SHĀFIʿĪ, AL- (ah 150–208/767–820 ce), more fully Muḥammad ibn Idrīs, was the founder of a school of law and the author of several works of Islamic law (sharīʿah ). Perhaps more important, he wrote the first treatise of jurisprudence in Islam, in which he discussed the nature and sources of law and developed a legal methodology for the systematic study of the sharīʿah.
Al-Shāfiʿī flourished in the early Abbasid period, a time of consolidation for the Islamic empire. Even before the Abbasid dynasty had been established, Muslim jurists were grappling with legal problems resulting from the rapid expansion of the empire and the absorption of new elements of law and local tradition. As a consequence, the Islamic community abounded in legal doctrines, and several schools of law had emerged in response to the new conditions and demands. At this point, the need for a synthesis of divergent legal doctrines became apparent, and in order to derive underlying norms and principles to resolve legal problems, several jurists began to examine the problems that the prophet Muḥammad and his immediate successors had dealt with. It devolved upon al-Shāfiʿī to provide a method of legal reasoning that would make it possible to resolve problems and develop the law into a coherent system. He was the first jurist to examine the sharīʿah in accordance with jurisprudential method, and the impact of his method, to which his successors added only refinements, has remained permanent.
Little is known of al-Shāfiʿī's childhood and early life. The earliest biographies are very brief, while the detailed accounts given by classical biographers are mixed with legendary stories. The authorities disagree on whether al-Shāfiʿī was born in Gaza, a small town on the coast of Palestine, or in Ashkelon, a larger town not far away. His ancestors belonged to the Banū Hāshim, the clan of the prophet Muḥammad. Some of them, it seems, went with the Arab armies in the early days of the Muslim conquests and stayed in the eastern Mediterranean region. When al-Shāfiʿī was about ten years old, his father died, and his mother took him from Palestine to Mecca. Traditional stories, legendary for the most part, state that he learned the Qurʾān by heart at the age of seven, committed Mālik's Muwaṭṭaʾ (a digest of law) to memory at the age of ten, and was declared fit to give legal opinions at the age of fifteen.
After his arrival in Mecca, al-Shāfiʿī studied under several jurists, then went to study in Medina under Mālik ibn Anas (d. 796), the leading jurist of the Hejaz and founder of the school of law bearing his name. Al-Shāfiʿī was then probably twenty years of age. In Medina, he studied Mālik's Muwaṭṭaʾ and became a follower of the Mālikī school of law, soon distinguishing himself as a student of the sharīʿah. He attracted the attention of the governor of Yemen, who was on a visit to Medina and who helped him to enter government service at the age of thirty. But al-Shāfiʿī was soon to become involved in local controversies, and this led not only to dismissal from his post but also to his deportation in chains to Iraq on the allegation that he was a follower of the Zaydī imam Yaḥyā ibn ʿAbd Allāh, a pretender to the caliphate and an opponent of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad. Al-Shāfiʿī appeared before the caliph Hārūn al-Rashid with other conspirators in 803 but was pardoned after eloquently defending his loyalty to the caliph on the grounds that his great-grandfather was related to the great-grandfather of the caliph himself. It is said that al-Shaybānī (d. 804), the leading jurist of the Ḥanafī school and a court counselor, defended him and said that he was a well-known jurist, and this incident brought al-Shāfiʿī into contact with al-Shaybānī, whose books he had studied. Despite the outcome, al-Shāfiʿī was never again to seek government service.
Until his deportation to Iraq, al-Shāfiʿī was known as a follower of Mālik. His study of Ḥanafī doctrines, which filtered to him through al-Shaybānī's works and contacts with Ḥanafī followers, seems to have broadened his knowledge of the law, and he began to see points of strength and weakness in both the Mālikī and Ḥanafī positions. Although he held his own legal opinions, he had not yet emerged as the leader of a new school of law.
In 804 al-Shāfiʿī suddenly left Iraq. The authorities differ on his subsequent travels: Some state that he went to Syria and the Hejaz and returned to Iraq in 810; others do not mention his visit to the Hejaz, reporting that he left Iraq in 814 and went to Egypt after stopping in Syria. But they all seem to agree that he left Iraq for Egypt and that his departure from the Mālikī and Ḥanafī schools had become so pronounced that he preferred to settle in a country where he could discuss his own legal doctrine with greater independence.
