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

Title: Introduction to the Madhhabs of Islam

Author: Tobias Sahl Andersson

Publication date: 9/2/2013

The Madhhabs of Islam (The History of the Muslims II)

Lecture I: Introduction

السلام عليكم

Welcome to the Muslim History Programme of MFAS. This is the first 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.

1. Introduction

This course concerns the formation and development of the intellectual tradition of Islam, principally represented by the four madhhabs of fiqh and the two schools of ‘aqida, although, as we shall see, there have been several other permutations of Islamic legal and theological thought throughout history. The scholarly formation of Islam has been well examined by both Muslim, as well as non-Muslim academics. Numerous monographs have been written regarding the development of the schools of Islamic jurisprudence and many courses, including recorded lectures, are available for those interested in the characteristics of each madhhab. Likewise, the historical record of the actual methodologies, materials and practices of those active as fuqaha, or legal experts, is of course still accessible to dedicated seekers of knowledge in madrasas and modern university settings all over the world. 

The focus of this course, albeit concerned with the same basic enquiry into the formation of the intellectual tradition of Islam, is nevertheless different. Not because of its focus on the four remaining schools of law and the two, or three, remaining approaches to belief (‘aqida), but because of the particular questions, aims and perspectives, which have determined our choice of sources and the manner in which we have approached them. This will become apparent as we attempt to understand the intellectual history of Islam in relation to the prevailing intellectual, political and socio-economic developments of our own time. Therefore, the purposes, interests, expectations and questions via which we approach the material before us, will naturally determine the learning outcomes of this course. In order to lay the foundations upon which this course is predicated, we will begin by clarifying these aims, questions, methods and sources. In addition to this, we will also take a preview of the course outline and the recommended reading, insha’Allah. 

2. Aims and perspectives

The aim of this course is to examine the emergence of the madhhabs of Islam – including the schools of fiqh and ‘aqida – within their political and socio-economic contexts, in order to understand the dynamic relationship between intellectual and socio-political factors in the development of the Islamic intellectual tradition. Based on Ibn Khaldun’s notion that sciences and intellectual disciplines are not abstract entities, but crafts (sana’i’) formed as integral parts of the surrounding society, the purpose is to throw a light on the internal and external factors that determined, or at least played some part in, the evolution of the intellectual legacy that remains active and applicable to this day. 

As we know, new challenges arose when the pre-modern schools of law and belief encountered the modern world – challenges that led to reformist as well as iconoclastic reactions in the classical Islamic world. Therefore, the course will also focus attention on the current situation of the madhhabs and their legacy, including the contrasting positions of those who have reacted against them and that of those seeking to defend and uphold the transmission of Islamic law and belief within the classical form of the madhhabs. 

In addition to conveying a clear sense of our purposes and perspectives, today’s lecture will set out in some detail ten areas of primary interest that all participants are expected to bear in mind while following these sessions and in approaching the course reading materials. I strongly recommended that these ten points are written down and brought  to each lecture, as an important reminder and a means of maintaining the correct bearings as we explore the historical and conceptual terrain that confronts us. After the lecture, the students will also be given a copy of the ten mabadi, or defining principles, that underlie the course, and which you are similarly advised to familiarise yourselves with and refer back to throughout the module.

3. Questions and areas of interest

For those students particularly interested in the details of the methods and ideas of the ‘ulama, please be patient with our initial emphasis on political and socio-economic issues. The different approaches and methodologies of the madhhabs will certainly be dealt with in due course. In the meantime we will discuss below how to approach these ideas from a historical perspective in a way that does not require us to be fuqaha, but which, among other things, will make us aware of the process of deriving legal judgements and the relationship of the authoritative scholars and ordinary laymen with respect to these procedures, which have indeed become important issues of debate in our own time. 

