An Outline of the history of the Madhabs

by Shaykh Abdal Haqq Bewley (with additions from myself in brackets)

All Muslims agree that the basis of Islam is the Book and Sunnah and almost all Muslims agree that if someone follows the teachings of any one of the four orthodox madhhabs of Islam – the Hanafi Madhhab, the Maliki Madhhab, the Shafi‘i Madhhab and the Hanbali Madhhab – they will certainly be living within the parameters of the Book and Sunnah. The great majority of Muslims are affiliated to one or the other of these madhhabs but for almost all of them this affiliation takes place for purely geographical reasons and very few know very much about the nature of the madhhab they belong to. There is a common perception that the madhhabs are all more or less the same and only differ in respect of slight legal points such as where you put your hands in the prayer and other things of that nature, but that does not really explain why there should be these four madhhabs at all. In order to discover the reason for their existence, it is necessary to look at each of them and find out how and why they came into being in the first place.

The first of the four madhhabs in historical terms is the Madhhab of Abu Hanifah who was born in roughly 80AH and died in 150AH. The salient fact about Imam Abu Hanifah, rahimahullahu ta’ala, was that he did not live in Madinah, where the deen had originally been established; he lived in Iraq and his school developed in Iraq. He grew up in Kufa, was educated there and lived most of his life there, first as a merchant, then as a student and finally as a teacher. Kufa was one of the two great Iraqi cities of the time and Iraq was home to many different religions, sects and beliefs because, apart from containing the capital of the recently defeated Persian empire, it was also the home of various other ancient civilisations. Syriac Christians were dispersed throughout it and they had schools there in which Greek philosophy and the ancient wisdom of Persia were studied. In other words, at the time we are speaking of, Iraq was a melting pot of diverse races, cultures and beliefs and a place rife with confusion and disorder. There were frequent clashes of opinion on the subject of politics and religion. The Shi‘a and Mu‘tazilites stemmed from there and there were Kharijites in its deserts.

Along with this was the fact that comparatively few Companions had travelled from Madinah and settled in Iraq. Indeed it was an explicit policy of the second Khalifah ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab رضي الله عنه, to discourage Companions with knowledge from leaving the Hijaz. He did this in order to prevent  knowledge of the deen becoming too dispersed. For this reason most of the great men of knowledge among the Muhajirun and Ansar stayed within the confines of Madinah. Two notable exceptions who did go to live in Iraq were Ali ibn Abi Talib, karama’llahu wajhah, and Abdallah ibn Mas’ud,  but the overall number was in fact very small. What that meant, in real  terms, was that the people of Iraq had very limited direct access to the Sunnah, because there were very few exemplars of it who came to them. All these factors meant that the Iraqi environment in which Islam was beginning to take root in the first and second centuries after the Hijrah was a very different one from that of Madinah in which the deen had originally been established.

Another corollary development was that, due to these multifarious foreign influences, many situations arose which were quite alien to anything confronted in the earliest days of Islam. Nevertheless, it was, of course, necessary for the establishment of the deen that solutions should be found for these new contingencies so that they could find their place within the compass of Islam.

This was the environment within which the Iraqi school developed and which caused it to have the particular form which came to characterize it so clearly. As we have seen, for historical, geographical and social reasons,the situation in Iraq was markedly different from that of the Hijaz where the deen had originally been established and taken root. This meant, as we have noted, that new situations were continually arising and it was a question of how to apply the Book and Sunnah to these novel circumstances in such a way that the deen would remain unchanged. As far as the Book of Allah was concerned, of course, the Iraqis had the same access to it as the Muslims in the Hijaz and those in everyother place to which the deen had spread. The difference was in their access to the Sunnah.

We have already noted that direct knowledge of the Sunnah in Iraq was limited because of the small number of Companions who moved there. On the other hand in Sayyidina ‘Ali and ‘Abdallah ibn Mas‘ud, they were two of the most knowledgeable Companions and two of those closest to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and so their direct access to the Sunnah, although very limited in extent, was at the same time of the very highest quality. This led to the distinctive approach to the Sunnah which characterized the Iraqi school and in turn even coloured their attitude to the Qur’an itself. Because of the irreproachability of their direct sources to the Sunnah they were quite rightly supremely confident concerning what had reached them through them, but because of the limited scope of what they received there were many gaps in their knowledge (this is in context to the beginning of the hanafi madhhab and not the totality of it’s history, it was said in later generations that in All of Imam Abu hanifa’s rulings he didnt have access to one hundred hadith relating to the topic’s he gave fatwa on, but when the scholars of later generations investigated his opinion “ra’i” or Ijtihad they found them all in line with the ahadith of rasul Allah (pbuh) without exception).

In the period we are talking about there was already much forgetfulness and it was even the case that instances of hadith forgery were beginning to be recorded so that, rather than relying on sources about which they were not sure, the scholars of Iraq preferred to come to a judgement based on the use of their own reason within clearly defined parameters based on the knowledge of the Book and Sunnah about which they did have absolute certainty (this was the practice of the Sahabah as instructed by Rasul Allah to Muadh upon sending him to yemen in which he asked “But what if you don’t find it (the ruling) there too?(in the Quran)” asked the Prophet (S). ‘I will exert my own opinion’, replied Mu’adh.  The Prophet (S) put his hand on Mu’adh’s chest and said: “Thank God for assisting His Apostle with what he loves.”). In this they were in fact following the example of Ibn Mas‘ud himself who refrained from attributing statements or actions to the Prophet  صلى الله عليه وسلم, unless he was absolutely sure they were correct and, in cases where he was not certain, would prefer to exercise his own opinion rather than falsely ascribe something to him.

