Hazrat Imam Shafi‘i


Malik Saif-ur-Rahman (1914-1989)

Muhammadrh bin Idris al-Shafi‘i al-Muttalibi was born in Gaza, Palestine in 150 AH, the same year as Hazrat Imam Abu Hanifa’srh demise. Thus, the same year a leading scholar of fiqh passed away, a child was born who would go on and become a leading scholar of fiqh. His father was a soldier in a regiment of the army that was based in a military encampment of Gaza. His father’s income was minimal. His father was originally from Mecca, whereas his mother originated from Yemen and belonged to the Azdi tribe.

When Imam Shafi‘irh was still a child, his father passed away in Gaza and his mother took him to Mecca so that he may be brought up befittingly among people of his tribe. At the time, he was ten years old and had committed the entire Holy Quran to memory. He belonged to the famous Quraish tribe of Banu Muttalib and Shafi‘ was the name of an elder of this family, after whom the family had taken its name and was known as Shafi‘i.

After arriving in Mecca, Imam Shafi‘irh began acquiring education from teachers there. After acquiring basic knowledge, he studied hadith from the famous muhadiths, Sufyan bin Uyainah and Muslim bin Khalid al-Zanji. During this time, he began visiting the tribe of Hazeel which resided near Mecca so that he could gain proficiency in Arabic. The Hazeel tribe lived in valleys and were considered an authority in Arabic for their knowledge of Arabic language and poetry. He learnt a high standard of Arabic from them and also learnt archery there.

Imam al Shafai Qubba
An early image of the Mausoleum of Hazrat Imam Shafi‘irh in Cairo, Egypt

Once, he said, “Very few can stand against me in archery. If I want to shoot ten arrows at a fixed target, not one of them will miss.”

During this period, he also gained familiarity with astronomy and medicine. He was a good poet and was considered a talented writer. His proficiency in language was reflected in his writing and it is for this reason that his books are counted among the great works of Arabic literature, even though they are to do with fiqh-related matters and not literature per se. Hazrat Imam Shafi‘irh had a very melodious and touching voice. When he would recite the Holy Quran, people would be overcome with emotion. He spoke Arabic clearly and was an eloquent speaker. He would make use of proverbs whilst speaking. The famous muhaddith, Ibn Rahwayh called him Khatib-ul-Ulema [orator of the scholars].

When he turned 20 and had completed his education with the scholars of Mecca, he desired to travel to Medina to study the Muwatta from Hazrat Imam Malikrh and gain mastery in the field of hadith. This was at the height of Hazrat Imam Malik’srh profession and it was very difficult to be admitted into his school.

Thus, he worked very hard to make himself worthy of being accepted. He acquired a copy of Muwatta and memorised the ahadith narrated therein. He also had the governor of Mecca write a letter of recommendation to the governor of Medina. With this, he set off for Medina. When he arrived in Medina, the letter unfortunately made no difference.

However using his speaking skills, he managed to acquire a place in Hazrat Imam Malik’srh school. He then went on to get the attention of Imam Malikrh through his dedication and love for hadith. He stayed in Hazrat Imam Malik’srh company for around ten years. He also benefitted from the other leading scholars of Medina, which enabled him to become a scholar of hadith and an unparalleled authority in fiqh.

A trying time for Hazrat Imam Shafi‘irh

After the demise of Hazrat Imam Malikrh, he returned to Mecca. In search of a job, he travelled to Yemen, where the maternal side of his family lived. With the recommendation of the governor, he acquired a position in Najran, which gave him financial stability. In terms of public relations, however, this post caused many problems for him. People were accustomed to dishonest recommendations and fulfilling selfish interests.

The rich people of the area were used to doing things their own way. Hazrat Imam Shafi‘irh would work with complete justice and integrity and would not care for how influential a person was. As a result, a bombardment of complaints was filed against him. The new governor of Najran was a cruel and harsh ruler and he too felt strongly against him.

At the time, the Abbasids were extremely concerned about the Alawites lest they gained influence. The governor of Najran therefore took benefit of this weakness on the part of the Abbasids and, through a conspiracy, complained to Harun al-Rashid that some Alawites had sought to stir up commotion in Najran, among whom was Muhammadrh bin Idris al-Shafi‘i.

