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Recording History for American Muslim Generations

Tabaqaat al-Amrikiyyeen

  By Imam Luqman Ahmad 

Biographical stationing is an important part of Muslim historiography.  Referencing in Islam is frequently based upon ranking and association; whether it is predicated upon precedence, or upon levels of religious knowledge, or length of service to Islam and the Muslims, each group or person is accorded a status according to his or her designated ranking.  In the hadith; “The best generation is my generation. Then those that follow them. Then those that follow them”[1], there is a reference to biographical stationing. Hence, the best generation after the Prophet (SAWS) by agreement of the scholars is the generation of the companions because of their own achievements and because according to Ibn Hajar al-Asqalaani; of their proximity to the Prophet (SAWS).

 

Early Muslim historians used to employ a biographical recording method whereas the ranks of the Muslim were chronicled by ranking and category. This was known as tabaqat which literally means levels. There are numerous verses in the Quran and authentic hadith which support stationing people according to their precedent, their notable achievements in religion and their honorable status. “And as for the first and foremost of those who have forsaken the domain of evil and of those who have sheltered and succored the Faith, as well as those who follow them in [the way of] righteousness - God is well-pleased with them, and well--pleased are they with Him.” 9:100 Likewise, Allah ta’ala makes a distinction between the active and inactive Muslim; “Those of the believers who sit still, other than those who have a (disabling) hurt, are not on an equality with those who strive in the way of Allah with their wealth and lives. Allah hath conferred on those who strive with their wealth and lives a rank above the sedentary. Unto each Allah hath promised good, but He hath bestowed on those who strive a great reward above the sedentary[2]

Another distinguished group was the 1400 or so Muslims who made the well-known bai’at with the Prophet (SAWS) under the tree in Hudaibiyyah. They earned an honor that others did not. “Indeed, Allah was pleased with the believers when they gave the bai’at (pledge) with you under the tree: He knew what was in their hearts, and He sent down As-Sakinah (calmness and tranquility) upon them and He rewarded them with a near victory”, 48:19 al-Fat’h.

 

Another group was the emigrants who migrated with the Prophet (SAWS). They received a distinction that others did not. “For the poor emigrants, who were expelled from their homes and their property, seeking bounties from Allah and to please Him, and helping Allah and his messenger, they are indeed the truthful”[3]. And let us not forget the Ansaar of Medina who hosted the Prophet (SAWS) and the emigrants who prepared their way. They can never be matched. “And those who, before them, had prepared homes and faith, love those who emigrate to them, and have no jealousy in their breasts for that which they have been given (of the booty), they give (the emigrants) preference over themselves even though they were in need of that. And whomever is saved from his own covetousness, such are they who will be successful”[4].

 

Individuals of these classes cannot be equaled by anyone who came after them regardless of their contributions or sacrifices. In fact, any one of the companions of the Prophet (SAWS) whom Allah or the Prophet (SAWS) has testified to their excellence, their reward of paradise or to their preference cannot be equaled in stature by anyone after them. Such regard is given to the four aforementioned caliphs, and the other six of the ten companions who were promised paradise. It also extends to persons like Bilal, whose footsteps in paradise were heard by the Prophet (SAWS), to the black woman who used to clean the masjid of the Prophet, and others.

Likewise, anyone who has fought alongside the Prophet (SAWS), fought during his time by his command, spent money in the way of Islam during the Prophet’s time, migrated with him or to him are in a class unparalleled, and unobtainable by anyone after them. This goes particularly for the Companions who participated in actions before the conquest of Mecca. “Not equal amongst you are those who spent and fought before the conquest. Those are greater in level than those who spent and fought after (the conquest)”.[5]  

It is generally agreed by the Muslim historians and scholars of Islam that the participants of Badr were a special tabaqa (rank). They were accorded a status that followed them throughout their lives. For some of them, their status earned them prophetic pardon when they erred as in the case of Haatib ibn abi Balta’ah; the Prophet (SAWS) pardoned him for divulging information to the Meccans shortly before the conquest of Mecca and said: “Verily he witnessed (participated) in the battle of Badr, and what would make you come to know, perhaps Allah has already looked at the people of Badr and said: ‘Do whatever you like, for I have forgiven you.”[6]

 

Sometimes people are stationed according to knowledge of Islam such as the scholars; “Allah will rise up, to (suitable) ranks (and degrees), those of you who believe and who have been granted (mystic) Knowledge. And Allah is well- acquainted with all ye do.”[7] Other times they are stationed according to scholarship within a particular school of jurisprudence or within a particular discipline such as Imam Taj ul-Din as-Subki[8] did in his famous work; “Tabaqaat as-Shaafi’iyyah”, or al-Muafa ibn Imran al-Mawsali[9] did in his ‘Tabaqaat al-Muhadditheen’[10].

