could I feel the loneliness when all of these great men where my companions?

I believe it was Ibn al Mubarak who when asked why he used to spend his time alone said: And how can I be alone when I am in the companionship of the Sahaba?

My favourite parts of the Shades were Sura Yusuf, and al Qasas. Sayyid has a beautiful way of presenting the stories of Yusuf and Musa in these suras. Then there are the introductions to surah al Ankaboot and al Ra’d. In his introduction of al Ankaboot he has some wonderful words about trails and in the intro to Sura al Ra’d he talks about the miracle of Quran.
Something that the reader of Sayyid couldn’t fail to feel is the immense love Sayyid had for the words of Allah.

I lived with “In the Shade of the Quran” for over a month. It carried me through and offered me solace during that period. May Allah reward him abundantly on the Day of Judgment. Then I moved on to Sharh ibn Aqeel which is a book on Arabic grammer and the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir but my next comments will be on the “al Bidaya wa al Nihaya” by Ibn Kathir."

07-03-2008, 09:30 AM

"Book Review 4: Al Bidayah wa al Nihaya by Ibn Kathir

Ibn Kathir is a Shafi’i scholar, who studied under one of the greatest Shafi’i scholars of all time, Abu al Hajjaaj al Muzi. Al Muzi loved him and drew him close to him and even married him to his daughter.

This 10 volume work, along with his tafsir, are the most famous works of Imam ibn Kathir. The title translates as: “The Beginning and the End.” As the name suggests the Imam covers history starting with the beginning of creation and ends with the righteous entering into Paradise and the evil entering Hellfire. Here are some more details:

First he talks about the story of creation based on the verses of Quran and sayings of the Prophet but then he moves on to narrate stories that rely on “al-Isra’eelyyaat”, the stories of the People of the Book. Then he proceeds with the stories of the Prophets (This is what I based my series on the Prophets on).

The next part covers the seerah of Rasulullah. The advantage of his coverage of seerah is that he combines what the scholars of seerah such as ibn Ishaaq, al Waqidi, and Musa bin Uqba wrote along with what the scholars of hadith have included in their books such as Bukhari, Muslim, the four books of Sunan, al Bayhaqi, Ahmad, and al Hakim. This makes his coverage of seerah very comprehensive. The downside is that the story does not flow as it would with the seerah of Ibn Ishaaq for example and there is also a lot of repetition and sometimes there are contradicting narrations. This makes it serve better as a reference than a book to read. This part is translated into English by Trevor Le Gassick. However there are some mistakes that I guess stem from the translator being a non-Muslim and thus because of his lack of understanding of Islam chooses incorrect meanings for words that have more than one meaning.

Ibn Kathir’s coverage of the time of the four Khalifs is detailed and avoids many but not all of the weak and fabricated narrations that exist in the history of al Tabari.

Then he covers the period of the Umayah khilafa. After that his history becomes quite Shaam-centric. Imam Ibn Kathir, in some cases almost conclusively, focuses on the histories of al Shaam (the area encompassed by present day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan,) Egypt, and Iraq.
What about North Africa, Andalusia, the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian penensula, and other areas of Islam?

There is some talk about North Africa and its relationship with the establishment of the Fatimi dynasty whom Ibn Kathir refers to as liars, and Impersonators, who wished no good for the Muslims (The Fatimids were outwardly Shia and inwardly Ismailis.)

Andalusia gets mentioned but many important events in its history are missing. Ibn Kathir talks about the land of Sind while mentioning the great conquests that occurred on the hands of Muhammad bin al Qasim but then neglects it completely until Mahmud Sabaktakeen arrives on the scene and achieves great victories on the Indian subcontinent. The Arabian peninsula is covered sparsely and when it is, it is mostly about what was going on, or who was ruling in Makkah and Madina. Yemen and Oman are lost in this narrative. And there was absolutely nothing on some areas such as East Africa for example.

Why is that?
Well Ibn Kathir offers an apology somewhere (I cannot recall where at the moment) that he has omitted some parts because of lack of resources.
Now shouldn’t we think about this for a moment?

This great Imam who wrote some of the greatest works lacks resources on some important issues such as the history of Andalusia which made him omit almost 600 years of Muslim history in Spain (Ibn Kathir lived during the 8th hijri century) while we today have all the resources at our fingertips. Modern technology has brought with it a proliferation of Islamic knowledge but where are the ones who would take advantage of that?

Therefore, al Bidayah wa al Nihaayah is an excellent reference on the history of the prophets, seerah, the history of early Islam and the history of al Shaam and Iraq up until the year 768H.

During the period when I was reading these ten volumes I was living with the ummah. The ups and the downs, the victories and the defeats, the righteous and the evil, the just rulers and the tyrants, the scholars, the poets, the worshipers, the military generals, the deviants, the hypocrites, and the enemies.

We have a truly fascinating history.

Next: al Tathkira by Imam al Qurtubi"

Welcome, Guest!
Hey there! Looks like you're enjoying the discussion, but you're not signed up for an account.

When you create an account, you can participate in the discussions and share your thoughts. You also get notifications, here and via email, whenever new posts are made. And you can like posts and make new friends.
Sign Up
07-03-2008, 06:04 PM

I did not read it all, but pretty soon will do so,Inshaallaah....wonderful sharing brother, jazaakAllaah khayr for sharing .


07-12-2008, 02:26 PM
Good thread mashaallaah

07-12-2008, 02:40 PM

JazakAllah Khayr!

definitely want to subscribe to this thread!


Hey there! Looks like you're enjoying the discussion, but you're not signed up for an account.

When you create an account, you can participate in the discussions and share your thoughts. You also get notifications, here and via email, whenever new posts are made. And you can like posts and make new friends.
Sign Up

Similar Threads

  1. Replies: 6
    Last Post: 01-14-2011, 12:38 AM
  2. Replies: 2
    Last Post: 01-21-2008, 05:54 PM
  3. Replies: 1
    Last Post: 12-31-2007, 06:43 PM
  4. Replies: 5
    Last Post: 12-27-2007, 08:32 AM


Experience a richer experience on our mobile app!