This led to a way of looking at texts which was typical of the Iraqi school, whereby they would examine the reasons behind the judgements contained within them. It was almost as if they did not depend on the outward words but would, instead, look to the meaning behind them and what was intended by the statement involved and would then apply that analogically to the new situation confronting them (it should be reiterated this was only for ruling’s on entirely new situations what was fundamental to Islam like the prayer, fast, hajj, zakkat the sources where clear on). This methodology of implementing the Book and Sunnah, which developed in Iraq, caused the Iraqis to be known as the people of ra’i or opinion (ra’i here is synonymous with with Qiyas (analogy, employed by the first four khalifas) and Ijtihad (independant legal reasoning, used since the time of the prophet) tools all the madhhabs employ but at this early stage in Islam these methods where no explicitly labeled). Another of the characteristics of this school was that its adherents did not confine themselves to the deduction of rulings to be applied to actually existing cases but also posed hypothetical questions and gave judgment on them as well on the basis of their own reasoning, with the object of pre-empting situations which might well occur in the future.

The great Iraqi scholar Ibrahim an-Nakha’i is generally credited with being the founder of the Iraqi school of fiqh (while his contribution to legal theory was very significant it wasnt All encompassing as the author suggests, an analysis of the source text will show this, In his lifetime there was no need for a madhhab yet) we have been talking about but there is no doubt that its greatest exponent and the man who gave it his name and who became most closely associated with it in the minds of the Muslims throughout history was Abu Hanifa an-Nu‘man. (there is a clear reason why the Scholars and not the laymen named it after him out of popularity. His madhhab spread far and wide in his own life time something that didn’t occur with the other mujtahid imams, there are two ahadith on this very matter of his importance , A hadith given by al Bukhari and Muslim states that Abu Hurairah narrated Allah’s Messenger (saw) as saying: “if the Religion were at the Pleiades , even then a person from Persia would have taken hold of it, or one amongst the Persian descent would surely have found it”. Abu Huraira also narrates: “We were sitting in the company of Allah’s Apostle (saw) when Surat al Juma was revealed to him and when he recited amongst them (those who were sitting there) said ‘Allah’s Messenger?’ but Allah’s Apostle (saw) made no reply, until he was questioned once, twice or thrice, and there was amongst us Salman the Persian. Allah’s Apostle (saw) placed his hand on Salman and then said: “Even if faith were near the Pleiades a man from amongst these would surely find it”. Imam as-Suyuti a Shafi alim (rh) remarked “It has been communicated unanimously that this hadith refers to Imam Abu Hanifah”.)

He started out as a silk merchant but soon devoted himself to learning and became a student of Shaykh Hammad ibn Sulayman with whom he studied all the Islamic sciences. There is no doubt that Abu Hanifa was a man of the utmost integrity and was imbued with intense fear of Allah which informed all his acts and decisions. He was also extremely generous and a man characterised by great self control. It is, however, for his scintillating intellect and his ability to apply it to the questions which confronted him for which he is justly most remembered and which led to him becoming the leader of the madhhab of the people of opinion.

His profound thinking led to him penetrating to the core of the questions presented to him. This meant that he did not stop at the outward meaning of texts but went beyond that to their intentions. He would study a text, seeking the causes of any judgment it contained, examining the implications of its words, phrases and intentions and the circumstances surrounding it. Once he became satisfied about its underlying cause, he used analogy based on that and took that very far indeed (one would be hard pressed to find a single mistake in the imams work). His general attitude is well summed up by a simile he coined. He said, “One who learns hadiths but does not have fiqh can be likened to a chemist who makes up remedies but does not know what they cure until the doctor comes and tells him. Anyone who learns hadiths but does not grasp their true implications is just like that.”

An illustrative example of the way Imam Abu Hanifa’s mind worked can be seen in the famous account of his meeting with Muhammad al-Baqir, the great-great-grandson of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. It seems that the imam met al-Baqir when visiting Madinah near the beginning of his scholarly career. It is reported that al-Baqir said to him, on the basis of what he had heard of the direction things had taken in Iraq, “Are you the one who changes the deen of my grandfather and his Sunnah through the use of analogy?”

Abu Hanifa replied by saying, “I seek refuge with Allah!” and told al-Baqir that he respected him in the same way that his forebear, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, had been respected by his Companions during his lifetime. Abu Hanifa then said to al-Baqir, “I am going to present you with three questions to answer. The first is: Who is weaker, a man or a woman?”

Al-Baqir replied, “A woman.

What is a woman’s share in inheritance?” continued Abu Hanifa.

A man has two shares and a woman one,” responded al-Baqir.

That is what came from your great grandfather,” said Abu Hanifa. “If I were to have changed his deen by analogy I would have said that a woman should have two shares and a man one because she is the weaker of the two, but I have not.”

Abu Hanifa then asked al-Baqir, “Which is better, the prayer or fasting?

The prayer,” he replied.

That is what your great grandfather said,” agreed Abu Hanifa. “If I were to have changed his deen, I would have said using analogy that, because the prayer is better, a woman who has finished menstruation should be ordered to make up the prayer and not the fast.”

Abu Hanifa then put his third question. “Which is the more impure, urine or sperm?

Urine is more impure.

If it was true that I had changed the deen of your great grandfather through the use of analogy I would, on account of that, have made people do ghusl after urinating rather than for the emission of sperm. I seek refuge with Allah from altering the deen of your great grandfather through analogy.

In this instance Imam Abu Hanifa used his incisive, analytical intellect to uphold the orthodox position of Islam regarding these matters, but it gives us a clear indication of the way that he, in another situation when the position about a matter was as yet undecided and so open to interpretation, would use his mind to come to a decision about it. This great mental agility which characterised Imam Abu Hanifa was recognised by Imam Malik who said of him, “If he had gone to these stone columns and formed an analogy showing that they were made of wood, you would have thought that they were made of wood.”

