Abdullah ibn Abbas
Abdullah was the son of Abbas, an uncle of the noble Prophet. He
was born just three years before the Hijrah. When the Prophet died,
Abdullah was thus only thirteen years old.
When he was born, his mother took him to the blessed Prophet who
put some of his saliva on the babe's tongue even before he began to
suckle. This was the beginning of the close and intimate tie between
Abbas and the Prophet that was to be part of a life-long love and
When Abdullah reached the age of discretion, he attached himself
to the service of the Prophet. He would run to fetch water for him
when he wanted to make wudu. During Salat, he would stand behind the
Prophet in prayer and when the Prophet went on journeys or
expeditions, he would follow next in line to him. Abdullah thus
became like the shadow of the Prophet, constantly in his company.
In all these situations he was attentive and alert to whatever
the Prophet did and said. His heart was enthusiastic and his young
mind was pure and uncluttered, committing the Prophet's words to
memory with the capacity and accuracy of a recording instrument. In
this way and through his constant researches later, as we shall see,
Abdullah became one of the most learned companions of the Prophet,
preserving on behalf of later generations of Muslims, the priceless
words of the Messenger of God. It is said that he committed to
memory about one thousand, six hundred and sixty sayings of the
Prophet which are recorded and authenticated in the collections of
al-Bukhari and Muslim.
The Prophet would often draw Abdullah as a child close to him,
pat him on the shoulder and pray: "O Lord, make him acquire a
deep understanding of the religion of Islam and instruct him in the
meaning and interpretation of things."
There were many occasions thereafter when the blessed Prophet
would repeat this dua or prayer for his cousin and before long
Abdullah ibn Abbas realized that his life was to be devoted to the
pursuit of learning and knowledge.
The Prophet moreover prayed that he be granted not just knowledge
and understanding but wisdom. Abdullah related the following
incident about himself: "Once the Prophet, peace be upon him,
was on the point of performing wudu. I hurried to get water ready
for him. He was pleased with what I was doing. As he was about to
begin Salat, he indicated that I should stand at his side. However,
I stood behind him. When the Salat was finished, he turned to me and
said: 'What prevented you from being at my side, O Abdullah?' 'You
are too illustrious and too great in my eyes for me to stand side by
side with you,' I replied.
Raising his hands to the heavens, the Prophet then prayed: 'O
Lord, grant him wisdom." The Prophet's prayer undoubtedly was
granted for the young Abdullah was to prove time and again that he
possessed a wisdom beyond his years. But it was a wisdom that came
only with devotion and the dogged pursuit of knowledge both during
the Prophet's lifetime and after his death.
During the lifetime of the Prophet, Abdullah would not miss any
of his assemblies and he would commit to memory whatever he said.
After the Prophet passed away, he would take care to go to as many
companions as possible especially those who knew the Prophet longer
and learn from them what the Prophet had taught them. Whenever he
heard that someone knew a hadith of the Prophet which he did not
know he would go quickly to him and record it. He would subject
whatever he heard to close scrutiny and check it against other
reports. He would go to as many as thirty companions to verify a
Abdullah described what he once did on hearing that a companion
of the Prophet knew a hadith unknown to him: "I went to him
during the time of the afternoon siesta and spread my cloak in front
of his door. The wind blew dust on me (as I sat waiting for him). If
I wished I could have sought his permission to enter and he would
certainly have given me permission. But I preferred to wait on him
so that he could be completely refreshed. Coming out of his house
and seeing me in that condition he said: 'O cousin of the Prophet!
What's the matter with you? If you had sent for me I would have come
to you.' 'I am the one who should come to you, for knowledge is
sought, it does not just come,' I said. I asked him about the hadith
and learnt from him."
In this way, the dedicated Abdullah would ask, and ask, and go on
asking. And he would sift and scrutinize the information he had
collected with his keen and meticulous mind.
It was not only in the collection of hadith that Abdullah
specialized. He devoted himself to acquiring knowledge in a wide
variety of fields. He had a special admiration for persons like Zayd
ibn Thabit, the recorder of the revelation, the leading judge and
jurist consult in Madinah, an expert in the laws of inheritance and
in reading the Quran. When Zayd intended to go on a trip, the young
Abdullah would stand humbly at his side and taking hold of the reins
of his mount would adopt the attitude of a humble servant in the
presence of his master. Zayd would say to him: "Don't, O cousin
of the Prophet."
