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Madhhab: What is it? How Many are There?

A mosque - the Islamic house of worship, where Muslims hold congregational prayer, participate in other forms of religious devotions, and where religious matters are studied and discussed. (Photo Credit: Ahmad.shn24 @Wikicommons)

By J. A. Wahid

Knowledge of Shariah (basic Islamic law) is an absolute essential, to such an extent, that it has been referred to in the following way: the Shari’ah is to the law as the foundation is to a building, whereas, it is impossible to build anything without a foundation. The intent of this article is to serve as an introduction and clarification to the following questions that directly affect our daily lives, as they are not issues that are discussed enough, nor are they bits of information well-known to all of us, as they should be. Those questions are:

  1. What is a Madhhab? What is Fiqh?
  2. Which Madhhab do the majority of people follow?
  3. Who is Al-Imam Abu Hanifah?

Shari’ah: Those doctrinal, practical, and dispositional regulations which Allah Ta’ala (The Most High) has legislated through the Holy Last Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him).

Fiqh: The science of extraction of practical religious regulations from their detailed sources. Fiqh is the practical implementation of Shari’ah through its human understanding. 

Madhhab: A madhab represents the entire school of thought of a particular Mujtahid (a Muslim theologian and legal expert who in the Middle Ages possessed the ijtihad – the right of independent interpretation of religious and legal matters) Imam as its foundation and centuries of studies and research has been built upon it. 

Muslims have a choice of a Mujtahid in regard to a number of interpretive possibilities in deriving the rule of Allah from the primary texts of the Holy Qur’an and Hadith Al-Sharif on a particular matter that is not clarified directly from the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Holy Last Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him).

Which Madhhab does the majority of us follow? For most Muslims/people on the American continent, the majority follow the Hanafi Madhhab. This is the Madhhab of Al-Imam al-A’zam Abu Hanifa (peace be on him), which is the most prevalent Madhhab of Muslims around the world.

Who is Al-Imam Abu Hanifa (peace be upon him)? His name is An-Nu’man ibn Thabit. His Kunya is Abu Hanifah (peace be upon him). In the realm of Fiqh, he is known as Al-Imam al-A’zam, meaning “The Greatest Imam.” He was born in 80 AH, mawt (returned to Allah) 150 Hijrah, in Baghdad, Iraq. He worked as a businessman in fabrics. His well-known characteristics were in his being trustworthy, honest, and generous. 

His most famous students are Al-Imam Abu Yusuf and Ya’qub ibn Ibrahim, who was born in Iraq 113 in AH, mawt (returned to Allah) 182 AH. He is the one who codified/transcribed Hanafi fiqh.  Al-Imam Muhammad ibn Al-Hassan al-Shaybani was born 132 AH, mawt (returned to Allah) 189 AH. His writings have a very high position in the codification of Hanafi fiqh.

The most famous books of Hanafi Fiqh include:

  •  Noor Al-Idhah written by Al-Imam Hassan ibn Ammar ibn al-Sharambalali, mawt (returned to Allah) 690 AH
  • Matn al-Quduri, written by Al-Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Quduri mawt (returned to Allah) 428 AH
  • Al-Ikhtiyar, written by Al-Imam Abdullah ibn Mahmud ibn Mawdud al-Mawsuli mawt (returned to Allah) 683 AH

The biographies of Imam Abu Hanifah are:

  • Imam Abu Hanifah — Life and Works, written by Shibli Nu’mani, translated by M. Hadi Hussain.
  • Waqf Ikhlas of Hakikat Kitabevi Publications, which also have extensive biographies of Imam Abu Hanifah. 

We have given an introduction to the Madhhab that most of the Muslims in the North and South American regions follow – that of course, being the Hanafi Madhhab. So, the question comes about as to what the other three Madhahib (schools of jurisprudence) are, which the rest of the Muslim world rightfully follows and have established countless societal structures with them. The three Madhahib (plural for Madhhab) are the Shafi’i Madhhab, Malik Madhhab, and Hanbali  Madhhab.  

