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The Advice of Sufyān al-Thawrī

Advice from the great Imām, Sufyān ibn Saʿīd al-Thawrī concerning leaving off the various fitan that had already afflicted the Ummah in his time.

“Wahb used to give precedence to Sufyān’s memory over that of Mālik.”

Ibn Maḥdī

The Advice

Sufyān al-Thawrī2 – raḥimahullāh – wrote to ’Abbaad Ibn ’Abbaad al-Khawwaas al-ArṢūfī3 – raḥimahullāh – saying,

“To proceed: You are in a time which the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ used to seek refuge from reaching, and they had the knowledge that we do not have, and they had precedence which we do no. So how is it for us, when we reach that, having little knowledge, little patience, few helpers upon what is good, corruption of the people and pollution of this world?! So take to the original state of affairs and cling to it.4 I advise you to remain unknown, since this is the age for remaining anonymous (khumool).5 And remain aloof and mix little with the people, since before when the people met, they would benefit from each other. But today that has gone and your safety – in our view – lies in abandoning them.6

Beware of the Rulers. Beware of coming near to them and of mixing with them in any of the affairs. Beware of being deceived, so that it said to you: Intercede [for me], so that you help one oppressed, or repel an act of oppression – because that is from the deception of Iblīs, which the wicked reciters have taken as a means to attain a favorable position.7 It used to be said: Beware of the fitnah (trial) of the ignorant worshipper and the wicked scholar, because the trial of these two is indeed a trial for everyone put to trial.

If you find questions and need for fatwá, then take advantage of it – but do not compete desirously for it. And beware of being like the one who loves that his saying is acted upon, or that his saying is publicized or listened to, and if that is abandoned, the effects of that are seen upon him.8

And beware of the love of leadership, since leadership may be more beloved to a man than gold and silver – but it is something difficult and obscure, and this will not be understood except by wise Scholars.9 So seek after your lost soul and work with the correct intention and know that there has come near to the people a matter which a person would be desirous of death. Was-salām.10


[1]: The text and explanation of this wasīyyah (advice/legacy) has been taken from the book, Min Wasaayas-Salaf (p. 19-25) by Shaykh Saleem al-Hilālee – hafiẓahullāh.

[2]: He is Abū ʿAbdullāh Sufyān Ibn Saʿīd Ibn Mʿasrooq al-Thawrī (d.161H). The appellation refers to Thawr Ibn ’Abd-Manaat; and not Thawr of Hamdaan. One of the stores of knowledge and mountains or retention – and when the ’Ulamāʾ‘ (Scholars) are mentioned, then Sufyān is a dazzling star. His biography is famous and fills the books of Jarḥ wa-al-Taʿdīl (validating and invalidating the narrators), history and fiqh; and his life story is well known. From the Editors: What follows is a very brief biography of Sufyān al-Thawrī, taken from Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubʿalāʾ‘ of al-Dhahabī and Tahdheebut-Tahdheeb of al-Ḥāfiẓ Ibn Ḥajar al-Asqʿalánee.

His Shaykhs include: Abū Ishāq as-Sabee’ee, al-A’mash, Sulaymān at-Taymee, Ibrāhīm Ibn Maysarah, Ibn ’Awn, Zayd Ibn Aslam, ’Amr Ibn Dīnār, Ibn ’Ajlān, Ibn al-Munkadir, Abūz-Zubayr, Yahyá Ibn Saʿīd al-Anṣārī …

His Students include: Shu’bah, al-Awzāʿī, Mālik, ’Abdur-Raḥmān Ibn Mahdī, Yahyá Ibn Saʿīd al-Qattaan, Ibn al-Mubārak, Hafs Ibn Ghiyaath, ʿAbdullāh Ibn Wahb, ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Fuḍayl Ibn ’Iyāḍ, al-Walīd Ibn Muslim, Wakīʿ Ibn al-Jarrāḥ, Yazīd Ibn Hārūn, Abū Nuʿaym and ʿAlī Ibn al-Ja’d – who was the last reliable narrator to report from him.

