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This is an extract from Saviours of Islamic Spirit (Vol I) authored by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi.

Hasan al-Basri

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Atrophy of Faith and Moral Decadence

After the death of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Azīz, there was a complete reversal of the State policy to the ways of his predecessors. Jahiliyah again returned with a vengeance to undo every reform ‘Umar had introduced. Yazid II, who succeeded ‘Umar, and his successors too, took full advantage of the position and power enjoyed by them to gratify the grasping demands of their kinsmen.

Hereditary and despotic rule along with the affluence of Ummayyads had by now begun to give birth to a nobility, hypocrite and time-server, spendthrift and libertine, whose morals and code of conduct were not different from the rakes of other nations. Taking after the ways of the then nobility, pursuit of pleasure and gay abandon threatened to become the prevailing taste of the masses. Moral and spiritual transformation, temperate and righteous living emanating from the true content of a faith, constitutes the most valuable heritage of prophetic teachings and a perennial source of vitality to the Ummah. But this-worldly attitude of life now threatened to inundate the warmth of spirit, faith and the awe of God thereby causing the failure of spiritual forces and atrophy of moral excellence. It was in truth a moment of great danger for the Ummah; it appeared to be the beginning of the end. The State being callously indifferent to the virtues it ought to have upheld, blatantly nourished and encouraged its representatives who denigrated moral propriety and rectitude. The self-indulgent and luxurious ways of the elite were a standing allurement for the fast spreading vices like opulence, luxury and indolence. The Prophet of Islam had flooded the heart of his followers with reverence, awe, complete submission and a living relationship with the Almighty but these qualities were now on the wane. It was a deficiency which could have never been redeemed by brilliant conquests or expanding dimensions of the empire, or, rather, as the history shows, the diminution of spirit is an irretrievable loss for any people who are once made to suffer its improvement.

Had this reservoir of vitality and dynamic energy been left unattended to be crumbled and smothered by the then social and political forces of profanation, Muslims would have soon become a materialistic and self-indulgent people devoid of any conception of the life-after-death. The Prophet of Islam had repeatedly expressed his anxiety, towards the end of his life, that Muslims might be swallowed by the pleasures of the world like earlier nations. A few days before his demise, the Prophet had apprised his companions of this danger thus

“I have no apprehension from your poverty and indigence, what I fear is that the world might shower down its affluence and luxuries as it did on the people before you, and you might begin contending amongst you, thereby exposing yourself to the danger of being annihilated like the nations preceding you”1

Endeavour to Combat the Evil

The danger to which the Holy Prophet had alluded was soon to manifest itself but its tide was stemmed by a few indefatigable crusaders of unflinching faith and ardent zeal. Endowed with religious devotion and enthusiasm, these pioneers and standard bearers saved millions in the Ummah through their sermons and exhortations, lectures and discourses, disciplines and teachings from being swept away by the flood of coarse materialism, they maintained the continuity of religious and spiritual traditions, teachings and precepts, which was assuredly much more important than the continued existence of political ascendancy. Those who spearheaded the movement to fill in the gap at this crucial moment in the life of the Ummah and thus saved the world of Islam from acquiescing in an utterly agnostic, characterless and spiritually enfeebled existence, were, Sa‘eed ibn Jubair, Muhammad ibn Sireen, Sha‘bi and, the precursor of all, Hasn al Basri. Born in 21 A.H. his father Yasār, was an emancipated slave of Zaid ibn Thaābit, a celebrated companion of the Prophet, and he was himself brought up in the house of Umm-ul-Mominīn, Umm-i-Salmah.

