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A Classical Outline of the History of the Madhhabs

18B • Islamic History 2 • The Madhhabs of Islam • Lecture 02 • The Sources of Law and Belief • 09.02.12 from The Muslim Faculty on Vimeo.

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

Title: A Classical Outline of the History of the Madhhabs 

Author: Abdalhakim Andersson

Publication date: 09/02/2013

Lecture II: A Classical Outline of the History of the Madhhabs

السلام عليكم

Welcome to the Muslim History Programme of the MFAS. This is the second of 12 sessions which make up the second module, The Madhhabs of Islam. 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.


When approaching the development of the madhhabs from a historical perspective, one might wonder how the classical Muslim scholars of the first thousand years post Hijra treated the subject in their times. Some may argue that the questions modern academics ask about the intellectual history of Islam did not concern the scholars of the classical period, or at least that these contextual questions were secondary to the transmission of the scholarship itself. On the other hand, it could be argued, that many aspects of the tradition of fiqh were, in fact, based on understanding the context of legal judgements and its sources in relation to their original as well as present-day context. Accordingly, this type of historical analysis was perhaps an integral part of most sciences and of the scholars’ understanding, although often unarticulated. 

In order to situate ourselves in the discipline that we are approaching – the historical study of scholarly developments in Islam – we will keep in mind the questions proposed in the previous lecture, which are the type of questions modern academics generally ask. The purpose of this lecture, however, is to look back to the classical period itself and examine some of the questions that concerned scholars of that time. That will, hopefully, give us a picture of how they viewed the subject and provide a perspective on our own historical position when approaching these issues. The scholar that I have chosen to illustrate a traditional Muslim scholar’s view is Ibn Khaldun, whom I mentioned in the previous lecture as one of those who, similarly to ourselves, set out to examine the intellectual developments in Islam in relation to the larger civilisational history. 

In the past, some academics have argued that Ibn Khaldun and his theoretical perspectives on civilisational developments are unique in the history of Islamic scholarship. It is true that he was unusual in his systematic and consistent approach. It is also true that he was never seen as one of the great legal authorities and that his immediate influence in the Muslim world, despite being the Chief Qadi (qadi al-qudat) in Cairo, never extended beyond the regions in which he was active. Nevertheless, he clearly represents traditional Muslim scholarship and its transmission throughout the centuries. Without discrediting the novelty of Ibn Khaldun’s historical works and theories, they should be viewed as a part of the transmission of civilisational thought that had taken place in Muslim scholarship for centuries. As one contemporary academic puts it, the most significant difference between Ibn Khaldun and his predecessors is formal, rather than substantial.1 Thus, many of his analytical views can be traced to great scholars before him, although he certainly was the most successful in refining and systematising the principles of civilisational analysis, or, as he names it, ‘ilm al-’umran, the science of social organisation. Therefore, the following lecture will examine Ibn Khaldun’s views on the history of the sciences of fiqh and ‘aqida, which also includes his analysis of the relationship between these two disciplines, and the larger political, social and economic history of Muslim civilisations. 

Sciences in society

Before examining Ibn Khaldun’s views, it is useful to look at his general perspective on knowledge and sciences in relation to the individual human being as well as to society. Without going into too much detail about his epistemological theories – which Zaid Ahmad treats in his insightful book The Epistemology of Ibn Khaldun (2003)his perspective on the social significance of knowledge can be summarised in a few principle concepts. According to him, the ability to think (fikr, ‘aql) enables the human being to find ways of making a living and establish co-operation (ta’āwun), which he regards as the primal stage of establishing a society (mujtama’’).2 He also makes clear that the most important form of knowledge is revelation (wahi), transmitted by prophets, which is the principle source of guidance for mankind.3 By the faculty of fikr, man is prepared for accepting the divine guidance, and by co-operation (ta’awun), man is prepared to implement the message socially. Thus, divine religion, in the view of Ibn Khaldun, is a necessary foundation for sound social organisation, while nevertheless working by the same basic human conditions that all peoples and societies share, whether their source of law and moral conduct is revelation or not. 