Harun al-Rashid immediately took notice of this complaint and ordered for the rebels to be captured and brought to Baghdad. Thus, the captives – among whom was Muhammadrh bin Idris al-Shafi‘i – were brought to Baghdad before Harun al-Rashid in shackles after suffering extreme cruelties. Rashid took everyone’s statement individually, which involved very brief hearings. He would then order for each one of them to be guillotined.

One of the accused said, “I am innocent, but if you still wish to kill me, then please permit me to write a letter to my aged and ill mother, who is probably eagerly awaiting my arrival in Medina.” Rashid did not listen to him in the slightest and ordered for him to be beheaded.

Imam Shafi‘i’srh turn came and Rashid said to him with a furious look, “You are dreaming of a caliphate and you think that we are not worthy of it.”

At the time, people were drowning in their own blood; he was surrounded by a ghastly view. When it was his turn to talk, using his God-given faculty of wisdom, Hazrat Imam Shafi‘irh said, “I am a victim of enmity and jealousy. Opponents have unjustly captured me. As the Amirul Momineen, you should ponder over how I can be a part of this when they consider me their servant and how I can go against your family, which considers me its brother.”

Imam Muhammad bin Hasan was present in the court when Imam Shafi‘irh pointed in his direction and said, “I am a knowledgeable person and possess a thirst for knowledge. I have no interest in rebellions and this qazi knows it.”

Rashid looked in Imam Muhammad’s direction as if to confirm what Imam Shafi‘irh was saying. Imam Muhammad replied, “Shafi‘i is speaking the truth. I know him. He is not a rebel, but rather is a scholar and holds a keen interest in teaching.”

Imam Shafi‘i’srh clarity of speech and Imam Muhammad’s endorsement worked in his favour. Rashid said to Imam Muhammad, “Very well, keep him with you and I shall make a decision about him later.”

In this manner, Imam Shafi‘irh came into the refuge of Imam Muhammad and began residing in his house. There, he studied the Hanafi fiqh and studied Imam Muhammad’s books. This trying time became a means of excelling his knowledge further and thus, he became an imam of the fiqhs prevalent in Medina and Iraq. This favour of Imam Muhammad remained embedded in his heart forever and he would oft en mention Imam Muhammad with great reverence.

Imam Shafi ‘i’s school

After living in Baghdad for around two years, Imam Shafi ‘irh returned to Mecca and established his school in Masjid al-Haram. This school gradually excelled to the extent that Imam Ahmadrh once said, “When I went to Mecca, I heard Muhammad bin Idris giving a lesson on hadith and fiqh.”

He then said to his friend Ishaq bin Rahwayh, “I have just seen a young man giving a lesson and the more I listen to him, the more I become fascinated by what he says. Come, let me show you.” Thus, Ishaq bin Rahwayh also heard his lesson and was intrigued.

Alongside teaching in Mecca, he also began writing. To explain his fiqh school of thought, he compiled a set of rules on deduction and thus founded his fiqh order. Here, he also wrote two books. One was Khilaf Malik, wherein he criticised his teacher, Imam Malik’srh fiqh-related views and expressed his views on the actions of Medina’s dwellers. He also referred to Imam Malik’srh care in deducting ahadith as “unnecessarily extreme”.

The other was Khilaf al-Iraqiyeen, wherein he criticised Imam Abu Hanifa’srh views … In this manner, he served his duties of writing and teaching in Mecca for around 12 years. In 195 AH, when he was around 45 years of age, he travelled to Baghdad again. When he got there, he prayed at Imam Abu Hanifa’srh grave, offered two nawafil in the adjacent mosque and during the prayer, he only raised his hands at the beginning of the prayer. When asked about this, he replied that he had done this out of respect and recognition of Imam Abu Hanifarh.

