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4. The Madhhab of Imam Abu Hanifah

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: The Madhhab of Imam Abu Hanifa

Author: Shaykh Hasan A. M. Anyabwile al-Kaaribii

Publication date: 23/2/2013

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Muslim History Programme of the MFAS. This is the fourth of 12 sessions which make up the Madhhabs of Islam module. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 

Imam Abu Hanifah

Shaykh Hasan A. M. Anyabwile al-Kaaribii

The Hanafi Madhhab, Imam Abu Hanifah's relationship to power (Under the Bani Umayya and Bani al-Abbas), the students of the Imam; Abu Yusuf and Muhammad ibn al-Hasan. The madhhab in power during the Mughal and Osmani Dawla and its retreat from power separating into the Deobandi and Braelwi branches in India.

An Nu'man b. Thabit b. an Nu'man b. al-Marzban, better known as Imam Abu Hanifah, he comes to us as an 'ajami, followed by multitudes of 'ajamis adherents to his way, the Madhhab Hanafiyyah. It is not easy to arrive at a true picture of the man from the books of history and biographies because of excessive praise that goes beyond acceptable bounds and the equally excessive criticism of his detractors, two extremes. However it is still possible to recover the person, the time in which he lived, his opinions on politics and dogma, and his activities as an Imam of an emerging school of jurisprudence (fiqh).

Birth and Lineage

The Imam was born in Kufa, Iraq in 80 AH. Although there is total agreement on this, another source suggests 61 AH, but this lack scredibility since it is agreed upon that he died in 150 AH, and did not live for 90 years if we take 61 AH as his birth date. His father was Thabit b Zawti al-Farisi, a Persian. His grandsons disagreed regarding his grandfather's name and how he came into Islam, whether as a captive or voluntarily. It is probable that he was captured in the conquest, shown leniency as was the custom of the Muslims to bring their hearts to Islam, which it appears that he voluntarily did and accepted Islam along with all of his family. His wala-clientage was to the Banu Taym, so he was a Taymi by clientage, which was common practice during the period of the Umayyads who firmly followed Arab customs in organising their society. Clientage in no way detracted from his importance because the main scholars of fiqh in the time of the Tabi'un that Abu Hanifah met and learned from were non-Arabs, clients of Arab tribes, from the time of the Khalifate of Umar. It is a lesson for us, because by their knowledge Allah gave them respect and lasting glory that rose over lineage, the political and economical domination of the Arabs.

His Youth and Upbringing

Abu Hanifah grew up in Kufa, the son of a wealthy merchant engaged in the family business in khazz-silk, and he memorised the Qur’ān at an early age as was the custom. Iraq was home to many different religions, races, sects and beliefs of ancient civilisationa, filled with confusion and disorder where differences in opinions often resulted in violent clashes. Despite this it was also the home of the Tabi'un who were devoted to taking knowledge from the Companions they met, whose company they kept morning and evening. When the Companions passed away, these men became the lights of the city, bearers of sacred knowledge, the legacy of the Messenger of Allah î. As descendants of ancient civilisations that developed science and culture, they took on this new knowledge, as devotion to knowledge was part of their heritage. Abu Hanifah was making his way as a young merchant is this atmosphere till one day a scholar suggested to him, that  he occupy himself with knowledge rather than trade. In his own words, it is transmitted that Abu Hanifah said; ''One day I was going past ash-Sha'bi who was sitting. He called to me, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'I am going to the market.' He said, 'I do not frequent the market. I am concerned with going to scholars.' I told him, 'I rarely frequent them.' He told me, 'Do not be heedless. You must look into knowledge and sit with scholars. I see in you alertness and energy.' That affected my heart and I ceased to frequent the market and began to turn to knowledge and Allah let me benefit from what he said.''

As a Seeker of Knowledge

Although he studied the various sciences that were available at the time, such as the science of ‘aqīdah (kalam), grammar (nahw), recitation (qira'at), traditions (hadith), and jurisprudence (fiqh), he was attracted most to fiqh, because according to him; ''I saw that it involved sitting with scholars, fuqaha, shaykhs and people of insight and taking on their character. I saw that it is only by knowing it that what is obligatory is properly performed and the dīn and worship established, and seeking the next world can only be done through it.'' What is of utmost importance here is that he was of the view that, the seeker of knowledge, especially fiqh, should take from different scholars and live in their environment, just as Imam Malik observed that knowledge is a light that Allah passes from heart to heart, and from the example of Musa and Khidr in the Qur’ān, where Musa had to accompany Khidr and learn from him. This relationship still exists where the traditional method of learning is still practised. Therefore, Hammad b. Abi Sulayman became his main teacher and he remained with him until he passed away. After Hammad passed away Abu Hanifah took his place in the circle and began to teach independently. As a scholar he also travelled acquiring knowledge and sat in many different circles, even those of the shi'iahs and the Mutazillites.