In Egypt, al-Shāfiʿī found himself in a congenial position. He was on good terms with the governor, who seems to have encouraged him to leave Baghdad and to develop his teachings in Egypt, far from the center of court intrigues and rival doctrines. During the five years he lived there, al-Shāfiʿī devoted all his time to teaching and dictating his works to his students. But it was still not without difficulty that he preached his own doctrines, and his disagreement with Mālikī teachings brought him into conflict with some Mālikī followers. According to one authority, after a particularly heated controversy al-Shāfiʿī was attacked by an opponent who had lost the argument. Al-Shāfiʿī was already suffering from an intestinal illness that kept him frail and ailing during the later years of his life; seriously injured in the attack, he was taken to his house and died a few days later.
Al-Shāfiʿī's legal system is to be found in his collected works, the Kitāb al-umm (The Mother Book). It is said that his leading disciples, especially al-Rabīʿ al-Murādī (d. 880), al-Būwayṭī (d. 845), and al-Muzanī (d. 877), were in the habit of transcribing al-Shāfiʿī's lectures, and that al-Shāfiʿī would correct the text when it was read aloud to him. Al-Shāfiʿī's disciples in Egypt, therefore, are responsible for all the books that have survived, whether copied or dictated from his original writings. Doubts have been raised as to whether the Kitāb al-umm was not actually composed by a disciple. Even if some words have been changed or rephrased, the book as a whole contains al-Shāfiʿī's own ideas and legal reasoning, and al-Shāfiʿī's biographers agree that his works were handed down to us as recorded by his disciples. Al-Shāfiʿī's book on jurisprudence, Al-risālah fī uṣūl al-fiqh (Treatise on the Sources of the Law), was originally written in Iraq, long before he settled in Egypt, but it was revised and rewritten after he left Iraq, and it was also dictated to and put into writing by his disciples. Although al-Shāfiʿī wrote or dictated several other works, including a book on the Qurʾān called Kitāb aḥkām al-Qurʾān (Treatise on the Legal Precepts of the Qurʾān), and a compilation of traditions called Al-musnad (Collected Traditions), his legal doctrines and methodology are to be found mainly in the Risālah, a book on jurisprudence and legal method, and the Kitāb al-umm, a book on the law, in which his own system is set forth in accordance with his legal reasoning. The Risālah, in particular, is a novel work in the literature of Islamic law, dealing essentially with the sources of the law (uṣūl al-fiqh ). The uṣūl ("roots" or "sources") of the law had been discussed by earlier jurists, each stressing a particular derivative source (in addition to the Qurʾān and traditions, which are agreed upon by all as the primary sources), which distinguished him from other jurists; but none seems to have dealt with the subject in so coherent and systematic a way as al-Shāfiʿī, who discussed the nature and relative significance of each source, and how legal rules are derived from it.
Before al-Shāfiʿī, there were two predominant schools of law: the Mālikī school in the Hejaz and the Ḥanafī in Iraq, each representing local traditions and interests, although they were in agreement on fundamental principles. Both recognized the primacy of the Qurʾān and the traditions as sources of law, but they diverged on other sources, such as custom and local practice (sanctioned by their inclusion in the sunnah and the traditions ascribed to the Prophet) as well as the use of personal reasoning (ijtihād) and consensus (ijmāʿ ). In the Risālah, al-Shāfiʿī tried to define and set the limits for each source and indicate how it should be used.
