Renowned Sunni scholars in Islamic legal history

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The life, sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad pbuh, altogether referred to as the Sunna, have been recorded in so-called ahadith. Sunni Islam acknowledges six major collections of ahadith, recorded by six scholars. The among Muslims most trusted scholar on prophetic traditions is Muhammad ibn Ismail al Bukhari (810-870). Imam Bukhari belonged to the Shafi’i School and relied on its methodologies, this is recorded by Ibn Hajar. Bukhari traveled widely throughout the Abbasid empire, collecting trafitions. He is believed to have finished his work in 846, after sixteen years of writing and collecting those traditions he trusted. It is recounted that Bukhari collected over 300,000 ahadith and transmitted only 2,602 traditions he believed to be Sahih (trustworthy). Bukhari recorded of every hadith its source: the transmitting narrators and its chain of transmittors from the Prophet. Notable hadith scholars of Imam Bukhari’s time, such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal (died in 855), Ibn Maín (died in 847) and Ibn Madini (died in 848) all accepted the authenticity of Bukhari’s work. One of Imam Bukhari’s trusted students, Al Firabri, is quoted by Khatib al Baghdadi, author of ‘History of Baghdad’, saying: ‘There were about seventy thousand people who have heard Sahih Bukhari with me’. This saying refers to the period of Bukhari intensively travelling the last twenty-four years of his life, visiting cities and scholars, teaching the ahadith he had collected. He is said to have recited traditions in the main mosque of every city he visited. Other transmitters of Sahih al Bukhari than Al Firabri are Ibn Hajar Asqalani, author of ‘Fath al Bari’ and ‘Nukat”; Ibrahim ibn Ma’qal (d. 907), Hammad ibn Shaker (d. 923), Mansur Burduzi (d. 931) and Husain Mahamili (d. 941).

The second most respected collector is one of Imam Bukhari’s contemporaries: Muslim ibn al Hajjaj (817-874). Imam Muslim was also an extensive traveller through countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt to gather ahadith. Out of 300,000 ahadith he extracted approximately 4,000. Each report in his collection was checked for compatibility with the Qur’an and the veracity of the chain of reporters had to be painstakingly established.

However, earlier the first main attempts towards more systematic religious law, Fiqh, had been made. In Sunni Islam, four names are connected to the beginning of Islamic Jurisprudence: the imams Malik, Shafi’i, Hanafi and Hanbali. From the work of each of these men, a ‘school of Fiqh’ has grown: the Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi’i and Hanbali jurisprudence. ‘School’ meaning here propositions for legal exegesis of Qur’anic and Prophetic sayings in such a way that they can be brought into practice by rulers and courts. These schools of Islamic law have gained important formal status in the law of most Islamic countries and most Muslims have referred themselves as belonging to one of these schools. Imam Malik ibn Anas ibn Malik ibn Amer al-Asbahee(714-796) was the author of a small but highly regarded collection of ahadith, known as Al Muwatta (‘The Approved’). Imam Malik’s ruling against coerced divorce got him into a serious and ugly conflict with caliph Abu Ja’far al Mansur, however, the governor of Medina protected Imam Malik against further harassment by the (self appointed!) caliph.

The oldest and also largest school of law as regards its number of followers is the Hanafy school, named after its founder, Abu Hanifa an Nu’man ibn Thabit (699-767). The Hanafy school is known for its relative liberalism and its inclination towards independance for the individual’s conscience, but this may be a matter of perception. Imam Muhammad ibn Idris ash Shafi’i (767-820) is spiritual father of the Shafi’i school of law and author many books, best known of which ‘Al Risala’, ‘Kitab al Umm’ and ahadith named ‘Musnad Ash Shafi’i and he was the developer of a school of law in Baghdad. Not much is known of his life; he worked in government service and spent the last five years of his life in Egypt, where he died. Sultan Saladin built a madrassa on the site of his death. Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller translated his works ‘Umdat as Salik’ (Reliance of the Traveler) and Al Maqasid into English. The Shafi’i school of law is the second largest in terms of numbers of followers. Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855) was the spiritual father of the Hanbali School of thought, the smallest maddhab in Sunni Islam. The school was started by Bin Hanbal’s students, even though Imam Ahmad detested that his opinions be written and compiled, fearing they might swerve his students from studying Qur’an and Sunnah. Imams Shafi’i and Hanbali both studied under imam Malik and imam Hanafy’s students; imam Malik was one of imam Hanafy’s students.

Roughly speaking, we find the Maliki Maddhab traditionally in NorthWest Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait; the Hanafy Maddhab in Northern Egypt, the Balkans, Turkey, and the entire Middle East and Far East Asian areas of the Islamic world. The Hanbalis have their territory on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen excepted, and the Shafi’i in Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Southern India and Indonesia.

However, during the last centuries, their importance has waned under the influence of a new current in Islam: the return to Qur’an and ahadith as only infallible source of law. This rejection of jurisprudence by the maddhahib was probably started by the prominent theologian Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahhab in the eighteenth century. ‘Abd al Wahhab strongly opposed the practice of Taqlid under Maddhahib authority: accepting and following interpretations and verdicts of scholars of fiqh without knowing and asking the evidence, considering also that Qur’an al Kerim refers people back to the Book and the Prophet in case of religious conflicts. Modern supporters of sheikh ‘Abd al Wahhab are sheikh Bin Baaz and sheikh Uthaymeen of Saudi Arabia, sheikh Albani of Albania and sheikh Muqbil of Yemen. The result is that many countries nowadays don’t strictly adhere to only one school of law anymore, though this phenomenon is also caused by other influences, among whom former colonial occupants.

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