The Fiqh of Abu Hanifah and his Madhhab

What we know as the Hanafi Madhhab is actually the general principles that the Imam used in his deduction, which defined his path and clarified his method of ijtihad, mixed in with the methodology and deductions of his two students, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad b. al-Hasan, as well as the scholars of the later period. It is also necessary to examine the actions of later scholars of this school and how they treated the intellectual legacy of their Imam when faced with changes in society, decline and stagnation. We need to look also at the flexibility of its general principles and its role in preserving Islam and realising guidance from the Book and Sunnah within Muslim communities. In the history of fiqh there is no man both so highly praised and so severely criticised as Abu Hanifah, may Allah be pleased with him. This is so because he was an independent jurist (faqih), although he did not write a book on fiqh, in fact the only surviving work ascribed to him is on dogma. However, his students did write down his views which he sometimes edited. From them we learn his legal method and the hierarchy of legal evidence, which was: the Book of Allah-Qur’ān, the Sunna, Fatawa of the Companions, Consensus-ijmā‘, Analogy-qiyās, Discretion-istiḥsān, and Customs-'Urf.

The Book of Allah-Qur’ān

The Qur’ān is the main source of the shariah, in it are defined general rules, and those that will not change. In this school the 'Amm-general is very important for understanding the ruling. ‘Amm can be defined as a word which indicates various things with a shared meaning, for example in the way that 'insaan'-human being indicates man and woman, black and white, or Zayd, Bakr, and Khalid, while 'Khass'-specific applies to a particular of what is alluded to in the 'Amm', or a general expression. Therefore like 'Khass' the 'Amm' with Abu Hanifah is definitive on its evidence and can abrogate the 'Khass', in the Qur’ān or the sunnah.  So a particular solitary Hadith (ahad) will not alter the general 'Amm' meaning of the text.

The Sunnah

The Sunnah is the second source on which Abu Hanifah relied in his deduction, because some ayats that are connected to judgements require further clarification, more details, or there is something implicit in them requiring explanation, or they are unrestricted and need qualification. Scholars agree that this is what the sunnah does in respect to the Qur’ān. According to this school the Sunnah clarifies the Qur’ān in three ways:

Clarification by confirmation, that is by reinforcing the meaning of ayat.

Clarification by explanation. This is where the sunnah clarifies something implicit in an ayat when the text is general. This includes such things as explaining details of the prayer, zakat and Hajj, or the minimum amount for which the hand is cut  for theft.

Clarification by suppression, which is abrogation. Abrogation of Qur’ān by Qur’ān is permitted by Hanafis, as is abrogation of the Qur’ān by the Sunnah, if it is confirmed by multiple transmission (mutawatir) or well known transmission. For some, the Sunnah does not abrogate the Qur’ān. Another issue that is peculiar to the Hanafis is when a matter is established by the Qur’ān where the evidence is definitive and another matter is established by a confirmed Sunnah. That established by the Qur’ān is obligatory or fard, and that by the Sunnah is mandatory (wujub). As for prohibitions, anything forbidden by the Qur’ān is Haraam-prohibited, if there is no uncertainty in the evidence, and anything forbidden by a confirmed Sunnah is makruh-disliked, of which there is a lesser type.

Amongst the fuqaha there was a conflict regarding how much Abu Hanifah relied on the Sunnah in his ijtihaad; some were of the view that he preferred analogy-qiyās over the sunnah. He was accused by his rivals even during his lifetime of this, to which he replied; ''By Allah, it is a lie about us if someone says that we put analogy before a text. Is there any need for analogy when a text exists?''  He also said; ''We act first by the Book of Allah, then by the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah @ and then by the hadiths of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and 'Ali.'' (Mīzān, ash Sha'rani). As for single Hadith (ahad), Abu Hanifah was the first jurist to accept them as evidence, and formulated views regarding how they are to be used, or to change his views according to them when they contradicted his opinion, for example: he retracted his opinion regarding the safe conduct of the slave on the strength of the fatwa of 'Umar which was related to him from a single source. A disagreement exists regarding how he dealt with a single hadith when it contradicted analogy. According to Abdulbarr: 'His method was to compare them with what he had collected of ahadith and tafseer of Qur’ān, if it contradicted them, he rejected them.’ However according to al-Bazdawi, if the single tradition came from a well known Companion, famous for fiqh and insight, such as the Khulafa Rashideen it was preferred over analogy. If the source was someone not known for his fiqh, then it was considered in the light of analogy and accepted or ignored.

