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IMAM ABU HANIFAH (80-148 AH/699-767 CE)


IMAM ABU HANIFAH (80-148 AH/699-767 CE)

Introductory remarks

Our next series of presentations will focus on the four Imams. Although there is no dearth of great personalities outside the area of fiqh we have chosen these imams because we wish to counter the mistaken belief in the minds of many Muslims as they tend to consider the four imams as merely great faqihs or jurists. The truth, however, is far from it; they were not merely imams in fiqh and ilm, rather they were also imams in morals and character and spirituality. So while studying their lives we will be able to dispel this myth. We will also be able to demonstrate, albeit briefly, that fiqh --detached from morality and spirituality as often conceived by many people-- is utterly foreign to the sound understanding of the early generations.


We start this series with Imam Abu Hanifah who was the senior most of the four Imams, whose contribution to fiqh  has been cherished widely by Muslims all over the world. Abu Hanifah was also a pioneer in so many ways, for he contributed significantly not only to the development of fiqh but also to the Islamic institution of transmission of knowledge.  


Main Points of Discussion:

1. Imam Abu Hanifah's Origins

2. Abu Hanifah as a life-long seeker of knowledge

3. His Great Traits

4. His Achievements

5. His Critics


His Origins

  1. His full name was al-Nu'man b. Thabit b. al-Marzuban; He is commonly known as Imam Abu Hanifah; referred to often as al-imam al-a'zam (the greatest Imam), a title bestowed on him by many because of his unsurpassed grasp of fiqh. It is said that his grandfather was a companion of Ali; he once presented to him a fruit-cake and Ali prayed for his progeny. Many say the answer to this prayer was the birth of Abu Hanifah.
  2. Abu Hanifah was not an Arab but of a Persian stock by lineage; the fact that he rose to prominence as one of the greatest imams in Islam further proves Islam's amazing capacity to integrate people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds into a single brotherhood.
  3. He is described as a handsome person with fair complexion with medium height; he had a pleasant appearance and pleasing voice when he spoke;  he spoke so eloquently that words flowed like a torrential rain, but he would keep silent more often than he spoke. He was always seen attired in clean and attractive clothes, which indicated his affluent background in perfect conformity with his understanding of Islamic piety which taught that piety is not expressed in wearing coarse and cheap clothes; rather it is reflected in one's adherence to sound morality and ethics in life.
  4. Abu Hanifah is different from the rest of the Imams in a number of ways. I would mention only two of them: Firstly, he did not start his education at an early age; rather he began serious pursuit of knowledge only in his adult years. It was occasioned by a remark made by the great Imam Sha'bi who asked him, "Which circle of knowledge you are rushing to?,  Abu Hanifah replied, "I am not rushing to the circle of knowledge; rather I am rushing to the market!" Sha'bi then told him, "You should cut down your trips to the market and increase your trips to scholars, for I see great intellectual acumen and agility in you!" As Imam Abu Hanifah himself remarked later: "The words of Sha'bi sunk deep in my heart; since then the desire to seek knowledge never departed me!" This reminds of other great imams whose greatness was also foreseen by their peers and elders; a case in point is Imam Shafi' who was told by Imam Malik in his first meeting with him, "Muhammad, keep yourself away from sins, for I see a great future for you!"
  5. A second point that set Abu Hanifah apart from the rest of the imams was his background as a business man. He had inherited a great tradition of successful business enterprise from his ancestors. Abu Hanifah achieved great success as a businessman before he became a faqih; and he never gave up his business until his death. This background is reflected in his reformulation of fiqh; thanks to this background his rulings on business and economic transactions have greater depth than those of other scholars.