Capabilities of Hasan al-Basri

Hasan al-Basri had been gifted with ennobling virtues and brilliant capabilities essential to make his exhortation for revival and renovation of Islam effective in his times. He was distinguished for a disposition, amicable and considerate, winsome and enchanting, on the one hand, as also for his erudite and profound learning tempered with prudence and wisdom, on the other. In his knowledge of the Qur’ān and the Traditions he excelled all the doctors of his time. He has had the opportunity of being an associate of the companions of the Holy Prophet. It seems that he was also a keen observer of the contemporary events and the transformation Islamic society was undergoing; for, he was fully aware of the ills, deficiencies and mal-practices that had crept in among the different sections of the society, and the measures necessary to eradicate them. He was also an equally celebrated orator inspired by deep ethical feeling. He held his audience spellbound. Whenever he discoursed on Hereafter or depicted the bygone age of the companions of the Prophet, everyone was seen brimming with tears. Hajjāj ibn Yūsuf is rightly renowned for his eloquence but Hasan al-Basri was considered to be an equally good elocutionist. Abū ‘Amr ibn al-‘Alā’, the famous grammarian and lexicographer says that he had not seen orators of greater eloquence than Hasan al-Basri and Hajjāj ibn Yūsuf but Hasan was more elegant speaker than Hajjāj.2 Of his encyclopaedic knowledge Rabi’ ibn Anas says that he has had the privilege of being closely associated with Hasan al-Basri for ten years and almost everyday he found something new not heard of earlier in the discourses of Hasan.3 Describing the scholarly attainments of Hasan al-Basri, Abū Hayyān at-Tauhidi quotes Thabit ibn Qurrah

“In his learning and piety, forbearance and temperance, candour and large-heartedness, sagacity and prudence he resembled a bright star. He was always surrounded by students seeking instruction in different branches of learning. He would be teaching Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet) to one, Tafsir (explanation or commentary of Qur’ān) to another, Fiqh (laws and theological rules) to a third, expounding a legal opinion to someone else and imparting instruction in the principles of jurisprudence to yet another while continuing his sermons in the meantime for those who came to him for the purpose. His knowledge covered an expanse as vast as an ocean, or, he was like a dazzling lustre illuminating every soul around him. What is more, his heroic efforts to enjoin the right and to forbid the wrong, his undaunted championship of the righteous path before the elite, rulers and administrators could never be forgotten.”4

The reason why Hasan’s words carried weight with his audience was that he was not simply a preacher or an accomplished orator but that he also possessed a sublimated soul. Whatever he said was heart-stirring because it came from the depth of his heart, his speeches had a magnetism which no other scholar or mentor of Kufa and Basra could emulate. Another distinguishing feature of his sermons was their affinity to the prophetic homilies.

Al-Ghazali has written in Ihya’ ‘Ulum id-Din that there is a consensus of opinion that the teachings of Hasan bore a close resemblance with prophetic discourses as did his own conduct with that of the companions of the Prophet - a quality which was lacked by other guides and missionaries.5

The enthusiastic devotion people paid to Hasan al-Basri and the irresistible attraction they felt towards him were the hall mark of his charming personality. He was rightly considered as one of the few top-most guides of the Ummah. Thabit ibn Qurrah, a non-Muslim philosopher of the third century (A.H.), was of opinion that of the few eminent personages produced by Islam who could rightly be envied by the followers of other faiths, one was Hasan al-Basri. He adds that Mecca had always been a centre of Islamic piety and learning where accomplished scholars in every branch of learning converged from all parts of the world but even Meccans were dumbfounded by his scholarly attainments as they had never seen a man of his calibre.6

Sermons of Hasan al-Basri

The discourses delivered by Hasan are reminiscent of the simplicity and moral grit of the Prophet’s companions. Speaking of the transitory nature of the world and human life, these sermons stress the significance of the Hereafter and final retribution, develop the meanings of faith and righteousness, inculcate awe and reverence of God and denigrate self-indulgence and licentiousness. In an age of crass materialism, when the rank and file and many of the elite too had taken to the gratification of bodily and sensual desires a haranguing on these very subjects was required. Hasan has had the opportunity of being an associate of the Prophet’s companions and, therefore, when he compares the moral degradation of the later Ummayyad period with the simplicity and unflinching faith, moral and spiritual excellence of the earlier times, his description becomes graphic and forceful, sparkling with the fire of his own heart-felt sorrow at the degeneration of the Ummah; he castigates, chastises and lashes out at the revolting change. At the same time, the consummate diction, incomparable eloquence and unique lucidity of style secured for his sermons a distinguished place in the Arabic literature of the time. Comparing the moral conditions of his own times with that of the Prophet’s companions and delineating the Islamic ethics, he observes

