Imam Abu Haneefah

by Adil Salahi Published on: 9th December 2004

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Imam Abu Haneefah developed a science of Islamic law through systematic study of textual evidence and methodic reasoning and his approach had a far reaching impact on the Islamic world and beyond.

This article was written by Adil Salahi and originally published by Impact magazine.

Once upon a time, a pious young man of Persian origin was sitting by the bank of the Tigris river in Iraq when he saw an apple floating on the water. Feeling rather hungry, he picked up the apple and ate it. Then soon afterwards he began to question himself on having eaten something that does not belong to him, without permission by its owner. Therefore he decided to look for the owner. Had the young man been a scholar, he would have known that he could eat the apple without need of permission by anyone. However, he went upstream, looking at houses close to the river, until he saw a house with a garden and an apple tree, full of fruit and with some branches stretching over the water. It was a splendid house, with a large garden. He knocked on the door and asked to see the owner. He was ushered into the presence of an old man with a pleasant face, who seemed to be very decisive in his attitude.

On hearing the story, the house owner reflected a little before saying to the young man that he committed a gross error. He should have known better than seeking forgiveness after the misdeed is done. However, he was prepared to forgive the young man if he would meet his condition. The young man was full of hope, but when he heard the condition, his heart sank. The house owner said to him: I have a daughter of marriageable age, but she is physically and mentally handicapped, and I am worried about what would happen to her after my death. Looking at you, I feel that you could provide her with the care she needs. If you are prepared to marry her, I will forgive you what you have done.

The young man thought hard; then decided that going through life with such a wife was much easier than having to go to hell for his misdeed. Therefore he accepted. Then on the wedding night he was surprised to find his wife a beautiful and well-educated young woman.

It was into that marriage that Imam Abu Haneefah, Numan, was born in Kufah, southern Iraq in 80 A.H. corresponding to 700 CE. He belonged to a business family trading in clothes. Abu Haneefah grew up as a very religious young man, and he memorised the Quran when he was very young. He also began to learn hadith so that he would know how to conduct his life and business in accordance with Islam. He was clear in his mind that he would carry on with his family business, which brought affluence to his family.

His intelligence was evident at an early age. In his youth, he was involved in debates with the adherents of various beliefs and philosophies, relying mainly on his natural instinct. This gave him a good training that was to stand him in good stead in his later pursuit of Islamic studies which he started at the advice of Amir Al-Shaabi, one of the most distinguished scholars of the generation following the Prophet’s companions who said to him: “You should better pursue knowledge and attend the circles of scholars. I can see in you a man with an alert mind and penetrative understanding.”

Since debate was his main hobby, now he began to concentrate on beliefs, learning them in depth. He then travelled frequently to the other centre of learning, Basrah, where he was involved in numerous debates with different groups. But then he felt that such debates were largely a waste of time, and could not bring benefit to anyone. So he turned to the study of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence.

Kufah was a city where different trends of knowledge had converged. Abu Haneefah aimed to achieve full understanding of four trends of fiqh scholarship: 1) Umar’s fiqh based on what benefits people; 2) Ali’s fiqh based on deduction and a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of Islamic law; 3) Abdullah ibn Massoud’s fiqh based on analogy; and 4) Ibn Abbas’s thorough knowledge of the Quran. He learnt from different scholars, but he had a teacher to whose company he committed himself. That was Hammad ibn Abu Sulaiman, a highly distinguished scholar who had studied under Al-shaabi and Ibraheem An-Nakha’ie, two of the most distinguished scholars of the second Islamic generation.

Abu Haneefah also learnt fiqh from other scholars, particularly during his pilgrimage trips. He did the pilgrimage almost every year, absenting himself only when there was an unavoidable reason. On these trips he met numerous scholars and he learnt much through them.

When his teacher, Hammad ibn Abu Sulaiman died in 120 AH, Abu Haneefah, his most distinguished student, took his place and continued his circle. He was soon to acquire great fame for he had added broad scholarship to superb intelligence and an exceptional ability in both analysis and debate. Moreover, he did not stop his business activity. In fact he continued his business, but went into partnership with a friend who was responsible for carrying on with all activities. Abu Haneefah, however, continued to exercise close supervision to ensure full compliance with Islamic law.

Abu Haneefah followed a meticulous method of learning. On the importance of combining the study of fiqh with the study of hadith he says: “Anyone who learns hadith without studying fiqh is like a pharmacist who has all the medicines but does not know for which conditions they are used. He must wait until the doctor comes. A hadith student must also wait for the scholar of fiqh.”

