The Four Sunni Schools

Jurisprudenceislamschool_bigAs 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.

Jurisprudence BATTUTA_9_47307Under 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

Jurisprudence Law fiqhImam 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


Jurisprudence news.2009.230The general tendencies of the four judicial schools can be illustrated by a few examples of their rulings.

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).

27 thoughts on “The Four Sunni Schools

  1. Mohd jamiu

    Am very greatfull this really helped me in my assignment on the philosophy of the four sunni schools and there difference from other schools.
    May Allah guide us and grant us knowledge and understanding.

    1. admin Post author

      According to Wikipedia “Imam Malik was a student of Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq. My sources state “He received his earliest impressions of Islam from Sahl ibn Sa’d, the almost sole survivor of the Companions of the Prophet.” Abu Hanfah was known to him although they did have disagreements regarding the authority of Traditions. Later sources, thought to be correct state that he studied fikh with Rabi’a b. Farrukh (died around 132) who cultivated rai opinions in Medina and afterwards was known as Rabi’at al-Ra’i. However, even later legends increase the number of his teachers to 900 including 300 tabi’un.

  2. Syed Hussain


    My question last year got lost. InshaAllah this comment and query would receive appropriate response.

    Sura Al hajj has two sujood-e-tilawat. And the second one is marked for Shafeis.

    May I know when did the 14 sijdahs in various Surahs appear first on the Quranic text?
    Since the Quran al Kareem has been in perfect text right from the time of their revelation these indicators of sujood were inscribed. And there is no ivaja crookedness in the revealed Holy Verses.
    How come Imam Shafei , who lived almost 200 years later, is quoted in the Book for a sijdah? The Quran was, is and shall forever be Mukammil, be-iznillah.

    How then this or anything else be added in whatever form,sense or reason?

    This place of sijdah appears to be only by Shafeis and other Imams did not agree to. La nufarriku…
    Wa tisumu be hablillah- Hold fast the ROPE of Allah , not ropes- one rope one seertul Mustaqeem.

    Should we be always so divided on small points or issues. Madhabs, firqahs, schools, and so forth must have ONE PATH, ONE Destination as defined , illuminated and enjoined by Allah Azz wa Jall through a Mukammil, complete BOOK- Quran ul Kareem and the Uswat ul Hasanah -Holy Prophet Akram SM.

    There cannot be any disunity in thought,action, aamal, niyaat and manzil mubarak.

    Allah Himself declares no ivaja, no crookedness still we go on ad infinitum with divisive, self-destructive hair-splitting arguments, without wisdom, patience and refinement.

    Globally, nationally and locally we are incompetent, ignorant and inarticulate, as we are busy vilifying our own people, own religion and own characters.

    It is Allah -raufum bil eebad in His Infinite Mercy and Grace not destroying us, as Rasool e Akram rahmatullil alameen, did never ask for Allah Subhana ta’la’s wrath to descend on his Ummah, as did the Prophets of the past leading to total annihilation of those dwallen and ghadabee.

    Iyyaka na’y budu wa’ iyyaka Nastayeen- Ameen! Allah , Alimul GhaibShaiyeen Qadeer only Knows Best.

    Was’ salaam!

    Syed Hussain 14 RAMADAN, 1437 AH

  3. Syed Hussain

    Dear Admin,
    can you kindly inform whether my post /comment/queries have been recognised at your end?
    inshallah, a courtesy of a response is awaited.

    Syed Muhammad Hussain
    Harrow ,Uk 26/04/2016

    1. admin Post author

      Hello Syed — cannot find any record of your comments on the subject of ‘The Four Sunni Schools’ would you kindly re-submit them.

    1. admin Post author

      There are practical differences between Sunni Islam and the Shia, the best known is the mut’a known as the temporary marriage which was made for a fixed term of years, months or days. The custom of mut’a existed in Arabia in the days of Muhammad but was prohibited by Caliph ‘Umar but the Twelvers do not recognise his authority. It is an exclusive Twelver institution and is not permitted by the Isma’lis or any other Shi’ite sect. Another practical differences with Sunni Islam is that while the Shi’ites regard the Hajj as one of the pillars of Islam they supplement it with other pilgrimages to the tombs of the Imams, especially those of Husain in Karbala, Fatima in Qum and the eighth Imam, ‘Ali Rida at Mashad. Additionally, Friday prayers are not emphasised to the degree amongst Sunnis.

