Al-Ezz Ibn Abdel-Salam will always be remembered as the man who differentiated between religion and the state, an act that we are still debating centuries later.
His full name is Mohamed Ezz Al-Din Abdel Aziz Ibn Abdel-Salam Ibn Abi Qassem Ben Al-Hassan Bin Mohamed Bin Mohazab Al-Salmi, of Moroccan origin but born in Syria in AH 577 (1182 AD) and died in Cairo AH 660 (1262 AD). His father was an underprivileged man who would roam the streets looking for work, and took his son with him to work constructing roads and carrying luggage. After his father passed away, he helped to clean the Umayyad mosque.
One day he sneaked into the one of the study circles and was scolded by one of the sheikhs who saw him sitting among the students wearing rags, which broke the boy's heart. He left in tears, but Sheikh Fakhr ben Askar, who lead the Levantine fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) study circle saw him crying and decided to take him under his wing.
Thanks to the sheikh Abdel-Salam learnt how to read and write and became Sheikh Askar's most faithful student. He also was very charitable with the poor, to the extent that when Sultan Ashraf of Damascus offered to pitch in the money Abdel-Salam gave out as charity, he declined, explaining that it was much better if each person paid their own charity money separately.
In AH 639 (1242 AD) Abdel-Salam came to Egypt and was assigned by King Al-Saleh Negm El-Din Ayyoub to be in charge of sermons and the judiciary. But it was not easy, and Abdel Salam had a famous encounter with the Mamluks, the slaves bought and trained to fight and protect the Islamic caliphate. In Al-Sheikh Al-Swiout’s book Hossen Al-Mohadra (“Great Lecture”) he explained that:
Mamluks were granted high posts in governments because of their crucial role in security, and aimed during Abdel-Salam’s time to buy properties and increase their influence. Abdel-Salam believed that technically this was impossible because they were slaves and hence they were themselves property of the government, so how can property own property?
The Mamluks, who were offered the title “amir” (prince) were offended by his fatwa against them having the right to own property and asked the king to intervene. Abdel-Salam was about to leave the country in reaction to the attempt of King Saleh to intervene in his fatwa, along with his supporters and fellow learned men. However, Abdel-Salam stayed after King Saleh promised that neither he nor Saladin the sultan would ever attempt to intervene in his fatwas ever again.
Abdel-Salam focused on the origins of fiqh in his book Qawaad Ahkam fi Saleh Al-Anam (“Rules of Regulations in Public Affairs”) in which he stated that “Sharia is basically either prevention of corruption or attracting the good.”
He wrote some 40 books on fiqh and was very popular among the masses because of his fairness. During his lifetime, he witnessed the death of King Saleh in Mansoura and the murder of his son Toranshah at the hands of the Mamluks of King Saleh, then the brief reign of Shagar El-Dor until Qotoz became the wali of Egypt and they were facing the horror of the Mongol invasions.
Qotoz asked the people to contribute their money and valuables in order to be able to buy enough arms to fight the Mongols, but Abdel-Salam objected to such a call and asked him in his famous quote to ask the rich soldiers to give up their valuables as well. He said: “If the enemy is at the gate, it is time to fight him, to give up your valuables like golden saddles and silver machinery, so that each soldier has his weapon and his shoes, like the civilians have. You cannot take the money from the public and leave lavish equipment in the hands of the soldiers.”
And the sultan was convinced and followed the fatwa, and it was implemented.
Sheikh Abdel-Salam died a few years later at the age of 80, leaving behind a legacy of logical and just fiqh. Al-Ezz Ibn Abdel-Salam will always be remembered as the man who differentiated between religion and the state, an act that we are still debating centuries later.