Whilst living in Baghdad, he authored two further books. One was called Al-Risalah, a unique work on the principles of fiqh which had never been touched on previously, and the second was named Al-Mabsut, wherein he described the details of his fiqh. Both these books are famously known as Al-Kutub al-Baghdadiyah [the two books of Baghdad] and were narrated by his intelligent student, Al-Hussain bin Muhammad al-Sabah al-Za‘farani (died 260 AH). Compiled with a few other booklets, this set is known as Al-Umm and is used even today.

When he travelled to Egypt in 199 AH and interacted with the Maliki scholars there, he made some amendments to some of his books, which were narrated by another of his brilliant students, Al-Rabi bin Sulayman al-Muradi (died 270 AH) and are called Aqwal-e-Jadidah. This period, in which Hazrat Imam Shafi ‘irh was busy explaining his fiqh school of thought, was the period of compilation of knowledge. Whilst students of Abu al-Aswad al-Du‘ali were occupied in compiling rules of Arabic grammar, Al-Asma‘i and his students were busy collating Arabic literature and poetry.

Khalil had just founded Ilm-ul-Urooz; Jahiz was busy explaining the methods of critiquing and investigating Arabic literature; Imam Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad bin Hasan al-Shaybani were occupied in collating the Hanafi fiqh; Imam Malik’srh efforts were gaining acclaim in Medina; narrating hadith was becoming an acquired skill; various groups were organising themselves intellectually and Kharijites, Shiites and Mu‘tazilites were engaged in combat with debates and conflicts erupting everywhere.

In such an intellectual climate, Imam Shafi ‘irh was occupied in searching for the truth. He cited incredible arguments on the authenticity of akhbar-e-ahaad [ahadith with a single narrator or very few narrators]. He earned the title of Nasir al-Sunnah [the Defender of the Sunnah] from the Muslim Ummah.

In terms of qiyas [deductive analogy], even though nobody could compete with Hazrat Imam Abu Hanifarh, the services rendered by Imam Shafi ‘irh in the field of qiyas stand alone and have a unique status. He explained that even though akhbar-e-ahaad and qiyas were sources of deductive knowledge, it did not diminish their importance. They were of equal importance and all human life revolved around this deductive knowledge.

Therefore, he explained, “when we solve most of our day to day problems by means of this, then why is it that we feel insecure about resorting to this in matter of Shariah?”

He would say that most problems could be resolved through the Quran and ahadith, but if any question still remained unanswered by them, then one can resort to qiyas through the means mentioned in the nass [sources of ruling]. He would say that any intellectual mujtahid [a person who practices ijtihad – exerting one’s mental faculty to find an answer] can answer such problems. In terms of ahadith, his knowledge was sound.

Once, a person asked him, “I have heard that you answer all problems from the Quran and ahadith. Tell me, is there any compensation for a person in the ihram [sacred state a person must enter during Hajj] who kills a wasp?”

Answering the question, Imam Shafi ‘irh replied, “Allah says that whatever the Prophetsa says to you, you must act upon it and the Prophetsa also said to follow his example and the example of his Khulafa. Tariq bin Shahab narrated that Hazrat Umarra once asked a person in the ihram to kill a wasp. From this, we can ascertain that there is no compensation for a person who kills a wasp.”

As has been mentioned previously that aside from qiyas, Imam Shafi ‘irh considered all other means of knowledge as improper, for example istihsan [making a ruling different from that on which similar cases have been decided, on the basis of precedent], masalih-e-mursalah [consideration of public interest] etc.

In fact, he deemed such methods harmful. Despite holding diff ering views, Hazrat Imam Shafi‘i’rh held other schools of thought in high regard and held no grudge against them. Once, a person asked, him, “What do you think of Abu Hanifa?” He replied, “He was the leading figure of Iraq.”

When he was asked about Abu Yusuf, he replied, “He followed the ahadith and revered them.” Imam Muhammadrh was an expert of the branches of fiqh and was gift ed in the field of qiyas. Thus, he expressed his views concerning Hanafi imams with great reverence and clarity. Imam Shafi ‘irh was not fond of kalam [argumentation on the basis of Islamic scholastic theology], debates and such encounters. He would say that debates had no benefit and they only served to sharpen the tongue and entertain the mind and thus, they were futile.