This brings us to the school of Imam Malik, rahimahullahu ta’ala, who was, in chronological terms, the second of the four imams, living from 93AH to 179AH. Just as when examining the madhhab of Imam Abu Hanifa we discovered that what we were really looking at was the school of Iraq, the methodology used by the early Muslims of Iraq to establish what constituted the Book and Sunnah in that region, so we find that Imam Malik, who lived all his life in Madinah al-Munawwarah, the “Illuminated City”, was in fact the foremost exponent of the school of Madinah and passed down to posterity the methodology used by the people of Madinah in their implementation of the Book and Sunnah. The situation of Madinah was completely different to that of Iraq. Madinah was the place where much of the Qur’an was revealed, the place where Allah’s deen became established as a living social and political reality. It was in Madinah that Islam became flesh and bones and took on its definitive,final form.

So whereas in Iraq it became necessary to work out how Islam could be implemented in the new situation (as islam was being integrated into persian society), in Madinah it was simply a matter of preserving unchanged what was already there. In the time of Imam Malik in Madinah people were doing the prayer, making hajj, doing wudu’, collecting zakah, carrying on every aspect of their lives as Muslims in exactly the same way that they had been doing without interruption from the time of the Prophet less than a century earlier. And, moreover, there had been conscious effort expended to ensure that the original teaching and practice of Islam remained unaltered in Madinah, borne out by the injunction of Sayyidina Umar ibn al-Khattab رضي الله عنه, forbidding knowledgeable Companions from leaving the city, precisely so that the body of knowledge and practice which constituted Islam in action in the world would remain whole and intact and would not become dispersed and fragmented. In Madinah, therefore, transmission of the deen was immediate and direct. As Malik himself said, “If you want knowledge, then take up residence (i.e. in Madinah). The Qur’an was not revealed on the Euphrates (i.e. in Iraq).

This leads us to the vital difference between the Iraqi and Madinan schools. In Iraq, as we have seen, it was a question of taking the available knowledge of the Book and Sunnah, understanding what was intended, and applying it in the new environment, giving rise to what became known as the school of ra’i (opinion). In Madinah the Book and Sunnah were established as an integral element of the community – daily life in Madinah was the Book and Sunnah in action – so in Madinah it was simply a matter of absorbing and taking on the practice of the people there which had been preserved and transmitted unchanged, with the conscious collaboration of two generations of brilliant scholars, to be inherited and encapsulated and passed on to all subsequent generations by Imam Malik ibn Anas, rahimahullah, as the school of the ‘amal ahli’l- Madinah (the practice of the people of Madinah).

It is also acknowledged unanimously by the early ‘ulama of Islam that no bid‘ah (innovation) entered Madinah during the first three generations, meaning the generation of the Prophet and his Companions, their successors and their successors, the Followers of the Followers, one of whom was Imam Malik. So up until the time of Imam Malik nothing extraneous to the Deen, with regard to the Deen, entered into the environment where they lived. In other words what Imam Malik received and what he passed on to his students, and down to our own time in his great work al-Muwatta, was nothing other than the whole body of the Deen that had come down through those three generations to him in Madinah al-Munawwarah. Imam Malik himself expressed the nub of this matter very cogently in a famous letter he sent to al-Layth ibn Sa‘d in which he wrote:

Allah Almighty says in His Mighty Book: The Outstrippers, the first of the Muhajirun and Ansar. (9:100). Allah Almighty further says: So give good news to My slaves, those who listen well to what is said and then follow the best of it. (39:18). It is essential to follow the people of Madinah. The Hijrah was made to it, the Qur’an was sent down in it, and the halal was made halal and the haram was made haram there. The Messenger of Allah was among them and they were present when the Revelation was revealed. He instructed them and they obeyed him. He imparted the Sunnah to them and they followed it until Allah caused him to die and chose for him what is with Him, may the blessings of Allah and His mercy and favour be upon him always. Then after his death, the Muslims followed those from among his community who were given authority after him. When something happened which they already knew how to deal with, they did so. If they had no knowledge of the matter in question, they asked about it and then followed the best line they could. In this they were helped by having very recently been in personal contact (with the Prophet) … Then the Tabi‘un after them travelled this path and followed those sunan. If there is a practice which is clearly acted upon in Madinah, I do not think that anyone may oppose it because of the inheritance that the people of Madinah received which no one else can lay claim to. If the people of any other city were to say, “This is the practice in our city,” or “This is what those before us used to do,” that would not be permissible for them.

What is very evident from all this is that, for the Madinans, the Sunnah was defined by what had been done much more than what had been said. It was a matter of transmitted action rather than transmitted text. Zayd ibn Thabit رضي الله عنه, the famous Companion, stated, “When you see the people of Madinah doing something, know that it is the Sunnah.” This is a very important distinction in the light of developments, which, as we shall see, were shortly to follow and which were to meld together the two terms Sunnah and hadith and make them virtually indistinguishable one from the other. Understanding this point is pivotal to grasping the nature of the Madinan school and its methodology. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab stated on the mimbar, “By Allah Almighty I will make it difficult for a man who relates a hadith different from it (the ‘amal).” Ibn al-Qasim and Ibn Wahb said, “I saw that in Malik’s opinion ‘amal (transmitted practice) was stronger than hadith (transmitted statement).” Malik said, “The people of knowledge among the Followers would sometimes transmit a hadith which had been conveyed to them from others and then say, ‘We are not ignorant of this, but the ‘amal which has come down to us from the past is other than it.’”

