Imam Abu Hanifa: The Juggernaut of Jurisprudence

Miftaah Institute

It is the Sunnah of Allah (SWT) that He executes His will through some natural means, which only serves to strengthen the faith of those who examine these signs and ponder over them. History reveals that in Islam’s darkest times, this religion was safeguarded through beacons of light in the form of righteous individuals who upheld the true Islam. Adhering to the Sunnah of Muhammad ﷺ, they opposed injustice. They stood as pillars with their qualities of sacrifice, unflinching faith, morality, spiritual excellence, and intellect. We find that despite the attacks Muslims have faced, the Ummah always persevered and continued. By the will of Allah, it will continue to do so, as long as individuals hold fast to their Deen and follow the examples of those who suffered and triumphed before. The following article seeks to highlight one such individual, Nouman bin Thabit, more commonly known as Imam Abu Hanifa (RH). He was born in the city of Kufa in the year 80 AH (689 AD). He is nicknamed Imam al-A’zam (the greatest leader) and is considered to be the first of the four Imams of the Islamic schools of fiqh (jurisprudence) known as madhabs (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali) that withstood the test of time and have been accepted by consensus of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’ah (Sunni Muslims). It is a testament to the strength and comprehensiveness of his madhab that the Hanafi school of thought has the most adherents of the four schools.

The City of Kufa

Located near Najaf in Iraq, the city of Kufa had a history of socio-political turbulence following its establishment in 636 AD. It was also one of the three major cities in Iraq along with Basra and Baghdad. Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqas (RA), one of the ‘asharah mubasharah (10 companions promised paradise), was dispatched as a governor during the Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA). The citizens of Kufa resisted his governance and accused Sa’ad (RA) of governmental abuse. Despite being found innocent of the charges, Umar (RA) recalled Sa’ad (RA) and dispatched Ammar ibn Yasser (RA) as governor and Abdullah ibn Masud (RA), a difficult sacrifice on the part of Umar (RA) who loved both of these Companions dearly. Kufa was a garrison city for the Muslims, a place where the military was stationed on the fronts of the growing Islamic empire. Ibn Masud (RA) was given the responsibility of mentoring the garrison and the city at large, fostering them in their learning and uplifting the community into practicing the Deen of the Prophet (SAW). The people of Kufa took to Ibn Masud (RA) very well and the city flourished in the Islamic sciences, particularly in the recitation of the Quran. Several of the modes of recitation originate from the disciples of Ibn Masud (RA) and from Kufa. However, political strife continued and Umar (RA) would go on to dispatch the last governor of his administration, Mughirah ibn Sh’uba (RA). When Uthman ibn Affan (RA) became the new Caliph in the year 644 AD, he rotated a new governor into Kufa named Waleed ibn Uqbah (RA), whereafter Kufa fell again into mass strife.

Kufa became a base for some rebels who would go on to revolt against Uthman (RA), assassinate him, and push Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA) to situate the leadership of the Caliphate in Kufa. Ali (RA) is eventually assassinated by the rebels in the Grand Masjid of Kufa. After the brief Caliphate of Hasan (RA), Muawiya (RA) established the Umayyad Dynasty and governed his Caliphate from Damascus, Syria. The people of Kufa had always been instigators against Umayyads. Most notably, the people of Kufa offered their city as a base for Husayn ibn Ali (RA), the grandson of the Prophet (SAW), and his family as a base to launch a revolt against the Caliphate of Yazid, the second Umayyad Caliph. Husayn (RA) and his family were intercepted by the army of Yazid and eventually massacred. Since that incident, the people of Kufa were under intense subjugation and oversight by the Umayyads which bred socio-political frustration in the city.

As the Umayyad Dynasty ruled from 661 to 750 AD, Iraq’s proximity as a front for the empire exposed it to an influx of factions, ideologies, and philosophies that caused division and confusion. One faction were the supporters of the Ahl al Bayt which were the descendants of Ali (RA) and the family of the Prophet (SAW). The second were the descendants of Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA), the cousin of the Prophet (SAW). His descendants, the Abbasids, were notable for their several revolts against the Umayyads, who they would eventually succeed against in 750 AD, during the time of Abu Hanifa (RH). The supporters of the Ahl al-Bayt would support the Abbasids. The Khawarij, also present in Kufa, who were responsible for the civil war that broke out between Ali and Muawiya (RA), were also the ones who murdered Ali (RA). Their creed deviated from the mainstream in that they believed that a Muslim who committed a major sin was excommunicated from the religion and was marked for death. The Qadariyah asserted that Muslims had absolute free will and were free from the paths Allah (SWT) determined for them. The Mu'tazila were “rationalists” who challenged the everlasting characteristics of Allah (SWT), asserting that his traits such as speech must have been “created”.  In addition, Islam was being challenged in Kufa by the influx of Greco-Roman/Aristotelian philosophies. Upon even that, discussion of politics by the ulema was suppressed by the Umayyads, fearing that the ulema could take advantage of the Caliphate’s governmental abuse as a reason for the people to rebel. It was clear that Kufa was an unstable melting pot of different ideologies.

