Dibaj - 13 Muh, 1442 AH / 1 Sept, 2020 CE
Imam Abu ʿĪsā Muhammad b. ʿĪsā b. Tirmidhi. 209 - 279 AH (824 - 892 CE). One of the leading scholars of hadith narration, hadith analyst and faqīh. He is the author of Jāmiʿal-Tirmidhi, Shamāʾīl Muhammadiyyah and al-ʿIlal amongst other works. His legacy is far-reaching and Allah Almighty through him has benefited the Muslims immensely.
He is Muḥammad b. ʿIsā b. Sawrah Sulamī Būghi Tirmdhi Ḍarīr. His Kunya is Abū ʿĪsa.
There are differences of opinion on his lineage. Most biographers state ʿĪsā b. Sawrah, however, Allm. Mizzi writes it as ʿĪsā b. Yazīd b. Sawrah. The addition of Yazid may be an error or another name for Sawrah. There is a discrepancy in Sawrah’s lineage also. Allm. Mizzi states Sawrah b. Musa b. Ḍaḥḥāk. Allm. Zahabi states Sawrah b. Sakan. Allm. Samʿāni et al. state Sawrah b. Shaddād. We know little about these people other than that his ancestry roots to Merv and his grandfather moved to Bugh near Tirmidh. He is linked to the Arab tribe of Sulaym b. Mansur (Qays ʿAylān), hence, called Sulami. It is not clarified whether he is linked to them by blood or fealty. Some argued that he is of Arab lineage as all the names in his ancestry are Arabic. However, the names in his extended lineage are disputed. Arabs in that era would have still kept strong records of their lineage for various cultural and political reasons. The absence of detail may suggest that his linkage to Banu Sulaym may be born of fealty rather than blood.
Little is known about his personal life. This does not affect his reliability nor is it valid to classify him as majhul due to it as his character and ability is well known. The key importance of his lineage is to distinguish him from others. He should not be confused with other narrators in his era who are referred to as Tirmidhi also such as Ḥakim Tirmidhi (d. 255), Ibrahim b. Abu Layth (d. 234), Ahmad b. Hasan (d. 250), Jarud b. Muʿadh Sulami (d. 244), Salih b. Abdullah (d. 230s), Muhammad b. Ismaʿil Sulami (d. 280)
Imam Tirmidhi was born circa 209. He died on 13 Rajab 279 AH in Bugh (Tirmidh); aged 70. Bugh is a village near the city of Tirmidh. Hence, he is called Bughi and Tirmidhi. Some pronounce Tirmidh as Tarmidh or Turmidh; Tirmidh is more prevalent.
He was not born blind (ḍarīr); he became blind in the latter part of his life. Allm. Ibn Kathīr states, ‘It is apparent from the state of Imam Tirmidhi that he was inflicted with blindness after he had traveled, heard, wrote, taught and authored’. Hakim Nishāpuri also alludes to this as he states, ‘He became blind and remained so for years’.
Imam Tirmidhi was born during the reign of Mamun Rashid (198 – 218 AH) who came to power after a civil war. Mamun formally supported the Mu’tazilite creed that the Quran is created in 212 AH which the traditionalist led by Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal rejected. By 218, Mamun and his successors started the Mihnah (inquisition) and prosecuted the ulama. This policy continued until 233 AH when the Khalifah Mutwakkil reversed government policy on the issue. Mutawakkil was assassinated in 247 AH which started an extreme period of instability in the khalifate called the Anarchy of Samarra which lasted until 254 AH. The Tahirid dynasty administered Khurasan including Tirmidh on behalf of the Abbasids between 205 – 259 AH. The administration then moved to the Saffarids dynasty (259 – 300 AH).
Imam Tirmidhi traveled the eastern regions such as Tirmidh and Khurasan extensively. He traveled through Iraq and spent time in the Hijaz. He seemed to have not visited Shām or Misr as he narrates from the scholars of that region via intermediaries. Allm. Nurruddin ʿItr suggests that this may have been due to the dangerous political climate at the time. This may have been the reason why he did not stay in Iraq for any prolonged time either.
There is no timeline which outlines when Imam Tirmidhi traveled for Hajj or to any other location. However, it is estimated that he first traveled outside his home region around 235 AH (aged 26). This may be due to Mutawakkil halting the prosecution of the ulama in 234 AH, thus, making it somewhat safer. Alternatively, it could be that it was the norm for students to start traveling when they reached their mid-twenties in Tirmidh.