Abu Hanifah as a life-long seeker of knowledge

  1. Although Abu Hanifah started his education in his adult life, he never left it one he started on the path. He attended various scholarly circles; although initially he focused on scholastic theology. For this purpose he visited various cities, especially Basrah, which had been a focal point of scholars who were adept in theology; he achieved great fame as a debater. Finally he left theology for fiqh due to his firm conviction that theology was not the best field to serve Allah and the community. He also had serious reservations about the representatives of theology as well as their life-style; he realized that they were farthest from the method of salaf al-ssalih (pious predecessors) in their attitude and mannerisms and life-style; thus he finally chose fiqh as his field of specialization.
  2. An avid traveller, Abu Hanifh learned from a great number of scholars in the famous cities of the Islamic world, but the foremost teacher under whom he studied for more than ten years was Hammad b. Abi Sulayman, who was one of the foremost disciples of Imam Ibrahim al-Nakha'i; the latter had inherited the legacy of fiqh originating from Abd Allah b. Mas'ud, the prominent companion of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
  3. Abu Hanifah's gratitude to his teacher is illustrative of the Islamic teaching about student-teacher relationship, "I never prayed a single salah without praying for my teacher Hammad because of his favours upon me!" This reminds us of Imam Shafi' who said of his indebtedness to Imam Malik, "I owe no one a greater debt than to Malik, he is my mentor and teacher!"
  4. Abu Hanifah never stopped learning; for he was ever fond of learning and benefiting from each and every scholar he had a chance to meet or speak to; he was always keen to discern and follow the truth no matter where it came from.  He never claimed that he had said the final word on any issue, although he discussed an immense number of issues related to fiqh and formulated conclusions in relation to them after much reflection, discussion and investigation. He would say, "This is the conclusion of our discussion and this is the opinion we hold on such and such issue; but if someone has better proofs he should be followed!" If we can learn anything from this it is this: It shows Imam Abu Hanifah's humility and his true grasp of the limitations of human knowledge as well as his willingness to accept evidences that may prop up any time later. In other words, he would have no hesitation in changing his views, if he is presented with better evidences. This is a far cry from the attitude of self-righteousness we often find in many scholars and educators today among Muslims. This fact further teaches us that we have a lot to learn from our great predecessors not only in fiqh but also in their approach to knowledge.


His Great Traits

1. His intelligence

  1. Abu Hanifah had a reputation for his quick wit and intelligence; he was legendary for his ability to come up with solutions based on his deep reflections of the texts of the Qur'an and the Hadith in such a way that defied the understanding of his peers and contemporaries; often times they had been unjustly critical of him because they did not have the same depth of understanding as he had. Among the many examples is the issue which someone brought to him: A man asked him: He doubted whether he had divorced his wife or not; since he had met a number of scholars who had given him widely divergent solutions, he was utterly perplexed and he wanted to know his view: Abu Hanifah told him that the scholar who had told him to divorce her and take her back was no different than someone who because he doubted whether there was urine in his pants decided to urinate in it in the first place to wash it later ! Whereas the one who told you the solution for the doubt is to take her back anyway is like someone who is giving you the safest solution he can think of about the issue. Then he told him: The sound approach based on fiqh is to consider that you are divorced from her until you have ascertained for a fact that you have divorced her, for certainty of marriage can only be undermined by certainty of divorce and not by doubt.
  2. Another example is his numerous encounters with the Khawarij who held the false notion that the issue of arbitration between Ali and Mu'awiyah was an issue that caused them to be infidels. In one of his encounters with them, he asked them, "Do you want to kill or debate?" they said, "We want to debate!' he asked them, "On which issue?" They said, "On the question of arbitration (between Ali and Mu'awiyah)" He said, "I will be willing to debate with you if you answer one question to me." They said, "Go ahead!" He said, "Tell me, how do we deal with the fact that when we discuss I may say one thing and you may say another?" They said, "Choose anyone you wish to arbitrate between us!" Then he told them: "You have already accepted the principle of arbitration in relation to the issues contentious between you and me, so what is preventing you from giving the same allowance to Ali and Mu'awiyah who set up arbitrators to settle their disputes!" On hearing this, they remained silent and left him alone!
  3. On another occasion he had an appointment with some atheists to debate the issue of  existence of God: He was scheduled to meet them on a certain time, but he showed up much late. When they asked, why he had been so late, he told him, "I was on my way to meet you; I happened to pass by the sea and I was held up by an amazing spectacle the like of which I never experienced in my life!" They asked him, "What was it?" He said, "I saw scattered pieces of wood all over the sea coming together and forming into a perfect ship and sailing all by itself without a captain!" They said, "This is ridiculous!; it could never happen!" Then he asked, "If that were so, then how do you conceive this entire world in all its diverse states can come into existence all by itself and run the course without any power behind it!" it is said, on hearing his logic, they embraced Islam!"


His Generosity

  1. Abu Hanifah was extremely generous with his wealth. He is known to have established a system of providing stipends for students; he used to provide his students who were poor from his profits. Imam Abu Yusuf recalled that Abu Hanifah was the one who used to provide for him and his family while he was studying. He also used to extend generous support to scholars as well ordinary people. There are so many examples of his generosity.
  2. . Thanks to his extreme generosity he would often freely forego the debts of those who were unable to pay him due to their harsh circumstances. On one occasion while on his way to see a sick acquaintance, the Imam saw at a distance a man who owed him ten thousand dirhams. The man tried to avoid him, but he accosted the man and, stopping him, asked why he had tried to avoid him. The man replied that he was ashamed to face him because he had not been able to repay his loan. Impressed with the man's confession of shame, the Imam said, "Well if you are unable to repay the loan, you need not do so."