 

Ranking by faith is perhaps the most revered of all; “Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).[11] However faith ranking is largely a hidden domain for two reasons. Firstly because faith is a variable that increases and decreases according to theological reasoning of Muslim orthodoxy (Ahlus Sunna wa jamaa’at). Secondly, because the reality of anyone’s faith is known only by Allah; “And do not praise yourselves; surely Allah knows best who has the most piety.”[12] Recording Muslim history including tabaqat is not a determinant of faith but an acknowledgement of our past and our present.

 

Many Muslim historians, scholars and traditionalists have rendered the companions of the Prophet (SAWS), particular groups of scholars or famous Muslim personalities into stations or tabaqat. Ibn Sa’ad is well known for his famous eight volume work: ‘Tabaqaat ibn Sa’ad’[13] in which he chronicled in addition to the life of the Prophet (SAWS), the lives of notable companions, and notables of the following generations. His last volume was dedicated to distinguished Muslim women.

 

The earliest tabaqaat works were about the companions of the Prophet (SAWS). One of the very first was a work by Al-Muafa ibn Imran al-Mawsali titled; ‘Tabaqaat as-Sahaaba’. Ibn Zayyat produced a similar work in which mentions ten tabaqaat of the companions. Many scholars accept Al-Hakim’s famous rendering whereas he mentions 12 stations accorded the companions of the Prophet (SAWS).

 Those stations are as follows:
  1. The companions who accepted Islam in the early period of Mecca. These include the four righteous khalifs
  2. The companions who accepted Islam before the Darul Nadwa consultation
  3. Those who migrated to Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia)
  4. Those present at the first Aqaba meeting
  5. Those present at the second Aqaba meeting
  6. Those who migrated and met the prophet (SAWS) at Quba’a before his entry into Medina
  7. The Muslim participants in the battle of Badr
  8. The Muslims who migrated between the events of Badr and Hudaibiyyah
  9. The companions present at the fealty of Hudaibiyyah incident
  10. The companions who migrated between the time of Hudaibiyyah and the conquest of Mecca such as Khalid ibn al-Waleed
  11. The Muslims who entered Islam at and during the conquest of Mecca
  12. The children and the youth who saw the prophet (SAQWS) on the day of the conquest and during the farewell pilgrimage.[14]

Within the history of American Muslim community there are classes of individuals who have served Islam in a range of religious disciplines; there are imams, scholars, teachers, leaders, khateebs (preachers) and du’aat (missionaries) of Islam. Recording and acknowledging our own tabaqat, chronicles our history so that each ensuing generation is aware and connected to that which preceded it. Other writers throughout history have written tabaqaat relating to their own people and their own connected epochs. Sometime around 1259 A.D., Mahmud, Minhaj-i-Nasiri, a Bengali Judge of Delhi during the reign of Sultan Nasiruddin, wrote his ‘Tabaqaat al-Nasiri’ which chronicled the history of the first fifty years of Muslim rule in Bengal. In 1554 A.D., the Shaafi’ee scholar and Mystic, al-Sharanai[15] wrote his ‘Tabaqaat al-Suhgra’ where he chronicled the lives of his teachers, and other shuyookh of his time.