According to al-Shāfiʿī, the Qurʾān, as the embodiment of divine revelation, and the traditions, consisting of the Prophet's practices and decisions, are equally binding as sources of law, on the ground that the traditions, though not revelation in the literal sense, are based on divine wisdom inspired in the Prophet. God has imposed on believers the duty of obeying his prophet as they would obey God himself, and he has given evidence that he regards disobedience to the Prophet as disobedience to himself. "When God and his apostle have decreed a matter," says God to the Prophet in a revelation, "it is not for a believing man or woman to exercise a choice in that matter; whoever opposes God and his Apostle has deviated into manifest error" (surah 33:36). In law, therefore, the Prophet's traditions are as valid and binding as the Qurʾān. However, in raising the Prophet's sunnah to the level of revelation, al-Shāfiʿī warned that the traditions (consisting of the sunnah ) must be authentic, since the Prophet's authority had often been invoked by the citation of traditions of doubtful authenticity. In the Risālah, al-Shāfiʿī devoted two chapters to a study of the nature and scope of traditions and laid down rules on how to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic traditions. Once a tradition is proved authentic, it must be binding. For this reason, he disagreed with Mālik, who considered the practice (ʿamal ) of Medina as representing the traditions of the Prophet irrespective of authenticity (on the grounds that the practice of the city of the Prophet was assumed to be equal in validity to the Prophet's traditions). Al-Shāfiʿī also disagreed with Abū Ḥanīfah, representing the Iraqi school of law, who applied istiḥsān (juristic preference) to his choice of traditions as a basis for legal decisions without distinguishing between the traditions of the Prophet and those of his companions.
The other sources of the law, based essentially on the exercise of ijtihād (legal reasoning), may be called derivative sources because they must have a certain basis in one of the textual sources (Qurʾān and traditions). Al-Shāfiʿī rejected the use of unlimited ijtihād, save in the form of qiyās (analogy), since this form of legal reasoning presupposes the existence of a general principle in the Qurʾān or a precedent in the traditions. He rejected all other forms of ijtihād—istiḥsān (juristic preference), istiṣlāḥ (common good), and others—because they permit the use of sources for legal decisions outside the framework laid down in the Qurʾān and traditions. In pursuing this method of legal reasoning, al-Shāfiʿī sought to idealize the law by insisting that it must be derived ultimately from divine revelation and divine wisdom, and to islamize it by confining its sources to the sacred texts of Islam—the Qurʾān and the traditions—and not to other sacred sources (see Khadduri, 1960, pp. 42–45).
Finally, al-Shāfiʿī discussed ijmāʿ as another derivative source, one with which he was familiar as a former follower of Mālik. But Mālik's doctrine of ijmāʿ was limited to the agreement of the scholars of Medina, because he held that only the scholars of the Prophet's city understood what the Prophet's sunnah really meant, and that by their consensus on all matters of law they could make decisions in conformity with precedents set in the sunnah. Other jurists outside Hejaz, especially in Iraq, maintained that they were as competent to exercise ijmāʿ as the scholars in Medina, and claimed that they were no less familiar with the Prophet's sunnah than their peers in Hejaz. But the Iraqi jurists, especially those of the Ḥanafī school, considered ijmāʿ to be secondary to qiyās as a derivative source. Al-Shāfiʿī went beyond both Mālikī and Ḥanafī jurists by investing ijmāʿ with higher authority as an expression of public action. The concept of vox populi vox Dei implied in al-Shāfiʿī's formulation of the ijmāʿ of the community is based on the tradition of the Prophet that states: "My people will never agree on an error," although al-Shāfiʿī did not cite the tradition in this form. By investing ijmāʿ with high authority, he ranked it higher than qiyās as a source of law and second only to the textual sources.
Al-Shāfiʿī's doctrine of the ijmāʿ of the community was opposed by other scholars, including his own followers, but al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) supported the doctrine by confining it to fundamental principles and leaving matters of detail to the agreement of the scholars. Al-Shāfiʿī's doctrine of ijmāʿ, though sound in principle, suffers from a procedural weakness in that it provides no adequate method for the community to arrive at an agreement. Some of the jurists offered a corrective measure by proposing that if a few scholars reached an agreement and no objection was raised by others, or if the majority of the scholars agreed and only a few raised an objection, agreement should be binding upon the community. The process remained undefined until modern times, however, when Shaykh Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935) proposed in his book on the caliphate, Al-khilāfah aw al-imāmah al-ʿuẓmā (The Caliphate and the High Imamate; Cairo, 1924), that an elected assembly, composed of members including men knowledgeable in the sharīʿah, should exercise ijmāʿ on behalf of the community of believers. This device seems to satisfy al-Shāfiʿī's call that on all important matters the action of the community should prevail. At the end of the chapter on ijmāʿ in the Risālah he stated: "He who holds that which the Muslim community holds shall be regarded as following the community, and he who holds differently shall be regarded as opposing the community he was ordered to follow. So the error comes from separation."