3. During one of his pilgrimages he was accompanied part of the way by 'Abd-Allah Sahmi. At one of the halting stations a bedouin caught hold of 'Abd-Allah and, bringing him to the Imam, complained that 'Abd-Allah was not repaying a loan he had given him. 'Abd-Allah denied the claim. So the Imam asked the bedouin the amount of loan involved. The bedouin informed him that it was forty dirhams. "Things have come to such a pass," exclaimed the Imam, "that people fight over a paltry sum like forty dirhams." Saying this, he paid forty dirhams to the bedouin out of his own pocket!

His Scrupulous Piety

Abu Hanifah had a flouring business. He traded in goods worth millions; he had his agents in a number of cities and had dealings with many big merchants. With such a vast establishment under him he personally took care to see that no illicitly gained money came into his coffers, even though this subjected him to occasional losses. Once he sent some lengths of silk to Hafs b. 'Abd al-Rahman for sale with instructions to point out to prospective customers certain defects in some of the lengths. Hafs forgot the instruction and sold off the defective lengths without telling the customers anything about their defects. When the Imam learned of this, he was very sorry and gave away in charity the entire price of the lengths, which amounted to thirty thousand dirhams.

One day a woman came to him with a length of silk which she wanted him to sell for her and demanded a hundred dirhams for it. When the Imam expressing surprise at that figure, she raised it to two hundred, but he told her that it was at least worth five hundred". "Are you making fun of me?" said the woman. The Imam took out five hundred dirhams, gave it to her, and kept the cloth. This kind of scrupulous honesty, far from harming his business, made it flourish.

His achievements

Abu Hanifah was an exceptionally successful teacher who attracted a great number of scholars from diverse backgrounds; his circle of students included scholars of Hadith, jurists, ascetics, linguists, and the Qur'an readers, etc.

He conducted his classes as an advanced Fiqh academy in the manner of a post-graduate seminar in a university. He implemented the spirit of consultation in developing fiqh views, for all of his students had been advanced students of Islamic sciences from various disciplines.

Three of his most prominent disciples were the following: Abu Yusuf who occupied the position of the qadi al-qudah or chief justice under the Abbassid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Muhammad b. al-Hasan, and Zufar b. Hudhayl.

Some of his other illustrious disciples were eminent scholars of Hadith and ascetics such as  Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak, Fudayl b. Iyad, Mus'ar b. Kudam, Waki' and Yazid b. Haroon.

Abu Hanifah is said to have written a number of works such al-Fiqh al-akbar, al-aalim wa al-muta'allim, al-Risalah ilaa Uthman al-Batti, etc.

His massive contribution to Fiqh, however, was the thousands of issues he dealt with in his seminars, which were later codified by his illustrious disciples such as Abu Yusuf and Muhammad b. al-Hasan.

Abu Hanifah has been credited by Imams such as Shafi as one of the pioneer founders of Fiqh: Imam Shafi said, "All of the fuqaha are indebted to Abu Hanifah".

He was the first to establish the methodology of scientifically dealing with Fiqh issues. Accordingly, he would first state the issue at hand as precisely as possible, then consider it from all possible angles, then allow for the greatest possible number of views to be expressed, finally after proper evaluation of each individual opinion, he would arrive at the most plausible solution.

He was noted for his use of istihsan or juristic preference as a method of giving rulings.

Scholars such as Imam Abu Zahrah have concluded that Imam Abu Hanifah's  Fiqh of transactions is the most profound in the entire Fiqh tradition.

His Fiqh was most consistent in upholding the principles of humanism, human dignity, and freedom.

 Abu Hanifah and his critics

He was one of the few individuals who, while being ardently loved by his followers, were also intensely hated by others. In this sense he is often compared to such figures as Caliph Ali and Ibn Taymiyyah.

He was unjustly accused of being an enemy of hadith, while the truth of the matter was his standards of judging hadith were most rigorous as compared to those of other imams. One of the major reasons for this was his milieu, which had been a breeding ground of all kinds of heretical movements who never shied away from fabricating traditions in order to give currency to their views.

He has been unjustly accused of indulgence in opinion mongering. Often this was because of the failure of some scholars to discern the keenness of insights that Abu Hanifah possessed and his depth of understanding of the spirit and rational of the Shari'ah. Another reason was his rigorous standards for scrutinizing traditions as he was in a milieu where sectarians were bent on fabricating traditions in order to give currency to their heretical views and beliefs. May Allah have mercy on this great Imam, who was indeed one of the greatest minds ever produced by Islam.


(This is a summary of the sessions on Imam Abu Hanifah in the Great Lives Series course at the Islamic Institute of Toronto)


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