In the study of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, different schools have developed over time. These schools were founded by the greatest legal minds in Islamic history, and expanded upon by their successors in their schools. Each one of these imams added a unique and new dimension to the understanding of Islamic law.
For the third of the four great imams, Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i, his great contribution was the codifying and organization of a concept known as usul al-fiqh – the principles behind the study of fiqh. During his illustrious career, he learned under some of the greatest scholars of his time, and expanded on their ideas, while still holding close to the Quran and Sunnah as the main sources of Islamic laws. Today, his madhab (school of thought), is the second most popular on earth, after the madhab of Imam Abu Hanifa.

Early Life

Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i was born in 767 (the year of Imam Abu Hanifa’s death) in Gaza, Palestine. His father died when he was very young, and thus his mother decided to move to Makkah, where many members of her family (who were originally from Yemen) were settled. Despite being in a very bad economic situation, his mother insisted that he embark on a path towards scholarship, especially considering the fact that he was from the family of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

Thus, as a young man, he was trained in Arabic grammar, literature, and history. Because of his family’s financial situation, his mother could not afford proper writing materials for the young al-Shafi’i. He was thus forced to take notes in his classes on old animal bones. Despite this, he managed to memorize the Quran at the age of seven. Afterwards, he began to immerse himself in the study of fiqh, and memorized the most popular book of fiqh at the time, Imam Malik’s Muwatta, which he memorized by age ten.

Studies Under Imam Malik

At the age of thirteen, he was urged by the governor of Makkah to travel to Madinah and study under Imam Malik himself. Imam Malik was very impressed with the intelligence and analytical mind of the young al-Shafi’i, and provided him with financial assistance to ensure that he remains in the study of fiqh.

In Madinah, al-Shafi’i was completely immersed in the academic environment of the time. In addition to Imam Malik, he studied under Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani, one of Imam Abu Hanifa’s foremost students. This familiarized al-Shafi’i with differing viewpoints on the study of fiqh, and he greatly benefited from the exposure to various approaches to fiqh. When Imam Malik died in 795, Imam Shafi’i was known to be one of the world’s most knowledgeable scholars, even though he was in his 20s.

His Travels

Not long after Malik’s death, Imam Shafi’i was invited to Yemen to work as a judge for the Abbasid governor. His stay there would not last long however. The problem was that as an academic, Imam Shafi’i was not ready for the politically-charged environment he found himself in. Because he insisted on being uncompromisingly fair and honest, numerous factions within the government made it their aim to remove him from his post.

In 803, he was arrested and carried in chains to Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate, on trumped-up charges of supporting Shia rebels in Yemen. When he met with the caliph of the time, Harun al-Rashid, Imam Shafi’i gave an impassioned and eloquent defense, which greatly impressed the caliph. Imam Shafi’i was not just released, but Harun al-Rashid even insisted that Imam Shafi’i stay in Baghdad and help spread Islamic knowledge in the region. Al-Shafi’i agreed and smartly decided to stay away from politics for the remainder of his life.

While in Iraq, he took the opportunity to learn more about the Hanafi madhab. He was reunited with his old teacher, Muhammad al-Shaybani, under whom he mastered the intricate details of the madhab. Although he never met Imam Abu Hanifa, he had great respect for the originator of the study of fiqh, and his school of thought.

Throughout his 30s and 40s, Imam al-Shafi’i traveled throughout Syria and the Arabian Peninsula, giving lectures and compiling a large group of students that studied under him. Among them was Imam Ahmad, the originator of the fourth school of fiqh, the Hanbali madhab. Eventually, he finally went back to Baghdad, but found out that the new caliph, al-Ma’mun, held some very unorthodox beliefs about Islam, and was known to persecute those who disagreed with him. As a result, in 814, Imam Shafi’i made his final move, this time to Egypt, where he was able to polish off his legal opinions and finally organize the study of usul al-fiqh.

During the 700s and the early part of the 800s, there were two competing philosophies about how Islamic law should be derived. One philosophy was promoted by ahl al-hadith, meaning “the people of Hadith”. They insisted on absolute reliance on the literal interpretation of Hadith and the impermissibility of using reason as a means to derive Islamic law. The other group was known as ahl al-ra’i, meaning “the people of reason”. They also believed in using Hadith of course, but they also accepted reason as a major source of law. The Hanafi and Maliki schools of fiqh were mostly considered to have been ahl al-ra’i at this time.

Having studied both schools of fiqh, as well as having a vast knowledge of authentic hadith, Imam al-Shafi’i sought to reconcile the two philosophies and introduce a clear methodology for fiqh – known as usul al-fiqh. His efforts towards this end resulted in his seminal work, Al-Risala.

Al-Risala was not meant to be a book that discussed particular legal issues and al-Shafi’i’s opinion on them. Nor was it meant to be a book of rules and Islamic law. Instead, it was meant to provide a reasonable and rational way to derive Islamic law. In it, Imam al-Shafi’i outlines four main sources from which Islamic law can be derived:

1. The Quran

2. The Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad

3. Consensus among the Muslim community

4. Analogical deduction, known as Qiyas

For each one of these sources (as well a several more sources that he deems not as important), he goes in depth in his Risala, explaining how they are to be interpreted and reconciled with each other. The framework he provides for Islamic law became the main philosophy of fiqh that was accepted by all subsequent scholars of Islamic law. Even the Hanafi and Maliki schools were adapted to work within the framework that al-Shafi’i provided.

The contributions of Imam al-Shafi’i in the field of usul al-fiqh were monumental. His ideas prevented the fraying of the study of fiqh into hundreds of different, competing schools by providing a general philosophy that should be adhered to. But it also provided enough flexibility for there to still be different interpretations, and thus madhabs. Although he probably did not intend it, his followers codified his legal opinions (which were laid out in another book, Kitab al-Umm) after his death in 820, into the Shafi’i madhab. Today, the Shafi’i madhab is the second largest madhab after the Hanafi madhab, and is very popular in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, East Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Language of Imam Shafi’i

Besides being a giant of a scholar in the field of fiqh, Imam Shafi’i was noted for his eloquence and his knowledge of the Arabic language. During his travels, Bedouins, who were known to be the best-versed in the Arabic language, would attend his lectures not to gain knowledge of fiqh, but just to marvel as his use of language and his mastery of poetry. One of his companions, Ibn Hisham, noted that “I never heard him [Imam Shafi’i] use anything other than a word which, carefully considered, one would not find a better word in the entire Arabic language.”


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