Allm. Nuruddin ‘Itr states, ‘Imam Tirmidhi most likely did not ever visit Baghdad either for had he done so he would have narrated from Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal.’ The argument is not convincing. Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal died in 241 AH which is just six or so years after Imam Tirmidhi started his travels. He may have not got the opportunity in the early years, but he did live for 38 years thereafter. He narrates from many natives and residents of Baghdad directly. It could be that he met them during hajj or in other places, but it is also possible that he visited them in Baghdad.
Imam Tirmidhi’s character resembled the character of his teacher, Imam Muhammad b. Ismaʿil Bukhari. He was pious. He was cautious and feared Allah. ʿImran b. ʿAlan states that in Khurasan, after Imam Bukhari, there is no one equivalent to Imam Tirmidhi in piety. He was soft-hearted and known to cry.
He was a private person and detached himself from worldly affairs. We do not know if he was married and he rarely talked about his private life. Like Imam Muslim, he seems to take precautions to avoid controversy. When writing he will give due care so as not to alienate any group and presenting an idea or opinion of his own to his utmost he try to establish precedence and steep it in tradition.
Abu Ya’la Khalīli Qazwini states that he is well known for being trustworthy. The ulama trusted him and he was ranked amongst the upper echelons of pious scholars. None criticized him in terms of his character. Allm. Ibn Hazm Zahiri’s criticism of him being majhul (unknown) is rejected by the experts. Allm. Ibn Kathir states that Imam Tirmidhi’s status is unaffected by this comment. The comment of Zahiri (d. 456 AH) is surprising considering the esteem at which Imam Tirmidhi was held, especially by the likes of Imams Bukhari who was considered a leading critic of hadith narrators. It is unlikely that he was unaware of Imam Tirmidhi but perhaps he was alluding to his personal life. In fact, on another occasion, he classes Imam Tirmidhi amongst the pious experts.
From his writing, we can see that he was a person of focus and cautious in his approach. He was not overly stringent and gave people the benefit of the doubt. He was respectful to others and showed reverence to reliable Islamic scholars. However, where he disagreed, he stood his ground.
Imam Tirmidhi is one of the Imams in the field of Hadith both in terms of reporting (riwayat) and analysis (dirayat) Ibn al-ʿImād Hanbali et al. declares him amongst the leading figures in his time. Abu Jaʿfar b. Zubayr state, ‘The mastery of hadith of Imam Tirmidhi other do not match.’ He is viewed as a model example of an ideal muhaddith. His memory is unique, he is consistent, reliable, knowledgeable and has a strong grasp of fiqh.
He had a didactic memory. Abu Saʿd Idrīsi reports that Imam Tirmidhi whilst traveling to Makkah met a scholar from whom he had a collection of hadith via an intermediary. He wanted to confirm them directly but realised that he did not have his books. So he read them from memory correctly. Surprised, the teacher read forty lesser-known hadith and Imam Tirmidhi recited it back without any error. The teacher responded that I have not seen anything like you. Other such incidents of his memory are also reported.
Amongst those from whom he reported hadith directly, the earliest by date of death are Ali b. Madini (d. 234 AH), Muhammad b. Abd b. Numayr (d. 234 AH) and Ibrahim b. Munzir (d. 236 AH) who died in Samarra, Kufa and Madinah respectively. He does not directly narrate from anyone who died earlier than 234 AH. As a result of this some have assumed that he must have started his formal study of hadith in 234 AH. Although he asserted that he started traveling around that time, however, it is possible that started acquiring knowledge before then, albeit from local scholars who died later. It was custom of the region that they will first acquire knowledge locally and then venture abroad.
He heard hadith from very many. Allm. Mizzi states, ‘He travelled many cities and heard from very many from Khurasan, Iraq and Hijaz amongst others. However, He did not visit Shām or Misr.’ His other notable teachers include Imams Muslim b. Hajjaj Qushayri (d. 261 AH) and Abu Dawud Sajistani (d. 275 AH); authors of the famed Ṣaḥīḥ and Sunan respectively. However, he does not narrate many ahadith from them as he travelled and met their teachers.
In his Jamiʿ, Imam Tirmidhi reports from 242 teachers. Amongst them the most frequent are Qutaybah b. Saʿīd (d. 240 AH), Bundār Muḥammad b. Bashshār (d. 252 AH), Maḥmūd b. Ghaylān Marwazi (d. 239 AH), Ḥannād b. Sariyy Tamīmi (d. 243 AH), Ahmad b. Manī Baghawi (d. 244 AH), Muḥāmmad b. Yaḥ`ya Adani (d. 243 AH), Muḥammad b. ʿAlāʾ Ḥamdāni (d. 248 AH), ʿAli b. Hujr Saʿdī (d. 244 AH) and ʿAbd b. Ḥumayd (d. 249 AH). These nine teachers account for almost two-thirds of the hadith in Jamiʿ Tirmidhi.