As a teacher, Abu Haneefah followed a method similar to that of Socrates. He did not lecture. Rather, he would present a case to his students and outline the principles that apply to it. That opens the way for a discussion or a debate. Each one was free to express his thoughts on the case. They may agree with him or object to his views. The discussion may even be a heated one. When everyone has had his say and defended his view as forcefully as he could, Abu Haneefah would sum up the discussion and outline the conclusion giving the final verdict. Everyone would accept his final verdict without hesitation. Thus he was able to debate with his students as if he was one of them, and retain the position of the teacher who has the ultimate say. Hence, his students loved him dearly.

But perhaps he loved his students more than they ever loved him. He treated them as a father treats his children. He often gave them grants to cope with their needs. If a student wanted to get married and did not have the means to do so, Abu Haneefah would pay the expenses of his marriage. One of his contemporaries describes this relationship as follows: “He would keep his student in good means, supporting him and his dependents. When he has attained a good standard, he would say to him, ‘Now you have attained what is more valuable than wealth; for now you know what is lawful and what is forbidden.’

His personal qualities had a great influence on his scholarship. One was his independent thinking. He would not accept any verdict on any question unless he had considered it thoroughly, looking at all factors that could influence the final verdict on it. This gave him two highly important scholarly characteristics. The first is his patience and forbearance. He did not use hard words to anyone who attacked him. Once, someone accused him of being a heretic who invented matters that had no basis in Islam. Very calmly, Abu Haneefah said to the man: “May God forgive you, for He knows that I am unlike what you have said. Ever since I came to know Him, I have not transgressed in my beliefs. There is nothing that I hope for more than His forgiveness, and nothing that I fear more than His punishment.” The man asked him earnestly to absolve him of what he said. Abu Haneefah said: “I forgive anyone who says something against me if he is ignorant. If he is a scholar, then the situation is more difficult. A slur by a scholar leaves its trace for long.”

The second characteristic derived from his independent thinking was his courage. He would state his views very clearly, not swerving from any of them for any reason. However, he admitted that he could be mistaken over any question. He frequently repeated to his students: “What we say is merely an expression of an opinion, which is the best we have determined. If anyone comes to us with something better, he is entitled to uphold the truth.” All this gave him a highly respectable status among all who knew him. He added to that a penetrative insight. He was indeed the top scholar of Iraq in his time.

Abu Haneefah never accepted any gift, in cash or kind, from any ruler or governor. In this attitude, he was subsequently joined by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who lived much of his life in poverty. On the other hand, Imam Malik felt that Islamic scholarship had a claim to public funds. He took money from rulers, considering it as a salary, which he used to support his students. El-Shafie used to take an allowance that he earned by virtue of his belonging to the Quraysh and related to the Prophet.

As a businessman, Abu Haneefah had four characteristics that distinguished him among his peers: 1) A clear sense of integrity, which steered him away from greed and doubtful gains; 2) Exemplary honesty; 3) Kindness in his dealings; and 4) a profound sense of religion that considered honest and fair trading a kind of worship. This made him exceptional among people of business. He was likened to Abu Bakr in his trading, showing any defect in the merchandise he was selling, without placing the good and attractive items on top or in the front. He placed them with the rest of the goods in order not to let in any element of cheating.

His honesty was demonstrated in both buying and selling. A woman brought him a silk dress which she wanted to sell. She asked 100 for it, but Abu Haneefah would not take it for the asking price, because, as he informed the woman, it was worth more. So she increased the price, but he kept saying it was worth more. She eventually asked him to pay her 400, but he again said that she asked too little. She looked at him suspiciously and said, ‘Are you mocking me?’ He suggested that she should get someone who was an expert in this line. When the expert came, he valued it at 500, and Abu Haneefah bought it at that price.

He was willing to forgo his profit if the case merited that. An old woman said to him once: “I am old and poor. Be honest with me and sell me this dress without charging too much for it.” He said: “Take it, then, for 4 dirhams.” Knowing that the dress was worth much more, she said with a touch of anger: “Are you mocking me when I am an elderly woman?” He said: “The fact is that I bought two dresses, and sold the first one for 4 dirhams short of what I paid for the two. So, if you take the dress for this price, I will have got my money back.”

It is difficult to cover all aspects of such a rich personality in the space allowed for one article. Hence it is necessary to leave some important aspects to a second article, to be published, God willing, in the next issue when we will tackle Abu Haneefah’s political views and his method of deduction of rulings in all fields of Islamic Jurisprudence.

“Had I known that people would not let him down, I would have joined him in his jihad, because he is the right leader. However, I will help him financially.” These were Imam Abu Haneefah’s reported words in reference to Imam Zaid ibn Ali who rebelled against the Umayyad rule in 122 A.H. He was true to his word and he sent a large donation to Zaid. Abu Haneefah lived most of his life under the Umayyad Caliphate, but he felt that the Umayyads had no right to be the rulers and he was against making the choice of the Caliph hereditary. In fact Abu Haneefah was a sympathiser of the Alawees against the Umayyads and he felt that Zaid had far stronger claims to be the head of the Muslim state. However, when he looked at the prevailing situation, he felt that Zaid had no chance of winning, because he relied on the support of the people of Kufah, who were well known to desert their masters at the moment of truth. That was what they did with Ali and with his son Al-Hussain. In such a situation, rebellion would be foolhardy.