 

This type of narrative is an important element in recording our own history as American Muslims. It establishes a generational continuity of faith and action and scholarship. Each generation not only learns from the previous generation but is compelled because of their connection to them, to honor them and pray for their forgiveness; “And those who came after them say: "Our Lord! Forgive us, and our brethren who came before us into the Faith, and leave not, in our hearts, rancor (or sense of injury) against those who have believed. Our Lord! Thou art indeed Full of Kindness, Most Merciful."[16]

 

Remembering our forefathers is an acceptable act; “So when ye have accomplished your holy rites, celebrate the praises of Allah, as ye used to celebrate the praises of your fathers,- yea, with far more Heart and soul.[17] Reviling and criticizing our dead is a detestable act as the Prophet (SAWS) has said: “Do not speak ill of the dead for they have reached the deeds that they have put forth.”[18] It was also reported that the Prophet (SAWS) said: “Do not revile the dead because then you will torment the living.”[19] There is no value in cursing and reviling Muslims who have passed away as some of our youth are doing today. Cursing the previous nations is an action of the people of the hell-fire; “Enter ye in the company of the peoples who passed away before you - men and jinns, - into the Fire." Every time a new people enters, it curses its sister-people (that went before), until they follow each other, all into the Fire.”[20]

 

Much of American Muslim history goes on underreported. Many of our noteworthy American Muslim scholars, teachers, imams, activists and du’aat are gone and others will leave us in the coming years. The recent death of Sheikh Hisham Jaaber was a reminder for us all that an era of Muslim stewardship in America is passing and the recent MANA (Muslim Alliance of North America) conference held in Philadelphia Pa was a sign that another era is at hand. In sha Allah, in the future there will be historians, and chroniclers who will retrieve and record information about those who have preceded us in faith. In the meantime, it is important that proper respect is accorded our pioneers, imams, scholars and du’aat of Islam who have laid down the foundations of faith and Islam in the United States of America. This is not to say that mistakes have not been made. However, our position towards them should be one of acknowledgement, respect and good assumption.  Perhaps Allah will pardon them for their mistakes and magnify the reward for their good.

 

Thus, elderly Muslims who has completed a couple dozen fasts of Ramadan should occupy a tabaqa (ranking) different than someone who just accepted Islam a couple of years ago. Likewise, someone who has participated in Islamic work for decades should occupy a ranking different from the one who has just started being active or one who is not active at all. Imams who have dutifully served their communities for decades would have a higher ranking than imams who have just begun their tenure. This is not a matter of faith but a matter of generational protocol and adab. It was reported that the Prophet (SAWS) has said: “The one who does not show mercy to our youth and does not revere our aged is not from among us.”[21]

 Tabaqaat has to be applied in spirit first before we apply it to our own historical recording. The religion of Islam and the Muslims are better served if we respect those who have preceded us in faith, and who have and continue to, lay down the foundations of Islam in America. Recognizing that there are tabaqaat among us is one way of giving respect and honor where it is due. Wal humdu lillahi Rabbil aalameen. And Allah knows best. Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad is a writer, lecturer and the author of two new books; ‘The Paradigm Shift’ and ‘Know Thy Enemy’. He is also Imam of Masjid Ibrahim Islamic Center in California, as well as executive committee member of the North American Imams Federation (NAIF) and a shura member of the Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA). He can be reached through his web site at www.imamluqman.com  or through email at imam@masjidibrahim.com or imamabulaith@yahoo.com.  


[1] Collected by Bukhaari

[2] Quran, 4:95

[3] Quran, 59:8

[4] Quran, 59:9

[5] Quran, 57:10

[6] Collected by Bukhaari and Muslim

[7] Quran, 58:11

[8] Died 756 A.H.

[9] Died, 185 A.H.

[10] Traditionalists

[11] Quran, 49:13

[12] Quran, 53:32

[13] Muhammad ibn Sa’ad ibn Mani’, d. 230 A.H.

[14] Usdu al-Ghaaba Fi Ma’rifatul Sahaaba, by Ibn Athir, (D. 630 AH.)volume 1, page 81

[15] Abdul-Wahaab ibn Ahmad al-Shraani, a Sufi mystic and scholar of the Shaafi’ee school and one of the most prolific writers of his time. He died in 1565 A.D.

[16] Quran, 59:10

[17] Quran, 2:200

[18] Collected by Bukhaari

[19] Collected by Abu Esa at-Tirmithi

[20] Quran, 7:38

[21] Collected by at-Tirmidhi and Imam Ahmad in the Musnad. The meaning being; not following our way, i.e. the way of the Prophet (SAWS).

Or think ye that ye shall be abandoned, as though Allah did not know those among you who strive with might and main, and take none for friends and protectors except Allah, His Messenger, and the (community of) Believers? But Allah is well- acquainted with (all) that ye do.

Quran: 9:16
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