Al-Suyuti: Then and Now – A reflection

By Ali Al Lawati

The following is a reflection by Ali Al Lawati, a postgraduate student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Within Islamic scholarly history, notable scholars are often introduced and described by their students using lavish terms. Exaggerated references are made to the scholar’s superior characteristics of knowledge, worship, piety or others. The case of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505) provides an alternative case in that the titles of esteem are eagerly provided by the scholar himself.

At a Christian-Muslim Studies Network seminar at New College, Dr Rebecca Skreslet Hernandez presented her book on The Legal Thought of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti: Authority and Legacy. The monograph is a development of Dr Hernandez’s doctoral dissertation. Her research interests include Islamic law, religious authority and medieval Egypt.

Al-Suyuti was a polymath who, while typically cited for his contributions to the fields of Islamic law, Quranic exegesis and philology, contributed to myriad fields, including history, theology and medicine. In addition to the range of knowledge, al-Suyuti claimed mastery of the relevant fields, embodied through a proclamation of the achievement of the level of ijtihad (the ability to derive rulings from sources of Islamic law).

Al-Suyuti’s belief in his status is further conveyed in his proclamation of being the mujaddid (restorer) of his century. Such a proclamation provides a simplified insight to al-Suyuti’s belief of his superiority to his peers, a belief often conveyed in his writings. His endeavours to cover a wide range of areas of knowledge can be thus also understood in light of his asserted superiority. The construction of al-Suyuti’s authority is strengthened by his authority as the Sheikh of the Baybarsiyya Sufi lodge.

Al-Suyuti’s extensive claiming of his own accomplishments are unconventional, and their significance can be studied through various lenses. Dr Hernandez has approached them through the context of historical precedent and his interactions with his peers, his subjects at the Baybarsiyya, and his foreign correspondents.

Al-Suyuti’s reception

Through studies of letters and publications, Dr Hernandez has shown that al-Suyuti’s claims were not accepted by his peers, who rejected both his claims of ijtihad and tajdid (restoration). Rival scholars argued of knowledge deficiencies and moral probity, citing his incomplete mastery of logic and arithmetic and his arrogance.

Most relevant to contemporary affairs, Dr Hernandez demonstrates the limited effect of such challenges to al-Suyuti’s authority through his surviving legacy. This is in spite of the esteemed status of his rivals such as fellow Shafiite al-Sakhawi.

Dr Hernandez also presented al-Suyuti’s positive reception by his contemporary Muslims living far from him, as evidenced by their correspondence. Al-Suyuti’s acceptance and reverence in the fifteenth century and its persistence to our present day provides a scope for interpretation beyond the direct context of authority. This reverence can be interpreted to indicate the potential for the value of a text to supersede its context or the influence of an author’s word over the reader. The former interpretation can be judged to be of a wider prevalence, as al-Suyuti’s publications maintain their importance despite the contention of his claim of tajdid and other self-portrayals of grandeur in contrast to the scholarly tradition. This relates not only to the contemporary period, but to previous centuries, demonstrated by the wide and common survival of manuscripts of al-Suyuti’s Quranic exegesis, Tafsir al-Jalalayn.

Dr Hernandez’s study of al-Suyuti’s works extends to their current relevance as well. She analyses the teaching and commentary on his work on legal maxims Al-Ashbah wa-al-Nazair by scholars of al-Azhar.

Comments at the seminar reflected on the similarities between al-Suyuti and the Azhari scholars in their use of his work to demonstrate the legitimacy of their scholarly status. In her book, Dr Hernandez argues that the Azhari scholars’ public teaching based on al-Suyuti’s Al-Ashbah wa-al-Nazair is a demonstration of the validity of their legal school in relation to Salafi rivals.

The contextual study of the authority of al-Suyuti and the interpretation of its legacy is an important contribution to the study of both the scholar’s historic work and contemporary constructs of authority generally. Researchers looking to benefit from the book can find it in print and online, published by Oxford University Press.