He would say that true salvation was in following the Quran and Sunnah. He would say to his students:

اِیَّاکُمْ وَالنَّظْرَ فِی الْکَلَامِ

“Do not give any importance to matters of kalam and save yourself from pondering over it.”

Imam Shafi‘i’srh journey to Egypt

Hazrat Imam Shafi‘irh lived in Baghdad for around three years, though he never really considered it home. The Mu‘tazillites were gaining influence in the area and had submitted to Mamun al-Rashid. Aside from this, after the defeat of Al-Amin [son of Harun al-Rashid], the Arabic influence over the area began to diminish and Mamun al-Rashid gained the support of the people of Khorasan and Persia, who had great influence over him.

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The people of the Quran and Sunnah, therefore, began to face difficulties. In such circumstances, Imam Shafi‘irh did not deem it suitable to continue living in Baghdad and after consulting some of his peers, he decided to shift to Egypt as it was far away from Baghdad, the Markaz, and also because the students of his contemporary, Hazrat Imam Malikrh resided there, who he hoped to live peacefully with.

Egypt at the time still had an Arabic foothold. Another reason for his decision to move was that the Governor of Egypt, Abbas bin Abdullah Abbasi held him in high regard. Thus, bearing this in mind, he migrated from Baghdad to Egypt in 199 AH. The journey was extremely long and arduous. The situation he faced in Egypt was no less difficult as he faced many challenges.

During his journey to Egypt, in fact, he expressed his thoughts in a qaseeda, of which two couplets are:

لَقَدْ اَصْبَحَتْ نَفْسِیْ تَتُوْقُ اِلیٰ مِصْرِ

وَمِنْ دُوْنِھَا قَطْعُ الْمَھَامِہِ وَالْقَفْرِ

فَوَاللہِ مَا اَدْرِیْ اَلِلْفَوْزِ وَالْغِنیٰ

اُسَاقُ اِلَیْھَا اَمْ اُسَاقُ اِلیَ الْقَبْرِ

“I wish to journey to Egypt, yet the path between is dangerous and full of desert. By God, I do not know whether peace and tranquillity awaits me or if fate has something else in store; I am oblivious to this.”

When Imam Shafi‘irh arrived in Egypt, he experienced immense success. The governor of Egypt approved a set allowance for him from the “Sahm-e-Zawil-Qurba” part of the treasury. A student of Imam Malikrh, Abdullah bin Abdul Hakam, who was affluent and an influential figure in the government, helped him a great deal and extended all sorts of comforts for him. Here, he got the chance to proofread his books and start a school, however divine decree did not allow much time for this as his time quickly approached.

Due to a severe bowel illness, he became extremely weak. There began rebellions in Egypt and he faced severe opposition on behalf of Malikis. As he faced these challenges, this star of knowledge left this world for the Hereafter in 204 AH at the relatively young age of 54.

فَاِنَّا لِلہِ وَاِنَّا اِلَیْہِ رَاجِعُوْنَ

[Surely to Allah we belong and to Him shall we return.]

Allah had blessed him with talented students and sincere friends, both in Baghdad and Egypt. His students at Baghdad spread his school of thought to the regions of Persia, Khorasan and Ma Wara al-Nahr [Transoxiana]. Here, they faced the Hanafi school of thought, which gave them a tough time. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni followed his fiqh order. The Sunni Kurds of Iran today are mostly followers of his fiqh school of thought.

Students and followers of Imam Shafi‘irh His students gained much acclaim in the East and had the chance to serve their nations on intellectual levels. Imam Ahmadrh bin Hanbal especially had this honour, who was a permanent imam of this order. Al-Za‘farani had the opportunity to spread his Kutub al-Baghdadiyya in these areas. Apart from these, hundreds of world-renowned scholars associated themselves with his fiqh school of thought, for example, Imam-ul-Haramain Abdul Malik bin Abdullah al-Juwayni, HujjatulIslam Imam Muhammad al-Ghazali, Allama Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Abu Hamid al-Asfara‘ini, Taqi al-Din al-Subki, Allama al-Mawardi Sahib-ul-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya, Sultan al-Ulema Allama, Izz al-Din ibn Abd al-Salam, Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, Nizam al-Mulk Tusi and commentator of Sahih Muslim Allama Nawawi.

