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