Al-Imam Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i (peace be upon him) was born in the city of Gaza, Palestine in 150 AH and made mawt in Egypt in 204 AH. He was an Imam of the Arabic language, also in Fiqh and Usul. In his youth, he traveled to Makkah for the purpose of studying and obtaining Ilm (religious knowledge), then to Madinah, then Yemen, and on to Baghdad, and with that, he established his Madhhab. When he went to Egypt, he established a new version of his Madhhab that was revised due to the situation of the inhabitants of Egypt. Of his penned works are the books called Ar-Risala and Al-Umm. His most famous students were Yusuf ibn Yahya al-Buwaiti, mawt 231 AH, and Ismail ibn Yahya al-Mazni, mawt 264 AH.

The most famous book of Shafi’i fiqh is Fath al-Qareeb al-Mujib, written by Ibn Qasim. The Shafi’i Madhhab is widely followed in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and many Arabian countries. Al-Azhar University is known as a stronghold for Shafi’i (and Maliki) studies, as well as Yemen.

Al-Imam Malik ibn Anas ibn Abi Amr al-Asbahi (peace be upon him) lived in Madinah al-Munawwarah his entire life. He was born in 93 AH, made mawt in 179 AH. His most famous book is Al-Muatta, which is a book of Fiqh and Hadith al-Nabawi. Of his famous students were Abu Abdullah Abdur-Rahman ibn Al-Qasim, mawt 191 AH, who codified Maliki fiqh, Abu Muhammad Abdullah ibn Wahb ibn Muslim, born 125 AH, mawt 197 AH, Ash’hab ibn Abdul-Aziz al-Qaisi, born 150 AH, mawt 204 AH, and Abul-Hasan Ali ibn Ziyad At-Tunisi, mawt 183 AH. 

The most famous book of Maliki Fiqh is Sharh Matn Al-Ashmawiya by Sheikh Ahmad ibn Turki al-Maliki, mawt 979 AH. The Maliki Madhhab is the most popular, widespread madhhab in the African continent, from West Africa all the way to Sudan. Morocco is known as a major center for in-depth Maliki studies.

Al-Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Hanbal ibn Bilal ibn Asad Al-Shaybani (peace be upon him) was born in Baghdad in 164 AH and made mawt 241 AH. He was an Imam of Hadith and Fiqh. His most famous work is Al-Musnad, with a collection of 10,000 plus Hadith Al-Sharif.

His most famous students are his son Salih ibn Ahmed, mawt in 266 AH, the oldest of his children, his son, Abdullah, mawt in 290 AH, and Abdul-Malik ibn Abdul-Hameed ibn Mahran al-Maymuni, mawt in 274 AH.

The most famous books of Hanbali fiqh are:

  • Matn Daleel at-Talib was written by Alaa al-Din Abul-Hasan Ali ibn Sulayman ibn Ahmed ibn Muhammad al-Mardadi al-Muqaddasi al-Hanbali, mawt 885 AH. 

The Hanbali Madhhab is the least-followed of all the Madhahib, and its adherents are mostly found in Arabia and Qatar. In an effort to combat the exploitation of the Madhhab by wicked learned people, Ghawth al-A’zam (Great Helper) El-Sheikh Syed Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani (many blessings and peace be upon him) became a Mujtahid of the Hanbali Madhhab to preserve it. Currently, and most, unfortunately, the Wahhabiyya/Salafiyya cults are exploiting the name and Madhhab of Al-Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, bringing a terrible reputation to it. We ask Allah to remove falsehood and replace it with the truth!

Hopefully, the information in this article shall help to enlighten us when meeting and/or interacting with other Muslims who may do things differently. It would be best to think they practice the laws of Fiqh from one of these three Madhahib, rather than assume the worst.