Imam El-Shafie established the specialised branch of Islamic studies in Jurisprudence called Usool ul Fiqh, i.e. the methodology of Islamic law. His work founded one of the four main schools of Islamic law.
This article was written by Adil Salahi and originally published by Impact magazine.
“If I were to walk from Madinah to Makkah [a distance of 500 kilometers] barefoot, with no mount to carry me, it would have been easier for me than to walk to Malik’s home here in Madinah. I am never in a humble position until I stand at his doorstep.” These were the words of the Governor of Madinah as he finished reading a letter addressed to him by the Governor of Makkah which wanted him to introduce a young man to the great scholar of Madinah. The young man continues the story:
“The Governor and a number of his men went with me until we reached Malik’s home and one man knocked on the door. A maid opened and the man told her that the Governor wanted to see the scholar. She went in and came back after a long while to say: ‘My master greets you well and says: ‘If you have a case requiring a ruling, then you may write it down and he will send you the answer. If you want to learn hadith, you know the day when he holds his circle. You may wish to leave now.’ The Governor said to her: ‘Tell him that I have a letter addressed to him from the Governor of Makkah with an important matter.’ She went in, then she came out again, placing a chair. Shortly afterwards, Malik came out. He was a tall, old man who inspired much awe and respect. He sat on the chair and read the letter until he reached the request made by the Governor on my behalf. He threw the letter down and said: ‘Have we reached so low that the study of the Prophet’s hadith is sought through favours and high position!’ The Governor of Madinah was in awe and could not reply. So I ventured to speak, saying: ‘May God grant you His favours. I am a man from the Muttalib branch of Quraysh, and I have so far done this and that…’ ”
Malik was endowed with penetrative insight. He asked the young man his name and then said to him: “Muhammad! Be always God-fearing, and avoid sin, for you will acquire distinction. God has given you light in your heart; so do not let it be put out by indulging in sin. Come tomorrow to read.”
That was the first encounter between Malik, the great scholar who was in his mid-seventies and El-Shafie who was just under 20 years of age and was destined to be among the greatest scholars in our history.
On the following day, El-Shafie went to his appointment, carrying Malik’s book Al-Muwatta’, and started to read. Malik was very pleased with his diction and delivery. When El-Shafie felt that he might have tired his teacher, he hesitated, but Malik told him to continue. Thus, he managed to complete reading the great book under the great imam in a very short period of time.
Muhammad ibn Idris El-Shafie, who was born in Gazza in 150 A.H. corresponding to 767 CE. He was of Qurayshi origin, with an ancestry that met the Prophet’s lineage at the Prophet’s grandfather, Abdulmattalib. His father died when he was very young, leaving him and his mother in utter poverty. The mother, who was of Yemeni origin, was of great influence on the course he took in life. She decided that his place should be in Makkah, close to his tribal ancestry. She sent him to a relative in Makkah when he was nearly 10 years of age, then followed him there to direct him in his pursuit of studies. Because of his poverty, he could not find enough writing material. He would go to the Governor’s offices in search for used paper that might be given to him free of charge, so that he would write his lessons on the unused part, or the reverse.
He memorised the Quran at a very young age, and then decided to improve his knowledge of Arabic. So, he went deep into the desert to join the Bedouin tribe of Huthail, renowned for the best standard of literary Arabic. There he memorised poetry and learnt their prose reporting and stories. He would join the tribe on its nomadic travels, until he mastered all that was there to learn. He also learnt archery there, and acquired great skill. He would be able to hit the target with his arrows 10 times out of 10. He then returned to Makkah and continued his studies, completing all that its scholars had to teach by the time he was nearly 20. Yet his thirst for knowledge was still burning inside him. So he decided to travel to Madinah to learn from Imam Malik. However, he did not wish to attend Malik without knowing anything of what he taught. He managed to borrow Malik’s book, Al-Muwatta’, and as he read it, he was even more eager to meet Malik and study under him. We know all about the first meeting between the two scholars.
El-Shafie stayed very close to Malik for nine years, during which he only travelled to visit his mother in Makkah, or to stay for a short while with some Bedouin tribes. In the last three years of attending Malik, El-Shafie had an additional benefit of meeting Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan Al-Shaibani, the eminent Iraqi scholar who recorded all the Hanafi scholarship. The latter had come to Madinah to study under Malik and stayed with him for those 3 years. That was a highly beneficial company that was to be renewed later.