Malik said, “I saw Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr ibn ‘Amr ibn Hazm who was a Qadi. His brother was ‘Abdullah, a truthful man who knew a lot of hadith. When Muhammad gave a judgment in respect of which a hadith had come contrary to it, I heard ‘Abdullah criticise him, saying, ‘Hasn’t this and this come in this hadith?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ His brother said to him, Then what is wrong with you? Why don’t you give judgment by it?’ He said, ‘Where are the people with respect to it?’ meaning what is the consensus regarding the actual practice in Madinah? He meant that the practice is stronger than the hadith regarding it.” Ibn Mahdi, who died in 186 AH and was one of the greatest hadith scholars of his time in Madinah, said, “It may be that I know a hadith on a subject and then I find that the people of the courtyard do something different from that. Therefore it becomes weak in my estimation.” And finally there is the famous statement of Rabi‘a, “I prefer a thousand from a thousand – in other words the established practice in Madinah – over one from one – meaning a singly narrated hadith – even if it is sound, because one from one can strip the Sunnah out of your hands.

So from what we have seen it is clear that for Imam Malik and the people of Madinah, applying the Book and Sunnah basically constituted taking on unchanged the body of lived practice which had come down to them in their city uninterruptedly from the time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and his Companions,  ajma’in. We now arrive at the third of our madhhabs, that of Imam Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi‘i, rahimahullahu ta’ala. Imam ash-Shafi‘i was born in Makkah in the year of Imam Abu Hanifa’s death, 150AH, and pursued his early studies there under teachers steeped in the fiqh and tafsir of the great Companion ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Abbas, رضي الله عنه, which was to prove a strong influence on Imam ash-Shafi‘i later in his life. Although he reached a high level of proficiency in his studies he was not satisfied with what he had learned and travelled north to Madinah to sit at the feet of Imam Malik whom he was to consider the “Luminous Star” among the many teachers under whom he studied. He stayed with Imam Malik until 179AH when he died, although it is known that during that time he visited other places for short periods in search of knowledge.

After Imam Malik’s death Imam ash-Shafi‘i was appointed Qadi in Najran by the governor of Yemen. He remained there for five years but his uncompromising implementation of justice and his condemnation of all injustice made him unpopular with those in power and they slandered him to the khalifah accusing him of rebellion and he was sent to Baghdad in 184AH for trial. He exonerated himself but did not return to Yemen, remaining in Iraq and studying with Muhammad ash-Shaybani, the close follower of Imam Abu Hanifa. After a couple of years he returned to his birthplace, Makkah and it was there that his career as a teacher really started. He remained in Makkah for almost ten years and then visited Baghdad for the second time in 195AH, staying there on this occasion for about two years. He returned again to Baghdad in 198AH and then went on from there in 199AH to Egypt where he spent the remainder of his life, dying in Fustat on the last day of Rajab 204AH at the age of 54.

The reason for dwelling for some time on the varied movements of Imam ash-Shafi‘i during the course of his life is because it has a considerable bearing on the development of the method by which he determined what constituted the Book and Sunnah. Both Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik remained comparatively stationary throughout their lives, which meant that the source of their knowledge was geographically limited and therefore quite consistent in its approach to the deen. As we have seen Imam ash-Shafi‘i, on the other hand, travelled a lot and because of this saw many different approaches taken to the deen. In fact it is true to say that he learned the fiqh of most of the schools existing in his time.

He started by learning the fiqh of Ibn Abbas in Makkah. He went on to learn the fiqh of Imam Malik in Madinah. He learned the fiqh of al-Awza’i, the school of Syria, from his companion, ‘Umar ibn Abi Salam. He learned the fiqh of Imam Abu Hanifa, the Iraqi school, from his follower Muhammad ash-Shaybani and he learned the fiqh of al-Layth ibn Sa‘d, the faqih of Egypt. As we have seen, there was a considerable difference between the Madinan and Iraqi schools and this was equally the case with all the other schools, with the result that quite distinct judgements were being made about almost identical issues in different areas. Because of his wide learning Imam ash-Shafi‘i was well aware of these differences and it became clear to him that, unless a uniform system of coming to judgment was devised and imposed, there was a very real danger of Islam becoming divergent. He saw that it might rapidly become changed out of all recognition from the original teaching as it had been implemented by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and the first community in Madinah.

In order to combat this clearly perceived threat – that Islam might suffer the fate of previous revelations by becoming changed and adulterated from its original form due to increasingly divergent rulings on virtually identical situations (the sahaba themselves differed in there opinions on matters, Imam Ali in Iraq held different views than the companions in medina so while one madhab followed the companions in Iraq others followed those in Medina. The companions where well aware of this matter and the prophet (pbuh) spoke about differences in fiqh, simply put what is clear is clear but when new matters arise differences will inevitably occur) – Imam ash-Shafi‘i devised a brilliant system to ensure uniformity of legal decision-making and to prevent any further dispersal and dilution of the original teachings of Islam (this is true in terms of protecting the religion from new interpretations that contradicted the original meanings becouse people from different societies percieved matters differently, what he achieved was not in terms of unifying the madhhabs on one opinion on every fiqh issue since this was a matter beyond anyones ability due to the differences the sahaba held over issues and them having died out). He did this during his long stay in his birthplace, Makkah, to which he returned after his first visit to Iraq, and it is significant that he based his system on his earliest studies oft he knowledge and methodology of the great Companion, Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him and his father.

The teaching of Ibn ‘Abbas was firmly based on his explanation of the text of the Qur‘an for which he had received explicit permission from the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. The Qur‘an is, of course, a book, the Book, and for that reason a major element in the methodology transmitted from Ibn ‘Abbas was textual analysis involving detailed examination of the text itself. This involved a concern with (reffering to types of verses in the Quran) the mujmal (unspecified) and mufassal (detailed), the mutlaq (unrestricted) and muqayyad (qualified) and the khass (specific) and the ‘amm (general). In the hands of Imam ash-Shafi‘I this type of textual analysis produced a new discipline for fuqaha which had not previously existed although all the elements of it had been present ( It helped scholars prioratise and catogarise the sources of islam which gave new generations of scholars a clear picture of the subject matter).

