The Tolerant Wisdom Of Ibn Al Jawzi

We turn now to the wisdom of those who are able to extricate themselves from the ensnaring brambles of theological thickets.  The scholar and theologian Abd Al Rahman Ibn Al Jawzi, or more commonly Ibn Al Jawzi (ابن الجوزي), was born in Baghdad around 1115, and died there in 1201.    

A lifetime of study, lecturing, and literary output transformed him into the foremost exponent of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence of his era.  His biographer Ibn Khallikan informs us that his works included treatises in the fields of history, theology, and grammar.  The most prominent of these included the Zad al-Masir fi Ilm at-Tafsir (Provisions For The Journey), a four-volume treatise on the science of Koranic interpretation; a historical work called Al Muntazim (The Regularly Arranged); a treatise in four volumes called the Mauduat (Forgeries), which detailed the false traditions and sayings of Muhammad; and the Takih Fuhum Al Athar (The Fructification of the Intellect), a treatise on historical researches.

Ibn Al Jawzi’s fecundity was legendary, and stoked amusing anecdotes.  Traditional books written in Arabic, Persian, or Turkish were composed of units called kurrasas.  A kurrasa usually contained the equivalent of about twenty pages of a European book.  One popular tale said that if the number of kurrasas written by Ibn Al Jawzi were divided by the number of days of his literary life, the result would yield about nine kurrasas per day.  His biographer Ibn Khallikan does not believe this tale, but repeats it with a good-natured wink, along with another one, which perhaps serves to remind us all of our eventual physical destination.  The parings of all the reed-pens with which Ibn Al Jawzi wrote one of his books were so numerous, it is said, that when collected in a pile and ignited, they were used to heat the water used for washing his corpse after he died.

Like any learned man, he was offended by ignorance, sectarianism, and close-minded boorishness.  One of his verses was directed to the people of Baghdad, his native city.  It reads:

There are people in Iraq for whom I feel no friendship, but my excuse is this:  their hearts are formed of churlishness.  They listen with admiration to the words of a stranger, but those of their own townsmen attract no attention.  If a neighbor profited by the water which flowed from the roofs of their houses, they would turn the spout in another direction.  [Meaning that they even begrudged their neighbors the water draining off their roofs].  And when reproached, their excuse is:  that the voice of the songstress has no charms for the tribe to which she belongs. [Meaning that a stranger better charms a people than one of their own]

[Trans. by De Slane, vol. II., p. 82]

Questions of religion and faith would often come up in his dealings with the people of Baghdad, but the wise Ibn Al Jawzi would not allow himself to be drawn into these hopeless morasses of combat.  One of the anecdotes told by Ibn Khallikan in this regard is so ingenious and subtle that I cannot resist repeating it here.    

On one occasion Ibn Al Jawzi had to mediate a dispute between the Sunnis and Shiites of Baghdad.  Somehow the relative merits of Abu Bakr and Ali, two crucial figures in the early history of Islam, became a subject of discussion.  Inevitably, he was asked to name which of these two personages was better.

Ibn Al Jawzi gave a brilliantly ambiguous answer that employed the Arabic language’s grammatical complexity and subtleties of active and passive voice usage. For his response to the people assembled before him could be interpreted in two ways.  The first way was, that the best of the two men (Abu Bakr and Ali) was he whose daughter was married to the other man.  The second way was, that the best of the two was he who had married his daughter to the other man.  In this way did he give a response that was acceptable, and equally obscure, to both sects at the same time. For the Sunnites thought he meant Abu Bakr, because his daughter Aisha was married to the Prophet; and the Shiites thought he meant Ali, because Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, was married to him.  After responding in this way, he promptly left the room, so that he could not be questioned further. 

“The answer,” says Ibn Khallikan, “was certainly very clever.  Had it been the result of long reflection and deep consideration, it would have been admirable; but coming as it did, without any previous preparation, it was still more so.”  We agree with him.  Ibn Al Jawzi understood that in intractable matters of faith, rigid certainty is elusive, and that domestic harmony is usually more important. 

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Read more about the wisdom of Near Eastern thinkers in the essay compendium Digest: