During his visit to Medina, the celebrated Abbaside Caliph Haroon-ar-Rashid wished to attend the lectures on Muwatta (collection of Traditions) delivered by Imam Malik. He sent for the Imam who sermonized him: “Rashid, Tradition is a learning that used to be patronized by your forbears. They had utmost regard for it. If you don’t venerate it as Caliph, no one else would, People come in search of knowledge but knowledge does not seek people.” At last, the Caliph himself came to attend the lectures of the Imam, which were attended by all classes of people. Haroon wanted others to leave the class, but the Imam opposed it saying, “I cannot sacrifice the interest of the common man for that of an individual”. Hence the great Caliph, as well as his sons, had to sit alongside the common people and listen patiently to the Imam’s illuminating discourse on the Traditions of the Prophet.
Medina, the seat of Islamic learning in those times, boasted of some of the greatest intellectuals of the age. One of them was Imam Malik, a great traditionist, who left behind him ineffaceable marks in the sphere of Arabian learning. His Muwatta occupies an outstanding place among the rare collections of Traditions. Being a teacher of exceptional merits, Imam Malik occupies a unique place in the Islamic history as the originator of Maliki School of Jurisprudence which exercised great influence on the contemporary and later generations of Islam, particularly those inhabiting Africa and Spain. With his indomitable will, courageous and incorruptible soul, which never yielded even to the highest authorities of the state, the Imam belonged to a class of early Muslims, whose life would always serve as a beacon light for those who strive for the realization of nobler and higher virtues in the world.
Malik ibn Anas, belonged to a respectable Arab family which held important social status before and after the advent of Islam. His ancestral place was Yemen, but after the birth of Islam, his ancestors who were converted to Islam migrated to and settled in Medina. His grandfather, Abu Aamir was first in his family to embrace Islam in 2 A.H. The date of Imam’s birth is a disputed point among the historians. Ibn Khalikan has given 95 A.H., but as universally believed the Imam was born in 93 A.H., and he was 13 years younger to his illustrious counterpart Imam Abu Hanifa. He received his education in Medina, which in those times was the highest seat of learning in the vast Islamic Empire and housed most of the distinguished Companions of the Prophet. He, therefore, had no need to go out of Medina in quest of knowledge. His grandfather, father, and uncle were all Traditionists, who coached the young Imam in traditions and other branches of knowledge. Other illustrious intellectual luminaries who taught the young Imam were Imam Jafar Sadiq, Muhammad bin Shahab Az Zahri, Nafeh, Yahya bin Saeed and Rabi Rayi.
Imam Malik continued to serve the noble cause of education for 62 years. He died on 11th Rabi-ul-Awwal 179 A.H., at the age of 86.
Teaching, which was looked upon as the noblest profession, was adopted by some of the greatest intellectuals that the world has produced, including Aristotle and Plato, Ghazzali and Ibn Khaldun, Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik. The high reputation of Imam Malik as a scholar and teacher attracted people from the four corners of the vast Islamic Empire. Perhaps no other teacher ever produced such talented scholars who ascended the pinnacle of glory in different walks of life. Among the persons who benefited from his learning were Caliphs like Mansur. Mehdi, Hadi, Haroon, and Mamun; legists like Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafii, Sufian Suri, and Qazi Muhammad Yusuf; scholars like Ibn Shahab Zahri and Yahya bin Saeed Ansari; mystics like Ibrahim bin Adham, Zunnun Misri and Muhammad bin Fazil bin Abbas. According to reliable historical sources, the number of his students who acquired great name in life was more than 1,300. His classes were characterized by their serenity, discipline, and high sense of respect, exhibited by the students for their learned teacher. He never tolerated any indiscipline when he lectured on the traditions of the Prophet. Once, the Abbaside Caliph, Mansur who was discussing certain traditions with the Imam spoke a bit loudly. The Imam rebuked him saying, “Don’t talk stridently when the Traditions of the Prophet are under discussion.” He refused to discourse on the Traditions in the camp of the Caliph.
