Brief Life Story of Abdullah Ibn Abbas (R.A.)
His full name is AbduIIah bin Abbas bin Abdul-Muttalib bin Hishim bin Abd Manaf Qurashi Hashimi. He was the paternal cousin of the Prophet (S.A.W.) and maternal cousin of Khalid Bin Waleed (R.A.). He was born just three years before the Hijrah (approx. 619 CE). When the Prophet (S.A.W.) died, Abdullah (R.A.) was only thirteen years old. Abdullah ibn Abbas (R.A.) was nephew of the Maymoonah bint Al-Harith (R.A.), who later became Ummul-Muminin [Mohammad's (S.A.W.) wife]. He was known as “Sea of Knowledge” and one of the early Quran scholars.
It is said that Abdullah Ibn Abbas (R.A.) committed to memory about 1,666 sayings (Hadiths) of Allah’s Messenger (S.A.W.) which are recorded and authenticated in the collections of Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.
When Abdullah (R.A.) was born, his mother took him to the Prophet (S.A.W.) who put some of his saliva on the baby's tongue even before he began to suckle. This was the beginning of the close and intimate tie between Abdullah Ibn Abbas (R.A.) and the Prophet (S.A.W.) that was to be part of a life-long love and devotion.
When Abdullah (R.A.) reached the age of discretion, he attached himself to the service of the Prophet (S.A.W.). He would run to fetch water for him when he wanted to make wudu. During Salat, he would stand behind the Prophet (S.A.W.) in prayer and when the Prophet (S.A.W.) went on journeys or expeditions, he would follow next in line to him. Abdullah (R.A.) thus became like the shadow of the Prophet (S.A.W.), constantly in his company.
It was narrated that Abdullah Ibn Abbas (R.A.) said:
"The Messenger of Allah embraced me and said: 'O Allah, teach him wisdom and the (correct) interpretation of the Book." (Ibn Majah: 166)
The word 'wisdom' used in the context of this Hadith means the knowledge of Hadith. Allah, The Glorified, accepted the prayer of His Messenger (S.A.W.) and bestowed upon Ibn Abbas (R.A.) that high position in the exegesis (interpretation) of the Holy Quran such that he has come to be known as the Prince of Exegetes.
During the lifetime of the Prophet (S.A.W.), Abdullah (R.A.) would not miss any of his assemblies and he would commit to memory whatever he said. After the Prophet (S.A.W.) passed away, he would take care to go to as many companions as possible especially those who knew the Prophet (S.A.W.) longer and learn from them what the Prophet (S.A.W.) had taught them. Whenever he heard that someone knew a hadith of the Prophet (S.A.W.) which he did not know, he would go quickly to him and record it. He would subject whatever he heard to close scrutiny and check it against other reports. He would go to as many as thirty companions to verify a single matter.
Abdullah (R.A.) described what he once did on hearing that a companion of the Prophet (S.A.W.) knew a hadith unknown to him: "I went to him during the time of the afternoon siesta and spread my cloak in front of his door. The wind blew dust on me (as I sat waiting for him). If I wished I could have sought his permission to enter and he would certainly have given me permission. But I preferred to wait on him so that he could be completely refreshed. Coming out of his house and seeing me in that condition he said: 'O cousin of the Prophet! What's the matter with you? If you had sent for me I would have come to you.' 'I am the one who should come to you, for knowledge is sought, it does not just come,' I said. I asked him about the hadith and learnt from him."
In this way, the dedicated Abdullah (R.A.) would ask, and ask, and go on asking. And he would sift and scrutinize the information he had collected with his keen and meticulous mind.
It was not only in the collection of hadith that Abdullah (R.A.) specialized. He devoted himself to acquiring knowledge in a wide variety of fields. He had a special admiration for persons like Zayd ibn Thabit (R.A.), the recorder of the revelation, the leading judge and jurist consult in Madinah, an expert in the laws of inheritance and in reading the Quran. When Zayd (R.A.) intended to go on a trip, the young Abdullah (R.A.) would stand humbly at his side and taking hold of the reins of his mount would adopt the attitude of a humble servant in the presence of his master. Zayd would say to him: "Don't, O cousin of the Prophet."
