Book Review: The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi

Title: The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi
Author: Imam al-Tahawi
Translation, Notes and Annotation: Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
Publisher: Zaytuna Institute 2007

The foreword to this book was written by His Eminence Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a highly distinguished scholar, a master of the Arabic language, a judge, minister, teacher of scholars, and an inheritor of the Blessed Prophet (peace and blessings upon him). It behooves me to include the foreword in its entirety as it expounds on the text and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.

All Praise Belongs to God alone, and may God’s blessings and peace be upon our master Muhammad and upon his family and companions.

Our virtuous brother in faith, the associate jurist and professor of faith, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, has translated into English The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi – a beneficial endeavor, indeed, especially for non-Arabic speakers. The creed is one with which the entire community concurs.

The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi contains a general call to abandon accusations of disbelief against others and to forgo any pretense of knowledge about who is or is not in Paradise or in Hell; and to entrust all abstruse and knotty matters to the Omniscient and Wise.

For these aforementioned reasons, our scholars have not only accepted it but have added to it numerous commentaries from varying perspectives and schools. I recommend, however, for the general community, that it be memorized as it is, free of any speculations about matters the true nature of which can never be comprehended or even grasped. To use a metaphor from Malik (d. 179 AH/795 CE], our creed has reached all of us pure and lucid, and entered as a groom into his bride’s chamber, welcomed without question.

Any believer who wishes to deepen his or her knowledge in this religion should follow two courses. The first is to occupy oneself with those matters of faith that concern the heart and its states, as well purification of the ego, enabling one to ascend to the degree of spiritual excellence. The second involves a course of study of practical jurisprudence in order to acquire the divine injunctions and rectify one’s transactions and contracts.

One should also avoid any disputation and debate about theological matters that are predicated upon earlier philosophical problems that may no longer serve the current religious discourse or the materialistic intellectual challenges confronting the prevailing cultural environment.

The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi is written in lucid and non-technical language and is based upon the clear proofs in the Book and the Sunnah. It avoids complexities and doubtful matters, resembling Abu Muhammad b. Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani’s creed [d. 386/996]. In fact, I wish that an opportunity arises for our brother, Shaykh Hamza, to translate that also. It would not be difficult for him to do so, given his high aspirations.

Shaykh Hamza’s translation is trustworthy because of his firm grounding in Arabic and its rhetoric, as well as his breadth of knowledge regarding the theology of the early scholars. As for English, his tongue is Shakespearian. However, foremost of all, he is noted for his research, scruples, and sincerity – God willing- and hence is compelled to search and investigate in order to penetrate the depths of any subject and be able to distinguish between the essential and the incidental.

In conclusion, I pray to God, the Exalted that He enrich our brother, Shaykh Hamza and us, in providence and guidance.

Before I proceed further, I’d like point out the importance of studying the text with a teacher, as Shaykh Hamza writes at the end of his introduction:

Theology, nonetheless, is necessary. Indeed, in an age of bewildering spiritual and intellectual impoverishment, creed has never been more important. Ever Muslim is obliged to learn it and is promised protection from deviant beliefs by following the sound texts of the scholastic community of Islam. Of them all, Imam al-Tahawi’s text is the simplest, the most effective, and the least controversial. Nevertheless, it should be studied with a qualified teacher who has acquired his or her understanding from qualified teachers who are linked in an unbroken chain of transmission to the author of the creed itself. And to you Lord is the end (Qur’an 24:22).

We pray that readers can find local scholars to teach this book. Alternatively, one may listen to online lectures on this text, such as the Shaykh Hamza Maqbul series which can be accessed here:

In addition, SeekersHub also has courses on beliefs which can be accessed here:

Lastly, I found a 4 part series by Shaykh Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf, who was on the advisory board of this text, which can be accessed here:

Shaykh Hamza writes in the preface:

I decided to translate Imam al-Tahawi’s creed partly because the small number of existing translations were done either in impoverished English, or, in the few cases where the English was adequate, it seemed the precise meanings of the text were not conveyed without diverting from the aphoristic style of the author; instead, the translators used explanatory phrases or entire sentences there were not in the original. I felt the text deserved a thorough and exhaustive attempt at conveying the precision and eloquence of the Arabic in modern English prose. Furthermore, none of the existing translations were published with a critical edition of the Arabic text, as has been provided here. The more important motivation for my translation, however, is that this is wonderfully unifying creed and deserves far wider dissemination in our schools, mosques and homes. It can play an important role in uniting the various creedal factions whose adventitious disputes serve only to fragment and enervate our potentially effective community.

