Biography of Imam Abu Hanifa (c.699-767)

Abu Hanifa was the founder of one of the four major Sunni Islamic legal schools. He was a theologian and religious lawyer. The law school he founded, the Hanafi, today has the largest following among the Muslim community. A Persian, Abu Hanifa was one of the great jurists of Islam and pioneered the science of jurisprudence (fiqh) that a number of individuals believed was in need of reform due to its lack of systematisation and disagreements over details from one region to the next.

The eighth-century Islamic world was vast but still in its infancy in terms of ideological and legal unity. While the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 meant that there would be no more divine revelation, it was still incumbent upon all Muslims to attempt to follow the correct path, the shari’a, that God had laid down for them in the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an. Muslims also looked to the life and teachings of Muhammad, his sunna, for guidance. Consequently, it was extremely important to determine what exactly the Qur’an dictates and the things that Muhammad said and did. During the period of the first four ‘Rightly-Guided’ (Rashidun) Caliphs, decisions and new concerns were dealt with as they arose. They are considered ‘rightly-guided’ because it is believed they truly followed in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad. The difficulties became more pronounced with the hegemony of the Umayyad dynasty (661– 750, see Mu’awiya) and led to the need for a more systematic legal framework, including the establishment of judges (qadi) who relied upon the prevailing customs of the particular province, together with the Qur’an and the personal judgement of the particular judge. This, however, was hardly satisfactory as – aside from the fact that many judges were not as learned in the nascent Islamic scholarship as they should be – the result was a body of laws that differed from one region to another. The argument ran that if all Muslims were subject to God’s law, then there should not be any difference in law between one Muslim and another, regardless of where they might reside.

By the eighth century, then, a number of Islamic scholars had emerged who attempted to standardise the law, notably Abu Hanifa, Malik ibn Anas, Muhammad al-Shafi’i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who came to be regarded as the founders or leaders of the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali law schools respectively. During the early years of the subsequent rule of the Abbasids (750–1258), these patterns of legalistic inquiry were elaborated upon and developed into a legal code which could be applied across the Islamic Empire. The coming of the Abbasids was accompanied by the creation of a centralised state which was bureaucratically ruled, increasing the need for standardisation and regulation. In addition, the claim to Abbasid legitimacy rested upon a religious justification; that they were more faithful Muslims than their Umayyad predecessors. It was essential, therefore, that what was agreed upon should be in the light of the teachings of Islam. In theory, at least, the judge was to be more independent of the whims of the government, as well as being more learned in Islamic teachings.

Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man ibn Thabit was born around the year 699. His grandfather Zuta is said to have been brought as a slave from Kabul (in east-central Afghanistan and now its capital city) to Kufa (in present-day Iraq), and was subsequently set free by a member of the Arabian tribe of Taym Allah ibn Tha’laba. He and his descendants thus became clients (mawla) of this tribe, and Abu Hanifa is sometimes referred to as ‘al-Taymi’ after the tribal name. He lived in Kufa and worked as a manufacturer and merchant of a kind of silk material called khazz. He also studied religious law and was generally recognised as the foremost authority of shari’a in Kufa. He gathered a large number of disciples to whom he taught religious law, but he never attained the position of judge. Abu Hanifa came to prominence as a teacher, and was not actually involved in the making of Islamic juridical law. The memorisation of the Qur’an and the sunna (collective Traditions of the Prophet), and the collection, elaboration and transmission of this knowledge became Abu Hanifa’s major activity. The Hanafi legal school, while named after Abu Hanifa, was founded by his main pupils, Abu Yusuf and al-Shaybani.

Abu Hanifa’s teachings were elaborated and developed by his disciples and, together with his contemporary, Malik, who was based in Medina, these two could rightly be described as the pioneers in the field of Islamic law. Abu Hanifa did not compose any works on religious law himself. Rather, he discussed his ideas with his disciples who then wrote these down. Some of the resulting works have become the main sources of Abu Hanifa’s doctrine. Muslim scholars wrote the Muslim equivalent of creeds (in Arabic, ‘aqida, which means ‘to bind’ or ‘to contract’) although they never developed into universally uttered summaries of doctrine in the same way as the Christian Nicene Creed. One Muslim creed, known as The Greater Understanding (Fiqh Akbar) was composed for the community, according to tradition, by Abu Hanifa and it is likely that it does at least date back to Abu Hanifa’s own circle of disciples, if not from him personally. The views and methodology endorsed by Abu Hanifa can best be described as rationalist. His school was often called ‘Murji’ite’ (from Arabic irja, meaning ‘postponement’ or ‘deferment’) because they encouraged faith over works: serious sins are offset by faith and punishment for them is not considered to be everlasting.

Consequently, Murji’ites ‘withheld’ judgement on supposed sinners in this world and, rather, adopted a quietist approach. The Murji’ites appear to have emerged as a reaction to the Kharijite (from kharaja, ‘going out’). This group, often extremist in nature, were a meticulously Qur’anically based movement who were strongly egalitarian and puritanical. In their doctrine major sins forfeit salvation making the sinner a de facto apostate which is punishable by death. They had no qualms in punishing sinners in this life. Abu Hanifa, in common with some others who earned the title Murji’i, believed that all Muslims should be given the benefit of the doubt in matters of personal faith. What mattered essentially was the inner conscience of the believer, and that should be judged by God alone.

