Imam Shaafai


Naima Sohaib

Muslim Heroes series No. 6

Translated by Eman Asif Misbah

Copyright  2016 Naima Sohaib

Shakespir Edition

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, including photocopying, recording, Internet or any storage and retrieval system without prior written permission from the Publisher.

Available in print at Dawah Books


Translated from the Urdu book “Tareekh-e-Islam ki Azeem Shakhsiat” by Naima Sohaib

Table of Contents

Title Page


Imam Shaafai – Introduction


Childhood Events

Education and Upbringing

Under Imam Malik’s Tutelage

The Period of Hardship

Under Imam Muhammad’s Tutelage

Stay in Makkah and Widespread Fame

The Basis of Principles of Fiqh

Disagreement with Imam Malik

A Balance Between Ahl-e-Sunnah and Ahl-e-Rai

The Shaafai School of Thought


Dealings and Morality


About the Author

About the Translator


[][] Foreword

All praise is for Allah, the Lord of the worlds.

This booklet is sixth in a series, translated from a book compiled on Muslim heroes by my good friend Naima Sohaib. The selection includes Muslim scholars, philosophers, reformers and military generals. It tells us about these unique individuals who selflessly worked for the cause of Islam.

This booklet is about an extraordinary Muslim hero from the world of learning. Imam Shaafai was a well-traveled scholar and a magnificent teacher. In the beginning, our hero was mainly interested in the study of Arabic linguistics, but later he decided to focus on the study of the Quran, the Hadith and Islamic Jurisprudence.

Imam Shaafai’s main contribution is his highly original work in determining the bases and guidelines for the principles of Fiqh. In this he integrated the knowledge of the traditionalists of Madinah with the insights of the rationalists of Iraq. He was the founder of the Shaafai School of Thought which is dominant in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and South East Asia.

May Allah reward Sana Dossul, Misbah Anwar and Sohaib Umar for editing this piece of work, Nadeem Siddiqui for the design work, and Asif Misbah, my husband for his constant encouragement and support.

Eeman Asif Misbah

Imam Shaafai

The Founder of the Shaafai School of Thought and the Compiler of Principles of Islamic Fiqh


His name was Mohammad Bin Idrees, his Kuniat Abu Abdullah, and his title Nasir-us-Sunnah (The Helper of Sunnah). He was related to the Prophet (SAW) in the seventh generation. He was proud to belong to the family of Abdul Muttalib. His mother came from the famous and honorable Yemeni tribe of Azd.

According to traditions, his grandfather Saaib bin Ubaid and his great-grandfather Shaafay were both Companions of the Prophet (SAW). They accepted Islam after the Battle of Badr. His father Idrees bin Abbas was a resident of a town called Tabala near Madina. Then he moved to Madina. Later on, his father migrated to Syria to earn a better living and settled in the city of Asqalan.


Imam Shaafai was born in Rajab 150 Hijri in Asqalan (Gaza, bordering Palestine and Syria). In the same month and year Imam-e-Azam Abu Haneefa died.

[]Childhood Events

Although Imam Shaafai belonged to a respectable family, the Yemeni tribes living in and around Palestine were afflicted with poverty. The family of Imam Shaafai was also poor and his father had passed away, leaving him an orphan. According to a narration, his father died a few days before his birth. The burden of his upbringing fell solely on his mother, who was a sensible woman. She felt that if he was brought up in this environment, he would not take his lineage any further. Thus, she brought her son to Yemen where her brother lived. In the eight years that Imam Shaafai stayed in Yemen, he memorized the Holy Quran. He also started to learn the Mautah of Imam Malik (famous book written by Imam Malik).

It would be relevant to mention an incident here. Imam Shaafai was fortunate to see the Prophet (SAW) in his dream when he was a young boy. In this dream, the Prophet (SAW) gave him glad tidings.

[]Education and Upbringing

As mentioned earlier, Imam Shaafai’s mother was very particular about her son’s upbringing and education. At the age of ten, she brought the young lad to Makkah. They settled down here and Imam Shaafai involved himself in learning. He had been blessed with a superb memory and a brilliant mind. He was inclined towards the acquisition of the Science of Ahadith. Whenever he came across a Hadith he would instantly commit it to memory, or write it on a piece of cloth or skin, and would make a collection of Ahadith. He was residing with his uncle who was not a rich man. Because of paucity of resources, Imam Shaafai could not afford to buy paper, so he would make do with bones of animals. Soon the house was filled with these bones and other articles with Ahadith written on them.

Imam Shafaai had an extraordinary fondness for the Arabic language. He associated himself with the Huzail tribe and left Makkah. This nomadic tribe was well-known for its prowess in the Arabic language. Imam Shaafai would travel with these people as they wandered from place to place and he would imbibe their prose and style of conversation. When he returned to Makkah, he had become an expert in Arabic linguistics. An authority in the Arabic language and prose, Asmai reports, “For the correction of the poems of the tribe of Huzail and for the explanation of their folklore, I would turn to a young man of the Quraish whose name was Mohammad Bin Idrees” (Imam Shaafai’s actual name).

His vocabulary was so incredible and vast that Imam Razi comments, “Imam Shaafai was the king of experts in Arabic linguistics. This is a firmly established fact like the generosity of Haatim Tai and the courage of Ali (RA).”

Imam Shaafai spent three years as a student under the tutelage of Muslim bin Khalid who was an Imam and Mufti of Fiqh and Hadith in Makkah. His teacher had recognized the potential in his young student and subsequently gave him the permission to issue religious rulings (Fatwas). In these sessions with his mentor, Imam Malik’s name was often mentioned. There grew in the heart of Imam Shaafai such a keen desire to meet Imam Malik that he memorized the Mautah (the most important book written by Imam Malik). Further, he appeared before the governor of Makkah and requested him to write an introductory, pleading letter to the governor of Madina and to Imam Malik himself.

