Abū Ḥanīfah

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ABŪ ANĪFAH (ah 80?150/699?767 ce), more fully Abū anīfah al-Nuʿmān ibn Thābit ibn Zūā; theologian, jurist, and founder of the first of the four orthodox schools of law in Sunnī Islam. As a theologian, he persuasively argued against Khārijī extremism and espoused several positions that became an integral part of the orthodox doctrine, especially the idea that sin did not render one an unbeliever. As a jurist, he reviewed the then-existing body of legal doctrines, elaborated the law by formulating views on new questions, and integrated these into a coherent system by anchoring them to an elaborate and basically consistent legal theory.


Abū anīfah was born in Kufa, then the capital of Iraq and a major intellectual center of the Islamic world. He was of non-Arab origin: his grandfather was a freed slave from Kabul who became a client (mawlā ) of an Arabian tribe, Taym Allāh. His father, Thābit, was certainly a Muslim, and presumably even his grandfather had converted to Islam. The family was prosperous, and Abū anīfah himself became a successful manufacturer and merchant of silk. Renowned for his honest dealings, he devoted a good part of his income to charitable purposes, especially to helping scholars in need.

Abū anīfah had a well-rounded education under a number of able scholars. Drawn to theology in his youth, he soon made his mark as a theologian through participation in theological debates. For some reason his infatuation with theology did not last long, and he turned instead to law, which occupied him for the better part of his life. His principal teacher in this realm was Hammād ibn Abī Sulaymān (d. 737), then the foremost representative of the Iraqi school of law. Abū anīfah remained his disciple for eighteen years and after his mentor's death was acknowledged as the head of the Iraqi school. He also learned from, and exchanged views with, a host of other scholars, notably Abū ʿAmr al-Shaʿbī (d. 722), ʿAāʾ ibn Abī Rabā (d. 732), and Jaʿfar al-ādiq (d. 765). Abū anīfah also benefited from constant traveling, contacts with a wide variety of people, direct involvement in business life, and exposure to the heterogeneous and dynamic society of Iraq and the materially advanced conditions there.

Because of his independent income, Abū anīfah neither needed nor cared for governmental patronage and was thus immune from governmental pressure, a situation that helped Islamic law develop independently of political authority. Likewise, owing to his disposition and academic preoccupation, Abū anīfah did not involve himself in active power politics. At the same time, he was not entirely happy with the dynasties under which he livedthe Umayyads and the Abbasidsand his sympathies lay, if at all, with the opposition. It is probably for this reason, coupled with pietistic precaution, that Abū anīfah was unwilling to be identified with either of the two regimes; he repeatedly declined to accept governmental positions, especially judgeships, and presumably even lent moral support to the ʿAlid revolt of Muammad, who was popularly known as al-Nafs al-Zakīyah (d. 762). These facts explain the harsh treatment meted out to Abū anīfah under both dynasties, culminating in imprisonment from the time of the revolt to his death five years later.

Contribution to Theology

Abū anīfah's main theological doctrines may be determined primarily from a small treatise, the Epistle to ʿUthmān al-Battī, which was doubtlessly written by the not-so-prolific Abū anīfah himself. A few other brief treatises, especially those called Fiqh Akbar I and Fiqh absa, also represent his theological views, though they may have been written by others.

His foremost concern, as reflected in these documents, was to refute the extremist theological positions of the time, especially those of the Khārijīs. Abū anīfah vigorously refuted the Khārijī doctrine that faith and good works were inalienable and that sins cast believers out of the fold of Islam, dooming them to suffer eternally in hell. He emphasized that faith, consisting essentially of verbal confession coupled with inner conviction, did not increase or decrease. Thus by mere sinning one did not lose faith. By taking this position Abū anīfah did not wish to demean moral uprightness or to lower the quality of religious life. Rather, in the context of the Khārijī denial to believing sinners the rights of Muslims, including their lives and property, a doctrine that had caused much bloodshed and seemed to threaten the orderly existence of the Muslim community, Abū anīfah's main concern was the juridical and communal aspect, of faith as the determinant of a person's membership in the Muslim ummah and the resulting entitlement to certain juridical rights and privileges.

The main opponents of the Khārijīs at the time were the Murjiʾah. Abū anīfah's opposition to Khārijī doctrines understandably earned him the reputation of being a Murjiʾī, a reputation that has been accepted rather uncritically by most Western scholars. The Murjiʾah, and especially their extreme wing, held the view that if one had faith, sin would cause that person no harm. Abū anīfah's position was significantly different. In the Epistle to ʿUthmān al-Battī he writes: "He who obeys God in all the laws, according to us, is of the people of paradise. He who leaves both faith and works is an infidel, of the people of the [hell] fire. But one who believes but is guilty of some breach of the laws is a believing sinner, and God will do as He wishes about him: punish him if he wills, and forgive him if he wills."

