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6. The Madhhab of Imam ash-Shafi'i

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

Title: The Madhhab of Imam ash-Shāfi‘ī

Author: Abdassamad Clarke

Publication date: 16/3/2013

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Muslim History Programme of the MFAS. This is the sixth of 12 sessions which make up the Madhhabs of Islam module. It is in place of the advertised lecture which was to have been delivered by Shaykh Aḥmad Sa’ad, who was regrettably unable to attend today. 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 ash-Shāfi‘ī (150-204AH) lived during a time of great intellectual and political turbulence, the epoch after the Messenger of Allah @ when the Muslim order was still taking shape. As we saw in our “History of the Khalifas” module it was this period in which the divergent legal judgements that had resulted from the different madhhabs of the Companions ô were being regularised and made consistent by those who were to become the Imams of the Madhhabs for later generations, even though that comprised a great many more than the four whom we know today. 

However, in addition to that there was the very real challenge of the sects with their differing practices, such as the different groups of the shi’ah, the khawārij and the mu‘tazilah, whose ideological stances led to very serious differences on practice and even more serious political consequences, contrary to the positions of the group who came to be known as ‘ulamā’ which led to social stability and order. It could be interpreted as if Imām ash-Shāfi‘ī was only concerned for the fiqh issues with which he was faced and the possibility of disagreement and divergent views there, but his work also contributed to the very real solidification of the tradition of the fuqahā’ which sustained the political order through the work of Muftis and Qadis and thus made it resilient against the turbulent attacks of the dissident groups.

So let us turn to see something of him and his life.

Nasab – Lineage

Abū Zahra writes: 

“Transmissions agree that Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi‘i was born in 150 AH which is the year in which Imam Abu Hanifah  died. Some of them add that he was born on the very night that Abu Hanifah died, although there is no real evidence for this. Most historians say regarding his lineage that his father was a Qurayshi descended from al-Muttalib and that his full name and lineage is Muhammad ibn Idris ibn al-‘Abbas ibn ‘Uthman ibn Shafi‘ ibn as-Sa’ib ibn ‘Ubayd ibn ‘Abd Yazid ibn al-Muttalib ibn Hashim ibn ‘Abd Manaf. Both he and the Prophet @ are descended from ‘Abd Manaf through al-Muttalib.”

In essence this means that he was Hāshimī and thus, along with Bani al-‘Abbās and the descendants of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and Fāṭimah ?, of the Āl of Muḥammad @, although not of the Ahl al-Bayt. The Āl are not allowed to receive the zakāh or ṣadaqah and it is they who are intended by the supplication in the ṣalāh after the tashahhud: Allahumma ṣalli ‘ala Muhammadin wa ‘ala aali Muhammadin … O Allah bless Muhammad and the āl of Muhammad… 

His sīrah

Arabic and Poetry

One of the Imām’s most fundamental attributes was his clear and profound understanding of Arabic. Having been born in rural Gaza, where he lived until he was two although some say until he was ten, his first acquaintance of Arabic must have been with the Bedouin usage, which was always the purest wellspring of Arabic; witness the time the Messenger of Allah @ was destined to spend as a child among the Bedouin of Bani Sa‘d as was the custom among Quraysh regarding their children in order to give them the purest language and the healthiest climate. He is said in his youth to have sought out the Bedouin of Hudhayl in order to learn their use of the language. This is vitally important for knowledge of the Qur’ān because Allah revealed the Qur’ān in the language of the Arabs and according to their usages, so that a profound familiarity with the purest Arabic is a precondition for speaking with authority about the Qur’ān and deriving rulings and judgements from it. The great preserver of the ancient usage was the poetry and ash-Shāfi‘ī was devoted to learning it, and his own poetry collected in his Diwan is highly regarded.

Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley wrote about Imām ash-Shāfi‘ī in “The Four Madhhabs of Islam & their relationship with the present time” in The Four Madhhabs of Islam, and this section, which is largely based on the work of Muḥammad Abū Zahra on the Imām, is a useful synopsis:

“Imam ash-Shafi‘i was born in Makkah in the year of Imam Abu Hanifah’s death, 150AH, and pursued his early studies there under teachers steeped in the fiqh and tafsir of the great Companion ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Abbas ? which, as we will see, was to prove a strong influence on Imam ash-Shafi‘i later in his life.”

