Malik Ibn Anas

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Malik Ibn Anas

Circa 712–795

Theologian and scholar


Madinah . Malik ibn Anas, the founding figure of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, also known as “the school of the people of Madinah,” was born at Madinah at the height of the Umayyad khilafah. Although Madinah had by his time long lost the political importance it had once had, the town remained the chief center of transmitted information about Islam in all the lands of the khilafah, because it was the original setting of the Prophet’s mission in the crucial last ten years of his life, because the overwhelming majority of Muhammad’s Companions had continued to reside there after his death, and because their descendants were still living there in Malik’s time. As Muslims elsewhere were often busy with political and military affairs in early Islam, Madinah became the paradigm of sound Muslim practice, an image that was reinforced when Muslims from the Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain necessarily passed through Madinah on their way to Makkah to perform the pilgrimage.

Public Beating . Although Malik’s ancestors had come from Yemen, his family had long been settled in Madinah, where they were clients of the Qurashi clan of Taym ibn Murrah. The family also had cultivated Muslim religious studies from an early date, as Malik’s great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and uncles all transmitted traditions. Thus, it was quite natural for Malik to pursue such studies as well, which he did from an early age. He was able to study under respected teachers, including Ibn Hurmuz, Rabi’ah ibn Farrukh, Nafi’,and Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri. Steeped in the learning of Madinah, he became the chief scholar and exponent of its tradition. Although he held no political offices, he occasionally became entangled in the politics of his time, especially when he supported the hopeless rebellion of Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyyah in 762 against the Abbasids, a stance for which he was publicly beaten by the Abbasid governor. Nevertheless, he was still held in esteem and occasionally consulted by later Abbasid khalifahs, who would sometimes visit him on their way to Makkah for the pilgrimage. He was also visited by scholars from the outer provinces who had heard of his fame. Many of these individuals devoted themselves to his teaching, but a rivalry with the nascent legal school of Iraq began to intensify, especially when the Iraqi Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani (750–805) began to challenge the teachings of Malik on various points.

Book . The main monument left by Malik to posterity is his book al-Muwatta (The Trodden Path), perhaps composed about 765–770. It is the earliest Muslim law book of any size and Malik used this collection in his teaching and sometimes added to it later. It contains an arrangement of the chapters of the law which became the basis for most subsequent law books. Mostly, it is a collection of traditions, about half of which are traced to the Prophet Muhammad himself and the remainder are traced to his Companions and the generation following them. Thus, it is the earliest major source for the practice of the Prophet and was heavily used by later compilers of Hadith collections. It also includes the statements of Malik himself, including his descriptions of the living practice of the Madinans of his time. This practice was treated by the Maliki madhhab (school of law) as one of the most reliable sources of law, because it reflected the living tradition handed down from the time of the Prophet by the inhabitants of the Prophet’s city, Madinah. The greater authenticity of its tradition based on Madinah became one of the main arguments for preferring the Maliki legal school.

Legacy . Malik remains one of the most famous of all the scholars Islam has ever produced, and his earliness guaranteed him an influence on later developments, and not only in the Maliki school, for the Shafi’i founder al-Shafi’i (767–820) and Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani, who was one of the major founders of the Hanafi school, were his students. He was also respected by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855) and other later jurists and transmitters of tradition. He represented the final summation of the influence of Madinah on Muslim jurisprudence. Up to Malik’s time, the religious authority of Madinah was easily superior to that of all other Muslim cities, but after him it greatly lost influence, even in the Maliki school, which thereafter was cultivated mainly in North Africa, Iraq and the Persian Gulf, and much later in West Africa.


Yasin Dutton, The Origins of Islamic Law: The Quran, the Muwatta’ and Madman ‘Amal (Richmond, U.K.: Curzon, 1999).

Malik ibn Anas, al-Muwatta’ translated by ‘A’isha ‘Abdarahman al-Tar-jumana and Ya’qub Johnson (Norwich: Diwan Press, 1982); also translated as Al-Muwatta’ of Imam Malik ibn Anas: The First Formulation of Islamic Law, translated by ‘A’isha ‘Abdurrahman Bewley (London: Kegan Paul International, 1989).

Joseph Schacht, “Malik b. Anas,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).