Returning to Shaykh Hamza’s introduction, he writes:

The first generation of Muslims, who took directly from the Prophet (peace be upon him), did not engage in debates about Islam’s essential creedal formula. It was uttered in their language, and its inherent theology was grasped more intuitively than discursively. They understood the radical monotheism and a corrective for the accruals of time that had been added to the two previous Abrahamic dispensations.

and later:

While we find in the Qur’an arguments for the unity of God, find no attempt to prove the existence of God. The Qur’an reminds us that oneness of the Divine is reflected everywhere by the manifest presence of equilibrium and the absence of chaos in the cosmos. If you ask them who created the heavens and the earth, they invariably reply, God (29:61). The Qur’anic arguments, instead, dispel the misconceptions of God, whether embodied in polytheism, trinitarianism, animism, nihilism, or anthropomorphism. All are refuted in the Qur’an, leaving only a powerful transcendent and unitarian vision of God’s essence. Regarding any questioning of the sustaining power and presence of God in the world, the Qur’an asks, And is there any doubt about God? (29:61)

This book on Islamic creed expounds on the the Islamic concept of God and what Muslims believe in, as revealed by God in the Qur’an and as taught by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Shaykh Hamza continues:

Imam al-Tahawi’s goal was to present a basic creedal primer for Muslims to learn quickly and without disputation. His creed can be viewed as a distillation of Qur’anic doctrine, a gleaning of the principal points of faith that every Muslim should know. He does not refute anyone with arguments; rather, he relies on the authority of such illustrious men as Abu Hanifah, whose creed is the basis of his own treatise. The text was accepted by Muslims, and especially used by those who adhered to the Hanafi school

The following is a few excerpts of Imam al-Tahawi’s biography as included in the book:

Imam Abu Ja’far Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Salamah al-Tahawi came from a family where intellect and aristocracy, as well as piety and passion, were the hallmarks; hence, he was destined to live more than an ordinary life. Born in the village of Taha in Upper Egypt in 239/853, Imam al-Tahawi was wet-nursed by the wife of the great hadith scholar, Abu Musa al-Misri (d. 264/878), who is among the scholars Abu Dawud (d. 275/888) and al-Nasa’i (d. 303/916) learned from.

And later:

Imam al-Tahawi’s mother and first teacher was a scholar. Her brother, Imam al-Muzani (d. 264/878), a direct student of Imam al-Shafi’i (d.204/820), is known as the most influential proponent of the Shafi school in Egypt; hence she is referred to in biographical literature as “the sister of al-Muzani” (ukht al Muzani) and sometimes as “the mother of al-Tahawi” (umm al-Tahawi). Like her brother, she also studied in the circle of Imam al-Shafi’i and eventually became a notable and erudite jurist of some distinction in the Shafi’i school. Imam al-Suyuti (d.991/1505) wrote about her:

She used to attend the circle of Imam al-Shafi’i and is quoted by Imam al-Rafi’i in the section on zakat. She is also mentioned by Imam al-Subki and by al-Asnawi in his biographical collection of Shafi’i scholars.

Imam al-Tahawi was raised in the Shafi’i school but later adopts the Hanafi school. The book provides greater detail to the change. Within the Hanafi school, he is regarded with great esteem:

Shah Wali Allah continues, “In summation, [Imam al-Tahawi] should be counted among the same class of scholars as Abu Yusuf [d.182/798] and Muhammad [d.189/805].” al-Kawthari considered the imam intellectually free of the confines of the methodologies of any specific legal school, a level hardly any jurist is Muslim history ever achieved. He says, “Undoubtedly, Imam al-Tahawi obtained the rank of complete methodological independence concerning legal issues (ijtihad mutlaq), not withstanding the fact that he maintained allegiance to Abu Hanifah.”

