Islām means submission. In Arabic, the person who does the action described by the verb aslama (أسلم). In this case, the doer of the act of submission is called a Muslim. The esteemed scholar of Islam, Imām Al-Nawawi, revered by many till this day, embodied this definition wholeheartedly. Muḥyi Al-Dīn was a nickname that was given to him, which means “one who gives life to the religion”. In counseling, we are taught that in order for the client to feel truly heard and understood, we must build a relationship with them first. Similarly, in order to appreciate and apply the gems of knowledge left by Imām AL-Nawawi, we must take the time to learn his background and scholarship.
His full name is Al-Imām Al-Ḥāfidh Muḥyi Al-Dīn Abu Zakariyyah Yaḥya ibn Sharaf ibn Muri ibn Ḥasan ibn Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad ibn Jumu’ah ibn Ḥizam Al-Ḥizāmi Al-Nawawi. He was born in the year 631 (1233) and was from a small town of Al-Nawa, south of Damascus, Syria. There is little mention of his family background, but his father was known for his piety and God-consciousness. He taught his family to avoid eating anything that may be forbidden in any way. In “Purification of the Heart” by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, we learned how what we consume affects our speech and state of heart. If we eat in excess or harmful foods, it can become a spiritual disease of one’s heart.
Imām Al-Nawawi memorized the Quran before he reached the age of puberty and chose to focus on his studies instead of playing with children his age. His father saw his interest and dedication to his studies and took him to Damascus, the center of learning and scholarship at the time. He was enrolled in a well-known institution that had numerous teachers who were regarded as masters of authority in their fields of specialty and disciplines they taught. Imām Al-Nawawi studied Ḥadīth, Fiqh and its principles, syntax, and etymology from distinguished scholars of his time.
He had an endless thirst for knowledge, taking twelve lessons daily, along with writing explanations and commentaries on every lesson. If he was not in class, he reflected over his lessons, reviewed the material in his head, and solved many complex issues. He chose to contemplate and work rigorously on complex issues than engage in activities of this world. He barely slept, ate simply, and spent most of his time on his studies. Al-Qutb al-Yawnini said about him, “He would not waste any moment of the day or night but he would spend it busy with attaining knowledge.” Overall, his pursuit of knowledge dominated his entire life.
As a person, Imām Al-Nawawi was regarded as a man of piety, knowledge, and good character due to his dedication to his studies. He was a modest person and did not allow his students to serve him, instead he served them until his old age. He did not allow to be given a stipend for his services and with the money he had, he spent it all on books. He believed that he was more in need of books than food or water. He barely slept and Imām Al-Nawawi, himself, said that he did not sleep on a bed for two years. For six years continuously, as a student of knowledge, he never slept until sleep overcame him. These character traits and examples demonstrate Imām Al-Nawawi’s manifestation of Islam in actions. Like the Prophet ﷺ, he was given respect, fame, and intelligence and he only used the good in his life as a means to please God.
He left this world in the year 676 (1277) at the very young age of 45, never married, nor had any children. However, he left us his most desired materialistic possession of this world; his books. Till this day, his books are considered treasures of the Islamic world and are taught in schools, memorized, and lived by. Imām Al-Nawawi’s most famous compilation is the “40 Hadith.” His other well-known works include Riyāḍ al-Ṣāliḥīn, the most well-known and studied commentary on Ṣaḥīh Muslim, Kitāb al-Adhkār, Al-Tibyān fī Ādāb Ḥamalah Al-Qur’ān and Bustān al-’Ārifīn,
Imām Al-Nawawi is considered to be amongst the most pious believers to follow and benefit from. Lessons that we can learn from him are in abundance and should be put into practice. A few include to give serious attention and time to Islam, to emulate the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ and live simply. His work ethic, focus, and love for Allah and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is shown in his character and his works he left behind for us to benefit from.