Before the four madhabs, Islamic law was determined by groups of scholarship primarily from the schools of Iraq and the Hijaz. Due to descendants of the Companions of the Prophet (SAW) living in the city, Medina had preserved the teachings and ways from the time of the Prophet (SAW), making it the strongest center of Hadith studies in the world. The great scholar and contemporary of Imam Abu Hanifa (RH), Imam Malik ibn Anas (RH), is credited for compiling the scholarship of Medina into what is now called the Maliki madhab. His school is referred to as “Ahl al-Hadith” (the people of Hadith) or “Ahl al-Medina” (the people of Medina). The scholars of Iraq were known as “Ahl al-Raii”(the people of opinion). The school of Iraq was known for expanding the use of analogies and analysis with the sources of Islamic law such as the Quran and Hadith in order to refute the dissenters of Kufa. For a brief period, these schools would conflict in their methodologies but eventually reconciled their issues after Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) and his students met with Imam Malik (RH) and his students.

Imam Abu Hanifa: His Parents

The Prophet (SAW) was once sitting with the Companions and he put his blessed arm around Salman al-Farsi (RA), the Persian Companion. The Prophet (SAW) said, “Even if faith was left amongst the stars, one of this man’s descendants would grab it”. (Muslim,2546)

قَالَ كُنَّا جُلُوسًا عِنْدَ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم إِذْ نَزَلَتْ عَلَيْهِ سُورَةُ الْجُمُعَةِ فَلَمَّا قَرَأَ ‏  {‏ وَآخَرِينَ مِنْهُمْ لَمَّا يَلْحَقُوا بِهِمْ‏}‏ قَالَ رَجُلٌ مَنْ هَؤُلاَءِ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ فَلَمْ يُرَاجِعْهُ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم حَتَّى سَأَلَهُ مَرَّةً أَوْ مَرَّتَيْنِ أَوْ ثَلاَثًا - قَالَ - وَفِينَا سَلْمَانُ الْفَارِسِيُّ - قَالَ - فَوَضَعَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَدَهُ عَلَى سَلْمَانَ ثُمَّ قَالَ ‏"‏ لَوْ كَانَ الإِيمَانُ عِنْدَ الثُّرَيَّا لَنَالَهُ رِجَالٌ مِنْ هَؤُلاَءِ. ‏

Here, the Prophet (SAW) is predicting a great mujaddid, reviver of Islam, to come from Persia. Many interpret this Hadith to refer to Imam Abu Hanifa (RH). “Abu Hanifa” is a kunniyat, a title attributed to some characteristic of a person. Imam Abu Hanifa’s real name was Nouman bin Thabit. “Hanifah” in the Kufic dialect means “ink” or “ink pot” and it refers to the ink pot the Imam would carry with him.

Abu Hanifa’s parents met when his father had eaten a fruit out of another person’s garden. Thabit, fearful that the owner of the garden would have a right over him on the Day of Judgement, approached the owner and asked how he could make up for the stolen fruit. To test Thabit’s commitment to fulfilling the debt, he asked Thabit to marry his daughter. He described his daughter as mute, blind, deaf, and slow to understand things. Out of fear of Allah (SWT), he went ahead to meet the daughter. To his surprise, the daughter verbally responded, saying she is only deaf from that which is displeasing to Allah, mute and blind from that which is forbidden, and ignorant of idle knowledge. It is no surprise that the offspring of this marriage would build his life around the same qualities that was practiced by his parents.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) was described as tall with dark skin. He is regarded as a Tabi’i, a member of the generation after the Sahabah, because it is understood that he met a few sahabah in his lifetime, including Anas ibn Malik (RA) in Basra. Throughout his life, he presented himself as a well dressed and a wealthy man. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would grow up assisting his father in the silk trade, beginning at the age of 5. A unique aspect about the life of Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) that few other scholars can claim was his success in both the secular and religious realms. He is reported to have said,

“You do not learn true tawakkul (trust in Allah) until you own a business”.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would never incorporate interest into his business dealings. He would never take Allah (SWT)’s name in vain by swearing upon his product.  He would never unnecessarily increase prices on his customers. If there was a poor person in need of clothing and came to his shop, he would not look to make a profit off of their purchase. He would never sell a defective product, nor would he bargain or argue over products.