“Alas, people have gone to rack and ruin through their own fond hopes and daydreams, they talk but do not act; knowledge is there but without endurance; faith they have, bun no conviction; men are here, but without brains; a crowed here is, but not a single soul agreeable to one’s heart; people come here simply to go away; they acknowledge the truth, then deny it and make things lawful and unlawful at their sweet will. Is your religion a sensual delight? If you are asked ‘Do you have faith in the Day of Judgment?’ You say: ‘Yes’ ‘But, No, it is not so’. I swear by the Lord of the Day of Requital that your answer is wrong. Its’ only beseeming for the faithful that he should be sound of faith and a man of conviction. His knowledge for the learned. He is wise but soft-hearted, well-dressed and retrained in order to conceal his indigence, never prodigal even if a man of substance, charitable and compassionate to the destitute, large-hearted and generous in giving to the kinsfolk their due, strenuous and unflinching in providing justice to others; never crosses the prescribed limits in favouring his near and dear ones nor does he find fault or call out the errors of those whom he dislikes. A Muslim is indifferent to revilings and tauntings, frolics and sports, decrials and backbitings. He never runs after what is not his right nor denies what he owes to others, never debases himself in seeking an apology nor takes delight in the misfortune or misdeed of others”

“Humble and submissive, devoted and enchanted, as a faithful is in his prayers, he is a messenger of cheer, his endurance is owing to the awe of God; his silence is for meditation and reflection; he pays attention for edification and instruction; he seeks company of the learned for aquiring knowledge; keeps mum to avoid transgression; and if he speaks, he speaks to spread the virture. A Muslim is pleased when he acts virtuously; entreats forgiveness from the Lord when he goes astray, complains when h is aggrieved only to make up for the loss sustained; is patient and prudent when an illiterate joins issue with him; proves enduring when ill-treated, he is never unjust and never seeks succour or protection from anyone save God Almighty.

“Dignified in the company of their friends, praising God when they were left alone, content with the lawful gains, grateful when easy of means, resigned when in destress, remembering God Almighty among the indolent and craving the grace of God when among the pious, such were the companions of the Prophet, their associates and friends. No matter what station they occupied in life, they were held in high esteem by their compatriots and, when they died, their spirit took flight to the blessed Companionship on High, as the most celebrated souls. O’ Muslims, these were your righteous ancestors, but when you deviated from the right path, God Almighty too withheld his blessing form you. ”Lo! 7 Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts; and if Allah willeth misfortune for a folk there is none that can repel it, nor have they a defender beside Him.8

On another occasion commenting on those verses of Surah al-Furqān9 which describe the characteristics of the faithful, he says of the companions of the Holy Prophet:

“When the first Muslims heard this call from their Lord, they immediately affirmed it from the depth of their responsive heart. They surrendered themselves implicitly to the Most High; their hearts and eyes, nay, their whole existence, lived under a constant consciousness of the omnipotent power of God Almighty. By God, when I saw them, I could discern from their faces that the unseen realities taught by revelation were not beyond the ken of their perception -- as if they had perceived these realities through their senses. They never indulged in futile discussions or vain quibblings. They had received a message from the Lord and accepted it.

“Allah has Himself depicted their character in the Qur’ān thus: The (faithful) slaves of the Beneficent are they who walk upon the earth modestly10... The word used here for the faithful is symbolic, according to the Arab lexicographers, of their humility yet full of dignity. Thereafter the Lord says: And when the ignorant address them, they say: Peace.11 It means that they are disciplined and patient and they never answer the arrogant and foolish in the same coin. If anyone joins an issue with them, they do not lose their temper or patience. They spend their days in acquiring knowledge from the learned. As for their nights, God has Himself spoken highly of what they do after the night fall: And who spend the night before their Lord, prostrate and standing.12 Verily, these bondsmen of Allah used to pass the whole night in prayers; they stood, tears flowing from their eyes, and then fell prostrate before the Lord, trembling with His awe. There was something, after all, which kept them in vigils throughout the nights and made them yield to an implicit submission. The Almighty says that these are the persons who say: Our Lord! Avert from us the doom of hell; lo! the doom thereof is anguish.13 The word signifying the torment of Hell in this verse is taken by lexicographers to mean a chastisement or doom which never comes to a close i.e., it is an affliction which shall never end. I swear by Allah save Whom there is no other Lord, that the companions of the Prophet were really faithful; they acted on what they professed but, alas, you are after your fond hopes. Friends, do not lean upon your airy hoes, for God has never bestowed anything whether of this world or the Hereafter, upon anyone simply because he had longed for it.”14

Thereafter he said (as he often used to remark after his discourses) that although his sermons lacked nothing, they were of little utility for the people who had lost the warmth of their hearts.