Al-Shāfiʿī probably never intended to found a school bearing his name, for he warned against taqlīd (conformity to one school of law) and encouraged independent legal reasoning; but his legal methodology, which laid restrictions on the use of the sources of the law, necessarily limited differences of opinion on legal questions. After he settled in Egypt, his disciples became active in writing down and spreading his teachings, not only there but also in other lands. Within a century after al-Shāfiʿī's death, his doctrine began to spread to the Hejaz, Syria, and Central Asia. Although it was diminished in Egypt under Fatimid rule, it again became predominant under Sultan Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn (known to the West as Saladin, d. 1169). By the time of the Ottoman occupation of Arab lands, the Shāfiʿī school had become the most widespread. Despite the official adoption of the Ḥanafī school by the Ottoman empire and the spread of Shiism in Iran after the rise of the Safavid dynasty at the opening of the sixteenth century, the Shāfiʿī school remains dominant to the present day in Egypt, Syria, the Hejaz, western and southern Arabia, parts of the Persian Gulf, East Africa, the Malay Archipelago, Dagestan, and parts of Central Asia.
Works by al-Shāfiʿī
The collected works of al-Shāfiʿī are available in Kitāb al-umm, 7 vols., edited by Ibn Jamāʿah (Cairo, 1904–1908). I have translated and commented on the Risālah in my Islamic Jurisprudence (Baltimore, 1960) and provided a brief introduction to the life and jurisprudence of al-Shāfiʿī on pp. 3–54. There are two published versions of the Risālah in Arabic: One is given in Ibn Jamāʿah's edition of Kitāb al-umm; the other, a copy from the original edition of al-Shāfiʿī's disciple al-Rabīʿ, has been edited and published separately by Ahmad Shākir (Cairo, 1940). Other works include Kitāb jumāʿ al-ʿilm (Treatise on Legal Knowledge; Cairo, 1940); Al-musnad, 2 vols., edited by al-Sindī (Cairo, 1950); and Kitāb aḥkām al-Qurʾān, 2 vols., edited by al-Kawtharī (Cairo, 1951–1952).
Works about al-Shāfiʿī
In addition to my own work mentioned above, useful works in English include Eric E. F. Bishop's "Al-Shāfiʿī, Founder of a Law School," Moslem World 19 (1929): 156–175, and Joseph Schacht's Origins of Muḥammad Jurisprudence (Oxford, 1950). Important works in Arabic include al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī's Taʾrīkh Baghdad (History of Baghdad; Cairo, 1931), vol. 2, pp. 56–73; Abū ʿUmar Yūsuf ibn ʿAbd al-Barr's Al-intiqāʾ fī faḍāʾil al-thalāthah al-aʾimmah al-fuqahāʾ (Three Highly Qualified Leaders of Jurisprudence; Cairo, 1932), pp. 66–103; Abū ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿUmar al-Fakhr al-Rāzi's Kitāb manāqib al-Shāfiʿī (Treatise on al-Shāfiʿī's Life Qualities; Cairo, n. d.); Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Abī Ḥātim al-Rāzi's Kitāb adab al-Shāfiʿī wa-manāqibuh (Treatise on the Literary and Life Qualities of al-Shāfiʿī), edited by al-Kawtharī (Cairo, 1953); Muṣṭafā ʿAbd al-Rāziq's Al-Imām al-Shāfiʿī (The Imam al-Shāfiʿī; Cairo, 1945); Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī's Ṭabaqāt al-Shāfiʿīyah al-kubrā (Treatise on the Life of al-Shāfiʿī's Leading Followers; Cairo, 1907), vol. 1, pp. 100–179; and Muḥammad Abū Zahrah's Al-Shāfiʿī (Cairo, 1948).
Majid Khadduri (1987)