Shu’bah, Ibn ʿUyaynah, Abū ʿĀsim, Ibn Ma’een and others said, “Sufyān is the chief of the Believers in Ḥadīth.”

Ibn al-Mubārak said, “I wrote from one thousand one hundred Shaykhs and I did not write from anyone better than Sufyān,” so a man said to him: O Abā ʿAbdullāh, you saw Saʿīd Ibn Jubayr and others, he said, “That was before. I did not say that I did not see anyone better than Sufyān.”

Ibn Mahdī said, “Wahb used to give precedence to Sufyān’s memory over that of Mālik.”

Ad-Duwaree said, “I saw Yahyá Ibn Ma’een and he did not prefer anyone to Sufyān in his time – neither in fiqh, ḥadīth, Zuhd or anything else.”

Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal said, “No one takes precedence over him in my heart.”

Al-Nisāʾa’ee said, “He is greater than for it to have to be said that he is reliable, and he is one of the Imāms whom I hope is one of those whom Allāh has made an Imām for the pious.”

Ibn Abī Dhi‘b said, “I have not seen anyone more like the Tābi’īn than Sufyān.”

Ibn Hibbān said, “He was one of the foremost of the people in fiqh, wara’ (piety) and precision.”

Ibn ʿUyaynah said, “I have not seen a man knowing the lawful and prohibited better than Sufyān.”

Ishāq Ibn Rāhawayh said, ‘I heard ’Abdur-Raḥmān Ibn Mahdī mention Sufyān, Shu’bah, Mālik and Ibn al-Mubârak and say, ‘The most knowledgeable of them was Sufyān.”

Muḥammad Ibn Zunboor said, ‘I heard Fuḍayl say, ‘By Allāh! Sufyān was more knowledgeable than Abū Ḥanīfah.”

Bishr al-Haafī said, “al-Thawrī, to us, is the Imām of the people.”

Qabeesah said, “I have not sat in a sitting along with Sufyān except that I remembered death. I have not seen anyone who remembered death more than him.”

It was said to Sufyān al-Thawrī, ‘For how long will you continue to seek Ḥadīth?’ He said, “And what is better than Ḥadīth that I should prefer it? Ḥadīth is the best of the knowledge of the world.”

’Abdur-Raḥmān Ibn Mahdī related, ‘I heard Sufyān say, ‘Never has a ḥadīth reached me from Allāh’s Messenger ﷺ, except that I would act upon it even a single time.” Here ends the Editor’s Inclusion.

His biography can be found in Tahdhīb al-Kamāl (11/54), at-Tabaqaatul-Kubraa (6/371), Taareekh Baghdād (9/151) and Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubʿalāʾ (7/229). Abū Nuʿaym al-Aṣbahānī has written a delightful and complete biography of him in Hilyatul-Awliyaa‘ (6/356 – 7/144) – the likes of which I have not seen.

[3]: He is Abū ’Utbah ’Abbaad Ibn ’Abbaad Ibn Khawwaas al-ArṢūfī ash-Shaamee. One of the nobles of Shaam (region of Syria, Jordan and Palestine); and their worshippers. Declared reliable by Yahyá Ibn Ma’een, Ya’qoob Ibn Sufyān al-Fasawee and others. His biography is found in Taareekhal-Dārimī (no.495), al-Ma’rifah wat-Taareekh (2/43) of al-Fawasee and also Hilyatul-Awliyaa‘ (8/281-282).

[4]: This pure saying is inherited from the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ – from whom it is very widely reported that person must do Ittibaa’ (follow the narrations from the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions) and cling to the old way, as is reported authentically from Ibn Masʿūd –( raḍī Allāhu ʿʿʿanhu), “Follow and do not innovate – it is enough for you [and every innovation is misguidance].”

Reported by Wakīʿ in al-Zuhd (no. 315) and through him Aḥmad in al-Zuhd (p. 202), al-Dārimī in the introduction of his Sunan (1/69) and others. It is Ṣaḥīḥ due to its supporting chains and the addition in brackets is from Aḥmad and at-Ṭabarānī in al-Kabīr (9/154) and is also Ṣaḥīḥ.

