Al-Nawawi (631-676) mentioned, in Tahdhib al-Asma’ wa al-Lughat, that the five most important texts in the Shafi’i school up to his time were (chronologically):
- Mukhtasar al-Muzani (175-264)
- al-Tanbih by al-Shirazi (393-476)
- al-Muhadhab by al-Shirazi
- al-Wajiz by al-Ghazali (450-505)
- al-Wasit by al-Ghazali
He adds that they were widely known and available across all the domains of the Middle East, being popular with both students and scholars, especially in the absence of a comprehensive compilation that could replace all these aforementioned books. What is significant about these textbooks is that they are summaries of the two historical schools, namely the Iraqis (represented by al-Shirazi) and the Khurasanis (represented by al-Ghazali).
Some thoughts: Mukhtasar al-Muzani played a central role in the early transmission of the school. Indeed, for a long time researchers believed that it was the very first mukhtasar written in any madhab. Recent research now indicates that honour belongs to Abd Allah b. Abd al-Hakam of the Malikis a couple of decades earlier. Nevertheless, the mukhtasar was commented upon by many prominent Ashab al-Wujuh, climaxing in the magnificent Nihayat al-Matlab of Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (419-477) of the Khurasani Tariqah.
Nihayat al-Matlab (i.e. Sharh Mukhtasar al-Muzani) was abridged several times by al-Juwayni’s brilliant student, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, two of which became significant: al-Wajiz, and al-Basit. These twin texts became the focus of the Khurasanis with their more rational approach and al-Ghazali became pivotal in summarising and transmitting the madhab’s Khurasani tariqah.
Mukhtasar al-Muzani also indirectly spawned Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi’s works. Al-Tanbih was abridged from Abu Hamid al-Marwazi’s (d.376) Ta’liqah on Mukhtasar al-Muzani, whilst Al-Muhadhab was drawn from the Ta’liqah of Mukhtasar al-Muzani by Abu Tayyib al-Tabari (d.450). Al-Shirazi’s works became the focus of the Iraqis with their more traditional approach and al-Shirazi became pivotal in transmitting the madhab’s Iraqi tariqah.
By al-Nawawi’s time, these four works of al-Shirazi and al-Ghazali were very much in vogue. This was largely down to the Shafi’i madrasa building policies of Nizam al-Mulk (408-485), Nur al-Din al-Zanki (511-565), and Salah al-Din al-Ayubi (532-589). The first and greatest of these institutes for the training of Shafi’i jurists was the Nizamiyyah of Baghdad, which was built in 457. The first professor was, of course, Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi. This institute was followed by the Nizamiyyah of Naysabur with Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni as its professor. Al-Ghazali received his advanced training with al-Juwayni at this very institute and later taught at both the Nizamiyyah of Baghdad and later the Nizamiyyah of Naysabur. Thus, the great Shafi’i texts of the fifth Hijri century (al-Tanbih, al-Muhadhab, Nihayat al-Matlab, and its abridgements al-Wajiz and al-Wasit) were written and taught to students who then assumed teaching positions across the Nizamiyyah network from Syria through Iraq all the way to Khurasan.
When Nur al-Din peacefully conquered Damascus in 549, he found 11 privately endowed religious institutions – 5 Shafi’i madrasas, 5 Hanafi madrasas, and a Sufi khanaqah. Inspired by the model of Nizam al-Mulk, he stepped up the madrasa building process as part of the Sunni Revival to counter Ismaili Shi’ism (i.e Fatimid Egypt) and raise religious awareness among the masses in preparation for the fight with the Crusaders. By the end of his reign he had added 11 madrasas to Damascus, hundreds more elsewhere, and imported teachers from Iraq who brought with them the works of al-Shirazi and al-Ghazali. By the end of the Ayubid Damascus, when the Mongols conquered it in 658, there were 92 madrasas in Damascus alone.
The great centres of learning in Iraq, centred in Baghdad, and Khurasan, centred in Naysabur, were absolutely demolished by the devastating Mongol destruction. Thus Syria, and later Egypt under the Mamluks, inherited the legacy of these schools. This was the environment in which al-Nawawi trained and taught. It also gives us a context as to why and how the four aforementioned texts become so popular by al-Nawawi’s time.
Al-Nawawi himself engaged with each these texts directly or indirectly in Tashih al-Tanbih, al-Majmu’, Rawdat al-Talibin, and al-Tanqih. Indeed, al-Nawawi’s remark about the absence of a compilation that would suffice other books is telling. He himself attempted such a compliation in al-Majmu’ Sharh al-Muhadhab, but unfortunately died after completing only the first quarter.
One could see al-Nawawi’s later career as an attempt to refine the school in an easy to navigate curriculum, whilst still maintaining a connection to Mukhtasar al-Muzani: Minhaj al-Talibin to compliment Rawdat al-Talibin; al-Tahqiq to compliment al-Majmu’. Minhaj al-Talibin is indirectly spawned from Mukhtasar al-Muzani via al-Ghazali’s abridgement of it in al-Khulasah, which was the basis of al-Rafi’i’s (d.623) al-Muharrar, the mother book of Minhaj al-Talibin. Rawdat al-Talibin’s connection to Mukhtasar al-Muzani is via al-Juwayni’s sharh Nihayat al-Matlab, which was abridged by al-Ghazali in al-Wajiz, which in turn was commented upon by al-Rafi’i in Fath al-Aziz, the mother book of al-Rawdah.
By the late Mamluk Sultanate the original ‘five works’ indeed did lose favour to Minhaj al-Talibin and a number of works based upon two abridgements upon Fath al-Aziz Sharh al-Wajiz by al-Rafi’i.
The first of these is al-Hawi al-Saghir by al-Qazwini (d.665), which spawned Nazm al-Bahjah by Ibn al-Wardi (d.749) and al-Irshad by Ibn al-Maqri (d.837). Nazm al-Bahjah was commentated upon by Shaykh al-Islam Zakariyah al-Ansari (d.926) in al-Ghurar al-Bahjah. Al-Irshad was commentated upon twice by Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d.974) in al-Imadad, which was expanded in Fath al-Jawad.
The second abridgement of Fath al-Aziz to draw much attention in late Mamluk Egypt was al-Nawawi’s Rawdat al-Talibin. Ibn al-Muqri abridged it in Rawd al-Talib, which was commentated upon by al-Ansari in Asna al-Mutalib. Ibn Hajar also wrote an abridgement of Rawd al-Talib called al-Na’im. Al-Suyuti (d.911) abridged Rawdat al-Talibin in al-Ghunya. Al-Muzajjad (d.930) also abridged Rawdat al-Talibin in al-‘Ubab, which also attracted commentaries by Ibn Hajar and al-Ramli.
However, no works subsequent of al-Nawawi have reached the status of his primary works. He easily supplanted the Famous Five and summarised the entire spectrum of the classical Shafi’i school. Ibn Kathir commented in al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah that had al-Majmu Sharh al-Muhadhab been completed, it would have been the best book ever written in the fiqh of any madhab. Why so? Because it extensively engages with revelation and the juristic disputes in understanding it.