Another important feature of Ibn Khaldun’s view on sciences is that all sciences are crafts (sanā‘a), transmitted by habit (malaka)4 and scientific instruction (ta‘lim), which are necessary features in the process of achieving skill and mastery in any craft. This might appear to be an obscure detail, but it is, in fact, foundational for the classical view on the development of the madhhabs. They emerged as guilds of fiqh and have remained essential to the Muslim community by the very nature of their uninterrupted transmission from the original source. It is in this sense we read the following statement of Ibn Khaldun: 

It should be known that a craft is the habit [malaka] of something concerned with action and thought. Inasmuch as it is concerned with action, it is something corporeal and perceptible to the senses. Things that are corporeal and perceptible to the senses are transmitted through direct practice more comprehensively and more perfectly (than otherwise), because direct practice is more useful with regard to them. 

A habit is a firmly rooted quality acquired by doing a certain action and repeating it time after time until the form of (that action) is firmly fixed. A habit corresponds to the original (action after which it was formed). The transmission of things one has observed with one’s own eyes is something more comprehensive and complete than the transmission of information of things one has learned about. A habit that is the result of (personal observation) is more perfect and more firmly rooted than a habit that is the result of information. The skill the student acquires in a craft, and the habit he attains, correspond to the quality of instruction and the habit of the teacher.5

He also notes that habit is not synonymous with understanding and appreciation (al-fahm wa-l-wa’y).6 The transmission of skill and mastery by habit is the exclusive property of scholars, well-versed in a certain scientific discipline. However, understanding of single problems, even within advanced sciences, may be shared by people without specialisation in the discipline.7 Because crafts are transmitted through instruction and personal observation, Ibn Khaldun emphasises that habits depend on the teaching process (ta’lim) and the continuity of teaching (as-sanad fi’t-ta’lim). Thereby leading the authorities of the disciplines establish their own particular traditions of mastering the craft.8 This development is discernible in the emergence of the scientific disciplines of Islam, all having their own methodologies and technical terminologies. It also exists on a more narrow level within the disciplines, for instance the madhhabs of fiqh, all of which have their own particular methodologies, terminologies and founding authorities. Despite a science remaining constant throughout the ages, as in the case of fiqh and ‘aqida, its articulated methodologies and technical terms will have evolved over time.9 In his study of Ibn Khaldun’s epistemology, Zaid Ahmad writes about his understanding of science in society:

Science or knowledge has both functions: it is a tool to bring about civilisation and is itself the product of civilisation. In other words, civilisation is established as a result of man’s achievement in all aspects of his life including in sciences and crafts, while new sciences and crafts are the excellent products of civilisation. Along the line there is another factor, which is of no less importance, that is the process of instruction (ta’lim). It is by way of instruction that knowledge and science can be transferred and developed. Members of one generation obtain the knowledge of their ancestors through the method of instruction, besides at the same time producing new knowledge through their own intellectual activities and creativity. This process is considered as natural to humans insofar as the civilisation process is concerned.10

A civilisation – or what Ibn Khaldun refers to as sedentary culture (hadâra) – is thus characterised by achievements in crafts and sciences, which are both products of civilisation and producers of its culture. But the role of sciences in society does not end there. At the establishment of a civilisation, the sciences and crafts become means of maintaining and developing that state of civilisation. Accordingly, a civilisation can only survive if there is an establishment and continuity of a strong teaching tradition. Thereby, knowledge of the sciences are transmitted, developed and activated in society. Although the relationship of scientific developments to society is more complex than this brief overview can contain, the basic perspective on sciences as integral parts of society and as products/producers of power is important to remember. The examination of sciences in relation to the surrounding social context also implies its fundamental relationship to power. Sciences are representations as well as producers of social knowledge, which in turn regulates what can be known, thought and practiced in certain contexts. This analytical perspective allows for the examination of political, social, economic and intellectual power relations as expressed through sciences, or what nowadays would be referred to as ‘discourses of knowledge’. Before moving on to the core subject of this course – the schools of law and belief – it is also useful to take a brief look at Ibn Khaldun’s basic typology of sciences.  