On the whole, Abū anīfah's approach to theological questions is characterized by the tendency to avoid extremes and to adopt middle-of-the road positions, and by his concern for the unity and solidarity of Muslims. His catholicity is reflected in many of his doctrines, as in his rejection of the schismatic positions of both the Shīʿah (who opposed ʿUthman) and the Kharjis (who opposed both ʿUthmān and ʿAlī): "We disavow none of the companions of the apostle of God; nor do we adhere to any of them exclusively. We leave the question of ʿUthmān and ʿAlī to God, who knows the secret and hidden things."

The kernel of Abū anīfah's position on sin became the standard orthodox doctrine. Moreover, his approach initiated a powerful theological movement that contributed to the final formulations of Sunnī theological doctrines on important questions relating to free will and predestination and the attributes of God. The impact of his ideas is reflected in the works of many major theologians, including al-aawī (d. 933), al-Māturidī (d. 944), and al-Samarqandī (d. 993).

Contribution to Law

Abū anīfah's overriding interest for the greater part of his life, however, was law, and it is upon his contribution in this field that his fame mainly rests.

By Abū anīfah's time interaction among the different centers of Islamic jurisprudence, notably Medina, Kufa, and Syria, had led to a growing awareness of disagreements on legal questions. As a result, there was a perceived need for an integrated code of legal doctrines that could be justified by reference to a set of generally recognized principles and thus be universally accepted by Muslims. Abū anīfah addressed himself almost single-mindedly to this task. In collaboration with a sizable number of his students, who were specialists in Islamic law and its related fields, he thoroughly surveyed the entire field of Islamic law, reviewed the existing doctrines, and formulated new doctrines with a view to cover all possible contingencies.

Abū anīfah did not actually compose his legal corpus; instead, he dictated his doctrines to his students. The most reliable sources for these doctrines, therefore, are the works of his students, especially Abū Yūsuf (d. 799) and al-Shaybānī (d. 804). While their works abound with Abū anīfah's legal doctrines, statements about his legal theory are few and far between, and are of a fragmentary nature. Nonetheless, the assumption that he did not have a clear legal theory is contradicted by the high degree of systematic consistency found in his doctrines. Abū anīfah's legal theory can be, and has been, deduced by a careful study of his legal doctrines. In addition, works of a later period contain a few statements ascribed to Abū anīfah regarding his legal theory (see, e.g., al-Khaīb al-Baghdādī, Taʾrīkh Baghdād, vol. 13, p. 368, and al-Makkī and al-Kardarī, Manāqib, vol. 1, p. 82). Whether Abū anīfah actually made those statements or not, they do seem to express broadly certain essentials of his legal theory. Likewise, later works also indicate that Abū anīfah had a set of fairly subtle and elaborate rules for interpretation of the authoritative texts, designating their relative authority and working out their legal significance.

On the whole, Abū anīfah's legal doctrines evidence a high degree of systematic consistency and seem to be the work of a brilliant albeit speculative juristic mind. Again and again, he disregards established practice and considerations of judicial and administrative convenience in favor of systematic and technical legal issues. His legal acumen and juristic strictness were such that Abū anīfah reached the highest level of legal thought for his time. Compared with the work of his contemporaries, such as the Kufan judge-jurist Ibn Abī Laylā (d. 756), the Syrian al-Awzāʿī (d. 774), and the Medinese Mālik (d. 795), his doctrines are more carefully formulated and systematically consistent and his technical legal thought more highly developed and refined.

Legal doctrines before Abū anīfah had been formulated mainly in response to actual problems; he attempted instead to formulate doctrines relating to questions that might arise sometime in the future. This method, which considerably enlarged the scope of Islamic law, further refined the already advanced legal thinking which was required for its application. It was also to lead, however, to extravagant use of imagination, and much energy was devoted to solving questions that would virtually never arise in actual life.

Abū anīfah's excessive use of analogical reasoning (qiyā s), his wont to formulate doctrines in response to hypothetical legal questions, and above all his tendency to set aside isolated traditions (āād ) if they tended to impose a restrictive interpretation on the legal import of Qurʾanic verses, earned him the reputation belonging to a group pejoratively called ahl al-raʾy ("people of independent opinion"), as opposed to ahl al-adīth ("people of authoritative tradition"). This, however, was a polemical allegation rather than an objective statement of Abū anīfah's own standpoint or that of his school. More recent research has shown that there was scarcely any essential difference, in theory or practice, between the attitude of Abū anīfah and that of other legal schools regarding the use of a raʾy (independent opinion) on questions of religious law. As for traditions, there is ample evidence to show that Abū anīfah accepted traditions from the Prophet as well as from companions, and that he even accepted isolated traditions. He tended to disregard isolated traditions in cases involving a contradiction between those traditions and what he considered to be more authentic sources, and he did so not arbitrarily but in the light of an elaborate set of rules that he and his school had developed.