    1. admin Post author

      Apart from the four recognised Sunni Schools mentioned above most Islamic scholars recognise a total of 8 schools of Jurisprudence. The Ibadi’s have a small following but are mostly confined to Oman while the Zahiri School are followed by minority communities in Morocco and Pakistan. Then, there are two Shia schools: the first is the Ja’fari school (followers include Twelvers and Ismaili’s) which is traced back to the Imam Ja’far al Sadiq and the second are the Zaidi Shia, who make up about 35-40% of Muslims in Yemen.

    1. admin Post author

      Please contact your Islamic scholars about this question. The Christian respects teachers particularly those who consider it a vocation. The Bible considers that they are a vital part in building up the community of believers and their reward is seeing the on-going growth of the church.

  4. ashraf

    Is covering of head is obligatory,if yes then why? Some scholar I spoke to say that breast covreing is obligatory not head. The other question is in regards to riba(interest) one scholar say in Quaran it is clearly say that dont take riba, doesnt say dont pay because payer is a victim and these days if you buy home on mortgage after few year you will own the home with increase of price as well as very convenient to by the house so it is not an expolitation in fact help out. Thanks

    1. admin Post author

      Classical Islam imposes various regulations on Muslims and opposing views are taken by various authorities. Generally, history has confined women to a place where they have been almost invisible and that is the real tragedy of these legal rulings. Despite threats of judgement in the after-life found in the hadith concerning riba, they seem to have been largely ignored for only about 12% of Muslims are following Shariah-compliant rules in modern finance. It is thought that if these laws were more workable two-thirds of Muslims would follow these rulings. There is a severe absence of grace in Islam. A life touched by the grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ enables a Christian to live in conformity to God’s holy moral law.

  5. zakariyya Abdullahi

    All those our scholars and we too may Allah forgive our bad deed and make us more conscious about our religion and make us among those people who may engage in Janna ameeen. By Zaksson-Ibn-Abdallah good bye.!!!???reply with ameen plz

    1. admin Post author

      Islam is changing in parts of the Muslim World and many Muslims are rejecting the once authoritative rulings of the four judicious schools. This is creating quite a dilemma amongst Muslim people. Please consider looking at the Bible in order to discover the revelation of God that leads to salvation and an ordered godly life rather than the endless rules and pronouncements you have to follow from your ulema.

    1. admin Post author

      The translation from Arabic into English is “May Allah reward you with blessings” – We hope you will return to our site and discover the wonderful blessings which are found in the Saviour Jesus Christ.

    1. admin Post author

      Muslims scholars have differed on whether or not covering the face is obligatory for women. The Hanafi and Maliki schools do not consider covering the face to be obligatory. The Shaf’i and Hanbali schools declare it obligatory. Later Hanafi jurists preferred the obligatory ruling due to an increase in immorality resulting in the need for women to be more prudent and protective over themselves.

  6. rabiu

    shukran brother.You have helped me a lot in understanding the schools but please can you also write an article on the points of conflicts between the four rightly guided issues they had divergent views on.Thank you once more.sallam

    1. admin Post author

      This may be already covered in another section of our web-site. I will look into it when I have opportunity.Thank you for your suggestion.

  7. Mohammad

    Yes Abu Hanifah’s teacher was Imam Jaffar Sadegh the 6th grandson of prophet Mohammad. Shia Islam have him as 6th imam and have hijacked this great teachers name and added many lies to his teachings to feed their agenda which is shirk. Imam Jaffar Sadegh followed tawheed and passed on everything he knew to Abu Hanifa so out the four schools his most on point. (presumably the correspondent wishes to say – the most important).

    1. admin Post author

      This question needs to be put to your Islamic scholars. All we can say is that the Hanafi School originated in Iraq and was at the time of the Abassid’s the prevailing official doctrine.

    1. admin Post author

      Thank you. Muslims often use the term jazāk allāhu khayran instead of shukran as a term of gratitude meaning “May Allāh reward you [with] goodness.” The idea behind the term is that one cannot repay a person enough, and that Allāh is able to reward a person the best.


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