A typology of sciences 

Within the context of the eight/fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406) classified the sciences of his time into two broad categories: the philosophical sciences (al-‘ulum al-hikmiyya al-falsafiyya) and the transmitted traditional sciences (al-‘ulûm an-naqliyya al-wa­d’iyya). These two categories are sometimes referred to as ‘aqliyya sciences and naqliyya sciences, i.e. sciences based on reasoning and sciences based on transmission. He writes:

It should be known that the sciences with which people concern themselves in cities and which they acquire and pass on through instruction, are of two kinds; one that is natural to man and to which he is guided by his own ability to think and a traditional kind that he learns from those who invented it.11

The first category includes sciences “with which man can become acquainted through the very nature of his ability to think”.12 The second category includes sciences ultimately based on revelation and its transmission within the religious communities throughout history.13 Although many sciences within the categories overlap and share certain methodologies, he nevertheless classifies them as either belonging to the ‘aqliyya or naqliyya sciences depending on their foundational epistemology, methodology, purpose and transmission. Other scholars have suggested additional categories, such as spiritual sciences or experiential sciences (which would include tasawwuf). Although those discussions are interesting and worthy of closer examination, this brief mention of the classification and its relevance to the history of the schools of law and belief, will suffice for our present purposes. 

When discussing the traditional sciences, Ibn Khaldun mentions the science of tafsir, qira’a (readings of the Qur’an), hadith, usul al-fiqh, fiqh and kalam. He also notes that understanding these sciences requires knowledge of the philological sciences (al-‘ulum al-lisaniyya) pertaining to the Arabic language.14 He makes clear that these naqliyya sciences, in their proper form, are ultimately derived from the Qur’an and Sunna. They are, therefore, restricted to the Muslim Community, since the traditional sciences of all former religious communities were abrogated with the arrival of Islam.15 Although, as Ibn Khaldun notes, the ‘ilm al-kalam as a scientific discipline originated when scholars began to use logical or rational arguments in addition to the traditional material, it is a discipline that ultimately refers back to the Qur’an and Sunna, despite its varying degrees of philosophical methodology. 

Following from Ibn Khaldun’s general perspective on sciences in society, it may be argued that because of the naqliyya foundation of the sciences of law and belief, alongside their ‘aqliyya methodologies and continuous extrapolation in relation to the present age, these two sciences are the most indicative of the surrounding historical developments in historical Muslim societies. Thus, when Ibn Khaldun examines the historical development of these two sciences, he also points out the importance of understanding their origins, developments and contemporary functions within the context of the wider civilisational history. 

The history of the schools of fiqh

After the sciences directly related to the Qur’an and hadith, Ibn Khaldun turns his attention to the sciences of usul al-fiqh and fiqh, which includes their origins and developments. As Ahmad Zaid suggests, Ibn Khaldun’s view on the development of fiqh can be divided into at least five distinct phases: (1) the phase of ikhtilaf, (2) the pre-scientific phase (i.e. pre-madhhab), (3) the phase of three madhhabs, (4) the emergence of four madhhabs and the outgrowth of taqlid, and (5) the geography and achievement of the four remaining madhhabs.16 

Firstly, Ibn Khaldun traces the origins of the madhhabs to the natural existence of differences of opinion (ikhtilaf) among the people of knowledge qualified to make judgements after the death of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. Some of the reasons given for the ikhtilaf among the first generations are the multiple meanings of the transmitted texts, differences in the transmission of the Sunna, non-textual evidence and new events or circumstances (al-waqâ’i al-mutajaddida) that required new judgements.17 At this time, fiqh was not a specialised science. The people with knowledge of the Qur’an along with its meanings and legal rulings were referred to as al-qurrâ’, literally the readers. But when literacy and scholarship spread within Muslim civilisation, there was a transition from qurrâ’ to fuqaha and ‘ulama, in the specific meaning of jurists and scholars of the religious sciences. This was the beginning of the second phase, referred to as the pre-madhhab phase. As Zaid Ahmad sums up Ibn Khaldun’s view on the emergence of the sciences: “People found it necessary to protect religious knowledge from corruption, thus inventing methods of knowing and assessing chains of transmitters.”18 