The Hanafi law school, like that of the Maliki, generally encouraged judges to exercise personal reflection and independent reasoning when reaching decisions: an important principle known in Islamic law as ijtihad. The proviso was that the judges should be sufficiently qualified to engage in such independent reasoning of course, otherwise it would be wiser to imitate (a term known as taqlid) previous decisions by those more qualified. What became of increasing concern – particularly after the time of the influential legal scholar al- Shafi’i – was the greater emphasis on taqlid, even by well-qualified legal scholars, which resulted in the eventual stagnation of Islamic law. Hence Abu Hanifa’s title of ‘rationalist’ in his willingness to engage in reason to determine legal decisions in the spirit of the Qur’an. However, in order to ensure that the decisions arrived at through ijtihad were in the spirit of the Qur’an, and not merely the independent whim of that particular individual, reasoning was carefully circumscribed by usul al-fiqh (the principles of jurisprudence). Qur’anic revelations which were deemed definitive (qat’i), were not open to interpretation. However, many verses are unclear as to whether they are commands or just recommendations, or the exact scope of an injunction is unclear. These speculative verses (zanni) are open to ijtihad. This independent reasoning, however, is not a matter of opinion but is to be understood not only within the context of the Qur’an as a whole, but also from the sources of the Prophet’s own words and deeds, referred to as the sunna, for Muhammad was effectively Islam’s greatest interpreter of the Qur’an as well as its reciter.

Aside from the sources, the Hanafi school developed a methodology in which the underlying principles and divine injunctions can be derived, as well as determining the relative importance of these. This consisted, among other things, of qiyas (analogical reasoning) and istihsan (juristic preference). The latter especially proved controversial among many legal scholars, especially the influential al-Shafi’i who placed much greater emphasis on the authority of the leaders of the first Muslim community (the Companions of the Prophet) and their immediate followers (the Successors). However, istihsan has played an important role in the adaptation of Islamic law to the changing requirements of society. Istihsan allows for greater flexibility and development of law and helps to bridge the gap between law and social reality. The concern is that judges, exercising the rather ambiguous term ‘juristic preference’, can over-rely on istihsan to resolve problems rather than struggle to determine what the myriad injunctions of the Qur’an and sunna may have to say on the matter. Jurists such as al-Shafi’i, as well as legal schools of Shi’a Islam, reject istihsan completely for this reason.

Even more ambiguous was Abu Hanifa’s support for the methodology of ra’y, which can be interpreted as ‘subjective opinion’. These decisions are based on the personal judgement of the jurist and only indirectly on the Qur’an or the Sunna. It was Abu Hanifa’s use of his ‘sound opinion’ in reaching a legal decision that allowed his disciples to add their own reasoning to these opinions, which sometimes led to opinions which differed from those of their teacher. Inevitably, members of the Hanifite law school were not always clear as to which principle overrides which: is analogical reasoning superior to ‘juristic preference’, and what status does ‘subjective opinion’ have in relation to these? While Abu Hanafa initiated a stricter and more methodological approach to legal decisions, its very openness and flexibility could also be to its detriment, hence the reaction against it by al-Shafi’i, among others.

Abu Hanifa died in prison in Baghdad in 767, where he was buried, and where, centuries later in 1066, a dome was built over his tomb. Some believe that he was called to Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, and that he was subsequently imprisoned for refusing to accept the appointment of qadi. Others have said that he was imprisoned because of his support for a Zaydi (a moderate Shi’a group influenced by rationalism) revolt. Among his descendants, his son Hammad and grandson Ismail distinguished themselves in religious law. Many of his followers gained positions of prestige in the Abbasid courts, which is perhaps a reflection of the fact that the Hanafi law school was sufficiently flexible to still allow for the needs of the caliphs, rather than the caliphs being tied by Islamic law. Abu Yusuf, who wrote a treatise on the law of land tax, became the first supreme judge in Islam under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, and gained official sanction for what became known as the Hanafi school of law. The Hanafi school today remains the most liberal of the four established Sunni law schools. Today it is dominant in Central and Western Asia (Afghanistan to Turkey), Lower Egypt (Cairo and the Delta) and the Indian subcontinent.

Source: Roy Jackson, Fiftty Key Figures in Islam, pp. 24-30

Major works

The authorship of the works attributed to Abu Hanifa is dubious. None are available in English at present.

Further reading

There are many excellent works on Islamic law. Patricia Crone’s is perhaps the most controversial, while some studies, such as the Schacht, are somewhat ‘Orientalist’ but still have their uses.

Coulson, Noel J., A History of Islamic Law, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964.

Crone, P., Roman, Provincial and Islamic Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Schacht, Joseph, An Introduction to Islamic Law, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

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