The sources of this creed is clear:

Sufficing as a sound basis for their faith, The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi is gleaned from the Qur’an, the small number of infallible hadith, and the consensus of the rightly-guided scholars of the first three generations of Islam. It is the safest and simplest of the early articulations of Muslim belief.

Shaykh Hamza includes a fascinating story of Imam al-Tahawi indicative of his comportment and impeccable ethical character:

Imam al-Tahawi was a master of legal contracts and endowment law, and on one occasion, his expertise and nobility of character were revealed in a remarkable way. Ibn Tulun, the just ruler of Egypt, wanted to document all of his endowments for his grand mosque and hospital, so he handed the task to the well-known and respected Qadi Abu Khazin of Damascus. When all of the documents were prepared, the ruler appointed a committee of contractual scholars to review them and check for mistakes. All of the scholars conferred and concluded that the documents were in order, except for a young scholar, Abu Ja’far al-Tahawi, who said he detected a mistake. The emir sent a request asking him about the error, but he refused to tell the emissaries. The emir then requested his presence and asked Abu Ja’far to inform him of the mistake, but he said, “I cannot.” The emir asked why not, and he replied, “Because Abu Khazin is a noted scholar, and he may know something that I do not about the matter.” This impressed Ibn Tulun, who then gave Abu Ja’far permission to seek out Abu Khazin and to come to an agreement on the matter. When Abu Ja’far showed Abu Khazin the mistake, he admitted that he had been wrong and fixed it. However, when Abu Ja’far returned and Ibn Tulun asked him about the matter, Abu Ja’far replied, “I was wrong, and I have acquiesced to Qadi Abu Khazin.” Later, Ibn Tulun learned the truth from Abu Khazin. In veiling the fault of the qadi, Imam al-Tahawi had protected the qadi, knowing he was a pious man who would correct his own mistake and that it would hurt the elderly qadi’s feelings to be corrected before the ruler by someone as young as Abu Ja’far. This anecdote reveals Imam al-Tahawi’s lack of ego and his concern for the well-being and sentiments of others. Muslim biographical literature contains many examples of his exalted and noble character; these are but a drizzle before a copious downpour.

After the authors biography, contains a few pages on Shaykh Hamza’s License to Transmit and Translate (Ijazah), much could be said about the honour, esteem and regard that Shaykh Hamza has for the tradition, that nothing is translated, or written with authority without the chain of transmission linking him to the author. A similar license to transmit has been seen in other books by Shaykh Hamza, including Prayers of the Oppressed. I would like to conclude the review with the first ten points of the Islamic creed:

1. God is one, without partner.

2. Nothing is like Him.

3. Nothing debilitates Him.

4. No deity exists save Him.

5. He is preexistent without origin, eternal without end.

6. He neither perishes nor ceases to exist.

7. Nothing will be except what He wills.

8. Imaginations cannot attain Him; comprehensions cannot perceive Him.

9. Creatures do not bear any similarity to Him.

10. Alive, He never dies; all-sustaining, He never sleeps.

The creed discusses the descriptions of God that Muslims believe, thereafter the creed discusses prophethood and other matters related to faith, ending at 130 points. I find it fascinating that Shaykh Hamza has been translating a few very foundational texts that will be available in the English language for generations to come. This book expounds on the Islamic beliefs in the most common language today, making it accessible to the Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Another foundational text is the Purification of the Heart also translated by Shaykh Hamza. Along with Prayers of the Oppressed, these texts are a fortification of the Prophetic knowledge, preserved for all subsequent generations to follow. We are humbled and privileged to live at time where we can benefit from Shaykh Hamza, may Allah always protect him and increase his rank and station with Allah. Ameen.

Shaykh Hamza also sat down to discuss this book with Brother Aftab Malik, the interview is in 6 parts:

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