This detailed examination of the written word formed the core of the methodology for which Imam ash-Shafi‘i became famous and was the cornerstone of his system for ascertaining an authoritative and consistent standard for what constitutes the Book and Sunnah. He founded a systematic method of deduction which allowed judgments to be made on the basis of sound textual evidence and did not accept the latitude in the derivation of judgments which, as we have seen, had existed up until then ( hence until Imam Shafii gave scholars these tools they ruled based upon what they new and in this manner the Prophet said “If a judge makes a ruling, striving to apply his reasoning (ijtihad) and he is correct, then he will have two rewards; and if a judge makes a ruling, striving to apply his reasoning and he is mistaken, then he will have one reward.”Muslim) . Under Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s system no opinion could be expressed which could not be traced to an authenticated text and so the possibility of innovation in the Shari’ah became vastly reduced. In this rigorous reliance on texts, however, lie both the strengths and weaknesses of Imam Ash-Shafi‘i’s superlative system.

It certainly fulfilled its intended task of halting the accelerating break-up in the homogeneity of the practice of Islam in the various areas of the Muslim world of that time and ensured a consistency of practice which was to safeguard the integrity of Islam right down to our own time. Indeed it is true to say that it is largely due to Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s superlative system that we owe the extraordinary uniformity of Islamic practice throughout the world, so that even today 1200 years later, wherever a Muslim travels in the world, despite all the geographical, ethnic and cultural differences which undoubtedly exist, there is no significant difference in any of the basic practices of Islam. This is a tremendous achievement. Another thing is that, because of the need for trustworthy textual evidence on which to base actions and judgments, it became necessary to collect together as many sound traditions from the Prophet as possible. This in turn led to the great hadith collections and all the sciences of hadith which were devised to ensure their authenticity, and it is significant that nearly all of the great hadith collections were put together by scholars who were adherents of the Shafi‘i madhhab.

However what this also meant was that both the Book and Sunnah became restricted in a way that had not previously been the case. Until that time the Sunnah had consisted in the transmitted practice of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and the first community of Muslims in Madinah. In many cases there was textual corroboration of the actions concerned but in many other instances the practice in question had simply been passed down from one generation to the next without there being any textual justification for it. Thus the Sunnah was an organic pattern of behaviour, consisting of the implementation of Allah’s guidance in the Qur’an by the first Muslims under the direction of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم, covering every aspect of life. This was passed down as a direct inheritance by two generations from those who brought it into being. The Sunnah was, in broad brush strokes, the way the first generations of Muslims had lived, and continued to live, their daily lives, particularly in Madinah. They made a continual and conscious effort to avoid admitting any change into what had come down to them and the men of knowledge among them spent their lives preserving it.

So up until Imam ash-Shafi‘i came along the Sunnah was in many cases simply the way the Muslims lived their lives protected by men of knowledge whose lives were dedicated to ensuring that no change occurred in what they had received from the past. After Imam ash-Shafi‘i, however, and his insistence on textual justification for action, the Sunnah became more and more identified with hadiths (it was inevitable since the men of the sunnah died out and Islam spread across the world, a method was needed for those who did not have the benefit of living in madina in a specific period of time in history). This meant that unless there was an actual text explicitly authorising a particular action it was no  longer considered to be part of the Sunnah, even if it had been practised by the Muslims from the earliest times. (I should point to the fact the respected Author of the work is a Maliki scholar and he is refering to the Maliki madhhabs use of the Amal (actions) of the people of Madina as a source for legislation in place of hadith, while the essence of the Authors argument is correct the specific issues are beyond the scope of anyone but the prophet or companions to rectify and neither are alive today. It is simply a flaw inherant in learning any issue from a book. The Maliki point is a sound argument since you cant ascribe coruption to the time of Imam Malik, the other three madhhabs did not accept the Amal (actions) of the people of madina as a source of legislation or rather in terms of priority they did not place it above explicit hadith. both positions have great merit and little negativity, it is simply a matter of saying which opinion do you hold more correct when both opinions are right) 

So we can say that in his exposition of the rulings of the deen, in other words his implementation of the Book and Sunnah, Imam ash-Shafi‘i relied almost entirely on the outward and apparent indication of texts. He disapproved of both the Iraqi and Madinan approaches to fiqh because the former tended to be based on the principle perceived to be governing a particular transmitted ruling and depended on the state of the faqih making the judgment and of the latter because of its tendency to accept transmitted rulings which had no textual authority to support them. As we have seen, Imam ash-Shafi‘i based his system almost entirely on texts and took a more literal and objective approach to them, causing him perhaps to err on the side of caution.

He took upon himself the task of setting out the principles for a consistent methodology of deduction to provide guidance for all those qualified to make judgments in the deen and to formulate the criteria involved. He set out a universal system founded on firm principles, not contingent upon  opinion or precedent or the resolution of hypothetical questions, and succeeded in devising a methodology for all subsequent scholars and judges to follow. His influence on the later development of Islam cannot be overstated and it is fair to say that the Islam we have inherited today is in no small part due to the system which Imam ash-Shafi‘i formulated twelve centuries ago. (all madhhabs adopted Imam shafii’s principles after him and developed there own based on the teachings of there Mujtahids. It is actually more correct to say they went over the works of the Imams and looked at the principles implicit in the them and explictly stated and catogarised them for later generations, so there was a re-assesment of matters in light of the new methods of research and investigation, for example after the time of Imam Shafii and the Hanafi madhhab adopting his views there scholars where no longer called ahl al ra’i).