Fearlessness

Hasan al-Basri was as much distinguished for his moral courage and unaltered pursuit of justice as he was in the domain of erudition and oration. He opposed the then Caliph, Yazīd ibn ‘Abdul Malik,15 in his presence when once someone asked Hasan to express his opinion about the two insurrectionists, Yazīd ibn al-Muhallab and Ibn al-Ash‘ath. Al-Hasan replied: “Don’t be a party of either faction”. A Syrian, springing upon his feet, repeated the question “And not even to Amīrul-Mominīn?” Hasan replied angrily: “Yes, not even to Amīrul-Mominīn?”.16 The intolerable and ferocious cruelty of Hajjāj ibn Yūsuf17 is proverbial but Hasan did not hold his tongue from expressing what he considered to be right and just even during the rule of Hajjāj.

Hypocrites

The lightning success of the Muslim arms and the complete political domination of the Ummayyads over an extensive area had given rise to a class which had embraced Islam for the sake of material gains but had not been able to translate the ethics and precepts of Islam in its everyday life. These people had still to go a long way to enter in Islam completely as the Qur’ān demands of every Muslim. The younger generation of the Muslims, too, lacked education and training, who had inherited many customs and usages of the pagan past. They had accepted Islam but not surrendered themselves implicitly to the guidance of the revelation in their daily affairs, modes of living, deeds and morals. Quite a large portion of the Muslim society, particularly its elite and the ruling circles had gradually adopted the ways of Jahiliyah and, since they held the keys to political domination, riches and position of influence, vanity, jealousy and lust for wealth and power were thus fast capturing the soul of the people.

Some historians are of the opinion that Nifāq (hypocrisy) was a passing nuisance which had arisen owing to peculiar conditions obtaining at Madina during the time of the Prophet. They think that the mischief came to an end with the domination of Islam over paganism as the overriding ascendancy of the former left no room for any further struggle between the two. We find many historian and commentator of the Qur’ān subscribing to the view that after a time there was no need for anyone to join Islam ostensibly but remain secretly disaffected, as the conditions had completely changed and people could openly make a choice between Islam and heathenism.

Those who hold this view, however, overlook the fact that insincerity is a human failing, as common and old as any other moral affection. It is not at all necessary that there should be two contending forces of Islam and un-lslam to produce hypocrites who might fellow the former whilst secretly opposing it. During a period of Islamic predominance too, there is very often a section which is not able to follow its tenets whole-heartedly; it claims to profess Islam but in the recesses of its mind and heart it has a lurking doubt whether Islam is really the sole repository of truth. Such persons do not possess enough moral courage to forsake Islam publicly, or, perhaps, the benefits they derive from the Muslim society or State do not allow them to renounce the religion in which they do not have an unflinching faith. These persons thus remain throughout their life, distracted and irresolute. Expediency is the norm of such persons; in moral behaviour, selfishness, double-dealing, self-adornment, forgetfulness of the Hereafter, timidity before might and authority and eagerness to exploit the poor and the weak, they are lingering remnants of the hypocrites of earlier days referred to in the Qur’ān.

Indication of Hypocrites

It is an achievement as well as a proof of Hasan al-Basri’s insight that he could not only apprehend that hypocrisy still existed in the Muslim society but that it commanded considerable influence in the public life, especially amongst the ruling elite.18

Someone asked Hasan if hypocrites were still to be found amongst the Muslims of those days. His reply was

“If hypocrites desert the streets of Basra, you will find it hard to live in the city”19

Hasan al-Basri meant that the majority consisted of those people who paid only a lip-service to Islam without allowing its precepts to take roots in the bottom of their hearts or translating its teachings into their moral behaviour. On another occasion he remarked

“Holiness be to God! What hypocrites and self-seeking persons have come to have an upper hand in this Ummah20

Hasan al-Basri’s estimation of the then self-centred rulers who were least interested in Islam and the Muslims was perfectly correct.

