As there was a large source of legal Islamic material on which to draw upon it should not be surprising that different juridical “schools” emerged. Such schools were called a madhhabs. In the beginning a variety of interpretation opinions prevailed because each man sought his own path and some followed not so much the Quran or sunna but their own opinion (ra’i). Different “schools” struggled to gain recognition and disappeared one by one until, in the seventh century of the Hijra, it was agreed to recognize only four, viz, those founded by the four famous Imams, or leaders, namely, Abu Hanifa, Ibn Malik, Ash-Shafi, and Ibn Hanbal.
These Imams, though manifesting certain individual peculiarities, were all considered to be equally orthodox. They were reckoned to be mujtahids (an authority on Muslim law) of the highest rank. The interest and importance attached to these four men and their legal opinions will be apparent from the fact that it is the orthodox view that after them there has been no mujtahid.
1. Imam Abu Hanifa (80-150 A.H)
Abu Hanifa was the leading Sunni scholar in Islamic jurisprudence (fikh) and theology in Iraq. He was not an Arab, was raised in Kufa in 699 where his grandfather had been brought as a slave, and died in Baghdad. He made a living as a cloth merchant but his life was dedicated to theology and he exercised a considerable influence on the dogmatics of Islam and his influence was such that it resulted in the rise of the Hanafite Law School. The characteristic of the school is seen in its approach to theological questions being interpreted by using a rationalistic method ra’i). Unlike Malik, who lived at Medina, with its memories of Muhammad, Abu Hanifa made little use of the traditions as the basis of his judgments. He was opposed by other scholars on the grounds that he did not use tradition so his disciples later issued the so called Musnad of Abu Hanifa which assured his opponents that he did use tradition in his judgements.
This school of thought prevailed during the time of the Abbasid Empire when a student of Imam Abu Hanifa, Abu Yusuf al-Qadi became the head of the judiciary department and the highest judge, and thus he spread this madhhab (school of thought), in particular, during the caliphates of al-Mahdi, al-Hadi, and al-Rashid.
2. Imam Malik bin Anas (711-795) – the Imam of Medina
Malik bin Anas was born and died in Medina. He never travelled abroad to study hadiths but learned from the many scholars who visited Medina. It was this attachment to the city of Medina which caused his Malikite school to differ from the other three schools for they used the practice of the people of Medina (amal ahl al-medina) as a foundational source for establishing Islamic law. He was opposed to making decisions based on the rationalistic method and so imbibed a system founded on daru’s-sunna the abode of the customs of Muhammad. Malik made it his business to arrange and systematize such traditions as were current in the city and to form out of them a system of jurisprudence which embraced the whole range of life. The traditions were his delight.
Under the Abbasids there was a range of differing legal opinions and the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur asked Malik to write al-Muwatta (‘smooth path’ or ’beaten path’). Here he attempted to codify and systemise customary law according to the ijima’ (consensus) of Islam in Medina. The al-Muwatta is the earliest surviving Muslim law book. It contains the ahadith of Muhammad, legal opinions of the companions and their successors and later authorities. Others say the word Al-Muwatta means “The Approved” for Malik is said to have explained the title as follows: “I showed my book to seventy jurists of Medina, and every single one of them approved me for it, so I named it ‘The Approved’. The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid said that no book on earth, except the Quran, was more authentic than that of Imam Malik’s.
On the account of his disagreement with Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik became the leader of the school of tradition (hadith), while Imam Abu Hanifa was the leader of the school of opinion (ra΄i). Most Muslim governments were supportive of Imam Abu Hanifa. The Malikite School is the second-largest of the four schools, followed by approximately 25% of Muslims. mostly in North Africa and West Africa.
3. Imam Ash-Shafi’i (767-820)
Imam Ash-Shafi’i is considered the founder of Islamic jurisprudence (usual al-fiqh) – unifying revealed sources with human reasoning. He belonged to the tribe of the Quarraish, was a Hashimi and distantly related to Muhammad. He was brought up by his mother, in poor circumstances, in Mecca and spent a great deal of time with the Bedouins through whom he acquired a thorough knowledge of old Arab poetry.
When he was about twenty years old he went to Medina to be with Malik b. Anas and remained there until the latter’s death. He also studied the system of Abu Hanifa and subsequently developed an eclectic system of his own taking an intermediate path between independent invention of laws and the use of traditions. He knew the whole of the Muwatta by heart and was unrivalled for his knowledge of the Quran, the sunna, and the sayings of the Companions
He was widely travelled and following his studies he set up a school in Baghdad. In contrast to the Hanafis he endeavoured to lay down rigid rules for the abused use of qiyas (the process of deductive analogy in which the teachings of the Hadith are compared and contrasted with those of the Quran, in order to apply a known injunction to a new circumstance and create a new injunction). Therefore, he made an attempt to reconcile, through the principle of ijma’ (unanimous consent), the acute differences between the followers of other prevailing systems of jurisprudence.