[5]: The khaamil is the one who is hidden, the one who is not mentioned or known. This is a sign of taqwá (piety) and goodness since the sincere ones do not cease to be fearful of riyaa (ostentation). Therefore, they strive hard to hide this from the people and turn their eyes away from their righteous actions; and strive to hide them harder than the people and turn their eyes away from their righteous actions; and strive to hide them harder than the people strive in their wickedness – hoping for sincerity in their actions – so that Allāh may reward them for their sincerity on the Day of Resurrection. And the people of good did not intend fame, nor seek it, nor that which leads to it – and if granted by Allāh – they flee from it and prefer not to be known. Since it leads to conceit and then destroys fame.

Imām Muslim in his Ṣaḥīḥ (18/10) and al-Baghawī in Sharḥ al-Sunnah (15/21-22) both relate that ʿĀmir Ibn Sa’d Ibn Abī Waqqās said, ‘Sa’d was looking after his sheep and camels, so his son, ʿUmar, came to him. When Sa’d saw him he said, ‘I seek refuge in Allāh from the evil of this rider.’ So when he came to him, he said, ‘O father! Are you satisfied with being a desert-dwelling Arab amongst your sheep and camels, whilst the people are arguing about who is to rule in al-Madīnah?’ Sa’d hit ʿUmar on the chest and said, ‘Shut-up! For I have heard the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ say, “Indeed Allāh loves the pious, self-contented and hidden servant.”

So what Sufyān intended by saying, “This is the age for remaining anonymous,” is that one should hide their good actions from people – not that one should become lazy and apathetic. The proof for this is from considering two matters:- Firstly: It is established from the Prophet ﷺ that he said, “A strong believer is better and more beloved to Allāh than a weak believer.” Secondly: It is established that the Prophet ﷺ would seek refuge with Allāh from laziness and slothfulness.

[6]: What he means by ’uzlah (remaining aloof) is mixing little with the people – since there will still be some benefit to be gained from each other. So, he does not mean that you should avoid the people altogether, since if the duʿāʾt (the callers to Allāh and his Religion) do that – then when will the ignorant learn, the confused ones be guided and the one who oppresses himself desist! There is no doubt that the one who mixes with the people and patiently bears their harm has a great reward.

[7]: Ibn al-Jawzī (d.597H) – raḥimahullāh – says in Talbees Iblīs (p. 121-122), “From the deception of Iblīs upon the Scholars, is their mixing with the Rulers and flattering them and abandon censuring them when able to do so. And perhaps they find allowance for them where really there is no allowance, in order to attain a worldly goal – and threefold corruption comes about through this:

Firstly: The Ruler – he says, ‘If it were not correct, then the Scholar would have censured me – and how can I not be correct – and he eats from my wealth?’

Secondly: The common person says, ‘There is no harm with this Ruler, nor his wealth, nor his actions because the Scholar does not criticize him.’

Thirdly: The Scholar – because he corrupts his Religion through that. Iblīs may deceive them into entering upon the Ruler saying: We enter in order to intercede for a Muslim. This deception is uncovered by the fact that if a different person entered to intercede – the Scholar would not be pleased with that, and perhaps speak ill of him – since he wishes to be alone in the Ruler’s attention.

So entering upon the Ruler involves great danger, since the intention may be good when you first enter but then may be changed by their honouring you, or bestowing things upon you, or by having ambitions and by not being able to avoid flattering them and leaving-off censuring them. Sufyān al-Thawrī used to say, “I do not fear from their debasing me, but I fear from their being generous towards me so that my heart inclines towards them.” ”

