As the newly emerging Muslim empire expanded to the north, it acquired not only new land, spoils, and converts; but also inherited the home of many different religions, sects and philosophical teachings.[1] Throughout the region, Syriac Christians had established educational institutions for the study of Greek philosophy and the ancient wisdom of Persia, [2] laying the groundwork for what would later become some of the greatest religious and philosophical debates in history.

To help resolve some of the religious and political issues that arose within this region came some of the greatest Companions: Ṭalḥa, al-Zubayr, Saʽd and his son ʽUmar, Abū Mūsā al-Ashʽarī, ‘Abdullah b. Masʽūd, Khālid b. ʽUrfuṭa, ‘Adī b. Ḥātim, Jarīr b. ʽAbdullah al-Badhalī, al-Ashʽath al-Kindī, Umm Hānī (the sister of ‘Ali), and ‘Ali b. Abī Ṭalib [3]; may God be pleased with them all.

Though the Companions gave their best efforts to form out of Kūfa a pious society; the tribal, cultural and religious diversity of Kūfa made it a melting pot of intense political ferment from which confusion and disorder was the common result[4]. As if it were born to be controversial, from its earliest years Kūfa was already involved in clashes of opinion over politics and religion and became home to political Shi’ism and Muʽtazilism while Kharijites filled the bordering desert area.[5] Yet, a group of passionate students (tabiʽīn) still flocked to study at the feet of the Companions who took residence there; many who would later be considered some of the greatest scholars of their time. However, disappointment with the overall population of Iraq and their propensity for debate led the famous companion Abū al-Dardā’ to complain, “I never saw a people more given to questions about knowledge (‘ilm), nor more given to leaving it than you O people of Iraq.”[6] Likewise Ibn ‘Umar (d. 73AH/693CE), upon meeting a Kufan, remarked, “How miserable a people [you are], either prisoners or Kharijites”.[7]

Political Conflicts and Kūfan Scholarship

Kūfa appears to have been a place of conflicting extremes. It participated in the revolt against ʽUthmān (34-5AH/654-655CE); supported ʽAli in the battles of al-Jamal (36AH/656CE) and Ṣiffīn (37AH/657CE); gave birth to the Kharijites and witnessed the beginnings of political Shi’ism. After ʽAli’s assassination the people of Kūfa elected his eldest son Ḥaṣan to be his successor and for some time the Muslim world seemed to have accepted his leadership.  However, Mu’awiyya- who had already served semi-autonomously as the governor of Syria for about 20 years- declared himself the new Caliph of the empire and asked Ḥaṣan to resign. Possibly not wishing to involve himself in any more Muslim-on-Muslim disputes, Ḥaṣan left his post in Kūfa and moved to Medina without incident.[8] Mu’awiyya then founded in 40AH/661CE the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyad, and moved the capital of the empire to Damascus. Though Kūfa was no longer the capital, it maintained many deep concerns over the duties of the caliph,[9] and about 20 years after the Umayyads had already established themselves in Damascus, Kūfa, still faithful to the Prophet’s family, invited Ḥuṣṣain (the Prophet’s grandson) to lead them which, when he accepted, led to his martyrdom at the infamous Battle of Karbala (60AH/680CE).[10]

During the Umayyad reign (40-132AH/661-750CE) Arabs held positions of authority and power, fought wars and went on expeditions; this may have distracted them, for the most part, from scholastic pursuits.[11] Interestingly, the reigns of scholasticism were readily picked up by Persian clients who were free to study, analyze and investigate their new faith. Though clients lacked political power, they were not held back from the honorable pursuit of knowledge.[12]

These first few centuries must have been an amazing time. Many, if not most, of the legal specialists were not seeking knowledge (ʽilm) in hopes of receiving an official appointment into the Umayyad government, rather their desire for legal expertise derived naturally from their piety and devotion to act in accordance with the Sacred Law (Shari’ah). That these same scholars, many born non-Arab and out of such a controversial city as Kūfa, still arose to be some of the greatest Islamic scholars of their time is truly a testimony to their own devotion, the uniqueness of the time, and a further testimony that Islam is a religion without  racial boundaries.[13] In the fields of law and hadith rose the likes of Ibrāhīm al-Nakhaʽi (d. 96AH/714CE), Saʽīd b. Jubayr (d. 99AH/717CE), ʽĀmir b. Sharaḥbīl al-Shaʽbī and Ḥammād b. Sulaymān (d. 120AH/737CE). Leading the disciplines of asceticism and mysticism emerged the masters Uways al-Qaranī and Rabiʽ b. Khuthaym; though they never became as well-known and loved as the spiritual master from their sister city Ḥaṣan al-Baṣrī. In the field of tafsīr (Qur’anic commentary) and akhbār (history) arose Mujālid b. Saʽīd and Muḥammad al-Kalbi.[14] And three of the canonical readings (qirā’at) of the Qur’an were also recorded in Kūfa from the reciters: ʽĀṣim b. Bahdala (d. 131AH/748CE), Ḥamza (d. 156AH/772CE) and al-Kisā’ī (d. 189AH/804CE);[15] may God reward them all.

However, when most people think of Kūfa they may likely recall the Ahl al-Raʽy.

 To be continued…

[1] Muhammad Abū Zahrah, The Four Imams: the Lives and Teaching of Their Founders (London: Dar Al-Taqwa, 2001), 127.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hichem Djait, “Al-Kūfa.” The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Ed. C. E. Bodsworth, E. Donzel, and G. Lecomte. Vol. 3. (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 347.

[4] Ibid, 345.

[5] Abū Zahrah, 128.

[6] Christopher Melchert, “How Hanafism Came to Originate in Kufa and Traditionalism in Medina” (Islamic Law and Society 6.3, 1999), 320.

[7] Ibid.

[8] S. F. A. Mahmud, A Short History of Islam (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1988), 43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Abū Zahrah, 126. Soldiers in the army still continued to learn and it appears a popular subject of discussion for them was the Prophet Muhammad and, in particular, the early wars of the Muslim community. These stories were also written down and collected and became, for biographers, one of the earliest sources for the study of the sīra.

[12] Ibid.

[13]A strong comparison can be made between Kūfa and Islam in the West. That so much scholarship and influence can be born out of such a culturally and religiously diverse area should give further support to Western Muslims that, though they are too born non-Arab and away from the sacred cities (Mecca and Medina), they can still have an amazing impact upon Islamic history and the Muslim world from wherever they live.

[14] Wael B. Hallaq, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005), 65.

[15] Djait, 350.

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