Born in Damascus, Shaykh Muhammad descends from a family whose lineage goes back to the Prophet, salla Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam, through his grandson Sayyiduna al-Hasan, radiya Allahu 'anhu. His ancestors also include some of the greatest scholars of Syria. His father, Shaykh Ibrahim al-Ya'qoubi (d. 1985/1406 H.), was one of the greatest scholars Syria saw in the past 50 years.
As a little boy, Shaykh Muhammad crawled in the Grand Umayyad Mosque and the Darwishiyya Mosque, where his father was an instructor for 40 years, and sat in the laps of some of the greatest scholars. Under his father's tutelage, Shaykh Muhammad followed a solid traditional curriculum since the age of four, studying the major classical works on the various disciplines of the Shari'ah as well as the instrumental disciplines. He received ijazas in Hadith from several of the most prominent scholars in Syria.
Shaykh Muhammad pursued his academic studies at the University of Damascus, Faculty of Shari'ah. He also received a degree in Arabic literature in 1987 and completed a two-year study of philosophy at the Arab University of Beirut. In 1991, Shaykh Muhammad joined the PhD program of linguistics at Gothenburg University in Sweden, Department of Oriental Studies, where he also worked as a researcher and a teacher of classical Arabic literature. He worked in Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah in Kuwait in 1990 as Research Editor and later as Assistant Director for Research and Studies.
In Sweden, Shaykh Muhammad served the Muslim community of Gothenburg as Imam, where he struggled for the establishment of Islam in the country. In 1999, the Swedish Islamic society in Stockholm chose him as the Mufti of Sweden. Besides working in Syria and Sweden, Shaykh Muhammad participated in conferences, delivered lectures, and gave Friday speeches in the Middle East, Europe, Canada, and the United States. Shaykh Muhammad taught his first class at the age of eleven in Qura'an and Tajweed, delivered his first public speeches at the age of twelve, and gave his first Friday khutba at the age of fourteen and a half.
Shaykh Muhammad is married and has three children and currently resides in Damascus, Syria.
Information and photograph from Deen Intensive (correct as of April 2003).
Loving The Beloved of Allah
By Shagufta Yaqub, Q News, the Muslim magazine, Issue 326 Jan 2000
Once in a while you meet someone you know you will never forget. There is something about being in their presence that draws you into their world. For the moments spent in their company, you begin to see the world through their eyes. Their passion for what they believe is manifest in the aura that surrounds them and their sincerity conveyed in words that linger in your thoughts for days on end.
Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya'qoubi is one of those rare people. For a man who is uncomfortable with praise, I struggle to convey what it meant to have received the gift of sacred knowledge from such a worthy possessor. Only those who are blessed by his company will know what, out of respect for his humility, has to remain unsaid.
Descending from a scholarly Syrian family whose lineage goes back to the Holy Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya'qoubi is not the most obvious of teachers for your average Western student. Son of the late Shaykh Ibrahim al-Ya'qoubi, former Imam of the Grand Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya'qoubi's Islamic education began in early childhood. I asked him to tell me more about his background, but he politely replied by saying it is not one of his favourite subjects.
"I fear being trapped in a state of showing off" he said, leaving me amazed that even a man of such humility fears his own ego. "We all experience success and failure in our lives, but we tend to highlight the ups and avert the downs" he continued, claiming that feeling pride at one's achievements is intrinsic in human nature. "But Islam purifies the heart from such whims by training us through acts of worship" he added.
Hesitantly he answered my question, informing me about his father of whom he speaks with the utmost love and respect. "Under the grace of Allah, I was fortunate to be the son of one of the greatest Ulema and friends of Allah in this century. My father was not only a great scholar of Quran, Hadith, Fiqh, Arabic and the sciences related to them but also a great gnostic and ascetic who combined knowledge and practice; his life was a living example of the great Salaf of whom we read in history."
The huge impact of his father's presence on Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya'qoubi's life soon became apparent. He told me that one of the most amazing things that struck him in his early childhood was his father's immense love for the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam and his Sunnah. Testimony of that fact is evident in his life-long commitment to preserving the example of the Holy Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam. Even today, Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya'qoubi's possession of that inherited treasure leaves a lasting impression on anyone honoured enough to spend a few blessed moments in his company.