[]Under Imam Malik’s Tutelage

When Imam Shaafai appeared before the governor of Madina with the letter, the governor was visibly upset upon learning that he wanted to meet and receive religious guidance from Imam Malik. He said, “Young man! It is far easier for me to be dragged from Madina to Makkah on foot than to appear before Imam Malik. As long as I am present at his door, I am deprived of any welcome from him.” It must be mentioned here that Imam Malik was not fond of entertaining the rulers and the elite and accorded them no special status.

On the insistence of Imam Shaafai, they both appeared before Imam Malik. While reading the letter, when Imam Malik reached the point where the letter pleaded with him to speak to Shaafai and to accord him a warm welcome, and to fulfill his need, he threw the letter on the ground and exclaimed, “Glory be to Allah! Will the knowledge of Rasool Allah’s (SAW) religion be obtained with resources and influence now?” The governor of Madina was paralyzed with fear and could not utter a word in awe of Imam Malik’s towering personality. In the end, Imam Shaafai stepped forward and pleaded his own case, “I am from the family of Abdul Muttalib, I am a Hashmite, this is my condition and this is my state….”

Imam Malik listened to the words and cast a glance at young Shaafai asking his name. Shaafai answered that his name was Muhammad. Imam Malik stated, “O Muhammad! Always fear Allah. Keep away from sins. You will reach a high status one day. Allah has illuminated your heart with His Light. Do not let this light be extinguished by the shadow of sins!” Then he further instructed Shaafai to come the next day and to bring along another man who would read out the Mautah for him.

The following day Imam Shaafai showed up with the Mautah in his hands. He started the recitation of the Mautah himself. With feelings of trepidation and awe of his teacher he began; whenever he would endeavour to stop reading, Imam Malik would encourage him to read further because of his eloquence and beautiful recitation. In a few days, the reading of the Mautah came to an end. Then he stayed on with Imam Malik and gained knowledge of the different issues of Fiqh.

Besides Imam Malik, he acquired religious knowledge from Ibrahim bin Ansari, Muhammad bin Ismaeel Fadeek and Abdullah bin Nafay in Madina.

Later, Imam Shaafai returned to Makkah. Imam Shaafai was still a young man while he had gained expertise in Hadith, Fiqh, Linguistics, History and Medicine. He also had an acute insight in human behaviour. This is called Ilm-e-Farasat in Arabic. Farasat means quick perception of a matter. This God-given quality possessed by Imam Shaafai used to amaze people at times.

Imam Baihaqi related the tradition by Mazni who was once in the company of Imam Shaafai in the Jamiah Mosque. By chance, a man stepped in and began searching for someone among the men sleeping on the floor. Imam Shaafai told Rabee to ask the man if his black slave with a defect in his eye had disappeared. When Rabee conveyed the message, the man came over to the Imam and asked him where his slave was. Imam Shaafai anwered that he would probably find the lost slave in the gallows. The man went to the gallows and actually found his slave there. Mazni turned to the Imam and inquired, “You have truly amazed us all. Please throw light on this matter.”

The Imam replied, “When the man entered the mosque, I gathered that he was looking for a runaway man. Then he went to that portion of the mosque where the black people were sleeping. On observing further I noticed that he was looking carefully at the left eye of each person. Hence I came to the conclusion that he was looking for a black slave with a defect in the eye who had run away.” Mazni further inquired how the Imam knew that the black slave would be in the prison. Imam Shaafai replied that experience had taught him that when a slave was hungry, he would steal, and when he was full, he would commit adultery. In both cases, he would be put in prison for the crime. The Imam said that he gathered it would be one of these two matters, and he was right.

[]The Period of Hardship

When Imam Shaafai returned to Makkah, his mother was beset with financial troubles. He still yearned to fulfill his deep love for learning, but monetary constraints forced him to seek a living. At this time, the governor of Yemen was in Hijaz. Some people of the Quraish mentioned the Imam’s name to the governor who invited Imam Shaafai to come with him to Yemen. In the words of the Imam, “At that time my mother did not even have the resources to meet my traveling requirements. In the end, she mortgaged our home in order to raise some cash. When I reached Yemen I started work and performed the tasks assigned to me by the governor.”

In a short while, the news of Imam Shaafai’s wisdom and justice spread far and wide. According to one tradition, he was offered the governance of Najran. The elite of Najran were a corrupt, sycophant lot. They would resort to bribing the ones in command in order to secure favours for themselves. When they realized that they could not get special allowances from Imam Shaafai they turned against him and started hurling accusations at him. However, the common people of Najran were devoted fans of the Imam.

The governor of Yemen was responsible for the city of Najran and could not digest the fair dealings of this new ruler. He was waiting for the right opportunity to get rid of Imam Shaafai. He got this chance when the Alavi clan started rising up against the Abbasid Dynasty. He wrote to Caliph Haroon Rasheed saying that there were Alavi rebels present in Najran and that he suspected that they would revolt against the government. He further added that among these rebels was a member of the Muttalabi family (Imam Shaafai, a descendant of Abdul Muttalib) who neither listened to him nor obeyed his orders and restrictions.

According to another tradition, a noble of the ruling party wrote a letter to Caliph Haroon Rasheed saying that if he wanted peace and security in Yemen he should expel Muhammad Bin Idrees (Imam Shaafi) and punish him. According to the letter, Shaafai had a lot of influence in Yemen and the descendents of the Prophet (SAW) were again dreaming of their own caliphate. It further insinuated that as Shaafai himself was a Hashmite, he supported the cause of the Sadaat (descendants of the Prophet).

