Islamic history bears ample testimony to the fact that, by and large, scholars jealously guarded their intellectual independence and moral integrity. They refused, sometimes at great personal risks and sacrifices, to place their learning and expertise at the service of vested interests or the powers that be. An incident in the life of Imam al-Bukhari, the doyen of scholars of Hadith, brings out the salience of intellectual and moral integrity in the lives of Muslim scholars. Imam al-Bukhari used to impart instruction in Hadith at his home for one and all free of charge. One day the governor of Bukhara sent word to the Imam, requesting him to teach his son at his palace. Imam al-Bukhari refused, saying that the governor could send his son to his house for learning Hadith if he so desired. The governor felt incensed at the Imam’s reply and ordered his exile from Bukhara. Imam al-Bukhari preferred to spend the remaining years of his life in exile over the betrayal of his calling.
The Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet enjoin upon scholars to function as the conscience-keepers of the community by commending the good and censoring the evil. Islamic history is replete with instances in which eminent scholars publicly rebuked kings and the ruling establishment for their moral lapses, high-handedness and injustice and thereby displayed remarkable courage of conviction. One day the Umayyad tyrant al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf was delivering the Friday sermon. When Abd-Allah ibn Umar, a distinguished Companion of the Prophet and the son of Caliph Umar, heard him he began condemning him in unequivocal terms, saying that he was guilty of legitimizing what had been forbidden by God and of killing innocent people. When Al-Hajjaj heard this he was mad with fury. He made a sign to one of his guards, who threw a poisoned arrow at Abd-Allah, which grievously injured him. He subsequently died of the wound.
The eminent Tabi’i scholar, Sa’id ibn Jubyr was a fearless critic of Umayyad rulers, for which he earned their wrath. He was ultimately executed on orders from al-Hajjaj in 713. Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab was also a critic of the ruling establishment. The Umayyad rulers tried to silence him by offering a bribe of 30,000 dirhams, which he refused with contempt. Caliph Abdul Malik ordered his soldiers to flog him in the open bazaar. Hasan, the celebrated sage of Basra, launched a scathing attack on corrupt rulers, self-seeking scholars and indifferent masses. He took the Umayyad governor Ibn Hubayrah to task for his high-handedness and openly criticized Caliph Yazid ibn Abd al-Malik and al-Hajjaj. He rebuked scholars for ingratiating themselves with corrupt rulers and for their sycophancy and hypocrisy. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal openly criticized the heretical views of the rulers for which he had to suffer public flogging and imprisonment. Abd-Allah ibn al-Mubarak publicly condemned the ruling class as well as self-seeking ulama and held them responsible for the moral decline and degeneration of the Muslim community.
Sultan Sanjar was the ruler of Khurasan when Imam al-Ghazali met him and told him, “It is to be regretted that the necks of Muslims are on the breaking point due to the burden of problems and afflictions, while the necks of your horses are bent under the weight of their golden headstalls.” Imam al-Ghazali pointed out that the rulers are responsible for the degeneration of people while scholars are responsible for the degeneration of kings. If not for self-seeking and corrupt scholars and cruel qadis, kings would not have degenerated to this extent.
Eminent scholars and sages did not mince words in castigating the ruling elite for their sins of omission and commission. Sufyan al-Thawri, al-Awza’i, Mis’ar ibn Kidam and Sulayan ibn al-Mu’tar were bitter critics of the ruling establishment. The celebrated Sufi scholar, Shaykh Abdul Qadir of Gilan, was a fierce critic of the ruling class and its parasites. Izzuddin Abd al-Salam (d.1261), a distinguished scholar of Damascus, publicly criticized the ruling establishment, for which he had to suffer imprisonment. He used to say that a scholar’s weapon is his learning and his speech.
When the institution of caliphate was replaced by personal rule and kingship, bringing in its train indulgence and moral decay, most of the scholars decided to keep away from the ruling class. Distinguished Companions of the Prophet, such as Abd-Allah ibn Abbas, Abd-Allah ibn Amr ibn al-‘As and Abd-Allah ibn Umar, among others, kept aloof from the government of the day. Similarly, eminent Tabi’i scholars, such as Hasan al-Basri, Sai’d ibn al-Musayyab, Yazid ibn Habib, Abd-Allah ibn Taus, Abu Hanifa and Muhammad ibn Sirin, kept the rulers at arm’s length. They never accepted any gifts or grants from the rulers nor did they accept any position or post offered by them. Jafar Barmaki, the vizier of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, presented a hundred thousand dirhams to the celebrated scholar of Hadith, Isa ibn Yunus, which he refused and remarked that he would not accept even a glass of water from him. Ibrahim al-Harbi refused a large sum of money sent by the caliph, even though he was living in dire financial straits.
Imam Abu Hanifa was summoned by the governor Ibn Hubayra and was asked to serve as a qadi. The Imam refused, whereupon Ibn Hubayra ordered him to be continuously flogged for eleven days. After a few years, when Caliph al-Mansur ascended the throne, he called Imam Abu Hanifa and requested him to take over the post of qadi. The Imam refused again. He was sent to prison, where he breathed his last. Caliph Mahdi issued a royal decree, appointing Suyan al-Thawri as the qadi of Kufa, with the assurance that he would be free to discharge his judicial functions without let or hindrance. Sufyan al-Thawri threw the royal firman in the river Tigris.
The scholars and teachers of yore not only imparted instruction free of charge but also used to take care of the material needs of their students. Many of them used to offer meals as well as stipends and fellowships to needy students. Imam Abu Hanifa used to privately inquire about the needs and requirements of his pupils and fulfilled them from his own resources. Every Friday he used to invite his pupils to his house for meals. He used to give gifts to them on festive days. He even got some of them married at his own expense. Abu Yusuf, one of his favourite students, reported that Imam Abu Hanifa took care of the needs of his whole family for twenty long years. A large portion of the income from his flourishing business in silk garments was allocated for the expenses of scholars. Whenever he bought clothes and fruits for his family, he would buy the same things for scholars.
Abd-Allah ibn al-Mubarak used to divide the year between the pursuit of learning and scholarship, trade and commerce, and Jihad. He used to take care of the needs of scholars and to repay their loans. Layth ibn Sa’ad, an eminent scholar in the second century of the Islamic calendar, had a large estate in Egypt. He used to spend a substantial part of the income from his estate on students and scholars. He used to send one thousand dinars to Imam Malik every year. Once the house of an eminent scholar of Hadith, Ibn Lahia, caught fire in which all his notes were destroyed. When Layth ibn Sa’ad leaned of this incident he despatched a large sum of money to him for the repair of the house. He also sent reams of paper worth a thousand dinars.