"Thus we were commanded to treat the learned ones among
us," Abdullah would say. "And Zayd would say to him in
turn: "Let me see your hand." Abdullah would stretch out
his hand. Zayd, taking it, would kiss it and say: "Thus we were
commanded to treat the ahl al-bayt members of the household of the
As Abdullah's knowledge grew, he grew in stature. Masruq ibn al
Ajda said of him: "Whenever I saw Ibn Abbas, I would say: He is
the most handsome of men. When he spoke, I would say: He is the most
eloquent of men. And when he held a conversation, I would say: He is
the most knowledgeable of men."
The Khalifah Umar ibn al-Khattab often sought his advice on
important matters of state and described him as "the young man
Sad ibn abi Waqqas described him with these words: "I have
never seen someone who was quicker in understanding, who had more
knowledge and greater wisdom than Ibn Abbas. I have seen Umar summon
him to discuss difficult problems in the presence of veterans of
Badr from among the Muhajirin and Ansar. Ibn Abbas would speak and
Umar would not disregard what he had to say."
It is these qualities which resulted in Abdullah ibn Abbas being
known as "the learned man of this Ummah".
Abdullah ibn Abbas was not content to accumulate knowledge. He
felt he had a duty to the ummah to educate those in search of
knowledge and the general masses of the Muslim community. He turned
to teaching and his house became a university - yes, a university in
the full sense of the word, a university with specialized teaching
but with the difference that there was only one teacher Abdullah ibn
There was an enthusiastic response to Abdullah's classes. One of
his companions described a typical scene in front of his house:
"I saw people converging on the roads leading to his house
until there was hardly any room in front of his house. I went in and
told him about the crowds of people at his door and he said: 'Get me
water for wudu.'
He performed wudu and, seating himself, said: 'Go out and say to
them: Whoever wants to ask about the Quran and its letters
(pronunciation) let him enter.'
This I did and people entered until the house was filled.
Whatever he was asked, Abdullah was able to elucidate and even
provide additional information to what was asked. Then (to his
students) he said: 'Make way for your brothers.'
Then to me he said: 'Go out and say: Who wants to ask about the
Quran and its interpretation, let him enter'.
Again the house was filled and Abdullah elucidated and provided
more information than what was requested."
And so it continued with groups of people coming in to discuss
fiqh (jurisprudence), halal and haram (the lawful and the prohibited
in Islam), inheritance laws, Arabic language, poetry and etymology.
To avoid congestion with many groups of people coming to discuss
various subjects on a single day, Abdullah decided to devote one day
exclusively for a particular discipline. On one day, only the
exegesis of the Quran would be taught while on another day only fiqh
(jurisprudence). The maghazi or campaigns of the Prophet, poetry,
Arab history before Islam were each allocated a special day.
Abdullah ibn Abbas brought to his teaching a powerful memory and
a formidable intellect. His explanations were precise, clear and
logical. His arguments were persuasive and supported by pertinent
textual evidence and historical facts.
One occasion when his formidable powers of persuasion was used
was during the caliphate of Ali. A large number of supporters of Ali
in his stand against Muawiyah had just deserted him. Abdullah ibn
Abbas went to Ali and requested permission to speak to them. Ali
hesitated fearing that Abdullah would be in danger at their hands
but eventually gave way on Abdullah's optimism that nothing untoward
Abdullah went over to the group. They were absorbed in worship.
Some were not willing to let him speak but others were prepared to
give him a hearing.
"Tell me" asked Abdullah, "what grievances have
you against the cousin of the Prophet, the husband of his daughter
and the first of those who believed in him?"