Whatever the reason, Caliph Haroon Rasheed lost control of his emotions and called to account all those who were suspected of rebellion. Imam Shaafai was also arrested. The Caliph announced the execution of all these men. When it was the turn of Imam Shaafai, he made such an effective and heart-rendering speech that Haroon Rasheed started trembling with fear. He cancelled the execution orders of the Imam. The Caliph decided to consult Imam Muhammad before making a final decision about the fate of Imam Shaafai (Imam Muhammad has been mentioned before in other booklets of this series; he was the prize pupil of Imam Abu Haneefa). When Imam Muhammad was approached for his opinion regarding Imam Shaafai, he stated, “Shaafai has gained a major portion of religious knowledge. He is not like what some people are making him out to be.” The Caliph decided not to make a hasty judgment about Imam Shaafai and asked Imam Muhammad to keep Shaafai under his watchful eye.

This tribulation that affected Imam Shaafai in his 34th year proved to be a blessing from Allah. Imam Muhammad took him under his wing and Imam Shaafai got a chance to study firsthand the principles and legal issues of the Hanafi school of thought.

[]Under Imam Muhammad’s Tutelage

As a student of Imam Muhammad, Shaafai found the doors of religious knowledge once again open for him and he resumed his Islamic education – this time Hanafi Fiqh being the subject. He himself states, “Whatever I imbibed, learnt, heard, and copied from Imam Muhammad, was equal to a full load on a camel’s back (i-e a great deal).”

As a student, he had the utmost respect for his honoured teacher. At times he was seen making a humble request before Imam Muhammad for the clarification of some issues. He was very vocal in the praise of his esteemed mentor. Imam Shaafai commented on another occasion, “Whenever I would approach a sensitive topic with some other expert on Fiqh, I would sense some kind of reluctance or displeasure on their face, but never so in case of Imam Muhammad.”

There were certain issues in the Hanafi School of Thought that Imam Shaafai differed with, but he would withhold his opinions in front of his teacher. On the other hand, once Imam Muhammad had left the class, he would have confrontations and heated debates with other students. Once the students informed Imam Muhammad that Shaafai would argue in his absence. On hearing this, Imam Muhammad persuaded Imam Shaafai to argue with him on controversial topics. Shaafai started the debate with great reluctance on his part, and according to some traditions, his arguments carried more weight and he won.

The relations between the two Imams were very cordial and warm. Imam Muhammad was known to have helped out his student during hard times. The two were also seen walking hand in hand.

[]Stay in Makkah and Widespread Fame

Imam Shaafai came to Makkah from Baghdad and started giving religious sermons there. Now he had gained tremendous knowledge and wide exposure. He had benefited from the scholars of both Madina and Iraq, which were highly regarded as centers of Fiqh learning. Allah had blessed the Imam with unusual qualities in rational thinking, logical argumentation and critical analysis. He could reach the depth and fine points of an argument quickly. His fame spread far and wide in the Islamic empire. Students started coming from all over the Islamic world to benefit from his scholarship.

Hajj was a special occasion when a lot of people would come and sit in his study circles to learn from him. Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, who is recognized as the fourth Imam in the world of Islam came to attend his sermons during the Hajj season. He was very impressed by Imam Shaafai and would always accord him a lot of respect and honour.

Ishaaq bin Rahviya, a scholar, writes: “Once Imam Hanbal approached me and told me to come with him to meet a personality that I had never seen before. I stood up to go with him. Hanbal took me to the area where Zamzam was located. There, a man clad in white clothes was seated. A wheatish complexion, a glowing face radiating with intelligence and wisdom – Hanbal seated me next to him. He introduced me to the man, who welcomed me and received me very warmly. Then we started talking. During the course of the conversation I became aware of the vastness and depth of knowledge possessed by this man. He also had an amazing memory.

When some time had passed, I asked Ahmad bin Hanbal to take me to the person who he had mentioned. Ahmad replied that this was the very man that he wanted me to meet. I was surprised and said that this was a young man. I told him that he had asked me to leave the company of the person who narrated traditions from Zehri (a great scholar of Hadith). So I thought he would take me to one who would be a Sheikh like Zehri or someone who at least was equal to him (Ishaaq bin Rahviya had assumed that he was to be taken to meet an elderly scholar with a typical white beard). Ahmad answered that I should learn something from this man and that he had never met any other scholar who had reached the same heights as Imam Shaafai.”

Imam Shaafai was not only a scholar of religious sciences, but he also had an unusual talent for debate and argumentative discussions. No man could gain an edge over him in a confrontational contest. Many examples are found in books. It would not be possible to expound on these discussions. We would briefly like to touch on two incidents which reveal the presence of mind and quick wit of the Imam.

Imam Shaafai once asked Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, “I have heard that you proclaim a man to be a disbeliever if he forgoes one prayer.” Imam Hanbal replied in the affirmative. Imam Shaafai again inquired, “If such a man wants to become a Muslim (again), what does he have to do?” Imam Hanbal replied that he should start praying again. Imam Shaafai quipped, “Do you think a disbeliever’s prayer would be acceptable or would he have to convert first in order to pray?” (meaning would this extreme stance suggest that he would have to read the kalma again before resuming prayers?).

Similarly, once the scholar of Fiqh, Rabiah, told the Imam, “If a man misses a fast in Ramadan, he should keep 12 fasts to make up for that one fast, because a day in Ramadan is equal to 12 days of any average month.” Imam Shaafai replied, “Is this Fiqh or a joke? If this is your viewpoint, then if a prayer is missed on The Night of Power (Shab-e-Qadr), then the makeup should be praying for a thousand months, because the Quran says Lailutal Qadr is better than a thousand months.” At this response, Rabiah lapsed into silence.