One example of the Imam’s strong principles was when a man asked for a product and Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) sent his son to retrieve it. The son praised the product with salawaat on the Prophet (SAW) and this betrayed the principles of Imam Abu Hanifa’s (RH) conduct; thus, the Imam turned away 300 dirhams for the item. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) was gracious in his sadaqa, having his child give ten coins to the poor every day and 20 on Fridays. This is an example of how the Imam excelled as a parent by inculcating qualities like generosity in his son. Do not allow Imam Abu Hanifa’s (RH) success in business to make you consider him a covetous or greedy person. One quality that Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) exemplified was that he would not pester people who owed him money. A man who was struggling to repay the Imam would hide from him in the community out of shame and shyness. When Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) asked the man why he would do such a thing, Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) was dumbfounded and asked the man for his forgiveness for making him feel the way he did. The Imam’s treatment of those who owed him money shows us that a person should never obnoxiously hold a debt or a grudge over another person who is sincerely trying to fulfill that right. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) and all the great servants of this Ummah were known for how strictly they would be with themselves in adherence to the Deen, but when it came to other people, they would treat them with abundant love and compassion.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would also only maintain a certain reserve of money that Ali (RA) stated was necessary to maintain a dignified livelihood, the rest was given away in charity. These strong principles of his business conduct were present before he began his studies and afterward.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) gained a reputation for good conduct and carrying the Deen with him in his business. Imam Sha’bi (RH), who was known in the community for his affluence and easy-going personality, was naturally inclined to the brilliance that emanated from the young businessman. When the Imam asked Abu Hanifa who he learned from, Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) responded by saying he did not have a teacher. Then Imam Sha’bi said, “Do not live your life like a headless man, focus on learning beneficial knowledge, sit within the school, I see with you beneficial qualities”. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would later comment that it was Imam Sha’bi recognizing his potential that motivated him towards studying.

Specialization in Theology

One of Abu Hanifa’s first areas of focus was the subject of Aqidah. Aqidah is the study of Islamic theology, which was threatened by the deviant ideologies festering in Kufa at the time. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would champion the field, debating against the figures of the aberrant creeds. One of the most noteworthy stories of Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) that highlighted his knowledge was his confrontation with an orator from the Romeo-Christian land. The man posed three questions: Where is Allah (SWT) facing, what was before Allah (SWT), and what is Allah (SWT) doing right now? In his response to the first question, Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) lit a candle and asked the man where the light of the candle was facing. He declared, similar to how the light of the candle was not directed one way and filled up the room, the same was true of the nur (blessed light) of Allah (SWT). On the next question, Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) had the questioner count back from ten. He encouraged the questioner to continue after number one and the questioner responded that he could not. Abu Hanifa said in the same way, we do not entertain a “before” to Allah (SWT) because it is out of our comprehension. Before answering the last question, Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) requested to give his answer from a higher elevation than the questioner since it was the Imam who was speaking. The questioner obliged and Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) responded to the last question saying Allah (SWT) had disgraced the questioner by giving the higher physical state to the one who protected his Deen. Aqidah was the main focal point of Imam Abu Hanifa’s (RH) life before turning to fiqh. His crown text in the subject of Aqidah was al-Fiqh al-Akbar, a text which many later books of Aqidah use as reference and still referred to by current scholarship. Imam Abu Hanifa’s (RH) work in the subject influenced Imam Tahawi (RH) who composed the famous Aqidah Tahawiyyah, an encompassing summation of the Aqidah of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’ah.

Specialization in Jurisprudence

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) then transitioned into the subject of Fiqh where he studied under his beloved teacher Hammad ibn Ali Abi Suleyman (RH), who was his senior by only nine years. Abu Hanifa (RH) and Hammad (RH) loved one another and were very close. Hammad (RH) traces his sanad (chain of transmission) to Ibrahim al-Nakha’i (RH), to Alqama (RH), to Abdullah ibn Masud (RA), to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). When Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) first attended the halaqa of Hammad (RH), he would sit in the back, but after recognizing the commitment Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) had to the study of fiqh, Hammah (RH) called him up to the front row. Eventually, Hammad (RH) would have Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) sit right next to him in class. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would evolve into becoming his teacher’s personal assistant, assisting him night and day by carrying his groceries and books. The Imam would tend to the household and garden of his teacher. He would also take questions from the public to his private quarters.

