Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i
Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i
Theologian and jurist
Trial . Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i was a Qurashi Arab of fairly noble lineage born in Gaza, Palestine in the early Abbasid era. After studying with the great authority of the Madinan school of law, Malik ibn Anas, al-Shafi’i obtained employment in a government office in Yemen, where he was arrested by the khalifal police, accused of belonging to an illegal organization, and sent to Iraq for trial before the Khalifah Harun al-Rashid himself. In Iraq, he was able to defend himself against the charges and win his liberty. Knowing of the serious differences between the legal schools of Iraq and Madinah, the latter being his own school, al-Shafi’i sought out Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani (750–805), the main living exponent of the Iraqi school, for an exchange of views. Later, al-Shafi’i traveled back and forth between Madinah and Iraq many times, promoting certain principles for the derivation of Muslim law on which he hoped all could agree. These views became the basis for al-Shafi’i’s legal theory, the first organized theory of the law that is known in Islam. However al-Shafi’i was disappointed in his expectation that all would respect his principles. During his last visit to Baghdad about 814, he also became somewhat disgusted with the Abbasid rulers, who were engaged in a ruinous civil war. As a result, he withdrew to Egypt, which had drifted out of direct Abbasid control, and there wrote down both his final formulations of the law and his legal theory.
Principles . Al-Shafi’i’s legal theory stressed four sources of the law. First, there was the Qur’an, which all were completely agreed upon. Second, there was the Sunnah, which al-Shafi’i equated with the Hadith of the Prophet that had been transmitted and verified by a chain of reliable transmitters. In adopting this point, he favored the school of Iraq over that of Madinah. The equation of the Sunnah with the prophetic Hadith led to an increasing tendency to disregard traditions that could not be traced back all the way to the Prophet. Third, he acknowledged the principle of the consensus of the legal opinion of the community. Fourth, al-Shafi’i allowed the law to be further elaborated from the original texts by the use of analogy. Although these sources, laid down in his al-Risalah (The Treatise, 815–820), were accepted by all Sunnis eventually, the various schools made their own interpretations of them, so that they did not lead to unity in the legal system as al-Shafi’i probably hoped. Yet at least they played a major role in framing the legal discourses of Islam. Al-Shafi’i’s much-admired principles also led to the establishment of a school of law in his name that was distinct from the other existing schools. At first popular in Lower Egypt, where he taught for the last five or so years of his life, this school eventually became popular with the Sunni religious scholars because of the orderliness of its principles, which had been laid down by the founder from the first and not extracted later from practice, as was the case with the Hanafi and Maliki schools. Thus, al-Shafi’i had a tremendous impact on the formulation of Muslim law.
E. Chaumont, “al-Shafn,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).
Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shaf’i, al-Shafi’i’s Kuala: Treatise on the Foundations of Islamic jurisprudence, translated by Majid Khadduri (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1961).