[]The Basis of Principles of Fiqh

In the days of Imam Shaafai, a lot of incorrect and illogical concepts had incorporated into the science of Fiqh. Some were there because of the natural differences in cultures since Islam was spreading rapidly among neighbouring countries. Some issues were deliberately created by trouble-makers who used to ask the scholars of Fiqh hypothetical questions and expect an intelligent answer. The scholars used to give answers based on their natural aptitude and depth of knowledge. Because of the differences in God-gifted abilities, thought processes and experience, the answers given by different scholars were often contradictory. The people would accept the answers of the mentor that they followed, and would necessarily deem it the only solution. These rulings would become the last word and the adherents of different scholars would accord them the same status as they would to the sayings of the Quran and Hadith.

The dwellers of one city would not accept the opinion of scholars from other regions. In this way, the Fiqh of Hijaz, Kufa and Syria had acquired a distinct flavour. The point to understand here is that this is the behavior of adherents whose love for a person exceeds prescribed boundaries. On the other hand, if we look at truly educated, refined scholars and common people, they not only accepted the points of view of different scholars, but also did not hesitate to become students of any acclaimed scholar for the attainment of their educational goals.

It is a common reality that leaving aside the time of the Prophet (SAW), the number of far-sighted and levelheaded people in every age has been relatively a small fraction of the population. The majority of the people are those who have little knowledge, narrow minds and limited vision. They become easily confused by the profusion of contradictory rulings issued by different scholars and cannot distinguish right from wrong.

Imam Shaafai was carefully observing the situation. This period had been witnessing Imam Shaafai as a founder of modern Fiqh. Imam Shaafai had spent a lifetime in the study of Fiqh and related issues. He began to feel a need for guidelines that would help a person decipher truth from falsehood and lead him to the right conclusion. Hence he started deliberating on a set of guiding principles for rulings on different issues.

Instead of turning to the Hanafi and Maliki schools of thought that were prominent in those days, he first turned to the Book of Allah – the Quran – for guidance. He concentrated on the way that proofs and arguments were presented in the Quran. The next step was the Sunnah – ways of the Prophet (SAW) and his techniques of logical reasoning. If the Quran and Hadith were silent on a matter, he devised rules for decisions regarding it. He further suggested limitations that should be exercised by scholars of Fiqh at the time of making logical analogies in religious matters. This would ensure that the scholars of Fiqh stay on the right track and do not deviate.

During his nine years of stay in Makkah Imam Shaafai succeeded in framing these guidelines and principles. He started applying these principles to the minutest of issues. He once again undertook a journey to Baghdad which was the centre of Fiqh. There, the scholars, teachers and students of Fiqh delightedly welcomed him in their midst. They started learning from him the priceless knowledge that he had accumulated and refined in Makkah over the past decade. Let us take a brief look at these principles. A detailed study would take too long. At a cursory glance, these principles state:

p<{color:#000;}. The origin of religion is the Quran and the Hadith. If the solution to a problem cannot be ascertained by these two sources the next step is to resort to logical analogy which is based on Quran and Hadith.

p<{color:#000;}. When it has been ascertained that a particular Hadith is completely authentic, then it must be adhered to. But however authentic a Hadith is, if it negates the Quran it will not be accepted.

p<{color:#000;}. A Hadith should always be understood in its obvious meaning. When several meanings can be attributable to a Hadith, the one closest to its obvious and literal meaning should be considered.

p<{color:#000;}. The Ijma (united view) of the Companions of the Prophet (SAW) on any issue is to be given more weighting than a Khabar-i-Wahid (a Hadith with very few relaters). When an Ijma is not found, Khabar-i-Wahid can be implemented.

p<{color:#000;}. When there are contradictory Ahadith to be found, the character of the narrators must be studied; next in importance is the order of rulings given by the Quran or Ahadith, and the third is the time that the relating Companions reverted to Islam (the Companions who accepted Islam earlier on are given more weighting than the ones who reverted later).

p<{color:#000;}. Hadith-i-Mursil is unacceptable except if related by Saeed Bin Musayyab. Hadith-i-Mursil is a Hadith in which the chain is sound upto the Taba’een but after that the name of the Companion who heard it directly from the Prophet (SAW) is missing and it directly leads to the Prophet (SAW).

p<{color:#000;}. Hadith Mauqoof Munqatay stands nowhere in front of Hadith Muttasil Sahih. Hadith Mauqoof is one in which a Companion narrates without taking the name of the Prophet (SAW) or expresses his opinion. The Hadith in which one or more narrators are missing in the chain is called Munqatay. Hadith Muttasil Sahih is the type of Hadith whose chain of narrators is constant from start to end without anyone missing in between, and whose narrators are considered authentic, pious and possessing credible memory.

p<{color:#000;}. In the times of Imam Shaafai, there were a lot of recorded statements of the Companions. Some of these views would at times oppose an authentic Hadith. Imam Shaafai passed a ruling that in comparison to a Sahih Hadith, the opinions of the Companions carried no authority and stated, “They were only men and we are men too.”

p<{color:#000;}. Every general rule has exceptions and a general rule cannot be absolute.

p<{color:#000;}. If an action contains both benefits and harm, then the negative should be dispelled first.

The first book that came out with these principles was Ar-Risala which gained immense popularity. Imam Razi, a writer, in his praise for Imam Shaafai talks about the publication of this book, “According to traditions, Abdur-Rahman bin Mehdi made a request to Shaafai while he was still a young man that a special book be written for him that included principles of deductions from Quran, Sunnah, Ijma and Qiyas (religious analogy). Likewise, it should mention Nasikh and Mansookh verses (those verses that cancel the orders in the previous verses e.g. earlier verses relating to alcohol were cancelled by later verses). Plus, it should also include levels of Umoom and Khusoos (general cases and exceptional cases). Hence Shaafai came out with a book that he named Ar-Risala. He sent a copy to Abdur-Rahman who was extremely impressed with the comprehensiveness of the collection.”