The legal doctrines of Abū anīfah were further developed by his disciples, especially Abū Yūsuf and al-Shāybanī. The resulting anafī school of law found favor with the Abbasid caliphs and a number of Muslim dynasties, especially the Ottomans, who accorded it exclusive official recognition. Today it enjoys more or less official status in most of the Arab countries that were formerly under Ottoman rule (e.g., Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Syria). Since large numbers of Muslims voluntarily accepted the anafī school, its adherents have become more numerous than those of any other school. They constitute a vast majority of the Muslim population of South Asia, Turkey, the Balkans, Cyprus, West and Central Asia, China, and Afghanistan and are well represented in the Arab countries, especially Syria and Iraq.


The best bibliographical source for Abū anīfah, which far supersedes earlier works of this genre, is Fuat Sezgin's Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, vol. 1 (Leiden, 1967), pp. 409433. The only full-scale work on Abū anīfah available in any Western language is Muammad Shiblī Nuʿmani's Imām Abū anīfah: Life and Work (18891890), translated by M. Hadi Hussain (Lahore, 1972).

For biographical information about Abū anīfah, see the standard Muslim biographical dictionaries and also hagiographical and polemical writings relating to him. These, however, should be used critically. In the latter category, see particularly Abū al-Muʾayyad al-Makkī and Muammad ibn Muammad al-Kardarī's Manāqib al-imām al-aʿam (Hyderabad, ah 1321); Abū ʿAbd Allāh usayn al-aymarī's Akhbār Abī anīfah wa-ahābīh (Hyderabad, 1974); and Shams al-Dīn Muammad ibn Yūsuf al-āliī al-Dimashqī al-Shāfiʿī's ʿUqūd al-jumān fīmanāqib al-imām al-aʿam Ab ī anīfah al-Nūʿmān (Hyderabad, 1974). For a work that has brought together much information, and especially a vast body of negative hearsay opinion about Abū anīfah, see al-Khaīb al-Baghdādi's Taʾrīkh Baghdād, vol. 13 (Cairo, 1931), pp. 323454. Among later works, the most useful study of Abū anīfah's life and thought is Muammad Abū Zahrah's Abū anīfah, 2d ed. (Cairo, 1960). See also Wahbī Sulaymān al-Albānī's Abū anīfah al-Nuʿmān, 2d ed. (Damascus, 1973). For Abū anīfah's political ideas and involvement in politics, see Manāir Asan Gīlānī's Imām Abū anīfah kī siyāsī zindagī, 2d ed. (Karachi, 1957).

For the legal doctrines of Abū anīfah and his contribution to Islamic law, especially its legal theory, in addition to the works of Nuʿmānī and Abū Zahrah, see Muammad Yūsuf Mūsā's Taʾrīkh al-fiqh al-islāmī, vol. 3 (Cairo, 1956); Muammad ibn al-asan al-Fāsī's Al-fikr al-sāmī fī Taʾrīkh al-fiqh al-islāmī, 2 vols. (Cairo, 19761977); and Muammad Mukhtār al-Qāī's Al-rāʾy fī al-fiqh al-islāmī (Cairo, 1949). For writings in Western languages touching on Abū anīfah's contribution to Islamic law, see Ignácz Goldziher's The Zāhīris: Their Doctrine and Their History, translated and edited by Wolfgang Behn (Leiden, 1971); Joseph Schacht's The Origins of Muammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford, 1959) and An Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford, 1964); and Ahmad Hasan's The Early Development of Islamic Jurisprudence (Islamabad, 1970). See also my "The Early Development of Fiqh in Kūfah: A Study of the Works of Abū Yūsuf and Al-Shaybānī" (Ph. D. diss., McGill University, 1967).

For Abū anīfah's theological views and contribution to theology, in addition to the works of Abū Zahrah and Nuʿmānī mentioned above, see A. J. Wensinck's The Muslim Creed: Its Genesis and Historical Development (1932; reprint, New York, 1965) and W. Montgomery Watt's The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Edinburgh, 1973). See also Joseph Schacht's "An Early Murciʾite Treatise: The Kitāb al-ʿlim wal Mutaʿallim," Oriens 17 (1974): 96117. For an important and authentic writing of Abū anīfah on theology, see "The Epistle of Abū anīfah to ʿUthmān al-Battī," in Islam, edited by John Alden Williams (New York, 1962), pp. 176179. For English translations of some writings of Abū anīfah, including both authentic and questionable writings, see Wensinck's The Muslim Creed.

For the original sources of Abū anīfah's doctrines, see mainly the works of his two disciples, Abū Yūsuf and al-Shaybānī. Only the works dealing with financial affairs, public law, and the law of nations are available in English translation. These are Abū Yūsuf's Kitab al-kharāj, translated by A. Ben Shemesh, "Taxation in Islam," vol. 3 (Leiden and London, 1969), and Muammad ibn al-asan al-Shaybānī's The Islamic Law of Nations, translated by Majid Khadduri (Baltimore, 1966).

For the process of codification of law by Abū anīfah, see Muammad Hamidullah's "Codification of Muslim Law by Abū anīfah," in Zeki Velidi Toganʾa armağan: Symbolae in honorem Z. V. Togan by Herbert Jansky and others (Istanbul, 19501955).

Zafar Ishaq Ansari (1987)

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