"Thus we were commanded to treat the learned ones among us," Abdullah would say. "And Zayd would say to him in turn: "Let me see your hand." Abdullah would stretch out his hand. Zayd, taking it, would kiss it and say: "Thus we were commanded to treat the Ahl Al-Bayt members of the household of the Prophet."
As Abdullah's (R.A.) knowledge grew, he grew in stature. Masruq ibn Al Ajda said of him:
"Whenever I saw Ibn Abbas, I would say: He is the most handsome of men. When he spoke, I would say: He is the most eloquent of men. And when he held a conversation, I would say: He is the most knowledgeable of men."
The Caliph Umar ibn Khattab (R.A.) often sought his advice on important matters of state and described him as "the young man of maturity".
Sad ibn Abi Waqas (R.A.) described him with these words:
"I have never seen someone who was quicker in understanding, who had more knowledge and greater wisdom than Ibn Abbas. I have seen Umar summon him to discuss difficult problems in the presence of veterans of Badr from among the Muhajirin (emigrants of Makkah) and Ansar (Muslim residents of Madinah). Ibn Abbas would speak and Umar would not disregard what he had to say."
It is these qualities which resulted in Abdullah ibn Abbas (R.A.) being known as ‘the learned man of this Ummah’.
Abdullah ibn Abbas (R.A.) was not content to accumulate knowledge. He felt he had a duty to the ummah to educate those in search of knowledge and the general masses of the Muslim community. He turned to teaching and his house became a place to learn.
There was an enthusiastic response to Abdullah's (R.A.) classes. One of his companions described a typical scene in front of his house:
"I saw people converging on the roads leading to his house until there was hardly any room in front of his house. I went in and told him about the crowds of people at his door and he said: 'Get me water for wudu.'
He performed wudu (ablution) and, seating himself, said:
“Go out and say to them: Whoever wants to ask about the Quran and its letters (pronunciation) let him enter.”
This I did and people entered until the house was filled. Whatever he was asked, Abdullah (R.A.) was able to explain and even provide additional information to what was asked. Then (to his students) he said:
“Make way for your brothers.” Then to me he said: “Go out and say: Who wants to ask about the Quran and its interpretation, let him enter.”
Again the house was filled and Abdullah (R.A.) elucidated and provided more information than what was requested.
And so it continued with groups of people coming in to discuss fiqh (jurisprudence), halal and haram (the lawful and the prohibited in Islam), inheritance laws, Arabic language, poetry and etymology.
To avoid congestion with many groups of people coming to discuss various subjects on a single day, Abdullah (R.A.) decided to devote one day exclusively for a particular discipline. On one day, only the exegesis of the Quran would be taught while on another day only fiqh (jurisprudence). The maghazi or campaigns of the Prophet (S.A.W.), poetry, Arab history before Islam were each allocated a special day.
Abdullah ibn Abbas (R.A.) brought to his teaching a powerful memory and a formidable intellect. His explanations were precise, clear and logical. His arguments were persuasive and supported by pertinent textual evidence and historical facts.
Abdullah Ibn Abbas (R.A.) had gained considerable social and political prominence during the caliphate of Uthman Ibn Affan (R.A). The Caliph entrusted him with the leadership of the pilgrimage in the year 35 AH and it was to this that he owed his fortunate absence from Madinah when the Caliph was murdered. He then went over to Ali Ibn Talib (R.A.), who frequently employed him as an ambassador and appointed him governor of Basra. In his old age, he was deprived of his eyesight, and he settled down in Taif, where he died in the year 68 AH. at the age of 71.
Abdullah ibn Abbas was constant in his devotions. He kept voluntary fasts regularly and often stayed up at night in Prayer. He would weep while praying and reading the Quran. And when reciting verses dealing with death, resurrection and the life hereafter his voice would be heavy from deep sobbing.