All these scholars were affiliated with the Shafi‘i order and through their efforts, his school of thought spread far and wide.

A debate with Imam Shafi‘irh

Imam Shafi‘irh had no comparison when it came to argumentation and debates. Once, Imam Muhammad bin Hasan al-Shaybani somewhat teasingly said to him, “I have heard that you consider my view of ghasab [seizing] to be incorrect.”

At first, Imam Shafi‘irh apologised and decided to avoid directly answering the question as he had immense respect for Imam Muhammad and also because he wanted to avoid any argument. However, Hanafis are of the view that debates should be pursued as they open up new avenues of knowledge and matters become clearer. When Imam Muhammad pressed a little harder, Imam Shafi‘irh became ready to debate on the topic. With regard to ghasab, Hanafis are of the view that:

1. If the item that has been seized is still intact, then it should be returned to the person from whom it had been seized

2. If the seized item has been rendered useless, then it should be paid for

3. If the seized item has been transformed into something else (for example, a building is erected on a plot of land, paper was seized on which a book has been written, gold was stolen and moulded into jewellery, cloth was seized and sewn into a shirt or trousers), then the owner will still be paid the full worth of the original item. However, if the originally seized item has something else now attached to it (for example, a cow was stolen which gave birth to a calf) then the originally seized item will be returned along with its by-product

Shafi‘i’s are against the third point. They say that in such a scenario, the rightful owner has the right to take back what belongs to them, however if the one who seized the item desires, they may destroy the erected house and take the debris.

Nonetheless, the debate ensued in the following manner:

Imam Muhammad: If a person seizes another person’s plot of land and builds a beautiful building, worth hundreds of thousands of rupees, but the plot of land is worth a lot less, then what is your view?

Imam Shafi‘irh: The land should be returned to the rightful owner, however if the one who seized the land wishes, they may take the debris with them. In any case, the owner cannot be forced to purchase the house or sell off the land.

Imam Muhammad: Let’s say a person seized some planks of wood and fixed one of his boats with them and the boat has now set sail with passengers on board. If the person who owned the planks of wood demands for them to be returned in the middle of their journey, what is your verdict in such a case?

Imam Shafi‘irh: The owner’s demand to return the wood immediately would be inappropriate in such a case. When the boat reaches the shore, however, then it will be the owner’s right to have the planks returned, even if taking them apart from the boat causes harm to the structure of the boat. Similar questions were posed to Hazrat Imam Shafi‘irh, the contents of which is extremely detailed.

The final argument posed by Imam Muhammad was, “If the owner demands for the property [built on their land] to be destroyed and its debris to be removed, then it goes against the principle of … ‘La dharara wa la dhirara [One must not harm themselves, nor harm others]’. To destroy such an expensive house is a waste of resources and the punishment for this outweighs the crime, especially when the person is prepared to pay for the original cost of the land and the owner apparently has no loss to face.”

Imam Shafi‘irh: Alright, then let us consider that a wealthy man belonging to an affluent and respectable family entices a slave-girl belonging to a poor family and marries her whilst the owner of the slave-girl does not give his consent. The slave-girl eventually gives birth to ten boys who go on to become successful and educated employees of the government. Tell me, if the slave-girl’s owner demands that as the girl belonged to him, the girl should be returned to him, what would be your decree?

Imam Muhammad: The slave-girl and all the boys she gave birth to would be returned to the owner, who would become the property of the owner … The entirety of the slave-girl’s wealth is the property of the owner.

Imam Shafi‘irh: Where has your “La dharara wa la dhirara” principle gone? Is the demolition of the property more harmful or is it more harmful to bring ten intellectual and well-educated young men into slavery and subject them to such degradation?

Imam Muhammad was unable to answer this and fell silent.