During the two years that he spent in Iraq, Imam Shaafai remained busy in the teaching and spreading of his new school of thought. He would present it before different scholars and would also express his thought on different issues in the light of these guideline principles. After a period of two years, he returned to Makkah. In 198 Hijri, he made another visit to Baghdad. But after a stay of one month, he left for Egypt. It was not advisable for the Imam to stay in Baghdad anymore. Mamoon-ur-Rasheed was now the Caliph and he was influenced by the Mautazli thought. This group tried to find logical explanations behind every religious decree. A group of thinkers from this section surrounded the Caliph and influenced his every decision. This team was heavily into Ilm-ul-Kalaam (religious rhetoric). They would complicate the simple teachings of Islam and tie knots around them because they were swayed by Greek philosophy. They would get carried away in purposeless arguments and issue fatwas (rulings) of Kufr (disbelief) to those people who would disagree from their thought process. This sect of people believed in getting their way by whatever means. Imam Shaafai disliked this whole rhetoric business immensely and decided to move to Egypt.

[]Disagreement with Imam Malik

As mentioned before, Imam Shaafai was Imam Malik’s student. Shaafai showed the greatest respect for his esteemed teacher. If he disagreed with his views and opinions in some matters he would simply state his opinion without expressing his dissatisfaction openly. People would therefore continue to count Imam Shaafai among the Companions of Imam Malik.

Once it came to the notice of Imam Shaafai that a certain headgear of Imam Malik was treasured in Spain and the people used to pay respect to it. Also, when a Hadith was quoted on some issue, the adherents of the Maliki School would present Imam Malik’s view on the matter (even if it were in contradiction with the Hadith). This reverence for Imam Malik over and above the value given to the Prophet’s (SAW) words was not acceptable for Imam Shaafai. He thought to himself that at best, Imam Malik was a man, capable of making an erroneous judgment or going astray. The opinion of Imam Malik had no standing as compared to a Sahih Hadith.

Another point that occurred to Imam Shaafai while studying the Fiqh of Imam Malik was that at times Imam Malik would contradict the Ahadith that he himself quoted. He would do this by sticking to the literal principle and ignoring the derivative meanings at times; while at other times he would adopt the inferred meanings and leave the literal out. Hence he started writing his book titled “Opposition to Malik.” It was not an easy task for Imam Shaafai to point out the failings and errors of his larger-than-life teacher. But it was even more unbearable for him to see that the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW) was paling in comparison to the words of a man. Imam Shaafai did not present his book to the masses for about one year after he had finished writing it. After this period of hesitation, he did an Istikharah (prayer to seek guidance from Allah in a dilemma) and then offered the book for public understanding.

In Egypt, the Fiqh of Imam Malik was firmly rooted. The followers of the Maliki School of Thought approached the Governor of Egypt and asked him to banish Imam Shaafai from the country. Imam Shaafai was convinced of the truth of his research work. He took a firm stand and stuck to his position. He did not waiver when he was confronted, nor did he try to avoid heated discussions. Without abusing or maligning anyone, Imam Shaafai would calmly present his arguments.

Besides opposing the Fiqh of Imam Malik, he was also against the system of Fiqh prevalent in Iraq. He criticized the scholar Auzai in his book “Al-Sair”. The scholars of Iraq and Hijaz were well-known for their knowledge of Fiqh. The entire Islamic Empire used to look up to them for guidance in issues of Fiqh. Both these schools of thought became adversaries of Imam Shaafai for criticizing their systems of Fiqh.

[]A Balance between Ahl-e-Sunnah and Ahl-e-Rai

If we take a close look at the era of Imam Shaafai, we find that the scholars of Fiqh were divided into two groups – Ahl-e-Sunnah (those who primarily depended on the Ahadith for the solutions of Fiqh issues) and Ahl-e-Rai (those who overwhelmingly depended on their own opinion, rationale and deductions to find out solutions to Fiqh issues). The scholars of Ahl-e-Sunnah were well-known for their memorization of countless Ahadith. Their entire system of Fiqh was based on Prophetic traditions. If they could not find a Hadith on a subject, they would hesitate in giving an answer. If a matter had not taken place, they would not voice an opinion about it. Some of these Ahl-e-Sunnah would even accept Ahadith which were not technically sound. To them, debates and argumentation were alien. Whenever a situation would arise when they had to give a ruling concerning contemporary matters, they would become nervous and at a loss for an answer.

At the other end, we had Ahl-e-Rai scholars who generally had a weak understanding of Ahadith. They would give rulings based on their opinions, although if they would later come across a Hadith pertaining to the issue at hand, they would compromise on their stance. These scholars would pass judgment on issues before they actually occurred – on mere hypotheses and assumptions – based on rational thinking and personal viewpoint. They would be cautious in relating the traditions of the Prophet (SAW) for fear of attributing something to him that was erroneous. That is the reason they would reject all weak Ahadith.

It is important to mention that an ordinary scholar of Hadith in those days did not take into account the principle of Darait (rejecting or accepting a Hadith on the basis of soundness of narrators and the content of the Hadith). Thus the Ahl-e-Rai scholars did not accept a number of Ahadith because they did not meet the criteria and principles of Darait.

The Ahl-e-Sunnah scholars were mostly residents of Hijaz, while the Ahl-e-Rai scholars were mostly based in Iraq.

Imam Shaafai was familiar with both schools of thought. He had gauged the strengths and weaknesses of both. He had already compiled rules for deduction of principles on which rulings could be based. He had memorized the Quran by heart and also knew the Ahadith of the Prophet (SAW) very well. Knowledgeable about the principles of Fiqh and an expert at debate and argumentation, the Imam was eloquent in Arabic speech. He had also gained an insight into the Mautazli way (those who had a passion for rhetorical logic). He was so quick- witted that he could prove the opponent wrong by taking a cue from his own words. On the one hand Imam Shaafai defended the importance of the Ahadith and on the other he pointed out the weaknesses of the Ahl-e-Hadith scholars.