Malik used to support his students who had no means of living. El-Shafie was one of these. When Malik died, El-Shafie went back to Makkah hoping to earn his living. It so happened that the Governor of Yemen visited Makkah at that time. Some people spoke to him about El-Shafie, and he took him with him on his return to Yemen where he assigned to him a post of justice in the city of Najran. The people there soon realised that they had a judge who was devoted to justice, unwilling to swerve from it for any favour or pressure. They loved him and learnt from him a great deal.
But people who are unwilling to compromise often find themselves in the bad books of rulers. El-Shafie stayed in Najran for five years, towards the end of which a strong-fisted governor was appointed. It was only natural that El-Shafie should criticise him for any injustice he might perpetrate. In his position, El-Shafie was able to curb that Governor’s injustice. Hence, the latter disliked him and sought to remove him. So he wrote to the Caliph accusing him of supporting a fermenting revolt by people loyal to the Alawees, i.e. the descendants of Ali. He added: “I have no authority over this man, and he achieves by the word of his tongue much more than a fighter can achieve with his sword.”
Was this accusation baseless? There is no doubt that it was, because El-Shafie never supported or advocated any revolt or rebellion against the Caliph. But he loved the Alawees, as they were the descendents of Ali and Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter. His love, however, never led him to belong to the Shia or to consider that Ali had the strongest claim to be the Caliph after the Prophet. Indeed he was of the view that the four Caliphs were elected to the post in accordance with the right order of their suitability. He also considered that Umar ibn Abdulaziz, the Umayyad ruler, was the fifth of the rightly guided Caliphs.
However, the accusation reached the Caliph in Baghdad, Al-Rasheed. El-Shafie was sent to him in fetters and chains in 184 A.H. when he was 34 years of age. The Caliph had him brought in when he was attended by his advisers and top officials, among whom was none other than Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan, who was his Chief Justice. Two factors served him well at the time. The first was his lucid defence of himself. The other was Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan’s testimony on his behalf. As El-Shafie stated that he had a share of scholarship known to the Chief Justice, the latter told the Caliph that El-Shafie was a scholar of eminence and that he would not be involved in such matters. The Caliph, who was kind and lenient, saw in this testimony his way out to spare El-Shafie. He told Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan to take El-Shafie to his home while he thought the matter over. That was all that the Caliph did. The accusation was never brought up again. The Governor of Najran had rid himself of a fearless critic, and he was no longer interested what happened to him.
Perhaps this accusation was the best thing that happened to El-Shafie, because it brought him back to the pursuit of knowledge. Moreover, El-Shafie stayed in Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan’s home and read under him all the books he had written, recording the Fiqh of Abu Haneefah and his disciples. When he left Baghdad two years later, he said: “I carried with me a whole camel load of books, all of which I learnt directly from Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan.”
It should be made clear that El-Shafie did not only learn the Iraqi fiqh in Baghdad, but he also memorised the hadiths that were known in Iraq, but not in Madinah or Hijaz. He also entered into debate with many scholars, speaking as a student of Malik, but he would only debate with lesser scholars than Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan, whom he respected highly. We must remember that El-Shafie was Malik’s disciple and Malik did not allow debate in his circle. On the other hand, Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan was Abu Haneefah’s disciple, and Abu Haneefah’s scholarship was imparted mainly through debate with his students. Hence, Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan insisted that El-Shafie should debate questions with him, and he reluctantly yielded.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of El-Shafie was his native intelligence which gave him an easy and good grasp of even the most difficult of questions. He always studied matters in depth, so as to arrive at the right verdict regarding any question put to him. His intelligence was coupled with a superb memory and ready argument. When he wanted to explain an idea, he would put it in a wealth of meanings that he always found ready to hand. He is not known to have been lost for words, yet his explanation was always rich and to the point.
El-Shafie had a fine literary style, which gave him powerful expression, coupled with lucid presentation. Moreover, his delivery was very clear and his voice added clarity to his thoughts. One of his students says: “Every scholar gives more in his books than when you meet him personally, except for El-Shafie whose verbal discussion gives you more than his books.” When we remember that his books were among the finest in style, lucidity and presentation, we realise what this student is talking about.