And al-Ḥāfiẓ Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalee (d.795H) says in Sharḥ Ḥadīth Maa Dhi‘baan (p. 53), “Many of the Salaf used to forbid entering upon the Kings in order to command them with what is good and forbid them from what is evil also. From those that forbade them were: ʿUmar Ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, Ibn al-Mubārak, al-Thawrī, and others. Ibn al-Mubārak said, “And with us, the one who orders and forbids is not the one who enters upon them and orders and forbids, but rather the one who orders and forbids is the one who keeps away from them.” And that is for fear of trials for the one who enters upon them since a person when far away may be deceived into thinking that he will order and forbid them and be stern with them – but when he sees them face to face, his soul inclines towards them, since the love of nobility is hidden in the soul. Therefore he flatters them and is lenient with them and perhaps he inclines towards them and comes to love them, especially if they treat him kindly and generously and he accepts that from them. And this happened to ʿAbdullāh Ibn Ṭāwūs with a certain ruler, in the presence of his father Ṭāwūs, so Ṭāwūs rebuked him for that. And Sufyān al-Thawrī wrote to ’Abbaad Ibn ’Abbaad and in his letter was: And beware of the rulers…”

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d.463H) – the Scholar of Andulus – says in Jāmiʿ Bayannil-’Ilm (l/185-186), ending the chapter in which he mentioned the Salaf’s hatred of entering upon the kings and rulers, “And the meaning of this chapter is with regard to the wicked oppressive ruler. However, as for the just and noble of them, then entering upon him, seeing him, and helping him to do good is one of the best of good deeds. Do you not see that ʿUmar Ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz was accompanied by great Scholar such as ’Urwah Ibnuz-Zubayr and his level; and Ibn Shihaab az-Zuhree and his level. And Ibn Shihaab used to enter upon the ruler ʿAbd al-Mālik and his sons after him. And from those who used to enter upon the ruler were:- ash-Sha’bee, Qabeesah, Ibn Dhu’ayb, Rajaa‘ Ibn Haywat al-Kindee, Abū al-Miqdaam – who was a noble scholar, al-Ḥasan, Abūz-Zinād, Mālik Ibn Anas, al-Awzāʿī, al-Shāfiʿī and others too many to mention. So if the Scholar enters upon the ruler – now and again when there is a need – and he says what is good and speaks with his knowledge, then that is good and a means of Allāh’s pleasure until the Day he meets Him. But these sittings are usually a trial, and being safe there from is abandoning what is in them.”

I say: Indeed they have spoken the truth, done well and have advised sincerely – rahimahumullāh – because they were like the unclothed preachers who are not disbelieved – and how could they be anything else after they had heard the saying of Allāh’s Messenger ﷺ, “He who comes to the ruler is put to trial.” Reported by Abū Dāwūd (no. 2859), al-Tirmidhī (no. 2256), Sūrah al-Nisāʾī (7/195-196), Aḥmad (l/357) and others from Abū Mūsá al-Ashʿarī – and it is Ṣaḥīḥ due to supporting narrations.

[8]: This is riyaa (showing-off and ostentation). I have explained its causes, how it approaches, its types, and its cure, in my book called ar-Riyaa.

[9]: Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr wrote in Jāmiʿ Bayānil-’Ilm (l/143-144) some lines on this,

“Love of leadership is a poison which destroys this life,

And makes love a war for its lovers;

It cuts both throats and ties of relationships,

So that no character nor Religion remains.

He who obtains leadership while ignorant or before wisdom,

Then you will not see him except as an enemy to the rightful;

He desires and envies a people and be is lesser than them,

Competing thereby with the enemies of the Prophets.”

So refer to what he wrote in this chapter, for it is of great value, and if a student of knowledge were to travel for one month seeking it – then he would be fortunate.

[10]: Related by Abū Nuʿaym in Hilyah (6/376-377) and Ibn Rajab mentioned a portion of it in Sharḥ Ḥadīth Maa Dhi‘baan (pp.53-54) and al-Dhahabī reported it in the biography of Sufyān in Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubʿalāʾ‘, and it is a famous testament possessed by the Scholars. Al-Ḥāfiẓ al-Mizzee – raḥimahullāh – says in Tahdbeebul-Kamaal (14/143) in his biography of ’Abbaad Ibn ’Abbaad, “And he was one of the noble ones of Shaam and their worshippers, and Sufyān al-Thawrī wrote the famous letter to him, being a testament, and mention of manners, wisdom, examples, and admonitions.”

Published: June 30, 2007
Edited: August 15, 2022

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