[]The Shaafai School of Thought

If we glance at the writings of Imam Shaafai it seems obvious that first he mentions the principles of deduction that he compiled. Then he mentions the issues that have conflicting viewpoints. After that he talks about the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW) and the differences of opinion among his Companions. Finally he adopts those opinions that are consistent with his carefully laid out principles.

According to Imam Shaafai, religious knowledge can be divided into five levels according to their degree of importance:

1. The Quran and Sunnah

Imam Shaafai mentions the Quran and Sunnah together. In some of his writings he has recognized Sunnah to be very close to the Book of Allah, although not its equal. The reason is that as far as the Book is concerned, nothing can match it in terms of authenticity. On the other hand, the Sunnah can be divided into many grades – those that are Sabit, Mutawatir or Mashhoor have similar degree of authenticity as the Quran. But for instance, Ahadith-e-Ahad do not come close to the Quran (those Ahadith whose narrators in any group are not so many that their consensus on falsehood is considered unlikely). Likewise, if in a particular matter, the Quran and the Sunnah are not in agreement with each other, it is the Quran which will be followed.

Imam Shaafai preferred to explain the Quran by use of the Quranic verses themselves. But many verses in the Quran have not been explained in detail. We come to know of their explanation and various components through the Ahadith. The Book of Allah states the principles while the Sunnah explains those standards.

2. Sunnah

In the era of Imam Shaafai the evil forces of deniers of Ahadith had reared their ugly heads. There were three factions among those who rejected the Ahadith:

p<{color:#000;}. Those who completed rejected the need for consulting Ahadith.

p<{color:#000;}. Those who accepted only those Ahadith that complemented the Quran.

p<{color:#000;}. Those who only believed in the Mashhoor Ahadith.

At such a time Imam Shaafai rose and established the importance of Ahadith by proving it from the Quranic verses. He stated that Allah deems disobedience to the Prophet (SAW) to be the same as disobedience to the Creator Himself. Hence Sunnah is one of the main pillars from among the sources of Islam. It is a body of knowledge that is almost equal to the Quran in its status. He further gave credibility to even those Ahadith that were only related by one narrator (Khabar-i-Wahid) by citing examples from the Prophet’s (SAW) life and those of his Companions. Those groups who blatantly rejected the authenticity of Ahadith were speechless in the face of such reasoning. But Imam Shaafai did specify that the single-narrated Ahadith (Khabar-e-Wahid) could not be deemed equal to the Quran. This is because there is no element of doubt in the Quran and the Sahih Ahadith. The Ahadith of less stature were only accepted after they met certain conditions. He also made certain criteria for the acceptance of one Hadith over another if they were contradictory.

In his book Kitab-ul-Um, Imam Shaafai records the details of the debates that he held with the scholars in Basra – those who opposed the authenticity of Hadith. These confrontations are also mentioned in his books Ar-Risala, Kitab Jamaa-ul-Ilm and Ikhtilaful-Hadith. Due to these prized contributions Imam Shaafai is known as Nasir-us-Sunnah (The Helper of Sunnah).

3. Ijma (Scholars’ Consensus)

Imam Shaafai accepts Ijma as next in legitimacy after the Quran and Sunnah. According to him once the scholars of any era agree unanimously upon an issue, then it becomes an Ijma and is binding. The first Ijma that the Imam considers binding is the Ijma of the Companions of the Prophet (SAW). He recognized the consensus of all the scholars in the Islamic empire as credible – as opposed to Imam Malik who only considered the consensus of the scholars of Madina as legitimate. There is no doubt that Imam Shaafai used to hold the Ijma of the Madani scholars in great esteem and used to attach a great deal of value to them. In his book Ikhtilaful-Hadith, Imam Shaafai has clearly explained that the Companions of the Prophet (SAW), Tabaéen and Taba Tabaéen had a consensual view only on the binding duties in Islam; there is no Ijma on other issues.

4. Qiyas (Reasoning by Analogy)

Imam Shaafai was the first person to compile proper principles and regulations in Qiyas and to clarify the basis for the same. He was the first to explain the tremendous difference between a system based on Qiyas and a system based on Quran and Sunnah. He further elucidated the distinction between reasoning based on valid analogy and reasoning based on mere subjective logic. The scholars that came later took advantage of the Imam’s definition of Qiyas and his principles for derivation of religious analogy. This helped them in developing a skeleton of the system of Fiqh.

We present here a paragraph from the famous book of Imam Shaafai – Ar-Risala – which shows us the status that he attributed to Qiyas and to the Quran and Sunnah:

“Any ruling of the Quran and Sunnah that is brought to light by a unanimous agreement of all the present scholars is valid in our opinion. But the Sunnah that is of a stand-alone nature and does not command consensus is valid only on a superficial level because there is an element of doubt in it. After the Quran and Sunnah, the next level is that of Ijma and then Qiyas. And Qiyas presents the least authentic argument. In the presence of authentic Ahadith, there is no basis for Qiyas. It is similar to tayammum (a way of performing ablution without water) which is allowed only when one does find water in a journey, but as soon as some water is found, the tayammum is no longer valid.”

5. Istehsaan (Reasoning on the basis of Logic)

Imam Shaafai did not encourage Istehsaan which is purely rational reasoning in religion, not based on the Quran, Sunnah, Ijma or Qiyas (guided by Quran & Sunnah). There are several reasons for this. First, there cannot be any guidelines or principles for Istehsaan. Second, we see that even the Prophet (SAW) would rely on heavenly solutions to the issues present before him (except for a few events). Third, if his Companions would give rulings in his absence based on reason only, he would express his displeasure. Hence Imam Shaafai viewed as fallacious any deduction of religious rulings based only on rational thinking.

