Hanafi School of Law

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One of the four approaches to Sunni Muslim law, often called schools.

Though it bears the name of Abu Hanifa al-Nuʿman ibn Thabit (died 767), the Hanafi School of Law in fact owes its doctrine to his two disciples Abu Yusuf (died 798) and Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani (died 805). They laid down the systematic foundations for the work of later Hanafis. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the law school (madhhab) was associated with the rationalists (ahl al-raʾy), who advocated free legal reasoning not strictly bound by the revealed texts. Although by the eighth century raʾy, a form of free reasoning, was largely abandoned in favor of a more disciplined and text-bound reasoning, the Hanafis continued to resort to similar methods of legal argument, notably istihsan (juristic preference). After the ninth century, and certainly by the beginning of the eleventh, even istihsan was restructured so as to render it subsidiary to the imperatives of the religious texts.

Though the Hanafi school finally came to adopt the mainstream legal methodology and philosophy, it did maintain peculiar characteristics such as its emphasis on the practical aspects of the law. Particularly in the first three centuries of Islam, its followers, more than any other school, were the chief authors and experts on formularies (shurut), notarial documents, and the profession and conduct of judgeship (adab al-qada).

Among the most important Hanafi authors on positive law after Abu Yusuf and Shaybani are Abu al-Hasan al-Karkhi (died 951), Abu al-Layth alSamarqandi (died 985), al-Quduri (died 1036), Shams al-Aʾimma al-Sarakhsi (died 1096), alKasani (died 1191), al-Marghinani (died 1196), Abu al-Barakat al-Nasafi (died 1310), and Ibn Nujaym (died 1563). For these authors, the works of Shaybani, known collectively as zahir al-riwaya, remained authoritative; they are al-Mabsut, al-Jami al-Kabir, al-Jami al-Saghir, al-Siyar al-Kabir, al-Siyar alSaghir, and al-Ziyadat. The most prominent legal theorists (usuliyyun) of the school are Pazdawi (died 1089), Sarakhsi, Nasafi, Sadr al-Shariʿa al-Thani al-Mahbubi (died 1346), and Mulla Khusraw (died 1480).

In 1876, the Hanafi law of contracts, obligations, and procedure was codified in the Ottoman law code of Mecelle, in an effort to modernize the law and to achieve uniformity in its application. The primary source on which the Committee of the Mecelle based its work was Shaybani's collected works, zahir al-riwaya, with the commentary on it by Sarakhsi, an eleventh-century Hanafi. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, however, the Mecelle was superseded by civil codes in all the countries that fell previously under Ottoman jurisdiction, with the notable exception of Jordan.

In medieval times, the school had a large following in its birthplace, Iraq, as well as in Syria, Transoxania (now Uzbekistan, a former Soviet Republic), the Indian subcontinent, the Mediterranean island of Sicily, and to a lesser extent in North Africa. Later on, the Ottoman Empire declared Hanafism the official doctrine of the state, thus rendering it dominant in all areas that fell under its sway. In modern times, Hanafism still prevails in these regions as well as in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Pakistan, Turkistan, the Caucasus (between the Black and Caspian Seas), India, and China.


Mahmassani, Subhi. The Philosophy of Jurisprudence in Islam, translated by Farhat J. Ziadeh. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1961.

Schacht, Joseph. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

wael b. hallaq