The Shafi΄i school of thought emerged in Egypt. At the time of the Fatimid Dynasty, the Egyptians were mainly followers of Ahlul Bait, and the teachings of Ahlul Bait were being taught in al-Azhar University. At a later time, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi came and waged an extensive war against the school of Ahlul Bait by banning the teaching of their madhhab (school of thought) in al-Azhar and resurrecting the other madhahib, including that of Imam Shafi΄i.
4. Imam Ibn Hanbal
Imam Ibn Hanbal was a Arab born at Baghdad In 780. He submitted to imprisonment and punishment rather than agree with some other theologians of his time that the Quran was created. He preferred to use even a weak tradition rather than that of consensus and analogy. His followers founded a school of law after his death. He was the author of a Musnad, or collection of traditions.
For a long time men only thought of him as an extreme traditionalist, so that when his followers sought recognition for his method as a separate juridical school they encountered opposition and it was only after many a bitter struggle that this fourth ‘school‘ was accorded a place. The system as such was a deliberate and uncompromising return to traditionalism, and manifested a combative tendency. It adhered to the letter of the Quran and the hadith. Of the four schools, it manifests the most hostility to Sufism.
Such an attitude is to be explained by the fact that during Ibn Hanbal’s day, under the Khalifa Al Ma’mun, the followers of Abu Hanifa were in favour. Ibn Hanbal thought they were carrying the principle of analogical deduction to dangerous lengths in their endeavour to please the Khalifa. Consequently, fearing that the faith would be undermined, he entirely discarded the principle of qiyas. On the other hand, he saw that the system set up by Malik, founded on the sunna of Medina was inadequate to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding empire; but in seeking to establish his system on what he held to be sure ground of the traditions he did not succeed in improving matters.
Characteristic features of the four judicial schools
Judicial views on prayer: All four schools are in agreement on the ritual and liturgical use of the Quran, while Ash-Shafi‘i expressly lays it down that the words used in prayer must be recited in Arabic. Abu Hanifa, on the other hand, allows an exception to be made in the case of the foreigner who is incapable of pronouncing the Arabic.
Judicial views on whether it is it lawful to teach the Quran to non- Muslims: This occupation inevitably entails the translation of the text. The more liberal Abu Hanifa sees no difficulty in the proposition and here finds himself in apparent agreement with the ruling of the Hanbal School. Ash-Shafi’i contents himself with setting forth the arguments for and against, but Malik is entirely opposed to the idea.
Judicial views on translating the Quran: Malik is uncompromising opposed over the question of a complete translation of the Quran. Ash-Shafi’i, as before, hesitates to make a definite pronouncement. The Hanafis and Hanbalis approve of interlinear versions, such as at present exist in Persian, Urdu, English, etc, or of a version in which the Quranic text in Arabic faces the translation, as is the case with the English translation made by Maulana Muhammad Ali, printed in England.
Judicial views on prisoners of war: Their judgments in other matters reveal the fact that they are by no means always in agreement. For instance, in regard to the important question as to what should be done to prisoners taken in a time of jihad, we find that Abu Hanifa rules that they should be condemned to death or slavery. Ash-Shaf’ii on the other hand, allows them to be freed on payment of ransom, or even without it.
Judicial views on apostates: They differ, too, in their attitude to a Muslim apostate; Abu Hanifa holds that before being condemned such must be invited to repent; for a woman apostate shall be not death, but solitary confinement. The Maliki School do not require this; both this school and the Shafi’i condemn the apostate, irrespective of sex, to death.
Judicial views and the Sunni Muslim
These four Imams are recognized to be of one mind on all the fundamental doctrines of Islam, and their “agreement” is enough to establish general law which is binding on all Sunni Muslims. As they believe that there has been no first rank mujtahid (enlightened theological doctor) since the time of the four Imams they consider that it is Allah’s will to approve this method..
Every Muslim is expected to belong to one of the four orthodox madhahib schools, and to conduct himself in accordance with the fiqh of that school. He is not necessarily bound to it for life; should he desire, he may pass to another school. In the same family for instance, father and son may belong to different schools.
The position today
It has been agreed among the Sunni orthodox that from the fourth century A. H., “the door of ijtihad (a legal ruling by an enlightened theological doctor) is closed.” All that can be done is to interpret the ijima’ (common consent) of the four Imams. But to this idea that all judgments are shut up to the ijma’ of a bygone age some modern Muslims take the strongest exception. It is to them a crime committed against Islam by the ’ulama in the name of religion.
Many Muslims scholars recognize eight legal schools of thought. 1. Hanafi (Sunni), 2.Maliki (Sunni), 3.Shafi’i (Sunni), 4. Hanbali (Sunni), 5. Zahiri (Sunni), 6. Salafi (Sunni), 7. Ja’fari (Shia) including Ismaili) and 8. Zaidi (Shia) also some include a ninth Ibadi (Khawarij).