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Biography - Imam Birgivi (The Ottoman Scholar)

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Biography of Imam Birgivi [may Allah have mercy on him]


The following is excerpted from the introductory biography in the book Al-Tariqah al-Muhammadiyyah : The Path of Muhammad.


Imam Birgivi was an Ottoman Muslim scholar and moralist who lived during the height of the Ottoman Empire, in the 16th century of the common era. Yet his influence on Islamic morals and ethics continues to this day. This book is still being used as a text in the most important faculties of theology and in the universities of many Muslim countries. An abridged version was translated by Garcin de Tassy into French under the title Exposition de la Foi Musulmane. It was published in Paris in 1822.


Muhammad ibn Pir Ali, later called Birgivi, was born in Balikesir, Turkey, in 1522. His first teacher was his father, Pir Ali, who was a famous professor, admired both for his scholarship and as an example of virtue. In young manhood Muhammad was sent to Istanbul, the capital, to study theology under Ahizade Mehmed Efendi. Later, he studied law under Kazasker Abdurrahman Karamani Efendi, who was the Chief Military Judge of the Ottoman Empire. After the completion of his education, he taught in various schools. During this time he became a dervish, attaching himself to a Sufi master of the order of Bayramiyyah.


Shaykh Abdurrahman Karamani, his teacher in law school and the Chief Military Judge, obtained for him a government position as Judge of Estates Court in the city of Edirne, in the European provinces of the Empire. After briefly serving in this capacity, our author wished to abandon all worldly concerns, dedicate his life to God, and become an ascetic. He resigned from his government post and returned to the treasury all the salary he had received. But his Sufi master, who appreciated both the virtue and the knowledge of his student, directed him to become a teacher of religion, religious jurisprudence, and morals, and to write books as well.


Another one of his admirers and patrons was Ataullah Efendi, the teacher of the sultan of the time, Selim II. This dignitary arranged for a large madrasah, a religious institution of higher education, to be specially built in the small town of Birgiv, close to the city of Izmir on the Aegean coast. He sent Muhammad ibn Pir Ali to be master there.


Shortly, through his teaching and the writing of twenty-seven books, Muhammad ibn Pir Ali (now called by the title and name of Imam Birgivi) became very famous.


Imam Birgivi and his followers were very critical of the lack of Islamic morals, both within the Empire and beyond its borders, in the wider Islamic world. Birgivi especially objected to the corruption of rulers and governments, since they were supposed to be examples to the people, as was the case at the origin of Islam. He fought against the distortion of Islamic teachings for the benefit of the ruling classes. And he expressed his opposition publicly: not only were his critiques taught in his school and written in books and articles, but he voiced them directly. Imam Birgivi traveled to the capital of the Empire and reprimanded the Prime Minister, Sokullu Mehmet Pasha, who listened to him, and asked for his advice on curing the degeneration of the Islamic virtues.


The administrative branch of the government at last heard his justified criticisms. The Shaykh-ul-Islam, the religious authority of the Empire responsible for all matters connected with canon law and religious teaching, who was second only to the Prime Minister in importance, stood against Birgivi.


Imam Birgivi’s ideal was an Islamic society as it was at the time of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.s.), a model he felt was ageless and valid for all times. He believed that a character distinguished by the qualities of unselfish heedfulness, sincerity, kindness, compassion, generosity, valor, and the other virtues of the Prophet and his Companions was essential equipment for all Muslims. And he claimed that the ruling classes and educators should follow the dictum of the second caliph, Hadrat `Umar (r.a.), who said: “A master is he who is a servant to his servants.”


Because of his vast influence in his efforts to lead people to…Islam, even his most powerful enemies could not do any more than keep him away from the capital of the Empire. He continued to live in the small distant town of Birgiv until he died of a plague in 1573, at the age of fifty-one.


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