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Abu Hanifah His Life, Method & Legacy By Mohammad Akram Nadwi

Abu Hanifah His Life, Method & Legacy

By Mohammad Akram Nadwi

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About Abu Hamfah

Abu Hanlfah Nu c man ibn Thabit (d. 150 ah) is a towering figure in the early history of Islamic law. He was among the first to employ the recognized methods of legal reasoning in a consistent way, and to gather the legal dicta of his time into an organized corpus. The doctrine (madhhab) that developed in line with his style of reasoning became the most widely practised school of law in the Islamic world. This was due in part to its being favoured by the ruling dynasties of the most extensive, populous and enduring of the Muslim empires — the c Abbasids, the Ottomans and the Mughals. But in part also it was due to the excellence of the students whom he inspired and trained to carry on his work.

Abu Hanlfah was a genius, supremely proficient alike in analysis of detail and reflection on general principles. He combined his passion for knowledge of the religion (and for organizing that knowl¬ edge) with an ability 7 to nurture the same passion in others. He was both a researcher and a teacher, a theoretician and a practitioner of the law. Building on the achievement of his predecessors, he schooled his students in particular thoughts and a way of thinking them so that, over time, his doctrine came to be identified with his name rather than the name of his city (Kufah). However, he could not have com¬ manded the authority that he did if he had not also been exemplary in self-discipline and piety and, as a man, warm as well as virtuous, as familiar to and loved by his neighbours as he was respected and admired by his fellow scholars.

What distinguishes Abu Hanifah from other geniuses in Islamic history is that his achievement still touches the everyday life of ordinary Muslims. Their faith requires them to conduct their worship and general affairs in accordance with God’s will as framed by the Qur’an and the Prophet’s teaching. But how, in practice, are they to know how to do that? It is through pioneers in Islamic law like Abu Hanifah that Muslims feel able to answer that question in a way that, because it carries authority, commands voluntary obedience and general acceptance. The alternative to authority is mere assertion, which can command acceptance only so long as it is supported by force of power. Abu Hanifah is famously one of the prominent warriors for the authority of the law set against the power of the state. He suffered imprisonment and whipping for refusing to serve in the new c Abbasid administration, to lend his authority to the decisions of the caliph. Power got its hollow victory in that the caliph, unable to break Abu Hanlfah’s will, succeeded in having him poisoned.

In the event, jailing him only added to the popularity on account of which the recently established c Abbasid imperial dynasty consid¬ ered Abu Hanifah a threat. People demanded to consult him even while he was in prison, and they were too many to be resisted. In later times, when the dynasty was secure and when learned Islamic scholars did accept positions within the state administration and so depended for their livelihoods upon the state, they still felt they had a duty to refuse to lend their authority to the will of the government if, by doing so, they would be contradicting or undermining the law. This dedication to the law, intermittently weakened by necessary and unnecessary compromises, is derived from the pattern of conduct established by Abu Hanlfah and other pioneers in the field. In epoch after epoch in the history of Islam, we find that it is the learned scholars of the law, even though few of them individually were of the same metde as Abu Hanlfah, who managed, collectively, to preserve the Islamic character of the society in spite of the state, in spite of armed schisms and factions, betrayals and rebellions from within, and invasions from abroad. Not until the period of European colonization — which systematically weakened the network of relationships that the system of education in the Islamic world depended on, and as a result of which there was a rapid decline in opportunities for adequate training and subsequent employment — not until then, did scholars of the law lose their status and authority in society.

About this book

As Muslim peoples begin to waken from this dark period of their history, and wonder how to express their religion in the modern world, it is particularly important to reflect upon what the authority of the law means. In what does it consist? How can it be recognized? The sources tell us that, not long after his death, people in the Islamic world referred to Abu Hanlfah as ‘ al-imam al-A%am\ meaning ‘the greatest one worthy to be followed’. In this essay I try to understand how and why he came to deserve that title. It is especially important to do so at this time, for two reasons:

