Imam Abu Hanifah

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwī

Insofar as this talk about Abu Hanifah aims to introduce or present the book, it should pick out its major concerns – to show how and why the fiqh associated with Abu Hanifah has been relied upon and trusted by Muslims. This is done by discussing examples that illustrate how Hanafi fiqh was constructed, how it reasoned/worked with the primary sources; and by describing the man and his quality of life as a devout Muslim.

One way to start would be to quote the interesting compliment paid to Abu Hanifah by his peers among near contemporaries: Abu Nuaym, Abu Hanifah’s student, said: “Muslims should pray to God for Abu Hanifah in their prayers, because the sunnahs and the fiqh were preserved for them through him.” Similarly,Abdullah ibn Dawud al-Khuraybi said: “It is incumbent on the people of Islam to pray for Abu Hanifah in their prayer, because he preserved the sunnahs and fiqh for them.” (Baghdadi, Ta’rikh, xiii. 344).

To appreciate and understand that compliment, we need to understand:

  1. the importance for Muslims of preserving the sunnahs 
  2. the connection between the sunnahs and fiqh
  3. how Abu Hanifah understood that connection
  4. how that compliment is correcting some people’s concerns and misapprehensions about how Abu Hanifah understood the connection between the sunnahs and fiqh.

In (1) the key points include:

  • Muslims are commanded by God to love and obey the Prophet and to follow his example, to imitate his character. 
  • The Companions trusted the Prophet’s ways because he was entirely Muslim, that is, he had entirely surrendered his will and his purposes to the will and purposes of God. The sunnahs are the ideal and practical expression of the guidance of the Qur’an. That is why the Muslims expressed their love and veneration for the Prophet (not, as in other religions, by making pictures or statues of him, but instead) by collecting and recording (in memory and in writing) everything that was known about him, and then travelling the length and breadth of the Islamic world to exchange and enlarge and improve their knowledge. 
  • This knowledge was a collective work and a collective property of all the Muslims, not secret, not esoteric; the sunnahs were not expressed in a language that had one private, hidden meaning accessible to a privileged few, and another public meaning for the masses. The Muslims might not agree on what the meaning was, but they did agree that any disagreement had to be settled by reference to the same body of knowledge – nobody could claim access to secret knowledge, to hidden meanings known only to himself and a few others.

In (2) the key points include:

  • It is not always obvious how to put the sunnahs into practice, or when, or how much; not all that the Muslims preserved of what the Prophet said or did could be expressed as laws or rules; some of it was rules and laws, but some was ideals, some moral advice, some norms; sometimes what the Prophet said or did was different at different times or in different situations; and some matters were surely more important than others. 
  • So the Muslims had to make an effort to understand how to apply the sunnahs in practice, and the result of this effort of understanding is fiqh. The great pioneers in fiqh set out to find ways of settling differences about the sunnahs. If they had not succeeded, the practical expression of the Muslims’ Islam would very soon have diverged, according to different circumstances in different regions and different human temperaments. It was important for the unity and solidarity of the ummah that Muslims, for example, did their prayers in ways easily recognised by each other as right, that they shared the same sense of right and wrong in personal relations like marriage and divorce and in business transactions, that judges gave similar judgements in similar cases which made sense to people and felt right. The aim of the pioneers in fiqh was to establish a degree of flexible consistency in how the sunnahs were understood and embodied in practice. 
  • The Muslims as a community only trusted those with this task who were known to them as the best of Muslims, whose primary motive was to follow the guidance of the Qur’an, to love and obey God and God’s Messenger, and to make that guidance clear to others. Social and political unity and solidarity of the ummah was an outcome of their work, but it was not what they aimed at. What they aimed at was to please God. Apart from intellectual ability and breadth of knowledge, people looked for qualities like integrity, piety, disciplined worship, righteousness, humility, and human kindness.

In (3) the main points include:

  • Abu Hanifah’s personal qualities, especially as a worshipper, as a teacher and an organiser
  • His distinction between ibadat and muamalat; then, between matters open to reason and discussion, and those not so open
  • His usul, especially qiyas and istihsan
  • His use of reliable hadith texts
  • His ability to build up a consistent design (almost a system) for defining and building fiqh
  • His success and reputation leading to the apprehension that he followed his own design, rather than the Sunnah.

In (4) the point is to explain how and why the compliment (about his preserving the sunnahs is deserved.

We should remember the importance of being careful who we take our fiqh from. The sunnahs from which fiqh derives are texts in the public domain. Therefore, it is theoretically possible even for a non-Muslim Arabist to claim to provide legal rulings or judgements that may look as if they refer and defer to the source texts — the hadiths and/or the Qur’an. In practice, non-Muslim scholars who study Islam and fiqh do not do this. The danger is rather from Muslims who want to solve their difficulties in the same ways that non-Muslims appear to solve similar difficulties, and so those Muslims try to give to non-Muslim principles and practices an Islamic colouring and Islamic legitimacy by selecting disconnected texts from here and there and “re-interpreting” the words and phrases in them to fit their present tastes and temperaments. However, to label a life-style as “Islamic” does not make it truly Islamic. The safe road is the road that was followed in the Islamic tradition – to really know the person who is offering to guide you in how to be a Muslim: is that person doing their best to love and obey God and His Messenger, what is their life-style, who were their teachers and other influences on their thinking, and so on.