3.1. Politics

Our first point of departure then, is the question of power and authority. The madhhabs as scholarly institutions developed, as we know, at the cultural peak of the ‘Abbasid period, although the foundations for schools or guilds of law had already been in evidence towards the late Umayyad period, if not earlier. After the initial years of ‘Abbasid caliphs pursuing a wide range of political and religious policies with dramatic consequences, the strength of the dawla gradually declined in the third/ninth century. These shifts in political authority and political policies, however, did not only destabilise the political-military elite of the dawla, they also contributed to the cultural vitality of the great Abbasid cities. The madhhabs as formalised institutions became stronger as the caliphal authority became weaker. In the previous course, History of the Khalifas, we also noted that the end of universal jihad and the collapse of the unified Muslim polity towards the end of the Umayyad period changed the way Muslims viewed the world. The ‘Abbasid period saw an emphasis on consolidating the intellectual tradition, upholding the validity of ikhtilaf (difference of opinion) and various attempts at bringing internal unity to the Umma rather than external expansion. The emergence of the madhhabs can be seen as a consequence of the strategic failure on the part of the political leadership to encourage, or otherwise impose, a single legal praxis, since this was explicitly opposed by the fuqaha. We might, therefore, ask what political circumstances affected the development of the madhhabs and what indications the political history offers us as to why the madhhabs develop at this specific time and place.

As for the later history, we may also note that the colonial period and the challenges of modernity accompanied, on the one hand, reformist modernism and, on the other hand, iconoclastic reactionism, which clearly indicates the importance of understanding the nature of the interaction between the madhhabs and the political context of the time. The basic question we need to ask is this: How did the politics of power affect the scholarly developments in the madhhabs and how did the scholarly developments affect the politics?

3.2. Geography 

Another important topic is the impact of the geographical context in which the madhhabs developed. It is not to say that the madhhabs in themselves are geographically determined, but rather, that geographical considerations which include the urban culture (hadara) as well as the agrarian culture of the majority population, contributed significantly to the character of the institutions and the differences that appeared between their various traditions. When examining variations between the madhhabs, their different socio-political impact and scholarly concerns, it is useful to look at the geographical context and particularly the cities in which they emerged.

For instance, when the centre of authority moved from Madina to militarily empowered garrison cities such as Kufa and Basra after the murder of ‘Uthman, this had implications for the scholarly formation in Madina as well as in the provincial cities. Another indication of the importance of understanding the geographical context and the role of the cities, particularly garrison cities, is the non-existence of a khawarij madhhab, which some historians have not only attributed to their secessionist ideology, but also to the fact that they did not have enough influence in the cities during the urban expansion of Islam. On the one hand, we might ask how urban culture affected scholarly development; be it the culture of the old cities or that of the new garrison cities. While on the other hand, considering that the lands of Islam in the ‘Abbasid period consisted mostly of agrarian culture, we must also ask ourselves what effect this had on the scholarly developments and what its socio-political impact might have been. Please bear in mind that these are just examples of the kinds question that you should be aiming to formulate for the purposes of your own reflections, and should be written down and kept as potential avenues for subsequent investigation.

3.3. Demography and culture

Having discussed the geographical context of the madhhabs, we should now turn our attention to the demographic factors (i.e. the structure of the human population) and the urban culture, which strongly influenced scholarly developments. One only has to observe the differences between the cosmopolitan nature of the Hanafi madhhab that developed out of the multicultural, multi-religious city of Kufa and the comparatively down-to-earth character of the Maliki madhhab. Likewise, interesting comparisons can be made between the early Madinan and eastern Maliki school on the one hand, and on the other, the western Maliki school that developed in North Africa and al-Andalus. We might well ask ourselves how the demographic context and the cultural environment impacted on each of these schools respectively. What was the significance of the emergence of various political, cultural or religious forms of organised opposition? And, perhaps most importantly, what part did the mawali and early non-Arabs play in the development of the madhhabs after their lands had been incorporated into the caliphate?

3.4. Institutions

The increasing complexity of political and administrative institutions in the ‘Abbasid period was accompanied by a corresponding increase in complexity within the scholarly institutions. The ’Abbasid governance relied upon a functional interconnection with the fuqaha, whose judgements and advice provided the legitimate foundation for the implementation of civic and governmental policy. Likewise, the sophisticated economic administration of ‘Abbasid society and its prosperous city culture intensified the connections between commerce and the emerging schools of fiqh. The madhhabs emerged in parallel with the division between the institutions of siyasa, i.e. the political administration of government officials, and shari’a, i.e. the revealed law elaborated by the fuqaha. The most fundamental questions, therefore, that remain to be answered are: What, in actual fact, is a madhhab? How and why did they develop in relation to other institutions in ‘Abbasid society? How did their relationship to other institutions evolve over time, and right down to the present? What was, or is, the importance of these institutions for establishing scholarly standards and authoritative practices among Muslims in general? What were the connections between the madhhabs, as guilds of law, and commercial life? And lastly, what influence did these two spheres of law and commerce exert over each other’s development?