We now come to the last of the four Imams who have given their names to the madhhabs followed by the Muslims, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. There is, however, a marked difference between Imam Ahmad and the other imams. The three earlier imams all definitely represented a particular methodology: Imam Abu Hanifa the Iraqi school of opinion; Imam Malik the Madinan school of direct transmission; and Imam ash-Shafi‘i his own system based on textual analysis. Imam Ahmad, on the other hand, cannot be said to have devised a particular methodology of fiqh. The great historian of Islam, at-Tabari, for instance, did not even include the madhhab of Imam Ahmad when discussing the early fuqaha. He said  of him: “He was a man of hadith not a man of fiqh.”

Qadi ‘Iyad states in his great book Tartib al-Madarik: “He was less than an imam in fiqh although he was brilliant in investigation of its sources.” And there were many other great ‘ulama who did not consider him the founder of a school of fiqh. Indeed he only became an imam in fiqh after his death and that was because some of his students collected together his statements, fatwahs and opinions, forming a legal corpus which was posthumously ascribed to him. Sometimes the transmissions from him varied considerably and sometimes they agreed. We will understand more of this ambivalence about his status as a faqih if we look at his life and how he studied and taught during the course of it.

He was born in Baghdad in Rabi‘ al-Awwal 164AH, half a generation after Imam ash-Shafi‘i, making him, historically speaking, the last of our four imams. This fact and the fact that he was born in Baghdad have a considerable bearing on the course his life and studies were to take. By the time Imam Ahmad came into the world and was brought up in Baghdad, the ‘Abbasid caliphate was thoroughly established and Baghdad had become a truly cosmopolitan imperial capital, a world away from the Madinan environment in which Islam had originally been established. By Imam Ahmad’s time Persian elements had come to dominate Arab elements and the sophistication of Persian civilisation was in the ascendance in general throughout the Muslim world. The cities of Islam were inundated with differing nations and races, and texts of all kinds were being translated from Persian, Syriac, Greek, Latin and other languages into Arabic. The result of this was that the more or less homogenous cultural environment of early Islam had become fragmented as all these different influences became part and parcel of the Islamic world. Add to this the clash of earlier religious traditions together with the attempts of their adherents to mould Islam towards their own world views and the result was an ambience, both religious and physical, which would have been all but unrecognisable to the first generations of Muslims.

This was what confronted Ahmad ibn Hanbal as he grew up in the ‘Abbassid capital and, as a pure-hearted, intelligent, deeply pious youth, he was left with the quandary of how, in the light of all the sophisticated deviation he was facing, he could regain something of the light, clarity and simplicity of the formative early days of Islam. The way he went about achieving his aim has already been indicated in the quotation from at-Tabari – he became a muhaddith. In order to get as complete and detailed a picture as possible of the life of the first community he devoted himself to accumulating the maximum possible number of reports from that time, not only from the Prophet  صلى الله عليه وسلم, himself but also from the Companions, ajma‘in.

So from very early in his life Imam Ahmad chose the men of hadith and their method and dedicated himself to it, to the extent that it certainly appeared that he had taken the path of the hadith scholars rather than that  of those who combined fiqh with hadith. In his search for hadiths Imam Ahmad travelled widely throughout the heartlands of Islam and may have been the first muhaddith to collect the hadiths of every region of the Muslim world and record them. Another thing which marked him out was his use of the pen in his compilation of hadith. In spite of his well known prodigious memory Imam Ahmad wrote down the hadiths he collected. The end result of all this hadith recording which started when he was sixteen years old and continued through much of his life was his great Musnad which contains almost thirty thousand hadiths.

For Imam Ahmad the Musnad was like a great painting in which the myriad reports it contained were the individual brush strokes which together made up the most accurate portrayal he could possibly convey of what the deen of Islam had been like in its original, pristine condition. It was this picture, made up of sayings of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and reports and decisions from the Companions,   ajma’in, which was the bedrock on which Imam Ahmad built his life and on which he based all his judgments. In as far as he had a methodology for deriving judgments from these sources, he depended upon Imam ash-Shafi‘i under whom he studied and who was one of his most revered teachers. When he met Imam ash-Shafi‘i he learned the rules for sound understanding of the Book and reports of the Sunnah, comparison of textual sources, knowledge of the abrogating and abrogated, and in general how to deduce secondary rulings from the basic sources of the Shari’ah. So in this respect he was certainly not the same as the other three imams, each of whom had their own very distinct methodology for deriving judgments in the deen.

Another reason, perhaps, why Imam Ahmad was made the founder of a new school of fiqh was because of his absolutely exemplary character which inspired many people to take him as a model during his own lifetime. There is no doubt that all four imams were impeccable in their  personal behaviour and all of them had superlative qualities of character that marked them out among their contemporaries. Imam Ahmad, however, had a reputation for saintliness which outshone all of them. From his earliest youth he was famous for his incorruptible integrity which was put a severe test later in his life when he, unlike almost all his contemporaries, suffered over two years of imprisonment and constant severe beatings rather than adopt the rationalist Mu‘tazili doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an which had become official Abbasid government policy and which was clearly contrary to the position held by the early Muslims. This event also showed his steadfastness and patience which saw him through the many other difficult periods which punctuated his long life.