The Imam’s mother had been widowed when he was two and she moved to Makka, apparently in order to make sure that her son would be connected to his Hashimi roots. Thus the boy and young man would grow up in the Ḥaram in the presence of the Ka‘ba. It can be seen that in all the cities apart from Madīnah, one or more of the Companions took up residence there as teachers and left their distinctive mark on the practice and learning of Islam and the madhhab that would grow up there. Thus, in Damascus there was Abū ad-Dardā’, in Kufa ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and Anas ibn Mālik but most importantly ‘Abdullāh ibn Mas‘ūd and in Makka ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Abbās ô. Ibn ‘Abbās had received knowledge of the tafsīr of the Qur’ān because of the famous supplication of the Messenger of Allah @ to that effect, and that knowledge was to mark the teaching of Islam in Makka. 

The Muslims, then as now, come to Makka to perform hajj and ‘umra, among them the learned, the powerful, the wealthy, the poor, Arabs and non-Arabs. It is as if it is the entire umma in miniature in a dynamic flux. 

Ash-Shāfi‘ī is said to have memorised the Qur’ān by the time he was seven. Shaykh Abdalhaqq continues:

“Although he reached a high level of proficiency in his studies he was not satisfied with what he had learnt and travelled north to Madinah to sit at the feet of Imam Malik whom he was to consider the “Luminous Star” among the many teachers under whom he studied. He stayed with Imam Malik until 179AH when he died, although it is known that during that time he visited other places for short periods in search of knowledge.”

People differ as to whether ash-Shāfi‘ī went to Mālik when he was twelve, thirteen or twenty years of age. He had, however, already memorised the Muwaṭṭa’. His biographers say that during this time he continued to travel in Arabia a great deal. Thus, he had acquired the profound connection to the Qur’ān that was transmitted in Makka from the Companion Ibn ‘Abbās ? and then a deep immersion in the Sunnah in the city of the Sunnah, Madina al-Munawwara, learning in the process the city’s hadith whose core is the Muwaṭṭa’ of Imām Mālik, about which he later said that it is the soundest of books after the Qur’ān. Shaykh Abdalhaqq writes:

“After Imam Malik’s death Imam ash-Shafi‘i was appointed qadi in Najran by the governor of Yemen. He remained there for five years but his uncompromising implementation of justice and his condemnation of all injustice made him unpopular with those in power. They slandered him to the caliph, accusing him of rebellion and he was sent to Baghdad in 184AH for trial. He exonerated himself but did not return to Yemen, remaining in Iraq and studying with Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ash-Shaybani, the close follower of Imam Abu Hanifah.”

Indeed, Imam Muḥammad was one of his most significant teachers as he was developing some of the scientific approaches to fiqh for which ash-Shāfi‘ī would become famous and it is clear that in his reading of Imām Muḥammad’s books and in the exchanges and debates with him and with the other people of the school of Iraq – the school which had developed hypothetical reasoning in order to develop the intellect and prepare for future situations and which required the learned to be able to present and defend their points of view in public debates – that Imām ash-Shāfi‘ī radically transformed the traditional outlook of Makka and Madina to which he had hitherto adhered.

Ustadh Abū Zahra writes:

“We cannot go into the details of everyone from whom he learned, but we must point out that some writers on fiqh have contended that in reality he took from only two schools of fiqh, each of which was established according to a particular method. All the fuqaha’, with very few exceptions, followed the path of one or the other of these two schools, not diverging from it significantly. One was the school of hadith in Madina and the other was the school of opinion in Iraq. We can add a third school: tafsir of the Qur’an. Ash-Shafi‘i knew the situational exegesis of its revelation (asbab an-nuzul), the transmission of tafsir on the subject and how to understand the Qur’an in that light, the language of the Arabs, and some of their customs: that school is the school of Makka which Ibn ‘Abbas founded. 

“In my opinion the factors which distinguish the two schools are not opinion and hadith. What in fact distinguishes them is the method employed to come to a judgement, the way opinion is used, and the abundance or paucity of the fatwas of the Companions. It is confirmed that the seven fuqaha1 who were the teachers of Hijazi fiqh used opinion a great deal.”

Please note that the word translated here as ‘opinion’ is ra’y from the verb ‘to see’ so that ‘view’ would be a possible translation as well, but perhaps best of all ‘theory’, since the latter word derives from the Greek thea "a view" + horan "to see". Both Kufa and Madina depended on the Sunnah and resorted to hadith and both had a theoretical understanding (ra’y) of the processes involved. The emphases were, however, different in both situations.

Shaykh Abdalhaqq continues:

“After a couple of years he returned to his birthplace, Makkah, and it was there that his career as a teacher really started. He remained in Makkah for almost ten years and then visited Baghdad for the second time in 195AH, staying there on this occasion for about two years. He returned again to Baghdad in 198AH and then went on from there in 199AH to Egypt where he spent the remainder of his life, dying in Fustat on the last day of Rajab 204AH at the age of 54. 