My short but memorable time as his student bestowed upon me the honour of hearing the Shaykh relate Ahadith about the appearance and character of the Holy Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam. He would sit tirelessly for hours on end telling us Hadith after Hadith, barely pausing for breath in between. Not only would he rigorously explain to us their meaning in English but he would first relate them in Arabic in order to give us the baraka of the original words even though many of us did not understand them. When telling us how the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam sat or how he licked his fingers after eating, the Shaykh would unreservedly demonstrate the actions, driven to detailed emulation out of his love for Allah's Messenger sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam. Whenever he mentioned the name of Muhammad sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, his face would reflect his internal state of deep reverence. It was one of the few times I ever saw someone's face illuminate with overwhelming love for the person they were describing.
I dared to ask the Shaykh to disclose his secret, posing to him the golden question of 'what it means to love the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam.' Anticipating his response, I wondered how anyone could possibly answer such a question. But for the one who truly knows and loves the beloved of Allah, the answer is simple. "To love the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam means to obey him" replied the Shaykh. "Love without following is meaningless," he said. "It is an easy thing to claim but difficult to prove because real love manifests itself in actions, not in words."
The Shaykh then went on to explain that emulation is dependent on knowledge and emphasised our duty to learn more about the Messenger of Allah sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam. "Read about his life, his miracles, his character and the characteristics that were specific to him and not shared by his Ummah" he advised. "Read how the Sahaba loved him more than they loved everything else, how they emulated him and sacrificed their beloved for his sake" he urged. "There are countless Hadiths that enumerate his miracles and describe his character, the study of which should move stones, let alone hearts."
The Shaykh reminded me of our obligation to love and obey the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam by referring to verses commanding this explicitly in the Quran:
"Say: if your fathers, sons, brothers, spouses, clans, wealth you accumulated, business you fear may slacken and houses you love, is more beloved to you than Allah, His Messenger and than struggling for His sake, then beware and wait until Allah brings His command" (9:24).
"He who obeys the Messenger has indeed obeyed Allah" (4:80).
"But no, by your Lord, they will not believe until they make you judge of what is in dispute between them, and find within themselves no dislike of that which you decide, and submit with full submission" (4:65).
It is perhaps the lack of adherence to this essential obligation of our deen that has led great scholars like Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya'qoubi to dedicate their lives to reviving this tradition. He told me that Muslims living in the West generally have inadequate knowledge of the rights that the Messenger of Allah sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam has over them. "The basic knowledge that people have about the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam these days is less than minimum" he said. "In the past, people would memorise the Hamziyya of al-Imam al-Busayri at an early age, which sums up in verse the life of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, his character and his miracles, including many details of which modern readers are unaware."
It is this desperate need to revive the Sunnah of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam that brings the few traditional scholars who are fluent in English to come and teach in the Western world. "Youth in the West love movie stars and football players to the extent that they emulate them and follow their news and are completely obsessed by their habits," he said.
"Unfortunately, many of our children and youth are following this mainstream, so we have to provide them with an example to follow in order to save them from falling into this material life" he said. "And who is better than the infallible, the perfect human being, the Light, the Elect, the Seal of all Prophets, the one who was sent but as a mercy, the one who intercedes on the Day of Judgement when all Prophets refuse to intercede, the one who was given the basin, the one who is mentioned in the call for prayer, the one whom we greet in the prayer itself, the most beloved man, to whom a branch of a tree wailed, to whom a few pebbles testified and whom the stones and trees greeted?"
The love with which the Shaykh speaks of the Holy Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam is something that fails to be conveyed in words and makes me appreciate the fact that books can never compare to the experience of learning directly from a scholar. I decided to ask the Shaykh how he feels about Muslims resorting to books and modern mediums like the internet for getting their Islamic knowledge. "Seeking the sacred knowledge of Islam is a noble act of worship that entitles people to martyrdom" he answered, putting the issue into perspective. He then went on to remind me how sacred knowledge was acquired in the history of Islam.
"Our beloved Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam was the first teacher, and his first students were the Sahaba" he said. "Those early Sahaba devoted their lives to the transmission of this knowledge and were the first inheritors of the Prophet's heritage sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam. This process of teaching and learning the Deen in mosques and traditional madrassas was the only way in the Islamic world through which the Deen survived. Only by humbling themselves and sitting on their knees in front of the great Ulema was the spirit of this Deen, with the blessings as well as the knowledge supported by authentic narration, able to be preserved " he said.
" The great Ulema - Imam al-Tahawi, Qadi 'Iyadd, al-Ghazali, Ibn al-Nawawi, al-'Asqalani, al-Suyouti, their teachers and their students until our day - were all part of this unbroken chain of transmission" he said, describing the chain "like a tree, the shadow of whose branches extend from India to Morocco."
