Abu Hanifa

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al-Imām al-Aʿẓam

Abū Ḥanīfa
Abu Hanifa Name.png
TitleThe Great Imam
الإمام الأعظم
Born696 (80 Hijri)
Kufa, Umayyad Caliphate
Died767 (150 Hijri)
Baghdad, Abbasid Caliphate
Resting placeAbu Hanifa Mosque, Baghdad, Iraq
EraIslamic golden age
Main interest(s)Jurisprudence
Notable idea(s)Istihsan
Notable work(s)al-Fiqh al-akbar, Musnad Abu Hanifa, Kitab al-Athar
Muslim leader

Nuʿmān ibn Thābit ibn Zūṭā ibn Marzubān (Arabic: نعمان بن ثابت بن زوطا بن مرزبان; c. 696–767), commonly known by his kunya Abū Ḥanīfa (Arabic: أبو حنيفة), or reverently as Imam Abū Ḥanīfa by Sunni Muslims,[2] was a Sunni Muslim theologian and jurist[3] who became the eponymous founder of the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence, which has remained the most widely practised law school in the Sunni tradition,[3] predominating in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran (until the 16th century), Balkans, Russia, Circassia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Muslims in India, Turkey, and some parts of the Arab world.[4][5] He is also called al-Imām al-Aʿẓam ("The Greatest Imam") and Sirāj al-Aʾimma ("The Lamp of the Imams") by some of his Sunni followers.[6][3]

Born to a Muslim family in Kufa,[3] Abu Hanifa is known to have travelled to the Hejaz region of Arabia in his youth, where he studied in Mecca and Medina.[3] As his career as a theologian and jurist progressed, Abu Hanifa became known for favouring the use of reason in his legal rulings (faqīh dhū raʾy) and even in his theology.[3] Abu Hanifa's theological school is claimed to be what would later develop into the Maturidi school of Sunni theology.[3]


Family background[edit]

Abu Hanifa was born in Kufa in 80 AH,[7][8] 77 AH,[9] 70 AH,[10] or 61 AH,[11] during the periodof the Umayyad Caliphate. Many historians choose the latest date of birth, 80 AH. But Mohammad Zahid Al-Kawthari, adjunct to the office of the last Shaykh Al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire, wrote that 70 AH as the date of his birth is supported by two considerations. Firstly, Mohammad Ibn Makhlad Al-Attar considered the narration of Abu Hanifa’s son, Hammad, from Imam Malik Ibn Anas to be an example of an older man's narration rather than a younger man. Secondly, Abu Hanifa was concerned with who should succeed Ibrahim Al-Nakhai after his death in 96 AH. Abu Hanifa's concern about the succession would only have arisen if Abu Hanifa was older than 19, since it is considered that Abu Hanifa only took his religious studies seriously after he was about 19. If Abu Hanifa was born in 80 AH, Abu Hanifa would have been 16 at the time of Al-Nakhai's death.[12]

Abu Hanifa is thought to be of Persian ancestry,[6][13] although some scholars including Wink consider him to be of Jat origin instead.[14][15][16] His grandfather, Zūtā, may have been captured by Muslim troops in Kabul and sold as a slave in Kufa. There, he may have been purchased and freed by an Arab tribesman of the Taymallah, a branch of the Banu Bakr. Zūtā and his progeny thereafter would have become clients (mawali) of the Taymallah, hence the sporadic references to Abu Hanifa as 'al-Taymi'.[17] According to Abu Hanifa's grandson Ismail, however, his lineage went back to free Persians who had never been held as slaves. He called Abu Hanifa's great-grandfather "al-Marzuban", which is an arabicised form of the Sasanian military office of marzban, held by governors of the frontier provinces of the Sasanian realm.[2]

Early life and scholarship[edit]

There is scant biographical information about Abu Hanifa. It is generally known that he worked a producer and seller of "khazz", a type of silk clothing material. He attended lectures on jurisprudence conducted by the Kufan scholar Hammad ibn Abi Sulayman (d. 737).[17] He also possibly learnt jurisprudence (fiqh) from the Meccan scholar Ata ibn Abi Rabah (d. c. 733) while on Hajj.

When Hammad died, Abu Hanifa succeeded him as the principal authority on Islamic law in Kufa and the chief representative of the Kufan school of jurisprudence.[17] Abu Hanifa gradually gained influence as an authority on legal questions, founding a moderate rationalist school of Islamic jurisprudence that was named after him.[5]

Adulthood and death[edit]

In 763, al-Mansur, the Abbasid caliph offered Abu Hanifa the post of qadi al-qudat (chief judge of the state), but he declined the offer, choosing to remain independent. His student Abu Yusuf was later appointed to the post by Caliph Harun al-Rashid.[18]

In his reply to al-Mansur, Abu Hanifa said that he was not fit for the post. Al-Mansur, who had his own ideas and reasons for offering the post, lost his temper and accused Abu Hanifa of lying.