Again, according to Ibn Khaldun, sciences (as crafts) are the property of sedentary culture. Because this did not exist, or at least was uncommon among the majority in the Arab society, it was largely non-Arabs who excelled in the development of the early sciences, including fiqh.19 He exemplifies his theory by referring to the early grammarians of Persian decent, such as Sîbawayh, al-Fârisî and az-Zajjâj.20 A similar situation can likewise be said about the early scholars of tafsir, hadith, fiqh and kalam. Another sociological insight of Ibn Khaldun, is the fact that many of the Arabs who left the bedouin culture were from the leading strata of Muslim society. Therefore, they tended to be drawn into politics rather than scholarship, which was left to those of non-Arab origin and quite often of mawali background or mixed Arabs of partly non-Arab parentage (muwallad).21 Under these people, which of course also included a great number of Arabs from the new urban culture, the sciences became more specialised. New generations of scholars from various backgrounds developed different methods and approaches to the study of fiqh.22 Thereby, fiqh became a science and a distinguished craft (sinâ’a). The madhhabs, thereby, emerged as guilds formed around a master, who transmitted from the great generations before him and whose students systematised the knowledge into distinct schools of thought. 

In this third phase, according to Ibn Khaldun, the fuqaha developed two different approaches. One approach relied upon the use of considered opinion (ra’y) and analogy (qiyas), and was represented by the people of Iraq, known as ahl ar-ra’y, whose followers centred around Imam Abu Hanifa (d. 150/767). The other approach, associated with the people of al-Hijaz, emphasised hadith and transmitted tradition. Their leading scholar was Imam Malik (d. 179/795) and, after him, Imam ash-Shafi’i (d. 204/820). Moreover, Ibn Khaldun mentions the Dhahiri madhhab that developed around Dawud b. ‘Ali (d. 270/883) and his son Muhammad (d. 297/909), who restricted the sources of law to the texts and general consensus (ijma’). As Ibn Khaldun concludes, these were the three madhhabs for the great mass of Muslims, before the Dhahiri madhhab disappeared. Again, he emphasises living transmission and states that those who attempt to learn the Dhahiri system of fiqh after its extinction, are considered innovators (mubtadi’) because, “they accept knowledge from books for which no key is provided by teachers.”23 

In the fourth phase, only the two basic approaches of the ahl al-hadith and ahl ar-ra’y remained. These came to be represented by four madhhabs, named after Abu Hanifa, Malik, ash-Shafi’i and Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 241/855). Other madhhabs did exist, such as the schools of al-Awza’i, Sufyan ath-Thawri and Ibn Jarir at-Tabari, but none of these lasted more than a couple of centuries. As Ibn Khaldun notes, the technical terminology of the sciences then became very diversified and the great scholarly developments made it difficult for later people to attain the level of independent judgement (ijtihad). That is, according to him, the reason why the ‘ulama no longer admit of any differences of opinion (khilaf) arising from outside of these four madhhabs.24 The fourth period is therefore characterised by taqlid (lit. imitation), since most scholars admitted their inability to make independent judgements (ijtihad). Instead, they referred their judgements to existing authorities, usually within one of the four remaining madhhabs. When Ibn Khaldun mentions “the closing of the door of khilaf and its methods” (wa-sadda an-nâsu bâb al-khilâf wa-turuqahu), he is thus referring to the impermissibility and impossibility of creating a new madhhab after the four.25  Since fiqh had become a craft, the guild structure of the madhhabs transmitted those firmly rooted habits (malaka) that were required for a person to undertake legal analysis and to apply the methods of a particular madhhab.26 