When we spoke about Imam Malik, we mentioned that he had a profound insight. This is a quality that El-Shafie had in common with his teacher. This quality allowed him to strike the right balance between his students’ ability to understand and his ability to explain, so as to achieve the best results. Hence, his students were devoted to him, eager to benefit by his superior knowledge.
Another main quality that facilitated for El-Shafie the achievement of the highest rank among Islamic scholars was his dedicated sincerity in the pursuit of the truth. This was coupled with his brave determination to declare the truth even if it was in conflict with what people used to believe. Should the truth be at variance with his devotion to his teachers, he would come out on the side of the truth. He was very reluctant to show his disagreement with Malik, because he loved him so much. The same was the case with Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan, who did him a great favour when he saved him from the wrath of the Caliph. His gratitude to him did not prevent him from declaring his disagreement with him and his colleagues, supporting the Madinah scholars. But no one ever accused him of not accepting true evidence whenever it was presented. He urged his students to give much of their time and effort to the study of the hadith, repeatedly stating to them that should they find an authentic hadith in conflict with his views, they should abandon his views and take up the hadith.
This dedicated sincerity made him seek the truth, regardless of who presents it. He never lost his temper in debate, because his aim was not to win the debate, but to arrive at the true conclusion. Thus, if his opponent was right, he would not hesitate to accept his view. He is reported to have said: “I wish that people would learn what I have to give, without it being attributed to me. In this way, I receive the reward for it from my Lord, without having people’s praise.”
With such a character, there is no wonder that scholars loved him and placed him in the highest rank.
Once a man asked El-Shafie a question, and he started his answer by quoting a hadith stating the ruling on that question. The man then said: but what is your own view? El-Shafie shuddered and changed colour before saying: “What corner of the earth or the sky would shelter me if I report something the Prophet said and then give a different opinion?”
When people went to the Haram in Makkah late in the second century [AH], they found a tall, dark man in his mid-thirties teaching in a circle which included young and mature students, many of whom were older than him. The teacher explained certain aspects of faith and Islamic jurisprudence which they could not learn from anyone else in their respective homelands, whether they came from Iraq, where much weight was given to scholarly discretion, or from Madinah where commitment to the hadith text was paramount. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal saw him when he was on his pilgrimage and was full of admiration. He persuaded his colleague, Isshaq ibn Rahaweih, to attend his circle. When they arrived, Isshaq said to Ahmad: “Are we to leave the circle of someone like Sufyan ibn Uyainah in order to attend this young man?” Ahmad said: “If you miss out on this man’s rational thinking, you cannot find it anywhere else; while if you miss out on hadith at a higher level of reporting, you can still learn it with a lower level.”
Such was the fruit of the great task undertaken by El-Shafie on returning to Makkah from Baghdad. Such was its importance that Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Isshaq ibn Rahaweih, two scholars destined to achieve great eminence, felt it more important to attend him than other more established scholars. What happened was that, back in Makkah after his long absence, El-Shafie gave much thought to what he had learnt, both in Madinah from Malik and in Baghdad. He compared methods and analysed differences and points of agreement. As El-Shafie was a scholar of the highest calibre, endowed with sharp intelligence, superb memory and an analytical mind, his comparative study yielded two highly precious fruits. The first was that he established his own school of thought, with its distinctive method of construction and deduction, independent from both the Hanafi and the Maliki schools. He would study Malik’s views in depth to arrive at his own views, which might have agreed or disagreed with the great scholar. He would do the same with the views of Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan and his two renowned teachers, Abu Haneefah and Abu Yussuf. He recorded his disagreement with Malik in a book he called: Khilaf Malik, and his disagreement with the Hanafi scholars in another book, Khilaf al-Iraqiyeen. This established him as the founder of a third school of thought.
The second result of his endeavours was that he set in place the rules of deduction of rulings on all questions. That was what came to be known as Ussool al-Fiqh, or basic methodology of jurisprudence. Previously, eminent scholars had their own methods of deduction and construction, but they referred to these in general terms, giving no details. El-Shafie outlined these in detail, showing what rules and methods a scholar must follow so that he might not arrive at the wrong ruling or conclusion. This time El-Shafie stayed in Makkah for 9 years, teaching his students and taking them to a totally unfamiliar territory.