"If I am lying," Abu Hanifa responded, "then my statement is doubly correct. How can you appoint a liar to the exalted post of a Qadi (Chief Judge)?"

Incensed by this reply, al-Mansur had Abu Hanifa arrested, locked in prison and tortured. It was said that once in prison he was never fed nor cared for.[19] Even in prison, the jurist continued to teach those who were permitted to visit him.

On 15 Rajab 150,[20] (15 August 767[21]) Abu Hanifa died in prison. The cause of his death is not clear, as it was said by some that Abu Hanifa issued a legal opinion for bearing arms against al-Mansur, so al-Mansur had him poisoned.[22] His fellow prisoner and founder of Karaite Judaism, Anan ben David, was said to have received life-saving counsel from Abu Hanifa.[23] It was said that so many people attended his funeral that the funeral service was repeated six times for the more than 50,000 people who had massed before he was actually buried. The historian al-Khatib said that for a full 20 days people performed funeral prayers for him. Many years later, the Abu Hanifa Mosque was built in the Adhamiyah neighbourhood of Baghdad. Abu Hanifa also supported the cause of Zayd ibn Ali and Ibrahim al Qamar, both Alid Zaydi Imams.

The structures of the tombs of Abu Hanifa and Abdul Qadir Gilani were destroyed by Shah Ismail of the Safavid Empire in 1508.[24] In 1533, the Ottomans conquered Baghdad and rebuilt the tombs of Abu Hanifa and Abdul Qadir, as well as other Sunni sites.[25]


Yusuf ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Mizzi listed 97 hadith scholars who were his students. Most of them went on to be hadith scholars, and their narrated hadiths were compiled in the Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and other books of hadith.[26] Imām Badr al-Din al-Ayni included another 260 students who studied Hadith and Fiqh with Abu Hanifa.[27]

His most famous students were Imām Abu Yusuf, who served as the first chief justice in the Muslim world, and Imām Muhammad al-Shaybani, who was the teacher of the Shafi‘i school of jurisprudence founder, Imām Al-Shafi‘i. His other students included:[28]

  1. Abdullah ibn Mubarak
  2. Abu Nuāim Fadl Ibn Dukain
  3. Malik bin Mighwal
  4. Dawood Taa’ee
  5. Mandil bin Ali
  6. Qaasim bin Ma’n
  7. Hayyaaj bin Bistaam
  8. Hushaym bin Basheer Sulami
  9. Fudhayl bin Iyaadh
  10. Ali bin Tibyaan
  11. Wakee bin Jarrah
  12. Amr bin Maymoon
  13. Abu Ismah
  14. Zuhayr bin Mu’aawiyah
  15. Aafiyah bin Yazeed

Sources and methodology[edit]

The sources from which Abu Hanifa derived Islamic law, in order of importance and preference, were: the Qur'an, the authentic narrations of the Muslim prophet Muhammad (known as hadith), consensus of the Muslim community (ijma), analogical reasoning (qiyas), juristic discretion (istihsan) and the customs of the local population enacting Muslim laws (urf). The development of analogical reason and the scope and boundaries by which it may be used was recognized by the majority of Muslim jurists, but its establishment as a legal tool was the result of the Hanafi school. While it was likely used by some of his teachers, Abu Hanifa is regarded by modern scholarship as the first to formally adopt and institute analogical reason as a part of Islamic law.[29]

As the fourth Caliph, Ali had transferred the Islamic capital to Kufa, and many of the first generation of Muslims had settled there. The Hanafi school of law based many of its rulings on the prophetic tradition as transmitted by those first generation Muslims residing in Iraq. Thus, the Hanafi school came to be known as the Kufan or Iraqi school. Ali and Abdullah, son of Masud helped form much of the base of the school, as well as other personalities from the direct relatives (or Ahli-ll-Bayṫ) of Moḥammad from whom Abu Hanifa had studied such as Muhammad al-Baqir. Many jurists and historians had reportedly lived in Kufa, including one of Abu Hanifa's main teachers, Hammad ibn Abi Sulayman.[30][31]

Generational status[edit]

Abu Hanifa is regarded by some authorities as one of the Tabi‘un, the generation after the Sahaba, who were the companions of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. This is based on reports that he met at least four Sahaba including Anas ibn Malik,[32] with some even reporting that he transmitted Hadith from him and other companions of Prophet Muhammad.[33][34] Others take the view that Abu Hanifa only saw around half a dozen companions, possibly at a young age, and did not directly narrate hadith from them.[33]