Other qualities he possessed were great generosity in spite of scant means, transparent sincerity, scrupulousness and abstinence, modesty and cheerfulness, and a natural authority which ensured that people paid attention to what he said. So strong was his connection with the early days of Islam, and so brightly was light of that time reflected in all he said and did, that some of his contemporaries described him as being a great Follower removed from his proper time. All these things and his status as a man of knowledge meant that when he died on 12th Rabi‘ al-Awwal 241AH more than three hundred thousand people joined his funeral procession. All in all then it must be said that from very early times there has  been much discussion about whether Imam Ahmad can really be said to have been the founder of a separate madhhab. It is certainly clear that he was in a different category to the other three, who all represented very specific methodologies in their implementation of the Book and Sunnah. He was definitely one of a kind in terms of the time and place where he lived and ploughed his own furrow in his determination to cleave as closely as he possibly could to the path followed by the first community in Madinah, remaining absolutely orthodox in his views while at the same time being somewhat at odds with the prevailing ethos surrounding him. This is significant in the light of some of those who were to adopt him as their imam in fiqh later on, several of whom were people who found themselves at odds with the authorities of their own time and found in Imam Ahmad a way of remaining firmly within the bounds of orthodox Muslim belief and practice while at the same time differentiating themselves from the power structure of their time.

He himself said, “A man should not set himself up to give independent judgment about the deen unless he possesses five qualities. He must have a clear intention because unless he has he will have no light. He must have knowledge, forbearance, gravity and tranquillity. He must be firm in his knowledge. He must be independent and not dependent on other people. And he must be known to people.” There are few people in the history of Islam who have fulfilled these criteria to the extent that Imam Ahmad himself did. So what can certainly be said is that Imam Ahmad was a mujtahid of the very highest rank, absolutely able to make independent judgments concerning matters of the deen. That does not in itself, however, automatically make him the founder of an independent school of fiqh and, if he was, it was certainly in a very different way to that of his three pre-eminent predecessors.

Seeing Imam Ahmad’s work in this light, as an heroic attempt to recapture both for himself and his contemporaries the ethos of what was already by his time a bygone age, we are left with three distinct methodologies each of which aimed in their own way to embrace and define the Book and Sunnah and pass it on to subsequent generations.

The first was the Iraqi school also known as the “School of Opinion”, definitively formulated by Imam Abu Hanifa and known to future generations as the Hanafi Madhhab. The essence of this methodology was that, in the absence of a known, direct precedent, a new ruling could be made on the basis of understanding the legal purpose behind a previous ruling from the Book or Sunnah about a similar situation and analogously attributing that same legal aim to the new situation. In other words it aimed to distil certain legal principles from the body of the Book and Sunnah which could then be applied as new circumstances demanded. This process was obviously subject to great knowledge of the sources, scrupulous piety, and a rigorous adherence accepted limits on the part of the faqih concerned but it nevertheless allowed a certain leeway in the definition of what could be included within the parameters of the Book and Sunnah. For this reason it was an ideal system for those entrusted with the governance and administration of the Ummah and it is noteworthy that the first great power structure of Islam, the Abbasid Caliphate, was based in Iraq and that the two main dynasties of later times, the Osmanli Dawla and the Mughal Empire, who between them ruled over the vast majority of the Muslim world for centuries, both appointed the Hanafi Madhhab as the official legal modality of their administrative systems.

The Madinan school, definitively formulated by Imam Malik and outlined in his great work al-Muwatta, took a very different approach. For the Madinans the Book and Sunnah were a matter of direct transmission. They were simply what had been passed down and conscientiously and scrupulously preserved through the two generations that had elapsed since the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and his Companions, ajma’in, as a lived reality. The textual sources were, for them, sounding boards or yardsticks against which their ongoing practice should be measured to make sure that there was no deviation and the road remained clearly delineated. The proof that the deen could be transmitted in this way is shown by the fact that the third generation received it in this way from the second, none of whom had had direct personal contact with the original phenomenon. The school of the ‘amal ahli’l-Madinah (the practice of the people of Madinah) flowed in a river of transmission down through the centuries along the North African coast and then into West Africa with small pockets remaining in the Arabian peninsular. It is significant that Qadi ‘Iyad in his great work Tartib al-Madarik, which traces the history of the Madinan school down to his own time, does not dwell on the texts written within it over the centuries but rather devotes himself to describing the type of men it produced, showing that it remained in his view much more a matter of transmitted behaviour than of recorded judgments.

This is again very different from the approach to the Book and Sunnah adopted by Imam ash-Shafi‘i. As we have seen, in order to counteract the growing tendency towards unacceptable variations in the practice of the deen he had observed on his travels and to preserve Islam within the clear parameters delineated by Allah and His Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم, he devised a system based on rigorous textual analysis of the ayaat of the Qur’an and the hadiths of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. This certainly achieved his desired aim, but at the same time limited the Sunnah to only those actions for which textual evidence could be produced. It is also very different from the Madinan tradition in which the transmitted action exists independently of the text which merely serves to confirm its authenticity. In the Shafi‘i system, on the other hand, the source texts serve as engenderers of action – in effect, the practice of the deen actually derives from the texts themselves.

As was pointed out earlier, this approach necessitated a vast increase in the number of authentic textual sources available and so brought about the development of all the sophisticated sciences surrounding the collection and authentication of hadiths. This and the complex intellectual discipline required to implement Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s demanding criteria, which became known to subsequent generations under the general heading of usul al-fiqh, entailed a new class of specialist scholars who became a necessary element in Islamic society from this time on. And it is true to say that many fuqaha from the other schools soon began to incorporate aspects of Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s methodology into their own procedures to the point that it might almost be said that basically all the scholars of Islam became to a greater or lesser extent adherents of Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s brilliant system.

Two things need to be said at this point as a necessary supplement to what has been discussed so far. The first is there has been no intention, in making these observations about the four madhhabs of Islam, to present a complete picture of any of them. From the beginning each of them included many elements which have not been presented in this analysis and certainly over time each of them developed into highly complex structures about which countless volumes have been written. My purpose has been to highlight certain salient features in each of them in order to show how each of them, in its own way, embodies a specific approach to the matter of exactly what constitutes the deen of Islam. The second point is to reaffirm categorically that every one of them comprises in itself an authentic transmission of the deen down to our own time. Each of them in its traditionally accepted form represents a body of knowledge and practice through which the whole edifice of Islam has been preserved and renewed down through the centuries. It is, however, important to observe that each of them is self-consistent, that each of them is the result of that particular methodology which brought it into being and, therefore, that it is not possible to chop and change indiscriminately between them.

