Imam Abu Hanifah (699-767)

Abu Hanifa An Numan ibn Thabit, a Muslim jurist was born in Kufah and died in Baghdad. He has established one of the Islamic schools of jurisprudence.

Kufa the birth-place of Abu Hanifah was an intellectual centre of Iraq. Abu Hanifah belonged to the mawali, the non-Arab Muslims who greatly contributed to the intellectual activity in the Muslim empire.

Abu Hanifah came from a family of merchants. So he also took up the silk trade for making his livelihood. He became very well known for his honesty and truthfulness. His goods were very popular in Iraq, Syria, Persia and Arabia. Although his business flourished yet he himself lived a very pious, simple life. A large part of his income was generously donated to charity, helping scholars in particular. Once during his trip he met Imam Sha‘bi. Imam enquired of him ‘where do you keep moving about.” Abu Hanifah replied that his profession was trade so he kept moving for his business activities. Then Imam Sha‘bi asked “Do you visit religious scholars”. Abu Hanifa replied that he went to them sometimes.

After this encounter with Imam Sha‘bi, Abu Hanifah became keen on acquiring religious knowledge. He took more time off from his business activities and devoted himself to the learning of fiqh and Kalam in particular. His chief teacher of fiqh (Islamic Law) was Hammad (d 738). Hammad was the most noted jurist of Iraq of his time. A large number of students came to learn from him the knowledge of Fiqh. Abu Hanifah attended his lectures on a regular basis. Due to his sharp mind and memory he very soon acquired expertise in the knowledge of fiqh. Imam Hammad was very pleased with him. He was given a special place in his dars where the master delivered his lectures. Abu Hanifah remained his disciple for eighteen years. He also learned from several other scholars of repute.

After the death of Imam Hammad, Imam Abu Hanifah was a natural choice for being his successor. Abu Hanifah had so distinguished himself in his capacity to acquire learning that the disciples did not find any difficulty in the matter of chosing a successor. Imam Abu Hanifah was reluctant to accept this most coveted post. But when the majority of the students expressed their strong desire for Abu Hanifah to become Imam Hammad’s successor he finally yielded to their request. Now he came to be acknowledged the head of the Iraqi school of jurisprudence. In his circle there were many promising students like Imam Abu Yusuf, Imam Zafar, Asad bin Umar, etc.

Abu Hanifah’s fame spread rapidly. He was acknowledged as a great scholar. His lectures in Kufa were attended by a large number of people. The seekers of knowledge came from far off places with their questions to be answered according to shariah.

Imam Abu Hanifah used to solve any legal problem first through the Qur'an. If no specific injunction was available in the Qur'an then he would turn to hadith and the sayings of the Companions. He did not follow the Successors, saying that ‘they were men like we are’ so we are not bound to follow their decisions. If even after consulting the Qur'an, hadith and the Companions the problem remained to be solved then he attempted to interpret it himself in the light of the Qur'an and hadith. He saw to it that his interpretation did not contradict the commands laid down in the Qur'an and hadith and the traditions of the Companions.

Imam Abu Hanifah was of a very gentle disposition. He was patient, forbearing and of a tolerant nature. He believed in freedom of expression. He never discouraged his disciples to express their viewpoints before him. They also felt free to express themselves before him. They were given so much liberty that his disciples could oppose the viewpoint of their master too. Once a person hurled abuses at him in front of his disciples but the Imam did not react. Maintaining his composure he simply uttered these words of prayer:

“May Allah broaden my heart for those whose hearts are narrow for me.”

Imam Abu Hanifah was a scholar in the real sense of the word. He had fully devoted himself to learning. He had no lust for power. He thought that by accepting positions of power, he will not be able to devote his full attention to learning. Besides he thought that if he accepted a post under the caliphs then he would have no choice but to succumb to their pressure. He wanted Islamic law to develop independent of political authority. That was the reason why when Umar bin Hubair, the Umayyad governor in Kufa, and later on the Caliph Al-Mansur compelled him to accept the office of judge (Head of the Judiciary) he refused. He was even punished, whipped and imprisoned but he did not change his decision.

After he was released he came to Makkah. After some time he went back to Kufa during the rule of Abu Abbas as Saffah. He died in Baghdad in 767.

Abu Hanifa being a merchant had travelled widely. These extensive travels, contacts with great may people of different culture and background, his exposure to varied influence helped to nurture his mind further. Since Iraq was a central place the society here was more advanced than other places. All this greatly contributed to shaping the mind of Abu Hanifa and prepared him for this great gigantic task of development of fiqh into a scientific discipline.

Being a speculating jurist, Abu Hanifah brought about systematic consistencing in legal doctrine. His doctrines are more carefully formulated and systematically consistent.

Before Abu Hanifah’s time, doctrines had been formulated mainly in response to actual problems whereas he attempted to solve problems that might arise in future. By the introduction of this method the area of law was considerably enlarged.

His independence, his piety and his selflessness have made him a symbol paragon of Muslim scholarship.