In his correct diagnosis of the canker eating into the body-politic of the Ummah lay the cogency of Hasan al-Basri’s sermons and the call for reformation. There were several outstanding pedagogues among his contemporaries but none could arouse the enthusiastic devotion of the people like Hasan. His scathing criticism and denunciation of the degenerated state of society in fact shed light on the spirit and content of hypocrisy that had captured the soul of a large section of the populace. Hypocrisy was a malady fast taking roots in the Muslim society, Hasan elucidated the character, morals and behaviour of the hypocrites who could be seen in every walk of life--in administration, armed forces, business and trade. For the prevalent vices were the lust for wealth and power and an utter disregard for final Retribution, Hasan gave himself up to the condemnation of these very evils and made people think of the eternal life after death. With his gift of eloquence he vividly depicted the unseen realities which every hypocrite, indolent and prodigal wanted to be buried in oblivion.

For the call, preachings and sermons of Hasan challenged, indicted and denounced the aims and objects, designs and ambitions, longings and fancies of the age, it became difficult for the then society to ignore or remain indifferent to his haranguing. Innumerable people returned a changed man after hearing the sermons of Hasan and offered earnest repentance for the life of licentioussnes and self-indulgence they had led previously; they made solemn affirmation of loyalty and obedience to God for the rest of their lives. Hasan would urge his listeners to imbibe a true content of the faith and prescribe measures for the eradication of their vices. He spent full sixty years in religious preaching and moral uplift of the people. It is difficult, for obvious reasons, to estimate the number of persons who were reformed and spiritually redeemed during this period, ‘Awwām ibn Haushab says that Hasan performed the same task for sixty years which prophets used to do among the earlier peoples.21

Death of Hasan al-Basri

The immaculate sincerity, outstanding piety and the moral and spiritual excellence of Hasan al-Basri had earned the affection of everyone in Basra. When he died in 110 A.H., the entire population of Basra22 attended his funeral which took place on Friday, so that for the first time in the history of Basra the principal mosque of the city remained empty at the hour of the afternoon (Asr) prayer.

After the demise of Hasan, his disciples and spiritual proteges continued to disseminate the message of Hasan uninterrupted; they invited people back to religion, to the unflinching submission to the Almighty and cognition of the final recompense on the Day of Requital. After twenty-two years of Hasan’s death ended the rule of the mighty Ummayyads, giving place to the Caliphate of ‘Abbāsids who shifted the seat of the empire from Damascus to Baghdad.

Revolts against Tyranny

Along with the efforts directed towards propagation of the Faith and moral and spiritual renovation, attempts were also made, time and again, to re-organise the Caliphate in accordance with the political law of Islam and thus terminate the monopoly of political ascendancy enjoyed by the Ummayyads, and, later on by the ‘Abbāsids. The Caliphate had unfortunately been organised by that time around such racial and tribal loyalties that no call to overthrow the established order could he effective unless it could also lay a claim to the noble lineage and was also backed by tribal fidelity. We, therefore, find that most of the persons who raised the banner of revolt against the Ummayyads and the ‘Abbāsids belonged to Ahl-ul-bait--people of the House of Muhammad--who could fire the much needed enthusiasm for overthrowing the hated administration. Since they represented the religious urge for reform and renovation and also enjoyed the sympathy and support of the religious-minded people, they stood a fair chance to succeed in their enterprise.

After the massacre of Karbala23 a number of descendants of the Prophet tried to bring about a revolution. Husain’s grandson, Zaid ibn ‘Ali, attempted a rising against Hishām ibn ‘Abdul Malik which failed and Zaid was killed in 122 A.H. Imām Abū Hanīfa, founder of the Hanifite school of jurisprudence, apologised to Zaid ibn ‘Ali for not being able to join in his expedition but contributed ten thousand dirhams for the army of Zaid.24 Thereafter another descendant of Hasan, Muhammad Zun-Nafs-az-Zakiyah (b.‘Abdullah al-Mahz b. al-Hasan al-Muthanna b. Hasan b. ‘Ali) raised the banner of revolt in Madina while his brother Ibrāhīm ibn ‘Abdullah rose against Mansūr in Basra. Imām Abū Hanīfa and Imām Mālik25, both founders of the schools of canon law, pronounced fatwās in favour of the validity of Ibrāhīm’s claim to the caliphate and the former even extended financial assistance to him. Imām Abū Hanīfa even dissuaded Hasan ibn Qahtaba, a general of Mansūr, from fighting against Ibrāhīm.26 These efforts were, however, also doomed to failure and Muhammad met with a heroic death at Madina on the 15th of Ramadhan 145 A.H. while Ibrāhīm was killed during the same year at Kufa on the 24th of Zul-ka‘āda. All these efforts turned out to be a dead failure owing to the armed strength and well established rule of the Ummayyads and the ‘AbbSsids, yet, they set an example for the later generations to rise in revolt against tyranny and injustice. Despite their failures, the strenuous and uninterrupted efforts made by these heroes of Islam who, instead of submitting to the inducements of wealth and power, preferred to shed the last drop of their blood for the cause of Justice and righteousness, have handed on a torch to the posterity that will ever keep its glowing spirit bright.