Abu Hanifa was born at least 60 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad, but during the time of the first generation of Muslims, some of whom lived on until Abu Hanifa's youth. Anas ibn Malik, Muhammad's personal attendant, died in 93 AH and another companion, Abul Tufail Amir bin Wathilah, died in 100 AH, when Abu Hanifa was at least 20 years old. The author of al-Khairat al-Hisan collected information from books of biographies and cited the names of Muslims of the first generation from whom it was reported that the Abu Hanifa had transmitted hadith. He counted 16 of them, including Anas ibn Malik, Jabir ibn Abd-Allah and Sahl ibn Sa'd.[35]


Map of the Muslim world. Hanafi (grass green) is the Sunni school predominant in Turkey, the Northern Middle East, many parts of Egypt, Central Asia and most of the Indian subcontinent

He was highly regarded across the various fields of sacred knowledge and significantly influenced the development of Muslim theology.[36] During his lifetime, he was acknowledged as a jurist of the highest calibre.[37]

Outside of his scholarly achievements, Abu Hanifa is popularly known amongst Sunni Muslims as a man of the highest personal qualities: a performer of good works, remarkable for his self-denial, humble spirit, devotion and pious awe of God.[38]

His tomb, surmounted by a dome erected by admirers in 1066 is still a shrine for pilgrims.[39] It was restored in 1535 by Suleiman the Magnificent after the Ottoman conquest of Baghdad.[25]

The honorific title al-Imam al-A'zam ("the greatest leader") has been granted to him[40] in many communities where his legal theory is followed.[citation needed] According to John Esposito, 45% of all Muslims follow the Hanafi school.[41]

Abu Hanifa also had his critics. The Zahiri scholar Ibn Hazm quoted Sufyan ibn `Uyaynah: "[T]he affairs of men were in harmony until they were changed by Abù Hanìfa in Kùfa, al-Batti in Basra and Màlik in Medina".[42] Early Muslim jurist Hammad ibn Salamah once related a story about a highway robber who posed as an old man to hide his identity; he then remarked that were the robber still alive he would be a follower of Abu Hanifa.[43]

Connection with the family of Muhammad[edit]

Muhammad (570–632 the Constitution of Medina, taught the Quran, and advised his companions
Abdullah ibn Masud (died 653) taughtAli (607–661) fourth caliph taughtAisha, Muhammad's wife and Abu Bakr's daughter taughtAbd Allah ibn Abbas (618–687) taughtZayd ibn Thabit (610–660) taughtUmar (579–644) second caliph taughtAbu Hurairah (603–681) taught
Alqama ibn Qays (died 681) taughtHusayn ibn Ali (626–680) taughtQasim ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr (657–725) taught and raised by AishaUrwah ibn Zubayr (died 713) taught by Aisha, he then taughtSaid ibn al-Musayyib (637–715) taughtAbdullah ibn Umar (614–693) taughtAbd Allah ibn al-Zubayr (624–692) taught by Aisha, he then taught
Ibrahim al-Nakha’i taughtAli ibn Husayn Zayn al-Abidin (659–712) taughtHisham ibn Urwah (667–772) taughtIbn Shihab al-Zuhri (died 741) taughtSalim ibn Abd-Allah ibn Umar taughtUmar ibn Abdul Aziz (682–720) raised and taught by Abdullah ibn Umar
Hammad bin ibi Sulman taughtMuhammad al-Baqir (676–733) taughtFarwah bint al-Qasim Jafar's mother
Abu Hanifa (699–767) wrote Al Fiqh Al Akbar and Kitab Al-Athar, jurisprudence followed by Sunni, Sunni Sufi, Barelvi, Deobandi, Zaidiyyah and originally by the Fatimid and taughtZayd ibn Ali (695–740)Ja'far bin Muhammad Al-Baqir (702–765) Muhammad and Ali's great great grand son, jurisprudence followed by Shia, he taughtMalik ibn Anas (711–795) wrote Muwatta, jurisprudence from early Medina period now mostly followed by Sunni in Africa, Sunni Sufi and taughtAl-Waqidi (748–822) wrote history books like Kitab al-Tarikh wa al-Maghazi, student of Malik ibn AnasAbu Muhammad Abdullah ibn Abdul Hakam (died 829) wrote biographies and history books, student of Malik ibn Anas
Abu Yusuf (729–798) wrote Usul al-fiqhMuhammad al-Shaybani (749–805)Al-Shafi‘i (767–820) wrote Al-Risala, jurisprudence followed by Sunni, Sunni sufi and taughtIsmail ibn IbrahimAli ibn al-Madini (778–849) wrote The Book of Knowledge of the CompanionsIbn Hisham (died 833) wrote early history and As-Sirah an-Nabawiyyah, Muhammad's biography
Isma'il ibn Ja'far (719–775)Musa al-Kadhim (745–799)Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855) wrote Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal jurisprudence followed by Sunni, Sunni sufi and hadith booksMuhammad al-Bukhari (810–870) wrote Sahih al-Bukhari hadith booksMuslim ibn al-Hajjaj (815–875) wrote Sahih Muslim hadith booksDawud al-Zahiri (815–883/4) founded the Zahiri schoolMuhammad ibn Isa at-Tirmidhi (824–892) wrote Jami` at-Tirmidhi hadith booksAl-Baladhuri (died 892) wrote early history Futuh al-Buldan, Genealogies of the Nobles
Ibn Majah (824–887) wrote Sunan ibn Majah hadith bookAbu Dawood (817–889) wrote Sunan Abu Dawood Hadith Book
Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni (864- 941) wrote Kitab al-Kafi hadith book followed by Twelver ShiaMuhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838–923) wrote History of the Prophets and Kings, Tafsir al-TabariAbu Hasan al-Ash'ari (874–936) wrote Maqālāt al-islāmīyīn, Kitāb al-luma, Kitāb al-ibāna 'an usūl al-diyāna
Ibn Babawayh (923–991) wrote Man La Yahduruhu al-Faqih jurisprudence followed by Twelver ShiaSharif Razi (930–977) wrote Nahj al-Balagha followed by Twelver ShiaNasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274) wrote jurisprudence books followed by Ismaili and Twelver ShiaAl-Ghazali (1058–1111) wrote The Niche for Lights, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, The Alchemy of Happiness on SufismRumi (1207–1273) wrote Masnavi, Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi on Sufism
Key: Some of Muhammad's CompanionsKey: Taught in MedinaKey: Taught in IraqKey: Worked in SyriaKey: Travelled extensively collecting the sayings of Muhammad and compiled books of hadithKey: Worked in Persia