Later when the Umayyad Caliphate was facing its stiffest test, the Umayyad governor in Kufah, Ibn Hubairah, wanted to consolidate their position in Iraq by getting the support of scholars. He called in the best known and most popular scholars and practically pressurised them into accepting official positions with the Umayyad rulers. They accepted these, with the exception of Abu Haneefah, who refused all offers. Ibn Hubairah then offered him the seal, so that no government correspondence would be issued and no financial allocations made unless he would sign and seal it. But he refused. The Governor requested some scholars to try to persuade him, but Abu Haneefah spoke to them kindly. In repeating his refusal he said: “If he wanted me to count the doors of the main mosque for him, I would not do it. How can I agree to sign and seal a letter ordering that a man should be beheaded? I will never agree to do any work for him.”

That brought matters to a head, and the Governor ordered his punishment. So he was imprisoned and beaten up. Then the Governor feared that such punishment could lead to his death, and that would place a lasting stigma on the Umayyad rule. So, he requested other scholars to persuade Abu Haneefah to allow the Governor to fulfil his oath. Abu Haneefah would not accept co-operation, not even by seeking a postponement of the appointment. The Governor had no choice but to release him. When freed, Abu Haneefah left Kufah with his family, going straight to Makkah where he spent the next few years. That was in 130 AH.

With the Abbasids, he was first on good terms, but relations with Al-Mansoor, the Caliph, were again strained. Al-Mansoor called in several scholars, including Abu Haneefah, and told them that the people of Musel rebelled, while they had earlier pledged loyalty, making it clear that they would be liable to be killed should they ever rebel. The Caliph wanted to know if this case comes under the principle laid down by the Prophet: “Believers will always honour their pledges.” That would mean that all those who rebelled were liable to capital punishment. One man present said to the Caliph: “You have all authority over them. Should you forgive them, it is only your noble character, and if you punish them, they have deserved punishment.”

As people voiced their views, Abu Haneefah remained silent. Al-Mansoor asked him for his opinion, reminding him that rebellion threatened people who otherwise were enjoying security. Abu Haneefah did not hesitate to state the truth as he knew it. He said to the Caliph: “They have pledged what is not theirs to offer, and you have imposed on them a condition that you have no right to impose. Capital punishment cannot be imposed on a Muslim except in one of three cases. That is the condition God has imposed, and His condition is the one you are better advised to honour. If you impose your condition, you kill them without justification.” On hearing this, Al-Mansoor dismissed his attendants, but retained Abu Haneefah. When he was alone with him, he said: “Yours is the correct view. You may go home, but do not issue rulings that detract from your Caliph, so that you do not encourage rebellion.”

This respect, which Al-Mansoor expressed to Abu Haneefah, was countered by his fear of his standing with the people. A shrewd politician, Al-Mansoor felt that the only way was to appease Abu Haneefah by a post or favours. He called him in and offered him the post of Chief Justice. Abu Haneefah said: “The only person who is suitable for that post is one who has the guts to pass judgement against you, your children and commanders. I am not such a person.” Al-Mansoor asked him: “Why, then, do you not accept my gift?” Abu Haneefah replied: “I have not rejected any gift the Caliph has given me of his own property. What he has given me belongs to the public treasury, to which I have no claim. I am not one who fights in armies to claim a fighter’s allowance, and I am not a youngster to get a child’s benefit; nor am I a poor person to take what poor people receive.”

Al-Mansoor pressed his offer, but Abu Haneefah continued to refuse, despite immense personal pressure. Then the Caliph warned him but Abu Haneefah said: “If you threaten to drown me in the Tigris, I would choose drowning in preference to being a judge. You have courtiers who need to be appeased for your sake.” In this last sentence, Abu Haneefah was making it clear that he would not be prepared to appease anyone, not even the Caliph. The Caliph ordered that he would be imprisoned, but shortly afterwards he released him, fearing public anger at detaining such a highly respected scholar.

Imam Abu Haneefah was one of the leading scholars of Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence in our history. It is sufficient to quote one or two views of other leading scholars. El-Shafie says: “In Fiqh all people are dependent on Abu Haneefah.” Ibn Al-Mubarak describes him as “the core of knowledge.” By this he refers to Abu Haneefah’s honest and diligent pursuit of the truth, never swerving from it. After a debate with him, tackling several issues, imam Malik described him as ‘a true scholar of fiqh.’ Abu Haneefah died in year 150, at the age of 70. May God bless his soul.