On the issue of mursal hadith (that is one where the Tabi' who narrated it did not mention the Sahaba who transmitted the Hadith to him from the Prophet @, or a Hadith which a Sahaba did not hear directly from the Prophet @), for Abu Hanifah he accepted it from a Sahaba, Tabi' and the third generation, but not from those after them. Basically Abu Hanifah preferred hadiths from the fuqaha amongst the Sahaba, and not just from every companion.

Fatawa of the Companions

Abu Hanifah acted by the decisions of the Companions when no text existed from the Book or Sunnah. If the Companions differed, he chose from them what he wished, and did not leave that position for anyone else. As for the generation of the Tabi'un like Ibraheem an-Nakha'i, Ibn Sirin, or Sa'id b. al-Musayyab and others, he exercised his ijtihad as they did, because he left the Companions on matters which there was scope for opinion, but as for where there was no scope for opinion and a firm transmission existed, he followed them. That is why he took the period of menstruation to be a minimum of three and a maximum of ten days based on the position of Anas and Uthman b. Abi'l As, considering things as this to be a matter of oral transmission not ijtihad. In short he put the position of the Companions before analogy and this can be seen in many of his rulings. Later Hanafis did the reverse, preferring opinion to the statement of a Companion. As for the fatwas of the Tabi'un he did not consider that it was mandatory to follow them.


We live in the age of Qur’ān and Sunnah, and ijmā‘ is forgotten because both the Qur’ān and Sunnah were lived, acted out or recited and understood, changing cultures, behaviours and the character of individuals and societies. That being the case, then there must be a corpus of actions that are collectively accepted, which is the position of Imam Malik. But we are here not to compare or condemn, but to appreciate the work of a fellow Imam in this matter of avoiding the Fire and entering the Blessed Abode. Ijmā‘ since the time of Imam Shafi'I was held to be the agreement of the mujtahids of the Muslim community, as mentioned in the Risala. Did Abu Hanifah agree with this opinion or not? Al-Makki said that Abu Hanifah followed the ijmā‘ of the people in his land, that is the fuqaha of his land. (The Virtues by al-Makki).  In general the consensus that was considered as evidence has three pillars with the Fuqaha:

Ijtihad of the Sahabah on questions presented to them. It was a known policy of the Khalifah Umar that he consulted with the Sahabah; when agreement was reached that became his policy, if not, they would continue until consensus was realised, especially on matters of public well-being.

Imams of regions tried to avoid divergent opinions with other Imams of their region. Abu Hanifah held to this, especially regarding the early fuqaha of Kufa and their Ijtihad.

Consensus was evidence due to the Hadith: 'My community will never agree on error.' Although some classed this report as weak, others strengthen it by other supporting narrations.


Abu Hanifah employed qiyās in order to explain a matter without a text by comparing it to a matter whose ruling is known by the Book, Sunnah or ijmā‘, in which both matters share the same underlying cause. Abu Hanifah excelled in this because his method in ijtihad and understanding the Hadith, along with his knowledge of the social situation in which he lived helped him to give judgements extending to problems that had not occurred. He constantly theorised to prepare for circumstances before they occurred. Therefore he considered that it was not enough to know the ruling, but one needed to know the events and context of the text, its intention and how it benefited people, and the reasons behind it, as well as any peculiarities which might affect the rulings. This method was helpful to him because there were not a great number of hadiths to be found in Iraq. In matters dealing with worship he did not investigate the reasons behind the ruling because analogy was of no use in them. In those texts dealing with matters of the world he looked at the underlying reason which could then be applied to other cases.


Istiḥsān, seeking the good, or discretion was used by Abu Hanifah and his school for which they were fiercely criticised because in their critics’ view it allowed a ruling to be reached that was based on personal interpretation and feeling rather than on a text, or a clear judgement. Scholars of this Ummah disagreed on the benefit of this principle, but Imam Malik considered it as nine-tenth of knowledge, whereas Imam Shafi'i in al-Umm used to say; ''Anyone who uses istiḥsān has legislated for himself.'' In fact the istiḥsān used by Abu Hanifah did not leave text and analogy, but restrained the analogy if allowing its general application would be contrary to public interest, which is the interest of the shariah. According to al-Karkhi the istiḥsān used by Abu Hanifah is where the mujtahid turns away an established precedent in favour of another ruling due to a compelling reason that required him to turn away from the precedent.