The students of Imam Tirmidhi are many. Majority are from the eastern regions. Allm. Mizzi lists 26 of them in Tahzib. Amongst his students are Abu Muhammad Nasafi (d. 321 AH), Abu Abbas Mabūbi Marwazi (d. 346 AH), Muhammad b. Munzir Sulami (d. 303 AH), Abu Abbas Nasafi (d. 314 AH), Abu Mutiʾ Nasafi (d. 308 AH), and Abu Saʿīd Turki (d. 335 AH). These six are prominent narrators of Imam Tirmidhi’s Jamiʾ. Imam Bukhari stated to Imam Tirmidhi that I benefited more from you than you benefited from me. Imam Tirmidhi reports two occasions where Imam Bukhari narrated from him.
In terms of hadith collection, his most famous works are al-Jamiʿ al-Mukhtaṣar min al-Sunan ʿan Rasul Allah wa Maʿrifat al-Ṣaḥīḥ wa al-Maʿlūl wa mā ʿalayhi al-ʿamal (Jāmiʾ Tirmidhi), and Shamāʾil Muhammadiyyah. These are staples of traditional learning. The Jāmiʾ is one of the books of the kutub sittah. He likely finished writing his Jāmiʾ some time before 265 AH. His Shamāʾil is considered amongst the best in the genre which discusses the external features of the Prophet ﷺ.
In terms of analysis (dirayat), he has written history, biographical and hadith analysis such as ʿal-Ilal al-Kabir and Asmaʿ al-Sahabah. Most of his other works are unavailable to us now. His work, ʾIlal al-Saghīr which is appended to his Jāmiʾ is of note. In it he identifies his methodology and introduces his unique terminology in classifying hadith which is different from later scholars. He was amongst the pioneering figures in the field. Whilst Imam Bukhari and Muslim promoted the principle that there are grades of Sahih, Imam Tirmidhi focused on the grades of weaknesses. Consequently, Imam Zahabi considered Imam Tirmidhi to be lenient (mutasahil) when analysing narrators and classifying hadith. Allm Nur al-Itr wrote a detailed response rejecting this criticism. Rather, he was objective and fair (mu’tadil); softer perhaps than Imam Bukhari but harsher than Hakim Nishapuri. His primary teacher in this field is Imam Bukhari (d. 256 AH). He also learned from Imam Darimi (d. 255 AH) and Imam Abu Zurʿa Razi (d. 264 AH).
Imam Tirmidhi learned fiqh from Imam Bukhari among others. He was knowledgeable of the positions of the dominant fiqh schools as is clear in his work. He relates from Imam Sufyan al-Tawri via Muhammad b. Uthman Kufi (d. c250 AH), Imam Malik via Ishaq b. Musa Ansari (d. 244 AH), Imam Shafiʾi via Hasan b. Muhammad Zaʿfarani (d. 260 AH), Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and Ishaq b. Rahway via Ishaq b. Mansur (d. 251 AH). He relates the position of the Ahnaf through the opinion of Imam Abdullah b. Mubarak via numerous sources. He outlines his sources for all the fuqaha mentioned in al-ʿIlal al-Saghir. Ml. Ali Miya Nadwi states that his Jāmi was the first book of comparative fiqh where he outlines the positions of these respective scholars whilst commenting the hadith.
In terms of capacity in fiqh, Imam Tirmidhi was a mujtahid mutlaq (grade 1) – independent legist. There is a difference of opinion whether he followed his own methodology (mustaqil) or the methodology of one of the schools of fiqh (muntasib). Allm. Sindhi et al. suggest that he was a mujtahid mutalaq mustaqil (class 1). Shah Waliullah Dihlawi et al. consider him to be more aligned (mutahid mutaq muntasib) to Imams Ahmad and Ishaq b. Rahway. Allm. Kashmiri et al consider him more aligned to Imam Shafi’s position. The fiqh of Imams Shafi’i and Ahmad is very similar. On the most part, Imam Tirmidhi's position seems to match these them even if it is through independent judgement. Allm. Yusuf Binnori considers Imam Tirmidhi him stronger than Imams Nasaʿi and Ibn Majah in Fiqh whilst he deems him lower than Imams Bukhari and Abu Dawud.
Muhammad Saifur Rahman Nawhami
13 Muharram 1442 AH
1 September 2020 CE
Cite: Nawhami, Muhammad Saifur Rahman. (2020). Abu Isa Tirmidhi – d. 279 AH.Islamic Studies Bulletin (DIBAJ). Issue 106. Available at http://uloom.com/stable/200901501
Author: M. Saifur Rahman Nawhami