There is no doubt that Abu Haneefah was a scholar of the highest calibre. Yet he was beset with controversy in his own time, because his method of scholarly thinking was practically new in the sense that no one delved into it with similar vigour. Coupled with his independence and consistency, his method was liable to irritate those who take all religious text at face value. At the same time he was extremely unpopular with those who followed deviant creeds, because they felt that he established a solid system of construction and deduction in Islamic Jurisprudence.

He outlined his method with regard to religious text, stating: “I rely on God’s book, and when I do not find applicable text, then I rely on the hadith of the Prophet. When I have nothing available in either, I take what the Prophet’s companions said, but I take any of their views when I have more than one. I do not leave what they say to take up anybody else’s view. When a question is left to Ibraheem, Al-Shaabi and Al-Hassan [i.e. the tabieen scholars], they are simply people who endeavoured to arrive at a ruling based on scholarly discretion. I will make my own.”

This, together with his approach where no text is directly applicable, provides a system of scholarly endeavour that has 7 main elements, which are:

  1. The Quran, the basis of all religious thought and rulings, and the basic source in any ruling;
  2. The sunnah, or the hadith, which serves to explain God’s book and represents the Prophet’s effort in conveying God’s message;
  3. Statements by the Prophet’s companions, as they were fully aware of the events that preceded revelation, witnessed its implementation by the Prophet, and imparted their knowledge to subsequent generations;
  4. Analogy, or Qiyas, which applies a clear text to something other than that to which it relates, because of a basic cause common to both of them;
  5. Regressive analogy, or Istihsan, which means to abandon a clear analogy in order to establish a ruling that is at variance with it. This is because the analogy, or qiyas, appears to be faulty in some details. What a scholar would do, then, is to try to determine another cause [or illah] that the matter in question has in common with something else. Resorting to this is sometimes called, ‘concealed analogy’. Regressive analogy is also employed when qiyas is at variance with either a clear text or unanimity of scholars or tradition.
  6. Unanimity of scholars, or ijmaa’.
  7. Social tradition, which refers to the practice of Muslim community with regard to a matter to which no clear text in the Quran, hadith or the Prophet’s companions’ views applies. If tradition is at variance with a clear text, then it has no value.

One distinctive feature of Abu Haneefah’s scholarship is the high importance it attaches to personal freedom. In all his studies and views, he valued very highly the free choice of a human being in practically every type of behaviour, provided he or she is sane. It is not for the community or the ruler to interfere in personal choices, as long as the individual has not contravened a religious order.

Such emphasis on personal freedom manifests itself in various areas. One of the most important of these is that Abu Haneefah gives an adult woman the authority to enter into a marriage contract by herself, without reference to her guardian. All scholars agree that no guardian may force a woman under his guardianship to marry anyone without her consent, but she may not marry without his approval. Her direct verbal consent is not sufficient to initiate a marriage contract. Her guardian must act for her. Abu Haneefah disagrees with all scholars on this point, making an adult woman free to enter into a marriage contract by herself, without her guardian. He considers a young woman equal to a young man. As he can marry by himself, so can she. And as she has full authority over her property, she has full authority over herself with regard to marriage. Guardianship over a free and sane person must work in that person’s favour. To restrict one’s freedom does not serve one’s interests. It is indeed harmful.

Abu Haneefah’s respect of individual freedom is also manifested in his verdict that does not allow withdrawing a person’s rights of dispensing with his money or property on account of his being stupid or irrational. As long as his actions do not cause harm to others, then Abu Haneefah feels that society or ruling authorities have no right to restrict his freedom of action. If he squanders his money, he will reap the results himself. Society will not be harmed, as the money will still be there, in other people’s hands. Restricting a person’s freedom is much more harmful to society than that person’s loss of his money or property.

Similarly Abu Haneefah does not consider it permissible to restrict a person’s freedom of dispensing with his property as a result of being in debt, even if his debts exceed all his property. A debtor may be forced to repay his debts, but not through restriction of his freedom of action.

Abu Haneefah did not write any book, but some pamphlets are said to be authored by him. It is his students who recorded his views. Abu Yussuf, his best known student, wrote several books in which he recorded Abu Haneefah’s views and rulings. However, his other student, Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan, was the main scholar who collected, related and published Abu Haneefah’s fiqh in six books representing the first systematic collection of a particular method of fiqh. It should be mentioned that Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan did not study under Abu Haneefah for long, as he was 18 when the great scholar died, but he was one of his best students and he read much under Abu Yussuf. The other main scholar of the Hanafi school of thought was Zufar ibn Al-Huthail.

The Hanafi school of thought spread far and wide, particularly because of the very large number of scholars who followed it in successive generations. It is the main school of thought in central Asian countries, as well as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Turkey. It is widely followed in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, but not in African countries.

May God reward Abu Haneefah handsomely and bless his soul.

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