Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Student of His Students: A Story of Courage and Hope

Assalamu 'alaykum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh

What of the most fascinating and inspiring Arabic personalities that I've come accross in my readings on Arabic grammar is a grammarian, as well as Hambali jurist, by the name of Abu al-Baqa' al-'Ukbari (b. 538 - d. 616) who, like many of the classical Muslim scholars, was versatile and schooled in a number of Arabic and Islamic disciplines. He was born in Baghdad which is basically where he lived all his life until he passed away (may Allah reward him for his services to the Arabic language). However, he is generally referred to as "al-'Ukbari" rather than "al-Baghdadi" the former referring to "'Ukbara", a village or town situated on the Tigris, between Baghdad and Samurra', and was known for its abundant fruit and good quality grapes.

Anyhow the most outstanding feature about Abu al-Baqa' al-'Ukbari was that he became blind due to contracting smallpox while still a child. This handicap, however, did not prevent him from acquiring knowledge in a number of fields but particularly in the field of Arabic studies. What is always fascinating to me about blind scholars is that we know for a fact that when they speak or write they have no recourse to books or visual aids at the time of doing so and can be said to solely depend on their own memories and other mental abilities. This is especially the case with scholars who did not enjoy the benefits of a technologically and scientifically advanced society. For one, I don't think Brail was available back then. In fact, al-'Ukbari was known to have committed tons of information to memory, and pre-occupied himself day and night with acquiring knowledge. This became possible for al-'Ukbari because he was blessed with dedicated and loyal students who read to him during the day, and a faithful wife who would read to him during the night. It is for this reason that al-'Ukbari received the title of تلميذ تلاميذه (the student of his students).

It is said that if he wanted to compose something, he would call for certain books to be read to him after which he would asked for them to be closed and paper and a stylus be brought so that he could start dictating and have the information written. Hence, it is not a strange that we find one of his best masterpieces going with the tile of إملاء ما منّ به الرحمن من وجوه الإعراب والقراءات في جميع القرآن (The Dictation of what has been bestowed (onto the author) by the al-Rahman as regards the various possibilities of I'rab and the Variant Readings in the Whole of the Qur'an). Here al-'Ukbari has brought together in a single volume what modern scholars could not do in 10 or 20 volumes, which is an I'rab of the entire Qur'an - an I'rab that does not only cover one Qur'anic reading but all the possible Qur'anic readings including those readings which have failed the test of a rigorously authenticated Qur'anic reading, known as the "al-Qira-at al-Shadh-dhah". So popular is al-'Ukbari's al-Imla' that it is oft-quoted as an important primary source in many of the subsequent Arabic grammatical works. It is not incorrect to say that al-'Ukbari's al-Imla' represents the quintessence of his knowledge on the Arabic sciences such as Lughah, Nahw, Sarf, Qira-at, and fruits of his wide and extensive readings of the works of his predecessors.

Some of al-'Ukbari's other works that have also enjoyed the attention of many scholars both past and present are:

(1) إعراب الحديث النبوي (I'rab of Prophetic Hadith)

(2) إعراب القراءات الشواذ (I'rab of the "Non-Standard" Variant Readings)

(3) اللباب في علل البناء والإعراب (the Essence of the Linguistic Causes of Indeclinability and Declinability), a masterpiece of 1st and 2nd order explanations of Arabic grammatical phenomena

(4) مسائل خلافية في النحو (Contentious Issues in Arabic Grammar)

5) A Commentary and I'rab of the famous pre-Islamic poem by al-Shanfara entitled لامية العرب (A Poem Rhyming in the Letter "Lam" about Arab Chivalry)

(6) A Commentary on al-Mutanabbi's Diwan

These are just to mention some of the works of a man who was not priviledged with one of the most important of our physical senses, namely, the sense of sight or vision, but then Allah opened up for him a much keener and sharper vision, namely, the vision of the intellect and the mind's eye, and now see the great intellectual legacy that this great mind has left behind. This is truly a case of someone who managed to turn a potential threat into an opportunity - an opportunity that not only benefitted him but countless of generations that came after him. His is indeed a story of courage and hope.

May Allah grant us the courage of the likes of Abu al-Baqa' al-'Ukbari to overcome our own shortcomings and human failings to achieve our goals and realise our dreams.

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