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Ibn Kathīr

By:
Rebecca R. Williams
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ibn Kathīr

Abū al-Fidāʿ Ismāʿīl ibn ʿUmar ibn Kathīr (1301–1373) was a Shāfiʿī jurist, historian, and exegete. Born in Busra, Syria, he moved to Damascus with an older brother in 1306 after the death of their father. He studied under several prominent Shāfiʿī scholars in Damascus, which had become an important center for learning during the Mamlūk period (1250–1517). Perhaps the most influential of his teachers was Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), the controversial Ḥanbalī preacher whose teachings have been used as the basis for the modern Wahhābī movement in Saudi Arabia. His education appears to have been confined to the city of Damascus, but his reputation was not so limited—he was on one occasion approached by a man from Khurasan who claimed to have come to the city for the sole purpose of studying with him.

Ibn Kathīr is best known for three works: his universal history, al-Bidāya wa-al-nihāya (The Beginning and the End); his commentary on the Qurʿān, Tafsīr al-Qurʿān al-aẓīm (Exegesis of the Glorious Qurʿān); and his monumental compilation of authoritative ḥadīth (prophetic traditions), Jāmiʿ al-masānīd wa-al-sunan (Compilation of the Authoritative Traditions and the Habitual Practices). His other works include a biographical dictionary of Shāfiʿī scholars, Ṭabaqāt al-Shāfiʿīyah (The Generations of the Shāfiʿī), and a work on the Qurʿān, Faḍāʿil al-Qurʿān (The Virtues of the Qurʿān). He was viewed by his medieval biographers predominantly as a Shāfiʿī jurist, and it is in this capacity that we see him interacting with the Mamlūk authorities in Damascus. He was called upon to serve on several juries, which consisted of representatives of each of the four schools of Muslim law, and he wrote a fatwā (legal ruling) at the behest of the Mamlūk amir in Damascus in support of jihād (in this case, armed struggle), titled Ijtihād fī ṭalab al-jihād (Diligence in the Call for Jihād). He was also granted a variety of teaching positions in Damascus, including one at the Umayyad Mosque.

As a student of Ibn Taymīyah, Ibn Kathīr argued vehemently in favor of strict reliance on the Qurʿān and the ḥadīth in his legal, historical, and exegetical works. He is thus recognized by the Wahhābī as a member of the Salafī movement (those scholars who argue in favor of a return to the ideals of the Companions of the Prophet Muḥammad). His actual use of these sources, however, appears dependent upon whether they agree with his own perception of events, especially regarding any reports that seem to support a Shīʿī interpretation—but this aspect of his work has not yet been thoroughly examined. Although he was not as well known as his teacher, Ibn Kathīr 's reputation was such that his works, especially the Bidāya, influenced the writings of later scholars, most notably Ibn Qāḍī Shuhba (d. 1448), a Shāfiʿī scholar in Damascus; Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 1449), an extremely important Shāfiʿī scholar in Cairo; and al-ʿAynī (d. 1451), a Ḥanafī jurist in Cairo. Ibn Kathīr seems to have fallen out of favor during the Ottoman period, but his popularity with the Wahhābī movement has allowed for a recent revival, to the point where the Wahhābī claim that his exegesis of the Qurʿān is the most popular in the Middle East today.

See also EXEGESIS; ḤADīTH; IBN TAYMīYAH, TAQī AL-DīN AḥMAD; LAW, subentry onLEGAL THOUGHT AND JURISPRUDENCE; SALAFīYAH; and WAHHāBīYAH.

Bibliography

  • Calder, Norman. “Tafsīr from Ṭabarī to Ibn Kathīr: Problems in the Description of a Genre, Illustrated with Reference to the Story of Abraham.” In Approaches to the Qurʿān, edited by G. R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, pp. 101–140. London and New York, 1993. This article compares the hermeneutical styles of scholars from al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) to Ibn Kathīr and argues that, although Ibn Kathīr attempted to remake the genre of Qurʿān exegesis into a tradition-based science, the later scholar 's influence was limited and temporary.
  • Laoust, Henri. “Ibn Kathīr Historien.”Arabica2 (1955): 42–88. This French article remains the best biography of Ibn Kathīr to date; it covers his life, works, and influence upon later Muslim scholars.
  • Rippin, Andrew. Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Very few works in Western languages are dedicated to Ibn Kathīr, and none of these are monographs.

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