He then felt that he needed to spread this new knowledge in the rest of the Muslim world, and to do so he went again to Baghdad in 195 AH, when he was 45. In Baghdad, the most famous seat of learning at the time, he was welcomed by all its scholars. Even its eminent scholars were willing to read under him, including Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Isshaq ibn Rahaweih. They all recognised that he had come up with a perfectly new knowledge and a complete system of deduction.
It was during this stay in Baghdad, lasting over two years, that he dictated his books, mainly Al-Umm, which contains his views on all detailed questions of Fiqh, and Al-Risaalah, which is his book on the methodology of Fiqh, the first book ever to be written on this subject.
El-Shafie then went to Makkah, but did not stay long there. Apparently, his trip this time was to visit the Kaabah, pack up his belonging and bid farewell to his teachers, such as Sufyan ibn Uyainah. Soon afterwards, he went back to Baghdad, arriving in 198, but he was soon on the road again, aiming this time for Egypt, where he arrived in 199 and stayed until his death five years later, at the age of 54. We will refer later to his changed views in Egypt, because this serves as the best example of giving different rulings on the same questions because of a change of situation.
As we explained over the last two weeks, El-Shafie fascinated all people with his broad knowledge, logical analysis, and lucid style. He fascinated the scholars of Baghdad in his famous debates with the best among them, the scholars of the Muslim world who listened to him on their visits to Makkah for pilgrimage, and the scholars of Egypt when he brought them knowledge that they had never learnt from anyone before him. He also fascinated all scholarly circles with his design of Ussool al-Fiqh. Hence, numerous scholars were full of praise for him. Perhaps the best that sums up scholarly opinion of El-Shafie is Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s words: “We have reported the hadith in which the Prophet states that God sends to the nation of Islam every 100 years a person to put its faith back on the right track. Umar ibn Abdulaziz was that man at the end of the first 100 years. As for the second hundred, I think the man was El-Shafie.”
It is such great admiration by eminent scholars that tells of El-Shafie’s standing as a scholar. Each would obviously praise him from the point of view of his own speciality. Thus, a scholar like Yahya ibn Ma’een, one of the highest authorities on hadith and its reporters describes El-Shafie in these words: “Had lying been lawful, his integrity would have stopped him from lying.”
El-Shafie lived at a time when different branches of knowledge were taking shape and being set on firm basis, with dedicated scholars writing their reference books, each in his field of specialisation. In linguistics, poetry, literary criticism and other language studies, there were scholars setting these branches on firm footing. In hadith, criteria were identified to sort out authentic hadiths, isolating them from a multitude of hadiths attributed to the Prophet without firm evidence of authenticity. In Fiqh different schools were emerging and taking form, particularly with the writing of Al-Muwatta’, by Imam Malik as the basic book of the Maliki school of thought, and Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan’s books recording the Hanafi school’s views.
At the same time, numerous works were translated from Greek, Persian and Indian languages in various fields. El-Shafie had a go at the study most of these. In addition, several political groupings emerged, each trying to advocate their position on the basis of religion, such as the different groups of Shia, and Khawarij. Philosophical and intellectual groups also emerged, particularly Al-Mu’tazilah, who advocated a rational philosophy that sought to subject religious truth to their approach. Others spoke of Divinity and theology on the basis of logic. El-Shafie rejected all these approaches, insisting that the only basis for such knowledge was the Quran and the Sunnah, making it clear that only the texts of the Quran and authentic hadith should be considered in such matters.
El-Shafie was very firm in his advice to his students to turn their backs on logical theology. However, he himself studied it and formulated clear views on its various issues. He once found some of his students debating one such issue. He said to them: “Do you think that I have no knowledge of this. Indeed I have gone deep into it, but this logical theology is useless. Let your debate be on something in which if you err, people would say that you have made a mistake, not that you have gone out of the faith altogether.” This is a highly respectable attitude, seeking to abandon any philosophical approach to faith, because it served no real purpose and was bound to err.
In his method of construction and deduction of rulings on any question, El-Shafie defines five sources of evidence. These are stated in his book, Al-Umm: “The first is the Quran and the Sunnah when the latter is confirmed as authentic; the second, unanimity concerning a matter to which no reference is made in the Quran or the Sunnah; the third, some companions of the Prophet may state a view and we have no report of any other companion expressing a different view; the fourth, the views of the Prophet’s companions when they differ over a certain question; the fifth; analogy. No source other than the Quran and the Sunnah may be considered when they voice a ruling. Knowledge is sought at the highest source first.” This means that El-Shafie considers the Quran and the Sunnah the only source of Islamic law, while other sources are based on them. Moreover, he considers the two as one source.