However, he deems as correct those rulings which go in favour of the general public. The technical term for these judgments is Masaleh Mursala – referring to those rulings based on opinions that are not derived from the Quran or Sunnah, but are for the common good and also do not contradict Shariah. In this regard, the Imam would avoid extremes by only considering those manifestations of ‘common good’ which are similar to those found in the Quran and Sunnah.


Imam Shaafai had been suffering from haemorrhoids for a long times. At times, the intensity of the disease was such that blood would start oozing from his body while he was on a mount and trickle down to his socks.

Another tradition tells us that once a man had a confrontation with the Imam and the fellow indulged in unrefined talk. The matter resulted in a court case and the Governor of Eygpt gave a verdict in favour of the Imam. This person or his supporters in a state of fury attacked the Imam in the darkness of the night and dealt such a severe blow to the Imam that his head split open. As it is, Imam Shaafai was very weak due to his illness; his condition was further aggravated and he now entered the throes of death.

In 204 Hijri on 30th Rajab Imam Shaafai’s condition deteriorated at the time of Asr. At this time Imam Mazni was sitting on his side. He asked the Imam, “How are you feeling, O the teacher of teachers?” Imam Shaafai replied, “Today I am about to leave this world and am about to leave my brothers in faith. I am about to witness the punishment for my bad deeds. The time has come for me to be presented in Allah’s court of law. And by Allah! I have no clue whether my spirit will enter heaven and I shall congratulate it or whether it will enter hell and I shall have to commiserate with it.”

A few minutes before he died, Imam Shaafai made a will that a certain person who was absent should bathe him.

Then the Imam offered his Isha prayers. He had barely rested for a while when he slipped into semi-consciousness. The Imam’s tongue was busy in praying and seeking Allah’s forgiveness. A few minutes later his spirit left the body for the heavenly abode. The next day he was buried in a graveyard outside Cairo after Friday prayers. A huge congregation had gathered to accompany the Imam to his final resting place. The sheer number of people was staggering. The Imam had passed away at the young age of 54 years, but his life and works had been worthwhile and fruitful for centuries to come.

After his death, the man about whom the Imam had willed to wash his body appeared. When the people apprised him of the Imam’s words regarding him, the man forgave the Imam a loan of 70,000 dirhams and informed the people that this was what the Imam had meant by his last instructions.

[]Dealings and Morality

A large portion of the Imam’s life was spent in the attainment of knowledge. When he established study circles he was surrounded by his students from morning to evening.

According to Rabee bin Suleman, “Imam Shaafai would offer Fajr prayers and start his discourse. Immediately the students of the Quran would appear. At sunrise they would leave and the learners of Hadith would replace them. They would ask questions regarding the meanings and explanation of various Ahadith. When the sun would go up, this group departed. Then the debate forum would commence. This group would carry on with their discussions nearly until noon. Then the next session would be held on Arabic language and its linguistics and this would continue through the afternoon.”

When Imam Shaafai started his sermons in the Jamia Mosque in Baghdad, he had only six followers. In a short period, the number of students swelled to such an extent that no other scholar remained in the mosque.

A unique characteristic of the Imam which is rarely found in people was his uprightness and his sense of justice. He would uphold the argument that seemed closer to truth and fairness, no matter how heavy a price he might have to pay for it. If he deemed a matter to be incorrect, he would speak up against it, be it the words of his teacher or of a school of thought he believed in.

Imam Shaafai always expressed his opinion confidently and boldly, even if it went against the common beliefs of the people. At the same time, he would critically review his own opinions and give them a second thought. That is why we find different views attributable to the Imam on the same issue. As a truth seeker, whenever an issue would clearly manifest itself before his eyes, he would reconcile his previous belief and support the new one.

In spite of his belief in his innovative, comprehensive and appealing approach to Fiqh issues he would consider the Ahadith of the Prophet (SAW) to be over and above all judgments and recognized the true worth of the Sunnah. In his book Maujam-e-Yaqoot, Rabee bin Suleman relates that once a person came to Imam Shaafai to inquire about a matter. During the conversation he pointed out that the Prophet (SAW) had said one thing but Imam Shaafai had a different view on it. When he heard this, the Imam started trembling with fear. He turned pale and remarked, “Which piece of earth will shelter me and which piece of sky will provide a shade for me if a Hadith of the Prophet (SAW) is brought to me and I don’t accept it with perfect reverence?”

The Imam used to hold the family of the Prophet (SAW) very dear to his heart and this was obvious from many of his remarks. To the extent that people started calling him Rafizi (Rafizi is a Shiite sect that glorifies the family of the Prophet to the extreme). He refers to this accusation in one of his poems, “If the love of the family of the Prophet (SAW) is considered as Rafz then the angels should endorse me as a Rafizi.”

Besides being a great scholar of religion, he was blessed with the most humane and honourable qualities. He was least interested in acquiring worldly possessions. Once at the time of Eid his wife requested him to take a loan as there was nothing in the house to eat. The Imam borrowed 70 dirhams from someone. On the way back to his house, he was surrounded by beggars. He distributed the entire amount among the poor and returned home empty-handed. When his wife heard the story, she commented that this was what he always did.

Imam Mazni related that once on the night of Eid he reached outside the Imam’s house. He saw a slave greet Imam Shaafai and present to him a bag of coins from his master. A moment later a man came hurrying and said to the Imam “O Abu Abdullah! A baby has just been born in my house and I have no money to spend.” The Imam gave the bag of coins to this person and smiling, walked into his home.