First, there are increasingly strident calls for reform of Islamic ways of life (coming from non-Muslims, which is to be expected, and also from Muslims themselves). Even if the call for reform is well-meant, often its rationale neither begins nor ends in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Rather, the proposed reform is often concerned to ‘face up to modern realities’ and to adopt norms and values that have appealed to peoples who have no grounding in Islam at all or have rejected it. Accordingly, Qur’an or Sunnah — even though both are presented by God as His special mercy for human beings — are considered as a nuisance, an obstacle, that somehow the reform must talk its way around. Without saying it out loud, proposed reforms of this kind must strongly wish that Qur’an and Sunnah did not exist or did not have any hold on the hearts and minds of Muslims. By contrast, Abu Hanifah and the other great imams of the law got their intellectual energy and invendveness from, and used it within, the boundaries of Qur’an and Sunnah. Their consistent aim was to help Muslims fulfil their rights and duties to God and to each other, not to evade those rights and duties. For example, many of the tools of ‘capitalism’ as it is now called, which supported the great expansion of trade and com¬ merce during the high period of Islamic history, were constructed by jurists – Hanafls prominent among them, notably in some works attributed to Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybanl – in the form of conscientiously designed contracts that enabled entrepreneurs to extend and exchange credit within the bounds set by God, to strive for profit and avoid usury and other financial and commercial crimes. How different the ‘capitalism’, and how different its outcomes, when the conscience informing it was neither inspired, nor restrained, by the moral and methodological boundaries of the Qur’an and Sunnah! (The material is technical and demands a great deal of detailed discus¬ sion not suited to an introductory essay; however, the economic ethics of Hanafi fiqh is a subject that urgently needs to be presented to the general reading public, Muslims especially.)

Second, the proliferation of words and images through the modern means of communication has made it possible to circulate ideas and opinions of all kinds in great volume at great speed. That combination results in strong, but often short-lived, influence – that is, it results in changing immediate ‘moods’ and ‘attitudes’, not the structures and habits that underlie more stable and enduring behaviour. Insofar as Islamic law is connected to faith and religion, reflections upon it are properly suited to slow, textual scholarship, not to high-impact sound-

bites and images that TV and Internet output demand. Also, Muslims should think carefully about the provenance of the ideas and opinions that are offered to them, not always anonymously, yet almost always from very far away: we can know what someone says, but we cannot know how they live. Put bluntly, a non-Muslim, just as well as a Muslim, could read up the texts on a standard ‘■alirri s reading list, and if energetic and articulate enough, present (on the basis of their reading) moral advice and legal opinions that appear to be as ‘Islamically argued’ as the established ways: they may well be so argued; equally, they may not. In this essay, I have emphasized (just as traditional Islamic scholar¬ ship always has) the information we hold about who Abu Hanifah studied with and where, and what kind of man he was, how he lived his life in relation with God and fellow human beings. In his own time, his peers and contemporaries were concerned, and for the best of reasons, just as we now should be, to find out about his background and his backers, to find out if his intellectual brilliance, his breadth of learning, his intelligence and personal charms were complemented by his piety and righteousness. I have tried here to present an account of his life, his legal method and his legacy, in a way that I hope will add up to an image, a memory, a sense of what kind of Muslim one should look to as a trustworthy source for understanding, adapting, amending the legal foundations of an Islamic way of life.

In the introductory first chapter, I explain the context and back¬ ground of how the law was placed and expressed in the religion. In Chapter 2, I report the anecdotal material recorded in the sources about the life and character of Abu Hanifah. I think it fair to say that much of that material (except when it is obviously polemical) is com¬ memorative. However, it is not therefore unreliable or useless; on the contrary, it is highly relevant to understanding the qualities that are a necessary condition for the authority to pronounce on the law. Chap¬ ter 3 describes the establishment of the Kufan school, the methodology and characteristics of Abu Hanlfah’s fiqh. Chapter 4 gives an account of some of his major works, and how his tradition was transmitted by his famous students. In Chapter 5, following a recapitulation of Abu Hanlfah’s achievement, I give a brief survey of how his legacy evolved through the development of the Hanafi school: this will be difficult for readers new to the subject, because it contains more information than discussion, but I hope it may be useful to those who want to know the principal figures and works of later Hanafi jurisprudence. I have added in a ‘Postscript’ some reflections on the relevance of Abu Hanlfah to the present time. Finally, in Chapter 6,1 offer a critical account of some of the sources used in the preparation of this essay, followed by suggestions for further reading.


My debts to earlier studies of Abu Hanlfah, as well as being indicated in the text, are acknowledged in the chapter on ‘Sources and Further reading’. I would like to thank colleagues, students and others who read through an ealier draft of this book or discussed its contents with me — I have benefited greatly from their criticisms and sugges¬ tions. Special thanks to my friend and colleague Jamil Qureshi, who also helped to improve the language and presentation. The faults and shortcomings that remain in the work are my responsibility alone.

Mohammad Akram Nadwi Oxford. April, 2010

Abu Hanifah His Life, Method & Legacy

By Mohammad Akram Nadwi

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