The excerpt below is taken from the Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah, compiled by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shahrazuri (1181-1245/577-643), a jurist and scholar of the Shafi’i ‘school’ (madhhab) who, while originally from what is now northern Iraq, spent most of his life in Damascus. Many of Shahrazur’s works deal with the theory and practice of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence; among these is his tabaqat dealing with jurists of the Shafi’i school.
A tabaqat, which literally means ‘layers’, is a sort of biographical dictionary, usually focusing on a particular group of people, and arranged by generations. The genre was hardly limited to religious figures: there are tabaqat for poets and singers, as well as tabaqat concerning scholars and Sufis. However, across the genre there are certain generally consistent features. The entries tend to be short, and much of the information formalized. In a tabaqat dealing with scholars and other religious figures, such as this one compiled by al-Shahrazuri, there is usually an emphasis upon the other scholars and masters the person under consideration studies under, or received hadith from, or was licensed to copy a book, and so on. Other matters appear as well, including short antecdotes that emphasize some aspect of the person’s piety or scholarliness.
As al-Shahrazuri says in the introduction to his work, the purpose of these brief biographies is to ‘connect’ the reader with a whole community of scholars in the past, and to give examples for emulation. The following antecdote is an instance of this purpose of tabaqat; it also reveals a very small glimpse into one scholar’s life and thought. Two major themes of medieval Islamic scholarly life appear here: the centrality of travel in the pursuit of knowledge (travel which can be quite difficult, and often involves long distances), and the importance of dreams, both for the dreamer and for those who encounter them through narration or text.
[Muhammad ibn Ahmad Abu Zayd al-Marawzi] said: When I had resolved to return to Khurasan from Mekka, my heart was stiffened by the prospect, and I said: ‘When it happens- the distance is so long, I cannot bear the hardship- I am so advanced in years!’ Then I saw in my sleep as if the Messenger of God, peace and prayer be upon him, was sitting in the Sacred Mosque, with a young man (shab) at his right hand. So I said: ‘O Messenger of God! I have resolved to return to Khurusan, but the distance is so long!’ Then the Messenger of God, peace and prayers be upon him, turned to the young man, and said, ‘O spirit of God! Accompany him to his homeland.’
Abu Zayd said: So I saw that he was Gabriel, upon whom be peace, so I proceeded on to Merv, and I did not feel anything of the hardship of the journey.
Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah