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WISDOM OF THE ANCIENTS

The Pillars of Islam By al-Qadi al-Numan, Oxford, Rs 875

This book is an important document about the tenets and traditions of Islam. It was written more than a thousand years ago, in Arabic by al-Qadi al-Numan. But it was written for a particular sect of Islam — the Ismailis. The Ismaili sect and the Mustali-Tayyabi Bohras still look upon it as an authority on Ismaili law. The Pillars of Islam is a translation of Da’aim al’Islam. The exact date of its composition is difficult to ascertain. It has been translated into Urdu and Gujarati, but this is the first time a translation in English has been attempted.

It is said that the Fatimid Caliph, al-Muizz-li-Din Allah, had asked Numan to write such a book since the latter was taken to be an authority on the subject. The book remained the official code of the Fatimid state of Egypt. Little is known about the life of Numan except that he served the four successive caliphs in different capacities and was accorded the highest judicial position in the state.

The title of the book is significant, for Islam is said to be based on seven pillars. The book has nine chapters, beginning with faith or iman and ending with the idea of holy war. It is a storehouse of information about the teachings of the Prophet and the sayings of the different imams, but is hardly ever boring. Be it rituals, prayers, alms-giving, fasting or pilgrimage, Numan manages to keep his readers glued to the book. This could be the reason behind the book’s popularity over the years.

It is also a significant document of reference in matters of Islamic jurisprudence, making its use inevitable in Ismaili legal matters. The second volume of the book, which this translation does not cover, is said to contain instructions on a few other aspects of life, such as food, dress, marriage, business and so on. Numan, however, does not come down to talking about the basics of religion. For example, we are not told the number of rikats to be offered in a Friday prayer or the two Idd prayers and how they are different from the daily prayers. It would have been helpful if the translators had added footnotes about these and other items for the lay reader curious to know more about Islam.

The translation was undertaken by Asaf A.A. Fyzee, the principal of Government Law College, Mumbai, and author of several books about Islam. But the entire work has been revised, its technicalities taken care of and the language polished by Ismail Kurban Husein Poonawala, who is currently professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. His annotations are helpful and in keeping with the text. The easy flow of the language speaks of the hard work that has gone into the translation from a difficult language like Arabic. The translation gives the law courts in the subcontinent and elsewhere a chance to take the help of the work in resolving Ismaili Muslim disputes.

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