Book Review: The Content of Character

Title: The Content of Character – Ethical Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him)
Collected by: Shaykh al-Amin Ali Mazrui
Translation and Introduction: Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
Publisher: Sandala 2015

This is a collection of 130 hadith or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings be upon him) on the moral and ethical comportment of character. As the Prophet has been recorded to have said, ‘I was only sent to perfect noble character’. Allah says in the Qur’an in chapter 68 verse 4, ‘And indeed, you are of a great moral character’.

I intended to include a brief biography of Shaykh Hamza, may Allah protect him and increase his rank, but it is very difficult to write about someone who inspires so much awe. He is one, who has renewed the faith of the Muslims living in the west, his adherence to the orthodox beliefs of Sunni Islam and his exemplary combination of jurisprudential astuteness and path of internal purification have formed a perfect example for us to emulate. May Allah make us one of those who follow the best of the inheritors of the Prophet, Ameen. We remain eternally indebted to those who have guided us to uprightness, and only Allah can sufficiently reward them.

Professor Ali Mazrui wrote the Foreword of the book where he includes a brief biography of his father, Shaykh al-Amin. I have summarized and paraphrased it in the following paragraph.

Shaykh al-Amin was born in Mombasa, Kenya in 1891. He came from a family of distinguished Islamic Scholars. In the early 1930s he was appointed as the Cadi (judge) of Mombasa, and 1937 he became the Chief Cadi of all of Kenya. He passed away in April of 1947. Among the Islamic scholars of Eastern Africa he ranked among the best of them in scholarship and literary works. He wrote in Kiswahili (Swahili) and in Arabic.

Shaykh Hamza writes in his Translator’s Note:

This collection was given to me by a young East African student of one of my own teachers, Habib Ahmad Mashhur al-Haddad, may God sanctify his secret. The student visited me in California and explained to me the need for such a work in English and the immense impact the collection had on his own native country in East Africa. He kindly parted with his only copy and left it in my possession where it remained for some time. One morning, I decided to begin the day by translating five hadith from the collection. I ended up spending the entire day translating the complete work and spending several weeks thereafter reworking the translation.

At a certain point, a translator feels the treachery of translation, the impossibility of it, but carries on for the importance of the attempt. There are many ways to turn a phrase, but even to hint at the sublime and succinct Arabic of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is not in this mere mortal’s capacity. I have tried my best, and I hope readers benefit from this translation as much as have the readers of the Swahili version of the sayings.

Shaykh Hamza writes in the introduction:

These wise sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), collected here are designed to do just that – to guide us to the very best in ourselves. Compiled by the renowned East African scholar, al-Amin Ali Mazrui, this collection brings together sayings that encourage good character. By listening closely, we may hear something that speaks to us, speaks to our conscience and our heart, and moves us to become better human beings.

and later, also in the introduction:

According to Islam, submitting to the will of God is achieved through following the example of the prophets. The Qur’an says, “You have in Abraham an excellent example.” Each age had its prophet and its practice; for the Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is the paragon for humanity’s last universal phase. Following the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) means following his kindness to animals, his gentleness with children, his care of the orphan and the widow, and his deep practice of justice always tempered with mercy. It means modeling oneself on his character.

The collection of hadith is presented in accented Arabic on the right hand page and the corresponding translation is on the opposite page. I have included a few of the hadiths below:

58. The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Those who show mercy have God’s mercy shown to them. Have mercy on those here on earth and the One there in heaven will have mercy on you”. Ibn al-Mubarak and Al-Bayhaqi

72. The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “A believer is not one who eats his fill while his next door neighbor goes hungry” Al-Bayhaqi

110. The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Never do in private what you would conceal from others in public.” Ibn Majah

112. The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “A parent can give a child no greater gift than beautiful manners.” al-Hakim

Shaykh Hamza concludes the book with a few clear and concise pages in regards to hadith classifications, which is very enlightening, followed by brief biographies of the hadith collectors.

This book requires reading and rereading at regular intervals throughout the year, in order to remind oneself the importance of perfecting noble character. May Allah always protect and increase Shaykh Hamza and bless Shaykh al-Amin of East Africa and reward him continuously for collecting and leaving beneficial knowledge for us to follow. Ameen.

There is a podcast series by Shaykh Yahya Rhodus on this book, it can be accessed at the following link and is also available through iTunes:

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