Each must be taken as a whole and applied as it has come down in its accepted form.


Supplementary to the Article

Since the article doesnt give a complete Picture of Imam Ahmads Madhhab i thought i would add the following from various sources to clarify the issue further.

The Basic Sources of Law: Imam Ahmad’s usul al-fiqh

The founders of the four mathabs, Imams Abu Hanifa Al-Nu`man, Malik bin Anas, Muhammad bin Idris Al-Shadi`i, and Ahmad bin Hanbal (may Allah be pleased with them all), were not arbitrary in forming their legal opinions. Each one of these imams had a legal theory regarding legal sources of law, the principles for interpreting these sources, and an actual methodology for applying these principles.

The four schools agree one the use of Qur’an, hadith, scholarly consensus (ijma`), and analogical reasoning (qiyas). But even though the schools agree on the use of these four sources, there are slight differences in how each one is used. In addition, each school adds additional sources to this list.

This leads to the obvious conclusion that differences the usul lead to differences in the furu`.

It also leads to a less obvious conclusion that we cannot determine which opinion is strongest until we have determined which usul is strongest. This is not always a trivial task.

As for the usul of the Hanbali mathab, the basic list, since at least the times of Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziya, includes five:

1.      Al-Nass which includes the Qur’an and accounts from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) that are rigorously- or well- authenticated (respectively: sahih, hasn)

2.      A fatwa from one of the Companions when the other Companions (Allah be well pleased with them one and all) are not known to differ with it

3.      When there is a difference of opinion between the Companions (Allah be well pleased with them one and all), then whichever one is closest to the Qur’an and sunna; if it was not clear which opinion was closest, then he would mention that there is a difference of opinion without being convinced [of the superiority of any particular one]

4.      Hadiths that are mursal, where one of the tabi`in (someone who met at least one of the Companions (Allah be well pleased with them)) ascribes a hadith to the Prophet without mentioning the narrator(s) between himself and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace);
Hadiths which are weakly authenticated (da`if) when there is nothing to refute it, however there is disagreement concerning the meaning of “dha`if” here

5.      Analogical reasoning (qiyas)

But as Imam Muhammad Abu Zahrah points out in his book concerning Imam Ahmad, the picture is a just bit more complicated than that. As a minimum, we can add the following to the list:

6.      Al-Istishab, which is projecting a known ruling into the past or present

7.      Al-Masalih Al-Mursala, which looking at the public interest

8.      Al-Thar`i, which is giving something the ruling of that which is leads to

This, in sha Allah, gives a very general and simplified picture of Hanbali usul. For more information on individual topics, please consult an Arabic Hanbali usul reference, or see Kamali’s Principles Of Islamic Jurisprudence.


From Kamali’s Principles Of Islamic Jurisprudence;

  • The basic outline of the four principal sources of the law that al-Shafi’i spelled out was subsequently accepted by the generality of ulema, although each of the various schools of jurisprudence has contributed towards its further development. The Hanafis, for example, added istihsan, and custom (‘urf) to the usul al-fiqh, and the Malikis reduced the concept of consensus (ijma’) to the Madinese consensus only, while the Hanbali approach to the subject closely resembled that of the Malikis. But even so, none departed significantly from the basic principles which al-Shafi’i had articulated. [Badran, Usul,P. 14.]
  • The ulema are in agreement that the specific (Khass) of the Qur’an (and of Sunnah) is definitive, but they are in disagreement as to whether the general (‘Amm) is definitive or speculative. The Hanafis maintain that the ‘Amm is definitive and binding: but the Malikis, Shafi’is and Hanbalis hold that the ‘Amm by itself is speculative and open to qualification and specification.
  • There is general agreement to the effect that the Khass is definitive (qat’i) in its import, but the ulema have differed as to whether the ‘Amm is definitive or speculative (zanni). According to the Hanafis, the application of ‘Amm to all that it includes is definitive, the reason being that the language of the law is usually general and if its application were to be confined to only a few of the cases covered by its words without a particular reason or authority to warrant such limited application, the intention of the Lawgiver would be frustrated.[49. Shatibi, Muwafaqat, III, 153; Abu Zahrah, Usul, p.124; Abdur Rahim, Jurisprudence, p. 82.] The majority of ulema, including the Shafi’is, Malikis and Hanbalis, maintain on the other hand that the application of ‘Amm to all that it includes is speculative as it is open to limitation and ta’wil, and so long as there is such a possibility, it is not definitive. The result of this disagreement becomes obvious in the event of a conflict between the ‘Amm of the Qur’an and the Khass of the Hadith, especially the weak or the solitary Hadith. According to the majority view, a solitary Hadith may specify a general provision of the Qur’an, for the ‘Amm of Qur’an is zanni and the Khass of a solitary Hadith, although definitive in meaning, is of speculative authenticity. A zanni may be specified by a qat’i or another zanni.[50. Abu Zahrah, Usul, p.125; Badran, Usul, p.381.] To the Hanafis, however, the ‘Amm of Qur’an is definite, and the solitary Hadith, or qiyas for that matter, is speculative. A definitive may not be limited nor specified by a speculative.

The terms Khass and Amm refer to types of verses in the Quran, specific (Khass) verses which are clear or general (Amm) verses which have a wide understanding in scope. The section on Usul al Fiqh in the main page follows the same contents as Principles Of Islamic Jurisprudence by Kamali, the work covers the tools of Usul al Fiqh and how each madhhab viewed and applied it.

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