Scholars of later generations mention the Sunnah as a separate source, ranking second after the Quran. The same has been stated by Abu Haneefah long before El-Shafie’s time. Why does he, then, put them both together as one source, when they, in reality, cannot be placed at the same level? For certain, El-Shafie does not consider the Sunnah to be equal to the Quran in all respects, when the Quran is God’s own word, while most of the Sunnah is reported in a lesser degree. El-Shafie has looked at the fact that the Sunnah explains what the Quran has stated in general terms, giving the details of what we need to know in order to fulfil God’s orders. Hence, it must be placed at the same level as what it explains. Many of the Prophet’s companions had the same view.
It is important, however, to realise that, in El-Shafie’s view, the Quran is the main source while the Sunnah is complementary to it. Hence, the Sunnah derives its effect from the Quran. Moreover, El-Shafie feels that, in order to arrive at accurate rulings, knowledge of the Sunnah as a whole must be placed at the same level as knowledge of the Quran. This does not mean that everything attributed to the Prophet should be treated as the Quran. Hadiths have different levels of authenticity. Hence, we cannot treat a hadith reported by a chain of single transmitters at the same level as a Quranic verse. El-Shafie acknowledges all this. Furthermore, when it comes to stating Islamic beliefs, El-Shafie gives the Sunnah a lesser status than the Quran.
We must say that El-Shafie has defended the Sunnah most determinedly against all groups that sought to reduce its status. There were many of those at his time, seeking to limit sources of Islamic law to the Quran only. He was able to show the weakness of their stand and reduce their influence to a minimum. Hence, he earned the title, ‘the advocate of the Sunnah.’
El-Shafie rejects what is termed as istihsan, or regressive analogy. This is when a scholar abandons a clear and apparent analogy in favour of a concealed one, because of what he considers to be in the best interests of the community or the individual. This sort of analogy is approved by both Abu Haneefah and Malik. Thus, he takes his stand in opposition to both.
When El-Shafie settled in Egypt in the last five years of his life, he revised many of his views as expressed in his books which he authored and taught in Iraq. He might have expressed two views on a certain matter when he was in Baghdad. Now he would come solidly in favour of either one of them, or he may express a third view to retain all three, or he may abandon both his two old views in favour of a third one which he finds to be better supported, either by a hadith he did not know before or by an analogy which he finds to be more valid. People often refer to this process as the ‘new El-Shafie school of thought’, as distinguished from his old one that relies on his old books dictated in Baghdad. The fact is that it is all a thorough revision of his books, bringing out a new revised version. Indeed he considered the old version abrogated. This shows that El-Shafie continued his pursuit of the truth throughout his life.
The best known works of El-Shafie have been mentioned already. The first is Al-Risalah, which establishes a specialised branch of Islamic studies. That is the one known as Usool al-Fiqh, or the methodology of Islamic law. The second is Al-Umm, in which he records his legal views on all questions. This is the book he continued to revise until his death. Al-Risalah continued to receive much attention by scholars and it has been published many times with annotation. It is a middle-sized volume of great importance. Al-Umm, which embodies the bulk of El-Shafie’s Fiqh has been published, but has not received the editing attention it deserves. Very recently, most of El-Shafie’s books have been published together under the title, El-Shafie’s Encyclopaedia, bringing 10 books together, in 10 large volumes. However, the work still needs more detailed editing and annotating attention.
The Shafie school of thought is distinguished by its richness in scholarly views, which made it easy to develop and enrich. Later scholars continued the process. Over the many generations since El-Shafie, numerous distinguished scholars contributed to its scholarship, placing it at the same level as the Hanafi and Maliki schools of thought. Today, it commands much following in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, although it remains second to the Hanafi school in these countries. It is predominant in Egypt, and it has countless followers in Yemen and Persia, while it is followed by most people in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia. It has practically no following in North African countries.
El-Shafie was a great scholar whose contribution to Islamic knowledge remains considerable, despite the passage of more than 1200 years since his death. May God bless his soul.