In the absence of analogy and istiḥsān on a matter Abu Hanifah looked at the behaviour of the people. That is their normative customs among them. He acted on it when there was no text in the Book, Sunnah or ijmā‘, and no application of analogy based on another ruling or istiḥsān.

A note

Abu Hanifah said, as is cited in Tarikh al-Baghdad: ''When I do not find the ruling in the Book of Allah or the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah @ I can then take the statement of his Sahaba if I wish and leave the other people. But I do not disregard their words for the words of anyone. But when it is a question of Ibrahim an-Nakha'i, ash-Sha'bi, al-Hasan, Ibn Sirin or Said b. Musayyab, then I can exercise ijtihad in the same way that they did.''

Students of Abu Hanifah

The fiqh of Abu Hanifah was transmitted by his students, especially the main ones like Abu Yūsuf. He is Yaqub b. Ibrahim b. Habib al-Ansari al-Kufi. He was born in 133 AH and died in 182. He was poor and Abu Hanifah supported him financially. After the death of Abu Hanifah he acted as Qadi for three Abbasids Khalifs, which gave the school prestige and shaped its character. Abu Yusuf was a faqih of opinion and also knew hadith, which he combined in his judgements. However, many hadith scholars avoided his hadiths because he accepted the post of Qadi.

Another student of the Shaykh was Muhammad b. al-Hasan ash Shaybani, also known as Abu Abdullah, born in 132 and died in 189 AH. He was a young man of 18 years when Abu Hanifah died and had not been with him for a long time. Despite this he made a complete study of the fiqh of Iraq, more than any other students. He also met other scholars such as ath-Thawri, al-Awzai and Imam Malik. He also acted as Qadi for the Abbasids. He transmitted many books and ahadith.

Zafar b. Hudhayl was a student of the shaykh before the other two, he died in 158 AH. He was strong in using evidence and took the fiqh of opinion from Abu Hanifah which dominated his work. No books were transmitted from him and it is not known how well he recorded the fiqh of his master, but orally transmitted his teachings. He was also appointed a Qadi in Basra while Abu Hanifah was alive. When Abu Hanifah died he took his place in the circle, and when he in turn died Abu Yusuf took his place. It is said that although he was with the Shaykh longer than others he did not write much and died eight years after his master, while the other two lived longer and had time to write. Due to this he is not as famous and relied upon as Abu Yusuf and ash-Shaybani.

Several other students have transmitted the opinions of Abu Hanifah, but they are not as well known as these three, among them was al-Hasan b. Ziyad al-Lu'lu'i who also acted as a Qadi.

Abu Hanifah's relationship to power

Abu Hanifah's attitude to power can be summed up in his instructions regarding his burial: he stipulated that he should not be buried in any land that the authorities had usurped from the people. Abu Hanifah lived for fifty years under the Umayyads and eighteen under the Abbasids. He avoided becoming a judge at the request of Yazib b. Umar b. Hubayra, Marwan's governor of Iraq. He was punished for this and imprisoned. When he was released he went to Makka and remained there till the Abbasids came to power. He did not intend to give any legitimacy to Umayyad rule and their oppression and their habit of usurping the property of people. Actually it appears that he favoured the Abbasids because they claimed to represent the cause of the 'Alawites, and Abu Hanifah was known to be attached to the descendants of the Prophet @ who were oppressed by the Umayyads. So his loyalty to the state was always suspect, hence the reason why he was offered high office as a test of his loyalty. Abu Hanifah supported those who were against them and considered rebellion against the Umayyads to be legally permissible when there was a just Imam. It is for this reason that he supported the rebellion in 121 AH of Zayd b. Ali Zayn al-'Abidin against the Umayyads. So he considered the Umayyads as oppressors and unjust, but kept on holding to the deen and not participating in their rule to give it any legitimacy. As for the Abbasids he welcomed their rule at first because of its claim to represent the interest of the descendants of the Prophet @ who had suffered under the rule of the Umayyads. However when the Abbasids came to power they excluded the Alawities and favoured the descendants of the Prophet's @ uncle Abbas rather than those of Ali. In response to this the Alawites rebelled but Abu Hanifah continued to give his support to the Abbasids because of his love for the entire family of the Prophet @. Although they had his support he still refused their gifts and their company with gentleness and strategy. As the situation became worse between the Abbasids and the Alawites and Muhammad an Nafs az-Zakiya and his brother Ibrahim rebelled against al-Mansur, Abu Hanifah resented this but his resentment did not go beyond verbal criticism. While remaining loyal to the Abbasids, he took no action. Even Imam Malik gave support to Muhammad's rebellion and issued a fatwa commanding the people of Madina to support the cause of Nafs az-Zakiya, and stayed in his house when the people were forced to give allegiance to al-Mansur. As the matter between the 'Alawites and the Abbasids grew worse Abu Hanifah's criticism increased.