Of the believers are men who are true to that which they covenented with Allah

(al-Ahzāb: 23)

  1. Sahīh Muslim, Vol. II (Kitāb-uz-Zuhd), p 407.
  2. Al-Bustāni, Vol. VII, p. 44
  3. Al-Bustāni, Vol. VII, p. 44
  4. Ibid, p. 5
  5. Ihya’, Vol. I, p. 68
  6. Al-Bustāni, Vol. VII, p. 44
  7. Al-R‘adi, 11
  8. Al-Basri, pp. 66-70
  9. Twenty-fifth Surah of the Qur’ān
  10. Al-Furqan, 63
  11. Ibid, 63
  12. Ibid, 64
  13. Ibid, 65
  14. Al-Marwazi, p. 12
  15. He succeeded ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul ‘Azīz and ruled from the middle of 720 to January, 724 A.D.
  16. Tabqāt, Vol. VII, pp. 118-119.
  17. Hajjāj, at one time governor of Hijaz, was ‘Abdul Malik’s Viceroy over Iraq, Sijistan, Kerman and Khurasan. Being one of the most ardent supporters of the Ummayyads, he did everything to strengthen their Caliphate. His cruelty gave rise to a several furious revolts. During his long rule over Iraq, he put to death nearly 1,50,000 men, many on false charges, and some of them were the best of Arab race. At the time of his death, 50,000 people were found rotting in his prisons.
  18. Among the religious scholars or the later period, Shah Wali Ullah too subscribed to the view that hypocrisy is found in every age and that the existence of hypocrites is not a phenomenon peculiar to any particular time or place. He believed hypocrisy to be of two types: hypocrisy in belief and hypocrisy in behaviour and morals. The former is now not discernible or difficult to indicate owing to termination of the revelation after the final disseminator but the hypocrisy of behaviour and morals has been rampant ever since. Speaking of his own times he says in al-Fauz-ul-Kabīr “Seek the company of the grandees and their associates if you want to see what hypocrites are like. You will see that they prefer their own likings over the edicts of the law-giver In truth and reality, there is no difference between these persons and the fellows who personally heard the Prophet, yet practised hypocrisy. All such persons act against the dictates of the law-giver after having ascertained the same, so on and so forth. Rationalists too, who harbour many doubts in their hearts but forget the Hereafter, belong to the same category” (al-Fauz-ul-Kabīr, pp. 13-14)
  19. Faryābi, p. 68
  20. Ibid, p. 57
  21. Al-Bustāni, Vol. VII, p. 44.
  22. After Damascus, the capital of the Ummayyads, Basra was then, the second largest city of the Islamic empire.
  23. Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and son of Caliph ‘Ali, was massacred along with his followers on October 10, 680 A.D. at Karbala by an Ummayyad detachment for not taking the oath of fealty to Yazīd ibn Mu‘awiyah. The butchery caused a thrill of horror in the world of Islam
  24. Al-Kurdi, Vol. I, p. 55
  25. Imām Mālik advised the people of Madina to help Ibrāhīm even if they had taken the oath of fealty to Mansūr. (Al-Kamil, Vol. V, p. 214).
  26. Some historians are of the opinion that the action taken by Mansūr against Imām Abū Hanīfa was not owning to the latter’s refusal to accept the post of Chief Cadi, but because of his taking sides with Ibrāhīm. (Abū Hanīfa, p.458)