As with Malik ibn Anas (who was a teacher of Imam al-Shafi'i,[44][45]: 121  who in turn was a teacher of Sunni Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal), Imam Abu Hanifa was a student of Ja'far al-Sadiq, who was a descendant of the Islamic Nabi (Prophet) Muhammad. Thus all of the four great Imams of Sunni Fiqh are connected to Ja'far from the Bayt (Household) of Muhammad, whether directly or indirectly.[46]

In one hadith, Abu Hanifa once said about Imam Ja'far: "I have not seen anyone with more knowledge than Ja'far ibn Muhammad."[47] However, in another hadith, Abu Hanifa said: "I met with Zayd (Ja'far's uncle) and I never saw in his generation a person more knowledgeable, as quick a thinker, or more eloquent than he was."[48]

Opposition to deviations in belief[edit]

Imam Abu Hanifa was quoted as saying that Jahm ibn Safwan (d. 128/745) went so far in his denial of anthropomorphism (Tashbih) as to declare that 'God is not something (Allah laysa bi shay')'. Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 150/767), likened God to His creatures.[49]

Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi narrated in his Tarikh Baghdad (History of Baghdad) that Imam Abu Hanifa said:

Two groups of the worst of people are from Khurasan: the Jahmiyyah (followers of Jahm ibn Safwan) and the Mushabbihah (antropomorphists), and he probably said (instead of Mushabbihah) "Muqatiliyyah" (followers of Muqatil ibn Sulayman).[50][51][52]


Scholarly works by Abu Hanifa
Title Description
Al-Fiqh al-Akbar
Al-Fiqh al-Absat
Kitaab-ul-Aathaar Narrated by Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani & Imam Abu Yusuf – compiled from a total of 70,000 hadith
At Tareeq Al Aslam Musnad Imam Abu Hanifah

Confusion regarding Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar[edit]

The attribution of Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar to Abu Hanifa has been disputed by A.J. Wensick[53] as well as by Zubair Ali Zai.[54]

Other scholars have agreed that Abu Hanifa was the author including Muhammad Zahid Al-Kawthari, al-Bazdawi, and Abd al-Aziz al-Bukhari.[55] The scholar, Ibn Abil-'Izz Al-Hanafi attributes the book to Abu Hanifa.[56]

Scholars such as Mufti Abdur-Rahman have pointed out that the book being brought into question by Wensick is actually another work by Abu Hanifa called: Al-Fiqh Al-Absat.[55]


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Further reading[edit]


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