“The reason for dwelling for some time on the varied movements of Imam ash-Shafi‘i during the course of his life is because it has a considerable bearing on the development of the method by which he determined what constituted the Book and Sunnah. Both Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam Malik remained comparatively stationary throughout their lives, which meant that the source of their knowledge was geographically limited and therefore quite consistent in its approach to the din. As we have seen, Imam ash-Shafi‘i, on the other hand, travelled a lot and because of this saw many different approaches taken to the din. In fact it is true to say that he learned the fiqh of most of the schools existing in his time. 

“He started by learning the fiqh of Ibn ‘Abbas in Makkah. He went on to learn the fiqh of Imam Malik in Madinah. He learned the fiqh of al-Awza‘i, the school of Syria, from his companion, ‘Umar ibn Abi Salam. He learned the fiqh of Imam Abu Hanifah, the Iraqi school, from his follower Muhammad ash-Shaybani and learned the fiqh of al-Layth ibn Sad, the faqih of Egypt. As we have seen, there was a considerable difference between the Madinan and Iraqi schools and this was equally the case with all the other schools, with the result that quite distinct judgements were being made about almost identical issues in different areas. Because of his wide learning Imam ash-Shafi‘i was well aware of these differences and it became clear to him that, unless a uniform system of coming to judgment was devised and imposed, there was a very real danger of Islam becoming divergent. He saw that it might rapidly become changed out of all recognition from the original teaching as it had been implemented by the Prophet @ and the first community in Madinah. 

“In order to combat this clearly perceived threat – that Islam might suffer the fate of previous revelations by becoming changed and adulterated from its original form due to increasingly divergent rulings on virtually identical situations – Imam ash-Shafi‘i devised a brilliant system to ensure uniformity of legal decision-making and to prevent any further dispersal and dilution of the original teachings of Islam. He did this during his long stay in his birthplace, Makkah, to which he returned after his first visit to Iraq, and it is significant that he based his system on his earliest studies of the knowledge and methodology of the great Companion, Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him and his father. 

“The teaching of Ibn ‘Abbas was firmly based on his explanation of the text of the Qur’an, for which he had received explicit permission from the Prophet @. The Qur’an is, of course, a book, the Book, and for that reason a major element in the methodology transmitted from Ibn ‘Abbas was textual analysis involving detailed examination of the text itself. This involved a concern with the mujmal (unspecified) and mufassal (detailed), the mutlaq (unrestricted) and muqayyad (qualified) and the khass (specific) and the ‘amm (general). In the hands of Imam ash-Shafi‘i this type of textual analysis produced a new discipline for fuqaha which had not previously existed although all the elements of it had been present. 

“This detailed examination of the written word formed the core of the methodology for which Imam ash-Shafi‘i became famous and was the cornerstone of his system for ascertaining an authoritative and consistent standard for what constitutes the Book and Sunnah. He founded a systematic method of deduction which allowed judgments to be made on the basis of sound textual evidence and did not accept the latitude in the derivation of judgments which, as we have seen, had existed up until then. Under Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s system no opinion could be expressed which could not be traced to an authenticated text and so the possibility of innovation in the Shari‘ah became vastly reduced.…

“It certainly fulfilled its intended task of halting the accelerating break-up in the homogeneity of the practice of Islam in the various areas of the Muslim world of that time and ensured a consistency of practice which was to safeguard the integrity of Islam right down to our own time. Indeed it is true to say that it is largely due to Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s superlative system that we owe the extraordinary uniformity of Islamic practice throughout the world, so that even today 1200 years later, wherever a Muslim travels in the world, despite all the geographical, ethnic and cultural differences which undoubtedly exist, there is no significant difference in any of the basic practices of Islam. This is a tremendous achievement. Another thing is that, because of the need for trustworthy textual evidence on which to base actions and judgments, it became necessary to collect together as many sound traditions from the Prophet @ as possible. This in turn led to the great hadith collections and all the sciences of hadith, which were devised to ensure their authenticity, and it is significant that nearly all of the great hadith collections were put together by scholars who were adherents of the Shafi‘i madhhab.”


It is well known that Imām ash-Shāfi‘ī had four main uṣūl, three of which are textual – the Book, the Sunnah and Consensus (ijmā‘) – and the fourth of which is intellectual: qiyās or analogical reasoning. In the textual sources ash-Shāfi‘ī made a number of key distinctions most notably between the general (‘āmm) and the particular (khāṣṣ). And he elaborated a science of the application of qiyās to those situations where nothing existed in the Book, the Sunnah or the Ijmā‘.


