On the Four Schools of Jurisprudence

Question and answer details
Hasyir bin Hamid
Could you please tell me more about the four imams? Thank you very much.
Ahmad Saad
Salam, Hasyir.

Thanks a lot for this question that requires really lengthy answer, as in fact telling the story of the four main Imams needs volumes indeed.

However, let's make the best use of this opportunity in reminding you and our honorable readers on some important facts that explain our juristic heritage and above all, our religion.

The Prophet and Divine Guidance

Let's start from the beginning from the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when guidance regarding daily situations and solutions for any problems was simply derived directly from the Quran and the actual example of the Prophet himself.

From that time till today, the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet which includes his sayings, actions and agreements constitute the main sources for practice for every Muslim.

Scholars normally go directly to the Quran and the Sunnah to get solutions for people's problems and answers for their queries. With this understanding, we can say that whatever shows up in the life of a Muslim should be addressed in light of the Quran and the Sunnah and that should be the main madhhab (school of thought) everyone bears in his mind.

The Companions and Practicing Ijtihad

After the Prophet's death, some of the Companions took the responsibility of finding answers to the juristic questions of people by looking into the Quran, the Prophet's Sunnah and, in case the issue is totally new and has not been addressed before, they may try to draw an analogy between it and a similar issue that happened during the Prophet's life.

Sometimes there would be no similar incident in the Prophet's life that could be used as a reference and in that situation, the Companions used to find a new verdict based on the general guidelines of the Quran and the Sunnah and this simply paved the way to the term 'ijtihad' to come into formulation.

Yet, not all the Companions were taking care of this important task, it was only some of them who were known of their deep knowledge of Islamic law and Prophet's judgments. Amongst these were the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs as well as Abdullah ibn Masud, Abu Musa Al-Ashari, Ubay ibn Kab, Zayd ibn Thabit and Muadh ibn Jabal.

In their process of ijtihad, the Companions were always in the habit of deducting the ruling from the apparent literal meaning of a text or from the reason or the wisdom behind a ruling stated in the text, and this latter one paved the way to the establishment of what was later called 'analogical deduction' or 'qiyas'.

The Era of the Successors

During the time of the Successors, the same methodology, with a bit of expansion and focus on ijtihad, continued and new names appeared including Salim ibn Abdillah ibn Umar, Nafi the freed-slave of Abdullah ibn Umar, Ibn Shihab Az-Zuhri, Alqamah ibn Qays from Iraq, Ata ibn Abi Rabah of Makkah, and Umar ibn Abd Al-Aziz in the Levant.

The same way of dealing with religious issues continued later on but it started to take the form of established discipline of knowledge as the Islamic state expanded immensely and the whole age was called the age of recording or writing down various branches of knowledge.

The Evolution of Madhhabs (Schools of Jurisprudence)

With the collections of Hadith being introduced and the new challenges facing a civilized society, there appeared a need for established discipline bearing in mind that not everyone can find a solution for his problem and someone who can find such a solution has himself to be qualified.

The disagreement over the areas that can be covered by qiyas, the apparent and the non-apparent meanings of texts, what constitutes 'consensus of the Companions', we could find ourselves in an age of the appearance of great Imams who laid the foundation for Islamic schools of thought.

Imam Abu Hanifah An-Numan

Imam Abu Hanifah happened to be the first as he was born in 80 AH and died 150 AH. Born in Kufa, a big city in Iraq which was in close touch with the former Persian Empire, the Imam found that many issues have not been witnessed before in Arabia because of the simple life the Arabs had compared to the more advanced one he had at his time.

It was because of this that Abu Hanifah's approach was more to look into the objectives, the wisdom more than the literal understanding of the texts. That is why we read in books speaking about this era that Abu Hanfiah belonged to the school of opinion.

This means that he was searching for the wisdom behind texts in order to be able to provide solutions to the brand new issued in the light of the objective rather than the letter of text that sometimes leads to restrictions which do not suit the main objective of Shariah, that is, to remove hardship and difficulty.

Imam Malik ibn Anas

The second Imam was Malik ibn Anas who was born in Madinah in 93 AH and due to his upbringing and the nature of environment and his close contact with the Companions of the Prophet, he was able to access many hadiths.

Imam Malik gets the credit of classifying hadiths in a juristic way as he wrote the well-known volume Al-Muwatta where he implemented that way. The simple life in Madinah did not require much ijtihad as the challenges were of another kind.

Imam Ash-Shafi

The third Imam Ash-Shafi was born in 150 AH in Gaza although his lineage ends to the tribe of Quraish. Ash-Shafi traveled to Madinah and heard from Imam Malik and traveled to Iraq where he established his school of thought taking into consideration the environment and the challenges.

By the lapse of time, Imam Ash-Shafi himself moved to Egypt and there he revisited some of his own views and amended them according to the new environment.

This is an indication to everyone at all times that although the views of scholars are respectful and based on their understanding of the text, still they are not holy or untouchable.

They are also subject to scrutiny within the realm of Shariah by qualified scholars who have got the knowledge and the ability to do so.  Such a scrutiny and redressing should happen when new situation occurs.

Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal

The fourth Imam was Ahmad ibn Hanbal who was born in 164 AH and studied under great scholars of Hadith including Sufyan ibn Uyaynah and became a leading scholar of hadith at his time.

Due to Ahmad ibn Hanbal's nature of learning, his school of thought recourse to ijtihad in very limited cases and was giving priority to the Quranic text, Hadith. In case of no clear indication in the Quran and Hadith, they would try the practice of the Companions of the Prophet.

If there are two versions of a text or two texts apparently giving two different opinions, they would accept both and will not try to do much towards giving one of them priority if both are authentic.

In fact, there were many more scholars who had their schools of thought but these four were the ones that gained prominence and spreading. Through this, we can understand that only qualified scholars can evaluate the views of scholars and study their evidence.

Therefore, it is not for a layman to claim that he himself follows a certain madhhab, nor is it necessary for him to do so; rather, he can simply follow the fatwa (opinion) of his Imam or local scholars without having to interfere in what is beyond this because he does not have the specialization to do so.


Although these great scholars held different view regarding certain things, this did not prevent them from respecting each other and appreciating the scholarship of each other.

When Imam Ash-Shafi prayed Fajr near the grave of Abu Hanifah, he did not perform qunut in Fajr which is against his own (i.e. Shafi) opinion and when asked about that, he said that he wanted to show respect to Abu Hanifah who held the view of not performing qunut at that time. (Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, As-Sahwa Al-Islamiya bayan Al-Ikhtilaf Al-Mashru` wat-Tafarruq Al-Madhmum, Dar Al-Wafa Egypt, p. 87)

This shows how dedicated and respectful these people were and that is why Allah gave them prominence. May Allah bless all of them.

I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.


Useful Links:

 Authenticity of Ijtihad




Exceptions to the Rule: An Alternative Shariah?

Islamic Law, Fatwas, and Muslim Scholars Today

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