In one instance, Hammad (RH) had to depart to Basra for two months in order to settle the inheritance of a deceased family member. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) sat in his stead in Kufa and responded to approximately sixty questions. While he was in Basra, Hammad (RH) would cry out of missing his student. Upon his return, Hammad (RH) informed Abu Hanifa that he only agreed with forty of Imam Abu Hanifa’s (RH) responses. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) then vowed to never leave his teacher until he died. This is the commitment the students of Ilm in the past would have for their teachers. They would not just attend class and forget the people who gave them their knowledge. The students would serve the teachers anyway they could out of gratefulness and to benefit from their teacher’s presence.

Hammad (RH) passed away at the age of 49 when Abu Hanifa was 40. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) naturally ascended to his position in the community unanimously.

His Qualities

The Imam’s soundness of character, piety, and righteousness were renown. He was well known for his humility, respect, care, intellect, and for having considerable love for his community and his students. One of the most distinguished features of Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) was his devotion to Allah (SWT) in worship. Widely known for his Tahajjud salah and nightly vigils, Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) was known to consistently recite the entire Quran in one rakat. Asad ibn Umar (RH), one of his students, narrated,

“Most of the time, he used to recite the entire Quran in one Rak’at. His nightly crying, which could be heard outside his house invoked sympathy and pity of his neighbors”.

Many narrations address his unwillingness to sleep at night, stating that he would engage in forty day periods of nightly worship to Allah (SWT). Throughout his community, he was widely remembered for being someone of prayer. The consistent and intense devotion to worshipping Allah (SWT) is a characteristics of other great servants of Islam. They were people who, during the day, would be recognized for their great knowledge and efforts, but at night they would humble themselves and recognize their Lord in prayer.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) was very conscious of Allah (SWT) and his own personal conduct. As a successful businessman, he was presented with the material wealth of the dunya, but he gave much of his wealth away in charity and chose to pursue a life in servitude to Allah (SWT). Islam would permeate every inch of his life. A scholar narrated from a contemporary of Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) that described him as,

“extremely particular about the unlawful. He avoided many lawful things due to doubt. I have not witnessed a single Faqih more cautious over his desires and ‘Ilm than him. All of his endeavours were directed toward the Hereafter”.

The way that Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) lived his life shows us the beauty of submitting to Allah (SWT). It shows us that Islam is a means to simplify one’s life and has provided us the resources and guidance in order to live a life of achievement, meaning, and contentment. The drive in order to live a life of submission to Allah (SWT) is knowledge of him. Like Imam Abu Hanifa (RH), every individual should attempt to cultivate a relationship with Allah (SWT) in order to live that life of consciousness.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) had a deep sense of serving those around him and his community at large. This was very visible in the way he would treat his students. After taking a student into his circles, Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would see to it that the student be properly clothed and be given a house to live in. He would do the same for the student’s family. He would even deliver marriage proposals on behalf of his students. Outside of them, he would care for his neighbors and the residents of Kufa. One of his chief students, Imam Zufar (RH), would say that Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would make everyone around him comfortable, it did not matter if the person was rich, poor, ignorant, or scholarly. Imam Zufar said,

“I have never seen a man more willing to listen to people’s concerns and advise them”.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would always visit the sick and pray the funeral prayer of the deceased. Many great scholars of the past were not hermites. They understood that serving Islam meant being servants of their community. They understood that they were the heirs of the Prophet (SAW) and it was their responsibility to be role models. They enjoyed helping others and engaging in the company of their peers. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) and the great servants of Islam should be role models for us. Emulating their conduct in their communities such as assisting the needy or visiting the ill should be a roadmap for us if we want to create a positive image of Islam and bring goodness into our society.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) exemplified several other traits in his life that can be benefited from. For example, he was the first to critique himself before passing judgement onto others.Whenever someone would abruptly interrupt his gatherings, he would not lash back at the heckler but would patiently wait them out. He would listen to the person and would take it as a judgment upon himself. Interruptions in his gatherings would be a reminder to him not to feel too superior and that he was not even close to the superiority of Allah (SWT). The Imam also did not partake in gossip or backbiting. In a discussion between Abdullah bin Mubarak and Sufyan al-Thawri (RH), Abdullah ibn Mubarak (RH) expressed his tremendous distaste with backbiting as Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would not do it. Sufyan al-Thawri (RH) responded by saying that the Imam was wise and would dare not sacrifice the rewards he accumulated by backbiting.