The Shaykh's reference to this chain of transmission reminded me of something beautiful he said in one of my first lessons with him. He said that when the Sahaba would sit with the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, they would breathe the same air that he breathed. So when the Sahaba transmitted sacred knowledge, they would also be transmitting those breaths of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam that were then passed down from teacher to student, generation after generation, until the present day. Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya'qoubi belongs to that unbroken chain of transmission. It is no doubt one of the reasons his students can feel the baraka of merely being in his presence.
The lack of baraka in modern mediums is not the only reason why relying on them for sacred knowledge may be undesirable. The Shaykh pointed out that it can be dangerous for people to rely on their own understanding of the Quran and Sunnah. "People vary in their levels of the Arabic language, and not everyone has access to all the resources, and even if they do, they are more prone to error" he warned. "Modern media like TV and the internet provide answers to many problems that people are facing nowadays, but it is not always safe for a person to rely on these sources and deduce their own rulings or apply the ruling quoted on the internet to their own state" he said.
The Shaykh stressed the point that learning from a shaykh is indispensable. I asked him to explain why, and he gave me a number of reasons. "First of all because of the guidance that one receives. We do not learn merely for the purpose of learning; we learn to practice. Knowledge without practice is like a dead body or like an empty cloud; it is the shaykh who awakens the students from their occasional slumber and who turns their attention to their defects" he said.
"Secondly, the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam was made an example for Muslims to follow, and his companions emulated him in his acts and character. Thus the company of the Ulema gives us access to the living example of the Sunnah and the prophetic character in as much as they emulate the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam" he said.
"Thirdly, when you study under a shaykh you are linked to a chain of transmission which constitutes your lineage back to the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam. This is the Isnad (transmission) of which 'Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak says: " Isnad is an integral part of this Deen; without Isnad whosoever says whatsoever he wants." The Shaykh also quoted Imam al-Tirmidhi who ended his great work on the character of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam with a narration from Muhammad Ibn Sireen that reads: "This knowledge is an integral part of the Deen, so see to it from where you obtain your Deen."
However, the Shaykh also advised having a small library in our homes containing some of the most important manuals on Quran, Hadith, Fiqh and Seerah. He gave examples of these as "The Revival of the Sciences of the Deen" by Imam al-Ghazali and "Riyadh al-Saliheen" by Imam al-Nawawi both of which he considers essential reading. I then took the opportunity to ask what exactly we can read in the English language to increase our love and knowledge of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, and he recommended two important works: "Al-Shama'il" of al-Tirmidhi, and "Al-Shifa" of al-Qadi 'Iyadd. "Historically, there were permanent chairs devoted to teaching these two works in most central mosques in the big Muslims cities around the world" he pointed out. Optimistically, he looks to a time when this will be the case here in the West. "Let us revive this tradition today and make special endowments to the teaching of these great works in central mosques here in the West in order to breathe the love for the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam into the hearts of people so that they may be granted his company in Paradise" he prayed.
At the mention of Paradise, the Shaykh referred to a Hadith. "According to the glad tidings the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam brought to a man who came asking about the Hour, the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam asked him 'what have you prepared for it?' The man replied 'not much prayer or fasting [i.e. extras], but I do love Allah and His Messenger.' The Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam said 'a person will be with whom he loves.'
The Hadith reminded me of something the Shaykh said to us, his students, after our last lesson in the course. As he departed, he pleaded of his tearful students that if any of them enter Paradise and find that he is left behind on the Day of Judgement that they come back, take him by the hand and lead him into Jannah. That this request could come from someone whom in the eyes of his students is among the most deserving of Paradise is a thought that still overwhelms our hearts. To feel the sincerity in the desperate plea of a man to whom our hearts testify as deserving of the reciprocated love of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam reminds us that an increase in knowledge should never be without an increase in humility.
It is from the baraka of being taught by a Shaykh from the unbroken chain that genuine love, humility and those blessed breaths of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam are transmitted with the sacred knowledge. Somewhere in between those beautiful moments spent learning the Islamic sciences, his students are also taught what it means to feel love for someone purely for the sake of Allah and His Messenger sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam. It is no coincidence that those who know Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya'qoubi also know to love him. After all, the Holy Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam himself used to pray: "Oh Lord, grant me Your love, and the love of those whom You love, and the love of those who will bring me closer to Your love."
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