Imam Shafi‘irh and physiognomy

Imam Shafi‘irh was an expert in physiognomy and had studied it. Once, he had the chance to put this knowledge to the test. He visited Yemen to run some personal errands and arrived there in the evening. He was passing by the bazaar, when he noticed a person with blue eyes and a peculiar look standing outside his house. Imam Shafi‘irh thought that person to be of an evil and impure disposition and nature. As dawn was approaching and he had to reside somewhere, he asked that man whether there was any place for him to stay. The person replied, “Why of course! I shall offer my house to you.”

That person showed great hospitality and offered a nice, clean bed, appetising meals and fodder for the animals that brought him to Yemen. In this manner, he spent the night in immense comfort. His heart felt great remorse over his earlier thoughts in that he had suspicions of a pious and sincere gentleman. Thus, he thought of the science of physiognomy as useless.

As he got ready to leave after breakfast, he thanked the gentleman for he had brought him great comfort. He prayed that God may bless him in return for his pious deeds. The owner of the house replied, “Don’t thank me. The hospitality I extended to you cost me this much. My wife and I spent last night in great discomfort and sacrificed our comfortable room for your sake, for which the rent is this much, the food was this much and the fodder cost this much.”

In this manner, he demanded a much higher price than what was reasonable. Imam Shafi‘irh later said that his physiognomic analysis was in fact correct and told his servant at the time to give whatever the man demanded and leave the place immediately.

Accusations against Imam Shafi‘irh

Some accusations that have been raised against Imam Shafi‘irh have been cited above. One accusation against him was that he was a Shiite as he would often express his love for Hazrat Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, and his offspring. However, history testifies against him ever being a Shiite. Imam Shafi‘irh revered the Khulafa-e-Rashidin [four rightly guided Khulafa – Hazrat Abu Bakr, Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Usman and Hazrat Ali, may Allah be pleased with them all] and believed in their high spiritual ranks and supremacy.

In contrast to other Sunni Muslims of the time, however, he would condemn Amir Muawiyyah’sra rivalry with Hazrat Alira and considered his actions as disobedience.

Aside from this, whilst commentating on Islam’s teachings for dealing with rebels, he referred to Hazrat Ali’sra response as an example in his book Al-Siyar because it was Hazrat Alira who had to deal with Muslim rebels for the first time. Some people have considered this interpretation to be inaccurate and have accused Imam Shafi‘irh of being influenced by Shia Islam.

In answer to similar accusations, he once cited the couplet:

اِنْ کَانَ رَفْضًا حُبُّ آلِ مُحَمَّدٍ

فَلْیَشْھَدِ الثَّقَلَانِ اَنِّیْ رَافِضِیْ

[If love for the people of Muhammadsa is to be considered heresy, then I swear by the two things held sacred (in Islam; i.e. the Quran and the Ahl-e-Bait) that I am a heretic.]

After returning from Medina, Hazrat Imam Shafi‘irh married a paternal granddaughter of Hazrat Usmanra named Hameeda, from whom he was given a son. He called him Muhammad and he gave him the appellation of Abu Usman, which proved that he had immense love for Hazrat Usmanra. Imam Shafi‘irh was of average height, yet he had a towering figure and personality. He was extremely generous and loved giving to others. Whenever he received any monetary gift from a friend or the rulers of the time, he would distribute the amount among his students and those that deserved it or he would purchase books from it. The details of his school of fiqh have been mentioned earlier.

Imam Shafi‘i’srh achievements

Imam Shafi‘i’srh views were based on the principle that the foundations of the Shariah were built on either nass [injunction] or qiyas [deductive analogy]; all matters should effectively be based on evidence found in the nass and access to it should not be difficult for a mujtahid [a person who does ijtihad (exerting one’s mental faculty to find an answer)].

One of his most remarkable achievements was the compilation of principles of fiqh and the determination of such regulations that form the commandments of the Shariah. Scholars have written that Hazrat Imam Shafi‘irh was the founder of the science of fiqh principles. Other schools of thought focused their attention on his school of fiqh after he had passed away. This honour was given to him as he was the first to do it.

Regarding governance, his view was the same as other imams of fiqh, the details of which have been presented earlier.

(Translated by Al Hakam from the original Urdu in Tarikh Afkar-e-Islami, authored by Malik Saif-ur-Rahman Sahib)

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