These are all the qualities of Imam Abu Hanifa (RH), a man who understood that he was blessed to be a Muslim and did not take it for granted. All of his traits stemmed from his willingness to submit to Allah (SWT), and that conscious of Allah (SWT) and his desire to uphold the teachings and character of the Prophet (SAW) enabled him to embody the Deen so beautifully that his intellect and study of the Islamic sciences benefits the entire Ummah to this day.

His Methodology and School of Thought

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would have 36-40 of his students in his council, each a master of various Islamic sciences, such as language, Hadith, Tafsir, etc. The council would discuss a matter and debate on its answer, with each person giving their perspective based on their expertise, while Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would preside over these discussions. In fact, many opinions of the Hanafi madhab would be made by his students, particularly his two most famous students Qadi Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani who would go on to further develop the Hanafi madhab.

The Imam’s personal methodology to answering legal questions was to first look into the Quran. If he could not find an answer directly, he would look to the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW). If he still could not find an answer, he would look to the statements of the Sahabah. If they differed over the question then Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would accept the statement that he felt was most in line with his knowledge of the Quran and Hadith. However, if he still did not find a statement, then he would make his own ruling and would consult the inferences of people like Ibrahim al-Nakha’i or Hasan al-Basri.

Later Life and Political Turbulence

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) supported the uprising of Zayd ibn Ali (RH). He began a revolt against the Caliph Hisham Abdul Malik in the year 121 AH. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) supported him financially. In response, one of the governors of Kufa attempted to keep Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) loyal to the Umayyads by appointing the Imam as treasurer or the chief judge. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) denied the appointment and was imprisoned and tortured. He was released with the ultimatum that he would either take the position or be subjected to another bout of torture. Therefore, Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) fled to Makkah, and it was this time in the Hijaz that the two great Imams, Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik (RH) met one another. Both of them engaged in vigorous discussion with another, each gaining tremendous respect for the other. Imam Malik’s students would ask about Abu Hanifa and he responded by saying,

“Don’t you know Imam Abu Hanifa? If he had tried to convince me that this pillar was made of gold instead of stone, I would have to believe it”.

سئل مالك بن أنس هل رأيت أبا حنيفة وناظرته ؟ فقال: نعم رأيت رجلا لو نظر إلى هذه السارية وهي من حجارة، فقال إنها من ذهب لقام بحجته.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would send his chief student Imam Abu Yusuf (RH) to study with Imam Malik and Abu Yusuf was able to instill Imam Malik’s methodology of Hadith into the Hanafi madhab. Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani (RH) would also study with Imam Malik for three years.

Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) would stay in the Hijaz for around six to seven years. In the year 132 AH, the Abbasids and the supporters of the family of the Prophet (SAW) would successfully overthrow the Umayyads and Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) returned to Kufa. The new governor was named Abu Abbass al-Safaa and he was widely known for his hatred of the Umayyads. He gathered the scholars, assured them that the family of the Prophet (SAW) would be taken care of and that the freedom of speech for the scholars would be ensured. Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) responded optimistically by saying,

“All Praise be to Allah who allowed the truth to arise from the family of the Prophet (SAW) and who took away the injustice of the oppression. We will be in support of you so long as you support the book of Allah and the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW)”.

Things began well but another governor would succeed Abu Abbas al-Safaa named Abu Jafar al-Mansur. He was a paranoid leader who again offered Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) the chief justice position to keep him subservient to the government. After he declined, he was thrown into prison. He was excessively tortured and never cared for in prison. There are differences on whether he had succumbed to his wounds in prison or outside the prison and whether he was poisoned; nevertheless, he passed away at the age of 70 in the year 150 AH. In one narration, Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) passed away in the state of sujood.

The life of Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) shows us how to be people who emulate the Deen in all aspects of our lives, even aspects that are not apparently Islamic such as our careers and transactions. We look to the life of Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) in order to develop a holistic character, one that is very ardent in seeking the knowledge of this Deen but also one that is caring and kind to all. The life of the Imam teaches us to be conscious of Allah (SWT) from childhood to our last days.

We ask Allah (SWT) to allow us to benefit from the life of Imam Abu Hanifa (RH) and make us people like him and the great Saviors of Islam.

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