The religion of Islam, hatched and nurtured in the crucibles of Makkah and Medina, had, soon after the end of prophecy, expanded beyond belief from Afghanistan to the East, Central Asia to the North and Morocco to the West. Scholarly movements thus sprang up in each region to address the theocratic and legal questions being posed by agile and inquisitive minds.
In the Kufa of 717 CE, a young Abu Hanifa had sought out a worthy master, Ibrahim Nakhai, who in turn could trace his scholarly heritage to a revered and knowledgeable companion, Abdullah bin Mas’ud RA. Abu Hanifa RE, when he came into his own, looked at the Quran as his foremost point of reference, followed by only those hadiths whose authenticity he felt certain about. In order to address the finer points of law, Abu Hanifa developed a systematic form of analytical reasoning called Qiyas to extend the ruling of one situation to another as based on a shared legal cause(illa) derived from the teachings of Allah and his Prophet. Imam Abu Hanifa realised that Qiyas needed to be handled delicately by always keeping the context in mind. The application of Qiyas did lead at times to a result deemed to be unjust and harmful. In order to counter this, he came up with the concept of Istihsan(seeking the best), an alternate analytical manoeuvre that yielded a beneficial result. Abu Hanifa always kept his eye on what he believed to be the public good, in the pursuit of which he was aided by his own gentle temperament as well as the cosmopolitan environment he grew up in. Although the methodology he employed became extremely influential in his own lifetime, he left it to his students to reduce it in writing. His leading students, Abu Yusuf and Shaybani, did not however see eye to eye with each other nor with their illustrious master, and since they also got integrated with the Abbasid court at Baghdad, the original teachings of the great Imam understandably got diluted along the way.
Imam Abu Hanifa’s younger colleague, Malik bin Anas, a lifelong resident of Medina, after studying under esteemed scholars like Nafi and Zehri, devised another approach to Islamic laws and beliefs. He based his teachings exclusively on the customs and practices endorsed by the scholars living in what he considered the bastion of pure Islam, the Prophet’s city. In his scholarly work Muwatta, the earliest surviving work of hadiths and Islamic law, Imam Malik showcased his topic-wise compilation in the form of hadiths(527), rulings made by companions(613), rulings by successors(285) and his own opinions(375. It may be safe to conclude that since he obtained his hadiths from teachers who had directly interacted with some of the companions, this work is arguably more authoritative and authentic than any other work. Imam Shafi’i said so as much, although his student Imam Hanbal,wasn’t impressed at all by the conclusions derived. Realising that he could not exclusively depend on the material that he collected for addressing all legal queries, Imam Malik simultaneously devised a technique of prohibiting things which appeared legal, simply because they tended to lead to a prohibited result. The Caliph of the newly-established Abbasid dynasty was so enamoured by Imam Malik’s personality that he expressed his intention to make the Inam’s work the basis for an empire-wide code of Islamic law. Imam Malik, the scholar that he was, dissuaded him from doing so, for fear of disturbing the blossoming regional diversity, which he considered a blessing. Had the plan been implemented, the shape of Sunni Islam would be a lot different today.
A group of thinkers called the Mutazilites( lit. to separate, as their professed founder Wasil b. Ata did, from the circle of Hasan Basri) emerged in the cosmopolitan city of Basra( in the early 8th century CE), followed by the new Abbasid capital of Baghdad. In order to better respond to the queries raised by internal and external sceptics, they tried to base their understanding of Islam on things they could justify through logic. They took their cue in a way, without seemingly acknowledging it, from the principles of rational thinking espoused by Imam Ali. They came out strongly in favour of free will, without which they felt a just God would never have promised retribution or rewards.
Into this cauldron of conflicting opinions descended an intrepid scholar by the name of Muhammad b. Idris Shafii. While agreeing in principle with the concept of holding the Prophet’s precedence sacred, he disagreed with the manner in which it was being achieved, as well as virtually everything else the regional scholars had to offer. He not only faulted both Malikis and Hanfis for their limited exposure to hadiths, but was extremely critical of the notion of analogical reasoning, the principle of Istihsan, local customs and claims of Ijma(consensus). He came to the conclusion that gaps in the understanding of Sunnah can only be bridged by strictly obeying the actual words of the Prophet as transmitted in hadiths. He accordingly tried to build the edifice of a common body of hadiths, accessed from all corners of the Islamic dominion, so as to be universally acceptable.
To be sure, he was exceptionally cut out for the job: born in Gaza, he studied with Imam Malik in Medina for many years, served as the Abbasid Governor in Yemen, hobnobbed with the leading Hanafi scholar, Shaybani, and ended his days in Egypt. Imam Shafi’i not only professed that the Quran cannot be accessed without the Sunnah, but went a step further in declaring that the Sunnah rules over the Book of Allah rather than the other way round, He moreover did not hesitate to enter into debates with not only the students of Imam Malik and Imam Abu Hanifa, but also with the Mu’tazilites. He countered the Mu’tazilite distrust of Hadiths owing to rampant forgery by asserting that the isnad, or chain of transmission, would serve as a guarantee as to its authenticity. An unbroken chain thus came to constitute a sound (sahih) Hadith, widely known hadiths through multiple chains of transmission were considered well-known (mashur), while hadiths with some flaw in its chain were deemed weak (da’if). This still serves as the benchmark for ascertaining the authenticity levels of hadiths and any scholar who tries to examine their contents through logic is subjected to derision. Faced with the task of adapting hadiths to the problems of his day, he favoured an innovative method known as Negatively Implied Meaning (Mafhum al-Mukhalafa) which meant that if the Quran or Hadiths made a positive statement about a thing, then the negative held true for all else. He made a limited concession to the use of reason by devising a form of analogy known as Manifest Analogy, Qiyas jali or by the stronger reasoning, which ensures a uniform ruling regardless of whether a particular factor is present in moderate or extreme form. Shafi’i is also credited with introducing the novel concept of Darul Aman or Abode of Peace (for countries under the banner of Islam) and Darul Harb or Abode of War (for those beyond). Since he envisioned constant warfare between them, he propped up the idea of jihad as a constant duty enjoined on all believers. In support of this contention, he introduced the idea of abrogation, whereby he considered as many as 124 verses of the Quran dealing with pacific resolution of disputes and use of warfare as a defensive tactic only, as abrogated in favour of the few so-called ‘sword verses’. This would have been considered sacrilegious had the narrative been pushed by a lesser scholar.
Two definitive camps emerged during Imam Shafii’s time: one, spearheaded by him, called the Ahle Hadith and the other incorporating voices of reason, inclusive of the Hanafis and the Mu’tazilites, known as the Ahl al Ra’y. Imam Shafii was the most authoritative voice of his time and many of the concepts that he introduced and the methods that he employed in matters of jurisprudence are still in widespread use today. Though Islam is believed to have been introduced in South India during the Prophet’s lifetime, the waves of Arab traders during Imam Shafii’s time and later, exported his ideas to the littorals of the Indian Ocean. The Mughals, it is believed, nudged the official shift to the Hanafi fiqh, as they felt it to be more conducive to their aspirations of ruling over a majority Hindu population than the Darul Harb concept.