Finally, Ibn Khaldun notes the geographical spread of the four schools and their later political contexts. He mentions, for instance, the Hanbalis in Syria and Iraq, noting their clash with the Shi’as in Baghdad. He mentions the wide geographical spread of the Hanafis and their excellent ability in dealing with the controversial questions that came up in the East. Likewise, he notes the spread of the Shafi’i madhhab in Egypt and Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxania, before it was interrupted by the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt and the Mongol invasions from the East. He also analyses why the Madinan madhhab of Imam Malik spread westwards. Besides the fact that the western scholars travelled mostly to al-Hijaz to study under Imam Malik and his students, he also notes that the desert attitude (badâwa) was predominant among the western people. They were not interested in the sedentary culture of the Iraqis, but inclined towards the people of al-Hijaz. Therefore, Ibn Khaldun argues, the Maliki madhhab among the western people “retained its simplicity and was not affected by the refinement and improvement of sedentary culture that took effect in other schools”.27 Whether or not the later Maliki scholars actually retained the original bedouin attitude could be discussed. But this way of analysing the socio-political factors involved in the development of the madhhabs is nevertheless a clear example of how classical scholars approached similar questions to the ones that confronts modern historians.  

The history of the schools of kalam

A fundamental insight from the Muqaddima is that a science, similarly to any craft in society, develops when there is a need for it. The emergence and formalisation of the sciences of hadith, fiqh and sufism (tasawwuf) are thereby explained with reference to the demand for such sciences at certain times.28 From that basis, Ibn Khaldun sets out to explain the emergence of the schools of belief, represented by the followers of Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi. After identifying tawhid as the core (sirr) of the discipline, he defines kalam as a science based on “logical proofs in defense of the articles of faith and refuting innovators (mubtadi’a) who deviate in their dogmas from the early Muslims and Muslim orthodoxy (as-salaf wa-ahl as-sunna).”29 The articles of faith (al-‘aqâ’id al-imâniyya) are thus, prior to the science, not its result. This indicates the originally defensive nature of kalam and its historical emergence when innovators challenged the beliefs of the ahl as-sunna. Similarly to the emergence of sufism (tasawwuf) as a formal and structured science, the science of belief developed alongside other advanced crafts at the advent of sedentary culture (hadâra) in the Muslim lands. Therefore, kalam took the shape of its scientific environment and addressed the needs of the Muslim community according to the intellectual discourse of the time. 

Ibn Khaldun notes that the first generations adopted the articles of faith without question, but that differences later appeared. For instance, regarding the ambiguous verses (mutashâbihât) in the Qur’an. Many scholars found it necessary to employ logical arguments and proofs in defence of the original beliefs, which laid the foundations for the science of kalam.30 Some of the innovators that the early scholars encountered were the Mu’tazila, Mujassima and the Mushabbiha. There were also the various Khawarij and Shi’a groupings, although their innovations initially were political in nature. Most important, however, was the challenge from the Mu’tazila. 

Without going into detail about the theological debates, we note that the discipline of kalam first of all emerged in response to intellectual challenges. It did, however, also include responses to political challenges such as the doctrine of the Imamate (al-imâma) adopted by the Shi’a. As Ibn Khaldun notes, the discussion of the Imamate is, “at best a matter of public interest and social organisation. It is not an article of faith.” But because of the Shi’a doctrines, the question was added to the discipline in order to defend the original positions regarding leadership and caliphate. This is particularly clear in the texts of Western representatives of the Ash’ari school, many of whom were forced to deal with the presence of the Fatimid dynasty and their Isma’ili doctrines. 