3.5. The people of the Madhhabs

After looking at the scholarly institutions that made up the madhhabs and the institutions that the madhhabs actually became, it is necessary to give some attention to the people within these institutions. We might ask about the various different ways in which the principal imam, the mujtahid, the faqih and the muqallid all relate to the madhhab, and how these various groups relate to each other. What was the nature of the student-teacher relationship, and what was its importance for the development of the madhhabs as guilds of law? How did the people and their interconnectedness within the institutional structures contribute to the consolidation of what we could call the orthodoxy of Islamic legal theory and practice? Of course, this field of investigation also includes the biographies of the principal imams and the great mujtahidun throughout history. 

3.6. Scholasticism and apolitical trends

We previously mentioned the impacts of the political circumstances on the development of the madhhabs. Perhaps the strongest impact, or rather consequence, at the beginning of the ‘Abbasid era was the separation of scholarship from politics (due to a number of factors that we will come to as the module proceeds), after which many scholars tended to take a more apolitical stance towards the politics of power. It resulted in the creation of a new form of authority based on scholarship, more or less independent of the politics, which in turn emphasised the divide between siyasa and shari’a. Some historians, therefore, argue that one effect of the lost ideal of the perfectly legitimate government was the emergence of a more apolitical scholarship. Thus, the increased complexity and professionalisation within the madhhabs raises as many questions regarding the role of scholarship in society. An example would be the highly disputed topic of political activity among the four principal imams. For instance, why did Abu Hanifa support oppositional movements to both Umayyad and ‘Abbasid rulers, while his two main transmitters, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad b. al-Hasan ash-Shaybani, were employed as qadis and closely affiliated to the official ‘Abbasid institutions? What were the intellectual and legal conditions that impacted on the scholars’ relationship to politics? 

3.7. Methods and practises within the madhhabs

In order provide an adequate historical description of this period, it is of course necessary to examine the methods and practices of the scholars of the madhhabs. This area includes legal rulings, methodological aspects and differences of usul al-fiqh, as well as the similarities and relationships between the legal approaches of the scholars. It also includes the activities of the scholars out in the community; for instance, their functions as providers of advice and their roles as qadis, muftis, fuqaha, teachers and so forth. We will thereby examine how the  remarkably enduring norms of Islamic scholarship, law and science were established. Thus, by examining the theories, methodologies, nomenclature and other normative modes of intelligibility within the madhhabs, we can hopefully increase our understanding of the transmission of law and belief throughout history, including its scholarly results and its relationship to the political history of the Muslim world. 

3.8. Intellectual challenges

An obvious area to examine is the intellectual or ideological challenges that the Muslims faced, which contributed to the development of new ideas and ways of approaching the intellectual heritage from the first generations. These challenges include ideas from other cultures, religions and scientific traditions, many of which had been incorporated into the caliphate during the early expansion. They also include internal challenges from sectarian movements, most notably the politically explosive khawarij, mu’tazila and shi’a groupings. Among the challenges, we can also include the ikhtilaf among the Muslim scholars, which contributed greatly to the scholarly developments. Thus, by relating the development of the madhhabs to the intellectual challenges, we will increase our understanding as to why certain ideas, schools or movements developed at those particular times. 

We will also look into why the two main schools of ‘aqida did not develop as distinct schools until well into the third/ninth century. What had preceded them and what were the challenges that made the scholars of the credal sciences respond in the way they did? And, in turn, what were the intellectual and political issues that arose when certain modern movements in the 18th century onwards began to oppose the historically agreed-upon schools of law and creed? When we begin to ask these types of questions, we will not only get a broader picture of the past, but hopefully also begin seeing our own place in history in a new light by being able to trace the ramifications of these issues and events, many of which still are sources of confusion and dispute within the Muslim Community.