The Imam left behind him more than a dozen works including his world-famous Muwatta, which is considered as second to the Holy Quran. His treatises deal with religious, ethical matters and Islamic jurisprudence. Muwatta is universally acknowledged as the most important book in the Library of Islam after the Holy Quran. According to Shah Waliullah, it is a collection of the most authentic traditions of the Prophet selected by Imam Malik after thorough investigation of their sources. The Imam compiled his book after a thorough verification and sifting of the Traditions and included only those which he considered correct. The reliability of the reports and reporters were his chief consideration and he took pains to ensure that no incorrect report found place in his book. Formerly, Muwatta included ten thousand Traditions, but in the revised edition, the Imam reduced the number to 1,720 only. This book has been translated into several languages and has sixteen different editions.
As a traditionist, he occupies a unique place among the galaxy of talented scholars like Imam Bukhari and Muslims who are well-known for collecting the Traditions of the Holy Prophet of Islam. He is said to have always avoided the company of a person who was not highly learned. According to Imam Hanbal, he was the only person to have such a distinction, never reported a tradition from a person unless he had fully satisfied himself. He was held in such high esteem by the later scholars that once someone enquired from Imam Hanbal about a certain reporter. He replied that the reporter must be reliable because Imam Malik had reported from him. Imam Malik experienced great hardship in quest of knowledge. Like Imam Bukhari, who had once to live on herbs and roots for three days, he too, had to sell the beams of his house in order to pay his education dues. He used to say that one could not attain the heights of intellectual glory, unless faced with poverty. Poverty was the real test of man; it awakened in him the hidden energies and enabled him to surmount all difficulties.
His contemporaries and later traditionists and religious scholars have formed very high opinion about his intellectual attainments.
According to Abdur Rahman ibn Mahdi, there is no traditionist greater than Imam Malik in the world. Imams Ahmad bin Hanbal and Shafi speak very highly of him as a Traditionist. The leamed Imam was also a great legist; for more than 60 years he gave Fatwas in Medina.
Imam Malik was known for his integrity and piety. He always lived up to his convictions. Neither fear nor favor could ever deflect him from the right path. He was among the members of the glorious society of early Islam who could not be purchased and whose undaunted courage always proved as a guiding star for the freedom fighters.
When he was aged 25, the Caliphate passed into the hands of the Abbasids. Caliph Mansur who was his colleague highly respected him for his deep learning. The Imam, however, favored the Fatimid Nafs Zakriya for the exalted office of Caliph. When he learned that the people had taken the oath of fealty to Mansur, he said that since Mansur had forced people to do so, the oath was not binding on them. He quoted a Tradition of the Prophet to the effect that a divorce by force is not legal. When Jafar, a cousin of Mansur, was posted as Governor of Medina, he induced the inhabitants of the Holy City to renew their oath of allegiance to Mansur. The Governor forbade him not to publicize his Fatwa in respect of forced divorce. Highly principled and fearless as he was, he defied the Governor’s orders and courageously persisted in his course. This infuriated the Governor, who ordered that the Imam be awarded 70 stripes, as punishment for flouting his authority. Accordingly, seventy stripes were inflicted on the naked back of the Imam which began to bleed. Mounted on a camel in his bloodstained clothes, he was paraded through the streets of Medina. This brutality of the Governor failed to cow down or unnerve the noble Imam. Caliph Mansur, when apprised of the matter, punished the Governor and apologized to the Imam.
Once, Caliph Mansur sent him three thousand Dinars as his traveling expenses to Baghdad, but he returned the money and refused to leave Medina, the resting place of the Prophet.
In 174 A.H. Caliph Haroon-ar-Rashid arrived in Medina with his two sons Arnin and Mamun. He summoned Imam Malik to his durbar for delivering a lecture on Muwatta The Imam refused to comply with his orders. Arriving in the durbar, he told the Caliph, “Rashid! Tradition is a learning cultivated and patronized by your ancestors, if you don’t pay it due respect, no one else would.” This argument convinced the Caliph, who preferred to attend the class taken by the Imam along with his two sons.
The Imam was reputed throughout the world of Islam for his self-control and great patience. Once a band of Kharijis armed with swords forced their way into a mosque of Kufa, where he was praying. All persons scampered away from the mosque in panic but he stayed there undismayed. It was customary with all those who waited on Caliph Mansur in his durbar to kiss his hands but Imam Malik never stooped to this humiliation. On the other hand, he paid highest respect to the learned people, and once, when Imam Abu Hanifa came to see him, he offered him his own seat.
Muslims inhabiting Western Arabia, exclusively subscribe to the Maliki sect.