The early days of Imam Shaafai were spent in poverty and destitution. Later he was blessed with wealth by the grace of Allah. The Imam used to give openheartedly to the poor. He would hardly keep a quarter of what he got for his own needs. When people inquired about the reason for his excessive generosity, he remarked, “Listen! Allah grants money so that it can be used for the welfare of the poor! If I start benefiting from this wealth, what will be my state on the Day of Judgment when Rasool Allah (SAW) will be brought forward as an intercessor?” The Imam kept on repeating these words and kept on weeping.

Imam Shaafai left no stone unturned in attending to the needs of his students and friends. He was extremely hospitable. Even during debates and confrontations the Imam would be courteous to his opponents.

Imam Shaafai was a scholar of a very high caliber and his knowledge was so vast and versatile that there is not enough space here to cover this topic. We would like to recall a student’s comment who says in praise of Imam Shaafai, “When Imam Shaafai would expound on the Quranic verses it seemed as if he had personally seen the Quran being revealed to the Messenger (SAW).”

The Imam had a moving voice which used to mesmerize people. We record a statement of a contemporary from the book The History of Baghdad, “When we wanted to cry, we would ask a friend to come along to the young Muttalabi man and listen to his recital. Upon reaching his place he would start reciting the Quran. Soon the people nearby would leave their daily activities and gather around him weeping sorrowfully. Seeing this, Imam Shaafai would stop reciting.”

The Imam had divided his night into three parts. He would sleep in the first bit. In the second part, he would carry out his reading and writing works, and the last portion would be utilized in the worship of Allah. Rabee, a student of the Imam comments, “Before Imam Shaafai migrated to Egypt, I spent a lot of time with him. The Imam had a black slave-girl. When he wished to write down something, he would ask her to light the lantern. She would get up and do so. Then the Imam would carry on writing as long as he wished to work. This was his normal mode of working. When he wished to ponder over some issues he would blow out the flame. I once asked him why he did that. The Imam replied that in the brightness of the light, his thoughts were not coherent; hence he would spend time in darkness – thinking.”

The point to be noted is that Imam Shaafai had been blessed with exceptional qualities and superior intelligence. But the status he reached and the heights of fame that he touched were not only due to his extraordinary acumen, perfect memory, mesmerizing voice or outstanding oratory skills. Shaafai’s life speaks of his laborious efforts and endless contemplation over issues. Many of us are gifted with unusual talents and resources, yet only a few dare to undertake the sheer hard work needed to attain expertise and perfection necessary for a greater cause.

It would be interesting to consider yet another aspect of Imam Shaafai’s personality. The Imam had benefited from the knowledge of the greatest scholars of his time. He spent valuable hours in their company and gave them tremendous respect. But hero-worship was never a part of his character. Imam Shaafai was simply a genius. He was never the one to follow his predecessors blindly. Due to his extraordinary grasp, superior intellect and innovative approach he would often contradict his beloved teachers. At the same time he would also profit from their attempts at Ijtehad (religious analogy) and their counsel. In either case, he would not hide his actions or be apologetic about them. Blindly following a leader or a school of thought may be considered acceptable for the masses, but for a scholar it is necessary to keep the spirit of a student and a true knowledge-seeker alive while researching for solutions of Fiqh issues. It is equally important to keep away from all kinds of prejudice, for or against any personality, school of thought or group of people. In this regard let us learn from the life of Imam Shaafai. May Allah be pleased with him.


[] Reference books

p<{color:#000;}. Imam Shaafai by Mohammad Abu Zahra; translation by Raees Ahmad Jafry

p<{color:#000;}. Seerat A’imma-e-Arba by Raees Ahmad Jafry

p<{color:#000;}. Tazkira A’imma-e-Arba by Islam-ul-Haq Mazhari

p<{color:#000;}. Hadith ki Chay Mustanad Kitabain by Khwaja Abdul Hai Farooqi

p<{color:#000;}. Hadith o Fiqh by Nuzhat Raees

p<{color:#000;}. Bahar e Hadith by Dr. Jameel Ahmad

[] About the Author

Naima Sohaib, 40, is the author of “Tareekh-e-Islam ki Azeem Shaksiat”, a 500-page book in Urdu about twenty most prominent Muslim scholars, reformists, revivalists and caliphs of the last 1400 years, including several from the twentieth century. The book is written in easy language, punctuated occasionally by pertinent and thought-provoking comments by the author.

Naima has a Masters in Islamic Studies from University of Karachi and did her B.Sc. in Mathematics from Lahore College for Women. She has also authored several storybooks for children. She lives in Karachi with her husband and four daughters.

[] About the Translator

Eeman Asif Misbah, 45, is the English translator of the original Urdu book. She converted from Hinduism in 1996 after studying Islam for several years. Her passion to seek knowledge about great personalities of Muslim history led her to the present translation work. She is an avid reader of Islamic books.

Eeman is an MBA from Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. An expert in human resource management and general administration, she worked in the financial sector before her marriage. She lives in Karachi with her husband and two children.

Imam Shaafai

Imam Shaafai, the founder of the Shaafai school of thought, was a well travelled scholar and a magnificent teacher. While a youth, he was considered the king of experts in Arabic linguistics. He later achieved mastery in the study of the Quran, Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and Islamic jurisprudence. His main contribution is his highly original work in determining the bases and guidelines for the principles of jurisprudence. In this he integrated the knowledge of Madinah’s traditionalists with the insights of Iraq’s rationalists.He had a superb memory and extraordinary intellect, often astounding those around him with the brilliance of his insights. His work was and has been much appreciated in the Muslim world, and he is one of the most famous scholars in Muslim history.  The Shaafai school of thought is dominant in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and southeast Asia.

  • ISBN: 9781370531417
  • Author: Naima Sohaib
  • Published: 2016-08-22 09:50:26
  • Words: 9065
Imam Shaafai Imam Shaafai