Of the works he left behind, probably the most famous is ar-Risala, which may have been written in Makka and made public in Baghdad although it was revised at a later point and it is that revised version we have. It lays out in full his theoretical understanding and is perhaps one of the most influential such works in history and has had an impact on all the fuqahā’ far beyond the Shafi‘i madhhab.

Al-Umm is a later work containing actual fiqh judgements as opposed to uṣūl.

There is considerable discussion about these works, when they were written and revised, and whether al-Umm was written by someone else or by ash-Shāfi‘ī himself. There is also considerable discussion about his famous ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ the differences between which have probably been somewhat exaggerated, but these are matters for a more in-depth study by those who wish to study the madhhab properly.


Ash-Shāfi‘ī’s brush with power was, as we saw, when, after the death of Mālik in 179AH, he was appointed qāḍī in the Yemen, which had become a centre for Zaydi shi’ism. Because of his concern for justice and independence of the power élite, he is said to have fallen foul of the amir and found himself accused of being a Zaydi shi’ah and sent to the khalīfah, Hārūn ar-Rashīd. The Abbasids had executed shi‘ahs on simple suspicion without evidence because they considered the alternative – civil strife and revolution – to be so unacceptable. Ash-Shāfi‘ī came near to being executed and it was partly through his own acute intellect and eloquence and the intercession of Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan on his behalf that he was saved. After that he distanced himself from power completely and devoted himself entirely to knowledge and teaching. Nevertheless, his teaching would have the effect of consolidating and stabilising Muslim society.


The key to the understanding of Imām ash-Shāfi‘ī, may Allah be merciful to him, is that, seeing great intellectual divisions among the Muslims, which had produced a number of madhhabs most prominent among which were the madhhabs of Iraq and Madina later to become the Hanafi and Maliki madhhabs, he set down a theory of fiqh by which he intended to unite these disparate madhhabs, but by which he was ironically to become the founder of a third. Nevertheless, by and large, through the natural dialogue and interaction of the learned, both of the other madhhabs would adopt his language and method to different extents just as Imām ash-Shāfi‘ī himself had absorbed their core teachings at the outset of his career.

The Outward

Abū Zahra writes:

“We can say that in his explanation of the Shari‘a, his extrapolation of its rulings, and his deduction of its principles, ash-Shafi‘i relied on the outward and apparent indication of the texts. That is why he rejected istihsan: because it was based on the state of the faqih or the spirit of the Shari‘a and depended on the perception of the faqih who was trained and skilled in the practice of the Shari‘a and had a firm grasp of its roots, branches, and sources. Ash- Shafi‘i rejected this approach because it was not based on a text in its expressions, indications, or evidence. He took a more literal and objective approach to texts. In his view the legal rulings and judgements of the Shari‘ a concerned outward matters only. The function of the qadi is not to delve into people’s inner secrets – that is between them and their Creator.”

While one should not over-stress this, and Imām ash-Shāfi‘ī’s words on tasawwuf and his insight into the human heart bear testimony to his great inward expansiveness, nevertheless there is a sense in which the methodology that he promulgated was to give great prominence to the outward in later generations. It is possible the same can be said to greater or lesser degree about the other madhhabs. However, as pertains to the Shāfi‘ī madhhab it would be a later outstanding scholar and quite remarkable man who would address this issue and redress it. We will look at Imām al-Ghazali along with two other later Shāfi‘ī scholars who occupy a midpoint in our history and a period of great epochal change. 

Al-Ghazali (c. 450 – 505 AH/1058 – 1111 CE)

Imām al-Ghazali was to live at a moment of transition that would stretch over a number of centuries. He was contemporary with Shaykh Abdalqadir al-Jilani although twenty years older than him, and there is no evidence that they met. A much weakened Abbasid khalifate was still in Baghdad but the Seljuq Turks were in reality the power nexus of the times. A highly significant wazir, Nizam al-Mulk, confronted an age in which Fatimid shi’ism had almost obliterated genuine Islam in the Middle East. An essential element of shi’ism had always been the activities of the da‘i, the ‘inviter’ or missionary, and the core institution from which they emanated was al-Azhar in Egypt. Nizam al-Mulk was to institute the Madrasah as a response to that and as an attempt to ground the Islam of the Muslims firmly in the Sunnah.2 This was a highly significant development of the existing education of the Muslims. Emphasis shifted from the individual teacher to the institution and to the development of a curriculum. Imām al-Ghazali is one of the early graduates of this system. He was a Shāfi‘ī and Ash‘arī. However, the outwardness of the instruction left him undernourished spiritually and he suffered a crisis and set out on a quest for direct spiritual knowledge, eventually returning to restore both the outward sciences of ‘aqīdah and fiqh and to place tasawwuf intellectually alongside them. He wrote a number of key works, most notably Iḥyā ‘ulūm ad-dīn but also other works on ‘aqīdah and fiqh. His Iḥyā in four sections comprising forty books, dealt with the entire gamut of the dīn including the much neglected mu‘āmalāt but striving to integrate the outward fiqh with the inward concern for the heart and the intention.