3.9. Pre-modern schools in the modern world

Inevitably we come to the meeting between the legacy of the pre-modern madhhabs and the challenges posed by the modern world from around the 18th century, if not earlier. This area of enquiry focuses specifically on the material and intellectual issues thrown up by modernity, which led to various responses or reactions among Muslim scholars and, indeed, among ordinary Muslims who, by means of modern technique, were able to impact greatly on Muslim intellectual thought. We will thus examine the emergence of reactionary tendencies, reformism and various attempts to preserve and revive the glories of the past, whether it be by transmission within or outside the traditional madhhabs. As I have argued in a previous paper, many of these modern movements share the same intellectual and discursive foundations in their reaction to the challenges of modernity, in spite of the apparent disparity in their responses.1 In order to come to grips with these contemporary issues, students must be prepared to make comparisons between the various historical responses and apply their findings to modern movements in the Muslim, as well as the non-Muslim, world. An interesting source to begin with is Inidira Falk Gesink’s Islamic Reformism and Conservatism, in which she, among other things, indicates the common ground between the modernist reformism of al-Azhar and even some of the modern terrorist movements, sharing the same idea of abrogating the traditional transmission within the madhhabs and independently re-interpreting the sources of law and creed. The same connections can obviously be made to the various movements claiming to return to the ‘Book and the Sunna’ independently of the madhhabs. 

3.10. Connection to the present 

The final phase then, concerns the relationship of this history to the present time. For this we must enter into the arena of how to make sense of the intellectual legacy of the great Muslim scholars and their transmission in our own time. How do we identify and locate ourselves within this history? Here, we should all be ready to put the same questions to present events and configurations that we have put to the past, and at least begin to answer them. Proceeding in this way should enable us to reflect upon and relate the current situation of Islamic scholarship and the madhhabs to contemporary politics, economy, geography, demography, institutions, scholarly practices and intellectual challenges, which will be one of the most important outcomes of this course, insha’Allah. 

4. Method and material

4.1. Method

In this introduction, we will not go into great depth regarding any particular historical method or theoretical approach to the material under examination, since our general methodological approach to this course has been made clear by the perspectives, objectives and questions presented above. A few words might nevertheless be said about how to approach the material and sources that are included in the module. Our historical approach is characterised by contextualisation and comparison, i.e. we seek to understand the material and the scholarly developments they reflect in relation to their intellectual and socio-political context. Although the primal value of the works of fiqh and ‘aqida, in our lives as Muslims, are the knowledge and guidelines they provide, our focus in this course is to increase our appreciation and application of that knowledge by understanding the historical context in which they were formed and from which they originally derived their meaning. It will thereby improve our understanding of the intellectual history of Islam as well as its present-day significance. 

4.2. Material

Although our primary materials are the works of the scholars of the madhhabs, much of our understanding of them will be derived from secondary sources and academic literature. To get a taste of the sources, all students are encouraged to familiarise themselves with the classical works of fiqh and ‘aqida, preferably in Arabic, but otherwise through the many reliable translations that are now available. The main effort with respect to reading, however, should be directed towards lecture notes and secondary literature, which in themselves contain selected materials and explanations that are essential for the course. Original sources and supplementary readings will not be included in the basic reading list, but students will receive recommended material relevant to each topic in the lectures. The core literature for the module comprises the following:

Abu Zahra, Muhammad 1999. The Four Imams: Their lives, works and their schools of thought. London: Dar al-Taqwa. 

Bewley, Abdalhaqq 2013. The Four Madhhabs of Islam. Norwich: Diwan Press.

Gesink, Inidira Falk 2009. Islamic Reformism and Conservatism: Al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam. London. I.B. Tauris.

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

Keller, Nuh 1995. “Why Muslims Follow Madhhabs?” (

Keller, Nuh n.d. “Kalam and Islam”. (

Makdisi, George 1984. Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 

Murad, Abdal Hakim 1999. Understanding the Four Madhhabs. Cambridge: Muslim Academic Trust. (Also available at

Winter, Tim (ed.) 2008. The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Apart from these core texts, other books included as recommended or extra reading will be presented during or at the end of each individual lecture.

