The understanding of the laws and code of conduct of Islam is something that has constantly been evolving throughout Islamic history. The first generations of Muslims after the Prophet ﷺ had a much easier time understanding what is expected out of them as Muslims because they had access to the Sahaba, the companions of the Prophet ﷺ. As history progressed, however, a need arose to codify Islamic laws into organized and easy to access law codes.
The first person who undertook this monumental task was the great scholar Imam Abu Hanifa. Through his efforts, the first school of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), the Hanafi school, developed. Today, the Hanafi school is the largest and most influential among the four schools (madhabs) of fiqh.
Early Life and Education
Abu Hanifa’s given name was Nu’man ibn Thabit. He was born in 699 in the Iraqi city of Kufa, to a family of Persian origin. His father, Thabit, was a successful businessman in Kufa and thus the young Abu Hanifa intended to follow in his father’s footsteps. Living under the oppressive reign of the governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, Abu Hanifa stayed focused on running the family silk-making business and generally steered clear of scholarship. With the death of al-Hajjaj in 713 came the removal of oppressive policies regarding scholars, and Islamic scholarship soared in Kufa, especially during the reign of Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (717-720).
Thus, by his teenage years, Abu Hanifa began to study under some of the resident scholars of Kufa. He even got the opportunity to meet between eight and ten companions of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, among them Anas ibn Malik, Sahl ibn Sa’d, and Jabir ibn Abdullah. After learning from some of the greatest scholars of Kufa, he went on to study in Makkah and Madinah under numerous teachers, namely Ata ibn Abu Rabah, who was known as one of the greatest scholars of Makkah at the time.
He soon became an expert in the sciences of fiqh (jurisprudence), tafsir (exegesis of the Quran), and kalam (seeking theological knowledge through debate and reason). In fact, the concept of using debate and logic became a cornerstone of his methodology for seeking Islamic laws.
His School of Fiqh
The Imam Abu Hanifa Mosque in Baghdad
Imam Abu Hanifa was a firm believer that a code of laws cannot stay static for too long, at the risk of no longer meeting the needs of the people. Thus he advocated interpreting the sources of Islamic law (usul al-fiqh) in response to the needs of the people at the time. This dynamic form of legalism did not supersede the Quran and Sunnah (sayings and doings of the Prophet ﷺ), of course. Instead, he promoted the use of the Quran and Sunnah to derive laws that addressed the issues that people dealt with at that time.
A major aspect of his methodology was the use of debate to derive rulings. He would commonly pose a legal issue to a group of about 40 of his students, and challenge them to come up with a ruling based on the Quran and Sunnah. Students would at first attempt to find the solution in the Quran, if it was not clearly answered in the Quran, they would turn to the Sunnah, and if it was not there, they would use reason to find a logical solution.
Abu Hanifa based this methodology on the example when Prophet Muhammad ﷺ sent Mu’adh ibn Jabal to Yemen and asked him how he will resolve issues using Islamic law. Mu’adh responded that he would look into the Quran, then the Sunnah, and if he does not find a direct solution there, he would use his best judgement, an answer that Muhammad ﷺ was pleased with.
Using such a process for codifying fiqh, the Hanafi madhab (school of law) was thus founded, based on the rulings of Imam Abu Hanifa, and his prominent students, Abu Yusuf, Muhammad al-Shaybani, and Zuffar. It became the first codified madhab, through the main book of Abu Hanifa’s legal opinions, al-Fiqh al-Akbar.
A map of the distribution of madhab’s worldwide today. The Hanafi madhab is in light green.
Numerous times throughout his later life, Abu Hanifa was offered a position as a chief judge in the city of Kufa. He consistently refused such appointments and thus found himself regularly imprisoned by both the Umayyad and later, the Abbasid authorities. He died in the year 767 while in prison.
A masjid was built in his honor in Baghdad years later, and was renovated in the Ottoman period by the monumental architect Mimar Sinan.
His school of law became very popular in the Muslim world not long after his death. As the official madhab of the Abbasid, Mughal, and Ottoman Empires, his school became very influential throughout the Muslim world. Today, it is very popular in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, the Balkans, Egypt, and the Indian Subcontinent.