Because he opposed the judgements of the Qadi of Kufa and annulled his pronouncements, the Qadi complained to the Amir regarding Abu Hanifah's interference. The Amir ordered that Abu Hanifah stop giving fatwa. The Amir was aware of Abu Hanifah's position but could not do anything about it because he took no action nor was openly rebellious to the Amir. Eventually an opportunity presented itself when the Amir offered Abu Hanifah the post of Qadi and he refused to accept it. 

So al-Mansur imprisoned him and ordered that he be given 110 lashes then released from prison on the basis that he will remain in his house and that he should give fatwa for issues that were presented to him. Al-Mansur sent questions to him but he refuse to give fatwa on them, and so he was sent back to prison and punished. Some historians claim that his refusal was not based on any political consideration by Abu Hanifah but due to his piety, and Allah knows best. This harsh treatment and imprisonment caused the death of the Imam. Abu Hanifah's politics centred on his role as a mufti without paying attention to the authorities. In the main his politics centred on his support for the children of 'Ali and he felt that the Khalifate should be by agreement of the Muslims after consulting with them and not imposed in a heavy handed manner.

Abu Hanifah and the Sects

Although Abu Hanifah is famous for fiqh he was equally known in his time for studying the opinions of the various sects that appeared, and he debated with them and engaged their scholars. Amongst theses groups were the Shi'ites, the Saba'ties, Kaysanites, Zaydites, Imamites, Ithna asharites, Isma'ilites, Kharijites, Murji'ites, Jabarites and Mu'tazilites. It is reported that he debated with twenty-two sects, arguing in defence of Islam and that he actually studied with some of their shaykhs. We can learn this from him: his main response was da'wah to these various groups and sects and to become acquainted with their beliefs.

The Madhhab in Power

The Hanafi madhhab became the main school for regimes and governments. It was the main school of the Ottoman Dawla. This caused it to develop a complex structure and character for imperial rule. Heavily structured it needed central authority to realise its aims and objectives. This was also evident in the Mughal rule in India, where it was also the main school. Under the Ottoman there was some attempts at reform and revival by the Kadizadeli movement.

The Madhhab out of power and in decline

With the fall of Mughal rule in India the ulama of the Khalifate withdrew to the interior in order to save some semblance of the dīn. In face of modernity and colonisation the ulama panicked as they withdrew; some went to Deoband and other to Brealvi. Those in Deoband in time developed a rigorous outlook, looking to the outward aspect of the din, and what was the fiqh of the matter, as they responded to western civilisation. Getting the ritual right threw them off balance and diminished their spirituality because of the bureaucratic nature of their jurisprudence. Others developed their spirituality and attached themselves to the personality of the Prophet @ with such an intensity that his light and brilliance threw them off balance and led them to exaggeration.

Both responses were valid since they represented the anxiety of the Muslims in face of the threat to their existence from western civilisation.  In time these two paths pulled away and became two schools and strangers to each other. This affair then degenerated into accusations of kufr hurled at each other as they lost the centre which could no longer hold them together. This happened because they did not give enough thought to what was responsible for their decline and defeat; their review was not comprehensive enough, but driven by fear, anxiety, disappointment and ignorance of what western civilisation represented, and this affected their response to it. Apart from these groups, other pockets of ulama took on the British imposition such as the Khalifate movement, and the Hijra and Jihad movements of Shah Ahmad Shaheed, and some settled into education such as Shah Waliyullah ad-Dihlawi and his brothers and sons, and others compromised with the colonisers.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. We recommend the section on Imam Abu Hanifah in Abū Zahra’s The Four Imams. The subject of our next lecture is The Importance of Imam Malik for which we recommend the section on him in Abu Zahra’s book. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.