An-Nawawi (631 – 676 AH/1234 –1278 CE)

Imām an-Nawawi was to live during the Mongol epoch (602 – 693 AH/1206–1294 CE) although from his own works one might be forgiven if one concluded that such an event had never happened. He had brilliantly absorbed all of al-Ghazali’s perspective, his Shāfi‘ī fiqh, Ash‘arī ‘aqīdah and Junaydi tasawwuf, and integrated it harmoniously in a range of scholarly works such as his Riyad as-Saliheen, a collection of hadith selected largely from the ṣaḥīḥ works and arranged implicitly according to the classical Ghazalian picture of tasawwuf, thus proceeding from tawbah – turning penitently to Allah – through the stations of the path; his ample commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, which he based on the prior commentary of Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ; and many other works including a manual of Shāfi‘ī fiqh – Minhaj at-Talibeen; and his widely loved and respected selection of Forty Hadith comprising hadith that the ‘ulamā’ considered the most essential of the entire literature. He left a body of work that saw the Ghazalian synthesis highly integrated in a unique way.

Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalānī (773 – 852 AH/ 1372 – 1448 CE)

Another encyclopaedic scholar of exceptional intellect, Ibn Hajar is most famous for his Fatḥ al-Bārī commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī but has also significant works such as al-Iṣābah on the Companions, and various works on hadith narrators and their merits and demerits. 

As-Suyūṭī (849 – 911 AH/1445 – 1505 CE)

As-Suyūṭī lived after the Mongol devastation in the twilight years of a titular khalīfah in Cairo. At a decisive moment in his life, he withdrew from society entirely and devoted himself to his scholarship. Most famously he completed the tafsīr of his own teacher, Jalal ad-Dīn al-Mahalli, known now as Tafsir al-Jalalayn, which is a basic single volume that teaches the basic linguistic and sharī‘ah essentials of Qur’ānic knowledge. In addition he wrote a large encyclopaedic tafsīr called al-Itqān. Apart from those he authored an astonishing range of works on Arabic language, history, and even medicine. He made a number of major hadith collections in which he attempted to collect every single hadith ever narrated and show their sources in the famous collections. His work was so prodigious that it is said the Mauritanian ‘ulamā’ considered him to be the Qutb of the time.


Shaykh Abdalhaqq writes about ash-Shāfi‘ī himself: 

“He took upon himself the task of setting out the principles for a consistent methodology of deduction to provide guidance for all those qualified to make judgments in the din and to formulate the criteria involved. He set out a universal system founded on firm principles, not contingent upon opinion or precedent or the resolution of hypothetical questions, and succeeded in devising a methodology for all subsequent scholars and judges to follow. His influence on the later development of Islam cannot be overstated and it is fair to say that the Islam we have inherited today is in no small part due to the magnificent system which Imam ash-Shafi‘i formulated twelve centuries ago.”

Much in character with the original effort of their Imām to hold together a knowledge tradition that he feared would fly apart in factionalism, his heirs strove to bridge the disparate impulses that might cause the dīn to fracture and thus they naturally rose to the fore in the age when a weakened khalifate was first severely threatened and limited by a vigorous shi’ism and then later obliterated by the Mongols.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. Recommended further reading includes the section The Four Madhhabs of Islam and the Four Imams. The subject of our next lecture is The Madhhab of Imām Aḥmad ibn Hanbal. Recommended reading includes the relevant sectknos. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.

1The seven fuqaha’ of Madina were the early jurists among the Tabi‘un in Madina who laid down the foundations of Madinan fiqh. They were Sa‘id ibn al- Musayyab (d. 93 AH), ‘Urwa ibn az-Zubayr (d. 94 AH), Abu Bakr ‘Ubayd (d. 94 AH), al-Qasim ibn Muhammad (d. 108 AH), ‘Ubaydullah ibn ‘Abdullah (d. 98 AH), Sulayman ibn Yasar (d. 100 AH), and Kharija ibn Zayd (d. 100 AH).

2 Amjad Hussain, A Social History of Education in the Muslim World.