Interestingly, Ibn Khaldun argues that the science of kalam is no longer necessary or required by students of his day, because the innovators no longer exist. One might wonder what he would have said about our times, when the agreed-upon articles of faith once again are being challenged by Muslim movements as well as scientific doctrines from outside the Muslim community. He does, in fact, acknowledge the usefulness of knowledge of kalam for certain students who might benefit from its style of argumentation. As he concludes his chapter on kalam, the carriers of the Sunna (hamil as-sunna) – i.e. the leading ‘ulama – should not be ignorant of the theoretical proofs of its articles of faith.31 

Concluding discussion

Without drawing sweeping conclusions from our discussion of material from al-Muqaddima, we can probably confirm that Ibn Khaldun’s analysis of the emergence of the madhhabs in substance represents the majority view of the ‘ulama throughout history, although the form and details might have differed depending on scholarly and political context. We find that classical scholars were, in fact, concerned with how, why and when the madhhabs developed. Similar issues that concerned Ibn Khaldun, still concern Muslims today. By seeking to understand how classical scholars handled these historical questions and related them to their own context, we are able to improve our apprehension of past dynamics between intellectual and socio-political history. Knowledge of this classical scholarship might also furnish us with the opportunity in the present time to understand and reflect upon the challenges that face the Muslim community.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. Next week’s lecture is entitled “Pre-Madhhab Fiqh” and will be delivered by Hajja Aisha Bewley. Recommended reading in relation to this lecture include the sections referred to above in Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima   (first sections of chapter 6) and the other book that I have made repeated reference to throughout this lecture, Zaid Ahmad’s The Epistemology of Ibn Khaldun (2003). For the up-coming lecture, we recommend Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley’s The Four Madhhabs of Islam (2013). It is also recommended to look at part one of Yasin Dutton’s The Origins of Islamic Law (1999) and the sections in Abu Zahra’s The Four Imams that concern the teachers of the four imams. More reading material and advice for further exploration will, however, be provided by our next lecturer. Thank you for your attention.

السلام عليكم


Ahmad, Zaid 2003. The epistemology of Ibn Khaldun. London: Routledge/Curzon.

Ibn Khaldun 1980. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Vol 1-3. Trans. Franz Rosenthal. New York: Princeton University.

Ibn Khaldun 1867-1868. Tarikh. Vol 1 [al-Muqaddima]. Ed. Nasr al-Hurini. Cairo: Bulaq.

Mårtensson, Ulrika 2011. ”Introduction: Materialist Approaches to Islamic History” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 54 (2011) 117-131.

1Mårtensson 2011: 125. 

2 Ibn Khaldun 2:411, see also 1: 89-93.

3 Ibn Khaldun 1:194-5, 2:422. 

4 According to Lane’s Lexicon, the word malaka refers to ”a quality firmly rooted in the mind”.

5 Ibn Khaldun 2:346.

6Ibn Khaldun 2:426.

7 Ibn Khaldun 2:426.

8 Cf. Ibn Khaldun 2:426-7.

9 Ibn Khaldun 2:427. 

10 Ahmad 2003:20.

11 Ibn Khaldun 2: 436.

12 Ibn Khaldun 2: 436. 

13 Ibn Khaldun 2: 436. 

14 Ibn Khaldun 2: 437, 438.

15 Ibn Khaldun 2: 438.

16 Ahmad 2003: 43-4.

17 Ahmad 2003: 44.

18 Ahmad 2003: 125.

19Ibn Khaldun 3:311-15.

20Ibn Khaldun 3:313, 3:361.

21Ibn Khaldun 3:314. 

22 Ibn Khaldun 3:4; Ahmad 2003:45.

23Ibn Khaldun 3:6.

24 Ibn Khaldun 3:8-9.

25 Ibn Khaldun 3:8.

26 Ibn Khaldun 3:13.

27 Ibn Khaldun 3:12-13, see also 3:13-20 for a further discussion about the relationship between the different madhabs and the development of different Maliki schools.

28 Ibn Khaldun 2:447-463, 3:3-20, 3:76-82

29 Ibn Khaldun 3:34.

30 Ibn Khaldun 3:34.

31 Ibn Khaldun 3:54-55.