In the middle of one of his lessons, two birds landed in the room. It was hard to hold back the urge to sit still, and as his students were busy taking notes, the little scholar jumped down from the pulpit and caught the birds under his turban, momentarily playing with them before returning back up to continue the lesson.
The king stared in utter shock, while the courtiers attempted to stifle their laughter. The man from the South had entered the king’s palace, but instead of customarily leaving his shoes outside, he instead clutched them under his arms. He walked straight up to the king and stared him right into the eye. “You don’t bow before your king?” a vizier asked. “I bow only before Allah Almighty,” the man responded. “And why did you bring your shoes in with you?” the king inquired. “Well,” the man said. “Once when the Prophet was doing his prayers in the mosque, a few Hanafi scholars had come and stolen his shoes. I saw some Hanafis here, so I decided to be careful.” The court erupted with angry protests from the Hanafi scholars, who furiously retorted that Hanafis did not even exist in the time of the Prophet! “Perhaps it was the Malikis,” the man corrected himself. This time it was the Malikis’ turn to protest. “Maybe I am mistaken,” the man said. “I guess it was the Sha’fais.” The Shafa’is were even louder in their objections. “Well, it must have been the Hanbalis then,” the man finally said. Like the first three groups, the Hanbalis were equally livid at the ridiculous accusation. The man then turned to the king and said, “These people claim to be the vanguards of Islam, yet they follow those who were not even around at the Prophet’s time. And they accuse us of being ‘Rejectors’, while we follow those who were raised in the house of the Prophet!” Silence took over the court, as Allama Hilli had just given an irrefutable response to those accusing the Shias of heresy and unorthodoxy.
He was born Hasan ibn Yusuf ibn Ali ibn Mazahir in the year 648 AH in Hilla. He studied under his uncle Muhaqqiq-e-Hilli and Shaikh Naseeruddin Tusi, both prominent scholars. Due to Mongol military incursions into Iraq, the center of Shia learning had transferred to Hilla, where Muhaqqiq-e-Hilli was the leading scholar of the time. An exceptionally intelligent student, Allama Hilli progressed through his academic stages with surprising speed. As a six year old child, he began teaching 40- and 50-year-old students! In the middle of one of his lessons, two birds landed in the room. It was hard to hold back the urge to sit still, and as his students were busy taking notes, the little scholar jumped down from the pulpit and caught the birds under his turban, momentarily playing with them before returning back up to continue the lesson.
Similarly, once when he did something mischievous at home, his uncle chased after him to punish him. As he closed in on him, the boy recited one of the mandatory “prostration verses” of the Qur’an. His uncle immediately fell down in prostration, but the young boy, who was not yet of legal age, was able to escape. His uncle got back up and followed him again, but as he closed in, he recited another prostration verse, and the uncle was forced to prostrate once again. After the fourth time, the uncle finally caught up with his nephew and hugged him for his brilliance and quick wit.
During Allama Hilli’s teen years, a new preacher came into town with a voluminous book, which he used to prove to others about the error of Shia beliefs. Allama Hilli was eager to get his hands on the book, so he could read it and write a refutation. After much pleading, the preacher allowed him to borrow it, with the condition that he must return it the next morning. His grand plan had been to take the book home, copy it page-by-page, and then write a rebuttal to it. However, with the condition of having to return it in a few hours, this was an impossible task. But Allama Hilli was not deterred, and he ran home with the book and began copying the first page. A few hours later, he was so exhausted that he fell asleep. When he woke up from the sound of Athan the next morning, a feeling of panic took over, as he realized that his plan had failed. But to his shock, the entire book had been transcribed over, the last page bearing the statement, “Completed by Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Askari” (may Allah hasten his reappearance). Eventually, Allama Hilli wrote a rebuttal to the book, and having lost his popularity, the preacher was driven out of town.
When Allama Hilli was only 28 years old, his uncle died from an accident, and he was recognized as the leading religious authority of his time. Along with Shaikh al-Mufid and Shaikh Abu Ja’far Tusi, he is accredited of truly having “academized” much of Shia Fiqh and Usool. His wrote so many books that if the number of pages is divided by the number of days in his life, he must have written at least a thousand pages every day since the day he was born! Many of these books are still used in the curriculum of the present-day seminaries.
EDITOR’S NOTE: These articles are adaptations of lectures delivered by Maulana Sadiq Hasan in Karachi, Pakistan, during the 1980s on the lives of the great scholars of Islam. The Urdu lectures can be accessed at Hussainiat.com. For previous articles in this series, please look under the History section.