5. Course outline

Before ending this introduction, I will give you a brief summary of the course outline:

1. Introduction - Abdalhakim Andersson

2. A Classical Outline of the Emergence of the Madhhabs - Abdalhakim Andersson

3. Pre-madhhab fiqh - Hajja Aisha Bewley

4. The madhhab of Abu Hanifa – asan Anyabwile

5. The madhhab of Mālik – Mufti Na’im Abu Layth

6. The madhhab of ash-Shafi’i – Shaykh Amad Sa’ad

7. The madhhab of Amad

8. The schools of ‘aqīdah I - Shaykh Ali Laraki

9. The schools of ‘aqīdah II - Imām Abdul Latif Finch

10. Modernism and Reactionism I - Abdassamad and Abdalhakim

11. Modernism and Reactionism II - Abdassamad and Abdalhakim

12. Conclusion - Abdassamad and Abdalhakim

6. Conclusion

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. Next week’s lecture is entitled “A Classical Outline of the Emergence of the Madhhabs”, in which I will discuss how some of the classical scholars analysed the historical development of the madhhabs. Recommended reading in relation to both today and the up-coming lecture is Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s Understanding the Four Madhhabs (1999) and Shaykh Nuh Keller’s article “Why Do Muslims Follow Madhhabs?” (1995), which will provide a basic acquaintance with the subject. I also recommend that you take a look at the chapters in Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddima that concern fiqh, ‘aqida and sciences in general, which will be discussed in next week’s lecture. Besides that, it is strongly advised to begin going through the other recommended reading as soon as possible, since that will enable you to quickly understand the material presented in the lectures and hopefully progress to more advanced topics of study under the guidance of the other teachers on the course. Thank you for your attention.

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Appendix 1. The ten mabadi (defining principles) of the course

1. Definition (حدّ): The course examines the historical development of the madhhabs of fiqh and ‘aqida up to the present day, including its relation to contemporaneous intellectual trends as well as political, social, economic and institutional changes. 

2. Subject (موضوع): The ideas, institutions and people that formed, transmitted and reformed the intellectual tradition of Islam. 

3. Fruit – outcome (ثمرة): An understanding of the genealogy of Islamic thought and its relation to other societal developments, as well as a historical understanding of the present-day condition of the scientific disciplines of Islam.

4. Its merit (فضله): It has high merit since an understanding of the social context out of which the fard/fard ‘ayn sciences of fiqh and ’aqida have emerged is an important foundation not only for those who master the sciences, but for those who must rely upon these men of knowledge. It is likewise of high merit because it facilitates an important understanding of the relationship between intellectual and societal developments throughout history, which is necessary for effective participation in current scholarship as well as politics. 

5. Its relationship to other sciences (نسبته): Besides its primary connection to the sciences of fiqh and ‘aqida, the historical perspective creates a close link to the disciplines of history (tarikh), politics (siyasa) and sociology (‘ilm al-ijtima’).

6. The Founder (الواضع): There are many examples of early compilations of biographical material about the great ‘ulama of the various sciences of Islam. An example of a study of these personalities, sciences and institutions in relation to the larger course of history would be Ibn Khaldun. Although he might not be the founder of the science, his chapters in al-Muqaddima about the origins of the different schools of fiqh as well as kalam are good examples of a classical scholar analysing the developments from a historical perspective.  

7. Its name (اسمه): The Madhhabs of Islam, i.e. the major (and minor) ways that the intellectual development of Islam has taken throughout the ages down to the present. 

8. Its sources and references (استمداده): The classical works of fiqh and ‘aqida relating to each specific era and school of thought, as well as contemporary academic works on the intellectual, political, social and institutional developments in Muslim societies.  

9. The judgement of the sharī‘a on it (حكم الشارع فيه): Although not obligatory, it is certainly an important and recommended area of study, since it opens the way to further intellectual developments and contributes to the future preservation, transmission and revival of Muslim scholarship.

10. The topics it covers (مسائله): The what, when, who, how and why regarding the development of the madhhabs of Islam up until the twentieth century. 

1 Andersson, Abdalhakim 2012. “Discourses of the Secular: Thinking About Language and Law in the Modern World”. (