"The men proceeded to relate three main complaints against
Ali. First, that he appointed men to pass judgment in matters
pertaining to the religion of God - meaning that Ali had agreed to
accept the arbitration of Abu Musa al-Asbari and Amr ibn al-As in
the dispute with Muawiyah. Secondly, that he fought and did not take
booty nor prisoners of war. Thirdly, that he did not insist on the
title of Amir al-Muminin during the arbitration process although the
Muslims had pledged allegiance to him and he was their legitimate
amir. To them this was obviously a sign of weakness and a sign that
Ali was prepared to bring his legitimate position as Amir al-Muminin
In reply, Abdullah asked them that should he cite verses from the
Quran and sayings of the Prophet to which they had no objection and
which related to their criticisms, would they be prepared to change
their position. They replied that they would and Abdullah proceeded:
"Regarding your statement that Ali has appointed men to pass
judgment in matters pertaining to Allah's religion, Allah Glorified
and Exalted is He, says: 'O you who believe! Kill not game while in
the sacred precincts or in pilgrim garb. If any of you do so
intentionally, the compensation is an offering, of a domestic animal
equivalent to the one he killed and adjudged by two just men
among." "I adjure you, by God! Is the adjudication by men
in matters pertaining to the preservation of their blood and their
lives and making peace between them more deserving of attention than
adjudication over a rabbit whose value is only a quarter of a dirham?"
Their reply was of course that arbitration was more important in
the case of preserving Muslim lives and making peace among them than
over the killing of game in the sacred precincts for which Allah
sanctioned arbitration by men.
"Have we then finished with this point?" asked Abdullah
and their reply was: "Allahumma, naam - O Lord, yes!"
Abdullah went on: "As for your statement that Ali fought and
did not take prisoners of war as the Prophet did, do you really
desire to take your "mother" Aishah as a captive and treat
her as fair game in the way that captives are treated? If your
answer is "Yes", then you have fallen into kufr
(disbelief). And if you say that she is not your "mother",
you would also have fallen into a state of kufr for Allah, Glorified
and Exalted is He, has said: 'The Prophet is closer to the believers
than their own selves and his wives are their mothers (entitled to
respect and consideration).' (The Quran, Surah al-Ahzab, 34:6).
"Choose for yourself what you want," said Abdullah and
then he asked: "Have we then finished with this point?"
and this time too their reply was: "Allahumma, naam - O Lord,
yes!" Abdullah went on: "As for your statement that Ali
has surrendered the title of Amir al-Muminin, (remember) that the
Prophet himself, peace and blessings of God be on him, at the time
of Hudaybiyyah, demanded that the mushrikin write in the truce which
he concluded with them: 'This is what the Messenger of God has
agreed...' and they retorted: 'If we believed that you were the
Messenger of God we would not have blocked your way to the Kabah nor
would we have fought you. Write instead: 'Muhammad the son of
Abdullah.' The Prophet conceded their demand while saying: 'By God,
I am the Messenger of God even if they reject me." At this
point Abdullah ibn Abbas asked the dissidents: "Have we then
finished with this point? and their reply was once again:
"Allahumma, naam - O Lord, yes!"
One of the fruits of this verbal challenge in which Abdullah
displayed his intimate knowledge of the Quran and the sirah of the
Prophet as well as his remarkable powers of argument and persuasion,
was that the majority, about twenty thousand men, returned to the
ranks of Ali. About four thousand however remained obdurate. These
latter came to be known as Kharijites.
On this and other occasions, the courageous Abdullah showed that
he preferred peace above war, and logic against force and violence.
However, he was not only known for his courage, his perceptive
thought and his vast knowledge. He was also known for his great
generosity and hospitality. Some of his contemporaries said of his
household: "We have not seen a house which has more food or
drink or fruit or knowledge than the house of Ibn Abbas."
He had a genuine and abiding concern for people. He was
thoughtful and caring. He once said: "When I realize the
importance of a verse of God's Book, I would wish that all people
should know what I know.
"When I hear of a Muslim ruler who deals equitably and rules
justly, I am happy on his account and I pray for him...
"When I hear of rains which fail on the land of Muslims,
that fills me with happiness..."
Abdullah ibn Abbas was constant in his devotions. He kept
voluntary fasts regularly and often stayed up at night in Prayer. He
would weep while praying and reading the Quran. And when reciting
verses dealing with death, resurrection and the life hereafter his
voice would be heavy from deep sobbing.
He passed away at the age of seventy one in the mountainous city